Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview
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i. Deepening Philosophical Crisis

While the decisive split in the mainstream moderate Enlightenment in Germany and the Baltic occurred only with the banning of Wolff's philosophy by the Prussian Crown in 1723, signs of growing tension were evident well before this. Academic feuding over philosophy spread through the universities, dismaying many by displaying publicly the general loss of intellectual cohesion.1 Some German universities, such as Duisburg, still broadly adhered to Cartesian, and others, such as Cologne or Heidelberg, preferred scholastic Aristotelian ideas. Halle meanwhile, or at least its philosophy faculty, tended by 1720 towards Wolffian ideas. But most simply languished in a state of chronic disarray. Thomasius' influence was widespread, but while this promoted an enquiring, eclectic outlook, it provided little or no intellectual coherence.2 The old philosophia recepta was disintegrating, but nothing stable or widely acceptable took its place.

The prevailing situation was less a vacuum, however, than a pulsing vortex in which multiple external impulses—the new Biblical criticism, post-Boyle experimental science, Cartesianism and its variants, and latterly Newtonianism and (to a limited extent) Locke—pulsated and clashed with evolving internal spiritual and intellectual forces, especially Pietist fundamentalism and Leibnizian–Wolffian metaphysics. At Halle, by 1720, collisions between Pietists and Wolffians, in some cases marred by student tumult, had created an extremely fraught atmosphere. At Koenigsberg in 1725, according to the Wolffian professor of physics, Christian Gabriel Fischer (c.1690–1751), utter confusion reigned as Pietists and Thomasians fought Cartesian and Wolffian champions of mathematical method and the new science. 'Libertas philosophandi,' remarked Fischer, 'does not always have beneficial results' but rather often yields only bafflement, strife, and 'pure sophistry'.3 Many concurred with Leibniz's view that what was required was a new general synthesis accommodating scientific rationality

1 Wessell, G. E. Lessing's Theology, 58–88, 78–8; Kuehn, 'German Aufklärung'. 310–04.

2 Ibid., 311–12.

3 Predeek, 'Verschollener Reorganisationsplan', 76; Wilson, 'Reception', 48–8.


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