In The Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides concerns himself with our language about God. He is determined that nearly all of our ways of speaking about God are, as he puts it, inadmissible. That is, our attributions of God almost always fails to arrive at an accurate description or portrayal of God’s actual nature. However, it is initially unclear whether or not, in Maimonides’s view, these erroneous attributions are inadmissible because they fail to capture any of God’s nature or if they are inadmissible because they only partly capture Him. I believe that this distinction must be brought out before one can pass judgement on Maimonides. Therefore, the goal of this paper is to determine whether Maimonides believes our attribution of God is only partly accurate or in no way accurate. I will argue that, according to Maimonides, any attempt to positively say what God is will bear absolutely no resemblance to who God is in truth.

            First, I shall begin by briefly explaining how Maimonides comes to the conclusion that any attempt to positively apply attributes to God fails to be accurate, then I will discuss the manner in which they are inaccurate. He says that there are five ways attributes can function. The first two ways are to define God’s essence. The first seeks to explain God’s whole essence and the second, only part of His essence. For example, in the first case, you might say that God is a being and is immaterial, or in the second case, that God is immaterial. Maimonides says that both of these modes of attribution are inaccurate for God. He says they are inaccurate because they both place God within the confines of categories and make His essence dependent upon the pre-existence of said categories. Simply put, God would not be as He is without His participation in the categories we attribute to Him, He is made subject to them. So, for Maimonides, any attempt to positively attribute God’s essence will distort the truth.

            The third and fourth way attempt to define God by attributing accidental features to Him. Now, we know that it is foolish to describe the essence of things lower than God by their accidents. For example it would be foolish to say that an essential characteristic of a dog is the color of its hair. For, at one time it did not have the same hair color, yet it was still the same dog. So, it would be foolish, when trying to understand God’s essence, to attribute merely accidental features which do not serve to complete His inherent character[1]. Moreover, to describe God by His accidents is to imply that there is a division in God. Namely, that God has an essence, but also has accidents which are accessory to Him.

            There is, for Maimonides, one roundabout way we can speak about God. This is done through the fifth way an attribute can function. This is to describe God by His actions. Maimonides says that we can describe God in this way because it only tries to explain the nature of God’s action which flows from His essence, not God’s essence itself[2]. Therefore, something like “the world was created by God” can be said without any distortion of truth. So, four out of the five ways are inadmissible for Maimonides.

            However, even the fifth way, the one which Maimonides says does not distort the truth, does not really speak about God, it speaks about His actions. From this it would seem that there is no way to speak about God Himself. But, Maimonides finds a way in which we can speak about God Himself. This is done by negative attribution. Where the other methods of attribution failed by trying to positively attribute God, this negative attribute succeeds by performing the opposite function. Whereas we cannot say “God is immaterial”, for reasons explained above, we can say “God is not a material thing” or even “God is not like other immaterial things in existence”. This is because we are not affirming anything about God’s essence, but we are only saying what God is not. Maimonides thinks that through our knowledge of what God is not, we come to a closer understanding of Him.

            In summary, we cannot posit any one attribute to God’s essence without distorting the truth, however we can negate attributes from God’s essence and we can describe His actions without distorting the truth.

            This finally leads me to the main question which I wish to answer. That is, are the inadmissible ways of speaking about God, as described above, inadmissible because they fail to capture any truth about God’s essence or are they inadmissible because they only partially capture God’s essence? The key to understanding the position of Maimonides on this question is when he says “We can only apprehend that He is; that there exists a Being unlike any other being which He brought into existence, having nothing whatsoever in common with them”[3]. From this, I think it is very clear that Maimonides believes God shares nothing in common with creation whatsoever and is completely transcendent from it. Now, since God is completely transcendent from creation, we should not be able to attribute or define Him in the slightest without completely distorting the truth. For all of our ideas with which we should attempt to describe Him with are drawn from our existence in creation, a creation which shares no similarity with Him.

            However, I do not believe Maimonides says that, because of the complete inaccuracy of our attempts to attribute God, we should never attempt do so. Because shortly after, Maimonides says  “His [God] relationship to the world is that of the captain to the ship. This also is not a true relation, and not even remotely resembles the real one, but it serves to guide the mind to the idea that God governs the universe”[4]. So, here Maimonides is saying that, even though our ways of speaking about God may be completely inaccurate to the true way that God is, they are still helpful to “guide our minds” to some truth. While Maimonides does say that the best thing to do when talking about God is to remain silent and say nothing at all, he still believes that speaking about God can be useful. Thus, there is an amount of hierarchical rank in the various ways of speaking, or not speaking, of God. You could speak about God and attribute things to Him, which, although completely inaccurate, are nevertheless useful. You can speak about God in the best way by negating attributes from Him. But the best thing one can do is not speak of God at all and remain silent.

            This interpretation of mine, of course may be objected to, naturally, because it introduces a grave paradox to Maimonides’s thinking. If you say that inaccurate statements about God are helpful, then would not any statement be just as useful as any other statement about God? You cannot say that the statement “God is just” is helpful because it is closer to the truth, because the statement is in no way true to reality. This would mean that the claim “God is unjust” has just as much reason for being helpful as “God is just” since both are equal in missing the truth entirely.             In Maimonides’s defense, it could be said that there are specific phrases which are helpful because they are they way that God wishes that we should understand Him by. That God, knowing the limits of our ability to conceive of Him, ordained that certain attributions or descriptions would be more fitting than others. So that a phrase is not helpful by virtue of its accuracy, but by its being ordained by God for the use of humans to describe Him. However, this is a path that most theists would feel uncomfortable following, myself included, as we are not accustomed to thinking in this manner. I do admit that the objection does considerable damage to my interpretation and I am, at times, unsure about it. But, I also cannot ignore the words, “nothing whatsoever in common” and “not even remotely resembles” that Maimonides uses in the passages quoted above.


[1] Hyman, Walsh, and Williams, Philosophy in the Middle Ages, (Hackett, 2010), 364

[2] Ibid, 366

[3] Hyman, Walsh, and Williams, Philosophy in the Middle Ages, (Hackett, 2010), 369

[4] Ibid.

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