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Maimonides' Modalities


Josef Stern. 2021. “Maimonides' Modalities.” In Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed: A Critical Guide, Pp. 184-206. Cambridge University Press. Publisher's Version
Maimonides' Modalities

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In this chapter I will discuss Maimonides’ conception(s) of necessity and possibility, primarily in the Guide but also in his other writings, against the background of the twelfth century dispute between Al-Ghazali and Averroes over the nature of the modalities. On one view, advocated by Averroes, possibility is a feature of what exists, constrained by actuality, hence, something like potentiality, apprehended primarily by the intellect which engages in scientific inquiry of the world to determine what is true and actual.  A second view, whose most prominent advocate was Al-Ghazali, is that possibility is a mental judgment, linked to supposition, deliberation, and action. On another way of putting it, possibility is the conceivable, imaginable, or admissible, which ranges over all states of affairs that are consistent and not self-contradictory.
Maimonides, for reasons I will discuss, re-frames this controversy in terms of the question: With which faculty do we judge with respect to a given proposition whether it is or is not a possibility? By the intellect or by the imagination?  He then argues that to answer that question we would need a criterion to distinguish the intellect and imagination, which unfortunately we do not possess. I will discuss the skeptical implications of this argument and its consequences for the wide range of issues in which the modalities figure: disputes over causation, determinism, the possibility of miracles, the controversy over creation and eternity, the status of demonstration, the epistemic status of certainty, and the concept of nature.

Last updated on 07/13/2022