Hermann Cohen

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COHEN, HERMANN (18421918) was a Jewish philosopher of religion and founder and exponent of Marburg Neo-Kantian philosophy. Born into a cantor's family in the small-town Jewish community of Coswig/Anhalt, Germany, Cohen received intense religious training from his father in addition to the general education typical of his time and place. The transition from these beginnings to the modern rabbinical seminary of Breslau was natural. Part of the seminary's curriculum was the requirement of university studies, and while at the University of Breslau, Cohen decided that philosophy, rather than the rabbinate, was his vocation.


Transferring to the University of Berlin, Cohen first fell under the influence of the folk-psychological epistemologists Heymann Steinthal (18231899) and Moritz Lazarus (18241903), but he quickly progressed toward the ideas of Immanuel Kant (17241804) and a more logistic outlook. His habilitation thesis on Kant's theory of experience was published in 1871, and in the context of the "back to Kant" movement of the day, his ideas had a revolutionary impact. He particularly impressed the radical social reformer and professor of philosophy at Marburg, Friedrich Lange (18281875; author of the famous idealistic History of Materialism ). Through Lange, a committed Protestant, Cohen, a committed Jew, received his first appointment at the University of Marburg in 1873. He stayed there until his voluntary, albeit disgruntled, retirement in 1912. Thereafter he taught at the Liberal rabbinical seminary in Berlin, the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he wrote his last works. Shortly after his arrival in Marburg he married Martha Lewandowski, daughter of the chief cantor of the Berlin Jewish community and liturgical composer, Louis Lewandowski (18211894). (She later died in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt.)

During his long incumbency in Marburg, Cohen not only produced the bulk of his own philosophic oeuvre but also gathered around him a group that came to constitute the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism. Among the many scholars associated with him in this undertaking were his student and subsequent colleague Paul Natorp (18541924) and, later, Ernst Cassirer (18741945). Cohen attracted many devoted students and disciples, particularly Jews from German-speaking countries, from Eastern Europe, and even America. However, his personal, philosophical, and social relations at the university became increasingly strained down through the years, not least because of growing political reaction during that period against the overtly ethical (i.e., Kantian), anti-Marxist, and antimaterialist socialism of the Marburg school. In the politics of the time the names of Cohen's students Kurt Eisner (18761919) and Eduard Bernstein (18501932) became quite well known.

Throughout his life Cohen never ceased to be active in Jewish matters. For example, he published his The Love of Neighbor in the Talmud: Affidavit before the Royal Court of Marburg in 1888 (in German) in response to the notorious Rohling/Delagarde anti-Semitic episode in which the old "blood libel" and Jewish xenophobism combined with the then nascent German racism. He wrote voluminously on Jewish subjects; in 1924 his writings were collected in three volumes, edited and introduced by Franz Rosenzweig, author of The Star of Redemption. Just before the outbreak of World War I Cohen made a triumphal tour of the largest Jewish communities in Russia, a trip that the German government supported for political reasons. Cohen hoped also by means of this tour to advance in the East the enlightened Jewish social and educational values of the Jews of the West.

Cohen's Writings

Cohen's work can be divided into three parts: his exegetical readings of Kant, his system of philosophy, and his specifically Jewish work.

Exegetical readings of Kant

Several of Cohen's books crystallized and solidified the aprioristic, transcendental, critical foundations of the Kantian system: Kants Theorie der Erfahrung (1871), Kants Begründung der Ethik (1877, 1910), and Kants Begründung der Ästhetik (1889). In 1883 he published Das Prinzip der Infinitesimalmethode und seine Geschichte: Ein Kapitel in der Begründung der Erkenntniskritik (The Principle of the Infinitesimal Method and Its History: A Chapter in the Foundation of the Critique of Cognition), in which he argues that the (sensuous) given, which Kant treated as the separate, empiricist source of knowledge, is also a rational construction, and thus that reality is a totally aprioristic, regulative product.

