Hermann Cohen

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Hermann Cohen

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To sum up, Cohen’s unmetaphysical idealism sees everything as a product of empirical thought. According to Cohen, we have before us a system of thought that is synonymous with the reality of experience as conceived by science; Nature is the product-object of mathematical and physical research. With this system as his starting point, how does Cohen reach the contents of religion?

Since Cohen makes use of Kantian arguments, let us briefly recapitulate these here. In the Kantian a priori system of experience our understanding and our reason proceed architechtonically and create a cosmos out of the chaos of the multiplicity of sensations by ordering our experiences and making them coherent. The classes and species of things no less than the laws that obtain there, the categories of cause and effect and of means and ends etc., are products of our faculty of abstraction. They organise the thousandfold contents to form an ordered whole, a unity of experience. Connecting and organising thought evolves comprehensive concepts and, amongst these, principles, whose function it is to deal with wholes and totalities of conditions and series in an experience which, as such, never presents that completeness. The whole causal series, or the complete pattern of purposiveness in the world, even the totality of ‘world’ cannot fully enter into our actual experience. The concepts are, however, necessary, not to ascribe existence to these highest and final unities – that would mean transcending experience – but as maxims that facilitate the ordering and investigating of concrete empirical material.

For instance, we relate the ever-changing phenomena of consciousness to an unchanging self-identical spiritual substance that we call ‘soul’. Yet we must not attribute existence to what this concept denotes. The soul is a mere ‘idea’, an imagined focus to coordinate all our conscious experiences. Such a concept transcends experience, but it is not a statement of metaphysical existence; it has a mere heuristic – ordering and unifying – function, necessary for experience. Kant calls it a ‘regulative idea’ of experience. Such a form of thought is also the idea of an all-embracing and creative highest intellect grounded in our assumption that experience, a far as it extends, shows a coherent and orderly structure. This is the regulative idea of Deity. The idea of G-d is an ordering maxim of our reason, indispensable to a presupposition of a reasoned, purposive coherence of the whole of nature, a presupposition that we need in order to pursue the quest for the meaning of any natural phenomenon.