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Meaning and Reference in Maimonides' Negative Theology

  • Ehud Z. Benor (a1)


The theory of religious language advocated by the twelfth-century philosopher-jurist Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) contains an apparent paradox. Maimonides’ radical stance regarding the absolute unknowability of God leads him to an austere theology of negation, which appears to be incongruous with his representation of God as a moral agent or intellect. Through analysis of the functions of meaning and reference in Maimonides’ theory of language, as well as his explicit or implicit distinctions between literal, metaphoric, and symbolic uses of language in theological discourse, I argue that the purpose of the Maimonidean theology of negation is to establish the reference of the name “God,” thereby making possible a rationally disciplined constructivist theology. This article shows how Maimonides sought to include a certain type of religious anthropomorphism in a theology that upholds the wholly other nature of God.



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1 The phrase “wholly other” is borrowed from Rudolf Otto's description of the mysterious object of the numinous experience in The Idea of the Holy (trans. Harvey, John W.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926).

2 See AlFarabi (Abu Na⋅r al-Fārābi; ca. 870-950), Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City 1.12; 2.5; translated in Al-Fārābi on the Perfect State (trans. Walzer, Richard; Oxford: Clarendon, 1985) 83, 99. In his introduction to the translation Walzer explains that “Al-Fārābi does not share the uncompromising negative theology of the main trend of neo-Platonic teaching, that is, he does not describe God exclusively by what He is not” (p. 12). AlFārābi maintains ( Commentary on Aristotle's “De Interpretatione” [trans. Zimmermann, F. W.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981] 120 ) that “One should, therefore, not say that God most high can be described negatively, but that he can be described by indefinite nouns. In many cases, their precise function is to signify a positive quality which is affirmed in such a way as to distinguish its subject totally from the things of which the corresponding definite noun is true, in which case they do not signify a privation.” Although the relation between negation and positive attribution in the theology of Avicenna (Ibn-Sina; 979-1037) defies simple characterization, the mystical orientation of Avicennean negative theology suggests interpreting positive attributes as divine paradigms of absolute perfections. For discussion, see Netton, Ian Richard, Allah Transcendent (London: Routledge, 1989) 153–62. Thomas Aquinas argues against the negative interpretation of attributes of perfection like goodness and wisdom and claims that they must be predicated analogically of God and of other beings: “the names said of God and creatures are predicated neither univocally nor equivocally but analogically, that is, according to an order or reference to something one” (Summa Contra Gentiles 1.34; ET On the Truth of the Catholic Faith [trans. Pegis, Anton C.; New York: Doubleday, 1955] 147 ).

3 See Maimonides, MosesMilot ha-Higayon (Treatise on Logic) (ed. and trans. Efros, Israel) PAAJR 8 [1938] 59.

4 Maimonides, MosesThe Guide of the Perplexed 1.56 (trans. Pines, Shlomo; 2 vols.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963). For a recent discussion, see Hyman, Arthur, “Maimonides on Religious Language,” in Kraemer, Joel L., ed., Perspectives on Maimonides (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) 175–91.

5 Maimonides Guide 1.20; ET 47.

6 Ibid., 3.51; ET 620.

7 Ibid., 1.59; ET 139.

8 Maimonides’ clarification that “the meaning here is not that He possesses moral qualities, but that He performs actions that in us proceed from moral qualities” (Guide, 1.54; ET 124) does not change the fact that God is described both with attributes of action and of character that are ultimately reducible to attributes of action. Attributes of character, not action, invoke the idea of God as a moral person.

9 See, for example, Ibid., 1.1, 68; ET 22-23, 163.

10 See, for example, Ibid., 1.50; ET 112: “But men ought rather to belong to the category of those who represent the truth [God] to themselves and apprehend it, even if they do not utter it, as the virtuous are commanded to do.” See also 1.59; ET 140: “Accordingly, silence and limiting oneself to the apprehensions of the intellects are more appropriate,” and 2.5; ET 260 (quoted below).

11 I follow here Joseph A. Buijs's instructive distinction between three theses of negative theology (“The Negative Theology of Maimonides and Aquinas,” Review of Metaphysics [1988] 723-38): a metaphysical thesis about the nature of God, an epistemological thesis about what knowledge of God is possible, and a semantic thesis concerning the language we should use to speak about God.

