Monday, 1 July 2019

Hegel and Jacobi on Skepticism and Christianity

Portrait of F.H. Jacobi (1743-1819), by Johann Friedrich Eich, 1780.
This post is a reading of F.H. Jacobi’s Letters on Spinoza (1785) and dialogue David Hume on Faith (1787) with a view to shedding light on Hegel's view of the relationship between skepticism and Christianity in the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).

An enduring legacy of Hegel was his idea of particular philosophical positions as inter-related both with each other and with broader movements in society. However, I find the particular move from skepticism to what is apparently an early Christian view of the world in the Self-consciousness chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), paras 206-12, hard to fathom. Skepticism and Christianity have long co-existed, so the progression needs to be justified as argument rather than taken as historical narrative. As Jacobi was well-known to Hegel and wrote on both topics, I turned to Jacobi's early works in search of the sources of Hegel's ideas.

F.H. Jacobi

Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) was a major intellectual conversation partner for Hegel, who wrote a chapter on him in the essay Faith and Knowledge (1802), reviewed his Collected Works (1815) and discussed his theory of “immediate knowledge” in the Encyclopaedia (1827, 1830). We find in Jacobi discussions of the unchangeableness of God and skepticism in close proximity. These shed some light on Hegel’s vocabulary in discussing these subjects, though the necessary connection that Hegel suggests between the basic ideas is missing.

Jacobi was from near Düsseldorf and worked in his family's merchant business in Frankfurt and Geneva in his early years. He became a Privy Counsellor and worked on the reform of economic and taxation policy in a small German principality and then in Bavaria. In the 1770s, Jacobi published two novels, The Papers of Eduard Allwill and Woldemar, as well as essays on French literature and political and economic subjects. In 1779, he became financially independent through an inheritance and returned to live near Düsseldorf where he developed his literary and scientific interests. These are known to have included works of the Swiss-French Enlightenment – as is apparent from the dialogue on Hume - and Spinoza’s philosophy. His philosophical works, Letters on Spinoza (1785) and David Hume (1787) are both cited in Hegel's Faith and Knowledge. At one point, Jacobi considered moving to Glasgow to study medicine (di Giovanni, 281). He knew personally and corresponded with figures known to Hegel, including Goethe, Herder, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Hamann, Lavater, Diderot and Hemsterhuis. He is a bridge between Anglo-French philosophical literature and that of Germany.

Letters on Spinoza

Jacobi’s fame grew when he published Letters to Moses Mendelssohn on the Theory of Spinoza (1785), which elaborated Jacobi’s claim that Gottfried Lessing had been a Spinozist at the end of his life. Mendelssohn (1729-86) died the following year and his Morgenstunden (Morning Hours, 1785) contains his response. This and the resulting literature became known as the Pantheismusstreit and dates to Hegel’s early years at Tübingen. Herder's God (1787) was another discussion of Spinoza. Spinoza at the time was widely seen as a pantheist and fatalist. The Letters on Spinoza analysed the relations of reason to revelation, the concept of a personal God and Spinoza’s rationalist view of religion. Lessing followed Spinoza, according to Jacobi, in deducing from the principle that nothing comes from nothing (ex nihilo, nihil fit), that “The first cause cannot act in accordance with intentions or final causes.” (di Giovanni, 188) It must thus be eternal, necessary and, if thought in relation to time, unchanging. Jacobi writes:
“Lessing could not accept the idea of a personal, absolutely infinite being in unfailing enjoyment [in dem unveränderliche Genuße] of his supreme perfection. He associated an image of such infinite boredom with it, that he was troubled and pained by it. [...] Several people can testify that Lessing often and emphatically referred to the hen kai pan [one and all] as the sum-concept of his theology and philosophy. He spoke it and wrote it whenever the occasion presented itself, as his definitive motto.” (di Giovanni, 197-99)
Jacobi employs the impersonal terminology for God in his exposition of Spinoza that we find in Hegel’s transition from skepticism to the divided consciousness, namely “the unchangeable” (das Unwandelbar). There are two such terms used interchangeably, unwandelbar (unchangeable) and unveränderlich (unalterable). Thus Jacobi, in expounding Spinoza, refers to “an indwelling cause of the world, eternally unalterable within itself” (eine inwohnende, ewig in sich unveränderliche Ursache der Welt). We find several instances in the exposition of Spinoza that Jacobi sent to Hemsterhuis then forwarded to Mendelssohn. I will give the German to make this clear:
III. Von Ewigkeit her ist also den Wandelbaren bei dem Unwandelbaren, das Endliche bei dem Unendlichen gewesen, und wer ein Beginnen des Endlichen annimmt, der nimmt ein Entstehen aus dem Nichts an.
X. Das Erste [...] das Ur-sein, das allgegenwärtige unwandelbare Wirkliche [...] dieses einzige unendliche Wesen aller Wesen nennt Spinoza Gott, oder die Substanz.
III. From all eternity therefore, the changeable has been with the unchangeable, the finite with the infinite, and whoever supposes a beginning of the finite, also assumes an origination from nothingness.
X The first [...] the primal being, the ever-present unchangeable real [...] this unique and infinite being of all beings Spinoza calls “God”, or substance. (di Giovanni, 217-19)
(Hauptschriften, 144-49; see also I, V, XVI).
The similarity of terminology is not so clear in di Giovanni’s translation, which uses “permanent”, “unalterable” or “unfailing” for unwandelbar, as opposed to the “Unchangeable” of Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology. The fame of the Pantheismusstreit in Germany would have assured the currency of this vocabulary among Hegel’s audience.

