Gulliver and the rabbis: Counterfactual truth in science and the Talmud

Menachem Fisch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The paper presents Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as the first systematic attempt to claim that the normal methods of testing belief and opinion for clarity, consistence, coherence, and how they stand to the facts are powerless when applied to deep-seated normative commitments, or what Wittgenstein dubbed “framework truths.” To subject our norms to normative critique requires a measure of self-alienation that cannot be achieved merely by looking hard at or thinking hard about our world and ourselves. However, by closely examining the contrived counterfactual scenarios (or, as I have shown in former work, by exposure to the normative critique of significant others), that Swift is shown to claim, such normative framework assumptions can be challenged to great effect! The standard epistemologies of his day—Baconian empiricism and Cartesian rationalism—fiercely ridiculed in the course of Gulliver’s third voyage are cruelly dismissed as powerless to change the course of science and keep it in normative check. The transformative effect of the clever thought experiments presented in the three other voyages (of imagining London shrunk to a twelfth of its size and enlarged to giant proportions, and a more responsible and intelligent race of beings inserted above (normally sized) humans) enable Swift to obtain critical normative distance from several major assumptions about politics, religion, aesthetics, ethics, and much more, including the limits of the thought experiment itself. The paper then goes to show how the same kind of counterfactual scenarios are put to impressive use in the Talmudic literature, with special reference to foundational questions of ethics and law.

Original languageEnglish
Article number228
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.


  • Framework assumptions
  • Jonathan Swift
  • Newtonian Physics
  • Profanation of God’s Name
  • Talmudic laws of Damages
  • Tamudic law of lost property
  • Thought experiments


Dive into the research topics of 'Gulliver and the rabbis: Counterfactual truth in science and the Talmud'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this