Origins of the Term ‘Nihilism’

In searching for the origins of the term ‘nihilism’ we are brought back to a moment in history marking a great turning point in Europe. Great Britain had just won what has since been called “the first world war” (The Seven Years War) and its market-based colonial empire could now extend itself across the oceans of the earth “freely.” New ideas about human nature and nature itself had sprouted in France and would charge a gigantic revolution, which had vast consequences everywhere. A faith in reason brought with it a promise of reform and an understanding that scientific inquiry into the natural world would reveal natures laws and even the secret to human happiness. With the expanded development of humanity’s capacity to reason, universal truths would soon be discovered, religious principles would receive firm foundational support, a just ordering of the world could be maintained, and people would generally get smarter. But The Age of Enlightenment would see challenges within its own discourse that would bring it to a crisis in the late eighteenth century. Reason and the authority it claimed would eventually come into conflict with the authority of the church or traditional faith in general. Very few could accept resting on atheistic conclusions in Germany as David Hume’s skeptical atheism could in Great Britain, yet Hume’s arguments gained wide attention. Reason, criticism, faith, nature: where did the authority lie? What would become of society when the human powers of reason were fully actualized?

As a matter of historical fact, ‘nihilism’ was invented as a term to indicate the coming to completion of philosophy.  One God-fearing man, distressed by the assumed perfection of philosophy in Spinoza, created it in a kind of defense maneuver against what he perceived to be the destruction of individual faith at the hands of rationalist naturalism.  To be more accurate, Friedrick Heinrich Jacobi invented nihilism as a description of Fichte’s philosophy of the absolute ego.  Because Fichte had incorporated Jacobi’s concerns (and criticism, but its complicated) of Spinoza’s Nature-God as the single all-embracing substance (Being itself), Jacobi had determined that philosophy had reached its pinnacle with Fichte’s all-embracing ego.  This achievement warranted some warm words of congratulations from Jacobi to his friend Fichte but Jacobi was hostile to any form of systematic philosophy at this point.  Though an enlightenment figure who hosted and befriended many of the prominent intellectual figures not only in German regions but also from France (the philosophs), Jacobi could not accept the conclusions of rationalist metaphysics, even though he read them all and remained at the center of literary and philosophical circles.

Jacobi came from a pietist tradition that demanded freedom of individual conscience and an intense personal worship of God unmediated by the interpretations of the priests.  These new strands of religious thought stem from the Protestant Reformation and Spinoza’s philosophy (especially his historical work of biblical criticism mixed with political analysis in the Tractatus Theologicus-Politicus) were gaining ground.  The story of where ‘nihilism’ comes from as a label must go through the reception of Spinoza’s work in the pre-German lands of the late-eighteenth century.  It was a very public argument that ran through personal (public/private correspondences really) letters, journal articles, and lectures and speeches from academic posts.  Jacobi is responsible for making Spinoza go mainstream, outing some of his friends as “Spinozists” in the process.  There was an undercurrent of Spinozism long suppressed by the established church that inspired many artists and writers – Jacobi was saying it out loud.  He was ultimately hostile to Spinoza but his thinking was profoundly transformed in studying his metaphysics.

“Almost all of the early Spinozists in Germany were the unhappy children of the Protestant Counter-Reformation.  Most of them had been, or still were, pietists, and all of them had become bitterly disappointed with the course of the Reformation.  They were fiercely loyal to its original ideals: the universal priesthood of believers, freedom of conscience, the necessity for an immediate relationship with God.  But in their eyes the Reformation had gone astray and betrayed its own principles.  Since the Lutheran Church had become part of the state, it had developed an authoritarian structure of its own, and had thus become a form of dogmatism and elitism no better than the Roman Catholic Church…

To these discontented radicals and reformers, Spinoza represented the very spirit of rebellion.  His criticism of the Bible, his support for democracy, his ideal of a universal religion, and his call for a separation of church and state were just the weapons that they needed to fight the political and ecclesiastical establishment.  The Tractatus theologicus-politicus thus became the manifesto for all their radical opinions.”

