Cohen, Hermann (1842–1918)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-J038-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 29, 2023, from

2. ‘Critical idealism’ as the basis of the sciences and the humanities

Unprecedented scientific progress in the later nineteenth century speeded the collapse of German Idealism. Empirical studies of brain function eclipsed intellectual inquiries into the nature of thought, and in many philosophy departments experimental psychology displaced traditional philosophy. Opposing the tide of positivism and materialism, Cohen championed idealism both for what he saw as its ethical implications and because he conceived of idealism as the true groundwork of scientific thought. Like his mentor Lange, Cohen did not malign materialism but saw it as a heuristic principle, itself a product of critical thought, a hypothesis meant to make scientific cognition possible. Materialism itself, then, showed the fertility of critical idealism (see Köhnke 1991).

Cohen’s logic, set out in System der Philosophie, Erster Teil: Logik der reinen Erkenntnis (System of Philosophy Part One: The Logic of Pure Cognition) (1902), constructs transcendental philosophy rather differently from Kant. Beginning not from the senses and the a priori forms of sensibility and thought but from the science found in ‘printed books’, Cohen finds knowledge grounded in mathematical principles. These are products not of experience but of pure thought. Only such knowledge is relevant for the logic of cognition. The ‘being’ it discovers is ‘given’ only in the mathematical abstractions that we metaphorically call laws of nature. Sense perception, then, including the refined perception of the laboratory, must be relegated to the role of a methodological principle. The limited rules of syllogistic logic (based as they are on grammar rather than mathematical ideas) are similarly relegated to the methodology of research. While sense perception and syllogistic logic are tools in the verification of hypotheses, the hypotheses themselves are the ‘origin’ (Ursprung) of the objects of cognition. Hence, the ‘logic of the origin’ determines the foundation of being in thought: thought as the origin of being. Reflecting the constantly progressing sciences with their shifting paradigms, the system of categories and judgments represented in Cohen’s logic is open-ended – quite a contrast to Kant’s efforts to find fixed normative patterns in our thinking as earnest of its objectivity.

There are other deviations: most strikingly, Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’ (noumena) (see Kant, I. §3) is eliminated as a superfluous dogmatic prejudice. In another notable reform, to avoid psychologistic readings of the Kantian a priori that would confuse the a priori forms of consciousness with innate functions of the brain, Cohen identifies the knowing subject as the ‘unity of cultural consciousness’ (Einheit des Kulturbewußtseins). The quest for a unity underlying the distinct ‘directions of culture’ (science, law, art) was the ultimate goal of Cohen’s system. The transcendental conditions of that unity were to be addressed in the final part (on psychology) of Cohen’s philosophical edifice, which he did not live to complete.

Cohen’s revision of transcendental logic pivots on the ‘principle of the infinitesimal method’ whose paradigm is the physicist’s reliance not on the senses but on mathematical models (1902: 126). Cognition, we find, begins, counterintuitively, in a ‘no-thing’ and an ‘adventurous detour’ (1902: 84) in which reason itself constitutes the object: the non-sensory infinitesimal becomes the origin of all finite reality.

The anti-materialist, anti-determinist implications of Cohen’s conception of reality come to the fore in the humanities and ethics. Once it is understood that reality is discovered in judgments, not sense experiences, morality seems far less ephemeral than materialism might seem to make it – provided it can be shown that the ethical concept of a human being is the actual operative principle in some valid mode of discourse. Cohen finds such a ‘direction of culture’ in law, which must presuppose a concept of the human being transcending the biological. Ethics, then, is constructed analogously to logic, with the human being as the analogue of nature and the laws that regulate humanity’s historical and political existence as analogues of the laws of nature. Since ethics seeks the principles of a reality that presupposes the idea of a human being, Cohen’s Ethik des reinen Willen (Ethics of Pure Will) (1904) becomes a philosophy of law.

Ethics, as ‘the teaching about the human being’, becomes the ‘centre of philosophy’ and lays the groundwork for all disciplines dealing with the products of human action (law, economics, the humanities). Overawed by the sciences, the humanities have sometimes mistakenly adopted the biological notion of the human being, but what they require is the ethical notion of a human being: ethics is ‘the positive logic of the humanities’ (1904: 1).

Citing this article:
Zank, Michael. ‘Critical idealism’ as the basis of the sciences and the humanities. Cohen, Hermann (1842–1918), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-J038-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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