On Practices, Aesthetics, and Juxtapositions

Amit Yahav
University of Minnesota

Joseph Addison had described his achievement as having “brought philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee houses.”[1] At stake is making philosophy accessible to many more people, to be sure; but no less importantly is enmeshing it with the daily practices of ordinary eaters, drinkers, thinkers, judgers, believers, dreamers, etc. For David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosophy is “a way of life and . . . a form of action in the world,” Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott have recently reminded us, so much so that their differences of belief interfered with their friendship.[2] For Immanuel Kant, even at his most technical, philosophy responds to ordinary dilemmas—questions such as what people mean when they so often insist that they personally like something and that others surely ought to like it as well, even as they cannot quite explain this object’s appeal. These Enlightenment thinkers and their contemporaries endowed us with the recognition of reason, autonomy, and equality as valuable abstractions, but they also bequeathed to us the commitment to rooting such abstractions in common experience.

Much twentieth-century critical theory has been devoted to showing how encounters between principles and practices expose the dark side of Enlightenment ideals. Recently numerous studies have challenged this approach, and Dorothea von Mücke, in The Practices of the Enlightenment: Aesthetics, Authorship, and the Public (Columbia, 2015), joins such efforts ably and illuminatingly. Rather than finding the scaffolding of individualism and justice in practices of subjugation and homogenization, von Mücke discovers the “habits of thought, attitude, and specific behaviors” (xiv) that facilitate conceptions of taste, genius, reading, authorship, and judgment, in seventeenth-century religious exercises of meditation and self-representation, and then proceeds to consider how major eighteenth-century thinkers such as Rousseau, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Kant remodel these practices for their purposes.

The Practices of the Enlightenment is a carefully structured edifice, divided into three parts, each comprising numerous close readings that together exemplify the itinerary of religious practices into different domains of Enlightenment innovation. Each chapter and each part builds on the former by way of often-surprising juxtapositions, amounting, in the final analysis it seems to me, not only to a carefully executed methodology but also to an additional argument—one about an Enlightenment legacy regarding new knowledge. I will say more about this argument-by-way-of-structure at the end of this review, but let me begin with a relatively detailed account of von Mücke’s materials in order to demonstrate how juxtapositions make for much of the effect of her study.

Von Mücke starts Part I with an examination of Protestant meditative exercises as these are developed in Johann Arndt’s On True Christianity (1605). Arndt exercises, von Mücke argues, not only train readers to think in a certain way, integrating heterogeneous phenomena—religious and secular, internal to the text and external to it. They also prepare for the secularization and humanization of this mode of thinking insofar as Arndt casts them as techniques capable of redeeming believers from the pre-determinations of original sin. The possibility of human perfection, then, becomes the bridge for transporting such religious habits into the secular domains of ethics and aesthetics, an itinerary von Mücke charts through the work of the British moral sentimentalists, Herman Samuel Reimarus’s General Reflections on the Drives of Animals, especially on their Technical Drives and Skills (1760), and Johann Gottfried von Herder’s and Kant’s writings on language and rationality. Together these case studies explain the development of a notion of a distinctly human capacity for contemplating an object with disinterested interest—or, in other words, for having an aesthetic experience as Kant defines it. Von Mücke concludes Part I with a chapter on Goethe’s “On German Architecture” (1772), which neatly returns her discussion to a religious setting while instantiating the full secularization of the habits of thought that such setting inspires. Key for von Mücke is Goethe’s focus on a gothic cathedral, designed not only to provide shelter but also to edify the soul. Yet Goethe chooses to describe the cathedral’s effect as telling us something about the genius of the architect, rather than about God. Goethe thus instantiates the aesthetization of spiritual contemplation, as well as the redefinition of art from something that represents or pleases into something that affords “an occasion for a deeply moving encounter, a unique experience that will leave an enduring, strengthening, and uplifting impact on the beholder” (65).

Seventeenth-century conversion narratives by Philipp Jakob Spener, Gottfried Arnold, and Johanna Eleonora Petersen set the point of departure for Part II of The Practices of the Enlightenment. These devout Pietist writings develop a formalist radical individualism that, on the one hand, valorizes interiority as enabling the authors’ independence from dogmas and from their communities’ opinions, while on the other promoting tolerance and insisting that unique subjectivity can be recognized but never fully represented or assessed. And this notion of individualism as it is set within these autobiographers’ representational choices, von Mücke continues, provides the infrastructure for Enlightenment notions of authorship. Thus subsequent chapters on Rousseau and Goethe examine how forms migrate and adapt from one discursive sphere to another, as well as the ways Rousseau and Goethe self-consciously use religion to represent their authorial genius. “The Profession of Faith of the Vicar of Savoyard” from Rousseau’s Emile (1762) transforms traditional genres of profession and confession into the new genre of literary autobiography, and the Confessions (1781) further develop this form to elaborate how real and virtual audiences shape authorship. And Goethe’s “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul” from Wilhelm Meister (1795) and From My Life: Poetry and Truth (1811) redefine aesthetics to point up how “art takes over where religion—and not just institutionalized religion—falls short” (142).

