6 thoughts on “Maimonides and the Whiteness of Jewish Philosophical Theology

  1. For those interested the relevant bit where he discusses this purposeless creation is Book III, Chapter XIII. I’ve heard from Agata Bielik-Robson that Maimonides was a forerunner to Spinoza’s philosophy and reading this book you can see that all over the place. In this chapter we essentially get a pre-Spinozist notion of conatus where he writes that there is no purpose in the universe “except its own existence, which depends upon the will of God”. This appears to be applied to all things, from the universe to gnats (he has an interesting bestiary in the text).

  2. This sounds like a theologizing of the Aristotelian natural slave doctrine. Especially the idea that these people without a religious belief of any sort are “outside the city/polis”. However, Maimonides does not go on to say that such people need to be ruled (used as slaves, as “natural tools”) by people with the ability for political governance. That step is taken by Gines de Sepulveda in the Valladolid (?) debate between him and Bartalome de las Casas. But remember that las Casas argued against Sepulveda that the Amerindians have religion to prove that they are “within the city.” In effect, even the most liberal anti-colonialist anthropology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century repeats the gesture: here is a “culture” that is “human” because it has patterns of meaning that include what looks to us like “religion.” And Marx is no better. The human “species-being” is precisely identified as being alienated through religious belief. So, what am I saying? Yes, Maimonides is no worse than Marx. The real issue is the definition of human as “animal that has some form of religion.” Is this pernicious per se? Doesn’t that depend on what you accept as “religion”? Maimonides was pretty liberal about it, accepting idolatry and animism as religion. The question is, was he only wrong as a matter of fact or was he (and Sepulveda and Marx) wrong on principle? But that requires us to answer the question, What is religion? If we want to use Marx, it is any form of self-consciousness that is not that of the classless society. So, religion is self-consciousness. Would you be willing to accept the humanity of a being that lacked self-consciousness? I actually think that is why Maimonides did not accept the humanity of those folks. He actually thought that they lacked the ability to reflect upon themselves (as mortal, and therefore as having some interest in surviving death) and were just above apes but not yet human. Is it horrible to think that any group of humans lack self-consciousness? Sure. But isn’t it more interesting to wonder how we know? (Philip K. Dick’s obsession.) And then it’s not so flattering to ourselves to just wag our fingers at Maimonides when we reflect upon the fact that until we acknowledge that we don’t know whether another being has self-consciousness and we are simply trusting in the other’s humanity, we our no better than Maimonides. That is, if we think we have a yardstick for including those folks that Maimonides excluded we are only repeating the same error. It’s not a question of whether someone is or is not self-conscious (=possessed of or able to possess religion), it is a question of whether we accept that the question is fundamentally unethical since it makes me the judge of humanity. (Wittgenstein has interesting things to say about how we judge another to be “possessed of a soul;” it is not based on criteria.) I am saying, sure, Maimonides is horrible, but he is no worse here than the entire Western tradition that thinks it divide human from non-human on the basis of some certain rule. To say it’s religion is at least to be on the way to seeing that, since religion is a matter of trust, so is judging the humanity of the other.

  3. Another way of saying this is: there is no concept of “human,” at least not ethically speaking (a certain DNA sequence may serve for a biologist, but not to define what Kant would call a member of the kingdom of ends). When you say that the concept has something to do with religion, you are wrong in principle (there is no concept), but then if you realize that there is no concept of religion in principle (or that there is no concept of God, but only an Idea, as Kant would say), then maybe there is an element of truth in the error. Human and God are both regulative Ideas, not objects of cognition. They are among the things one can hope exist, as Kant says, and whose only proof that they might exist consists in the fact that we hope for them to exist. If we stopped hoping to realize the Idea of Human in our ethical lives, we would stop being human. We aren’t human, but we aspire to be.

  4. I’m still thinking this over and really appreciate these comments. @Bruce: have you read Chidester’s _Savage Systems_? I bring it up because documents how the reverse was the case in early colonial South Africa. When indigenous populations fought colonial rule, they were deemed to lack any religion, and therefore fall short of being human (and thus, as more similar to animals, could be extirpated if needed and had no right to the land). However, again and again, once the population was subjugated, then they were discovered to have some kind of native religion after all. The same group would thus oscillate between having a religion and having no religion, depending on their relationship to colonial settlers. Chidester argues that this history is part of the formation of the modern concept of religion.

  5. Without agreeing with Bruce’s apology for Maimonides in toto, I also think that the latter is following the well-known Aristotelian tradition of demarcating the “human” from the “lesser humans” (he was forced to change his mind because of Alexander’s discoveries from conquering the “barbarians”) – though in a post-Hellenistic way. In particular, the point here seems to be that if the human is a “zoon logikon,” then s/he ought to be endowed with a certain logos concerning God (this is also implicit in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy), the very giver of logos. Lacking that, then, the humanity of a man or woman comes under doubt. Sure, we can see that Maimonides’ anthropology of sub-Saharan Africans and Turks (before many of them converted to Islam) was sketchy at best, but it was sketchy probably because Maimonides was speaking as an armchair ethnographer rather than as a vicious human neighbor, and moreover could simply not think outside the framework of monotheism (pace Bruce’s allowances to the contrary). Yet in being so influenced by Greek thought and Abrahamic tradition (the tradition he must be referring to in the quoted passage), Maimonides was no better or worse or much different than most of his age. When Aquinas later judged sodomy a lesser offense than bestiality, he was deploying a similar sort of valuation of the chain of beings – no Hadrian or Alcibiades was he… Another, perhaps related, point: It seems to me that Maimonides’ willingness to exclude certain people on the basis of their piety (or “lack” thereof) is tied up with the question of governance, which in his world would have been strongly based either on Sharia, Halakhah or even Canon Law – hence the somewhat tautological nature of his whole argument.

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