Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Solomon Maimon, then & finally

Over on Perverse Egalitarianism, both Shahar Ozeri and Mikhail Emelianov have posted their introductory thoughts on “Why Maimon?”, i.e., why study this particular thinker? Jon Cogburn has also given a good bibliographic overview of what scholarship is available in English, and Mikhail put on an addendum to this. My thanks to Mikhail for the invitation to respond. What follows are more or less a random host of associations that arose for me as I have started to read Maimon’s Essay on Transcendental Philosophy and some secondary literature, plus what I recall from the Autobiography. (A good online place to start are the two articles on Maimon here and here.) I’ll point out a few places where Maimon strikes me as pertinent to some contemporary discussions, offer a couple of impressionistic guesses about Maimon’s sources, and make a stab at how to understand Maimon’s own positions.

I am especially interested in Mikhail’s posing of the question of the relation of Maimon’s “critical skepticism”—surely a semi-paradoxical stance—and in Shahar’s unpacking of the Jewish/German context for Maimon, which I agree is essential for grasping him. He’s a thinker who removed himself from the Talmud and the Qabbala, but who never quite got the Talmud and the Qabbala out of himself. From his Autobiography one gets the feeling that he was always viewed a little askance, by Jews (who saw him as too assimilated, rationalistic and scientific), and by the Berlin philosophical community who saw him as too connected to Judaism despite all his declarations of reason.

One might answer the question, why read Maimon, in two ways at least. The first is historical. Maimon is usually called a link between the critical philosophy of Kant and the later speculation of Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling. This is certainly relevant to us now. Since it first appeared, Kant’s thinking has been the object of controversy, and today is unexceptional in that regard. In the wake of the idiosyncratic but increasingly influential reading of Kant provided by Meillassoux—a reading which I do think needs to be engaged, and which seems to have made an apparently permanent contribution to philosophical vocabulary with the term “correlationism” (and perhaps “Kant’s Ptolemaic counter-revolution”)—we would do well, perhaps, to go back to Kant’s earliest readers, when the debate was still fresh and not fraught with ressentiment against 200+ years of perceived Kantian ascendency.

To be sure, it could be objected, among these same contemporaries were the worst readers of Kant, who did not understand the tremendous upheaval that was taking place in their midst, and who tried to read Kant in terms of an outmoded set of concerns and concepts. Graham Harman has made just such an observation:
…the early reviews of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason…are shocking in their ability to miss the point. Reading these reviews we discover numerous reasonable criticisms of Kant that persist to this day, and even a number of discerning compliments. Yet none of the first reviewers is able to recognize the revolutionary kernel in Kant’s now idolized book. There is plenty of “critical thinking” at work in these reviews; the authors are not fools. Their chief deficiency is subtler than this—they simply overlook the surprising treasure that lies before them, and enlist Kant’s book into the existing leaden-paced trench warfare between well-known opponents that dominated their era as it does every era. Put differently: the reviews had too little capacity for surprise. (Guerrilla Metaphysics 239)
This account has a degree of justification. Many objections—and many appreciations—regarding Kant did overlook his deepest and most far-reaching moves. From our own vantage point, the philosophical scene upon which Kant arrived looks to have been divided between the rationalism of Wolff and the pietism of Thomasius. Skepticism maintained itself against both parties but was also co-opted by faith against what was seen as the over-reach of reason. In such a context, it was perhaps inevitable that Kant would be read through the lens of the pressing concerns of the day. So when he claimed to have re-invigorated rationalism, to have answered skepticism, and to have instituted a pax kantiana between faith and reason to the advantage of all parties, he was met with either enthusiasm or incredulity (depending), but not always with deep understanding, exactly because he addressed all too well the concerns of his readers, who went straight to Kant’s apparent relevance to their own worries. Thus in looking back, it behooves us to choose carefully and seek Kant’s best readers, critics as well as supporters, those who knew best the views to which Kant was responding and saw the force of his critique as well as of the objections to his solutions.

By his own testimony, Kant for a time saw Solomon Maimon as the chief of these; his now-famous first impression was that “none of my opponents has understood me and the principle question as well as Mr Maimon.” (Mikhail cites Jan Bransen’s reasonable question: was Kant just giving a polite brush-off, as encouraging as he felt seemly? I’m not sure—one could do this without the superlatives.) Until very recently, English readers could form an impression of Maimon only upon his Autobiography (which is still only partially translated), or upon secondary sources. (As I mentioned in response to Cogburn, one can now find excerpts of Maimon’s “Letters of Philaletes to Aenesidemus” in the anthology Between Kant and Hegel, trans. & ed. George di Giovanni; and the first half of Maimon’s essay “The Philosophical Language-confusion” in the anthology Metacritique: The Linguistic Assault on German Idealism, trans. & ed. Jere Paul Surber.) So the translation of Maimon’s Essay on Transcendental Philosophy is an important and welcome event. Those who brought it to us are to be thanked.

