Published Humanitas, Volume IX, No. 2, 1996

Nihilism Before Nietzsche, by Michael Allen Gillespie. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994. xxiv + 324 pp. $27.50, cloth. $15.95 paper.

As was clearly shown by Frederick C. Beiser in his 1987 work on neglected aspects of the history of German philosophy during the time of Kant and Fichte, The Fate of Reason, the drawn-out, so-called “Pantheismusstreit” is of crucial importance for a deeper understanding of the transition from Enlightenment philosophy to romanticism and idealism. Der Pantheismusstreit gradually involved all the leading thinkers of the age—Mendelssohn, Kant, Herder, Fichte, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Hegel. But the Streit was initiated by a comparatively lesser known thinker, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, who in 1783 launched an attack on the kind of rational Enlightenment thinking represented by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Jacobi accused Lessing of having been a “Spinozist”—an epithet which was regarded  as equivalent to “pantheist,” and “pantheist” in turn to “atheist.” Jacobi’s scandalous allegation took the form of a criticism of Lessing’s like-minded friend Mendelssohn: Mendelssohn, said Jacobi, had misunderstood the true nature of his friend’s worldview.

Why did all the leading thinkers feel compelled to take sides or make personal statements? It was not that they had strong opinions about Mendelssohn’s and Jacobi’s understanding of Lessing’s relation to Spinoza; rather, the issue involved the status of Enlightenment reason itself. If it could be shown that Lessing had in fact been an only slightly disguised atheist, there was reason to believe that Enlightenment reason in and of itself was suspect. In Jacobi’s analysis, rationalism of any kind necessarily implied atheism or had atheism as its ultimate consequence, unavoidably leading through scepticism and determinism to the denial of the truths of religion, freedom, morality, and society.

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