Solomon Maimon. W. Arndt. Engraving or etching. This portrait appeared in the 1792 German-language edition of Maimon’s autobiography and has been reprinted in subsequent translations and editions. (YIVO)

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Maimon, Salomon

(1754–1800), maskil and philosopher. Salomon Maimon (Shelomoh ben Yehoshu‘a) was born and raised near Nieśwież in Poland–Lithuania (now Nesvizh, Belarus). He received a Talmudic education, married at 11, and soon began to work as a private tutor. Early in his life, he encountered Jewish mystical-pietistic movements, showed an interest in Kabbalah, and flirted with new Hasidism. Later, influenced by the philosophy of Maimonides (in whose honor he adopted a surname), he devoted himself to secular studies and began to lean toward skepticism.

In about 1779, Maimon left Poland and went to Berlin via Königsberg and Szczecin, but was not allowed to enter the city. After a half-year of wandering, he reached Poznań, where he settled as a teacher. Two years later, he returned to Berlin and this time was allowed to enter. He soon won the respect of the circle of maskilim around Moses Mendelssohn, but because of a wild lifestyle, Maimon was forced to leave for Hamburg, Amsterdam and, eventually, Altona, where for the first time he devoted himself to systematic, secular studies at a gymnasium. He returned briefly to Berlin, then went to Wrocław and in 1786 went back to Berlin.

Thanks to Immanuel Kant’s favorable opinion of his philosophical work, Maimon was admitted to Berlin’s intellectual salons and started publishing in German scientific periodicals. In 1790, Count Friedrich Adolf von Kalckreuth invited him to his estate near Berlin and then to Nieder-Siegersdorf near Głogów (Glogau) in Silesia. There Maimon wrote his most important works and remained for the rest of his life.

Maimon was acclaimed for his analytical insights into Kant’s philosophy. Initially considering himself a Kantian, he developed a critique on the limitations of the philosophy of pure reason. The manuscript of his treatise Versuch über die Transcendentalphilosophie (Search for Transcendental Philosophy; 1790) was especially well received by Kant, who claimed that Maimon understood the Critique of Pure Reason better than any of Kant’s other critics.

Maimon’s works, however, criticized the dualism in Kant’s epistemology. Whereas for Kant the form of an object of knowledge is mental and its matter extramental, for Maimon knowledge requires absolute unity of form and matter. This unity can be secured only by reverting to rationalist dogmatism, an approach Kant sought to overcome. Maimon held that the human mind is finite and thus perceives objects as mind-dependent, although they are the products of an infinite mind. The roots of his solution may be traced to Maimon’s study of medieval Jewish philosophy and mysticism, and are reformulated in terms derived from Spinoza and Leibniz. Since these assumptions cannot be demonstrated by the finite human mind, Maimon characterized his own position—which had considerable influence on German idealists from Fichte to Hegel—as both dogmatic and skeptical.

Maimon’s other important philosophical texts include Philosophisches Wörterbuch (Philosophical Dictionary; 1791) and Über die Progressen der Philosophie (On the Progress of Philosophy; 1792). He also wrote a commentary in Hebrew to the first part of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed (1791) and two other texts in Hebrew, which remain in manuscript.

Maimon’s most famous work remains his two-volume autobiography Lebensgeschichte (1792–1793), in which he presents his journey from Polish–Lithuanian Jewish culture toward the ideals of the Enlightenment. The text, edited and with a foreword by Karl P. Moritz, is one of the most valuable sources for the study of the life, traditions, and mentality of Polish Jews in the second half of the eighteenth century; it contains descriptions of arranged marriages, elementary education, the ascetic practices of old-style Hasidim, the life of a Jewish leaseholder, and an invaluable description of Maimon’s visit to the Hasidic court of Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh. The work, however, was commissioned by Berlin’s Haskalah circles to present a stylized picture of the life of Jews in Poland, and was aimed to provide justification for programs to bring reforms to East European Jews. The author idealizes the social, cultural, and legal situation of Jews in Prussia, juxtaposing his descriptions with a purposefully negative picture of the fanaticism and so-called backwardness of Poland and Polish Jews.

Maimon was especially critical of religious practices and beliefs, which in his opinion departed from the ideal of the natural and rational religion, which he claimed Judaism had once been. His autobiography influenced the reform proposals and the self-evaluation of maskilic circles, especially in Eastern Europe, as well as most of their ventures into the genre of autobiography. Translations were issued in English (1888), Polish (1913), and Hebrew (1942).

Suggested Reading

Samuel H. Bergman, The Philosophy of Solomon Maimon (Jerusalem, 1967); Shmuel Feiner, “Solomon Maimon and the Haskalah,” Aschkenas 10.2 (2000): 337–359; Abraham Socher, The Radical Enlightenment of Solomon Maimon (Stanford, Calif., 2006).



Translated from Polish by Bartek Madejski