The system of philosophy

Cohen's radicalized, Neo-Kantian understanding of reality and of ethics that developed directly from his critiques of Kant found expression in his Logik der reinen Erkenntnis (Logic of Pure Cognition; 1902, 1914), Ethik des reinen Willens (Ethics of the Pure Will; 19041907), and Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls (Aesthetic of Pure Feeling; 1912). Here the universe is determined by the three "interests" of reason (i.e., cognition, will, and feeling), which strive for the traditional ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty. All three operate under what Kant had called "the primacy of practical (i.e., ethical) reason." The infinite task of the attainment of practical reason produces the unending history of regulative progressive science, progress toward the good society (as in ethical socialism), and the synthesis of the two in a world perfectly true and perfectly good, that is, messianically beautiful.

Cohen's Jewish philosophy

Cohen's work in the area of Jewish studiesintimated in his philosophizing and, increasingly, explicitly identified with itwas systematically elaborated in the final decade of his life and was consummated in the posthumously published Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism; 1919, 1929). Cohen's Jewish philosophical theology (although he did not use this terminology) consists of a translation back into classical Jewish terms of the philosophical position Cohen held he had extracted from Judaism with the help of the progressive line of thought running from Plato (c. 428348 or 347 bce) through Moses Maimonides, (1135/81204) to Kant. Thus God is the idea (in the Neo-Kantian, regulative sense) of the normative, infinite realization of the good in the world. This realization is known in religion as the establishment by means of the imitation of God of the messianic kingdom on earth. The Law (halakhah ) is the historical Jewish specifications of the categorical imperative and the foundation of the universal human moral brotherhood of the "Noachide covenant," which is also the religious, prophetic goal of socialism. The last third of Religion of Reason leading up to the religious virtues of truthfulness and peacefulness is, together with the cited and appended texts, a Jewish restatement of the last third of Ethics of the Pure Will. The role of the Jewish people in history is then to represent "ethical monotheism" physically and to disseminate it morally throughout the world. Therefore, Cohen rejected the Zionism that was nascent at the time: The conflict between the two views is well expressed in the classic debate between Cohen and Martin Buber (18781965) in "Answer to the Open Letter of Dr. M. Buber" (1917) and in the writings of Cohen's former student Jakob Klatzkin, who became the leading theoretician of the radical Zionist "negation of the Diaspora."

Influence of Cohen's Work

Cohen's influence in matters of religion was not limited to Jewry, although here it was magisterial. At the University of Marburg he interacted closely with the Protestant theology faculty, first with Julius Wellhausen (18441918), whose Bible criticism he esteemed highly as a good scholarly undergirding to prophetic Judaism, and then especially with the liberal, proto-Social Gospel philosophical theologian Wilhelm Herrmann (18461922). Natorp himself became increasingly active in liberal Protestantism. A second generation of Christian thinkers resulted from what might be called this Marburg school of Kantian liberal theology, albeit largely by way of dialectical antitheses: Karl Barth (18861968) and Rudolf Bultmann (18841976) deliberately place primary emphasis on the subjectivity of faith in place of Cohen's argument for the objectivity of ethical and social values.

Cohen's philosophical and Jewish influence is scattered in diverse and embattled manifestations. Around the turn of the century a rebellion emerged against what was perceived as the extreme scientific, rationalistic theoreticism of Marburg Neo-Kantianism. In reaction, there appeared positions that asserted the ultimate power of "reality" over reason in "life-philosophy," re-Hegelianizing historicism, positivism, and nascent existentialist phenomenologism. In German circles the value of historical and even metaphysical Germanism (Deutschtum ) was apostrophized, and in Jewish circles a parallel affirmation of the peoplehood of Israel and the historical or even metaphysical genius of the Jewish people was pitted against bloodless and lifeless assimilationist universalism. The fact that Franz Rosenzweig (18861929), a disciple of Friedrich Meinecke (18621954) and author of important studies on G. W. F. Hegel (17701831), became Cohen's last important, brilliant disciple added another complicating element, for Rosenzweig interpreted the "late Cohen" as the precursor of a total break with systematic rationalism in favor of a form of metahistoricism inspired by Friedrich Schelling (17751854).

