Hermann Cohen Reviews

Review of Hermann Cohen’s Critical Idealism, edited by Reinier Munk, Amsterdam Studies in Jewish Thought Volume 10, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Verlag, 2005, and Andrea Poma, Yearning For Form and Other Essays on Hermann Cohen’s Thought, edited by Reinier Munk, Studies in German Idealism Volume 5, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Verlag, 2006.

By Lydia Patton (Virginia Tech)

Forthcoming in the European Journal of Philosophy.

Recent work on the philosophy of Hermann Cohen (1848-1914), founder of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism, has appeared in three distinct circles in the English-speaking philosophical context. Cohen re-interpreted Kant’s a priori to take scientific developments into account. Michael Friedman acknowledges that the later development of this view by Cohen’s intellectual heir Ernst Cassirer influenced Friedman’s work on the dynamic a priori, especially in the history and philosophy of science. Owing to Cohen’s links to Franz Rosenzweig, scholars have begun to investigate Cohen’s philosophy with reference to Derrida, Benjamin, Habermas, and Levinas and the philosophy of responsibility. And there is increasing interest in analyzing Cohen’s influence on Deleuze and Badiou, particularly in the areas of ethics and aesthetics.

These renewed dialogues have raised pressing questions. Despite his revisions to Kant’s philosophy, Cohen argued that he and Kant constructed systems of “critical idealism,” a term that Kant used to to describe his own system in the Prolegomena and that Cohen used to encompass all of transcendental philosophy. But what impact do Cohen’s revisions to Kant have on the philosophical project of critical idealism? Cohen re-interpreted Kant’s epistemological a priori to accommodate changes in science. In his works on ethics and aesthetics, Cohen cites what he sees as two shortcomings with Kantian philosophy: the lack of an account of suffering and compassion in the ethics, and the lack of an account of humor to temper the inhuman ideal of the sublime in the aesthetics. Has Cohen resolved real problems for Kant’s philosophy, considered as “transcendental philosophy” or “critical idealism,” which is (or can be) a larger project not restricted to Kant’s own work? Can his thinking, mutatis mutandis, contribute to resolving contemporary problems?

It is past time for an anglophone literature on Cohen’s philosophy. The project has been hindered by the fact that many of Cohen’s works are not translated into English. An English-language reader of fundamental works by the Marburg School is in preparation from Routledge. Two recently published volumes tackle central issues in Cohen’s thought: a collection of essays, Hermann Cohen’s Critical Idealism, edited by Reinier Munk (hereafter referred to as Critical Idealism and cited as CI), and a collection of Andrea Poma’s essays, Yearning for Form and Other Essays on Hermann Cohen’s Thought (hereafter referred to as Yearning for Form and cited as YFF). The authors of the essays under review can read Cohen’s works in the original German, but are able to explain them in English.

The volumes make significant contributions to our understanding of central questions of Cohen’s philosophy, and to our understanding of Cohen vis-à-vis his interlocutors and influences. Reinier Munk presents the aim of Hermann Cohen’s Critical Idealism as to “offer an analysis of Cohen’s System of Philosophy — the three-volume classic on logic, ethics, and aesthetics — and his writings on Judaism and religion.” Hermann Cohen’s Critical Idealism is intended to provide a comprehensive and systematic presentation of Cohen’s doctrines, which Andrea Poma has called “critical idealism,” a welcome English simplification of Cohen’s “Erkenntniskritisch Idealismus.”

Andrea Poma’s 1997 monograph The Critical Philosophy of Hermann Cohen is a key source text for scholars working on Cohen. In the collection of essays under review, Yearning for Form, Poma presents Cohen’s philosophy as “systematic thought, rather than a completed construction, philosophical procedure, whose method is a system because it is critical, i.e. because it moves incessantly in the direction of a system” (YFF x-xi). Poma observes that the systematic and critical character of Cohen’s thought allows scholars to engage with it to resolve larger problems: the “most ‘classic’ trait of a philosopher, and Cohen saw this in both Plato and Kant, does not lie in the solutions he proposed, but in the ability to pose questions, set up problems, open up horizons, where philosophical research will always be able to find the room to move on” (YFF xii).

The two volumes under consideration are organized around the key themes of Cohen’s thought. My review will focus on the contributions these volumes make to our understanding of the central questions of Cohen’s work, and on the potential for future work. A note on the texts: two of Poma’s essays, “The Portrait in Hermann Cohen’s Aesthetics” and “Suffering and Non-Eschatological Messianism in Hermann Cohen” appear in both volumes.

