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Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 40, Number 3, July 2002
pp. 405-406 | 10.1353/hph.2002.0060

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.3 (2002) 405-406

Book Review

Rival Enlightenments:
Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany

Ian Hunter. Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xix + 398. Cloth, $69.95.

Mendelssohn once referred to Kant, supposedly with affection, as "the all-destroyer" (der Alles Zermalmende) (L. W. Beck, Early German Philosophy [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969], 393). Hunter's erudite book takes a similar, albeit colder view of Kant's impact on the history of moral and political thought. Kant and Kantians, he holds, not only distort that account by advancing themselves as the "critical" solution to its dialectical inadequacies, including rationalism and empiricism, intellectualism and voluntarism; but by thus absorbing all rivals, they also constrict the options for social praxis, even today.

Hunter seeks to expand these possibilities through an ambitious program of interpretive non-cooperation and historical recovery. Specifically, he casts Kant not as neutral reconciler but, through Leibniz and Wolff, as inheritor of a formally theological, Platonizing metaphysics explicitly opposed to the secular, juristic civil philosophy of Pufendorf and Thomasius. The latter, in turn, are rescued from their perceived historical irrelevance as (ironically) neo-Aristotelians or proto-Kantians, and presented as self-conscious proponents of a rival, secular philosophical ethos also seeking instantiation through early-modern governing and socializing institutions.

Hunter adds an interesting twist by employing Pierre Hadot's conception of rival philosophies as alternate "spiritual exercises," "ascesis," or "paideia" (21-3). As such, the metaphysical and civil philosophies clashed not only or mainly as theories, but as concrete performatives or "deportments" (28) engaged in self-formation and social construction. The former emphasized continuity between the religious and civil spheres, stressing the qualifying role of pure intellectual insight; the latter sought instead to detranscendentalize philosophy and desacralize politics. It is this ascetic function especially that remained constant when the overt theological substance of school metaphysics was transmuted into Kant's quasi-religious moral transcendentalism.

The magnitude and, frankly, audacity of Hunter's enterprise expectably impose enormous scholarly demands, both in terms of historical coverage, textual familiarity, and philosophical sophistication. The book does not disappoint here, and it is rare to find someone so well versed in both primary and secondary literatures, the latter particularly in German. Also, Hunter challenges many well-known interpretations of the period and its main figures, including those of Schneewind, Tuck, Schmidt-Biggemann, Dreitzel, Riley, Denzer, Schneiders, Beck, Allison, and Kersting. Indeed, by offering readers such a comprehensive alternative, so well documented and tightly argued, the book facilitates a distinctive transformation or ascesis of its own. Though it will surely evoke much debate, it complicates immensely any return to interpretation as usual.

Beside its perceptive discussions of post-Reformation Protestant scholasticism, the jurisprudential social transformation underlying so-called modern (anti-scholastic) natural law, and the conflicting goals and strategies of civil (Pufendorf, Thomasius) and metaphysical (Leibniz, Wolff, Kant) philosophers, the book yields insight into various particular topics and problems. These include the difficult Leibniz-Pufendorf relationship and Barbeyrac's unsuccessful effort to mediate it; the continuity and general consistency of Thomasius's outlook (even during the supposed spiritual crisis of 1693); the clash of Wolffians, Thomasians, and Pietists at Halle; as well as Wolff's expulsion from and triumphant return to Prussia. Moreover, Hunter provides a fascinating analysis of Kant's Groundwork as a spiritual exercise, exposes his strategy for subordinating politics to ethics (and jurists to moral philosophers), and—in an insightful reversal typical of the book—portrays Kant as an intolerant zealot eager to establish a "clerisy of academic intellectuals" (265), and the infamous Wöllner as dutiful agent of a neutral state responsible for managing presumptive dogmatisms, including that of "pure reason." The light shed on these and other subplots by Hunter's broad account is considerable.

Perhaps the most surprising result of Hunter's reading is the characterization, following Carl Schmitt, of early-modern statist philosophers as tolerant political liberals committed to a secular, pluralistic polity; and the appearance of latter-day Kantians like Habermas and Rawls as abstract, totalizing thinkers intent on actualizing an ideal or trans-political unity...

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