New Literature on Hermann Cohen

 Review of Francesca Albertini, Das Verständnis des Seins bei Hermann Cohen. Vom Neukantianismus zu einer jüdischen Religionsphilosophie (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2003) and Andrea Poma, Yearning For Form and Other Essays on Hermann Cohen’s Thought, (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006), forthcoming in Jewish Quarterly Review.


Michael Zank (Boston University).

In 1992, a small group of scholars assembled in the quaint Hessian university town of Marburg in Germany on the occasion of Hermann Cohen’s 150th birthday. The papers given at that conference were eventually published in a volume edited by Reinhard Brandt and Franz Orlik  that opened a whole slew of publications, which have since appeared, dedicated to one or the other aspect of Hermann Cohen’s philosophy. The conference was accompanied by an exhibit of artifacts, documents, and images from the life of the Marburg philosopher Hermann Cohen who, during his lifetime (1842-1918), achieved considerable fame in European circles interested in philosophy and whose work echoes in Jewish philosophy and Kantian studies until today. In 1967, Dieter Adelmann published the first what we might call ‘modern’ dissertation on Hermann Cohen, in which he explained why Cohen’s fame had been eclipsed for the preceding forty years and attributed this fact to the influence of Martin Heidegger who in 1929, at the famous student courses in Davos, Switzerland, had declared the death of ‘Wilhelminian cultural philosophy.’ The conference of 1992 signaled that Heidegger’s influence in European academic philosophy was on the wane and that the time had come for philosophers, intellectual historians, and scholars of German cultural history to take a closer a look and give an account of the writings, the thought, the philosophy, and the influence of one of the most outstanding philosophical authors of the late 19th and early 20th century.

To give account of a philosopher’s work means to move away from the nostalgia that almost inevitably arises when turning to the end of a thousand years of German-Jewish civilization and turn one’s attention instead to the intrinsic value of the philosopher’s work to contemporary thought and scholarship. The two books under review here fall under the category of giving account of Hermann Cohen’s thought.  Both books were written by Italians. Andrea Poma teaches philosophy at the university at Torino; Francesca Albertini studied in Freiburg and teaches at the College for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg. Poma has written on Buber and on the problem of evil in Jewish philosophy. Albertini’s training is in phenomenology and in medieval and modern Jewish philosophical traditions. The Italian connection to Cohen is related to an ongoing boom, in that country, of studies on Kant and neo-Kantianism, including the writings of Cohen which, by and large, belong in this historical category. What distinguishes these recent studies of Cohen’s work from previous attempts to secure his legacy is that scholars are now more willing than before to consider Cohen’s Jewish commitments as relevant to his philosophical work. This new readiness to reunite the Jewish Cohen with the neo-Kantian philosopher was hailed by the agreement between the late Steven S. Schwarzschild and the University of Zurich philosopher and founder of the Hermann Cohen archive, Professor Helmut Holzey, to overcome the erstwhile editorial separation between Hermann Cohen’s Jewish writings and his philosophical and political writings and to organize the new edition of Cohen’s minor writings in a strictly chronological order.  Recent conferences under the auspices of the Zurich-based International Hermann Cohen Society, the Franz Rosenzweig Research Center in Jerusalem, and other institutions have moved in the same direction.  Earlier studies attempted to capture Cohen’s “late philosophy” (Spätphilosophie) as driven by “extra-philosophical” motives, most notably a perceived need to respond to a rise in anti-Semitism or a “return” of the septogenarian to Judaism. 

Written from within the context of German academic philosophy, Dr. Albertini aims to rectify the lopsided reception of Cohen’s philosophy as representative of the Marburg School of neo-Kantianism without regard to a philosophical development that comes to the fore in his later works on religion, works that need to be understood, according to Albertini, as part of a philosophical development rather than a response to extra-philosophical impulses. In other words the Jewish philosophical tradition is taken into account as philosophically relevant to the development of Cohen’s thought.