What Harman calls the missing “capacity for surprise,” in Kant’s early reviewers, I tend to see as the failure to see the problem. Mikhail gives us this short gloss of Bransen’s The Antinomy of Thought:
Maimon’s philosophical engagement with Kant shows that the latter was successful only to an extent that he presented the issues in novel terms as a philosophical problem, not to an extent that Kantian transcendental philosophy was able to provide us with a solution to this problem. The book’s main premise is that we need to rediscover the problem itself, that is to say, we need to understand the stakes and the significance of both Kantian contribution and Maimonian original reaction to it.
Plenty of Kant’s readers zoomed in on the ding-an-sich, and asked, how is this ding, an-sichly, supposed to be impacting our consciousness? The question arises because on Kant’s own account, causality itself is a form of understanding, and is not given in experience. Thus, as Jacobi pointedly put it, “without the assumption of the ‘affecting’ thing-in-itself, we cannot enter the sphere of the Critique of Reason; with it, we cannot remain.”

Maimon’s objection to Kantian dualism addresses this issue, albeit roundaboutly. He aims to give us what the thing-in-itself was meant to give—a content to human thought, a standard according to which to measure objectivity—but without the liability Jacobi points out. He therefore transplants the dualism of the mind and the thing-in-itself, a dualism in which the border runs between consciousness and world, wholly into the mind, so that the border now runs between one part of consciousness and another: sensibility, and understanding. For Maimon, the Kantian dualism between sensibility and understanding is more basic than that between phenomenon and noumenon. Maimon’s remark is:
How can the understanding subject something (the given object) to its power (to its rules) that is not in its power? In the Kantian system, namely where sensibility and intuition are two totally different sources of our cognition, this question is insoluable… on the other hand, in the Leibnizian-Wolffian system both flow from one and the same cognitive source (the difference lies only in the degree of completeness of this cognition)and so the question is easily resolved. (Essay, p38)
The difference, “the completeness of this cognition,” means (I take it) that Maimon considers these two aspects of our cognition to be, roughly, unconscious and conscious. This means that Maimon really does step pretty decisively in the direction of Idealism; and as we know, Fichte singled out Maimon as a predecessor. (So Maimon can help us grasp not only Kant, who came before him, but the German Idealism that came after.) As Samuel Hugo Bergman in The Philosophy of Solomon Maimon glosses Maimon’s point, when we experience a sensuous perception as ‘given,’ we are referring to this sense of not feeling responsible for a certain realm of our experience. I’d compare this with Pete Wolfendale’s version of Hegel, which he recently made (expressly to counter Meillassoux) in his paper on Transcendental Realism:
1) Consciousness relates itself to its object, or takes its object to be a certain way. What this means, is that it makes a claim about its object.
2) Consciousness distinguishes between its relating (or its claim) and the object as it is in itself. In essence, consciousness allows for the possibility of error.
These then have two implications:-
3) Because consciousness itself makes the distinction between its claim and the object it is about, the object cannot be truly in-itself, but must be for consciousness. This means that consciousness must have a concept of its object.
4) However, consciousness cannot be aware that the object is for-it without ceasing to be consciousness, and thus must suppress this fact. This means that consciousness cannot recognize that the concept of the object is dependent upon it, without undermining the possibility of error.
(This from Pete's page 12)
An infinite understanding would, unlike ours, perfectly coincide with its object. (We are back with Maimon here now). Maimon clearly considered the human mind finite, but even in our case, he thought, we could form a notion of what an infinite understanding would be like in a way that was more than just the negation of human fallibility. In fact, he held, even we ourselves have such understanding, in the special case of mathematics. I crib this quote (from On the Progress of Philosophy) from the translation in Socher, The Radical Enlightenment of Solomon Maimon, p 91:
God, as an infinite power of representation from all eternity thinks himself as all possible essences, that is he thinks himself as restricted in every possible way. He does not think as we do, that is, discursively; rather, his thoughts are at one and the same time presentations [of their objects]. If someone objects that we have no conception of such a style of thinking, my answer is, we do in fact have a concept of it, since we partly have this style in our possession. All mathematical objects are at the same time thought by us and exhibited as real objects through a priori construction. Thus we are in this respect similar to God.
Put this vis-a-vis Vico’s assertion, in On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians, that the mind knows only what it invents, and that the paradigm case of such invention is mathematics.
Man… does not have within himself the elements from which composite things are constituted. ...[so he] turns this fault of the mind to good use, and creates two things for himself through what is called “abstraction:” the point that can be drawn, and the unit that can be multiplied. ….By this device, he creates a kind of world of shapes and numbers which he can embrace entirely within himself. ….When the mind gathers the truths of the things it contemplates, it cannot do so except by making the truths it knows. Of course, the physicist cannot define the things themselves[;] …that is God’s right but is unlawful for man. So he defines the names themselves, and creates the point, the line, the surface following the model of God, without any substrate and as though from nothing [tamquam ex nihilo].
I have argued elsewhere that this supremacy of mathematics is a theological conclusion, and that this requires a rethinking of the philosophical re-appropriation of mathematics (in the service of post-theistic philosophy) that Badiou attempts. As is well known, Badiou (and Meillassoux after him) thinks that Cantor offers us the basis for a sort of laicized notion of Infinity, that finitude has been thematized as a kind of pathos of not-being-God. Having done with this inheritance from “romanticism,” as Badiou calls it, is a central part of this project; hence, e.g., Meillassoux’s title, After Finitude. I am looking forward to the chapters where Maimon unpacks his mathematical arguments more fully.

