Cassirer, Ernst.  The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Trans. Fritz A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. (Princeton UP 1951)

Hoping to recover the mind of the Enlightenment for his readers, Cassirer examines an array of philosophical issues -- grouped as logical, epistemological, social, aesthetic, and historical questions-- as they were understood by major thinkers of the Enlightenment. He suggests that rather than self-congratulation, self-criticism ought to be task of his age (early 1930s), and in that light, his effort is to show how the eighteenth century understood its own nature and destiny, its own fundamental character and mission.  He argues that the significance of Enlightenment philosophy is not the answers it produces, but the new place and particular elevation it gives to philosophic thought.  "The Enlightenment produced a completely original form of philosophic thought" (Preface, vi) and although it loses faith in the metaphysical "spirit of systems" it tends itself toward a "systematic spirit."

Cassirer suggests that certain "family features" obtain in the inquiries he describes.  Generally the Enlightenment writers prefer moving from phenomena to axiom, rather than axiom to phenomena (8)"  Rigorous analysis was the staff which a benevolent nature ha[d] placed in a blind man's hands." (12) Analysis became a force, the power to dissolve thought-structures into their constituent elements, and to bind elements into new structures. (13).  The doubtful "lust to know" was no longer simply intellectual pride; rather, it was reformed and given full sway. Among other changes, mathematics was separated from philosophy (see question below).  Great effort was made to quantify and order psychological reality, going beyond the ideas of Locke (sensation and reflection) on to Condillac -- (onward past Lockean forms to the events of comparing, contrasting, separation, combination).  Under the most radically skeptical treatment, the soul became an aggregation of sensation in higher combinations. In addition to new understandings of mathematics, philosophy, and psychology, another important effect of Enlightenment thinking was the critical and practical attention paid the structure of the state. Social equilibrium was a goal, and political unification was considered an effective way to elevate reason and rational order.  Finally, Cassirer believes that Leibniz needs to be rediscovered for his originality, and particularly his conception of dynamic monads (29).  He embodies 18th century thoughts. The new concept of "whole" is organic, not static or mechanical, the logic of individuality (36)

Question: Cassirer is German. What is going on philosophically in 1930s Germany? (Art? Bauhaus? National Socialism?) Has he got some scholarly rival or scholarly target?
Question: Leibniz seems to be the beginning, center or end of every discussion in every chapter. Would Leibniz be as important to another writer?  What does he particularly offer to Cassirer's argument and viewpoint?
Question:  What is the significance of separating mathematics from philosophy?  What is the geometric spirit? (16)

In Chapters II and III Cassirer considers what the philosophes had to say about nature, natural science, psychology and epistemology. Again Cassirer mentions the impulse towards induction, and the focus on accumulating specific facts; but he also notes the impulse towards finding universal and underlying rules for causation.  One important organizing psychological and scientific metaphor ends its life in the Enlightenment: that the of the "great chain of being." The universe became an endless self-creating womb, and Nature, instead of being a known and quantifiable group of objects, became simply a horizon beyond which more waited to be discovered. God was located within His own laws -- never acting outside of nature (which obviously has implications for miracles!) Led by discoveries in geology, thinkers and writers no longer looked for evidence of Biblical creation, or used the Bible to judge discoveries in the natural world.  Newton's physics took primacy over Cartesian physics. Cassirer argues that there is a line from Newtonian mathematical empiricism to Hume's empirical skepticism and that ultimately, science and religion and both must be derived "from their subjective sources... as manifestations of certain fundamental and original instincts of human nature." (63).  Finally, as biology began to be a separate field, so too, did the question of what we know and how we know it become rooted in early understandings of human and social evolution.  Cassirer traces question of "the operation of the mind" from Locke through Condillac(Treatise on Sensations), Voltaire, Diderot and Hume (101). What centers the debate are two questions: first, what is the seat of fundamental human motivation; and second, what is how are these fundamental passions or sensations built into the hierarchy of the mind? Theories of vision -- because they dealt with primary sensations -- were contributions to the problem of how we know.  Liebniz's monads offer a different theory of knowing. Each monad is a unique irreducible energy-filled building block from which the mind builds up its ideas. (124)

Question:  Is the enlightenment really when the Great Chain of Being stops having a metaphorical and organizing meaning for average thinker?
Question: How and when  are the "rules" for establishing scientific truth by experimental replication established?
Question: I don't think I've really got a grasp of what "monads" are.  The last sentence in the paragraph above is really a bit of fudging.  I could use help.