Politically, religiously, and philosophically very different extrapolations continue to be made from Cohen's fundamental analyses. Leading Jewish Orthodox authorities like Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (19031993) and Yitzchok Hutner (19061980) never ceased drawing on their Cohenian studies in the 1920s, whereas rationalistic reformers like Benzion Kellermann (18691923) and fully acculturated Westerners like Cassirer struck out in their own directions from Cohen. These varied approaches demonstrate how decisive the intellectual experience of Cohen has remained for subsequent Jewish thought. Cohen's Jewish writings have been translated into Hebrew, English, and other languages, but the technical philosopher Cohen has remained within the confines of German-language culture. Even there he has suffered many depredations. The Weimar backlash against rationalism as too cold and intellectual forced a number of Marburg-influenced figures such as Natorp, Nicolai Hartmann (18821950), and José Ortega y Gasset (18831955) toward the positions of Edmund Husserl (18591938), Martin Heidegger (18891976), and others. The Nazi period saw the final destruction of the Neo-Kantianism of Marburg. Since World War II, however, a new, qualified appreciation of transcendental philosophy has arisen, through the work of men such as Hans Wagner, Helmut Holzhey, Werner Flach, Wolfgang Marx, and others. But the contributions that Cohen's work can still make toward a fully developed and effective constructionalism in the areas of philosophy of science, ethics, and even of religion have not yet been fully realized.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, interest in Cohen's thought surged. Rosenzweig's misleading yet entrenched interpretation of Cohen's late philosophy of religion as a break with systematic idealism resulted in the bifurcation of Cohen interpretation into a systematic Neo-Kantian and a Jewish religious line. In more recent interpretations, however, scholars such as Michael Zank, Robert Gibbs, Hartwig Wiedebach, and Andrea Poma have built on the post-World War II generation above, overcoming the separation of Cohen's Neo-Kantian system and his specifically Jewish thought. The result is a recognition of the continuities in Cohen: The messianic age, for example, as the ideal future of the peace of humankind, was prefigured in the concept of time postulated in the ethics of the early Cohen.

In the midst of the age of nationalism and of the politics of identity, Cohen's ideal of the state is also receiving renewed attention as an ethical union of citizens that ought to supersede aspirations for the sovereignty of the primordial nation. Nonetheless, despite the resurgence in the study and appreciation of Cohen, it remains an open question whether his thought will serve as a foundation for constructive work in the future outside the sphere of Jewish philosophy.

See Also

Cassirer, Ernst; Jewish Studies, article on Jewish Studies from 1818 to 1919; Jewish Thought and Philosophy, article on Modern Thought; Kant, Immanuel; Maimonides, Moses; Rosenzweig, Franz; Schelling, Friedrich.


Under the general editorship of Helmut Holzhey, director of the Hermann-Cohen-Archiv at the University of Zurich, publication of Cohen's Werke (Hildesheim, Germany, 1978) is nearing completion. Cohen's writings on religion available in English are limited: His major work of philosophy of religion, Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums was published posthumously in 1919 as Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, translated by Simon Kaplan (New York, 1972). Selections from Cohen's writings on Jewish themes, Jüdische Schriften, 3 vols. (Berlin, 1924), have been published as Religion and Hope: Selections from the Jewish Writings of Hermann Cohen, translated by Eva Jospe (New York, 1971; reprint, Cincinnati, 1993) and Alan Mittleman, "'The Jew in Christian Culture' by Hermann Cohen," Modern Judaism 23 (2003): 5173; Mittleman has also translated "'The Significance of Judaism for the Religious Progress of Humanity,' by Hermann Cohen," Modern Judaism 24 (2004): 3658.

For Cohen's place in modern Jewish thought, see Julius Guttmann's Philosophies of Judaism, translated by David W. Silverman (New York, 1964) and Kenneth Seeskin, "Jewish Neo-Kantianism: Hermann Cohen," in History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by D. H. Frank and O. Leaman (London, 1997). The writings of Steven Schwarzschild (19241989) sustained Jewish thought in a Cohenian key; see Menahem Kellner, ed., The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild (Albany, N.Y., 1990). The revival of interest in Cohen's thought at the close of the twentieth century is evidenced by new studies in German, Italian, French and English, including Andrea Poma, The Critical Philosophy of Hermann Cohen, translated by John Denton (Albany, N.Y., 1996) and Michael Zank, The Idea of Atonement in the Philosophy of Hermann Cohen (Providence, R.I., 2000).