12 Guttmann, Julius, Philosophy of Judaism (trans. Silverman, David W.; Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1988) 165.

13 It is instructive to note how much closer Guttmann's view is to Thomas's than to Maimonides'. Thomas comments on Exod 33:18, “I will make all my goodness pass before thee,” that “the Lord gave Moses to understand that the fullness of all goodness was in Him” (Summa Contra Gentiles 1.28.9; ET 137), while Maimonides explains that the verse refers to “the display to him of all existing things” (Guide 1.54; ET 124).

14 Maimonides Guide 1.59.

15 For systematic discussion of the medieval debate, see Burrell, David B., Knowing the Unknowable God (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986) esp. chaps. 2-4. See also , Hyman, “Maimonides on Religious Language” and Seymour Feldman, “A Scholastic Misinterpretation of Maimonides’ Doctrine of Divine Attributes,” JJS 19 (1968) 2339 (reprinted in Joseph A. Buijs, ed., Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988] 267-83).

16 Maimonides Guide, 2.1; ET 247-49.

17 Ibid., 1.57; ET 132-33; 2.1; ET 243-52.

18 Ibid., 1.58; ET 135.

19 Julius Guttmann and Alexander Altmann may be cited in support of a Plotinean interpretation of Maimonides’ way of negation. , Guttmann (Philosophy of Judaism, 164) stressed the Neoplatonic context of Maimonides’ theory of divine attributes and argued that theological negation is metaphysically oriented and involves much more than mere logical considerations. Guttmann (“Maimonides’ Doctrine of God” in idem, Religion and Knowledge [Jerusalem: Magnes, 1955] 107-11 [Hebrew]) held that Maimonidean theological negation is intended to indicate the presence in God's hidden essence of something parallel to that which is known to us. Alexander Altmann (“Maimonides on the Intellect and the Scope of Metaphysics,” in idem, Von der mittelalterlichen zur modernen Aufkldrung: Studien zur judischen Geistesgeschichte [Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1987] 121-22) developed this interpretation further when he drew attention to the similarity between Maimonides’ advocacy of silence and that of Plotinus. Manekin, Charles H. (“Belief, Certainty and Divine Attributes in the Guide,” Maimonidean Studies 1 [1990] 117–42) suggests a nonmystical interpretation of this option claiming that Maimonides’ doctrine of attributes suggests the possibility of possessing certain beliefs about God through the indirect device of “approaching an apprehension” by under-standing what possible perfections there are and gaining demonstrative knowledge that they cannot apply to God.

20 This is Isaac Franck's interpretation of negative theology ( Maimonides and Aquinas on Man's Knowledge of God: A Twentieth Century Perspective,” Review of Metaphysics 38 [1985] 591615).

21 Neoplatonic ideas found their way into Arabic philosophy through the apocryphal Theologia Aristotelis, which summarizes books four through six of Plotinus’ Enneads, and Liber de Causis, a synopsis of Proclus's Elements of Theology, which was also attributed to Aristotle. For discussion of these books and their influence see Fakhry, Majid, History of Islamic Philosophy (2d ed., New York: Columbia University Press, 1983) 1931 . See also Ivry, Alfred L., “Neoplatonic Currents in Maimonides’ Thought,” in , Kraemer, Perspectives on Maimonides, 115–40.

22 Maimonides Guide 1. Introduction; ET 7.

23 Maimonides Guide 2.5; ET 260.

24 This is not to say that he did not recommend detachment from the affairs of the world.

25 See Shlomo Pines's comparison between Neoplatonic and Maimonidean applications of negative theology (“The Philosophic Sources,” xcvi).