Cohen’s epistemology

Andrea Poma’s essay “Correlation in Hermann Cohen’s Philosophy of Religion” provides a clear enunciation of Cohen’s basic epistemological method and its distinction from Kant: “In the first edition of Kants Theorie der Erfahrung Cohen provided the well known definition of transcendental idealism for the method and formal idealism for the content of Kant’s critical philosophy. Subsequently, however, partially owing to the effects of his thoughts on Plato and Leibniz, Cohen gradually put aside the aspect of formal idealism and arrived at identification of critical philosophy with transcendental idealism” (YFF 63). Critical idealism thus becomes a dynamic method not attached to a specific content (in this sense, Cohen’s work has an affinity with the contemporary dynamic a priori). In his essay “Cohen’s Ursprungsdenken” in Critical Idealism, Werner Flach also emphasizes the dynamic character of Cohen’s thought about science: “the thinking of logic […] includes the dynamics of the scientific determination in the analysis. In this way it partakes, in a very distinct understanding, in the dynamics of science. Dogmatism is something foreign to it” (CI 45). Poma argues that there is nonetheless significant continuity between Kant’s and Cohen’s methods: “Despite this incessant process of transformation, some fundamental aspects of the transcendental method remain constant, in their belonging to its specificity. At least three can be highlighted here: 1) philosophy must start out from a ‘fact’; 2) it must return to the a priori conditions of this fact; 3) the meaning of the a priori lies entirely in its function as a condition of the possibility of the fact” (YFF 64).

Several of the essays in the Logik section of Critical Idealism establish historical or systematic dialogues between Cohen and other philosophers. In “Beweis and Aufweis,” Gianna Gigliotti says, “I should like to show the aspects of this philosophy that, generated by the deeply rooted conviction of the plurality of the forms and modes of knowledge and therefore of the modes of constitution […] oblige one to step outside the markedly constructivist approach typical of its appeal to Kant and lead one towards a descriptive attitude that […] nevertheless is not devoid of interest” in reconstructing the relationship between neo-Kantianism and phenomenology (CI 100). Her essay puts Cohen’s work in a dialogue with Husserlian phenomenology, as mediated by Iso Kern’s book on Husserl and neo-Kantianism. In chapter five, Pierfrancesco Fiorato gives a defense of Cohen’s “ethical messianism” in comparison to the writings of Karl Löwith. In chapter six, Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky looks at “how [Walter] Benjamin links up with and radicalizes Cohen’s description of the philosophical task as a hanging over the abyss” (CI 162-163). The essays in this section make intriguing connections between Cohen and other philosophers, especially between neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, and critical theory.

However, it is odd that (with the exception of Flach’s comments on the relation between logic and science) the section of Critical Idealism devoted to Logik does not address Cohen’s thoroughgoing and sympathetic analysis of state-of-the-art science. Cohen was among the first to review the consequences of the work of Hertz, Maxwell, and Faraday for the philosophy of science, and to recognize that the field concept had profound implications for scientific ontology and epistemology. Cohen left the University of Marburg in 1912, and Heidegger arrived there in 1923. Heidegger disagreed with privileging science as the source of the certainty of our knowledge, while that was exactly Cohen’s method. The clash between Heidegger and Cohen came to a head only after Cohen’s death, at the famous conference in Davos, Switzerland, in a debate between Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer, who set himself the task of defending Cohen’s philosophy. For future work philosophers need a clear understanding of how the dialogue between phenomenology and Neo-Kantianism, and each movement’s interpretation of 19th century scientific progress, set the stage for much of the philosophy of the 20th century – the story Michael Friedman tells in A Parting of the Ways. The Introduction to Critical Idealism, Helmut Holzhey’s “Cohen and the Marburg School in Context,” is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand Cohen’s relationship to 19th century science. Holzhey’s two-volume Cohen und Natorp is a classic of secondary literature on the Marburg School. Holzhey’s essay for Critical Idealism is especially welcome as it includes a comprehensive summary of Cohen’s influences within the tradition of wissenschaftliche erkenntnistheorie, a 19th century philosophical perspective based on the work of Kant and Hegel that is receiving increased attention (see, e.g., Alfred Nordmann and Michael Friedman, eds., The Kantian Legacy in Nineteenth Century Science (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).

