Mendelssohn, Moses (1729–1786)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Moses Mendelssohn, the greatest Jewish philosopher in the eighteenth century, was born in Dessau, the son of a poor Jewish copyist of sacred scrolls. His first studies were devoted to the Bible, the Talmud, and Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed. He followed his teacher Rabbi David Fränkel to Berlin in 1745, where he learned to read German and Latin while living in great poverty. In 1750 he became a tutor in the household of the Jewish silk manufacturer Isaak Bernhard; he was later a bookkeeper and ultimately a partner in Bernhard's firm. In Berlin Mendelssohn became a close friend of G. E. Lessing, C. F. Nicolai, and Thomas Abbt. After 1755 his reputation as a philosopher and critic grew rapidly throughout Germany. By his contemporaries he was regarded as eminently kind and virtuous, and because of his wisdom and ugliness he was called "The Jewish Socrates." Lessing is said to have modeled the character of Nathan in his drama Nathan der Weise upon Mendelssohn. In 1763 Mendelssohn's Abhandlung über die Euidenz in den metaphysischen Wissenschaften (Essay on Evidence in Metaphysical Science; Berlin, 1764) won a prize from the Berlin Academy, and he was later elected to the academy, although his appointment was never confirmed.

In spite of his Jewish extraction, Mendelssohn's development as a philosopher was notably German in character; he was influenced mainly by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Christian Wolff, Alexander Baumgarten, G. F. Meier, his Berlin friends, and among foreign philosophers, by John Locke, the earl of Shaftesbury, Edmund Burke, Jean Baptiste Dubos, and Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis.

Mendelssohn was a typical "popular philosopher." He was empirically minded, refrained from final systematizations of his theories, wrote in an easy and attractive style, and was mainly interested in aesthetics, psychology, and religion (although he also discussed methodological and metaphysical questions). His contribution to the emancipation of the Jews was significant. Because of the continuous evolution of his ideas, a summary of his views can only cover the general trends of his thought. He exerted a great influence not only upon his closest friends but upon his whole generation in Germany, and upon Immanuel Kant in particular.

Aesthetics and psychology were, in Mendelssohn's mind, closely interrelated. He continued the work of Baumgarten and Meier, but amalgamated their doctrines with the tenets of English and French aesthetics translated into the terminology of German psychology. Generally attributed to Mendelssohn is the first clear distinction between Beauty and metaphysical perfection: He held that Beauty was an inferior, subjective kind of perfection. Metaphysical perfection consists in unity in a multiplicity. Aesthetic perfection arises out of the limits of human understanding. Man is unable to conceive, as God can, the real, supreme unity in the enormous variety of things. He must therefore content himself with introducing an artificial unity (uniformity) into some objects in order to be able to perceive them as wholes; and this is beauty.

In this way, Mendelssohn began a trend away from Baumgarten's and Meier's aesthetic objectivism toward a subjective aesthetics that soon dominated German aesthetics: A beautiful object is not necessarily perfect in itself, but must be perfect in its capacity to be perceived. The perception of Beauty strengthens the representative activity of the soul and makes it more perfect, thus causing a feeling of pleasure. The perception of Beauty causes intuitive knowledge; in its highest stage it becomes the "aesthetic illusion" in which, for example, fable appears as reality. Mendelssohn's conception of Beauty permitted him to explain the pleasurable effect of tragedy and of the sublime, whose distinction from Beauty he was the first in Germany to explain clearly. In tragedy, murder is the representation of a morally and metaphysically imperfect event, but its representation may be subjectively perfect. Mendelssohn, clearly under the influence of Burke, held that in the sublime, the pleasure in awareness of immensity of distance, size, or number is mixed with some pain because of our inability to comprehend it completely. In both cases, aesthetic pleasure is the result of the "mixed feeling" (vermischte Empfindung ) arising in our soul: Even if some element of the perception is unpleasant, the perception as a subjective whole is pleasurable.

Mendelssohn's study of the perception of Beauty led him to introduce a doctrine of mental faculties that was later adopted in modified form by Kant and others. Mendelssohn held that aesthetic feelings must be attributed to a faculty different from intellect and desire, a faculty that he called the faculty of approval (Billigungsvermögen ). The beauty of an object escapes us if we subject it to a process of analysis and definition; therefore, experience of the beautiful cannot be an object of knowledge. A beautiful object gives us aesthetic pleasure even if we do not possess the object; thus, the approval of Beauty must be distinct from desire. Metaphysical perfection, unlike Beauty, is both known by intellect and an object of desire.

