Professor Johann Adam Weishaupt of the University of Ingolstadt (1472-1800, reopened 1989 as the Catholic University of Eichstatt-Ingolstadt) wrote a number of books about philosophy that are still available in the German language. That, in itself, is something of an achievement, given that only a handful of authors from the 1700s are available in print today. Weishaupt was a second-generation academic. His father, Johann Georg Weishaupt, had been a professor of law at Ingolstadt.
Weishaupt’s father died when he was only five, and thereafter the father figure in his life was his godfather, Johann von Ickstatt, also a law professor at the university. Von Ickstatt was a big influence on the young Weshaupt. Von Ickstatt was known as a proponent of the philosophy of Christian Wolff, who promoted rationalism, i.e. the capacity of the human mind to discover the truth. Wolff was criticised by religious people in his day, who regarded the greatest truths as being revealed divinely and not accessible simply through rational inquiry.
Wolff was a controversial character. At one point, he was accused of being an atheist and removed from a teaching position at the University of Halle, where he was so popular that he attracted up to 1,000 students to his lectures. Adam Wesihaupt was later to reflect this Enlightenment-style confidence in human reason in his own philosophy of perfectibilism, and, similar to Wolff, would be popular and would attract the ire and disapproval of religious and secular authorities.
Adam Weishaupt began his relationship with the Jesuit Order at the tender age of seven, when he was enrolled in a Jesuit-run elementary school. The bright Adam Weishaupt was an excellent student and progressed through his school studies and then went on to study at the University, and graduated with a doctorate in law at the age of 20. After this, he himself became a teacher at the University, following in his father’s footsteps as a professor of law. He married Afra Sausenholfer, and switched to being a professor of canon (church) law after the Jesuit priest who filled that position was barred from teaching as part of the suppression of the Jesuit Order described in the preceding chapter.
In his period as a teacher of canon law, Weishaupt developed an interest in another German philosopher, Johann Feder, who was an empiricist philosopher. Empricism is the school of thought that holds that human knowledge derives from sensory experience. This approach was the foundation of modern science, which is based on experimentation and observation, and reaches back to the teachings of Aristotle in Ancient Greece. It is opposed to idealism, which is the school of thought that holds that the world we see around us is really a construction of our thoughts and ideas, which package and interpret our sensations. This approach reaches back to the teachings of Plato in Ancient Greece and is echoed in some schools of Hindu philosophy.
A variation of this approach is neoplatonism, which places the generation of the world through ideas in the mind of God, in which we participate. There are Christian and Islamic versions of this school of thought.
In Feder’s day, the most famous German philosopher was Immanuel Kant, an idealist, and Feder critiqued Kant’s views and gained some notoriety for his views. Weishaupt’s affinity for Feder, somewhat ironic given that Weishaupt was responsible for teaching a subject based ultimately on divine revelation, demonstrates Weishaupt’s leanings towards the use of human reason as our ultimate authority and, in his mature thought, would result in his rejection of claims based solely on history, aristocratic lineage, religious institution or tradition.
Although this discussion about Weishaupt’s philosophical background may seem a bit dry, it is worth noting one point before we leave it. Weishaupt entered the public debate between the idealist school of philosophy and the empiricist school by taking shots in his books at the most famous idealist philosopher of the time, namely Immanuel Kant, on behalf of the “Feder team.” Weishaupt made the telling critisicm that Kant’s philosophy promoted subjectivism. In the words of Frederick Beiser writing in his book The Fate of Reason, Weishaupt’s argument was that Kant’s approach would finish with “the denial of all reality independent of our passing states of consciousness”, which is, indeed what Rene Descartes wished to demonstrate, that ultimately all you can be 100% sure you know is that you are doing some knowing, in other words, cogito ergo sum, because you could be demented, drugged, deluded or confused and not know it. What is very relevant to our discussion here is that Weishaupt also pointed out that this approach would destroy the basis of morality and religion, which is not the argument of a person who wanted to subvert morality and spirituality totally, as he was accused of, whatever may have been his differences on those topics with the dominant secular and Church leaders of his day.
As a young professor in Ingolstadt, Adam Weishaupt was forming views that would eventually put him on a collision course with the entrenched governmental and religious authorities of his day.