Maimon, Salomon (1753–1800)

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Born in 1753 in a small village in Lithuania, Shlomo ben-Yehoshua later named himself "Maimon" after the great medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. After being married at the age of eleven and fathering a child at fourteen, Maimon left his native country around 1778 in search of "Enlightenment." Following extraordinary adventures as a wandering beggar and scholar, Maimon arrived in Berlin in March 1780. There he became acquainted with Moses Mendelssohn and his circle. Maimon formulated many of his views (on Judaism and religion in general, and on Spinoza) in overt or covert criticism of Mendelssohn. Until 1791 Maimon contributed to projects of Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala ), which he wished to promote in the first place through scientific knowledge. Later he became estranged from Jewish affairs.

Maimon's rather coarse way of life, which offended both Jewish ceremonial law and bourgeois decorum, forced him to leave Berlin in 1783. From June 1783 until March 1785 he studied in a German high school in Altona (Hamburg), and improved his knowledge of German and mathematics as he also learned Latin, English, and French. Back in Berlin, Maimon was supported almost entirely by benefactors. By the end of 1789, following praise from Immanuel Kant, Maimon published his first German book, Versuch über die Tranzscendentalphilosophie (An Essay on Transcendental Philosophy ), which is a critical commentary on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. A prolific writer, Maimon produced a number of publications, including both books and journal articles. Almost all of Maimon's works are commentaries of a sort on different writers, a method of philosophizing that is certainly a legacy of his Jewish education. In 1795 Maimon met Graf Adolf Kalkreuth, later himself a philosophical writer, and moved into his house near Berlin, and later to his estate in Silesia. There Maimon died on November 11, 1800.

In his autobiography (17921793) Maimon interprets his life as a process of progressive formation (Bildung ) leading from traditional orthodox Judaism in Lithuania to the center of Enlightenment in Berlin. This change is conceived as "spiritual rebirth" (Gesammelte Werke 1:301), a classical term of contemporary Pietism. This work inspired many later autobiographies of European Jews seeking Enlightenment ideals, and it sets the stage for Maimon's own brand of philosophy.

Rational Dogmatism and Empirical Skepticism

In the Versuch, Maimon describes his position as "rational dogmatism and empirical skepticism," and despite the oddity of the combination, this is an apt description of his views (Gesammelte Werke 2, 432). Maimon follows the rationalists (particularly B. Spinoza and G. W. Leibniz) in granting the principle of sufficient reason unlimited scope: There is nothing inexplicable in the world, and reason's demands are unconstrained. But at the same time, while we can be sure that the principle of sufficient reason in general holds universally, our finitude prevents us from knowing with any certainty whether any particular judgment we make about the world accords with this rational condition. As such, whereas rationalism is right about the nature of knowledge, skepticism infects particular knowledge claims.

The exception to this, Maimon claims, is mathematics, in which we can achieve certain knowledge, for here our situation is compared to the "divine": In our mathematical claims we create the contents of mathematical judgments, by constructing a priori the objects of geometry and arithmetic. Here we can be assured (although in geometry this is not always the case) that our concepts apply to objects, because the objects themselves are created according to the concepts. But whereas certainty is guaranteed in the field of mathematics, our empirical judgments do not rise to this level, because they can never be shown to possess the "determinable" relation between subject and predicate demanded of "real thought."

Determinability and Real Thought

According to Leibniz, analytic thought is governed by the law of identity or contradiction: The complete concept of the subject contains all predicates that can be truthfully predicated of it. All true propositions are hence either overtly or "virtually" analytic. Maimon maintains that if there are synthetic judgments a priori (as Kant holds), there must also be a principle of such judgments. Since Maimon rejects the thesis that synthesis is the result of the application of the understanding to intuition, he maintains that synthetic thought must have a principle in reason itself. This is his Law of Determinability. The principle distinguishes between the subject that can be thought by itself and the predicate that can be thought only in relation to a subject: It thus permits the synthesis "square table" and excludes "tablish square," because "table" can be thought by itself and the property "square" cannot.

A further, seemingly paradoxical component of the law of determinability is that in a "real synthesis" there is exactly one predicate for each subject term. It thus demands for "line" either "straight" or "curved" and excludes "sweet line." Finally, it positively determines that a "real synthesis" is only a synthesis that produces a new object. The hallmark of an object determined through real thought is that new consequences follow from it that flow neither from the subject nor from the predicate terms alone, but only from their synthesis. Thus a triangle has certain "consequences" (e.g., that the sum of its internal angles equals two right angles), whereas the Pythagorean theorem is a further consequence of the synthesis of "triangle" and "right angle."

Real thought then depends on a determinable relation between subject and predicate, and this in turn can be guaranteed only in cases where an object is constructed according to a concept. While this occurs in geometry, the determinable relation cannot be shown to hold in cases in which we are passively given empirical objects through sensibility. Here it is also conspicuous that "real synthesis" is equivalent to the construction of the object itself, and that it proceeds from general to particular concepts. This and the unique relation between subject and predicate imply that if we could generate predications according to the law of determinability, we would be able to (re)construct the entire conceptual structure of the world. Because rationalism assumes that complete knowledge exhausts its object, the generation of this conceptual structure would be tantamount to the construction of the world. In mathematics we are hence similar to God (Gesammelte Werke 4:42). But this divinity is sharply limited: because proper knowledge consists in such determinable relations that in empirical cases we cannot produce but are merely given, most of what we think of as empirical human knowledge does not in fact deserve the name. Our beliefs about the merely encountered world of objects fail to meet the criteria of real knowledge. This is one source of Maimon's skepticism, which plays a key role in his critique of Kant.

