Form and Shape in Maimonides.

Ludwik Kowalski posted the following question at

A theological paper that I am reading contains the following:

“… Thirdly, there are those creations, which have form but no shape. These are angels, which have no bodies, but whose form vary from angel to angel.”

What is the meaning of the words “form” and “shape” in this context?

English is not my native language. But my impression is that these two words are synonyms […]. Am I wrong?

I responded:

You can’t depend on the ordinary/dictionary senses of words when reading theological works; you need to be familiar with the technical vocabulary used in that particular tradition. In this case, it’s more complicated, because if (as I suspect) you are quoting Maimonides then it is a question of how the translator rendered particular terms in the original Arabic and how those original terms are used in the tradition Maimonides was working in and expected his readers to be familiar with.

Kowalski confirmed that he was reading Maimonides, and I was hoping that someone more knowledgeable than I in the vocabulary of Judeo-Arabic medieval philosophy (that is to say, with any knowledge at all) would explain it, but that hasn’t happened so far, so I thought I’d repost the question here and see if anyone knows. (I did, after all, get some very helpful answers to my question about the phrase sub specie aeternitatis a couple of years ago.)


  1. Maybe this is obvious, but Maimonides was a follower of Aristotle. So, whoever translated Maimonides into English was probably referring back to older Aristotelian metaphysical categories e.g., form, matter, cause, etc.

  2. “I was hoping that someone more knowledgeable than I in the vocabulary of Judeo-Arabic medieval philosophy (that is to say, with any knowledge at all) would explain it,”

    I have a similar hope. One thing that I do remember about is that it is a rich source of spoken Egyptian Arabic at the time. The texts were written in Arabic with Hebrew script. The Jewish authors writing for a Jewish audience were not constrained, as were literate Muslim writers, to standard Arabic. So, many of the ‘mistakes’ in Arabic indicate the way people at the time actually spoke.

    That is the limit of my knowledge. I would be interested to learn more.

  3. In Aristotelian terms, form is structure, what makes a mass of mere matter a something. The form of Aristotle is the organizing principle that makes the requisite amount of flesh, blood, bone, skin, and various organs into Aristotle and not something else. When Aristotle dies, the form vanishes, leaving only the matter behind. So angels (a concept Aristotle didn’t have) have a structure but no underlying matter: they are all form and no content, like Chomskyan syntax. 🙂

  4. @JC:

    (i) For natural objects (like Aristotle) form is more complex than merely structure, but also includes function.
    (ii) As such, ‘flesh, blood, bone, skin, and various organs’ are already enformed matter, whether they are structured as Aristotle or not.
    (iii) The form of Aristotle (his soul) does not make him Aristotle, but a human being.
    (iv) Forms don’t vanish; they either exist in actuality, or in potentiality.
    (v) It is matter that has no ‘content’, which is precisely what form provides.

  5. The quote is from the Mishneh Torah, Book of Knowledge, The Laws Of The Basic Principles Of The Torah, ch. 2 (here in English, here in the Hebrew original.) What is being translated here as form is צוּרָה /tsura/, and shape is גֹּלֶם /golem/. As far as I can tell John Cowan’s interpretation is correct; as to angels, Aristotle didn’t have them, but Maimonides’ angels reflect Aristotle’s concept of ‘separate intellects’, which I know nothing about.

    In his interpretation to the Mishnah (Avoth 5:6) Maimonides explains the term golem, then as now used to mean ‘a fool’ in a certain sense. M. mentions the word as it appears in Psalms 139:16, referring to an embryo, yet unformed into a human. He interprets it not quite as unformed matter, but as roughed out, like a knife-maker’s blank. But as the angels go, I think he’s just talking about raw material.

  6. Stephen Bruce says:

    There seems to be pertinent information in Josef Stern’s Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide. There does seem to be a difference between spiritual/ideal/natural form and corporeal shape/substance. But I only did a cursory skim.

    The question of the true nature of angels was much discussed by Christians as well. See, e.g. Aquinas on “Whether the angels have bodies naturally united to them?” “Whether angels assume bodies?” and “Whether the angels exercise functions of life in the bodies assumed?”

    Or in Paradise Lost V. 433–443, when Raphael is about to have a meal with Adam and Eve:

    So down they sat,
    And to thir viands fell, nor seemingly
    The Angel, nor in mist, the common gloss
    Of Theologians, but with keen dispatch
    Of real hunger, and concoctive heate
    To transubstantiate; what redounds, transpires
    Through Spirits with ease; nor wonder; if by fire
    Of sooty coal the Empiric Alchimist
    Can turn, or holds it possible to turn
    Metals of drossiest Ore to perfet Gold
    As from the Mine.

    To which Orgel and Goldberg in my edition note, “i.e. angels are material beings: Milton rejects the orthodox view, which holds that angels are immaterial but assume slightly material bodies to converse with mortals (as, for example, in Donne’s ‘Air and Angels’, l. 3).”

  7. Stefan Holm says:

    If this is about the traditional body-soul question it could just be a translation problem. At least in Germanic we simply don’t attribute anything to the soul in terms of neither form nor shape. Souls can be good, evil great, lost, hot, loving etc. none of which are forms or shapes.

    Is it on the other hand about Plato’s idealism there is something else in it. A physical circle like a drawn one, a coin, a wedding ring, a (round) plate or whatever has a form/shape. But so has Plato’s idea of the circle although it doesn’t exist in the material world. In fact this form/shape is the circle, he says, while a coin etc. only are fragmentary reflections as seen by us of the utter idea of the circle.

    Since his thoughts were widely spread (Christianity is highly influenced) it could be that one ore more languages around the Mediterranean developed different words for those two platonic concepts of form/shape – the simple material one and the higher complete one in the world of ideas?

