[Index of Biographies]

Johann Friedrich Zöllner (1753-1804)

[This is a draft of an article in The Dictionary of Eighteenth Century German Philosophers, 3 vols., edited by Manfred Kuehn and Heiner Klemme (London/New York: Continuum, 2010).]

Johann Friedrich Zöllner was born on 24 April 1753 in Neudamm (in the Neumark), the son of a forester, and died on 12 December 1804 in Berlin.  He was a noted clergyman, educational reformer, and freemason, although he is perhaps best remembered for a footnote in which he posed the question: “What is enlightenment?”

Zöllner entered the university at Frankfurt/Oder in 1770 studying philosophy and theology under J. G. Töllner [bio].  He then worked as a tutor for Baron von Kottwitz and traveled through Germany with him, after which Zöllner settled in Berlin.  He was appointed head chaplain at the Charité (the large teaching hospital in Berlin), then deacon (1782) and later pastor of the Marienkirche.  In 1788 he was named provost of the Nicolaikirche and joined the Superior Consistory (Oberkonsistorium), the administrative body overseeing the Lutheran church in Prussia.  Along with the other members of the consistory, Zöllner resisted the reformist efforts of Minister Wöllner, whose attempts to increase outward shows of piety and orthodoxy would, they thought, merely result in mindless hypocrisy.

He had a strong interest in adult and continuing education, as indicated by his collection of Readers (1782-1804) offering popularly written essays on a variety of topics, and his weekly (1784) that sought to bring the natural and social sciences to a wider audience.  In 1786 he was asked by Friedrich Wilhelm II to prepare a report on the industrial schools flourishing at the time in the western German lands, and in 1800 he joined the Oberschulkollegium, where he was responsible for the schools in the east, accompanying von Massow on an information-gathering trip through Prussia in 1802.  In his 1804 work on a “national education,” he takes exception with Pestalozzi, arguing that what is primarily needed among our children is an inculcation of “love of country,” and that this should happen for all children in a grammar school common to all.

Zöllner also belonged to a secret society in Berlin known as the “Wednesday Society” (Mittwochsgesellschaft), although members referred to the group as “Friends of Enlightenment.”  It included various high government officials like von Dohm and Klein, philosophers like Moses Mendelssohn [bio], theologians like Spalding, Teller [bio], and Zöllner, as well as the two editors of the Berlinische Monatsschrift (Gedike [bio] and Biester [bio]), perhaps the leading journal of enlightenment thought in Germany.  Zöllner published an article in the December 1783 issue of that journal in which he opposed the institution of civil marriage — an idea suggested in an article anonymously written by Biester for the September issue and which claimed that tying marriage to religion was contrary to Enlightenment ideals.  Zöllner countered that marriage was too important an institution for this, and that it required the stability only religion could provide.  The very foundations of morality were being shaken, he wrote, and we should rethink our steps before “confusing the hearts and minds of the people in the name of Enlightenment” — at which point he asked in a footnote: “What is enlightenment?  This question, which is nearly as important as ‘What is truth?’ should be answered before one begins to enlighten.”  This question led to a series of essays appearing in the Berlinische Monatsschrift and elsewhere, most famously Immanuel Kant’s “In answer to the question: What is Enlightenment?” (Dec. 1784) [writings].  Moses Mendelssohn's essay (“On the Question: What is Enlightenment?”) was first delivered as a speech (16 May 1784) before the same “Wednesday Society.”


"Ist es rathsam, das Ehebündniß nicht ferner durch die Religion zu sanciren?" in: Berlinische Monatsschrift (December 1783), vol. 2, pp. 508-17.

Lesebuch für alle Stände, 10 vols. (Berlin: Maurer, 1781-1804).

Ueber Moses Mendelssohn's Jerusalem (Berlin: Maurer, 1784).

(co-edited with J. G. Lange), Wöchentlichen Unterhaltungen über die Erde und ihre Bewohner (1784-86).

(co-edited with G. W. Bartholdy), Wöchentliche Unterhaltungen über die Charakteristik der Menschheit, 6 vols. (Berlin 1789-91).

Ueber speculative Philosophie; Für Liebhaber der Philosophie und für Anfänger in derselben aus den wöchentlichen Unterhaltungen über die Erde und ihre Bewohner besonders abgedruckt (Berlin: Maurer, 1789).

Briefe über Schlesien, Krakau, Wieliczka, und die Grafschaft Glatz auf einer Reise im Jahr 1791 (Berlin: Maurer, 1792-93).

Reise durch Pommern nach der Insel Rügen und einem Theile des Herzogthums Mecklenburg, im Jahre 1795, in Briefen (Berlin: Maurer, 1797).

Ideen über National-Erziehung, besonders in Rücksicht auf die Königl. Preussischen Staaten (Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1804).

Further Reading

ADB, vol. 55, pp. 423-25 (Friedrich Wienecke).

Hamberger/Meusel (1800) vol. 8, pp. 711-14; (1803) vol. 10, p. 858; (1805) vol. 11, pp. 754-55; (1812) vol. 16, p. 324.

Hinske, Norbert, Was ist Auflklärung? (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1973).

[Index of Biographies]