Feelings Don’t Lie (Moses Mendelssohn & Human Consciousness )


Anticipating current debates about consciousness, Moses Mendelssohn picked up the cudgel against the materialist philosophy of Helvétius, according to which, as paraphrased by Mendelssohn, “[t]hinking is the process of coming to a conclusion that is really the final sensory impression produced by our word signs. As a consequence of this hypothesis, all human language would be a mere collection of empty, algebraic signs that we shuffle and recombine in accordance with certain rules.” Writes Moses Mendelssohn in response: “It seems to me if this hypothesis were true, we could arrive at rational conclusion by using our language, but we could never arouse any feeling with it. A mere system of symbols as is used in numerical calculation or algebra leaves out emotion unmoved….Feeling do not lie. That we feel, we know we feel with the greatest certainty based upon immediate, intuitive apprehension. Our general notions and the word that represent them must not consist merely in an intellectual apprehension of signs, but there must be attached to them something intuited, something immediately grasped that can awaken our emotions as well as our intellect and that can arouse our feelings of pleasure and pain” (Mendelssohn, Morning Hours, pp.36-7, translated by Bruce Rosenstock)

Mendelssohn’s treatise on God and the actuality of God is tied up with what we would today call philosophy of consciousness. Refusing with John Serle the idea of a Chinese language room, Mendelssohn’s philosophical anthropology and worldview are not narrowly intellectualist or cognitive-cognitivistic. What I would highlight in this little passage is the trust given to feeling and to appearance, qua feeling and appearance. There’s no larger metaphysical stake here in this immediacy ascribed by Mendelssohn to feeling and appearance. Of if there is a “metaphysical” stake, a true object or subject behind the appearance, then it’s in a very diminutive “something” that stimulates intellect coupled with emotion. I think Mendelssohn would agree with Martha Nussbaum that there is a core of intentional intelligence to our emotional life.

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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2 Responses to Feelings Don’t Lie (Moses Mendelssohn & Human Consciousness )

  1. dmfant says:

    except that feelings of certainty are often misleading…

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