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Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi


Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (January 25, 1743 - March 10, 1819) was a German philosopher who made his mark on philosophy by coining the term nihilism and promoting it as the prime fault of Enlightenment thought and Kantianism. His correspondence with Moses Mendelssohn regarding the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza were published and widely known as the "pantheism dispute," and it expressed sharply and clearly Jacobi's strenuous objection to rationalist orientaion in philosophy. Instead of speculative reason and a systematic philosophy like that of Spinoza, he advocated faith (or "belief"; German: Glaube), feelings, and revelation as the keystones of reason. Spinoza received the attention of Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, and others as a result of Jacobi's criticism. Jacobi was critical to the intellectualism of the Enlightenment, stressed the importance of belief and emotion of individuals, and influenced German Romanticism.


Jacobi was born at Düsseldorf, the second son of a wealthy sugar merchant, and was educated for a commercial career. Of a retiring, meditative disposition, Jacobi associated himself at Geneva mainly with the literary and scientific circle of which the most prominent member was Le Sage. He studied closely the works of Charles Bonnet, and the political ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. In 1763 he was recalled to Düsseldorf, and in the following year he married and took over the management of his father's business.

After a short time, he gave up his commercial career, and in 1770 became a member of the council for the duchies of Jülich and Berg, in which capacity he distinguished himself by his ability in financial affairs and his zeal for social reform. Jacobi kept up his interest in literary and philosophic matters by an extensive correspondence, and his mansion at Pempelfort, near Düsseldorf, was the center of a distinguished literary circle. With Christoph Martin Wieland, he helped to found a new literary journal, Der Teutsche Mercur, in which some of his earliest writings, mainly on practical or economic subjects, were published.

It was in the journal that the first of his philosophic works appeared in part, Edward Allwill's Briefsammlung (1776), a combination of romance and speculation. This was followed in 1779 by Woldemar, a philosophic novel of very imperfect structure, but full of genial ideas, and gives the most complete picture of Jacobi's method of philosophizing.

In 1779, he visited Munich as member of the Privy Council; but, after a short stay there, differences with his colleagues and with the authorities of Bavaria drove him back to Pempelfort. A few unimportant tracts on questions of theoretical politics were followed in 1785 by the work which first brought Jacobi into prominence as a philosopher.

Later life

The outbreak of the war with the French Republic induced Jacobi in 1793 to leave Düsseldorf, and for nearly ten years he lived in Holstein. There he became intimately acquainted with Karl Leonhard Reinhold (in whose Beitrage his important work, Uber das Unternehmen des Kriticismus, die Vernunft zu Verstande zu bringen, was first published), and with Matthias Claudius, the editor of the Wandsbecker Bote.

During the same period the excitement caused by the accusation of atheism brought against Gottlieb Fichte at Jena led to the publication of Jacobi's Letter to Fichte (1799), in which he made more precise the relation of his own philosophic principles to theology.

Soon after his return to Germany, Jacobi received a call to Munich in connection with the new academy of sciences recently founded there. The loss of a considerable portion of his fortune induced him to accept this offer; he settled in Munich in 1804, and in 1807 became president of the academy.

In 1811 his last philosophic work appeared, directed against Schelling especially (Von den göttlichen Dingen und ihrer Offenbarung); the first part of which, a review of the Wandsbecker Bote, had been written in 1798. A bitter reply from Schelling was left without answer by Jacobi, but gave rise to an animated controversy in which Jakob Friedrich Fries and Franz Xaver von Baader took prominent part.

In 1812 Jacobi retired from the office of president, and began to prepare a collected edition of his works. He died before this was completed. The edition of his writings was continued by his friend F. Koppen, and was completed in 1825. The works fill six volumes, of which the fourth is in three parts. To the second is prefixed an introduction by Jacobi, which is at the same time an introduction to his philosophy. The fourth volume has also an important preface.


A conversation which Jacobi held with Gotthold Lessing in 1780 led him to a protracted study of Spinoza's works. What followed was a correspondence with Moses Mendelssohn, published as the Briefe uber die Lehre Spinozas (1785; 2nd ed., much enlarged and with important appendices, 1789) expressed sharply and clearly Jacobi's strenuous objection to a rationalist orientation and systematic construction of philosophy, and drew upon him the vigorous enmity of the Berlin clique, led by Mendelssohn. Jacobi and Mendelssohn disputed over the interpretation of Spinoza, and this dispute was known as "Pantheism Dispute." Through this dispute, Spinoza's philosophy was recognized not simply as atheism but as pantheism, and Spinoza's vitalist view of nature came to be known to others, which influenced the formation of German Romanticism.

Jacobi addressed a number of criticisms to major thinkers including Fichte, Schelling, and Kant for their neglect of "belief" and "emotion" as the basis of philosophy. Jacobi, however, was also ridiculed for trying to reintroduce the irrational elements such as belief and emotion into philosophy and was denounced as an enemy of reason, as a pietist, and as a Jesuit in disguise. He was also attacked for his use of the ambiguous term "belief."

Jacobi's next important work, David Hume Über den Glauben, oder Idealismus und Realismus (1787), was an attempt to show not only that the term Glaube (faith) had been used by the most eminent writers to denote what he had employed it for in the Letters on Spinoza, but that the nature of the cognition. In this writing, and especially in the appendix, Jacobi came into contact with the critical philosophy, and criticized Kantian view of knowledge.

As Jacobi starts with the doctrine that thought is partial and limited, applicable only to connect facts but incapable of explaining the aspect of their existence, it is evident that for him, any demonstrative system of metaphysic which should attempt to subject all existence to the principle of logical ground must be repulsive. Jacobi argued that human cognitive capacity was limited and incapable of grasping God; it was belief that allowed humans to recognize God.

Now, in modern philosophy, the first and greatest demonstrative system of metaphysic is that of Spinoza, and it lies in the nature of things that upon Spinoza's system Jacobi should first direct his criticism. Some major points of his examination are as follows (Werke, i. 216-223):

  • Spinozism is atheism
  • the philosophy of Leibniz and Wolff is not less fatalistic than that of Spinoza
  • every demonstrative method ends in fatalism (nihilism)
  • we can demonstrate only similarities (agreements, truths conditionally necessary), proceeding always in identical propositions; every proof presupposes something already proved, the principle of which is immediately given (Offenbarung, revelation, is the term here employed by Jacobi to denote the peculiar character of an immediate, unproved truth)
  • the keystone (Element) of all human knowledge and activity is "belief" (Glaube, or "faith")
  • Motive of moral action is not the rational understanding of the moral laws as Kant claimed, but the emotional feeling which precedes reason.

Jacobi attacked the humanistic values of the Enlightenment and their emphasis on rationalism. He did not completely deny the function of reason; rather, he criticized the creation of a systematic philosophy in which the principles of reason and consequent have obligated philosophers to shape their concept according to their path of logic. Thus, he characterized "Glaube" as the key element of human knowledge and took this to be the keystone of reason.


  • Jacobi, F. H. David Hume Ueber Den Glauben, Oder Idealismus Und Realismus (“The Philosophy of David Hume”). Taylor & Francis, 1982. ISBN 0824054091
  • di Giovanni, G. (ed. and trans.). 1994. The Main Philosophical Writings and the Novel 'Allwill'. Kingston, O.N. and Montreal, PQ: McGill-Queen University Press.
  • Wilde, N. 1894. Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi: A Study of the Origin of German Realism. Columbia College. ASIN B00085BU4W
  • Rehder, H. 1965. Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi and German Thought During the Eighteenth Century. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. ASIN B0007HY43K

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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