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Peter Lipton


A few months ago, a brilliant philosopher named Peter Lipton died suddenly at the age of 53. Outside of Cambridge University, where he was professor of philosophy of science and a major figure in the Reform Jewish community, he was not well known in wider Jewish circles. I contend that his contribution to the philosophy of religion directly, and to Jewish philosophy indirectly, will come to be recognized as brilliantly innovative and seminal in the years to come.

Here is a brief extract from the obituary in The Times:

The Cambridge University academic Professor Peter Lipton was a leading philosopher of science, a supremely efficient head of department and an extraordinarily gifted teacher, renowned above all for his ability to reach out and bring philosophy to a wider audience. Peter Lipton was born in 1954. In 1991 he became assistant lecturer at Cambridge University’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Three years after arriving he was appointed full lecturer, and two years after that he became head of department. He held this position until his death, as well as that of departmental chair, bestowed on him in 1997. Lipton turned out to be an administrator of genius, bringing fully to bear the intellectual and personal qualities that so distinguished his research and teaching. Another area that came to fascinate him was the intersection of philosophy and religion. Lipton described himself as a “religious atheist” and was a practicing Reform Jew. Lipton was a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. He collapsed and died after a game of squash. He is survived by his wife and two sons. Professor Peter Lipton was born on October 9, 1954. He died on November 25, 2007, aged 53.

I have argued for a long time that Judaism has lost too many intellectuals because Jewish thinkers are still locked into the Maimonidean model. However talented many Jewish thinkers are, their ties to philosophical mindsets that are limited in time and creativity have hampered their ability to break out of a very uninspiring mental cocoon. This is why no Jewish philosopher writing as a Jewish philosopher has achieved recognition in the wider philosophical world, certainly not since Buber. You might argue that Levinas ought to be included too, but if his essays on Talmudic passages might be a contribution in one sphere, I contend that his thought makes little contribution to philosophy in the wider sense. Perhaps it is because he was French, and we Anglo-Saxons tend to view the Continentals as thinkers rather than philosophers (while I’m sure they consider us too rooted in empiricism).

Peter addressed the issues of science and religion rigorously. I remember him dismissing Jay Gould‘s attempt to resolve the conflict through accepting different and irreconcilable magisteria. He did not find the “never the twain should meet” either intellectually honest or sustainable.

I would not be able to do him justice by trying to encapsulate his thought or his theory of the “Immersion Solution”. No doubt, if he were around to hear my attempt, he would delicately change the subject and then proceed to direct my thinking to a totally different subject altogether where he would illustrate the clarity of his thought. But, in very simplified terms, Peter starts from the position that there are different ways of looking at the world and each comes with its own assumptions. Most of us look at a table and see wood or metal, but a scientist might see molecules and fields of energy. What we see when we look down a telescope is what we have been trained to see. In other words, we are immersed in specific ways of looking at the world, and in this immersion we accept the culture, religious or scientific, with its assumptions, even when they may not be the only way of looking at the world or the text, and may not be the way most people normally understand them. Immersion gives one a way of looking at the world, and there are others. So it is not that one or the other is right or wrong; they are different and, in their ways, may be both right.

Now, Peter was not an Orthodox Jew, and his position on God and Torah was not mine. But we can take his idea of how one comes to think about religious issues in particular ways and adapt it to Orthodoxy. It might not make a great deal of difference how the Torah appears to have been written or conveyed, mystically or scientifically, or how the world was created, if you are looking at it from an immersion in Torah point of view. Immersion means that the assumptions one has absorbed or been taught about God, history, and culture have influenced the way one understands ones religion and or feels committed. You accept the assumptions of Torah culture and religion in the same way that when you experiment in a lab you accept the conventions of scientific culture. It is not that one is right and the other is wrong, or that never the twain shall meet, as Jay Gould suggests with his magisteria.

Peter rightly balked at the idea that religion should have nothing to say to science and vice versa. After all, the rabbis of the Talmud used scientific experiment and practical observation freely and easily. The tensions between science and religion appear to have developed afterwards, largely because of the theological systems that emerged. He asserted that different paradigms may overlap and inform each other and influence each other. Nevertheless, they both come from different states of immersion. Someone not immersed in another culture simply cannot understand the process.

The conflict between science and religion has tended to be resolved either by adopting one and rejecting the other, or by trying to reconcile one to the other by reinterpreting texts or modifying language. Peter’s position was that one does not need to attempt either. One can be immersed in both, and value both, and accept the orthodoxies of both (or not).

Previously, I came to the same conclusion using phenomenology as a way of saying that my experience of Torah as Divine is subjective, the result of my own encounter with Torah and the way I choose to see the world. This worked on an individual level, but not as a systematic solution. Immersion covers both. That is why I find it the most satisfying philosophical resolution of the conflict that I have ever come across, and why I think his contribution is so important, and his loss so great, not just to the general philosophical world, but to the Jewish world too.

7 thoughts on “Peter Lipton

  1. His Grace thanks you for this, for he knew the eminent professor, and found him to be a man of profound insight and immeasurable wisdom.

    Your valedictory testimony is much appreciated.

  2. Thank you to Rabbi Rosen for drawing attention to the papers of Prof. Lipton.

    Never in the field of daily commuting, has so much been attempted to be digested by such an unqualified few….

    That Prof. Lipton preferred not to believe in literal miracles – when “best” science hints otherwise.. leads me to wonder why he chose that particular absolute.

    Whatever it is strange & welcome to have a term “immersion” with which one can qualify one’s own ponderings..

    If I knew all that is known about dinosaurs – that expertise remains surely no more than an irrelevant hobby in respect of my daily existence. Millions of years of reptilian activity – resulting in “Barney” – special effects by Mr. Spielberg – and the unproven suggestion that the chickens are the descendants of T-rex; tending as a primitive (sic) erring toward religion rather than science – and all too aware of my own shortcomings in education and vocabulary … I’d still rather choose to recall a meal once enjoyed through vague recollections of taste & flavours, rather than an exact description of ingredients and their preparation.


  3. This is a very interesting post. I’m sorry I never met Peter, especially as I have met his wife on two occasions at Cambridge University.

    However, it is interesting that when I was doing research for my contribution (with the Jewish entries) to the Routledge Dictionary of 20th Century Philosophers, Levinas’ name came up in the search more than nearly any other philosopher you could care to mention, including that of Martin Buber.

    This would have been in the mid 19990s.

  4. Dr. Irene,

    Let me take this opportunity to congratulate you on the important blogging you do and its contribution to interfaith understanding!

    I am still waiting for someone to tell me (or refer me to) what contribution Levinas has made either to the philosophy of religion or the philosophy of Judaism/halacha, etc.

    I am familiar with his ingenious Talmudic commentaries. I am not saying he didnt. I am only saying I havent read/seen/heard it yet!

    Warmest regards

  5. Dear Rabbi Rosen,

    This is a wonderful appreciation of Peter Lipton. His name had come before in my work and reading but I never realized there was this fascinating Jewish side to him. Can you recommend anything he wrote specifically on Judaism?

    Many thanks & warm regards,

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