- The Radical Enlightenment of Solomon Maimon: Judaism, Heresy, and Philosophy
Socher's book leaves me as a reader a bit puzzled. It is, indeed, a good introduction into Solomon Maimon's life and thought, collecting a lot of scholarly data and information on him. But, alas, there are also serious mistakes and shortcomings.
The writing of the book started in 1993, when Socher as a student first encountered Solomon Maimon's autobiography as well as a footnote on a Hebrew manuscript of Maimon's. With the late Amos Funkenstein he started his dissertation, finished in 2001, on Maimon's concept of autobiography. Although that dissertation seems to having been reworked in some places, the [End Page 210] core remains. Only few sources written after that date are utilized. (There are, for example, at least two articles on Maimonides and Maimon published in a commemorative volume on Maimonides in 2004 which are seemingly unknown to the author. Joseph Soloveitchik deserves the mention of more recent publications than the ones listed on p. 211 n. 38.)
Socher's book itself is divided into an introduction, five chapters, a brief conclusion, notes, a select bibliography, and an index (which is not mentioned in the table of contents). For the main part Socher establishes a biography of Maimon. To do this he re-reads the autobiography as well as most other published German and Hebrew writings and the Hebrew manuscript "Hesheq Shelomo." Maimon's single, central philosophical theme is his "noetic, or intellectual, perfection" (p. 159, cf. p. 93). This theme, or concept, is of the antique Aristotelian tradition read through the lenses of both medieval Jewish philosophers and the talmid hakham that he learned in Lithuania. After encountering Christian Wolff, Moses Mendelssohn, and Immanuel Kant (or their works) Maimon became a Jewish heretic. His attempt to combine both traditions, the philosophical and the traditional Jewish, made him leave his Jewish home but never let him be a fully accepted philosopher of the German Enlightenment. Socher develops this idea in five steps. First he rewrites Maimon's biography (ch. 1). He then (ch. 2) studies the introduction of the Hebrew manuscript "Hesheq Shelomo" (the title could be rendered as Solomon's desire for knowledge, cf. p. 59), in which Maimon, who still called himself Shelomo ben Yehoshua, develops his concept of perfection in a medieval manner. In the third chapter Socher describes Maimon's contribution to Enlightenment philosophy, namely his Kantian reading of Maimonides and his Maimonidean reading of Kant. Especially the idea that Maimon tried to integrate Hume's scepticism into Kant's transcendental idealism deserves mention. Socher then asks (ch. 4) what it meant that the Jew Shelomo left his home in Lithuania and why he later wrote his partially fictional autobiography: "Maimon's autobiography is an answer, through his own case, not only of the question of Jewish fitness for Enlightenment and civil emancipation but also to the more general but not unrelated question, What is Enlightenment?" (p. 114–5). Finally, Socher highlights Maimon's impact on contemporaries and on later philosophers (ch. 5).
As an introduction to Solomon Maimon's life and thought I would recommend Socher's book. On the other hand I hesitate to recommend it as an introduction to a reader who possibly is not acquainted with German Enlightenment or the history of Jewish thought. I do not doubt that Socher is able to read German and that he worked through Maimon's difficult German works. But approximately every fourth German quotation or phrase is written [End Page 211] incorrectly. For example, the German for "perfection" is (already in Maimon's works) written "Vollkommenheit" (with two "m's"; see p. 59, 77, etc.), on p. 111 it should be "antirousseauisch" (anti-Rousseauian), the title of Maimon's book on p. 103 etc. is "Der moralische Skeptiker," the capitalization of German words is quite different from the English, and so on. That leads me to another question. Socher always gives references...