Cohen, Hermann (1842–1918)

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Hermann Cohen, a neo-Kantian philosopher, was born at Coswig, Anhalt, Germany. His father, Gerson Cohen, was a teacher and precentor at the synagogue; his mother was Friederike née Salomon. In 1878 Hermann married Martha Lewandowski, the daughter of Professor Louis Lewandowski, who was also a precentor at the synagogue and a composer of Jewish ritual songs. In 1853 Hermann went to the gymnasium of Dessau, which he attended for some years. He left there prematurely and went to the Jewish Theological Seminary at Breslau. Later, as a student at the University of Breslau, he wrote the essay "Über die Psychologie des Platon und Aristoteles," which won the prize of the philosophical faculty in August 1863. On August 5, 1864, he took the bachelor's examination as an extramural pupil at the Breslau Matthias Gymnasium. In the fall of the same year he went for further university studies to Berlin. He wrote an essay, "Philosophorum de Antinomia Necessitatis et Contigentiae Doctrinae" and entered it for a university prize. Since the prize was not awarded to him, he submitted the work (somewhat altered) to the philosophical faculty at Halle. On the basis of this work he was awarded the doctorate of philosophy by this faculty on October 27, 1865.

On his return to Berlin he published several studies, some of them in Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft. Heymann Steinthal, the coeditor of this periodical, who was warmly interested in the very gifted young man, had stimulated his interest in social psychology. It was not until 1870 that his publications disclosed a special interest of their author in Kantian philosophy. In that year Cohen intervened in the Homeric struggle that had broken out between Adolf Trendelenburg and Kuno Fischer over Trendelenburg's criticism of the Kantian transcendental aesthetic. Trendelenburg agreed with Immanuel Kant that the concepts of space and time are a priori, but he denied their exclusion from things-in-themselves, which was, in Kant's opinion, an unavoidable consequence of their intuitive apriority. According to Trendelenburg, a third possibility was left, namely the validity of space and time with regard to all existing objects in spite of the apriority of their concepts. Fischer, defending Kant against the charge of leaving this "gap," insisted that Kant's assignment of both space and time to human sensibility, in the transcendental aesthetic, was irrefutable. Cohen, a pupil of Trendelenburg, but not a favorite one, in an essay published in the above periodical (7 [3]: 239296) gave the Solomonic judgment. Trendelenburg was right in criticizing Fischer, but wrong in criticizing Kant.

Philosophical Teaching

This judgment already contained in germ the whole of Cohen's future philosophical achievement. In the following year his first philosophical book, Kants Theorie der Erfahrung (Berlin, 1871) made it clear why, in his opinion, both Trendelenburg and Fischer were wrong. The teaching of the transcendental aesthetic, which showed space and time to be forms of our sensibility, had to be complemented by the teaching of the transcendental logic, where these forms are shown to be a priori conditions of possible experience. Possible experience, as Kant said throughout the Critique, is the only object of a priori knowledge. Therefore, the exclusive subjectivity of space and time, assumed by both parties to be Kant's complete view, disappears entirely if one takes into account the methodological difference between a psychological classification of space and time among native ideas and the Kantian transcendental theory of their being the a priori conditions of the possibility of experience.

By thus extending the matter in question to the whole of Kant's theory of a priori knowledge, Cohen gave evidence of the philosophical turn of his gifts. In 1873 he presented to the philosophical faculty of Marburg a treatise titled Die systematischen Begriffe in Kants vorkritischen Schriften (Berlin, 1873) with an application for the venia legendi (lectureship). On the recommendation of F. A. Lange, Cohen's application was accepted. Lange died two years later, and in January 1876 Cohen, proposed by the faculty, was appointed to the vacant chair. He devoted his work to the fortification and extension of his new interpretation of Kant, which from the beginning had aroused admiration for the author's energy and devotion, though many doubted the compatibility of Cohen's interpretation with Kant's real opinion.

In any case, Cohen found himself confronted with a serious problem. If the objectivity of space and time consisted in their being a priori conditions of the possibility of experience, the question remained from what principle experience itself derived its validity. There was no identity between the conditions of experience and the conditions of things-in-themselves. This was unquestionably Kant's teaching. But, as Cohen observed, Kant had a new concept of experience. Actually, the innovationif there was onewas David Hume's, not Kant's. Experience, according to Hume, is a statement on matters of fact presupposing some connection of these matters by general rules. The difference between Kant and Hume is not in the concept of experience but in the question of whether it is possible to justify the universality of that intellectual presupposition with regard to the objects of sense perception. Hume claimed it is not possible; those a priori assumptions are not a matter of intelligence at all. Man is driven to them by the laws of nature, which make him believe automatically in the possibility of experience.

This might not be a satisfactory answer. But Cohen's solution to the questionto derive the objectivity of those presuppositions (including space and time) from their being a priori conditions of experiencewas not only not satisfactoryit was no answer at all. It was an answer that answered by what was the subject of the question. If, therefore, Cohen wished neither to accept the unconditioned subjectivity of Kant's possibility of experience nor to fall back on Hume's skepticismwhich way was left to him?