Steven S. Schwarzschild (1987)

Robert S. Schine (2005)

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COHEN, HERMANN (1842–1918), German Jewish philosopher. Born in Cowsig, the son of a cantor, Cohen studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary at Breslau, but gave up his initial plans to become a rabbi. He turned to philosophy, studying first at the University of Breslau and then at the University of Berlin. He received his doctorate at the University of Halle in 1865. In 1873 he was invited by F.A. Lange, the well-known author of The History of Materialism, to become a privatdozent (lecturer) in philosophy at the University of Marburg. Appointed full professor after only three years, Cohen taught in Marburg until 1912. He spent the last years of his life in Berlin, where he taught at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums.

Interpretation of Kant and the Marburg System

Cohen's early works were devoted to a critical evaluation of idealism as embodied in the thought of Plato and, particularly, of Kant. "Die platonische Ideenlehre" (1886; see: Schriften zur Philosophie und Zeitgeschichte, 1928) was followed by Kants Theorie der Erfahrung (1871), Kants Begruendung der Ethik (1877), Von Kants Einfluss auf die deutsche Kultur (1883), and Kants Begruendung der Aesthetik (1889). These critical works brought Cohen to a new interpretation of Kant's philosophy, which came to be known as the Marburg School of neo-Kantianism. This approach found its expression in his three systematic works: Logik der reinen Erkenntnis (1902), Die Ethik des reinen Willens (1904), and Die Aesthetik des reinen Gefuehls (1912). These works reflect Cohen's attempt to renew Kantian philosophy and place it again at the center of the philosophic discourse, despite the prevailing Hegelian philosophy.

The starting point of Cohen's philosophic system, like that of Kant's, is the existence of scientific knowledge expressed mathematically. Like Kant, Cohen believed that the task of the philosopher is to unfold the logical conditions underlying this type of knowledge. However, Cohen criticized Kant for according sensation a special role in the establishment of scientific knowledge. While Kant had maintained that the sense content of our knowledge is a "datum," which, once given, is organized and synthesized by thought, Cohen puts forth the extreme idealistic thesis that thought produces everything out of itself. According to his "principle of origin" (Ursprungsprinzip) objects are constructs of thought. Thus he opposed Kant's notion of the "thing-in-itself " (Ding an sich), according to which there lies behind the object that we know an object which can never be known as it really is. For Kant, the action of reason is confined to the creation of associations between sensations, which are given. For Cohen, sensation merely describes the problem posed to thought.

Describing the method of science, Cohen holds that the scientist posits certain basic principles which help him to determine the facts, but as his research progresses he is required to revise these underlying principles and to conceive new hypotheses, which, in turn, lead to the discovery of new facts. In accordance with this view, our knowledge of reality at any given time is determined by the particular stage of this process, and since this process has no end, a person can never have a final knowledge of reality.

Considering ethics, Cohen held that human freedom is the basis of ethics, and constructed a parallel system to that of natural science, ruled by causality. Human dignity is central to Cohen's ethical thought. A proponent of humanistic socialism, he regarded a nation's treatment of its working classes as an index of its level of morality. While he called Marx "God's historical messenger," he rejected historical materialism as well as the atheistic trends prevalent in the workers' movement. He viewed religion, represented by the Biblical prophetic call for justice, as a revolutionary step towards systematic ethics. Cohen accordingly perceived Judaism, based on this prophetic vocation, which manifested itself in radical notions like that of the Sabbath, as a cornerstone of moral culture.

Defense of Judaism

A short time after his appointment as professor at Marburg, Cohen was obliged to declare publicly his attitude to "the Jewish question." When the historian Treitschke attacked the German Jews in his Ein Wort ueber unser Judentum (1879), defining Judaism as the "national religion of an alien race," Cohen countered with his Ein Bekenntnis zur Judenfrage (1880), in which he professed the total integration of German Jewry into the German society "without any double loyalty," yet demanding at the same time that the Jews take their religion seriously. In 1888, Cohen was called upon to testify in a lawsuit against an antisemitic teacher who had clamed that according to the Talmud, Jews are permitted to rob and deceive gentiles. Cohen published his testimony in a pamphlet called "Die Naechstenliebe im Talmud" (Love of the Neighbor in the Talmud, 1888), in which he set out to harmonize two apparently contradictory notions that are the basic of Judaism: the idea of the election of Israel, and the idea of the messianic unity of mankind. The connecting link is provided by the concept of God as the protector of the alien. The vocation of Israel begins with the fact of its chosenness, but since God is conceived from the outset as one who loves the stranger, Israel's chosenness is directed primarily at the unity of mankind.

