Review: Michael Mack, German Idealism and the Jew

By Ralph Dumain

Mack, Michael. German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.


Michael Mack argues that the anti-Semitism that can be found in the writings of German thinkers is fundamental to German idealism. The first part of the book covers German figures—Kant, Hegel, Wagner, et al—but there are also mentions of other figures who made dubious remarks, including Feuerbach. Wagner expresses a romantic anti-capitalism. Hegel commented on the Jews as an historical phenomenon, concluding that the gate to further progress toward the Absolute was now barred to Jews. Kant made explicit anti-Semitic remarks. The book is an attempt to analyze the conceptual structures of contrasting conceptions of Enlightenment, and the nature of idealism itself. In this world outlook the material world is heteronomous; ideality is the site of autonomy. Jews are seen as wholly material and thus heteronomous. Hence they constitute the Other of what German idealists consider their supreme value.

Mack introduces the concept of pseudotheologies—the geistig form of racism (which is distinguishable though later converges with biological racism)—which attribute permanent essences to ethnic/racial/national groups. This was Kant's doing, for example. The book is interesting for its analysis of secularized demythologized Protestantism, which proves to be as suspect as the original.


The second part comprises the counterattack of the Jewish Enlightenment on the part of Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, Hermann Cohen, Otto Weininger, Franz Rosenzweig, Sigmund Freud, and Walter Benjamin. The quarrel of the Jewish Enlightenment with anti-Semitism seems to boil down to a quarrel with Kant. It is fundamentally Kant's dualism that sets up the equation of the Jews with heteronomy and evil matter.

Moses Mendelssohn's strategy is apparently what we today would call multiculturalism. It does not strike me as altogether brilliant, and others were not satisfied either. He also had an argument about revelation and the codification of laws, claiming, strangely enough, that divine revelation is a counter to absolutism. The basis for his refutation of Kant's position is a distinction between the moral and the epistemological.

Heinrich Heine's strategy is different. He denies the bigoted opposition between German and Jew, arguing for similarity instead. Judaism is in fact German—"Nazarene"—idealist, ascetic, a form of negation; as opposed to the Hellenic, the this-worldly and sensuous. Mack distinguishes between a counterhistory and a counternarrative. Borne, who also converted to Christianity with Heine, is part of this scenario. Heine ultimately rejects asceticism.

A noted German thinker by the name of Treitschke played a significant role in generating anti-Semitic propaganda. Here we have an important specimen of anti-capitalism and anti-materialism coupled with anti-Semitism.

Heinrich Graetz did not seek reconciliation; he went on the offensive against Kant and others, emphasizing differences rather than sameness. He argued for sensuousness (supposedly a Jewish characteristic). His argument was more radical than that of Herzl. Naturally, Graetz infuriated his Gentile audience.

Chapter 6 begins with a treatment of Hermann Cohen. The emancipation of the Jews led to a more virulent round of anti-Semitic propaganda. Here a very important theme is introduced: the intersection of pseudotheologies (volksgeist-based thinking) and pseudoscience (the new biological racism) (p. 110). Cohen has an argument against Kantian autonomy (p. 112).

Otto Weininger, a Kantian who abandoned Judaism and ultimately committed suicide, wrote a scurrilous, misogynistic, anti-Semitic treatise.

Franz Rosenzweig has an argument against Kantian autonomy: it abandons any meaningful relationship to the external world, and it is impossible to will in general. Rosenzweig also uses the Kantian argument against Islam and accused Kant of being Islamic (heteronymous). Rosenzweig claims that epistemology usurps infinity (the unknown). The gap between immanence and transcendence is eliminated.

The next chapter is on Rosenzweig vs. Hegel and the politics of blood. There is more on the interesting interaction of pseudotheology and pseudoscience (128). Rosenzweig argues that the superhuman Aryan body is essentially superphysical, i.e. not material at all but ideal. There is also a counterargument to something Hegel says about the metaphysics of eating. Schelling is not condemned as a reactionary but praised for asserting that the Jews are "chosen" because of their nonparticipation in the violent struggle between states. Rosenzweig is also a disturbingly "blood-and-soil" thinker. For him Jews are united by a blood brotherhood, and blood is outside of history.

