Resurrecting Ancient Languages: Interview with teachers of the Polis Institute Jerusalem

Text: Anna-Liisa Tolonen

”If languages are the key to our cultural heritage…”

”…, then it is necessary to teach them effectively and, if possible, in an appealing way. For this reason the Polis method was developed, turning Polis into one of the very few institutions in the world that teach the so-called dead languages (e.g. Koine Greek, Biblical Hebrew, and Latin) as living languages.” This is the way in wlogo-2014hich the so called ”Polis method” is introduced. But how should one teach “effectively” and “in an appealing way”? And what is meant by the resurrection of ancient languages in contemporary Western academia? This text explores the phenomenon by way of interviewing scholars and teaching faculty connected with the Polis Institute Jerusalem.


Professor Christophe Rico’s academic background is in Greek Linguistics. He defended his doctoral thesis on the suffix system of Homeric nouns and adjectives at Sorbonne University in 1992, and he is currently a professor at the University of Strasbourg. For the last twenty years or so, Rico has lived in Jerusalem.


Professor Christophe Rico

Since the early 1990s, Rico has been developing a method of teaching ancient Greek as a living language. An updated edition of his text book Polis: Speaking Ancient Greek as a Living Language (Jerusalem: Polis Institute Press) was published in 2015. Today, Rico is the director of Polis – Jerusalem Institute for Languages and Humanities, which hosts 360 local and international students annually, most of whom come to the institute to learn the languages they want to understand by way of learning to use them.


Why Jerusalem?

– Jerusalem, the city of the Bible, the cradle of monotheism, and the melting pot of the Semitic and Hellenistic heritages, is a unique place in the world for discovering the roots of our civilization through the study of languages. And the Polis Institute Jerusalem is so far the only place in the world where a student can study simultaneously ancient languages (Greek, Latin, Biblical Hebrew and Classical Syriac) and modern ones (modern Hebrew, colloquial and literary Arabic), all as living languages.

– Among many other ones, the Polis method was also inspired by a proven model of language learning: the Israeli Ulpan method for learning Modern Hebrew has enabled hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants to master in record time a language widely considered difficult. This is accomplished through total immersion and the constant involvement of the student in the learning process.

In practice, the Polis Method means that from the first day onward, the teaching and learning of the language takes place in a monolingual environment: the instructor speaks only the language which he/she is teaching and the students ought to do the same. The anticipated outcome is that the student learns the language without an inter-mediating language.

– Through various other teaching techniques (Total Physical Response, TPR Storytelling, conversational pair and small group work, etc.), Polis courses quickly develop functional spoken vocabulary and grammar through constant communicative exchange between the instructor and the students. After two years (four semesters), students can read and understand – not merely decode – simple ancient texts without needing a dictionary. They learn to think in the ancient language and understand it on its own terms, without needing a modern language to stand in between them and the text. From this unique starting point, they may proceed gradually to master the extant literature in their language of choice, Rico explains.

– I have been the first one to benefit from teaching Greek in this way, as the way I learnt to speak that language was precisely by teaching it in a living way. From the moment I started talking Greek, my reading speed in that language increased considerably, as well as the number of texts that I was able to understand without translating them.


Efforts to keep the language in use

Dr. George Kiraz, Director of Beth Mardutho–The Syriac Institute and Editor-in-Chief of Gorgias Press, teaches ancient Syriac at the Polis Institute, as well as at his own institute in New Jersey. He has also taught Syriac courses at Princeton University, Princeton Theological Seminary and Rutgers University. Kiraz is himself a syriacist, as well as Syriac Orthodox born in Bethlehem. Although Arabic is his native tongue, he regards Suryoyo as his cultural tongue and uses it on a daily basis.


George Kiraz teaches Syriac at Beth Mardutho.

In 1986, Kiraz introduced the Syriac script to the world of computing with his Alaph Beth Computer Systems. As PCs started to become popular, many scholars began to use them. In 1998, Kiraz co-authored the proposal to add Syriac to Unicode which made it possible for Syriac to be implemented in all modern devices and co-developed the Unicode-based Meltho fonts, which has made it possible to have Syriac in mobile devices. Consequently, the Syriac communities, dispersed worldwide, can communicate in Syriac online.

