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  • Structures, But in Ruins OnlyOn Kant's History of Reason and the University
  • Peter Gilgen (bio)


In October 1786, Kant published the essay "What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?"—his response to the so-called pantheism controversy. The protagonists of this quarrel were Moses Mendelssohn, firmly committed to the ideals of enlightenment rationalism, and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, an anti-rationalist who, like Hamann before him,1 read Hume's skepticism (as well as Kant's first Critique) as an admission of reason's failure and an open invitation to make ample room for faith.2 Mendelssohn had died in January 1786 in the course of defending his dead friend Lessing against what he had perceived as slander. For Jacobi had accused Lessing of having been a Spinozist, which at the end of the eighteenth century was tantamount to being an atheist and considered a rather serious allegation.3 Some of Mendelssohn's friends urged Kant to pick up the baton as the defender of reason.4 However, there were other voices, notably among Kant's students, who considered Jacobi's insistence on "moral faith" as being "continuous [End Page 165] with Kantian principles."5 They, too, urged Kant to intervene in the dispute, expecting that he would take Jacobi's side—an expectation Jacobi apparently shared (Wood 1996, 4).

In his essay, Kant leaves no doubt about his disagreement with Mendelssohn's brand of dogmatic rationalism. But he also has much praise for many philosophical insights and the unwavering dedication to enlightenment in Mendelssohn's work (see 8:138n).6 Jacobi, by comparison, fares less well. He is merely an enthusiast or fanatic—the German Schwärmer is not easily translated—whose Schwärmerei takes its departure from (Humean) skepticism, which he seems to consider irrefutable. Intervening in the very public conflict between these two prominent intellectuals allowed Kant to reiterate the position that he had originally and most extensively outlined in the Critique of Pure Reason, and put it in relation to the political circumstances of the moment. The most significant political event that must have been on Kant's mind was the death of Frederick the Great in August 1786. In his essay "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" of 1784, Kant had adduced Frederick as the "shining example" (8:41) of an enlightened ruler. It had been clear for some time that his successor, Frederick William II, would not lay claim to a similar honorific.

In addition and entirely in keeping with the political changes, Kant's question concerning the meaning of orienting oneself in thinking also poses the more radical challenge of what it might mean to orient oneself by means of thinking—that is, what sort of life practice a thoroughgoing orientation toward, and commitment to, thinking qua lawful use of reason would entail. On this count Kant sounds an alarming note directed at Jacobi, Hamann, and all fanatical enthusiasts. "Men of intellectual ability and broadminded disposition!" Kant addresses them on the closing pages of his essay, "… have you thought about what you are doing, and where your attacks on reason will lead?" (8:144). What would become, Kant continues, of the "freedom to think" (Kant's emphasis) on which the enthusiasts themselves must rely, "if a procedure such as [they] are adopting should get the upper hand" (ibid.)?

Kant alludes here to a performative contradiction similar to the one that can be brought against skepticism.7 However, the problem is not limited to a [End Page 166] theoretical point. In fact, if the defense of reason as "the final touchstone of truth" (8:146) fails, it will be to the detriment not only of those who attacked reason's prerogative and the freedom to think in the first place. In addition, "innocent parties who … would have used their freedom lawfully" (8:146) will suffer from undue restrictions—precisely because the noncommunicable claims of the enthusiasts, which rely on private illumination not subject to examination, will have succeeded only in undermining reason by separating it from its own most pressing need. The need of reason is twofold. At the theoretical level, it is merely a conditioned need. We...


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