Scharfstein, Ben-Ami 1919–

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Scharfstein, Ben-Ami 1919–

PERSONAL: Born April 12, 1919, in New York, NY; son of Zevi (a writer, educator, and publisher) and Rose (a publisher; maiden name, Goldfarb) Scharfstein; married Ghela Efros, June 15, 1952; children: Doreet. Education: Brooklyn College (now of the City University of New York), B.A., 1939; Harvard University, M.A., 1940; Jewish Theological Seminary, B.J.P., 1941; Columbia University, Ph.D., 1942.

ADDRESSES: Home—Gluskin St. 1, Tel-Aviv, Israel.

CAREER: Brooklyn College (now of the City University of New York), Brooklyn, NY, fellow, 1942–43, tutor, 1944, instructor in philosophy, 1945–49; Columbia University, New York, NY, lecturer in philosophy, 1949–50; Reali School and Teachers Seminary, Haifa, Israel, teacher of English, history, and education, 1950–51; Hunter College (now of the City University of New York), New York, NY, instructor in philosophy, 1953–54; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, assistant professor of philosophy, 1954–55; Tel-Aviv University, Tel-Aviv, Israel, associate professor, 1955–76, professor of philosophy, 1976–88, professor emeritus, 1988–, head of department, 1955–72, vice rector, 1969–72. Jewish Theological Seminary of America, guest lecturer at Teachers Institute, 1946–47.

MEMBER: International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilization, American Philosophical Association, New Israeli Philosophical Association, Israeli Association for Aesthetics.

AWARDS, HONORS: Citation for outstanding academic book, Choice, 1998, for A Comparative History of World Philosophy: From the Upanishads to Kant; Israel Prize for philosophy, 2005.


Roots of Bergson's Philosophy, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1943.

(With Mortimer Ostow) The Need to Believe, International Universities Press (New York, NY), 1954.

(With Raphael Sappan) English-Hebrew Dictionary, edited by Zevi Scharfstein, Shilo (New York, NY), 1961.

Mystical Experience, Bobbs-Merrill (New York, NY), 1972.

(With mother Rose Scharfstein and father Zevi Scharfstein) New Comprehensive Shilo Pocket Dictionary, Hebrew-English, English-Hebrew, Shilo (New York, NY), 1973.

The Mind of China, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1974.

(Editor, with Yoav Ariel, Shlomo Biderman, and others, and contributor) Philosophy East/Philosophy West, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1978.

The Philosophers, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1980.

Of Birds, Beast, and Other Artists: An Essay on the Universality of Art, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1988.

The Dilemma of Context, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1989.

(Editor, with Shlomo Biderman) Rationality in Question: On Eastern and Western Views of Rationality, E.J. Brill (New York, NY), 1989.

(Editor, with Shlomo Biderman) Interpretation in Religion, E.J. Brill (New York, NY), 1992.

Ineffability: The Failure of Words in Philosophy and Religion, State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1993.

(Editor, with Shlomo Biderman) Myths and Fictions, E.J. Brill (New York, NY), 1993.

Amoral Politics: The Persistent Truth of Machiavellism, State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1995.

A Comparative History of World Philosophy: From the Upanishads to Kant, State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1998.


Ha'Oman B'Tarbuyot Ha'Olam (title means "The Artist in World Art"), Am Oved (Tel-Aviv, Israel), 1970.

Toldot ha-filosofyah: Meha-Renesans ve-ad Kant, Matkal (Tel Aviv, Israel), 1978.

Ha-Omanut: Keshet be-anan, Masadah (Ramat-Gan, Israel), 1988.

Keshet: Kovets le-tsiyun Yovel ha-araba'im le-reshit hofa'ato shel "Keshet," ha-riv'on le-sifrut, 'iyun u-viokoret (1958–1976), Hed Artsi (Sifriyat Maariv, Israel), 1998.

Other publications in Hebrew include Spontaneity in Art and Prehuman Art, both 2005.


Associate editor, Keshet.

SIDELIGHTS: Ben-Ami Scharfstein is a respected scholar who has written books on art, philosophy, and other subjects, in both English and Hebrew. In his first published work, Roots of Bergson's Philosophy, he proposed that the famous philosopher was not a great innovator, but rather a great synthesizer of ideas that had come before him. A Christian Century reviewer noted: "The ideas which converged were some meta-scientific speculations concerning time, various theories based upon 'depth psychology,' evolutionism and vitalism, and certain sociological interpretations of morality and religion. Scharfstein shows that Bergson's most famous sentences are quite similar to the opinions expressed by many nineteenth century philosophers."

Reviewing Roots of Bergson's Philosophy for Crozer Quarterly, G.W. Davis commented: "This small volume is an interesting disclosure of the roots of the thinking of one of our most vivid contemporary philosophers. It discloses the dependence of even the great thinker upon the world about him and the thoughts of his past and present. Surely it reveals the requirement that every philosopher seek to understand the cultural milieu of his world before he sets down his conclusions about life and human destiny."

The author took a skeptical view of his subject in Mystical Experience, in which he analyzes mysticism in Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism, Suffism, Hinduism, and other religions. A Times Literary Supplement writer believed that Scharfstein noted: "The reader who has read [this book] attentively … will have sensed throughout that despite the best of intentions the author dislikes the whole murky business of mysticism."

