Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Practices of the EnlightenmentAesthetics, By (author)ship, and the Public$

Dorothea von Mücke

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780231172462

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231172462.001.0001

Show Summary Details

Mobilizing a Critical Public

Mobilizing a Critical Public

(p.219) 12 Mobilizing a Critical Public
The Practices of the Enlightenment

Dorothea E. von Mücke

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines some of the writing and publication strategies that invoked and expanded existing conventions of the traditional republic of letters, making deliberate use of the vernacular, and consciously provoked and called attention to questions of authority and censorship. It begins with an analysis of Immanuel Kant's programmatic essay “What Is Enlightenment?” in the context of the academy competitions as a reflection on the expansion of the conventions of the republic of letters. It then discusses Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's so-called theological writings and how he postulates a radically different public from the corporate model he is criticizing. It interprets Lessing's writings on religion as active interventions in the position of authority claimed by theologians in matters of belief. It shows that the relatively deregulated, open boundary between the group that constitutes an audience or readership and the group that publishes positions, findings, opinions, and theories as polemicists, reviewers, scholars, or scientists constitutes the crucial background for Kant's and Lessing's model of a critical public that would further the cause of the Enlightenment.

Keywords:   republic of letters, authority, censorship, Immanuel Kant, Enlightenment, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, public, religion, audience, readership

The critical public sphere analyzed in this part of my study has little in common with the category of “public opinion.” Understood in the mid-eighteenth century as a relatively conservative category, as a consensus about common values and morality, by the end of the century public opinion became an increasingly important factor in political decisions, a critical instance to be reckoned with, that might require a certain degree of governmental transparency and disclosure.1 These aspects of a public sphere and public opinion that involve a collective and basically tacit attitude, be it consensual or be it factitious, partisan, or political, in reaction to the press, newspapers and pamphlets, an (imagined) readership, which, at best, can “vote” with its feet by buying or reading a publication or not, will be bracketed for the purposes of the following sections. Instead, I shall focus on a contentious and individualistic model of a critical reader, a reader who can challenge the authority of a publication in terms of a rebuttal or a correction. To put it simply: the model I am interested in involves an audience whose members are critical and active to the extent that they can respond to and challenge what they read, an audience that shares the same time and space as the written texts to which it can potentially reply in public.2 In that sense we are dealing with a “live” audience that is modeled on the debate among equals as it has been practiced throughout earlymodern times in the scholarly community. In this spirit I have chosen three eighteenth-century texts for closer reexamination in order to make a case that not only allows us to see one aspect of a historically distant (p.220) period differently but also provides an occasion to rethink issues we are concerned with in our own academic disputes here and now.

In what follows I shall trace the programmatic conceptualization of a public sphere as a writing and publication practice that is open to, even provokes a reply from, its readers and hence implies a model of a live audience. This, however, does not mean that this audience model has to be imagined as a return to an exclusively oral/aural culture. Quite to the contrary: throughout history these aspects of oral/aural culture have formed all kinds of alliances with written and print culture. Throughout earlymodern times the scholarly community relied on writing and print in its communications. Moreover, the second half of the eighteenth century, the period that is of my primary concern, witnesses both a sharp increase in printed materials as well as in the general literacy rate. This latter set of circumstances has led most studies to relate the emergence of the public sphere during the eighteenth century primarily or even exclusively to some aspect of print culture. What tends to be overlooked in those studies however, is how the oral/aural component figures in the emergence of an emphatically critical public sphere, namely the interventionist aspect of an audience that can “talk back” and challenge the authority of the written or printed text.3 I shall show how Lessing’s and Kant’s conceptualization of a critical public works with two kinds of implied audiences that complement each other, which we have seen analyzed in Herder’s essay on the nature of the ancient and the modern public: an “ideal audience” modeled on the readership of a printed text, which means a primarily anonymous audience that is independent of the restrictions of time and place, and a “real audience” that is modeled on the crowd that would attend a public performance or the debate between scholars, whether the latter is carried out orally or, more commonly, by way of letters.

Late into the eighteenth century the res publica literaria, the commonwealth of learning, referred to everybody who participated in the world of scholarship, science, and learning by way of publishing, by being in touch with each other, by exchanging letters and visiting each other. It comprised a mixed group of professions, including librarians, archivists, university professors, theologians, and historians holding public office as well as independent, private scholars, medical doctors, and naturalists. While most of these people lived in actual monarchies, in their imagined community they conceived of themselves as inhabitants of an international, cosmopolitan republic, held together by its lingua franca Latin. (p.221) Beginning in the late seventeenth century, the republic of letters begins to undergo major changes until it finally dissolves or is eventually replaced by the English-speaking “scientific community.” The main challenge to the traditional republic of letters comes from its gradual acceptance of the vernacular as the language of scholarly communication and publication. For the switch to the vernacular extended the potential membership to previously excluded parties such as women and the less educated. On the one hand, the abolition of Latin quickly called for other criteria of exclusion and of evaluating the status of a publication (such as its scholarly validity, its market value, popularity, or its originality). On the other hand, the switch from Latin to the vernacular also introduced other linguistic barriers, namely the ones of national languages, which made the scholarlycommunity much less cosmopolitan. Such changes were not introduced all at once. They occurred at different speeds, in different locales, at different times, and in the context of different institutional settings.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, universities, whose mission consisted primarily in teaching, were more or less dependent on the ruling government, more or less subject to censorship of religious and governmental authorities.4 At the same time, especially in the eighteenth century, there were also numerous academies and learned societies, which had their own set of relationships to the princely courts and cities. They were generally independent from the university, with its hierarchy of faculties and its disciplinary structure. To some extent these academies were comparable to today’s “interdisciplinary” institutes. They were dedicated to research and learning, they varied in the degree of exclusivity of how they selected their members, offering places to gather and discuss, but generally had no salaried positions.5 Finally, there were also an increasing number and range of journal publications covering a wide spectrum of interests and foci, including moral weeklies, fashion and luxury publications, arts and theater reviews. What this overview of the changing and varied landscape of the institutions, venues, and associations of higher learning during the seventeenth and eighteenth century should make clear is participation in these institutions and their publications varied enormously not only in terms of the language of publication, the required knowledge and expertise, but of course also in terms of the specific editorial and submission policies, their particular specialization and mission. The point I want to make with this brief sketch of this aspect of the institutional and publication context is simple: by the second half of the (p.222) eighteenth century there is a changing, relatively deregulated situation for becoming an author and presenting oneself as a scholar and member of the republic of learning, a situation that in some ways might be actually comparable to the changes happening today, from the introduction of the Internet and Internet publishing to the establishment of many interdisciplinary institutes and the changing editorial and submission policies of learned journals.

In what follows I will show that the relatively deregulated, open boundary between the group that constitutes an audience or readership and the group that publishes positions, findings, opinions, and theories as polemicists, reviewers, scholars, or scientists constitutes the crucial background for Kant’s and Lessing’s model of a critical public that would further the cause of the Enlightenment. In the case of Kant, with which I begin my analysis, it is primarily the open boundary as it is modeled on the changing nature of the republic of letters, more specifically the format of the academic essay competition. In the case of Lessing, a much wider context and spectrum of publications comes into play. For Lessing inhabited and transformed various public spheres: the journalistic world of art and theater reviews in Berlin, the world of the theater, as director of one of the repertory stages (i. e. the Nationaltheater in Hamburg), and the world of the philologist, scholar, and editor/publisher as the Duke of Saxony’s chief librarian in Wolffenbüttel. Lessing, as we shall see, also engages with the model of learned disputes among scholars, but with far more polemical edge and vehemence than Kant. Whereas Kant’s model of a public sphere as expressed in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?” could be also characterized as an essay on institution making, the two texts by Lessing on which I focus capture some of the essential aspects of his writings on religion and theology. In the eighteenth century it is the discourse on religion, the attacks and defenses of doctrinal points, and the debates over the authority of Scripture that constitute the most fertile, because most incendiary, ground for public debate, an aspect that most studies involved with histories, theories, and models of the public sphere have overlooked so far.6

Was ist Aufklärung?

