The Living God: Schleiermacher’s Theological Appropriation of Spinoza. By Julia Lamm. Greenwood Press, 1968. 350 pages.

Was Schleiermacher a pantheist and a Spinozist? –would an accurate account of the character of Schleiermacher’s teachings offer grounds for such assertions? –what bearing, if any, did Spinoza’s supposed influence have on Schleiermacher’s doctrine of God? These are the central questions that Julia Lamm sets herself to carefully answer in her book The Living God: Schleiermacher’s Theological Appropriation of Spinoza, stating that “although [Schleiermacher’s critics] may not have been entirely wrong about [his] propositions, [they do] not understand sufficiently whence they come, … [they do] not appreciate their premises.” (p.3)[1] Lamm seeks to uncover these premises, arguing that “the usual charges of Spinozism and pantheism do not hold” (p.6) if we look at the qualified manner in which Schleiermacher appropriated Spinoza. Schleiermacher “did allow [for] what he considered to be an acceptable form of pantheism that corresponds to his appropriation of Spinoza,” though this pantheism has “very little to do with his critics’ presuppositions about pantheism.” (p.6) This initial denial of familiar labels and caricatured or misguided summaries allows Lamm to disentangle Schleiermacher from the same, and drives many of her distinctions, so as to allow his actual position, and its roots, to be set forth clearly. Thus she asks, to what “degree [is] Schleiermacher’s specifically Christian doctrine of God […] influenced by Spinoza and neo-Spinozism”? (p.10)

As the author herself notes, her work is rather precious, for, although Schleiermacher’s thought is often given the title “pantheistic” and associated with the name of Baruch Spinoza, these twin associations are “rarely substantiated” by either friend or foe, and (surprisingly) there has not been a full book-length treatment of the precise relation between Spinoza and Schleiermacher in English. Lamm recognizes that “pantheism is too obscure a term” and that Schleiermacher’s alleged pantheism “is an abstraction from the question of his Spinozism.” (p.4) Lamm thus focuses on the exact ways in which Schleiermacher’s doctrine of God reflects his understanding of and engagements with Spinoza; one of the ways she brings this onto the stage is to elucidate what Schleiermacher means by saying that God is a living (but not personal) God, and what sort of status the individual has, given such a God. Her approach moves chronologically, while several features characterizing Schleiermacher’s reception of Spinoza in his two early works on the same (“organic monism, ethical determinism, critical realism, and nonanthropomorphism”[2] (p. 26)) are rotated into the foreground to trace certain continuities across Schleiermacher’s theological writings through several major periods, periods marked by some of his major theological works (principally On Religion and The Christian Faith). By doing this, Lamm shows how “the response to Jacobi that Schleiermacher formulates in these early essays on Spinoza would remain fundamentally the same throughout the decades.” (p.56)

Recognizing how heavily mediated Schleiermacher’s initial encounter with Spinoza was,[3] and that any influence of Spinoza on Schleiermacher’s doctrine of God is indirect, and that “any connections between Spinoza’s system of thought and Schleiermacher’s are delicate and must be carefully drawn,” (p.5) Lamm immediately begins by employing four terms to differentiate various relations to Spinoza that she will use frequently: Spinozism (defined by the Jacobi-Lessing conversations[4]), neo-Spinozism (such as Herder’s appropriation of Spinoza, and reflecting an organic, not mechanistic, worldview), post-Kantian Spinozism (Schleiermacher’s attempt to resolve the obstacles he earlier found in Kant via clarifications and distinctions he later found in Jacobi’s account of Spinoza; Lamm explicitly characterizes this term by the four themes noted above – “organic monism”, etc.), and Spinozoan (genuine parallels between Spinoza’s thought and Schleiermacher’s, whether intentional or not).  (Lamm claims that, in his two early essays on Spinoza, Schleiermacher constructs a form of Spinozism that fits all four of these distinctions. (p.26)) Lamm further justifies these distinctions because, as noted above, the lines of influence from Spinoza to Schleiermacher are not very direct, and “become less so,” especially as Schleiermacher tones down, and eventually mutes, his appeals to Spinoza in response to criticisms from his fellow churchmen.

