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Gideon Freudenthal

Maimon's Philosophical Itinerary

1. Conversion and Continuity

In his Lebensgeschichte, Maimon describes his way from Lithuania to
Berlin as a migration from the "thickest darkness" in Lithuania to Berlin,
a capital of Enlightenment, "with the purpose to search for light and truth
and to free myself completely from the darkness of superstition and igno-
rance." (Lebensgeschichte II, 217; Murray, 254) The way from darkness
to light coincides with the way from Jewish lore and Hebrew language to
West-European culture and German. The dramatic transformation cul-
minates in a "spiritual rebirth" (geistliche Wiedergeburt) (Preface to
Lebensgeschichte II, GW I, 301) and, typical of conversion, with the as-
sumption of a new name: "Shlomo Ben-Yehoshua" takes on the name
"Salomon Maimon".

This narrative has much to recommend itself in one respect but is mis-
leading in another. Concerning modern science and learning, Maimon
certainly suffered deficiencies in Lithuania. The very few scientific
books he could obtain with heroic efforts were, at least in part, semi-pop-
ular or outdated, and he was not even in a position to appreciate that such
books failed to capture modern science. But even more detrimental was
the fact that he did not enjoy systematic schooling. As a child, for exam-
ple, he read a treatise of astronomy which happened to be on his father's
bookshelf. In retrospect, Maimon observes that he read the book before
he ever studied elementary geometry, and that he therefore poorly under-
stood it. (Lebensgeschichte I, 37-41; Murray, 28-31; GW VII, 637) It is
also worth noting that this Hebrew book on astronomy (Nechmad
ve'naim by David Gans) was completed in 1609 but published for the
first time in 1743. By the time Maimon read it, it was more than 150
years old! When Maimon finally entered Berlin (1780) and encountered

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modern mathematical books, he broke out in tears, lamenting that in
Lithuania he was deprived of the means to attain (intellectual) perfection,
which is the vocation of man.1 In this respect, the move to Berlin and the
studies at the Gymnasium "Christianeum" in Altona (1783-1785) were
indeed revolutionary.

Things are different in metaphysics. It is true, in Lithuania Maimon

studied medieval Jewish philosophy only (in the first place: Maimonides'
Guide of the Perplexed). Nevertheless he seemed little impressed upon
his encounter with modern philosophy, and immediately turned to criti-
cize Wolff's metaphysics, the foremost philosophy of recent decades
(Lebensgeschichte II, 157-158; Murray 213-214)

Maimon's philosophical work gives us an opportunity to realize an

old dream: to witness a conversation between philosophers of different
ages. Schooled in Medieval Aristotelean and Neo-Platonic metaphysics,
Maimon read in Berlin Locke and Leibniz, Bacon and Hume, Wolff,
Mendelssohn and Spinoza, and above all Kant. He leaped over more than
six hundred years of philosophical history. He therefore "misunderstood"
Kant in a very productive way and conceived an original philosophy of
his own, a synthesis of traditional metaphysics and modern philosophy,
that was little understood in his time and after. Maimon's own conclusion
from simultaneously living in different epochs was that "the philosophi-
cal opinions circulate so-to-say among the philosophers of all epochs and
all parts of the world." (GW IV, 384)

1.1. Systematic Thought Without System

In Jewish lore, new knowledge is mainly generated and conveyed in
commentaries: commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud, super-com-

Lazarus Bendavid, "ber Salomon Maimon", in: National-Zeitschrift
fr Wissenschaft, Kunst und Gewerbe in den Preuischen Staaten,
Bd. 1 (1801), pp. 88-104, here: 93.
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mentaries (i.e., commentaries on commentaries) on both, or commen-
taries on any other more or less canonical text. In philosophy, too, Mai-
monides' The Guide of the Perplexed or Halevy's Kuzari have usually
been printed together with renown commentaries. Maimon's first literary
products are three commentaries or supercommentaries on well-known
Jewish texts.2 It is not surprising, therefore, that writing commentaries
has been Maimons first and natural choice of medium for philosophical
work, and indeed most of his German writings, too, are commentaries of
sort on canonic books.

However, Maimon saw no contradiction between writing commentaries

(an unsystematic form of presentation) and systematic philosophizing. In
a letter to Reinhold in which he affirmed that it is my innermost con-
viction that my system is as completely elaborated as any other, he also
added: I flatter myself that I can deliver the best commentaries on
Hume, Leibniz and Kant. (GW IV, 241)

Concerning his first German book (Versuch ber die Transcenden-

talphilosophie, 1790), Maimon said that he committed his thoughts on
Kant's Critique to paper in form of glosses and elucidations
(Anmerkungen und Erluterungen; Lebensgeschichte II, 253). Upon re-
peated rereading of his text he found some loci unclear, and clarified
them with notes almost as long as the text itself. And since I am my
own commentator, I dare say that I understood myself (Tr, 334). Mai-
mon's writings were often not understood or misunderstood because they
were written as commentaries. Extracting the philosophical position of
an author from his commentaries on another philosophy requires specific
hermeneutic skills alien to the modern reader. The reader is offered com-
mentaries on various theses of various authors, and he is expected to fig-
ure out for himself their point of unification and the systematic view