In Chapters IV and V Cassirer asks what the enlightenment philosophes had to say about religion and history.  Cassirer starts with Pascal's deep sense of original sin as expressed through human society, and he notes Voltaire's urbane, witty, but ultimately inadequate response. He turns then to Leibniz's  theodicy:  this is the best possible world, and evil is not evidence that God is "asleep on the job."  And if the best possible world was already in existence, then one of the questions that exercised the mathematically minded was this: is man, on the whole, more happy or more unhappy? Philosophes tended toward the latter.  Moving the problem of evil to other grounds was Rosseau, who conceived of the problem of evil and pain as a social, not religious, problem (153).  As in the sciences, the habit of analysis was turned on the Bible itself.  Spinoza started Biblical criticism with the Theological-Political Treatise; natural religion and Deism followed in England, and coming to Germany Lessing's criticism carried on until he reached the "ugly, wide ditch" (194) of the historical particulars of the Christian faith. It was, for Lessing and others, an article of faith that God could not be in any way particular, or necessarily, involved in the historical.  (191) How then to believe in the specific, definite Christian historical intervention -- resurrection -- without giving up the belief in the general?   In this way, on this question, Cassirer moves quite naturally from religion to the history. "The eighteenth century conception of history is less a finished form with clear outlines than a force exerting its influence in all directions. ...this force starts at a certain point in the sphere of theology and spreads from there until it pervades progressively all the fields of knowledge." (198-199)  Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary was an example of history as an aggregate of facts: no selection needed; minutia cheerfully accepted.  But even in this work, "truth," or facts, are a point toward which historical aggregations lead, not the things in the aggregation itself.  Other examples of Enlightenment history are found in the Spirit of the Laws by Montesquieu, describing a series of (Platonic)forms of government  and Voltaire's more specific History of Charles XII.   Enlightenment writers wondered whether history progressed or cycled.  Cassirer argues that for Hume, history was a spectacle of the Roman type, and nothing was to be learned from its passing.  Again, in tracing the flow of historical theory, Leibniz's monads are held up as a helpful idea, but finally Cassirer suggest that it is Herder who broke the spell of analytical thinking and the spirit of identity (231).  History is a set of discrete events, not a system of typology.  Nothing happens twice the same way.

Question: How did other Enlightenment philosophers address Christianity's historical claims?
Question:  What about historians like Gibbon or Vico?  (Someone with an axe to grind, or a point to make.)  How does Cassirer evaluate them?
Question: The issue of happiness -- "man is on the whole more unhappy than happy" -- the calculus of pleasure and pain -- can only be a question if the world is NOT Fallen.   When did the philosophes reject the fallen nature of the world?(c.f. Mark Twain's bitter unpublished work on the fundamental unhappiness of man)

Cassirer turns next to Enlightenment thought on the law, the state, and society, and finally, to theories of aesthetics.  During this century, for the purposes of secular state-building, Cassirer argues that the law "had to be" separated from theology and from the state.  He traces the history of thought on this subject, starting with Grotius, who worked out a basis for God's laws existing with or without the necessity of God existing, and pausing over Montesquieu, who posited that fundamental legalities reside within the condition of being human (248)  Cassirer reviews other important contributions to the question of political relations: Locke's personal property and personal freedom in the social contract; and Condorcet's review of the American revolution as the first practical step towards realizing a proper social contract (252).  Cassirer compares Hobbes, who suggests that  the formation of the state is the covenant of subjection, with Rosseau who holds that the formation of the state is the contract of association.  Cassirer glosses Rosseau as the great disbeliever in social harmony as presented to him by the Enlightenment.  (A prophet with an exhortation against society as it exists)  Addressing his final subject, Cassirer reminds the reader that this is the age of Criticism as well as the age of Enlightenment. In classical art, what was beautiful was known by its expression of proportional relationships and rules.  No relativism started the period of aesthetic criticism, and none dominated:  for Voltaire, the perfection of genres was the highest end of art.  And a search was made to articulate principles of beauty in the same way that Newton articulated principles of physics.  In the arts, this is the age of the brittle witty play, of the novel of sentimental sensibility, and of the landscape of the sublime.  Solutions for the basis of aesthetic judgement were like those proposed for epistemology -- based on sensation. After aesthetics were linked to the production and not consumption of art, Lessing became the aesthetician and inheritor of the Enlightenment thought.

Question:  Did the letters that a philosophe wrote to say, Catherine the Great, have any practical or observable effect?
N.B. Laocoon