Friedrich Gedike on the Origin of Christmas Gifts (1784)

The Berlinische Monatsschrift is best known as the place of publication of Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” Readers of this blog are likely to know it as well as the place where the question that Kant sought to answer was initially posed and where, a few months before Kant offered his answer, Moses Mendelssohn published his. It was a journal that, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, had close ties with the so-called “Wednesday Society,” a group of well-placed “friends of enlightenment” that met in secret to consider what might be done to advance the cause of enlightenment, both in Berlin and elsewhere.1 Those efforts were reflected in the Berlinische Monatsschrift in a variety of articles that examined the various prejudices that still reigned in Prussia despite the efforts of its enlightened monarch and his bureaucracy, a number of whom were members of the Wednesday Society. One example of these efforts was Friedrich Gedike’s 1784 discussion of the origins of the custom of giving gifts at Christmas.

Friedrich Gedike

Friedrich Gedike

Gedike was — along with Johann Erich Biester — a co-editor of the Berlinische Monatsschrift. His career, as Anthony La Vopa and has discussed, was defined by an enthusiasm for the then novel discipline of pedagogy and by a faith that it might provide a means for social reform.2 He studied theology and classical philosophy at the University of Frankfurt/Oder, went on to become a gymnasium director and, around the time of the publication of this article, began a career within the Prussian bureaucracy as an advisor on educational reforms.

His essay on the history of Christmas gifts is consistent with the broader strategy adopted by the Berlinische Monatsschrift as a way to advance the cause of public enlightenment. As Gedike explained in a postscript to an article by the philosopher Johann August Eberhard (which offered a detailed discussion of the origins of superstitions surrounding the “white woman” as an omen of death), the surest means of attacking superstition lay — not in ridiculing it — but rather in tracing its history.3 Gedike’s article on the custom of gift-giving at Christmas, which drew copiously from his acquaintence with Greek and Latin texts, did much the same.

The translation offered here is yet another of the texts from the Berlinische Monatsschrift that first appeared in English in the pages of The German Museum, a journal that (as previously discussed on this blog) attempted, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, to acquaint British readers with the German enlightenment. The initials “M. G.” stand at the close of the translation, indicating that the translator was Maria Geisweiler, the name that Countess Maria von Schulenburg adopted after her marriage to the émigré bookseller and publisher Constantine Geisweiler, one of the three editors of the journal. As I noted in an earlier post, Maria enjoyed some success as a translator with her efforts on behalf of the playwright Kotzebue.

I’ve known about Gedike’s article on Christmas gifts since becoming interested in the Berlinische Monatsschrift back at the end of the last millenium and first encountered the translation during my initial foray into the German Museum in the early years of this one. I confess that I find it difficult to know what to make of this text and even more difficult to understand the motivations of its author. Gedike’s display of erudition is so disproportionate to the object of his critique that it may be hard for present-day readers to decide whether he is a pedant or a prankster and the closing footnote, with its denunciation of Christmas carols as exercise in blasphemy, is likely to serve — if nothing else — as a reminder that the past is, indeed, a very different country.

But if Gedike is hard on Christmas carols, his account of the Saturnalia is tinged with a sense that are some illusions worth preserving:

The Saturnalia were an emblem of the golden age, when no distinction of rank divided man from man, while as yet perfect equality and freedom reigned among mankind, and there existed neither master nor slave: a delightful dream, the idea of which was well worth a seven days feast!

His invocation of that dream is immediately followed by a bitter passage on the short-sightedness of those “modern historians” who maintain

that the abolition of slavery is one of the effects of christianity, without recollecting, that there are Christian nations, who in America and the West-Indies use their slaves with greater barbarity and cruelty than the Romans and Greeks did theirs.

Gedike, a poor child from the provinces who managed to make a career for himself in Berlin thanks to the patronage networks that La Vopa has traced, remains loyal to the dream of a better world.  After noting how the early Christian’s hope that a new golden age might have begun with the birth of the Christ gave way to a dream of His “future second appearance,” he considers what dreams slaves might habor:

Whether, when the farce of the Saturnalia was over, the Roman slaves comforted themselves in like manner with a future golden age, I know not; but I really could wish the present negro slaves just such a delightful dream, to comfort them under the cruelty of their christian oppressors.


So, let me offer the transcription that follows as a seasonal gift to the readers of this blog, along with best wishes for the coming year. It has been hastily done and no doubt contains many errors (particularly in the references, which employ a style that is now rather alien), which I hope readers will point out. Lacking the necessary fonts, I’ve deleted a few Greek quotations and cut one lengthy Latin one, but I’ve tried to preserve as much of Gedike’s apparatus as possible — it is very much part of the style of the piece.


  1. See my introduction to James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) and, more recently, James Schmidt, “Misunderstanding the Question: `What Is Enlightenment?’: Venturi, Habermas, and Foucault,” History of European Ideas 37:1 ( 2011): 43–52.
  2. See Anthony J. La Vopa, “The Politics of Enlightenment: Friedrich Gedike and German Professional Ideology,” The Journal of Modern History 62:1 (1990): 34–56 and, more generally, LaVopa, Grace, Talent, and Merit : Poor Students, Clerical Careers, and Professional Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
  3. See Gedike, “Nachtrag zu der Legende von der weissen Frau,” Berlinische Monatsschrift, I (1783).

Gedike Article

ON THE ORIGIN OF CHRISTMAS GIFTS

BY F. GEDIKE.

MANY really surprising and singular customs have lost with us their particularity and oddness; from having been accustomed to them since our earliest infancy, their familiarity prevents us from seeing them in the same light as a stranger naturally must. In the history of travels into distant countries, the description of the customs and manners of an unknown nation has ever been the most interesting and entertaining to every reader. But it seldom strikes us, that we have ourselves a number of customs, both in religious and civil life, which in the same degree, or even more, raise the curiosity and astonishment of other nations, and other times. To trace the origin of such customs, however insignificant they may at first view appear, is perhaps not always a gratuitous amusement, an idle speculation, or useless curiosity; I am on the contrary convinced, that researches of this kind are often productive to a reflecting mind of results wholly unexpected, and lead to explanations that reflect light on a number of other ideas.

The custom of Christmas-gifts is as old as it is universal. It is generally accounted for, from the custom of presenting small gifts in the name of a new born child, to those children of a more advanced age, that brotherly love may from their earliest infancy grow up with them, perhaps much earlier than it otherwise might, and thus entwine them closer to each other. It is also imagined, the custom of Christmas gifts among christians originated with the pious idea of accustoming children from an early period to the love of Christ.

At present I will not say more of the propriety or impropriety of this pedantic or religious trifling, than that it appears to me an humiliation to human nature, to employ such pitiful tricks to draw forth the proper feelings and sentiments of the heart, and use children from so early an age to the selfish ideas of having their affections bought with gifts.

Still more insufficient is the derivation of this custom from the gifts, which the wise men of the east are said to have presented to the new born Messiah.

Without at present enquiring, whether the whole of this tradition, which has puzzled both geographers and astronomers, is an historical fact, or, as many criticising theologists themselves believe, a pious fable, it cannot be conceived that the gifts which those wise men brought to the new, born king of the Jews, according to the manners of the east, as a mark of their submission and homage, could be the foundation of gifts which afterwards, at the anniversary of his birth, should be made to children and other persons, as it were, from and in the name of Jesus Christ.

When I maintain that this custom is neither more nor less than the remains of a Heathen or Roman institution called Saturnalia, under another name, this can only appear unaccountable and wonderful to those who, unacquainted with antiquity, arc not aware how many customs in our civil, our judicial, and particularly our religious constitution, arc derived as an inheritance from this source. Many ideas unknown to pure original Christianity, have been borrowed from the Roman and Greek religions, but more particularly from the religious philosophy of the Alexandrian school, and incorporated with the theological system of Christianity. How much easier then to inherit customs that have become habitual, and of which sensual beings generally find it much harder to be divested, than of mere ideas. In fact, there appear numberless extraordinary similitudes between the festivity of the Roman Saturnalia, and our Christmas holidays; similitudes which appear even in the smallest trifles. The Saturnalia of the Romans happened exactly at the same time, and their rejoicings continued seven days, namely, from the 17th to the 24th of December.1 In the beginning, the Christmas holidays lasted the same number of days, but in process of time were reduced to four, and at length, probably in the eleventh century, to three.2 At the Saturnalia were distributed all kinds of small gifts, particularly to the slaves, and at no time were so much pains taken to behave in a mild and friendly manner to the household, and to procure them a couple of happy days at least during the year. During this feast they enjoyed a certain degree of liberty, and were excused from all labour. Just so did the primitive Christians conduct themselves towards their slaves during the Christmas holidays (Constitut. Apostol. 1. S. C. 33.) and to this day the common people never rejoice so much on any day during the year as at Christmas. Among the presents that were made was generally a wax candle,3 till now a customary appendage every where to the Christmas gifts for children and the lower classes. It was a custom at this feast to eat honey, as an emblem of the golden age, at which time we are told rivulets of milk and honey existed,4 and also because they considered Saturn as the discoverer of the honeycomb.5 In many provinces this custom is still strictly observed at Christmas; at which time an extraordinary quantity of the honey or pepper-cakes are made and sold. In like manner we are told by Lucian (Sat. c. 13.) that at the Saturnalia the bakers of cakes were fully employed. During the last days of this feast was a public fair (Sigillaria) where all kinds of toys and images, chiefly of wax (Sigilla) were sold for small presents,6 precisely as at our Christmas fair. At the time of the Saturnalia, not only holidays were enjoyed at every school,7 but at all the public offices,8 as during our Christmas. The holidays at the public offices were ordained by the Emperor Theodosius (Cod, Theo. C. b. c. de feriis) and afterwards confirmed by Valentinian, as also by the Greek Emperor, Emanuel Comnenus, and still later, not only by the canon law, but likewise by the ordinances of the imperial chamber.9 Still more striking is the similitude between these two feasts, when we take notice of the manner in which the middle ages kept Christmas. The famous fool’s feast, which, notwithstanding all the prohibitions of it by regents, councils, and popes, prevailed till towards the close of the 16th century,10 and of which some remains, even among the protestants, though principally in catholic countries, still exist,11 was commonly kept in the Christmas holidays, or at least it always fell between Christmas and Epiphany. The excesses and extravagancies which then took place much resembled those which prevailed at the Saturnalia. As at this the slaves acted the part of the master, and the master for this short time, even condescended to obey his slaves; so, at the fool’s feast, bishops laid aside their dignity, and let themselves down to a level with their dependents. And as at the Saturnalia a king of the feast was chosen by lot,12 so, from among the inferior servants of the church, a fool-bishop, and even a fool-pope, were chosen, who mimicked all the religious functions of a bishop.13 The mummery dances, pranks, tricks, and extravagancies, which went on at this feast, answer exactly to those of the Saturnalia, at which all sorts of folly and excess were equally privileged, as appears from Lucian.

