"The Job of Enlightment"

Salomon Maimon (1753 – 1800)

Ca. a decade ago, on a train ride to Berlin, I browsed through and became increasingly fascinated by a book on Salomon Maimon, "the man who understood Kant". Below a short text I wrote then on my impressions. A contemporary analysis of Maimon's philosophy is given in: Gideon Freudenthal (ed.): Salomon Maimon: Rational Dogmatist, Empirical Skeptic. Critical Assessments. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht 2003. Quotes of Maimon come from this website. You find his autobiography here, more scans here.

Although his concepts play a decisive role in the history of ideas, only a few specialists bother about Salomon Maimon’s philosophical writings. Much better known is his autobiography written in the early 1790’s – a funny account of 18th century spiritual life in eastern Europe’s Jewish communities, told by a chaplinesque narrator – once a celebrated scholar, then a wandering beggar half mad by hunger and despair. Yet his erratic way of life was governed by a central inner law from which Salomon never deviated, a central question he never lost sight of:

How far reaches human understanding independent from experience?

He perceived all human activities as “being just a kind of, more or less, intense thinking”, deduced all desires from a fundamental “urge to think” whose goal is the “maximisation of thinking” and “sincerity” was the moral value he lived after. The suffering this caused in Maimon’s life let some researchers call him: “The Job of Enlightment”.

He was born as Shlomo ben Yehoshua in Sukoviborg, Lithuania, educated as a rabbi and became quickly famous as a child prodigy. In fact so famous that he was kidnapped by someone who wished to become his father-in-law. Salomon married another girl, but then his mother-in-law developed the habit of beating him up when his reluctance to earn a livelihood became clear. Despite his surrounding’s animosity against modern science, Maimon found and studied a book about mathematical astronomy. Since then, his strongest wish was to learn more about science in Germany. "Man scheint gleichsam zu vergessen, daß man durch Newtons Weltsystem mit weit beßrem Erfolg Krankheiten kurirt, als durch die Electricität, nemlich Krankheiten des Geistes." Another important event for him was the aquaintancy with Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed”, this lead to an unorthodox commentary and to a change of name. Disappointed by his environment - and by the empty promisses of “practical Kabbalah” (the spell for gaining invisibility didn’t work) – he left his home, wandered around in europe and was finally saved from starvation by Moses Mendelssohn when he arrived in Berlin. There, Maimon studied Kant’s “Kritik der reinen Vernunft” which he criticised severely. Kant tried to explain the possibility of experience by exploring the necessary conditions for this possibility. To achieve this, Kant distinguished between the Thing-in-itself and the mind, then within the mind between sensibility and understanding. Maimon reacted with his "Versuch über die Transzendentalphilosophie", "Ad Kantium" and dedicated to the King of Poland with the wish: "den edlen Polen eine vorteilhafte Meinung von meiner Nation, nämlich den unter ihrem Schutz lebenden Juden, beizubringen". According to Maimon, this doesn’t work and Kant’s concepts cannot be separated. E.g. while Kant thought usual space and time as necessary forms of sensibility without understandings interference, Maimon let them result as only one of the mind’s ways of thinking several objects. A spectacular verification of this idea was achieved ca. 100 years later by Ch. Hinton, a mathematician who wondered about the possibility of “absolute knowledge” about arrangements of colored cubes and realised that playing with them in a certain way enables one to “see” 4-D. Luckily, by means of other arrangements the visual system can be stimulated to switch back into it’s usual modus. According to Coxeter in a book about regular solids in 4-space, this has lead to important discoveries. Penrose even tried to construct in this way 3-D analogies to M.C. Escher’s pictures, but found that “a bit insane”. Hinton wrote later strange stories playing in a world with 2-D time.

Maimon suggests an analogy from mathematics for the relation between sensitivity and understanding: If we imagine a smooth plane curve, as perceived by sensitivity, which is then analysed by understanding through the construction of triangles of inclinations, i.e. difference equations, a more and more refined analysis would converge towards the building of differentials, resulting in a dimensionless point (initial condition) and some relations between the differentials (differential equation). So, the curve which was initially perceived mainly by sensitivity, is now mainly perceived by understanding. The properties of analogously build “differentials of sensitivity” are the categories of understanding, their knowledge is a never reached final goal.

