Salomon Maimon, born Shlomo ben Joshua, is to say the least, a character. As is well known, he grew up poor and at times (or most of the time), homeless in parts of both Poland and Lithuania. His abandonment of the Talmud is, perhaps, a bit ironic given that he claimed to have mastered Talmud by the time he was eleven. In fact, given Maimon’s intellectual skills, a wannabe father in law tried to kidnap him. I think he continually referred to the “Talmudic darkness” as a descripter for the “obscurantism” that continued to take hold in Eastern Europe Jewish communities–something that may still be relevant today I think. From his auto-biography–which I am in the process of re-reading– I remember this: he got sick of spending his time pondering “how many white hairs a red cow may have and still be a red cow,” or how one should get dressed. Fair enough, but that type of pondering is endemic to his philosophical method. I’m pretty sure, like Rosenzweig, he briefly considered converting to Christianity. Anyways, onto my rambling thoughts about Maimon and my initial contribution to the Maimon reading group..
Traditionally, Judaism and the Jews have been seen as a limit case, a destabilizing challenge, and constant test for Enlightenment rationalism. In “A State within a State,” Fichte writes:
…the Jewish nation excluded itself…from the German nation by the most binding element of mankind—religion…It (the Jewish nation) separates itself from all others in its duties and rights, from here until eternity.
I see absolutely no way of giving them [the Jews] civic rights, except perhaps if one chops of all of their heads and replaces them with new ones, in which there would not be one single Jewish idea.
One of the interesting things that runs through Maimon (and Mendelssohn) is a kind of desperate, but in the end, pointless attempt to “civilize” German nationalism, that is, re-orienting citizenship not on blood but on law. What one sees above in Fichte, as well as in Kant (and Hegel, albeit in a different manner), is a tendency to exclude Jews from civil life based on some weird psuedo-theology. Michael Mack’s German Idealism and the Jew is quite good on this. Of course, one need only read Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” to get an analysis of theological underpinnings of the civic inequities of Jews in 19th century Germany, and I think it’s good to contextualize Maimon in terms of this background. Anyway, back to Mack for a moment. His book traces a Jewish response to the Idealist deflation of materiality and attempts to unpack two important issues: first, an account of the antisemitism of German idealist philosophy is given by gesturing to how exactly pseudo-theologies/sciences featured prominently in discussions of Jewish “otherness,” from Kant and Hegel to Wagner. For those that are interested, the rest of the book details the counter-narratives cooked up from Mendelssohn to Heine to Graetz to Cohen, and finally, Rosenzweig and Benjamin, all of which try to challenge this secularized Protestant caricaturization of Jews/Judaism. What’s rather interesting is Mack’s account of Kant (Ch 1). In this version, Kant takes on Spinoza’s secular interpretation of ancient Judaism–that is, as a coherent set of civil proscriptions– which he “transcendentalizes.” In turn, we get this idea of Judaism as an “immutable religion without a religion.” Mack has a nice discussion of Kant’s move within the setting of a German Enlightenment, which, due to a variety of reasons opened up an easier path for the formation of a pseudo-religion. In fact, he accuses Kant and Hegel of harboring a bit of a Marcionist position.
Now, one could certainly argue that Judaism does not allow for figuring into a larger preordained drama; as a “light unto the nations” it continually interrupts and refuses any totalizing views. This is one way to make sense of Fichte’s run of the mill anti-semitism. Approached from this angle, it is difficult not to think of Kant, who launched a critical investigation into the nature of reason, and found that the a priori principles of reason limited the “pretensions to transcendent insight” of dogmatism and metaphysics. Kant , as is well known, concluded that it was “necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” Similarly, for one example, Levinas claims that “Athens” announces a realm beyond the order of being and the rationally necessary laws that form it. Bluntly, it would appear that Athens instructs faith. According to Levinas then, the faith that qualifies “Jerusalem” is not just a satisfactory approach to answering the perpetual questions raised by “Athens,” in fact, it is conceivably the best approach to such questions. So, minimally, there is a family resemblance between the Levinasian and Kantian approaches; both thinkers want to carve out a space within philosophy for faith by limiting the proper auspices of philosophy. Maimon is interesting because I don’t think he fits into the traditional “Athens/Jerusalem” distinction (at least the way I’ve schematized it here), nor does his thinking fall under the category of “limit case” for Enlightenment rationalism, at least in the usual sense (his biography, however, certainly tells a different story, again see Fichte’s comment above). In fact, Maimon is probably closer to Spinoza in this regard (and one facet of Maimonides, e.g. divine-human intellect). Rather than working through the ethical components of Kant, Maimon retains skeptical elements of Hume in order to grasp a speculative espistomology that broadens the range of our knowledge that makes possible a “all-encompassing” account of humanity, life etc. In turn, Maimon would have no reason to carve out a place for faith (or morality). In a completely different context, Hannah Arendt remarked that like Kafka, Maimon was a “conscious pariah.” I’m not so sure about that either, but Maimon was certainly wrestling with, and working across two different worlds and two different traditions. In his interesting account of Maimon’s “radical englightenment,” Abraham Socher writes:
…one can see each of the intellectual worlds that Maimon inhabited struggling with the idea of a fixed human telos. In the late 18th century Germany this teleological ideal is the changing notion of Bildung, meaning, at least both education and culture which shares, in part, a Aristotelian genealogy. In the Jewish world…one sees each of the competing parties of Jewish modernity…vying to create a new unitary cultural ideal, often employing theoretical terms of medieval philosophy and mystical traditions such as shelemut hanefesh (perfection of the soul), hatzlachat ha-enoshit (human excellence), and devequt (union with the divine) in new discursive contexts (p11, The Radical Enlightenment of S. Maimon).
