“This is the most lucid and penetrating effort yet to characterize the leading philosophers of the German idealist tradition as central figures in the history of modern antisemitism.”
German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responsesby Michael Mack
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In German Idealism and the Jew, Michael Mack uncovers the deep roots of anti-Semitism in the German philosophical tradition. While many have read German anti-Semitism as a reaction against Enlightenment philosophy, Mack instead contends that the redefinition of the Jews as irrational, oriental Others forms the very cornerstone of German idealism, including Kant's conception of universal reason.
Offering the first analytical account of the connection between anti-Semitism and philosophy, Mack begins his exploration by showing how the fundamental thinkers in the German idealist tradition—Kant, Hegel, and, through them, Feuerbach and Wagner—argued that the human world should perform and enact the promises held out by a conception of an otherworldly heaven. But their respective philosophies all ran aground on the belief that the worldly proved incapable of transforming itself into this otherworldly ideal. To reconcile this incommensurability, Mack argues, philosophers created a construction of Jews as symbolic of the "worldliness" that hindered the development of a body politic and that served as a foil to Kantian autonomy and rationality.
In the second part, Mack examines how Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, Franz Rosenzweig, and Freud, among others, grappled with being both German and Jewish. Each thinker accepted the philosophies of Kant and Hegel, in varying degrees, while simultaneously critiquing anti-Semitism in order to develop the modern Jewish notion of what it meant to be enlightened—a concept that differed substantially from that of Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Wagner. By speaking the unspoken in German philosophy, this book profoundly reshapes our understanding of it.
"Mack elucidates the antisemitic strains in the German idealistic presentation of the body, the body politic, legality, and revolutionism. Furthermore, Mack makes a strong case that nineteenth-century German Jews recognized and revised these caricatures of Jews and Judaism as best they could, antiucipating a postmodern sense of human autonomy and responsible rationalism."—Alan Levenson, Shofar
“Mack’s argument is subtle and wide-ranging, but his major points can be roughly summarized. First, he shows how deeply indebted German idealism was to the language of Christianity: In Kant and Hegel, the Jews keep their old role as the stiff-necked people, those who perversely refuse to see the light. Second, he makes clear how frighteningly ready these thinkers were to turn Jews—individual human beings, with their own minds and beliefs, virtues, and vices—into ‘the Jews,’ a placeholder in a philosophical system.”—Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun
"Mack makes a significant and innovative contribution to two heavily traversed fields: tha causes of the Shoah, and the ambiguous legacy of philosophical modernity."
"Mack elucidates the antisemitic strains in the German idealistic presentation of the body, the body politic, legality, and revolutionism. Furthermore, Mack makes a strong case that nineteenth-century German Jews recognized and revised these caricatures of Jews and Judaism as best they could, anticipating a postmodern sense of human autonomy and responsible rationalism."
“Mack’s argument is subtle and wide-ranging, but his major points can be roughly summarized. First, he shows how deeply indebted German idealism was to the language of Christianity: In Kant and Hegel, the Jews keep their old role as the stiff-necked people, those who perversely refuse to see the light. Second, he makes clear how frighteningly ready these thinkers were to turn Jews—individual human beings, with their own minds and beliefs, virtues, and vices—into ‘the Jews,’ a placeholder in a philosophical system.”
"Mack makes a significant and innovative contribution to two heavily traversed fields: the causes of the Shoah, and the ambiguous legacy of philosophical modernity."
"Michael Mack's German Idealism and the Jew fills a grave void in philosophy's self-critical scholarship. Mack seeks to clarify how the German Idealist philosophical tradition directly served toward the burgeoning of a new, more dangerous anti-Semitism that, under the blank eye of 'civilized' nations and with the blessing of the Christian churches, resulted in the methodical slaughter of millions upon millions of European Jews. . . . German Idealism and the Jew is a work long overdue, of great importance to scholarly understandings of Nazi Germany and anti-Semitism and the larger problem of the functioning of the scapegoat mechanism in chaotic societies."
"A slim but dense volume which is sure to delight and provoke in equal measure."