Lamm’s account begins with Schleiermacher’s two early works on Spinoza – or rather, his works on Jacobi’s account of Spinoza. Schleiermacher, whom Lamm describes as “best understood as a post-Kantian Spinozist,” frequently found in Spinoza (or the version of Spinoza that he extricated from Jacobi’s) ideas that furnished him with material to forge a third way between perceived contradictions in Kant. Using “Spinoza to respond to Kant,” and “appropriat[ing] Spinoza into a Kantian framework,” (p.14) “Kant can be taken in a direction other than that taken by Fichte.” (p.25) Schleiermacher sought to close Kantian gaps: that between freedom and desire (closed by the interweaving of thought and extension), and that between noumenon and phenomenon (closed by recourse to the inherence of the finite in the infinite). He also sought to overcome the “strict opposition set up by Jacobi between, on the one side, atheism, pantheism, and determinism, and on the other side, Christian theism and free will.” (pp.25-26) “It was primarily in response to Jacobi that Schleiermacher formed his own understanding of Spinoza” (p.21): the result is a post-Kantian Spinozism. This post-Kantian Spinozism has the four defining characteristics noted above: organic monism, ethical determinism, critical realism, and a nonanthropomorphic view of God. These four characteristics become “foundational” (p.15) for Schleiermacher, even through his mature works.

Schleiermacher’s organic monism: by “nearly identifying Kant’s noumena and Spinoza’s infinite substance” (p.31), re-conceiving Spinoza’s infinite substance in terms of infinite force (even “life force” (p.35), which is different from Spinoza’s indivisible infinite substance), understanding the finite as inhering in the Infinite (God), and thus fundamentally affirming that “inactivity cannot be ascribed to the living God” (p.30), Schleiermacher does not understand the Infinite as something separate from the world of finite things and “resists an atheistic positing of finite things existing solely in themselves.” (p. 29) As with the relation of the parts of finite things to the whole they belong to, so are all finite things to the Infinite. The idea of individuality emerges “where there is a cohering of motion, force, and mass” (p.32); individuality is “nothing other than the cohesion, the identical combination of forces of a certain measure at a single point” (p.34), a shifting confederation with a shifting center, “a joining point of modifications of movement” with nothing transcending this immanence – nothing composing, defining or holding it together apart from this relation of forces. (p.35) “What appears to be a part is really always and only connected and interdependent.” (p.33) The fluid nature of these centers means they are not defined by timeless essences – every finite thing is essentially liquid: “the so-called essence of things – that by which we mark out their identity – is only a relationship.” (p.44) The change that occurs in individuals thus defined by force is not to be conceived purely in terms of external mechanical, efficient causes: “the system of forces is such that there is never just one cause; rather, there is a nexus of causes, and every cause or force is dependent on the infinite grounding force.” (p.44)

The unwieldy whole comprising all things “is an infinite, dynamic, extended system of inherent causes and internal relations, which, because of its continual transformations, hangs together in an intricate, complex, and sometimes unpredictable fashion.” (p.34) Each finite thing within this whole is determined by the Infinite, which “communicates its force to finite forces”, but the Infinite is not equivalent to the total aggregate of finite things: “Infinite substance, better understood as infinite force […] is completely presented in the finite world, but it can in no way be reduced to the finite since it sustains finite things and determines whatever differentiation they have.” (p.35) Lamm summarizes this all perfectly: “it is in terms of this concept of the universe as an active, living system dependent on the unceasing activity of the infinite that Schleiermacher’s worldview can be said to be monistic: the infinite is found only in the totality of the flux of finite things; there is no individual or personal absolute outside this system of relations; the essence of things has to do with their relations; the human is no exception to the laws of nature. It is a monism modified by the critical philosophy of Kant and by the new science.” (p.36)

Ethical determinism is not equivalent to fatalism, which Jacobi feared followed from Spinozism. Jacobi thought that if there were only efficient – and no final – causes, that the mind would be a ghostly “spectator” (p.37) looking out upon the world: there would be no freedom. Schleiermacher’s reply is that there is a difference between fatalism and determinism: fatalism throws the subject at an action (presumably via the cold necessity of efficient causes), whereas in determinism the subject “is brought to the action.” (p.39 Schleiermacher’s emphasis) Determinism means that “everything, including thought, must have preceding and similar causes,” (p.41): ex nihilo nihil fit. The mind is not (contra Jacobi’s presentation of Spinoza) simply a straight-jacketed spectator, for “everything is not simply reducible to the mechanisms of the body, because there is a parallelism between thought and extension.” (p.38) Thought and matter are always correlated and intermeshed. (p.39) While thought cannot modify the world of extension by generating motion ex nihilo, neither is it a spectral mirror looking at the mineral perfection of a closed system of efficient causes: there is a “necessary coincidence” (p.39) between thought and action. “Matter is never a static ‘stuff,’ and thought is never an isolated idea.” Thoughts are not simply epiphenomena caused by events within extension: the world, thought included, does not reduce to such dead matter. Schleiermacher wishes to overcome the dualism between these two, claiming that (as Lamm puts it) “matter becomes spiritualized and thought is always embodied.” (p.40) Just because our actions are determined by a complex of forces does not mean that our concepts and goals and our faculty of judgment (etc.) are not among them – it only means that they are not outside or above them. (p.41) “Schleiermacher sees the ethical life as, to a significant degree at least, the attempt to describe, understand, and order systems of relations and causes without pretending to extricate oneself from them.” (p.43)

