German Essays – Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn

The interpretation of the enlightenment by immanuel kant and moses mendelssohn.

The Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that considerably influenced scientific and social thinking of the eighteenth century, was exposed to a profound analysis by Immanuel Kant who connected the concept of enlightenment with personal freedom, pondering over ‘private’ and ‘public’ usage of reason, and Moses Mendelssohn who introduced the notions ‘civil enlightenment’ and ‘human enlightenment’ to differentiate between social and individual understanding of enlightenment. While Kant looked for the ways to achieve a balance between public and private usage of reason, Mendelssohn paid attention to the differences between human and civil enlightenment, revealing the difficulties of acquiring this balance. However, in their definitions of enlightenment both Kant, the follower of the German Enlightenment, and Mendelssohn, the originator of the Haskalah, the Enlightenment of Jews, uncovered “the tension between the agenda of enlightenment and the exigencies of society” (Schmidt 5).

Making an attempt to provide his definition of the Enlightenment in the essay “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?” written as a response to the Reverend Zollner, Immanuel Kant states that “enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” (83). Thus, according to Kant, enlightenment is achieved through personal freedom that is impossible to acquire without such crucial human traits as courage and intellect (Belas 457-460). However, Kant’s definition of enlightenment expels an open struggle, because it can return people to tutelage, depriving them of the possibility to achieve enlightenment. Proposing to eliminate certain church and state restrictions, Kant applies to two different usages of reason that constitute true enlightenment – ‘private’ usage and ‘public’ usage. As Kant points out, “By the public use of one’s reason I understand the use of which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which may make of it in a particular civil post of office which entrusted to him” (89). Although the philosopher draws a parallel between these concepts, he points at the fact that the private usage of reason should be subjected to certain limitations, while the public usage of reason should be kept free, because “it alone can bring about enlightenment among men” (Kant 89). In this regard, Moses Mendelssohn’s definition of the Enlightenment is similar to Kant’s definition, but Mendelssohn relies on different concepts in his analysis. Mendelssohn regards enlightenment as the acquisition of particular knowledge that creates the necessary balance between a person as a citizen and a person as a human being. In view of this definition, Mendelssohn differentiates between ‘civil enlightenment’, which corresponds with certain social interests, and ‘human enlightenment’, which deals with individual knowledge of a person and, according to James Schmidt, “paid heed neither to some distinctions nor to the maintenance of social order” (5). However, unlike Immanuel Kant, Moses Mendelssohn admits that there are some particular cases when public aspects of enlightenment should be strongly restricted.

As Schmidt states, “While Mendelssohn was willing to concede that there might be certain unhappy circumstances in which philosophy must remain silent lest it pose a threat to public order, Kant was uncompromising in his insistence that the public exercise of reason should never be restricted” (5-6). To some extent, Kant’s attitude can be explained by that fact that the philosopher interprets enlightenment through the issues of religion, considering the existing religious dogmas as an obstacle towards personal freedom (Lassman 815-820). Thus, regarding freedom as one of the most crucial aspects of enlightenment, Kant simultaneously brings up a question of people’s independence from religion, while Mendelssohn points at freedom within religious faith. In this context, Kant tends to define enlightenment in practical terms, while Mendelssohn analyses theoretical aspects of enlightenment, claiming that “Enlightenment seems… to have to do with the theoretical, specifically with reasoned apprehension of the world in an objective sense” (313). Operating with the notion ‘Bildung’ that means knowledge in a wider sense of the word and combines two social elements – enlightenment and culture, Moses Mendelssohn claims that enlightenment greatly depends on culture. As the philosopher puts it, “Enlightenment is to culture as theory is to practice, as discernment is to morality, as cultural criticism is to virtuosity. When viewed objectively in and of themselves, they exist in the closest possible synergy, even if they can be viewed subjectively as separate categories” (314). In view of this definition it is clear that for a person as a citizen both culture and enlightenment are important, because, according to Mendelssohn, “all practical virtues only acquire meaning in relation to life in the social sphere” (315). However, for a person as a human being enlightenment is more crucial than culture.

On the other hand, Mendelssohn states that enlightenment contributes to theoretical usage, while culture is better applied to practical usage. But those nations that manage to combine both culture and enlightenment achieve the highest level of the Enlightenment, like the Ancient Greeks. Mendelssohn considers that modern societies rarely achieve this standard, as he claims, “Nurembergers have more culture, Berliners more enlightenment, the French more culture, the British more enlightenment, the Siamese more culture and little enlightenment” (314). The similar notion is expressed by Kant who points at the fact that various religious dogmas deprive people of the possibility to achieve freedom and enlightenment; that is why modern people only strive for enlightenment, but they do no live within enlightenment. According to Kant, people find it really difficult to get rid of someone’s guidance, especially the guidance of church or state. But Kant puts major responsibility for such dependence from religion on people who are unable to appropriately use their intellect to acquire true enlightenment. The philosopher thinks that religion destroys people’s selves and deprives them of the possibility to attain the equilibrium of private and public usage of reason.

