Book Review

German idealism and the Jew: The inner anti-Semitism of philosophy and German Jewish responses / Michael Mack. - Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003.

For devotees of Constantin Brunner, reading Michael Mack's new book, German idealism and the Jew, is like looking at a Magritte painting. The hat, the suit, the background are all there. Only the man is missing. This is by far the best book on the context of Brunner's work, but Brunner himself goes completely unmentioned.

Mack does point out "the open-ended character of this study", and that "[t]he list of authors and themes analyzed is by no means comprehensive." In presenting a problematic he succeeds spectacularly, and it therefore seems more than a little churlish to insist that he present a definitive solution to the problems he explores. All the same, Brunner haunts this book on almost every page, and we can only hope for a sequel that accords him a central place in the discussion that Mack has initiated.

Mack's book itself struck me as a kind of sequel. A few years ago, I read Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment, with its thrilling enthronement of Spinoza at the heart of the Enlightenment. I was disappointed when the book ended with Christian Wolff, that is, just before Kant, who I had hoped to see exposed as the ultimate anti-Spinoza. Well, Mack picks up where Israel left off, criticizing not only Kant's "one-sided reading of Spinoza," but identifying Kant as an anti-Semite and the intellectual father of the Holocaust. Any reader of Brunner must instantly recognize and welcome such a critique.

Mack's critique of Kant is well reasoned and indicative of a very sound knowledge of the Kantian conceptual universe. Mack makes good use of quotations in arguing his case, citing for example this horrifying example from Kant: "The euthanasia of Judaism is pure moral religion." Mack effectively broadens and deepens Brunner's charges against Kant, and this alone makes his book not only worthwhile, but essential.

While Mack devotes only the first chapter to Kant, he remains the primary figure throughout the book. The second chapter, on Hegel, serves to demonstrate how the worm had got into the bud, that is, how Kantian anti-Semitism came to infect the whole German idealist project. Anti-Semitism lies at the heart of Hegel's project in that he basically subscribes to Christian supercessionism. Mack then proceeds to Wagner and the rise of anti-Semitism in its full flowering: social, political, economic, artistic, and racial.

These first three chapters describe the anti-Semitic core of German idealism. The rest of the book presents the responses of a selection of German Jews to this anti-Semitism. Mack starts with Mendelssohn, and then moves to Geiger, Heine, and Graetz. These latter struck back with "counter-histories" that overturned the conceptual framework into which idealism had cast Judaism. They proclaimed Judaism as a universal system that had effectively produced everything of value in Western culture, including Christianity. There was, inevitably, a backlash against these counter-histories, particularly where they "took issue with the most noteworthy exponents of German high culture." Mack describes how the renowned historian Treitschke led the way with a number of anti-Semitic articles which "contributed to making racism socially and intellectually acceptable in fin de siècle Germany." Thus anti-Semitism acquired an academic respectability, and "[t]he majority of professors, schoolteachers, and lawyers made anti-Semitism part of their professional calling." In the eyes of the anti-Semites, the essential dichotomy resolved itself as one between the idealist Germans and the materialist Jews.

Mack next cites a number of other well-known German Jews, including Cohen, Rosenzweig, Freud and Benjamin. The chapters on these individuals are the least compelling in the book, which perhaps speaks to the limitations of these individuals when it came to assessing the situation in which they found themselves. But Mack himself seems somewhat limited in this regard. In his concluding paragraph he states: "German Jewish writers indeed may have contributed to the diversity of materialist [emphasis mine] philosophy when they undermined the discriminatory dimension of high-status registers of ideation. In this way, German Jewish thought of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries anticipated a postmodern sensibility concerning issues of narrativity, bodiliness, and timeliness." What Mack seems to have done, and what the writers he treats also seem to have done, is concede the ground of idealist philosophy to the anti-Semites. This is why Brunner is so important. His counter-narrative claims idealism for Judaism, indeed as Judaism. For Brunner, the "high-status registers of ideation" belong to the spiritual Israel. It is this claim that devotees of Brunner continue to make in the face of "postmodern sensibility."

—Barrett Pashak