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Pantheismusstreit or the pantheism controversy, came to the attention of the public in 1785 when Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi published Ueber die Lehre des Spinoza, his correspondence with Moses Mendelssohn concerning Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's late Spinozist phase. Other prominent writers, including Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Kaspar Lavater, and Johann Georg Hamann, became involved in this dispute, which led to an objective reappraisal of Spinozism. The first important reaction to Benedict de Spinoza's influence in Germany had been Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's Theodicy (1710). At the time of the pantheism controversy, the distorted image of Spinoza, the "satanic atheist," was definitely destroyed. This image had been created by Pierre Bayle and cultivated in Germany by Theophil Gottlieb Spitzel (16391691), Johann Christophorus Sturm (16351703), Johann Konrad Dippel (c. 16721734), and Christian K. Kortholt (16331694), whose De Tribus Impostoribus Liber (1680) had attacked Herbert of Cherbury, Thomas Hobbes, and Spinoza as "impostors."

Inception of the Controversy

Jacobi's book constituted one stage in the struggle waged by the supporters of Hamann (whose sentimentalist faith Jacobi attempted to combine with Kant's critical philosophy) against the religious rationalism of the Berlin Enlightenment, whose proponents were grouped around Friedrich Christian Nicolai and the Berlinische Monatsschrift. In his Golgotha und Scheblimini (1784), Hamann had attacked the theistic rationalism of Mendelssohn's Jerusalem (1783). A work prized by Kant, Herder, Mirabeau, and Christian Garve, Jerusalem was directed against state-imposed creeds and religions of revelation.

Jacobi's hasty publication of his correspondence with Mendelssohn, too, was indirectly inspired by Hamann. The latter informed Jacobi on June 29, 1785, that the first part of Mendelssohn's Morgenstunden was already being printed. Wrongly suspecting that Mendelssohn had mentioned their controversy over Lessing in this work, Jacobi committed a dual breach of trust. To his Ueber die Lehre des Spinoza he appended anonymously a fragment from Goethe's unpublished "Prometheus" (1774) that Jacobi had shown Lessing during a conversation at Wolfenbüttel on July 7, 1780.

It was this conversation that served as the starting point and focus of the pantheism controversy. To the report of this conversation Jacobi added a digest of an argument with Mendelssohn that had ensued from a report by Elise Reimarus (February 1783) to the effect that Mendelssohn was busy with a work on Lessing. Through her, Jacobi led Mendelssohn to believe that "Lessing had been a Spinozist" but had never admitted it to his friend Mendelssohn because the latter had never taken seriously a relevant hint concerning the Spinozist purport of Paragraph 73 of Lessing's Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts. Mendelssohn, through Elise Reimarus, then addressed precise questions to Jacobi regarding the character of Lessing's alleged Spinozism. He considered it unlikely that, one, Lessing had been a Spinozist and that, two, he would have remained silent about it to a friend of many years' standing (Mendelssohn) while confiding it to the first stranger that had come along (Jacobi). Mendelssohn suggested courteously that perhaps Lessing, as was his nature, had made in jest certain paradoxical statements to Jacobi. However, if Jacobi could conclusively demonstrate Lessing's Spinozism, then, Mendelssohn allowed, he would have to give precedence to the truth in the work he planned to write about his friend.

