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German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2003

    Attack on Kant

    Mack's book struck me as a kind of sequel. A few years ago, I read Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment, with its thrilling enthronement of Spinoza at the heart of the Enlightenment. I was disappointed when the book ended with Christian Wolff, that is, just before Kant, who I had hoped to see exposed as the ultimate anti-Spinoza. Well, Mack picks up where Israel left off, criticizing not only Kant's 'one-sided reading of Spinoza,' but identifying Kant as an anti-Semite and the intellectual father of the Holocaust. Mack's critique of Kant is well reasoned and indicative of a very sound knowledge of the Kantian conceptual universe. Mack makes good use of quotations in arguing his case, citing for example this horrifying example from Kant: 'The euthanasia of Judaism is pure moral religion.' Mack's charges against Kant alone makes his book not only worthwhile, but essential. While Mack devotes only the first chapter to Kant, he remains the primary figure throughout the book. The second chapter, on Hegel, serves to demonstrate how the worm had got into the bud, that is, how Kantian anti-Semitism came to infect the whole German idealist project. Anti-Semitism lies at the heart of Hegel's project in that he basically subscribes to Christian supercessionism. Mack then proceeds to Wagner and the rise of anti-Semitism in its full flowering: social, political, economic, artistic, and racial. These first three chapters describe the anti-Semitic core of German idealism. The rest of the book presents the responses of a selection of German Jews to this anti-Semitism. Mack starts with Mendelssohn, and then moves to Geiger, Heine, and Graetz. These latter struck back with 'counter-histories' that overturned the conceptual framework into which idealism had cast Judaism. They proclaimed Judaism as a universal system that had effectively produced everything of value in Western culture, including Christianity. There was, inevitably, a backlash against these counter-histories, particularly where they 'took issue with the most noteworthy exponents of German high culture.' Mack describes how the renowned historian Treitschke led the way with a number of anti-Semitic articles which 'contributed to making racism socially and intellectually acceptable in fin de siècle Germany.' Thus anti-Semitism acquired an academic respectability, and '[t]he majority of professors, schoolteachers, and lawyers made anti-Semitism part of their professional calling.' In the eyes of the anti-Semites, the essential dichotomy resolved itself as one between the idealist Germans and the materialist Jews. Mack next cites a number of other well-known German Jews, including Cohen, Rosenzweig, Freud and Benjamin. These individuals by and large developed their thought along mainly materialist lines. As Mack states in his concluding paragraph: 'German Jewish writers indeed may have contributed to the diversity of materialist philosophy when they undermined the discriminatory dimension of high-status registers of ideation. In this way, German Jewish thought of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries anticipated a postmodern sensibility concerning issues of narrativity, bodiliness, and timeliness.' Thus much of materialist philosophy can be seen as a corrective to the excesses to which idealism can give rise, including anti-Semitism. The danger with this strategy lies, however, in the temptation to abandon the ground of idealist philosophy to anti-Semitism and other distorted thinking.

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