Dani Rabinowitz on Josef Stern’s The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide
Moses Maimonides (1135 – 1204), born in Córdoba during the twilight years of Spanish Jewry’s golden era, was a medieval polymath who, already an exceptional scholar at a young age, became the de facto leader of Sephardi Jewry and the personal physician to the sultan of Egypt. Despite a life punctuated by personal tragedy and the overwhelming demands of public office, he remained astonishingly prolific throughout. Today his legal works loom large in the rabbinic academies and his philosophical masterpiece, Guide of the Perplexed, remains a staple of Jewish philosophy syllabi in the university. His erudite touch has left an indelible mark on the course of Jewish history.
For reasons that remain contentious, Maimonides intentionally penned the Guide in a manner that opens the work to various, and often conflicting, interpretations. This ambiguity makes it a beguiling work and Maimonides the target of both undeserved derision and admiration. In the long history of such interpretive debates, the contemporary argument over Maimonides’ epistemic commitments in the Guide deserves special mention. Whereas many scholarly debates in the past have been restricted to largely localized problems (e.g. the character of his view on free will or the problem of evil), the current debate concerns epistemic matters that threaten to call for a major revision of Maimonides’ views on a whole gamut of issues. From a scholarly perspective such a debate is thrilling. But given Maimonides’ long shadow, such a debate is extremely divisive in that it throws into question the character of the historical Maimonides, the hues of one’s favored picture thereof differing so radically depending on one’s particular interpretive commitments.
At the center of this debate lies the question of Maimonides’ view on the limits of scientific knowledge. In the Arabic Aristotelian tradition that Maimonides inherited, human happiness, perfection, and immortality were bound up in the attainment of an ideal epistemic state. The kind of knowledge one possessed in this state was termed scientific knowledge (epistēmē in Greek, scientia in Latin). To scientifically know a true proposition p, it must be the case that p be necessarily true, universal, and inferred by way of demonstration from premises that are themselves necessarily true and known in a prior, immediate, and better way than the conclusion and which serve to explain the conclusion. In sum, such a demonstration not only proves that the conclusion is true, it also explains why the conclusion must be true. In Stern’s hands, scientific knowledge is more akin to a state of understanding in the sense that scientifically knowing a truth involves understanding why that truth obtains. When grand theological motifs rest on fine epistemic distinctions in the manner described, any skeptical threat to the attainment of such scientific knowledge is ipso facto a threat to theology.
The origins of the current debate over the extent of Maimonides’ skepticism lie in a 1979 essay penned by Shlomo Pines, an influential historian and the author of the standard English translation of the Guide. According to Pines, Maimonides followed those in the Arabic philosophical tradition who maintained that the human cognition of forms (or essences) is limited to those forms that the human mind can abstract from perceptual images of material objects. By definition, therefore, the human mind cannot cognize the forms of immaterial entities such as God. Our scientific knowledge is therefore limited to those matters related to our experience of our material surroundings. Metaphysical and cosmological theses lie beyond the pale.
The Maimonides who emerges from within the skeptical reading is thus an iconoclastic firebrand who challenges motifs central to Jewish theology. Stern’s The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide is by far the most extensive, rigorous, and sophisticated expression of the skeptical interpretation to date. Stern’s impressive reading of Maimonides pushes the envelope further and deeper than Pines or any of those in the skeptical camp. However, there is unfortunately hardly any discussion of the reception of the Guide in the medieval period. In the context of a presentation of an interpretation of the Guide, the reaction to the Guide from the scholars of the time, which was violent in places, is no mere triviality; for it would provide evidence either for or against the skeptical interpretation. In favor of the skeptical interpretation: if the scholars of the time (who assumedly subscribed to a similar Aristotelian epistemology with religious overtones) received the Guide as largely a work in religious epistemology; and against: if the scholars of the time read the Guide in an entirely different fashion. It would be difficult, though not impossible, to argue that the skeptical content of the Guide managed to go unnoticed by Maimonides’ audience until the advent of Pines’s essay. Apart from a short discussion on the decision by Maimonides’ translator to change the wording of a key phrase, the reader is not given any reason to assume that a work promoting a form of skepticism was the kind of thing a scholar like Maimonides would have done or would even have been interested in doing during that historical period.
The central pillars of Stern’s reading are two novel arguments the first of which interrogates the notion of scientific knowledge, whereas linguistic considerations drive the second. Regarding the first, Stern argues that according to Maimonides no proposition about God, metaphysics, or cosmology can be known scientifically. Motivating this bold claim is the thought that no premises or demonstration can be found that satisfy the rigorous requirements for scientific knowledge of these matters. No demonstration, for example, explains why God exists. Our inability to obtain such scientific knowledge resides in our being composed of matter:
For it is impossible for us to accede to the points [premises] starting from which conclusions may be drawn about the heavens; for the latter are too far away from us and too high in place and rank. And even the general conclusion that may be drawn from them, namely, that they prove the existence of their Mover, is a matter the knowledge of which cannot be reached by human intellects (Guide 2.24.327).
