Mitochondrial Vertigo

June 21, 2010

Notes on the Pantheism Controversy

Filed under: Pantheism Controversy — Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu @ 8:11 pm
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posted because of some limited discussion over the pantheism controversy over at Perverse Egalitarianism here

These are some of my reading notes on the so named Pantheism Controversy which sparked a revolution in German philosophical thought and art. I post them here because there is very little actually on the controversy available on the internet or even in many texts. They have not been proofed, and simply stand as they are…notes:

  1. Lessing dies Feb 15 1781 (104 years after Spinoza had died).
    1. Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a very close personal friend of Lessing plans to write a book on the esteemed character of Lessing.
    2. Newly emergent friend of Lessing (since May 1779), Jacobi, hearing of this book, writes with some subterfuge to Elise Reimarus, telling that Lessing late in life confessed his Spinozism to him (knowing that Mendelssohn would be informed, and disturbed by the accusation).
      1. i.      Being a Spinozist was the social/intellectual equivalent of being both an atheist and a blasphemer.
    3. Mendelssohn questions just which version of Spinoza’s thought Lessing might have acceded to, as there was great variety in the understanding, or even availability of his texts, much of it wildly mischaracterized. He requests a clarification of what Spinozism Lessing might have inadvertently agreed with.
    4. Jacobi sends 36 pages in quartos to Mendelssohn, an in depth dialogue of philosophical sharing, which quite frankly shocks Mendelssohn who had felt that he intimately knew  the sum of Lessing’s beliefs. Mendelssohn is angered and hurt by his ignorance of this “great secret”.
  2. Jacobi’s report would later be published as Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza, in Letter’s to Herr Moses Mendelssohn.
    1. It tells how Jacobi once showed an unpublished Goethe poem (“Prometheus”) to Lessing, containing the lines addressing Zeus “Was it not omnipotent Time / That forged me into manhood, / And eternal Fate, / My master and yours”.
    2. Lessing responds stating that the poem conveys his own feelings against the notion of a divinity separable from creation, invoking his notion of the Hen kai pan, The One and All, admitting himself to be a kind of Spinozist.
    3. The next morning Lessing raises the issue of the Hen kai pan, challenging Jacobi’s idea of a “personal, extra-mundane God”, stating that he considers it “human prejudice” to “consider the idea as primary and supreme, and want to derive everything from it”
      1. i.      Jacobi: You are going further than Spinoza. Understanding (Einsicht) was everything to him.

Lessing: Only so far as human beings are concerned! He was, however, far from considering as the best method our wretched way of acting according to intentions and giving the idea pride of place.