Critical realism (sometimes Lamm writes “higher realism,” (p.6) following Schleiermacher’s later way of referring to it (p.59), or simply “realism” (p.46)). The real world does not derive from the logical: “the logical being of things must be derived from movement and rest” (p.47). “The affirmation of an infinite results from our receptivity to the infinite through feeling, not from our generalizing about particulars.” (p.53) One should not begin with abstractions, either the sort that individuates the Infinite from the totality of finite things, and thus makes God something apart from the world, or the abstraction that dissolves God into the lifeless substrate of being shared by finite things, making the Infinite totally indeterminate, “pure matter” (p.47). “The form [the Infinite] takes is the negation of any specific form – it is the ‘unconditioned.’” (p.48) The infinite is not merely the collective idea of all finite things, a category of the mind including everything. A sum is not the totality, not the “actual, organic, complex, intricate, and living whole.” (p.48) This encompassing whole “is not a product of the mind but has real existence prior to it; it is the unifying ground of the organic world, of the causal nexus that includes the operations of the mind.” (p.48) The subject comes from the world, and not vice-versa. The difference between sum and totality is the difference between subjective idealism and critical realism. “The finite cannot constitute a totality without the infinite.” “Absolute matter,” Schleiermacher writes, “possesses along with complete immediate unrepresentability an infinite (mediate) representability.” (p.49) Lamm summarizes: “Insofar as the infinite is not an individual absolute, it is not an object and therefore cannot be delineated as objects can be because it is not conditioned as objects are conditioned. Our relation to it is not one of subject to object but one of inherency or, better, immediacy.” (p.50) The Infinite presses upon is in finite things, and can take on infinite representations, without being identified with any of them. It is not our sense faculties that are receptive to the Infinite as Infinite, though: it is feeling, which has an indeterminate character corresponding to the inteterminateness of the Infinite, and “just as particular finite things inhere in the infinite, so representations inhere in original feeling.” (p.53)

Finally, Schleiermacher’s nonanthropomorphic view of God corresponds to what feeling can deliver from the Infinite: it does not deliver knowledge of a being corresponding to what Jacobi would consider a living God (“personal, utterly transcendent, intelligent” (p.55) – distinct from the dead God of Spinozism), though Schleiermacher certainly does think his Spinozoan Infinite is a living God. Because we can only perceive and think finite things, we can never think God except immediately within our mediated sensible experience of particular things that inhere in God. Schleiermacher’s God cannot be extracted from the totality of finite things, and thus cannot be considered an individual. Schleiermacher “never refuses to call God ‘personal,’ but he always remains insistent that we must be extremely cautious in how we assign that term.” (p.55)


[1] Lamm is here using Jacobi’s reply to Pierre Bayle’s rejection of Spinoza to reply to contemporary scholars, both those who are sympathetic to these Spinozistic elements in Schleiermacher and those who are critical of them.

[2] This is certainly not an exhaustive list of the principles and themes that frequently recur – nihilo nihil fit and One and All are both repeated often enough – her ability to churn out lists and unpack them is dazzling (even if she does not always unpack the items in any given list in the order that they were listed, which is less-than-dazzling).

[3] Reading about Spinoza via Jacobi, trying to tease apart the real Spinoza from Jacobi’s presentation of him, the revival of interest in Spinoza on largely aesthetic grounds, the scientific advances that had been made since Spinoza, and the aftermath of Kant, to name but several.

[4] In determining whether Schleiermacher is a Spinozist, Lamm follows Jacobi’s account of the spirit of Spinozism. She counts seven features of Jacobi’s presentation (p.23), all of which follow from the first feature, the principle ex nihilo nihil fit, or “nothing comes from nothing” (p.19), meaning that “everything must come from some other finite thing,” (p.23) results in the elimination of final causes (which Lamm has Jacobi understand as “causation through thought” (p.28)), a noumenal or super-natural freedom (whether ours or God’s) that transcends the natural causal nexus of immanent forces, and ultimately an extra-mundane God; the immanent cause of all things has neither intellect or will, since it is absolute and infinite and there is no object outside of it that might be an object of thinking or willing.


Gregory Stackpole
Boston University

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