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Maimon, Solomon

MAIMON, SOLOMON (1753–1800), philosopher. Maimon was born in Sukoviburg, Poland (now Belarus). He was a child prodigy in the study of rabbinical literature. Married at the age of 11 and a father at 14, Maimon supported his family by working as a tutor in neighboring towns. In his spare time he studied Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah; he adopted the name "Maimon" in honor of Maimonides. His attempt to demonstrate that the Kabbalah is based on philosophy caused the Hasidim with whom he associated to regard him as a heretic. He turned to the study of secular subjects and left his home and family to study in Berlin. In about 1777, after many hardships, he arrived at the gates of Berlin but was refused entry by officials of the Jewish community. After six months as a mendicant he arrived in Posen (Poznan), where he was received and aided by the rabbi, Ẓvi Hirsch b. Abraham. He taught for two years in Posen, but, finding the religious atmosphere of the community stifling, he made another trip to Berlin; this time he was able to enter the city.

In Berlin he became a member of Moses *Mendelssohn's circle, but was abandoned by Mendelssohn a few years later because of the dissolute life he led. Forced to leave Berlin, he moved first to Hamburg and then to Amsterdam. In Hamburg he beseeched a Lutheran pastor to convert him to Christianity, yet he confessed his disbelief in Christian doctrines. The pastor retorted that Maimon was too much a philosopher to be a Christian. Thereafter, between 1783 and 1786, with the help of some benefactors, he was able to study at the gymnasium of Altona. Still poverty-stricken, he moved from Altona to Berlin, then to Breslau, and in 1787 back to Berlin. There he studied Kantian philosophy and under its influence wrote his first work in German, Versuch ueber die Transzendentalphilosophie (1790). He sent a manuscript of the book to Marcus *Herz, who sent it to Immanuel *Kant. Kant remarked in a letter to Herz (May 26, 1789) that it was clear to him from a cursory study of the book that its value was very great, and that nobody understood his philosophy as well as Maimon (E. Cassirer (ed.), Immanuel Kants Werke, 9 (1918), 415). Kant's letter determined Maimon's future. He found a publisher for his book and scholarly journals accepted his articles for publication. From 1790 to 1795 Maimon was supported by a benefactor, Count Adolf Kalkreuth, at whose residences near Berlin and Freistadt, Silesia, he lived. When Maimon died, he was buried outside the Jewish cemetery as a heretic.

Other Works

In 1791 Maimon published a philosophical lexicon, containing a series of essays on the principal points of philosophy (new edition 1970). In 1793 he published his Streifereien im Gebiete der Philosophie, followed by three works on the history of philosophy: Ueber die Progresse der Philosophie (1793); Versuch einer neuen Logik (1794; 18122), in which he attempted to expound a system of logic; and Die Kategorien des Aristoteles (1794, 17982). In 1797 his work Kritische Untersuchungen ueber den menschlichen Geist was published.

Maimon also wrote the following works in Hebrew, but only the first was published: Givat ha-Moreh (1791; ed. by S.H. Bergman and N. Rotenstreich, 1966), a commentary on the first part of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed; Ta'alumot Hokhmah, on mathematical physics; and Ḥeshek Shelomo, which was divided into four parts, namely "Ma'aseh Nissim," on the 12 sermons of Nissim b. Reuben Gerondi, "Eved Avraham," on Ibn Ezra's commentary on the Pentateuch and Psalms, "Ma'aseh Livnat ha-Sappir," which are reflections, and "Ma'aseh Ḥoshev," on algebra. Maimon's autobiography (Solomon Maimons Lebengeschichte, von ihm selbst geschrieben), his only book to win wide acclaim, was published in Berlin in 1793 (Eng. trans. by M. Hadas (1947) and S.H. Bergmann (ed.; 1954); Heb. trans. (1942). It is an important source for the study of Judaism and Ḥasidism in Eastern Europe in that period. The 12th chapter describes Mendelssohn and his thought.


