The Word “Enlightenment”: A German Table of Usages from 1790

Discussions of  German attempts to answer the question “what is enlightenment?” have tended to focus on the debate launched in the pages of the Berlinische Monatsschrift by the clergyman Johann Friedrich Zöllner.  In the course of a December 1783 critique of an earlier article in the journal that had recommended that no longer having clergy participate in marriage ceremonies would benefit both “enlightened” and “unenlightened” citizens, Zöllner inserted a footnote that read:

What is enlightenment?  This question, which is almost as important as what is truth, should indeed be answered before one begins to enlighten!  And still I have never found it answered!

The rest (as they say) is history:  the following September, the journal published Moses Mendelssohn’s attempt to answer Zöllner’s question and, three months later, Immanuel Kant weighed in.  Other responses followed, none of them remotely as famous as those of Kant and Mendelssohn.

I’ve been spending a good part of the last year to revisiting German discussions of the question “what is enlightenment?” over the course of the two centuries that separate Mendelssohn and Kant’s answers from the aborted “debate that never was” between Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault.  In the course of my work, I’ve spent some time trying to make sense of a text that I’d cited in passing and briefly discussed at the close of an earlier post on this blog:  “Kritischer Versuch über das Wort Aufklärung, zur Beylegung der darüber geführten Streitigkeiten” [“Critical Inquiry Regarding the Word Aufklärung: Towards a Settling of the Leading Disputes”], an anonymous article that appeared in two parts in the Deutsche Monatschrift (Part I appeared in the September 1790, pp. 11–44 and Part II in November 1790: 205–37).  One of the virtues of this peculiar article is that tends to complicate the account of the eighteenth-century German discussion of the question “what is enlightenment?” that I, along with others, have been offering.

What I’d like to do in this post is to lay out some of the material that I’ve been working on in the hope of prompting a broader discussion of an article that, while not entirely unknown, has yet to receive the attention that it deserves.  In this post I’ll begin by saying a few things about the structure of the article and then offer a translation of what its author clearly viewed as the article’s most significant achievement:  its systematic table of usages of the term Aufklärung.  Future posts may take a deeper dive into some of the issues raised by the table of usages and, more generally, by the article itself.

A Brief Overview

As its title indicates the author saw the article as an attempt to settle the “leading disputes” involving the meaning of the word Aufklärung. Drawing on twenty-three books and articles published between 1776 and 1789, the diverging ways in which term had been used were laid out in outline form at the close of the first part of the article.

The article opened with a brief sampling of some of the ways in which the term had been used and concluded that:

thousands and thousands of German men and women have used it, but without any conventions. Almost everyone has given another meaning, which are sometimes more and sometimes less related.

Proceeding from the premise that new words enter a language as a way of designating new concepts, the author proceeded to work backward to the “sentiments and representations” that the word Aufklärung was allegedly attempting to capture: namely, an extension of representations of water (i.e., clear vs murky) and sky (clear vs cloudy) — both of which presupposed an eye sharp enough to perceive these differences — to the domain of cognition. What was ultimately at issue in the question “what is enlightenment?”, then, was the question of whether a further clarification of human cognitive capacities was “possible or impossible, useful or harmful.”

With these preliminaries out of the way (and I should note that my summary cuts quite a bit from what is a rather prolix discussion), the first part of the article concluded with a table of usages that it is both perplexing and fascinating.


The Table of Usages

The table is laid out in the form of outline that, beginning with a distinction between the use of Aufklärung as a way of designating a “quality, situation, [or] condition” that certain entities possess and uses of the term to refer to an “activity” or “ongoing action” that sought to bring about a certain condition, proceeds to trace the various ways in which the term had been used.  Twenty-one of the entries on the table end with Roman numerals that direct readers to the similarly-numbered discussions of these usages that constituted the second part of the article.  The result is likely to strike present-day readers as hopelessly obscure — and not just because of a system of outlining that is quite different from any of the conventions that we currently use.

Here is the table that readers of Deutsche Monatsschrift would have confronted when they turned to the closing pages of the first part of the article:

(NB:  The above version of the table corrects errors in the version that was initially posted).

Readers who are not used to dealing with Fraktur fonts (I had the good fortune of going to a  high school that, since it lacked the resources to purchase new textbooks, made do with outdated textbooks that still employed them) may find Zvi Batscha’s modernized version edition of the text (which appears in his Aufklärung und Gedankenfreiheit : Fünfzehn Anregungen, aus der Geschichte zu Lernen (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977), 45–94) somewhat more readable.  But, unfortunately, Suhrkamp opted not to indent any of the entries, thus defeating the rationale for casting the table in the form of an outline and producing a text that is rather difficult to follow (there are also other errors in the text).

Part A (Batscha)Part B (Batscha)

Finally, let me attempt a translation, which has benefitted from discussions with my friends Manfred Kuehn and Ken Haynes (who, of course, are not responsible for my blunders;  I have had, for example, grave misgivings about my rendering of Masse as “masses” in Α) 1) a) α) (b) and (after helpful suggestions from Ken and from Kevin Hilliard) have made modifications in the translation, which remains a work in progress.  In response to a suggestion from a reader, the current version adheres to the author’s outlining convention (an earlier version of the post had used a modern convention), which employs Greek letters at the fourth level, italicized lower-case letters at the sixth level, and italicized Greek letters at the seventh level. I’ve attempted to make it somewhat easier to follow by using different colors for the different levels of the outline (sadly, I haven’t figured out a way to remove the bullets that WordPress uses in its construction of outlines).