This concept of inseparable unity of passive perceivement and mental activity had a great impact on the masterminds of German romantics, the “differentials of sensitivity” being the theoretical basis for the work of Friederich Schlegel, Fichte, Novalis. The most widely read german history of culture, written by Egon Friedell, uses Maimon’s concept as guiding methodological principle without mentioning it’s source.

The same analogy is used by Maimon to clarify the relation between the thing-in-itself and the mind. Whereas Kant’s distinction makes experience impossible, according to Maimon the idea of an extra-mental reality makes no sense. So, experience is possible because - in the infinite mind – subject, object and their interaction fall together, but it can be attained by us only insofar we approximate the former in the course of scientific progress. By doing mathematics we come close to the divine mind since e.g. in arithmetics the subject (number-representing psychological states), the object (numbers) and their interaction (inductive definitions a la Peano) coincide. That human mathematics contains indirect proofs shows that even there true experience is not always reached. By way of discussing the thinkability of noneuclidian geometry and a concept of truth as process, Maimon anticipated Hilberts Formalism.

When Maimon’s critique was send to Kant, he reacted enthusiastically, praised Maimon as the one who had understood him best and organised its publication. Much later, Maimon’s Kant-interpretation was reactivated by Hermann Cohen and lead to a philosophical movement called “Neukantianism”. Together with Maimon’s consideration of Jewish spirituality, again taken up by Cohen, this shaped the thinking of Walter Benjamin.

At Maimon’s time, Berlin’s intellectual life was determined by informal “Salons” outside the academic establishment. Sabattia Joseph Wolff reports in: “Maimoniana oder Rhapsodien zur Charakteristik Salomon Maimon’s”, Berlin 1813, about such a learned society founded by Maimon. Here a summary of its constitution:


The members write essays about subjects of interest in relation to the society’s goal. These – or, if there is a lack of such essays, the best appropriate text aviable – are presented and read at the society’s meetings every month. These lectures are not to be disturbed, but every member can write a critique which is then presented in the same way as the original essay. Finally, the author of the original essay can produce analogously an anticritique.


Each month after the above mentioned lectures, an unstructured communication starts, in which every member can feel free to follow his uncensored imagination and arbitrary association of ideas, however strange they may be. All remarks are recorded, then read and their psychological causes are discussed. In case of doubt, the opinion of the producer of a remark has the priority.


Each month, the administrator of the society, who is elected democratically, poses a subject for a price competition. This is announced in newspapers and non-members are encouraged to participate. The administrator and two democratically elected members decide about the two best of the incoming essays. These are published by the society and the contest-winner gets all possible profit from that publication.

Salomon Maimon on himself: "Ich bin zwar kein großer Mann, kein Philosoph für die Welt, kein Possenreißer; habe auch in meinem Leben keine MandelMäse in die Luftpumpe ersticken keine Frösche auf die Tortur bringen, auch keine Männchen durch die Electrizität tanzen lassen. Aber was thut dieses zur Sache? ich liebe die Wahrheit, und wo es darauf ankommt, frage ich selbst nach dem Teufel und seiner Großmutter nicht. Da ich nun die Wahrheit aufzusuchen, meine Nation, mein Vaterland und meine Familie verlassen habe, so kann man mir nicht zumuthen, daß ich geringfügiger Motiven halber, der Wahrheit etwas vergeben sollte. Persönliche Feindschaft hege ich gegen niemand, wer aber ein Feind der Wahrheit ist, wer sein Ansehen beim Publikum dazu mißbraucht, dasselbe aus niedrigen Absichten irre zu führen, ist eo ipso mein Feind, sollte er auch übrigens mit mir in gar keinem besondern Verhältnß stehen; und ich werde keine Gelegenheit verabsämen dem Publicum sein Betragen in das rechte Licht zu stellen, er mag römischer Bischof, Professor, oder türkischer Sultan seyn."