To account for the origin of knowledge and its objectivity, the German philosopher Kant had posited the "thing-in-itself" as something existing outside the mind but unknowable in itself. Maimon's main contribution was to give a new direction to Kant's discussion of it. Maimon agreed with Kant that the cognition process must have a cause and that this cause must also guarantee the objectivity of the knowledge. But he differed from Kant by holding that this cause exists in the mind, not outside it. Invoking Kant's distinction between sensibility and understanding, Maimon affirmed that the concepts of understanding arise from perceptions of sensibility, which he appears to assume are the same for everyone, and which therefore guarantee their objectivity. Maimon maintained further that sensibility is a kind of understanding, but more limited and imperfect than understanding itself.

The "thing-in-itself" had another meaning for Maimon, namely, as the final goal toward which all cognition tends. Our knowledge is always fragmentary, but as it increases it approaches an ideal knowledge. This may be illustrated by a polygon, which approaches a circle as sides are added, but does not reach it.


While Maimon rejected Kant's extra-mental "thing-in-itself" as the cause of knowledge and the guarantor of its objectivity, he still had to answer Kant's question of how knowledge is related to a world outside the mind. In his words, "To find a passage from the external world to the mental world is more important than to find a way to East India, no matter what statesmen may say." Maimon bridged this gap by assuming that our sensibility is only an imperfect expression of intellectual reality which underlies the world. Hence the objects of the outside world presented to sensibility are concepts and their relations. But since concepts and their relations must inhere in some intellect, Maimon posits an infinite intellect. Our intellect is derived from this infinite intellect. As finite creatures we can only comprehend a small portion of this rational structure of the world.

The assumption of an infinite intellect permits Maimon to bridge the gap between the intra-mental and extral-mental worlds. But the infinite intellect, in turn, does not receive concepts from objects lying outside of it; rather, it creates objects from within itself. There is no distinction between the form of knowledge and its content. Maimon summarized his position: "We posit… an infinite intellect… which creates out of itself all possible kinds of relations of things. Our intellect is the very same intellect, but in a more limited degree."


Maimon had to face the further problem of how to describe the mode of thinking of the infinite intellect, that is, how the concepts cohere to create the structure of the rational world. To answer that question Maimon formulated the "law of determinability" ("Satz der Bestimmbarkeit"). One account of this complex notion was based on Kant's distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments. Analytic judgments, whose form is "A is A," are tautological and they do not produce knowledge; synthetic judgments, whose form is "A is B," produce certain knowledge. Maimon criticizes Kant's notion that synthetic judgments are certain, since in his view subject and predicate in these judgments are foreign to one another. Against Kant's two kinds of judgments, Maimon posited a third – the "law of determinability" – according to which there exists a judgment which is both analytic and synthetic. Using the proposition "the color is blue," Maimon states that the subject (the color) can exist without the predicate (blue), and, hence, the relation between subject and predicate is synthetic; on the other hand, the predicate (blue) cannot exist alone but only in connection with the subject and, hence, it is analytic. Maimon had hoped that through this law he could open new possibilities for metaphysics, but he was too careful a philosopher to attempt to build this speculative structure himself.


Despite the rationalist structure of his idealist philosophy, Maimon exhibited a skeptical streak. While he claimed that the hypothesis of an infinite intellect and the discovery of the law of determinability provide the possibility of viewing the world as a rational structure, he never claimed that one could know with certainty that this rational structure in fact exists in the world. The kind of doubts raised by skeptical philosophers such as David Hume remained. Philosophy can only show that it is possible to construct a rational structure for the world, but it cannot show that this rational structure exists in fact. Hence, one can only philosophize "conditionally."

Maimon's philosophy strongly influenced the philosopher Johann Fichte and, through Fichte, German idealist philosophy. During the 19th century, Maimon was neglected; as a result of the efforts of the historian of philosophy J.E. Erdmann (in his History of Philosophy (18923), index), however, interest in Maimon has been revived in the 20th century. In recent years several basic books dealing with his system have appeared. A new photostatic edition of his collected works began to appear in 1965.


N.J. Jacobs, in: KS, 41 (1965/66), 245–62 (bibl. of his writings and writings about him); S.H. Bergman, The Philosophy of Solomon Maimon (1967). Add. Bibliography: G. Freudenthal, Salomon Maimon: Rational Dogmatist, Empirical Sceptic (2003).