Semester of Graduation

Spring 2023


Master of Arts (MA)



Document Type



The present work examines the philosophical Pantheism Controversy or Pantheismusstreit as it unfolded between 1783 and 1789 in the private correspondence and published works of prominent German intellectuals, many of whom have characteristically represented the conflicting trends of the late Enlightenment or Aufklärung. These philosophers, beginning with F.H. Jacobi and Moses Mendelssohn in 1783 but eventually expanding to include J.G. Herder, J.W. Goethe, and Immanuel Kant alongside numerous other lesser known figures, problematized the already uneasy relationship between universalizing reason and historicizing religious tradition. Jacobi in particular mobilized the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza – rendered deeply problematic by a century of cultural censure – against the moderate Enlightenment represented by Mendelssohn and G.E. Lessing, using it as a threatening alternative meant to call deistic intellectuals back to a faith in Christian revelation and tradition. In the process of dispute however, the very meanings of useful concepts like faith, reason, and even Spinozism were called into question. This deeply unsettling discourse around the compatibility of faith and reason manifested itself in debates over the meanings of words, rendered uncertain by misunderstandings, tendentious misreadings, and ethically questionable conduct. By the end of the controversy in 1789, the dispute’s unrelenting interrogation of fundamental concepts had delegitimized the older metaphysical compromises of the Enlightenment, but none of the controversy’s participants had found a compelling solution to the dilemmas that remained, especially concerning the compatibility of traditional religion and enlightened reason. Later generations of philosophers, whether the Romantics or Idealists, would attempt to reconcile religion and reason with the Pantheism Controversy and its vocabulary in mind. By closely examining the correspondence related to this Controversy, the present work intends to reevaluate the dynamic role that the dispute itself played in defining the contours and content of debate, functioning as a middle-space beyond the control of any one philosopher. Through the many letters exchanged between the disputants, the ideas of the Controversy return to their embodiment in the conversations that created them.



Committee Chair

Marchand, Suzanne



Available for download on Wednesday, March 27, 2030