“A major addition to the critical literature of German Jewry from the Enlightenment to the Shoah. Mack’s extraordinary study of the philosophical underpinnings of German anti-Semitism from Kant to Hegel picks up a thread of intellectual corruption that formed major Jewish thinkers from Rosenzweig and Benjamin and beyond. Focused on a thought which today still shapes modern philosophical discourse, Mack offers a sense of the productive deformation of German Jewish thought through its struggle with German philosophy.”Sander L. Gilman, University of Illinois, Chicago
“The custodians of the German Enlightenment and philosophical culture nursed deeply ambivalent attitudes toward the Jews whom they formally invited to join them in the project of creating modern open and tolerant culture. Michael Mack revisits their writings and deftly discloses the deeper structure of their thought encouraging the construction of the Jew as a threatening Other. Mack argues that modern Jewish thinkers, from Moses Mendelssohn through Walter Benjamin and Freud intuitively grasped that at the heart of the modern votaries’ understanding of reason lies ‘unreason.’ Critically reflecting upon the dialectic tension between these two constitutive moments of the modern thought, Mack claims, German-Jewish writers anticipated a post-modern sensibility, endowing what it means to be an enlightened, autonomous person with a new depth.”Paul Mendes-Flohr, University of Chicago
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German Idealism and the Jew: the Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses
By Michael Mack
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2003 Michael Mack
All right reserved.
1 - Positing Immutability in Religion: Kant
Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.
--Cormac McCarthy, BLOOD MERIDIANIn the introduction I briefly examined the culmination of the German idealist fantasy about an immutable tie between Jehovah and his people. The following two chapters analyze how the construction of this prejudicial image grew out of Kant's and Hegel's respective philosophies.
In this chapter, I first discuss the epistemological foundations of Kant's moral and political philosophy. In his rational theology and moral thought, he gave a prejudicial account of Judaism. The adverse force of the charges Kant leveled against the Jews was intensified in his anthropology. How can we explain this intensification in the context of a more sociological (that is, anthropological) discussion? In his moral and religious philosophy Kant discussed mainly Judaism, but in his anthropological writing he focused on the "the Jewish nation." We will see in what sense these two entities, religion and nation,coincide in Kant's characterization of the Jews.
What could have caused such a conflation of politics and religion in the work of a philosopher who, one would have thought, took great care to differentiate between these two entities? Kant, following a one-sided reading of Spinoza, argued that Judaism is a religion without religion. He unmasked the essence of Judaism as a form of politics. However, Kant's moral philosophy incorporated a strong political--in the sense of public--agenda. Was it not concerned with the social validity of individual performances? After all, the famous categorical imperative demands the public applicability of each individual action. What did it mean when he wrote that Judaism is a religion without religion whose very essence consists of politics?
An exclusive focus on Kant's moral philosophy and rational theology does not suffice. Whereas critics have so far only examined the passages in which Kant discussed Judaism and the Jews, this chapter offers a hermeneutics of his prejudicial discourse within the context in which he developed it. Thus, an analysis of Kant's epistemological critique of traditional metaphysics helps us understand his redefined metaphysical perspective on social, moral, and political issues.
In Kant's view, a Jewish way of life could not transcend empirical conditions. This question as to the possibility of independence from material considerations formed the very heart of Kant's critique of traditional metaphysics. The Critique of Pure Reason set out to prove that we can neither recognize the intrinsic worth of any material thing nor ascertain the existence of some supernatural sign system that could bestow spiritual or intellectual value on it. The only way in which we can meaningfully deal with the external world is by imposing the laws derived from autonomous reason on nature. Natural appearance offers the material from which we can build a universe according to the free and consistent plans generated by rational operations.
In the second part of this chapter, I examine how Kant constructed this epistemological notion of an autonomous rationality with reference to traditional Christian rhetoric in his moral philosophy and rational theology. This will shed light on the way his reformulation of metaphysics went hand in hand with his attempt to do away with the Jewish foundations of Christianity. We will see that a secularized notion of Kant's image of Christ informed his account of autonomous reason. Autonomous reason, in turn, established the guidelines for rational action in Kant's enunciation of a non-contingent body politic. The politicization and concomitant secularization of the Christian plea for a transcendence of worldly interests points to the pseudotheology that manifests itself in Kant's prejudicial discourse about the Jews. In this pseudotheology Kant constructed the image of an immutable union between Jehovah and his people that informed German anti-Semitic discourse from Hegel via Feuerbach and Schopenhauer to Wagner. It is this pseudotheological discourse about the essence of Judaism that reappeared in pseudoscientific anti-Semitic fantasies at the end of the nineteenth century.
