Why Maimon?

I suppose it is not entirely necessary to justify interest in Maimon, even if the fact that his major works are still untranslated, expect, of course, now for the Essay, shows that his position among the Kantian contemporaries is not as secure. But then again it’s not as if we have the works of Jacobi, Reinhold, or Schulze (among others) available in English either, although di Giovanni’s commendable effort should be, well, commended (see his collection Between Kant and Hegel). This situation is easy to explain, it seems, if one considers the degree to which Hegel’s interpretation of post-Kantian philosophical development won over other discourses and, having established itself as the only story (whether hegemonically or due to historical circumstances), continues to dominate the conversation.  I am not suggesting we should disregard Hegel’s way of seeing the development of Kant’s thought, to do that would be to simply swing the proverbial pendulum in the opposite direction.  However, from historical point of view, the immediate years after Kant’s critical “revolution” reveal a fascinatingly fertile conversation about the possible implications of Kant’s insights for the future of philosophy.  In that sense, Maimon is one of the participants, even if strange and eccentric, of this large conversation (among a rather small number of intellectuals).  And yet, he is a distinct figure precisely because, as many have already pointed out, his insights have prefigured not just the immediate conceptualizations of Fichte and then Hegel, but also those of later neo-Kantians such as Cohen and Natorp.


For me, Maimon has always been a fascinating combination of a skeptic and a metaphysician.  So these are some of the random observations I’ve put together on a general theme “Why Maimon?” This is by no means an organized piece of any kind – I’m not saying this to prevent criticism, I’m saying this to clear the air. The goal of this reading group as far as I am concerned is for people to discuss a rather great work of philosophy and see what comes out. To kick things off, I thought it would be appropriate to ask a simple question: Why should we bother with Maimon? What is it about his philosophical input that still deserves our attention? Or, prepare to clasp your hand in mock desperation and roll your eyes, what is “dead” and what is “living” in philosophy of Maimon?

All of these reflections are based on reading Maimon and whatever secondary literature I looked over in preparing for the reading (and have consumed in the past). I provide citations where I took notes, but most of these ideas are not mine, so if you see something that looks like Bransen or Atlas, then it’s most likely is.

Speaking of Atlas, this is how he summarizes Maimon’s philosophical efforts:

“Maimon’s philosophy is, properly speaking, dominated by a few fundamental thoughts systematically connected with one another.  It is preoccupied at first with one central problem, which then evolves into a whole series of questions systematically and consistently developed.  This is the problem of the relation of pure thought to real objects, i.e. the possibility of ‘real thought’ (reales Denken) as distinguished from formal thought.” [15]

I think that the one attractive distinction that can be found in Maimon’s philosophical approach is the distinction between the critical philosopher and the skeptical philosopher. The critical philosopher, like Kant, always raises the question of quid juris, the question of the necessary conditions under which synthetic a priori concepts apply to experience.  Although this is a peculiarly Kantian way of formulating the notion of critical philosophy, I think it fits with others who generally agreed with Kant and proposed to develop or “fix” his system.  The skeptical philosopher always raises the question of quid facti, the question of whether the concepts apply to things at all, hence, for Maimon, there cannot be synthetic a priori knowledge of experience. I’ll leave this business of quid juris and quid facti at this since there’s a longer discussion of them in the Essay itself, but I like the way Bransen puts it:

“The first question [quid juris] asks for the reason why certain synthetic judgements a priori are true of certain objects; the latter [quid facti] one asks for the very fact that certain synthetic judgements a priori are true of certain objects.” [76]

Not surprisingly then, the main target of Maimon’s criticism is Kant’s transcendental deduction: the deduction is presupposing what Maimon (following Hume) calls into question – the fact that we have experience.  For Maimon, all we find are contingent conjunctions, not experience as the universal and necessary connection between distinct representations. So in this sense, his charge to Kant is that the latter has not in fact refuted Hume (and skepticism).  In his discussion of Maimon and Schulze, Atlas (Chapter II “The Thing-in-Itself”) designates Maimon’s type of skepticism “critical skepticism,” while Schulze’s approach is “dogmatic skepticism” [Atlas, 21] – I rather like these notions, so I think the idea of “critical skepticism” is an interesting one.  Maimon’s criticism of Kant, of course, is well know primarily due to the direct epistolary encounter between Kant and Maimon.


A bit more about Maimonian skepticism below, but a rather thorny issue first. When we read about Maimon and Kant, we usually read about Kant’s letter to Marcus Herz (May 26th, 1789) where he famously writes, referring to Maimon’s Essay, that “none of my opponents had understood me so well.” [11:48-55] It is of course an important letter and its inclusion in the Appendices of the English translation is understandable.  However, as many have also pointed out, Kant’s letter reveals his lack of understanding of the essence of Maimon’s criticism and, in addition to this often-cited glowing remark about Maimon, Kant also wrote another letter (March 28th, 1794), this time to Reinhold in which he did not hide his feelings about Maimon’s attempts to “improve” his critical philosophy. The letter can be found in 11:494-6 and it contains this sort of language (Kant, Philosophical Correspondence, 1759-1799, 211-12):

“For the past three years or so, age has effected my thinking – not that I have suffered any dramatic change in the mechanics of health, or even a great decline in my mental powers, as I strive to continue my reflections in accordance with my plan.  It is rather that I feel an inexplicable difficulty when I try to project myself onto other people’s ideas, so that I seem unable to grasp anyone else’s system and to form a mature judgment of it… This is the reason why I can turn out essays of my own, but, for example, as regards the ‘improvement’ of the critical philosophy by Maimon (Jews always like to do that sort of thing, to gain an air of importance for themselves at someone else’s expense), I have never really understood what he is after and must leave the reproof to others.”

