Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Pantheism controversy

Kvond has put up an outline of his notes concerning the Pantheism Controversy, a spat that rocked the Berlin Enlightenment back in the day before it was cool to be an atheist. His post follows some exchange over on Perverse Egalitarianism, about a newly published Hegel collection that includes an essay by Hegel on Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. I read a good deal on this episode a few years back, just following my nose like I always do--I had started w/ Rosenzweig, worked back through Schelling, and found my way to Jacobi, who started the whole thing by leaking word that Lessing had confessed to him in conversation, à propos a poem by Goethe, that he was a Spinozist. (Jacobi eventually came to argue that pretty much everyone who championed "reason alone" was either a Spinozist, or inconsistent, and while I wouldn't say with Kvond that this "put Spinoza on the map," it certainly put a big ol' asterisk by his name.)

The Pax Kantiana (such as it was and is) between faith and reason started here, and its cracks were already visible. We still live in these cracks.

At issue was whether one could believe in a "personal, extra-mundane God;" Jacobi said Ja, Lessing said Nein. Jacobi told Lessing he had been walking on his head, and urged him to make a salto mortale, a somersault, to land on his feet on the firm ground of faith. Lessing had demurred, smilingly excusing himself from the acrobatics of belief on account of his age. (It would be interesting to trace this figure forwards and back; who would have thought that the same trope would beget, like Jacob and Esau, both Marx's inversion of Hegel and Kierkegaard's Leap of Faith?)

Pretty much everyone who was anyone weighed in on the issue: Herder, Hamann, Goethe, Kant, and of course, Mendelssohn, who Kvond reminded me died because of hurrying to the publisher in the thick of winter without a coat, rushing his reply to Jacobi to press. It is quite amazing to see intellects of this stature battling over what Lessing said and what he meant when he said it; over whether he (or indeed anyone) had correctly understood Spinoza; over smaller things like Jacobi's breach of etiquette (he published Mendelssohn's letters without permission) and bigger things like whether rationalism led inexorably to atheism. The controversy itself was a small thing, an exchange of pamphlets; but its influence went on via Heine and Schelling and Hegel, to Kierkegaard (who it will be recalled read Lessing carefully), and a century later to Rosenzweig and Barth. Fortunately for us, it got called the "Pantheism" controversy to distinguish it from the "atheist controversies" of our own era, when the shoe is on the other foot. Whether the feet are yet on the ground is another question.

It is a pity that Jacobi, who besides the Leap of Faith also gave us the term "nihilism" and the matching of I with Thou, is not more well-known in English. There is as far as I know only one anthology of his writings translated. It is, however, a pretty generous helping. I kept it checked out of the university library for a year or so and no one ever called it back; recently I checked it out again and I think my own return date was the last one stamped. It was incredibly expensive for a while, but I see a paperback edition is available since last Sept., only $45 new!


  1. Thanks for opening this up a bit for me. I didn't know that detail about the salto mortale - that Jacobi had judged Lessing to be already upside down when he invited him to take the leap. Which makes the leap a kind of half-flip (back to the possibility of belief rather than a lunge into some new position).


  2. I think a lot more needs to be said about Jacobi, in general. George di Giovanni made an offhand comment in his class on 19th-century philosophy that Kierkegaard basically got it all from Jacobi. If that's true, Jacobi becomes a hugely influential figure, since we see Kierkegaard's footsteps all over the place in 20th-century thought.

  3. The link here is Schelling, particularly later Schelling. (Harman just put up a post saying how much he dislikes the move of saying, "ah, but you haven't considered the later work of philosopher X..."; it's undeniable that this kind of remark reeks of pedantry, but Schelling really is a figure of whom it could be justly made). As is well known, Kierkegaard (not to mention Marx and Bakunin and Feuerbach and all sorts of others) attended Schelling's late Berlin lectures on 'positive philosophy'; among these were lectures on the 'philosophy of mythology' and the 'philosophy of revelation.' (This also had a strong influence of Rosenzweig, who once remarked something to the effect that if Schelling's book The Ages of the World had been completed, no one would have cared about his own masterpiece The Star of Redemption except Jews). It's pretty clear that Schelling got a great deal of his inspiration from Jacobi, who saw the philosophy / theology divide in perhaps the starkest terms since some of the old medievals. (Not that the division is seen in the same way, not that he would have put it like this). Isaiah Berlin devoted a lot of attention to Jacobi's contemporaries of the counter-enlightenment, Hamann and Herder, but not as much on Jacobi, alas. However, the Stanford article I linked to above is good on him, as is this one from the IEP.