COHEN, HERMANN

COHEN, HERMANN
COHEN, HERMANN (1842–1918), German Jewish philosopher. Born in Cowsig, the son of a cantor, Cohen studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary at Breslau, but gave up his initial plans to become a rabbi. He turned to philosophy, studying first at the University of Breslau and then at the University of Berlin. He received his doctorate at the University of Halle in 1865. In 1873 he was invited by F.A. Lange, the well-known author of The History of Materialism, to become a privatdozent (lecturer) in philosophy at the University of Marburg. Appointed full professor after only three years, Cohen taught in Marburg until 1912. He spent the last years of his life in Berlin, where he taught at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums. -Interpretation of Kant and the Marburg System Cohen's early works were devoted to a critical evaluation of idealism as embodied in the thought of Plato and, particularly, of Kant. "Die platonische Ideenlehre" (1886; see: Schriften zur Philosophie und Zeitgeschichte, 1928) was followed by Kants Theorie der Erfahrung (1871), Kants Begruendung der Ethik (1877), Von Kants Einfluss auf die deutsche Kultur (1883), and Kants Begruendung der Aesthetik (1889). These critical works brought Cohen to a new interpretation of Kant's philosophy, which came to be known as the Marburg School of neo-Kantianism. This approach found its expression in his three systematic works: Logik der reinen Erkenntnis (1902), Die Ethik des reinen Willens (1904), and Die Aesthetik des reinen Gefuehls (1912). These works reflect Cohen's attempt to renew Kantian philosophy and place it again at the center of the philosophic discourse, despite the prevailing Hegelian philosophy. The starting point of Cohen's philosophic system, like that of Kant's, is the existence of scientific knowledge expressed mathematically. Like Kant, Cohen believed that the task of the philosopher is to unfold the logical conditions underlying this type of knowledge. However, Cohen criticized Kant for according sensation a special role in the establishment of scientific knowledge. While Kant had maintained that the sense content of our knowledge is a "datum," which, once given, is organized and synthesized by thought, Cohen puts forth the extreme idealistic thesis that thought produces everything out of itself. According to his "principle of origin" (Ursprungsprinzip) objects are constructs of thought. Thus he opposed Kant's notion of the "thing-in-itself " (Ding an sich), according to which there lies behind the object that we know an object which can never be known as it really is. For Kant, the action of reason is confined to the creation of associations between sensations, which are given. For Cohen, sensation merely describes the problem posed to thought. Describing the method of science, Cohen holds that the scientist posits certain basic principles which help him to determine the facts, but as his research progresses he is required to revise these underlying principles and to conceive new hypotheses, which, in turn, lead to the discovery of new facts. In accordance with this view, our knowledge of reality at any given time is determined by the particular stage of this process, and since this process has no end, a person can never have a final knowledge of reality. Considering ethics, Cohen held that human freedom is the basis of ethics, and constructed a parallel system to that of natural science, ruled by causality. Human dignity is central to Cohen's ethical thought. A proponent of humanistic socialism, he regarded a nation's treatment of its working classes as   an index of its level of morality. While he called Marx "God's historical messenger," he rejected historical materialism as well as the atheistic trends prevalent in the workers' movement. He viewed religion, represented by the Biblical prophetic call for justice, as a revolutionary step towards systematic ethics. Cohen accordingly perceived Judaism, based on this prophetic vocation, which manifested itself in radical notions like that of the Sabbath, as a cornerstone of moral culture. -Defense of Judaism A short time after his appointment as professor at Marburg, Cohen was obliged to declare publicly his attitude to "the Jewish question." When the historian Treitschke attacked the German Jews in his Ein Wort ueber unser Judentum (1879), defining Judaism as the "national religion of an alien race," Cohen countered with his Ein Bekenntnis zur Judenfrage (1880), in which he professed the total integration of German Jewry into the German society "without any double loyalty," yet demanding at the same time that the Jews take their religion seriously. In 1888, Cohen was called upon to testify in a lawsuit against an antisemitic teacher who had clamed that according to the Talmud, Jews are permitted to rob and deceive gentiles. Cohen published his testimony in a pamphlet called "Die Naechstenliebe im Talmud" (Love of the Neighbor in the Talmud, 1888), in which he set out to harmonize two apparently contradictory notions that are the basic of Judaism: the idea of the election of Israel, and the idea of the messianic unity of mankind. The connecting link is provided by the concept of God as the protector of the alien. The vocation of Israel begins with the fact of its chosenness, but since God is conceived from the outset as one who loves the stranger, Israel's chosenness is directed primarily at the unity of mankind. Throughout his Marburg period Cohen viewed religion as merely a