|Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi|
Jacobi initiated his attack by pointing out that the Enlightenment icon Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was a Spinozist (follower of Spinoza)—which in that period meant a pantheist or an atheist. Jacobi made Moses Mendelssohn, who was a friend of Lessing, a special target of his attack—he alleged that Mendelssohn had misunderstood the nature of his friend’s worldview. Mendelssohn tried to argue that Lessing’s Spinozism was not against the Enlightenment ideals. But Jacobi was not satisfied with Mendelssohn’s answer and the argument between them escalated. The other leading thinkers of the day, including Immanuel Kant, got involved as the status of the role of reason in the Enlightenment was at stake.
Mendelssohn died on January 4, 1786, while the dispute between him and Jacobi was at its peak. Jacobi was blamed for Mendelssohn’s death by some scholars of that period. That is not true; but Jacobi can be held accountable for the demise of Mendelssohn’s Enlightenment philosophy.
Frederick C. Beiser, in his 1987 book The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte, offers an account of the Pantheist controversy in Chapter 2, “Jacobi and the Pantheism Controversy.” Beiser points out that Jacobi used Lessing (an important symbolic figure) to formulate his criticism of Moses Mendelssohn’s standpoint on the Enlightenment. He rightly saw Mendelssohn as the leader of the pro-Enlightenment scholars in Berlin who wanted to remain loyal to both, reason and faith in God. They preached the ideal of radical criticism and free inquiry, but they abandoned their own ideals if these ideals seemed to lead to unorthodox or irreligious consequences.
Here’s an excerpt in which Beiser is explaining the philosophical significance of the Pantheist controversy:
But can philosophy serve two masters? Reason and the public? Can it be both critical and practical, both rational and responsible, both honest and useful? What, indeed, is the purpose of philosophy? Truth or the general happiness? Inquiry for its own sake or the enlightenment of the public? That was Jacobi's question, just as it was Plato's in the Apology. And, like Socrates, Jacobi was convinced that this question contained all the material for a tragic conflict. Philosophy, in his view, was intrinsically irresponsible, the pastime for a public nuisance like a Socrates or a Hamann. It is an illusion to think that philosophy supports morality, religion, and the state. Rather, it does the very opposite: it undermines them. If we pursue free inquiry to its limits without imposing any guidelines, then we end up, of necessity, in skepticism. But skepticism erodes the very foundation of morality, religion, and the state. It presents us with a dreadful specter: atheism, fatalism, anarchism.
Thus, as Jacobi saw it, the Berliners were caught in a dilemma. If they remained true to their ideals of free inquiry and criticism, they would have to abandon their program of Aufklärung but if they stuck to their program of Aufklärung, they would have to limit free inquiry and criticism. Philosophy could not serve both truth and the public. It was the tragedy of Socrates that he had tried to make it do both. The Berliners were going to have to learn his lesson all over again, Jacobi felt, and he was preparing for them the eighteenth-century equivalent of hemlock: namely, the bitter pill of Lessing's Spinozism.
Lessing became a deeply symbolic figure for Jacobi because he represented the very antithesis of the Berliner Geist. Jacobi considered Lessing the only courageous and honest thinker of the Aufklärung. He alone had the courage to pursue inquiry for its own sake, despite the consequences; and he alone had the honesty to take criticism to its tragic conclusion without moral or religious scruples. Contrary to popular opinion, it was Lessing, and not Mendelssohn, who was the true Socrates of his time.Jacobi saw in the Enlightenment the danger of dogmatic adherence to reason, and he offered the Enlightenment scholars a difficult choice—either they could follow reason and become atheists or they could retain their faith in God and tradition. But the Enlightenment scholars saw in him the danger of romanticism and idealism. Jacobi uses the term “nihilism” to describe the thinking of the Enlightenment scholars. He is responsible for bringing “nihilism” to general use.
On Jacobi’s use of the term “nihilism,” Beiser has this to say:
Jacobi has a striking word to designate the skeptical consequences of all philosophical investigation: 'nihilism' (Nihilismus). He is indeed responsible for bringing this word into general use in modern philosophy. What is indeed remarkable about Jacobi's use of this term, which has all the weight of precedence in its favor, is that it makes nihilism into the fundamental problem of all philosophy. If 'nihilism' is an appropriate word to denote the skeptical consequences of all philosophical inquiry, and if philosophy is trying to stave off the consequences of skepticism, then philosophy is indeed a desperate struggle against nihilism. If the philosopher cannot escape skepticism, then, by Jacobi's criterion, he ipso facto cannot avoid nihilism. Hence nihilism is Jacobi's final indictment and chief criticism of all philosophy.It is also noteworthy that while arguing in favor of faith, Jacobi frequently appeals to the philosophy of David Hume. He admits that he owes a great philosophical debt to Hume.