Kiraz is an expert of Kthobonoyo, which is the spoken for of classical Syriac as used in the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries. (For more, see Kiraz’ article ’Kthobonoyo Syriac: Some Observations and Remarks’). As regards classical Syriac, he stresses constant communication with the ancient texts as the only way to maintain high quality of research.

– It is a misconception to think that one can become a good scholar in Syriac after a couple of years of taking courses; immersion in the language takes time and effort. I think it is important for any scholar to become immersed in the language in order to better their scholarly work. Immersion can take two forms: by speaking Kthobonoyo, but also by reading classical texts continuously.


”Dead” languages and their resurrection

Dr. Mercedes Rubio, the Director of Academic Affairs at the Polis Institute, has a background in Medieval Latin and Jewish philosophy (which is mostly written in Arabic, though sometimes with the Hebrew alphabet). She is currently researching the transmission of Aristotles’ texts into the West.

– As I came to work at the Polis Institute, I wanted to experience the Polis method first hand. So I enrolled to a Latin class. You see, although I read Medieval Latin without problems, I could not compose almost anything! The way I had learnt the language never implied that I should use it; instead, I should be able to analyze it by breaking a sentence into pieces.

– In a way, ancient language instructors of the past few centuries have actually killed ancient languages by adopting a way of studying them that mirrors natural sciences, that is by “dissecting” them just as you would do to a frog. This has meant that we do no longer try to understand a text as a whole, as a meaningful unit, but by way of grammatical analysis. Knowing the grammar is essential, of course, but grammatical analysis and translation are but one aspect of the process in which we relate to texts. Languages are first and foremost a vehicle of ideas, of worldviews, and a means of communication. I feel that in a way we have lost this vehicular role of ancient languages and tend to study them as valuable museum pieces, which are out of their natural context.

– I like to think that we are presently witnessing a sort of resurrection of ancient languages, Rico says smiling. – I imagine that within twenty or thirty years, in most Classics and Religious Studies departments, ancient languages will be taught more communicative ways, and we will wonder how people could have done it otherwise before. Further, as more petolonen-jordan-detailople become able to read ancient texts directly without translation, I expect the quality of research to improve considerably and we will experience a new Renaissance.


Reactions and responses to communicative teaching of ancient languages

José Ángel Domínguez has worked as Director of Language Department at the Polis Institute Jerusalem since its beginning. He also teaches Latin by the Polis method. Domínguez has experienced that immersion in ancient languages may sometimes cause conflicts among proponents of different pedagogical views.

– We are criticized, of course. Wherever I go and talk about the method, I often hear that our approach prevents students from getting to know the grammar. Moreover, using games, for instance, as a resource of learning is considered to be fun for the students but neither serious nor effective. Thus far, our response to such criticism is the results themselves. Student following our method get a deeper knowledge of the structure of the language, not excluding grammar, even if they are capable of understanding texts without constant consultation of a dictionary or grammar. Anyone can take a chance to try how the method works. Moreover, applying the method does not mean that one should abandon other, more traditional forms of teaching ancient languages or disregard the study of grammar; in contrast, the Polis method is open and one may integrate any resource to it that could actively help at finding what we call the “key of the Library of Alexandria”: a more direct access to the ancient sources.

– Our students have, in fact, proven to be a resource for developing the method. We are glad to see that some of our former students have educated themselves to teach Ancient languages as living languages both at our institute and elsewhere. Responding to this, we have started a course on methodology for teachers in Rome every July.


