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Hermann Cohen’s Secular Messianism and Liberal Cosmopolitanism

Filed under: International Law
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

The German Jewish thinker Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) had interesting perspectives on messianism, liberalism, and Zionism. Despite the great changes that the nature of Jewish life on the one hand, and the conceptions of liberalism on the other, have undergone since Cohen wrote, many modern thinkers continue to frame their political positions on strikingly “Cohenian” grounds. Hence the theoretical basis of his attack on Zionism and nationalism in the name of liberal universalism remains relevant today.


In a world forever changed by World War II, the Holocaust, and the creation of the state of Israel, an encounter with the thought of Hermann Cohen can produce a strangely dual effect. On the one hand, Cohen’s thought seems to suffer from an inexcusable optimism, a near-blindness to the precarious position of European Jewry that gives no warning of the horror to which it would soon be exposed. Emil Fackenheim, in the introduction to his respectful but highly critical lecture on Cohen on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, asserts, after but a brief mention of the Holocaust, that Cohen’s “is the language of an outworn, abstract idealism.”[1]

On the other hand, one cannot help but be impressed by Cohen’s attempt to unite, on the highest philosophical plane, the achievements of European culture and thought with the faith of his forefathers. Cohen’s loyalty to the Jewish people and Jewish tradition¾despite both his deep intellectual commitments to philosophy not Jewish in origin and his political commitments to the German nation of his birth¾is a virtue worthy of great respect.

One way in which that virtue manifested itself was in Cohen’s view of the concepts of messianism, liberalism, and Zionism. Cohen addressed what he called the “messianic idea” and its philosophical and political implications. He viewed such messianism as “the culmination as well as the touchstone of religion.”[2]

As a great Jewish thinker, Cohen’s work is in itself worthy of study. But the theoretical basis of his attack on Zionism and nationalism is today particularly relevant, since Cohen criticizes these notions in the name of liberal universalism and neo-Kantian ethics. Despite the extraordinary changes that the nature of Jewish life on the one hand, and the conceptions of liberalism on the other, have undergone since Cohen wrote, many modern thinkers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, continue to frame their political positions on strikingly “Cohenian” grounds.

Cohen on Plato and the Prophets

In approaching Cohen’s thought, a good place to start is his lecture on “The Social Ideal in Plato and the Prophets.” As he asserts at the outset, “Plato and the Prophets are the two most important sources of modern culture.”[3] Cohen gave that lecture in the midst of World War I and repeated it shortly before his death. Hence it seems as good a statement of his “final position” as one is likely to find.[4]

Cohen believed that truth must be arrived at through rigorous scientific reasoning. He viewed Plato’s philosophy as a unique and enduring historical event because Plato was the first to apply scientific-rationalist criteria to the realm of ethics. Generally speaking, a serious problem confronts any system of thought that attempts to give an account of the whole, of nature and of man. This problem concerns the relationship between scientific knowledge of nature on the one hand, and knowledge of ethics and right human behavior on the other-or as Pascal called it, the contrast between esprit géometrique and esprit de finesse.

Cohen can be seen as responding directly to this problem. Unlike the pre-Socratics, whose inquiry into nature led to turning away from questions of ethics if not the entire realm of human affairs, Cohen believed that Plato’s thinking overcame this forbidding gap. Plato’s thought, he remarked, was animated by a “thrust of science which moves beyond the realm of nature into the realm of ethics.”[5] It is in Plato’s theory of the forms, and above all in what he called the “idea of the good,” that this scientific account of ethics takes shape: “the Idea, born as a mathematical idea, matures into the idea of the good.”[6]

Cohen has very high praise for Plato. He asserts that Platonism is “an absolutely coherent system.”[7] Indeed, his praise is so high that one begins to wonder why Cohen did not consider himself an outright Platonist. Cohen supplies the answer by pointing out what he sees as Platonism’s one fatal flaw: “Plato is wrong only in his denial of the masses’ capacity to understand philosophy.”[8] This denial has drastic implications for Cohen. Plato’s presentation of the philosopher in his dialogues, perhaps above all in the Republic, indicates to Cohen that for Plato the philosopher was a very rare flower. Only in the city ruled by the philosopher kings is there true justice and a cessation of evils, and this regime is at best only the result of chance, a coincidence of wisdom and power more to be hoped for than planned for.[9]

What Cohen objects to above all is Plato’s conception of a fixed human nature and a corresponding order of rank among human beings that precludes the vast majority of them from ever enjoying true knowledge of the good. Cohen asks: “must we assume that the sharp division of men into those who govern and those who are governed is really to perpetuate forever? Should not all men, at some future time, participate in their government, so that all will be rulers as well as ruled?”[10]

It is in recognizing this limit of Platonism that Cohen introduces what he considers the other source of modern culture: the Hebrew Prophets. As Cohen asserts, “the prophets are no philosophers.” They do not possess a scientific rationalism, and they speak of “knowledge,” in the true philosophical sense, only metaphorically.[11] But whereas, according to Cohen, “Plato does not delineate an idea of man” and therefore maintains a distinction between Greek and barbarian, the Prophets introduced into the world what Cohen calls “the discovery of man as fellow man.”

