Mendelssohn’s Misuses of Enlightenment

Robert von Mendelssohn Collection, 1770-1785

Robert von Mendelssohn Collection, 1770-1785 (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

According to Mendelssohn, the essential destiny of man allows man to stay above “the level of the beast,” and the essential destiny of man as citizen allows the constitution and the essence of the state to continue to exist (55). Since “the unessential destiny of man comes into conflict with the essential or nonessential destiny of citizen,” Mendelssohn argues that rules must be established to note exceptions, and that the boundary that separates the uses and misuses of enlightenment is difficult, but not impossible to find (55).

Mendelssohn states that people must always strive toward goals of excellence and education (Heller: Medelssohn 2). Mendelssohn’s concept of enlightenment is like the mathematical concept of infinity. Infinity is not a number, but an idea; infinity can never be reached, but it can be approached. For Mendelssohn, approaching enlightenment is an eternal good for man as man (Heller) without which societies collapse and people descend into beasts (Heller: Mendelssohn 2). Despite this position, Mendelssohn warns that approaching enlightenment has to take place within a social and cultural context (Heller) because “the misuse of enlightenment weakens the moral sentiment and leads to hard-heartedness, egoism, irreligion, and anarchy” (Mendelssohn 56). In other words, while enlightenment should proceed “free and unimpeded,” society needs to examine the practical effects that their “enlightening efforts will have…on moral and social matters” (Heller).

Aspects of culture that facilitate enlightenment are the same aspects of culture that fascinate the misuse of enlightenment, i.e. rational and scientific thinking. Mendelssohn warns that enlightenment without practical analyses of enlightenment efforts can cause societies to “to sink into a new kind of barbarism” instead of “entering into a truly human condition” (Outram 6). Horkheimer and Adorno argue that unanalyzed enlightenment efforts of the beginning of the twentieth century lead to the new kinds of barbarism and atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust (Outram 6).

Kant defines enlightenment as “the freedom to make public use of one’s own reason, where ‘public’ signifies a publicly conducted argument in which all can participate” (Heller: Mendelssohn 2). He believes that critical thinking does not need limits because reason itself will win out. While he does make exceptions for completely contradictory statements, the boundary between hypocrisy and separation of public and private uses of reason is thin. Kant thinks of “reason as a form, or a manner of thinking, rather than as content” (Heller: Mendelssohn 2). He seems to believe that the innate activity of critical reasoning will necessarily make the correct side prevail, but this position presupposes that both sides argue and play fair. Kant would probably no admit to any possible misuses of Enlightenment in the public sphere of reading and writing. Instead, he would argue that the misuses of the enlightenment like the Holocaust were really not a misuse, but rather the underuse of enlightenment. He would argue that not enough proper arguments were put forth against the extermination of Jews; otherwise, the right arguments would have prevailed.

Mendelssohn, on the other hand, points out that societies exist on different levels, and that the speed at which enlightenment can proceed on a larger social level depends on the state of civilization in which that society exists (Heller, Mendelssohn 2). Therefore, his position is more rational and less idealistic than Kant’s position.

Outram, D. The Enlightenment. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University. 2005. Print.

Heller, D. “Teaching Paper on Kant and Mendelssohn.” (2012). 1-3.

Heller, D. “Mendelssohn 2.” 3 September 2012. Mendelssohn 2 Forum. 6 September 2012.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784). Trans. James Schmidt. 58-64.

Mendelssohn, Moses. “On the Question: What is Englitenment?” (1784). Trans. James Schmidt. 53-57.

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