Emil L. Fackenheim Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Fackenheim used Jewish resources to interpret non-Jewish philosophy and Western techniques on Jewish texts and history. He defined an authentic Jewish philosopher—and an authentic Jew—as one who has opened the self to the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust and one who actively supports the building of the State of Israel as past, present, and future home for the Jews.

Early Life

Emil Ludwig Fackenheim was raised by a piously Jewish mother and a father who not only was a successful lawyer but who also daily recited traditional Jewish prayers in Hebrew. After completing Gymnasium (college-prep high school) studies in the rigorous German school system, with an emphasis on Greek and classical philology, Fackenheim traveled to Berlin in 1935 in order to study Judaism at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums with the intent of becoming a rabbi. However, following the November, 1938, Nazi pogrom of the Jews known as Kristallnacht (night of the broken glass), his six-year rabbinical program was permanently interrupted when he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the Sachsenhausen labor camp for three months. Released on February 8, 1939, Fackenheim finished an abbreviated rabbinical training in two months and was ordained as a rabbi.

Significantly, Fackenheim insists that what most markedly characterized him and a small group of friends from the rabbinical school was that they never questioned their faith in God. In contrast, they rejected self-pity and focused on husbanding their strength for survival. They were some of the few who survived.

Life’s Work

On May 12, 1939, Fackenheim fled Germany one step ahead of another Gestapo roundup and spent a year studying in Aberdeen, Scotland. Afterward, he was interned in Britain, then sent for a year and a half further internment in Canada. Upon release, he entered the Graduate School of Philosophy at the University of Toronto while also serving as a rabbi in Hamilton, Canada, from 1943 to 1945. Under the influence of scholars such as Leo Strauss and Jacques Maritain, Fackenheim formed a philosophy of history and wrote Metaphysics and Historicity, in which he attempted his first refutation of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. In this work, Fackenheim was already drawing on traditional philosophic and Jewish sources for his critical analysis in attacking Heidegger, and both his refutation of Heidegger’s choice to support Hitler and Nazism and his own appropriation of significant elements of Heidegger’s existentialism would, in one way or another, dictate his philosophical endeavors for the rest of his career.

Although strongly influenced by the existentialist elements in Heidegger’s philosophy, Fackenheim drew much more regularly and extensively on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s philosophy, especially his logic of the dialectic. When Fackenheim first joined the faculty at the University of Toronto in 1948, no courses were being taught in German idealism and so Fackenheim began what he called a decades-long encounter beginning with Hegel’s Phénomenologie des Geistes (1807; The Phenomenology of Mind, 1910). In 1960, Fackenheim was made a professor on the faculty, which enabled him to continue his work in German idealism including how it related to his Jewish heritage. His research resulted in the publication of one of the most significant analyses of Hegel’s philosophy of religion in the twentieth century, The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought, in 1967. This work is his most important contribution to the branch of philosophy concerned with German idealism and formed the cornerstone of his ongoing critique of the limits of philosophy to adequately deal with history.

Although primarily Hegelian, Fackenheim’s philosophical interests range broadly, as he includes critical commentaries within his texts on many other modern non-Jewish philosophers, especially Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Søren Kierkegaard, A. J. Ayer, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, and Ernst Bloch merit special attention by Fackenheim because of their disavowal of their Jewish origins. Additionally, many Jewish philosophers, including Moses Maimonides, Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, and especially Martin Buber, have also deeply influenced his work.

Although Fackenheim was profoundly marked by these and many other philosophers, he consistently returns to Hegel’s philosophical reflections to construct his own formulations, such as his original version of dialectical encounter. The thesis of encounter is one that Fackenheim plays out in each of his succeeding works and is based on the notion that although Jewish thinkers need to take non-Jewish philosophy seriously and have done so (as Fackenheim’s own work demonstrates), philosophers also need to take Jewish thought and existence seriously, which has not been the case. Consequently, Fackenheim ends The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought by noting that Hegel accepts the fragmentation of the modern world as a modern necessity, “yet believes in the power of the Spirit to re-create as a new unity beyond fragmentation.” Despite his judgment that “philosophers are an isolated order of priests” who have to leave the world, he counsels that “philosophic thought must move beyond the extremes of partisan commitments, and...

(The entire section is 2244 words.)