Louis Finkelstein

By Philip Davis
from The Education of a Mathematician

There is a saying among mathematicians that mathematical talent is often passed down from father to son-in-law, and there are numerous historical cases to back this up. In my instance, I learned much from my father-in-law, Louis Finkelstein (1895-1991), but it wasn't mathematics. He himself knew very little mathematics, and every once in a while to my great annoyance he would trot out Whitehead and Russell as the culmination of mathematical achievement in our day. Perhaps he inherited this opinion from his teacher at City College of New York, Morris Raphael Cohen (1880-1947), who himself was a logician, a positivist, schooled in the Russell tradition. Cohen wrote that he considered himself a person whose main contribution was to have cleaned out the Augean Stables of Thought.

I first met LF in 1942 when I was dating his daughter Hadassah. He was then the President (later: Chancellor) of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, located at Broadway and 122nd Street, Manhattan. I could see at once that LF had a robust sense of humor, a match for my own, though mine is rather more ironic, and I, who would walk a mile for a good punch line, said to myself that if only for this reason, LF was a possible father-in-law.

In the early days of our relationship, I doubt whether he cared very much about the state of my wit, but only whether I was old enough, whether my intentions toward his daughter were honorable, whether I was stable, whether I could make a living through mathematics. And those questions, I recall, I could only answer or parry with my own question of whether, being draft liable, I would survive the war that the United States had just entered.

I think that LF saw quite early that I was not an ignoramus about Jewish matters. My father's father, who came from the Ukraine, and was naturalized as an American citizen in 1895, was orthodox in his practices. My parents moved over to Conservative Judaism (of which community LF became the titular head a few years later). Sometime in the early 1920's my father bought a copy of the Jewish Encyclopaedia in twelve volumes, and as a child I cut my reading teeth rummaging at random through its pages.

If my knowledge of Jewish history, liturgy, and ritual were passable, my grades in personal ritual observances were D plusses. My non- (occasionally anti-) ritualism didn't seem to concern LF too much. He never spoke to me about it; never once, over the years, did he try to ``convert'' me to a more intense level of personal religious observance. Early on, I arrived at a modus vivendi that consisted of rendering unto Louis the things that were his and maintaining my own comfortable level of ritual slackness. I maintained my anti-Platonic philosophical beliefs, and for all that I was clearly headed for a career as a mathematician, I was not entirely a rationalist.

Yes, LF thought that I was more than a bit of a mystic and an irrationalist. I thought of myself as a philosophic skeptic, a satirist but not a scoffer. I have never felt embarrassed by the words of Psalm 1, Verse 1 in which one is cautioned ``not to sit in the presence of scoffers.'' For all that I have tried to teach my students to consider deeply the reason for their beliefs, I have rarely mocked.

At the time of my wedding to Hadassah, LF was in full limelight both as regards the American Jewish community and the secular community. In 1951, his picture was on the cover of Time Magazine. In 1956, he was asked to participate in the inaugural ceremony for President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon. In 1961, he was named by President John F. Kennedy as one of several (religious) American representatives to the installation of Pope Paul VI in the Vatican.

Around 1940, LF inaugurated an annual conference on science, philosophy and religion whose objective was to pull together these areas. Scientists and religion, in particular, had been at each others' throats for many years; the scientists of LF's generation were mostly atheists or agnostics, and it took rather a bit of persistence and courage on LF's part to persuade them to sit down in the same room with theologians. I suggested to LF one year that he might invite Philipp Frank to speak and that worked out.

I learned many things from my father-in-law. The meaning of scholarship, its humanistic values, and --- this is very important --- the very motions through which one pursues it. Though I had been interested in philosophy since undergraduate days when I sat at the feet of Philipp Frank, my philosophic interest intensified considerably as a result of my occasional discussions with LF. (He had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia.)

Through my father-in-law, I learned of the medieval Jewish philosopher Saadia (882-942) about whom he had edited a book. I found Saadia's exceedingly dry and abstract approach to God very axiomatic and scholastic; not entirely sympathetic to me but eye-opening, and some years later, I put in a long quotation from Saadia as an instance of how abstraction, whether philosophical or mathematical, when carried to its limits, can be dehumanizing.

It was through association with LF that my interest in general history intensified considerably --- it was already present from high school days but limited to history of mathematics. One scholar whom LF admired greatly was Harry Wolfson, Professor of Philosophy at Harvard, a specialist in Philo of Alexandria and Spinoza, and when I returned to graduate school in the fall of 1946 to do a Ph.D. in mathematics, I took time out to listen to Wolfson's historical lectures. The Wolfson experience fed back into my anti-Platonism in that I cannot really conceive of knowledge except in a historical context. Much later, I was able to exploit this position as part of a ``new wave'' (anti-foundationalist) movement in the philosophy of mathematics.

I learned from LF how, in a public speech, to show yourself as an individual human being. The speaker on the podium operates largely as an ex officio abstraction. When, therefore, the speaker reveals a bit of his personal life, he becomes Everyman, and the audience will identify strongly with him. LF knew how to do this marvelously well, but never fell into the trap of becoming maudlin as Richard Nixon was in his "Checkers" speech.

Toward the end of his long life, as things became increasingly difficult for him physically, he said, ``I thank God every day that I am dying from the bottom up and not from the head down.''

Other personal material about Louis Finkelstein

Louis Finkelstein with Phil and Hadassah Finkelstein Davis, 1962