Back in October, I posted the first part of a discussion of Ernst Cassirer’s account of the Enlightenment in the first edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. That post was concerned chiefly with trying to make sense of why and how Cassirer came to write the article in the first place, but had little to say about the actual content of the article itself. That will be the task of this post.
But since it has been a while, let me summarize the main reason for focusing on this peculiar little article at all. As discussed in the previous installment, Cassirer wrote the article sometime between 1927 (when the economist Edwin R. A. Seligman began soliciting contributions to the encyclopedia from European scholars) and September 1931 (the publication date listed on the volume in which Cassirer’s article appeared). This means that it is safe to assume that the article was finished sometime prior to the summer of 1931, which (according to Toni Cassirer’s memoir) Cassirer spent in Paris at the Bibliothètique Nationale working on what would become The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. While it remains unclear when Cassirer received the invitation to collaborate on the Encyclopedia and or how much progress he had made on his book prior to his visit from Paris, it would appear that his brief article for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences may have served as a preliminary sketch of the argument that he proceeded to develop, at greater length and in greater depth, in the book he completed in the autumn of 1932.
Having summarized the case that I made back in October for taking a closer look at Cassirer’s article, the rest of this post will (finally!) get around to discussing the article itself.
Cassirer, Kant, and Enlightenment
Cassirer began his article by quoting the opening paragraph of Kant’s 1784 answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” This gesture, of course, is hardly unique. As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, by the first decades of the twentieth century, the invocation of the beginning (and typically nothing else) of Kant’s attempt to explain the process that he and his contemporaries called “enlightenment” had become a handy way of characterizing the historical period that came to be known as “the Enlightenment.” Since I have also spent a fair amount of time, both on this blog and elsewhere, attempting to explain why what Kant was doing was not at all what those who typically quote him are trying to do, I will avoid spending more time on it here.1
It may be enough simply to quote what Cassirer’s own discussion:
This famous passage … characterizes most clearly the decisive intellectual tendency as well as the historical character and mission of the philosophy of enlightenment. To the view of the world which derived its strength from a belief in divine revelation and which was mainly supported by the powers of authority and tradition, enlightenment opposed another which rested on reason and the powers of understanding. The basic idea underlying all the tendencies of the enlightenment was the conviction that human understanding is capable, by its own power and without any recourse to supernatural assistance, of comprehending the system of the world and that this new way of understanding the world will lead to a new way of mastering it. Enlightenment sought to gain universal recognition for this principle in the natural and intellectual sciences, in physics and ethics, in the philosophies of religion, history, law and politics (547).
There is little here that is likely to strike present-day readers as particularly unusual (aside, perhaps, from the consistent appearance of “enlightenment” in lower case). There is also much that anticipates the Preface to The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, beginning with Cassirer’s imparting of agency to that peculiar entity dubbed “enlightenment.” Enlightenment, we are told, has an “intellectual tendency,” a “character,” and a “mission.” It seeks “to gain universal recognition” for its principles and it is concerned with securing — against the rival claims of faith and tradition — the sovereignty of human understanding. If the argument and its imagery seems unexceptional, it is because what we find here is a précis of the argument of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, delivered in remarkably condensed form.
With this prologue out of the way, Cassirer gets down to work:
Historically speaking, one understands by enlightenment primarily the development undergone by this principle during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, France, and Germany. But although the main ideas of enlightenment reached their complete development and their final victory in the intellectual movement of these two centuries, their roots lie deeper in the past.
Once again, there is little here that will be unfamiliar to readers of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment: the period we know as the Enlightenment turns out to be the culmination of a process of “enlightenment” that reaches back into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Those who assume that Cassirer’s launching of this paragraph with the phrase “Historically speaking …” sets the stage for a discussion. later in the article, of what the Germans like to call a “systematic” — as opposed to “historical” — account of the Enlightenment will be disappointed. What follows is a narrative that traces the spread of the set of ideas sketched in the second paragraph across the domains of the natural sciences, political and social theory, and religion. While this narrative would appear to be cast in the form of a history of the development of “the Enlightenment,” it is a history of a rather peculiar sort: a history with a systematic intent. In other words, we learn what the Enlightenment is by watching how it develops.