Bransen [58] suggests that Kant’s early reaction in a letter to Herz might have been a simple gesture of politeness aimed to smooth over Kant’s irritation with Herz’s sending of Maimon’s manuscript (see Herz letter), a kind of Kantian “Look, kid, I’m too old for these things, yes, yes, I read a bit of Maimon’s text, looks interesting and he certainly seems to understand my project well, send him my greetings – grandpa out!”

A quick aside: Reinhold, of course, had a first hand knowledge of Maimon’s general attitude and his blunt presentation of his criticism. Beiser gives a vivid account of Reinhold vs. Maimon in his Fate of Reason, 317-320:

Maimon and Reinhold’s acrimonious correspondence ranges over a number of issues, but perhaps the most important concerns the justification of Reinhold’s first principle, the proposition of consciousness. In his opening letter Maimon bluntly tells Reinhold that this principle is vulnerable to skepticism.  It cannot answer the simple skeptical question ‘How do I know this?’ he claims.  Of course, this principle is supposed to describe ‘a fact of consciousness’.  “But,” Maimon asks Reinhold, “how do you know that it describes a fact?… And, indeed, how do you know that it describes a primary and immediate fact rather than a derived and mediate one?”

Reinhold’s response to these aggressive and difficult questions did not satisfy Maimon, who quickly insinuated that his correspondent was being deliberately evasive.  In his first reply Reinhold proudly states that his first principle could demonstrate the fundamental beliefs of morality and religion.  “But that is not the question,” Maimon impatiently answers.  “The issue is not whether this principle can demonstrate others, but whether it is true.”


In the end the debate reached a stalemate.  Reinhold assured Maimon that it was just a fact that the proposition of consciousness expresses a fact; and he pleaded that it would be self-defeating for him to justify this.  But Maimon dug in his heels and refused to accept Reinhold’s assurances, which he regarded as dogmatic.  After such an unproductive and intemperate exchange, it should not be surprising that the correspondence degenerated into mutual recrimination.  While Maimon accused Reinhold of evasiveness and highmindedness, Reinhold charged Maimon with willfully misunderstanding him.

Now those who claim that philosophical exchanges deteriorated significantly due to our use of faster means of communication (internet, email, blogs etc etc), with all sorts of unseemly trollish behavior being the product of the present, must surely lack in the knowledge of the history of philosophy which is full of these sorts of debates, with accusations eerily similar to the ones we exchange today.  If there was any difference, it seems, then it is that knowing that one’s vicious attack will take a week or more to reach one’s opponent, our philosophical forefathers packed a better punch when it came to epistolary abuse.


Although Maimon’s philosophical output contains both skeptical evaluation of Kantian transcendental philosophy and his own speculative contributions, there seems to be a consensus that only the former are still of some interest to us, while the latter are “of no more than historical interest” [Atlas, 13]. I don’t know if I quite made up my mind about it, as stated above, but I’d like to say a few things about skepticism here and then a bit about Maimon’s somewhat odd “speculative idealism” (as Atlas labels it).

Maimon’s skepticism is interesting because it is not negative and dismissive (and, yes, annoying) skepticism of “how do you know that?”, but rather a post-Kantian skepticism, or “critical skepticism” – Maimon’s estimation of Kant’s achievements does not preclude him from saying that Kant’s ultimate solution to the problem of skepticism is unsatisfactory.  If we follow Bransen, Maimon’s intention is to properly formulate the very problem and leave it at that, while his own solutions are to be taken as speculations that, following Kant, can never be considered knowledge.  Skepticism then is not about doubt as such, but about the description of human condition as limited: “a positive account of what it means to be cursed with a finite understanding.” [Bransen, 98]  So those who accuse Kant of claiming humility and not being, in fact, humble enough have a point, from Maimon’s perspective.

Sure, Maimon’s skepticism sometimes turns nasty (see above example of his exchange with Reinhold), but that is only out of understandable frustration and possible due to philosophy’s traditional dislike of skepticism as a parasitical stance.  Consider, for example, a possibility of the following exchange: someone claims that objects relate to other objects in some way X (and, say, writes a book about it). The issue here is not even of “how do you know that?” but of a very basic philosophical impossibility of positing objects without subject, whatever those objects end up doing. Maimon’s insistence on such seemingly elemental issues is what should attract us in his skepticism. Citing Atlas again:

“The importance of Maimon’s thought for a renaissance of critical idealism is, we believe, much greater than appears at first thought.  Elements of critical idealism are as old as the history of human thought.  In modern times it was Kant who formulated these doctrines.  However, because of certain ambiguities in Kant himself and difficulties arising from Kant’s formulation, critical idealism has suffered setbacks through the development of idealistic speculative metaphysics, on the one hand, and through empiricism and positivism as a reaction to this metaphysics, on the other.  A revival of the spirit of critical idealism is thus possible only through a return to Kant, that is to say, a return to the Kantian method.  And Maimon’s criticism of certain Kantian doctrines can lead to a distinction between the actual doctrines of Kant and the critical method.” [19]

I’m going to stop here for now. There’s more to say and rather than trying to jam it all into one post, I’ll keep it for later as we have more time to think through some of these issues.

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