Attention to the Marburg School of neo-Kantianism in the context of German school philosophy focuses, firstly, on the negation of metaphysics and the reduction of philosophy to reflection on science, namely to a theory of scientific knowledge, secondly, on the distinction between the psychological and the logical objective aspect of knowledge and, thirdly, on the attempt to extrapolate from the structures of natural and human sciences a structure of the transcendental subject that makes these sciences possible. Most of the works of Marburg philosophers (esp. Cohen, Natorp, and the early Cassirer, but also Albert Görland, Benzion Kellermann, Heinz Heimsoeth and Nicolai Hartmann) were received under these perspectives and questions, but Hermann Cohen’s own work was not received in this manner and not predominantly for contributions to these areas. Even in his own time, Hermann Cohen seems to have constituted a special case within the school that he, himself, co-founded. While generally following the general directives of this new interpretation of Kant, his philosophical reasoning is strongly determined by traditional metaphysics, and what is also particular, according to Albertini, is the attempt to privilege the logical aspects of knowledge relative to the psychological ones. But, according to Albertini, these are not the only reasons why Cohen was more or less isolated even within his own school. She attributes this isolation more to the rising anti-Semitism in the academic world of the time and this is relevant because, for Cohen, the connection between Jewish doctrine and occidental philosophy was to him the only possible legitimization of Jewish culture within German society, and not just limiting itself to the academic world. As Dieter Adelmann once wrote in 1967, “Cohen’s legacy was not simply neglected, but Cohen was intentionally pushed out of the canon of German academic philosophers and this was a feat accomplished by Heidegger.” For Albertini to try and rectify, or contribute to the rectification of, this process, and to do so in a philosophical dissertation, is an act of correction and repair attempted from within the German academic philosophical world.  It is central to her study that the focus on being and the concept of being allows to show continuity rather than a break between Cohen’s Kantian philosophy and his Jewish religious philosophy.  Being and the problem of being and its conceptualization clearly played an important part in Cohen’s logic, ethics, and aesthetics, but it is also obvious that it is central to his idea of God and to the idea of a correlation between the concepts of God and man that he derived from the sources of Judaism. Albertini sees Cohen in his late philosophy of religion on the path toward a phenomenology of freedom and toward an anticipation of philosophical moves accomplished by Heidegger.  It is important for her to emphasize that Jewish and Greek thinking and dimensions of thought coexist in Cohen’s work and that he tries to reconcile the fundamental paradoxes and contradictions; whether he does so successfully is another question.  According to Albertini, Cohen’s late philosophy is on the path toward a new definition of being, wherein logic and ethics are attempted to be connected in a new manner that is commensurate with Hebrew sources.  Albertini sees Cohen aiming for a phenomenological method that focuses on the freedom of human beings and the free will in correlation with God that sheds new light on the conception of history and of messianism as a completion of time.  Albertini attempts to prove all this by going through Cohen’s works from The Logic of Pure Cognition to The Aesthetics of Pure Feeling; this is the first chapter.  In the second chapter, she looks at being and philosophy of historical existence in Cohen’s 1915 treatise on the “concept of religion in the system of philosophy.”  The third chapter is an excursion into the meanings of the Hebrew word for being and the Greek word for being, where the different aspects of time and temporality are exposed.  Finally, in the fourth chapter, Albertini juxtaposes ethics, religion, correlation, and history focusing on the human being as being toward compassion.  Finally, in a concluding deliberation, Albertini looks at history and messianism in the correlation between the being of man and the being of God, and at phenomenology and hermeneutics of prayer in religion of reason.  If this sounds like a formidable and broad sweep, then this impression is correct.  When one considers that all these works and various other shorter writings of Cohen’s, beginning with his earliest published essays, are discussed on just 200 pages, one may imagine just how difficult it is for Albertini to make her point both persuasively and in a careful consideration of all these writings that are at stake.  I, for one, am not convinced that it is entirely clear what Cohen’s concept of being really is – at least Albertini has not persuaded me that she has produced a truly new reading of Cohen and her study occasionally suffers from problems of language and expression that may be excused in an author whose native language is Italian, but who writes in German. Despite these allowances, the ambitious agenda of the author is not fully realized. It is also not entirely clear to me how pertinent the philological third chapter is to Hermann Cohen’s thinking.  While it is of course always interesting to juxtapose different linguistic and historical traditions, such as the Hebrew and the Greek, I am not sure how much can be meaningfully derived from this kind of analysis.  To be sure, Albertini is right that what makes Cohen’s struggle fascinating even where it fails is his attempt to reconcile different linguistic, religious, and cultural traditions, and to forge a new way of thinking out of these two traditions.  What is more strikingly absent from Albertini’s analysis is a conceptual framework that would allow to go beyond mere description of what Cohen does in his works and that would help us to relate Cohen’s thinking to other trends, such as the philosophy of language and analytical philosophy, or show other ways in which Cohen may remain relevant for the philosophical discourses of today. 