There are, once again parallels to the argument of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, which — after its opening discussion of the “Geist der Aufklärung” proceeds to trace the progress of this “spirit” through the domains of “nature and natural science,” psychology and epistemology,” “religion,” “the historical world,” “law, state, and society,” and “aesthetics.” Cassirer’s passing reference to Hegel’s Phenomenology in the Preface to The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (viii) goes a long way towards capturing what he was attempting to pull off:
Such a presentation of philosophical doctrines and systems endeavors as it were to give a “phenomenology of the philosophic spirit”; it is an attempt to show how this spirit, struggling with purely objective problems, achieves clarity and depth in its understanding of its own nature and destiny, and of its own fundamental character and missions. (vi).
The major differences between the general approach taken in Cassirer’s 1931 article and his 1933 book reside, first, in the ordering of the sections and, second, in his addition of a lengthy and important account of aesthetics at the close of the book. But there are also a few other, less immediately apparent, differences, both in what Cassirer includes and in what he excludes.
Extending the Enlightenment
Let’s begin with a consideration of what the article includes. Here is list of works either mentioned or alluded to in Cassirer’s 1931 article:
- Nicholas of Cusa, De pace fidei (1490)
- Pomponazzi, De immortalitate animae (1516)
- Bodin, Colloquium heptaplomeres (1588)
- Charron, De la sagesse (1601)
- Bacon, De Interpretatione Naturae (1603)
- Althusius, Politica methodice digesta (1603)
- Herbert of Cherbury, De veritate (1624)
- Grotius, De jure belli ac pacis (1625)
- Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
- Diderot & D’Alembert, Encyclopédie (1751-1772)
- Rousseau, Contrat social (1762)
- Lessing, Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (1780)
- Kant, “Was is Aufklärung?” (1784)
- Kant, Kritik der praktische Vernunft (1788)
- Kant, Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (1793)
Both Kant (whose article on enlightenment opens Cassirer’s discussion) and Charron (who appears at the close of the article) are quoted at some length, the rest of these texts are mentioned, sometimes in passing, a few at somewhat greater length. Leviathan is not explicitly cited, though Hobbes is discussed at some length. Likewise, Diderot and D’Alembert’s efforts are alluded to, though the actual title of their work does not appear.
What is perhaps most striking about this list is how few eighteenth century texts appear on it: of the fifteen works discussed or mentioned, only six appeared in the eighteenth century and, of those six, three were written by Kant. Equally peculiar is proliferation of texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (eight of the fifteen on the list) and the fact that, with the exception of Leviathan (which slips in under the wire) all of the seventeenth century works mentioned come from the first half of the century.
This accounting is only slightly skewed by my having listed the titles of works, as opposed to the proliferation of authors invoked in the course of Cassirer’s article. In the interest of completeness, here is a list of every author Cassirer mentions, arranged by date of birth:
- Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464)
- Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525)
- Jean Bodin (1530-1596)
- Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
- Althusius (1563-1638)
- Galileo (1564-1642)
- Kepler (1571-1630)
- Grotius (1583-1645)
- Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648)
- John Hales (1584-1656)
- Hobbes (1588-1679)
- Descartes (1596-1650)
- William Chillingworth (1602-1644)
- Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683)
- Henry More (1614-1687)
- Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688)
- John Smith (1618-1652)
- Spinoza (1632-1677)
- Pufendorf (1632-1694)
- Leibniz (1646-1716)
- John Toland (1670-1722)
- Anthony Collins (1676-1729)
- Christian Wolff (1679-1754)
- Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768)
- Voltaire (1694-1778)
- Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Jerusalem (1709-1789)
- Rousseau (1712-1778)
- Diderot (1713-1784)
- Johann Joachim Spalding (1714-1804)
- D’Alembert (1717-1783)
- Kant (1724-1804)
- Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791)
- Lessing (1729-1781)
Looking over this list of thirty-three names we find only fourteen authors who were born after 1646. Again, a few caveats are in order. At certain points in the text (e.g., the cluster of English Platonists and German neologists who turn up in the discussion of religion on page 551), Cassirer winds up invoking quite a few names, but does not spend much time discussing them. Nevertheless, the names he tends to invoke are those of thinkers who, as in the case of the titles of books, we would be hard-pressed to see as thinkers associated with what we tend to regard as “the Enlightenment.” For though we have become accustomed, in recent decades, to attempts to trace the seventeenth century origins of the Enlightenment (indeed, the one point on which Jonathan Israel and his critics can agree is that efforts at enlightenment reach further back into the seventeenth century than had previously been realized), what is perhaps most puzzling about Cassirer’s treatment of the period is the amount of attention given to thinkers and texts conventionally associated with the Renaissance.