Ethics and Religion

In Yearning for Form, Andrea Poma applies Cohen’s philosophy to the political reality of resident non-citizens in Europe. Poma argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition contains a wealth of sources from which to derive ethical and political laws concerning how to treat resident foreigners. He finds Israel’s history particularly germane: “the doctrine of the Torah concerning the foreigner (nokri) became much more pregnant with meaning and precise when considering the foreigner resident in Israel (ger). He was indistinguishable from an Israelite in the face of the law” (YFF 134). Poma sees Hermann Cohen’s philosophy as the source of an answer to the following question: “If we now ask ourselves how the Israelite culture of the Old Testament, at the origins of our culture, could have brought about such a lofty conception of love for one’s fellowmen, which went far beyond other adjacent or comparable ancient cultures, the answer must be: by means of a process of idealisation, which produced the universal idea of humanity, and which can be situated in the context of religious correlation, peculiar to monotheism” (YFF 135). These two notions, of universal humanity and of religious correlation, are central to Cohen’s religious and ethical philosophy, and indeed are among his greatest intellectual contributions.

In “Hermann Cohen on State and Nation” from Critical Idealism, David Novak looks to Cohen for a modern account of the “relationship between traditional, religious Jewish communities and the modern, secular societies within which such communities must now function” (CI 260). In looking to Cohen for such an account, Novak swims against a tide of criticism. Cohen was considered an assimilationist for his views in Deutschtum und Judentum, in which he argues that German and Jewish society share an ideal basis, and for his remarks on the Berlin anti-Semitism controversy in response to Heinrich von Treitschke’s attack on Jews in German society. As Novak notes, Derrida went so far as to compare Cohen’s position to Heidegger’s Rektoratsrede at Freiburg. Novak argues that it is worthwhile to reconsider Cohen’s philosophical position: “Since Hermann Cohen was, arguably, the greatest modern Jewish philosopher, we should try to separate his philosophical principles from his political judgments we can no longer possibly accept” (CI 264).

Novak undertakes a “careful historical translation of Cohen’s terms: nationality, state, and law” (CI 272). Novak focuses on the notion of “law,” which he re-translates as mishpat ivri, or the “body of Jewish law dealing with interhuman relations,” famously revived by Menachem Elon in the contemporary Israeli context (CI 272). Mishpat ivri, Novak argues, could structure relations between the Jewish state and resident non-Israeli Arabs. (Michael Walzer and others have made similar arguments, replacing mishpat ivri with the Noachide laws.) What is needed for such accounts, as Novak observes, is a normative justification for the application of mishpat ivri (or of Noachide law). Novak seeks such a justification in Cohen’s notions of universal humanity and “correlation” with God and other humans (about these concepts, see the discussion below).

While Novak appeals to Cohen’s philosophy as a whole, there is a great deal of debate about whether Cohen’s religious thought is continuous with, or is in conflict with, his philosophical system. Poma observes that “Franz Rosenzweig saw [Cohen’s] late philosophy of religion as […] an exit from the ‘magic circle’ of idealism, within which he had built up his system, in the direction of philosophy of existence” (YFF 61). Rosenzweig writes: “Man in the presence of God is no longer the ‘self’ of ethics, which for itself can only be an eternal task, but he is the actual human being with the needs and suffering of his sin-encased moment” (Introduction to Cohen’s Jüdische Schriften, ed. Bruno Strauß, Berlin: Schwetschke, 1924, vol. I, xlv). Rosenzweig argues that the facts of human life, especially sin, compassion, and suffering, took Cohen beyond Kantian idealism. Rosenzweig contends that Cohen uses the notion of “correlation,” loosely, an individual’s definition of himself in relation to God and to his fellow humans, to break out of the “magic circle” of idealism.

Irène Kajon’s essay in Critical Idealism has some affinities with Rosenzweig’s view. Kajon argues that by the close of his career, Cohen had recognized “the limits of a Logos which has its ground in itself and deduces from itself its own laws” (CI 394). However, Kajon stops short of arguing, as Rosenzweig does, that Cohen’s late work is a thoroughgoing break with Kant. She observes that “Cohen adheres to an idealism which fundamentally is more ethico-religious than scientific and theoretical in the last phase of his reflection on the relationship between the philosophical system inspired by Kant and Judaism” (CI 393). Robert Gibbs promotes a further, political development of Rosenzweig’s interpretation. In his essay “Jurisprudence is the Organon of Ethics,” on ethical and legal theory in Cohen and Kant, Gibbs says that he will “force the two through a series of contrasts in order to see a possibility for opening a realm of law more suited to the ethics of responsibility” of Derrida, Habermas, Rosenzweig, and Levinas (CI 194).