In 1784 the Berlin Academy awarded its prize to Kant’s essay in response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” In his answer Kant chooses not to address the problem of what he calls “our self-imposed tutelage” (p.223) by proposing a pedagogical program. This refusal to seek recourse in a scenario of education is highly significant and surprising given the general pedagogical bent of the era. It also makes perfect sense, of course, for no teacher figure can wean us from our dependence on authority; in other words, no teacher figure can undertake the task of Enlightenment in this emphatic sense.7 Instead of pedagogy, Kant envisions a system in which all reliance on authority figures has already been replaced by the process of rational debate. However, this abolition of all authority figures is not the result of a drastic, violent revolution, but instead the effect of a suspension of all forms of censorship on the part of the state. The state’s cessation of censorship is to be achieved through a guarantee of institutional stability, which ensures that all change will be gradual. Public officials, professionals, and administrators will not criticize and change what they are called to do as long as they are speaking from within their office. This safeguard could also be described as a system of self-censorship: anybody who wants to participate in open, rational debate can do so provided he or she does not speak or write from his position as an official or professional, relying on his institutional authority. Kant calls this speaking as a “private” person:

By “public use of one’s own reason,” however, I mean the use of it some-one makes as a scholar in view of the entire public of the reading world. I call “private” the use someone is permitted to make of his reason in a certain civic post or office entrusted to him. Now, some undertakings that affect the interests of the polity necessitate a certain mechanism by virtue of which some members of the polity need only conduct themselves in a passive way in order for the government to direct them, by means of an artificial unanimity, toward public purposes or at least to prevent them from foiling these purposes. Here, then, it is indeed impermissible to reason; one must obey instead.8

Kant uses private to describe something entirely different from what is commonly understood by the term (the realm of intimacy, family or unof-ficial business). Kant’s use of it is still shaped by its Latin etymology: it means “deprived” (the way someone holding the military rank of “private soldier” is deprived of certain rights), describing someone to whom certain ways of expressing his opinion can be legitimately denied. For Kant, someone in a “private” speaking position is deprived of the right to speak his or her mind. Instead, he or she is obliged to speak as a professional (p.224) bound by loyalty to a specific institutional mission: the pastor who speaks from the pulpit and the public hygiene commissioner who gives advice on immunization matters, for instance, speak as private persons.

Kant’s significant turn away from the pedagogical paradigm of his time is marked by his seeking the solution to the problem of man’s self-imposed tutelage exclusively in the free debate of a public sphere. He conceives of the speaking role of the participant in this public sphere in traditional terms, describing him as a Gelehrter (scholar) who has recourse to rational faculties in order to address the totality of a reading audience, i. e., who does not merely seek to recruit this or that local audience: “By ‘public use of one’s own reason,’ however, I mean the use of it someone makes as a scholar in view of the entire public of the reading world.” Significantly, Kant does not specify any subject area or special qualifications of the Gelehrter, such as the knowledge of ancient languages and the ability to communicate in Latin; instead the term stands for somebody who has qualified himself by publishing. The “entire public of the reading world” must clearly be understood as distinct from the audience of oral speech, a public that is limited in that it shares the same space and time with its speaker or what Herder calls the reales Publikum (real audience). Kant, by contrast, defines the participants of his public sphere as speakers who address what Herder calls an ideales Publikum, or what we might call a virtual audience, to the extent that all possible potential readers are included.9 The scholar (Gelehrter) in Kant’s text is quite simply an “author.” The only other qualification required of aspiring participants in the public sphere is designated by a curious double negative: they must not speak from the officially restricted position of a “private” person.10

Why, we might ask, does Kant choose not to characterize this speaker as someone who speaks as a human being in a fundamental sense, who adopts the positions of a critic of civilization, imagining a natural human being, or of an unprejudiced observer? Are these not the typical speaker positions one would adopt when undertaking the project of Enlightenment? The contrast with these well-established speaking positions illustrates what Kant gains by his somewhat awkward double negative of the nonrestricted, the nonprivate: he designates the position of those who are to participate in public debate with a deliberate blank that can be filled in a variety of ways while steering clear of the restrictions of a specific institution or office. This openness permits Kant to optimize the inclusivity of his public sphere. Its participants need no special qualification or permission; quite (p.225) to the contrary, they are distinguished by not being explicitly authorized or charged in their speaking position. This qualification, which consists in not being qualified, is one feature the members of Kant’s Enlightenment public sphere share with the modern public intellectual.

Of course, the abdication of one’s speaking position as a “private” person as the precondition to participation in public debate implies that the aspiring author must not only make up her or his own mind but also give up the authority that comes with investiture in the “private,” institutionally sanctioned office. For the audience of this kind of public discourse, this means that any position needs to be examined precisely because it does not come with a stamp of preapproval. Public debate in a Kantian sense thus means a free, open, uncensored exchange in a sphere isolated against the pressures of decision making and immediate action. Speakers/authors and the audience occupy positions that are, at least in principle, exchangeable;no one holds privileged authority; no one is entitled to teach others—or everyone is entitled to adopt the position of instructor; in other words, as long as the participants do not speak from an official position, the ensuing public debate will be of the widest common interest and appeal.

To understand the significance of Kant’s essay we need to look more closely at its historical context. Kant’s prize-winning essay captures an important Enlightenment model of the public sphere rooted in the historical reality of a specific social segment: the highly educated state officials trained in law, the medical doctors, the Protestant ministers, the schoolteachers and university professors, who had to respect certain limitations when speaking within the institutional limits of their profession. Now it was this very same group whose members had sufficient learning to participate as scholars and authors in debates addressing such ques-tions as: “What is Enlightenment?”—“Was man, left to his own devices, without divine assistance, capable of inventing language, or must we assume that human language was a divine gift?”—“What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by Natural Law?”—“Which influence ought the government exercise on science and the liberal arts? And which influence ought the sciences and the liberal arts exercise on the government?”—“Ought the government to be permitted to deceive the people for the latter’s own good?” These are only some of the most famous questions formulated and announced as essay competitions by eighteenth-century academies ranging from Dijon and Berne to Berlin. To a certain extent, especially if one looks at the kind of questions and (p.226) the kind of people who participated in these academy competitions, they seem not much different from the traditional debates within the republic of letters. And yet in the ways they provide an interface between the egalitarian and exclusive debate among equals and an anonymous print audience of readers, such competitions demarcate a decisive moment in which the medium of print and the vernacular are mobilized to confront the traditional republic of letters with the kind of change that will ultimately mean its dissolution, a dissolution that occurs once the issue of quality control is entrusted to the literary market. The republic of letters is at this threshold, but it has not yet crossed it.11