Even in the design and meaning of these feasts, there appear between them a similarity, which argues greatly for the retention of the customs of the Saturnalia lay the Christians. The Saturnalia were an emblem of the golden age, when no distinction of rank divided man from man, while as yet perfect equality and freedom reigned among mankind, and there existed neither master nor slave: a delightful dream, the idea of which was well worth a seven days feast!

From the infancy of the church, the birth of Christ was regarded as the beginning of a new golden age, of which the poetical passages of the Hebrew poets, were considered as prophecies. Jesus Christ was expected to have restored this state of innocence in Paradise; (which really, some few modifications excepted, is at the bottom one and the same with the golden saturnal age of the Greeks and Romans, and at best an enchanting political dream;) and as it could not be proved, that through christianity personal slavery was abolished, (notwithstanding—though curious enough !—many modern historians assert, that the abolition of slavery is one of the effects of christianity, without recollecting, that there are Christian nations, who in America and the West-Indies use their slaves with greater barbarity and cruelty than the Romans and Greeks did theirs)—they assisted themselves with the idea of a religious slavery: for the allegorizing mystics transferred all the connexions and situations of civil life into religion, and in fact, the idea of a religious slavery may be more easily understood than that of spiritual conception, spiritual marriages, spiritual births and new births, spiritual deaths, and so forth.

At last, as it was perceived, that this new golden age would not yet quite succeed, they dreamt of a future second appearance of Christ, and a kingdom of a thousand years, where the golden age, or the state of innocence, should again flourish in all its purity and beauty.

Whether, when the farce of the Saturnalia was over, the Roman slaves comforted themselves in like manner with a future golden age, I know not; but I really could wish the present negro slaves just such a delightful dream, to comfort them under the cruelty of their christian oppressors.

The mystical similarity of these festivals, first gave rise to the celebration of Christmas at the time of the Saturnalia; though I suspect, that in order to prevent these two feasts from being considered as one and the same, they made their Christmas to begin just on the day when the Saturnalia ended: The common idea that the 25th of December was the true birthday of Christ is perfectly ridiculous: for it is a well known fact, that the real birthday of the divine founder of our religion is entirely uncertain;14 many centuries, at least the two first, passed over without this feast being kept, and it appears to have been first instituted in the third century. The eastern church, in whose vicinity no Saturnalia were kept, celebrated their Christmas on the 6th of January,15 and until the time of St. Chrysostom, who lived at the end of the fourth century, only the Western church kept it on the 25th of December, at which period the eastern church also conformed to that day.16 Should any one deem it unaccountable that the primitive christians should reconcile the adoption of a heathen feast with the mere alteration of a name, he must be ignorant how much the majority of mankind are attached to old customs. It appears even from the New Testament, how difficult it was to the converted Jews, and even to the apostles themselves, entirely to lay aside their Jewish ceremonies and rituals; could it then be less difficult for those heathens who embraced christianity, to deprive themselves of all their old religious customs? this we often witness in our own days, in the newly established Christian communities in Asia and America, instituted by missionaries, whether from among the Jesuits, or from the pupils of the orphan-house at Halle. These converts retain their old ideas and customs, or at least one half of them, and unite them with the new faith they adopt as well as they can. — Just so the old Christians. The bishops too even then understood as well, as did the Jesuits in modern times, the great art, to be all and every thing, and even advantageously to turn to their own pious views the prejudices and abuses of their heathen contemporaries; they therefore gladly overlooked the attachment of their converts to their old customs and prejudices, and were often satisfied, merely to substitute a new name for an old one.

Even Constantine, by the flattering priests falsely stiled the great,who (as even appears from his fawning flatterer Eusebius,) was as intolerant against the followers of the heathen religion, or even more so, than many of his predecessors had been against the Christians, yet, according to Eusebius himself, adopted it as a maxim, to make the Christian religion palatable to the heathens by transferring all the pomp and shew of the latter to the former, and hence it was that the whole ritual of the Roman-heathen religion passed over to the Roman-christian, in which there still exist many improper customs.17 And thus even we protestants conform to many church customs, innocent in themselves, after the example of the old Roman and Greek religions.18

It is also not merely a bold and uncertain supposition, that the Christians in the first century, before the introduction of the proper festival of Christmas, kept the Roman Saturnalia, but a fact established by the testimony of the fathers, and especially Tertullian. And though at the same time Tertullian (in his book on idolatry) exclaims with energetical eagerness, against the attachments of the new Christians to their old feasts and customs, and principally to the Saturnalia;19 yet his zeal seems to have been as fruitless as was in the middle ages the zeal of so many sensible clergyman against the fool’s feast and asses’ feast, with other customs, scarcely less shameful than absurd.

Should any one infer from what has been here said, that I consider the feast of Christmas as needless and superfluous, he will do me a very great injustice. Mankind owe too many obligations to the amiable founder of the Christian not to be bound to eternalize the remembrance of this beneficent and philanthropic ambassador of Providence; and though his birthday is so entirely uncertain that even the greatest of chronologers, Scaliger20 himself confesses, God alone could know it, yet the birthday acknowledged and established by so many ancient traditions and customs, must to every believer of our holy religion certainly appear far more sacred than was the birthday of Socrates and Plato to the scholars and followers of those Athenian philosophers, many centuries after their death,21 thus much, however, is certain, and must ever remain so, that never was the memory of a great man, since the earliest times, disgraced with so much folly, absurdity, and in some measure shameful abuses, as the birth of Christ; and whoever is not sufficiently convinced of it, need but peruse a few of the hymns in the old Porster, or any other similar hymn-books, to perceive with astonishment and indignation, to what humiliating misrepresentations of the deity, and of sound reason, this feast has given rise22 and that; to obtain due reverence from every Christian, it requires not the aid of mystical nonsense.

M. G.

  1. Originally only one day , to which two were added by Julius Cesar, two more by Caligula, and to these five were joined the two days of the feast of Sigillaria. Yet Macrobius, who relates these circumstances very minutely, says (Saturn, I. i. c. 10) Apud veteres jam opinio fuit, septem diebus peragi Saturnalia; si opinio vocanda est, quae idoneis firmetur auctoribus [I have omitted an additional quote, in Greek, from Lucian’s Saturnalia]
  2. S. Wildvogellii Chronoscopia legalis p. 286.
  3. Macrob. Sat. ii. 7. Inde mos per Satuntalia missitandis cereis coepit. Alii cereos non ob aliud mitti putant, quam quod hoc principe a tenebrosa vita quasi ad lucem editi sumus.
  4. In Lucian (Saturn. c. 7.) [I have omitted another quotation, in Greek from Lucian].
  5. Macrob. (Saturn. c. 7) Placentas mutuo missitant, meus & fructuum repertorum Saturnum affirmantes
  6. Macrob. (Saturn. c. 10, 11.) Suetoen in Claud. c. 5. Spatian. Anton. Casae r. Id. in Adrian, c. 17.
  7. Plin Ep. 6. 7. Tu in schota revocas, ego adhuc Saturnalia extendo. Martial, 5. epigr. 84.
  8. Martial, C. 7. Ep. 28. 7.
  9. S. Wildvogelii Chronoscopia legalia, p. 279, 298.
  10. Du Fresne Glossar. V. Kalendae
  11. For example, the usual disguises on Christmas nights, as angels, shepherds, &c. &c. and the visits which the Christmas-child, and the servant Ruprecht, make in houses where there are children; a custom which in our part of the world, particularly in the country (and even in Berlin itself), is still very prevalent.
  12. Lucian. Saturn, c. 2 and 4
  13. In the midst of the festivity of the Saturnalia fell the feast of Lares, see Macrob. Sat. c. 10. Xi. Kal. lan. viz. the 22 dez. At this feast the slaves represented the high priest (Dionys. Hal. 1. iv. p. m. 219) exactly as did the under servants of the church at the fool’s feast. Also at the Saturnalia, the slaves put on their masters’ clothes. Dio Cass. l. 60. p. 957. (de. Reim).
  14. Clemens Alexandr. an historian of the second century, Strom. I. p. m. 340, gives an account of the very contradictory opinions which prevailed on this subject, even in his time.
  15. S. Bingham Origines ecclesiast. vol. 9. p. 67, seq.
  16. Chrysost. Homil. 31 de natali Christi.
  17. In the year 1780, Sir William Hamilton saw at Isagna in Abruzzo waxen priapi offered to Sr. Cosmus, under the modest name of great toes. s. Göttingen Taschenbuch, 1784, S. 47. f.
  18. Only to mention one example,— Why in our churches are our altars always placed towards the east? For no other reason, but because this was a sacred custom among the Romans. s. Vitrov. L. iv. c. 5
  19. Tema dc Idolatr. c. 13. [I have omitted a lengthy Latin quotation from Tertullian] By the bye, I would observe, that, had the real feast of Christmas been kept to early as she time of Tertullian, he would certainly have mentioned it here.
  20. De emendat. temp. p. 545.
  21. Plut. Symp. 8.. 1. Porphyr. in vita Plot.
  22. I appeal to the free and sound reason of mankind, if it is not real blasphemy to sing, “Little boy, great God,” (Kleiner Knabe, grosser Gott.) s. Porst Gesangb. Nr. 41, v. 1 (or Nr. 37. v. 2), “Almighty God became quite a little child,” (der little child,” (der allerhöchseter Gott wird ein kleines kind) — Great God! How is it possible, that even clergymen should not only suffer such blasphemies — but consider them as honouring the Deity, and maintain and defend them with pious zeal and religious calumny against those who think otherwise!!!
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Dan Edelstein on Enlightenment Scholarship and Dirty Quantification

