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Spinoza's Modernity

Mendelssohn, Lessing, and Heine

Willi Goetschel

Publication Year: 2004

Spinoza’s Modernity is a major, original work of intellectual history that reassesses the philosophical project of Baruch Spinoza, uncovers his influence on later thinkers, and demonstrates how that crucial influence on Moses Mendelssohn, G. E. Lessing, and Heinrich Heine shaped the development of modern critical thought. Excommunicated by his Jewish community, Spinoza was a controversial figure in his lifetime and for centuries afterward. Willi Goetschel shows how Spinoza’s philosophy was a direct challenge to the theological and metaphysical assumptions of modern European thought. He locates the driving force of this challenge in Spinoza’s Jewishness, which is deeply inscribed in his philosophy and defines the radical nature of his modernity.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This book has been part of a long journey. Hermann Levin Goldschmidt was the first to introduce me to Spinoza and the universe of his philosophy, to Jewish thought and the profoundly critical importance Spinoza represents for modernity. His work, thought, and friendship taught me to revisit intellectual history in my own critical terms. Without...


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: The Scandal of Spinoza’s Jewishness

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pp. 3-20

...story of the Enlightenment and yields new insights about the critical impulse that shaped early conceptions of modernity. Although the innovative spirit of pioneers of modernity such as Mendelssohn, Lessing, and Heine has been largely downplayed if not ignored, reading these writers through Spinoza recovers a trajectory whose significance has been marginalized...

Part 1 Spinoza’s Modernity

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CHAPTER 1 The New Metaphysical Framework of Ontology

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pp. 23-32

...modern European thought. The author of a work notable for the stone-hewn objectivity of its geometrical design has, over the course of the centuries, become the single most attacked, vilified, and, at the same time, the most saintly, even at times deified, figure inspiring strands of the Enlightenment as well as of romanticism and idealism. It is no...

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CHAPTER 2 Understanding Understanding: Spinoza’s Epistemology

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pp. 33-44

...epistemological theory in his treatise On the Improvement of the Understanding (Tractatus de intellectus emendatione et de via qua in veram rerum cognitionem dirigitur), Johannes Vermeer, his peer in age, painted The Art of Painting or Artist’s Studio (1665/66).1 Staging the paradoxical situation of representing the act of self-reflection, Vermeer paints himself...

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CHAPTER 3 A Psychodynamic Theory of Affects

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pp. 45-52

...parts of his philosophy. It prefigures in a crucial way what Freud called the drama of the narcissist blow meted out to the ego.1 Although the theory of affects presents a radical and consistent attack against conventional conceptions of self, mind, body, and soul, it seems that this challenge has gone largely unnoticed in the historiography of philosophy2...

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CHAPTER 4 Spinoza’s Theory of Religion, Hermeneutic, and Tradition

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pp. 53-65

...detach the political sphere from theology—a project both Machiavelli and Hobbes had already pioneered—but also to formulate a hermeneutic theory legitimating the separation of what he argues represent two intrinsically different spheres.1 The Theological-Political Treatise’s central concern, the claim for “libertas philosophandi,” requires a principal...

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CHAPTER 5 A Noncontractual Theory of the Political Order

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pp. 66-81

...most clearly in the way he theorizes power, state, and government. But Spinoza does not actually mount a frontal attack on traditional forms of political legitimation. Rather, his analysis of political institutions proposes a different approach to theorizing the concept of power itself. His choice of the term imperium for the state—in contrast to res publica, his...

Part 2 Spinoza through Mendelssohn

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CHAPTER 6 From the Margins of Philosophy: Mendelssohn’s Aesthetic Theory of Mixed Sentiments

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pp. 85-99

...paradox that imposes itself in the way his work is discussed. Whereas for the eighteenth century the preeminence of his pivotal role for the foundation of modern German literature and philosophy remained undisputed and required no special explanation, it is, ironically, the seamless absorption of Mendelssohn’s contribution to a new conception of...

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CHAPTER 7 The Exchange on Tragedy

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pp. 100-118

...by himself, Mendelssohn, and Lessing in epistolary form, Mendelssohn carries his theory of the affects to a new level. While the three friends agree that Mitleid (pity, compassion, but also sympathy) represents one of the central affects that tragedy is supposed to activate, Mendelssohn insists that Mitleid is not the only affect to play a role in tragedy.1...

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CHAPTER 8 Staking Out Grounds for Public Reason:

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pp. 119-132

...Mendelssohn’s fame was established throughout Europe.1 Inspired by Plato’s Phaedo, Mendelssohn’s dialogues on the immortality of the soul present a powerful plea for the recognition of human individuality as grounded in every person’s inalienable right to particularity. Celebrated for its clarity and stylistic elegance, Phädon addresses through the figure...