  1. Jacobi ends the Spinoza discussion by revealing that Spinoza has convinced him that the power of Spinoza’s rational conclusions (pantheism, “deification of the world”, i.e. atheism) forces one to leave rational philosophy behind in favor of philosophical faith. The entire aim of the expose is a philosophical attack on the authority of the Berlin Aufklärung.
  2. Before Jacobi had published his account Mendelssohn publishes a preemptive Morning Hours, or Lectures on the Existence of God, which specifically addresses a fundamental difference between theism (An Infinite One which brings a separate Finite Many into existence) and pantheism.
    1. He attempts to sanitize any future claim to Lessing’s Spinozist pantheism by pointing out that a “refined pantheism” can affirm the basic tenants of theism: a free act of creation, and the objective existence of creation outside God, calling the position harmless. Such a refined pantheism is not developed though.
      1. i.      He claims that Lessing was attempting to reconcile pantheism with “the truths of morality and religion”, cut short only by his death.
    2. Jacobi publishes his Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza, violating decorum and trust by including the text of private letters from both Mendelssohn and Elise Reimarus.
    3. Mendelssohn, old and sick, rushes To the Friends of Lessing to the presses. On Dec 31st 1785 he hurries into the Berlin winter without a coat, trying to get to the publisher. Four days later, in bed, he dies. The Pantheism Controversy claims its first victim.
      1. i.      There Jacobi is called out for using the accusation of Lessing’s Spinozism as a mere tool against the Berlin Aufklärung. Spinoza’s metaphysics are supposed to lead to a Godless nihilism, from which one can only turn to faith.
      2. ii.      Lessing is noted for his irony and humor, and Jacobi is implied to have been taken in by Lessing’s subtlety: the esoteric Lessing must be separated out from the exoteric, dogmatic Lessing.
      3. iii.      The question remains, was Lessing a rational Theist or a Spinozist?
  3. Reason = Nihilism: Jacobi’s portrayal of atheistic Spinozism as the acme of rationality was so dangerous to the Berlin Enlightenment because it conceptually linked Reason itself to the abandonment of religion, but also State authority over religion.
    1. This threat was further complicated by Spinoza’s own Theological-Political Treatise which exegetically turned the Bible into just another document of human history.
  4. Kant essentially assumed the Jacobi reduction of Spinozism, due to the potential of obvious political alienation would be forced to take up the defense of the authority of reason within his own particular system: He was not a Spinozist.
    1. Kant learns of the Pantheism Controversy through Hamann in late 1784, reading Jocabi’s Buchlein, pronouncing that he approved of the presentation and that Spinoza’s system had never made much sense to him.
      1. i.      Kant had not read closely because in a footnote Jacobi had claimed that passages in the Critique of Pure Reason were completely in the spirit of Spinoza.
        1. This association was the beginning of Jacobi’s general lumping of Kant with Spinozism.
      2. ii.      There is no evidence that, like many others had, Kant felt the need to make study of Spinoza.
    2. Oct 16, 1785 Mendelssohn sends Kant a copy of his Morning Thoughts, and Kant finds it filled with the same rationalist arguments in theology that he had refuted in the First Critique.
      1. i.      Kant recoils that in the prefatory remarks he has been labeled “all-destroying”.
      2. ii.      Kant disciple Schütz urges Kant to attack Mendelssohn as some had read it as a refutation of the First Critique.
        1. Schütz is only allowed to publish Kant’s lettered response “the last testament of dogmatic metaphysics and at the same time its most perfect product” along with his own review of Morning Thoughts.
    3. Jacobi yearns to know what Kant thinks of his position, but Hamann replies that Kant told him that “he has never studied Spinoza and, being taken up in his own system, that he has neither time or desire to get involved with anyone else’s” (Nov 30 1785).
    4. In January things change. After Mendelssohn dies vaguely at the hands of Jacobi, Herz and Biester urge Kant to take up Mendelssohn’s cause, and come to the aid of the Berlin Aufklärung.
      1. i.      Kant says that he might do something to expose this attempt of Jacobi to make a name for himself through farce and hocus pocus.
    5. In February a Jena publication carries an announcement of Jacobi’s work and denouncing Jacobi’s loose association of Kant to Spinoza.