Prof. Christophe Rico visits the Faculty of Theology (UH) on Friday, October 21, 2016. The programme of his visit includes a lecture on “The Hellenistic World and its Language,” as well as an introduction to the Polis method. The event is open to everyone (see; for more information and in order to register, please, contact:

Wittgenstein and the Limits of Language in Helsinki September 8 and 9 2016

Text by Hanne Appelqvist, photos by Heikki J. Koskinen


When asked what jazz is, Louis Armstrong replied “If you got to ask, you ain’t never gonna get to know”. Is there something – a limit of language – that defies our attempts to express in words what it is? That was the question that brought to Helsinki a group of Wittgenstein scholars to discuss the nature of logic, grammar, linguistic frameworks, relativism, thought, and consciousness in the attempt to get clearer on what Wittgenstein means by his references to the notion of a limit of language. Can we use language to get outside of language – a question explored by Bill Child’s keynote address? Or is our sight limited or conditioned by the grammar of our language, even if that grammar is of our own making? Or is the idea of, for example, ineffable conscious states (of humans) a merchandise of new mysterianism, to be demystified by proper conceptual analysis, as argued by Hans-Johann Glock in his keynote address?


The notion of a limit is of Kantian origin. For Kant, the goal of philosophical investigation was to determine the necessary, limiting conditions of different types of judgment. As early as in 1960, the Finnish Erik Stenius claimed that there was something similar going on in Wittgenstein’s early work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. According to Stenius, the early Wittgenstein aimed at showing that logical form is the necessary condition for the possibility of language and therefore cannot itself be expressed by linguistic means. Just like the jazz tune that displays its own form, so too the propositions of language – that themselves say something about the world – simply show the form that makes saying possible. Hence, Wittgenstein writes, “Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits” (TLP 5.61). For Stenius, this did not mean that the philosopher could not reflect the limits of language from within, only that no viewpoint from without will present itself. Nevertheless, this view leaves open how exactly we are supposed to understanding the relation between language and the world, a question treated by Colin Johnston’s paper on Wittgenstein on Representability and Possibility. And what to make of the subject of language – Wittgenstein’s early ‘I’ of the ‘I think’ or his later ‘we’ of ‘this is what we do’ – notions that got an in-depth examination in the papers given by Jakub Gomulka, Adrian Haddock, and Constantine Sandis?


In Wittgenstein’s later work, the question of a limit of language becomes associated with the possibility of justifying the application of a rule of language by conceptual means. This question was put on the table already by the opening keynote address by Child, suggesting that the norms of language could be seen as supervening on the non-normative facts of our practices. Further illumination of the issue was offered by papers that placed Wittgenstein’s thought into a wider context, relating it to the positions of Carnap and Moore, discussed by Leila Haaparanta, Suki Finn, and Yrsa Neumann, as well as to the contemporary debate on relativism, addressed by Gurpreet Rattan. The likely candidates of ineffabilia in Wittgenstein’s thought, namely, aesthetics, ethics, and religion, received attention in the papers by Willie van der Merwe & Tony Pacyna as well as Eran Guter, who called for a new evaluation of the role of music in Wittgenstein’s philosophical development. If the understanding of language is more like the understanding of a musical thought, then what is the lesson we are supposed to draw from this? Was Louis Armstrong in agreement with Wittgenstein, who said about aesthetics: “A solution must speak for itself. If when I’ve made you see what I see, it doesn’t appeal to you, there is an end” (M 9: 31).



Scriptural Interpretation and Research Cooperation within Helsinki’s Centres of Excellence

Text: Elisa Uusimäki (CoE in ‘Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions’) & Anna-Liisa Tolonen

Photos: Anna-Liisa Tolonen

The two Centres of Excellence at the Faculty of Theology – Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions and Reason and Religious Recognition – are characteristically interdisciplinary. Thus, the research conducted should not only be of high quality within specific disciplines, but also reflective of cooperation that breaks down boundaries between fields. Having both of these goals as our aims, we should strive to deepen and broaden our notions of, for example, historical phenomena, philosophical concepts, or the meanings of “holy scriptures” within ever-changing religious traditions.