The format of the essay competition is distinguished by the fact that it constrains an anonymous, potentially unlimited print audience into an equally anonymous but limited group of readers of the journals that announce the academy questions and the conditions for manuscript submissions. Such competitions serve not only to initiate a debate but also to situate it in real time and introduce pragmatic pressure by setting a deadline and announcing that the best manuscript will be published. This format automatically infuses the issue under debate with a certain aspect of relevance and urgency. Kant’s public sphere presupposes the medium of print to the extent that it is based on the model of free exchange between enlightened authors who circulate and debate their positions among each other (which they could also do via oral communication or private letters), but simultaneously aims at a more general reading public that is not overly restricted either spatially or temporally (in Herder’s words, an “ideal audience”). The historical case of the academy competitions shows us a fascinating way of combining the medium of print with an aspect of orality. Both the concrete question and the specific deadline of the competition interpellate a “live audience” of potential authors. The format thus calls attention to the threshold separating an anonymous readership from those who are known as authors of prizewinning contributions. It is relevant in this context that the manuscripts sent in for the essay competitions are anonymous to the jury until the winner has been determined. (Instead of the author’s name, the jury merely gets to see a motto that serves as an encoded identifier.) This means that authorship is, at least in principle, accessible to anybody who submits a manuscript. We might characterize Kant’s model of the public sphere as based on a particular historical transformation of the republic of letters in the age of printed journals: for a while, the expansion of print and the adoption of (p.227) the vernacular among scholars and philosophers open this republic to a wider, more general audience.12

This historical phase of opening up what have been until then fairly exclusive debates among scholars to a wider audience is not restricted to the culture of academies and learned societies. It is a phenomenon that has also left traces in the history of philosophy as a discipline. In the wake of Christian Thomasius’s programmatic use of the vernacular, philosophy sought to reach out to a wider audience. The popular philosopher Christian Wolff even coined the German word Weltweisheit (worldly wisdom) as an alternative to “philosophy,” which would mark the attempt to free the discipline from its dogmatic enclosure in the university setting as well as the tutelage exercised over it by the religious authorities. Yet philosophy did not last long in this dual role of “worldly wisdom” and “popular philosophy.” Although Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1776) and the two subsequent Critiques did not abandon the ambition to be accessible to a general readership, they placed such high demands on the audience’s capacity for abstract thought that their “real” audience at least became again quite limited. Still, Kant also managed to appeal to an “ideal” audience, which continues to read this “classic” of philosophical thought. After a relatively short phase of exotericism, philosophy once again became a much more exclusive enterprise and a terminologically highly codified academic discipline. And even during the time when popular philosophyflourished, the term Weltweiser, or philosopher, did not carry the provocative or programmatic weight its French equivalent, philosophe, had in the same period.13

The concrete historical example of the essay competitions illustrates that the great advantage of the format—its openness to a larger public and the appeal to any reader to become a contributing, active author—comes at a price with regard to possible critical, interventionist aspects of these debates. The actual choice and phrasing of the questions was the prerogative of powerful academy members and sometimes had to be negotiated with government officials. Usually these questions were framed as issues of broad general interest pertaining to the domain of philosophical anthropology or the philosophy of language or culture. The questions posed by the academy of Göttingen can be considered an exception in that they sought fairly concrete advice in legal, economic, and governmental issues, obviously assuming that “someone out there,” quite possibly a perfectly unknown someone, a layperson, might have the (p.228) best answer. In this sense the Göttingen academy betrayed an astonishing trust and openness toward the nonexpert, general public for advice in concerns that today would be instantly relegated to the authority of the expert, whose advice is hardly ever subjected to critique by nonexperts.14 However, even in the case of the Göttingen academy, the decisive element is the fact that the question is already predefined. An even more critical position would be achieved if the author had the opportunity to raise and frame the issue in the first place. Obviously, this is not the case with the academy competitions.

Yet if we return to Kant’s very own essay in response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” we can trace a concern with intervening in current discursive practices—a reflection on constructions of the public sphere with the goal of changing them. Kant’s initial definition of the public sphere as a debate among nonprofessionals and nonofficials, unre-strained by any form of censorship and marked by its exemption from pragmatic pressure, describes it as a unique situation. Only one master in the world, whose name or title Kant deliberately does not mention, says: “reason as much and about what you wish; but obey!”15 Only toward the end of his essay, exactly where Kant addresses the modalities of the impact these debates have, does he mention the Prussian prince (Fürst) by name and title as the ruler who must equally submit to reason and is thus obliged to respect the directions established by this kind of free, rational debate. Kant’s “What Is Enlightenment?” provides a uniquely systematic account of a public sphere conceived along strictly egalitarian, nonauthoritarian principles. The interventionist power of the public critic—if we turn to the example provided by Kant’s own essay—resides in the way he radically reframes and readdresses an issue of common concern. He severs Enlightenment from pedagogy and makes it dependent exclusively on the possibility of uncensored reasoning. He does not create the institutional reforms he demands, but instead describes realities as though they had already been implemented and appeals to the Prussian prince to subscribe to their efficacy.

In what follows I shall trace exactly this problematic of the public critic’s interventionist role in more detail. Lessing, like Kant, is committed to the project of Enlightenment as a persistent challenge to all authority and to the refusal to arrogate to himself the position of a teacher. He addresses the problem of the scholar’s or public speaker’s intervention by taking up the traditional value-coded opposition between “mere” verbal (p.229) reasoning and significant action. The two texts by Lessing at the center of my analysis present religion as the domain in which action has been valued more highly than mere reflection and talk. Debates over religion in the eighteenth century offer a fertile medium for attempts to stir up and intervene in constructions of the public sphere as well as for reflection on the role and moral makeup, and hence authority, of the speaker or writer.

Gelehrte Streitigkeiten/Learned Battles

“Victories determine the outcome of wars. But they are very ambiguous proofs of a just cause; or rather they are no such thing at all. Learned battles are just as much a kind of warfare as the little zuzus are a kind of dog. What difference does it make whether the battle is over a territory or an opinion; whether it is fought at the cost of blood or ink?”16 These are the opening lines of an unpublished 1750 manuscript in Lessing’s hand. Its title, “Über die Herrnhuter,” is somewhat misleading: thePietist community founded in 1720 by Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf in Herrnhut is addressed only toward the end of this short text, whereas the preceding pages engage, in far more general fashion, in a rather polemical argument about “the use and abuse” of man’s rational faculties. The analogy between little lapdogs and scholarly debates seems to reject the activity of reasoning as a frivolous, ultimately dispensable luxury. Ought one then to consider the engagement in scholarly debate a pure waste of time and turn to more practical, ethically relevant activities?17 As I shall show, this kind of conclusion is not what Lessing advocates. Indeed, throughout the text he debunks the very construction of such an alternative, as if it were possible to ignore the realm of verbal reasoning and focus exclusively on the realm of universally valid truths and the domain of ethically relevant action. Despite all the vanity, aggression, and frivolity they may involve, rational inquiry and learned debate cannot be left behind. However, we need to cultivate critical perspectives toward learned debates while engaging in them.

