Hermann Cohen

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Herman Cohen

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Cohen supplements this view of reality by his interpretation of what is termed the ‘given’ or the ‘given objects’ in experience. Sensation does not, as such, guarantee the existence of any object, only the sensations themselves. To posit, as grounds for the sensation, something that is being sensed is an inference, an act of thought; the mere naming of our experiences presupposes processes of thought, an isolating, distinguishing, recognising, selecting, synthesising, comparing activity. What we are used to accepting as purely ‘given’ is , according to Cohen, already ‘generated’ by our thought. Kant distinguishes between a pure sensibility and thought; for Cohen, sensibility is produced and formed by thought. Thought produces objects and not only those of so-called ‘pure’ thought such as numbers, rules of mathematics and logic, but also those of experience in general.

To the question, how to explain the impression of involuntariness in our experience, the impression of something coming to us from outside, Cohen’s answer is that, for him, the ‘givenness’ of an object of experience in fact expresses an anticipation, the anticipation of all that we will be able to experience of this object and that we shall bring into an ordered system, although we will never have a complete experience nor will it ever be completely brought into an ordered system. The term ‘object’ denotes a pigeon hole for coordinating a future infinite series of experiences, an unknown X which continuously becomes more determined and known. The object is not ‘given’ at the beginning, but forms the aim and end of the course of knowledge, presenting ever new appearances in an infinitely distant ‘true’ reality. The cognition of the object is an unending task.

Reality, therefore – meaning empirical reality – is found, first, in the systematic character of thought, which alone is responsible for a coherent and consistent picture called experience and, secondly, in the unending task of its investigation. The systematic character of thought and the unending task are most clearly manifest in science – and not otherwise. Any attempt to go beyond scientific systems is merely using the semi-rationalist lingo of an obsolete stage of scientific development. Reality is experience as presupposed in science.

This interpretation is reminiscent of Hegel and leads to a change in the meaning of the term ‘reality’: what may be termed the subject of reality is not defined by the horizon of individual experience. The subject corresponds to the object and is collective consciousness. It becomes actual in the single psycho-physical individual precisely in so far only as he is not a single individual, but a recipient of the ‘objective spirit’ manifest in science.