(p.50-51, Beiser, Frederick. The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte. Harvard University Press, 1987)

So we have Jacobi as a figure of Lutheran pre-Germany coming to terms with a radical philosophy that wasn’t new but fed the spiritual needs of a reformist left wing.  In his Spinoza Letters he grapples with what he believed to be the major points of Spinoza’s teachings and thereby brought them to the public arena.  But after explaining these critical points he could not follow them.  The difference between his thinking and the Spinozist path will lead us to some conceptual distinctions that Jacobi would not allow to be swallowed up in Spinoza’s single substance: God as the self-caused Being of which everything else is only a particular mode.

“On the one hand, his pietistic religiosity demanded a personal God.  On the other, at a conceptual level Jacobi was under several further constraints.  He was unable to disassociate “personality” from “consciousness.”  Consciousness required, in turn the real distinction between at least two terms, a subject and an object – ultimately, between two subjects who recognized one another to be “subjects.”  So far as Jacobi was concerned, however, a real distinction had to be one between actual existents, and existence entailed radical individualization.  A person, in other words, had to be numerically distinct from all others…  Personality implied individual and irreducible freedom of action.

The God whom Jacobi the believer worshipped had to be, in other words, a “person” in the common understanding of that word.  Jacobi recognized that it was difficult, indeed impossible, to explain how this understanding could extend to an infinite God.  But the main thrust of his criticism of the philosophers was precisely that their concepts were not suited to deal with God… Spinoza’s philosophy was a case in point.  His “substance could not be a recognizable individual since it had no counterpart before which it could utter “I” in a meaningful sense.  It had neither consciousness nor individual freedom – no personality in other words, as Spinoza himself clearly admitted.  And since by its very presence it tended to dissolve whatever distinction was introduced within it, neither did it allow for personality to subsist within it as a limited reality.” (p.69, Di Giovanni)

This is essentially the difference between Jacobian pietism and Spinozist naturalism.  The entrance of Spinoza onto the scene radically altered the course of the enlightenment and Jacobi himself is mostly responsible for his introduction.  But the effect of Spinoza in pre-Germany was so profound and so strange that the tale must be told, and it cannot be told without Jacobi.  It would be easy enough to write him off as a reactionary figure who simply could not come to peace with the radical naturalism that Spinozism had generated.  But things are, of course, far more complicated (and far more interesting as a result) than our political binaries could provide.

In his earlier writings, Jacobi defended individual liberty against the despotism of absolutist rulers as a matter of moral principle.  Individual conscience and moral law could not be reduced to natural necessity, as when kings asserted their prerogative over their subjects as a matter of state expediency.  Power was not a justification of natural right and persons could not be reduced to self-interested atoms as they were with Hobbes.  Jacobi wrote publicly to prevent this kind of naturalist thinking that conflated physical necessity with political obligation to the sovereign.  Freedom of the subject could not be explained in the same way as objects in nature. (p.13-17, Di Giovanni)

With the entrance of Spinoza Jacobi could see a powerful threat to his cherished liberties.  That many liberal attitudes came from Spinozist pantheism was a fact that Jacobi would have to work through.  His exposition of Spinoza in the Spinoza Letters came under the cover of recounting a conversation he had with his friend and famous play-write and essayist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.  He had lured Lessing into an encounter where he hoped to provoke him into confessing his Spinozism.  He then published a written version of their conversation in the book, telling the wider world that Lessing had been a secret Spinozist.  Lessing had already died and Jacobi also might have played this gambit to show that he had been a closer friend to the famous Lessing than Moses Mendelssohn, another famous philosopher with a wide following.  It all sounds like petty maneuvering but they were on a big stage.  To make matters worse, Jacobi left much confusion on what his own position was regarding Spinozism.  After all, he gave a fairly thorough account of Spinoza’s system and didn’t exactly explain conceptually why it was mistaken (or heretical or unsupportable).

