Before Derrida: Salomon Maimon

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November 17, 2010

Solomon Maimon, Essay on Transcendental Philosophy: trans, Nick Midgley,Henry Somers Hall,Alistair Welchman,and Merten Riglitz, London ,Continuum Publishing Co.,2010,pp.282

After more than a century and a half in the Hades of forgotten authors, Salomon Maimon has come to be recognized as one of the founders of post-Kantian German Idealism and, in recent years, as one of the thinkers who influenced contemporary French theory. The Essay on Transcendental Philosophy is the first English translation of Maimon’s most highly regarded work in philosophy. The only other volume of Maimon available to English speaking readers is his Autobiography, an account of his journey from the depths of the Lithuanian shtetl to Berlin and the Hochkultur of the German Jewish Enlightenment. Readers of the autobiography–which could easily pass as one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s or even Sholom Aleichem’s zaniest fabrications–will scarcely believe that the same Maimon is the the author of a work as abstract as The Essay.

Maimon’s autobiography has been compared to Rousseau’s Confessions. Among other similarities, Maimon’s life–like the famous French philosophe–has recurrent patterns of broken friendships created by the glitter of his intellectual brilliance then lost because of his hectoring style of verbal argument. Maimon, however, is a far more quirky figure than even the romantic Rousseau. For example while immersing himself in the study of the Kabbala, Maimon convinced himself that he could become invisible. Thus, after reciting the appropriate incantations, he went to the House of Study and began striking his companions at random, only to be baffled when they were able to strike back. On another occasion, convinced by Descartes’ argument that mind and matter occupy separate universes, he savagely beat a goat, explaining to his horrified friends that, as the goat’s mind was a reality distinct from his body, he could not feel the pain. My favorite episode is the story of his abortive attempt to convert to Christianity. He wrote the local pastor that since his Judaism was a barrier to any gainful employment in Gemany, he was ready to embrace Christianity, adding,“even though Judaism is closer to reason” than Christianity. To the best of my knowledge, Maimon has the distinction of being the only Jew to be rejected as a convert to the German church.

There is no such drollery in the Essay on Transcedental Philosophy. It belongs to a different literary universe. First published in 1790, a few years after the publication of Immanuel Kant’s revolutionary Critique of Pure Reason, Maimon’s Essay was recognized immediately by a small circle of Enlightenment intellectuals in Germany as an important interrogation of Kant’s new Critical Philosophy. Kant himself praised the manuscript, which had been sent to him by his friend, the influential Jewish businessman Markus Herz, but decided it would be inappropriate to sponsor the publication of an essay that was so persuasive in questioning his philosophy. Later Fichte, though a raving anti-Semite, showered Maimon with praise, and Hegel, it is claimed, impressed by Maimon’s scholarly credentials, accepted his bold account of the philosophy of Spinoza .

Contemporary histories of post-Kantian idealism have come tor recognize Maimon as an important transitional figure whose work guided the Kantian revolution towards a fully matured German idealism. In his own day, his work faded from memory, partly because many of his ideas were absorbed by the masters of this school: Fichte, Schelling and especially Hegel, whose work set off a philosophical tsunami. Maimon’s Essay was fully submerged, awaiting discovery by scholars looking to exhume forgotten manuscripts. Luckily, late in the twentieth century, Maimon’s essay was discovered by French philosophers who recognized it as an important work of philosophy in its own right. Today Maimon has been reinstated, first for his contribution to German philosophy of the nineteenth century as well as for his contribution to post-Nietzschean French and continental philosophy of the late twentieth century. His seminal contribution was his recognition of the importance of “difference” and the role of “the particular.”

In his helpful introduction to this translation, Nick Midgley manages to guide us through the post Kantian as well as the post Nietzshean Maimon He discusses the role of the “transcendental a priori” in Kant and emphasizes the role of the “difference” so crucial to the French. He warns the reader that Maimon’s treatise is dense with arguments that are often difficult to follow–not surprising since since Maimon endeavors to weaves together the systems of Leibniz and Wolf, the critical philosophy of Kant and the skepticism of Hume, into one seamless web. Thus in addition to his own commentary, Midgley includes the addenda of Maimon who, aware of the challenges of the work, wrote supplementary explanations including “A short overview of the whole work “as well as letters and appendices that are explanations of the explanations.

While Maimon is now recognized for his contribution to continental philosophy and is now mentioned in histories of Jewish philosophy, the Essay is still not thought of as a contribution to the latter–his text gives little evidence of his prodigious Jewish learning or his involvement in the Jewish Haskala (Enlightenment) This work belongs instead to the Republic of Reason and is addressed to fellow citizens of that same republic whether they be Jews, Christians, Frenchmen or Germans. But while his contribution to Continental philosophy should be judged in the appropriate journals, there are grounds to speculate on its Jewish dimension.

I am not committed to the enterprise of uncovering the hidden Jew within works, especially when the author who produced them is not rooted in his or her Jewishness. Still it is hard to avoid asking what relevance a work in universal philosophy has to Maimon the Jew. Maimon, after all, regarded himself as a Jewish philosopher–his name was derived from that of Maimonides, and in spite of his constant ridicule of the superstitions and narrowness of the Jewish ghettos he was one of the few Enlightened Jews who continued to respect the Talmud, sometimes criticizing those Jews who failed to recognize its philosophical depth.