While I continue to dig my way out my various other obligations, readers should check out Dan Edelstein’s “Enlightenment Scholarship by the Numbers: dfr.jstor.org, Dirty Quantification, and the Future of the Lit Review”, now available at Republics of Letters.  Smart stuff here!

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Ernst Cassirer on Enlightenment in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Part 1)

CassirerErnst Cassirer’s Philosophie der Aufklärung (1932) is one of the handful of books that everyone who works on the Enlightenment must, at the very least, pretend to have read. In contrast, the entry Cassirer wrote for the first edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences is a text that few, if any, scholars working on Enlightenment mention at all. This is hardly surprising. What self-respecting scholar reads an encyclopedia article written in the last two centuries aside from its author who (one hopes) at least got around to reviewing the proofs (while perhaps wondering whether the effort that went into producing them was worth it)?1 And while Cassirer aficionados may have reason to consult his Encyclopedia Britannica article on “Neo-Kantianism,” there would seem to be little reason to bother with an article on a subject that Cassirer covers in a book that everyone is supposed to have read.

Several years ago, I started assigning Cassirer’s article in the first week’s reading for my undergraduate survey course on the Enlightenment, figuring it was a quick way of exposing students to an approach to the period that would be quite different from the one that I would be offering (in earlier iterations of the course I’d used the opening chapter of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment — a better choice, but a bit daunting for the first class meeting). Looking over the text again prior to this start of this term, I was struck by the differences between Cassirer’s article and his book.  So, I thought I’d offer a few comments on it.

This post will discuss what we know (and what we don’t know) about the origins of Cassirer’s encyclopedia entry. A sequel will explore its overall argument. I suspect that what I will say here will contribute little to the already massive literature on what is regarded — and certainly ought to be regarded — as Cassirer’s most significant contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment. But it is possible that a consideration of his article in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences might shed some light on how Cassirer began to piece what would become the Philosophy of the Enlightenment together.

Cassirer and the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences

A joint project of ten American scholarly associations (among them, the American EncyclopediaEconomic Association, the American Historical Association, the American Political Science Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Sociological Society) the fifteen volumes of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences appeared between 1930 and 1935.2 Its main editor was the Columbia economist Edwin R. A. Seligman. New School founder and President Alvin Johnson served as associate editor and Macmillan was the publisher. The project was underwritten by grants from the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Russell Sage Foundations.

The helpful finding aid for the project’s papers, which Macmillan donated to Hampshire College in 1969, indicates that Seligman was responsible for initiating contacts with European scholars during a trip to the continent in 1927. Having received what the finding aid characterizes as an “enthusiastic response,” work began.

The procedure worked out for the organization and composition of the Encyclopaedia was as follows. Lists of possible topics were widely circulated for comment and criticism, then responsibility for individual articles carefully assigned to authorities in each field. Translation or Englishing, if needed, fact checking, and bibliographical checking of completed articles were all performed by the editorial staff in New York, and any doubtful points as well as editorial revisions were referred back to the original author. Final proofreading of the typeset galleys was also done by the editorial staff.

Presumably Cassirer was among the European scholars contacted by (and, perhaps, visited by) Seligman in 1927. Alternatively, he may have been contacted by the Heidelberg economist Carl Brinkmann, who served on the editorial board.  Cassirer’s article appeared in volume five (which, in a cruel coincidence, begins with an article on “Danton” and ends with one on “Exile”), which was pubished in September 1931.3 The Preface to The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, which sought to marshall the spirit of the Enlightenment against a world about to collapse into barbarism, was dated October 1932 — a year after the publication of appearance of his entry on Enlightenment in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.

On the Genesis of the Article

It is clear, then, that Cassirer wrote the article sometime between 1927 and 1931. One further date is helpful in understanding the relationship between Cassirer’s article and his book. According to Toni Cassirer, research for Philosophy of the Enlightenment was done during the summer of 1931 at the Bibliothètique Nationale in Paris. This means that Cassirer must have completed his article on Enlightenment prior to beginning his work at the Bibliothètique Nationale (as we’ll see in the sequel, the text itself would seem to bear this out) and may very well have been contacted by Seligman about contributing to the proposed encyclopedia as early as four years before he went to Paris to complete his work on the The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. The import of this (admittedly somewhat shaky) chronology is that Cassirer’s contribution to Seligman’s encyclopedia might well be viewed as a preliminary sketch of an account of the Enlightenment that would worked out in detail only after the article had been sent to Seligman for what Hampshire’s finding aid describes as “translation or Englishing.”

It is, I hope, clear that I am hedging quite a few bets in the previous paragraph. Much remains puzzling about the writing of this article, including the question of what, exactly, Seligman proposed that Cassirer contribute and when he contacted him. It is rather unlikely that he would have asked Cassirer to contribute an article on “the Enlightenment.” In 1927 Cassirer was known in the Anglophone world primarily for his work in the philosophy of science (his book on Einstein had been available in English since 1923) and for his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (which appeared in German between 1923 and 1929 and had been widely reviewed).  The article on “Enlightenment” was not Cassirer’s first venture into writing articles for English language encyclopedias: he contributed articles on “Neo-Kantianism,” “Rationalism,” “Substance,” “Transcendentalism,” and “Truth” to the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1929). Nor, for that matter, was the article on “Enlightenment” his only contribution to the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: he also wrote the entries for “Kant” and “Leibniz.” A glance at the bibliography on the Internationalen Ernst-Cassirer-Gesellschaft website, is enough to drive home the point that, to the extent that Cassirer was doing work in the history of philosophy prior to Philosophy of the Enlightenment, his primary focus fell on Kant, Goethe, and various other German thinkers. The locus of his concerns expanded in 1927 with his Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance and would extend still further in 1932 with the appearance not only of his book on the Enlightenment but also his influential discussion of “The Problem of Jean-Jacques Rousseau” and his book on English Platonism. It is possible (though I’m inclined to think unlikely) that Seligman was aware of the work in which Cassirer was currently engaged, but it is more likely that his main concern was with soliciting contributors rather than topics.

Even if Seligman did suggest topics to his prospective contributors, it unclear that “the Enlightenment” would have been on his shopping list. By 1927 the term was beginning to enter into general usage, not only in translations from the German (e.g., it appears in H. H. Stenning’s translation of Kautsky’s book on Thomas More) but also in a few textbooks (e.g., Stephen Duggan, A Student’s Textbook in the History of Education).  And the bibliography at the close of Cassirer’s article (presumably constructed by the editors) cites John Grier Hibben’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1910), the first book in English to include “the Enlightenment” in its title.  But “Enlightenment” still had to compete with the “the Age of Reason” as a label for the period (e.g., the bibliography also cites F. J. C. Hearnshaw’s recently published Social and Political Ideas of Some Great French Thinkers of the Age of Reason) and while it is clear that, following the German convention, Cassirer would have opted for the term “Enlightenment” as a way of designating the period, it is rather unlikely that Seligman would have proposed it.

