Cohen, Hermann (1842–1918)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-J038-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

1. Life and work

Hermann Cohen was the son of a cantor in the provincial town of Coswig in the state of Anhalt. He abandoned his rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Breslau) after witnessing the rift between reform and orthodox Jews over the divine revelation of the Mishnah (the ancient code of rabbinic law). Seeking orientation in the conflict between religion and modern consciousness, Cohen turned to philosophy and the sciences. After receiving his doctorate at Halle in 1865, he published studies on mythological, philosophical and aesthetic topics (God and the soul, Plato’s theory of Forms), influenced by the then compelling idea of a ‘mechanism of consciousness’; but he gradually abandoned the methodologies of Helmholtz and Steinthal and immersed himself in the philosophy of Kant. His 1871 exposition of Kant’s first critique, Kants Theorie der Erfahrung (Kant’s Theory of Experience), brought him to the centre of the Neo-Kantian movement and led to his appointment as a Privatdozent at Marburg. Subsequent publications, especially Kants Begründung der Ethik nebst ihren Anwendungen auf Recht, Religion und Geschichte (Kant’s Justification of Ethics and its Application to Law, Religion and History) (1877) and Das Prinzip der Infinitesimalmethode (The Principle of the Method of Infinitesimals) (1883) made original contributions to Kantian thought. Cohen’s mature philosophical system follows the classic structure of Kant’s three critiques but projects a fourth part, on psychology, and seeks to establish a ‘critical idealism’ faithful in broad outline to the tradition of Plato, Descartes, Leibniz and Kant. Cohen ascribed the continuity of this tradition to a perennial philosophical problematic that arises from the idealism inherent in scientific thought.

The Marburg School, represented by Cohen and his colleague Paul Natorp, attracted students from as far away as St Petersburg (Boris Pasternak) and Madrid (Ortega y Gasset). Those who became philosophers – Ernst Cassirer, Nicolai Hartmann, Heinz Heimsoeth and Hans-Georg Gadamer – gradually emancipated themselves from Marburg Neo-Kantianism. But the tendency of some philosophers to ignore Cohen’s contributions expressed ideological biases – thus Heidegger’s 1929 verdict of having ‘overcome’ Neo-Kantianism.

In 1876 Cohen succeeded his mentor Friedrich Albert Lange, author of the Geschichte des Materialismus und Kritik seiner Bedeutung in der Gegenwart (History of Materialism), to a highly visible position as practically the only non-baptized Jew to hold a chair in philosophy at a Prussian university. Three years later he found himself compelled to defend Judaism against the charges of Heinrich von Treitschke that it was alien to the values of German culture. From then on, Cohen’s public engagement on behalf of Judaism and Judaic studies increased steadily, extending in time to the renewal of Jewish religious philosophy, a field often neglected among the more historically oriented disciplines of Wissenschaft des Judentums (the ‘Science of Judaism’).

From 1903 Cohen was active in the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, where, after retiring from Marburg, he lectured on the biblical prophets, the Psalms, the Greek philosophical roots of medieval Jewish thought, Maimonides, Descartes, and philosophical psychology (see Maimonides, M.). Shortly before his death, Cohen also helped found an academy dedicated to the science of Judaism, at the suggestion of his former student Franz Rosenzweig.

Citing this article:
Zank, Michael. Life and work. Cohen, Hermann (1842–1918), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-J038-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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