  • Α) Quality, Situation, Condition
    • 1)  of a human being, namely:
      • a) a persisting possession
        • α)  historical or common knowledge
          • (1)  determined by the masses degree I.
          • (2)  determined methodically by kind.  Namely, historical knowledge
            • (a)  of biblical religion II.
            • (b)  of Deism, associated with immorality III
        • β)  rational knowledge
          • (1)  of objects in general IV.
          • (2)  of certain specific objects V.
        • γ)   an unrestricted knowledge of all objects VI.
      • b)   a result of the successive growth of clear concepts VII.
    • 2)    of things other than human beings, namely
      • a)   of the state and its institutions, namely
        • α) useful public institutions VIII.
        • β) freedom of thought, speech, and the press IX.
      • b)   of the sciences in the objective sense
        • α) the perfection of sciences in general X.
        • β) perfection of certain specific sciences XI.
        • γ) the incorporation of heterodox religious beliefs XII.
        • δ) unspecified didactic objects
  • Β)  As an activity, an ongoing action, which is related to the condition brought about by it as
    • 1) an effective cause, namely:  the activity of subjective reason XIII.
    • 2) a means of advancement. The means of advancement occurs
      • a) through private effort, which aims
        • α) at the refinement of mankind, namely
          • (1) through the development of the understanding.  Here the expression ‘enlightenment’ refers to
            • (a) different forms of knowledge, and refers to the means of their advancement
              • (α)  subjective cognition in general XIV
              • (β)  rational cognition in particular XV
            • (b) different methods of instruction which are
              • (α)  the explanation of visible things XVI
              • (β) the explanation foreign words XVII
              • (γ) the articulation of opinions XVIII
          • (2) through the cultivation of the heart  XIX
        • β) at the development and integration of the sciences in the objective sense XX
      • b) through public institutions and instruction. XXI


I’ve included the Roman numerals that the anonymous author inserted as a way of directing readers to the more detailed discussions undertaken in the second part of the article.  Retaining them will allow me to set up links from the outlines to any later discussions I might wind up posting.

But, for the moment, it may be enough simply to lay out this table and see what readers of the blog might make of it.  I’d be interested in any corrections or comments that readers might have about my translation of the Table.  And, should anyone be interested enough to attempt translations of the discussions in Part II of the article, I’d be more than happy to post them here.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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5 Responses to The Word “Enlightenment”: A German Table of Usages from 1790

  1. kfhilliard says:

    Just a footnote to this. I think the author begins his table by mechanically applying two of the Aristotelian categories to his corpus, viz. quantity (how much? to what degree?) and quality (what kind?), as a first stab at ordering his material. The Aristotelian categories were second nature to anyone with an academic training, in a way we can’t really imagine now.

    • That makes sense, though the first division is between enlightenment as a “quality, state, condition” and as an “activity” that is related to the condition that it brings about in different ways (distinctions of this sort turn up in a number of other places). I’d welcome any pointers to good discussions of 18th century classification practices. I’ve dipped into some of the material on English common place practices, but haven’t looked at the German literature. Might Leibniz have been an influence here?

  2. ‘nach dem Maße bestimmt’ must mean ‘according to the degree’ – i. e. quantitatively, as distinct from ‘nach der Art’, i. e. qualitatively.

    • Yes — this is much better than my tone-deaf (and wildly anachronistic) “masses.” Looking at my notes on the discussions of these two parts of the Table in the second half of the article (i.e. Sections I and II) I see that Section I discusses usages of enlightenment that see it as defined by a “Ein gewisses Mass historischer order gemeiner Kenntnisse”, i.e., “a certain quantity (or “amount”, “degree”?) of historical or common (or “general”?) knowledge. What the author is slotting into this category are various discussions of enlightenment that define it somewhat indiscriminately: the more knowledge one has, the more enlightened one is. I’m not sure, though, that the contrast between “nach dem Masse” and “nach der Art” that is being drawn here can be captured by the distinction between quantitative and qualitative, but I do think that my “defined methodically” doesn’t wash either. I think a better solution might be “determined by kind”: the usages that are discussed on pp. 210-211 consist of “historical” knowledge of religion (where “historical” plays off against the subsequent discussion of “rational” knowledge that follows). Two forms of this “historical knowledge” of religion are discussed: “biblical religion” (i.e., doctrines held by various confessions and based on their interpretations of scripture — about which the authors has surprisingly little to say) and the historical interpretations of offered by Deists (and the author’s discussion of Count ZImmermann’s views on p. 210 are a real treat!).

      So, thanks again for your comment — I was a great help in sorting this out. Clearly, there’s more that I need to say about what sorts of distinctions are being drawn here — the author speaks of having built a “System,” but the “system” operates under the empirical constraints imposed by the collection of texts that area being slotted into different categories. That, in part, is what makes this peculiar text so fascinating for me.

  3. Pingback: The Source List for the 1790 Table of Usages of the Term “Aufklärung” | Persistent Enlightenment

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