Hermann Cohen

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Hermann Cohen

Page 6

The Idea of G-d

The importance of Hermann Cohen’s general philosophy for European thought has never been in doubt. What concerns us here is his philosophy of religion, in particular its impact on the Jewish world to which it was addressed.

The main objection raised by Cohen’s Jewish critics concerns his way of speaking of G-d as an ‘Idea’. For Cohen, the Idea of G-d was, it would seem, fully equivalent to Divine reality. We infer this, for instance, from his answer to an imaginary critic, whose objection is: ‘How can we love an Idea?’ Replying very much in the vein of Plato, Cohen writes: “How can we love anything else? Even in sensual love, we only love an idealised person, the idea of the person only... Pure love is directed only to Ideas, the model forms on which ethical action can build. No human being incorporates that Idea. The Idea belongs solely to ethics and only as such can and will it become the model form” (Religion of Reason, 187).

The reader must avoid associating a ‘mere idea’ with something insubstantial, dreamlike; he must keep in mind that, for Cohen, the idea of something denotes everything that can be scientifically stated or thought about it, including its significance in whatever follows from it or is based upon it. It ‘exists’ as the series of everything that may in the future come to light and be scientifically stated about it. The ‘infinite task’ of cognition affords to the object a kind of existence outside of that which has at any time already taken shape in thought. The Idea of G-d is such an infinite task. However empiricist a concept may be, the outside limits of experience as a Whole are always blurred and shade off into metaphysical being. Cohen’s concept of experience is no exception to this ambiguity. For that reason, we cannot fully agree with those critics who find fault with Cohen’s conception of G-d as an Idea.

The attempt to demonstrate the necessity of setting the concept of G-d within a decidedly Empiricist conceptual system, to prove – conclusively or not – that to arrive at the concept of G-d we do not need to erect the inevitable barrier between metaphysics and experience, that such a concept must emerge, if we take ‘experience’ in its widest and most fundamental meaning, - all that seems admirable. It would seem to be an eminently Jewish way of thinking. The concept of G-d, fulfils, as such, a function in the history of Man. More, only this concept fulfils that function. Does that not mean that it has the reality of an instrument, an essential organ of the comprehensive, socially ordered reality? One might object that this kind of being real pertains to all illusions that have ever moved mankind. That objection should make us glance again at those illusions – maybe they were illusions of something , a veil hiding some possible truth.

In any case, Cohen’s solution to the problem, true or not, takes him a step further than Kant. For Kant, the existence of G-d remains beyond the bounds of cognitive thought; it is a postulate, a matter of belief. Cohen sets it within the system of knowledge. The methodological use of regulative ideas and the elaboration of their significance, the basis of Cohen’s deduction, was fruitful. It also enabled him to stress a point that is characteristic of the Jewish view of the world, namely it allows for experience to include concepts that traditional philosophy sees as transcending experience, above all the concept of G-d. Jewish writings do not speak of G-d as He is in Himself, only in relation to Man and Man’s action in history. In Cohen’s philosophy, G-d is an idea about which nothing can be said except in relation to Man. Nor can the concept of Man, in his system, be defined except in relation to G-d. That is what he means by the ‘correlation’ between Man and G-d.

Cohen made an important point of relevance to Judaism when he made clear that not only is the moral Law derived from G-d, as the religious sources state, but that, in principle, G-d can also be deduced from the Law, if the latter is, in its essence, thoroughly understood and analysed. That does not imply a ‘deification’ of ethics; it means that the idea of morality cannot merely be defined as related to the concept of Man, taking no account of that which is more than Man. Cohen’s main line of thought leading up to the Idea of G-d sees Him as the harmonising principle of Nature and Morality, a line of thinking close to the Jewish perspective that holds that ‘the world exists for the sake of Man’. Man is set in the centre if G-d is logically conceived of as warranting that the realisation of the moral law cannot be rendered illusory by the law of Nature.

Yet it is here that the solidity of Cohen’s logical fundament and the finality of his presentation of the Idea of G-d raise doubts. His deliberations, however profound and remarkable, do not allow equal importance to the domains of Nature and of Will. His construction is threatened by the question of what ought to be prominent over that which, by nature, is. The idea of G-d is derived from Morality, not from the contemplation of Nature; necessarily so, because Cohen’s philosophy reduces nature to logico-mathematical physics. And the fragmented systems of science cannot, within their various domains of research, envisage the idea of G-d. – Modern science leaves considerations of ethics to philosophy.