Philosophical Friday: Moses Maimonides and Coherence/Cogency

Moses Maimonides was a Jewish scholar who lived from 1135-1204. During his lifetime, he lived in Spain, Morocco, and Cairo. He was a particularly well known and respected Jewish scholar during his own lifetime. Guide of the Perplexed is among his most well-known works in the 21st century. So, within this blog post, I will briefly summarize his approach to textual interpretation and provide a few reflections on his description of textual interpretation.

First, in Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides points towards two key reasons in order to explain why people fail to understand the meaning of texts: (a) failure to recognize the polysemy of biblical languages and (b) the use of obscure parables in the Hebrew Bible which are intended to “maintain the secrets of divine knowledge” [1]. With this in mind, he also views the propositions in texts in an interesting light. Rather than arguing that a reader should take into consideration how how text is constructed, tracking every piece in order to identify the primary meaning of a parable, Maimonides suggests that “you should not inquire into all the details occurring in the parable” because it may “lead you into ones of two ways: either into turning aside from the parable’s intended subject, or into assuming an obligation to interpret things not susceptible of interpretation and that have not been inserted with a view to interpretation” [2].

With a basic outline of method presented, I now want to draw attention to a few points which strike me as relevant for the type of analysis I am interested in doing. First, he comments that within some parables the extra words serve “to embellish the parable and to render it more coherent or to conceal further the intended meaning” [3]. This captures how Maimonides is attempting to deal with texts which are not coherent or cogent, a subject which, though I don’t have access to the article at the moment, Marc Brettler has discussed. Likewise, in Pentateuchal studies, the Documentary Hypothesis (broadly construed) is used to explain places which are not cogent or coherent. Put simply, Maimonides develops his method out of recognition that the text is not always clear; however, unlike modern approaches, his approach is more theological in nature, perceiving the biblical text as divine in nature and, as such, attributing lack of coherency and cogency to divine intention.

Second, and riffing on my first point, I am left to wonder about which texts constitute those parables that Maimonides categorizes as (a) parables for which each word has meaning and (b) parables for which the whole text indicates the meaning [4]. The example he provides of the first type of parables is Genesis 28:12-13, itself framed as a dream. The second type of parable is Proverbs 7:6-21, itself framed as a complete narrative about a young lad swayed by a woman on the street [5]. With this in mind, at least from a very brief overview of the texts categorized by Maimonides, it seems that the first type of parable is associated with dreams, which themselves are a means that God communicates specific messages to individuals. That description, therefore, is closer to communication directly from God. By contrast, the second type of parable is framed as more generic knowledge, not directly or indirectly associated with God’s speech or revelation. Therefore, at least from a broad overview, his two categories may be divided according to the following: (a) texts wherein Yahweh communicates a message and (b) texts wherein a speaker or agent other than Yahweh communicates a message. Of course, this idea needs to be further developed and tested.


[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 179.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 187-188.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 186.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 186.

[5] Although The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 187n2, says Maimonides quotes Proverbs 7:6-21, it is actually Proverbs 7:7-21.


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