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The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide

The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide

Josef Stern

ISBN 9780674051607

Publication date: 06/03/2013

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Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed has traditionally been read as an attempt to harmonize reason and revelation. Another, more recent interpretation takes the contradiction between philosophy and religion to be irreconcilable, and concludes that the Guide prescribes religion for the masses and philosophy for the elite. Moving beyond these familiar debates, Josef Stern argues that the perplexity addressed in this famously enigmatic work is not the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem but the tension between human matter and form, between the body and the intellect.

Maimonides’ philosophical tradition takes the perfect life to be intellectual: pure, undivided contemplation of all possible truths, from physics and cosmology to metaphysics and God. According to the Guide, this ideal cannot be realized by humans. Their embodied minds cannot achieve scientific knowledge of metaphysics, and their bodily impulses interfere with exclusive contemplation. Closely analyzing the arguments in the Guide and its original use of the parable as a medium of philosophical writing, Stern articulates Maimonides’ skepticism about human knowledge of metaphysics and his heterodox interpretations of scriptural and rabbinic parables. Stern shows how, in order to accommodate the conflicting demands of the intellect and the body, Maimonides creates a repertoire of spiritual exercises, reconceiving the Mosaic commandments as training for the life of the embodied mind. By focusing on the philosophical notions of matter and form, and the interplay between its literary form and subject matter, Stern succeeds in developing a unified, novel interpretation of the Guide.


  • The Maimonides who emerges from within the skeptical reading is an iconoclastic firebrand who challenges motifs central to Jewish theology. Stern’s The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide is by far the most extensive, rigorous, and sophisticated expression of the skeptical interpretation to date. Stern’s impressive reading of Maimonides pushes the envelope further and deeper than…any of those in the skeptical camp… Stern, drawing on his expertise in the philosophy of language, provides the reader with the best treatment of Maimonides’ negative theology to date… Stern is clear about his aims from the outset—to provide a unified reading of the Guide. In this respect his work is a complete and resounding success. A significant and impressive amount of historical and philosophical work has gone into drawing together the various threads of this challenging work and into navigating the difficult interpretive hurdles Maimonides laid down. For these reasons, and many more besides, I have no doubt that this monograph will become a modern classic and will generate a substantial secondary literature… This is a rare piece of stellar scholarship. The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide is a must read for anyone interested in Maimonides.

    —Dani Rabinowitz, Los Angeles Review of Books


  • Josef Stern is William H. Colvin Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and Director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies.

Book Details

  • 448 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press