It was the way of a cryptopositivism. The objectivity of doubtful a priori assumptions, such as space, time, and the categories, was demonstrable, according to Cohen, by means of the "fact of science" (das Faktum der Wissenschaft ). Surely it was a historical fact that Isaac Newton had used these assumptions as principles in establishing his mathematical theory of the phenomena of nature. It was also a fact that Newton was far from justifying the assumption of these principles by deriving them from experience. But this by no means made the fact of their use as nonempirical principles of natural science equivalent to the fact of an existing a priori knowledge of nature. It was, on the contrary, evident that none of Newton's mathematical laws of natural phenomena, formulated in differential equations, could be called a knowledge of those phenomena if it was not verifiable by experience. How, then, could those principles presupposed by Newton's physics assume the character of a priori requirements for the cognition of nature by the mere fact of being presupposed by Newton, if the cognitive character of these presuppositions with regard to natural phenomena was demonstrable only by experience?

Despite this unanswerable question, Cohen boldly proclaimed that Newtonian science demonstrated by its own historical facticity the possibility of an a priori knowledge of nature by means of the concepts of space, time, and the Kantian categories. He called the manner of this demonstration the "transcendental method." It proved to be an enormous success. Cohen's pupils vied with each other in showing that modern science would not have been possible if its promoters had not presupposed what they actually hadthat is, space, time, and the principles assigned by Kant to pure understanding. This, if it was meant to be a legitimation of a priori knowledge of natural phenomena by means of those principles, was clearly a vicious circle.

The desire to escape this consequence determined Cohen's philosophical development and the fate of neo-Kantianism in general. Cohen realized eventually that his transcendental method, if it were to prove effective with regard to a priori knowledge of nature, required the tearing down of the insurmountable barrier Kant had fixed between a priori and empirical knowledge by means of his distinction between sensibility as receptivity and understanding as spontaneity. Therefore Cohen posited a kind of thinking that originated by its own act the whole field of principles of our knowledge ("Denken des Ursprungs"). Thus, all human knowledge must be in principle a priori knowledge.

In Die Logik der reinen Erkenntnis (Berlin, 1902) Cohen elaborated this puzzling idea. He explained by abundant historical comments that the real task of metaphysics was the thinking of the origin. If this is to be regarded as more than an utter triviality, it testifies that the author, in order to escape the deadly embrace of Hume, fled into the arms of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and G. W. F. Hegel. Once more he fell victim to the ancient illusion of being able to understand Kant better than Kant himself by dropping the conditions essential to the very problem of transcendental philosophy. Thus Cohen, however unintentionally, encouraged a new movement from Kant to Hegel in German neo-Kantianism. Even Heideggerian existentialism claimed some kinship with the critique of pure reason by proclaiming the search for the "common root" of sensibility and intelligibility, necessarily problematical with Kant, as a way of salvation from all possible transcendental problems.

Practical Philosophy

Cohen similarly interpreted Kant's moral philosophy according to the maxim that to interpret Kant one must go beyond him in his Kants Begründung der Ethik (Berlin, 1877). He inherited from Trendelenburg's Aristotelianism the idea of virtue as the supreme problem of moral philosophy. Combined with the Kantian assumption of an a priori principle of morals, this idea generated the problem of ethics as the problem of an a priori science of virtue. Here again Aristotle intervened by his teaching that all other virtues are implied in justice. Thus, the problem of morals presented itself to Cohen as the problem of an a priori knowledge of justice. All a priori knowledge, according to Cohen's transcendental method, required some factual science to justify it. Kant did not presuppose any such factual science in his Critique of Practical Reason. In this Cohen believed Kant to be mistaken. According to him, morals does have a basic science, jurisprudence, because the idea of justice is the constitutional law of this science. If there were no a priori law of justice, the sort of systematic knowledge of the laws that the Romans assigned to iurisprudentia would not be possible. In identifying iurisprudentia with scientia iusti, Cohen found that the a priori character of Kant's categorical imperative was justified by the factual existence of jurisprudence.


It is easy to observe that autonomy as conditioned by the categorical imperative is by no means the principle of a society that, like the state, is realizable under the conditions of experience. And it is no less easy to see that the positive laws of a given state, the objects of jurisprudence, in spite of the possibility of their being systematically treated by jurisprudence, do not necessarily agree with some a priori idea of justice. Nevertheless, the idea of a human society constituted by the law of autonomy meant a quite personal engagement to Cohen, above and beyond all philosophical subtleties concerning its meaning or its justification. This engagement drove him from the field of transcendental deductions into politics. It made him a public champion of those whose personal dignity granted by the law of autonomy was infringed upon by society. He eventually found himself among them. Some years after he settled at Marburg, anti-Semitism appeared on the German political stage. The famous historian Heinrich von Treitschke published in his Preussische Jahrbücher (Vol. 1879, No. 11) an article in which he called attention to an attitude allegedly adopted by a good many Jewish writers, whom he accused of being antinational and anti-Christian. He held that they should respect the feelings of the majority. The weak point in Treitschke's pleas was the authority that he assigned to what in his romanticism he called Christian German culture.

