Shiur #10: The Unity of Knowledge- The Knower- The Known

  • Rav Chaim Navon


A.        Introduction to Aristotelian Thought


In order to understand the Rambam's metaphysics regarding the unity of knowledge, the knower, and the known, we must first acquire a basic familiarity with the Aristotelian philosophical view.


Part of the Aristotelian worldview is irrelevant in our times, while another part is so profoundly a part of the way that we think that it offers us nothing new. However, there is no way of studying the Rambam without understanding the Aristotelian approach, which is the language of the Guide of the Perplexed. A person who studies the Guide while unfamiliar with Aristotle is like someone who studies Gemara without understanding Aramaic. Such a person may extract some limited insights from the Guide, but will not understand the book's essence. A basic understanding of the Aristotelian approach will also help us to discern which of its foundations the Rambam did not accept, and this will serve to sketch the foundations of his world of ideas.


1.            Physics


Our point of departure will be Aristotle's theory of four types of causes. In order to explain reality and the processes of change that take place within it, Aristotle proposed four causal factors: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause.


Every object comprises substance and form. By “form” we refer not to the geometric structure of the thing, but rather the “eidos”' that is in fact the definition of the thing, indicating its fundamental purpose and role, thereby attaching it to a certain category of things. All entities that share a common form belong to the same category. "Hylos" is all that is not form – not necessarily material substance in the way we understand it. What is the form (i.e., essence) of a chair? Its essence is that it is for sitting on. Every other aspect of it – its size, color, design, etc. – belongs to the realm of substance. Likewise, body parts are the substance, or material, of an organism.


When speaking of an artificial product, the form is the purpose and task for which that product is built. (For instance, the form of a bed is the manner in which it is built such that it may be used for sleeping on.) In a natural creation, form is not something that is “forced” upon substance by man, but rather the inner principle that defines that creature. We identify the form of a seed, fetus, etc. with its ability to developing into a complete creation. The form of a fir tree is its ability to develop from a seed into a full, complete fir tree. That form is innate to the seed; it is that form that leads it to grow into a fir tree. Here, too, we may identify the form with the end purpose (telos). The form is inherent in the object in potential, and the process of its development is the transition of the form from potential into actuality. The fir tree seed was at first a fir tree in potential; afterwards it became a fir tree in actuality. As Aristotle saw it, this is the main process of change and development in nature: a progression from potential to actuality.


In Aristotle's view, form characterizes the category, while material defines the individual. All fir trees share the same essence – the "fir tree form" – which dictates their end purpose of development into a full fir tree. The individual differences between particular fir trees arise from their material or substance.


From the above we see that Aristotle emphasizes the teleological explanation (i.e., concerning the end purpose) rather than the causal, mechanistic explanation. The central element in the description of the process of development of the fir tree is not the forces that acted upon the seed – water, fertilizer, soil, etc. – but rather the purpose that was inherent within it, and which led it to develop into a full fir tree. Aristotle treats natural creations and artificial products in a similar way, arguing that regarding all of them the emphasis is on the telos, i.e., the development that arises from an "aspiration" to achieve a certain end – an "aspiration" that is innate to that thing's form.


2.            Metaphysics


Aristotelian metaphysics arises from fundamental concepts in general Aristotelian philosophy: a. form and substance – God is pure form; b. "potentiality" and "actuality" – God is pure actuality; there is nothing about Him that is unrealized potential.


In truth, Aristotle is not talking about “God,” but rather about the “Prime Mover.” Nevertheless, it is quite amazing that a thinker who emerged from a completely pagan society arrived – through philosophical contemplation – at a faith that is very close to that of Jewish monotheism.


Aristotle's thinking goes as follows: all things come into being and eventually cease to exist, except for time and change. In other words, the world contains incessant movement and change. How can change be constant and unceasing? Eternal change must be a circular movement, which is a movement that has no end. Aristotle attributes this movement to the spheres. According to the concept of the world that existed at that time, Earth was at the center, surrounded by the spheres in which the stars were embedded. The rotation of the spheres, continuing eternally, causes all change in the world.


The rotation of the spheres must have some cause, or reason. The reason for the movement must be some other movement. This would seem to suggest an infinite chain of causes and effects. But Aristotle argues that logic rejects the existence of infinity in actuality. Therefore he posited the existence of a Prime Mover. There must be a first, original cause, which is the source of all processes of change in the world, and which itself is not caused by anything else. Thus the infinite chain of causes and effects is halted.


The Prime Mover is pure actuality, which never changes. It possesses nothing in potential. Therefore it is also pure form – for if it included substance, it could not be wholly actuality. The only possible activity for pure form is thought. And pure form thinks only about itself, since this is the only perfectly complete thought.


Thus, Aristotle talks about a First Cause which is perfect intellect, occupied with thought about itself. How does pure form cause movement and change in the world? Here we must invoke Aristotle's teleological view: he argues that the final (teleological) cause should be emphasized, rather than a mechanistic cause. In other words, the world does not advance because of the past, but rather for the sake of the future. Every natural being has form, which is its essence, towards which it develops, with a realization of potential. Pure form acts on the world insofar as form is the final cause of the world. Things that move and change in the world aspire to their most complete and perfect form, and it is for this reason that they move and change. God moves the world in the same way that a beloved moves the lover: through the very fact of its existence, which arouses inspiration and excitement. Aristotle's “God” does not initiate movement in the world; He simply exists, in His perfection and purity, and everything moves "towards Him," out of a teleological aspiration for completion and perfection.


