Cookies Policy

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

I accept this policy

Find out more here

Maimonides and the Visual Image after Kant and Cohen

No metrics data to plot.
The attempt to load metrics for this article has failed.
The attempt to plot a graph for these metrics has failed.
MyBook is a cheap paperback edition of the original book and will be sold at uniform, low price.

Buy this article

$30.00+ Tax (if applicable)
Add to Favorites

image of The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy

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.

1. FN11 Richard Kearney, The Wake of the Imagination: Ideas of Creativity in Western Culture (London: Hutchinson, 1988), 15, 16. Kearney uses the word “object” in the sense in which I use “referent.”
2. FN22 Kalman Bland, The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmation and Denials of the Visual (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), chaps. 4–5; Charles H. Manekin, “Belief, Certainty, and Divine Attributes in the Guide of the Perplexed,” in Maimonidean Studies, vol. 1, ed. Arthur Hyman (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1990), 117–41; Heidi M. Ravven, “Some Thoughts on What Spinoza Learned from Maimonides about the Prophetic Imagination. Part 1. Maimonides on Prophecy and the Imagination,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 39 (2001): 193–214. The articles referred to here by Kenneth Seeskin (“Sanctity and Silence: The Religious Significance of Maimonides’ Negative Theology”), Diana Lobel (“‘Silence is Praise to You’: Maimonides on Negative Theology, Looseness of Expression, and Religious Experience”), Sarah Pessin (“Matter, Metaphor, and Private Pointing: Maimonides on the Complexity of Human Being”), and Menachem Kellner (“Is Maimonides’ Ideal Person Austerely Rationalist?”) appeared in American Catholic Quarterly 76, no. 1 (2002), a special issue devoted to Maimonides.
3. FN33 All citations of Aristotle come from The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941).
4. FN44 Hermann Cohen, Logik der reinen Erkenntnis, in Werke, vol. 6 (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1977), 53, 59–60.
5. FN55 Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism, trans. Simon Kaplan (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), 58.
6. FN66 Cf. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 72, 76, 93.
7. FN77 Hermann Cohen, Werke, vol. 9, Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls, vol. 2 (Hildesheim: Olms, 1982), 404–5; cf. 322–4. See also Hermann Cohen, Werke, vol. 8, Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls, vol. 1 (Hildesheim: Olms, 1982), 337–8.
8. FN88 On the use of language in modern art, see W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Wendy Steiner, The Colors of Rhetoric: Problems in the Relation between Modern Literature and Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Wendy Steiner, Pictures of Romance: Form against Context in Painting and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
9. FN99 According to Kreisel, the appearance of imagination in Maimonides’ legal writings is meant to uphold the distinctiveness of Mosaic prophecy. He finds “this shift in focus” to imagination in part 2 “surprising.” Howard Kreisel, Prophecy: The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), 241–2.
10. FN1010 José Faur, Homo Mysticus: A Guide to Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 71, cf. 73.
11. FN1111 All quotations of the Guide are reproduced from The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963).
12. FN1212 Maimonides himself does not use the term “common sense.” It belongs to the psychology of Avicenna and is understood to be that first internal sense that receives sense impression and conveys it to the imagination. Its appearance in Maimonides is inferred by Harry Austryn Wolfson, “Maimonides on the Internal Senses,” in Studies in the History of Philosophy and Religion, vol. 1, ed. Isadore Twersky and George H. Williams (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 348–9.
13. FN1313 Richard Walzer, Al-Farabi on the Perfect State: A Revised Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 414.
14. FN1414 For more on the difference between Maimonides and al-Fārābi, see Kreisel, Prophecy. Maimonides does not mention practical reason. In contrast, al-Fārābi limits the role of reason in prophecy, placing the entire focus on imagination. Maimonides’ theory of prophecy is thus more restricted insofar as Maimonides limits prophecy to those whose theoretical reason, not just their practical reason, is perfect (Kreisel, Prophecy, 245–246).
15. FN1515 All citations of Plato are reproduced from Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).
16. FN1616 On dreams, divination, and the daimonion, see Mark L. McPheran, The Religion of Socrates (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 175–85, 195. McPheran argues that Socrates combines “extrarational indicators” (177) with elenctic testing. Dreams provide a minimal “kernel of assured truth” that requires rigorous rational investigation.
17. FN1717 Lenn Goodman, “Maimonides and the Philosophers of Islam: The Problem of Theophany,” in Judaism and Islam: Boundaries, Communications, and Interaction. Essays in Honor of William M. Brinner (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 289. In contrast, Oliver Leaman argues that “God’s part in this process seems rather restricted.” Leaman, An Introduction to Classical Islamic Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 87. Cf. Oliver Leaman, “Maimonides, Imagination, and the Objectivity of Prophecy,” Religion 18 (1988): 69–80. For Leaman, prophetic imagination remains internal to the human mind, restricted to language and to dreams. As to questions regarding the objective existence of a referent corresponding to any such image, Leaman cites Chekhov’s short story “The Black Monk.” The apparitional figure of a black monk visits the unhappy and delusional young philosophy student who is the story’s protagonist. The monk explains, “I exist in your imagination, and your imagination is part of nature, consequently, I exist in nature too” (Leaman, “Maimonides,” 79–80). This response reflects the more skeptical position of Aristotle on the ontological status of veridical dreams, not the position of Maimonides, al-Fārābi, and Plato.
18. FN1818 Against the Kantian interpretation of Maimonides, see Manekin, “Belief, Certainty, and Divine Attributes,” 132–41. According to Manekin, Maimonides affirmed “indemonstrable propositions that may be believed with near-certainty because they are ‘nearly demonstrable’ ” (139).
19. FN1919 Aaron W. Hughes, The Texture of the Divine: Imagination in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Thought (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 171.
20. FN2020 On the formal affinity between modern art, Jewish law, and Maimonidean rationalism, see Steven Schwarzschild, “The Legal Foundations of Jewish Aesthetics,” in The Pursuit of the Ideal, ed. Menachem Kellner (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 114.

Article metrics loading...


Affiliations: 1: Syracuse University


Can't access your account?
  • Tools

  • Add to Favorites
  • Printable version
  • Email this page
  • Subscribe to ToC alert
  • Get permissions
  • Recommend to your library

    You must fill out fields marked with: *

    Librarian details
    Your details
    Why are you recommending this title?
    Select reason:
    The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy — Recommend this title to your library

    Thank you

    Your recommendation has been sent to your librarian.

  • Export citations
  • Key

  • Full access
  • Open Access
  • Partial/No accessInformation