The First English Translation of Moses Mendelssohn’s Answer to the Question “What is Enlightenment?”: Part I

Last summer I wrote a series of posts on the choices involved in translating Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” into English. Attempting something similar for Moses Mendelssohn’s answer to the same question, which appeared three months before Kant’s in the same journal, would be a less promising undertaking. In what turned out to be a massive duplication of efforts, Daniel Dahlstrom, Hans-Herbert Kögler, and I all produced translations of the essay in the late 1990s and, while they differ on a few points, there is not a lot to be learned from comparing them.1 As we labored away on what each of us assumed would be the first translation of Mendelssohn’s essay into English, none of us was aware that, almost two centuries earlier, an anonymous translation of the essay had been published in the second volume on an obscure British called the The German Museum.2 That translation turns out, as we shall see, to be very interesting.

The German Museum

The German Museum was a short-lived publication (two volumes appeared in 1800 and a third in 1801) with the ambitious agenda of trying to convince an Anglophone audience of the virtues eighteenth-century German literature and philosophy at a time when British opponents of the French Revolution were busy constructing an image of Germans intellectual as atheist Jacobins Hell-bent bent on destroy all that good Englishmen cherished. As the Anti-Jacobin Review warned its readers,

such a scene of corruption as Germany now exhibits, an English mind shudders to contemplate. The young women, even of rank, uncontrolled by that natural diffidence, unchecked by that innate modesty, which at once heighten the allurements of, and serve as a protection to, beauty, but which have been destroyed by the fatal infusion of philosophical principles, consider the age of puberty as the period of exemption from every social restraint, and sacrifice their virtue to the first candidate for their favour, who has the means either of captivating their fancy, or gratifying their avarice; while the dreadful number of abortions serves to proclaim the frequency and extent of their crime!  …  In short, the boundaries which separate virtue from vice appear to be entirely removed, and the beset cement of society is consequently dissolved (Anti-Jacobin Review IV (August-December 1799, xii-xiii)

I first became interested in the journal early in 2001, altered to its existence by a passing discussion in Bayard Quincy Morgan and A. R. Hohlfeld’s 1949 survey of German literature in British periodicals.3 At that point, copies of it were hard to find, with WorldCat listing fewer than a dozen sets in existence. Fortunately for me, one of them was located just across the river in the Houghton library at Harvard. It took several days for the staff at Houghton to figure out where the volumes had been shelved (while waiting for them to show up, I amused myself with the Anti-Jacobin Review) and when the three large volumes were finally rolled over to the table where I was working, I discovered a few call slips identifying what seems to have been the last person to have requested them: René Wellek. As I began my reading I wondered whether I was the first person to turn these pages since Wellek did the research that produced Immanuel Kant In England, 1793-1838 seven decades earlier.

Copies of The German Museum are no longer difficult to find: Google scanned the set that now resides in the New York Public Library, a set that was previously owned by H. G. Fiedler, the editor of the Oxford Book of German Verse (1938), a collection that would serve as my introduction to world of Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin. Fiedler’s copy of the German Museum now resides on my iPad, which allows me to browse the pages of a publication from the dawn of the nineteenth century during my morning commute. Jonathan Richman was right: the modern world is not so bad.

Translating Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s text does not present the translator with the sort of difficulties Kant’s posed. Contemporaries praised Mendelssohn’s style for its elegance and clarity, and he avoided those paradoxical formulations (e.g., “selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit”) figure so centrally in Kant’s account. But the essay does pose at least one significant challenge and, as is the case in the Kant essay, it arrives at the very start. Here’s Mendelssohn’s opening paragraph:

Die Worte Aufklärung, Kultur, Bildung sind in unsrer Sprache noch neue Ankömmlinge. Sie gehören vor der Hand bloss zur Büchersprache. Der gemeine Haufe verstehet sie kaum. Sollte dieses ein Beweis sein, dass auch die Sache bei uns noch neu sei? Ich glaube nicht. Man sagt von einem gewissen Volke, dass es kein bestimmtes Wort für Tugend, keines für Aberglauben habe; ob man ihm gleich ein nicht geringes Maass von beiden mit Recht zuschreiben darf.

Here’s how I translated it:

The words “enlightenment”, “culture”, and “education” are newcomers to our language. They currently belong only to literary discourse. The masses scarcely understand them. Does this prove that these things are also new to us? I believe not. One says of a certain people that they have no specific word for “virtue”, or none for “superstition”, and yet one may justly attribute a not insignificant measure of both to them.

The problem that confronts any translator is what to do with the last of the trio of words that appear in the first sentence. The difficulty is not that Bildung defies translation into English: there are any number of words that will work and, in contexts such as this, “culture” will usually do quite nicely.

