My Life With Kant: Moses Mendelssohn

Welcome to the Best of MY LIFE WITH KANT.

Hopefully this will hold you over for few days while I am out of town. Please forgive any spelling or grammatical errors. Enjoy!

My Life With Kant: Moses Mendelssohn

When it comes to the Social Contract, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s work remains the best example, however others before him were also developing this idea. Thomas Hobbes’s the Leviathan was a hugely influential work that inspired many political thinkers in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

One of the central ideas in the Leviathan is Hobbes’s notion of the State of Nature that early man found himself in. In this state, everyone can be considered equal because no one has the authority to exert power over other individuals. Even perhaps the strongest individuals can be defeated in some way without any enforced repercussions because there are no laws that protect anyone. Man’s primary desire is to fulfill his self-interest with the only deterrent being the fear of a horrific death. According to Hobbes, in order to avoid a world of persistent war and suffering, man must forgo some of his liberties and form a contract that would allow a government to protect the rights of individuals and prevent others from trampling on those rights.

However, Jock Locke didn’t take such a bleak view of the state of nature. Unlike Hobbes though, Locke believed that in the state of nature that man is capable of enacting a natural law, like bringing about justice, because anyone and everyone has the authority, or a lack of constraint, to do so. But because things in a state of nature can’t be guaranteed, like safety and protection of private property, humans should therefore engage in a civil state. Locke also argues that any state that is not enacted through the consent of the governed is therefore not legitimate, and the people are allowed to overthrow it. It’s from here, and for his advocacy of the separation of powers, that it’s easy to see how Locke was influential on the American Founding Fathers.

But, regarding the separation of powers, none were more influential on the Founding Fathers as Montesquieu, who actually separated the powers into executive, legislative, and judicial.

At any rate, when it comes to the state of nature, it seems that Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau seemed to believe that humans are not naturally political beings, and therefore must use their reasoning to form governing bodies. I have stated before that that is not the case and that even before there was something called the modern state that humans lived in tribal societies, which was likely a carry-over from their ancestors. So humans and hominids were living in these conditions for thousands, if not millions of years before the modern state. Even though tribal societies were primitive bodies, they were still governing entities and it would certainly seem to suggest that humans are innately political, rather than solitary beings that are only out serving their own individual interests. Even though there certainly are individuals that do that sort of thing, they are the exception to the rule, and therefore regarded as criminal, and is certainly not indicative of what all humans were like before modern society. It was because of these primal governing bodies that allowed politics to evolve to the state that it’s in today.

However, that is only knowledge that we have access to today, and political theorist living during the 17th and 18th centuries can’t be blamed for their beliefs. The important thing to keep in mind here is that the ideas presented by Hobbes, Locke, Montesque, and Rousseau would play an important role in the French and American Revolutions later down the road. But that’s a story for another day.

The social contract theory was an important idea that helped bring about a new era of rights for all individuals. Or at least, almost every individual. When these thinkers were dreaming up the social contract theory, they were more than likely speaking to European, or white, readers. Not everyone was so lucky.

Slavery was still rampant in the European world. Despite this, a few African thinkers still managed to gain a foothold in the intellectual community, most notably Anton Wilhelm Amo. He was more than likely sent to Europe as a slave in the early 1700’s, but he would later manage to attend the University of Halle and earn a doctorate at the University of Wittenberg. It appears that he found himself on the empiricists side of the empiricist vs. rationalist debate, and would later become a professor at Halle, and later Jena, but as to be expected from the time, he received a great deal of criticism. Likely due to the attitudes that others took to him during his employment as a professor, he returned to Ghana, his country of origin, where he lived out the rest of his life. Amo’s work would never receive the attention it probably deserved during his time, and was largely ignored as philosophy developed across Europe during the 18th century.

I bring this up because it’s an interesting piece of history that helps tell what life and thought was like during that era. When we think of the Enlightenment, we tend to romanticize that time and those thinkers without really bringing to mind some of the darker aspects that existed. Whole groups of people were marginalized across the world. Even though science and philosophy were supposedly freeing the mind from the grasp of the church and monarchy, these ideas were only applicable, in the minds of the Europeans, to the white man who was the most civilized being on the planet.

