How To Study The Beginning Of The "Guide Of The Perplexed:" Thoughts On Maimonides’ Philosophy Of Language

Like most other books, the Guide of the Perplexed is a book of words. Unlike most other books, however, it is a book about words. Maimonides, in his Introduction to the First Part, claims that the Guide has two goals. The first purpose is to explain the meaning of various terms occurring in the books of prophecy. The second purpose is to explain perplexing parables occurring in the books of prophecy. Maimonides in fact calls his work the “Guide of the Perplexed” for it apparently serves as a guide to illuminate these parables. Evidently, the second purpose is the main purpose, for it is the title of the book. Yet, the main purpose is also the second purpose. Its secondary character cannot be attributed to its secondary importance, but rather to its secondary station in the order of learning: to achieve the second purpose, we must first achieve the first. To understand the Guide of the Perplexed, we must understand the parables, but to understand the parables, we must first understand the words. Thus, the Guide of the Perplexed is a book of words about words.

Maimonides wrote a book of words, but that is unremarkable, for most books are books of words, and certainly in Maimonides’ time, all books were books of words. The question then is: how did Maimonides use the words in his book about words? Maimonides could have used the words as the prophets used theirs: to create “internal” meaning by “external” means (I, intro.). Or, perhaps, Maimonides used words as the non-prophetic writers do: with only an “external” meaning and without an “internal” meaning. This form of writing can be called “propositional writing” or “denotation”. To understand the Guide of the Perplexed, we must understand how Maimonides uses his words and what uses them for. To do this, we must first understand Maimonides’ philosophy of language.

Maimonides opens his treatise with his own quotation, but a quotation which closely parallels Scripture:

My knowledge goes forth to point out the way,
To pave straight its road
Lo, everyone who goes astray in the field of Torah,
Come and follow its path.
The unclean and the fool shall not pass over it;
It shall be called the Way of Holiness.

Consider now the close parallel in Isaiah (35:8):

And a highway shall be there, and a way,
And it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
The unclean shall not pass over it;
But it shall be for those; the wayfaring men,
Yea fools, shall not err therein.

Maimonides thereby signifies he is not in the business of repeating Scripture, nor is he in the business of philosophizing independently of it. He is in the business, rather, of interpreting or philosophizing about Scripture. Maimonides opens his Treatise with a description of his Treatise: an interpretation of or a philosophizing about Scripture. In fact, this opening serves as a double description. Maimonides states explicitly and propositionally what his purpose is: “to pave straight a road.” Maimonides propositional statements also have an “internal meaning”: they indicate and reference his intention to interpret Scripture. We can say, therefore, that the purpose of “paving straight a road” parallels the propositional form of writing. Moreover, the purpose of interpreting Scripture parallels the prophetic style of writing, i.e. writing with internal meaning. We can go further and say that the purpose of paving straight a road, i.e. guiding the reader in his interpretation of the prophets, can be accomplished by propositional writing. Moreover, the purpose of interpreting Scripture cannot be accomplished by propositional writing. Instead, the content of the Scriptural interpretations will be conveyed by the “internal sense” of Maimonides’ writings.

Do these two modes of language reflect two modes of knowledge, or is there a single mode of knowledge with two media of attainment of knowledge? Maimonides here only refers to one knowledge — the knowledge which paves straight the Way of Holiness. But we cannot be sure whether Maimonides means there exists only one mode of knowledge or if he means something else by it. The Guide o pens with an ambiguity about knowledge and a certainty about two media of language. We can say then that the question — or, at the very least, a question — of the Guide is the relationship between language and knowledge.

Maimonides’ discussion of language and knowledge and his discussion of God revolve around these issues. Language cannot be used to correctly reference God. Consequently, God is unknowable. Thus, Maimonides developed the so-called “negative theology”. Or so the story usually goes. But we must ask this questions in light of our observations: which of the two modes of language is incapable of referring correctly to God? Moreover, what sort of unknowability precludes our apprehension of God? To address these questions, we must first recognize that these questions are language questions.

