Daniel Davies, Method and Metaphysics in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed

There is a new book on Maimonides that treats Maimonides’ Guide as a work whose intention is to show a reader a method of combining scripture and philosophy and purposefully leaving the questions open without an answer. The secret of the Guide is not philosophy to be kept from the scriptural masses or the secret of a specific answer, rather the open ended nature of the entire intellectual endeavor, even the interpretation of scripture is open ended. Maimonides takes the dialectic arguments of kalam and shows how to do it it better after reading the falasifa. Doing theology better means not to settle on simple answers. The new book does not focus on the metaphysical problem one at a time but takes in the entire project. I like the idea.

For example on the opinions of creation and prophecy, rather than debate the articles of Davidson, Kaplan, Harvey, Ivry, and Seeskin on how to line up the positions in  Guide part II, Davies says that Maimonides does not have an answer only a method. Davies accepts the article by Malino that Maimonides has no answer to creation because of the methodological limits and makes it a paradigm for the entire book. This is somewhat similar to the way Prof G Sermonetta presented the Guide commentary of the 13th century R. Yehudah Romano, as open ended interpretation. (Maybe, echoes of Albert the Great)

Davies also steers clear of Guttman’s Neoplatonic understanding of Maimonides on the Divine as well as the Aristotelianism of Davidison to read Maimonides as already pointing in Thomistic directions.  When  I get to teach using the volume, I will have a better sense of it.

Daniel Davies, Method and Metaphysics in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, Oxford University Press, 2011, 215pp., $65.00 (hbk),

Reviewed byJohn Inglis, University of Dayton

Davies does this is to move the focus beyond single issues. For example, in order to offer a fuller picture of the Guide, Davies devotes chapters to issues regarding the eternity of creation, necessity, negative theology, divine existence, divine knowledge, and a cosmologically important vision of Ezekiel. This widening of the discussion marks a significant difference from other approaches, but Davies has another card up his sleeve. Extending recent work on dialectic, he shifts the locus of contradiction to contemporary tensions between common opinions, many rooted in scripture, rather than contradictions grounded in shielding philosophical demonstration.

Davies argues that Maimonides challenges readers to consider completing claims that lie outside of demonstration, frequently based on the Torah. On this reading, Maimonides constructs a dialectical presentation across different topics in order to prepare active readers “to test” various opinions themselves. Since these issues often involve opinions rooted in the Torah, the task is to become skilled at untangling apparent contradictions and this requires extensive philosophical training and dexterity.

A longstanding difference lies between those who see Maimonides’s Guide as a philosophical break from earlier exegetical works and those who do not. By locating the seventh type of contradiction in claims often based on scripture and not on philosophical demonstration, Davies avoids both poles of this dilemma.

On Davies’s interpretation, the Guide remains philosophically and religiously important, because physics and metaphysics can approximate the inner meaning of the Torah. On this reading, Maimonides counsels exegetes in the Guide of the Perplexed to go beyond the face value of scripture by using philosophy to understand that to which scripture alludes. For ordinary people who lack philosophical training, a more literal reading of the Law provides a guide for the practical life.

One important issue taken to involve contradiction is the question whether Maimonides sides with the Torah on the creation of the world in time, or with Plato’s view of matter being eternal. In the not so distant past, historians presented Maimonides as a critic of Plato’s view and as adhering to the scriptural account that the world began to exist in time. But Maimonides also praises Plato for arguing that only matter and not the world is eternal (Maimonides 1995, p. 115). Shifting the focus to Maimonides’s praise for Plato works against his support for the view of the Torah that God created the world with a beginning in time. Should we read Maimonides as building contradictions into his text in order to mislead the orthodox, or is something else going on here? Maimonides also appears at one point to side with Aristotle over the Torah. For example, Davies considers Jonathan Malino’s argument that a careful reading of Maimonides lends support to the view that he in fact agrees with Aristotle that the world itself is eternal (pp. 31-32).

Many scholars dispute which philosopher it is that Maimonides thought got it right, but this is not Davies’s project. Neither does he argue that Maimonides sides with every opinion rooted in the Torah. Instead, Davies proposes that Maimonides trains philosophical exegetes to mine truth hidden in the Torah.

In the central chapters of the book, Davies widens his scope to consider positive and negative attribution in order to clarify that negative attribution does not contradict divine knowledge of particulars (pp. 54-55).

Davies offers a careful account of Maimonides’s account of the bounded nature of individual things and the good that results (pp. 73-77). A thing exists to the degree that it is good, and it does not exist to the degree to which it lacks the fullness of the good. Maimonides denies that God is limited in this way. Since creaturely existence implies limitation, Maimonides argues it is not accurate to apply existence to the divine in any positive sense. It is more accurate to deny of the divine the limitations of creaturely existence. Therefore, through negation we can reason out ways in which the divine does not exist under limitation. In this sense, God does not exist as creatures do, the sort of view that led Julius Guttmann to deny that Maimonides affirms divine perfections in any positive sense (p. 56). Davies counters this interpretation with the claim that while Maimonides is concerned in his Guide to sketch limitations on human knowledge, he does not deny positive attributes of the divine.

Davies’s challenge is to work up an account of Maimonides’s view of the uncreated existence of the divine that does not involve negation (pp. 79-80).

From Maimonides’s perspective of what human beings can know, Guttmann might have a point after all. Davies notes this difficulty when stating that since our words for Maimonides are so completely bound up with the limitations of the created order, we can speak only with “absolute equivocation” about the perfections of the divine (p. 82). But this view of human understanding does not threaten Davies’s point that Maimonides affirms positive perfections in the divine including existence, even if he is unclear regarding what this amounts to. There need be no contradiction between a reliance on negative attribution in human understanding and affirming positive attributes of the divine. Davies’s contribution is to construct arguments for how this works for Maimonides, arguments that Maimonides alludes to and often does not spell out.

In his conclusion, Davies presents the Guide not as a work of philosophical contradictions calculated to hide truth from the uneducated, but as a work for religious and intellectual training. He argues that there is no gulf between religion and philosophy for Maimonides as they are “mutually complementary” to one another (p. 157). Read the rest here.

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