Theses Doctoral

How to Believe in Nothing: Moses Mendelssohn's Subjectivity and the Empty Core of Tradition

Kremnitzer, Yuval

How to Believe in Nothing: Moses Mendelssohn’s Subjectivity and the Empty Core of Tradition
Yuval Kremnitzer
The purpose of this study is twofold. Firstly, it aims to illuminate key aspects of the work of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the ‘Father of Jewish Enlightenment,’ in particular, his well-known, and universally rejected, theory of Judaism. Secondly, it brings
Mendelssohn’s ideas and insights to bear on the problem of Nihilism, a problem in the development of which Mendelssohn is usually considered to have played a merely incidental role. It is argued that these two domains, seemingly worlds apart, are mutually illuminating.
Moses Mendelssohn enters our history books in two separate contexts, which seem to have nothing in common. In the context of ‘Jewish Studies,’ Mendelssohn is best known for his idiosyncratic view of Judaism as a religion devoid of any principles of belief, and for his confidence in its compatibility with reason – positions developed in his Jerusalem: Or, On Religious Power and Judaism (1783). In the history of philosophy, Mendelssohn is known as the last representative of the dogmatic Leibniz-Wolff School, rendered obsolete by Kant’s critical, transcendental turn. In this broader context, Mendelssohn is also widely recognized to have played a role, if only contingently, in the emergence of the term Nihilism at a decisive moment in the historical development of the problem, namely, the so-called pantheism controversy, in the context of which he published his last work of philosophy, Morning Hours: Lectures on God’s existence (1785). And yet he has never been taken as belonging to the development of the problem in its essence.
This dissertation aims to show that Moses Mendelssohn’s work offers a decisive intervention in the problem of Nihilism, arguably the fundamental problem of Modernity, an intervention that has great value for contemporary debates of the problem. Following and expanding on Kant’s intervention in the controversy, which I show to have been deeply engaged with Mendelssohn, makes it possible to bring to light Mendelssohn’s unrecognized contribution. In response to Kant’s groundbreaking critical philosophy, which seeks to account for the conditions of possible experience, Mendelssohn develops a theory of the experience of possibility. Implicit in this theory is a profound reformulation of the problem of Nihilism, as a crisis in the experience of possibility. Mendelssohn’s unique post-Kantian philosophical position regarding subjectivity, nature and the divine absolute is given more concrete articulation in being related and traced back to his political theology and his reflections on Judaism. In this way, the two separate lines in Mendelssohn’s reception – as the father of Jewish enlightenment and as an incidental facilitator, or vanishing mediator, in the consequential pantheism controversy – coalesce, and illuminate each other.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Miron, Dan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 17, 2017