Michah Gottlieb, Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s Theologico-Political Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 224pp. $55.00

By Paul E. Nahme

In the past decade, Moses Mendelssohn’s work has been the subject of renewed study and interpretation with growing interest in his philosophical writings, biblical commentary and translation work, as well as his general historical significance for modern Judaism. While many recognize Mendelssohn’s importance, there is however no single systematic and authoritative explanation of his work. Alexander Altmann’s magisterial 1973 biography of Mendelssohn is perhaps the closest to an exception of this characterization, but it nevertheless distills Mendelssohn’s life through the lens of a biographical rather than a systematic narrative. Instead, many contemporary explanations for Mendelssohn’s continued relevance range from focus upon his political writings and his attempt to reconcile liberalism and Jewish tradition, to his epistemological and theological sincerity, his significance as an interlocutor of the philosophies of Leibniz and Kant, to historical studies of his involvement in polemics with Johann Kasper Lavater and Johann David Michaelis, and perhaps most importantly for the history of nineteenth-century German philosophy, his debate with Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi concerning the role of Spinozism and Pantheism in the thought of their mutual friend Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Each of these approaches reveals something deeper at work in Mendelssohn’s general philosophical motivations, a motivation perhaps impossible to fully reveal.

The work under review, Michah Gottlieb’s Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s Theologico-Political Thought, stands out as an attempt at both representing Mendelssohn’s thought in systematic terms and at reconciling these competing spheres of politics and metaphysics. Indeed, Gottlieb combines stellar intellectual history and precise philosophical exegesis to probe one possible motivation tying together Mendelssohn’s many voices. Gottlieb focuses upon what I believe to be one of the most relevant consequences of Mendelssohn’s thought for modern Judaism: the theologico-political predicament. While the term evokes images of Weimar-era debate, the theologico-political predicament, as Gottlieb rightly treats of it, comprises the epistemological and metaphysical debates surrounding rationality, freedom, human action, and the orientation of human knowledge. Gottlieb situates these philosophical arguments within the context of a political philosophy of Enlightenment rationalism, and uses this larger concern with the theologico-political in order to stake out a position between two dominant interpretations of Mendelssohn. On the one hand, Allan Arkush has argued that many of Mendelssohn’s arguments attempting to present an epistemological and metaphysical defense of traditionalist Jewish theology are either problematic or fail outright and that a more accurate understanding of Mendelssohn may be found in interpreting him as a covert deist who believes Judaism is a the more compelling framework for this deeper argument. On the other hand, David Sorkin has argued that Mendelssohn synthesizes Enlightenment rationalism and Jewish traditionalism on the model of “Andalusian rationalism” and that complete harmony between rationalism and Jewish traditionalism is indeed his goal. According to Gottlieb, a more accurate interpretation is that Mendelssohn should be read as a theologian and that he “does what all theologians do; namely, he adopts a selective attitude toward the Jewish tradition, drawing on sources that reflect his deep-seated commitments and ignoring or marginalizing contrary perspective” (9). Considering the sources of influence for Mendelssohn that Gottlieb addresses most explicitly, namely, Maimonides and Spinoza, it is a compelling argument. And all this is in addition to the book’s greatest contribution: a focus upon the Pantheism controversy between Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi and Mendelssohn as the fundamental site of the latter’s theologico-political arguments, where Gottlieb stakes out a new direction for the study of Mendelssohn.

