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  • Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed: Science and Salvation
  • Jonathan Jacobs
Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed: Science and Salvation. By Donald McCallum. Routledge Jewish Studies Series. New York: Routledge, 2007. Pp. iii + 183.

Donald McCallum says of his book Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed: Science and Salvation that its aim "is to establish whether or not there is a non-revelatory doctrine of salvation from death contained within Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed " (p. xi). He explores the question through the explication of "a parallel between some aspects of the Guide, and analogous aspects of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, with a benefit of this parallel being provided in the application of the distinction between saying and showing to Maimonides' work" (p. xi). With regard to the stated aim, the approach is to examine whether human salvation can be achieved utterly and exclusively through "human ratiocination unassisted by revelation" (p. 8). With regard to the parallel with Wittgenstein, the author argues that Wittgenstein and Maimonides share the view that, given the limits of human language and knowledge, there are ultimate, significant things that can only be shown and cannot be said. The author clearly acknowledges the great differences between Maimonides and Wittgenstein but also believes that there is a deep and important parallel concerning seeing truths beyond what can be asserted with rational justification.

The main element of Maimonides' philosophy through which the parallel is developed is his negative theology: we cannot predicate affirmative attributes of [End Page 407] God and we are limited to affirmative predications concerning God's actions. The author quotes Maimonides:

Every attribute we predicate of Him is an attribute of action or, if the attribute is intended for the apprehension of His essence and not of His action, it signifies the negation of the privation of the attribute in question.

(p. 47)


Accordingly, silence and limiting oneself to the apprehension of the intellects are more appropriate—just as the perfect ones have enjoined when they said, Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still.

(p. 49)

Like Wittgenstein, Maimonides believes that there are certain matters that we must pass over in silence—they cannot be explicated or conceptualized in (broadly) scientific or theoretical terms—but they concern the most important things. Mc Callum writes:

The story in the Torah provides a lesson about faith and God's mercy by showing us God acting in the world—a lesson that on the fundamental principles of Maimonides' philosophical theology cannot be imparted by saying, as the latter method of impartation would lead us into the forbidden territory of positive essential attributes.

(p. 140)

The method of demonstration or science and philosophy in general cannot give us the knowledge of attributes of God's action or of metaphysics that the Bible gives us. Given the constraints of negative theology, we cannot achieve superlunary metaphysical knowledge.

Still, it is the actualized intellect that survives death. The soteriology of the Guide is intellectualist and nonindividual. This is because those who have attained "the intellectual development requisite for salvation . . . lose their identity as they conjoin with the Active Intellect and participate in its immortality" (p. 119). The main concern for McCallum is whether this is attainable by an isolate, by a person wholly alone, using only his own reason.

The model McCallum uses for this is Ibn Tufail's allegory Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, "which shows how an isolated human being achieves salvation with no access at all to the doctrines of revealed religion, using only his own reason and senses" (p. xi). The question, according to McCallum, is "whether a naturalistic conception of salvation is to be found in the Guide" (p. 71). The model of the isolated individual—a more extreme case than that of the virtuous person in the vicious city—is a way to bring this into bold relief. McCallum's book is an integrated approach to this question, along with the question of the relation between philosophy and religion, both as revelation and as a practical guide to life, and the issue mentioned above, concerning the limits of human scientific understanding.

McCallum's conclusion is twofold. (1) "A Maimonidean isolate would not...