Scharfstein examined Eastern literary culture in The Mind of China. A reviewer for Choice called it "a superb study of the life and thought of the scholar-officials who dominated traditional Chinese society." Noting that there were few new insights in the book, the critic nevertheless praised it for "its organization of material, its judicious use of quotations from the Chinese literati themselves and, above all, in the author's beautiful style which reanimates the culture of China's greatest days." F.W. Drake concurred in Library Journal that The Mind of China was "a convenient and stimulating introduction to 'Confucian culture.'"

In A Comparative History of World Philosophy: From the Upanishads to Kant, Scharfstein compares major philosophers from European, Indian and Chinese traditions. Paul J. Griffiths noted, in a review for Iyyun: The Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly, that the author separates each chapter by philosophical viewpoint as opposed to tradition or timeframe, observing that this method of combining thinkers from different areas works "by juxtaposing them and permitting them to enter into philosophical discussion one with another." Griffiths felt that "there is no book like this in English. Works with comparable (or greater) scope lack Scharfstein's attention to detail, and those with comparable or greater detail almost always lack the comparative emphasis and broad range found here."

Scharfstein once commented to CA: "I have a passionate interest in art (I paint), in philosophy, in comparative culture, and in learning generally. In writing, I'm apparently attracted to difficult syntheses, the difficulty of which is increased by my attempt to balance the claims of good writing against those of accuracy of scholarship and of some elusive general truth.

"My generalizing passion—contained, I hope, within scholarly bounds—inspired A Comparative History of World Philosophy: From the Upanishads to Kant, and is now asserting itself even more strongly in an almost finished manuscript with the not immodest title of AESTHETICS WITHOUT LIMITS of Place, Time, or Culture. Two of its chapters have mutated into short independent books. One has the name Spontaneity in Art, and the other, called Prehuman Art: An Essay in Interspecies Aesthetics, extends the conception of art, or at least of the basic impulses that in humans lead to art, to other, nonhuman animals. In the course of writing these books, I have come to see that art has been invented everywhere to satisfy humans' boundless hunger for experience in all of its real, imagined, and imaginable variations. In trying to understand how appreciation might cross temporal and cultural boundaries, I have learned to weaken aesthetic dichotomies by adding intermediate possibilities and by denying, implicitly or not, that we are forced to choose between opposite positions. 'Yes and/or no,' I'm now likely to say. This is because the sharp distinction into opposites that helps to make our thinking clear deprives us of the ability to perceive whatever it has a priori excluded from thought by omitting its possibility. Thinking that is too flagrantly dichotomous sets us at odds with ourselves, with others, and, most seriously, with the reality whose elusiveness has provoked us into such thinking. (When faced by a rigidly logic-bound argument I'm apt to remember the words of the poet who said, 'If only philosophers could learn a single thing from poet—how not to have opinions.')

'It's hard for me to choose which of my books I like best. I like The Philosophers for the richness of the individual experience it embodies and its success, in my opinion, in grasping that almost all philosophies are incomplete by their own philosophical standards, so that an understanding of the formally irrelevant psychological characteristics of a philosopher can help to close the gaps or explain the odd turns in his or her thought. I like The Dilemma of Context because it joins the exotic descriptions of anthropology with the analytic energies of philosophy, and because its argu-ment seems to me to succeed in constructing arguments in which abstract ideas and empirical examples lend one another mutual support, and because it is so clearly constructed and so elegantly brief. I like A Comparative History of World Philosophy because it seems to me to join clarity and exactness of exposition, and because its basic categories and comparisons seem to me original and revealing. And I like my current writing on art because it has led me to learn so much about the world at large and about myself, has helped me to solve the major problems of aesthetics to at least my own satisfaction. Because it is a textbook for a seminar, in which the students are encouraged to question what it says, I learn how to improve it, and because it challenges me to try to turn a philosophical book on esthetics into a work of art of the kind not unlike the art is meant to explain. While I've suffered some brutal reviews, my books have brought me many emotional rewards, not only in their writing, but in the spontaneous appreciation of strangers, which is now usually a gift brought me by the Internet. Like the other forms of art, writing is by itself able to create immediate emotional and intellectual bonds between perfect strangers."



Choice, July, 1974, review of The Mind of China; October, 1980, review of The Philosophers, p. 264; January, 1999, J. Bussanich, review of A Comparative History of World Philosophy: From the Upanishads to Kant.

Christian Century, October 6, 1943, review of Roots of Bergson's Philosophy.

Critic, January, 1981, review of The Philosophers, p. 7.

Crozer Quarterly, October, 1943, G. W. Davis, review of Roots of Bergson's Philosophy.

Economist, October 25, 1980, review of The Philosophers, p. 129.

Iyyun: The Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly, January, 2001, Paul J. Griffiths, review of A Comparative History of World Philosophy, p. 85.

Journal of Religion, July, 2000, Matthew T. Kapstein, review of A Comparative History of World Philosophy, p. 526.

Library Journal, December 1, 1973, review of Mystical Experience, p. 3568; August, 1974, F. W. Drake, review of The Mind of China; June 1, 1998, Terry C. Skeats, review of A Comparative History of World Philosophy, p. 113.

Philosophy East and West, January, 1999, review of A Comparative History of World Philosophy, p. 96.

Times Literary Supplement, November 30, 1973, review of Mystical Experience, p. 1349.