That our minds are connected to bodies made of physical matter shields us from possessing the kinds of premises that could lead to scientific knowledge in such domains. Thus, despite Maimonides being a proponent of a certain kind of cosmological argument for the existence of God, it nevertheless remains impossible for human beings to know scientifically that God exists via such a proof since the proof does not satisfy the conditions for a demonstration leading to scientific knowledge. Our epistemic terminus in these cases is a point inferior to scientific knowledge, the religiously laden epistemic ideal in Maimonides’s philosophical milieu.
The problems for human scientific knowledge about God deepen significantly with the second skeptical argument. Maimonides recognizes an imaginative faculty that stores mental representations of sensory impressions. Now the objects of perception are (typically) composite material entities that have, in the Greek philosophical tradition, a form (or essence) and properties attributable to said essence. By mentally representing material objects in this manner, we are drawn into a composite mode of representation that distinguishes essences from attributes. Maimonides, however, was deeply wedded to the idea of divine simplicity, the thesis that God is incomposite and indivisible. Therefore, insofar as God is concerned, this kind of composite mental representation would have been an anathema to Maimonides. By failing to hold in our minds an accurate incomposite representation of God, we ipso facto fail to know anything about God. Lured into a mode of thought by the imagination which distorts our mental representations, we are consequently denied whole swaths of knowledge: “Matter is a strong veil preventing the apprehension of that which is separate from matter as it truly is … Hence whenever our intellect aspires to apprehend the deity … there subsists this great veil interposed between the two” (3.9.436-7).
With these skeptical results in place, Maimonides must account for the many scriptural verses that depict God in a metaphysically composite manner by using divine attributes and anthropomorphic language with a subject-predicate linguistic structure: e.g., verses in which God is described as having body parts and emotions. Maimonides begins by drawing our attention to the non-literal nature of such biblical language and then proceeds to defend a rather elaborate account of negative theology where negative predication is preferable to positive predication though by no means accurate; that is, while it might be preferable to deny of God a deficiency, such negations are themselves false. Given that knowledge requires truth, the inability of any attributions to hit the truth about God entails that there can be no knowledge about God. The details of this account are complicated and beyond the scope of this review, but Stern, drawing on his expertise in the philosophy of language, provides the reader with the best treatment of Maimonides’ negative theology to date.
Where, then, do Maimonides’ skeptical arguments leave us? Unlike Pines, who thought Maimonides’ skepticism led him to abandoning the unattainable epistemic ideal in favor of human happiness in the practical and political domains, Stern argues, and quite convincingly, that Maimonides “never surrenders the ideal of intellectual perfection; instead it functions as a regulative ideal that orients activities and practices, rather than as a final state that is achieved and realized through those activities and practices.” Maimonides does not overstate his skeptical conclusions. He urges us to maintain our metaphysical and theistic beliefs, for many of them are based on excellent proofs, albeit proofs that do not satisfy those required for scientific knowledge. Ultimately we are encouraged to resign our pursuit of scientific knowledge to the domain of the natural sciences, which intimate divine providence, and to exercise restraint and caution in the manner in which we think and speak of God. Additionally, we are encouraged to view the commandments in the Pentateuch as spiritual exercises that train us to give prominence to our intellect over our bodily desires and passions. Acting in this way, we will be imitating God whose actions have neither emotional nor physical impetus. The person who acts in accordance with the regulative epistemic ideal will be drawn into a sense of shame every time they are forced to attend to their physical desires and appetites. By experiencing this sense of shame the individual reinforces their commitment to the intellectual ideal.
Ultimately we are encouraged to resign our pursuit of scientific knowledge to the domain of the natural sciences, which intimate divine providence, and to exercise restraint and caution in the manner in which we think and speak of God.
This completes Stern’s presentation of the Maimonidean picture that lies beneath the twists and turns of the Guide’s terse prose and awkward structure. Stern is clear about his aims from the outset — to provide a unified reading of the Guide. In this respect his work is a complete and resounding success. A significant and impressive amount of historical and philosophical work has gone into drawing together the various threads of this challenging work and into navigating the difficult interpretive hurdles Maimonides laid down. For these reasons, and many more besides, I have no doubt that this monograph will become a modern classic and will generate a substantial secondary literature.
That said, Stern leaves the work on somewhat of a cliffhanger, for he does not proceed to reflect on the philosophical integrity of the skeptical interpretation; that is, once the skeptical interpretation is in place we are not given any reasons to think that the arguments on which it rests are philosophically sound. While Stern does provide snippets of such philosophical assessment along the way, the philosophically-minded reader is left somewhat unsatisfied at the absence of a sustained interrogation of the skeptical interpretation. The thought that coherence is no guide to truth drives home the necessity of an accompanying philosophical exercise — the skeptical reading may be coherent, but is it correct, accurate, or true? In Stern’s defense, the work is already long and the addition of such a philosophical treatment would have made it onerous. Perhaps Stern has a second volume in mind. Even so, this is a rare piece of stellar scholarship. The Matter and Form of the Guide is a must read for anyone interested in Maimonides.
Also Recommended from MRB:
- To Speak Truly About God – By Rowan Williams
- Enlightened Religion? Idealism as the History and Destiny of Modern Theology – By Samuel Loncar
- Necessary by Nature? Possibility and the Mind of God – By Robert Merrihew Adams