All contained in the convolute Hesheq Shelomo, not yet published
and kept at the National Library in Jerusalem. Heb 8o 6426.
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from which they all derive. He must develop hermeneutic hypotheses
and corroborate or refute them by other places. His role is much more
demanding than that of the reader of a systematic treatise; he has to re-
construct the system from scattered elements, whereas the latter finds
them already assembled. No wonder that many readers believed that
there is no systematic thought behind Maimon's "glosses and

Although Maimon's thought is arguably systematic, his opposition to

philosophical "systems" is clear and firm. The apparent inconsistency is
best understood and resolved in terms of the French Encyclopdie. Mai-
mon admires the "esprit systmatique" of modern science and philosophy
but strongly opposes the "esprit de systme". (The terms are Condillac's
in his Essay des Systmes (1749) and they were quoted in d'Alembert's
Discours prliminaire to the Encyclopdie, 1751). The former is what we
may call the scientific spirit: It begins with observed phenomena, forms
concepts and formulates explanatory hypotheses which are then checked
against phenomena. The latter is the attempt to construct general meta-
physical systems beginning not with particular knowledge but with some
supreme principle: such "systems" are barren, and they deal of words in-
stead of reality.

In Maimon, philosophy should be continuous with the sciences. We be-

gin with knowledge of particulars, formulate conjectures, corroborate or
falsify them, and we strive for ever more general theories towards a sin-
gle vanishing point, the "infinite intellect". Maimon does not claim that
such "infinite intellect" exists, but only that this is the guiding idea of our
intellectual endeavor. The construction of knowledge "bottom-up" is
made explicit in Maimon's criticism of Fichte (and Reinhold).

I am expecting with joy the time when, as you say,

"philosophy should be a systematic science". On
my part, too, I will not fail to contribute towards

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this goal as much as is in my weak forces. We will
meet on the very same way, even though it seems
that we will travel it in opposite directions. You
wish to travel it from top to bottom (from the con-
cept of a science as such to the concrete sciences),
but I want to travel it from bottom to top (Mai-
mon to Fichte, Berlin, October 16, 1794. GW VI,

The alternative to a "system" top-down or to a leap from phenomena to a

supreme principle of everything is a science-like philosophy that pro-
ceeds bottom-up step by step from phenomena to ever more comprehen-
sive hypotheses - but never reaches either the top or certainty.

2. Form and Matter: Quid Juris in a "Wider

In a philosophy "bottom-up" in the empiricist tradition, concepts are
formed by abstraction from objects in experience and they naturally also
apply to them. However, in a philosophy like Kant's, in which the funda-
mental concepts ("categories") are inherent to the mind and a priori, in-
dependent of experience, a serious problem arises: can we justify our
presumption that these concepts of the mind apply to the (a posteriori)
world of experience? If the sensible world and the mind are independent
of each other ("dualism"), why should objects of exprience fall under our
concepts? For example: We have the concepts "cause-effect" and we for-
mulate "natural laws". But what guarantee do we have that the world is
governed by natural laws and that our concepts apply to it? In Kant, this
problem appears as the "quid-juris-question".

In mathematics the problem does not arise in this form. Its objects are
not "given", but "constructed" in pure intuition in accordance with a con-
cept, then the "correspondence" (CpR, A713/B741) between concept and

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object is evident. This correspondence guarantees that the concept ap-
plies to the object constructed. Moreover, the object constructed from a
concept is understood as a "schema" of all objects that fall under the con-
cept. Thus, what we prove of a triangle, is true of all triangles, not only
of the singular object constructed. The concept "schema" will serve also
to answer the question how pure concepts (for example: cause-effect) ap-
ply to sensible experience.

In his Lebensgeschichte, Maimon recounts how he studied Kant's Cri-

tique of Pure Reason and wrote his Essay on Transcendental Philosophy.
He sums up:

Here the important problem, Quid juris? with the

solution of which the Critique [of Pure Reason] is
occupied, is wrought out in a much wider sense
than that in which it is taken by Kant ; and by this
means there is plenty of scope left for Hume's
skepticism in its full force. But on the other side
the complete solution of this problem leads either
to Spinozistic or to Leibnizian dogmatism.
(Lebensgeschichte II, 253; Murray, 279-280)

Returning either to "dogmatism" or to "skepticism" (or, in Maimon's

case, to both) means that Kant's ambition to supersede these schools is
denied. With this also Kant's claim is denied that there are "synthetic
judgments a priori", i.e. propositions that amplify our knowledge and are
nevertheless necessarily true as are tautologies ("A is A"; "Ab is b")
which add nothing to our knowledge.

Maimon sent the manuscript of Tr to Kant, on April 7, 1789. In the ac-

companying letter, he specified that whereas Kant's question refers to the
application of "something" a priori to "something" a posteriori, he, Mai-
mon, asks: "How can an a priori concept be applied to an intuition, even
an a priori intuition?" (GW VI, 424; my emphasis) In Maimon, the es-
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sential contrast is hence not between a priori and a posteriori or between
the forms of the understanding and "experience" as in Kant, but between
understanding and sensibility as such and therefore also within mathe-
matics, most prominently in geometry.

