Maimonides and Visual Sensation (Aesthetics)

(Mark Rothko, Orange Red Yellow [1961])

My article on Maimonides and the visual imagination was just published, included as part of the published proceedings of a conference on Maimonides and Kant held some time back at Arizona State University. It was my first attempt to draw out aesthetic dimension in classical Jewish texts. 

The Maimonides who appears in this paper will have lost not all, but something of the austerity once ascribed to him by philosophers and scholars working under the influence of Kantian and neo-Kantian reason. He exhibits none of the absolutism that drives Leo Strauss’s reading, which exacerbates the difference between reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem, philosophy and Judaism. In more recent scholarship, Maimonides finds a place for art and refined aesthetic sensation (Bland), loose expression (Lobel, Seeskin), representation (Manekin), and imagination (Kellner, Pessin, Ravven). The continuing emphasis in Maimonides scholarship on language over against the visual image nonetheless suggests persistent entanglements in German philosophical and aesthetic paradigms. While Maimonides devotes the lion’s share of analysis in part 1 of the Guide to language and to metaphor, particularly in regard to his theory of negative attributes, his point of departure was not sound, rhythm, rhyme, and tone so much as silent, visual experience: phantasmic images of the human body at the level of sub-Mosaic prophecy, or palatial architecture and the exchange between light and dark at more recondite levels of intellectual apprehension. (p.219)


According to Ravven, the role of imagination and of the body in non-Mosaic prophecy represents the core esoteric teaching in the Guide that Maimonides obscures in his main exoteric work, the Mishneh Torah.9 While this thesis brings the body and the imagination deep into the core of Maimonidean rationalism, the effect is to draw that philosophy into too close a proximity to kalamic theology. Unmediated by reason, the direct sequence from sensation to imagination wreaks intellectual havoc. Indeed, José Faur reminds his readers that reason is the first faculty called upon to process sensation. It thus precedes and disciplines the imagination. Viewed this way, reason, not imagination, constitutes the true middle figure. Without the intermediary activity of reason, the combination of sense and imagination distorts our image of the real world. However, as Faur notes, “Imagination can be creative and valuable after reason has accurately decoded and processed the data provided by the senses.” (p.222)


What appears, however, to be an absolute judgment against imagination and imaginary phantasm begins to slip already in part 1. Regarding angels, Maimonides asserts that what appears to be their fixed corporeal shape is only to be perceived in a vision of prophecy. “It is very difficult . . . to apprehend that which is pure of matter,” especially for those people who “[tend] toward imaginative apprehension alone. For such a one everything that is imagined exists or can exist.” The problem here is not imagination per se. Maimonides concedes that the imagination can guide the mind to the existence of angels, to their being alive and perfect, although not to their essence (Guide 1:49). Rather than reflecting a final position regarding the relationship between imagination and cognition, the critique of the imagination in part 1 of the Guide is polemical in purpose, meant to staunch the influence of kalamic theology. This first part of the text meant to safeguard reason from imagination concludes fittingly with a prolonged polemic against the Mutakalites, for whom everything that can be imagined is intellectually admissible. Whereas imagination compounds and combines things, regardless of any correspondence to an actual existent, reason distinguishes between part and whole, true and false, essence and accident (Guide 1:73). Once this distinction has been drawn, the critique of imagination in part 1 of the Guide clears the way for a more sober employment of imagination in the discussion of creation and non-Mosaic prophecy in part 2. (p.223-4)


To be sure, the image apprehended by the prophet requires reason, i.e., the proper care of a good dustcloth. The image is distorted by the prophet’s own physical and mental constitution. It says nothing real about the referent, nothing real about the divine quiddity or the Active Intellect. It provides no determinate information, no mimetic capacity, no direct connection by which the sensible sign can be said to mirror the intelligible signified. But the gap is not absolute, insofar as the relation between sensation and intelligible truth is mediated by the imagination. As Lenn Goodman argues in relation to Maimonides, the appearance of the image cannot be dismissed as mere psychic projection.17 A loose relation is established between sign (the mental image of God) and signified (the overflow from the Active Intelligence). The visual image reflects an embodied trace, an imaginal record or recording of the impact made upon the perfected imagination by the Active Intellect. Although the visions enjoyed by all the other prophets pale in comparison to the prophecy of Moses (as per b. Yebamot 49b), our text suggests that they enjoy at least a penultimate cognitive status that is foreign to the far more radical disconnect between image and referent pressed in modern times by Kant and Cohen.