““Pantheism” can mean many things, and Jacobi has often been reproached (by Mendelssohn first of all) for having mistakenly identified it with “atheism.”  From the beginning, however, Jacobi had given clear signals that, on his definition fo the casus controversiae, the whole point of bringing up the issue of Lessing’s Spinozism was to argue that neither Spinozism, nor for that matter, any metaphysical system was in a position to express conceptually the possibility of the true personality.  The real issue was… whether, in any such distinction, the terms thereby being distinguished could still stand with respect to one another in the relation of one true individual (and possibly a person) to another.  Jacobi’s claim was that they could not – that Spinoza’s God was not an individual and therefore not a genuine person.  But since it was part of Jacobi’s religiosity to expect that God be a person, it followed that Spinozism and all traditional metaphysics as well were in fact forms of atheism.  One can of course reject Jacobi’s religiosity.  Since Jacobi, however, had subjectively sufficient reasons for holding on to it that cannot be objectively disputed, on his statement of the terms of the controversy the inference was both logically incontrovertible and sound.”

It’s the logic of Jacobi’s objection to Spinozistic pantheism where things really get interesting, but it will take quite a bit of intellectual effort to get there.  First, this bit about Jacobi’s relationship with Goethe:

“This – that personalism based on individuality is a moral goal in itself – is precisely the premise that Spinoza would have denied but that Goethe and Jacobi equally took for granted.  The two were much closer than either was to Spinoza.  Jacobi’s polemic was more of a lover’s quarrel with Goethe than a dispute with Spinoza.”


So, again, Jacobi introduced Spinoza to a wider audience and inadvertently unleashed his thought into the realm of acceptable discourse as a way to charge his friends with maintaining an indefensible position.  He would continue in his Spinoza Letters to give a brief description of Spinoza’s thought only to sharply and awkwardly contrast it with his own.  

But things are more complicated than a simple opposition would provide and making a detailed study of Spinoza brought Jacobi to startling conclusions.  The difficulty in understanding Jacobi’s thinking here and the disjointed manner of its presentation forces me to rely on the extremely penetrating survey offered by George Di Giovanni [Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi: The Main Philosophical Writings and the Novel Allwill, McGill-Quenn University Press, 2009] so prepare to read a lot of quotes.

“Yet in spite of the confusing presentation, Jacobi there evinces a sophisticated understanding of the philosophy that he was criticizing.  He had understood – as neither Bayle nor Wolff had – that Spinoza had finally made explicit the ultimate logical consequences of the principle on which Western metaphysics had been based from the beginning, namely that gigri de nihilo nihil, in nihilum nil protest reverti [Nothing is generated from nothing; nothing can revert into nothing].  In brief, these were the consequences according to Jacobi.

First, it follows from the principle (again, according to Jacobi) that, as regards the dynamics of the universe, there cannot be any absolute beginning or absolute cessation of any action or determination of being.  For to be absolute and not merely apparent, any such transition would have to be preceded (or followed) by a state at which the action or determination was not (or shall not be), i.e. by an element of nothingness, and this contradicts the principle.  A parallel conclusion can be drawn with respect to the structure of the universe.  Absolute determination is not possible, for determination implies exclusion, the negation of one thing by another, and this too would contravene the principle that being cannot be qualified by nothingness.  It also follows, therefore, that substance, or unqualified being, can only be a blind stirring of efficient causality with no inherent formal or final determinations, for any such limits would imply nothingness and, therefore, only qualified existence.”

This is quite a breakthrough.  Beyond just threatening his personal God, Jacobi saw in Spinoza the logical consequence of disallowing nothingness, the ancient principle that nothing can come from nothing.  Any distinction that could be drawn would set apart one object from another, meaning one thing could be also be explained by what it was not.  Any formal declaration of the individuality of an object had to include what set itself apart from every other object, implying negation.  But this act of distinguishing things cannot be accepted by a Spinozism that posits a single substance (God) with only subordinate variations differing only as modes of the one actually existing whole world.

