[3.8] Maimonides on Via Negativa and Attributes of God

Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1138–1204) was the most important medieval Jewish philosopher, who, in his work “Guide of the Perplexed” defined God, as an entity with “one simple essence” with no pluarility “of faculties, moral dispositions, or essential attributes.”

From this perspective propositions, like “God is the wisest” can not be interpreted literally; more than that, they imply that God’s wisdom or power bears some likeness to ours, which Maimonides denies. 

To solve the contradiction between the absolute authenticity of the revealed text and, his philosophical view of God, he proposed three strategies for interpreting such propositions for the philosopher – readers:

  • interpret as concealed negation (via negativa)
  • interpret as an attribute of the created World
  • interpret as a metaphor

The UML Activity Diagram below depicts the usage of these strategies:

Mainmonides on via negativa
ACTIVITY/ActionDescription
Read and understand propositon about GodRead an understand revealed, biblical proposotion about God.
Interpret as concealed negationStatements like “God is powerful” are nonsense can be understood if one analyzes them as concealed negations: “Thus ‘God is powerful’ should be taken as ‘God is not lacking in power.’ Maimonides’ appeal to negation (GP 1.58) is often misunderstood because in normal speech a double negative usually indicates a positive. If I say that this dog is not lacking in the power of sight, you would be justified in concluding that it can see for the simple reason that sight is a power normally associated with dogs. What Maimonides has in mind is a more extreme form of negation. Thus ‘God is powerful’ means ‘God does not lack power or possess it in a way that makes it comparable to other things.’ Can God do something like move a book off a shelf? Yes, to the extent that God does not lack power but no to the extent that God does not have to move muscles, summon energy, or receive a supply of food or fuel. The power to create the whole universe is so far beyond that needed to move a book that any comparison cannot help but mislead.
From an epistemological standpoint, a statement like ‘God is powerful’ is objectionable in so far as it implies that we have insight into the essence of God. The advantage of the negative formulation is that it implies nothing of the sort. To say that God does not lack power or possess it in a way comparable to other things is to say that God’s power is beyond our comprehension. And similarly for God’s life, wisdom, unity, or will. Thus most of the terms we use to describe God are completely equivocal as between God and us. There is then no reason to think that every time we praise God, we are identifying a separate part of the divine persona and comparing it to something else.”
Interpret as attributes of the created WorldAccording to Maimonides, propositions like “God is merciful” or “God is angry” contain atributes in action, which should be interpreted as attributes of the created World: “we can say that God is merciful to the extent that the order of nature [World] (what God created) exhibits merciful characteristics and angry to the extent that it is harsh toward things that do not take proper care of themselves. The point is not that God possesses emotions similar to ours but that the effects of God’s actions resemble the effects of ours. Maimonides refers to these qualities as attributes of action” 
Interpret as methaphoreInterpreat the propositon as a metaphore, e.g. “God sits on a throne” is a methaphore for “God is powerful”.

Sources

  • All citations from: Seeskin, Kenneth, “Maimonides”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Ehud Z. Benor, “Meaning and Reference in Maimonides’s Negative Theology”, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 88, No. 3. (Jul., 1995), pp. 339-360.

First published: 16/04/2020

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