For Kant, enlightenment is determined by a person’s capacity to freely utilise his/her reason. Theoretically, every person has rights and abilities to utilise his/her reason, but in practice only some individuals reveal power and courage to achieve enlightenment. For instance, Kant states that a priest should restrict his private usage of reason, because he follows the religious dogmas of his church; however, he should not restrict his public usage of reason, if he can make some useful offers and provide new knowledge. In this regard, Immanuel Kant regards enlightenment as a continuous progress, but he states that “a public can achieve enlightenment only slowly” (84). The philosopher acknowledges that some social changes can result in the elimination of certain biases or dogmas, but these old prejudices can be replaced by new biases and rules of behaviour that may slow down the process of enlightenment. However, Kant points out that enlightenment can be delayed only for a short period of time, but “to give up enlightenment altogether, either for oneself or one’s descendants, is to violate and to trample upon the sacred rights of man” (86). Kant considers that the eighteenth century is the age of enlightenment, as various religious issues are exposed to critical analysis by some individuals who apply to reason to enlighten themselves. Discussing the issue of enlightenment, Mendelssohn reveals that “reason could demonstrate the fundamental truths of natural religion” (Arkush xiii). Mendelssohn claims that reason provides new understanding of religious dogmas, and it is this particular understanding that contributes to people’s enlightenment. In this regard, Mendelssohn manages to adjust the Enlightenment’s rationality with religion, although the philosopher realises that enlightenment provides people with free will and thinking, while religion controls people’s actions and thoughts.

In view of this interpretation of enlightenment, Mendelssohn’s viewpoint corresponds with Kant’s vision, as both philosophers support the notion that true enlightenment can be achieved by those individuals who are able to dispute, but at the same time obey. For Mendelssohn and Kant, the ability to dispute reveals people’s reason and courage, while the ability to obey reflects their enlightenment. Thus, enlightenment is more than a simple process of acquiring certain knowledge; rather it is a particular stand, which people may create. However, according to Kant, society can acquire enlightenment more easily than an individual, if taken into account the fact that public usage of reason is not exposed to any restrictions. As Kant states, “it is difficult for an isolated individual to work himself out of a dependency that has become virtually second-nature to him” (84). The philosopher considers that only some individuals manage to overcome this dependency; however, as Kant further claims in the essay, “but that a public at large might manage to enlighten itself is, in contrast, something quite possible” (84). Unlike Kant, Mendelssohn points at the necessity of some limitations and states that enlightenment can be achieved, if every person receives freedom of religious faith.

But Mendelssohn claims that this freedom is possible if two major institutions of power – state and church – are separated. Making an attempt to draw a parallel between the ideas of the Enlightenment and Jewish religion, Moses Mendelssohn regards enlightenment as a crucial aspect of Jews’ emancipation (Shmueli 167-169). In this regard, Mendelssohn’s interpretation of enlightenment is based on the principles of natural religion and reason that contribute to the formation of enlightened society (Meyer 29). Kant’s definition of enlightenment is founded on the connection between reason and modified authoritative laws. However, both Mendelssohn’s and Kant’s ideas of enlightenment are cantered on the concept of freedom, although the philosophers utilise different approaches in their interpretation of the role of freedom in the process of enlightenment. As Immanuel Kant regards enlightenment as both a continuous progress and a particular attitude or responsibility, he considers that a person is able to achieve freedom and enlightenment only if he/she changes himself/herself. In other words, enlightenment serves as a specific tool, through which a person expresses his/her self, and, on the other hand, it is a certain command that a person gives himself/herself and provides to other individuals. Therefore, Kant presents enlightenment as a progress in which people act together and as an individual expression of courage. Taking this interpretation of enlightenment into account, it is clear that Kant differentiates between the usage of reason and the sphere of obedience, but the philosopher clearly demonstrates that both states depend on people’s courage and intellect. For instance, if a person pays his/her taxes, but expresses his/her negative attitude to the taxation system, he/she reveals intellect and courage that speak of his/her maturity. In this case, a person acquires enlightenment that results in his/her inner freedom.

In his interpretation of enlightenment, Mendelssohn points at freedom of conscience; this freedom is closely connected with people’s religious faith. According to Mendelssohn, a state should not influence religious faith of people; it is this particular freedom of choice that constitutes the core of Mendelssohn’s definition of enlightenment. Critically analysing Jewish religious dogmas through the idea of enlightenment, Mendelssohn manages to overcome the existing religious biases and bring together Christian and Jewish religions (Beiser 92-93). For Moses Mendelssohn, such changes constitute true enlightenment, reviving humanism and indulgence. Although both Mendelssohn and Kant apply to religious aspects in their interpretations of enlightenment, they utilise different viewpoints. Kant discusses the issue of enlightenment through religion, because he considers that the existing religious institutions are too harmful for people; thus it is crucial to reduce their influence on individuals, utilising reason to challenge church authorities. Kant considers that a person should reject the prevalent religious stereotypes and produce new standards for himself/herself in accordance with reason and free will. 