In the published version of Tr, which was edited after receiving Kant's
response, Maimon further extended Kant's "quid juris" question and
maintained that it is

"one and the same as the important question that

has occupied all previous philosophy, namely the
explanation of the community (Gemeinschaft) be-
tween soul and body, or again, as the explanation
of the world's arising (with respect to its matter)
from an intelligence." (Tr, 61-63), or again: the re-
lation of form to matter (Tr, 362)

As many other terms in Kant's work, "quid juris" too is his own coinage,
and the question concerning it seems peculiar to his philosophy. Mai-
mon's understanding of it in a "wider sense" and the thesis that it "has oc-
cupied all previous philosophy" is a radical critique of Kant's claim to
have achieved a "Copernican Revolution" in philosophy. On Maimon's
reading, Kant is yet another philosopher who offers an answer to an age-
old question. Maimon is of course aware that no academic philosopher of
his time (or ours) would accept such reinterpretation, but in his view fol-
lowers of Kant are sectarians who tend to believe that "Kant knows
everything, and knows everything better than others and he alone knows
everything". (GW VII, 568 See also GW VII, 669; GW VII, 390)

Many a scholastic (schulgerechter) professor who

has heard something of the question quid juris?
() will here shake his head and cry out: a strange
notion to reduce the question quid juris? to the
question de commercio animi et corporis! But
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what seems strange to many a professor, need not,
on this account, be strange in fact. (Tr, 360-362)

Maimon rather recommends the flexible thinker who commands

the indispensable art of replacing ideas by others "if the difference per-
tains to the expression only" (preface to Lebensgeschichte II; GW I, 301)
- and he himself demonstrated this ability in reformulating Kant's al-
legedly peculiar Kantian quid juris question as a limited version of the
"form - matter" problem of "all previous philosophy". On the other hand,
Maimon critique implies also that the quid juris question is not an artifi-
cial product of some idiosyncrasy of Kant's philosophy, but a genuine
problem, such that remains valid under different conceptualizations. It
seems that this is also what Maimon claims for his own philosophy
which, he says, is a "system of coalition" of all the philosophies he had
studied. (Lebensgeschichte II, S. 253-254; Murray, 280).

Having established that the categories are inherent to the mind and inde-
pendent of experience, Kant ventures to argue that we can nevertheless
be assured that they apply to experience. The nature of Kant's argument
(or arguments) of these most enigmatic sections of the Critique has been
controversial for centuries and no consensus has been reached. For-
tunately, Kant's argument need not be elaborated here since Maimon not
only interpreted the question in a "wider sense" but also considered only
one element of Kant's answer: the so-called "schematism". The schema-
tism is intended to mediate between the heterogeneous a priori concepts
and a posteriori objects of experience in that it shares a property with
each. It is a method of the imagination (Einbidlungskraft) to produce an
image that corresponds to a concept. For example: the application of the
concept of causality to experience. Causality cannot be experienced with
our senses. In order to apply the category of causality to events in experi-
ence, we need "some third thing" (CpR A138/B177) which is homoge-
nous with both. In Kant, this is time. We subsume phenomena under the
category "causality" (a priori) if they follow upon one another in a rule-
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governed succession in time (a posteriori). (A144/B187)

In his critique, Maimon points out that cause and effect are
correlative concepts. Such concepts define each other (See Tr, 37) and
that an effect has a cause is therefore necessarily true. But not so the ap-
plication of these concepts to experience! A cause must have an effect
and vice versa, because the concepts are so defined, but this does not en-
tail that the world is by causality, or that specifically fire warms stones
(Maimon turns an example of Kant against him). We know this fact only
from experience. If the assertion is true, it is contingent, not necessarily
true. In conclusion, there are no synthetic judgments a priori in experien-
tial knowledge. In spite of the admiration for Newton's physics, this the-
ory, too, is only probable, and as all knowledge it leaves "plenty of scope
for Hume's skepticism in its full force". (Lebensgeschichte II, 254
Murray, 279-280)

2.1. Quid Juris in the Medieval Framework

Maimon's added to the "quid juris" question the creation of the material
world by an intelligence, and the mind-body-problem. These additions
have been discussed in Maimon's juvenile Hebrew manuscripts, although
at the time he of course knew nothing of the "quid juris" question or

Maimon's point of departure in these manuscripts is Maimonides' theory

of knowledge (Guide I, 68). In this theory, the intellect is not a substance
and has no nature of its own. The soul's potential for apprehension is
called "potential intellect". Once the essence ("form") is abstracted from
the sensible object and known, this potential of the soul actualizes in
knowledge. In this knowledge the "form" of the object and the cognizer's
potential for apprehension unite in actual knowledge (also called "intel-
lect in actu"). On this reading, the omniscient God, who is permanently
in actu, is identical to the world (or its form), and the human intellect,
when actual, is identical to the "forms" or the "essences" of the objects

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Young Maimon rejects Maimonides' theory of the intellect. Both God

and the human intellect are conceived as substances with properties. This
gives rise to the two questions that Maimon was to add later to Kant's
quid juris question: the relation of God or "separate forms" (ideas or in-
corporeal intelligences) to sensible bodies, and the mind-body problem.
The manuscript Livnat Hasappir ( ) begins thus:

The opinion of the metaphysicians who negate

attributes of Him, may He be exalted, is known,
and also Maimonides discussed this at length in the
Guide [of the Perplexed]. But you should know
that this is true in respect to Himself without
connection to the existent beings, since in this lat-
ter respect the opposite is true [...] And in his
[Maimonides'] opinion [] the soul [] is noth-
ing but potentiality and preparation . And after
asking his honor for forgiveness, I say that it is the
other way around. I say that the soul is a separate
substance, existing for itself, attached to the body
but not mixed with it.

