Hermann Cohen

From New World Encyclopedia

Hermann Cohen by Karl Doerbecker

Hermann Cohen (July 4, 1842 - April 4, 1918) was a German-Jewish philosopher, one of the founders of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism. He was known for his commentaries on Kant, and is considered an important Jewish philosopher of the nineteenth century. As a reaction to materialism and Marxism, Cohen denied the existence of a real external world. Thought was the source of reality, and “being” was no more than the pure knowledge produced by thought. Cohen recognized that man perceives scientific precepts about the natural world as unchangeable, while ethical precepts about what “ought to be” in the social world can be voluntarily accepted or rejected. He introduced a philosophical concept of God as the inevitable and ultimate ideal coincidence of what “is” with what “ought to be” and developed the idea that human history was a steady progress toward that ideal.

Cohen viewed Judaism as a religion of reason that provided a model for all religions and all societies, centering on the interdependence of the idea of God and the idea of human beings. This role, however, was only a transitory phase in the development of mankind towards a universal religion. Cohen maintained that no one can be rationally content until social justice exists for all people in the world. His ideas on ethical socialism influenced German social democracy. His works include Logik der reinen Erkenntnis (1902), Ethik des reinen Willens (1904), and Aesthethik des Gefühls (1912), and Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums(Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism) (1919) which is widely credited with inspiring a renewal of Jewish religious philosophy in twentieth century Europe.


Hermann Cohen was born July 4, 1842, in Coswig, Anhalt, Germany. He began to study philosophy early in his life, and soon became known as a serious student of Kant. He was educated at the Gymnasium at Dessau, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, and at the universities of Breslau, Berlin, and Halle. In 1873, he became Privatdozent in the philosophical faculty of the University of Marburg, with a doctoral thesis entitled Die systematischen Begriffe in Kant's vorkritischen Schriften nach ihrem Verhältniss zum kritischen Idealismus. In 1875, Cohen was elected assistant Professor, and in the following year, Professor. At Marburg, he was one of the founders of the neo-Kantian Marburg school, and an associate of the Plato-scholar and fellow neo-Kantian Paul Natorp. His students and friends included Ortega y Gasset, Ernst Cassirer, Nicolai Hartmann, Rudolf Bultmann, and Karl Barth, Kurt Eisner, Viktor Adler, Eduard Bernstein, and Boris Pasternak. His personal magnetism was such that the Marburg school collapsed after his resignation from Marburg in 1912.

He was one of the founders of the "Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaft des Judenthums," which held its first meeting in Berlin in November, 1902. There he established a second following among young Jewish thinkers who were seeking direction in the ideological confusion of the time. After his retirement from Marburg in 1912, he taught there full-time until his death on April 4, 1918.


Hermann Cohen, a systematizer of ethical monotheism, was probably the most important Jewish philosopher of the nineteenth century. His three major works, which advanced the basic ideas of Immanuel Kant and slowly developed his own system of Neo-Kantianism, Logik der Reinen Erkenntnis (The Logic of Pure Perception), Ethik des Reinen Willens (The Ethics of the Pure Will), and Ästhetik des Reinen Gefühls (The Esthetics of Pure Feeling), were purely secular. As a reaction to materialism and Marxism, Cohen denied the existence of a real external world; instead he interpreted experience as man's subjective creation of objects. Thought was the source of reality, and “being” was no more than the pure knowledge produced by thought.

Cohen rejected any kind of monism by distinguishing ethics and logic into separate modes of thought. The subject of logic was “being,” or “whatness,” the subject of ethics was "oughtness" or "pure will." The idea of man, defining itself in the context of a community or an ethical socialistic state, became the ultimate standard of value.

Kant maintained that humans can only know the world as they view it and behave in it, and that the human idea of reality is not necessarily the way reality actually is. However, knowing how a reasonable person should view the world and behave in it, a rational and reasonable human being is obligated to live according to a set of universal imperatives which are understood and accepted by every reasonable human being. Cohen agreed with Kant that ethics had to be universally applicable and directed towards the well-being of the entire society. No rational person can be content until social justice exists for all people in the world. The process of realizing the ethical ideal is infinite, since when one level of social justice is reached, there is always an improvement to be made. The search for knowledge and ideas is also an infinite process, since each new discovery makes us aware that there is so much more to know.

Hermann Cohen noted that human perception of the natural world differed from perception of the world of society and ethics, because the perceived natural order of the physical world was not subject to change, while perceived moral imperatives could be accepted and acted upon, or rejected. To resolve the apparent irrationality of involuntary science and voluntary ethics coexisting and interrelating in the same apprehended world, Cohen proposed the existence of God.

Concept of God

Ethik des Reinen Willens (The Ethics of the Pure Will) was founded on a philosophical concept of God. Cohen derived the fundamental terms of his ethical system, “man” and “action,” from Jewish legal terminology. This allowed him to examine existing laws as evidence of Kantian “facts of culture,” precepts which could be perceived and accepted by an entire culture and which must therefore be partial perceptions of actual truth. At the same time, since existing laws were known to be fabricated in response to certain conditions, and to contain fallacies, the possibility for development towards an ethical ideal was left open.