popular, nonconceptual form of ethics and believed that its aim is to be realized within ethics. Nevertheless, the idea of God played a much more central role in his ethics than in Kant's theory. Ethics provides mankind with an eternal ideal, whereas nature knows no eternity. It is here that Cohen introduces his postulate of God. This formulation of the postulate of God reflects Cohen's strong emphasis on ethics as the will to realize the ethical demand and make it part of reality, rather than the Kantian emphasis on the ethical as "practical reason." -Change in Attitude toward Religion Cohen's move from Marburg to Berlin at the age of seventy was more than a change of place; it reflected an attempt to deepen his preoccupation with Jewish philosophy and life, and to focus on religious philosophy in general and Jewish thought in particular. This shift was manifested, among other things, in his journey to meet Polish Jewry in 1914 in order to assist in the foundation of an independent institute of higher learning for Jews who found it difficult to be admitted to universities, and his contact with the life of the Jewish masses in Vilna and Warsaw. From 1912 till his death he was primarily a Jewish philosopher and educator. Although he had already dealt with religion in his previous books, it was only now that Cohen started to realize his old idea of dealing systematically with the role and content of religion. In 1915 he published Der Bergriff der Religion im System der Philosophie ("The Concept of Religion within the System of Philosophy," second edition, Zurich, 1996). In contrast with his earlier understanding of religion, Cohen now sought to determine the role and conceptual content of religion, and to define its place within the rational universe of philosophy. Religion is no longer a nonconceptual popular ethics, but rather a teaching that borders metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and psychology. Furthermore, religion can be scientifically understood only through an analysis of these boundaries, although no solely rational approach has the capacity of exhausting its quality and content. Nevertheless, Cohen makes clear that religion can maintain this unique independent content only through its strong attachment to ethics. At the heart of religion and of its relationship to ethics is the concept of the individual, which ethics as a philosophical system must ignore, and at the same time desperately needs. Ethics is based on the notion of duty that the individual has, his or her moral decisions and responsibility. At the same time, ethics, as it was being thus understood in the Kantian and neo-Kantian tradition, must "overcome" the individual. A deed is moral only when it is the right deed for every human being in the given situation. Neither the doer of the moral deed nor the person towards whom it is being aimed can be really seen as individuals, only as particular manifestations or examples of universal humanity. Only monotheistic religion, focusing on the correlation between the one God and the individual, can allow us to focus on the concept of the individual, and thus provide ethics with grounding and stability. It is apparent that Cohen was not fully satisfied with his 1915 formulation of religion and reason. A very short time after releasing this book he started to work on his last book, Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums, which was published posthumously in 1919 (2nd edition, 1928; English: Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, New York, 1972; also in Hebrew and other languages). Three main new focuses were emphasized in this title. First, when in the former book Cohen spoke about "religion" in general, meaning monotheism, now he clearly wishes to focus on Judaism and its sources as the Urquelle, ground-sources, of religion of reason. Second, the universe in which he places that religion is no longer "philosophy" but "reason" (Vernunft), a concept that should include not merely philosophy but also the unique teachings of religion in general, and Judaism in particular. The last emphasis is that religion can be analyzed and investigated only through a hermeneutical effort to understand its literary sources. These sources of Judaism – initially, the Hebrew Bible, but also rabbinic literature as well as medieval Jewish philosophy – bear a unique body of knowledge and reason. Analyzing religion's boundaries with ethics and aesthetics, and to a lesser extent with history and psychology, can be useful, but religion can be genuinely comprehended only from   within, from its sources. These three elements, especially the last one, deeply manifest Cohen's life-long attachment to Maimonides, an attachment that was balanced only by his parallel attachment to Kant. Cohen's new approach to the essence of religion can be fully traced in his notion of religious love. In his early works, Cohen viewed love as a mere affection, used by religion in a way that is legitimate, but proves that religion is of no scientific, rational nature. His Religion of Reasons reflects a fundamental change in his approach. The book's first chapter deals with the monotheistic concept of God, and emphasizes that in the religion of reason, the qualitative uniqueness of God (die Einzigkeit Gottes) as the only true Being is more essential than the quantitative oneness of God (Die Einheit Gottes). In chapter 2, Cohen, (clearly, if implicitly, reflecting the influence of Friedrich Schleiermacher) asks how one can depict the monotheistic person. Cognition cannot