Maimon’s ‘Law of Determinability’ and the Impossibility of Shared Attributes

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Apart from his critique of Kant, Maimon’s significance for the history of philosophy lies in his crucial role in the rediscovery of Spinoza by the German Idealists. Specifically, Maimon initiated a change from the common eighteenth-century view of Spinoza as the great ‘atheist’ to the view of Spinoza as an ‘acosmist’, i.e., a thinker who propounded a deep, though unorthodox, religious view denying the reality of the world and taking God to be the only real being. I have discussed this aspect of Maimon’s philosophy in other places, and though the topic of the current paper has an interesting relation to certain doctrines of Spinoza, I will not develop this issue here. Neither of these two issues -- Maimon’s criticism of Kant or his original interpretation of Spinoza -- was considered by Maimon as his main contribution to philosophy. There is little doubt that if Maimon were asked to point out his single most important innovation he would have picked his doctrine of the Principle of Determinability [Satz der Bestimmbarkeit]. Regarding this doctrine Maimon writes: ... [T]he principle of determinability laid down in this work is a principle of all objectively real thought, and consequently of philosophy as a whole too. All the propositions of philosophy can be derived from, and be determined by it [woraus sich alle Sätze herleiten und wodurch sie sich bestimmen lassen]. … I have made available a supreme principle of all objectively real thought, viz., the principle of determinability... and have established as the ground of the whole of pure philosophy -- a principle which, if it is ever grasped, will, I hope, withstand every scrutiny. These claims may strike the reader as somewhat presumptuous, to say the least. But, if we pay attention to the last sentence of the passage, we can see that Maimon doubts whether his great finding will ever be understood. It is not unlikely that in this phrase (“wenn er nur einmal eingesehen werden wird”) Maimon was reacting to his own repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to explain the principle. The fate of Maimon’s principle has not been much better in the few works written on Maimon’s philosophy, and though almost all commentators agree that the principle of determinability is the linchpin of the positive philosophy Maimon was trying to develop, we do not yet have a clear explanation of this principle, or of the reason why Maimon assigns such importance to it. Recently, Oded Schechter developed an excellent reading of this principle, and in most aspects my view agrees with his (primarily, in its rejecting the attempt to explain the principle as a version of Leibniz’s predicate-in-subject [Praedicatum inest subjecto] containment thesis). My paper consists of two parts. The first is expository in nature. In this part, I spell out briefly the main aspects of Maimon’s principle of determinability and its aims. In the second part, I examine Maimon’s surprising claim that once we accept the principle of determinability, we have to deny the possibility of two subjects sharing the same predicate. Maimon provides several proofs for this highly counterintuitive claim, and I will try to clarify and evaluate these proofs.
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