Conceiving the intellect and God as immaterial substances raises the

problem of their interaction with the material realm. Somehow the gulf
between these heterogeneous realms must be bridged, or blurred. The lat-
ter is what Maimon does here:

And in general I say that all things are images

( )of the separate forms, since we know al-
ready that the image is a body of a certain shape
( )done wisely to accept a supreme power ad-
equate to this figure, since the separate [form], al-
though it is spiritual and lacks bodily shape* [see
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on the asterisk below], nevertheless has some re-
semblance to that shape, and therefore the body
done according to that shape is drawn to that shape
due to the signs and the resemblance of the things
(Hesehq Shelomo 125)

How can abstract "separate forms" lacking bodily form nevertheless "re-
semble" sensible substances? How can sensible substances be "images"
( )of abstract forms?! What are the signs by which they are coor-
dinated? In later years Maimon will criticize Kant and ask by what signs
(Merkmale) a concept is coordinated with a sensible appearance? (e.g.
Tr, 6070). But in the early Hebrew manuscripts no further explanation
of the nature of the "signs" and "similarity" is attempted. However, the
heterogeneity of "separate forms" and sensible appearances is clearly ar-
ticulated and also the presupposition that they must somehow "resemble"
each other.

In the quotation above, the asterisk refers to a note. In this note, Maimon
mentions Locke and Leibniz, whom he read in Berlin, making this note a
later, critical reflection on his previous views:

But all I have written here is based on the view of

some of the early philosophers who say that the
hylic intellect is a separate substance and some-
thing other than the apprehended [forms] ()
that are in fact received. But I now revoke this
opinion of mine since in fact there is no hylic intel-
lect or a subject other than the forms apprehended
in actu ..." (Hesheq Shelomo, 124)

The position Maimon adopts in the note is evidently the basis of his later
critique of Kant. The only way to answer the quid juris question in a sat-
isfactory way is to dissolve it, i.e. to conceive of the human mind and of
God as substantially the same as the sensible world. Note that Maimon
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ascribes here to "some of the early philosophers" the view that gives rise
to the question how the mind and sensible objects are coordinated. In his
German period he believes to encounter the same position in Kant and
therefore says that the quid juris question is "one and the same as the im-
portant question that has occupied all previous philosophy" (Tr, 61-63).
The problem has changed, though. In Kant it addressed the distinction
between concepts and intuitions (!) a priori on the one hand, and experi-
ence a posteriori, on the other. In Maimon, it addressed the distinction
between an immaterial intellect and intuitions as such, whether a priori
or a posteriori. What seemed to be the same problem in a "wider sense",
has in fact been modified, such that its resolution "leads either to Spin-
ozistic or to Leibnizian dogmatism". (Lebensgeschichte II, 253; Murray,
279-280) It seems safe to say that Maimon assimilated the Kantian prob-
lem to his own philosophy, formed on the basis of traditional Aristotelian
and Neo-Platonic metaphysics.

2.2. The "Spinozist" vs. the "Leibnizian" Solution

Both the Leibnizian and the Spinozistic resolution of the form-matter (or
understanding and intuition, concept and object) problem consist in
showing that these are not heterogeneous, in fact that they are substan-
tially the same. The differences between the solutions lies in this: Spin-
oza "supposes one and the same substance as immediate cause of all var-
ious effects Every particular effect in nature is referred by him, not to
its proximate cause (which is merely a mode), but immediately to this
first cause, which is the common substance of all beings. (Lebens-
geschichte I, 154; Murray, 113; GM, 161). By contrast, in Leibniz, "all
particular effects are referred immediately to particular causes; but these
various effects are thought as connected in a single system, and the cause
of this connection is sought in a being beyond itself." (Lebensgeschichte
I, 154-155; Murray, 114) In both philosophies the seemingly heteroge-
neous realms are homogenized with reference to their common origin.
The first difference between them is their relation to the sciences. Spin-
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oza "immediately" refers all effects to a single "remote cause" (God or
nature), whereas Leibniz concentrates on the "secondary causes", and
only gestures towards the remote first cause.