While people working in these giant research centres keep themselves busy, the paths of the centres may not easily cross. Challenges of interdisciplinary cooperation are felt within both research environments. And yet, there are plenty of questions that could bind them together, not least in the field of biblical studies. As many other boundaries that have kept scholars apart, so is the one between the centres: imagined and contingent or, to say the least, well worth crossing.

abouna shm'oun the scribe

Abound Shm’oun, a living scribe who copies Syriac manuscripts at St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem

Elisa’s postdoctoral project focuses on the formation and lifestyle of a wise person in Hellenistic Judaism; within the CSTT, she has primarily collaborated with the team studying various changes in late Second Temple Judaism. Anna-Liisa, in turn, interprets biblical reception and circulation of narratives from the books of the Maccabees up until early Islam; her doctoral thesis contributes to the RRR research team that attempts to re-evaluate and reinforce the importance of non-conflict driven paradigms in the study of ancient religion. Differences in respective fields or methods of research has not prevented us from searching for and formulating new questions together. Recently, this cooperation has materialised as co-authored articles, a related conference paper in EABS Leuven and, last but not least, as a course taught in the Helsinki Summer University.

We first found common grounds in the text known as 4 Maccabees. We set ourselves to find out how the author conceives of himself as an intellectual of his time. How, then, does he fashion scriptural examples? What makes these examples philosophical and exemplary as they are claimed to be? Those curious to know our answer may find it – with descriptions of some rather usable examples – in our article “Reason and Emotions: Life Management according to 4 Maccabees” (published only in Finnish “Järki ja tunteet: elämänhallintaa Neljännen makkabilaiskirjan mukaan”, Teologinen Aikakauskirja 121/1 [2016]: 6–19).

Our joint project on 4 Maccabees has increased our interest in early interpretation of scriptures in connection with ancient commentary culture(s). In August 2016, we offered a course – lecturing together, as well as to each other! – on “Holy scriptures: Interpretation and commentary in early Judaism, Christianity and Islam” (12 hours) in the Summer University. This course was offered for students of theology, religious studies, and history. In four thematically organised sessions, we shared our views and visions on the development of ancient commentary practices, the use of figures as an interpretative means, and the importance of landscape as a frame for scriptural interpretation.

excavations petra wadi

The same landscape may be transformed in the hands and minds of its occupants.

We did not abandon 4 Maccabees in the process. Instead, this particular composition has made us explore texts that seem to have functioned in multiple interpretative contexts since antiquity. These contexts represent biblical cultures that worked in inter- and multicultural ways already before the invention of the postmodern usage of such terms. To get a grasp of this phenomenon, we have written another article with due attention given to the early Jewish, Hellenistic, Roman, and early Christian identities of 4 Maccabees. Our work shall soon be published in The Journal for the Study of Judaism – please stay tuned…

The blog entry has also been published at the website of the CoE in ‘Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions’.

Our Japanese Collaboration

Text: Sami Pihlström, Photos: Heikki J. Koskinen

While no specific contacts with Japanese scholars were initially emphasized in the research plan of our Centre for Excellence, such contacts were established and developed with surprising speed and activity during the academic year 2015-2016 in particular.

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The background for this cooperation was Professor Naoko Saito’s (Kyoto University) visiting fellowship at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies during the academic year 2014-2015. I had previously met her in several conferences, especially pragmatism-related ones, most recently the Philosophy World Congress in Athens in 2013, and as we shared some research interests in pragmatism, in particular, and as I was confident that the Finnish scholarly community would benefit from her presence in Helsinki, the Helsinki Collegium decided to invite her for an extended visit, during which she, among other things, (co-)organized conferences on the philosophy of translation and multiculturalism in the context of pragmatism and American transcendentalism in Helsinki (Helsinki Collegium, November, 2014) and London (UCL Institute of Education, February, 2015).

