In an earlier post I mentioned that I had recently written an introduction for a forthcoming reprint of Moses Mendelssohn's Phaedon. Here is a recent review of several new books about the Haskalah, i.e., Jewish Enlightenment, in 18th century Germany. Mendelssohn was a central figure in the Haskalah; he is certainly the best known one today.
The review is very informative, but I'm dissatisfied with parts of it. Jonathon Kahn, the reviewer, says several things that should not go unchallenged. I want to take them up in the rest of this post. I'm only addressing what Kahn has written. I haven't read any of the books that he reviews; consequently, I'm criticizing only what Kahn has written in response to them.
My first challenge concerns the following remarkable sentence at the end of Kahn's second paragraph: "Kant eagerly anticipated Mendelssohn's conversion to Christianity." As far as I know, this is false. Let's begin with the context of Kahn's remark. His second paragraph is devoted to the "Lavater affair" and Mendelssohn's Jerusalem.
The whole affair is complicated, but it goes something like this. In 1769 a Swiss theologian named Johann Caspar Lavater publicly challenged Mendelssohn to refute the views on the soul found in a book that Lavater had translated and dedicated to Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn deftly deflected the challenge, and Lavater was made to look something of a fool.
In 1783 Mendelssohn published Jerusalem, which is generally considered his greatest book. The book discusses at length some of the issues that arose in the Lavater affair, especially those involving freedom of thought and the rationality of the Jewish faith. Concerning the latter issue, in short, Mendelssohn argued that Judaism is divine legislation, not revealed religion, and thus that it makes no irrational demands on Jews and does not demand that anyone else adopt Jewish beliefs.
Kant knew Jerusalem and thought highly of it. Here's what he wrote to Mendelssohn on August 16, 1783:
I regard this book as the proclamation of a great reform that is gradually becoming imminent, a reform that is in store not only for your own people but for other nations as well. You have managed to unite with your religion a degree of freedom of thought that one would hardly have thought possible and of which no other religion can boast. You have at the same time thoroughly and clearly shown it necessary that every religion have unrestricted freedom of thought, so that finally even the Church will have to consider how to rid itself of everything that burdens and oppresses man's conscience, and mankind will finally be united with regard to the essential point of religion. For all religious propositions that burden our conscience are based on history, that is, on making blessedness contingent on belief in the truth of those historical propositions. [Quoted from Immanuel Kant, Philosophical Correspondence, 1759-99, ed. and tr. by Arnulf Zweig (University of Chicago Press, 1967), pp. 107-108.]
This is hardly the language of someone who eagerly awaits someone else's conversion to Christianity. Kant was not an orthodox Christian. As the passage from his letter shows, he envisaged an "essential point of religion" that is available to everyone, once the burden of "historical propositions" is cast off. He calls this moral religion, which, I stress, is available to all rational beings. His views on moral religion are developed in various places, especially in his Critique of Practical Reason and Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.
In the latter book there is a passage that, I assume, must be the one that the reviewer has in mind as proof that Kant awaited Mendelssohn's conversion. Mendelssohn points out, says Kant, that Judaism is the substructure of Christianity. Consequently, to reject Judaism is to undermine Christianity. Here is what Kant says in elaboration:
His real intention is fairly clear. He means to say: First wholly remove Judaism itself out of your religion (it can always remain, as an antiquity, in the historical account of the faith); we can then take your proposal under advisement. (Actually nothing would then be left but pure moral religion unencumbered by statutes.) [Quoted from Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, tr. by Theodore Green and Hoyt Hudson (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1960), p. 154.]
Kant is misreading Mendelssohn's Jerusalem, which certainly neither explicitly said nor implicitly hinted that Jews would consider joining Christians in a pure moral religion once Christianity had shaken off its Jewish roots. In any event, this passage says nothing about converting to Christianity, eagerly or otherwise. If this is the source of Kahn's claim, then he has misread Kant.
Beside the two passages from Kant quoted above, I know of no other source for Kahn's claim. That being the case, I conclude that he is wrong to assert that Kant eagerly awaited Mendelssohn's conversion to Christianity. Naturally, if any evidence to the contrary (in, say, the books that Kahn has reviewed) can be brought forward, I'll be happy to evaluate it and revise my challenge accordingly.
My second challenge deals with another mistake about Kant. Kahn writes that "Kantian universalism . . . with its aspirations for rational autonomy and its totalizing moral categorical imperative does not allow for cultural diversity." This is not only false, but wildly false. The categorical imperative is compatible with any number of cultural practices. It's unfortunate that such a simplistic view of Kant's moral philosophy crops up in Kahn's review without protest. It's not clear, I admit, whether or not the view is Kahn's or Jonathan Hess's, whose book is being discussed at this point in the review. Nonetheless, Kahn should know better than to let such a view into his review without further discussion. Any number of philosophers defend much more subtle interpretations of Kant's ethics. The work of Barbara Herman, Onora O'Neill, and Christine Korsgaard is a good place to begin. It's regrettable that some scholars, i.e., people who really should know better, manage to promote, perhaps unintentionally, such superficial views of Kant's moral philosophy. Kant deserves better.