On Maimon's reading, Spinoza continues a train of thought that begins

with ancient religion. It is expressed in the tetragrammaton Yehova or in
God's answer to Moses (Exodus 3:13-14): Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, [I am
that I am]. In his autobiography he writes that this passage means noth-
ing other than that the Jewish religion sets as its ground the unity of God
as the immediate [!] cause of all existence", and it is the same as the in-
scription on the pyramid of Sais: "I am all that is and was and shall be".
To these conceptions conforms "a single system only", writes Maimon
with an obvious allusion to Spinoza. (Lebensgeschichte I, 251-254; Mur-
ray, 182-183) Maimon ascribes this view of original monotheism not
only to Moses and Josephus Flavius but also to the Kabbalists and Tal-
mudists. In fact, he repeats Maimonides who claimed that "immediate"
reference to God is typical of Biblical Monotheism (Guide, II, 48; see
also Ibn Ezra's commentaries on Exodus 3,6), and the claim was repeated
also by Spinoza. (TTP I, 6)

The second difference between Leibniz and Spinoza is that the first cause
is transcendent according to Leibniz, immanent according to Spinoza.
Maimon's first addition to the quid juris question arises here: How can an
transcendent (immaterial) intelligence create its opposite, a material
world (or how can an object in intuition be constructed from a concept)?
In Spinoza, this problem does not arise, as there is no creation, and God
and the World are one and the same.

Of course, these characterizations of "Spinoza" and "Leibniz" do

not intend to do justice to either of them. The names "Spinoza" and
"Leibniz" stand here for very general philosophical ideas. Spinoza stands
for the slogan "hen kai pan" (Lessing) "All-Einer" (Jacobi) or "All is One
and One is All", used by Mendelssohn in his Morning Hours (1785).

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When Maimon inserted a translation of the-chapters on Spinoza in
Mendelssohn's Morning Hours into his own Hebrew commentary on
Maimonides' Guide, he quoted this slogan (GM, 161) and added of his
own that this view is very deep and agrees with Kabbalah.

Maimon's resolution of the quid juris question is hence squarely

embedded in the context of the Spinoza (or Pantheism)-controversy of
the 1680ies. And yet, Maimon recounts that although he read Spinoza in
Germany, he "came across" Spinoza's system already in Poland, alerted
to it by Kabbalistic writings (Lebensgeschichte II, 165-166; Murray,
219). In fact, this is so! In his juvenile manuscript Eved Avraham, we
find the following super-commentary on Ibn Ezra on Exodus 23:21. Mai-
mon writes:

"Since He is all and all is from Him. You should

know that there is no independent being besides
Him, may He be blessed. We apprehend existent
beings through the apprehension of the accidents
in the substance and of the substance in the acci-
dents. To clarify this, consider the following exam-
ple of a simple element as is water. We apprehend
of water its coldness and humidity which are acci-
dents of the substance water. [] But after appre-
hending these accidents by our senses, we con-
ceive by the understanding that these accidents
require a substantial substratum. We thus appre-
hend the substance through the accidents. And the
substance of all beings is the creator, may He be
blessed. (Eved Avraham, Hesehq Shelomo, 81)

In Berlin, Maimon explained (to Markus Herz) Spinozism in the very

same terms. It is the doctrine that "all things are merely accidents of a
single substance" (Lebensgeschichte II, 162; Murray, 217), and he indeed

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"came across" this idea already in Lithuania. However, the problem is
that such general dictum is not very informative. It certainly does not an-
swer the question how to apply the category of causality to particular

2.3. "Leibnizian" Solutions

In his maturity in Berlin, Maimon translated the vague notion that con-
cept and object are not heterogeneous into a precise program. One elabo-
rated example is the allegedly synthetic "principle" of geometry, that the
straight line is shortest between two points. The choice is of course not
accidental. This proposition is a foremost example of synthetic judge-
ments a priori in Kant. (CpR B 16; Prolegomena # 20, AA IV, 301-302)
Demonstrating that concept and intuition are not heterogeneous means
showing that the straight line in intuition is a sensible presentation of the
concept "shortest line". This can be done in two ways, either by a proof
that the straight line is shortest, or by constructing the sensible object
"straight line" from the concept "shortest line". Maimon elaborated in de-
tail both possibilities. As to the proof, Maimon seems to have realized
that it failed. Nevertheless, he left the proof in place but added a note:

My intention here is merely to show: that accord-

ing to the quoted definition of a straight line, the
proposition: A straight line etc. [is the shortest be-
tween two points] is not an axiom, but a proposi-
tion analytically inferred from others. And suppose
that we nevertheless finally hit on synthetic propo-
sitions on which all others are based (I leave unde-
cided as yet whether this is the case), I neverthe-
less maintain that just as by means of my
definition I rendered analytic this proposition
which was claimed to be synthetic, I can do the
same with these [synthetic propositions] too." (Tr,

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66-67, note)

The claim that truths of intuition are presentations of conceptual truths

does not mean that we already possess analytic proofs of all of them. It
rather means that we have good reasons (and some good examples) to
believe that such "research program" is viable, although it may be infi-
nite. However, Maimon could present no such example.