In Part III von Mücke expands the investigation of audience by shifting attention to conceptualizations of the public sphere by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Friedrich Carl von Moser, Thomas Abbt, Herder, and Kant. All of them, she argues, conceptualize the public as not only receiving texts but also as actively and critically engaging with texts. Part III is less concerned with earlier religious practices, though von Mücke does consider how Moser and Abbt draw on Pietism in their accounts of the public. But this last section of The Practices of the Enlightenment does bring together many strands from earlier chapters, strands about contemplation, authorship, aesthetic experience, and the function of art. Lessing devises editorial and publication strategies to individualize his reading public, reconceiving it from a homogenous group of patriots to an aggregate of critical, autonomous thinkers. Herder develops varying models such as the public of philosophy, the public of the stage, and the public of literature, to suggest that an ideal polity cultivates an ideal humanist readership. And Kant conceives an easy exchangeability of positions between authors and speakers in ways that echo the formalist individuality we’ve seen developed in religious and then literary biographies.

Von Mücke insistently delivers an overarching argument about practical and conceptual trends that transcend the thinking of particular authors. She also, however, powerfully demonstrates an allegiance to the eighteenth-century commitment to the individual as an agent who negotiates her position within socio-historical conditions, in contrast to later critiques of Enlightenment that have privileged impersonal determinations so as to expose the individual as a chimera—a false consciousness produced by the social machine. Thus von Mücke attends to variations and revisions among her case studies—among the different authors, as much as among different works by the same author—to highlight the agency and dynamism of the writers she examines. Rousseau’s conception of authorship relies on differentiating his audiences by way of specific media; Goethe’s conception, by contrast, relies on hypothetical and personalized conditions of an innovator’s relation to his communities. Herder’s 1765 version of “Do we still have the public and the fatherland of the Ancients?” differs from his 1796 version in that the first highlights presence in the form of a live audience in a common space, whereas the second examines critically when these promote critical thinking and when not. Von Mücke’s nuanced analyses of individual authors and works underline her virtuoso at close reading and the importance of her chosen methodology for her arguments. It also affords much of the pleasure of this book, at least for those of us who still love seeing how a particular simile might deliver connotations that transform evil into potential good—as von Mücke shows Arndt’s analogy between a plant seed and the Fall to do—or how a narrative trajectory might crucially shape the meaning of an episode—as she does when making the case for the importance of reading the Savoyard Vicar’s profession in relation to its placement within the Emile.

But this commitment to individuation through conversation also raises questions about how we might understand the community all these authors and works participate in. Does von Mücke’s study follow the contours of a dynamic discussion she finds existed in the eighteenth century? Or does The Practices of the Enlightenment produce a discursive network of its own preferences? Is this book about the German Enlightenment—as the predominance of German writers suggests—or is it about a more broadly defined intellectual movement, one that transcends national borders—as the excursions into British moral sentiment and into Rousseau suggest? If so, then how might have the lines of dialog traveled between the practices and thinking presented by Arndt and the German Pietists and the language and conceptions of grace, reason, and sentiment of clergymen and philosophers across the channel such as Benjamin Whinchcote; John Tillotson; John Wesley; Anthony Ashley-Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury; Francis Hutcheson; and Hume? For, as Isabel Rivers has demonstrated, the British moral sentimentalists participated in a long tradition starting in the mid-seventeenth century and extending to the late eighteenth that has reconceptualized relations between religion and ethics through their writing practices—their choices of language, genre, and style.[3]

While one might usefully ask how von Mücke’s observations about religious practices and Enlightenment ethics in Germany intersect with similar contemporaneous trends emerging at other locations and languages, it is also the case that The Practices of the Enlightenment is, above all, a study of aesthetics and, even more specifically, an identification and performance of that peculiarly modern pleasure we take in the emergence of a new insight from contemplating a familiar object. Indeed, in the last few pages of her book von Mücke argues that the core question of Lessing’s “The Testament of John” (1777) is, how does one translate an injunction into action without simply repeating it? In other words, how does one make something new from iterating something old? “It needs to be packaged and performed according to specific local contexts” (238), Lessing answers in von Mücke’s reading. And this seems to me to set the best terms for understanding von Mücke’s achievement. She examines, for the most part, canonical texts and problems, but she delivers novel significances through the highlighting of previously overlooked discursive local contexts. Von Mücke underlines the importance of practice for Enlightenment thinking, offers a nuanced corrective account of relations between religion and the by-and-large secular conceptions of aesthetics and the public sphere, and shows us how practices transform as they transport insights from one discourse into another. But no less importantly, she brings to our attention the extent to which textual juxtapositions have been and remain an exceptionally powerful intellectual practice for delivering fresh insights.



[1]. Joseph Addison, Spectator No. 10 (12 March 1711), in The Spectator, ed. Donald F. Bond, 5 vols. (London, 1965), 1:44–47, 44.

[2]. Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott, The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding (New Haven, 2009), 5.

[3]. Isabel Rivers, Reason, Grace, and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660–1780, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1991–2000).