What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions

What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions

by James Schmidt

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This collection contains the first English translations of a group of important eighteenth-century German essays that address the question, "What is Enlightenment?" The book also includes newly translated and newly written interpretive essays by leading historians and philosophers, which examine the origins of eighteenth-century debate on Enlightenment and explore its


This collection contains the first English translations of a group of important eighteenth-century German essays that address the question, "What is Enlightenment?" The book also includes newly translated and newly written interpretive essays by leading historians and philosophers, which examine the origins of eighteenth-century debate on Enlightenment and explore its significance for the present.

In recent years, critics from across the political and philosophical spectrum have condemned the Enlightenment for its complicity with any number of present-day social and cultural maladies. It has rarely been noticed, however, that at the end of the Enlightenment, German thinkers had already begun a scrutiny of their age so wide-ranging that there are few subsequent criticisms that had not been considered by the close of the eighteenth century. Among the concerns these essays address are the importance of freedom of expression, the relationship between faith and reason, and the responsibility of the Enlightenment for revolutions.

Included are translations of works by such well-known figures as Immanuel Kant, Moses Mendelssohn, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Johann Georg Hamann, as well as essays by thinkers whose work is virtually unknown to American readers. These eighteenth-century texts are set against interpretive essays by such major twentieth-century figures as Max Horkheimer, Jürgen Habermas, and Michel Foucault.

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University of California Press
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Philosophical Traditions , #7
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What Is Enlightenment?

Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions

By James Schmidt


Copyright © 1996 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91689-0


The Question and Some Answers

What Is to Be Done Toward the Enlightenment of the Citizenry?

J. K. W. Möhsen

Translated by James Schmidt

Johann Karl Wilhelm Möhsen (1722–1795) was one of the most esteemed physicians of his day. Born in Berlin, he studied at Halle and Jena, returned to Berlin in 1742, and in 1778 became the personal physician of Frederick the Great. He cultivated an interest in the history of science and was a member of a number of learned societies, including the Berlin Wednesday Society, a secret society of Friends of Enlightenment that played a major role in the discussion of the question "What is enlightenment?" In the lecture translated here, Möhsen posed a series of questions about the nature of enlightenment that sparked intense debates within the Wednesday Society.

Our intent is to enlighten ourselves and our fellow citizens. The enlightenment of as great a city as Berlin has it difficulties, but once they have been overcome, light will spread not only into the provinces, but throughout the entire land, and how fortunate would we not be if only a few sparks, fanned here, came in time to spread a light over all of Germany, our common fatherland.

In order to achieve our goal, let it be proposed

1. that it be determined precisely: What is enlightenment?

2. that we determine the deficiencies and infirmities in the direction of the understanding, in the manner of thinking, in the prejudices and in the ethics of our nation—or at least of our immediate public—and that we investigate how they have been promoted thus far.

3. that we first attack and root out those prejudices and errors that are the most pernicious, and that we nurture and propagate those truths whose general recognition is most necessary.

It also would be worth investigating,

4. why the enlightenment of our public has as yet not advanced very far, notwithstanding that for more than forty years the freedom to think, to speak, and also to publish would seem to have ruled here more than in other lands, and that the education of our youth has also gradually improved.

It is known that our great monarch has recently taken pains, in his essay on German literature, to point out the deficiencies for which it can be reproached, the reasons for these deficiencies, and the means by which it may be improved. He has, on occasion, blamed the lack of enlightenment on defective instruction in schools and universities, on which a great deal has already been written.

Since, however, he accuses our language of imperfection in expressing intelligibly the most accurate, vigorous, and brilliant ideas, then perhaps it should also be an object of our efforts,

5. to see to the improvement of our language, and to investigate how far these reproaches are deserved.

It is indeed not to be denied that our monarch has taken the enlightenment of the nation more to heart than the enlightenment of German literature. It appears, however, that at present he still has great reservations about this step.