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Professor Saito’s Kyoto-based international SPIRITS research network and our CoE then decided to co-organize a conference, Issues of Recognition in Pragmatist and American Transcendentalism, which was hosted and sponsored by the CoE and the Faculty of Theology (with the Helsinki Collegium as a co-organizer and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science as one of the sponsors) on December 16-18, 2015. While Naoko Saito herself was unfortunately unable to attend this event, a group of twelve colleagues and doctoral students of hers from Kyoto and other Japanese universities visited Helsinki on that occasion. The most senior member of the Japanese delegation was Professor Junichi Mori, Vice-President for International Relations at Kyoto University. The CoE members who presented papers at the conference included Risto Saarinen, Heikki J. Koskinen, Heikki A. Kovalainen, Panu-Matti Pöykkö, and myself. The conference was well-attended, and the Japanese guests seemed to enjoy the visit, which was for most of them the first visit to Finland. More details and the full program of the event can be found here:

Professor Mori and Professor Saito hosted the next conference we had together at Kyoto University on March 11-12, 2016, The Cultivation of the Aesthetic Imagination. The CoE was again represented by Heikki J. Koskinen and me; in addition, Dr. Sari Kivistö, the Director of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, participated as a speaker and commentator in the conference. More information on this conference and Professor Saito’s SPIRITS project, whose activities it concluded, is available here:

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My own contributions to both the December conference in Helsinki and the March conference in Kyoto were joint papers authored and presented together with Sari Kivistö, based on our collaborative work on antitheodicy and recognition: “Theodicy as a Failure of Recognition” and “The Aesthetics of Antitheodicy”, respectively. I also presented some related material during the same trip to Japan in my talk at the UBIAS (University-Based Institutes for Advanced Study) Intercontinental Academia, Time (University of Nagoya, March 10, 2016), where Sari Kivistö as the current and me as the former Director of the Helsinki Collegium had been invited. These and many other conference presentations at various international conferences during the academic year 2015-2016 were parts of a comprehensive monograph I have just completed jointly with Dr. Kivistö, titled Kantian Antitheodicy: Philosophical and Literary Varieties (forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Thus, I have been pleased to develop the Japanese collaboration initiated with Naoko Saito while simultaneously actively engaging in my own research, especially the book project in collaboration with Sari Kivistö, a book whose main ideas have to a considerable extent matured in the conferences we have had with our Japanese colleagues.

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Follow-up plans for further collaboration have also been made. Naoko Saito and her doctoral student group, Sandra Laugier (Paris), Paul Standish (London), as well as our Finnish group (Kivistö, Koskinen, and myself) now form a loose network hoping to continue conference and publishing activities in the future both in Japan and in Finland (and elsewhere in Europe). This network also usefully connects and partly overlaps with other networks I have been actively involved in, because, for example, Sandra Laugier was one of the main organizers of the 2nd European Pragmatism Conference we had in Paris in September, 2015, and Naoko Saito herself is active in the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, with which the European Pragmatism Association (which I co-founded in 2012 and which will organize its 3rd European Pragmatism Conference in Helsinki in June, 2018) regularly collaborates. Thus, the strengthening of our “Japanese connection” thus possibly indirectly contributes to Finnish scholars’ and our CoE members’ involvement in other academic organizations and networks, too.

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Martyrs, Heretics, and Virtues – Prof. Jonathan Sheehan’s and Dr. Erik Eliasson’s guest lectures

Text: Heikki Haara & Anna-Liisa Tolonen

The CoE organized a workshop on Martyrs, Heretics, and Virtues on 28 April 2016. One of the invited lecturers was Prof. Jonathan Sheehan (University of California at Berkeley), whose research interest concern the cultural and intellectual history of early modern Europe, with particular interest in the history of religion, science, and scholarship. His latest publications include The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton University Press, 2005) and Invisible Hands: Self-Organization and the Eighteenth Century (The University of Chicago Press, 2015). The other invited speaker was Dr. Erik Eliasson (Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies), whose current research project concerns The Middle-Platonist Theory of Fate. Eliasson has studied the peripatetic tradition, the early Aristotle commentators, and Middle and Neo-Platonism. He has published the monograph The Notion of That Which Depends on Us in Plotinus and its Background (Brill, 2008).