Another way to demonstrate that concept and intuition are not heteroge-
neous is to construct a straight line from its concept. Such construction
has ramifications for the quid juris question "in the wider sense". It
demonstrates that an "intelligence" (a power of concepts) may create a
material world (objects in intuition):

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 pos-
sible way. He does not think as we do, [namely],
discursively; rather, his thoughts are at one and the
same time presentations (Darstellungen). If some-
one objects that we have no concept 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 concepts are thought
by us and at the same time exhibited as real objects
through construction a priori. Thus, we are in this
respect similar to God. (GW IV, 42)

We may think that God creates a material world in the same way as we
construct geometrical objects in intuition. However, do we really con-
struct from concepts objects in intuition? Initially, this seems evident and
easily comprehensible:

As soon as the understanding prescribes the rule

for drawing a line between two points (that is, that
01/03/2017 Maimon's Philosophical Itinerary 16
it should be the shortest), the imagination draws a
straight line to satisfy this demand. (Tr, 19)

Maimon repeats here Kant, who said that we draw a line by the motion
of a point in pure intuition. But Kant did not say by what rule we guaran-
tee that this line is "straight". And in fact, there was no such rule. Anoth-
er problem concerns continuity. To construct a continuous line we must
construct infinitely many points, and this is impossible. To imagine that a
moving point traces a continuous line in space means simply to hide the
problem of continuity behind "motion" and, moreover, to acknowledge
the authority of the imagination over the understanding. Thus, whereas
the construction of objects in intuition allows us to discover properties
not contained in the concepts, it also demonstrates the subjection of the
understanding to the alien rule of the imagination:

The Understanding prescribes the productive

imagination a rule to produce a space enclosed by
three lines. The imagination obeys and constructs
the triangle, but lo and behold! three angles, which
the understanding did not at all demand, impose
themselves. Now the understanding suddenly be-
comes clever since it learned the connection be-
tween three sides and three angles hitherto un-
known to it, but the reason of which remains
unknown to it. Hence it makes a virtue of necessi-
ty, puts on a imperious expression and says: A tri-
angle must have three angles! - as if it were here
the legislator whereas in fact it must obey an un-
known legislator." (GW III, 185-201; see also GW
IV, 449-450)

The heterogeneity of concept and intuition thus remains in place and so

does Kant's quid juris question. Moreover, Kant took for granted that

01/03/2017 Maimon's Philosophical Itinerary 17

there are synthetic judgments a priori and only asked how they were pos-
sible. Maimon argued that we have no such judgments. Synthetic judg-
ments are not a priori and certain but experiential and probable only.

2.4. The Infinitesimal

Maimon's own and mature solution of the quid juris question conceives
understanding and sensibility as one in kind but on opposite ends of a
continuum with an infinite distance between them. At the end of a prcis
of the history of philosophy which introduces his Hebrew commentary
on Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed, Maimon succinctly presents his
own philosophy:

And I, the author, having learned from books and

studied with God's help the science of philosophy,
found that the objects of philosophy are the
elements ( )of sensible objects, not the
sensible objects themselves. And we apply the
logical forms not to the sensible objects as such
but to their elements which are the infinitely small
parts from which the sensible bodies are
composed, and which are themselves concepts of
the understanding notwithstanding their being the
elements of the sensible objects. And I believe that
this is the very same view of the philosopher
Leibniz. The sensibles are by their nature infinitely
divisible since the [sensible] forms of their
cognition ( )are time and extension which
allow infinite division. But the elements of the
sensibles conceived by the intellect abstracted
from time and space, are the indivisible individuals
that he mentioned. And the intellect cannot
conceive any ratio and relation among the

01/03/2017 Maimon's Philosophical Itinerary 18

sensibles, since the sensibles are not the objects of
its cognition. But it conceives the ratio and the
relations among the elements of the sensibles, and
only these are the individuals spoken of. However,
by its nature, the imagination cannot conceive
these individuals. And therefore these ratio and
relation are taken by it [the imagination] to hold
among the sensibles themselves that are the objects
of its cognition." (GM, 18; see also Tr, 9, 186, 192,
Tr, 355-356)

The truth of the matter is hence first a complete dichotomy between

continuous objects of sensibility and discrete objects of the
understanding. And yet, these have a common border, and exactly on this
border are the "infinitely small parts" which are "concepts of the
understanding notwithstanding their being the elements of the sensible
objects". In Leibniz, too, says Maimon, the monadology is correlated
with the infinitesimal calculus. (Tr, 27-28, note; see also GW IV, 53) The
difference between them is nevertheless important. Maimon conceives
the infinitesimal element of sensible bodies as "without any finite
extension, although not as a mathematical but rather as a physical point,
or as the differential of an extension." (Tr, 27-28). He refers at this place
to Leibniz, but in Leibniz, the monads are "metaphysical points" and
therefore heterogeneous with sensible bodies. Conceiving of the
elements as "physical points" establishes homogeneity between
"concepts of the understanding" and "elements of the sensible objects" -
and therefore the possibility of applying concepts to intuitions, although
they are infinitely distant from one another. The metaphysical and the
physical world are not separated: the metaphysical realm is the limit of
the physical.

The reason why these ideas are attractive is obvious. The solution of the
quid juris question (in the wide sense) is here continuous with the most
01/03/2017 Maimon's Philosophical Itinerary 19
advanced mathematical and physical theories of the time: with the
infinitesimal calculus and with analytic mechanics and its concept of the
"point mass" of zero extension but non-zero mass. The challenge is also
obvious: can something be both a concept and an element of a sensible

Although Maimon himself remarked that elucidating philosophical

notions by means of the calculus may appear as clarifying the obscure by
what is even more obscure (Tr, 27-28), there is an enormous difference
between an obscurity in the foundations of the calculus (the validity of
which nobody doubted) and the obscurity of muddled thought. In fact,
contemporary renown mathematicians conceived the calculus exactly in
the same terms as Maimon. The formulation of the alleged conceptual
"obscurity" of ontology in the language of the calculus was in itself a
major philosophical achievement.