It is worth noting in passing that the reference to Spinoza as a “dead dog” and to Spinozism as a “spectre haunting Germany” (di Giovanni, 232) suggest that the fame of the Pantheismusstreit lasted into the era of Marx, as witness the start of the Communist Manifesto (1848) and Afterword to Capital (1873). There has been some discussion of late (possibly more) about the Spinoza-Marx connection.

The second edition of the Spinoza Letters (1789) was twice as long and contained seven essays appended to the main text. In the first of these (1.IV) we read of the world as a whole: “in der Tat das Ganze und jener Teil, der Substanz nach, nur Eins ist. Diese nannte daher Parmenides mit recht das Eine, Unendliche, Unwandelbare.” (in fact, the whole and each part, according to substance, is only one. This Parmenides rightly named the One, Infinite, Unchangeable.” (Hauptschriften, 221) Here we see another precedent for Hegel’s idea of the Unchangeable in the Phenomenology, in which he goes out of his way to mention Plato's dialogue of that name at a key point (para 71). It is part of a heterodox tradition of natural theology dating back to Parmenides, but whose main modern representative was Spinoza. The idea of God as unchanging is found in the Bible (e.g. Malachi 3.6), but clearly not in a sense incompatible with personhood or the bearing of purposes. The question between Jacobi and Mendelssohn was whether the theology of Spinoza’s Ethics (1677) could be reworked as a rational underpinning of the biblical theology of Spinoza’s broadly rationalist Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670). Mendelssohn argued in two chapters of Morning Hours that this was feasible. Jacobi objected to the idea. The Spinoza Letters finishes in an impassioned polemical sermon the tone of which can probably be explained partly by personal ill-health and tensions, but also because Christianity is less easily reconcilable to a purely rationalist reading of scripture than the version of Judaism espoused by Mendelssohn.

Jacobi cites Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: “I want now to call this pure, original unchangeable consciousness transcendental apperception.” (A107; Hauptschriften, 156-57n) One feature of Hegel’s treatment of the unchangeable in the emergence of the divided consciousness from skepticism is its dual status in part as metaphysical substrate, but also in an ambiguously subjective mode. The relation of these is a key to Chapter Four of the Phenomenology. Both are present in Jacobi, but mere juxtaposition does not shed light on the logical relations between the two themes.

Title Page of First Edition of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670).