Before the essay on German literature was published, the Academy had posed the Prize Question for 1778: "Is it useful for the common mass of mankind to be deceived, either by being misled into new errors or by being maintained in accustomed errors?" One sees from the distribution of the prize—which was divided, with half awarded to the affirmative prize essay and the other half to the negative essay—that the enlightened Royal Academy chose this expedient in order not to give offense with a definitive judgment. In the 1780 royal essay [De la littérature allemande], which appeared shortly after the Academy's question, one notes that the monarch—in spite of the fact that he prescribes the style and order of argument to all the faculties and sciences, and in spite of the fact that it could not have been entirely unknown to him that the learned clergy, through their sermons to their congregations and through their influence on the minds of men, could enlighten many more hundreds of people in a shorter time and uproot many more errors than all the treatises—passed over such matters entirely and excused himself by saying that he "would observe a respectful silence with regard to theology, since one says that it should be a holy science, into whose sacred realm the laity may not venture."

From this arises the proposal:

6. whether or not a closer investigation of the two opposing prize essays, and those which received honorable mention, might be arranged, in order to contrast the arguments for both sides and to consider if our efforts are useful or harmful, not only for the public, but also for the state and the government.

We can surely decide the last proposal according to our own insights, since we fulfill the duties of well-intentioned patriots under the seal of secrecy, our preeminent commandment. We have no Augustus as protector and no Maecenas and maecenatism among us, whom we might fear to offend with our remarks, we do not await the rewards of a house of Este, or Medici, of Francis I and Louis XIV, whom the monarch mentions, nor can our judgment be led by a thirst for honor or praise, for we remain anonymous, and our preeminent and sole reward is the inner conviction, to promote, as well as we can and without any further intention, the best for our fellow citizens and for posterity.

On the Question: What Is Enlightenment?

Moses Mendelssohn

Translated by James Schmidt

Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) was one of the most important figures in the Berlin Enlightenment. Born in 1729 in the Dessau ghetto, he came to Berlin in 1743, embarked on a study of the works of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian Wolff, published a number of highly regarded works, entered into a lifelong friendship with Lessing, and—at the end of his life—was Jacobi's antagonist in the "Pantheism Controversy."

The essay translated here had its origins in a lecture delivered before the Wednesday Society on 16 May 1784 near the end of the series of discussions sparked by Möhsen's lecture of the previous December. It was the only one of the contributions to the debate to be published in the Berlinische Monatsschrift and may be regarded as an attempt to summarize the main concerns that arose in the course of those discussions.

The words enlightenment, culture, and education are newcomers to our language. They currently belong only to literary discourse. The masses scarcely understand them. Does this prove that these things are also new to us? I believe not. One says of a certain people that they have no specific word for "virtue," or none for "superstition," and yet one may justly attribute a not insignificant measure of both to them.

Linguistic usage, which seems to want to create a distinction between these synonymous words, still has not had the time to establish their boundaries. Education, culture, and enlightenment are modifications of social life, the effects of the industry and efforts of men to better their social conditions.

The more the social conditions of a people are brought, through art and industry, into harmony with the destiny of man,2 the more education this people has.

Education is composed of culture and enlightenment. Culture appears to be more oriented toward practical matters: (objectively) toward goodness, refinement, and beauty in the arts and social mores; (subjectively) toward facility, diligence, and dexterity in the arts and inclinations, dispositions, and habits in social mores. The more these correspond in a people with the destiny of man, the more culture will be attributed to them, just as a piece of land is said to be more cultured and cultivated, the more it is brought, through the industry of men, to the state where it produces things that are useful to men. Enlightenment, in contrast, seems to be more related to theoretical matters: to (objective) rational knowledge and to (subjective) facility in rational reflection about matters of human life, according to their importance and influence on the destiny of man.

I posit, at all times, the destiny of man as the measure and goal of all our striving and efforts, as a point on which we must set our eyes, if we do not wish to lose our way.

A language attains enlightenment through the sciences and attains culture through social intercourse, poetry, and eloquence. Through the former it becomes better suited for theoretical usages, through the latter for practical usages. Both together make it an educated language.

Superficial culture is called "polish" [Politur]. Hail the nation, whose "polish" is the consequence of culture and enlightenment, whose external splendor and elegance have a foundation of internal, genuine truth!

Enlightenment is related to culture as theory to practice, as knowledge to ethics, as criticism to virtuosity. Regarded (objectively) in and for themselves, they stand in the closest connection, although subjectively they very often are separated.