Instead of providing instructions for the development and cultivation of a critical perspective, Lessing confronts his readers with a text that remains entirely opaque unless one enters into a critical dialogue with it. Already in this early manuscript of Lessing’s we find a characteristic strategy of this Enlightenment author. He stages the argument of his text in such a way that his readers are provoked into exercising their capacity for critical (p.230) reasoning. And it is here that I situate the decisive difference between a pedagogical role and Lessing’s critical performance, which rejects precisely this pedagogical role. The statement, for instance, that “man was created for action and not for idle reasoning” (“Der Mensch war zum Tun und nicht zum Vernünfteln geboren”) has frequently been quoted as if it provided a summary of Lessing’s position on the tension between reason and action. A more careful analysis of how Lessing presents this statement, however, reveals that it does not permit this kind of appropriation. Instead, the apodictic tone suggesting a claim to universal truth offers Lessing an occasion to demonstrate the necessity of critical engagement. “Man was created for action and not for idle reasoning. But exactly because he was not created for the latter does he prefer it to the former. His evil nature always leads him to undertake what he ought not to do, and his daring, what he cannot do. He, man, should allow himself to be constrained?” (Lessing, Werke, 1:936). Beginning with a statement of what man is supposed to do and what his limits are, this short paragraph ends only two sentences later in free indirect speech, stating that same human being’s defiant challenge against any imposition of constraints. By the end of the paragraph, provided the reader engages each of the four sentences critically, the first sentence will have lost the appeal of a universally valid dictum and stand revealed as an authoritarian statement with a complex history. Already the second sentence—“But exactly because …”—appears to introduce a false conclusion, an illogical non sequitur: how can a creature that has been assigned a firm purpose in life choose to disregard its own limitations within the overall teleological plan? The sheer fact of transgression calls the validity of the initial assumption in question and turns what first seemed to be a statement about purposes and limitations set by nature or the creator into a statement about man-made injunctions and prohibitions that merely employ the rhetoric of teleology to create a semblance of authority.

The suspicion that this is indeed the thrust of Lessing’s critical performance is heightened by the lexical choice of the moralistic term Bosheit (evil nature). With this term Lessing switches the text’s tonal and discursive register. An apparently objective, value-free discourse of philosophical anthropology and psychology is suddenly revealed to be value coded, arising from a traditional interpretation of the Fall that negotiates the theological problem of defending a divine order of creation in its infinite goodness while acknowledging man’s fallen state. Without attribution and actual quotations, Lessing evokes this account of the origin of (p.231) evil not only to discredit and criticize the arbitrary imposition of a moral code through a definition of man but also because it provides a provocative and productive definition of man. In this sense, it gives an account of the origin of freedom by conceiving man as capable of turning away from divine love and the well-ordered garden of paradise, which—were it not for its moralizing investment—would not be all that different from a philosophical anthropology that conceives man as the creature of selffashioning, capable of overcoming any limitation.

There is no doubt that Lessing is a firm advocate for the active use of reason. What arouses Lessing’s criticism, even scorn, is not the activity of reasoning per se but rather the way this activity has been cultivated in the history of philosophy: its professionalization, the formation of rival schools, and its ever increasing specialization. Lessing concludes his overview of the history of philosophy with a desperate image of contemporary philosophy—its practitioners offer mathematical descriptions of the remotest astronomical problems but remain silent on moral issues:“Thus they fill the head, and the heart remains empty. They lead the mind into the most remote skies while the soul (Gemüt), with its passions, is ranked even beneath the beasts” (Lessing, Werke, 1:938). Contemporary philosophy, according to Lessing, has become an entirely self-absorbed activity of hyperspecialists; it is cognitively inaccessible to the layperson and seems not to care about its impact, whence its inability to recruit a general audience.

For an entire paragraph, Lessing asks his reader to imagine a radically different kind of philosopher, one who would not be subject to disciplinary constraints and the interest of schools but instead focus all his efforts on teaching the pursuit of happiness through virtue:

He would teach us to forgo wealth, even to flee it. He would teach us to be unrelenting toward ourselves and lenient toward others. He would teach us to respect merit even when it is overpowered by misfortune and ignominy and to defend it against brutish power. He would teach us to perceive the vivid voice of nature in our hearts. He would teach us not only to believe in God but—what is most important—to love him. He would teach us, finally, to face death without fear, and to prove by a dignified departure from this stage that we are convinced that wisdom would not ask us to put down our mask if we had not played our role to the end.

(Lessing, Werke, 1:942) (p.232)

Lessing continues with the thought-experiment and asks his reader to imagine that this kind of philosopher “would have none of that knowl-edge that is the less useful the more it boasts itself. He would be an expert neither in history nor in the languages…. Nonetheless would this man lay claim to the title of a philosopher (Weltweiser). Nonetheless would he have the courage to contest the same claim asserted by people on whom public offices have conferred the right to this dazzling sobriquet” (Lessing, Werke, 1:943). We might initially be tempted to argue that Lessing does, after all, appear to introduce a teacher figure as an example for the new, publicly effective philosopher. Yet this kind of teacher does not teach any specific content or doctrine but rather techniques for living, tech-niques of the self, that strengthen the autonomy of the individual. Moreover, this kind of teacher, who not incidentally seems to be modeled in many ways on a secular understanding of Jesus, figures within the argument primarily to mark a critical counter-model to the deformations of disciplinary philosophy. In this respect it is also important to note how Lessing distinguishes this man of worldly wisdom (Weltweiser) from both the traditional scholar and the speaker who is authorized by his specific institutional function or office.

Lessing concludes his thought-experiment with bitter sarcasm: “Thank God that such a bold friend of the laity has not yet arisen and probably will not arise in our times: for the gentlemen who have so much to do with the reality of things will see to it that this fantasy of mine will never be realized” (Lessing, Werke, 1:944). According to Lessing, Enlightenment is the business of laypeople in a double sense. The new kind of philosopher must not be a member of the clergy, certainly not a theologian, for as such he would not be free in his rational inquiry but bound by the interests of the church and religion. It is for this reason that Lessing insists that this new kind of philosopher would claim the title of Weltweiser, which emphasizes the secular aspect of the pursuit of wisdom. But he would also be a layman in the sense of somebody who is not an expert in any particular area. This opens philosophical discourse to a general audience, threatening the status of specialists.

Throughout his career, Lessing pursued a critical practice that is already clearly recognizable in the argumentative style of this early piece. Instead of telling people what to do or what to think, Lessing undertook to foster the practice of critical habits. And he did so not just by virtue of the manner in which he presented a certain argument, as we have seen in the (p.233) early manuscript “Über die Herrnhuter,” but also, later on in his career, by structurally intervening in a public discourse, by radically reframing how certain issues can be addressed, and, even more drastically, by influencing who can address which kinds of topics. Indeed, Lessing’s active intervention in the nature of the public sphere through publication strategies, carefully staged speaking positions, and rhetorical and lexical registers, as well as the projection and “staging” of the speaking situation, shaped his entire career as an independent writer, playwright, scholar, critic, editor, librarian, and commentator.

Even if not all the texts that Lessing published while serving as chief librarian in Wolfenbüttel were concerned with religion, these writings certainly elicited the most lively and even vehement reactions from his audience. In the world of eighteenth-century print culture, the topic of religion was quite hot.18 Lessing’s publication of a series of carefully selected passages as “Fragments of an Unnamed Author” (“Fragmente eines Ungenannten”) caused a wide debate. Participants in this debate included theologians, pastors, and laymen, and its format was highly varied, involving the publication of scholarly counterarguments and defenses, anonymous pamphlets distributed in the streets, and pastoral admonitions from the pulpit.19

Lessing had obtained the provocative, unpublished manuscript from his friend Elise Reimarus, the daughter of its author, the well-known and respected Hamburg Orientalist, mathematician, and natural philosopher Samuel Reimarus. He published it in parts under the misleading label of “findings” from the ducal library. Eventually, when the debate over these publications had reached an unprecedented degree of aggression, the manuscript was confiscated. Lessing also lost his exemption from censorship. For fear that his own involvement in the battle over these fragments would likewise be subject to publishing restrictions, Lessing attempted to move the place of publication of another attack on his main opponent, the Hamburg pastor Melchior Goeze, beyond the Duke’s reach to Berlin. This move challenged the Duke of Saxony to assert his authority and “tolerate” Lessing’s publishing activities under the condition that they would take place in his own Saxon territory, i. e., in Wolfenbüttel. To the Duke, this became a matter of asserting his authority and saving face visà-vis the imperial authorities who had their own censorship regulations.20 Embittered over having been muzzled and over the nastiness in the fight with Goeze, who had somehow managed to usurp his attention, Lessing (p.234) was thwarted in his hopes for a broader debate that would also involve the representatives of “progressive” rationalist theology. In this spirit he wrote to his brother Karl that he was forced to return to his other pulpit, the theater.21 When he did so, he wrote what was to become his most famous play, the drama about religious tolerance Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise).