David Hume on Belief

The Pantheismusstreit was the literary-philosophical background for Jacobi’s next work, David Hume on Faith, or Realism and Idealism (1787). This is a compression of three intended dialogues on Hume’s concept of belief, the realist theory of perception, and the rationalism of Leibniz respectively. It is particularly the first of these that sheds light on the debates on skepticism in Hegel’s day. The everyday German term der Glaube covers both "faith" and "belief" in English.

In both the Letters on Spinoza and David Hume, Jacobi cites Pascal’s epigram that “Nature confounds the Pyrrhonians, and reason the dogmatists.” (di Giovanni, 204, 254) We live only through belief, but these beliefs are not immune to inquiry (skepsis). We can see in this the same desire to incorporate skepticism within a philosophy that is found in Hegel’s essay on Schulze, though the resources brought to the task are different. We find the same ambition earlier in the Phenomenology, when Hegel says that universal skepticism about phenomenal consciousness "renders the spirit for the first time competent to examine what truth is." (para 78)

Jacobi cites Hume’s Enquiries (1748-51), particularly the closing essay “On the Academic or Sceptical Philosophy”. There was a German translation of these in 1754. As happened in British 18th century philosophy (Thomas Reid, Richard Price, John Taylor), Jacobi seeks to correct Hume’s description of belief as a species of “sentiment or feeling” not subject to the will. In place of the idea of it as “a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object” (Hume, 1975, 271), Jacobi recovers the idea of logical judgement about an object external to the mind. He falls short of Condillac (and James Mylne in Glasgow) by asserting that belief in external objects is immediate, rather than inferred from the sense of touch.

In passing, we find reference to “the concept” in the sense of the concept( s) by which God creates the world. This matches the idealised use of the term in Hegel.

The second part of the dialogue, on the realist theory of perception, draws us further into the worlds of Thomas Reid and the Swiss thinker Charles Bonnet amongst others. Jacobi refers earlier to Bonnet “whose Collected Works I had just about learned by heart”. (di Giovanni, 197) He cites Bonnet:
“collect your being at the point of a simple perception, so that you become once and for all aware [...] that the I and the Thou, the internal consciousness and the external object, must be present both at once in the soul, even in the most primordial and simple of perception.” (di Giovanni, 277)
This evokes the omnipresence of selfhood in perception, on lines familiar to readers of Condillac and James Mylne. Jacobi then discusses temporality in relation to the nature of causality. He thinks that reasons cannot explain causal change.

In the third part, the idea of existence outside the mind leads on to a discussion of the ontological argument and whether existence is a predicate. He argues, citing an early essay by Kant, that existence is not a relation to a thing, but the thing itself.

History and Society

In the Leibniz section of the Hume dialogue, Jacobi writes in the person of his conversation partner:
“My opinion is that the hereditary flaw of mankind, its primordial cancer, is that it ignores the kernel for the husk, the real thing for the mere show, the essence from the form. Religion has everywhere degenerated into ceremonies and superstition; civil union into political machinery; philosophy into prattle; art into industry. And why should not reason too degenerate into the mere use of its forms and methods.” (di Giovanni, 319)
This dates from 1787, i.e. before the start of the French Revolution and indicates a source of Christian social criticism independent of the Deism/Atheism of the revolutionaries. This was also present in the Whig compatriots of James Mylne in Glasgow. It is remarkable that Hegel gives little direct attention to the Christian Enlightenment in Francophone Europe, i.e. Condillac and Bonnet. It may thus be that he uses Jacobi as a stand-in for them. Hegel’s own enthusiasm for the French Revolution as an event was later qualified by similar reservations to Jacobi’s about the nature and implications of its underlying ideology.