26 Maimonides Guide 3.51; ET 620.

27 Regarding the attributes, see Exod 34:6-7. It is important to realize that the moral idea of God cannot result from metaphysical illumination but must be interpreted as a construct that imposes a moral interpretation on nature. I believe this is the only way to account for the ethical turn in Maimonides’ presentation of the life of intellectual perfection. This account overcomes Shlomo Pines's argument (“Philosophic Sources,” cxxii, and idem, “Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Maimonides, and Kant,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 20 [1968] 2728 ) that many of God's actions, including earthquakes and floods, and the qualities they may represent, do not conform to any recognizable conception of morality. A constructivist account also avoids Altmann's resort to an un-Aristotelian notion of virtue to explain the Maimonidean shift from a theoretical to an ethical conception of human excellence (Alexander Altmann, “Maimonides's Four Perfections,” in idem. Essays in Jewish Intellectual History [Hanover: University Press of New England, 1981] 65-76). I discuss the issue at some length in my Worship of the Heart: A Study in Maimonides’ Philosophy of Religion (New York: SUNY , forthcoming). The argument that the “overflow of perfection” that compels prophets to prophesy and philosophers to teach, moves the solitary Maimonidean contemplative to an ethical imitatio dei, does not explain how such an ideal is cognitively possible. For analysis of the final section of the Guide in which the ethical shift takes place, see Lerner, Ralph, “Maimonides’ Governance of the Solitary” in , Kraemer, Perspectives on Maimonides, 3346.

28 This proposal suggests that Maimonides’ religious interests led him toward a theory that modern philosophy of language recognizes as an anti-Fregean view of the relation between meaning and reference. Gottlob Frege (1848–1925), who initiated the modern distinction between the meaning of a term (what human minds grasp when we understand it) and the relation of that term to the object it designates (its reference), held that the meaning of a term determines its reference ( “On Sense and Reference,” in Geach, Peter and Black, Max, eds., Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege [Oxford: Blackwell, 1952] 5678 ). This is also a standard view of language in medieval Arabic philosophy, a view that Maimonides generally takes for granted. A dissenting medieval view, which dissociates reference from meaning, may be found in Ghazali's argument that particular objects can be identified only by ostension (including such indexical words as “this” and “that”), with no appeal to meanings apprehended by the intellect. Ghazali's argument is quoted by Averroes in Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence) (trans. Bergh, Simon van den; 2 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press and London: Luzac, 1954) 1. 275–77. In claiming that the name “God” can refer to God without a mediating concept, I believe Maimonides moved toward a position similar to the anti-Fregean views of Hilary Putnam and Saul Kripke, who hold that reference can be determined independently of meaning. See Putnam, Hilary, “Meaning and Reference,” Journal of Philosophy 70 (1973) 699711 and Kripke, Saul A., Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980). Only by moving away from a representation theory of reference could Maimonides present the articulated name (YHWH) as indicative of God's essence (Maimonides Guide 1.61; ET 148). My comments here are a partial response to Arthur Hyman's observation (“Maimonides on Religious Language,” 190) that “Maimonides’ theory of how proper names signify remains to be worked out.”

29 The distinction can be traced back to Aristotle's De Interpretation 16a.3-9.

30 Maimonides Guide 1.50.

31 Ibid., 2.1; ET 247-48.

32 Ibid., 2.1; ET 248.

33 For analysis of Maimonides’ statement on belief, see Manekin, Charles H., “Belief, Certainty, and Divine Attributes in the Guide of the PerplexedMaimonidean Studies 1 (1990) 117–41. I believe that Manekin's conclusions regarding “aboutness” are too conservative.

34 See Maimonides Guide 2.1; ET 247-49 on “the third philosophic speculation.” For analysis of Maimonides’ arguments for the existence of God, see Craig, William Lane, The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz (London: Macmillan, 1980) 131–57.

35 Maimonides Guide 1.6; ET 143-44 (my emphases). It is interesting to compare Maimonides’ struggles with representation through negation to Thomas Aquinas’ categorical statement that “through negations, when we have a proper knowledge of a thing, we know that it is distinct from other things, yet what it is remains unknown” (see Summa Contra Gentiles 3.49.1; ET 127).

36 Maimonides Guide 1.59; ET 139 (my emphasis).

37 This suggestion requires careful examination. It is not a claim that the word “God” has no linguistic interpretation or that the word cannot be given a dictionary definition. Rather, the claim is that however the word is defined, it is not accompanied by a corresponding idea in the mind. Maimonides’ understanding of the term “necessary existent” is entirely negative. The question of whether any specifiable thought can correspond to a negation of all that God is not is interesting. I believe the only Maimonidean candidate for such a thought is Moses, to whom Maimonides attributes the total grasp of the structure of the universe and the relation of its parts. This type of scientia intuitiva can perhaps be a corresponding mental counterpart of “all that God is not,” and as such may be available for denial in thought. To Maimonides’ idealized Moses, then, “what God is not” has the required meaning. My reading of Maimonides’ discussion of representation through negation is diametrically opposed to Hy man's conclusion (“Maimonides on Religious Language,” 189) that “from all this it follows that we can say something significant about God's essential attributes without assigning to them affirmative signification.”