I’ll come back to Socher’s suggestion a bit more below, but off hand, I’m not so sure how accurate this claim actually is. While Moses Mendelssohn inaugurated what has become known as the Berlin Haskalah (e.g.Jewish Enlightenment), in the decades following a new and more diverse movement arose in Eastern Europe and Russia. The Berlin Haskalah generated a philosophical corpus, whereas the Eastern European maskilim (supporters of the Enlightenment) tended toward a range of literary work, be it satire, romance, poetry and with Maimon, autobiography (though Maimon’s autobiography was also certainly modeled on Rousseau’s Confessions). What’s interesting–and important to point out– is that the Haskalah in Eastern Europe was quite diverse, ranging from conservative and “rationalist” reforms of traditional forms of Judaism to different forms of secularism. Many of these movements had wide-ranging and long-lasting effects in Jewish history.
Anyway, going along with rationalist reforms of Judaism, Maimon tended to annoy people when invited to their homes by refusing to say any blessings over wine, challah etc. because–as a short hand– such ritualistic practices did not match up with Enlightenment ideals. Real quick and dirty, Maimon thinks the originary metaphysical impetus of Judaism has been reigned in and blocked by rabbis and mystics, but more on that another time. Maimon writes:
Moses, as well as the prophets who followed him, sought constantly to inculcate that the end of religion is not external ceremonies, but the knowledge of the true God as the sole incomprehensible cause of all things, and the practice of virtue in accordance with the prescriptions of reason (184).
This is interesting because it smacks in the face of the Rabbinic forms of Judaism of the time, but Maimon did not follow along with the broad Enlightenment poo-pooing of all things medieval. Amos Funkenstein comments:
The Haskala saw itself as part of the Enlightenment. many of its basic tenets corresponded to those of the Aufkarler, “philosophers,” and “illuministi.” Yet, it’s attitude towards the medieval tradition of Jewish philosophy was throughout different and positive: so much so that one can, without exaggeration, tie the beginning of the Haskala to the renewed interest in medieval religious philosophy. The contrast with the European Enlightenment is blatant and calls for an explanation (Perceptions of Jewish History, 234, quoted in Socher, somewhere).
Enter Maimonides. Maimon had this to say about Maimonides in his Autobiography:
My reverence for this great teacher went so far that I regarded him as the ideal of a perfect man and looked upon his teachings as if they had been dictated by Divine Wisdom itself. This went so far, that when my passions began to grow, and I had sometimes to fear lest they might seduce me to some action inconsistent with these teachings, I used to employ as a proved antidote the abjuration: “I swear Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, not to do this act.” And this vow, so far as I can remember, by the reverence which I owe my great teacher, was aiways surricient to restrain me.
In his essay, “A Philosopher between Two Cultures,” Gideon Freudenthal suggests, correctly in my view, that Maimon writes “systematic philosophy in the form of commentaries:”
This practice of writing and reading commentaries requires and develops certain intellectual abilities at the expense of others. It develops the ability to infer implications and implicatures of what is presented, to guess by analogy the author’s position in one case from his position in another, different case, etc. However, the systematic exposition of a conceptual system is not learned thereby. The system is always in the background, and only its partial instantiation–the commentaries on specific questions and loci–is visible.