The second volume under review, Andrea Poma’s Yearning for Form and Other Essays on Hermann Cohen’s Thought, takes a different approach and attitude.  For Poma, Hermann Cohen is not necessarily the answer to all our questions.  At the same time Poma, who previously produced an excellent introduction to Cohen’s thought, delivers a set of essays in 16 chapters that engage fundamental problems in the philosophy of Hermann Cohen and show the richness and unresolved issues in this thinker’s works.  The introduction engages the question whether or not Hermann Cohen deserves to be considered a philosophy classic.  Chapter One deals with Hermann Cohen’s response to anti-Judaism, a question also considered by Professor Albertini.  Chapter Two deals with Plato’s idea of the good and its different interpretations by Cohen and Natorp and thus speaks to the internal divisions of the Marburg School on how to interpret Plato.  Chapter Three deals with authentic and historical theodicy in Kant and Cohen.  Chapter Four addresses the well-known problem of the concept of correlation in Hermann Cohen’s philosophy of religion and indicates in the subtitle a by now familiar move of Professor Poma’s – to have it both ways.  The subtitle reads “A Method and More Than a Method”.  Poma of course is right in showing that Cohen’s word choices often strike a balance between theory and experience and hence the term correlation becomes a case study demonstrating that at the base of Cohen’s concepts there always lurks the amorphous world of experience, including liturgical and religious experience.  Chapter Five turns to Cohen’s aesthetics by looking at Cohen’s appreciation for Mozart; the subtitle of this essay is “Considerations on Drama, the Beautiful and Humaneness in Cohen’s Aesthetics.”  Chapter Six deals with “Religion of Reason and Judaism in Hermann Cohen.”  Chapter Seven looks at a specific aspect of Cohen’s philosophy of religion, namely the biblical concepts of the neighbor and the stranger. “Similarity and Diversity of the Other” are here shown to be “topical motifs in Cohen’s ethical idealism.”  Chapter Eight looks at “the portrait in Hermann Cohen’s aesthetics.”  Chapter Nine deals with “religion as a fact of culture and the system of philosophy” and reproduces (in translation) parts of Poma’s introduction to the Werke edition of Cohen’s Begriff der Religion of 1915.  Chapter Ten returns to aesthetics in relation to religion, namely to humor in religion as articulated in the sentiments of peace and contentment.  Chapter 11 deals with Cohen’s thought on lyric poetry and prayer.  Chapter 12 looks at suffering and non-eschatological messianism.  Chapter 13 deals with the autonomy of the law.  Chapter 14 examines the ontological status of the ideal in Hermann Cohen’s ethics, and “The Holy Spirit out of the Sources of Judaism and Kantianism” is the topic of chapter 15.  The most substantive contribution of this volume and the only essay included that was not previously published, is the one from which the volume as a whole receives its title. “Yearning for Form: Hermann Cohen in Postmodernism” tries to do what is somewhat missing and absent from Albertini’s book and many other recent publications on Cohen, namely the attempt to contextualize Hermann Cohen’s thought within the broader concerns of postmodern theory and therefore bring Hermann Cohen into the contemporary conversation. Poma focuses here particularly on the early work of Deleuze as representative of postmodernism.  This is not the place to give a detailed report on all these essays, but it is commendable that this book of essays by Poma, who is clearly a master of the study of Hermann Cohen’s thought in all its aspects, turns to particular topics of general interest. It should therefore stimulate the reception of Hermann Cohen in the contemporary English-speaking philosophical discourse.  My favorite essay in Poma’s collection is Chapter Eight, “The Portrait in Hermann Cohen’s Aesthetics.” First of all, I believe that Poma rightly pays a lot of attention to Cohen’s writings on aesthetics.  