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This paper considers the question of whether it is possible to say anything positive about God. The usual reason for answering yes is that God must be a person to be a perfect being. I investigate this claim by defining personhood in terms of knowledge and will. After looking at the theologies of Maimonides, Kant, and Cohen, I conclude that while we can say positive things about God, we must sacrifice a certain amount of conceptual rigor to do so.
The best place to begin is with what is uncontroversial. Except for the Politics, the entire Aristotelian corpus was available in Arabic in the ninth century and formed part of the intellectual heritage of Moses ben Maimon (1138–1204), known to English-speaking audiences as Maimonides. In a letter written in Arabic to Samuel ibn Tibbon, his Hebrew translator, Maimonides claims that with the exception of those gifted with prophetic inspiration, Aristotle's intellectual achievement represents the extreme of the human intellect. This sentiment is repeated in the Guide of the Perplexed (henceforth: Guide), when he refers to Aristotle, albeit obliquely, as “chief of the philosophers” (1.5.29).
But when it comes to the Nicomachean Ethics in particular, Maimonides’ familiarity with Aristotle is open to question. It is now generally agreed that the inspiration for “Eight Chapters,” a section taken from his Commentary on the Mishnah and often published as a free-standing essay, is not Aristotle but Alfarabi's Aphorisms of the Statesman. Although there are several references to the N.E. in the Guide, two are incorrect and three deal with Aristotle on the sense of touch.
"Eight Chapters" is an introduction to Maimonides' commentary on the Mishnaic treatise Pirke Avot. His response is to begin "Eight Chapters" by citing a rabbinic dictum according to which a person who wants to become pious should follow the advice set forth in Pirke Avot. Maimonides introduces the concept of the pious person (Hasid), saying that this person deviates from the mean. One of the distinguishing features of generally recognized opinions is that a couple of exceptions still leave a rule intact. Maimonides did not consider practical wisdom to be worthy of the name wisdom. As far as Maimonides is concerned, only truth fulfills the soul's quest for perfection. For Maimonides intellectualism and asceticism go hand in hand. Though Maimonides enlists Aristotle's support in denigrating the sense of touch, one would be hard pressed to find asceticism in Aristotle's writings.
It is customary to examine religion from the standpoint of two categories: reason and revelation. The first finds its natural expression in philosophy, the second in scripture. The question of how, or if, they are related is as old as Judaism itself. Although the Torah portrays Abraham and Moses as loyal servants of God, it also portrays them as people with minds of their own willing to question God on the basis of firmly held convictions. There are commandments whose rationale is obscure, but there is also the claim (Deut. 4:6–7) that the commandments constitute a body of learning whose wisdom will be apparent to the people of every nation.
The question is how to think about reason in a religious context. Is it a gift of God that will lead one to God if used properly? Is it a critical faculty neutral with respect to God and religion? Or is it so tied up with skepticism that it is bound to prevent access to God? These questions invariably lead to others. What are the inherent powers or limitations of reason, and how do they affect its relation to revelation? It is hardly surprising that neither Judaism nor the Western philosophic tradition has a single answer. On the contrary, the history of Jewish philosophy can be seen as an ongoing attempt to wrestle with these issues.
Belief in the coming of a Messiah poses a genuine dilemma. From a Jewish perspective, the historical record is overwhelmingly against it. If, despite all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, no legitimate Messiah has come forward, has the belief not been shown to be groundless? Yet for all the problems associated with messianism, the historical record also shows it is an idea with enormous staying power. The prayer book mentions it on page after page. The great Jewish philosophers all wrote about it. Secular thinkers in the twentieth century returned to it and reformulated it. And victims of the Holocaust invoked it in the last few minutes of their life. This book examines the staying power of messianism and formulates it in a way that retains its redemptive force without succumbing to mythology.