Since ethics was construed in the context of human society and the state, and in terms of past history and future development, morality could no longer be motivated by the concept of individual immortality and a God who dispenses punishment and rewards in the afterlife. Instead, Cohen introduced God as an idea of the agreement between “is” and “ought,” the eventual coincidence of human culture with nature, and the real with the ideal. God was not to be seen as merely a God of the historical and revealed religions, but as the one who sustains the world. Cohen did not concern himself with God as the origin of the universe, something which could only be explained theoretically. Instead he directed his thought to the end of history, and the gradual establishment of peace, justice, and equity among human beings. The concept of God developed in Ethik des Reinen Willens was behind the sustained and inevitable progress towards the realization of a greater good on earth.

The members of the Marburg school, who were mostly Protestant, felt that Cohen’s concept of God did not adequately explain the purpose of human existence, nor the role of religion in human culture. Jewish thinkers, however, viewed Cohen’s introduction of religion into his system as a breakthrough in philosophical idealism which opened the way for further development.

Religious Philosophy

Cohen defined a moral individual as one whose ability to act morally and individually depended on the religious experience of repentance and atonement. Cohen believed that Judaism was a religion of reason that provided a model for all religions and all societies, centering on the interdependence of the idea of God and the idea of human beings. He applied philosophical analysis, based on idealism, to the Jewish canon, to develop a concept of the ideal relationship between man and God. He did not accept the Christian doctrine that God could be incarnated in a human being. At the same time, Cohen regarded the traditional Jewish belief, that the people of Israel had a special and unique relationship with God, as only a transitional phase in the history of the development of the world towards a universal ideal.

Cohen's most famous Jewish works include Deutschtum und Judentum, Die Naechstenliebe im Talmud, and Die Ethik des Maimonides, and Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism) (1919), which is widely credited with the renewal of Jewish religious philosophy.

Cohen wrote several pamphlets on Judaism, including "Die Kulturgeschichtliche Bedeutung des Sabbat" (1881) and "Ein Bekenntniss in der Judenfrage," (Berlin, 1880); as well as the following articles: "Das Problem der Jüdischen Sittenlehre," in the "Monatsschrift," xliii. (1899), 385-400, 433-449; "Liebe und Gerechtigkeit in den Begriffen Gott und Mensch," in "Jahrbuch für Jüdische Geschichte und Litteratur," III. (1900), 75-132; "Autonomie und Freiheit," in the "Gedenkbuch für David Kaufmann," 1900. His essay "Die Nächstenliebe im Talmud" was written at the request of the Marburg Königliches Landgericht, (3d ed., Marburg, 1888).


Cohen’s most unique contribution to idealism was his introduction of a philosophical concept of God into his system, and the historical view that human society was advancing towards an ethical ideal. Cohen’s concept of ethical socialism had a strong influence on German social democracy. His philosophical influence did not long survive his death, which coincided with World War I and the consequent social, political and idealogical changes in Europe. His philosophy was superseded in the famous debate between Heidegger and Cohen’s student, Ernst Cassirer, at Davos in 1929. Heideggeer, representing the emerging existentialist movement, specifically targeted Cohen’s Neo-Kantian idealism, while Cassirer defended the old European humanist tradition with his own views.

The end of World War I marked the beginning of a Jewish renaissance in Europe, during which Cohen came to be regarded by some as having made too many adaptations to the Gentile worldview, and by others as not having asserted Judaic traditions strongly enough.

Philosophical Works

  • "Die Platonische Ideenlehre Psychologisch Entwickelt," in "Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie," 1866, iv.
  • "Mythologische Vorstellungen von Gott und Seele," ib. 1869
  • "Die dichterische Phantasie und der Mechanismus des Bewusstseins," ib. 1869
  • "Zur Kontroverse zwischen Trendelenburg und Kuno Fischer," ib. 1871
  • Kant's Theorie der Erfahrung, Berlin, 1871; 2d ed., 1885
  • "Platon's Ideenlehre und die Mathematik," Marburg, 1878
  • Kant's Begründung der Ethik, Berlin, 1877
  • Das Prinzip der Infinitesimalmethode und seine Geschichte: ein Kapitel zur Grundlegung der Erkenntnisskritik, Berlin, 1883
  • "Von Kant's Einfluss auf die Deutsche Kultur," Berlin, 1883
  • Kant's Begründung der Aesthetik, Berlin, 1889
  • "Zur Orientirung in den Losen Blättern aus Kant's Nachlass," in "Philosophische Monatshefte," 1890, xx.
  • "Leopold Schmidt," in "Neue Jahrbücher für Philologie und Pädagogik," 1896, cliv.

Cohen edited and published Friedrich Albert Lange's final philosophical work (Logische Studien, Leipzig, 1877). Cohen edited and wrote several versions of a long introduction and critical supplement to Lange's Geschichte des Materialismus (2d enlarged edition based on the 7th edition of the original, 1902, I.).

His last publication was the Logik der Reinen Erkenntniss, comprising the first part of his "System der Philosophie," ix. 520, Berlin, 1902.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Gibbs, Robert. 2006. Hermann Cohen's Ethics. Studies in European Judaism, v. 14. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 9004153187
  • Kluback, William. 1984. Hermann Cohen: the challenge of a religion of reason. Chico, Calif: Scholars Press. ISBN 0891306455
  • Poma, Andrea. 1997. The critical philosophy of Hermann Cohen La filosofia critica di Hermann Cohen. SUNY series in Jewish philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0585067953
  • Zank, Michael. 2000. The idea of atonement in the philosophy of Hermann Cohen. Brown Judaic studies, no. 324. Providence, RI: ISBN 1930675003

External links

All links retrieved December 21, 2017.

General Philosophy Sources


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