Mack argues that Freud's outlook should not be defined by his antireligious book The Future of an Illusion. Freud is very much a Jewish thinker. He sees anti-Semitism as an inner psychical reality dominating outer reality. Judaism engaged in conscious remembrance of past trauma. There is some discussion of the castration complex and Weininger's and Jung's denial of sexuality. Perhaps the most interesting topic in this chapter is Freud's repeated references to Kant's categorical imperative as essentially a form of taboo, a self-authorizing dogma equivalent to the superego (143-149). There is also an interesting discussion of Moses and Monotheism. But the most important ideas I think are the Kantian categorical imperative and the denial of reality or neurotic amnesia. I will return to Freud's approach to philosophy below.

Walter Benjamin links the evolution to Christianity to Kant and the metamorphosis of Christianity into capitalism, with a concomitant abstract devaluation of the empirical world. There is also something about baroque allegory.


In the concluding chapter, Mack introduces Canetti and Steiner. Mack is writing this book out of a post-Holocaust perspective, and there are conclusions that can be drawn for postmodernism. (Very disappointing. ) The overall theme, I gather, is the Jewish response to the idealist repression of materiality.


Before I launch into my evaluation of Mack’s thesis, let me summarize for further research and deliberation the significant intellectual puzzles and theoretical issues I find implicit in this material:

(1) The notion of pseudotheologies, and their relation to rationalized Protestantism and pseudoscientific biological racism.

(2) The consequences of Kantian dualism, with attention to autonomy and heteronomy and the association of the latter with Jewish materialism.

(3) Is idealism in fact the principle of negation that Marcuse (Reason and Revolution) proclaimed it to be, or is it at the end of the day an ideological principle disguising an apologetic character? Does hated materialism and sensuousness, associated with the hated Jew, represent the negation of the negation that serves as the true principle of emancipation? Who's the man, Spinoza, Hegel, or Marx?

(4) The dangers of Romantic anti-capitalism and its association with anti-Semitism and ultimately fascism. (But note the curious example of Moses Hess who takes Romanticism in a utopian socialist and ultimately Zionist direction. )

(5) Note the similarity between these philosophical arguments and theological arguments in general, which recapitulates my argument about the arbitrariness and reversibility of symbolic/mythical interpretation. On the inside of ideology, any system of symbols can be interpreted and reinterpreted to mean, esoterically, any different number of things. All of the twisting and turning outlined here shows the consequences of the inability to break out of mythical thinking. The Young Hegelians were productive thinkers who could not do this either, but look at much worse the record is of everyone else. Hegel also stands condemned here in a specific sense, with certain provisos: (a) Hegel is not content to describe mythologies but connects them with real social institutions; (b) Hegel represents the beginning of the process of German secularization and hence analytically fuses rational reconstruction of traditional beliefs by the progressive civil servant class, traditional belief systems (relegated to vorstellung but not rejected), and social institutions, and hence cannot see how his schema will soon be rendered obsolete. The detachment of mythologies and their arbitrary reinterpretation not only becomes a social reality, but becomes ever more of a social possibility the more separation actually occurs between the content of old religious systems the cultures of modern societies. In some sense, that process has been going on for centuries, as the majority of the world's population that looks to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, or Mecca never lived in the originating circumstances wherein those mythological systems were organically shaped in connection with their originating societies; but as secular modernity advances, the process of mythical reorganization by religious rationalizers becomes more detached and arbitrary.

(6) This subject matter serves as an outstanding example of the poverty of philosophy. The questionable Jewish responses to the German predicament remind me of the ultimate dead end of the Young Hegelian movement and Marx’s break with it for its inability to break through the self-enclosed world of ideology. (Marx's intervention on the Jewish Question marks an incipient effort to break out into historical materialism, but only programmatically, and rather unflattering to the real Jew as well as the Sabbath Jew. ) I cannot read a summary of Rosenzweig’s philosophy without gagging. It is hardly materialist. As a mythical conception it may have some interesting moments, but it is mythmaking nonetheless, at its very worst.

(7) What I mean by the poverty of philosophy: Aprioristic reasoning is a poor substitute for in-depth study of history, and within that, the total history of ideas and not just history of philosophy. Most of the Jewish thinkers discussed by Mack do not inspire me, and indicate an impoverished metaphysical response to a multi-layered social problem. A corollary of historical analysis is that empirical history cannot substitute for teasing out the inner logic and underlying dynamics of conceptual systems. One must explore relationships beyond a mere recitation of historical facts and a limited social analysis. Mack does not purport to offer a master scheme for evaluating all the ideas he summarizes, except to the extent that he risks generalizations about German idealism.

(8) People who want to study racism ought to abandon philosophy and take up a more substantial subject, a more thoroughgoing history that incorporates the history of ideas into real historiography. Or, if they are stuck with philosophy, they need to recognize that the conceptual history of anti-Semitism provides the master key to all of European racism no matter which group is victimized.