Unlike Kant, Mendelssohn points at the fact that the process of enlightenment is religious in its essence; that is why the philosopher makes an attempt to conciliate religious issues with rationality of philosophical thinking (Sorkin 35-42). Despite the fact that Mendelssohn regards Judaism as religion that possesses the highest level of reason, he nevertheless criticises some aspects of this religion, destroying traditional understanding of Judaism (Altmann 13-19). Mendelssohn considers that enlightenment can provide people with the logical interpretation of certain religious issues. The philosopher thinks that simple faith in God is not able to prove the existence of God, but, applying to reason, people are able to find answers to all controversial religious aspects. As Arkush points out, in his definition of enlightenment Mendelssohn reveals that “reason could demonstrate the fundamental truths of natural religion; that is, the existence of God, providence, and immortality” (xiii). Kant expresses the similar notion, claiming that reason can both prove and disapprove the existence of God; in other words, reason inspires both people’s beliefs and doubts. But only analysing two sides of the issue with the help of reason, an enlightened individual is able to realise the essence of the universe and his/her own existence. In this regard, Kant reveals the idea that even the striving for enlightenment relieves people of their dependence and provides them with freedom. On the other hand, contrasting such aspects of enlightenment as reason and freedom with immaturity and dependence, Kant opposes Mendelssohn’s appreciation of Judaism. For Kant, Judaism greatly depends on a materialist world; it is a religion that utilises people for its own benefits, depriving them of freedom and enlightenment.  

The differences between Kant and Mendelssohn are intensified even more when the philosophers discuss the dawning of the age of enlightenment. According to Moses Mendelssohn, the era of enlightenment would hardly come, because throughout their history human beings have moved onward and backward, preventing further development of humankind. Moses considers that an individual person is able to acquire a certain level of enlightenment; however, entire humankind creates constant limitations and laws, either religious or state, which hinder the process of enlightenment. In his analysis of enlightenment Kant expresses a different viewpoint; in particular, he claims that humankind always progresses in its development. Although the philosopher acknowledges the existence of some limitations and obstacles, he points at the fact that these limits may only slow down the process of enlightenment, but they can never completely destroy it. As Kant regards enlightenment as a continuous progress, he realises that people, utilising reason and acquiring some knowledge, will continue to strive for enlightenment. And it is this aspiration for profound knowledge and understanding of human existence that Kant interprets as enlightenment. In this regard, Kant thinks that it is really important to draw a parallel between past and present generations, analysing various stages of their development.

On the other hand, Kant reveals an obvious obstacle to the progress of enlightenment; as people usually analyse only separate parts of the universe, they fail to combine these elements into a complete picture. As a result of this inability, human beings may find it difficult to influence each other and fully integrate into the process of enlightenment. However, despite these obvious differences, both Kant and Mendelssohn in their interpretation of enlightenment make attempts to maintain the ideas of rationalism without an open rejection of the existence of God. This is especially true in regard to Moses Mendelssohn who does not challenge the existence of God, but opposes the existing religious laws that create the unchanging truth for believers, depriving them of the possibility to achieve enlightenment. Thus, both Mendelssohn and Kant define enlightenment through the analysis of the practical ways to achieve enlightenment; however, unlike Mendelssohn, Kant bases his definition on certain negations, such as ‘dependence’, ‘immaturity’, ‘shortage of courage’. In this context, Kant demonstrates that the first step in acquiring enlightenment is the elimination of everything that deprives people of reason and freedom; only overcoming the first stage of elimination, a person is able to proceed to the second stage of acquisition.

Analysing the definitions of the Enlightenment by Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, the essay has revealed that Kant’s interpretation of enlightenment is based on the concept of freedom and mainly deals with a person’s ability to overcome immaturity and inner fears. Discussing enlightenment, especially through religious aspects, Kant provides two major concepts that constitute his vision – ‘private’ and ‘public’ usage of reason. Mendelssohn’s interpretation of enlightenment reflects a close connection between enlightenment and culture, but the philosopher’s distinction of ‘civil enlightenment’ and ‘human enlightenment’ demonstrates the difference between a person as a citizen and a person as a human being. Although both Kant and Mendelssohn adhere to public and private aspects in their understanding of enlightenment, their interpretations considerably differ. In particular, Kant considers that the public usage of reason should be kept free, while the private usage should be exposed to certain limitations; unlike Kant, Mendelssohn thinks that in some cases the public usage should be restricted, or otherwise it may produce some negative consequences for society. In this regard, Kant’s definition concerns a practical side of the issue, although it is based on the principles of ‘escape’, for instance, escape from inner fears toward maturity. On the contrary, Mendelssohn’s definition is created on a theoretical basis and interprets enlightenment through the principles of ‘achievement’. However, both Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn point at the necessity of freedom in the Enlightenment, despite the fact that Kant tends to maintain the idea of freedom from religion, while Mendelssohn supports the idea of freedom within religion.

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