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 on Hermann Cohen

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 Biography Sources

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

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