The foremost philosophical mind and Jewish public intellectual of the German Imperial period (1871–1919), Hermann Cohen (1842–1918) lived his life and developed his philosophical and religious thought in this era of immature liberalism and growing antisemitism. In the history of Jewish philosophy, Cohen’s work stands out as perhaps the most systematic philosophical exposition of Judaism since Moses Maimonides. By the early 1900s, Cohen was widely recognized as a leading voice of German liberal Judaism, advocating greater cultural understanding between Judaism and Protestantism in order to yield more fruitful national dialogue around what it meant to be Germans of Jewish persuasion or faith. In his professional philosophical life Cohen gained recognition as the heir of Marburg neo-Kantianism, succeeding Friedrich Albert Lange, who advocated for Cohen’s appointment as a lecturer. Later promoted to ordinary professor at Marburg in 1876, Cohen achieved renown for his reworking of Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism. In addition to his highly regarded Kant interpretation (Kants Theorie der Erfahrung 1873 [Cohen 1987–2012, cited under Primary Texts]) and commentaries on Kant’s Critiques, his three-part System of Philosophy (Logik der reinen Erkenntnis 1902; Ethik des reinen Willens 1904; Aesthetik des reinen Gefühls 1908; see Cohen 1987–2012), established him as one of the foremost authorities on Kantian philosophy. Throughout his tenure at Marburg, Cohen also authored many articles and shorter essays on Jewish social issues, including the plight of the Jews in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, as well as on religious and philosophical aspects of Judaism and Jewish tradition. Perhaps most notable was Cohen’s involvement in the Berlin Antisemitism Controversy of 1881, taking a public stance against the indictment of German-Jewish loyalty by the eminent historian Heinrich von Treitschke and then again in his defense of Judaism against the criticisms of the elder economist Gustav von Schmoller in 1916. By virtue of his defense of Judaism with Enlightenment ideals, Cohen assumed a prominent public role as a commentator on issues facing Jews in modern Germany. By the time of his retirement from Marburg in 1912, Cohen’s prominent cultural position as both a major philosopher and a public intellectual had made him one the most well-known Jewish thinkers on the European scene. Settling in Berlin, where he would spent the last six years of his life teaching at the Institute for the Science of Judaism, Cohen continued to attract many students, prominent among them Franz Rosenzweig. Cohen’s writings in this period focused even more heavily on religion and Judaism, and the posthumous 1919 publication of his Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism—addressing topics ranging from God’s uniqueness, to neighbor-love, to messianism and redemption—constituted a profoundly influential work of Jewish religious philosophy. Indeed, much of subsequent 20th-century Jewish religious philosophy can be seen as responding, through either affirmation or resistance, to Cohen’s approach to the relations among philosophy, Jewish textual sources, and rational thought.
Introductory and Biographical Works
Introductions to Cohen’s work often mark two strands of interpretation. One strand stems from Rosenzweig 1924, in which Cohen’s philosophy of religion is characterized in proto-“existentialist” terms, while the other can be loosely traced to Kinkel 1924 and Altmann 1962 (see Reception and Influence), who see greater continuity between the system and the philosophy of religion. More contemporary interpretations in the latter vein are found in Poma 1997 and Zank 2000 who reinterpret the philosophy of religion in light of Cohen’s system. Zac 1984 and de Launay 2002 focus primarily upon Cohen’s Religion of Reason and provide helpful commentary upon the text as well as introducing key concepts such as creation as renewal and revelation of reason. Adelmann 2010 situates Cohen’s systematic thought within the context of his training in the Wissenschaft des Judentums and Liebeschütz 1968 and Orlik 1992 provide historical and biographical context for Cohen’s developing thought. The sources below adopt various positions on these two strands of scholarship and work to contextualize Cohen’s thought accordingly.
Adelmann, Dieter. “Reinige dein Denken”: Über den Jüdische Hintergrund der Philosophie von Hermann Cohen. Würzburg, Germany: Könighausen & Neumann, 2010.
The first comprehensive attempt to situate Cohen’s thought within the project of the Wissenschaft des Judentums as a motivation for Cohen’s own “system” of philosophy.
Kinkel, Walter. Hermann Cohen: Eine Einführung in sein Werk. Stuttgart: Strecker und Schröder, 1924.
Written by one of Cohen’s students, this introduction to Cohen’s system of critical idealism and philosophy of religion was one of the first comprehensive treatments of Cohen’s thought and presents a critical alternative to Rosenzweig’s reading of the Religion of Reason, which Kinkel sees as an attempt to revise Cohen’s ethical thought.
de Launay, Marc B. Une reconstruction rationelle de judaïsme: Sur Hermann Cohen, 1841–1918. Geneva, Switzerland: Labor et Fides, 2002.
Introduces Cohen’s philosophy of religion with attention to Cohen’s neo-Kantianism and the influence of a growing study of religion in the early 20th century. Also provides interesting comparison to the work of Emmanuel Levinas.
Liebeschütz, Hans. “Hermann Cohen and his Historical Background.” Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 13 (1968): 3–33.
Historical introduction to Cohen within the cultural and political context of German Jewry in the late 19th century. A helpful overview of Cohen’s biography and intellectual context.
Orlik, Franz. Hermann Cohen (1842–1918): Kantinterpret, Begründer der “Marburger Schule”, Jüdischer Religionsphilosoph. Marburg, Germany: Universitätsbibliothek Marburg, 1992.
A biographical introduction to Cohen’s life and intellectual development based upon sources contained in the University of Marburg library. Places Cohen within the intellectual milieu of neo-Kantianism and his career at Marburg.
Poma, Andrea. The Critical Philosophy of Hermann Cohen. Translated by John Denton. Albany: State University of New York, 1997.
An introduction to Cohen’s Kant-interpretation, system of critical idealism, and philosophy of Judaism. Chapters consider the different branches of Cohen’s system, including logic, ethics, aesthetics, as well as Cohen’s engagement with Plato, Leibniz, Kant, and Fichte.
Rosenzweig, Franz. “Einleitung in die Akademieausgabe der Jüdischen Schriften Hermann Cohens.” In Jüdische Schriften. Vol. 1. Edited by Hermann Cohen, xiii–lxiv. Berlin: C. A. Schwetschke & Sohn, 1924.
This introduction to Cohen’s life and thought gained a certain dominant place in scholarship, representing Cohen’s Religion of Reason as a break with his system (see Reception and Influence). This essay introduces Cohen’s Jewish Writings in historical and philosophical context and presents many of Rosenzweig’s own personal recollections as the basis for narrating Cohen’s life. Reprinted in Franz Rosenzweig, Kleinere Schriften (Berlin: Schocken, 1937), 299–350.
Zac, Sylvain. La philosophie religieuse de Hermann Cohen. Paris: J. Vrin, 1984.
Introduction to Cohen’s Religion of Reason providing commentary and exegesis of key concepts in Cohen’s philosophy of religion, including creation, revelation, and the fellowman.
Zank, Michael. The Idea of Atonement in the Philosophy of Hermann Cohen. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 2000.
Provides both a biographical introduction to Cohen’s life, educational context, and thought as well as an interpretation of Cohen’s concept of atonement as an elaboration of the “unity of consciousness.” Includes chapters that detail the relationship between Cohen’s logic and ethics and his philosophy of religion. Also includes documents and bibliographic resources from the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem and the Leo Baeck Institute in New York in original and translation.
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