Lessing never came out stating his religious beliefs. Generations of Lessing scholars and admirers have nonetheless attempted to establish the nature of Lessing’s relationship to Christianity, or whether he might even have become a covert Spinozist late in life.22 Lessing’s discretion about his religious beliefs, however, makes perfect sense. Public confes-sions of one’s beliefs do not help promote religious tolerance. Far better is a critical, historicizing attitude to all forms of religion—especially those that base their doctrinal claims on the authority of divine inspiration. It is this last approach that can be found throughout Lessing’s writings on religion. Lessing’s position, of course, was hardly unique in the eighteenth century. Interestingly, it even gained a certain amount of acceptance within the Enlightenment-friendly wing of the Lutheran church. The so-called Neologians found ways to downplay the dogmatic claims that the writers of the gospels were divinely inspired or that Jesus was literally the Son of God.23 In other words, the positions Lessing brought into play through the debate over the fragments were neither unheard-of nor all that radical even within the Lutheran Church. They were, however—and this seems to be the far more important aspect of Lessing’s intervention—positions reserved for specialists within the church who were engaged in exclusive and learned debates.24 Lessing’s affront, then, consisted not in making statements that were against the core doctrine propounded by the orthodox wing of the Lutheran Church, but rather in his dragging out a debate that ought to be internal to the institution of ecclesiastical authority into a common public sphere where readers were invited to exercise their own power of reasoning and make up their own minds. It was in order to lay claim to this space for debate and critical thought that Lessing “staged” the debate over the fragments.25

On the one hand, Lessing’s goal was the secularization of the terrain of the debate: to ensure that this discussion would not be conducted under the institutional authority of the church. On the other hand, Lessing’s publication of the fragments gives a certain shape and focus to this discourse about religion by questioning the authority of the written word in a (p.235) more principled and fundamental fashion that went beyond Reimarus’s specific scholarly arguments. These had merely amounted to a demonstration that there was no way of proving the divine inspiration of the evangelists, the resurrection, or the status of Jesus as the Son of God—arguments that would eventually initiate historical research into the life of Jesus.26 For Lessing, by contrast, their publication not only offered a perfect opportunity to launch a public debate beyond the controls of the church; they also provided him with an occasion to challenge Luther’s principle of sola scriptura both by casting doubt on the absolute authority of the New Testament and by calling attention to an ethical sphere, such as the one inhabited by Jesus and his disciples, that existed independently of its written codifications. In this sense Lessing’s publishing activities permitted him to “stage” a fundamental discussion over the mediation and tradition of ethics and the media of religion that found its culmination in his publication of the “Testament of John.”

In the Beginning was the Word

In the history of Christian theology, the beginning of the Gospel of John has come to be established as a key biblical passage containing a paradigm of how to read the Bible and understand the nature of Jesus. Two issues are at stake: the status of the “word” and the status of the “flesh.” Turning away from Manichaeism, Augustine adopts a belief he later comes to reject as a form of Platonism. This false conversion leads him to read the Bible merely allegorically, i. e., in the spirit, focusing exclusively on “In the beginning was the Word” and refusing to read to the end of the passage:“and the Word became flesh.” This criticism prepares what, by contrast, will constitute Augustine’s true conversion, which will consist in picking up the Bible and applying the content of what he reads directly to his own life: for it is only thus that belief is truly redemptive, in this literal application of the historical truth of the Bible made possible by the miracle of the incarnation.27

In Protestant Christianity the beginning of the Gospel of John also serves as synecdoche for the salvific authority and status of Scripture, as it involves a specific model of reading. Beyond theology, in the domain of secular literature, we can also find an acute awareness of the key role played by this passage. Most prominently, there is Goethe’s Faust. The frustrated scholar escapes from the prison of his study with the aid of the devil (p.236) Mephistopheles, who, it should be noted, first appears to Faust at the very moment when the latter attempts a “liberal” translation of the beginning of the Gospel of John through a series of substitutions for logos: word—thought—force—deed. In other words, Goethe stages the appearance of the devil as the result of an incantation that takes the shape of a mistranslation of John.28 Lessing’s “Testament of John” must be seen in the same context, as another secularizing appropriation of the Gospel of John.

The short text, which Lessing published under the title “Das Testament Johannis,” appeared in the following sequence of publications: Lessing had initially published a fragment by Reimarus that treated the writers of the gospels as mere human historians. This publication was countered by the theologian Schumann, who mobilized the traditional theological “proof of the spirit and the force” in order to demonstrate the divine inspiration of the gospels. Lessing responded to Schumann with two texts. He first addressed Schumann’s objections directly, arguing that this supposed “proof” rested on a fundamental category mistake, a confusion of accidental truths of history with necessary truths of reason. Then he announced the “Testament Johannis,” a text that, according to Lessing, would be able to reunite all those who had been divided over the interpretation of the Gospel of John. Still, the short text must be read not only as a peace offering but also, as I will show in the following analysis, as a provocation and catalyst that would serve to heighten disagreements and let latent differences rise to the surface.29

Lessing’s “Das Testament Johannis” consists of a dialogue between characters Lessing calls simply He and I. Asked about the mysterious “Testament of John,” I explains to Him that the reference is to John’s last will, as reported by St. Jerome in an apocryphal anecdote. The frail old apostle issued to his parishioners the simple injunction: “Children, love one another!” The anecdote appears in Latin at the end of Lessing’s text and is retold within the dialogue. He is bothered by the fact that this story is not part of the official canon. His objection, however, is anticipated and countered by another Latin quote from St. Jerome, printed directly under the title (“Das Testament Johannis”), which refers to John as the favorite disciple of Jesus, the one closest to the source. On the one hand, this reference can be considered an attack on the exclusivity of the canon, an argument for other, possibly even more authentic traditions and means of transmission. On the other hand, Lessing demonstrates by way of the untranslated Latin texts the historicity and possible opaqueness to which (p.237) any form of linguistic transmission and tradition is subject. This is why we cannot just read Lessing’s text as an argument for altruism and Christian love as the core of Christianity on which we could easily agree.30 Of course, that does not render the text a pamphlet against Christian love. However, as St. Jerome’s anecdote already suggests, even the simplest, most appealing injunction must not be merely repeated verbatim. For, as we know from Jerome, when St. John did not pass on, after first pronouncing this injunction, but repeated the same words each time he spoke to his parishioners, they became bored and impatient and asked if he had nothing else to say; the apostle answered in the negative.

The question, then, that Lessing’s “Testament of John” asks is the following: What is the ultimate efficacy of the most beautiful, simple, and convincing pronouncement? Even the fact that the Latin of the quotations is now a dead language confronts Lessing’s reader with the fact that any linguistic utterance will eventually require interpretation, translation, and adjustment to new specific contexts. And this would seem to apply to even the most basic ethical precepts. Lessing scholars who see in this text yet another proof that Lessing advocated the importance of ethical action in lieu of doctrinal sophistication miss half the point: even if this were the case, even if we could find a common ethical principle capable of universal comprehension and assent, the problem would remain: how is this principle to be translated into action? Just repeating it verbatim will not do the trick; if anything, repetition will weaken its power of persuasion.