Secondly, I believe that what he writes here about these writings is correct – namely as he says on page 145, “Cohen’s discourse on art in his Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls is formulated according to strict philosophical and systematic requirements. Art is considered by Cohen in the light of the philosophical principles of his system.  His concern, in short, is not to elaborate theoretical principles starting from artistic creation or enjoyment, but to find in works of art the philosophical principles of his own aesthetics.”  Hence, Cohen’s writing on aesthetics is deeply philosophical and concerned with the range of philosophical rationality and, therefore, with the character of systematic philosophy.  What is particularly pleasant about this essay is that it was translated by Anthony Runia who does a much better job than John Denton who translated most of the essays, but who seems to have been too distracted to pay much attention to the final product.  This unfortunately diminishes the value of this volume and it is really troubling because, as the essay translated by Runia shows, Professor Poma’s writing is absolutely crisp and beautiful in expression but not much of that comes through in most of the essays collected in this volume, obviously due to failings of the main translator.  It should be pointed out, incidentally, that when it comes to considering the question of whether Cohen was a thinker who should be considered partly or wholly postmodern, Poma’s answer is justifiably that that cannot be the case.  Hermann Cohen, as he writes, was a thoroughly modern philosopher who was, as he says on page 314, “in all respects a philosopher of modernity and a man of his time.”  The question then, Poma asks, is whether “in the thought of a classic of modernity like Hermann Cohen there are useful references for contemporary philosophical thinking in a new cultural context” (p. 314).  It is a matter of juxtaposition rather than direct application and extrapolation when it concerns not just Jewish philosophy or Cohen’s Jewish thought, but really concerns Cohen’s theoretical philosophy.  In Chapter 16 Poma returns to Cohen’s Platonism and juxtaposes it with the reading of Plato in Deleuze and other postmodern thinkers.  What Poma shows, which I consider a very important contribution, is that Cohen’s philosophy, contrary to Heidegger’s claims about it, cannot be subsumed under the heading of a “totalitarian logic of concept as identity” but rather, as Poma continues on page 336, “in Cohen’s view, the concept of the object is the horizon, the task toward which all the judgements of knowledge converge.”  Poma continues, “(I)t is not the reductive identity of differences nor the close totality entirely enveloping it, but the infinite openness of the problem, which produces differences in the organic, but open framework of the system.” This is followed by a long quote from Cohen’s Logic of Pure Cognition, which reads as follows:  “This is the profound, eternal meaning, in which Socrates defined his concept as the question: What is it? (…) Concept is a question and remains one, nothing but a question.  The answer it incorporates must be a new question, must provoke a new question.  This is the intimate methodical relationship between question and answer: that every question must itself be an answer.  Therefore, every answer can and must be a question.  What is realised in the system of concept is a new kind of reciprocal conditioning or action: reciprocal action between question and answer.  No solution can be definitive.  Concept is not an absolute totality.”   What Poma shows is how much we could gain by a thorough translation of Cohen’s own writings or selections thereof that do more than give us a sense of nostalgia for a great German-Jewish thinker, but reintroduce Cohen as a philosophical voice into the community of philosophical classics.  I think Poma has made a great case for that and I commend his book for doing so.