Even though I study their ideas, I don’t want to glorify the people that came up with them. In our modern eyes, these were not people worth glorifying despite the impact that they made on modern philosophy. I don’t want to be perceived as exalting a bunch of dead white guys. I want to divorce these ideas from the men that came up with them.

Even though slavery ran wild during this time, it’s easy to forget that there was another group of people that were ostracized from the mainstream. Anti-semetism was also rampant throughout Europe prior to the events leading up to World War II. One such Jewish thinker that lived during this time was Moses Mendelssohn. He won a prize from the Berlin Academy in 1763, beating out none other than Immanuel Kant, for his essay titled “On Evidence in Metaphysical Sciences“.

This essay lays out Mendelssohn’s metaphysical framework, where he argues, at least according to the Stanford Encyclopedia, that metaphysics works the same way as mathematics in that they both utilize conceptual analysis. There are, of course, many layers to his arguments, but ultimately God has to exist in order to prove that the world outside of the mind actually exists. In his other works, he would even go on to sort of paraphrase Descartes by saying that “I am, therefore God exists.” But he would also further cite his proof for God’s existence by arguing that something that does not exist cannot be thought of. However, it should be said that existence is not necessary for something to be conceptualized. But because of our finite knowledge of ourselves and this world, things outside of our knowledge must be thought of, if they are to exist. Therefore, there has to be something that Mendelssohn calls an “infinite intellect” where all things are known. From this, we can surmise that God exists.

Most of his explanations of God’s existence is described in the work called “Morning Hours”, which were lectures that he gave to his son. This was published later in his career while he was engaged in a controversy with Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, who called out the writer Gotthold Lessing for his Spinozist views. Baruch Spinoza was a philosopher of the 17th Century, who was also of Jewish ancestry. His most famous, and most controversial, idea is that all substance in the universe is made up of God. God is the only substance in the universe, and modes are the customization of that singular substance.

From this, it’s easy to see how many would equate Spinozism with pantheism, which during the time of Mendelssohn, being accused of holding these views would have severe consequences. Spinoza himself received backlash for writing these works during his time. But in the 18th Century, Jacobi was concerned with the Enlightenment’s descent into what he saw as atheism, and Lessing’s work was just another example of that happening. Mendelssohn was a friend of Lessing, and could not stand by while Jacobi accused him of such things after Lessing’s death.

The debate between Mendelssohn and Jacobi, which was a huge controversy at the time, would come at a huge cost to both thinkers, and would end up effecting the perception of Spinoza’s philosophy as well. But Mendelssohn should be best remembered for his attempts to find acceptance of Jewish culture within German society. After he wrote his prize winning essay, Frederick the Great, who we discussed earlier, extended to him the same rights that all other German citizens possessed, however it was extended only to him and not to other members of his family. This, coming from Frederick the Great, who was supposedly a king that was ahead of his time. This just goes to show how far Jewish culture had to go to find acceptance in Europe.

Mendelssohn would take on the act of excommunication within Judaism, and establish that religion has no such authority to commit such an act, unlike the state which, in part due to the social contract, has the authority to use physical power. He would state, in his work titled “Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism”, that religion’s primary power should be that of, quote “love and beneficence”. He would also suggest in this work that the truths revealed in Judaism could be concluded through independent means and is therefore compatible with natural reason.

Mendelssohn also translated the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible, into German, which was an attempt to help the Jewish population, whose primary language at the time was Yiddish, to learn the German language. He also furthered his reputation with his work Phadon which was well-received in his time.

With all of these works, Moses Mendelssohn spearheaded the Haskalah, or the Jewish Enlightenment which would help establish an identity among the Jewish populations within Europe. As the 19th Century developed, several Jewish political movements arose, which would eventually lead, through much turmoil, the creation of the independent Jewish state of Israel in the 20th Century. Another subject that we will most likely revisit.

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