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If we look at Jewish rationalism in isolation or even regard it as ‘the’ philosophy of Judaism, as does for instance the historian Julius Guttmann, we might go along with his statements that ‘The Jewish people has not arrived at philosophical thought on its own power…the history of Jewish philosophy is a history of various acceptances of foreign ideas’. We may question, in the context of philosophy, the meaning of the words ‘own’, foreign’, ‘people’. However, it is a fact that, in the stream that we have, for the sake of simplification, termed ‘rationalist’, there corresponds to each of a number of great Jewish thinkers the name of a non-Jewish philosopher or school of philosophy in the light of which Judaism is being considered and elucidated: to Philo, Platonism; to Sa’adia Gaon, Kalam; to Ibn Gabirol, Plotinus; to Maimonides, Aristotle; to Mendelssohn (at least in his thoughts on determinism) Leibniz; to Schelling and to Samson Raphael Hirsch, Hegel. More recently, the Jewish philosopher who, characteristically, discusses Judaism in relation to non-Jewish thought is Hermann Cohen. Philosophical truth, for him, is represented by the name of Kant.
Although a disciple of Kant, Cohen followed the word of his teacher no more closely than Philo followed Plato or Maimonides, Aristotle. In several ways, Cohen may be said to have transformed the foundation of Kant’s system. He did this, not as a Jew, but as a contributor to the general field of European knowledge. For that reason, he is closer to the general trend and correspondingly further from the spirit of historical Judaism than his medieval or ancient predecessors. And, since the critical philosophy that Cohen adopted is more alien to the essence of Judaism than ancient or medieval metaphysics, Cohen’s Kantianism is even more conspicuous in his discussion of Judaism than was Maimonides’ Aristotelianism in his Judaism.
Clearly, the love of Judaism and his devotion to a specific trend in European thought lived side by side in Cohen’s mind. However, it is not so certain that what may seem compatible to a single mind can truly form one logical and material unit. The obscurity and ambiguity of Cohen’s style would indicate that not just technical difficulties beset his attempt at synchronising the two major motives in his spiritual life.
Right in the centre of all the difficulties of Cohen’s philosophy of religion is the concept of reality. Reality can mean two things: the world that we experience – empirical reality – and a state of being that extends beyond experience and of which, in some way, rational knowledge can be obtained – metaphysical reality. Cohen’s general philosophy, following Kant, denies that any knowledge of metaphysical reality can be obtained. In fact, he is even stricter than Kant in that he excludes not only the knowledge but the existence of transcendental objects. Reality, in his view, is exclusively empirical reality. He thereby denies himself any reference to a transcendent mode of being – even as unknowable.