B         Unity of Knowledge, The Knower, and The Known


In light of the above we can understand what the Rambam is saying in chapter 68 of Book I of the Guide. In the Rambam's view, human intellect is in fact identical with that which it knows. Any knowledge that is acquired draws the intellect from potential to actuality. Knowledge is familiarity with the forms of things – i.e., their essence. When a person learns about horses, he is not interested in the substance of the horse; he is interested in its form. When he acquires knowledge about the essence of the horse, there exists within him a unity of knowledge with the knower and that which is known: Since the form of the horse is its true essence, we conclude that a person who understands and knows the essence of the horse, is actually essentially unified with it. The horse has two aspects: the form, which is its essence and is common to all horses, and substance, which is the individual differences between one horse and another; according to Aristotelian philosophy, these are negligible. One horse may be black, another brown – but of what importance is this? This being so, a person who learns about the category of horses is familiar with their form, and it exists in his intellect; he becomes one with it.


From this point of view, the difference between man and God is a difference of scale or power. Man attains this unity in a partial and temporary manner, when he succeeds in understanding certain sections of reality. God, in contrast, is "actualized intellect": at any point in time He actively knows all that there is to be known. Therefore, at any given moment, He is unified with the essence of all things.


C.        Knowledge-The Knower-The Known and the Principle of God's Attributes


The Rambam's view of the unity of knowledge-the knower-the known raises a difficult problem. As noted, the Aristotelian view of knowledge maintains that when a person acquires knowledge, he is unified with the essence of the object of knowledge. When I learn about a table, I in fact grasp its essence. The essence is referred to in Aristotelian philosophy as "form.” Essence is something abstract, and it is the only thing that is important; all concrete aspects of things are unimportant. The essence of a thing actually exists within my intellect.


There is a clear logical contradiction between this view and the principle of the negation of God's attributes. The negation of attributes means that nothing positive may be said about God. However, the very statement that God is pure intellect is itself a positive attribute par excellence – and all the more so the statement that God is unified with the objects of His knowledge. In terms of philosophical tradition, too, these two principles come from two completely different philosophical schools.[1]


Some solutions have been proposed for this contradiction. One solution is based on the esoteric writings of the Rambam. When we studied the Rambam's introduction to the Guide (shiur 2), we focused on the seventh reason that he lists for contradictions within a work. We saw that some scholars interpreted this seventh reason as a justification for the presence of deliberate contradictions, where the author seeks to hide his real views. Some have argued that there are examples of this sort of strategy in the Guide as well.


However, the scholars who maintain this view with regard to the Guide of the Perplexed are at a loss to explain what the Rambam's real opinion was, and what would have caused him to deliberately plant contradictions, merely in order to confuse his readers. Neither of these two particular contradictory views appears problematic enough to justify its concealment. In contrast, according to some scholars, the Rambam did not really believe in the Resurrection, but he sought to conceal his views in order to avoid engaging in a direct confrontation with traditional belief. This is a very grave claim, but at least it possesses some internal logic. I believe the Rambam's explicit statement that he believes in the Resurrection. However, had he indeed rejected this belief, it is clear why he would have wanted to conceal his view. With regard to our present question, on the other hand, if the Rambam had perceived the contradiction between the negation of attributes and the unity of knowledge-the knower-the known, why would he write about both of them? What reason would he have to hide his true belief? Neither of these two positions is so vitally fundamental (nor, for that matter, so challenging) in terms of Jewish tradition.


A second solution posits that God's knowledge is altogether different from our knowledge, and therefore when we say that God “knows,” with a consciousness of the qualitative difference between His knowledge and our own, we are in fact not invoking or asserting any attribute. The word “knowledge,” in this context, is directed towards something which we do not understand at all. However, even according to this approach there is a difficulty: what do we learn from the statement that God is a unity of knowledge-the knower-the known, if we understand nothing by these words? God's knowledge is different from what we refer to as "knowledge," just as it is different from what we refer to as "subversiveness" or "generosity.” Moreover, if we are unable to know anything at all about God's knowledge, then how is it possible to say that it, too, entails unity with the form of that which is known? After all, His knowledge is in no way comparable or similar to our own.


Professor Eliezer Sweid proposed a third solution. As we saw in the previous shiur, Prof. Sweid argued that negative attributes (assertion of what God is not) ultimately direct us to a positive intuition of God's essence (Ha-Rambam ve-Chug Hashpa'ato, p. 127). Thus we might say that the unity of knowledge-the knower-the known is a sort of intuitive orientation towards God. To the extent that we relax our stance regarding the negating essence of the theory of attributes, and allow for some sort of positivist insights about God, it becomes easier to deal with the internal contradiction that has been presented here.



Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1] Negation of God's attributes is related to Neoplatonic philosophy, while the unity of knowledge-the knower-the known has its source in Aristotelian philosophy.