Kant's Refashioning of Metaphysics
In an idiosyncratic way, Kant and the German philosophers who followed him proceeded to define freedom in terms of liberation from one's inclination to depend on objects in the empirical world. Kant's distinctive transcendental revolution consisted of precisely establishing a radical divide between "the world of nature and the world of freedom." In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant laid the epistemological foundations for his moral and political philosophy. He did so as an apparently "empiricist" move. He debunked traditional metaphysics in that he called into question the certainty of any relation between a physical object and a metaphysical sign system that Western thought had so far attributed to it.
In this way, he criticized his philosophical predecessor Leibniz for "intellectualizing appearances" (Leibniz intellektuierte die Erscheinungen). To some extent, Kant's notion of appearances denoted mere physical objects as they appear to our sensibility. Although this term did not necessarily imply a value judgment, it nevertheless referred to the empirical world in terms of a purely bodily constitution that lacks any inherently spiritual or intrinsically intellectual referent.
Whereas metaphysics before Kant assumed an underlying meaning, that is to say, a "thing in itself " behind "the thing," the Critique of Pure Reason radically broke with such a correlation between the physical and the metaphysical. We could not know anything about either the supernatural or the natural. Therefore we had to cease asking questions as to the hidden signification of empirical objects. This seemed to indicate a philosophical affinity with materialism. However, the introduction of epistemological limits was concerned with the perception of a spiritual world. An empirical world only fulfills the function of the first step on the long road toward making human reason the heir of a metaphysical tradition, a tradition that had been debunked in its "old," that is, correlating constitution. We are unable to recognize "things" as they exist "in themselves." This does not, however, eventuate in materialism. Rather, "reason" (Verstand) is not limited by sensuousness but, on the contrary, limits the sensuous precisely by calling things in themselves noumena and not phenomena or appearances. Instead of pointing to the signification behind phenomena noumena goes under the name of "an unknown something" (eines unbekannten Etwas).
This limitation concerning the perceptibility of both mere things (appearances) and things in themselves (noumena) liberates human reason from a reliance on both the natural and the supernatural worlds. We will see in the course of this chapter how Kant, via his discussion of a Jewish way of life, exemplified what he meant by such dependence on the external world, namely, heteronomy. Here it is important to emphasize that he set radical limits on human epistemology so that it would not circumscribe the capacity of human knowledge. The human inability both to understand the meaning of the empirical world and to ascertain the existence of a supernatural one instead enthroned "reason itself " as "the source of natural laws" (der Verstand ist selbst der Quell der Gesetze der Natur).
Kant introduced a radical split between being (ontology) and meaning (morality) not because he wanted to shut the door on a moral order in its entirety. Rather, he set fundamental limits on human epistemology with a view to freeing human autonomy from a dependence either on the external natural world or on a thus far metaphysically assumed transcendent world that endowed the immanent world with meaning. Whereas traditional metaphysics mediated between immanence and transcendence so as to be able to assure a meaningful relation between humanity and its place in nature, Kant redefined the metaphysical in terms of human autonomy. Autonomous reason uses the contingent empirical world as the basic material by means of which it, in an a priori manner, constructs a new rational world that gradually progresses toward immanent perfection.
Thus, for Kant, "the whole of philosophical knowledge based on pure reason in systematic coordination . . . is called metaphysics" (die ganze . . . philosophische Erkenntnis aus reiner Vernunft im systematischen Zusammenhang . . . heisst Metaphysik). Therefore, Kant's epistemological critique set the stage for his metaphysical redefinition of the body and the body politic. Given that we do not know the possible meaning of bodily objects, it also could not be said with certainty that these contingent entities have any relation to a transcendent ground that would bestow on them some form of value. Our nonempirical, that is to say, rational, activity operates as the true and only source of moral validity.
The Politics of Metaphysics
In what way does this critique of metaphysics precondition Kant's exclusion of the Jews from his definition of an "ideal" body politic? The political dimensions of a Kantian epistemological revolution consisted in the demand for a social reconstruction of our sensuous inclinations--that is, of everything that pertains to our bodily constitution according to the moral law as laid down by autonomous reason. Mere reason (Verstand) synthesizes the variety of empirical objects by means of the imagination (Einbildungskraft).Pure reason (Vernunft) does its work along the lines of the metaphysical, as redefined by Kant. It overcomes any dependence on empirical objects, which are, apart from their mere material existence, nothing but products of representation.