There is no question that I argues that Christian love is the core of Christianity against His objection that it is worth little without acceptance of Christian doctrine, with its salvific benefits. What is interesting, however, and what seems to be the core of Lessing’s dialogue, is that immediately after telling Him in his own words the apocryphal story about the dying apostle, I introduces the topic of mediation in its relationship to Christianity:

Augustine reports that a certain Platonist said that the beginning of the Gospel of John, In the beginning was the word etc., deserved to be put up in golden letters in all churches in the most visible place, so that it would immediately strike anyone’s eyes.


  • Indeed! The Platonist was quite right.—O, these Platonists! And Plato himself could certainly not have written anything more sublime than this beginning of the Gospel of John.
  • (p.238) I:

  • That may well be.—Still, as someone who doesn’t care much for the sublime scribbling of a philosopher, I think that what would be far more deserving to be put up in golden letters in all our churches in the most visible place, so that it would immediately strike anyone’s eyes, is—the Testament of John.31
  • In this passage I tests Him with regard to his commitment to the core of Christian doctrine by offering Him the opportunity to reenact Augustine’s pseudo-conversion, the fixation on the word in conjunction with a reading in the spirit. He walks into the trap and reveals that what He takes to be the essence of Christian doctrine is actually the mere unfounded belief in the “scribbling” of what He takes to be an authority. In fact, His belief even misses the core Christian doctrine of the incarnation. That His commitment to dogmatic partisanship actually undermines His ability to practice Christian love is proven when he counters his interlocutor’s quote from Mark (9:40), “For he who is not against us is for us,” with one from Matthew (12:30):” He who is not with Me is against Me. “What He takes to be the essence of religion is revealed to be a sectarian, divisive form of self-aggrandizement based on the reification of the written word.

    According to Lessing, even if we accept the dying apostle’s last will and words as the essence of Christian ethics, this essence cannot be delivered in its pure naked form or by spreading the message everywhere in “golden letters.” It needs to be packaged and performed according to specific local contexts: there is the anecdote, which already calls attention to the problem of mere literal repetition; there is the retelling of this anecdote within the dialogue; but then there is also the entirety of the text including the Latin quotes, which Lessing chose to entitle “The Testament of John.” If we return with this in mind to Lessing’s hope, expressed in the conclusion to his letter to Schumann, that all those who have been divided over the Gospel of John will be reunited by the “Testament of John,” we cannot but realize that such reconciliation would not be achieved by subscription to a single-sentence precept such as “Children, love one another!” It implies, instead, recognition of the need for the ongoing work of mediation. Nothing ought to be set in stone or golden letters; nor should any text be endowed with particular truth value just because it has been attributed to any specific authority.

    At this point, I can sum up the sort of position Lessing adopts in debates over religion. He does not preach a simple precept, nor does he (p.239) advocate any particular position; instead, he takes on and orchestrates multiple roles and functions. There is, first, the role of the editor who makes an important manuscript available to a wider public. It was in this role that Lessing obtained exemption from the Duke’s censorship so that he could publish “findings” from his library. As an editor, he offers a selection of texts as documents worthy of examination and discussion. Second, as an extension of this role, he also published editorial comments on some of these texts, comments that show him in the position of the learned scholar who uses his expertise to make the documents more accessible to a general public and encourage their critical, active examination. It is in that role that he projects and models a critical distance toward the printed documents. Third, besides being an editor and commentator, Lessing also appears as an active participant in an ongoing debate. Here he is not the neutral objective commentator and scholar of printed texts, but instead invokes the imaginary orality of a combative debate viewed by a live audience. It is in this role that Lessing expends quite a bit of energy dramatizing and modeling personal affective reactions to both the content and the form of this debate, possibly in the attempt to recruit the sympathy of his audience and invest his critical position with individualized indices of authenticity. The first-person singular of these polemical pieces is very similar to the I of the dialogue in “The Testament of John”: he stands outside the official, institutionally sanctioned space; he distrusts authority; instead, he stakes the quest for truth on the scenario of a personalized exchange, speaking strictly as an individual, not as a representative of any institution. He puts his faith in reciprocal face-to-face dialogue as an (imaginary) oral scenario that is watched and judged by an audience that takes an interest in this display of outspoken audacity.32 For this audience, he uses his considerable erudition to trick his interlocutor into betraying his mistaken, authoritarian belief and prejudice. He does not aim to “teach” his immediate interlocutor but rather to present a drama to the external audience. Lessing never deploys the first-person singular to promote a personal, private agenda of self-aggrandizement or of betraying intimate details of a confessional nature; still, with his audacity, polemic, and display of affects, he puts himself on the line in a way that exposes him to potential injury. It almost seems as though he provokes such injury by forcing the polemic with Goeze exactly to the point where the Duke would attempt to shut him down by withdrawing his exemption from censorship.

    (p.240) Lessing intervened in a public debate over religion by changing the conditions of what could be debated by whom and, in particular, by making arguments critical of scriptural authority available to a broader lay audience. He assumed, moreover, an expansive public persona beyond the restricted role of the traditional scholar through the vehemence and audacity of the personalized exchanges he engaged in, prompting further reactions and inciting partisanship that found its expression in scholarly publications, admonitions from the pulpit, and anonymous pamphlets. Finally, Lessing constructed for himself the position of an independent authority. He did not invoke the institutional backup of an academic discipline, nor did he assume the asymmetrical role of a public teacher with an instructional or pedagogical mission. Instead, he designed a speaking/writing position that distinguished itself in its reckless audacity as a selfless passion for the ongoing process of critical inquiry.

    Both Kant and Lessing were engaged in the transformation of the traditional republic of letters. I have traced their endeavors to recruit a broad, general public of independent-minded, critical nonspecialists. In the discussion of the uses and abuses of verbal reasoning and learned debates, Lessing develops strategies of sowing distrust of established authorities and specialists and challenging his readers to think for themselves. As Kant argues, only if verbal reasoning is free from the interference of censorship can it engender a decisive critique and subsequent reform of existing institutions. Structurally, the construction of a general lay audience—an audience of nonspecialists as well as an audience beyond the restrictions of the official church—is crucial for the speaking position of the members of a critical Enlightenment public. Hence Kant’s stipulation that anybody who wants to participate in that public can do so as long as she or he does so without official sanction.

    Debates about and constructions of a critical public sphere tend to both couple and decouple the medium of print with oral scenarios that invoke a live audience and introduce real time and the pressure of decision making in action. On the one hand, the medium of print is appreciated because it unburdens communication of this pressure and discourages the articulation of personal, subjective concerns, offering instead a means to generate a broad audience for issues of universal concern. In this sense, print projects an “ideal audience” as a critical instance and norm in contrast to partial interests and camp mentalities. On the other hand, print and writing more generally are reproached for fostering dogmatic (p.241) thought, orthodoxy, and intolerance along with a blind belief in authority. The introduction of oral components into a debate can accelerate and politicize a discussion and make it appear livelier and more relevant to its specific context.

