Hermann Cohen

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Hermann Cohen

Page 3

How would Cohen be able to discuss the objects and motives of religion, G-d, the origin and destiny of the world and of the soul, if the way to transcendent thought is barred? His aim was to preserve the values of religious experience while not conceding the reality from which they spring; in fact, to build the wide and tangible world of Judaism upon a small, epistemologically authorised ground that was not its own.

Cohen reasonably argued that critical idealism in the shape that he had given it was betted fitted than any other philosophy to give to the concept of G-d a logical form unassailable by reason. To explain this, we need, briefly, to recall his answer to the fundamental problem of epistemology, namely the relation between thought and reality.

Kant had tried to overcome the paradox of our being conscious of something that lies outside of consciousness - implied in the meaning of ‘being real’ – by projecting beyond experience that element of reality that does not enter consciousness and calling it a ‘thing in itself’, the essence of which cannot be experienced. Kant’s German followers tried to eliminate that awkward concept of the thing-in-itself, which existed but could not be experienced.

In Post-Kantian idealism, reality was once again to become metaphysical reality and, without the counterweight of a transcendental object, assumes a purely spiritual character. ‘Real’ now denotes only the content of our mind or, by a kind of amplification, a cosmic and absolute mind. The ‘World-Ego’ in Fichte’s system, the ‘Absolute Spirit’ in Hegel’s are there to warrant that objectivity which, for Kant, is afforded by the ‘thing-in-itself’. But, if, as for other philosophers and, finally for Cohen himself, reality is strictly empirical reality, as it was for Kant, and if it is not permitted to refer to something beyond consciousness – what guarantee is there of objective existence?

Cohen found part of the answer ready in Kant’s system. There, a further argument for objectivity, beside the ‘thing-in-itself’ is the systemic character, the orderliness of our experience. This is no subjective dream, since it is reliable and subject to laws. A subjectivity that is determined in accordance with laws, is ordered and has a structure is equivalent to objectivity. A dream that conforms to laws, has a structure and fulfils natural expectations would be indistinguishable from reality.