The question raised by this book is whether something about idealism or dualism is inherently related to a form of psychological repression that relegates physicality to inferiority and creates Others that embody the projected animalistic natures, such as blacks, Jews, etc. There are consistent features of Kant's anal-retentive prissiness that suggest such a connection, his ethnic and racial prejudices, virginity, proscription against masturbation, and compulsive habits. This is a recognizable profile of a suspect psycho-social type. My interest here is in the overall symbolic economy of an ideological system which goes beyond the content of a philosophy to the ways in which the philosophy functions socially as a whole, which may go beyond its intrinsic content, in this case, the symbolic/metaphoric valence of Jewishness in the overall ideological economy of a world view and its social functioning. However, whether the psychological profile in question has some inherent relationship to dualistic or idealistic thinking is a much larger claim. I would be wary of making such a blanket claim. Though this notion has an intuitive appeal at first, it only works as a theme abstracted out of a body of material and treated in isolation from the conceptual systems under review. It is an area worth exploring but the treatment is fundamentally sterile because the author cannot convincingly relate what he finds to be thematic constants to the systematic logical structures of the philosophies under review. Hence I can only use his book as interesting raw material for incorporation into a more thorough investigation. In any event, I view anti-Semitism as a symptomatology rather than as a causal or sui generis explanation.

My basic problem with books such as Mack's is that a recitation of facts, especially a small percentage of relevant facts, does not add up to a comprehensive analysis of conceptual structures. Let me reiterate two basic objections. I don’t buy into (1) vaguely formulated arguments such that anti-Semitism is a cornerstone of German idealism, (2) generic arguments defaming the Enlightenment or specific thinkers in an undifferentiated manner on account of racism. I don't like the agenda behind this sort of argument, and I don't think it addresses the real conceptual issues.

Mack exhibits the postmodernist bias of his contemporaries. The academic attack on the Enlightenment comes from postmodernists, postcolonial intellectuals, third world nationalists, feminists, Afrocentrists, anti-racists and anti-imperialists. The tendency is to snippet out the offensive statements of Hume, Kant, Hegel, etc., and condemn entire philosophies without bothering to demonstrate how the prejudiced views expressed are conceptually, intrinsically related to their systems of thought. The key question with respect to prejudices of a philosopher is whether they are endemic to the system, are unrelated, or contradict the basic framework of the system. These issues are not handled intelligently these days, given how low the standards of scholarship in the USA have sunk.

Mack fails to analyze the general inadequacy of metaphorical arguments, which can be turned inside out and upside down to prove anything you like about the inherent characteristics of a religion or group of people. The defenses of Judaism and Jews against scurrilous attacks are inherently no more credible than their accusers, because they too involve arbitrary reshufflings of metaphorical structures.


While at first I thought there was something interesting here, in the end the book proves to be a terrible disappointment. At best it is a compendium of interesting data subject to expansion and conceptual evaluation, but as a coherent presentation, the book is a failure. It is important to examine how a specialized work of this sort can get away with this. If it were written for a general audience, presumably a fuller background exposition would be needed. Some background is assumed, or so it seems, and so the author can supply a certain amount of detail for the ideas he wants to examine. However, the gross generalizations, connections between thinkers, and systematic analysis of ideas do not hold up. The poverty of philosophy in understanding history is complemented by the poverty of history of ideas in examination of systems of concepts.

Other reviewers have analyzed specific flaws in the book, and I have outlined others above. Let me now focus on two fundamental problems. The first is an assumption of commonality among various German thinkers and a lack of systematic examination of their ideas. Wagner for example may be an idealist in a generic sense but I see no evidence he represents a systematic development of the philosophical tradition known as German idealism. Idealism is used in a generic sense which may be appropriate for certain purposes but hardly covers in an adequate fashion a specific philosophical tradition. I will say more about this when we come to Freud.

The second problem lies in the generalizations about the German-Jewish thinkers adduced in the book. Mack's characterization of both the Germans and German Jews is based on a single theme treated antithetically. But this hardly unifies either group or systematically compares one to the other. Secondly, Mack does not face the banality and/or obscurantism of many of the German-Jewish thinkers or analyze the basis of the distinctions among them.