We have before us two sets of questions. The first set of questions concern the types of knowledge and the media through which we achieve knowledge — that is, either through denotation or proposition on the one hand, and suggestion or indication on the other hand. The second set of questions is about the relationship between knowledge and language. These seem to be the stated problems of the Guide. Yet, Maimonides has a third purpose: “the science of the Law in its true sense” (I intro.). Yet, Maimonides qualifies his third purpose with another purpose: “or, rather, its purpose is to give indications [about the Law]…” (ibid.).

Which is it? Is the purpose of this Treatise to provide the science of the Law in the true sense or to give indications concerning the Law? Moreover, why does Maimonides qualify his first claim as though it were imprecise? If the latter claim is more precise, Maimonides should have struck the former claim from his manuscripts. More generally, why does Maimonides not include this purpose in his count of purposes? He only counts two — (i) the explanation of words; (ii) the explanation of parables — and thereby leaves out this purpose.

Evidently, Maimonides does not include the purpose of the “science of the Law” etc. etc. in his count because he has already exhausted it through his count: the other goals of the Guide of the Perplexed include in them the goal of explaining the “science of the Law” etc. etc. Maimonides believes that understanding the words of the prophets and the parables of the prophets achieves understanding of the “science of the Law” etc. etc. Maimonides does not count this goal of the “science of the Law” etc. etc. because it is subsumed under the two goals of language. Thus, Maimonides held the understanding of the Law and the understanding of language of the prophets to be the same understanding. Thus, in Maimonides view, the question of the Law is also a question of language.

But let us return to our initial question: why does Maimonides include the qualifications in his account — why not edit out his mistake and imprecision? Evidently, Maimonides did not consider this an imprecision; he intended, rather, to write both. There exists a dual knowledge of the Law. There exists knowledge of the Law in the propositional form, in the form of denotation, and this purpose is shared by “all those like it [i.e. Guide of the Perplexed]”. However, there exists a second knowledge of the Law which is knowledge by way of indication: “or, rather, its purpose is to give indications. . .”. Thus, we have two media for knowledge of language and two media for knowledge of the law: denotation and proposition on the one hand, and suggestion and indication on the other.

Maimonides refers to these two media in his citation of Scripture in the opening of the Guide: (i) “my voice is to the sons of men” (Prov. 8:4); (ii) and “apply thy heart unto my knowledge” (Prov. 22:17). Maimonides believes there exists a propositional knowledge understood by the ear and a knowledge of indication understood by the heart (I, intro.). The voice, the word, the logos is understood by the son of man through their faculty which makes them men: their logos. Knowledge, however, cannot be understood by the ear, but only by the heart. Thus Maimonides believes the highest sort of knowledge — the one that deserves the title of knowledge — can only be understood by the heart.

The knowledge known through indication and suggestion cannot be concretized into the formalized medium of the word. The word is capable of permanent illumination, for the word permanently represents the object. However, when we come to knowledge by suggestion and by indication, we quickly “find ourselves again in obscure night, as we were at first” (I, intro.).

The greatest religious expression for Maimonides, then, comes with the abandonment of proposition: “For he who praises through speech only makes known what he has represented to himself” (II, 5). Maimonides claims that the private language — that is, a language in which the meaning is known only to the man who creates it — rises above the denotation of the logos and can only be understood when “applying the heart”. Maimonides developed his views on the so-called negative theology alongside his views of knowledge and of language. The commonly understood view of Maimonides’ negative theology equates the inability to express propositions about the nature of God with the inability to know anything about the nature of God (I, 56).

However, as we have shown, there exists two types of knowledge — the knowledge of the logos and the knowledge which can be apprehended by the heart. We can already begin to see how Maimonides can develop a more robust theology than the spartan negative theology which is usually ascribed to him. Negative theology only captures the limitations of expression of the logos and knowledge understood “through the ear.” We still may know God through knowledge “of the heart.” What then are these knowledges? More precisely, how does Maimonides believe we come to apprehend these “truths of the heart”?

