Hermann Cohen

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Hermann Cohen

Page 7

The stress, in Cohen’s thinking, is therefore placed on the sphere of norms. This explains an impression of airiness, of lofty moral idealism, of a gap between nature and morals only formally bridged by the idea of G-d. Cohen’s intuition of Divinity is rooted in the world of ethics, not, as in all of previous Jewish philosophy, in ethics and in the existing world. The Torah introduces G-d as Creator and, only by virtue of His creativeness, as the Lawgiver. In the necessity of thinking G-d, Cohen seems to accord equal significance to Morals and Nature in his statement, “Nature and Morality are different, but they demand a common origin. The unity of G-d is logically assured, since it provides the unity of this fundament of Nature and Morals. However, when he goes on to give as a reason for the idea of G-d “that morality be realised on earth”, it is obvious that the concept of nature is less relevant than that of morals for the idea of G-d. Morality, then, seen in the perspective of nature, and in so far as it is realised in the realm of nature, should no longer be termed morality; it should be called nature. More, it has to be expressed in the conceptual language of natural interpretation. That would mean that the realm of nature, no less than the real of will, yield reasons for the concept of G-d. the Kantian conception of nature and, consequently, Cohen’s own, does not allow for such a sequence.

Here we touch upon the reason for the limitations of Cohen’s thinking in the field of Jewish religious philosophy. The Kantian approach does not allow for the discovery of new aspects , an opening up of new horizons in religion that might be seen as logical developments, for transformations that are the fruit of the Jewish view of the world; nor can it provide a new understanding of the ancient vision. If Kantianism were indeed able to provide the ultimate answers, Judaism could only continue to exist in the form that Cohen’s Religion of Reason has found for it. We may reasonably assume that neither is the case.

Cohen has frequently been compared to Maimonides. It must be said, however, that Maimonides’ historical influence was and still is much more far-reaching than that of Cohen can ever be. And for good reasons. Not only does the neo-Aristotelianism of Maimonides lend itself more easily than Kantianism to a rational re-interpretation of Judaism; the cultural environment of medieval Jewry differs greatly from nineteenth century perspectives. Aristotelianism is the philosophy of the Middle Ages; Kantianism is a modern philosophy among others. In rationalising Judaism, Maimonides creates a model for medieval non-Jewish thought; he sets the course for Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas; he acts upon scholastic philosophy, identified with the general pursuit of knowledge. Cohen’s work is divided into general philosophy and Judaism; it is only as a general philosopher that he plays a part in European thought and not, as did Maimonides, as a philosopher of religion or as a Jewish thinker. Cohen’s Religion of Reason remains of particular concern only within Jewish thinking. And it is probably for that reason that it does not have a hold on all of Jewish intelligentsia; modern Jewry is more deeply immersed in the surrounding civilisation than was the medieval community and Kantianism has no monopoly in the civilisation of its time. Nor does its reasoning lead in any compelling way in the direction of Judaism. It can, at best, accommodate a greatly diminished form of Judaism. Maimonides introduced Aristotelian thought into the interpretation of Judaism. In his conception, Judaism remains dominant. Cohen adapted Judaism to Kantian philosophy. Kantianism dominates his conception.

There is a further divergence between the two thinkers, one that is not explained by historical conditions. Rather, it is connected to an intrinsic disagreement between Aristotelianism and Kantianism. The two philosophies have strictly opposing positions as regards science (Wissenschaft) Although both, no doubt, aim for ‘scientific’ validity, they differ radically when they couple the two concepts, ‘philosophy’ and ‘science’. Briefly stated, in Aristotelianism, science is an instrument of philosophy; in Kantianism, philosophy is an instrument of science. A philosophy that seeks to figure as science (‘die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten wollen’) becomes the ancilla scientiae,because it subscibes to an idea of reality that it has taken over from the sciences, in particular from mathematical physics.

The philosophy of Kant heralds the scientific attitude that dominates the 19th century and determines the character of our modern civilisation. It anticipates the supremacy of the scientific principles of mathematisation, observation and induction as well as the self-abdication of any kind of philosophy that might obstruct those ways of proceeding. – One might note that the attitude that turns philosophy into a general theory of science does not harmonise with a religious mindset. That being the case, philosophy must then clearly be concerned to formulate an ideal of reality that not only conforms to the reality as understood in the sciences – that goes without saying – but that is co-extensive with scientific reality. Philosophy is then left with only the explicit conceptual expression of the idea that is implied in its use. Philosophy renounces its own problems; it hands them over to the principle of science which then rules supreme in a civilisation, at least in so far as that civilisation concerns knowledge. Such is the subordinate position of Kantianism and, in an even more pronounced way, of neo-Kantianism.