  8. J. W. Brewer says:

    I think the traditional Christian description of angels in liturgical/theological Greek is “asomatos” (as inflected for case and number, of course), which is usually Englished as either “bodiless” or “incorporeal” depending I guess on the translator’s sense of appropriate register. I don’t know what the relevant sense of soma/somatos would be naturally contrasted with in philosophical Greek (either Platonic or Aristotelian).

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    The entry for “Photios of Constantinople” (9th century) in the Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy (published by Springer; Lagerlund, ed.) talks about how he admired Aristotle more than Plato but via commentary tried to emend or clean-up Aristotle’s conceptual apparatus to make it more suitable for accurate discussion of Christian stuff (like the incorporeality of the angels). Maimonides was a few centuries later, but I don’t know if the Jewish and/or Islamic transmitters of Aristotelianism to him had engaged in similar tweaks or different ones.

  10. Earlier commenters have already got the sense of it, but the Greek words from Aristotle’s Metaphysics (especially Book Zeta) relevant to the issue are “eidos” (form) and “morphe” (shape). How they appear in Maimonides, I have no idea.

  11. Stefan Holm says:

    Aristotle in this particular issue essentially continues Plato’s idea, most famously presented in the latter’s Allegory of the Cave
    The original can be read here in English translation:

    From this it was transferred into both Judaism (through Moses Maimonides) and Christianity that God and the angels are not material but belong to the eternity without extension in space or time. This was of course something new compared to the Greek and Roman pantheon (or the Germanic), where the gods were highly human-like in thoughts and deeds. Since then I think none of the dominating world religions have denied this dualism: our world and the celestial one are two different entities.

    Then the Renaissance and the Enlightment was a blow to this concept. Through progress in science we were able to explain the world without postulating anything beyond human understanding.

    An annoying thing is though the results from modern mathematical physics: How can light be both particles and waves? How can a photon be in two different places simultaneously? How can elementary particles communicate instantly over a distance? Why can’t we even imagine the eleven dimensions in String theory? What finally happened to Schrödinger’s poor cat?

    Why do I sometimes feel like slowly being carried back into Plato’s cave – by the very means that once denounced it?

  12. David Marjanović says:

    How can light be both particles and waves?

    “Particle” and “wave” are just metaphors that sometimes fail to represent the actual behavior of elementary… “particles” such as photons or electrons or quarks. Don’t reify your metaphors. 🙂

    How can a photon be in two different places simultaneously?

    Its position is blurry. The position of everything is blurry. Interactions with other “particles” may narrow down at the expense of velocity and vice versa*, and may similarly narrow down the position in time at the expense of energy, but it can’t actually hit 0: that’s Heisenberg’s uncertainty relation.

    * This is, incidentally, why Schrödinger’s cat is not in a superposition of states: there are way too many “particles” involved.

    How can elementary particles communicate instantly over a distance?

    Position is blurry. Distance is blurry. 🙂

    Why can’t we even imagine the eleven dimensions in String theory?

    Why would we be able to do that? There hasn’t exactly been natural selection for this ability. 🙂

    Why do I sometimes feel like slowly being carried back into Plato’s cave – by the very means that once denounced it?

    The similarities are superficial.

    And so are the similarities to other traditions of philosophy (“The Tao of Physics”).

  13. David Marjanović makes some correct points– I’ll try to add a couple more:

    re: particles and waves

    The distinction between “particles’ and ‘waves’ is semantic, not physical– a quantum mechanical state is what it is and not some other thing.

    re: being in two places at the same time

    A measurement can reveal the position of an object. Before the measurement, the position is unknown. Why is this puzzling?

    re: communicating particles:

    This is ‘entanglement’ and is due to non-locality, a profoundly non-classical phenomenon. It has nothing to do with ‘communicating’ anything. A correct analysis shows that causality is not violated, there is no ‘instant’ communication.

    I confess that I tend to align myself with the ‘shut up and calculate’ school of quantum mechanical philosophy. It’s remarkable that we have methods for making precise and correct predictions about microscopic phenomena. The rational response is to use them.

  14. This is ‘entanglement’ and is due to non-locality, a profoundly non-classical phenomenon. […] A correct analysis shows that causality is not violated

    Well. Bell’s theorem says we can have either causality or locality, not both. Rejecting locality and keeping causality is a choice, probably because actions at a distance are less spooky than causes that follow their effects. But the latter is only spooky because of our Kantian intuitions of space, time, and causality that make us unwilling to give up any of them.

  15. Well, I won’t discount the importance of Kantian intuitions, but I’m also personally reluctant to give up field theory– it’s my bread and butter, after all.

    I recall that I went to a lecture, many years ago, by an eminent Wittgensteinian who claimed that certain linguistic usages proved that one could have a cause that followed an effect. The physicists attending the lecture were not convinced.

  16. Oh god, Wittgenstein. I don’t know enough to have any opinion on his work in philosophy, but the stuff he wrote about language has confused a lot of people. He sure would have benefited from Linguistics 101.

  17. Bell’s theorem says we can have either causality or locality, not both.

    In fact, standard quantum mechanics is both causal and local (at least in the way physicists understand these words). What Bell’s theorem (together with the experiments showing a violation of Bell’s inequality) says is that we can’t have local hidden variable theories (so-called “local realism”, although I think the word realism is overloaded enough already). We can still have non-local hidden variable theories, like Bohmian mechanics, which makes identical predictions to standard non-relativistic quantum mechanics. Bohmian mechanics is not so popular among physicists because most (at least among those who have heard of it) consider it less parsimonious than orthodox quantum mechanics, and perhaps, more importantly, because it is difficult to extend to the relativistic case. Perhaps Kantian intuitions have to do with it as well. Also the fact that it’s not discussed in any standard quantum mechanics class or textbook.

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