The Main Philosophical Writings & The Novel Alwill

704 pages,
ISBN: 0773516417

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Mortal Jumper
by Alan Arkush

In an age as rife with nihilism as our own, one might expect that Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi would be something of a household name in educated circles. For Jacobi introduced this term into philosophical literature, and he had quite a bit to say about the phenomenon it denoted. His warning that rationalism threatened to undermine all religion and morality had a very great impact in his own day, at the end of the eighteenth century, and two hundred years later it seems as well-advised as ever. Why, then, are there so few people today, apart from specialists in the German Enlightenment, who have even heard of Jacobi? And are things about to change? Does this volume, the first extensive translation of his works into English, indicate that he is poised for something of a comeback?
A late twentieth-century revival of interest in Jacobi as a hostile herald of modern nihilism would only redress an old wrong. It is nevertheless hard not to feel at least a small measure of Schadenfreude over what history has hitherto done to his reputation. He was, after all, a man who sometimes behaved rather disagreeably. Just look at what he did, for instance, to the aging and infirm Moses Mendelssohn.
A thinker whose main philosophical works (as opposed to his writings on Judaism) are today as little studied as Jacobi's, Mendelssohn was celebrated in the latter part of the eighteenth century as the leading representative of the German Enlightenment's rationalist yet firmly theistic metaphysics. He was also a great friend of G. E. Lessing. When Jacobi took it upon himself in the 1780s to disclose to the learned public that the recently deceased Lessing was not the kindred soul Mendelssohn had always supposed him to be but a covert Spinozist who had purposely failed to share his deepest beliefs with him, Mendelssohn suffered grievously. Jacobi was not, of course, merely trying to cause Mendelssohn pain, but endeavouring to make one of his fundamental points in a particularly striking way. He was adducing Lessing as very telling evidence of his contention that rationalist metaphysics of the traditional sort would inevitably lead to atheism and, in effect, to nihilism. But he went about his business in an unnecessarily cruel manner, and may thus have played a part in sending Mendelssohn to an early grave.
Jacobi regarded Mendelssohn and his ilk as people who failed to grasp that their own mode of philosophizing represented an inconsistent and doomed attempt to arrive at truths that would situate mankind within a hospitable universe. He criticized them for believing that rational contemplation of the external world could yield knowledge of the unseen Creator responsible for its existence, and thereby supply cosmic support for human morality. What they did not realize, Jacobi maintained, was that their own principle of sufficient reason made this impossible. As Spinoza recognized, its fully consistent application precluded the possibility of something ever coming out of nothing. "He therefore rejected," Jacobi told Lessing, "any transition from the infinite to the finite." He concluded instead, as Jacobi paraphrases him, that "the first cause is not a cause to which one can climb through the so-called intermediary causes; it is totally immanent, and equally effective at every point of extension and duration. This first cause, that we call `God' or `nature', acts in virtue of the same ground in virtue of which it is; and since it is impossible that there should be a ground or a purpose to its being, so it is equally impossible that there should be a ground or purpose to its actions."
Spinoza's discovery of this kind of a "God" was, according to Jacobi, the unwelcome but logical consequence of the entire Western metaphysical tradition. Part of the reason that Jacobi considered this Spinozism so unacceptable is that it denudes not only God but also human beings of any real personality. He feared that the identification of individual persons as nothing but finite modes of the all-encompassing One would deprive anyone of the legitimate right to say, "I act." What one would have to say, instead, is "There is an anonymous action taking place of which I appear -but only appear-to be the subject." Jacobi found Spinoza's teaching all the more frightening, as George di Giovanni observes in his introduction to this volume, "because of the political implications that he saw in it, namely that all rational and social relationships are epiphenomena of what is in fact only a play of competing forces all blindly spewing forth from the same undifferentiated source."
Recoiling from the chilling sight of what he construed to be rationalism's inevitable results, Jacobi took what he called a salto mortale, a "mortal jump". After turning heels over head in the air, he landed on the firm ground of faith in "an intelligent personal cause of the world". One should not immediately conclude from this, as did many of his contemporary adversaries as well as subsequent scholars, that Jacobi can be easily categorized as someone who sought to foster irrationalism. However much of an opponent of reason he may have been at the outset, he ultimately devoted some of his most important writings to showing that the leap he himself had taken, and recommended to everyone else, was as reasonable a move as any alternative step (and therefore not that much of a leap).
This is the thrust of his argument in David Hume on Faith, or Idealism, A Dialogue, a work in which he turns not himself but Hume on his head. As Frederic C. Beiser has put it, whereas "Hume argued that commonsense beliefs are indemonstrable in order to cast doubt upon them, Jacobi used the same point to show that they enjoy an immediate certainty that does not require demonstration." The faith in God to which he himself adheres is, according to Jacobi, no less reasonable than belief in the existence of everyday objects and the philosophies constructed on the basis of such belief. He himself makes use of reason as much as any philosopher, but does so more fruitfully than others because he applies it to data they are not prepared to consider admissible.