Jonathan Sheehan

In his lecture “The Martyr and The Heretic,” Prof. Jonathan Sheehan  presented how the nature of martyrdom was contested in early modern Europe. Based on his research on early modern martyrologies, such as John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1563), Sheehan demonstrated how the classification and construction of martyrs and martyrdom became a disputed issue among different denominations. Early modern authors shared the view according to which the martyrs of the “primitive church” were examples of pious Christian life, though they also critically evaluated the theological views of the early church fathers. Thus, in Sheehan’s view, early modern Christian apologetics on martyrdom resulted in what may be called as the resurrection of heterodoxy. (Photo: Heikki J. Koskinen)

Erik Eliasson

After Sheehan’s lecture, Dr. Erik Eliasson (HCAS) presented the recently published volume Shaping Heroic Virtue: Studies in the Art and Politics of Supereminence in Europe and Scandinavia (Brill, 2015). In his lecture, Eliasson explored the reception of the concept of “heroic virtue.” This idea of virtue, so extreme that it can be characterized as “heroic” or “divine,” originates in Aristotle’s Nicomachian Ethics (VII.I.I). The volume maps the important endurance of this concept from Late Antiquity to the 18th century Europe. (Photo: Heikki J. Koskinen)

Prof. Risto Saarinen was invited to comment on Eliasson’s presentation and Shaping Heroic Virtue. Saarinen’s earlier publications (1990; 1996; 1998) concerning the reception of heroic virtues in Reformation have recently revived interest among the intellectual historians. Saarinen laid out the current state of research and contemplated some future directions to go on. The CoE shall continue cooperation with Eliasson and his team in Uppsala in the coming fall.




ERC Consolidator Grant to CoE’s researcher Jari Kaukua

CoE’s researcher (PhD in Philosophy) Jari Kaukua’s (University of Jyväskylä) project Epistemic Transitions in Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science: From the 12th to the 19th Century got about 1,5 million euros funding this year.

Project abstract:
Not very long ago, it was still common to hold that little of interest took place in Islamic philosophy, theology and science after the death of the Peripatetic commentator Averroes in 1198. Recent research has produced increasing evidence against this view, and experts now commonly agree that texts from the so-called post-classical period merit serious analysis. That evidence, however, is still fragmentary, and we lack a clear understanding of the large scale and long run development in the various fields of Islamic intellectual culture after the twelfth century.

This project will investigate debates concerning the nature and methods of knowledge in four of the most ambitious strands of Islamic theoretical thought, that is, philosophy, theology, natural science, and philosophically inclined Sufism. Its temporal scope extends from the end of the twelfth century to the beginning of the colonial era, and it focuses on foundational epistemological questions (how knowledge is defined, what criteria are used to distinguish it from less secure epistemic attitudes, what methods are identified as valid in the acquisition of knowledge) as well as questions concerning knowledge as the goal of our existence (in particular, whether perceptual experience is inherently valuable).

Our study of the four strands is based on the hypothesis that the post-classical period is witness to a sophisticated discussion of knowledge, in which epistemic realism, intuitionism, phenomenalism, and subjectivism are pitted against each other in a nuanced manner. Hence, the project will result in a well-founded reassessment of the common view according to which post-classical Islamic intellectual culture is authoritarian and stuck to an epistemic paradigm that stifles insight and creativity. Thereby it will provide new ingredients for projects of endogenous reform and reorientation in Islam, and corroborate the view that our future histories of philosophy should incorporate the Islamic tradition.

Coe’s Recognition Retreat II

Text and images: Heikki J. Koskinen

Our Centre of Excellence held its second Recognition Retreat at Hvittorp in Kirkkonummi during 7-8 April 2016. The official programme started with lunch on Thursday and concluded with another one on Friday.

1 – Kopio

The programme included four sessions, three of which took place on Thursday and one on Friday morning. During the first session, Jari Kaukua‘s and Hanne Appelqvist‘s successful project applications were duly recognized.

4 – Kopio

5 – Kopio

After this, the CoE members reported on some interesting conference activities that they had participated in during the last year or so.

In the second session, Risto Saarinen presented information on the Academy of Finland procedures and practicalities of the second half of the CoE during 2017-2019. There was also an opportunity to discuss various related issues and raise questions that came to mind.