But, if we think about it, this should not be puzzling at all. As I mentioned in my first post, prior to the publication of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment Cassirer’s forays into the history of ideas had been concerned with the Renaissance (e.g., his 1927 Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance), with English Platonism (his 1932 Die Platonische Renaissance in England und die Schule von Cambridge), and with late eighteenth-century German idealism. We might see Cassirer, then, as approaching the Enlightenment from two different directions. It has long been obvious (and, indeed, in some cases over-emphasized) that he viewed Kant as the culmination of enlightenment thought and was concerned with tearing down the wall that earlier generations of scholars had constructed separating “the Enlightenment” from Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, and Hegel. And, as he stressed in the Preface to The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, he viewed the Enlightenment as the culmination of an effort that had begun in the Renaissance. What is, however, somewhat less obvious — and what his 1931 article helps us to see — is how little he appears to have known about French eighteenth-century thought prior to his studies in the Bibliothètique Nationale during the summer of 1931.
Where are the French?
What is perhaps most striking about the lists of works and names that I’ve (admittedly, somewhat tediously) assembled is what is missing: the French Enlightenment. The list of thirty-three names includes twelve German, ten English, two Italian, two Dutch, one Irish, and six French writers. If we remove the two seventeenth century French thinkers from the list (Bodin and Descartes) from the list, Cassirer’s French Enlightenment consists of only four thinkers: Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and D’Alembert. If we turn our attention to the texts Cassirer discusses, the neglect of the French Enlightenment is even more striking: the only works from the French Enlightenment mentioned in the article are the Encyclopédie and Rousseau’s Social Contract.
To appreciate what is missing from the article, we need only turn to The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, where Condillac, Condorcet, Dubos, Fontenelle, Lamettrie, Montesquieu, and others join the quartet of thinkers mentioned in the article and the number of works discussed expands significantly. Of course, part of the explanation for the differences between the article that appeared in September 1931 in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences and the book that appeared at the end of 1932 has to do with the constraints under which authors of encyclopedia articles necessarily have to operate. But while this may explain why Cassirer may have had to curtail his discussion of the French Enlightenment, it does little to clarify the rationale behind his devoting what little space he had to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinkers who — while perhaps laying the groundwork for the Enlightenment — would appear to have a lesser claim on his attention in an article intended to provide readers with an overview of the Enlightenment itself.
We can, then, better understand what is going on in Cassirer’s contribution to the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences if we think of it not as a précis of the argument he would eventually elaborate in The Philosophy of the Enlightenment than as a first reconnoitering of a terrain that he would map, in greater detail, during the summer of 1931 in the Bibliothètique Nationale. It is important to remember that it was only with the publication of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment that Cassirer became recognized as a scholar of the Enlightenment. Prior to its publication, he was a leading figure in neo-Kantian philosophy and — with the publication of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms — a major influence beyond the immediate domain of German philosophy. His work on Renaissance philosophy had begun to establish him as an important figure within the history of ideas. But while — in retrospect — it might be obvious that the broader research program he was pursuing pointed him in the direction of the Enlightenment, it was not until the summer of 1931 that he began to devote himself to an intensive study of a literature that he may have known about but which — prior to his studies in the Bibliothètique Nationale — he did not really know. Hence the significance of his peculiar contribution to the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: it helps us to see how Ernst Cassirer conceived of the Enlightenment before he had the opportunity to spend much time studying it.