2.4.1. The Medieval Roots of Infinitesimal Elements

Maimon's conception of the "differential" is squarely embedded in the
discourse of the eighteenth century, as was his discussion of Spinozism.
And yet, here too, it has medieval roots. In the Guide of the Perplexed,
Maimon's primary source of philosophical information in Lithuania,
Maimonides presents the philosophy of the Kalam (a Moslem school that
flourished in the eighth and ninth centuries) in twelve principles which
he discusses in detail. The first principle states that all bodies of the
world are composed of "very small particles that, because of their subtle-
ty, are not subject to division. The individual particle does not possess
quantity in any respect. However, when several are aggregated, their ag-
gregate possesses quantity and has thus become a body." (The Guide of
the Perplexed I, 73; The First Premise, Pines, 195)

Maimonides presents some of the paradoxes that follow from the as-
sumption that reality is composed of discrete atoms while space is con-
tinuous, especially the propositions referring to rational and irrational

01/03/2017 Maimon's Philosophical Itinerary 20

magnitudes in book X of Euclid's Elements. The implication is that
geometry (the mathematics of continuous magnitude) would be at odds
with reality.

In his commentary on the Guide Maimon sides with the Kalam against
Maimonides, but also introduces some new ideas to "further improve"
Kalam philosophy: He first introduces the distinction between extensive
and intensive magnitudes. The elements have no extensive magnitude
but possess intensive magnitude, namely varying degrees of the force of
representation (as Leibniz's monads). He adds the distinction between
aggregation and chemical synthesis, and, finally, the notion of the "infin-
itesimal" (GM 126-127). In short: Maimon interprets the atoms of Kalam
as his own differentials. Maimon's construal is not substituting one phi-
losophy for another. It is rather a benevolent interpretation and improve-
ment of Kalam-Ontology.

3. The Principle of Determinability

In spite of Maimon's Leibnizian leanings, there is a clear difference be-
tween his critique of Kant and that of Leibniz's followers. Their main
point of criticism of Kant was that he didn't name a "principle" that gov-
erns synthetic judgments a priori and guarantees their necessity. Given
the concept of the subject, say "triangle", the principle should have deter-
mined its true predicates, say that the sum of its internal angles equals
two right angles. Kant himself didn't think that synthetic judgments a pri-
ori require a "principle". He rather explained their possibility by the co-
operation of the understanding and intuition, both in a priori and empiri-
cal propositions:

for just as empirical intuition makes it possible

for us, without difficulty, to amplify (synthetically
in experience) the concept we form of an object of
intuition through new predicates that are presented
by intuition itself, so too will pure intuition do the
01/03/2017 Maimon's Philosophical Itinerary 21
same only with this difference: that in the latter
case the synthetic judgment will be a priori certain
and apodictic

(Prolegomena #7, AA IV, 281; my emphasis)

Maimon's Principle of Determinability is not a principle by which such

judgments are inferred from the concept of the subject, as the Leibniz-
ians demanded. It is merely a criterion of well-formed propostions. A real
synthesis consists of a subject and a predicate. The subject is a concept
that can be thought by itself without the predicate, the predicate cannot
be thought without the subject concept. "A straight line" is such a synthe-
sis. A line can be thought (not imagined!) without the property straight,
but straight not without a subject (line). If the subject and the predicate
can be thought independently of each other ("yellow" and "mellable"-
two properties of gold), their alleged synthesis is merely an arbitrary
combination (combined because they are observed to exist in the same
place and time), not a synthesis. If it is not empirically based, such com-
bination might produce nonsense (for example, "a sweet line" Tr, 92-93;
Tr, 124-125; Logik, 435). A "real synthesis" is characterized by new
properties that are neither properties of the subject nor of the predicate
but of the synthesis itself. Note the agreement between this characteriza-
tion and that of a chemical "compound" as distinguished from a "mix-
ture". For example, in a right-angled triangle the sum of the squares on
its sides equals the square on the hypotenuse (the "Pythagorean Theo-
rem", Elements, I, 47; Tr, 243) This is neither a predicate of "triangle"
nor of "right-angled" but only of their synthesis.

The Principle of Determinability is the "supreme principle of all

real knowledge that determines objects" (GW VII, 203; Tr, 84-97; Logik,
20; 309-311) As a principle of (transcendental) logic, it rigorously ap-
plies to concepts which are homogeneous with it, not to sensible bodies.
This is Maimon's answer to the quid juris challenge. Therefore the prin-

01/03/2017 Maimon's Philosophical Itinerary 22

ciple applies directly to differentials as concepts and indirectly to sensi-
ble objects which are constituted by such differentials as their elements.
(Tr, 355)

It should be noted that a well-formed synthesis need not have reference.