Throughout his Marburg period Cohen viewed religion as merely a popular, nonconceptual form of ethics and believed that its aim is to be realized within ethics. Nevertheless, the idea of God played a much more central role in his ethics than in Kant's theory. Ethics provides mankind with an eternal ideal, whereas nature knows no eternity. It is here that Cohen introduces his postulate of God. This formulation of the postulate of God reflects Cohen's strong emphasis on ethics as the will to realize the ethical demand and make it part of reality, rather than the Kantian emphasis on the ethical as "practical reason."

Change in Attitude toward Religion

Cohen's move from Marburg to Berlin at the age of seventy was more than a change of place; it reflected an attempt to deepen his preoccupation with Jewish philosophy and life, and to focus on religious philosophy in general and Jewish thought in particular. This shift was manifested, among other things, in his journey to meet Polish Jewry in 1914 in order to assist in the foundation of an independent institute of higher learning for Jews who found it difficult to be admitted to universities, and his contact with the life of the Jewish masses in Vilna and Warsaw. From 1912 till his death he was primarily a Jewish philosopher and educator.

Although he had already dealt with religion in his previous books, it was only now that Cohen started to realize his old idea of dealing systematically with the role and content of religion. In 1915 he published Der Bergriff der Religion im System der Philosophie ("The Concept of Religion within the System of Philosophy," second edition, Zurich, 1996). In contrast with his earlier understanding of religion, Cohen now sought to determine the role and conceptual content of religion, and to define its place within the rational universe of philosophy. Religion is no longer a nonconceptual popular ethics, but rather a teaching that borders metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and psychology. Furthermore, religion can be scientifically understood only through an analysis of these boundaries, although no solely rational approach has the capacity of exhausting its quality and content. Nevertheless, Cohen makes clear that religion can maintain this unique independent content only through its strong attachment to ethics.

At the heart of religion and of its relationship to ethics is the concept of the individual, which ethics as a philosophical system must ignore, and at the same time desperately needs. Ethics is based on the notion of duty that the individual has, his or her moral decisions and responsibility. At the same time, ethics, as it was being thus understood in the Kantian and neo-Kantian tradition, must "overcome" the individual. A deed is moral only when it is the right deed for every human being in the given situation. Neither the doer of the moral deed nor the person towards whom it is being aimed can be really seen as individuals, only as particular manifestations or examples of universal humanity. Only monotheistic religion, focusing on the correlation between the one God and the individual, can allow us to focus on the concept of the individual, and thus provide ethics with grounding and stability.

It is apparent that Cohen was not fully satisfied with his 1915 formulation of religion and reason. A very short time after releasing this book he started to work on his last book, Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums, which was published posthumously in 1919 (2nd edition, 1928; English: Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, New York, 1972; also in Hebrew and other languages). Three main new focuses were emphasized in this title. First, when in the former book Cohen spoke about "religion" in general, meaning monotheism, now he clearly wishes to focus on Judaism and its sources as the Urquelle, ground-sources, of religion of reason. Second, the universe in which he places that religion is no longer "philosophy" but "reason" (Vernunft), a concept that should include not merely philosophy but also the unique teachings of religion in general, and Judaism in particular. The last emphasis is that religion can be analyzed and investigated only through a hermeneutical effort to understand its literary sources. These sources of Judaism – initially, the Hebrew Bible, but also rabbinic literature as well as medieval Jewish philosophy – bear a unique body of knowledge and reason. Analyzing religion's boundaries with ethics and aesthetics, and to a lesser extent with history and psychology, can be useful, but religion can be genuinely comprehended only from within, from its sources. These three elements, especially the last one, deeply manifest Cohen's life-long attachment to Maimonides, an attachment that was balanced only by his parallel attachment to Kant.

