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Mendelssohn, Moses (1729–86)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-J034-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

A Jewish disciple of Leibniz and Wolff, Mendelssohn strove throughout his life to uphold and strengthen their rationalist metaphysics while sustaining his ancestral religion. His most important philosophic task, as he saw it, was to refine and render more persuasive the philosophical proofs for the existence of God, providence and immortality. His major divergence from Leibniz was in stressing that ‘the best of all possible worlds’, which God had created, was in fact more hospitable to human beings than Leibniz had supposed. Towards the end of his life, the irrationalism of Jacobi and the critical philosophy of Kant shook Mendelssohn’s faith in the demonstrability of the fundamental metaphysical precepts, but not his confidence in their truth. They would have to be sustained by ‘common sense’, he reasoned, until future philosophers succeeded in restoring metaphysics to its former glory. While accepting Wolff’s teleological understanding of human nature and natural law, Mendelssohn placed far greater value on human freedom and outlined a political philosophy that protected liberty of conscience. His philosophic defence of his own religion stressed that Judaism is not a ‘revealed religion’ demanding acceptance of particular dogmas but a ‘revealed legislation’ requiring the performance of particular actions. The object of this divine and still valid legislation, he suggested, was often to counteract forces that might otherwise subvert the natural religion entrusted to us by reason. To resolve the tension between his own political liberalism and the Bible’s endorsement of religious coercion, Mendelssohn argued that contemporary Judaism, at any rate, no longer acknowledges any person’s authority to compel others to perform religious acts.

Citing this article:
Arkush, Allan. Mendelssohn, Moses (1729–86), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-J034-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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