Posted by: glue | June 11, 2010


Michael Chabon, in the context of the botched Israeli raid on the flotilla attempting to break the blockade on Gaza, commented on the Jewish version of what the Greeks called metis.  Such folk typologies are relevant to the history of prudence.


Regardless of whether we chose in the end to condemn or to defend the botched raid on the Mavi Marmara, for Jews the first reaction was shock, confusion, as we tried to get our heads around what appeared to be an unprecedented display of blockheadedness. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic cast his startled regard back along the length of Jewish history looking for a parallel example of arrant stupidity and found, instead, what Jews around the world have long been accustomed to find in contemplating ourselves and that history: an inborn, half-legendary agility of intellect, amounting almost to a magical power.

“There is a word in Yiddish, seichel, which means wisdom, but it also means more than that: It connotes ingenuity, creativity, subtlety, nuance,” Mr. Goldberg wrote. “Jews have always needed seichel to survive in this world; a person in possession of a yiddishe kop, a ‘Jewish head,’ is someone who has seichel, someone who looks for a clever way out of problems, someone who understands that the most direct way — blunt force, for instance — often represents the least elegant solution, a person who can foresee consequences of his actions.”

Chabon’s point is that qualities and behaviors of intelligence or stupidity are not properties of essence or identity, but are learned and cultivated.  Ironically, seichel associated with Jewishness is exploited as a negative stereotype by anti-Semites.  The issue for flash reason is to locate folk categories (not only those relating to metis) — any named cultural formation of the sort collected in this “phrase book” — currently circulating in the public sphere.  This archive of terms inventories alternatives to propositional, discursive models of knowing.


  1. Could elucidations of metis help to address the decline of interest in the humanities or highlight their value over a bottom line mentality? Can human beings afford ingenuity, creativity, subtlety, nuance or prudence?

  2. There are several levels to this issue: it is not just that the Humanities does not explain to the general public the value of what it does. We (for the most part) do not understand the nature of this value ourselves. For example, to the extent that we teach metis at all, it is as information, not as practice (hermeneutics and not heuretics).

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