But Mendelssohn takes that option of the table by juxtaposing Bildung and Kultur, with Kultur denoting the “practical” aspect of Bildung (i.e., the improvement of mores and customs) and Aufklärung designating the “theoretical” side (i.e., the spread of scientific and technical knowledge). Since Kultur will, inevitably, be translated as “culture,” the translator is left with nothing but bad choices when it comes to translating Bildung. Both Dahlstrom and I opted for “education” — which (as I went on to explain in an apologetic footnote) doesn’t quite work in this context.   Kögeler decided to leave it untranslated and explained the range of possible meanings in a footnote.

Our anonymous nineteenth-century predecessor had a very different approach:

The terms intellectual improvement, or enlightening the mind, cultivation, and civilization, are as yet scarcely naturalized in the German language. Their use is almost confined to books. By the majority of mankind they are scarcely known or understood: but can this be considered as a proof that the objects these words represent are new or foreign to us? Certainly not. It is said of a certain nation, that they have no words for virtue and superstition, and yet no small portion of each may justly be ascribed to them.

The German Museum’s translator was content to insert an asterisk after the word “civilization” and, at the bottom of the page, placed a footnote that simply lists the three German words, without explanation or apology.

When I first came upon this translation I didn’t take much notice of the use of “civilization” as a translation for Bildung. But, coming back to it after a decade and a half, that choice strikes me as an object lesson in what we can learn from looking at old translations.

Enlightening the Mind and Cultivating Morality

In 2001, what caught my attention was the prolix translation of Aufklärung “intellectual improvement, or enlightening the mind” — six English words to translate one German term. The translator’s avoidance of the (to us) obvious choice of “enlightenment” was in keeping with the early nineteenth-century practices, which favored the use of “enlightening” (which, as I discussed in a previous post, had been used in Richardson’s translation of Kant’s answer to the question) or “illumination” (which was the term employed, among other places, in the Anti-Jacobin Review).

The general practice in the German Museum was to render Aufklärung as “mental illumination.” A search of the scanned text on Google books turns up no appearances of “enlightenment,” but 38 uses of the phrase “mental illumination” (23 of them in first volume) and 17 occurrences of “enlightening,” usually coupled with “the mind” but sometimes standing on its own (five of the uses of the word are in the Mendelssohn translation). In contrast, “culture” turns up less frequently: five times in the first volume, eight in the second (though three of the uses have to do with agriculture), and five in the third.

The German Museum’s affection for “mental illumination” and “enlightening the mind” was somewhat idiosyncratic. Plotting the two terms against “culture” over the first two decades of the nineteenth century yields the following:

Mental Illum,Enlightening,Culture

About the only surprise here is that the use of “culture” seems to be dropping. But a look at what happened to “culture” across the entire century provides a different picture:

Culture nineteenth century

We can get a better sense of the career of “mental illumination” and “enlightening the mind” if we can take “culture” out of search (and make the search case-insensitive):

Illum and Enl nineteenth century

Again, what we find here is not entirely surprising: terms favored of the German Museum decline over the course of the century. The only thing that is unexpected is that the terms survived as long as they did, but a glance at the text samples suggests that in the last third of the century both terms are being kept in circulation chiefly in religious works.

As is usually the case, we learn a bit more from looking at the text snippets that Google provides. They show that “mental illumination” was turning up in such publications as The Monthly Magazine (“the King of Prussia and his amiable Queen rival with each other in displaying their laudable zeal for the promotion of mental illumination”), the London Medical and Physical Journal (“Greece, in her brightest day of mental illumination, would have deified the discoverer of the circulation of the blood”), and the English translation of Condorcet’s Outlines of the Historical Progress of the Human Mind (“a more general diffusion of the philosophical ideas of justice and equality, and lastly by the slow but sure effect of the progress of mental illumination”). The phrase “enlightening the mind” turns up in Dugald Stewart’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, editions of the works of Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, and Samuel Miller’s Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century (1803), a “sketch of the revolutions and improvements in science, arts, and literature,” written by a New York Presbyterian minister with connections to the American Philosophical Society and the History Society of Massachusetts. It would appear, then, that “mental illumination” and “enlightening the mind” did more or less the same work that would subsequently be done, more economically, by the word “enlightenment.”

Mendelssohn on Language and Concepts

By now it should be apparent that I have a certain weakness for staring at graphs of infrequently used words and savoring the peculiar text snippets that Google provides. In the present case, however, this peculiar habit is not without a certain justification. Mendelssohn, after all, began his answer to the question “What is enlightenment?” not, as Kant did, by defining the term, but instead with a claim about language use and, in the second paragraph of his answer, he offers the following suggestion about the relationship between language usage and concepts formation. Here’s how the 1800 translation renders it:

Common usage, however, although it apparently tends to establish a distinction between these nearly synonimous words, has not yet had time to fix the boundaries of each.