    With regard to the specific author function of participants in the critical public sphere, we can conclude that there is, first, a strict separation between the biographical figure of a specific speaker/writer and his official position within a particular institution. Lessing also severs the text from the biographical authorial persona when he publishes parts of Samuel Reimarus’s manuscript as “Fragmente eines Ungenannten” or plays the role of editor or commentator. Only if the speaker/writer in the public sphere does not speak from an officially sanctioned position can he or she assume a truly critical position, and only then can this position be radically questioned and criticized by the audience. But from where, one might ask here, should such a speaker/writer, who is precisely not officially authorized, acquire the authority to speak up? In the particular case of Lessing, we were able to observe a striking procedure of coupling the public speaker to a biographical persona. The latter has none of the features of a confessional subjectivity then on prominent display in the figure of Rousseau: to the contrary, he enjoys a good polemic, is feisty, even combative. By staging personal, affective reactions such as indignation, pride, vulnerability, elation, compassion, or disappointment, Lessing not only personalizes and individualizes spe-cific arguments; the projection of a speaker’s specific personality renders argumentative strategies tangible and facilitates affective involvement on the part of the reading audience. Whether he constructs speaking roles such as those of I and He or writes an erudite letter to a theologian in the quasi-autobiographical authorial persona of “Lessing” himself, Lessing interpellates his audience as a sort of theatrical audience and does not hesitate to cater to its emotions. On the other hand, and this marks the fundamental difference between such strategies and a theatrical model, Lessing does put himself on the line; the debates he engages in harbor a risk of real consequences. In Lessing’s staging of the debateover the Reimarus fragments, we can see him challenging the censorship authorities and hazarding the security of his position with such daring that he gains the authority of an authentic maverick.

    This public display of a passion for the pursuit of truth, or of an intense interest in a cause of common concern, this kind of partisanship, (p.242) is what distinguishes the Enlightenment public critic from merely out-spoken, popular, or even notorious public figures. Kant’s essay on “What is Enlightenment?” primarily emphasizes unmarked, unauthorized, egalitarian access to the public sphere. Already for this essay Kant chooses not to specify this speaking position as a form of disinterested, neutral, or objective speaking or writing position. Twelve years later, after the French Revolution, he describes a form of public utterance marked by the display of a passionate interest that is yet utterly unselfish and in this respect truly free. The public display of this kind of passion, a partisanship that risks the loss of a position and the intervention of the censorship authority, serves in Kant’s Contest of Faculties as the only manifest example of the actual realization of freedom in history.33 Again, the authority of the speaker/writer in the critical debate of the Enlightenment, the legitimacy of the participant of the public, is primarily derived from an oral or live component. Rather than some apolitical and abstract rational, logical, or linguistic standard, this authority is exclusively tied to a speaker’s or writer’s willingness to take risks and put himself or herself on the line. We have seen this element enacted in Lessing’s famous struggle over his publication of the “Fragments of an Unnamed Author,” but we can also see this element theorized by a postrevolutionary Kant who had run into trouble with Frederick III’s censorship with his Religion Within the Limits of Pure Reason and went on to explain to his king in the preface to the Contest of Faculties the institutional reforms necessary to prevent the faculty of theology from hampering the truth-finding process within the faculty of philosophy.


    (1.) Keith Michael Baker, “Politics and Public Opinion Under the Old Regime: Some Reflections,” in Jack R. Censer and Jeremy D. Popkin, ed., Press and Politics in Pre-Revolutionary France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 204–46.

    (2.) In a very recent piece Habermas discusses today’s public sphere, especially the function of an “educated journalistic press,” which is threatened by the loss of advertising due to the Internet. He articulates his fears for the loss of the foundations of a deliberate democracy, for the latter needs public debate, that is forming opinions, bundling and sorting and prioritizing public concerns in a critical fashion, different from the mere representation of interests and different from mere opinion that can be polled. See Jürgen Habermas, “Zur Vernunft der Öffentlichkeit,” in his Ach Europa. Kleine Politische Schriften XI (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2008), 131–91.

    (3.) Most interesting in this context is the work of James Siegel (building on the work of Benedict Anderson) for a colonial context and, more recently with regard to an American context, Michael Warner; see James Siegel, Fetish, Recognition, Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) and Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic. Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990) as well as his Public/Counter Public (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).

    (4.) See Rudolf Stichweh, “Universität und Öffentlichkeit. Zur Semantik des Öffentlichen in der frühneuzeitlichen Universitätsgeschichte,” in “Öffentlichkeit” im 18. Jahrhundert, ed. Hans-Wolf Jäger (Göttingen: Wallstein, 1997), 103–16. Stichweh argues that the main structural transformation of the university during the eighteenth century consisted in its changing self-definition as public (öffentlich) in opposition to private institutions, which meant more specific, more specialized, but also more elementary as opposed to the institutions of learning that addressed a very wide, general audience that extended beyond local constituents. Eventually, according to Stichweh, the “public” nature of the university was entirely transformed by its increasing disciplinarization and exclusivity.

    (5.) See Rudolf Vierhaus, “‘Theoriam cum praxi zu vereinigen. & ’ Idee, Gestalt und Wirkung wissenschaftlicher Sozietäten im 18. Jahrhundert,” in Detlef Döring and Kurt Nowak, eds., Res publica litteraria. Die Institutionen der Gelehrsamkeit in der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Sebastian Neumeister und Conrad Wiedemann (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1987), 1:7–18.

    (6.) (p.277) Notable exceptions in this case are the work of Jonathan Sheehan, especially his The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); on Michael Warner on evangelicalism in North America, see “The Evangelical Public Sphere,” University of Pennsylvania Libraries A. S. W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography for 2009.

    (7.) It is exactly in this respect that I differ considerably from Bosse, who relates Kant’s prizewinning essay to the project of Enlightenment pedagogy. Whereas Bosse constructs a continuity between Thomasius, Herder, and the pedagogical reforms affecting the universities as a top-down pedagogical program ultimately directed by Frederick II, I would like to emphasize the discontinuity between stealth pedagogy and Populärphilosophie, on the one hand, and the transformation and mobilization of the republic of letters under Enlightened absolutism, on the other hand. The criterion of distinction between the two concerns what I describe as the arrangements of the communicative situation: whereas the transformation of the republic of letters operates under an exclusive but egalitarian model that encourages the critique of authority, stealth pedagogy operates under an inclusive but authoritarian model. See Heinrich Bosse, “Der geschärfte Befehl zum Selbstdenken. Ein Erlaß des Ministers v. Fürst an die preußischen Universitäten im Mai 1770,” in Diskursanalysen II—Institution Universität, ed. Friedrich A. Kittler, Manfred Schneider, and Samuel Weber (Opladen: Westdeutscher, 1990), 31–61.

    (8.) Immanuel Kant, “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?” in Werkausgabe, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1993), 11:51–61, here 55–56 (my translation).

    (9.) See Herder, Werke, vol. 7 (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1991), 302.

    (10.) Rudolf Stichweh explains Kant’s unusual use of the terms private and public as Kant’s intervention in a university setting where the university scholars had become too specialized and professionalized and had lost their appeal to a general audience, which according to his argument constituted the earlier mission of the university. To a certain extent my argument agrees with Stichweh’s take, i.e., to the extent that Kant seems to favor an imagined, “ideal” audience of the generally educated reader. However, Stichweh does not comment on the aspect of the institutional, official “authorization” of the “private speaker,” and Kant’s apparent opposition to that, which demands a critical reader, who can potentially talk back, an element that appears not at all grounded in the didactic, hierarchical university setting, but much rather in the egalitarian republic of letters fostering lively exchanges.

    (11.) See Heinrich Bosse, “Die gelehrte Republik,” in “Öffentlichkeit” im 18., 51–76. Bosse traces the dissolution of the republic of letters through the introduction of the vernacular and of media of mass publication: literary authorship, no longer predicated on acquired knowledge (of Latin and Greek) and skills (such as rhetorical facility), became universally accessible—anyone could become an author who had “genius” or was able to satisfy the market.