6 – Kopio

The third and final session of Thursday began with Antti Ruotsala‘s presentation of his studies of Mongol and other Asian cultures.





After the final session of the first day, we proceeded to enjoy some evening snack together with free conversation and more music by Aku Visala and Panu-Matti Pöykkö.

7 – Kopio

9 – Kopio

The Friday morning session then consisted in some group work towards the application required for the latter part of the CoE period. In the early Friday afternoon, after lunch and the official conclusion, the board held its meeting while some other CoE members participated in a guided tour of the Villa Hvittorp.


Call for Papers: “The Synagogue in Ancient Palestine” (Helsinki, 22-24 Sept 2016)

The Synagogue in Ancient Palestine:  Current Issues and Emerging Trends
22–24 September 2016, University of Helsinki

*Feel free to forward this message to anyone who might be interested*

CFP Synagogue conferenceThe study of synagogues in ancient Palestine is flourishing more than ever. In the last decade at least four synagogues — one from the Late Second Temple-period (Magdala) and three dating to Late Antiquity (Kh. Wadi Hamam, Horvat Kur, Huqoq) — have been exposed by different archaeological expeditions. There is a thriving debate among scholars regarding the functioning and significance of these buildings within the Jewish communities of Palestine. Another continuing debate among archaeologists is the identification and dating of the exposed architectural remains. The excavations of the three above-mentioned late-antique synagogues have exposed richly decorated mosaic floors, which has added to our knowledge of the development of Jewish art. The Synagogue in Ancient Palestine. Current Issues and Emerging Trends provides an opportunity for scholars working on synagogues to discuss current issues in the field.
Four keynote speakers are confirmed: Jodi Magness is Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and director of the Huqoq excavations. Karen Stern Gabbay is Assistant Professor of History, Brooklyn College, and specialized in the cultural identity and material culture of Jewish population in the Greco-Roman world. Zeev Weiss is Eleazar L. Sukenik Professor of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and director of the Sepphoris excavations. Jürgen Zangenberg holds the Chair for History and Culture of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, Leiden University, and is director of the Horvat Kur excavations.

We invite papers that evaluate and integrate both textual and archaeological approaches to the synagogue in ancient Palestine and discuss some of the following issues in synagogue studies: The origins and development of synagogue(s); Questions of dating; Archaeology of Galilean and Judean synagogues including the most recent archaeological findings; Synagogue art and architecture; The synagogue within the Jewish community; Synagogues and Christian communities; Methodology; The history of synagogue research in the context of the early modern and current political situation. We encourage also papers from doctoral students.

Please send your abstract of 250–400 words, along with your name, institution, e-mail and tentative title, by Tuesday 15 March 2016 to Rick Bonnie,

The conference will be held at the University of Helsinki, 22–24 September 2016. There is no registration fee, but participants must cover their own travel and accommodation costs. The conference is organized by Rick Bonnie, Raimo Hakola, and Ulla Tervahauta, Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki.

The conference is funded by the Centre of Excellence in Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions and the Centre of Excellence in Reason and Religious Recognition, both Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki. The conference is organized in co-operation with the Foundation of the Finnish Institute in the Middle East.

Recognition and Aesthetics? – Recollections from the British Society of Aesthetics Annual Conference (18–20 September 2015)

Blog BSAPanel

Photo: Michalle Gal

Text: Hanne Appelqvist

Work on a theoretical concept can easily be hampered by the kinds of examples we treat as paradigm instances of that concept. This is because our intuitions, feelings, and attitudes regarding the chosen examples direct our vision, and do so for better and for worse. A concept like recognition is especially susceptible to this, as it applies to human communities, traditions, and worldviews, as well as to our friends, family, and even ourselves as members of those groups seeking or granting recognition. One countermeasure against the possible bias resulting from our personal involvement is to consider the relevant concept in a neutral context that does not carry the connotations preventing a clear view of the phenomenon under investigation. This is what Professor Jonathan Neufeld (College of Charleston), Professor Brian Soucek (UC Davies Scool of Law), and I sought to do in a panel titled Aesthetic Obedience and Disobedience, presented at the BSA Annual Conference at Homerton College, Cambridge. Focusing on philosophy of art we asked (i) what it means to recognize an object as a work of art; (ii) what role might art play in public deliberation including the recognition of under-represented groups; and (iii) whether the fact that something is recognized as art justifies its exemption from certain legal obligations including laws against the discrimination against minorities.