The analogy with Vico is a little surprising, at first. Vico is usually (e.g. by Isaiah Berlin) read as a predecessor of the counter-Enlightenment, who inspired Hamann and Herder and Jacobi. For all Maimon’s critique of Kant, it is hard to see him as a full-fledged counter-Enlightenment thinker. But if one bears in mind Vico’s attempts to forge a synthesis between the study methods of the ancients and the moderns, something of Maimon’s practice comes into focus; namely, his allegiance to his philosophical forebears, especially his famous loyalty to Maimonides (despite, as Shahar points out, his criticisms of every point of Maimonidean philosophy—including, as Maimon mentions in the Autobiography, twelve of the thirteen articles of faith).

This brings me to the other (and even better) reason to read Maimon, the non-historical reason; he’s an interesting and deep and very peculiar thinker in his own right. He’s also, incidentally, quite funny sometimes, and he had a love for learning and books that as an inveterate biblio-addict, I find quite endearing. (it is sometimes observed that his admittedly asystematic style of philosophy-as-commentary—two centuries before deconstruction made it cool—is a direct inheritance from the Talmud). The Autobiography recounts his how he once walked a hundred miles to see a book of Aristotelian philosophy; how he hid inside the synagogue all night to get access to books; how his studies of the Qabbala (in the rabbi’s home, where the rabbi would let him read) were so enthusiastic and determined that his presence at all hours interfered with the rabbi and his newlywed wife in their, um, other activities; how he rescued a copy of Wolff from a butter merchant, who had been cutting up its pages to wrap his wares. Eventually, out of all this, he digested and synthesized what he called his “coalition-system,” a synthesis of Maimonides and Cordovero, Leibniz and Spinoza, Hume and Kant. Not unnaturally, though, this synthesis leaves some feeling that it is not quite balanced, especially between the rationalism he prized and the skepticism he respected.

The notorious ambiguity Maimon’s thinking exhibits (referenced by Mikhail, Shahar, and Jon), in the tension of his philosophy between (Leibnizian?) rationalism and (Humean?) skepticism, is sometimes read as simple inconsistency on Maimon’s part; and sometimes explained as a “development” from a confident reliance on the canons of consistent thought, to a resigned acknowledgment that there is no certainty, only probability and practice. For myself, I am tempted to regard it in terms of his inheritance from Maimonides. What I mean is twofold. Maimonidean rationalism, its recourse to Aristotelian categories and canons, is very different from the Enlightenment project undertaken by the philosophes. There is a good reason that the notion of Bayle or Diderot undertaking a new edition and commentary of the Suma Contra Gentiles poses a strong challenge to our credulity. And yet Maimon and Isaac Euchel devoted a great deal of effort to a new edition of the Guide for the Perplexed, with Maimon’s commentary as well as the hitherto-unpublished commentary of the 14th-century Averroist Moses Narboni. Maimon also wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories and on Bacon’s Novum Organon, that self-conscious usurpation of Aristotle; and in even his first book, he tells us, he interpreted the ten Aristotelian categories as the deeper significance of the ten sephirot in the Qabbalistic tree of life. (He also says that the Qabbala is a sort of sublimated or symbolic Spinozism).

