Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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3. The Marburg School: Cohen
Cohen’s three-part philosophical system serves as a paradigm for the development of the Marburg School system. It consists of the Logik der reinen Erkenntnis (Logic of Pure Knowledge) (1902), the Ethik des reinen Willens (Ethics of Pure Will) (1904) and the Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls (Aesthetics of Pure Feeling) (1912) and attempts to demonstrate in a consistent manner the point of view of pure generation, that is, creation which does not make appeal to any particular preconceptions.
This is particularly clear in the Logik, which forms the first part of his system. Cohen differs markedly from Kant in refusing to preface his logic with a doctrine of sensibility. Indeed, his attempt at logic can be characterized by the claim, ‘We take thought as our starting point. Thought cannot have any origin outside itself.’ According to the ‘Logic of Origin’ as conceived by Cohen, therefore, thought is grounded solely in itself and is thus a hypothesis in the original Greek sense. The denial of the Kantian theorem of the dual origin of knowledge (intuition and thought) results in the abandonment not only of the transcendental aesthetic as a doctrine of the principles of sensibility, but also of the transcendental deduction (see Kant, I. §§5–6). What remains of Kant’s approach is no more than the programme of a transcendental method for the foundation of science, which is obliged to take the existence of science as its starting point. In his doctrine of judgment Cohen differentiates between judgments involving the laws of thought (Origin, Identity, Contradiction), of mathematics (Reality, Plurality, Totality), of mathematical natural science (Substance, Law and Concept) and of method (Possibility, Reality, Necessity). In his doctrine of categories, he starts from the necessary incompleteness and essential extendibility of the system of categories, since he is convinced that new scientific problems will also make new categories necessary.
Cohen sees ethics, which he seeks to base on the fact that a science of right exists, as a doctrine of humanity. The ideal collective subject which ethics deals with is humankind as a whole. It is important that this term is not taken to mean the human species in a biological sense, but rather an ethical expression encompassing humans as moral individuals. Such an interpretation of the concepts of universality also permits a new definition of the concept for the individual as the idea of the human being in every person. However, the medium which allows us to establish a correlation between these two concepts is the state. For within the state the common will can be realized through the harmony achieved between the actions of the individual and the actions of everyone else. The model of the state which Cohen takes as the basis for his discussion has a cooperative constitution. The essential characteristic of cooperatives is that the common will is legally capable of action. This distinguishes it from communities which only recognize the ruling will of the individual. Against this background Cohen developed the concept of an ethical socialism which aims at overcoming the existing ‘state dominated by the estates and the ruling classes’ (Cohen 1904: 582), without deteriorating, like the materialist historical perspective, into economic determinism.
In Ästhetik, Cohen modifies his system, no longer linking aesthetics back to the fact of an existing science of art, but rather attempting to deduce the a priori law-like character of pure feeling directly from works of art. In doing so he specifically defines pure feeling itself as the feeling of love towards human nature. This is the presupposition not only of the creation of art but also of its reception. With regard to the objectivity of aesthetic experience, Cohen emphasizes that although there are no further objects as such apart from nature and morality, it is possible for the aesthetic orientation of consciousness to shape and transform these spheres of objectivity and thus ‘bring forth beauty as a new object’ (Cohen 1899: 100).
It is a feature of Cohen’s development that during his later years he devoted much of his attention to questions concerning the philosophy of religion. Although during his Marburg years he had argued for the incorporation of religion into ethics, he later recognized that religion also makes a special contribution to the problem of culture. In his essay Der Begriff der Religion im System der Philosophie (The Concept of Religion in the Philosophical System) (1915) he attempts to determine this contribution on the basis of the three systematic disciplines of logic, ethics and aesthetics. If logic is concerned with the being of nature, then religion is concerned with the unique being of God, and if the God of ethics stands for the endless continuation of the moral tasks of the human race, then the God of religion must ensure that the moral striving of the individual does not ultimately come to nothing. If aesthetic love is related to humankind as a type, then religious love embraces the human being as individual. Irrespective of this special contribution to culture in its entirety which is accomplished by religion, the latter is not regarded as being independent of culture, but rather as possessing a special character within the framework of culture as a whole. The quest for a non-reductionist understanding of religion is also one of the dominant themes in Cohen’s posthumous work Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism) (1919). It cannot be said, however, that Cohen achieved a position of ultimate clarity with regard to religion. Evidence for this can be found, for example, in the interpretative dispute concerning an idealistic or dialogical interpretation of the term ‘correlation’, which plays a central role in Cohen’s later philosophy of religion. Is Cohen envisaging simply a relationship between two concepts which are mutually required (in much the same way as the concept of the sinful individual necessarily calls for the concept of God, who forgives sins), or does he have in mind a real contrast of two partners as is suggested by the definition of prayer as ‘dialogue with God’? Furthermore, there is a tension in Cohen’s posthumous work between the ethically orientated interpretation of the religious statements which he attempts to provide and the simultaneous reversion to statements reflecting a metaphysical doctrine of divinity. On the one hand he states that the doctrine of divine attributes should not be interpreted in terms of ontological statements about God, but rather in terms of statements which make clear how human behaviour should be governed. On the other hand, Cohen characterizes God as the one and only unique Being as opposed to all Becoming, as the Infinite as opposed to all spatial limitations, as the source of all movement, and as the Eternal in contrast to all Change. Cohen was unable to carry out his plans for a fourth work to complete his ‘System of Philosophy’, a psychology conceived on a science of the unity of cultural consciousness.
Ollig, Hans-Ludwig. The Marburg School: Cohen. Neo-Kantianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neo-kantianism/v-1/sections/the-marburg-school-cohen.
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