Cohen, Hermann (1842–1918)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-J038-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 03, 2023, from

3. Ethics and the philosophy of religion

Will, action and consciousness are the ‘constitutive concepts’ (1904: 389) of an ethics that rests on the ‘methodology of the exact concepts of the science of law’, to which ethics ‘listens attentively for the sake of its problems of person and action’ (1904: vii). Will, action and consciousness are defined in the end so as to unite all ethical concepts. All the actions of a moral subject become transformations of the ‘pure will’. Beyond the bare idea of will, however, the concepts of freedom and autonomy are presuppositions of the realization of any good. For this reason, Cohen introduces into his ethics traditional Jewish concepts of sin and repentance. Religious rather than philosophical, in his view, these concepts introduce a crucial element of morality that ethics alone cannot provide: the concrete individual. The state, the community, and other such social agencies operate in the ideal time of legal progress. But only the individual can originate moral decisions in actual time.

Ethics, strictly conceived, can address the problem of guilt (dolus, culpa) but not that of sin (peccatum). It cannot deal with concrete human failure. For the law has no power over sin in the sense of guilt but only over culpability (1904: 366–). Ethics similarly lacks a principle of self-transformation. But this principle is found in the biblical and rabbinic idea of ‘repentance’ (teshuvah). Religion can address the concrete individual; but for ethics, by its very structure, the concrete individual is a mere fiction.

Ethics and religion share the goal of advancing a humane civilization. But ethics deals with individuals only as members of collectivities. Religion is charged with the reconstitution of particular individuals in psychological or liturgical time, redirecting each toward the future, through a regeneration of the individual moral consciousness, whose existence is endangered by transgression of the law.

Ethics orients the philosophy of religion toward interpreting particular truths of faith in so far as they contribute to the ethical goal. Religion must demonstrate that its principles not only do not contradict the progress of the state towards the ethical ideal but contribute to its realization. Such a formal directive cannot by itself generate particular truths of faith. These arise in the self-transformation of mythology into a religion which each faith must achieve, in so far as it has a ‘share in reason’. Religion continuously transforms myths into ethically justifiable truths of faith. Thus a religion of reason can direct the individual and the community toward moral progress by contributing to the generation of moral consciousness. The task of a philosophy of religion is exposition of the truths of faith of a particular tradition, in so far as they can be conceived as transcending its myths (1904: 337, 388, 586).

The correlation of God and man, fully developed only in Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism) (1919), serves to clarify both the historical development and the systematic structure of the truths of the Jewish faith: God and man are correlated as coordinates that progressively determine each other. Reason here aims continually to reconstitute the moral direction of the individual and the community by generating the whole set of moral conditions in the language of the Jewish faith. Accordingly, the religious correlation of God and man must construct the whole apparatus of moral responsibility and law within itself as a condition for the regeneration of individual moral consciousness.

Cohen’s thought revolves around this correlational idea of God, which is, for him, the decisive contribution of Judaism to civilization. Even in Ethik des reinen Willen, God is the systematic capstone uniting ethics with logic. Addressing the ‘being of the ought’, ethics has no grounding in reality unless the human spirit has recourse to a principle that unites the present reality (nature) with the ideal of its future. The realization of the ethical ideal in the actual world rests on the assumption of a common origin of both nature and man. Cohen (1919) supports the same idea from within the sources of Judaism that are concretized in the speech-acts of the liturgy.

Citing this article:
Zank, Michael. Ethics and the philosophy of religion. 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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