      1. i.      March 24 Jacobi confesses to Hamann that he had been too cavalier associating Kant and Spinoza, but warned that if Kant joined the “mongrel dogs” of Berlin he would regret it.
    6. In May Hamann passed Jacobi’s new pamphlet to Kant, which invokes Kant’s own limits for speculative philosophy.
      1. i.      Hamann reports back that Kant was generally content, and that Kant really would likely remain neutral. He did not want to get involved.
  5. Goethe writes, “Spinoza does not prove the existence of God; existence is God” calling him a theissium and christianissimum. To both Goethe and Herder Spinozism “intrinsic infinity” holism and Lessing’s Hen kai pan seemed to provide a solution for the problems of modern epistemology.
    1. Goethe first reads the Ethics in the summer of 1773.
    2. Goethe, Herder had met with Jacobi in Weimar for a Spinoza conference Sept 1784, but fail to come to agreement. Jacobi failed to gain alliance against Spinoza.
    3. He and von Stein conduct a study of “holy” Spinoza in November of 1784: “I feel very near to him, though his spirit is much deeper and purer than mine”.
    4. Herder, who has been present at some of these readings gave to Goethe and von Stein a Latin copy of the Ethica with the inscription: “Let Spinoza be always for you the holy Christ.”
    5. Early 1785 Goethe writes a short essay adapting him to his own system “Studie nach Spinoza”.
  6. Herder in God, Some Conversations (1787) sets out in dialogue form the basics of Spinozism: One self-dependent Substance which is not the transitive, but the immanent cause of all things, not a cause that breaks in, occasionally, from the “outside”.
    1. The fundamental success of Scientific observation put God at the disadvantage of being unneeded by otherwise well-working mechanism, either entering into it only now and then miraculously, or simply remaining distant like a watchmaker.
    2. Spinoza is said to have a problem of Unity, there being two Attributes (thought and extension). This is seen by Herder to be resolved in the German Leibniz, which makes thought to be the highest grade of organic, “substantial” force, taking God as the Primal Force (Urkraft) in all organic systems of force.
      1. i.      By abandoning the dimension of the extramundane, Neo-Spinozism placed God within the very rational, immanent processes of Nature itself, that shows itself to Scientific inquiry.
    3. Herder also saw Neo-Spinozism as against the kind of personal piety that anthropomorphically reads God as separate from creation, but also at human disposal, as he wrote in a letter to Jacobi “You want God in a human form, as a friend who thinks of you” (Dec 20 1784). The old theologies are dying out.
    4. In letter to Jacobi he also expressed that Jacobi was wrong in how he had interpreted Spinoza’s original Being, ens entium. It was not an empty, property-less thing, but rather a full, positive infinity.
      1. i.      Sub specie aeternitatis properly understood makes the material world the realized reason of God.
  7. Heine, a radical Lutheran saw in Spinoza’s pantheism a removal of the Deist (distant God) Theist (overlooking God) traditional religion belittlements of the Body, the suppression of the flesh.
    1. In mind was Luther’s exposure of the Catholic solution to the problems of suppressing the flesh. The church simply “taxed” sensuality through indulgences.
    2. He wished a restoration of Germanic pre-Christian religions, sensuous pantheism, which Christianity in its spiritualization and abstraction had turned into pan-demonism.
      1. ii.      Spinoza’s embrace of the material world as thoroughly divine would help in the philosophical revolution to put Germany in touch with its Teutonic original mind.
      2. iii.      He predicted that the “demonic” ancient energies of German cult would be dramatically released in revolution that would pale that of the French: Spinozist pantheism hid within itself the neopaganism power of the earth and spirit, and the divinity of humanity.
  8. Hegel: “Spinoza is the high point of modern philosophy; either Spinozism or no philosophy”
    1. Moving in the direction of Herder, Hegel tried to change what he perceived to be a Spinoza static, abstract unity into an active, living Spirit: something of the ancient anima mundi.
      1. i.      The importation of the Negation, and teleological world progress.
    2. Hegel writes to Schelling in 1795 of the ““storm that is gathering above the heads of the oppressors and gods of the earth”.
      1. i.      Schelling writes back “I have become a Spinozist!” tempered by his Fichtean appropriation of Spinoza’s Absolute, and “There is no personal God, and our supreme effort lies in the destruction of our personality, the passage into the absolute sphere of being.”