As we shall see, the political dimension of Kant's metaphysics of autonomous reason has important implications for his fantasy about the Jews as the embodiment of heteronomy. Within the discursive enunciation of a body politic operating according to the rationale of Kantian metaphysics, the body constitutes an entity that has to fall under the control of autonomous reason. Kant defined the epistemological as well as the political aspect of "freedom" as the independence of reason from one's corporeal inclinations. Kant's revolutionary wager consisted in the claim that the autonomy of reason from the body may be practiced within the context of the modern state. It is within this political context that a secularized Christian paradigm determined his discourse concerning Jews and Judaism. As Dieter Henrich has pointed out, Kant defined rational practice as the transcendence of practical interests: "Only a practical reason which sufficed to determine the will to action for itself alone, and without regard to other, external, impulses, would be pure. It is Kant's thesis that such reason really exists. Kant set the Critique of Practical Reason the task of refuting those who think that our reason can be practical only if it is at the same time empirically conditioned." In this chapter I examine the pseudotheological paradigm behind this claim about practical reason's freedom from material interests. This paradigm comes clearly to the fore when Kant focuses his discussion on the Jews as a community. The mere body was incapable of participating in a body politic whose idealist stake resided in the overcoming of corporeal conditions. Crucially, it is this divide between the body (nature) and the body politic (freedom) that has political implications. To this extent, nature can only be overcome by an identification of bare life with politics. What describes the workings of this idealist body politic is that it subjects a totality of bodies within a specific group to its symbolic order. The rules of this order are valid but not meaningful. Instead, they are significant only insofar as they are able to utterly change the very nature of the empirically constituted body. In this way, the laws of the body politic are "being in force without significance." Citing Gerschom Scholem on Kafka, Giorgio Agamben has pinpointed in Kant the theoretical foundations of this modern law whose significance paradoxically consists in being nonsignificant: "In Kant the pure form of law as 'being in force without significance' appears for the first time in modernity. What Kant calls 'the simple form of law' (die blosse Form des Gesetzes) in the Critique of Practical Reason is in fact a law reduced to the zero point of significance, which is, nevertheless, in force as such." The law of reason coincides with the reason of the law that is in force without significance. Kantian rationality, with its unbridgeable gulf between the realms of freedom and nature, sets out to demonstrate the worthlessness of bare life. Reason therefore dominates and overcomes nature by humiliating desires for objects in the external world. Kant's law of autonomy helped enact such a subjugation of the body to the forces of the body politic. The next section examines the secularized and politicized Christian paradigm behind Kant's account of freedom, reason, and the body politic.
Translating the "Otherworldly" into the "Worldly" Body Politic
Kant's peculiar attempt to make a scientific explanation of the world compatible with the overcoming of the worldly set the stage for much of the tension that is characteristic of nineteenth-century German thought. As Yirmiyahu Yovel has recently pointed out, "the German Aufklarung differed from the French Lumieres in that it did not oppose religious truth but tried to make it as rational as possible." In contrast to the French deists, who "attacked religion in the name of reason, German Enlightenment thinkers tended to reconcile reason with revelation, and did so mainly by having reason prove itself, on its own authority, the existence of God, free will, the immortality of the soul, and a moral order governing the world."
But how did Kant attempt to reconcile the essence of Christianity with the rational? In his notion of autonomy he tried to harmonize secular reason with one element of Christian doctrine that prescribes the Christ-like dying away from the worldly. Kant maintained that the modern state acts according to the rationale of ethical autonomy when it forbids its subjects to give in to their inclinations toward "worldly goods" if these inclinations interfere with the commandments of its legal system. How are we able to explain this fusion of ethics with the politics of modern nations? Here it is worthwhile recalling that Kant separated concepts from intuitions. This separation causes some contradictions in his transcendental account, for it begs questions such as the following: If we are free from empirical necessities as rational beings who by virtue of their conceptual way of thinking can order the chaos of experience and legislate it in an autonomous manner, why then do we still need to be governed by laws of civil society that regulate the way we act in the world as intuitive beings, that is, as human beings who may be swayed by desires aroused by our perception or intuition of the empirical world?