Cohen in his Eine Bekenntnis in der Judenfrage (Berlin, 1880), without attacking Treitschke's romantic idea of a law given by Germano-Christian feeling, boldly announced that the Jews already belonged to the German nationnot in spite of their being Jews, but because they were Jews. This, of course, was too much for both parties. But to Cohen the philosopher and learned Jewish theologian it seemed quite simple to demonstrate. The Germans, he argued, are the nation of Kant. The Jews are a nation whose creed has been purified by the prophets. The teachings of the prophets, as Cohen's learnedness interpreted them, were identical with Kant's ethical idealism. Therefore, whoever tells a Jew that he can belong to the German nation only at the cost of his religion denounces him as having no true morality of his own. From that time on, Cohen continued as a collaborator in the interpretation of Jewish tradition by adapting it to his philosophy. His writings in this field were edited by Bruno Strauss and published with an introduction by Cohen's admirer Franz Rosenzweig as Hermann Cohens jüdische Schriften (3 vols., Berlin, 1924).

Besides the startling historical and ideological identifications of his Germano-Jewish patriotism, there was yet another reason for Cohen's reputation as a political outsider. It was not unusual to support the workingman's longing for a decent living according to the law of humanity. All the so-called Katheder-Sozialisten, among them some of the most influential professors of the German Empire, did it. But the mixture of philanthropy and justice that Cohen considered the supreme principle of his moral philosophy made him believe in a basic accordance between the doctrine of Karl Marx and his own. Thus, he became responsible for the legend of a kinship between Kant and Marx. This was enough to color the politician Cohen with a red tingeand if his true patriotic German feeling separated him from Jewish orthodoxy and Zionism, his rather innocent socialism did not make him a favorite with either his government or his faculty.

Hence, his retirement in 1912 brought a great disappointment with it. The faculty, not very fond of intricate transcendental deductions that were admired by students but doubted by philosophers, refused to give his chair to the man of his choice, Ernst Cassirer. The choice of his colleagues, Paul Natorp dissenting, was a young experimental psychologist.

Later Religious Views

Deeply hurt, Cohen left Marburg and retired to Berlin. There he devoted himself to a lectureship at the Lehranstalt für Wissenschaft des Judentums, of which he was already a member of the board of trustees. Thus, he was again a theologian. Meanwhile, his philosophy had dissolved theology into a transcendental deduction of the eternity of cultural progress governed by the "social ideal"; namely, the community of autonomous beings. But in actual fact there was no solid deduction even of this eternity. The question of whether religion had any meaning at all arose again. Cohen answered it in two books, Der Begriff der Religion im System der Philosophie (Giessen, 1915) and Die Religion aus den Quellen des Judentums (Leipzig, 1919). In both of these works the point of departure lies in the observation that the belief in the eternity of cultural progress is of little comfort to the individual in his personal sufferings. Therefore, an empty space has been left by philosophy. This space may be filled by God as a savior bringing personal consolation to all people. Cohen found this idea of the Divine Being splendidly expressed by the prophets and the Psalmist. But the mere idea of a powerful personal Helper does not cause that Helper to exist; and since this idea, according to Cohen himself, could not be justified by his philosophical system, the question of a savior's existence was left entirely to personal conviction. To the great satisfaction of his religious friends, Cohen, when he died, seemed to be in full possession of this conviction.


The manner in which Cohen addressed religious problems in his last writings was prepared by his aesthetics. Aesthetics had been treated by Kant within the frame of what he called the critique of judgment. Cohen's comment, published under the title Kants Begründung der Ästhetik (Berlin, 1889), once again disclosed the author's difficulty in harmonizing his own ideas in this field with the peculiar but at bottom simple Kantian theory of aesthetic pleasure.

In spite of the stock of questions left unanswered by Cohen's principles, he continues to live in the memory of philosophers as a Kantian who dominated to a great extent the philosophical discussions of his time. But if Cohen's own interpretation was attractive, it did not make Kant attractive; and his school of neo-Kantianism eventually expired. The unbearable viciousness of the famous gnosiological circle, wrongly imputed to Kant himself but inextricably woven into Cohen's own omnipresent transcendental method, drove the younger generation to the worship of new gods. But even so, Cohen has left a stimulus to study "that Kant" whom, as one of his pupils is reputed to have said, "nobody ever knew." The feeling expressed by these words was precisely Cohen's own feeling when he began his work.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aesthetics, Problems of; Aristotle; Ethics, History of; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Fischer, Kuno; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Lange, Friedrich Albert; Marx, Karl; Neo-Kantianism; Newton, Isaac; Rosenzweig, Franz.


works on cohen

Cassirer, Ernst. "Hermann Cohen." Social Research 10 (2) (1943): 219232.

Kinkel, Walter. Hermann Cohen, Einführung in sein Werk. Stuttgart, Strecker and Schröder, 1924.

Natorp, Paul. Hermann Cohen als Mensch, Lehrer, und Forscher. Marburg, Germany, 1918.

Rosmarin, T. W. Religion of Reason, Hermann Cohen's System of Religious Philosophy. New York: Bloch, 1936.

Vuillemin, J. L'héritage kantien et la révolution copernicienne. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1954.

Julius Ebbinghaus (1967)