[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

[3.4] Ibn Gabirol on Cosmology and Universal Hylomorphism

Jewish philosopher and poet Solomon ben Judah Ibn Gabirol (or Ibn Jabirul in Arabic; Avicebron in Latin, 1021/2-1057/8 AD) in his work Fons Vitae envisioned a cosmology, which is:

  • emanationist in a neoplatonist sense, like that of Plotinus, al-Farabi, Avicenna (see [2.4.2], [3.2.1], [3.3.2])
  • emphasizes the importance of the Devine Will
  • and distinctively introduces universal hylomorphism (for hylomorphism see [1.3.5] and [1.3.7]), meaning that the (universal) intellect and soul – not just the bodies – are compound of matter and form.

Here is a OntoUML representation of Ibn Gabirol’s cosmology:

Ibn Gabirol cosmology and universal hylomorphism
ClassDescription Relations
God“Ibn Gabirol’s God is described as a Creator God who is an absolute simple unity—so simple as to exceed the grasp of the human mind and tongue.” relates to Matter and DivineWill
Matter “God’s formative act begins with creating matter and form (possibly a creation ex nihilo, but described fluidly enough as to leave open other interpretations)”
Form “God’s formative act begins with creating…form…  form, on the contrary, arising somewhat secondarily from the Divine Will.”relates to DivineWill
DivineWillWill is identified also with Wisdom and Word.
“Turning further to Will’s mediating cosmic role, while the Latin text translates “intermediary between the extremes,” the Arabic text uses a dual grammatical form, translating more specifically as “intermediary between the two extremes…, Ibn Gabirol might mean that Will intermediates between (1) matter and (2) form, the two cosmic “building blocks” out of which all reality is comprised.”
mediates between Matter and Form
UniversalIntellect “In Ibn Gabirol’s cosmology, Intellect is highlighted as the first created being, as the Divine Glory (Kavod),and as the first occurrence of “form in matter” composition… Pure universal matter is thus coupled—in a process overseen by Divine Will—with a pure universal form to yield the first fully existing substance, Universal Intellect.”
PureMatter“Ibn Gabirol describes pure matter as stemming directly from the Divine Essence itself… existent in and of itself, of a single essence, sustaining diversity, and giving to everything its essence and name”is contained by UniversalIntellect; is Matter
PureFormThe closest Form to the Devine Will, contained in the Universal Intellect. is component of UniversalIntellect; is Form
UniversalSoul Ibn Gabirol also envisions not one but three Universal Soulsrelates to UniversalIntellect and itself (there are 3 souls in a chain of emanation)
MatterSMatter of the Universal Soul is contained by UniversalSoul; is Matter
FormSForm of the Universal Soulis component of UniversalSoul; is Form
CeletialBodyCelestial Bodies are: Fixed Stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moonrelates to UniversalSoul and itself (there are 8 bodies in a chain of emanation)
MatterCMatter of the Celestial Bodyis contained by CelestialBody; is Matter
FormCForm of the Celestial Body is component of CelestialBody; is Form
TerrestrialBodyAll bodies on the Earth relates to CeletialBody
LowerMatterForm of the Celestial Body is contained by TerrestrialBody; is Matter
LowerForm Form of the Celestial Body is component of TerrestrialBody; is Form

The following triplets present hylomorphic structure:

  • PureMatter – UniversalIntellect – PureForm
  • MatterS – UniversalSoul – FormS
  • MatterC – CeletialBody – FormC
  • LowerMatter – TerrestrialBody – LowerForm

Sources

First published: 12/09/2019