Midrash reads closely for problems; and sometimes, in the absence of a problem it creates one in order to solicit meaning. In describing the metonymic type of commentary which appears throughout the Talmud, Levinas comments, “It is of the essence of art to signify only between the lines—like a footprint that would precede the step, or an echo preceding the sound of a voice.” Jacob Neusner identifies midrash as both a process of interpretation and compilation that utilizes three basic devices, paraphrase, prophecy and allegory. The strategy of the Talmud can be described as one of opening, whose principles deal with specific people and text in order to build meaning. I’m not suggesting that Maimon is “midrashic” or “doing midrash,” but there are some affinities here I think. Many critics of Maimon accuse him of obscurity, and again, Freudenthal rightly connects Maimon to Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed, which is a notoriously (and intentionally) unsystematic in its presentation (Strauss’ book on Maimonides is very good on this). Freudenthal cites the opening lines of the Guide:
Hence you should not ask of me here anythign beyond the chapter headings. And even those are not set down in order arranged in coherent fashion in this treatise, but rather are scattered and entangled with other subjects that are to be clarified. For my purpose is that the truths be glimpsed and then again be concealed so as not to oppose that divine purpose which one cannot possibly oppose and which has concealed from the vulgar among the people those truths especially requisite for His apprehension…If you wish to grasp the totality of what this Treatise contains, so that nothing of it will escape you, then you must connect its chapters one with another (Guide, 7, 15, Freudenthal, 9)
and juxtaposes it with Maimon’s description of his method of reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason:
On first reading I obtained a vague idea of each section. This I endeavored afterwords to make distinct by my own reflection, and thus to penetrate into the author’s meaning. Such is properly the process which is called thinking oneself into a system.
But as I had already mastered the systems of Spinoza, Hume, and Leibniz, I was naturally led to think of a coalition system. This, in fact, I found and gradually put into writing in the form of explanatory observations to the Critique of Pure Reason. This was the origin of my Transcendentalphilosophie.
I’m inclined to agree with Freudenthal here and there are some interesting resonances with Walter Benjamin here as well, I think, at least methodologically. A final point about Maimonides. Abraham Socher goes way further than Freudenthal and argues rather forecfully that Maimon was a “radical Maimonidean and the self-conscious heir to a medieval and early modern tradition of Aristotelian naturalism,” especially in his early thought, which carries through to his interpretation of Kant in the Transcendentalphilosophie (56-57, See Chs 2 and 3). Socher goes onto suggest:
In little more than a decade, Maimon moved from being an exponent of what he called ‘Jewish peripatetic philosophy’ of the Middle Ages, to being a forerunner, if not a founder, of German Idealism (159).
Hmmm–quite a bold, and fascinating, claim. Add to this Atlas’ comment:
It is fascinating thought to realize that, through the mediation of Maimon, Maimonides’ ideals played their role in shaping the metaphysical systems of the post-Kantian period. One is overwhelmed in contmeplating the devious and mysterious course of the human spirit; and one is involuntary compelled to ask wonderingly, in paraphrase of the words of Ecclesiastes: Who knows the way of the spirit? (from a 1948 essay, “Solomon Maimon’s Treatment of the Problem of Antinomies and its Relation to Maimonides” in the Hebrew Union College Annual. Also cited by Yossef Schwartz (in the Freudenthal volume) in his essay, in part, on Maimon’s interpretation of Rambam’s causa materialis in Giv’at Hammore, or, Heights of the Teacher)
One of the things I’m interested in thinking about as this reading group progresses is the contribution of Maimon’s Jewish background to his philosophy (if there is any), as well as his broader “integration” into German Enlightenment (note: I don’t expect anyone else to follow along with my idiosyncratic thinking patterns). As of now I’m not really sure there are any Maimonidean positions that are actually upheld by Maimon. Given what I know, Maimon pretty much demolishes Maimonides’ physics, astronomy, and cosmology, challenges the validity of Maimonides’ refutation of atomism, and pretty much washes away any the relevance of Maimonides’ consideration of Aristotle’s theory of the eternity of the universe. It seems that such an angle is a complete wash. However, if it’s true that Maimon disagreed with virtually all of Maimonidean physics and metaphysics (and even with the very distinction drawn between these two fields by the Aristotelians), why bother at all with Maimonides? One reason is methodological and has to do with Maimon’s background, as I note above, the other reason is historical, and I don’t have enough background to say anything all that intelligible about it. Yossef Schwartz’s essay–along with Socher, albeit in a different register– offers a third possibility: Schwartz compares Maimon’s effort to introduce his Jewish (or rather, Hebrew) readers to Kantian philosophy in his commentary on The Guide of the Perplexed and his German-language readers to Maimonides vis a vis his Autobiography, in his ongoing effort to legitimize modern philosophy to the Jewish community and Maimonides and the tradition of Jewish thought to the philosophers of his time. The “test case” –a case that appears throughout the literature, actually–is the problem of God and material causality, which also puts Maimon into conversation with a good deal of other modern philosophers, esp Leibniz, Spinoza, Bruno and Mendelssohn. How this plays out in the Essay on Transcedental Philosophy remains to be seen.