suffice, for cognition always has many objects; it is only love that can determine the monotheistic focus of human life. Here, love is no longer an affection but rather a course of life and an act of reason. Love as an approach that represents the religion of reason, is directed foremost to our fellow humans. Ethics deals only with the person that I find besides me, the Nebenmensch. It defines my duties to that individual without relating to her or his individuality. Religion teaches me to relate to that person as the one who is with me, my Mitmensch, as an individual, whose uniqueness, her or his being here-and-now, are the source of my love and responsibility to him or her. Through the Mitmensch one also learns to perceive oneself as an individual. The other's individuality is manifested in his or her suffering, whereas the self 's individuality is manifested in his or her sinfulness. In both cases, individuality is marked by incompleteness. Nevertheless, sin cannot and should not rule life, nor should it define the "I." Cohen, following the teachings of the prophets Ezekiel and to a lesser extent Jeremiah, places repentance and atonement at the heart of religion. Every individual can free himself or herself from sin, can recreate himself anew. Repentance is thus the ground for the correlation between God and the human, and for human freedom and responsibility. Repentance (as a human act) and forgiveness (the divine reply to this act, that expresses God's goodness) depict the essential core of religion, and the ground of ethics provided by Jewish monotheism. The concept of correlation is a key concept in Cohen's philosophy. It appeared already in his early books, referring to a logical reciprocal relationship between concepts that are developed from each other according to the "principle of origin." In Der Begriff der Religion the concept was used for the first time to describe the mutual relationships between God and the human, clearly referring to both as theoretical concepts rather than personalities. In Religion der Vernunft, correlation plays a major role, and refers to the dynamic relationships, to the Mitmensch and also to the divine-human reciprocal relationship. Cohen's readers developed different understandings of the meaning of these relationships. Some scholars follow Franz Rosenzweig's reading that correlation refers here to the biblical notion of covenant, arguing that in Religion der Vernunft, Cohen's God is no longer mere idea but rather personality. Others stick to Cohen's usage of the concept in his early philosophy, depicting Religion der Vernunft as a direct continuum of Cohen's early philosophy rather than a breakthrough from his idealism. Cohen emphasizes that Judaism is not the sole manifestation of the religion of reason, though his approach to Christianity, the only other religion being referred to in the book, is quite polemical. As a unique form of monotheism, carrying the quality of an Urquelle, the existence of Judaism, and hence of the Jewish people, is of universal significance. Cohen clearly views the Jews as a people rather than merely a community of faith, yet draws from this view no Zionist conclusion. To the contrary, he sharply opposed Zionism, viewing it as a betrayal of Judaism's messianic universalistic horizons, and advocated the continued existence of the Jewish people as a national minority ("nationality") within the various nation-states ("nations"). This anti-Zionist approach was expressed in his article "Religion und Zionismus" (1916; Juedische Schriften, 2 (1924), 319–27). The religious significance of Jewish existence was one of the bases for Cohen's devotion to Jewish religious law. Using Kantian terminology and criteria, he argues sharply against Kant's notion of autonomy and the philosopher's negation of Jewish law. Cohen interprets "mitzvah" to mean both "law" and "duty." The law originates in God, the sense of duty in man. The law is at the same time duty; duty at the same time law. God issued commandments to man, and man of his own free will takes upon himself the "yoke of the commandments." With the "yoke of the commandments," one simultaneously accepts the "yoke of the kingdom of God." Thus, the law leads to the messianic ideal. -ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Hermann Cohen: Juedische Schriften (3 vols., Berlin, 1924), intro. F. Rosenzweig; abridged Eng. tr. E. Jospe, Reason and Hope: Selections from the Jewish Writings of Hermann Cohen (1971, 1993); Hermann Cohen: Werke, critical edition (1996– ); A. Poma, The Critical Philosophy of Hermann Cohen, tr. J. Denton (1997); S. Moses et al. (eds.), Hermann Cohen's Philosophy of Religion (1997); H. Holzhez et al. (eds.), Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums – Tradition und Ursprungsdenken in Hermann Cohens Spätwerk (2000); H. Wiedebach, Die Bedeutung der Mationalitaet fuer Hermann Cohen (1997); J. Melber, Hermann Cohen's Philosophy of Judaism (1968): M. Zank, The Idea of Atonement in the Philosophy of Hermann Cohen (2000). (Samuel Hugo Bergman / Yehoyada Amir (2nd ed.)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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  • Cohen, Hermann — (1842 1918)    German philos opher. He was born in Coswig. He was professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg until 1912 and later taught at the Hochschule für Wissenschaft des Judentums. In 1880 he began to resume his hitherto lapsed… …   Dictionary of Jewish Biography

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