Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi and the Ends of the Enlightenment

Alexander J. B. Hampton

Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819) held a position of unparalleled importance in the so-called “golden age” of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European intellectual history. As a public intellectual Jacobi had the conspicuous ability to place himself at the centre of a period of intellectual revolution. He was deeply involved in the events of his era not merely as a contributor but as a fundamental influence on their direction at a time when the German-speaking lands were becoming the centre of new philosophical conversation. Jacobi positioned himself at the nexus of a rich intellectual exchange that brought the ideas of Hume, Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and many others to the centre of intellectual debate, not only fundamentally influencing but also generating an intellectual legacy for their reception that continues to the present day. In doing so, his ideas-concerned with feeling, faith, reason, philosophy and a host of related epochal concerns-exerted a pivotal and direct influence upon the reception and development of Idealism, Romanticism and Existentialism, putting Jacobi at the crux of modernity.

Jacobi was either the instigator or key participant in three major public philosophical controversies during his lifetime. The first of these, the so-called pantheism controversy (Pantheismusstreit) between Jacobi and Mendelssohn, offered a fundamental critique of the rationalism of German late-Enlightenment philosophy and hastened the end of the Aufklärung, or German Enlightenment. The second, the atheism controversy (Atheismusstreit), with Fichte as his key opponent, critiqued Kant’s transcendental idealism and fundamentally influenced the conditions for the development of Kantian and post-Kantian idealism. The third, in public contestation with Schelling, critiqued the revival of Spinozism in Schelling’s nature philosophy, and shaped the development and reception of Romanticism. Jacobi’s propensity to make himself the driver of public debates secured him a prominent place as a hinge figure in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century intellectual history.

Contributing to this legacy is Jacobi’s abiding concern with the tendency of modern thought toward abstraction. For the sake of conceptual explanation, he believed, the modern mind subordinated the conditions of existence, such as finitude, contingency, and belief-which are not susceptible to logical elaboration or empirical verification-to the conditions of thought, therein subverting freedom, faith, individualism, choice and action. This, in Jacobi’s view, engendered the threat of nihilism-a term that he introduced into modern philosophical discourse half a century before Nietzsche made it common currency. In the present intellectual landscape, with the legacies of the Enlightenment, liberalism and the anthropocentric conceptualisation of reality being called into question in fundamental ways, Jacobi’s thought has a significant contribution to make to contemporary intellectual debates.

            Despite Jacobi’s importance, his work poses a range of interpretative challenges that have hindered its reception, from his own day to ours. He was an unconventional thinker; his ideas were often syncretic, unsystematic, and he often expressed them in a polemical or literary style. Because of the range of his thought and its expression, disciplinary boundaries have limited the scope for a comprehensive presentation of his work and its legacy. His multifaceted thought, which incorporated numerous influences, has made him a difficult thinker to characterise or compartmentalise. His works posed, as well as attempted to answer, some of the main questions of his age, and as a result assessments of his thought have varied widely. The consequence of all of these factors is that any student of intellectual history coming to Jacobi for the first time is likely to face a significant challenge in characterising and placing Jacobi.            

Today, Anglophone readers generally encounter Jacobi in scholarship only contextually, not directly. Scholars and students come into contact with him through study of the German Enlightenment, Romanticism, Idealism, Existentialism, or through an associated figure such as Kant, Hamann, Schelling, or by way of a controversy such as the Pantheismusstreit or Atheismusstreit. In view of Jacobi’s importance in determining the central European intellectual landscape at a time when the Enlightenment would falter, Romanticism would emerge, and transcendental idealism would first be proposed and then seized upon, he has not been afforded either the quality or quantity of scholarly attention that is due, as compared with his contemporaries. What is required-and what this volume offers-is a systematic crossdisciplinary review, a reconsideration and reevaluation of this considerable figure two hundred years after his passing. This volume brings together major scholars working on Jacobi and his period to offer a thoroughgoing resource for one of the most important figures in both German and European intellectual history. In doing so, it aims to address a fundamental need, producing an up-to-date authoritative resource for the reader seeking a place to begin.

Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi and the Ends of the Enlightenment by Alexander J. B. Hampton

About The Author

Alexander J. B. Hampton

Alexander J. B. Hampton is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Toronto, specialising in metaphysics, poetics and nature. He is the author of Romanticism and the Re...

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