Freudenthal, Gideon. No Religion without Idolatry: Mendelssohn's Jewish Enlightenment.
Freudenthal's central claims are as follows: (1) Mendelssohn is best read through semiotic, rather than metaphysical lenses; (2) Mendelssohn's philosophy of Judaism is understood best when placed within his general philosophy; (3) Mendelssohn was "an original philosopher, not a shallow poplularizer of Wolffian metaphysics"; (4) Mendelssohn finds a place for Judaism within the Enlightenment by theorizing "that a mixture of myth [or symbol] and enlightenment is inherent to religion." Hence the book's title. Freudenthal continually returns to a semiotic framework, showing how central a role sign and symbol theory plays in Mendelssohn's thought. In symbols, which are necessary for religious life, there lies the inherent danger that the signifier and the signified become confused, and thus idolatry results. One of the book's most interesting chapters deals with theories about the transition from hieroglyphic to alphabetic script, and how Mendelssohn considered the former a transgression of the Second Commandment, which forbids idolatry.
Mendelssohn's era, the German "high" Enlightenment (circa 17501800), oversaw a growing gulf between the learned, "enlightened" class and traditional belief and authority structures. These fissures would only grow in the coming centuries, making eighteenth-century attempts to hold the middle more challenging than in the first half of the century. Many Enlightenment philosophers, perhaps due to their own religious bias, preferred Christianity to Judaism: the former offered a more universal and translatable religion. Mendelssohn, as Freudenthal shows, saw Judaism as the true protector of "natural religion" and most likely to preserve true monotheism. Therefore Judaism, more than Christianity, could coexist with Enlightenment values. Throughout the book Freudenthal demonstrates Mendelssohn's embodiment of what Jonathan Israel calls the "conservative" or "moderate" Enlightenment by contrasting him with Salomon Maimon, his younger contemporary. Where Maimon highlighted tensions between modern canons of truth and traditional religious belief, Mendelssohn argued for compatibility. Freudenthal fairly represents Maimon's arguments against Mendelssohn, even when they veer toward ad hominem, for example, calling Mendelssohn a "philosophical hypocrite"--yet the book consistently defends Mendelssohn against Maimon, and thus the hope for an enlightened Judaism. The back and forth between Maimon and Mendelssohn animates most of the chapters, and leaves the reader to wonder whether the book might have been restructured as a debate between the two.
Freudenthal defends Mendelssohn's epistemology of common sense in the first chapter, stating, "Mendelssohn's philosophy of religion depends on an argument on what can and cannot be known." Freudenthal later writes, "In cases of conflict between the judgments of common sense and metaphysics, common sense has the last word." Here Freudenthal fails to realize the upshot of both Kant and Hume's critique of prior accounts of knowing. If common sense philosophy depends on the reliability of our sense impressions, then it crumbles, as Hume pointed out, with each setting of the sun. Although Hume's critique awakened Kant from his dogmatic slumber, it seemingly had no effect on Mendelssohn. Nor did Hume's evisceration of the standard arguments for miracles and natural religion. Of course Hume, or for that matter Kant, need not have the last word, but given how directly their critical epistemology bears on the claims Mendellson wants to make, it would have been helpful had Freudenthal navigated readers through these choppy waters.
No Religion without Idolatry could have a number of audiences: historians of Judaism, of philosophy, scholars of the Enlightenment, and, more generally, philosophers and scholars of religion. Recent studies of the Enlightenment have been animated by a vigorous debate about the true nature of the Enlightenment (if there is one) and its potential compatibility with religious forces. This book does not engage substantively with any of these debates or topics--which is a shame, since parts of it offer an interesting reply to the aforementioned Jonathan Israel. Although the book may prove helpful in advancing Mendelssohn studies, it is unclear whether any larger points can be made about the Jewish Enlightenment against the backdrop of recent studies by such leading scholars as David Sorkin.
Within the discipline of philosophy, some consider the point of historical retrieval to be to show the relevance of a historical figure for contemporary debate. Others, however, see the point of the exercise to be a faithful rendering of past debates. Freudenthal falls in the latter camp, which makes it doubly unfortunate that it does not engage more directly with the conversation about how a new understanding of Mendelssohn alters or confirms certain theses about the period as a whole. These qualms aside, scholars of the period, and scholars of Jewish philosophy, will benefit from this learned and skillfully written book.--Grant Kaplan, Saint Louis University.
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|Publication:||The Review of Metaphysics|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2014|
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