Gottlieb begins by placing Mendelssohn in direct confrontation with Spinoza and Maimonides (chapter 1 and 2), his two greatest Jewish philosophical influences. Through a careful interpretation of how Maimonides’ rationalization of God’s negative attributes drove a wedge between divine providence and natural necessity, which was exploited by Spinoza, Gottlieb shows how one of Mendelssohn’s fundamental claims is that the Bible has a basic insight into the idea of God’s goodness and that Mendelssohn’s attempt is to philosophically justify such a view (10, 20), not only as a theological or metaphysical concept but also as a political one. Through Gottlieb’s discussion of the debates of early modern philosophy, from the occasionalism of Malebranche to the doctrine of pre-established harmony of Leibniz, two theories relating mind and body or nature and reason, he conveys this historical context back to Mendelssohn’s original attempts in his Philosophical Dialogues at understanding the meaning of “God’s goodness” in terms of “happiness,” since “an omnipotent, all-good God seeks our happiness and the development of our faculties” (21). The very idea of Providence, therefore, has a practical importance. But just what significance the idea of God has for politics remains to be explored within the context of law. And since Maimonides and Spinoza fundamentally differ upon just this point of contact between metaphysics and politics in the law, Gottlieb’s second chapter furthers this line of reasoning.

In chapter 2, Gottlieb examines both Spinoza and Maimonides’ attempts to relate knowledge and practice within the sphere of law. Gottlieb provides a thorough treatment of Spinoza and Maimonides not only in the manner that Mendelssohn interpreted them, but also through carefully reconstructing these thinkers in their own philosophical terms and contexts. Here Gottlieb’s responsible work as an intellectual historian is tightly woven into his skilled exegesis. But after such a review of Spinoza and Maimonides, Gottlieb’s achievement also lies in showing how Mendelssohn’s adaptation of these various influences conditions his position in the Pantheism controversy and his stance on Enlightened Absolutist politics. For example, whereas Maimonides clearly believed that the law was a vehicle for perfection of the intellect, Spinoza famously derided the law as just the hindrance to perfect human imagination and intellect. For Gottlieb, one of Mendelssohn’s major concerns in interpreting these thinkers lies not in refuting either precursor, but in synthesizing their philosophical positions according to the demands of his own political context. Hence, Gottlieb maneuvers from philosophical precision to unpacking the historical context of Frederick the Great’s Enlightened Absolutism to shore up one particularly important theme in Mendelssohn’s work; namely, that an aesthetic dimension of perfection relegates the hierarchical ordering of either Maimonidean or Spinozan theories of human perfection, and focuses more squarely on a “humanistic” element (44). Indeed, Mendelssohn’s doctrine of common sense is interpreted by Gottlieb as another attempt at reconciling Biblical insight into the Good with rational perfection, whereby even the indistinct, intuitive common judgments which all people make of aesthetic and even religious beliefs can nevertheless enable the non-philosopher to grasp both ethical and metaphysical truths. Common sense becomes “a way of perfecting one’s intellect that is available to all” (45). But this expanded meaning of rationalism also enables Gottlieb to view common sense as the vehicle for his unique argument concerning Mendelssohn’s theologico-political contribution, and by framing the argument in theses terms, he can advance a middle position between the interpretations Arkush and Sorkin. Since the laws derived from the Bible indicate that goodness and human flourishing are the proper goals of duty, and common sense can judge happiness and flourishing as a goal, practice rather than dogma can constitute the basis of perfection. Only after having proper actions can one attain proper metaphysical beliefs, hence, the enduring significance of the halakha (54). While this seems a compelling interpretation of Mendelssohn, one remaining point of clarity could be made concerning whether this was not equally the view of Maimonides as well, although Gottlieb certainly accounts for the scholarship informing his preferred presentation of Maimonides as an Aristotelian. Nevertheless, with a view toward the practical consequences of metaphysical and epistemological arguments and beliefs, Gottlieb is able to introduce the pre-modern Jewish philosophical dimension of Mendelssohn’s thought into his discussion of the Pantheism controversy, a unique scholarly contribution in its own right.

In 1785 Mendelssohn was embroiled in a public debate concerning Spinoza’s philosophy with the pietist Christian philosopher, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. Known as the Pantheismusstreit, this debate centered on whether their mutual friend, the famous German playwright G.E. Lessing, had professed a secret commitment to “Spinozism.” Briefly put, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the problem of determinism in relation to human freedom in Spinoza’s thought had been designated as antithetical to Theism, and of course to Orthodox Christian theology. Thus, the claim of “Spinozism” was often taken as libelous. Yet the debate between Jacobi and Mendelsson had a lasting influence on the following century, becoming a question of how to ground all human knowledge in a first coherent and immanent principle while securing human autonomous reason. Hence, the unique blend of medieval and early modern thought, which many scholars have noted in Spinoza’s philosophy, as well as the symbolic representative of a Sephardic or Spanish Philosophical tradition, was insinuated into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German Philosophy, and in this respect, Gottlieb has precisely characterized a hidden dimension of Jewish thought within modern German Philosophy.