One can say: Nürnbergers have more culture, Berliners more enlightenment; the French more culture, the English more enlightenment; the Chinese much culture and little enlightenment. The Greeks had both culture and enlightenment. They were an educated nation, just as their language is an educated language. Overall, the language of a people is the best indicator of its education, of culture as well as of enlightenment, in both breadth and intensity.

Further, the destiny of man can be divided into (1) the destiny of man as man and (2) the destiny of man as citizen.

With regard to culture these two coincide; for all practical perfection has value only in relation to social life and so must correspond only to the destiny of man as a member of society. Man as man needs no culture: but he needs enlightenment.

Status and vocation in civil life determine each member's duties and rights, and accordingly require different abilities and skills, different inclinations, dispositions, social mores and customs, a different culture and polish. The more these correspond, throughout all the estates, with their vocations—that is, with their respective destinies as members of society—the more culture the nation possesses.

Each individual also requires, according to his status and vocation, different theoretical insights and different skills to attain them—a different degree of enlightenment. The enlightenment that is concerned with man as man is universal, without distinction of status; the enlightenment of man as citizen changes according to status and vocation. The destiny of man remains as always the measure and goal of these efforts.

Accordingly, the enlightenment of a nation is proportional to (1) the amount of knowledge, (2) its importance—that is, its relation to the destiny (a) of man and (b) of the citizen, (3) its dissemination through all estates, (4) its accord with their vocations. Thus the degree of a people's enlightenment is determined according to an at least fourfold relationship, whose members are in part once again composed out of simpler relations of members.

The enlightenment of man can come into conflict with the enlightenment of the citizen. Certain truths that are useful to men, as men, can at times be harmful to them as citizens. The following needs to be considered here. The collision can arise between the (1) essential or (2) accidental destinies of man and the (3) essential or (4) accidental destinies of citizens.

In the absence of the essential destiny of man, man sinks to the level of the beast; without the unessential destiny he is no longer good and splendid as a creature. In the absence of the essential destiny of man as citizen, the constitution of the state ceases to exist; without the unessential destiny it no longer remains the same in some ancillary relationships.

Unfortunate is the state that must confess that for it the essential destiny of man is not in harmony with the essential destiny of its citizens, in which the enlightenment that is indispensable to man cannot be disseminated through all the estates of the realm without risking the destruction of the constitution. Here philosophy lays its hand on its mouth! Here necessity may prescribe laws, or rather forge the fetters, that are applied to mankind, to force them down, and hold them under the yoke!

However, if the unessential destiny of man comes into conflict with the essential or unessential destiny of the citizen, rules must be established according to which exceptions are made and cases of collisions decided.

If the essential destiny of man has unfortunately been brought into conflict with his unessential destiny, if certain useful and—for mankind—adorning truths may not be disseminated without destroying prevailing religious and moral tenets, the virtue-loving bearer of enlightenment will proceed with prudence and discretion and endure prejudice rather than drive away the truth that is so closely intertwined with it. Of course, this maxim has become the bulwark of hypocrisy, and we have it to thank for so many centuries of barbarism and superstition. Whenever one has desired to apprehend the crime, it sought refuge in the sanctuary. Nevertheless, the friend of mankind must defer to these considerations, even in the most enlightened times. It is difficult, but not impossible, to find the boundary that separates use from misuse.

The more noble a thing is in its perfection, says a Hebrew writer, the more ghastly it is in its decay. A rotted piece of wood is not as ugly as a decayed flower; and this is not as disgusting as a decomposed animal; and this, again, is not as gruesome as man in his decay. So it is also with culture and enlightenment. The more noble in their bloom, the more hideous in their decay and destruction.

The misuse of enlightenment weakens the moral sentiment and leads to hard- heartedness, egoism, irreligion, and anarchy. Misuse of culture produces luxury, hypocrisy, weakness, superstition, and slavery.


Excerpted from What Is Enlightenment? by James Schmidt. Copyright © 1996 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

James Schmidt is Chair of the Department of Political Science at Boston University. He is author of Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Between Phenomenology and Structuralism (1985).

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