Rosenzweig’s interpretation has engendered lively debate. In “Identity and Correlation in Hermann Cohen’s System of Philosophy,” Riener Wiehl observes that “for all that Rosenzweig’s interpretation of Cohen’s late work has become very influential, it raises more questions than it answers — not only questions about his own philosophical presuppositions and their interpretation. Above all it remains unclear how we are to read the distinction between a methodological and a fundamental conceptual function of correlation. Another problem is the alternative explanation which comes to the fore in his own verification theory of truth, according to which it is a matter for the individual non-interchangeable sole human being to establish the truth of a religion from the sources of Judaism” (CI 74). Steven Schwarzschild, Alexander Altmann, and Michael Zank have argued against Rosenzweig’s reading (see Altmann, “Hermann Cohens Begriff der Korrelation,” in In Zwei Welten, ed. H. Tramer, Tel Aviv: Verlag Bitaon, 1962: 377-399, and Zank, “The Ethics in Hermann Cohen’s Philosophical System,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy vol. 13, Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2006: 1-15). In his article “Correlation in Hermann Cohen’s Philosophy of Religion,” Andrea Poma argues that the idea of correlation is not a break between Cohen’s religious thought and his systematic philosophy. Instead, correlation is a philosophical method that fits securely into Cohen’s system. Poma argues that Cohen’s adoption of the correlation concept is in tune with Cohen’s much earlier rejection of Kantian formal idealism in favor of transcendental idealism, which proceeds by using hypotheses to reflect on and to justify the validity of the facts of science and of religion (YFF 63). Poma concludes that “Rosenzweig’s ‘magic circle of idealism’ had already been broken by Cohen in his system, inasmuch as this is a system of transcendental philosophy” (YFF 66).

In “Maimonidean Elements in Cohen’s Philosophy” in Critical Idealism, Arthur Hyman argues that Cohen introduced the notion of correlation to deal with the “shortcomings” of Kantian ethical philosophy. In particular, Hyman observes, Cohen finds that the categorical imperative “applies to human beings as members of a class, but it neglects human beings as individuals” (CI 362). Humans “discover” themselves as “ethical individuals” by experiencing suffering, compassion for other human beings, and in recognizing their own sin (Ibid.). Hyman argues that Cohen’s special concern for sinfulness, compassion, and suffering distinguishes Cohen from Maimonides, since Maimonides did not find these notions fundamental to Jewish thought and Cohen did (CI 366). Rather, Hyman concludes, Cohen appeals to Maimonides “to justify his claim that Judaism is essentially Sittenlehre and the further claim that Jewish ethics is an ethics of duty rather then one of happiness” (CI 366).

In his essay “Hermann Cohen’s Theory of Virtue,” Peter Schmid emphasizes the difference between Cohen’s ethical thought and Kant’s as well: “By introducing humanity as the regulating principle of the ideal virtues, Cohen softens the rigorous nature of idealistic ethics. Against Kant’s harsh conception of virtue he proposes a principle of humanity and human love” (CI 245). Schmid argues that, unlike Kant, Cohen is able to use benevolence as “the affective basis for moral action,” a claim that makes Cohen sound more like a Humean than like an idealist. Like Hyman’s, Schmid’s argument is based solidly on Cohen’s later work, which Rosenzweig likened to Buber’s work on the I-Thou relation. While Schmid contends that Cohen begins to realize a basis for ethics other than reason, Hyman argues that ultimately Cohen, like Maimonides and Kant, believes that the justification for ethics is rational.

In “Cohen on Atonement, Purification and Repentance,” Norman Soloman argues that Kant “must shoulder much of the burden of responsibility for the mess in which Hermann Cohen found himself when attempting to reconcile religion and philosophy” (CI 395). One of the problems Cohen encountered, Solomon observes, “arises through Kant’s insistence that ethics be grounded in ‘reason’, by which he means in synthetic a priori judgements” (CI 397). “What worries Cohen,” Solomon says, “is that Judaism appears to derive its ethics from God’s revelation rather than a priori, out of pure reason. Consequently, he agonises about the relationship between Sittlichkeit (ethics, morality) and Judentum (Judaism=religion), between rational and revealed ethics; from a Kantian point of view only the former is authentic, yet Cohen becomes convinced that the latter is superior” (Ibid.) Like Hyman, Solomon argues that the notions of sin and repentance are explained satisfactorily only in Cohen’s later writings. Solomon adds the following suggestion, which has the potential to save the rationalist interpretation of Cohen as well as the specifically religious character of his later thought: “Cohen does not suggest that there is some specific duty or act prescribed by religious ethics which is lacking in rational ethics; presumably the specific tasks are the same (don’t steal, don’t commit adultery etc.). It is the awareness, the inwardness, the motivation, the spirit of holiness with which the act is performed that constitutes the ‘added value’ of religion” (CI 404).

