The Ambiguity of Reason: Mendelssohn's Writings on Spinoza

Dissertation, Indiana University (2003)
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Abstract

The modern Jewish philosophers Benedict Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn are a study in contrasts. While Spinoza was a religious heretic, excoriated by Jews and Gentiles in life and death, Moses Mendelssohn was a loyal member of the Jewish community, whose philosophical talents were celebrated by Jews and Germans alike. Yet despite these differences, Spinoza and Mendelssohn shared an important orientation---both were rationalists who believed in reason's ability to secure metaphysical truth. ;Scholars frequently cast Mendelssohn as a naive "Guardian of Enlightenment." I take issue with this characterization. By examining Mendelssohn's treatment of Spinoza, I argue that Mendelssohn moves from an unbridled faith in reason to a more complex attitude. ;Mendelssohn discusses Spinoza in his first and last writings. His attitude to Spinoza is conflicted and inconsistent. While in the early writings, Mendelssohn defends Spinoza, in the later writings he attacks Spinoza bitterly. Why? ;I argue that Mendelssohn's early defense stems from an unwavering faith in reason's ability to secure religious truth and ameliorate Jewish civil life. Against "enlightened" stereotypes of Jews as superstitious and vicious, Mendelssohn presents the metaphysician Spinoza as a shining example of the Jews' ability to be rational and ethical. ;But given reason's ability to prove universal religious truth, what place is left for religious particularity? Beginning in 1769, Mendelssohn's commitment to Judaism is repeatedly attacked by his enlightened contemporaries. At the same time, empiricism is making inroads in Germany making rationalist metaphysics seem less plausible. ;These threats come together in Jacobi's famous disclosure to Mendelssohn that rationalism culminates in Spinozism . Mendelssohn's understands as a subtext of Jacobi's disclosure that Mendelssohn should abandon his faith in both reason and Judaism. ;In response to Jacobi, Mendelssohn distinguishes two forms of rationalism---amoral, atheistic rationalism and ethical, theistic rationalism. Mendelssohn presents Spinoza as the prime exponent of the first type of rationalism and attacks him as mistaken. Spinoza's main philosophical shortcoming is his inability to explain finite, empirical perception and the multiplicity in existence. ;In sum, Mendelssohn comes to realize that rationalism left to itself can yield dangerous moral and religious consequences and must be combined with attention to finite empirical perception.

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