In his reply of November 4, 1783, Jacobi again gave details of his conversations with Lessing. But in so doing, he misjudged his own situation. It was obvious that Lessing, tired of hearing Spinoza treated "like a dead dog," had been attempting to provoke Jacobi into a refutation of Spinozism. Jacobi, however, had declared himself helpless against the geometrical reasoning of Spinoza, which seemed unanswerable to him. Although he rejected Spinoza's "fatalism" and the concept of a God who created without insight and without will, he could find no counterarguments. To this Lessing had replied, "I note that you would like to have your will free; I do not crave free will." Lessing characterized the tendency to give thought the precedence over other life forces as a human prejudice. He asked Jacobi whether he thought he could derive the concept of an extramundane rationally creative deity from Leibniz. "I fear," Lessing added, "that Leibniz himself was fundamentally a Spinozist." He recalled "a passage in Leibniz where it is said of God that he himself is in a state of everlasting expansion and contraction, and that this constitutes the creation and existence of the world." Hard-pressed by the logic of Lessing as well as that of Spinoza, which "admits of no cause of things separate from the world," Jacobi saved himself by a leap into a sentimentalist faith in the God of Christianity who orders the world teleologically. With unconcealed irony, Lessing remarked that such a leap of faith ending up in a somersault was something he could no longer exact of his "old legs and heavy head." Derisively, he professed to find agreements with his own system even in Charles Bonnet's Palingénésie, which Lavaterwithout the author's permissionhad translated and had dedicated to Mendelssohn in an ill-fated attempt at proselytizing. Lessing also claimed to discern "obvious Spinozism" in Frans Hemsterhuis's Aristée. Jacobi himself believed he recognized in the disputed Paragraph 73 of Lessing's Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts his Spinozist interpretation of Christ as reality (natura naturata ) and of God as the infinite substance (natura naturans ).

Seven months after his reply to Mendelssohn (June 1784), Jacobi learned from Elise Reimarus that Mendelssohn had put aside his Lessing "in order first to venture a round with the Spinozists or 'all-in-one'rs.'" In August of that year, Mendelssohn wrote his Erinnerungen and sent them to Jacobi without, however, publishing them at that time. (They first appeared in 1786 in Moses Mendelssohn an die Freunde Lessings, pp. 3656). In the Erinnerungen Mendelssohn marshaled rationalistic arguments against Spinoza and again expressed his disbelief in Lessing's Spinozism. He dealt sarcastically with Jacobi's "honorable retreat under the flag of faith" as a device necessary for Christian philosophers; Mendelssohn's own religion, on the other hand, allowed him to "raise doubts on grounds of reason" and did not dictate to him "any belief in eternal verities." Mendelssohn left unanswered Jacobi's Lettre à M. Hemsterhuis, a copy of which the author had sent him on September 5, 1784. But he notified his correspondent once again that pantheism would indeed come under discussion in the first part of the Morgenstunden, although their mutual correspondence would be disregarded. Mendelssohn requested that Jacobi delay publishing his "counterrecollections" until after the publication of the Morgenstunden.

Jacobi again sent Mendelssohn an exposition of Spinozism, in forty-four paragraphs, which ended in an enthusiastic identification of Christian faith, love, andsurprisinglyknowledge (in the sense of knowledge of nature). Mendelssohn, astonished at Jacobi's proselytizing zeal, called on Reimarus to act as arbiter in the matter of the controversy over Lessing. Reimarus counseled silence about the whole affair so as not to dishonor the memory of Lessing. Still another exegesis of Spinozism by Jacobi in six paragraphs began with the traditional thesis: "Spinozism is atheism."

Despite Mendelssohn's renewed assurances to Elise Reimarus on May 24, 1785, that he would not make use of his correspondence with Jacobi, the latter with an utter lack of consideration published the letters on August 28, 1785. Jacobi's account reads like an exorcism of the magnetic powers of Spinozism, whereas Mendelssohn's concern in the controversy was only to clear Lessing of the charge of Spinozism and to contrast his own religion of reason with Jacobi's visionary religion of sentiment, as well as to polemicize against Spinoza with Wolffian arguments. Mendelssohn's main proof for the existence of a rational God (in Part I of the Morgenstunden ) was that all that is real must first be thought as real by some being, hence there exists an infinite intellect.

Results of the Controversy

The pantheism controversy spread to wider circles of German intellectual life with the anonymous publication in 1786 of Die Resultate der Jacobi'schen und Mendelssohn'schen Philosophie by Thomas W. Wizenman, a young follower of Hamann and a Pietist, who had been induced by Jacobi to read Spinoza. Wizenman, under the guise of a disinterested spectator, openly took Jacobi's side. As Kant later revealed it, Wizenman launched into an argumentum ad hominem against Mendelssohn, attempting to destroy deism with atheism, and atheism with deism. For the fideist Wizenman, it was impossible to demonstrate the existence or the nonexistence of God and his relationships to the world. He tried to define the concept of reason in such a fashion that the rationality of a belief in revealed religion would proceed from this definition, once historical evidence of the revelation was at hand.