By the time Mendelssohn got around to answering the question “What is enlightenment?” he had been thinking about the relationship between words and concepts for close to three decades.4

As early as 1756 he included a discussion of the origin of language in the commentary he appended to his translation of Rousseau Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.5 Three years later he wrote an extensive review of Johann David Michaelis’s prize-winning response to the Berlin Academy’s question for 1759, “What is the reciprocal influence of the opinions of a people on language and of language on opinions?” for Nicolai’s Letters Concerning the Latest Literature and at about the same period wrote a manuscript on the development of language and its relation to thought.6

Mendelssohn maintained that progress in reasoning both fosters and is made possible by the development of “arbitrary signs” that allow for more complex and subtle understandings of relationships than is possible through the use of either “natural signs” (which are the direct effect of natural causes, for example smoke as a sign of fire) or “imitative signs” (sounds that mimic natural objects, either through verbal interjections or hieroglyphics). “The more men develop themselves [sich bilden],” he argued, “the more logical and abstract their ideas become, the more withdrawn their language is from the sensual expression of nature” (6/2:11). The possession of signs that are no longer tied to the materiality of objects fosters a process of abstraction and comparison that is “enlightening” (6/2:11).

Nowhere is Mendelssohn’s conviction that there is an intimate relationship between the development of language and the clarification of concepts more evident than in his discussions on the development of moral philosophy. At the start of Jerusalem, he observed that the “ingenious errors” of Thomas Hobbes — like those of Spinoza in the area of metaphysics — prompted efforts to clarify the relationship between right, duty, power, and obligation. The fruits of those efforts at clarification “have become so intimately fused with our language” that today the refutation of Hobbes “seems to be a matter of common sense” that is accomplished “by language itself” (8:106). It was this conviction that the development of conceptual distinctions was bound up with the development of language goes a long way to explaining why he argued, in his essay on enlightenment,

A language becomes enlightened by means of the sciences, and it becomes cultivated or polished by means of social converse, poetry, and eloquence. By the former it becomes more adapted to objects of theory, and by the latter to those of practice. Both together give a language that quality which is denominated civilization [Bildung].

I have, once again, quoted from the 1800 translation. But when I was doing my translation of Mendelssohn’s article, it never have occurred to me to translate Bildung as “civilization.” I suspect that this tells us something about the difference between the world in which Dahlstrom, Koegeler, and I live and that of our nineteenth-century predecessor. I will discuss that in the second part of this post.

In the meantime, for those who might be interested in reading the German Museum‘s translation, I have posted a copy of it here.

1800_The German Museum

  1. See Hans-Herbert Koegeler, “Reason, Tradition, and Critique:  Mendelssohn’s Essay on Enlightenment,” Public Culture 6 (1993): 201–217, James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), and Moses Mendelssohn, Philosophical Writings, ed. Daniel O. Dahlstrom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  2. Moses Mendelsohn [sic]. “On Enlightening the Mind,” German Museum II (1800) 39-42
  3. Bayard Quincy Morgan and A. R. Hohlfeld, editors, German Literature in British Magazines 1750-1860 (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1949).
  4. I’m much indebted to Leah Hochman’s discussion of these matters in her 1999 doctoral dissertation Sign, Art, and Ritual: Aspects of Moses Mendelssohn’s Theory of Language (Boston University).
  5. Mendelssohn, “Sendschreiben an den Herrn Magister Lessing in Leipzig”, Gesammelte Schriften Jubiläumsausgabe 2:107-9
  6. The review of Michaelis appeared in Literaturbriefe 72-5 (December 1759); see Mendelssohn, Gesammelte Schriften Jubiläumsausgabe 5/1:105-118. For the essays on language from the same period see “Über die Sprache” and “Notizen zu Ursprung der Sprach” in Mendelssohn, Gesammelte Schriften Jubiläumsausgabe 6/1:3-28

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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5 Responses to The First English Translation of Moses Mendelssohn’s Answer to the Question “What is Enlightenment?”: Part I

  1. Pingback: Friedrich Gedike on the Origin of Christmas Gifts (1784) | Persistent Enlightenment

  2. Thanks! I’m glad I finally got around to finishing the second part (it’s been one of those semesters).

  3. Pingback: Culture & Civilization: The First English Translation of Mendelssohn’s Answer to the Question “What is Enlightenment?” (Part II) | Persistent Enlightenment

  4. What a fascinating post. I’m truly impressed. I really am. So glad I’ve read it.

  5. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Some very interesting discussion of Mendelssohn’s answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’, published shortly before Kant’s more famous answer.

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