As a consequence of this tension between concept and intuition, Kant constructed two different social models. One represents heteronomy, or a form of social interaction that is the reverse of the transcendental and conceptual and is therefore inclined to the empirical and toward the positivity of religion. In this type of society, a direct, intuitive response to particular empirical objects and likewise an intuition of received divine commandments shape the mental outlook of the people concerned. Whether intuition relates to empirical objects or to the objects produced by a religious imagination, it leans mainly toward positivity with respect to that which is outwardly and heteronomously given. Kant's description of a Jewish way of life, as we will see, fulfilled a function in his philosophy that at first seems to be marginal but is in fact related to the paradox that arises from the apparent discrepancy between his moral and his political philosophies. Robert Pippin has drawn attention to this conflict by asking, "[W]hy doesn't Kant, as a moralist, worry only about the moral permissibility of the exercise of state power; why does he try to establish that entry into a Rechtstaat is obligatory?" We are free and can establish rules legislating the natural world in an autonomous manner. In order to do so, we have to subscribe to the rules of a civil society. Here we happily abrogate our right to intuitive happiness, as aimed at in a heteronomously legislated society. We willingly follow the restrictions imposed on our empirical and material desires by obeying a strict "Mine-and-Yours" ownership and property distinction. Thus, the autonomy of the individual paradoxically presupposes a political system that enforces the idea of holding objects "intelligibly" rather than being determined by their sensible condi-tions. This paradox becomes less contradictory if we take into account Kant's notion of freedom as liberation from reliance on empirical conditions. Indeed, the monetary and property laws of the early capitalist state helped enact Kant's understanding of autonomous rationality and did so in a way that combined the societal and the metaphysical. Thus the morality that informed the workings of post-Reformation nationhood prescribed, in Kant's view, a forgoing of "worldly" inclinations.
According to Kant, the body politic seems to reenact in a secular manner a somewhat Christian paradigm that proclaims salvation with a view to the renunciation of material interests. As early as the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant defined ethics as being "completely purged of anything empirical." He attributed unquestionable authority to laws and insisted that these must not be "reasoned against" (zu vernunfteln) precisely because they had no relation to the empirical and therefore contingent, to the bodily and therefore imperfect. Rather, they had an a priori foundation in the autonomy of pure reason: "[A] law, if it is to be valid as morality, i.e., as grounds for compulsion, must command absolute necessity; . . . the grounds of compulsion must not be sought in the nature of humanity, or in the conditions of the world in which it is placed, but in an a priori manner in terms of pure reason." How does compulsion avoid a contradictory tension with freedom? If the force of the state proscribes a dispassionate relation to the material world, then it does not contradict but instead enacts Kant's definition of both freedom and autonomous reason.
It is against this background of a fusion of politics, ethics, and a secularized understanding of post-Reformation Christianity that in his famous Response to the Question: What Is Enlightenment? Kant demanded of his "enlightened" readers: "[R]eason as much as you want and about whatever subject matter you choose, but obey!" In an important essay, Michel Foucault examined what the German word rasonieren means in the context of Kant's critical philosophy. It does not refer to the specific use of reason in relation to specific objects in the external world. Instead, it denotes the workings of autonomy: "Humanity will reach maturity when it is no longer required to obey, but when men are told: 'Obey, and you will be able to reason as much as you like.' We must note that the German word used here is rasonieren; this word, which is also used in the Critiques, does not refer to just any use of reason, but to a use of reason in which reason has no other object but itself: rasonieren is to reason for reasoning's sake." This absence of an object describes the autonomy of reason. Political struggles are mainly concerned with the distribution of wealth, comprising an assembly of material objects. Kantian reason, however, proved its autonomy by being indifferent toward the external world. This indifference conditions the obedience to the commandments issued by political rulers. In this way, the word rasonieren differs from what Kant meant when he used the expression "to reason against" (vernunfteln).
Excerpted from German Idealism and the Jew: the Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses by Michael Mack Copyright © 2003 by Michael Mack. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Michael Mack is a Minerva Amos de Shalit fellow at the Franz Rosenzweig Research Center for German Jewish Literature and Cultural History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Anthropology as Memory: Elias Canetti's and Franz Baermann Steiner's Responses to the Shoah.
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