Moshe Idel gave a interesting series of lectures last winter on the power of language, specifically arts combinatoria, a ability to create a universal knowledge from language. The audio was recently posted. The second lecture on Derrida, Eco, and Culiano give insight into Idel himself. Idel’s use of a single line of Derrida to show affinity to his own project is an old theme for him. But new is Idel’s highlighting that Culiano at the end of his life turned from the study of phenomena to theory, with an implication that this lecture of his was his own turn to theory. These “theory lectures” seem to have already been implicit in his recent work on Kabbalah in Italy.
But were these three thinkers his inspiration right from the start in the 1980’s? It seems they were, but not explicitly. Does anyone remember any relevant passages? If Idel now lists himself and Kabbalah as the study of (the power of) language and magic- Is this a change or implicit already in his PhD? His work from a few years ago Absorbing Perfections still used the words mysticism and esotericism. Can we reread the entire Idel project as disconnected from mysticism and see that it was originally language and magic (as well as esotericism and ecstatic techniques)?
Idel’s first self-written book was the published version of his dissertation on Abulafia where he wrote as an opening paragraph:
The method for attaining wisdom proposed by Abulafia as an alternative to philosophical speculation is essentially a linguistic one.Language is conceived by him as a universe in itself, which yields aricher and superior domain for contemplation than does the natural world
He was telling us right from the start that he is concerned with language as a means to wisdom. Can his project be re-read as knowledge through language? As a side point, am I the only one bothered that Idel ignores how Leibnitz criticized the medieval attempts as arbitrary and not scientific, while Idel glides from the modern to the medieval without a break?
In the same recent lecture Idel claimed that history and causality is over-rated; there are other sources of knowledge. He dismisses Thomas Kuhn & Feyerabend for not recognizing the role of Ars Combinatoria, the recombination of letters as a valid source of knowledge. Eco and Derrida through their interest in ars combinatoria have transcended the Enlightenment interest in science and “clear and distinct ideas.” Idel applauds this. Unlike the limited knowledge offered by theosophic kabbalah such as the Zohar or Ari, or the limited knowledge offered through science, the knowledge of the magical recombination of letters contains all the knowledge of the universe.This would explain why he has never attempted any historical narrative or intellectual history. But it also seems to assume that Idel thinks contemporary readers will resonate with Abulafia, or at least Idel’s books, since Eco is on the best-seller list. And if Eco if read itis because people are beyond history and science.
“Sefer Yetzirah and its Commentaries: A major source for ars combinatoria”
Tuesday 8 February 2011, 5 pm, at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford.
“Ars Combinatoria in Modern Times: Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, and Ioan P. Culianu”
Wednesday 9 February 2011, 8pm, at the David Patterson Seminar at Yarnton Manor.
“The Transition of Ars Combinatoria from Kabbalah to European Culture:
Ramon Llull, Pseudo-Llull, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola”
Thursday 10 February 2011, 5 pm, at Merton College.