Moses Mendelssohn and Categories

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

In my Introduction to the Study of Religion course, one of our primary focuses is Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th century ‘German’-Jewish philosopher. Particularly intriguing to me is how Mendelssohn attempts to define categories. His attempt to define “enlightenment,” “culture,” and “education” demonstrate well how his notions of these concepts cast judgement upon non-‘German’-Jewish people groups and regions.



One of Mendelssohn’s arguments is that linguistic usage is indicative of a people groups “education, of its culture as well as its enlightenment, in terms of both its extent and strength.” His evidence is derived from perceived observations about said people groups: “the Nurembergers have more culture, the Berliners more enlightenment, the French more culture, the English more enlightenment, the Chinese much culture and little enlightenment. The Greeks had both culture and enlightenment” (translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom, 1997: 313-317).

How does he make such conclusions about these groups? He defines both enlightenment and culture. Consequently he is able to categorize various groups into where he perceives that they fit within the borders he provides. While this is not inherently wrong, the most important thing to consider is how Mendelssohn’s categorization essentially tells the other groups, “I understand you better than you understand  yourself.” Although every categorization does this to a certain extent, it is of the utmost importance that we be aware of it. Responsibility rests not only on scholars and academics, but also on baristas and crew members at Trader Joe’s (every human being).

We have a responsibility of respect to our fellow humans. Awareness of our own ideas and thought systems are the best place to begin if we choose to show respect for our fellow humans.


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