Further evidence for the relative neglect of “the Enlightenment” as a label for what was then dubbed “the Age of Reason” can be found within the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences itself. The first volume opened with an extended account of the history of the social sciences, collectively written by various editors and associates. A survey of eighteenth-century works was included a section entitled “The Rise of Liberalism,” which was written by the British political theorist Harold Laski.4 Though Laski discusses the work of a number of significant Enlightenment thinkers, the word “Enlightenment” never appears.5

Lacunae in the Archives

One might assume that many questions about the genesis of Cassirer’s article could easily be resolved by an afternoon in the Hampshire College library (an appealing prospect this time of year) but, unfortunately, there are reasons to think that these matters are likely to be more difficult to resolve than it might at first appear. As finding aid goes on to explain,

Hampshire College did not take delivery of the files until December 1970, when they were apparently stored in the library loading dock. The decision was made not to advertise Hampshire’s possession of the files until they had been processed; however, no provision was made for processing the files. In 1974, the original boxes had deteriorated to the extent that the contents had to be repacked in new boxes in order to move them out of the loading dock …. The boxes were moved from storage area to storage area, coming under the care of the College archivist when the archives were formally established in 1980. In 1984, an outside researcher managed to track down the location of the files, and expressed interest in coming to use them. A detailed inventory of the contents of the boxes was made, and the individual series distinguished. A preliminary catalog was prepared for the researcher, who successfully used the collection that summer. However, it was apparent that the collection badly needed physical processing: although the paper of letters and manuscripts was in decent shape, the file folders were fast disintegrating and the problems caused by rusting paper clips would only worsen. Although a grant proposal covering the cost of physical processing was prepared at that time, it was not funded, and it gradually became clear that internal library resources would have to be utilized to process the collection.

Processing of the collection (which involved replacing the old file folders with acid-free ones, removing the rusting clips and aged rubber bands, and doing all the other things that need to be done to prevent paper from during into dust) would not be completed until August 1989, which — as the finding aid notes — was “twenty years after the gift had been accepted by the College.”

But, with the collection long ago secured, shouldn’t it be a simple matter to consult the correspondence files to see what Seligman might have proposed to Cassirer? Unfortunately, no: there is a significant lacuna in Hampshire’s holdings:

A large gap exists in this series: there are no files from correspondents with names beginning with the letter C; in fact, none between the letters BR and DR. This material was not present when the collection was first inventoried in 1984, and must have been lost prior to that time.

There may, however, be other material at Hampshire that could shed some light on the genesis of Cassirer’s article and it appears that there is a draft of the manuscript in the Cassirer papers at Yale.  At some point, I may get the time to visit both.  But. for now, it is time to shift the focus from wondering about what might be available and instead concern ourselves with what we have: the published version of Cassirer’s article.

To be continued …

  1. Exception might be made for a few of the offerings in early twentieth-century editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica, e.g., Husserl on “Phenomenology”, Russell on “Geometry, Non-Euclidian”, T. E. Lawrence on “Guerilla Warfare,” and Trotsky on “Lenin.”
  2. A complete list of the sponsoring associations, along with other information about the project, can be found in the finding aid for the Encylopedia’s records, which are housed at Hampshire College.
  3. The publication date is listed on the copyright page. Once complete, the full run of the Encyclopedia was reprinted in April 1935.
  4. See Volume I:118-124. Laski’s Rise of European Liberalism would be published in 1936. While the English edition (George Allen & Unwin) carries the subtitle “An Essay in Interpretation,” the American edition (Harper & Brothers) opted for “The Philosophy of a Business Civilization.”
  5. “Enlightened self-interest” does, however, turn up on p. 123 (with “enlightened” capitalized only because it stands at the start of the sentence).
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Will Thomas on Simon Schaffer and “Enlightened Automata”

Apologies for the uncharacteristically long hiatus between posts:  the resumption of teaching and the need to discharge a few other claims on what Kant would have classified as the “private use” of what counts as my “reason” have kept me from finishing off a series of posts that are simmering away on the back burner (one deals with the origins of Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophie der Aufklärung, the other with the early work of Peter Gay, and a third with Whittaker Chambers, of all people).

In the meantime, friends of enlightenment would be well-advised to scoot over to Ether Wave Propaganda, Will Thomas’ wonderful history of science blog, which has been running a fascinating series of posts on Simon Schaffer’s 1999 discussion of “Enlightened Automata.”

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The Soldier, the Citizen, and the Clergyman, with a Postscript on Professors: Kant on Private Reason (Part II)

My previous post examined how Kant distinguished “public” and “private” uses of reason and discussed the differing ways in which he drew this contrast. This one will focus more narrowly on the three examples he offered: an officer following orders from a superior, a clergyman instructing his congregation in the tenets of the faith, and a citizen paying taxes. It will begin by discussing how these examples had been treated by his contemporaries. It will then consider what recourse Kant’s agents have when they find themselves in disagreeing with the orders they have been given. It will conclude by examining a fourth example that Kant did not discuss: that of a university professor.

Kant’s Examples and their Context

At least two of the three examples Kant used in his answer to the question ” What is Enlightenment? had figured in earlier articles in the Berlinische Monatsschrift. Four decades ago, Eberhard Günter Schulz made a compelling argument that Kant’s reading of Moses Mendelssohn’s discussion of religious oaths, which appeared in the third volume of Mendelssohnthe journal, might help to explain the peculiar footnote that closed Kant’s essay by observing that while he had not had the opportunity of reading Mendelssohn’s article, he had nevertheless decided to submit his article in order to see whether his answer might “coincide by chance” with the answer Mendelssohn had already given.1 Mendelssohn wrote his article on religious oaths in response to Johann David Michaelis’ critique of his treatment of the topic in his Jerusalem. But, at the time when Kant was preparing his article, Mendelssohn had yet to address the critique of his position that had appeared in a 1784 book on Jerusalem written by Johann Friedrich Zöllner, the clergyman who first posed the question that Mendelssohn and Kant were attempting to answer.2 Schulz suggested that Kant might have had good reason to think that Mendelssohn’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” continued the discussion of religious oaths that he began in his rejoinder to Michaelis. Hence the stress that Kant devotes in his article to the example of the clergyman.

The case of an army officer’s response to orders from a superior had also figured, in passing, in an article in an earlier issue of the Berlinische Monatsschrift. In a discussion addressing the issue of freedom of the press (a topic of obvious relevance for Kant’s response), the jurist Ernst Ferdinand Klein framed the relationship between obedience and criticism as follows:

Subordination is the soul of the whole Prussian state. This subordination, on the one hand so indispensable and on the other so burdensome, is moderated, but not obstructed, by the freedom to think out loud. No superior will be hindered by it from doing what he wants, but only to want what he should not. Under such circumstances, fear of the judgment of the public can serve as a substitute for patriotism. It will not release the subordinate person from the duty of obedience, and what should be done, will be done. However, one is only forced to obey the command, not to condone it; to do, not to judge; to follow, not to agree. The bold reasoner bows ever so deep, and obeys as quickly as the rest; but one fears the audacity of his judgment, and takes care not to give him an opening.

The passage continues with the following example:

Suppose the leader of an army is surrounded by officers who strenuously judge all his measures. What is the effect of their reasoning? Will they hold up the execution of commands? Do they reason first, before obeying? Neither of these! Their reasonings after the event have only the result that the leader, if he recognizes their cleverness, seeks their approval either through asking for advice, or by considering carefully all his steps.3

The contrast Klein drew between carrying out a command and endorsing it captures something of what Kant seems to have aiming at in his discussion of private and public uses of reason. And though the passage skirts the issues of whether officers have the liberty to publish criticisms of their superiors, the next paragraph suggests (at least in Klein’s view), that current Prussian policy permits such works to appear:

Thus when Prussia’s ruler suppresses writings against the state by censorship, he refers only to those which impugn the state itself, which betray it to its enemies, which loosen the subjects from their duty of obedience, and stimulate civil disorder. He does not censor moderate judgments about measures carried out by the prince or his servants. … Such freedom of the press is the distinguishing mark of a wise government.

The implications of philosophical arguments for military discipline had long been a point of contention in Prussia. In 1723, Frederick William I removed Christian Wolff from Halle and exiled him from Prussia on the grounds that his philosophy might be read as endorsing the view that soldiers who had deserted their posts should not be punished, since their actions had been predetermined and, hence, they could not help but desert. Though Frederick II reversed his father’s decision and reinstated Wolff when he assumed the throne in 1740, echoes of the incident can be heard in a comment Klein attached to one of the Wednesday Society’s internal documents:

If I write a morality for the common man, the censor cannot condemn my book because I have nothing to say about the duty to take oaths. If I however said that the soldier is obliged to nothing through the oath that he is not already bound as a citizen of the state or by virtue of its initial contact, the censor must prohibit the publication of the book, even if he is of the same opinion. It is entirely different if I express this proposition in a philosophical treatise. I can assume that such writings will not come into the hands of soldiers.4

In addition to serving as a reminder of how leery Berlin enlighteners remained when it came to comments that might be viewed as undermining military discipline, Klein’s comment also drives home the contrast between his rather cautious approach to the question of censorship and Kant’s far more radical stance. Where Kant argued that there should be no limitations on public discourse, Klein’s approach followed the prevailing Prussian policy of including a consideration of the likely audiences of works in deciding whether to censor a work.

Finally there is the example of the citizen and the tax collector. A search of the Bielefeld’s digital archive of Enlightenment journals turns up little prior to 1790s and nothing in the Berlinische Monatsschrift. There is a passing swipe at tax collectors in the critique of Kant’s essay that Johann Georg Hamann sent to their mutual friend Christian Jakob Krauss but, as far as I have been able to determine, though citizens may have had complaints about tax collectors, there would seem to be little discussion of it in print.5

Arguing, Obeying, and Resigning

These three examples Kant provides are supposed to clarify the options available to individuals who (1) hold some sort of civil posts or position and (2) find themselves disagreeing with the orders given by their superiors. The standard interpretation of Kant’s essay sees him as leaving these individuals with the following options:

  1. When they are engaged in discharging the responsibilities associated with their positions (i.e., in so far as they are engaged in the “private use of reason”), they are required to do what they have been told to do, without argument.
  2. However, these same individuals are at liberty to address the public in the role of “scholars” (i.e., engage in a “public use of reason) and in that role ought to be able to raise objections to these activities without punishment.

