Hermann Cohen

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010)
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Hermann Cohen (b. 1842, d. 1919), more than any other single figure, is responsible for founding the orthodox neo-Kantianism that dominated academic philosophy in Germany from the 1870s until the end of the First World War. Earlier German philosophers finding inspiration in Kant tended either towards speculative, metaphysical idealism, or sought to address philosophical questions with the resources of the empirical sciences, especially psychology. In contrast, Cohen’s seminal interpretation of Kant offered a vision of philosophy that decisively maintained its independence from empirical psychology, without at the same time simply lapsing back into uncritical metaphysics. Cohen brought these attitudes to bear on a wide range of topics, writing systematically about epistemology, philosophy of science, ethics, law, political theory, and aesthetics. His anti-psychologism became a defining commitment not only of the Marburg School of neo-Kantianism, founded by Cohen himself, but of orthodox neo-Kantianism more generally. Indeed, that commitment ultimately defined the philosophical context from which, in the early twentieth century, both phenomenology and logical positivism emerged. No less significant than his influence on academic philosophy, Cohen was his generation’s preeminent German-Jewish public intellectual and religious philosopher. His philosophical ethics and political theory provided the foundation for a non-Marxist, Kantian democratic socialism that informed his more popular and topical writings. He argued publicly for universal suffrage and for the rights of workers to organize democratically-constituted collectives. He also saw deep points of connection between ethics and religion, and developed a view of Judaism as a fundamentally ethical system of belief and practice. He argued that monotheism was the historical source of the idea of universal ethical laws, and thus that Judaism offered the world its first model of a universalist morality. This view of Judaism’s ethical significance ultimately informed Cohen’s public defense of the Jews’ place in Germany not only against anti-Semitic attacks, but also against the arguments of early twentieth-century Zionists. However, Cohen’s influence on Jewish thought extends far beyond debates within Imperial Germany: his late religious writings inspired a broad renewal in twentieth-century Jewish ethics and philosophy of religion.



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Scott Edgar
Saint Mary's University

Citations of this work

Hermann Cohen on Kant, Sensations, and Nature in Science.Charlotte Baumann - 2019 - Journal of the History of Philosophy 57 (4):647-674.
Hermann Cohen on the role of history in critical philosophy.Scott Edgar - 2021 - European Journal of Philosophy 30 (1):148-168.
Hermann Cohen.Scott Edgar - 2010 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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