The panel began with my own paper “On the Quest for a Common Standard: Wittgenstein and Kant on the Rules of Art”. Drawing on the work of these two formalists, I argued that one can neither understand nor evaluate art without acknowledging and mastering the rules of the relevant tradition. However, if Kant and Wittgenstein are right, the rules of art are quite peculiar, as they cannot be couched in conceptual formulas but must be read from the works themselves. Hence, the understanding of art cannot be acquired by consulting a manual or by imitating others, but requires one’s personal and practical immersion in the aesthetic system constituted by its nonconceptual, specifically artistic rules. If there is no common standard – not even one as formal and empty of empirical content as the Kantian principle of purposiveness without purpose – then our responses to works of art are no more than random likes or dislikes in the newsfeed of social media. And the works of art, they may be “anything or nothing at all” to borrow Wittgenstein’s expression.

While the beauty of such a Kantian view lies in the pure formality of the rules of art, the view may also be criticized for its inability to pay due respect to the relation between art and society as a whole – just like the Kantian notion of respect we owe to others as rational agents has been criticized for its disregard for the historical and cultural situatedness of people. Jonathan’s paper “Aesthetic Civil Disobedience” presented powerfully the case of art’s role in public deliberation, arguing that works of art do not have to be reduced to mere didactic tools of various political agendas but can actually function as engines of societal change via their aesthetic properties. In support of this claim, Jonathan offered an analysis of aesthetic civil disobedience by discussing such cases as Pussy Riot, the (illegal) placing of a finely carved statue of Edward Snowden on a War of Independence memorial in Brooklyn NY (see picture below), and the presentation of pictures of African-American community leaders next to statues memorializing leaders of the Confederacy on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. While all instances make specific demands for political recognition, these acts of aesthetic civil disobedience are not reducible to discursive reasons that could be translated into written manifestos. Instead, the aesthetic form of the acts or artworks is an integral part of their public communicative function.

Brian’s paper “Artwork Exceptionalism” introduced the phenomenon of misrecognition to the discussion by analyzing cases where an otherwise generally applicable law is taken not to apply to art. Hence, for example, a junked car in one’s front yard may be exempt from the law prohibiting the storage of junked cars on front yards, if it happens to be, not just a junked car, but a work of art made out of one by being painted and filled with flowers. Such cases may seem innocent enough, but they force the judicial system to deliberate what counts as art and what not, and what type of art is aesthetically significant enough to warrant an exemption – a task which at the outset seems more suited for philosophers of art than a court of law. Moreover, the innocuousness of the junked car case soon fades away when we see the structural parallel between such “artwork exceptionalism” and “religious exceptionalism”, a recently hot legal topic in the US. We may well learn to live with a junked car transfigured into an artwork on our neighbor’s front yard, because we want to guard the freedom of artistic expression in our society. But what are we supposed to think of the analogous case of court granting exemption from the law prohibiting discrimination against sexual minorities for a wedding photographer who, appealing to his religious beliefs, refuses to take photos at a same sex wedding? As demonstrated by Brian’s paper, the case is tricky, “for just as any object, arguably, can become an artwork, so might any action be an exercise of religion – even filicide, as Abraham can attest”.

Blog SnowdenFor further discussion, see:

Hanne Appelqvist (2013) “Wittgenstein and the Limits of Musical Grammar”, The British Journal of Aesthetics 53 (3), pp. 299–319.

Jonathan Neufeld (2015) “Aesthetic Disobedience”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 73 (2), pp. 115–125.

Brian Soucek (2014) “Aesthetic Judgment in Law” and “Personification of Art”, in Michael Kelly (ed.) Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (2d ed.) (Oxford: OUP).