Chapters 3 and 4 therefore translate the arguments concerning Mendelssohn’s intellectual formation into a deeper understanding of the Pantheismusstreit, understood as a leading example of how these metaphysical and epistemological arguments bear upon the political sphere. Indeed, it is through the careful navigation of seemingly unrelated problems in the previous two chapters that Gottlieb now ties together what I believe is a unique argument concerning the political stakes of this controversy. After surveying the historical dimensions of both Mendelssohn’s and Jacobi’s relationships with Lessing and their various conversations, Gottlieb presents Mendelssohn’s proposal that Lessing held a “modified Spinozism” as an argument attempting to reconcile political rationalism and freedom with enlightened religious conviction. By breaking down Mendelssohn’s arguments against Spinoza more systematically, Gottlieb is able to better represent what he sees as Mendelssohn’s political attack on Jacobi. The major thrust of this argument against Jacobi hinges upon Mendelssohn’s identification of a difference between two types of truth, infinite and finite. While infinite truth is the agreement between all particulars or things as they actually exist, and the mind, finite truth is a consensus reached between finite subjects concerning “certain” and “probable” truths, which is to say, between sense impressions or aesthetic judgments, which are probably true, and mathematical axioms which might be certain but are not “actually” found in existence. In either instance, however, finite truth must be ratified as shared or common representations, which other human beings also hold. As part of his attack on Jacobi, Mendelssohn’s distinction between these kinds of truth enables him to defend the principle of sufficient reason against Jacobi’s charge of determinism and rather enables him to explain how uncertain knowledge need not be reduced to the principle of sufficient reason, since according to Mendelssohn the latter is deducible from the principle of non-contradiction. Hence, the principle of non-contradiction becomes the keystone of reason, and even socially held, finite truths can be oriented better on the basis of this principle.

But even further, Mendelssohn’s attack on Jacobi also involves reinterpreting Spinoza, and this is part of Gottlieb’s nuanced contribution to study of the Pantheism controversy. For example, in addition to his rendering of finite and infinite truths as a means to defending the principle of sufficient reason against Jacobi’s reductive interpretation, Mendelssohn also sees the distinction between intensive and extensive magnitudes as a means of rescuing arguments on behalf of providential theism. While the distinction between magnitudes enables Mendelssohn to rescue Lessing’s affirmation of the cosmos comprising an infinite number of causes, this infinite causal series is not the same as the intensive, infinite force of a magnitude that could be identified with God, the creator. Rather, the intensive infinite and the extensive infinite must be distinguished, according to Mendelssohn, in order to retain the freedom, particularity, and individuality of each human being, which we intuit through our faculty of common sense (97ff). While this example is just one of a set of four arguments that Gottlieb outlines in his characterization of Mendelssohn’s position, I believe it is an acute demonstration of the richness of his study of Spinoza’s impact on Mendelssohn.

By contrast to Mendelssohn’s attempt to critically renegotiate with Spinoza’s philosophy, Jacobi argued that Spinozism sees the primary distinction of thought and extension as an attempt at construing the infinite both analytically and synthetically. Hence, God is both intensive and extensive, natura naturans and natura naturrata. But while Gottlieb weaves these considerations into a larger argument, I believe he builds a case wherein this distinction between intensive and extensive becomes part and parcel of Mendelssohn’s later discussions of infinite and finite truth. This argument concerning two types of truth follows the assumption that infinite truth could only remain the property of God, while finite truth, divided into certainty and probability, relates to shared representations of the world around which human beings, qua finite agents, orient themselves (91). In my view, this distinction is one of Gottlieb’s most compelling reconstructions of Mendelssohn’s thought for future study, and is sustained through Mendelssohn’s defense of Lessing, primarily his Natan der Wise.