But matters are somewhat more complicated than this summary suggests: (1) the “private” use of reason frequently involves something other an unquestioning obedience to orders and (2) in at least one of the cases, Kant notes that there is a third option available: resigning one’s position.

Regarding the first point, as Will Thomas rightly noted in his comment on the first post in this series, it is significant that Kant characterizes what takes place when individuals discharge the responsibilities associated with their “civil posts” as a “private use of reason”. Those who carry out orders are not automata; in at least some of the cases, they will have some latitude in determining how to execute the tasks they have been told to do. The conduct requested of the citizen is the simplest of the three: the tax collector specifies what needs to be paid and the citizen pays it. But the case of the clergyman is considerably more complex: the “symbolic books” specifying the central tenets of the faith require interpretation and the relationship of these tenets to the particular pastoral responsibilities is hardly transparent.6

The case of the officer (which, as I suggested in the previous post, tends to be the example that today tends to trouble readers most) falls somewhere between the citizen and the clergyman. Eighteenth-century military orders covered a great deal of ground and were issued in forms that ran the gamut from detailed written orders dictating the order of march, logistical considerations, and command structure for a campaign to verbal orders issued in the heat of battle.7 Though it is not clear what sort of orders Kant had in mind in his example, Klein would appear to be describing what would have transpired in an officers’ conference, typically held the night before or the morning of the actual engagement, at which the plan of attack would be presented and responsibilities for executing it assigned.

In Article XXV of his Military Instructions, Frederick had this to say about such councils:

frederick-ii-of-prussia-1757Prince Eugene used to say, that a General who had no mind to fight, need only call a council of war; and it is very certain, that in these meetings the question is generally carried in the negative: even secrecy, which is the very soul of war, is but seldom strictly observed.

A General, whom his sovereign has entrusted with the command of an army, ought to act in consequence of his own opinion, in which he is sufficiently authorized by the confidence which is reposed in him. Nevertheless I am of opinion, that he ought not entirely to reject the advice even of a subaltern, provided, after mature deliberation, it seems reasonable. In that case, he ought to forget the rank of him who started the hint, and act as if it had been his own.

In this case, at least, it would appear that the dictum Kant attributes to Frederick — “Argue, as much as you want and about whatever you want, but obey” — does not mean that private uses of reason (i.e., what is taking place in the officers’ conference) proceed without argument. There are occasions when argument is central to the proper execution of obligations associated with what Kant would characterize as an individual’s civil post.

The scope of this argumentation is, however, limited: the common feature of the three examples Kant offers is that they all are cast in the form of what Kant would subsequently characterize as “hypothetical imperatives.”8 As Kant would explain a year later in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, such imperatives (also known as “rules of skill”) are principles of action necessary to obtain a particular end that agents may, or may not have. Should the agent in question have no particular interest in the end the imperative is a “problematic hypothetical imperative” while in those cases where the agent actually does have an interest in achieving the end, it is an “assertoric hypothetical imperative.” Hypothetical imperatives are distinguished from the pragmatic imperative, which is directed towards an end that rational beings allegedly have (namely, the achievement of happiness), but lack a consensus on how to achieve. More importantly, it is also distinguished from the categorical imperative (also known as the moral law), which — in contrast to both hypothetical and pragmatic imperatives — is good, not because it directs us to an end we happen to desire or ought to desire, but because it is good in itself.

When agents are engaged in private uses of reason, their actions might be understood as conforming to the general structure of hypothetical imperatives (i.e., their reasoning is directed at the attainment of certain contingent ends) but with the added feature that the end to be achieved has been stipulated by another agent or group of agents. As a result, implicit limits are set on the scope of argument: for example, while those participating in an officers’ conference might be welcome to express reservations about the plan of battle or — in extreme cases — the advisability of engaging the enemy at this particular place and time, it is not the place to discuss the advisability of the war itself.9  However, at least in Kant’s account, officers should not be prohibited from raising the full range of questions — from concerns about the effectiveness of particular strategies to the overall rationale for the war itself — in texts addressing the general reading public.

While the foregoing may help to clarify the sort of arguments that might be raised within the private sphere of reason, it still leaves us with an agent who is forced to live the double life of an individual who, as a holder of a civil post, advances certain projects that this same agent criticizes in writings addressing the general public. But in the case of the clergyman, Kant suggests a third option. After discussing possible conflicts between the views that a clergyman might profess in his role as “a scholar” writing for the general public and the views he is obligated to present as part of his responsibilities to is parish, Kant goes on to note:

… what he teaches as a consequence of his office as an agent of his church, he presents as something about which he does not have free rein to teach according to his own discretion, but rather is engaged to expound according to another’s precept and in another’s name. He will say: our church teaches this or that; these are the arguments that it employs. He then draws out all the practical uses for his congregation from rules to which he himself may not subscribe with complete conviction, but to whose exposition he can nevertheless pledge himself, since it is not entirely impossible that truth may lie concealed within them, and, at least, in any case there is nothing in them that is in contradiction with what is intrinsic to religion. For if he believed he found such a contradiction in them, he could not in conscience conduct his office; he would have to resign.

What Kant offers here is a description of a case in which an agent can no longer continue, through his private use of reason, to support an institution whose principles and practices he criticizes in his role “as a scholar” addressing a reading public. What would appear to trigger this conclusion is a recognition that his conflict with the aims of the institution he serves cannot be resolved and, as a result, he cannot, in good conscience, continue to support it. As a description of the challenges that sometimes face clergy, this seems plausible enough. What is not clear, however, is how this might apply to his other two cases.

Consider, for example, the case of Siegfried Sassoon. In July 1917, having served with Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1915)distinction on the Western Front since the Spring of 1915, Sassoon released the following statement:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

It is clear that Sassoon’s objections were not directed at the competence of his superiors (though, as a survivor of the catastrophic first day of the Battle of the Somme, he would certainly have had grounds to do so), but rather centered on what he saw as a change in the overall aims of the war itself: he enlisted in a war that he thought would be directed at halting the advance of German armies into France; he found himself engaged in what he concluded was a war of territorial expansion.

Like Kant’s clergyman, Sassoon’s decision was grounded on an objection in principle: he had come to see that he could no longer, in good conscience, continued to support the ends of the institution that laid claim on the “private use” of his reason. There is, of course, an obvious difference between Sassoon’s action and that of the clergyman: unlike clergy, army officers are typically not free to resign their commissions when they choose.  This difference might, however, be mitigated by the particular context in which Sassoon announced his declaration. He issued it in England at the end of a convalescent leave, rather than at the front, which meant that his action would had no immediate consequences for those under his command.10 So, while Sassoon was disobeying an order to return to service at the end of his leave (and, hence, violating what would appear to be Kant’s insistence that soldiers must obey, rather than argue with orders), the order he was disobeying prevented him from exercising an option that Kant grants to the clergyman: the option of resigning an office that violated the dictates of his conscience.

The example of the Bürger and the tax collector is no less puzzling. It is easy enough to construct cases where a citizen might conclude that the continued payment of taxes to a state might violate certain deeply held moral convictions, but though Kant offers clergy the option of resigning their positions and while we might, with enough work, be able to come up with a Kantian account of what set of circumstances might justify an officer’s decision to resign his position, it is far from clear what options a citizen might have beyond paying the requested tax and proceeding, in print, to criticize the uses to which it is put. The problem, in part, follows from the fact that tax levies are typically used to support a variety of projects, not all of which our hypothetical citizen finds morally objectionable.

In cases where it is possible to draw a clear connection between a specific tax and a morally objectionable practice, a citizen could refuse (“on principle”) to pay the tax. For example, during the Vietnam War — which, in contrast to recent wars, was funded by increasing the telephone excise tax rather than by increasing the deficit — those who objected to the war could register their dissent by refusing to pay the seven percent increase that Congress enacted).11 In the absence of a specific tax, a citizen would be forced to opt, as Henry David Thoreau did at the start of the Mexican War (a war that he rightly viewed as a device for expanding slavery westerward), simply to refuse to pay whatever taxes he was asked to pay, regardless of their function. As Thoreau explained,

I meet this American government, or its representative, the Benjamin_D._Maxham_-_Henry_David_Thoreau_-_RestoredState government, directly, and face to face, once a year — no more — in the person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it then. …

It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with — the dollar is innocent — but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.12

It is, however, difficult to speculate on what Kant would have made of Thoreau’s action, which amounts to a withdrawal from civil society, per se, and — as in the case of the rights of military officers to resign their positions — there is little in his essay to suggest how one might go about constructing an account.13

I would be inclined to read Kant’s silences on this point as a further indication that the only example that actually concerned him — and, hence, the only one that he actually considered at any length — was that of the clergyman. This would be consistent with what we know about the context in which he wrote his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” and suggests that the essay might best be understood as a contribution to an ongoing discussion about the range of opitions available to clergy who held beliefs that diverged from the official doctrines. As a result, attempts to derive any insight about Kant’s views on the obligations of army officers or taxpayers from this essay may amount to a fool’s mission (which, of course, is not to say that such an account could not be constructed from other writings by Kant).

Scholars & Professors

At the risk of prolonging what appears to have turned into a discussion of all the things that Kant didn’t consider in his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”, there is one “civil post” that Kant with which he was quite familiar but on which his essay was silent: that of a professor at a Prussian university.

