The Problem of the Enlightenment: Strauss, Jacobi, and the Pantheism Controversy

By Janssens, David | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Problem of the Enlightenment: Strauss, Jacobi, and the Pantheism Controversy

Janssens, David, The Review of Metaphysics

Denn was die Philosophen sogar ein wenig nachsehend und parteiisch gegen Enthusiasten und Schwarmer macht, ist, dass sie, die Philosophen, am allermeisten dabei verlieren wurden, wenn es gar keine Enthusiasten und Schwarmer mehr gabe. Lessing, Uber eine zeitige Aufgabe


IN HIS FIRST BOOK, LEO STRAUSS PROVIDES the reader with an interesting clue to one of the sources of his groundbreaking critical study of the Theological-Political Treatise. While identifying the guiding question of his undertaking, he also points out its pedigree:

   Even if all the reasoning adduced by Spinoza were compelling,
   would have been proven. Only this much would have been proven: that
   on the basis of unbelieving science, one could not but arrive at
   results. But would this basis itself thus be justified? It was
   Heinrich Jacobi who posed this question, and by so doing lifted the
   of Spinoza--or what amounts to the same thing--the criticism
   of Spinoza on to its proper plane. (1)

This statement is both literally and figuratively singular: the only reference to Jacobi in the whole book, unaccompanied by any mention of its source, it makes us wonder about the importance of this author for Strauss's endeavour. A renowned critic of the Enlightenment, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) singled out Spinoza as one of the main targets of his attacks. (2) Similarly, in Spinoza's Critique of Religion, Strauss casts doubt on the legitimacy of Spinoza's attack against revealed religion, thereby also questioning the foundations of the Enlightenment. In a discerning review of the book, his contemporary Gerhard Kruger noted that in Spinoza's Critique of Religion, "there is concealed a fundamental philosophic discussion of the problem of the Enlightenment." (3) If this interpretation is sound, then from a merely formal point of view the procedure followed by Strauss closely resembles that of Jacobi: to address the problem of the Enlightenment by means of a critical assessment of Spinoza. (4)

However, even if Strauss's critique of Spinoza may be said to take its cue from Jacobi, it is not clear whether the latter's influence reaches beyond this initial impulse, nor is it clear to what extent. Recently it has been suggested not only that Spinoza's Critique of Religion is "by its own account, `Jacobian' in orientation," but also that "the Jacobian dilemma and the critique of rationalism [remained] fundamental for Strauss's perspective" throughout his career. (5) Moreover, these assumptions carry an implicit criticism, to the extent that Strauss may be said to be heir to the irrationalism, conservatism, and authoritarianism attributed to the anti-Enlightenment with which Jacobi is commonly associated. (6) This paper will attempt to show that such assessments are in need of qualification. It will be argued that even if a certain affinity between Strauss and Jacobi can be shown to exist, this affinity is far more complex than it seems.

In order to bring out this complexity, a closer look will be taken at those writings in which Strauss discusses Jacobi. To begin, there is his doctoral dissertation, which, although he later disparaged it as "a disgraceful performance," nevertheless merits closer investigation. (7) A comprehensive account, moreover, must broaden the inquiry. After the completion of Spinoza's Critique of Religion, Strauss worked as a coeditor of the Jubilee Edition of Moses Mendelssohn's collected works. As a part of this employment, he conducted research into the so-called Pantheism Controversy. This debate was launched by Jacobi, with Moses Mendelssohn as its principal addressee, and initially concerned the philosophical legacy of the thinker and writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. However, it soon developed into a full-blown debate concerning the foundations and the legitimacy of the Enlightenment, involving such prominent contemporaries as Johann Georg Hamann, Immanuel Kant, Karl Reinhold, and Johann Gottfried Herder.

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The Problem of the Enlightenment: Strauss, Jacobi, and the Pantheism Controversy


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