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CHAPTER 9 Framing Political Rights: Mendelssohn’s Preface to Ben Israel’s Vindication of the Jews

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pp. 133-146

...emancipation, the arguments Mendelssohn developed in response to his study of Bonnet come to fruition. Repeatedly asked to either “explain himself,” as Lavater had demanded, or to intervene on behalf of Jewish communities facing the threat of expulsion from one or another German state, Mendelssohn increasingly realized that political interventions would not...

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CHAPTER 10 An Alternative Universalism:Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism

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pp. 147-169

...Manasseh Ben Israel’sVindication of the Jews, an anonymous pamphlet Das Forschen nach Licht und Recht in einem Schreiben an Herrn Moses Mendelssohn auf Veranlassung seiner merkwürdigen Vorrede zu Manasseh Ben Israel (The searching for light and right in a letter to Mr. Moses Mendelssohn occasioned by his remarkable preface to Manasseh Ben Israel) appeared.1 Penned as an open...

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CHAPTER 11 Rescuing Lessing: Mendelssohn’s Morgenstunden

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pp. 170-180

...Dasein Gottes initiates the Wnal stage of Mendelssohn’s Spinoza reception and, along with Jacobi’s writings, the onset of the pantheism dispute (or Spinoza dispute). Prior to launching the publication of his conversations with Lessing, Jacobi had, through their common friend Elise Reimarus, investigated whether Mendelssohn knew about Lessing’s inclination...

Part 3 Spinoza through Lessing

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CHAPTER 12 Lessing’s Spinozist Exercises

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pp. 183-195

...Spinozism, Jacobi initiated what was to become the most controversial debate in eighteenth-century German culture. The publication of Jacobi’s conversations with Lessing marks a decisive demarcation line that separates the Enlightenment from the new movements, both Sturm und Drang and the emerging German idealism. The disclosure—if it was one—that...

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CHAPTER 13 Toward a New Concept of Truth

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pp. 196-206

...Lessing’s reception of Spinoza. On the one hand, its innovative ontological framework draws the attention of Mendelssohn and Lessing; on the other hand, its theory of the affects, along with Mendelssohn’s version of it, comes to play a crucial role in the redefinition of the stage and of dramatic theory. Spinoza’s other key work, the Theological-Political..

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CHAPTER 14 The Secret of the Public: The Dialogues on Freemasonry, Ernst and Falk

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pp. 207-218

...and poet, Lessing displays an intimate grasp of the way publicity works. The consideration of its constitutive role for the functioning of civil society and the development of the individual presents a recurrent theme in Lessing and informs his style. But it is in Ernst and Falk, his Dialogues for Freemasons, that he addresses the problem of the public and publicity...

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CHAPTER 15 Theorizing the Enlightenment: Spinoza in The Education of Mankind

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pp. 219-229

...unnamed,” Lessing develops his own views with regard to religion, revelation, history, and individualization. Having formulated them as a critical response to the ideas put forward in the fragments, Lessing starts out publishing the first fifty-three paragraphs of The Education of Mankind in 1777 as an anonymous text he inserts in his “Objections by the Editor...

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CHAPTER 16 Negotiating Truth: On Nathan’s Business

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pp. 230-250

...to brand the play as extraordinary, exceptional, extreme, and unique. Yet such a reception has led to the appraisal of the drama as the product of an anemic humanism, curiously removed from the historical conflicts of the time. To detach and isolate Lessing’s last great production and analyze it separately, as is often done, would be tantamount to heaving...

Part 4 Spinoza’s New Place

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CHAPTER 17 Heine’s Dis/Enchantment of Hegel’s History of Philosophy

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pp. 253-265

...Heine’s outspoken advocacy on behalf of his Unglaubensgenosse (fellow nonbeliever) has gone virtually unnoticed except for his Jewish readers from Moses Hess to Sigmund Freud.1 This is mostly due to readings that have been oblivious to the philosophical sophistication of a writer whose artful staging of his narrative as chance and free association has...

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CHAPTER 18 Tradition as Innovation in Heine's "Jehuda Ben Halevy": Counterhistory in a Spinozist Key

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pp. 266-276

...provide the Jewish answer to the challenge of modernity, Heine instead plays out the charged tension of the nineteenth-century cultural contradictions that helped shape the dialectics of the German Jewish experience. He responds to this challenge with a keen critical awareness of the need to rethink tradition in a new way that captures the double aspect of cultural...


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pp. 279-324


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pp. 325-344


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pp. 345-351

E-ISBN-13: 9780299190835
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299190842

Publication Year: 2004