Jacobi picked up on this and rebuilt Spinoza’s system only to flee from it.

“Second, it does not follow that one therefore cannot attribute properties to substance nor, for that matter, grant the existence of determinate, i.e. finite, beings.  But properties must simply be attributed or imputed to substance with reference the structure of our consciousness of reality – i.e. inasmuch as we must conceptualize substance precisely as the ground of all reality, our consciousness included.  And since the distinction between subject and object is of the essence of consciousness, we must think of substance as having both infinite extension and infinite thought; the attributes of “thought” and “extension” thus simply express substance as constituting the ground of the possibility of our consciousness of an objectively determined world.  However, we do not thereby imply that substance itself is to be identified with any individual extended things any individual mind.  So also with respect to finite existents – the so-called modes or modifications of substance.  These too must be referred in toto to substance as the ground of their reality in general, without, however, thereby implying that substance is the direct cause of the particular determinations that individualize them.  The particular determination of each is explained, rather, with reference to the equally particular determination of some other individual mode – the regression or progression from mode to mode extending ad infinitum.  It is essential that this chain of explanation be thus infinitely extended because, should the chain ever reach a final point in either direction, it would follow that at that point we would have found within substance itself the explanation for the existence of a certain particular set of modes (i.e. a certain finite world) as contrasted with some other.  But this would amount to determining absolute substance, or to absolutizing determination, two possibilities that are both denied to us ex hypothesi…”

“Third, it follows that, whether in principle, with reference to substance, or in particular concrete cases, with reference to the mode that exercises localized control over the relevant portion of the world, everything can be explained in Spinoza’s universe – everything, that is, except the fact that there are finite modes in the first place, or, since rationality is itself a function of distinctions that imply finitude, everything except rationality itself.  This surd is what the system predicts rather than an embarrassment for it.  It points to the absurdity of the task that opponents would wish to impose upon the system, namely to retrieve in rational ex hypothesi lie outside it.  So far as Spinoza is concerned, the only way to deal with the surd is to move beyond the process of ratiocination through a process of intellectual ascesis that that allows the mind to escape from the determination of space, time, and logic and see things all at once sub specie aeternitatis.

Accordingly, insight, not conceptualization, was for Spinoza “the best part in all finite natures.”  Jacobi did not dispute this point.  On the contrary, Spinoza’s recognition that truth is ultimately its own immediate witness especially endeared the Benedictus (the Blessed One) to him.  But granted Spinoza’s conceptual system, the substance that one was to behold immediately at the end of spatio-temporal distinctions and at the limit of ratiocination evoked in Jacobi’s mind the picture of a sheer outburst of self-creating energy that does not aim, itself, at anything in particular and in relation to which, therefore, the finite modes are superfluous by-products, so to speak.  Jacobi instinctively recoiled at this substance to be conscious of its effects (as in fact it cannot, since consciousness requires distance between subject and object and hence limitation), or were it in any way interested in them, it would find their presence surprising – a “brute fact” that strictly speaking ought not to ultimately be denied.  This, so far as Jacobi was concerned, was the up-shot of Spinozism.  And Jacobi found it all the more frightening because of the political implications that he saw in it, namely that all rational and social relationships are epiphenomena of what is in fact only a play of competing forces all blindly spewing forth from the same undifferentiated source.”


Jacobi’s personal God coming up against Spinoza’s naturalist god of a single substance is what is at stake here (let us remember so as not to get lost in the woods), but he also hits upon an illuminating observation coming from a thoughtful and serious reception of pantheism.  The problem comes during the moment an individual is presented with the “insight” of Spinoza and the individual no longer can adequately separate themself from objects as the basic structure of grammar demands.  Our consciousness, our status as the subject melts away as it were and it is replaced by forces that do not contain a will in the personal sense.  Where that leaves us as individuals is in a second-tier status that removes the agency of a securely autonomous will.  