There are signs of Jewish influence on Maimon’s work. First, it is written as a commentary and is supplemented by commentaries on commentaries. Midgley notes that the commentary is a medieval literary form, but commentary also is the prime Jewish prose literay genre. Secondly, there are the clear fingerprints of a Lithuanian Yeshiva bochur on his work. Maimon’s style resonates with the Lithuanian Talmudical academy’s love affair with “pilpul,” the Jewish version of that scholasticism which specializes in dilemmas such as how many angels dance on the head of a pin, and with the habit of Lithuanian yeshivot of exploring the limits of ideas rather than on adapting them to real world interests. Critics complained that they took ideas and, as was once said about the philosopher Peter Singer, drove them off cliffs.

These Jewish lineages, however, refer to Maimon’s approach and style, not to the substance of his argument. Maimon’s familiarity with the Kantian vocabulary notwithstanding, Maimon’s central concern is with an engagement familiar to Jewish philosophers: how can we connect the universal to the particular?

As a secular philosopher, Maimon, like Kant, was concerned with finding a way to maneuver through the contending schools of rationalism and empiricism that dominated eighteenth century.thought. Both schools–the rationalist, dominated by Descartes, and the empiricists, dominated by Bacon and Locke–offered an account of knowledge that would provide the spectacularly successful scientific method with a foundation in philosophy and would in turn give philosophy the legitimacy achieved by science. Both schools, it could be said, claimed to be the Swiss guards of the methods of Newton and Kepler, whose achievements would reflect well on their philosophies.

Kant’s philosophy begins from his perception that both schools were wanting. Weaving together insights from both schools, Kant came to the radical conclusion that the foundations of knowledge were not to be sought in the world of things or in an abstract realm of ideas, but in us . He argued that the universe is open to systematic scientific investigation because we as human beings possess an internal clearing house that can organize chaotic data into coherent entities and necessary connections. Kant’s discovery was revolutionary. By maintaining that scientific knowledge, the best we have, is the product of a marriage between an a priori transcendental self and an opaque world of givens, Kant undermined claims such as Kepler’s famous declaration that in discovering the laws of planetary motion he had discovered the mind of God. Kant also undermined the assumption of empiricists that by remaining fixed to what is “given,” we are engaged with the reality out there.

Kant’s fundamental proposal can be compared to Noam Chomsky’s proposals that we have language because we as human beings possess the intellectual apparatus that allows us to form the chaotic sounds we hear into a structure that is intelligible –the sentence. Kant’s solution has left generations of philosophers, psychologists, and students of culture the task of trying to discover where our ideas and the world out there meet or, according to some, whether they meet at all.

Many philosophers during Kant’s time and since, including Maimon, have been willing to join the Kantian revolution but are appalled at the price. Like Maimon, a substantial number of thinkers have been unwilling to accept that we remain always within our world and can never arrive at the “thing in itself.”

Midgley and his colleagues guide us skillfully through Maimon’s negotiations of this terrain, laying bare the mixture of rationalism, skepticism, empiricism and bold speculation that may seem unduly complex, but is, to my mind, strikingly modern. Initially Maimon seems to side with the rationalists. Like them, he maintains that speculative ideas, those that we generate from pure reason (for example, the ideas of mathematics) can give us true ideas of things in themselves. He champions the discredited Leibniz and Wolff and even Maimonides. Like the empiricists ,however, Maimon remains conscious of the mystery of the “given” and whether it can be fully comprehended through these same abstractions. In brief (the reader must turn to Maimon’s and Midgley’s text for more detailed accounts of the argument) renames the empiricist method “finite reason,” and argues that the “givens objects of “finite Reason” will ultimately be known in their fullness when such “finite Reason” joins with what he calls “infinite Reason.” In this formula it seems that “givens “ have some kind of rational structure, that they are not completely cut off from things in themselves. In short, Maimon suggests that things in themselves exist, but that for now we can only know them through a glass darkly. This, of course, leaves plenty of room for skepticism about the status of the”givens” These remain in limbo until we discover their unity with “infinite reason,” in which their truth will be finally established

Herein lies the magnetic field in which Maimon’s speculations on epistemology turn on an issue that haunts Jewish intellectual life: the relation of the particular to the universal. In the Jewish context, the Jews are not particulars who can be thought of as windowless monads, or separatists, wholike the existentialists are abandoned by the universe and the universal. Neither can they be crammed into universal categories. They belong neither to the ghetto or the cosmopolis . The linking of the two will occur in messianic time. In the meantime, we neither merge nor declare our complete independence.

In their article on Maimon in the Stanford Encyclopedia, Peter Thielke and Yisrael Melamed cite the Messianic nature of Maimon’s account, the dogged pursuit of knowledge by finite reason which “in its (current)application is capable of no legitimacy but assures us that the particular and the universal will meet. His language is Biblical. You should see the promised land from afar, but you may not enter it!” [Deut 34:4] Still, fortunately, the seeing and the entering are the same: for those who boast of being able to enter can, for their legitimation, do no more than show the distant view.”(GW VII, 554)

In reframing the battle of the empiricists and the rationalists, Maimon does not, in my view, provide a corrective to Kant. Yet, his effort to provide an alternative reading offers us insight into Jewish philosophy as well as a historical building block towards the post-Kantian twentieth-century French philosophers that have so influenced contemporary philosophical discussion.

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