In “Suffering and Non-Eschatological Messianism in Hermann Cohen,” printed in both volumes, Andrea Poma adds a further dimension to the discussion of the special role of suffering in Cohen’s ethics, and of the fact that this special role distances Cohen from Kant. Poma argues that in the Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, “The meaning of suffering takes a qualitative step forward, placing it in a position well beyond the limits of a mere instrumental value, when it is further investigated in the messianic idea where suffering, free from any function as liberation from the individual’s guilt, as the suffering of the just one, takes on the supreme dignity of an ultimate, anti-eudaemonistic sense of history” (YFF 250). Poma argues that Cohen is able to use his anti-eudaemonistic revisions to Kant to answer the old question, “What, if I do what I ought, may I then hope?” Poma contends that, for Cohen, individual hope is located within the hopes of the community, as “certainty of historical progress” (YFF 257).

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Culture

Andrea Poma and Arthur Hyman emphasize the role of suffering and compassion in Cohen’s ethical philosophy, and they observe that these notions take Cohen beyond the Kantian ethical philosophy. Similarly, Poma argues that Cohen’s analysis of humor as the necessary correlate of the sublime is the source of Cohen’s revision of Kant in this arena. In “The Portrait in Hermann Cohen’s Aesthetics,” Poma observes: “Cohen criticises Kantian aesthetics for emphasising, on the one hand, the intellectualistic character of the beautiful, and then rescuing, on the other, art’s connection with morality in a doctrine of the sublime which is not satisfactorily integrated with the preceding doctrine of the beautiful and is therefore exposed to confusion between the aesthetic ideal and the ethical ideal. […] Against all this Cohen sets a concept of the beautiful which remains authentically that: it comprehends the sublime as a necessary but not exclusive moment, always integrated by the correlative concept of humour” (YFF 152-153). Poma argues that Cohen uses humor to mediate the inhuman ideal of the sublime, and in particular, that the portrait humanizes the aesthetic ideal. Poma gives a fascinating account of Cohen’s philosophical analysis of two portraits, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Rembrandt’s Hendrikje Stoffels, in this connection.

In “The Statute of Music in Hermann Cohen’s Ästhetik,” Marc de Launay echoes Poma’s assessment of Cohen’s revision to Kant: “Cohen underlines what he identifies to be a fault in the Kantian conception. Kant makes beauty the symbol of morality, which implies a subordination of the aesthetic a priori to the ethical a priori, and at the same time, because the beautiful is only a symbol, a loss of the distinctive value of the aesthetic content” (CI 314). Like Poma, De Launay observes that Cohen uses humour to moderate the sublime, but De Launay cites another of Cohen’s intriguing examples: Mozart as musical sublime jester. De Launay links Cohen’s work in aesthetics to his philosophical system: “In music purity achieves its fullness because nothing natural, nor for that matter the ethical world, could be a model for it. It truly creates a new world which is therefore not a given but man himself” (CI 319). This reinforces Cohen’s claim in Kant’s Theory of Experience and The Principle of the Infinitesimal Method that “there is no given prior to knowledge […] This is summed up by the formula which was to become the motto of the Marburg School: ‘The product is production’” (CI 312). In the case of art works, the product is “man,” who is constantly under production.

In the final essay of the section on Ästhetik, Ursula Renz addresses the question of the relationship between Cohen’s work and that of the later members of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism. In particular, she analyzes the continuity, or lack of continuity, between Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and Cohen’s and Paul Natorp’s “cultural philosophy.” Renz argues that while the final systems are quite distinct – Cassirer’s “concept of culture is not oriented to the tripartite structure of philosophy in the wake of Kant but to the genuine diversity of cultural forms” – nonetheless “Cohen’s principle-oriented approach to the problem of culture and Cassirer’s phenomenological discussions often complement each other in an illuminating way” (CI 328).


The two volumes under discussion achieve the objective Poma and Munk cite, namely, to present Cohen’s work as a system, in order to show how that system can be applied to contemporary problems. Above all, the essays here put into question the historical and philosophical continuity of the project of critical idealism. The essays identify Cohen’s three revisions to Kant: moderating the sublime with humor in aesthetics, accounting for scientific change in epistemology, and dealing with suffering and compassion in ethics and religion. These three revisions, and the philosophical consequences discussed in these two volumes, cast up a challenge to future researchers: to identify a coherent basis for a critical idealism capable of dealing with contemporary philosophical problems.