The problem with the latter group is the extent to which their philosophies (not just their sensibilities or outsider status) are based upon some re-metaphorized philosophical conception of Judaism to counter other philosophies or ideologies. A Benjamin, Freud, or Marx succeed to the extent to which they are universal thinkers, however their perspectives may have social roots in the marginalized experience of an outsider ethnic group. However, attempts to construct a Jewish countermythology to fight a prevailing mythology regress to unacceptable banality the more they depend on a specifically Jewish mythology and metaphysics. I find nothing remotely interesting about Rosenzweig, just as I have never been interested in Buber or Fackenheim or any others who attempt to construct a specifically Jewish philosophy. Such attempts are retrogressive in the modern world. They drag us back inside the world of ideology, reversing the decisive break Marx made with the Young Hegelians in the mid-1840s for their inability to think outside of the confines of ideology. I have the same problem here as I have with liberation theology of all ilks: as metaphor or poetry it may have some value, but as philosophy or a belief system it is all bogus. Mythmaking, even the making of a countermyth, is a dangerously inadequate basis for understanding the modern world, and parochial, arbitrary and obscurantist in its application to the understanding of material circumstances. (I would also include Michael Lerner's upper middle class liberal pabulum known as the "politics of meaning" in this category. )

While one may grant the eventual importance of Mack’s generic theme, it is not adequate for organizing one's whole thinking about this range of thinkers. There are multiple reasons for this. Beyond what has already been said, I will try to explain briefly the most important.

The theme of "materiality," while an important one, should not obscure the fact that many of these Jewish thinkers who try to reinsert materiality to counter its denial or devaluation, are hardly materialist thinkers, but mythical thinkers. They may recognize an ideological opponent they can smoke out, but their own mythical constructs are grossly inadequate, even though they may serve as countermyths to dubious contrary ideological constructs. The problem here is in relying on Jewish countermyths to Christian, volkish, and statist myths. While the motives for doing so may be appealing, they work better in the genre of satire than they do in philosophy per se.

The generic concept of idealism as a form of repression/denial may well be important, but it isolates one theme or one mechanism, and while imposing one aspect of systematicity organized around this single theme, bypasses the systematicity of the actual philosophical systems under discussion. And this is what a psychoanalytical approach also fails to address.

This brings me back to Freud as an example of explaining this problem. In focusing on symptomology, Freud overlooks systematicity. Freud bypasses ideology critique as traditionally conceived, which focuses on the systemic structure of concepts under criticism. But in supervening this level of analysis by seeking out psychological motives, the psychoanalyst effectively conjures the structure of the concepts themselves out of existence. When it comes to symptomatology, Nietzsche was superior to Freud, because Nietzsche took into account the systemic structure of ideas as well as the psycho/ideological mechanisms imputed to them. In any case, philosophical systems are explicit conceptual structures, which are, whatever motivates them, as systems and as products growing out of intellectual traditions and problems, constrained to develop into coherent logical configurations. Hence, while the categorical imperative (or idealism in general) may partake of the motivation of taboo, denial, amnesia, or repression, as a concept it can not be made any sense of in such terms. Adorno explains Kant in a way Freud cannot. Herein lies the essential limitation of a book conceived along these lines.


My note-taking left much to be desired, and so my review is not up to standard. Here I list fragments of interesting points I thought were contained in the book and stray comments of mine.

Protestantism may well have been in the advance position on the road to modernity, but it proved to be as vicious and oppressive as all other religions. Secularized, rationalized, and even departicularized versions of modernizing Protestantism do not indicate a fundamental overcoming of its social and philosophical limitations. And the historical and symbological particularism of this path to secularization (cf. Hegel) seems to assume an inherent intrinsic dynamic based on the logic of concepts rather than on a historical materialist perspective, and overlooks alternative routes to secularized modernity, such as the Jewish Enlightenment or the Dalit (Untouchable) Enlightenment in India (though it could be argued that those as well piggybacked off the Protestant precedent).

I have another note on the marriage of pseudotheology and pseudoscience.

I have argued that Marx delivered a death blow to the philosophical premises of German idealist volkishness. I think there is some assertion of this kind buried in the book.

My favorite study of Kantian dualism is Theodor Adorno's Problems of Moral Philosophy.

The one intelligent article I've seen on racism in the Enlightenment is by Adrian Piper on Xenophobia and Kantian Rationalism, in an issue of The Philosophical Forum devoted to African-American philosophy.

Mack (18) refers to “Anti‑Semitism and National Socialism” by Moishe Postone.

Written 16, 17, 18, 21, 24 March 2004
Compiled, edited & uploaded 11 February 2005

©2004, 2005 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

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