The Seventh Lecture Series of the Spinoza Center
A Recurring Dispute: Spinoza in Modern German-Jewish Thought
Conveners and moderators: Dr. Pini Ifergan and Dr. Dror Yinon
The philosophy of Baruch Spinoza never ceased to roil the world of German philosophy and the Jewish philosophers who were part of it. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Hermann Cohen gave two talks about Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise that were sharply critical of Spinoza and his theories. In these talks, Cohen presented Spinoza’s view of Judaism as intentionally deceptive and he questioned the nature of the relations between reason, morality, and religion that Spinoza used as the foundation of the treatise. With this criticism, Cohen revived the old philosophical Spinoza dispute, in which Jacobi, Lessing, and Mendelssohn had taken part, but he added a contemporary Jewish dimension: He objected to both the stream of liberal Judaism and to the young Zionists, who saw in Spinoza a model for the modern Jew at the start of the twentieth century.
Cohen’s attack on Spinoza sparked responses among his students, the young generation of admirers and opponents. The most striking response was that of Leo Strauss, who defended Spinoza against Cohen’s attacks and offered his own philosophical evaluation of the history of modern liberalism. Cohen and the dispute with his teachings continued to appear in Strauss’s writing until Strauss’s dying day and to a great extent shaped his thought.
The lectures in the current series will focus on the similarity and the difference between the dispute over liberalism in the beginning of the twentieth century and the dispute over the Enlightenment at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and will examine the centrality of Spinoza in both disputes. What is the connection between Moses Mendelssohn and his fear of Spinoza’s method, on the one hand, and the “Mendelssohn” of the beginning of the twentieth century, Hermann Cohen, on the other? And what is the connection between Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, who – as opposed to Mendelssohn and the philosophy of the Enlightenment – pitted the relations between reason and religion, on the one hand, and Strauss’s criticism of the relations between reason and religion in the modern liberalism, on the other? This lecture series will deal with these questions and others regarding the Spinoza dispute in modern German-Jewish philosophy.