Cohen's new approach to the essence of religion can be fully traced in his notion of religious love. In his early works, Cohen viewed love as a mere affection, used by religion in a way that is legitimate, but proves that religion is of no scientific, rational nature. His Religion of Reasons reflects a fundamental change in his approach. The book's first chapter deals with the monotheistic concept of God, and emphasizes that in the religion of reason, the qualitative uniqueness of God (die Einzigkeit Gottes) as the only true Being is more essential than the quantitative oneness of God (Die Einheit Gottes). In chapter 2, Cohen, (clearly, if implicitly, reflecting the influence of Friedrich Schleiermacher) asks how one can depict the monotheistic person. Cognition cannot suffice, for cognition always has many objects; it is only love that can determine the monotheistic focus of human life. Here, love is no longer an affection but rather a course of life and an act of reason.

Love as an approach that represents the religion of reason, is directed foremost to our fellow humans. Ethics deals only with the person that I find besides me, the Nebenmensch. It defines my duties to that individual without relating to her or his individuality. Religion teaches me to relate to that person as the one who is with me, my Mitmensch, as an individual, whose uniqueness, her or his being here-and-now, are the source of my love and responsibility to him or her. Through the Mitmensch one also learns to perceive oneself as an individual. The other's individuality is manifested in his or her suffering, whereas the self 's individuality is manifested in his or her sinfulness. In both cases, individuality is marked by incompleteness.

Nevertheless, sin cannot and should not rule life, nor should it define the "I." Cohen, following the teachings of the prophets Ezekiel and to a lesser extent Jeremiah, places repentance and atonement at the heart of religion. Every individual can free himself or herself from sin, can recreate himself anew. Repentance is thus the ground for the correlation between God and the human, and for human freedom and responsibility. Repentance (as a human act) and forgiveness (the divine reply to this act, that expresses God's goodness) depict the essential core of religion, and the ground of ethics provided by Jewish monotheism.

The concept of correlation is a key concept in Cohen's philosophy. It appeared already in his early books, referring to a logical reciprocal relationship between concepts that are developed from each other according to the "principle of origin." In Der Begriff der Religion the concept was used for the first time to describe the mutual relationships between God and the human, clearly referring to both as theoretical concepts rather than personalities. In Religion der Vernunft, correlation plays a major role, and refers to the dynamic relationships, to the Mitmensch and also to the divine-human reciprocal relationship. Cohen's readers developed different understandings of the meaning of these relationships. Some scholars follow Franz Rosenzweig's reading that correlation refers here to the biblical notion of covenant, arguing that in Religion der Vernunft, Cohen's God is no longer mere idea but rather personality. Others stick to Cohen's usage of the concept in his early philosophy, depicting Religion der Vernunft as a direct continuum of Cohen's early philosophy rather than a breakthrough from his idealism.

Cohen emphasizes that Judaism is not the sole manifestation of the religion of reason, though his approach to Christianity, the only other religion being referred to in the book, is quite polemical. As a unique form of monotheism, carrying the quality of an Urquelle, the existence of Judaism, and hence of the Jewish people, is of universal significance. Cohen clearly views the Jews as a people rather than merely a community of faith, yet draws from this view no Zionist conclusion. To the contrary, he sharply opposed Zionism, viewing it as a betrayal of Judaism's messianic universalistic horizons, and advocated the continued existence of the Jewish people as a national minority ("nationality") within the various nation-states ("nations"). This anti-Zionist approach was expressed in his article "Religion und Zionismus" (1916; Juedische Schriften, 2 (1924), 319–27).

The religious significance of Jewish existence was one of the bases for Cohen's devotion to Jewish religious law. Using Kantian terminology and criteria, he argues sharply against Kant's notion of autonomy and the philosopher's negation of Jewish law. Cohen interprets "mitzvah" to mean both "law" and "duty." The law originates in God, the sense of duty in man. The law is at the same time duty; duty at the same time law. God issued commandments to man, and man of his own free will takes upon himself the "yoke of the commandments." With the "yoke of the commandments," one simultaneously accepts the "yoke of the kingdom of God." Thus, the law leads to the messianic ideal.

add. bibliography:

Hermann Cohen: Juedische Schriften (3 vols., Berlin, 1924), intro. F. Rosenzweig; abridged Eng. tr. E. Jospe, Reason and Hope: Selections from the Jewish Writings of Hermann Cohen (1971, 1993)); Hermann Cohen: Werke, critical edition (1996– ); A. Poma, The Critical Philosophy of Hermann Cohen, tr. J. Denton (1997); S. Moses et al. (eds.), Hermann Cohen's Philosophy of Religion (1997); H. Holzhez et al. (eds.), Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums – Tradition und Ursprungsdenken in Hermann Cohens Spätwerk (2000); H. Wiedebach, Die Bedeutung der Mationalitaet fuer Hermann Cohen (1997); J. Melber, Hermann Cohen's Philosophy of Judaism (1968): M. Zank, The Idea of Atonement in the Philosophy of Hermann Cohen (2000).