Maimonides believes that the imaginative faculty must first be perfected before one attains the requisite perfection for prophecy (II, 32). However, it is not self evident why the imaginative faculty is necessary for prophecy. Maimonides evidently believes that the two faculties-- the faculty of the intellect or the faculty of reason on the one hand and the faculty of imagination on the other hand — correspond to the two modes of knowledge: the propositional knowledge, represented by the voice and the ear, and and the knowledge achieved by suggestion and indication, which is ascertained by the heart. Maimonides believes that the truths which are ascertained via the imaginative faculty and the heart are higher truths than those ascertained via the intellectual faculty and the ear. Thus, the prophet can only access these truths if he has perfected his imaginative faculty, for it is through the imaginative faculty that these truths are understood.

Now, how do the prophets go about the transmission of these truths if they cannot be expressed through the logos? The prophets do not speak by proposition; they speak, rather, through parables. For the parables achieve representation via the imagination. The parables represent truths by suggestion and by indication, for that it is the only way to represent the truths which cannot be frozen into propositions. The parables thus communicate truths which rise above propositional truths. The prophet must perfect his imaginative faculty in order to apprehend the higher truths of the Divine. The prophet must perfect his imaginative faculty in order to write in the manner of the “filagree of silver;” the manner of the parable; the manner of suggestion and indication; the manner which only the heart understands.

Thus, Maimonides’ views on negative theology are views about language. Maimonides views on negative theology are not views about knowledge. Maimonides’ rejection of positive attribution of God is a rejection of the enterprise of language to positively attribute properties to God. Maimonides does not reject the enterprise of positive knowledge of God. Maimonides thus allows for something higher and richer than an austere negative theology which is often ascribed to him. However, what is not yet clear is how exactly this robust theology and religious life can be achieved.

Maimonides, as we have shown, believes that the study of the prophetic parables and the study of the Law in its true sense are in fact the same study. We have succeeded in demonstrating that Maimonides believes that the study of the prophets achieves the apprehension of the higher truths of the heart. Now, by identifying the study of the prophetic parables with the study of the science of the Law in its true sense, we have eo ipso succeeded in demonstrating that the science of the Law in its true sense consists as well in the apprehension of the higher truths of the heart. Thus, we have shown that the achievement of this higher knowledge requires the study of the prophets and the proper observance and understanding of the Law.

Elsewhere, Maimonides states that the purpose of the Law is the ethical and intellectual perfection of man (III, 31). Thus, the attainment of the intellectual perfection by way of properly observing and understanding the Law allows man to ascertain these truths apprehended by the prophets — those truths which cannot be reduced to a list of propositions. The proper observance and understanding of the Law thus forges the personage of man to be the sort of being capable of attaining these higher truths.

We have made an effort to understand the rubric of Maimonides’ study of philosophy, which concerns knowledge and language. In addressing these issues, which begin Maimonides’ Treatise, we have inevitably come to discuss Maimonides’ views on the Law. Thus, we may understand Maimonides’ views on the Law as views about knowledge and language. Questions of knowledge, however, have been shown to be ultimately questions about language.

So, we may end as we have have begun by observing that: “the Guide of the Perplexed is a book of words about words.”


Sources Cited and Suggested Readings

Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Pines, S. Chicago University Press. 1963.


Benor, E. Meaning and Reference in Maimonides’ Negative Theology, Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 88, No. 3 (Jul. 1995), pp. 339-360.

Gordon, P. The Erotics of Negative Theology: Maimonides on Apprehension, Jewish Studies Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1995) pp. 1-38.

Ravitsky, A. Maimonides’ Theory of Language: Philosophy and Halakhah [Hebrew], Tarbiz, 2007, Tishrei-Adar, pp. 185-231.

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