  1. “Heine…predicted that the “demonic” ancient energies of German cult would be dramatically released in revolution that would pale that of the French.”

    well, he was right about that.

    Comment by skholiast — June 22, 2010 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

    • Yes. Interesting to read the latter day demonic “revolution” specifically in terms the huge tensions that propelled the Pantheism Controversy itself into a full-blown philosophical crisis of Science and politics. That is to say, the lynch-pin of anthropomorphic “God” as a political force and authority that Spinoza identified right at the cusp of the modern liberal democratic state, an imaginary power, remained explosive in the trinity of Church, Law, Science at the end of the 18th century. What this implied for the release of these Germanic earth-demons is quite compelling a question.

      Comment by kvond — June 22, 2010 @ 6:31 pm | Reply

  2. It is quite remarkable to see such powerful minds going at it hammer and tongs over what Lessing said and meant, and whether he’d got Spinoza right, and whether reason=atheism. Compared to Plato and Aristotle, this was a silver age, but compared to us… sigh. But maybe our own era (at least, it’s philosophy) will look better in retrospect….right? right…?…

    This is a very helpful summary, Kevin; Thank you.

    Comment by skholiast — June 22, 2010 @ 1:14 pm | Reply

  3. Thanks so much for this.

    Comment by Timothy Morton — June 22, 2010 @ 5:46 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for thanking me Tim. 🙂

      Comment by kvond — June 22, 2010 @ 6:31 pm | Reply

  4. Great stuff! Since you seem to be banned everywhere, will you be returning to your work here?

    Comment by L. Auch — August 24, 2010 @ 4:31 am | Reply

    • L). Banned by a Burgomeister of the philo-blog internet hardly counts as “everywhere”, but my work is likely elsewhere. Thanks for though for the thought.

      Comment by kvond — August 24, 2010 @ 4:56 am | Reply

  5. Spinoza was not a pantheist. He was anti-religious. He is best thought of as a counter-theologian who tried to make sense of religious language from an atheist point of view.

    Comment by Mark Frankel — September 25, 2010 @ 7:00 am | Reply

    • MF: “Spinoza was not a pantheist. He was anti-religious.”

      Kvond: First of all being a pantheist does not make you a religionist. I have no idea if it makes you religious or not, depending on how you define the term.

      MF: He is best thought of as a counter-theologian who tried to make sense of religious language from an atheist point of view.

      Kvond: There is strong evidence that this is not the case. For instance he reacted with disbelief at the implication that his philosophy was of atheism, emphasizing that all he talked about what God. It is a common back-reading to project Atheism into Spinoza’s position, but calling this reading “best” is unsubstantiated. Spinoza was not a materialist in any common sense of the word, and his belief in God as the transformative and Joyful power of the Infinite is plainly evident in the 5th book in the Ethics. Whether you want to call this religious or not I don’t know, but the reading of Spinoza as atheistic came largely from Spinoza’s enemies and certainly not from Spinozists at the time.

      Comment by kvond — September 25, 2010 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

  6. Thanks for this, Kvond. I think I was a bit over-terse in saying Spinoza was anti-religious and an atheist. What I meant was that he was against the conventional or superstitious religion such as was in his day (and is still now) used to delude the masses. When he talks of God unquestionably he does so sincerely, but his God is not the Person of orthodoxy: it is all Reality. His God also includes Mind so, as you rightly say, Spinoza was not a materialist. However, I am unsure I altogether agree with you when you say that his belief in God as the transformative and Joyful power of the Infinite is evident in the 5th book in the Ethics. He says in that book that God does not return our love, so his God is rather a remote figure. This is why I call him a counter-theologian. He is asking what would religion look like if we dispense with superstition. I think you’ll agree that his answer is extremely interesting and as relevant now as it ever was.

    Comment by Mark Frankel — September 26, 2010 @ 7:24 am | Reply

    • “…so his God is rather a remote figure”

      But how remote can God be if he/it/she is literally, quite literally “you” and “me” and every particle of the universe? This is where Idealism kicks in and tries to create a chasm between the Individual and the God, inserting various forms of “nothingness” or “absence” or “negation” which for Spinoza are all illusions.

      Comment by Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu — August 28, 2012 @ 2:39 pm | Reply

  7. […] has spent the last 20 years attempting to explain the impact of Jacobi and Lessing’s “Pantheism controversy” on the philosophy of Kant and most everyone else in that period. It was a huge imbroglio at […]

    Pingback by 9 Tired and Wrong Received Ideas - waggish — April 30, 2011 @ 4:17 am | Reply

  8. Do you have a refernece for where I can find Schelling’s letter to Hegel where he declares that he has become a Spinozist? Thanks

    Comment by Charlotte A — August 28, 2012 @ 2:04 pm | Reply

    • Charlotte: “In his letter from the 4th of February 1795 to Hegel, Schelling famously proclaims that hehas “become a Spinozist!” “Don’t be surprised,” he continues, “you will soon hear, how?For Spinoza, the world (the absolute object opposed to the subject) was everything, forme it is the
      I ” (HKA 3/1, 22).

      found here: Spinoza in Schelling’s Early Conception…

      Comment by Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu — August 28, 2012 @ 2:34 pm | Reply

  9. “Kant learns of the Pantheism Controversy through Hamann in late 1784, reading Jocabi’s Buchlein, pronouncing that he approved of the presentation and that Spinoza’s system had never made much sense to him.”
    How does Kant learn about pantheism contoversy through Hamann?

    Comment by Nathias von Helling (@nathiaas) — September 6, 2012 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

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