So my first suggestion as to why Maimon’s thought has proved a challenge to attempts to pin him down is that we tend to read him via the protestant Enlightenment, which traced itself as far back as Descartes’ break with scholasticism; but Maimon was one of the Maskilim, on the radical edge of the Haskalah, which for all its revisionism, remained in contact with a tradition that was as ancient as the Talmud, and maintained intentional connection to founding texts of philosophy like Bacon’s, Maimonides’, and Aristotle’s.

A second reason, related to the first, is that Maimonidean philosophy is famously ambiguous itself. Naturally, I have in mind here Strauss’ reading in Persecution and the Art of Writing and elsewhere, but I don’t believe one need accept the whole of Strauss’ argument about Maimonides’ intentions to agree that there is plenty in Maimonides that, by design, eludes ready unpacking. Maimon, we recall, took Maimonides’ name as his own (quite an act of chutzpah, one might say), but even without this clue on the title page, there are plenty of indications in Maimon’s work that for all his rationalism he did not give up his concern with Judaism. Maimon’s earliest work was on Jewish philosophy, and he tells us in the Autobiography that he kept a copy of this work with him all the time. One is left wondering, then, to what extent his hard-to-pin-down attitude, between skepticism and idealism, is a maneuver of concealing-and-revealing such as he might have imitated from Maimonides. I don’t know if Shahar will concur with me on this, but I raise the question now because there is no explicit reference to Maimonides in the Essay itself (that I have seen), so any reflection on this deeper context will need to be brought in “from without.” In any case, I am confident that Maimon’s thinking finds an echo in Rosenzweig, e.g. p 110 of the Essay, which gives us already the three points of Rosenzweig’s Star.)

In pointing us thus backwards from Maimon (as far back as Maimonides and Aristotle), as well as to a few current investigations (e.g. Wolfendale’s critique of Meillassoux, my own attempt—for which I do not claim any great significance—to contest the right of Badiou to the mantle of Platonism) I am trying to forestall any charge of having myself merely enlisted Maimon into the merely topical interests of today—i.e., whatever trench warfare currently features on the philosophy equivalent of the nightly news. Maimon always insisted that beyond scholarship, systematicity, or indeed currency, he was interested in the Truth. This might seem a little quaint today. It would be no bad thing if a study of Maimon could remove a little of that aura of quaintness.


  1. "To be sure, it could be objected, among these same contemporaries were the worst readers of Kant, who did not understand the tremendous upheaval that was taking place in their midst, and who tried to read Kant in terms of an outmoded set of concerns and concepts."

    I think (minus Harman's citation which really makes little sense in this context - Kant's contemporaries were no fools, but they missed the main awesomeness while reading an awesome book - in my estimation it is basically saying they WERE fools, plus there were plenty of people who GOT Kant, including Maimon, it's not as though he was a misunderstood genius living in obscurity of some remote provincial town) I'm entirely with you on this point. However, I wonder if "contemporaries" in general are pretty useless at any significant recognitions of philosophical talent. Of course, here we quickly enter the area of Harman's "expertise" which consists of rounding up lists of recognized and unrecognized geniuses and fakes, real philosophers and charlatans and all sorts of amusing speculations vis-a-vis what would have been or could have been.

    I do wonder still why people reading Kant at the time read him in such a great variety of ways? In addition to that, I also wonder if people today really understand Kant's contribution (Harman certainly doesn't, otherwise his whole object-oriented philosophy would be impossible to even think up) - do we read Kant as a "great thinker" because that's what we are told? How many people actually do read Kant's first critique all the way? I mean unless you are a "specialist" you probably don't, right?

    Anyways, I'm saving my more substantial (read, brilliant) remarks for Maimon - I'll post them on PE because your comment section is sort of small for my awesome thoughts.

    Again, thanks for doing this - hopefully this reading will help not just us but the larger audience to appreciate Maimon's contributions...

  2. I just got my copy yesterday. I probably won't get to start it til the weekend. Kids are out of school this week and I'm entertainment director.

    I have been reading the previous reading group on Lee Braver's "A thing of this world" which they have been kind enough to leave available from last year over at PE


    I think it's a really great thing they're doing. Now if we could only get Maimon to offer the kind of commentary to the reading that Braver does....Even the internet has its limits, I guess.

    Seems like all one has to do to ruffle Mikhail is be charitable to Harman. I'll be sure to avoid that.

