Chapter Thirteen On Defining Maimonides Aristotelianism

Daniel H.Frank

In the history of medieval Jewish philosophy one usually sees Maimonides described as an Aristotelian, and Julius Guttmann speaks for the traditional historiography of Jewish philosophy when he writes, "In the middle of the twelfth century Aristotelianism displaced Neoplatonism as the dominating influence in Jewish philosophy of religion" (Guttmann 1973, 152). Of late, however, Alfred Ivry has suggested that "It is not the least of the paradoxes of the Guide that Maimonides' underlying philosophical base is one he was loath to acknowledge" (Ivry 1991, 138), and the "philosophical base" Ivry is referring to is Neoplatonism. We should straightaway note the rather rigid dichotomization presupposed by both positions—Aristotelianism vs. Neoplatonism. But such dichotomization is manifestly unhistorical, as both Guttmann and Ivry are aware. Much Neoplatonic doctrine went under Aristotle's name in the late antique attempt to harmonize Plato and Aristotle; further, as Porphyry tells us straight-forwardly in his Vita Plotini, his teacher's writings include both Stoic and Peripatetic doctrines and that in particular Aristotle's Metaphysics is to be found condensed (somehow) in them;1 and finally, we might note that the brilliant (and generally respectful) commentators on Aristotle of the early centuries of the common era were almost all Neoplatonists, developing their own positions within manifestly Aristotelian categories, even as they sometimes foisted their own views upon Aristotle. And within Islamic and Jewish philosophical circles, as Guttmann notes, "Islamic and Jewish Neoplatonism had absorbed many Aristotelian elements in addition to those already present in the original Neoplatonic system; conversely, Aristotelianism had undergone a Neoplatonic transformation in the hands of its Islamic adherents" (Guttmann 1973, 152). Indeed, it is no easy task to disentangle Aristotelian from Neoplatonic strands in Maimonides, or in other medieval thinkers. Too often we gloss as "unAristotelian," alternatively as "Neoplatonic," Maimonides' anti-materialist remarks in the Guide, but a close inspection of some of those passages, particularly ones dealing with prophecy, reveals that Maimonides is grounding his remarks with explicit reference to passages in Aristotle's Ethics denigrating the sense of touch.2

Quellenforschung is a tricky business, and I want to steer clear of it in this chapter.3 But there is another reason I wish to try to explicate Maimonides' Aristotelianism without engaging in the kind of archeology that is the hallmark of the genetic approach. The genetic approach, which attempts to explain and understand an author's views by reference to the views of previous thinkers, is to my mind philosophically pretty uninteresting as well as being reductionist and even determinist in its manifest intent. The explanatory model invoked is itself modelled on Aristotle's notion of efficient causality, with the positions of earlier thinkers explaining, seemingly without remainder, those of later ones. But efficient causes are not by themselves sufficient to explain anything, and Maimonides' views are not reducible to those of his predecessors.

In place of the genetic approach I offer a different explanatory model, a more dialogical, comparative one that tries to explicate and explain Maimonides' Aristotelianism by bringing Aristotle and Maimonides into direct contact with each other in the context of a specific philosophical issue. The specific issue and illustration of the method will occupy us in the final part of the chapter, but for the moment it should simply be noted that the goal of the endeavor, shared with the geneticist, is the elaboration of Maimonides' Aristotelianism. As I shall argue, Maimonides' Aristotelianism is best to be understood as a critical reworking of Aristotelian categories for purposes all his own, and this I believe is best revealed by a direct confrontation between the two philosophers.4 The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and the success of the general claim awaits confirmation by the edification produced by the confrontation. The method runs the risk of anachronism, but only if one willfully steps outside the bounds of the debate. More troubling is the risk of irrelevance, the worry that the confrontation itself is a demonstration of two thinkers talking past each other. I see no way of predicting in advance, in principle, that this will eventuate. Once again, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So, even if, as Ivry claims, Maimonides' Aristotelianism is (merely) his exoteric position and there are Plotinian aspects to his epistemology and metaphysics, just grant the first part of the claim and I can be on my way in trying to clarify the traditional epithet. That there are advantages, philosophical advantages, in retaining it is the burden of this chapter, something I hope shall become clear in due course. What, then, does it mean to describe Maimonides as an Aristotelian and in what manner is it a clarifying epithet? The answer to these questions must, however, be deferred until we have raised a few others.

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