(Truth in the Image) Aesthetic Philosophy (An Object in A Hall of Mirrors) (Moses Mendelssohn)



Picture if you will a room whose walls are all covered with mirrors, and an image of an object is repeated in every mirror according to its position. Let these mirrors enter into a dispute about whether the object that they present actually is found in the middle of the room, or whether the artist who produced these mirrors has also placed within every one of them the image apporpirate to the position each mirror will occupy. How will they resolve this dispute among themselves? Considered as mirrors, they neiuthe have nor can ever obtain anything more than images of the object.  On the basis of their images will they not be able to draw the very same conclusions, if they were able to think rationally, as would follow from the actual existence of the object? Must it not in fact be a matter of perfect indifference to them whether the object, of which they can neither know nor discover anything further, whether it may be present in the room or not.

This is the question in Morning Hours placed by Mendelssohn in the mouth of an interlocutor, a philosophical idealist. The object in question could be anything, a thing, animal, person, god, or God, an image or an image of an image lost in the play of representations. The disregard for the true actuality of the object reminds me of Lessing’s indifference to the true identity of the religious truth in his parable of the rings in Nathan the Wise.

Now in his own voice, Mendelssohn answers, “If these mirrors accept that both truth and perspective are found in their images, and that the truth that is repeated in each and all of them is the same truth for each and all, although the perspectival aspect is peculiar to each one of them alone, would not any further dispute among them be merely a verbal spat? If they admit that there is agreement among the images, what justifies their denial of an original that is the ground for that agreement? Or, indeed, were they to accept the existence of the original, what more can they ask for apart from this agreement in regard to the truth…If it is admitted that truth is found in the picture [of the world-image] that, subtracting the perspectival aspect is repeated in every subject, then the truth is a consequence of their power of image formation, and this truth must be imaged forth  in the highest being, if there is such a being, in the purest light and without the admixture of the perspectival. But if this being exists, then the proposition that there exists such an original objectively and actually is the purest and most undeniable truth” (Moses Mendelssohn, Morning Hours, pp.77-8, translated by Bruce Rosenstock)

Aesthetic philosophy is first philosophy, or a kind of first philosophy. What Mendelssohn understood no less than Kant but better than almost anyone is that there is no getting out of the hall of mirrors, no getting out of the Platonic cave in trying to determine basic questions about the reality of the world and the actuality of God. The truth about the world, about our place in the world before the image of a god or a God who may or may not exist, for us, more virtual than actual, truth is in the image, in or as the power of image-formation, about which we can come to some agreement, more or less. For now, locked into the world of appearance, it may or may not be good enough, but it may not get much better than this, as understood by Moses Mendelssohn.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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