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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Mendelssohn and the Movement for Popular Philosophy

Moses Mendelssohn from new encyclopedia

Moses Mendelssohn from new encyclopedia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In The Enlightenment Outram writes, “[f]or the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), ‘Enlightenment’ referred to an as yet uncompleted process of education in the use of reason, which should be open to all.” Mendelssohn [she goes on] “therefore supported the movement for ‘popular philosophy’ which sought to spread Enlightenment ideas among the lower classes” (1). Does her interpretation accord with yours? Did you gather this argument from the essay? Explain.

I agree with Outram’s interpretation of Mendelssohn’s essay. Mendelssohn stated that an individual’s duties and rights are determined by his status and vocation, and, as a result, each individual requires “different theoretical insights and different skills to attain them – a different degree of enlightenment” (54 – 55). Rather than being critical of social and intellectual guardianship within societies, like Kant, Mendelssohn is critical of the state as a body that creates tensions between the essential destiny of man as man and the essential destiny of man as citizen. In particular, he points out that, while the enlightenment of man as a man is universal, the enlightenment of man as a citizen fluctuates according to the status and vocation of that individual (Mendelssohn 55). Furthermore, the enlightenment of a nation depends on the amount of knowledge that the nation possesses, the importance of the nation’s knowledge in relationship to the destiny of man and the destiny of citizen, the dissemination of knowledge throughout different states, and its accordance with the people’s vocations (Mendelssohn 55). For Mendelssohn, the goal of the enlightenment of man as citizen is to enlighten man as man; therefore, the most important measure and goal “of these efforts,” i.e. the enlightenment of a nation, is the destiny and enlightenment of man as man (55).

Mendelssohn understands the process of enlightenment as a modification “of social life, the effects of the industry and efforts of men to better their social conditions” (53). The concept of enlightenment is intertwined with the concepts of culture and education: “a language attains enlightenment through the sciences and attains culture through social intercourse, poetry, and eloquence” (Mendelssohn 54). Enlightenment is attained through rational and scientific thinking and culture is attained through literary and poetic thinking. Furthermore, for Mendelssohn, the process of enlightenment is ongoing in that it is “yet uncompleted process of education in the use of reason, which should be open to all” (Outram 1).

While Mendelssohn appears to be in favor of “the movement for ‘popular philosophy’ which sought to spread Enlightenment ideas among the lower classes” (Outram 1), he is careful to note that “the misuse of enlightenment weakens the moral sentiment and leads to hard-heartedness, egoism, irreligion, and anarchy. Misuse of culture produces luxury, hypocrisy, weakness, superstition, and slavery” (56). Here, Mendelssohn points out that while rational and scientific thinking facilitates enlightenment, rational and scientific thinking is also the kind of thinking that leads to egotism and narcissism. In this sense, Mendelssohn is foreshadowing Max Horkheimer’s and Theodor Adorno’s criticism of the Enlightenment. Horkheimer and Adorno viewed the Enlightenment from the perspective of the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, and saw the Enlightenment and its arguments for total freedom as an argument for ultimate totalitarianism. “The Enlightenment relies on ‘rationality,’ reasoning which is free from superstition, mythology, fear and revelation, which is often based on mathematical ‘truth,’ which calibrates ends to means,” and it is this kind of reasoning which led mankind “to sink into a new kind of barbarism” instead of “entering into a truly human condition” (Outram 6). Despite his warnings about the dangers of extreme enlightenment views, Mendelssohn’s emphasis on culture and the importance of literary and poetic influences on rational thought makes me view his position as one that “supports the movement for ‘popular philosophy’ which sought to spread Enlightenment ideas among the lower classes” (Outram 1).

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.