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Maimonides and the Visual Image after Kant and Cohen

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Abstract In this paper, I attempt to consider Jewish philosophy in opposition to the anti-ocularcentrism that defined the German Jewish philosophical tradition after Kant, namely the idea that Judaism—or at least its philosophical expression in Maimonidean philosophy—is aniconic and cognitively abstract. I do so by attempting to rethink the epistemic-veridical place of the imagination and visual experience in the Guide of the Perplexed. Once the imagination has been disciplined by reason, is there any cognitive status to an image or sound that the eye or the ear perceives, and to that mental faculty that combines and recombines such impressions? Is the sight or sound of revelation a hallucination or just a mere figure of speech? Does it bear any relation to a spiritual reality external to the human mind and finite physical existence? To address these questions I explore the visual images, both iconic and aniconic-abstract, that distinguish the Guide. There is no getting past the visual imagination, although I am not sure Maimonides would have recognized it as such. Even when he leaves behind figurative visual cues such as the false image-work of the undisciplined imagination or the appearance of angels and images of God found in lower grades of prophecy, he turns to another visual register, namely the “abstract art” of pure, dazzling light. In regard to these questions, Maimonides was more Greek than German, ascribing, cautiously, penultimate cognitive status to the visual imagination.


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Affiliations: 1: Syracuse University


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