Compelled by Wizenman's publication to express an opinion, Kant in "Was heisst: sich im Denken orientieren?" (Berlinische Monatsschrift, October 1786) rejected both Jacobi's sentimentalist faith and Mendelssohn's rationalist faith as subjective views that conceal in themselves the danger of fanaticism. As in the later Critique of Judgment (Paragraph 80), Kant declared that pantheism did not provide a teleological explanation of things, so in the Monatsschrift article he defended himself against the reproach that his Critique of Pure Reason had promoted Spinozism: "Spinozism speaks of thoughts that themselves think and thus of an accidental thing that still at the same time exists for itself as subjecta concept that is not to be found at all in the human understanding and cannot be brought into it." Kant disapproved of Mendelssohn's attempt to reduce the quarrel of freedom of will versus determinism to a matter of pure logomachy (Einige Bermerkungen zu Jakobis Prüfung der Mendelssohnschen Morgenstunden, Leipzig, 1786).

More important than the polemics of the pantheism controversy were its effects on Herder and Goethe and later on Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich von Schelling, and G. W. F. Hegel. Herder, in his five conversations titled Gott (1787), deplored Spinoza's terminological dependence on René Descartes, but he accepted Spinoza's concept of God, whom he regarded as the primal power from which all other powers derive. Thus in his own way he came close to the concept of the primal phenomenon that Goethe, as a metaphysical philosopher of nature, was seeking to investigate.

Goethe himself had reread Spinoza in January 1785 and had found in him the foundations for his own holistic or antimechanistic, anti-Newtonian concept of the universe. He had already, on June 4, 1785, objected to Jacobi: "You acknowledge the highest reality, which is the basis of Spinozism, on which all else rests, from which all else flows. He does not prove the Being of God, Being is God. And if for this reason others scold Spinoza for being an atheist, I should like to name him and praise him as theissimum, indeed, christianissimum. " On October 21 of the same year, Goethe sharply attacked Jacobi's play on the word believe as the behavior of a "faith-sophist," admonished him to apply himself to "clarity and distinctness of expression," and admitted "that while by nature I do not share Spinoza's mode of conception, if I had to cite a book that, more than any I know, agrees most fully with my own conception, I should have to name the Ethics. " On May 5, 1786, he expressed his disagreement with Jacobi:

I cling more and more firmly to the reverence for God of the atheist [Spinoza] and I cede to you [Christians] all that your religion enjoins and must enjoin When you say that one can only believe in God then I say to you that I lay great weight on looking and seeing and when Spinoza, speaking of scientia intuitiva, says Hoc cognoscendi genus procedit ab adaequata idea essentiae formalis quorundam Dei attributorum ad adaequatam cognitionem essentiae rerum [This manner of knowing moves from the adequate idea of the formal essence of some attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things], these words give me courage to devote my entire life to the contemplation of the things that I can reach and of whose essentia formali I can hope to fashion an adequate idea

Just as Goethe, who, inspired by the pantheism controversy to make a study of Spinoza, became conscious of his own holism while reading the Ethics, so pantheism, thanks to its contact with Spinozism, progressed from its traditional manifestation as Neoplatonic emanation to a concept of evolution, which in Hegel's philosophy (and in the twentieth century, that of Henri Bergson) entails the development of the Absolute in and with the world.

See also Hamann, Johann Georg; Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich; Mendelssohn, Moses; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.


Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich. Ueber die Lehre des Spinoza in Briefen an den Herrn Moses Mendelssohn. Breslau, 1785. 2nd ed., revised and enlarged, Breslau: G. Löwe, 1789.

Mendelssohn, Moses. An die Freunde Lessings. Berlin: C. Voss, 1786.

Mendelssohn, Moses. Morgenstunden, oder über das Daseyn Gottes. Berlin: C. Voss, 1786.

Scholz, H. Die Hauptschriften zum Pantheismusstreit zwischen Jacobi und Mendelssohn. Berlin: Reuther and Reichard, 1916.

Kurt Weinberg (1967)

Translated by Albert E. Blumberg