It is tempting to assume since professors tend to be “scholars,” their lives are devoted exclusively to the “public use of reason.” But this temptation should be resisted for at least two reasons: (1) they also, as part of the terms of their employed, engage in activities that might better be understood as falling into the category of “private”, rather than “public,” uses of reason and (2) the concept of “scholar” is not particularly well developed in Kant’s essay.

To start with with the second point, while the word “scholar” appears eight times in the essay, a review of its occurrences reveals that Kant’s usage is somewhat peculiar. Here are all the sentences in which the term occurs:

  1. I understand, however, under the public use of his own reason, that use which anyone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the reading world.
  2. But insofar as this part of the machine considers himself at the same time as a member of the entire commonwealth, indeed even of a cosmopolitan society, who in the role of a scholar addresses a public in the proper sense through his writings, he can certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs in which he is engaged in part as a passive member.
  3. But he [i.e., an army officer] cannot fairly be forbidden as a scholar to make remarks on failings in the military service and to lay them before the public for judgment.
  4. This same individual [i.e., a citizen] nevertheless does not act against the duty of a citizen if he, as a scholar, expresses his thoughts publicly on the inappropriateness or even the injustice of such taxes.
  5. But as a scholar he [i.e., the clergyman] has the complete freedom, indeed it is his calling, to communicate to the public all his carefully tested and well-intentioned thoughts on the imperfections of that symbol and his proposals for a better arrangement of religious and ecclesiastical affairs.
  6. In contrast, as a scholar, who through his writings speaks to his own public, namely the world, the clergyman enjoys, in the public use of his reason, an unrestricted freedom to employ his own reason and to speak in his own person.
  7. At the same time, all citizens, especially the clergy, would be left free, in their capacities as scholars — that is, through writings — to make remarks on the failings of the current institutions.
  8. Under him [i.e., Frederick the Great] venerable clergy, in their role as scholars and irrespective of their official duties, freely and publicly present their judgments and insights — which here or there diverge from the established symbol — to the world for examination.

Alert readers will note that Kant consistently employs circumlocutions such as “as a scholar” (five times), or “in the role of a scholar” (twice), or “in their capacities as scholars” (once). In other words, “scholar” designates a role that individuals take up. It is an activity that individuals who hold one of a number of particular posts in society (e.g., that of a citizen, an army officer, or a clergyman) might, from time to time, perform. Hence, while one can do various things, as a scholar, the role of scholar is not a “post” that one holds. Hence while a “professor” may, of course, step into the role of “scholar”, holding the post of “professor” does not, automatically, make one a “scholar.”

Kant’s essay is either remarkably vague or quite generous as to what one has to do to step into the role of scholar. The only requirement seems to be that the individual in question public a work that is available to the reading pubic.

This would suggest that, in many of the activities in which professors are engaged,  they are not occupying the role of “scholars.” For example, when Kant lectured to his students at Königsberg, he was performing a task associated with a particular civil post but not (at least as he defines it here) speaking “as a scholar.” Indeed, were we to be picky (and, why not since, after all, we’re dealing with a picky philosopher), we might want to say that the phrase “speaking as a scholar” is a contradiction in terms: a scholar addresses the public “as a scholar” by publishing texts, not by “speaking” to them. When faculty lecture in a classroom or when clergy deliver a homily to a congregation, they are not action “as scholars.” This raises interesting questions about the status of communications that begin as spoken communications delivered in the course of fulfilling the obligations of a civic post that are subsequently made available to the general reading public. For example, prior to its publication in the Berlinische Monatsschrift, Johann Friedrich Zöllner’s article on prejudice and superstition had been delivered as a sermon at the Marienkirche. While, I suppose we would have to say that there is nothing to prevent private uses of reason from being made public, this is not something I’ve thought much about.

In any case, the idea that the lectures faculty deliver as part of the obligations associated with their posts do not constitute a “public use of reason” and, hence, the implication that, in delivering them, professors are not occupying the role of “scholar” is not as peculiar as it may sound. While Kant had considerable latitude in the courses that offered, in teaching those courses he was performing functions within a corporate entity that set regulations about how long semesters ran, how many hours a week courses met, and how classes were to be conducted (perhaps the most significant was that faculty were expected, as Manfred Kuehn explains, “to base their lectures on a textbook or ‘compendium.’”14 Kuehn goes on to note that Kant tended not to follow the compendia he selected very strictly and tended to use the order in which they presented topics as the jumping off point for his own discussions. But since his elaboration of his arguments was accomplished verbally and his audience was limited to those in the classroom, it would not seem to meet his requirements for what was involved in “addressing the general public of the reading world.”

To sum up: Kant did not seem to be particularly interested in setting boundaries on who could step into the role of “scholar.” It would seem to have had few, if any, entry requirements beyond the ability to write and to find a way of getting what one had written published. Kant, it would appear, thought that friends of enlightenment should not be in the business of limiting what individuals could read and, especially, what they could write.

That, more or less, concludes what I have to say about Kant’s discussion of private reason. What it means for those of us who occupy posts in corporate entities that (among other activities) recruit the students that we teach in classes that (with luck) provide some sort of benefits to those who take them is, of course, a different question. Since this post is already long enough, I’m reluctant to drag it out further.  But, in my role “as a scholar” (which, as I hope should be clear by now, may not be quite the same as the role I occupy as “Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science at Boston University”), it is difficult to avoid noting that certain principles, which one would have thought were reasonably secure, have recently begun to appear surprisingly shaky and administrators at certain universities have displayed an unseemly interest in statements that faculty have issued to that part of the “general public of the reading world” that prefers its texts to be no longer than 140 characters.

The only sensible response to the question “What would Kant think about Twitter?” is to point out that Kant hasn’t been thinking about anything for at least the last 210 years. But it might be worth pointing out, especially to those who evince concern about (as they tend to say) the “impact” of public statements made by faculty concerning various matters of public interest on the allegedly easily offended minds of students that Kant seems to have assumed that congregations could deal with clergy who instructed them in doctrines that — when they were not in the pulpit — they criticized in writings addressed to the public at large. But then Kant, while conceding that his was not an enlightened age, could still hope that it might be an age of enlightenment. I’d like to think the same. But the way things seem to be going, I wouldn’t bet on it.15

 

Sun

 

  1. Eberhard Günter Schulz, “Kant und die Berliner Aufklärung ,” Akten des 4. Internationalen Kant-Kongresses, Mainz 1974, Teil II, 1: Sektionen, ed. Gerhard Funke (Berlin, 1974), 60-80. I discussed Schulz’s work in the first article I wrote on these matters (“The Question of Enlightenment: Kant, Mendelssohn, and the Mittwochsgesellschaft,” Journal of the History of Ideas 50:2 (1989): 269–91) .
  2. J. F. Zöllner, Über Moses Mendelssohns Jerusalem (Berlin, 1784).
  3. “Ueber Denk- und Drukfreiheit. An Fürsten, Minister, und Schriftsteller,” Berlinische Monatsschrift, 3, 1784, 312-330. I am quoting John Christian Laursen’s translation, in James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 92 but have modified it slightly. Laursen translated “befolgen, nicht zu billigen” as “obey the command, not consent to it.” I think “not condone it” probably does a better job rendering of “billigen.”
  4. Ludwig Keller, “Die Berliner Mittwochsgesellschaft: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Geistesentwicklung Preussens am Ausgange des 18. Jahrhunderts”. Monatshefte der Comenius-Gesellschaft V:3&4 (1896) 78.
  5. For a translation, see James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions *(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 145-153.
  6. On this point, see the discussion of the “hermeneutic problem of application” in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method II:ii:2:A. 
  7. In what follows, I am much indebted to discussions with a colleague who, unlike me, actually knows something about military history.  A cursory reading of Military instructions, written by the King of Prussia, for the generals of his army: Being His Majesty’s own Commentaries On his former Campaigns (London: Becket and De Hondt, 1762) also helped.
  8. Drawing on in terms of Weber’s account of Zweckrationalität, Will Thomas makes a similar point in his comment.
  9. This captures something of what Onora O’Neill may have had in mind when she noted “privative” character of “private use of reason.”
  10. It should be noted that Sassoon’s subsequent decision to return to the front, like that of his friend Wilfred Owen, was driven, not by a change in his view of the nature of the war, but instead by a concern that enlisted men were likely to suffer under the command of incompetent officers.
  11. The Wikipedia has what seems to be a generally accurate discussion of the history of the tax.
  12. Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government” in Aesthetic Papers (Boston 1849) 198-99, 206.
  13. As I’ve learned from my colleague David Lyons, what Thoreau is proposing is difficult to reconcile with the account of “civil disobedience” offered in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. See David Lyons, “Moral Judgment, Historical Reality, and Civil Disobedience,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 27:1 (1998): 31–49 and, more generally, his recent collection of essays, Confronting Injustice : Moral History and Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  14. Manfred Kuehn, Kant: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 106.
  15. To make things (as Richard Nixon liked to say) “perfectly clear,” when I began work on these two posts, I’d been thinking about the initially clumsy response of administrators at the University of Rhode to Erik Loomis’ tweet, issued in the wake of the Newtown shootings, that stated:  “I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.” That the President of URI eventually managed to issue a statement affirming that Loomis’s statement was (obviously) protected by the First Amendment (and “head on a stick” is what we call a “metaphor” not a set of marching orders) and clearly not an expression of the views of the University of Rhode Island (which, I trust, has no opinion as to where Mr. LaPierre’s head should be).  As I was working on this post,  the news of the “dehiring” of Steven G. Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been unfolding (see, especially, Ed Kazarian’s discussion of the implications of this case).  Whatever the differences between the two cases, in both administrators have found themselves forced to respond to organized campaigns by groups outraged by statements made by faculty in public fora.  While it is too much to hope that administrators might settle of a strategy of responding to campaigns of this sort by issuing a laconic statement along the lines of “Just what part of public use of reason don’t you get?”,  they would be well-advised to recognize that situations like this are not likely to become rarer and developing a suitably anodyne bit of boilerplate affirming that faculty are, indeed, citizens as well as employees (and that we hope our students are smart enough to understand this) might come in handy:  you’re probably going to need it. By the way, I’d like to see Wayne LaPierre go duck hunting with Dick Cheney.
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Kant and the “Private” Use of Reason

Readers of Kant’s little essay on the question “What is enlightenment?” have long recognized that the distinction between “public” and “private” uses of reason is both central to its argument and rather odd. Those perplexed by the distinction are in good company: in one of the written comments attached to the manuscript of the essay when, prior to its publication, it circulated among members of the Berlin “Wednesday Society,” Moses Mendelssohn characterized the distinction as “somewhat strange.”