“Nobody, according to Jacobi, has the right in a Spinozistic world to say unequivocally, “I act.”  One would rather have to say, “There is an anonymous action taking place of which I appear – but only appear – to be the subject.”…  So far as Jacobi was concerned, Spinoza had subverted the very language of the “I.”


Pushing past issues of subjectivity, we must admit in following Spinoza that our thoughts are all merely products of “blind forces” that cannot directly be related to substance as in a casual chain.  Our thoughts can only be related to substance as modes of that substance.  The properties of substance are attributed by our thoughts which are themselves only further modifications of substance.  When we enumerate and define these modes of substance (God, everything together) we are graphing onto substance categories that were produced from our finite minds.  There is a fundamental deficiency in the activity of consciousness: when we give attributes to substance we do so from a position of a mode of substance and never from substance itself.  “Thought” and “extension,” the two modes that come from conscious reflection on the nature of substance but as modes of substance itself, the multitude of human consciousnesses are only “imputing” their own finite modes onto an infinite substance.

Substance contains infinite modes and each mode’s relationship with the others continues onward in a never-ending progression/regression.  Any and every mode is finite and any series of modes that explains how a particular mode came to be will never find a resting point, a final point where we can say this is where the chain began or ends.  This would imply finality and completion that is only reserved for the infinity of modes that compose substance.  To follow the finite modes as they have developed in their variation, differentiation, and also connection is an infinite task because all finite modes (our consciousness included) are only ever pieces of the substantial whole, which is itself the only real existing thing.

Things get stranger still with Jacobi….

“But Jacobi’s attitude towards Spinoza was a complex one – ultimately not as negative as it might appear at first.  His attack was directed at Spinoza’s system only to the extent that the latter shared the assumptions and the methodology of rationalistic metaphysics.  There was another aspect to the system, however, of which Jacobi was well aware and which, as we must now see, he even shared.  When, in his conversation with Lessing, Jacobi came to defend his own position, he turned for help to none other than Spinoza himself.  To recognize this positive side of Jacobi’s relationship to Spinoza, however, we must first consider what, in his mind, was the fundamental cause of reason’s tendency to destroy itself.  For Jacobi had come to Lessing with more than just a brief against Spinoza and metaphysics in general.  He also had a diagnosis of what he saw as the intellectual sickness affecting them.

According to Jacobi, the problem was that by its very nature explanation requires that whatever is to be explained be reduced to something else already known, which thereby provides the sought-for explanation.  Explaining is essentially a reflective process.  It is a synthesis of the representations of things known carried out on the basis of what is common to them, according to the general formula idem per idem.  Now Spinoza, driven by the common metaphysician’s need to explain everything, had ended up inverting the natural order of knowledge by substituting the requirements of reflection for the requirements of existence.  Instead of limiting conceptualization to the representation of actual existence, he had taken as the criterion of true being the capacity on the part of representation to provide the basis for as comprehensive a synthesis of other representations as possible.  As As a result, he had elevated to the level of first principle of explanation, and of existence as well, an inadequate concept of substance.  This concept was the product of an abstract reflection upon the content of the representations of individual actual beings and had no meaning except with reference to the latter.  According to Jacobi, since it was impossible to retrieve the determinations of a real world out of an empty abstraction, as Spinoza’s logicism required, Spinoza found himself in the absurd position of having to treat as an inescapable surd of his system what by any standard of common sense constitutes the real, i.e. the very presence of a world of finite individuals.

Jacobi’s attack on rationalistic metaphysics as typified in Spinoza’s system thus focused on the “irrationalism” that that metaphysics in fact bred.  Jacobi was therefore understandably surprised when, in the wake of the publication of the Spinoza Letters, he found himself accused of irrationalism because of the salto mortale that he had proposed to Lessing as a way out of the impasse posed to human freedom by Spinoza’s system.  As he eventually was to say in his defense, the proposal had to be understood in context.  His conversation with Lessing had been about all those individuals (i.e. the metaphysicians) who, since they confused conditions of existence with conditions of explanation, were already as good as walking on their heads.  To ask of these people to jump down head first was tantamount to asking them to fall back upon their feet, where they would rejoin upright common sense.

