Maimonides and Aquinas on Man's Knowledge of God: A Twentieth Century Perspective Author(s): Isaac Franck Source: The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Mar., 1985), pp. 591-615 Published by: Philosophy Education Society Inc. Stable URL: Accessed: 15/10/2009 10:28 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Condition
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  Maimonides and Aquinas on Man's Knowledge of God: A Twentieth Century PerspectiveAuthor(s): Isaac FranckSource: The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Mar., 1985), pp. 591-615Published by: Philosophy Education Society Inc.Stable URL: Accessed: 15/10/2009 10:28 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. 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For more information about JSTOR, please contact Philosophy Education Society Inc.  is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Review of Metaphysics.  MAIMONIDES AND AQUINAS ON MAN'S KNOWLEDGE OF GOD: A TWENTIETH CENTURY PERSPECTIVE ISAAC FRANCK JIN the opening chapter of his book, Eclipse of God, Martin Buber recalls the hesitant but passionate reaction of a friend, an elderly scholar, against the author's repeated use of the word God in one of his writings: How can you bring yourself to say 'God' time after time? the old scholar asked. How can you expect that your readers will take the word in the sense in which you wish it to be taken? What you mean by the name of God is something above all human grasp and comprehension, but in speaking about it you have lowered it to human conceptualization. What word of human speech is so misused, so defiled, so desecrated as this 1 A long backward leap in time is undertaken in this essay, from the idea of God as adumbrated in the words of Buber's aging friend to the negative theology of Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas. On the question, Can man have knowledge of God? neither the simple statement by Buber's friend that God is something above all human grasp and comprehension, nor the more complex views propounded by Maimonides and Aquinas, seem to have wide acceptance among philosophers and theologians today. Indeed, in the past two or three decades several sharp attacks have appeared against negative theology and its doctrine of the unknowability of God. It would thus seem appropriate at this time to set forth some of the elements of a radical negative theology, the principal tenet of which is that while we do know that God is, on the other hand, what God is, i.e., God's nature or essence, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, remains absolutely unknown (penitus manet ignotum).2 1 Martin Buber, Eclipse of God (New York: Harper, 1952), pp. 16-17. 2 Thomas Aquinas, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith?Summa contra gentiles, trans. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Image Books, Doubleday Review of Metaphysics 38 (March 1985): 591-615. Copyright ? 1985 by the Review of Metaphysics  592 ISAAC FRANCK With some significant deviations or modifications, the doctrine outlined here of the utter unknowability of God is derived from Rabbi Moses ben Maim?n, the towering 12th century Jewish philosopher and theologian, more widely known as Moses Maimon ides, and from Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was thoroughly familiar with Maimonides' major philosophical work, the Guide of the Perplexed, and was clearly influenced by it. Before presenting an extended consideration of the views of Maimonides and Aquinas on man's knowledge of God, it will be of value to note that much of the contemporary criticism of negative theology and of the doctrine of the unknowability of God has concentrated, as we shall see below, on exposing alleged logical flaws in its reasoning. These criticisms require and deserve attention, and such comments as need to be made on some of them by way of rejoinder will be reserved for the second half of this paper. However, part of the analysis by one of these critics will be helpful at this point in the pursuit of the question of God's knowability. In his acute and instructive essay entitled, What We Can Say About God, Fred Sommers provides the reader with a distillation of essentially five views, or doctrines, classified accord ing to their claims as to what attributes we may predicate of the divine being:3 1. That which Sommers calls the naive, anthropomorphic view according to which everything predicable of a human being is also predicable of the divine being 2. The standard or sophisticated conception, rooted in Cartesian ontology and in the theology seemingly entailed by Descartes' ontology, namely, that no material predicates may be predi cated of God 3. The view which rejects Descartes' dualistic ontology, but also rejects the naive anthropomorphic theology (referred to in doctrine 1 above), and therefore must, according to Sommers, end up with an animistic or panpsychistic metaphysics like Doran, 1955), book 3, chapter 49, par. 9, p. 170. Cf. Anton C. Pegis, Penitus Manet Ignotum, in Medieval Studies 27 (1965): 212-26. 3 Fred Sommers, What We Can Say About God, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought (Winter 1966): 61-73.  MAN'S KNOWLEDGE OF GOD 593 that of Alfred North Whitehead, and a theology that speaks of God as a bodiless spirit 4. The view, which has been called negative theology, but which falls short of being thoroughgoingly negative, namely, the view that nothing predicable of man is predicable of God 5. The doctrine that no affirmative or positive attributes of any kind are predicable of God, that God is completely unknown and unknowable, that we can meaningfully say about God only what he is not (to speak of Him in negative attributes); the doctrine that man's highest knowledge of God is to know that we are unable to know Him We need be concerned here only with doctrines 4 and 5, since the views of both Maimonides and Aquinas are clearly at this end of Sommers's spectrum of possible positions. The differences between these two philosophers (albeit minimal on the main issue), and the apparent ambivalence discernible both in Aquinas and in Maimonides, make it perhaps a little risky to ascribe to them categorically doctrine 5 rather than 4, for fear of projecting on them the extreme view espoused in this paper. But at this point we had best let the two philosophers and some of their texts speak for themselves. II Maimonides' incisive and striking treatment of the problem of divine attributes, and of man's knowledge of God, is developed principally in Chapters 51 through 60 of Book 1 of the Guide of the Perplexed.4 His conclusion is that no positive attributes may 4 Moses Mairionides, The Guide of the Perplexed. The standard Arabic edition is Dalalat al-ha'irin, ed. Issachar Joel (Jerusalem: J. Jumovitch, 1930-31). The most authoritative English translation is by Shlomo Pines, with an introductory essay by Leo Strauss (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 112-47. (Moses Maimonides was born in 1135 and died in 1204. His philo sophic magnum opus was the Guide of the Perplexed, written in Arabic but in Hebrew characters, and completed about the year 1190. The first translation into Hebrew was completed in the year of the author's death. One or more translations into Latin were made from the Hebrew and were in circulation among Christian philosophers and theologians well before the middle of the 13th century.)
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