The problem stems, in part, from the tendency to see the protection of a “right to privacy” as fundamental to modern, liberal societies and the further tendency to view this right as connected to the right of citizens (to employ the language of the Fourth Amendment) “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Attempting to map this onto Kant’s distinction only leads to massive confusions. For while Kant maintains that an unrestricted freedom to publish opinions is fundamental to the progress of enlightenment, he also argues that the “private use” of reason “may often be very narrowly restricted without the progress of enlightenment being particularly hindered.”

Everything, of course, hinges on the peculiar way Kant goes about distinguishing public and private uses of reason. The “public use of reason” involves the use that individuals make of their reason in addressing that peculiar beast known as “the Public”, while the “private of reason” transpires in those cases then individuals perform certain tasks related to particular vocations. Indeed, Mendelssohn reframed the distinction precisely along these lines for his friends in the Wednesday Society: the “private use” of reason was “vocational” while the “public use” was “extra-vocational.” While this goes a long way towards clarifying the distinction, it doesn’t entirely remove the difficulties that plague Kant’s discussion.

Thanks to the now extensive literature on the “public use of reason” the use of the term “public” to refer to something other than various entities associated with the state probably seems less strange than the idea of a “private” use of reason that transpires in contexts that most present-day readers will have difficulties seeing as “private.” Kant provides three examples of individuals engaged in the private use of reason: (1) an army officer following an order given by a superior, (2) a citizen paying a tax levy, and (3) a clergyman instructing catechism students. I suspect that the difficulties present-day readers are likely to have with Kant’s discussion have much to do with the examples he picks — particularly the first one. History has not been kind to his essay: any discussion by a German philosopher of the need for soldiers to follow orders without arguing is bound to sound rather different in 2014 than it did in 1784.

Prompted by a recent exchange of emails with Robert Louden, who has also been working Kant’s essay, I thought it might make be worth spending some time exploring Kant’s account of the private use of reason.

The Distinction Between Public and Private Uses of Reason

In the fifth paragraph Kant distinguishes public and private uses of reason this way:

Ich verstehe aber unter dem öffentlichen Gebrauche seiner eigenen Vernunft denjenigen, den jemand als Gelehrter von ihr vor dem ganzen Publikum der Leserwelt macht. Den Privatgebrauch nenne ich denjenigen, den er in einem gewissen ihm anvertrauten bürgerlichen Posten oder Amte von seiner Vernunft machen darf.

Here’s my translation:

I understand, however, under the public use of his own reason, that use which anyone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the reading world. The private use I designate as that use which one makes of his reason in a certain civil post or office which is entrusted to him.

Kant would seem to offer two different ways of framing the difference between public and private uses of reason:

  1. As a difference in the role of the agent: the private use of reason is associated with holders of “civil posts” while the public use of reason is associated with “scholars.”
  2. As a difference in the addressee: an agent is engaged in a “public use” of reason when addressing “the entire public of the reading world,” while the addressees of private uses of reason are not (for reasons that will become clear in a moment) immediately specified. .

In what follows I will try to work out how these two distinctions work.

Office Holders and Scholars

Like much else in the essay, the distinction between “scholars” and “office holders” seems straightforward enough until one attempts to unpack it. It strikes me that there is a certain asymmetry in the way in which Kant goes about drawing the position: the public use of reason is exercised by those who act as a scholar while the private use is exercised in a certain position. The reader would be well-advised to wonder what’s up with the “as” and the “in”.

What seems to be at work here is a distinction between the various roles that individuals take up and the positions that they occupy in society. Kant’s military officer, for example, occupies a certain position within the Prussian military but, outside of the responsibilities associated with that office, may also act as a scholar by writing articles that are addressed to a broader reading public.

Judge Richard G. Kopf

Judge Richard G. Kopf

For a more recent example, consider the case of Richard George Kopf, who has, since 1992, held the office of Judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska and, since February 2013, has also written posts for his blog, Hercules and the Umpire. If we apply Kant’s distinction to Kopf, we can say that when discharging the responsibilities associated with his position as a Federal District court judge, Judge Kopf is engaged in a “private use of reason,” while — in his capacity as a blogger at Hercules and the Umpire — he is engaged in a “public use of reason.”

While the particular terms that Kant uses to describe the different actitivites in which Mr. Kopf is engaged will undoubtedly strike us as strange, the distinction itself shouldn’t. In 2004 Judge Kopf wrote a decision that overturned the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 (a Federal statute barring the medical procedure known as “intact dilation and extraction”) on the grounds that it did not include an exemption for those cases when the procedure would be “medically necessary to preserve the health of the woman.” While the norms governing legal argumentation are not entirely clear (and one of the concerns of Hercules and the Umpire is to try to talk about how judges go about their work), there is no reason to suppose that Kopf’s decision in this case reflects nothing more than his views on the moral status of abortion or, perhaps, an assessment of the soundness of the Partial Birth Abortion Act as a matter of public policy. It is not unreasonable to expect that the decisions reached by Federal Judges to the cases before them will turn on something other than a judge’s particular moral or political beliefs.

More recently, writing on Hercules and the Umpire, Kopf had this to say about the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case:

The Hobby Lobby cases illustrate why the Court ought to care more about Alexander Bickel’s “passive virtues” — that is, not deciding highly controversial cases (most of the time) if the Court can avoid the dispute. What would have happened if the Supreme Court simply decided not to take the Hobby Lobby cases?  What harm would have befallen the nation? What harm would have befallen Hobby Lobby family members who would  have been free to express their religious beliefs as real persons? Had the Court sat on the sidelines, I don’t think any significant harm would have occurred. The most likely result is that one or more of the political branches of government would have worked something out. Or not. In any event, out of well over 300 million people, who would have cared if the law in different Circuits was different or the ACA’s contraception mandate was up in the air?

Even before arriving at the final line of Kopf’s post — “As the kids say, it is time for the Court to stfu” — it should be obvious that Kopf is speaking, not in his capacity as a judge, but instead a scholar/blogger. In carrying out this discussion, he may appeal to certain arguments (e.g., those of Alexander Bickel) that will be more familiar to those in the legal profession than to lay readers, but there is nothing here that, in principle at least, could not be understood by a lay reader interested in learning something about the implications of the work that judges do.1 Kant would score this as an example of a holder of a civil post stepping out of that post and engaging in a public use of reason.

Citizens and Cosmopolitans

Another way of getting at the distinction between public and private uses of reason is to consider the addressee. In Kopf’s case, it should be obvious that the audience reading Hercules and the Umpire differs from the audience for his 474 page decision on the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. The former consists of anyone with access to a computer, an internet connection, and an interest in the subjects addressed on his blog. The latter consists, first of all, of the particular litigants in the case (who can be expected to read the decision with an eye towards framing a possible appeal) and whatever U.S. Court of Appeals (in this case, the Eighth Circuit) will be dealing with the appeal. The decision, of course, is also available — as what we would call a “public document” — to anyone who wants to read it, but as anyone who has spent much time reading court decisions comes to realize, reading them is a bit like listening in on someone else’s conversation.

Translating this into Kant’s terminology, it should be obvious that the audience for Hercules and the Umpire is, potentially, the “ganzen Publikum derLeserwelt.” But, at least at this point, Kant does not characterize who (or what) is the target of private uses of reason. The explanation for this is straightforward enough: while it’s easy enough to say that those who are involved in public uses of reason are, in principle, addressing anyone, the audiences for private uses of reason are discrete and varied. Confining ourselves to the three examples he uses:

  1. the officer makes private use of his reason when he translates the orders he receives from his superiors into actions that will be performed by those under his command
  2. The citizen makes private use of his reason when he take whatever steps are necessary to pay the levy demanded by the tax collector
  3. The clergyman makes private use of his reason when he instructs his congregation in the teachings of his particular faith.

Posed in this way, it would appear that not only are the particular audiences different inPrussian each of these cases, but that the character of the reasoning involved also differs significantly. Without knowing more than I do about eighteenth-century Prussian military practice, it is risky to specify what exactly is involved in the first example, but presumably it involves determining how orders (e.g., “set up defensive positions at location X”) are best executed. In other words, it rests on a combination of military training, previous combat experience, and the officer’s familiarity with the capacities of his troop. While it would be easy to find present-day parallels to the taxpayer (e.g., each year I spend quite a bit of time using Quicken and spreadsheets to pull together the information that I need to pay my Federal and state taxes), I suspect that the Prussian system was a good deal more straightforward, but there are, nevertheless, certain skills that Prussian taxpayers needed to have in order to go about doing what they need to do to pay their taxes.

