This article by Neil A. Lewis of The New York Times alerted me to the recent donation of an Auschwitz photo album to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Apparently, the photos are from mid-1944 to early 1945 and were taken by Karl Höcker, an officer stationed at the camp. What's fascinating about the pictures is that they depict the day-to-day lives of the men and women who ran the camp, with all of the horror tucked neatly out of sight.
If you go to this page on the USHMM website, you can learn more about the photographs.
As you would expect, there are many books about the Dreyfus affair. Years ago I read Guy Chapman's The Dreyfus Case: A Reassessment. I recommend it, even though there are more recent books that go over the same ground.
The executive summary is followed by an extensive rundown of anti-Semitic activity in Europe and Eurasia. The Near East, North Africa, the Western Hemisphere, East Asia, the Pacific, South Asia, and the rest of Africa receive much less attention than Europe and Eurasia.
In an earlier post I briefly touched on the issue of anti-Semitism among German philosophers. My basic position is that the anti-Semitism, while it was real, was not embodied in their philosophies. Such a claim requires elaboration and defense, of course. But that's how many philosophers, myself included, view the matter. Scholars from disciplines outside of philosophy are sometimes tempted to see things differently.
I alluded in that earlier post to a notorious passage from Fichte, but I didn't quote it. There's no free-standing translation of the book in question, but his remarks about Jews (a few paragraphs long) are translated and discussed in various places. Besides chapter 8 of Paul Lawrence Rose's Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner, I'd also recommend chapter 5 of Anthony J. La Vopa's Fichte: The Self and the Calling of Philosophy, 1762-1799 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
In this post I want to quote a passage from Kant, who is a much more significant thinker than Fichte (as even Fichte scholars would acknowledge), and thus an anti-Semitic observation from him is worth more attention. The remark comes from Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, a manual for a lecture course that Kant gave for nearly thirty years. It was first published as a book in 1798. The passage appears in §46, which is entitled "On Mental Deficiencies in the Cognitive Power" ["Von den Gemüthsschwächen im Erkenntnißvermögen"]:
The Palestinians living among us have, for the most part, earned a not unfounded reputation for being cheaters, because of their spirit of usury since their exile. Certainly, it seems strange to conceive of a nation of cheaters; but it is just as odd to think of a nation of merchants, the great majority of whom, bound by an ancient superstition that is recognized by the State they live in, seek no civil dignity and try to make up for this loss by the advantage of duping the people among whom they find refuge, and even one another. The situation could not be otherwise, given a whole nation of merchants, as non-productive members of society (for example, the Jews in Poland). So their constitution, which is sanctioned by ancient precepts and even by the people among whom they live (since we have certain sacred writings in common with them), cannot consistently be abolished even though the supreme principle of their morality in trading with us is "Let the buyer beware." I shall not engage in the futile undertaking of lecturing to these people, in terms of morality, about cheating and honesty. Instead, I shall present my conjectures about the origin of this peculiar constitution (the constitution, namely, of a nation of merchants). [Quoted in Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, tr. Mary J. Gregor (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974), p. 77.]
Kant then offers his conjectures about the origin of the Jews as a nation of merchants Palestine, as he puts it, was well-situated for the caravan trade, and so on.
What to say? Well, first, I have to admit to some uncertainty as to how the word Verfassung, which Gregor has translated as "constitution," is to be to understood. Frequently, the German term has a political connotation: that is, a Verfassung can be a constitution, a political document of some sort. But that doesn't seem to be the proper way to understand the term as it is used in this passage. (I'm open, though, to suggestions as to how to read the word in a political sense.)
Instead, Kant seems to mean something like "state of mind" or "mental condition," both of which can plausibly translate Verfassung and make more sense in the context of the overall discussion, which, as the section title indicates, is devoted to the question of mental deficiencies. In the case of the Jews, Kant is attributing to them the mental deficiency of being habitually dishonest. (Don't forget, by the way, his "for the most part" qualifier, which seems to apply to the number of Jews who are cheaters. That is, Kant doesn't seem to be saying that all Jews are dishonest.) I'd say that he's referring to what he takes to be their mental constitution, which, in the context under discussion, amounts to the grievous moral failing of dishonesty, especially in commerce. (I skimmed through the entire text of Kant's Anthropology, but I didn't find any other places where he used the word Verfassung that might help us here. I admit, though, that I could have missed something. I'm blogging here, after all, not writing a scholarly paper.)
Furthermore, he seems to postulate the perpetual existence of this deficiency as long as Jews (1) remain a nation of merchants who (2) reside in non-Jewish countries, (3) make up for their lack of civil dignity (i.e., their second-class citizenship) through dishonest business practices, and (4) abide by ancient religious precepts that sanction their behavior. (Kant doesn't seem to say that their precepts are the cause of the dishonesty that he attributes to the majority of them.) That's why he says that their constitution or however else we might translate Verfassung cannot consistently be abolished.
I don't know why Kant wrote this particular remark. No one does, as far as I know. I spend little time condemning the failings, moral or otherwise, of people who are long dead. Such an activity I consider a form of self-righteousness. Kant's remark speaks for itself, and nowadays we know what it says. Let's leave it at that.
The important intellectual consideration is whether or not the remark which expresses an attitude towards Jews that Kant held at some point in his life somehow informs his philosophical writings. Since Kant gave his anthropology course many times, we don't know when he penned this remark, nor whether he repeated it every time he gave the course, and thus we don't know for sure whether or not he believed it until the end of his life. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that Kant wholeheartedly believed, throughout his entire life, that the Jews were a nation of cheaters. Does it matter for understanding his philosophy?
Kant's moral philosophy is clearly meant to be universal in scope and application. Therefore, it assigns the same duties and rights to all human beings. Furthermore, according to Kant, the failings of others do not excuse us from our obligations towards them, however sorely they might test our patience. (Two wrongs don't make a right, as the saying goes.) Kant says that he refuses to lecture the Jews about their failings, because he thinks that to do so would be futile. But he does not say that their alleged failings excuse us from our obligations towards them.
Since the observation in the quoted passage is an empirical falsehood, it isn't a consequence of Kant's philosophical views, which are never to be mistaken for empirical generalizations of any sort. That is, what Kant says about the Jews can't be a product of his philosophy. A general condemnation of dishonesty applied to Jews and non-Jews alike is to be expected from his moral philosophy, but the sweeping generalization about Jews isn't a philosophical view. It's just an empirical falsehood that expresses a prejudice.
There's nothing in this passage that should prompt any reflection about the nature of Kant's philosophy. For some reason, which no one has been able to fathom, Kant subscribed to one of the ancient stereotypes of the Jewish people. From a personal point of view, clearly, it's lamentable; from a philosophical point of view, however, it's irrelevant.
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.