Melody and Counterpoint
Perhaps the most important contribution of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment was its conviction that the Enlightenment must be understood as a European movement. In that respect, Cassirer’s account of the Enlightenment was — as Johnson Kent Wright has emphasized in what is perhaps the best discussion we have of Cassirer’s book — of a piece with his insistence that the founding principles of the Weimar constitution could traced to “an interlocking set of German, English, and French thinkers — Leibniz, Wolff, Blackstone, Rousseau, and Kant ….”2 As Wright goes on to argue, the overall message of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment was much the same:
… far from attributing a single, stable outlook to the Enlightenment, Cassirer instead produced an elaborate description of what was essentially the French version of it, caught in a long moment of disequilibrium — in transition, that is, from the reign of the ‘esprit de système’ to that of the ‘esprit systématique.’… It was the essential ‘task’ of the Enlightenment as a whole, Cassirer insisted, to bridge the gap between the ‘analytic’ outlook of the one and the ‘synthetic’ project of the other — to combine, as it were, a French melody and a German counterpoint (90).
It would be hard to come up with a more apt characterization of what Cassirer achieved, but — if the argument I have been developing in these posts has any merit — there is no reason to assume that this particular way of framing the discussion was clear to Cassirer before he began his work in the Bibliothètique Nationale during the summer of 1931.
In his 1931 article Cassirer noted that the fundamental method of the Enlightenment involves a combination of “analysis” and “synthesis.” But, at this point, the architect of this combination of “resolutive” and “compositive” approaches was neither French nor German. Instead, Cassirer traced its roots to Galileo. As Wright argues, the great theme of that animates Cassirer’s book on the Enlightenment is the tension between “esprit de système” and the “esprit systématique” that Cassirer elaborated in his opening chapter on the “Mind of the Enlightenment”. In elaborating this tension, Cassirer took his point of departure from d’Alembert’s Elements of Philosophy.
Wright’s characterization of overall dynamic of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment as “a French melody with a German counterpoint” is an elegant way of capturing what Cassirer was able to achieve in his book. But if play the book off against his article in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences we may begin to wonder if, perhaps, the “counter-point” preceded the melody. The 1931 article opened with an extended quotation from Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment” and then went on to trace how the “spirit of the Enlightenment” proceeded to spread from one intellectual domain to another. His 1933 book opened with an extended series of quotations from D’Alembert, but went on to trace a narrative that — as had been the case in 1931 — traced the unfolding of an idea that, from the start, had been defined as “European.”
Near the start of the 1931 article Cassirer argued that the Enlightenment “represented only the continuation and consistent development of certain tendencies in the European mind …” (547). Because the Enlightenment (at least as Cassirer understood it) was essentially “European,” he seems to have had few reservations about offering an account of it that, from its earliest formulation, rejected the conventional notion that it was something that spread (either as a blessed liberation or as a fatal disease) to the rest of Europe from France. For that reason, it is likely that when he entered the Bibliothètique Nationale in the summer of 1931, he already knew what he was going to find there. All that remained was to fill out the details.
And here, perhaps, lies the origin of both the greatness and the failings of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment.
- For a general discussion of these matters, see my article, “Misunderstanding the Question: `What Is Enlightenment?’: Venturi, Habermas, and Foucault,” History of European Ideas 37:1 (2011): 43–52. ↩
- Johnson Kent Wright, “‘A Bright Clear Mirror’: Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, in Keith Michael Baker and Peter Hanns Reill, eds. What’s Left of Enlightenment? : A Postmodern Question (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2001) 81. ↩