    (12.) This was not a linear process. When, for instance, the first Berlin Academy (Electoral Brandenburg Society of Sciences) under Prince-elector Frederick III of Brandenburg (1657–1713) was created in 1700, Leibniz, its founding president, made it part of its mission to cultivate German as a language of learning. In 1744, however, when Frederick II (1712–1786) (p.278) founded the Académie Royale des sciences et belles-lettres, he made French the official language and chose a francophone secretary of the academy. In practice, submissions to the academy tended to arrive in three languages: a small minority of generally quite learned submissions in Latin, with the remainder fairly evenly divided between German and French. Some of the French submissions, however, were barely legible, as their authors were obviously quite incompetent in the language and wrote a fantastic French of their own invention. See the analysis of the submissions in response to the question of 1771 in Cordula Neis, Anthropologie im Sprachdenken des 18. Jahrhunderts. Die Berliner Preisfrage nach dem Ursprung der Sprachen (1771) (New York: de Gruyter, 2003), 70–82 and 102–4.

    (13.) Regarding popular philosophy in Germany, and especially the programmatic aspects that led to the falling out between Kant and his student Herder over Kant’s critical turn—which, thus Herder, betrayed the mission of philosophy as a widely accessible enterprise—see John Zammito, Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), especially chapters 2–4. For the fate of the French terms, see the article by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Rolf Reichardt, “Philosophe, Philosophie” in Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in Frankreich 1680–1820, no. 3, ed. Rolf Reichardt and Eberhard Schmitt (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1985), 7–88.

    (14.) See See Jürgen Habermas, Technik und Wissenschaft als ‘Ideologie’ (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1969).

    (16.) Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, “Gedanken über die Herrnhuter” [1750?], in Werke und Briefe, vol. 1: Werke 1743–1750, ed. Jürgen Stenzel (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1989), 935–45, here 935. Future citations will be given parenthetically.

    (17.) This, of course, was the choice made by Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, who decided to abstain from all engagement in theological debates in order to devote his energies exclusively to the far more relevant domain of ethical action by founding the Pietist community in Herrnhut in 1722. Lessing’s choice of title for this manuscript and the fact that the text ends with a discussion of Zinzendorf has led some Lessing scholars to argue that Lessing advocated the equivalent of Zinzendorf’s choice: a return to basic ethics and abstention from learned debate.

    (18.) In the first half of the eighteenth century, theological writings dominated the German book market and, even in 1750, new publications in theology and religion—ranging from learned theological debates in Latin to speculations about Christian doctrine and religion by church people and laypersons to anonymous invectives against religion—outnumbered those in philosophy. Regarding the quantitative shifts between religious/theological and philosophical/secular writings, see the tables in Wilfried Barner, Helmuth Kiesel, Volker Badstübner, Rolf Kellner, Martin Kramer, and Gunter E. Grimm, Lessing: Epoche, Werk, Wirkung, 4th ed. (Munich: Beck, 1981), 76.

    (19.) See William Boehart, Politik und Religion. Studien zum Fragmentenstreit (Reimarus, Goeze, Lessing (Schwarzenbek: Dr. R. Martienss, 1988).

    (20.) Bodo Plachta, Damnatur—Toleratur—Admittitur. Studien und Dokumente zur literarischen Zensur im 18. Jahrhundert (Tübingen: Niemeyer 1994), 27–32.

    (21.) (p.279) Letter to Karl Lessing, Wolfenbüttel, August 11, 1778, in Werke und Briefe, vol. 12: Briefe von und an Lessing 1776–1781, ed. Helmuth Kiesel (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag 1994), 185–86.

    (22.) See Hans Blumenberg, Arbeit am Mythos (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1979), 443–50.

    (23.) See Karl Aner, Die Theologie der Lessingzeit (Halle (Saale): Niemeyer, 1929).

    (24.) Cf. e.g. Johann Gottfried Herder, Vom Erlöser der Menschen. Nach unsern drei ersten Evangelien [1796], in Werke, vol. 9/1: Theologische Schriften, ed. Christoph Bultmann und Thomas Zippert (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1994), 609–724. Herder articulates a position regarding the gospels and the nature of Jesus that is no less radical—but he does so in a homiletic mode and in his officially function as a supervisor of the training of Lutheran theologians.

    (25.) This is the argument of William Boehart, “Zur Öffentlichkeitsstruktur des Streites um die Wolffenbütteler Fragmente,” in Lessing und die Toleranz. Beiträge der vierten internationalen Konferenz der Lessing Society in Hamburg vom 27.–29. Juni 1985, ed. Peter Freimark, Franklin Kopitzsch, and Helga Slessarev (Munich: text + kritik, 1986), 146–57.

    (26.) Lessing’s most sustained argument on how to deal in specific terms with the claims of revealed religion, his “Education of the Human Race” (“Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts”) is largely an immediate extension of his commentary on Reimarus.

    (27.) See book 7, chapter 9 of St. Augustine’s Confessions and cf. the conversion beneath the fig tree in book 8, chapter 12.

    (28.) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust. Eine Tragödie, in Sämtliche Werke. Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche, part 1: Sämtliche Werke, vol. 7/1: Faust. Texte, ed. Albrecht Schöne (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1999), 11–464, here 61.

    (29.) “The Testament of John” provoked extremely contradictory reactions: Goeze immediately recognized it as an attack on core Christian doctrine and indicted the arrogance inherent in Lessing’s offering his text as a substitute for the divinely inspired gospel. He was highly sensitive to the way in which this text, by way of generic hybridity and the staging of various speech situations, ridiculed any kind of authoritative proclamation, a fundamental challenge to the authority of the gospel. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Über den Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft [1777] and Das Testament Johannis [1777], in Werke und Briefe, vol. 8: Werke 1774–1778, ed. Arno Schilson (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1989), 437–45 and 447–54. For Goeze’s reaction see the commentary, ibid., 1003. By contrast, Bollacher accepts the conciliatory tone of Lessing’s announcement of the text at face value. Martin Bollacher, Lessing: Vernunft und Geschichte. Untersuchungen zum Problem religiöser Aufklärung in den Spätschriften (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1978), 145.

    (30.) According to Bollacher, the text can be reduced to the last will and hence to the testament of John, articulated by the dying evangelist: “Children, love one another!” (Lessing, Werke und Briefe 8:451). As such, Bollacher argues, “The Testament of John” stands in direct relation to Lessing’s early manuscript about the Moravians in that it insists on the utmost importance of a Christian ethic, in view of which all doctrinal strife becomes irrelevant. In the case of the early manuscript, we have seen that Lessing invokes the dichotomy of scholarly or doctrinal debate and relevant ethical action only to undermine the simple opposition and to insist that—even though individual discursive articulations of any kind (p.280) of position cannot lay claim to ultimate truth and must not be mistaken for a valid substitute for ethical action—the exercise of human freedom must pass through verbal reasoning despite the latter’s inevitable pitfalls. It would be strange if the mature Lessing had abandoned this commitment to critical engagement with the forms of verbal reasoning and instead preached a simple, consensus-inviting precept.

    (32.) See also Wolfram Mauser, “Toleranz und Frechheit. Zur Strategie von Lessings Streitschriften,” in Lessing und die Toleranz, 276–90.

    (33.) The actual historical example Kant points to are exactly those observers of the French Revolution who watched the events with great interest and passion and articulated their partisanship (Theilnehmung) so clearly as to risk losing their professional posts. See Kant, Der Streit der Fakultäten [1798], in Werke (Akademieausgabe), vol. 7: Der Streit der Fakultäten. Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (Berlin: Reimer, 1917), 85.