… Jacobi himself had no reticence signaling it to Lessing.  “I love Spinoza,” he said to him, “because he, more than any other philosopher, has led me to the perfect conviction that certain things admit of no explication: one must not therefore keep one’s eyes shut to them, but must take them as one finds them.”  Despite Spinoza’s predilection for expressing his insights in reflective form more geometrico, Spinoza still considered insight itself the basic vehicle of truth: the knower was immediately related to the known at the moment of knowledge.  This is the very point that Jacobi wanted to make against the rationalists.  Paradoxically, therefore, in rejecting Spinoza’s metaphysics he could equally think that he was thereby turning “towards the light,” as he declared to Lessing, “of which Spinoza says that it illumines itself and the darkest as well.”  In a footnote to this passage introduced in the published report of the conversation, Jacobi went on to cite Spinoza: “Truth is the index of itself and of what is false.”  The subjective state of mind corresponding to this self-revelatory character of truth is immediate and infallible certainty, and Spinoza’s whole system requires and implies the possibility of such states.  But this was precisely the certainty that Jacobi had in mind when, in his diatribe against Mendelssohn, he opposed faith (i.e. immediate knowledge, subjective certainty) to the derived or “second-hand” knowledge of reason…

But Jacobi had chosen that term [faith] for another reason that again connects him back to Spinoza.  “Faith” denotes an element of passive receptivity before the accepted truth – also implicit in Spinoza’s metaphor of vision – that suited Jacobi’s religious as well as conceptual needs.  Faith and revelation are correlative terms that presuppose immanence as much as transcendence in the relationship of subject to object.  The compelling authority that revealed truth has, leaving its receiver has choice but to accept it immediately, is due precisely to its self-presentation to the receiver as something transcendent.  The receiver has no power to assert control over it.  The receiver’s acceptance of this transcendent truth is faith.  But faith equally presupposes that the receiver interiorizes that transcendent truth – and thereby renders it immanent – so totally that his very identity is defined in accepting it.  The essence of any faith lies precisely in this willingness to stake one’s whole existence on the acceptance of a revealed truth.  But then again (here we return to the moment of transcendence), in thus defining his self in terms of the accepted truth, the receiver equally sets that self apart from it because he thereby defines the limits of his being.  The result is two individuals (a subject and its object) who are significantly related to one another precisely because of the distance that separates them.  This is the very relationship that Jacobi enshrined in the saying that there is no “I” except with reference to a transcendent “Thou.”  The “Thou” stands first and foremost for God, whose immanence yet transcendence with respect to every created subject serves to individualize the latter radically.  But once thus individualized, a created “I” is in a position to meet another equally created and individualized “I,” and the two can then enter into a genuine relationship because, being irreducibly limited, they can truly face one another as real individuals.

Of course, to the classical metaphysician this position would appear paradoxical – even scandalous, for it implies that God himself would have to be somehow individualized, hence in some sense finite, precisely in order to play his role as absolute Thou.  And how can the infinite God be finite?  [Herder would take him to task on this point]  But here is where Jacobi would refuse to be drawn into argument, for any paradox arises only on the assumption of the philosophers’ “infinite,” which eschews determination and individuality by definition.  So far as Jacobi was concerned, he only needs to identify the conditions that make for genuine personal relations…

Faith and revelation thus were for Jacobi the conceptual vehicles for conveying his vision of a world made up of individuals radically distinct yet significantly related.  Yet Jacobi made this vision dependent on an immediate relationship to truth such as Spinoza too claimed to have.  To refute Spinoza’s system he was appealing to the very kind of certainty that he endorsed…”


Jacobi was using that flash moment of immanence which Spinoza had so painstakingly set out to create in his readers and turned it into a feeling of transcendence.  This operation runs counter to Spinoza’s immanent theory of substance but Jacobi was not to remain committed to a rationalist method of rigorous deductive proofs to reach his conclusion.  He wanted to hold on to that feeling.

