It may be anachronistic to speak of the philosophy of language before Frege, but philosophers have been concerned with questions of meaning and language since Plato, and medieval Jewish philosophers were no exception. Nonetheless these topics are part of the infrastructure of medieval Jewish philosophy rather than its primary subject matter. Where medieval Jewish philosophers discuss questions of language and the nature of meaning, it is generally piecemeal and subsidiary to larger projects: in introductions to grammars and lexicons; in exegetical contexts such as the interpretation of Gen. 2:20, “And the man gave names, and so on”; to explain why the rabbis call Hebrew lashon ha-qodesh, the holy language; while addressing metaphysical questions such as divine attributes; or, as translations are produced, in introductions to or commentaries on the logical treatises of the Organon, especially De Interpretatione. We do not find among the Jews the same rich literature on topics such as significance, supposition, and the semantics of terms and propositions that we find among the Latin scholastics. To uncover and analyze the medieval Jewish philosophers’ opinions on these issues, the scholar must extract them from other discussions and texts, beginning with the Bible.
According to scripture, the very first words ever uttered – “Let there be light” – are God’s, announcing the creation of light and thereby bringing it into existence. Each of the first three creations is also completed by an act of divine naming: light is called “Day,” the firmaments “Heavens,” and so on. Thus, an opening announcement by God and a final naming frame each of these acts of creation, perhaps to suggest that the way the world presents itself, divided into objects and structured according to kinds, is determined as well as represented by language. The rabbis expand this role of divine speech to encompass all of creation: “With ten utterances,” R. Yohanan states, “the world was created” and God is “He who spoke and the world is created.”3 Divine language preexists the created world.
There is nothing Maimonides values more than knowledge, especially knowledge of metaphysics or, in medieval terminology, “divine science.” The Mishneh Torah opens with the basic metaphysical and scientific truths everyone is obligated to know and ends with a depiction of the messianic age as an era in which the whole world is engaged exclusively in the pursuit of knowledge. The Guide of the Perplexed opens and closes with two parables that depict the “true human perfection,” not as the moral or ritual life but as “the acquisition of the rational virtues . . . true opinions concerning the divine things” (GP 3.54, p. 635). And throughout the Guide, Maimonides reconstructs traditional religious concepts in epistemic terms: To love God is to know Him (GP 3.51, p. 621), and the worst form of idolatry is a cognitive error, “believing [God] to be different from what He really is” (GP 1.36, p. 84).
Yet Maimonides’ philosophical corpus contains no systematic discussion of the concept of knowledge. One reason may be, as Maimonides says about the plan of the Guide, that his “purpose . . . was not to compose something on natural science, or to make an epitome of divine science,” that is, to explain sublunar physics, cosmology, or metaphysics. Writing within the context of Arabic Aristotelianism, Maimonides could take many theoretical notions for granted. Even where he must engage in its explication, he says his aim is never the idea itself but to give a “key to the understanding” of a parable or “secret” in the books of prophecy (GP 2.2, p. 254). To piece together a picture of Maimonides’ epistemology, one must therefore look to his accounts of divine attributes, prophecy, divine providence, and cosmology. Maimonides’ comment also hints at a second possible reason: Because these topics are bound up with “secrets,” he provides no explicit discussion of them. But in the case of knowledge, what could that secret be?
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