For example, a decahedron, the synthesis of a solid with ten equal faces,
cannot be constructed. The synthesis is legitimate, but not real. (Logik,
18, 312) The Principle of Determinability neither generates truth, nor is it
a criterion of truth. It is merely a criterion of well-formed syntheses. In
spite of all his efforts to develop a method of invention, Maimon con-
fined himself to the much more modest achievement of the Principle of

4. Skepticism
Kant's world is split into two realms: The realm of experience and that of
"things-in-themselves". In Maimon there is no such duality: things-in-
themselves are the "limits" of our knowledge of sensible objects. Howev-
er, the properties predicated of them at the limit are sometimes contrary
to each other, as the paradoxes of the infinite show. Since they are para-
doxical, such properties cannot be real. If their concepts are indispens-
able, we use them with the caveat that they are "fictitious".

Discrete differentials and continuous matter and space are related to each
other as true reality and appearance, but also opposed to each other as
"reality" and "fiction". This is so because there are two major ways of
proceedings from appearance to reality, the way of the understanding and
the way of the imagination. The first formulates a rule of progression, the
second imagines an existent last member of the series. We can follow a
rule of the understanding towards the "differential" as a limit of ratios
(dy/dx) or follow the imagination and assert the existence of a least ele-
ment "differential" or "infinitesimal" (dy, dx). We can conceive a number
as a ratio determined by its place in a series or imagine it as a collection
of units. Similarly, we can proceed towards an ever more general concept
01/03/2017 Maimon's Philosophical Itinerary 23
or assert that an all encompassing origin exists. The similarity to Kant's
notions of "antinomies" and "ideas" is obvious. However, what in Kant is
a conflict within reason, is in Maimon a conflict between reason and the

The fictitious character of a notion increases in proportion to the share of

the imagination in apprehension. Since all real human knowledge in-
volves imagination to some extent, all knowledge is also fictitious to
some degree. "Fiction" in Maimon spans from the continuity of geomet-
rical lines, "imaginary numbers" and "differentials" (or "infinitesimals")
in mathematics, over "force" and "compound motion" in physics, to "mo-
nads", "God" and "immortality" in metaphysics. These concepts are in-
dispensable but have no reference. A similar problem arises concerning
causality in general. Even if causality is objective, this does not deter-
mine any specific application of this concept to experience. We know
specific causal relations only from experience, and we might ascribe nec-
essary causal relations to objects that merely display some regularity.
With this Hume's skepticism remains in place. Moreover, if the claims
that there are synthetic judgments a priori is refuted, their possibility
need not concern us, and Kant's (but not Maimon's) quid juris question is
empty. (GW IV, 210-211, 225-226, 229) Our apprehension falls apart:
pure concepts and certainty on the one hand, probable empirical knowl-
edge on the other. "Our cognition contains much that is pure and much
that is real, but unfortunately what is pure is not real and what is real is
not pure." (Lebensgeschichte II, 272)

5. Conclusion
We have seen some of Maimon's "glosses and elucidations" on Kant. They
amount to a radical critique that denies Kant's revolution in philosophy
and claims to further improve on him on the basis of his predecessors,
Leibniz and Hume. We have also seen that Maimon's "misunderstanding"
of Kant's quid juris question closely followed his juvenile metaphysical-
01/03/2017 Maimon's Philosophical Itinerary 24
kabbalistic manuscripts which also include a clear formulation of his lat-
er "Spinozism". Finally, Maimon's interpretation of Kant's "Schematism"
is understandable on the basis of the search for "signs" (Merkmale) and
"resemblance" that coordinate the intellectual and the sensible realms in
his juvenile manuscripts.

We have also witnessed Maimon's reading of Medieval philosophy with

eyes informed by modern philosophy: He "improved" on Kalam ontol-
ogy with the infinitesimal calculus and with the introduction of the con-
cept of the chemical "compound" and, finally, with Leibniz's

This may help unserstand the nature of a "commentary" such as Mai-

mon's. It is not an attempt to elucidate a text but rather to "further im-
prove" philosophical conceptions by assimilation of new knowledge and
arguments. The reciprocate "commentary" of modern philosophy and tra-
ditional metaphysics (in addition of course to Maimon's genius) is the
basis of his innovative and singular position in the philosophy of the
eighteenth century.



Salomon Maimon, Versuch ber die Transscendentalphilosophie mit

einem Anhang ber die symbolische Erkenntni und Anmerkungen von
Salomon Maimon, aus Litthauen in Polen.

Berlin: Christian Friedrich Vo und Sohn, 1790

Salomon Maimon, Gesammelte Werke, vols. 1-7 (1970). (herausgegeben
von Valerio Verra.) Hildesheim: G. Olms.

Salomon Maimon, Giv'at Hammore (Commentary on the Guide of the
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Perplexed) (1791), New Edition with Notes and Indexes by S.H.
Bergman and N. Rotenstreich, Publications of the Israel Academy of Sci-
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Salomon Maimon, Versuch einer neuen logik, oder, Theorie des denkens
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Immanuel Kant, Critique of pure reason.
2009, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge [u.a.]

Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to any future metaphysics that will be able to
come forward as science (1783). Translated by Gary Hatfield, in: Im-
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son and Peter Heath, Cambridge University Press, 2001


Benedict de Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, Edited by Jonathan

Israel, translated by Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel, Cam-
bridge University Press, 2007

Moses Maimonides, The guide of the perplexed. Translated by Shlomo
Pines, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.


Kant, Immanuel: Gesammelte Schriften. Preussische (later: deutsche)

Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin 1900ff.
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