38 Maimonides devoted a major part of his introduction to the first part of the Guide to a method of allegorical interpretation of scripture and prophecy (Guide 1. Introduction; ET 8-14). For further references to Maimonides’ defense of allegory and its application to interpretation of rabbinic literature, see Twersky, Isadore, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980) 366 n. 31. For a history of the allegorical method from Philo to the church fathers, see Wolfson, Harry Austryn, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970) 2472.

39 Maimonides recognizes this necessity in his discussion of the language of prayer (Guide 1.59; ET 140–41), where he quotes a Talmudic story about Rabbi Hanina's criticism of a person who opened his prayer with an invocation much longer than the terse traditional formula, “God the great, the valiant, the terrible” (b. Ber. 33b). Even though the traditional epithets are logically permissible attributes of action, Maimonides argues that their use in prayer would not have been permitted were it not for the need to form some notion of God in a worshiper's mind. Thus Maimonides writes: “Consider also that he has stated clearly that if we were left only to our intellects we should never have mentioned these attributes or stated anything appertaining to them. Yet the necessity to address men in such terms as would make them achieve some representation–in accordance with the dictum of the Sages: The Torah speaks in the language of human beings–obliged resort to predicating of God their own perfections when speaking to them.” Since prayer is not directed to human beings but to God, use of these attributes in the invocation is permitted only because it is ritually required. Rabbinic discussion of these predicates shows that they are meant to designate attributes of action (see b. Yoma 69b: “Why were they called Great Assembly?”).

40 Maimonides Guide 3.51; ET 620 (quoted above); see also Guide 1.50.

41 I discuss Maimonides’ view of the cognitive role of the imagination in “Models for Understanding Evil in the Guide for the Perplexed,” Iyyun 34 (1985) [Hebrew].

42 This Socratic attitude toward true wisdom as overcoming the illusion of knowledge is interesting when compared to the nonphilosophical view of R. Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi, 1040–1105). In his commentary to page 49b of b. Yebamol, Rashi writes: “all the prophets looked through an unclear glass imagining they were seeing but were not and Moses looked indebted to Yeshayahu Leibovitz for this reference.

43 Speculating on the nature of divine thought, Aristotle concluded that “it must be itself that thought thinks (since it is the most excellent of things), and its thinking is a thinking on thinking” ( The Complete Works of Aristotle [trans. Ross, W. D.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984] 1074b15-35 ). Maimonides seems to suggest this view when he argues for the identity of life and knowledge in God, saying that “everyone who apprehends his own essence possesses both life and knowledge by virtue of the same thing” (Guide 1.55; ET 122). He distinguishes there between his allusion to divine self-knowledge and the focus on God's knowledge of the world by theologians who believe in positive attributes. While Maimonides ascribes self-knowledge to God, he is unwilling to limit God's knowledge to a self-knowledge that is not also omniscient. He deviates from the Aristotelian model and presents divine thought as knowing the world (1.68) and later defends the doctrine of divine omniscience against philosophical criticism (3.19–21).

44 Maimonides Guide 3.20.

45 Maimonides’ explanation for why angels are described as flying with wings is an instructive application of his theory. He claims that “through the admixture with their shape of something belonging to the shape of irrational animals … the mind is guided toward a knowl-edge of the fact that the rank of the existence of the angels is below the rank of the deity” (Guide 1.49; ET 109). He says that the motion of flying was chosen to point to the fact that the angels are living beings because flying “is the most perfect and the noblest of the motions of the irrational animals, and man believes it to be a great perfection; so that he wishes to fly in order that it might be easy for him to flee from all that harms him and that he might betake himself swiftly to whatever agrees with him.”