From Jacobi's point of view, traditional metaphysicians had neglected to exercise their distinctively human capacities. Taking as their point of departure nothing but the evidence of their external senses, they were acting no better than animals, "who completely lack the faculty of feeling" possessed by human beings alone, "i.e., the incorporeal organ for the perception of the supersensible." In his later writings, Jacobi ceased to refer to the use of this faculty as reliance on "faith" and spoke instead of the way in which it yielded an "intuition of reason, which gives us objects that transcend nature for our cognition, i.e., it makes us certain of their actuality and truth." It is in this manner, and not through the stringing together of abstract ideas that "we receive the intimation of God, the intimation of HE WHO IS, of a being who has its life in its self."
The difference between Jacobi's route to God and the religious paths taken by other contemporary opponents of Enlightenment rationalism inspires di Giovanni to reiterate frequently the idea that "Jacobi's faith is that of a philosopher," and not only that, "but, more specifically, the faith of a philosopher of the Enlightenment." That is to say, his religiosity is "thoroughly secular in nature." One is even entitled to wonder, he believes, "to what extent Jacobi's defence of Christianity, especially in the face of the French Revolution, was more than just the reflex of a Tory instinctively falling back upon past values and ideas in order to ward off the madness of the present."
Whether or not Jacobi's Christianity was in fact authentic, one cannot doubt the genuineness of his desire to rescue mankind from what he perceived to be the encroaching danger of a corrosive nihilism. But to what extent did he enjoy any success in doing so? What he said in the course of his confrontation with Mendelssohn (known in the scholarly literature as "the pantheism controversy") apparently convinced many people of the theoretical and moral bankruptcy of the philosophy he was attacking. But Jacobi's assault on traditional metaphysics seems to have done more to prepare the way for the new teaching of Kant than to win adherents to his own outlook.
Needless to say, this did not escape Jacobi's notice. He consequently lost no time in accusing Kant, too, of being a menace to truth and society. "Kantian philosophy," as Jacobi understood it, "leads necessarily to a system of absolute subjectivity," and thereby deprives those who adopt its theoretical standpoint of access to reason's immediate knowledge of the divine. He likewise condemned Kant's effort to establish faith on the basis of practical reason as not only "subjectivistic" but as a virtually blasphemous attempt to replace the true God with an insubstantial idea of one. Nothing Kant said, as far as Jacobi was concerned, could stave off nihilism's threat to religion and morality. Nor, in his opinion, did Fichte succeed where Kant had failed. Jacobi dismissed him facetiously as the true messiah of the lost cause of speculative reason.
Jacobi himself was by no means immune to counterattack. Goethe, a sometime friend of his, once disgustedly nailed his novel Woldemar to a tree in a prankish crucifixion ceremony during which he dispatched the book's hero to hell. None of Jacobi's philosophical adversaries went quite so far as the great poet in their retaliatory assaults, but they did not mince words either. They commonly lumped him together with the so-called Schwärmer, the term they reserved for what they regarded as the fanatical proponents of a religiosity based on personal witness. Nor did Jacobi fare much better at the hands of the man described by Isaiah Berlin as "the pioneer of irrationalism in every sphere", Johann George Hamann. A writer who had an unmistakably strong influence on Jacobi's development, Hamann criticized his disciple, as di Giovanni puts it, "most of all for being too much of a philosopher and for thereby misconstruing the attitude of true faith."
The mutually contradictory criticisms to which Jacobi was subjected from such widely disparate quarters did not prevent him from exercising a considerable influence over German intellectual life, not only in his own day but throughout the following century. It may not even be overstating things to claim, as di Giovanni does in his preface to this volume, that Jacobi's polemic against abstract reason on behalf of faith "was, in some respects, just as important for the development of philosophy as Kant's Critique." Such celebrity as he enjoyed in his lifetime did not, however, afford Jacobi much solace. Not long before he died, he complained about the lack of attention granted over the previous thirty years to his most fundamental ideas: "Nothing that I have proposed in my various writings in defence of the philosophical recognition of the miracle of providence and freedom has been deemed worthy of formal discussion and examination by those of my contemporaries who are differently disposed." And there is no reason to believe that foreknowledge of his posthumous impact would have consoled Jacobi for his failure, in the long run, to vanquish the nihilism whose triumph he so deeply dreaded. He would no doubt have been particularly displeased to learn how often he would eventually be listed among the intellectual antecedents of irrationalist, atheistic thinkers whose proposed alternatives to nihilism would surely have registered in his eyes as nothing other than extreme symptoms of it. Allan Arkush teaches at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

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