In order to understand the problems of our world, the world of the present, I really like to put them in terms of the problems of the past. People will tell you a certain fairy tell, and I it’s paramount you not be taken in by it like so many have, and that is the fairy tale of “progress”, the world of yesterday is not as different from the world of today, or even tomorrow, morally and intellectually speaking that is, and seeing the issues afflicting us from a distance within history, in a time and place alien to us, allows us to be objective about them in a way that we’re not able to be today.
The two elder statesmen of contemporary German letters in 1760s and 70s were two guys called Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who I imagine most of you have never so much as even heard of before right now, and though they may sound much too obscure to be of any real significance, I promise you that’s not the case.
Now what happened was this, shortly before Lessing died in 1781 he was visited by someone named Friedrich Jacobi, and during their conversation Lessing said something that was very controversial to Jacobi, that he, Lessing, was a Spinozist. This may not sound very significant to you, but to Jacobi it was Earth shattering.
Do you remember how I said that in a lot of ways the past isn’t much different than the present? Well this is one of those ways, the 18th century had its own version of political correctness, and it was just as insidious as our own. Fichte was dismissed from the University of Jena for being perceived as a Spinozist. It sounds ridiculous to us, but the same type of thing is everywhere today, and many people accept it, or have learned to justify it to themselves so as to somehow make it different or more acceptable than it was in the 18th century. We’ve “progressed” you see away from that politically repressive time, we’re better, we have more freedom, more social equality, we’re nothing like they were, right? In truth of point, wrong, very wrong.
Spinoza was seen as an atheist, regardless of whether or not he was one, that’s how he was understood. Of the four major “traditions” of Enlightenment thought, Spinoza is the founder of what’s usually called the “Radical Enlightenment”, and what you have to remember is that just like today, different interests were all vying with one another for control of the world, and some were too powerful to avoid compromising with when it came to certain things. The Enlightenment made some people uneasy, some of what was being said had to be rendered taboo, or be excluded from the public discussion, a version of The Enlightenment had to be created that made concessions to established religious and political authority. Spinoza represented everything that had to dissociated from the mainstream Enlightenment if it was to achieve anything, but the intellectuals were all still reading him in private whatever it was the company line may have been.
The Prussian Enlightenment, Die Aufklärung, of which Mendelssohn and Lessing were both chief members, had an enemy in the figure of Georg Hamann, and Hamann is the founder of what is commonly called the “counter”-Enlightenment in Germany, which leading up to the Pantheism Controversy, managed to attract the support of many prominent intellectual rising-stars, like Lavater, Herder, Goethe, and most importantly in this case, Jacobi.
The word “Nihilism” comes from Jacobi, and it’s a word that he used during the Pantheism Controversy to talk about what he saw as the fundamental problem of The Enlightenment, that is, that Rationalistic Metaphysics was fundamentally atheistic, solphistic, and nihilistic.
Metaphysics in those days had the same kind of general reputation as “The Social Sciences” do today, there were adherents who resolutely held in their hearts that it was truly, mathematically certain science, while many others could not help but doubt that was actually as true as they were being told, due to the lack of results, the failure of Metaphysics to do the things it existed to do, namely, to gain positive knowledge of God, Immortality, and the Soul using dialectic logic to “prove”, with absolute scientific, mathematical certainty, the conclusions that it drew about the universe. The problem however was that, with only a little ingenuity on your side, no matter how good a metaphysical proof happened to be, you could always create an equally valid one reaching exactly the opposite conclusion, and because of this there was wide-spread skepticism about the “status” of Metaphysics.
Just like the social sciences today, Metaphysics partnered with the institutions of political, religious, and intellectual authority. It was used in some places, like in the Aufklärung, to legitimize the Prussian state, and the authorized, “official” Protestant Church it controlled.
If you criticize Leftism, a Leftist will appear to tell you all about his “brand” of Leftism, why it’s the right one, the true one, why it’s superior to that one, and why everything you just criticized isn’t actually Leftism at all. Rationalism, and The Enlightenment were just the same way, and Jacobi’s argument was essentially that, Rationalism inevitably lead to nihilism and atheism, like how you might say that Communism inevitably leads to Stalinistic horror, to pretend otherwise is to be dishonest about what your beliefs really are. If you took the fundamental axioms of The Enlightenment and followed them all the way down, all the way to the point they naturally concluded at, you could never avoid atheism, ie Spinozism.
Do you see where this is all headed? Lessing proved that he was right, Spinozism was “true” Rationalistic Metaphysics, no matter how you sliced it, no matter how hard you tried to make a Metaphysics that was different, your little kernel of thought would grow into a nihilistic tree, that’s all there was too it. When the most visible and respected proponent of The Enlightenment in Germany admitted that he was a Spinozist, he was admitting Spinozism was where a belief in The Enlightenment would always take you.
When Lessing died, Jacobi contacted Mendelssohn, revealed Lessing’s confession, and threatened to publish their conversation. This sparked a publishing war between the two culminating in Mendelssohn’s death on January 4th, 1786. The legend goes that Mendelssohn worked feverishly on his full scale defence of Lessing’s character for weeks, neglecting his health in the process. Supposedly when he then finally left his house to deliver the manuscript he caught pneumonia and died a few days shortly thereafter, and this is what really kicked things into overdrive.
Though “The Critique of Pure Reason” was published in 1781, it remained very obscure and generally in the background of the Pantheism Controversy, the “Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics”, Kant’s own explanation of what his philosophy was about, came out in 1783 and didn’t really do much rectify the public’s disinterest. It was a work called “Briefe über die Kantische Philosophie”, “Letters on the Kantian Philosophy”, by Karl Reinhold, which began appearing in a major periodical of the day, “The German Mercury” in 1786 in the wake of Mendelssohn’s death that finally managed to popularize Kantianism as the solution to the festering problems of Rationalistic Metaphysics.