46 Maimonides Guide 1.68.

47 For discussion, see Shlomo Pines, “The Philosophic Sources,” xcvii-xcviii; and idem, “The Limitations of Human Knowledge according to Al-Fārābi, Ibn Bajja, and Maimonides,” in Buijs, Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays. See also Altmann, “Maimonides on the Intellect and the Scope of Metaphysics.”

48 Maimonides Guide 3.20.

50 Ibid., 3.52; ET 629.

51 Ibid., 3.52; ET 629.

52 For a discussion of a possible parallel to mystical christology, see Gruenwald, Ithamar, “Maimonides’ Quest beyond Philosophy and Prophecy,” in , Kraemer, Perspectives on Maimonides, 145.

53 Maimonides Guide 1.1; ET 22.

54 Ibid., 1.1; ET23.

55 Maimonides was able to use the intellect as a symbol for God due to the particularly strong view he held of the unity of the intellect. Unlike other Aristotelian thinkers, most notably AlFārābi, he refused to distinguish between a theoretical and a practical intellect. For discussion of the relevant sources and references to secondary works, see Kreisel, Howard, “The Practical Intellect in the Philosophy of Maimonides,” HUCA 59 (1988) 189215.

56 Maimonides Guide 1.53; ET 120-21.

57 Twersky, Isadore has shown (“On Law and Ethics in the Mishne Torah: A Case Study of Hilkhot Megillah 11:17,” Tradition 24 [1989] 143 ) that Maimonides made “a major and most far-reaching innovation” in determining that the scriptural phrase “You shall walk in His ways” (Deut 28:9) should be considered a distinct commandment and not only a general call to obey God's laws. Maimonides’ son, Abraham, justified this decision by explaining that the phrase should be understood as a command to mold, nurture, and sustain an ethical personality. He explained that this is a completely autonomous mitzvah.

58 The theological status of attributes of action is itself problematic. Feldman succinctly explains this (“A Scholastic Misinterpretation of Maimonides’ Doctrine of Divine Attributes,” 271), noting that “the actions of God are coextensive with the course of nature, which men describe in anthropomorphic terms,” that “all expressions, even of God's actions, are absolutely equivocal,” and that “this level of religious language is inferior to negative attributes, which Maimonides maintains are the only true attributes of God.”

59 Maimonides Guide 1. 53; ET 123.

60 Ibid., 1. 53; ET 124.

61 I defend this claim systematically in chapter one of my Worship of the Heart.

62 This is the main thrust of Maimonides’ argument in the first part of Guide 3.51. Describing the “regimen of the solitary,” of those who “attained perfection in the divine science [metaphysics],” Maimonides says that they “direct all the acts of their intellect toward exami-nation of the beings… so as to know His governance of them in whatever way it is possible.” Several sentences later, Maimonides sets forth the necessary conditions for avoiding that which “has merely been invented by the imagination” (3.51; ET 620).

63 Explaining Moses’ requests to know God, as described in Exod 33:12–23, Maimonides writes: “This was [Moses'] ultimate object in his demand, the conclusion of what he says being: ‘That I may know Thee, to the end that I may find grace in Thy sight and consider that this nation is Thy people'–that is, a people for the government of which I need to perform actions that I must seek to make similar to Thy actions in governing them” (Guide 1.54; ET 125).

64 Another purpose of Maimonidean theological construction, which I cannot discuss here, is to protect the unknowing human mind from dangerous speculative errors. This, for example, is the purpose of his discussion of God's knowledge in part three of the Guide.

65 In chapter one of Maimonides’ “Laws Concerning Character Traits"–the part of his code of Jewish law devoted solely to ethical instruction–he applies the logical order just described. First, he presents the Aristotelian doctrine of the mean (without revealing its philosophical origins). Later, imitating the language of scripture, Maimonides says that “we are commanded to walk in these middle ways, which are good and right ways.” Then he states that the prophets and sages applied terms to God that denote median virtues. This allows Maimonides to conclude: “Since these are names by which the Maker is called, and they are the middle way that we are obliged to walk, this way is called the way of God.” Theology does not precede ethics but follows it. For the full text, see Weiss, Raymond L. and Butterworth, Charles E., eds., Ethical Writings of Maimonides (New York: Dover, 1983) 2830. My translation is significantly different in some places.

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Meaning and Reference in Maimonides' Negative Theology

  • Ehud Z. Benor (a1)


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