The distinction between infinite and finite truth also leads to what is yet another example of Gottlieb’s reading of Mendelssohn as having contemporary significance, namely, that we should understand Mendelssohn as a “religious pragmatic idealist” (ibid.; 116), a position that endorses a metaphysical claim based upon the degree to which such a claim can advance our goal of happiness, the good, and general human flourishing, rather than its ontological and metaphysical certainty. Indeed, the defense of uncertain beliefs, including common sense, helps articulate this “pragmatic” appellation of Gottlieb’s Mendelssohn.  And while I believe Gottlieb has presented us with sufficient material to corroborate such a claim and reconstruction of Mendelssohn’s thought, I want to conclude with a brief consideration as to why I think this latter claim falls short of its full potential.

Short of a brief consideration of this dual-layered theory of truth, Gottlieb does not present a full account of what could have been his most acute argument on behalf of this “pragmatic religious idealism.” If Gottlieb’s argument is correct, then Mendelssohn becomes a prime example of where Jewish thought can be mined in its normative dimensions. For example, since finite truth requires a social agreement concerning meanings, symbols, and truths, this “sociality of reason” enables human beings to interpret their world in communicative agreement, without imposing mutually exclusive religious dogmas upon each other. Without requiring commitment to wholly unknowable truth, as Jacobi’s mysticism would have it, and likewise without submitting to the kind of despotic political organization that Jacobi defended, Mendelssohn’s theory of rational religion (Verunftreligion) could be recovered as a kind of social semiotics or a theory of representation that helps explain the religious pluralism of the post-secular world, while seeking a normative basis for politics beyond parochial commitments.

Indeed, Gottlieb makes gestures at what this might look like in his conclusion, but only in terms of a promissory note. I believe that the epistemological and metaphysical arguments presented in Faith and Freedom lay the foundation and beckon further study of what this pragmatic religious idealism might look like in just as rigorous of a philosophical presentation as Gottlieb achieves in his exposition of Mendelssohn. For example, would Mendelssohn’s argument concerning infinite and finite truth bear criticism from the realm of normative interpretations of Hegel, such as those of Terry Pinkard, Robert Pippin, and Robert Brandom? Would the dialectical self-reflection on our social institutions of knowledge find room in Mendelssohn’s account?

Similarly, we could approach this question from a perspective that has come to the fore in recent scholarship in Jewish thought, namely, the role of Protestantism in the development of an actual category of “religion” within the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, this added insight might shed light on how Mendelssohn might have had an additional concern with reinterpreting Maimonides and Spinoza through the lens of a “religious pragmatic idealism”, since this interpretation would allay any potential reductions of Judaism to Spinozism. That the latter may be a concern is suggested by Mendelssohn’s weariness of misconstrued presentations of Spinoza, to which he gestures in naming Lavater and Jacobi in a “common plot” against him (76); namely, a philosophical campaign of anti-Judaism. An additional chapter exploring these ramifications of Gottlieb’s erudite interpretation of Mendelssohn would be a welcomed addition, and regardless, should become an avenue of further research based upon Gottlieb’s groundwork.

While it remains to be seen how the full extent of Mendelssohn’s thought can be recovered in a larger philosophical and even political context, the significance of the contribution in Faith and Freedom is that a clear path for such work can now be historically contextualized and charted. We find in it a welcome and, I believe, accurate assessment of what has been a forgotten dimension of the Pantheism controversy. While Gottlieb acknowledges the Weimar-era fascination with the controversy in service of larger socio-political arguments, wherein Leo Strauss counts as quite prominent, the emphasis of Faith and Freedom upon careful intellectual history, philosophical exegesis, and balanced assessments of medieval and early modern philosophical contexts makes Gottlieb’s work a new milestone in Mendelssohn scholarship and should become required reading for all students of Modern German-Jewish thought.


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