Quid Facti/Quid Juris

The difficulty Maimon finds in Kant's views on synthetic judgments a priori centers on two crucial questions that drive the Transcendental Deduction of the Categories in the Critique of Pure Reason. There, Kant distinguishes between the quid facti (or, the question of fact) and the quid juris (or the question of right or warrant) of the use of the pure concepts of the understanding. The first question concerns whether we indeed have certain synthetic judgments due to the application of categories to intuitions, whereas the second asks about our right or justification in doing so. Kant is largely concerned with the second question, because he assumes, according to Maimon, that our experience reveals that we in fact have certain knowledge. But Maimon calls this assumption into question, by challenging the Kantian idea that our experience really involves supposedly objective and necessary claims such as "The sun warms the stone." Kant can assume this to be the case, but this will not convince the skepticyet the central argument of the Deduction needs just this supposition, Maimon argues, to establish that the categories are legitimately employed in experience. As a result, only by begging the question "quid facti " against a Humean skeptic can Kant's argument succeed.

Maimon also remains suspicious of Kant's answer to the question quid juris. Kant aims to show that the legitimate employment of the categories rests on the way in which they can be applied to the intuitive contents of experience delivered by the faculty of sensibility; this depends on his fundamental commitment to a model of experience that distinguishes between intuitions (which are singular and immediate) and concepts (which are general and mediate). Kant's system endorses a kind of cognitive dualism, in which the separate faculties of the understanding and sensibility each contribute distinct and ineliminable elements of cognition. Yet Maimon finds this dualism problematic, for it faces all the challenges and problems that traditionally confront other dualisms such as that between mind and body. For how can wholly separate faculties nonetheless interact in the way that cognition requires? Maimon claims that for this reason Kant's cognitive dualism cannot answer the quid juris in a satisfactory manner.

In Maimon's critique of Kant, his allegiances to both skepticism and rationalism come to the fore. The challenge to the quid facti draws upon a kind of Humean skepticism about the structure of experience, and calls into question the notion of experience with which Kant's project begins. The critique of the quid juris rests upon Maimon's rationalist commitments, for it demands that some sufficient reason or explanation be provided for what Maimon takes to be a wholly mysterious relation between concepts and intuitions. Maimon's challenge to Kant is so interesting and powerful precisely because of his odd brand of skepticism, for it allows him to mount simultaneous attacks on the critical system from both an empiricist and a rationalist position.

Maimon and the Tradition

Kant famously described Maimon as his most acute critic, and this admirationeven if tinged with occasional acrimonywas shared by a number of other figures in German philosophy. The renown provided by Kant's comments allowed Maimon to engage in conversations and disputes with a number of the leading lights of the day. Maimon corresponded with K. L. Reinhold (and later had a bitter falling out when Maimon published their letters without Reinhold's permission), and penned a series of pseudonymous responses to the then-anonymous author of Aenesidemus (G. E. Schulze). In all of these works Maimon pressed his version of empirical skepticism and rational dogmatism.

Maimon's most lasting influence, however, was on J. G. Fichte, who shared Kant's respect for Maimon's intellect, and who saw more clearly than others the threat that Maimon's position posed for Kant's philosophy. Fichte's formulations of his Wissenschaftslehre in large part stand as attempts to meet the challenge Maimon posed to Kant, in particular to answer the charge that a dualistic model of cognition cannot explain how its disparate elements interact. Fichte's solutionwhich turns on rejecting Kant's model of cognition in favor of the positing activity of the Absolute-Imarked the beginning of Absolute Idealism, which reached its fruition in Schelling and Hegel. Maimon himself was certainly no Absolute Idealistin fact, in his correspondence with Fichte he distances himself from Fichte's projectbut his challenge to Kant provided an important goad in the development of Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre, and through him the systems of Schelling and Hegel. Thus Maimon's "dogmatic rationalism" found successors but neither his "empirical skepticism" nor his unique combination of both attracted adherents.

But Maimon's combination of skepticism and rationalism is of interest not simply as a historical step on the road from Kant to Hegel, but as a fascinating and often compelling position in its own right. Maimon's skepticism is unique in being based not upon a suspicion of the claims of rational inquiry, but, perhaps paradoxically, on an uncompromising commitment to the demands of reason. The challenge Maimon poses to all accounts of cognition is to explain how the understanding can apply to the contents of sensibility (whether a priori or a posteriori ). Maimon ultimately resorts to a skeptical answer to this question, yet a nonskeptical response to the challenge he presents is something contemporary theories of cognition continue to struggle to meet.

See also Epistemology.


works by maimon

Gesammelte Werke. 7 vols., edited by Valerio Verra Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 19651976.

Versuch über die Transzendentalphilosophie (1790), edited by Florian Ehrensperger. Hamburg, Germany: Felix Meiner Verlag, 2004.

works about maimon

Atlas, Samuel. From Critical to Speculative Idealism: The Philosophy of Solomon Maimon. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964.

Beiser, Frederick. The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Bergmann, Samuel. The Philosophy of Salomon Maimon. Translated by Noah Jacobs. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1967.

Bransen, Jan. The Antinomy of Thought: Maimonian Skepticism and the Relation between Thoughts and Objects. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1991.

Engstler, Achim. Untersuchungen zum Idealismus Salomon Maimons. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, Germany: Frommann-Holzboog, 1990.

Freudenthal, Gideon, ed. Salomon Maimon: Rational Dogmatist, Empirical Skeptic. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 2003.

Gueroult, Martial. La philosophie transcendental de Salomon Maimon. Paris: Vrin, 1929.

Kuntze, Friedrich. Die Philosophie Salomon Maimons. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl Winter, 1912.

Gideon Freudenthal (2005)

Peter Thielke (2005)