My third challenge concerns the alleged role of anti-Semitism in the philosophy of German idealism. Here is the paragraph in which Kahn reports the views of Jonathan Hess and Michael Mack, two of the authors whose work is under review:
In his penultimate chapter, Hess advances a polemical suggestion: that the philosophical standards of the Enlightenmentexemplified by Kant's vision of what counts as enlightened modernityrely in no small part on a demonizing of Judaism. Mack's German Idealism and the Jew is a full-scale elaboration of this notion, insisting that German idealism from Kant to Hegel is based on an inveterate anti-Semitism. His argument is not mincing: Both Kant and Hegel disdain Jews and Judaism as forever irrationally bound to empirical necessities and worldly-materials. In its insistence on worshiping God through this-worldly ritual practice, Judaism embodies for Kant the state of heteronomy, a slavish dependence on a force other than autonomous reason. For Hegel, Judaism signifies the stubborn inability to dialectically overcome contingency and immediacy. On Mack's view, anti-Semitism needs to be understood not as a reaction against Enlightenment universalism and rationality but as a critical stanchion in its architecture. German idealism thrives on anti-Semitism.
I've never found such claims very convincing, if only because the majority of the most important representatives of German idealism in particular and the European Enlightenment in general were critical of organized religion not just Judaism, but Christianity as well. This viewpoint led to criticism and rejection of Judaism, it's true, but that's not the same as anti-Semitism. Kahn does not endorse the claims made by Hess and Mack, but neither does he dispute them. He should have clarified his attitude towards them, given their incendiary nature.
Unfortunately, however, real anti-Semitism can be found from time to time in the writings of the German idealists. For example, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, whom I study, gave expression to the most vehement anti-Semitic views in a few paragraphs in an early writing from 1793 entitled Contribution to the Correction of the Public Verdict on the French Revolution. (For quotations and a useful discussion, I recommend chapter 8 of Paul Lawrence Rose's Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner.) Fichte's outburst is thoroughly lamentable, but as far as I can tell, it plays no role whatsoever in his larger philosophy. He did not design his philosophical views to give covert expression to the anti-Semitism that he displayed in 1793. A few paragraphs do not control a corpus of many thousands of pages.
My final challenge to Kahn arises from this sentence: "For Mendelssohn, Judaism is a reasonable religion precisely because it acknowledges that human existence is necessarily enmeshed in social and natural contingencies." It's not clear whether Kahn is speaking in his own voice or simply reporting one of Michael Mack's claims. (See the relevant paragraph and decide for yourself. I lean towards the latter option.) In either case, Kahn does not explicitly question this claim. (Two paragraphs later he notes that Mack's view risks overlooking the diversity of Judaism, which is an observation that does not directly address the content of the quotation.) Social and natural contingencies can just as easily be a source of irrationality as of rationality; in fact, the former is more likely the case.
Enlightened thinking of any sort is devoted, at least in part, to investigating and overcoming the deficiencies and one-sidedness of the viewpoint that is handed to us by the circumstances of our birth. Mendelssohn considered Judaism a reasonable religion because, as far as he could determine, it withstood the rational scrutiny to which he subjected it. We need not agree with him to acknowledge that he acted in good faith and as a scholar and philosopher of the highest order, but we should not accept for a moment the characterization of the reasonableness of Judaism found in the quotation in my previous paragraph. Any view whatsoever, however repulsive, can be deemed reasonable by appeal to social and natural contingencies, since every view is enmeshed in them. Some social and natural contingencies are more conducive to rationality than others.
Acknowledgment: Martin Yaffe helped me to realize the relevance of the passage from Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone for addressing Kahn's claim that Kant eagerly awaited Mendelssohn's conversion to Christianity. Many thanks to Martin for his timely assistance.
Additional reading: Philip de Bary, my editor at Thoemmes Continuum, has reminded me that James Schmidt's introduction to the Thoemmes reprint of the first English biography of Moses Mendelssohn is available on-line. Interested readers of this post will certainly want to consult Schmidt's introduction.
Advertisement for myself: It looks as if the reprint of Mendelssohn's Phaedon, for which I wrote a new introduction, will soon be available, perhaps by the end of June.
More on German philosophy and anti-Semitism: See my recent post on a remark from Kant.