On history, Jacobi writes: “Surely the keen and serious observer cannot fail to notice that all our knowledge is based on positivity, and the moment we abandon the latter, we end up in dreams and empty fictions. [...] we must accept that at any given time the composition of human reason is determined by the way of the world, – and never by reason on its own.” (di Giovanni, 320-324) Here we find not only Hegelian vocabulary, but thoughts reworked by Hegel in the light of his own historically-informed rationalism. Jacobi also wrote of two patriotic Spartans mentioned by Plutarch:
“They had no philosophy, or rather, their philosophy was just history. And can living philosophy ever be anything but history? As are the objects, so too are the ideas; as the ideas, so the desires and passions; as the desires and passions, so too the actions; as the actions so the principles and the whole of knowledge. What caused the swift and universal reception of the doctrine of a Helvetius or a Diderot? Nothing but the fact that the doctrine really captured within itself the truth of the century.” (di Giovanni, 239)
This truth of the century was disputed, albeit in different ways, by Jacobi and Hegel. It led Jacobi to reject Spinoza (“Spinozism is atheism.” di Giovanni, 233) and Hegel to rework him through the idea that substance was also subject. From their similarities, it is easy to see why Hegel would have chosen Jacobi as a literary conversation partner. Hegel's particular account of skepticism and Christianity in the Self-consciousness chapter of the Phenomenology is not repeated in the Berlin Phenomenology. However, skepticism remained a station of thought for him.


The fundamental ideas of skepticism, the unchangeable nature of God and the omnipresence of self-consciousness are clearly expressed by Jacobi, but Hegel’s concept of their relationship in the Self-consciousness chapter of the Phenomenology is either original to him or stems from other sources. It may be that we need to look to Parmenides, as presented in Plato's dialogue of that name, and to Sextus Empiricus, who preserved many fragments of Parmenides, for the tradition of natural theology that emerges from the skeptical consciousness in the Phenomenology.

There are many instances in literary history when skeptical doubt gives way to faith: the book of Ecclesiastes, the Meditations of Descartes and, in a different key, the writings of Pascal, for example. However, there are other occasions where doubt succeeds religious certainty: Pierre Bayle and David Hume for instance travel in the opposite direction, towards doubt and resignation. The progression of ideas in Hegel towards the divided consciousness cannot be explained then as a mere recounting of history. Hence we are entitled to look to more recent writers to understand the relations of ideas at work. In this regard the Pantheismusstreit is clearly a significant event in German theological culture that Hegel absorbed in his early years. It rivals Kant as an influence on Hegel and in some areas overshadows the Leibniz-Wolff tradition of metaphysical rationalism. Hegel engaged with it, but he also incorporates other elements into the structure of the Phenomenology.

Jacobi went on to criticise the post-Kantian idealists, including Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. He considered them drawn to abstractions and used the term "nihilism" to describe the result of what he thought their error. Hegel in turn continued to object to Jacobi's insistence on "immediate knowledge" as not giving reason is due as a component of human knowledge and piety. These later developments are beyond the scope of this essay.


Altmann, Alexander. Moses Mendelssohn: a biographical Study. London: Littman, 1998.
Buée, Jean-Michel. Savoir immédiat et savoir absolu: la lecture de Jacobi par Hegel. Paris: Garnier, 2011.
Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. T. Pinkard. Cambridge: UP, 2018.
Hegel, G.W.F. The Berlin Phenomenology. Ed. Petry, M.J. Riedel, 1981.
Hume, David. Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and the Principles of Morals. 1748-51. Oxford: UP, 1975.
Hume, David. Vermischte Schriften. Hamburg, 1754.
Jacobi, F.H. The Main Philosophical Writings and the Novel Allwill. Ed. di Giovanni. Montreal: McGill UP, 1994; pb. 2009.
Jacobi, F.H. and Mendelssohn, M. Die Hauptschriften zum Pantheismusstreit. Hrsg. Scholz. Berlin: Reuther, 1916 [Orig. 1912].
[There are also Meiner editions of Jacobi’s German texts.]
Kuehn, Manfred. Scottish Common Sense in Germany, 1768-1800. Montreal: McGill, 1987.
Mendelssohn, Moses. Last Works. Illinois: UP, 2012. [This contains the Morning Hours. There is another translation by Dahlstrom.]
Sandkaulen, Birgit. Jacobis Philosophie: Über den Widerspruch zwischen System und Freiheit. Meiner, 2019 [Not seen, but has three chapters on Hegel].

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