[Samuel Hugo Bergman /

Yehoyada Amir (2nd ed.)]

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Hermann Cohen

The German philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) founded the Marburg Neo-Kantian school of philosophy. His ethical socialism, based on the biblical Jewish moral law, greatly influenced German social democracy.

Hermann Cohen was born in Coswig, Anhalt, on July 4, 1842. After attending the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, he studied at the universities of Breslau, Berlin, and Halle. In 1873 he became instructor at the Philipps University of Marburg, where he was appointed professor in 1876 and taught until his resignation in 1912. He died in Berlin on April 4, 1918.

Cohen's Thought

Cohen started his philosophical career as an interpreter of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and he slowly developed his own system of Neo-Kantianism in three major works: Logik der Reinen Erkenntnis (The Logic of Pure Perception), Ethik des Reinen Willens (The Ethics of the Pure Will), and Ä sthetik des Reinen Gefühls (The Esthetics of Pure Feeling). Reacting against materialism and Marxism, Cohen denied the existence of a real external world and interpreted experience as man's subjective creation of objects. Thus, thinking is the source of reality; being is nothing but pure knowledge produced by thought.

Just as the subject of logic is "being" or "whatness," the subject of ethics is "oughtness" or "pure will." Thus, Cohen separated human will from psychologism and ethics from logic, rejecting not only materialism but all monism. The supreme value and measure became the idea of man, who finds his realization in the community of men or the ethical socialistic state.

According to Judaism, God is both the creator of nature and the proponent of moral law, so that the truth of God means a harmonious combination of physical nature with morality. God in Judaism is not a mythological figure but an idea whose essence is revealed in His law. Therefore Cohen was not interested in the study of the nature of God but, rather, in the doctrine of the Messiah, which is the Jewish religious expression of the eternity of morality.

In 1880 Cohen announced his renewed belief in Judaism and began to defend the Jewish faith against the anti-Semitic German historian Heinrich von Treitschke. He started lecturing at the Berlin Institute for Jewish Studies and immensely influenced several generations of Jewish thinkers. Although he repudiated Zionism, he took a direct interest in the life of the Jewish people and felt a responsibility for its destiny.

Among Cohen's other major works are Kants Theorie der Erfahrung (Kant's Theory of Experience), Kants Begründung der Ethik (Kant's Proof of Ethics), and Kants Begründung der Ä sthetik (Kant's Proof of Esthetics). Among his specifically Jewish works are Religion und Göttlichkeit (Religion and Divinity), Das Gottesreich (The Kingdom of God), Der Nächste (The Fellow Man), and the posthumously published Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (The Religion of Reason from the Sources of Judaism).

Further Reading

The important literature on Cohen is in German. For background material in English see Emile Bréhier, Contemporary Philosophy since 1850, vol. 7 (1932; trans. 1969), and Ernst Cassirer, The Problem of Knowledge (trans. 1960).

Additional Sources

Hermann Cohen, Frankfurt am Main; New York: P. Lang, 1994.

Kluback, William, The legacy of Hermann Cohen, Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1989. □

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Cohen, Hermann (1842–1918). German Jewish philosopher. As a philosopher, he brought a new interpretation to the thought of Immanuel Kant. He argued that as the chosen people of God, Jews have a particular duty to bring about the unity of humanity and establish God's Kingdom on earth. This duty is linked specifically to Torah and the keeping of its commands. His major work, Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums was published a year after his death.

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Hermann Cohen (kō´ən), 1842–1918, German philosopher. He was a founder of the Neo-Kantian Marburg school and was known for his commentaries on Kant. His own works include Logik der reinen Erkenntnis (1902), Ethik des reinen Willens (1904), and Aesthethik des Gefühls (1912).

See Reason and Hope: Selections from the Jewish Writings of Hermann Cohen (tr. E. Jospe, 1971).