In contrast to the taxpayer and the soldier, what Kant had in mind with the example of the clergyman is easier to comprehend (this is no accident: I’m inclined to think that the example of the clergyman is the only example that really mattered to Kant). Among other things, clergy are responsible for conveying the general principles of their faith to members of the congregation who differ greatly in their familiarity with church doctrine, life situations, capacity for understanding the finer points of scriptural interpretation, and so on. Clergy have considerable latitude in how they carry out this task, but there is a general expectation that they will not stray to far from the general principles that define their faith (e.g., Lutheran clergy may have rather different ways of explicating certain points of church doctrine, but it is reasonable to expect that their interpretations will coalesce around recognizably “Lutheran” interpretations of the main points of the faith).

A distinction of this sort would seem to be what Kant has in mind in the sentences that immediately follow the passage I quoted at the start of this post, though the way in which he frames the distinction is likely to raise additional confusions:

Nun ist zu manchen Geschäften, die in das Interesse des gemeinen Wesens laufen, ein gewisser Mechanism notwendig, vermittelst dessen einige Glieder des gemeinen Wesens sich bloß passiv verhalten müssen, um durch eine künstliche Einhelligkeit von der Regierung zu öffentlichen Zwecken gerichtet oder wenigstens von der Zerstörung dieser Zwecke abgehalten zu werden. Hier ist es nun freilich nicht erlaubt zu räsonnieren; sondern man muß gehorchen. Sofern sich aber dieser Teil der Maschine zugleich als Glied eines ganzen gemeinen Wesens, ja sogar der Weltbürgergesellschaft ansieht, mithin in der Qualität eines Gelehrten, der sich an ein Publikum im eigentlichen Verstande durch Schriften wendet, kann er allerdings räsonnieren, ohne daß dadurch die Geschäfte leiden, zu denen er zum Teile als passives Glied angesetzt ist.

Here’s my translation:

Now a certain mechanism is necessary in many affairs which are run in the interest of the commonwealth by means of which some members of the commonwealth must conduct themselves passively in order that the government may direct them, through an artificial unanimity, to public ends, or at least restrain them from the destruction of these ends. Here one is certainly not allowed to argue; rather, one must obey. But insofar as this part of the machine considers himself at the same time as a member of the entire commonwealth, indeed even of a cosmopolitan society, who in the role of a scholar addresses a public in the proper sense through his writings, he can certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs in which he is engaged in part as a passive member.

Without, I hope, doing too much violence to the text, perhaps we can reformulate Kant’s argument this way:

  1. There are various ends that cannot be achieved unless individuals put aside their disagreements.
  2. The pursuit of these ends is best carried out when the government directs the actions of citizens.
  3. When engaged in the pursuit of these ends, citizens should not question the commands they have been given.
  4. During those periods when citizens are not engaged in pursuing these ends they should be free to raise objections in writing.
  5. Governments must respect their citizens’ right to raise these objections, subject to the conditions specified in #4.

Many readers, I suspect, may regard the second point as the red herring in Kant’s argument. While granting that there are some collective undertakings that require government direction, there are any number of others (e.g., running a restaurant, an academic department, or a professional baseball team) that don’t (though their successful pursuit may profit from the government enforcement of certain restraints on the actions of other individuals and other collective enterprises). It would appear that Kant — either out of conviction or for the sake of convenience — has simply accepted the enlightened absolutist program: the monarch holds the reins of power.

Readers might also note Kant’s characterization of the goals pursued by the government as “public ends” (öffentlichen Zwecken), which means that the “public ends” are achieved only when those who pursue them engage in a “private” use of reason. Even for someone as fond of paradoxes as Kant, this may be a bit much. But it does help to clarify what a peculiar world he seems to be constructing.

As a citizen (Bürger) individuals take up positions in the vast machinery that is “civil society” (bürgerliche Gesellschaft), a machinery whose proper functioning requires them to act “passively” — i.e., to carry out the instructions they receive without (then and there) initiating arguments about their propriety. But during those hours when they are not fulfilling their roles as part of the machinery, they are members of a broader society (i.e., the ganzen gemeinen Wesens) or, indeed, members of a cosmopolitan community (Weltbürgergesellschaft). In this role, they are something more than “passive” parts of the machine: they are cosmopolites — or, as we sometimes like to call ourselves, “scholars.”

Since I know a bit more about them, I’ll have more to say about scholars next time, especially scholars who spend some of their time in classrooms where they are engaged in what Kant would characterize as a private use of reason and some of their time at keyboards where they change, as if by magic, from functionaries in the machinery of the higher-education branch of the carceral-educational complex into members of the cosmopolitan community of readers and writers.

  1. That Kopf is well aware of potential tensions between these two roles is clear from his account of the restrictions on what he is willing to discuss. See http://herculesandtheumpire.com/the-who-and-why-of-this-blog/

 

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Rights, “Unalienable” or “Inalienable”?: A Concluding Philological Postscript

[This version has been revised since it was initially posted;  see below]

Since my posting of Bentham’s critique of the “Declaration of Independence” last Thursday, traffic on this blog has increased dramatically. While I appreciate the attention, I suspect that it will be fleeting and that my readership will soon return to the small, but persistent, company of friends of the Enlightenment who have sustained it over the last year and a half. But, before bidding adieu to Bentham and returning to the usual concerns of this blog, I thought I’d post a few final observations on the Declaration’s use of the phrase “unalienable rights.”

While Bentham was rather suspicious of the notion of  unalienable rights, my concern is not with the concept but with the words, the first one in particular. The Declaration clearly says “unalienable,” but I suspect that many of us labor under the impression that the text says “inalienable” (at least I know that I do and, when talking about the Declaration, regularly have to correct myself). While there is no difference (at least that I know of) in the meaning of the two words, I’m curious as to why we (or, at least, I) keep making this slip. Fortunately, our old friend, the Google Ngram, can bring some enlightenment.

Unalienable vs. Inalienable:  A Preliminary Sketch

We can start by noting the simple fact that, starting in 1832, usages of “inalienable” rapidly begin to become more common than “unalienable.”

In and Un

“Inalienable” starts its ascent in the early nineteenth century, peaks in 1862 (I bet that quick-witted readers already suspect why), and then begins a modest descent into the present. The track for “unalienable”, in contrast, falls steadily until around 1880 and then flatlines (this is one case where turning off the smoothing doesn’t produce much of a change).

The Ngram for the bigrams “unalienable rights” and “inalienable rights” more or less tracks that of the two adjectives.

 

Rights In and Un

This led me to wonder how frequently these adjectives are applied to nouns other than “rights.” Fortunately, Google has a tool that lets us find out.

It is simple enough to do a wildcard search with the Ngram by inserting an asterisk after “inalienable” or “unalienable”. The Ngram then will spit out a graph of the most frequent words that follow the two adjectives.  Here’s the one for “unalienable”:

Wildcard Unalienable

 

And here’s the one for “inalienable”:

 

 

Wildcard Inalienable

The results look much more cluttered here than they do on the Ngram Viewer itself, where dragging the cursor over the lines hightlights them, so readers might want to spend a few minutes playing around with this themselves (click here for “unalienable” and here for “inalienable”).

The main point here is that the most frequent use for both “inalienable” and “unalienable” was as a modifier for “right” or “rights” with (if we discard “and” and “in”) “inheritance” and “property” running a distant third and fourth (I suspect that “property” is not being used in the legal sense in most of these cases).  The fact that “inalienable” and “unalienable” are typically used in connection with rights got me to wondering how many of the occurrences were, in fact, quotations from the Declaration of Independence.  When I initially posted this discussion, I thought I’d figured out a way of getting at this, but I have serious doubts as to whether my procedure isolated what I was looking for.  So, until I’ve worked this out to my own satisfaction, it is best to leave this question open.

 

Lincoln’s Role

What, then, explains the fact that after 1860 or so, discussions of the Declaration of Independence have it speak of “inalienable” rather than “unalienable” rights? The answer, as I suspect most readers have already figured out, has to do with Abraham Lincoln.

A quick search of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln turns up 17 occurences of “inalienable,” all in the context of discussions of the Declaration of Independence (and here I should register the caveat that I am not a Lincoln scholar and that I am moving way out of my areas of competence).  While the bulk of them occur during his debates with Stephen Douglas, the most frequently quoted is from a speech delivered in his speech at Lewiston, Illinois of August 17, 1858:

Now if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to his creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all his creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.

The only occurrence of “unalienable” that I could find in Lincoln’s works occurs in the report on the Lewiston speech that appeared in the Chicago Press and Tribune of August 21, 1858, an account that (according to the editors of the Collected Works) was picked up by other newspapers.

The reporter for the Press and Tribune rendered the relevant passage of the speech as follows (emphasis mine):

Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The reporter had every reason to think that Lincoln said “unalienable” — that, after all, was the word that was in the Declaration.  That we, in contrast, tend to recall the Declaration as speaking of “inalienable” rather than “unalienable” rights is but a small testimony to the role Lincoln played in securing a place for the Declaration in our cultural memory.

abraham-lincoln

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