Did David Hume Read Maimonides? Yes…Possibly

One of the most famous works of Jewish philosophy from the Middle Ages is arguably Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. The Guide has been translated into many languages and has been a popular read among theologians and philosophers around the globe.

On Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies invited Dr. Mark Steiner of Hebrew University of Jerusalem to discuss the true impact of Maimonides’ Guide on the work of the renowned Enlightenment philosopher David Hume.

Dr. Mark Steiner discussing Maimonides’ influence on philosopher David Hume

Dr. Steiner, who has authored multiple books relating to mathematics and philosophy, began the lecture exploring Maimonides’ opposition to the Mutakallimun, believers of a stream of Jewish and Islamic theology that attacked science in the service of religion.

At the beginning of his Shemoneh Perakim [Eight Chapters] and the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides explains that the Mutakallimun based their beliefs on what Dr. Steiner calls Axiom I: “Something is possible if, and only if, it is imaginable.” In other words, they determined what is possible not from reason but from imagination. Maimonides then went on to explain how science disproves Axiom I by demonstrating that something can be possible without it being imaginable.

Dr. Steiner pointed out that Dr. Michael Schwarz, scholar of medieval Islamic texts, found no expression of Axiom I in any texts of the Mutakallimun. By Maimonides’ lifetime, there had been no members of the Mutakallimun for over 100 years. Dr. Schwarz suggested that Maimonides reconstructed what the Mutakallimun should have believed, not what they actually believed, in order to distill their philosophy into clearer arguments that he subsequently refutes.

The only other place where Axiom I can be found in all philosophy is in the Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, an 18th-century empiricist. Hume’s statement of “nothing we can imagine is absolutely impossible” is alien to both his rationalist predecessors and his empiricist colleagues, and as none of the Mutakallimun actually expressed their beliefs in such a way, it is plausible to suggest that Hume read one of the many translated copies of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Steiner admitted that more investigation is necessary to determine if Hume had access to the Guide, but he believed there is enough evidence to suggest he did.

Though the Guide was not found in Hume’s personal library, it may be in the library Hume used while writing the Treatise. Steiner added that Hume knew of Maimonides since he read and quoted Pierre Boyle’s famous dictionary, which praises Maimonides.

For those well-read in philosophy, Dr. Steiner’s lecture piqued curiosity and shed light on the transmission of philosophical concepts throughout the ages. Only time will tell what other philosophical mysteries Dr. Steiner will uncover.