God’s Knowledge of Particulars: Avicenna, Maimonides, and Gersonides

Avicenna

Journal of Islamic Philosophy 5 (2009): 75-98

 

Abstract

This article offers a comparative study of three thinkers from almost as many intellectual and cultural traditions: Avicenna, Maimonides, and Gersonides, and discusses the extent of the knowledge of particulars which each one ascribed to God. Avicenna de-reified Aristotle’s abstract and isolated Prime Mover and argued that God can know particulars but limited these to universals. Maimonides disanalogized divine from human knowledge, arguing that the epistemic mode predicated of mankind cannot be equally predicated of God, and that God knows particulars qua particulars even as his Knowing encompasses all of eternity in a single act of knowledge. Attempting an intermediate path between the former’s highly discursive reasoning and the latter’s more scriptural approach, Gersonides postulated that God can know particulars qua particulars—as is befitting a Perfect Being—but this He does ‘mediately’ as it were, via the emanative ordering comprising the separate intelligences and culminating in the Active Intellect.

Introduction

Fundamentally underlying the scheme of Arabic philosophy—or falsafa, building upon its largely Hellenic substrate—are ontology and epistemology, being and knowledge, with the latter typically conditioned by views concerning the former. Here, however, the focus is on epistemology, or more specifically, God’s knowledge of particulars. The ramifications of what God can actually know and what He cannot potentially know are of enormous import to believers, particularly in view of such issues as providence, reward and punishment, and prophecy. Like so many fundamental areas of enquiry, the contours of epistemology were charted out by Aristotle among the Greeks and given theological value by his Peripatetic followers (Mashshāʾīyyūn) among Arabic-writing Muslims. Yet, while the Stagirite adopted an extremely restricted but nonetheless deferential conception of the Prime Mover, subsequent generations of philosophers endeavored to reconcile philosophically demonstrable truths with religious dictates, in the process enriching the arena of intellectual debate.

This article examines the scope and nature of divine knowledge as set forth by three medieval philosophers, one Muslim Persian from Bukhārā, one Cordovan-born Jew who found refuge in Fusṭaṭ (Cairo), and the third a Jewish native of Provence. The choice is hardly arbitrary: Avicenna, as we see below, systematized Arabic philosophy and set the tenor for much of the philosophical debate to follow. Although his views on divine epistemology (like his views concerning the primacy of essence over existence) provoked rigorous criticism, his wider genius earned him admiration in even greater measure. Maimonides is generally considered the most venerated of Jewish philosophers, both medieval and modern. Though Aristotelian in many ways, his was a vocation fully devoted to the Jewish faith. Gersonides stands out for having dedicated an entire work to the current problematic. If Maimonides allowed the Torah to prevail against unsolvable philosophical issues, Gersonides did likewise, with the exception that he sought recourse to rigorous reasoning in the process. To this end, we draw upon their respective texts: the fourth section of Avicenna’s principal Peripatetic opus, al-Shifāʾ: al-Ilāhiyyāt (The Metaphysics of the Healing), among others; Maimonides’ monumental Moreh Nevukhim (The Guide of the Perplexed), addressed to a protégé; and the third treatise of Gersonides’ six-part Milḥamot ha-Shem (The Wars of the Lord Treatise Three: On God’s Knowledge).

Painting: ‘The Persian Galen’, by Robert A. Thom (1953)

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