“Whatever Jacobi took to be the theme common to these claims was never made clear.  And Jacobi cited his authorities just as indiscriminately…  his whole discourse infused with a tone of pious self-righteousness that fully deserved the charge of Schwarmerei [enthusiast]…

In the general confusion, the fundamental weakness in Jacobi’s confrontation with Spinoza went unnoticed.  Jacobi was relying on immediate intuition for the fundamental criterion of the truth that he saw.  Yet Spinoza, as Jacobi recognized, had operated on the strength of a conviction just as vital.”


What Jacobi had done was extract the insight of Spinoza’s immanent theory of God/substance and absorb it into his own personal transcendent theory.  The intellectual intuition required to achieve Spinoza’s infinite substance became the basis for a new faith that transformed the individual thinking agent into a kind of vehicle speeding towards transcendence.  It sped away from the carefully crafted system of Spinoza but stole along with it the naturalist insight that each individual is a finite, limited mode moving within an unknowable infinite existence.

Jacobi had hit on a truly profound consequence of Spinoza: as finite modes our human consciousness of God as an infinite substance (that is also the only true cause and the cause of itself) stands in a position that will forever be lacking.  The geometrical proofs that Spinoza laid out to get to that moment were not to be taken seriously.  Jacobi’s ‘real’ simply could not be a substance that conscious thought could ever adequately represent, what was real for him was his own existence and the relationships between persons.  Since the Spinozist finite mind stood in a sublime shock at the awesome infinite, the experience could be spirited away and reinterpreted as a moment of faith.

Faith became a conflated word in his hands, it absorbed the immanent intuition found in Spinoza while retaining its transcendent features.  To say “I believe,” “I have faith” is an individual statement demarcating one from another (non-believers).  The Spinozist intuition makes no demand on the affirmations and utterances of the individual.  His insight comes from following reflections on existence rationally.  With Jacobi this process creates an impossible situation in which an individual is supposed to reach the infinite while the individual doing the reflecting is destroyed (so to speak).  That moment of realization, when one’s existence is felt to be only a tiny speck within an infinite whole, is one of the main points of Spinozism.  But Jacobi used that moment of ego-loss for his own ends.  What’s striking is that he could find that moment in explaining Spinoza’s metaphysics only to run away from it and back to his pietist roots.

This was to be the excuse for denouncing all metaphysics and returning to the ‘real world.’  The same metaphysics that allowed Jacobi to experience the intellectual intuition of the infinite suddenly became an oppressive edifice holding down his personal autonomy.  He forces a choice between Spinoza and the personal God from within Spinoza’s own system.  He was able to do this (though he truly convinced nobody) because he exploited the gap between the ontological and epistemological: whereas Spinoza goes straight for the arguments for existence, Jacobi will find the thinking, reflecting individual destroyed only to be regenerated in a new and greater faith.  Somehow this new faith justified abandoning philosophy entirely.

Jacobi’s anti-philosophical ‘real,’ having extracted the intellectual intuition from Spinoza only to turn away from him, brought him close to his friends doing historical studies into the development of reason.  Like others in the enlightenment era he saw that building tight arguments starting from first principles and meant to be the final word on matters metaphysical could not stand forever.  Rationalism needed reform and needed to reform itself.  He attempted to do this while still clinging to his pietist tendencies.  What’s most intriguing is that he decided to stop short of going for a full historicist theory and opted instead for the religious.

“… Jacobi was making the point that, to resolve the problem, rationality could not be based on metaphysical abstractions but had to be defined – though Jacobi did not spell out how – in terms of relations between actual individuals.  Theory of rationality and theory of human individuality had to be inextricably bound together.