Beauty is produced by genius. Genius does not imitate nature, but "idealizes" it; that is, it exhibits natural objects as God would have created them if his aim had been aesthetic and not metaphysical perfection. Genius is independent of rules because it establishes its own rules. A genius's procedure is instinctive.

Mendelssohn believed that both the existence of God and the immortality of the soul could be demonstrated. Although his Morgenstunden oder Vorlesungen über das Daseyn Gottes (Morning Hours, or Lectures on the Existence of God; Berlin, 1785) was written in awareness of Kant's previously published Kritik des reinen Vernunft, in it Mendelssohn accepted both the Ontological Argument and the Argument from Design.

Mendelssohn's Phädon oder über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Phaedo, or on the Immortality of the Soul; Berlin, 1767) was a dialogue on immortality in imitation of Plato's Phaedo. The soul is a simple substance and therefore indestructible. The soul might nevertheless lose its consciousness, but the divine wisdom and goodness of God would not allow this to happen.

Mendelssohn's plans to publish a work commemorating Lessing, who had died in 1781, prompted Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi to write to Mendelssohn asking whether he knew that Lessing was a Spinozist. The resulting quarrel, which soon involved Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as well as Mendelssohn and Jacobi, is discussed in the entry "Pantheismusstreit."

Mendelssohn had been challenged in 1769 by the Swiss physiognomist and religious writer Johann Kaspar Lavater either to demonstrate the falsity of Christian revelation or to become a convert to Christianity. Mendelssohn's answer was that the deism of the Enlightenment, which he had developed into a universal religion of reason, was in fact identical with Judaism. In his Jerusalem oder über religiöse Macht und Judentum (Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism; 2 vols., Berlin, 1783), Mendelssohn supported religious and political toleration, and advocated separation of church and state and civil equality for the Jews. He always fought against both advocates of anti-Semitism and conservative Jews for a cultural and political union of Christians and Jews.

See also Pantheismusstreit.


works by mendelssohn

Philosophische Gespräche. Berlin, 1755.

Briefe über die Empfindungen. Berlin, 1755.

Betrachtungen über die Quellen und die Verbindungen der schönen Künste und Wissenschaften. Berlin, 1757.

Moses Mendelssohn an die Freunde Lessings. Berlin, 1786.

Werke. 7 vols, edited by E. G. B. Mendelssohn. Leipzig, 18431844.

Gesammelte Schriften, edited by D. Elbogen, J. Guttmann, and E. Mittwoch. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1929.

Jerusalem. Translated by Allan Arkush. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1983.

Philosophical Writings. Translated and edited by D. Dahlstrom. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

works on mendelssohn

Altmann, Alexander. Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1973.

Arkush, Allan. Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Bamberger, F. Die geistige Gestalt M. Mendelssohns. Frankfurt, 1929.

Cahn, N. M. Mendelssohns Moralphilosophie. Giessen, 1921.

Cassirer, Ernst. "Die Idee der Religion bei Lessing und Mendelssohn." In Festgabe zum zehn jährigen Bestehen der Akademie für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, 2241. Berlin, 1929.

Cohen, B. Über die Erkenntnislehre M. Mendelssohns. Giessen, 1921.

Goldstein, L. M. Mendelssohn und die deutsche Aesthetik. Königsberg, 1904.

Hoelters, Hans. Der Spinozistische Gottesbegriff bei M. Mendelssohn und F. H. Jacobi, und der Gottesbegriff Spinozas. Bonn, 1938.

Kayserling, Moses. Moses Mendelssohn, sein Leben und sein Wirken. Leipzig, 1862; 2nd ed., 1888.

Morgan, Michael. "Mendelssohn." In History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by D. Frank and O. Leaman. London: Routledge, 1997.

Pinkus, F. M. Mendelssohns Verhältniss zur englischen Philosophie. Würzburg, 1929.

Richter, L. Philosophie der Dichtkunst, M. Mendelssohns Aesthetik. Berlin, 1948.

Ritter, J. H. Mendelssohn und Lessing. 2nd ed. Berlin: Steinthal, 1886.

Sander, D. Die Religionsphilosophie Moses Mendelssohns. Erlangen, 1894.

Zarek, O. M. Mendelssohn. Amsterdam: Querido, 1936.

Giorgio Tonelli (1967)

Bibliography updated by Oliver Leaman (2005)