  3. Yeah, I suppose. But I did actually enjoy reading Guerilla Metaphysics, but not as a book of philosopher, mostly as a collection of random observations about philosophers (chapter on Derrida's metaphor is laughably shallow, but fun to read). But in this case he takes a rather serious theme, theme that has been addressed by generations of scholars, and tells us all how it really happened - we are all fool for not having seen it, it was there all alone and only Harman was able to pierce the ages and get it - it's annoying, that's all.

  4. I sometimes think I am the most well-disposed towards Harman of anyone w/ whom I regularly correspond (or do I "correspond" with myself?) I am, for instance, still thinking hard about his way of putting the contrast between relationism and objectology (if i may put it that way. But of course my citation in this post was only intended to avail myself of a succinct and reasonable summary.

    I initially hoped to find in Maimon a "high road around" correlationism. I no longer think this is there. He definitely moves the whole "in itself/for us" dichotomy and moves reframes en bloc as an intra-psychic affair. However, he also tries hard to show how Kant got Hume's problem right (if not the answer to Hume). So while (I think) he is not likely to convince someone like Harman, who acknowledgedly considers correlationism a "form of madness," Maimon is very pertinent to engaging with Meillassoux, all the more because M. expressly invokes the post-Cantorian infinite in the shape of his arguments to the effect that correlationism mis-applies the principle of sufficient reason to the Whole.

  5. I do think that Meillassoux would be an interesting voice in this conversation - if you feel moved to explore that angle here, I think it would fit well with the conversation. I do find his notion of "correlationism" to be rather hastily assembled, if I could use this image. I see the point, but I don't understand how the word describes anything other than what was already described before by many people, including, say, immediately post-Kantian solutions to the problem of the thing-in-itself.

    Hopefully this will become clearer as we get into issues, but I wonder why you think that Maimon does not avoid correlationism if the former is the correlation between thoughts and objects - there aren't any objects juxtaposed with thought in Maimon, with thing-in-itself gone (or reinterpreted), there's only thought (explaining, say, his later interest in "experimental psychology") - what is thought correlating with?

  6. I also enjoyed your mention of Pete's paper. I think a lot of stuff from it would go into my reading of Maimon/German Idealism, but I hesitate to express an opinion on it just yet (mostly because I agree with a lot of it), but Pete's got some really great definitions and observations.

  7. I wonder why you think that Maimon does not avoid correlationism if the former is the correlation between thoughts and objects?

    I guess it's because I make a less solid demarcation than some between idealism and ("strong") correlationism. The latter-- at least as I read Meillassoux-- regards the question of "real objects" as only answerable in the key of agnosticism. And I think that Maimon's (skeptical) reiteration of the quid facti more or less also does this. But I am corrigible on both Meillassoux and on Maimon, so maybe this will become more clear as we progress.

    I'm glad you agree that Pete's paper seemed relevant. I hope he'll have time/inclination to join in here on this.

  8. Actually part of my interest in Maimon is that it leads me to look at Harman's work (on which I hope to be able to teach a few classes on in the next three years, and maybe get a book out of) in an interesting light.

    Maimon was the first to radically *interiorize* Kant's scheme/content distinction (though with Buzaglo, I think this was initially because of the problem with the schematism, not the affection problem, which is only discussed by Maimon in later works- I'll post on this in my take on Chapter 2). In Tool Being, Harman radically *exteriorizes* the scheme-content distinction by rendering Heidegger's version of it (the play between objective presence and readiness to hand) as something that always happens between any two objects.

    So getting a deeper grasp on what motivated Maimon, and how his insights were picked up into what Atlas calls speculative idealism is helping me get a nice distance to be able to evaluate where speculative realism should be going today. This will of course take a number of years to work through. . .

  9. Jon, I am interested in the mirror-image you set up (as it were) between Maimon and Harmon here. I'd be interested if you follow up on this. Regarding Meillassoux, recently in laying out what he sees as the different positions described in After Finitude, Harman recently says: "I’m not convinced that the difference between strong correlationism and absolute idealism can be maintained. I don’t see the difference between describing or deducing the conditions of the correlate as being pivotal enough". This is more or less what I also meant in responding to Mikhail above. But of course I am not as ill-disposed towards correlationism as Harman is. He mentions that a few people lately have seemed to treat his "correlationism says the moon is made of fingers" remark as "just a witticism;" as one of the people who has mentioned it lately, I'll say that I think it's actually quite a fine witticism at that (this is, after all, the way most philosophy enters the language for the long term--by just such bon mots, whether you agree with them or not (e.g., "God is dead."); but I don't think to say this is to dismiss it-- i.e., as if it were clever, and merely clever. I just think it's a pretty good index of what Harman thinks on the matter.