This was an extremely important philosophical point to make.  And if Jacobi had himself seen it and stated it clearly and distinctly, he would have indeed cut himself loose, once and for all, from the prejudices of classical metaphysics.  He would have succeeded at least in making explicit the parameters of what we might call (for lack of a better name) a theory of “historical reason.”  Any such theory would not be concerned with reason as presiding (so to speak) over creation of the physical universe, either as a system of laws that govern every detail of existence without regard to individuality or (in the way the philosophers of the Enlightenment had tried to invest the universe of Newtonian physics with finality) as a system of ends that God conceived at creation and realized (also without regard to individuality) through the general laws of physics.  Its concern, rather, would be with rationality as it emerges through human actions – within relations between human individuals and (as Jacobi would insist) between human individuals and God, which relations establish meanings and values that are absolute yet never to be abstracted from the historical contexts within which they arise.  Jacobi had a model of a rationality of this sort in the classical sources he constantly cited.  “Natural right,” in its more classical formulations, had more to do with the dignity of persons (which can never be emptied of the historical content) than with any cosmic theory.  These sources, rather than the ideology of the standard liberalism of his day, had been the real inspiration behind Jacobi’s defense of individual freedoms in his early political writings.

… Jacobi knew of those who – as , for instance, Herder and Moser – were trying to understand rationality developmentally.  And he recognized that interest in the particularity of historical events was what motivated them.  But Jacobi could not see how their “historical system” (their “historicism,” as we would now call it) was any improvement over the metaphysical system of the traditional philosophers.  In both cases the present was reduced to something else that undermined its absolute standing while explaining it; the only difference was that, whereas the metaphysician took the abstract concept as their explanatory principle, the proponents of the new historical system replaced it with the “past.”  In both cases the individual rooted in the present was being relativized, exactly what Spinoza had done and the very opposite of what the proponents of the historical system intended.  But it was there in the present that Jacobi made his stand.”


Much of the debates seen during the crisis of Enlightenment rationality feel familiar.  Historicism is still a maligned word and traditionalist arguments for a return to religion continue to be made.  With Jacobi we can see a profound thinker who went deep into the thought of the radical Spinoza and even enhanced his reputation, if without intending to.  His professed “love” of Spinoza also came with a misunderstanding of the spirit of Spinoza’s metaphysics, and if we want to be derogatory we could say that he stole and repurposed Spinoza’s insight for the sake of casting philosophy as a whole aside.  It’s within this one man that we can see both a passion for philosophy and reaction against it.

The ethical and political concerns would persist: how where human rights to be protected when the cutting edge of reform was naturalist in inspiration?  The Spinozist model seemed perfect and brought with it a dedication to tolerance, freedom of speech, and democratic government but it can come off as constraining.  The all-consuming rational-naturalism comes to the reader pre-packaged and can feel to some like it is squeezing the freedom right out of them.  Spinoza’s Ethics creates a sense of empowerment by carefully explaining how joy is produced in the combination of bodies into a greater active power.  Both mind and body improve from this expanding capacity for action and collective aggregation.  It does not say where to stop, only that nature evens itself out, so to speak.  Some people it seems cannot live without ends to live for, even after understanding the power of naturalist thought.

It would be some years later that Jacobi would use his invented term ‘nihilism’ to attack his friend Fichte but we can already see the religious reaction to philosophy in the Spinoza Letters.  The drama of Jacobi and Fichte will have to wait for another post.  

The connection with Spinozist naturalism and the charge of nihilism runs through Jacobi.  Perhaps he stood in for the mind or mode of thinking that stops short of the naturalist infinite in order to preserve another.  After all, it wasn’t so much one theory or another that kept nature or the great chain of being from achieving a greater status in the minds of Europeans but the events and actors of the French Revolution.

Author: billrosethorn

(Geo)Philosopher. Building bridges between populism and geopolitics for fellow earthlings.

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