Mendelssohnian Enlightenment and Women’s Contributions to Philosophy in the Late Eighteenth Century


When attempting to capture the concept of enlightenment that underlies and motivates philosophical (and political and scientific) developments in the 18th century, historians of philosophy frequently rely upon a needlessly but intentionally exclusive account. This, namely, is the conception of enlightenment first proposed by Kant in his famous essay of 1784, which takes enlightenment to consist in the “emergence from the self-imposed state of minority” and which is only possible for a “public” to attain as a result of the public use of reason, a privilege enjoyed by citizens and exemplified in the activity of the scholar. That women, among other groups, did not hold the status of citizens and did not enjoy access to the institutions or training that might gain them recognition as scholars is apparently not a concern for Kant, as he notes that the enlightened condition is likely out of reach anyway for “by far the greatest part of humankind (including the entire fair sex)” (AA 8:35). This naturally leads one to wonder what a history of this period could look like when considered from the perspective of a different, more inclusive conception of enlightenment, and in this chapter I propose to conduct an experiment of sorts just along these lines. As opposed to Kant’s exclusionary conception, I will instead take that proposed by his distinguished contemporary, Moses Mendelssohn, as my starting point. In addition to offering a conception of enlightenment distinctive both for its wide scope and progressive character, Mendelssohn’s has the advantage, or so I will show, of bringing the manifold intellectual contributions of a diverse set of women into focus, though it does more than this in that it also reveals these women to actively and critically engage with key aspects of Mendelssohn’s and others’ philosophical views.

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Corey W. Dyck
University of Western Ontario


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