Lessing and the Enlightenment

His Philosophy of Religion and Its Relation to Eighteenth-Century Thought

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Henry E. Allison
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , February
     250 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Henry Allison, professor emeritus of philosophy at both UCSD and Boston University, is best known for his work on Kant and German idealism, especially his classic Kant’s Transcendental Idealism (Yale University Press, 1983). The current study is an early work by Allison based on his dissertation, republished along with two short essays written during the intervening decades that expand upon points addressed in the main text.

Allison presents Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s philosophy of religion as a coherent synthesis—not the tight system that he finds in Kant’s Critiques, but also not the gadfly eclecticism that is often attributed to Lessing. There are two main tensions present in Lessing’s work: the sometimes-conflicting influence of Baruch Spinoza and G.W. Leibniz, and the presentation of a religion of reason which nonetheless incorporates rather than rejects positive, historical revelation in the history of religions. At its heart, Allison’s work seeks to explain the revelation/reason tension, and in pursuing this problem he makes decent sense of the Spinoza/Leibniz tension.

Chapter 1 is a historical background section surveying relevant non-German Enlightenment writers (especially John Locke and Pierre Bayle), Leibniz and classical German metaphysics, and the early historical criticism of the Bible found in Hermann Samuel Reimarus. Chapter 2 provides a helpful account of Lessing’s earlier writings on religion, from fragments and published works inspired by Enlightenment rationalism, to a noticeable shift toward Spinozistic influence in his 1763 works Spinoza only put Leibniz on the Track of the Preestablished Harmony and On the Reality of Things Outside God. In these works Lessing distinguished Spinoza’s and Leibniz’s metaphysics, against the efforts of his friend Moses Mendelssohn to reconcile them. 

By the year 1770, two important publishing ventures would define Lessing’s subsequent philosophy of religion: Rudolph Erich Raspe’s new edition of Leibniz’s works (1765), which included the first published appearance of the New Essays on Human Understanding, and Lessing’s own publication of the fragments of Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1770), which initiated a polemical storm with various conservative pastors over the nature of Christian truth. The remainder of Allison’s study focuses on Lessing’s debates with the pastors over whether the contingent truths of a historically derived revelation can prove universal rational truths, and how Leibniz’s theory of harmonized monadic perspectives as a key to understanding the whole influenced Lessing’s own theory of reason and revelation. Lessing was always an Enlightenment thinker insofar as he sought to establish a religion of reason against ecclesiastical formulations of faith. But he did not share with deists and rationalists a conception of reason against tradition and historical revelation. The problem was how to reconcile a religion of reason with its historicity.

Allison identifies the first important step in Lessing’s solution with his idea of “inner truth” (90, 110), that is, the inner and self-justifying reason at the heart of positive religion. Religious believers do not affirm the inner truth of Christianity because of the authority of miracles, sacred texts, or historical facts—quite the opposite, miracles and scriptures are authoritative because believers recognize an inner truth toward which they point. Allison argues that Lessing’s concept of inner truth is of a piece with Leibniz’s innate ideas and truths of reason. With this Leibnizian doctrine in hand, Lessing argues for Christianity as a religion of reason that cannot be proved by accidents of history such as miracles or divine revelations, but is always only presented under the conditions of these accidental truths. (114-15) In The Education of the Human Race, this understanding is applied to the idea of historical revelation, which serves to press humanity forward through Jewish monotheism, through Christian faith in the immortality of the soul, and eventually to a final “eternal Gospel” for which our long experience of divine pedagogy has been preparing us.

In his preface to this new edition, Allison notes the studies of Gordon Michaelson (1982) and Leonard Wessel (1977), but fails to mention Toshimasa Yasukata’s Lessing’s Philosophy of Religion and the German Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2002). He is correct, however, to suggest that more recent studies “make important contributions to the understanding of Lessing’s philosophy of religion, though not, I think, in ways that render my work obsolete” (ix). Indeed, these subsequent studies have not picked up the Leibnizian thread in Lessing’s thought nearly so thoroughly as Allison himself did in 1966. Instead they have for the most part been captivated by Kierkegaardian questions of faith in a way that determines their analysis more so than Allison’s, who provides a history of philosophy firmly rooted in the 18th century context. I find Allison’s approach very helpful and often more responsible with its interpretation than the alternatives; this hermeneutically conservative aspect of hiswork is what ends up making it more lasting and more worthy of reprinting even after so many years. 

That said, the impressive coherence that comes of his ingenious Leibnizian interpretation does inevitably leave out the problem of the leap of faith—that is, the problem of transcendence which leads so many readers back to Lessing in the first place. It seems correct to read Lessing as having a coherent theory of religion along the lines that Allison argues, where the only genuine leap of faith is a coming to know the inner truth of divine reason. But Lessing’s response to the Lutheran pastors that he simply could not make a leap and revise his beliefs on the basis of historical facts wasn’t merely a passing rhetorical strategy of the Fragmentenstreit. He voiced a similar lament privately with Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. And while the inability to take a leap of faith never actually troubled Lessing himself, it was the single greatest contribution he made to 19th century philosophy of religion. The preponderance of attention paid to this problem by other Lessing scholars is understandable, then. What Allison provides for readers of Lessing is a philosophical theory of religion. What is not present, and what many people take to be the really interesting problem of Lessing’s religious writings, is a philosophical theory of religious faith.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Evan Kuehn is Theological Librarian at the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Henry E. Allison is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego and Boston University. He is the author and editor of many books, including Kant’s Transcendental Deduction: An Analytical-Historical Commentary and Essays on Kant.


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