Mendelssohn, Moses

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Mendelssohn, Moses (1729-1786): German Philosopher.

The greatest Jewish philosopher of the eighteenth century, Moses Mendelssohn was the most influential proponent of Wolffian rationalism during the final phase of the German Enlightenment. Born in Dessau, Mendelssohn devoted himself at an early age to the study of the Bible, the Talmud, and the philosophy of Maimonides. In 1743, he followed his teacher, Rabbi David Fränkel, to Berlin, where he learned German and Latin. Taking a position as a private tutor in the household of a Jewish silk manufacturer in 1750, Mendelssohn later became bookkeeper and partner in the firm. Mendelssohn befriended Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim in 1754; and, without securing his permission, Lessing published Mendelssohn’s first philosophical writing, the Philosophische Gespräche, in 1755. Encouraged by its positive reception, Mendelssohn later collaborated with Lessing and Nicolai, Christoph Friedrich on the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek and the Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend, which became the most important literary organs of the Berlin Enlightenment.

In his writings, Mendelssohn elucidates and extends the positions of Leibniz and Wolff. In 1763 he received the Berlin Academy essay prize (over Kant, Immanuel) for Abhandlung über die Evidenz in den metaphysischen Wissenschaften, in which he attempts to demonstrate the possibility of a scientific metaphysics, on par with mathematics. And his Phaedo (1767), for which Mendelssohn was best known during his lifetime, argues for the immortality of the soul on the basis of its simplicity and indestructibility. Although Mendelssohn largely followed his rationalist predecessors in metaphysics, however, his work in aesthetics advanced beyond the work of Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb and G. F. Meier toward the subjective aesthetics that would dominate German philosophy and literature in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Drawing on English and French sources, Mendelssohn distinguished metaphysical perfection (unity in multiplicity) from beauty, in which the limited human understanding, which cannot conceive of a real unity of all things, introduces artificial unity into nature.

Although Mendelssohn strove to formulate a philosophy independent of the dictates of Judaism, his religion became a philosophical issue when, in 1769, the Swiss philosopher Johann Kaspar Lavater challenged Mendelssohn either to refute the arguments of Charles Bonnet’s Palingénésie philosophique (in favor of Christian revelation) or to convert to Christianity. In an effort to respond without antagonizing the largely Christian public, Mendelssohn called for religious tolerance and a recognition of commonalities between Judaism and Christianity: both are based in revelation, though the latter goes beyond the truths of rational religion. Mendelssohn’s careful response coupled with the outrage many felt at such a challenge forced Lavater to retreat. Following the controversy, however, Mendelssohn became more outspoken against Jewish oppression and worked toward maintaining Jewish identity within the Prussian state: he founded a school for Jewish children in Berlin, helped a number of Jews gain admittance to Johann Bernhard Basedow’s progressive school in Dessau, and, most significantly, translated much of the Old Testament into German, which earned him the nickname “the Jewish Luther.”

Shortly after Lessing’s death in 1781, Mendelssohn became embroiled in another dispute, this time with Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich. Prompted by Mendelssohn’s plan to publish a work commemorating Lessing, Jacobi wrote a series of public letters to Mendelssohn — the Briefe über die Lehre von Spinoza — in which he accuses Lessing of Spinozism and argues that the Enlightenment’s rational speculation inevitably leads to atheism and nihilism. Although the Pantheismusstreit eventually involved the larger intellectual community, Mendelssohn mounted the most sustained rationalist response in a series of lectures. Published as Morgenstunden, oder Vorlesungen über das Daseyn Gottes (1785), Mendelssohn claims that Jacobi mischaracterizes the Enlightenment enterprise. Philosophy merely brings the reasons for common-sense beliefs to self-consciousness: for example, the existence of God is proven by the ontological argument and the argument from design.

Mendelssohn is best known for his metaphysical arguments for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, which Kant criticizes in the Paralogisms chapter of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft. However, Mendelssohn exerted a profound influence on a generation of German intellectuals, most notably Lessing, and his aesthetics marks a significant step from Baumgarten toward Kant and Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von. In addition, his work on behalf of religious toleration and maintaining Jewish identity paved the way for the Jewish Enlightenment in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Further Reading:

Meyer Kayserling, Moses Mendelssohn, sein Leben und seine Werke, 1972.

Herrmann M. Z. Meyer, Moses Mendelssohn Bibliograpie, 1965.

Matthew Altman

Central Washington University