This penultimate significance ascribed by Maimonides to objectlike vision is carried over into the metaphorical structure applied to more recondite intellectual apprehension. Towards the end of his excursus on negative theology in part 1 of the Guide, Maimonides explains how the consummate apprehension of Moses and Solomon—prophecy and philosophy, respectively—differs from the less extraordinary apprehension enjoyed by their students. The philosopher and prophet come closer and closer to a more adequate apprehension of God with every negation of positive attribution, the less and less they liken God to any composite thing. But since negation does not provide any knowledge of the true reality of a thing, they confirm that none but God can apprehend what he is. “We are dazzled by His beauty, and He is hidden from us because of the intensity with which He becomes manifest, just as the sun is hidden to eyes that are too weak to apprehend it.” The most apt phrase is “Silence is praise to you” (Ps 65:2). Maimonides concludes, “Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah (Guide 1:59, citing Ps 4:5). In bed, in a dark room, silence is the aural component of sensation and reason as they shut down. God’s beauty is compared, not to intense sound, but to bright light before it is hidden away. Nonrepresentational in character, the image allows for no object, neither physical nor imaginal, and yet for all that, it remains indubitably ocular in origin. It is the mind’s eye, not ear, that is “dazzled” by God’s beauty. (pp.227-8)

This is the unique contribution of late-twentieth-century art and aesthetic theory to reading Maimonides. Visually there is no radical discontinuity between the luminous figuration of an angel or God that appears outside the chamber and the brilliance of pure intellectual illumination that appears inside. In the first case, the light of intellectual apprehension reflects off an imaginal object, an intentional object of prophetic vision, as if it were projected out into the visual field. (Aaron Hughes refers to the “diaphanous image” created as the intelligible form of Beauty shines through sensory re-presentation. In the latter case, that very same light has become its own separate object as form draws apart from matter, especially at the moment of death. As in a canvas by Mark Rothko, the imageless image of recondite knowledge reflects nothing real apart from its own luminosity, no real thing and no real light. The dazzle of divine beauty annihilates any object-attribute as light annihilates light.

As a literary unit, the Guide is bookended by the tension between light and darkness. In the introduction to part 1, mental life is compared to “someone in a very dark night over whom lightning flashes time and time again. Among us there is one for whom the lightning flashes time and time again, so that he is always, as it were, in unceasing light. Thus night appears to him as day.” And at the very conclusion of the text, Maimonides alludes once again to the same tension between light and dark. The last scriptural passage cited in the Guide immediately precedes the concluding epigraph. It comes not from the Torah, but from the prophecy of Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isa 9:1). The difference between the physical world (this dark world), the image (intermittent flash), and intelligible truth (the great light) is maintained. But a loose relationship links an imperfect mental image to truth about God and angels. The penultimate philosophical status ascribed to the visual image and metaphor depends upon a highly graded system of emanations that sustains a distinct but not insurmountable gap between sensibility and intelligibility. (pp.229-30)

[The full citation is Zachary Braiterman, “Maimonides and the Visual Imgae after Kant and Cohen” in Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, (20:2, 2012), pp.217-30. For a pdf of the whole thing, go to the “publications” page here at JPP.]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Maimonides and Visual Sensation (Aesthetics)

  1. efmooney says:

    Zak — What a read for 4 am the first day of class for a jet-lagged mind! This article — congratulations — is a gold mine.
    Quick thoughts from a complete ignoramus when it comes to Maimonides. But I’m transfixed! Why? Well, you bring out in a very powerful way the extent to which Kant still haunts us.
    First, he haunts us by continually asking what box something fits it: morality, epistemology, religion, aesthetics, theology, etc. If we buy into that, our perception of a text or position is skewed (and skewered) from the start. Any number of texts we cherish fit into a pre-Kantian mash-up of any two or all of these.
    Second, Kant haunts us because we look for propositions and arguments in our texts — items to dispute — as if a QED were the proper outcome of our encounters with texts. (rather than the sense we could be so saturated with an image (or set of them) that we could lie on our backs with the lights out — and THAT’s the point.
    Third, Kant has Milton in mind (extended stories of heaven and hell) when he talks about aesthetics and genius and the sublime — not a painting like Rothko, or a (‘preverbal’? ‘non-verbal’?) impact that is ocular or aural. Yet far as Maimonides is from our hardened kantian categories, he is does not suffer thereby. The Maimonides you present is rich, fascinating, dynamic, almost to the very extent he defies our Kantian maps and expectations.
    Let me read this again!

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