Thus, the Hebrew Prophets are the discoverers and articulators of the concept “man” and therewith of the idea of a universal “mankind” united through reason by their knowledge of the good¾namely, through a universal cosmopolitan morality.[12] The defect of Plato’s system is remedied by the Prophets “precisely because they lack the idea of science and hence the idea of nature, and hence they can believe that men’s conduct toward one another can undergo a change much more radical than any change ever dreamt of by Plato.”[13] Notably, the Bible does not contain a word equivalent in meaning to the word nature, or physis in Greek. Rather than seeing in this difference between Plato and the Bible a fundamental antagonism, Cohen sees the opportunity for a synthesis on the highest level.

Messianism as Progressive World History

The Prophets provide the remedy to Platonism’s shortcomings through what Cohen understands as their articulation of the idea of a “messianic future of mankind.”[14]  For Cohen, this messianic call of the Prophets is epitomized in the motto “All the people a nation of priests,” which Cohen acknowledges as an allusion to Numbers 11:29, where Moses exclaims “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!”[15] Cohen considers Plato’s “pessimism” about the masses’ ability to partake in scholarship and scientific knowledge a “basic evil inhibiting and making illusory all true progress.”[16] The ultimate aim of such progress is, in Cohen’s view, the universal social state, where there are “no class distinctions anywhere” and all men have the capacity both to conceive in thought and to achieve in practice what Plato called “the good.”[17]

Cohen agrees with Plato that “without Philosophy, mankind’s suffering cannot be ended.”[18] But unlike Plato, he does not draw the conclusion that such suffering is inevitable and eternal. Although the Prophets offer an insight that is “merely a vision,” this vision, with the aid of philosophy, can foster the political actualization of a just order through historical progress. Both Plato and the Prophets point, according to Cohen, to “the social ideal,” which Cohen understands as the ultimate goal of Western civilization and culture.[19]

Cohen understands culture¾both the philosophy of Plato and the theology of the Prophets¾historically. Understanding Cohen’s conception of messianism requires taking full account of his “historical sense.” According to Cohen, “all ideas, even the most profound which eventually conquer the world, originate within the narrow confines of nationality and are conditioned by the spirit of the times.”[20] These ideas undergo a process that Cohen calls “spiritualization,” whereby their highest ideal is actualized.

Cohen views the history of Judaism in this way, and believes the Prophets occupy a unique place in this historical progress of spiritualization. Cohen maintains that the Prophets were inspired by their nonuniversal nationalistic predicament¾the “decline of their state.”[21] However, the Prophets, far from merely speaking of a messianism that might rescue their particular nation, extended this call to all the nations of the earth. The Prophets were able to turn their historical circumstances into a basis for universalism.

The highest and most significant element in the Prophets’ thought is their discovery of a “historical concept of time,” and this “discovery” of the historical sense is directly linked to the concept of progress.[22]  Judaism is therewith viewed as a historical process whereby it becomes demythologized, freed from the anthropomorphic tendency to understand messianism as the hope for a personal being and king to reestablish the political nation of the Jews.

Hence Cohen speaks of messianism in terms of the “messianic idea” (a term reminiscent of Plato’s theory of the ideas). This “idea” has undergone a historical transformation and transmutation. From its original particularistic political connotation where “the messiah” means “the anointed” and a divinely selected king, it grew into a hope for the emergence¾through “the people as a whole”¾of “a nation of priests.”[23] Thus, what Cohen views as the primitive hero worship of the messiah gives way to a universal notion of mankind progressing toward a moral ideal.

Ethical Monotheism and Cohen’s Kantianism

Cohen viewed Judaism as being the “purest” monotheistic religion. His thought, which he understood as itself the continuation of the process of the “idealization” of Judaism, sought to expound a religion of reason that completes the break with paganism and myth, which the earliest Judaism began and the Prophets continued and revolutionized through their “discovery” of a world history and a universal morality.

Cohen’s understanding of Judaism is often referred to as ethical monotheism. There is no doubt that ethics forms the center of his thought; in this respect he was decisively influenced by Kant’s philosophy. Cohen’s concern with messianism is directly linked to his desire to place ethics at the core of his philosophic system, for he viewed messianism as the “final stage in the development of Jewish social ethics.”[24] In turn-of-the-century Germany, he was the renewer of Kantian philosophy, a movement that became known as neo-Kantianism.

In Cohen’s thought, which sought to “rescue the German of his time from arid positivism and scholasticism,” Emil Fackenheim sees “an ongoing dialogue between his Kantian and Jewish commitments.”[25] In his essay “Affinities between the Philosophy of Kant and Judaism,” Cohen articulates what he sees as the inner similarities between Kantian ethics and “the basic ideas of Judaism.” According to Kant, the human mind discovers through proper reasoning the necessity of a priori basic truths that function as principles of cognition. From the necessity of these a priori principles Kant distinguishes “reason” and more particularly “pure reason” in contradistinction to simple sense perception and empirical knowledge.[26]

In Cohen’s thought, the “God-idea” is very reminiscent of a Kantian a priori principle of reason. The God-idea, for Cohen, is necessary insofar as God is the being who creates reason. Cohen acknowledges a crucial difference between Kant’s moral philosophy and Judaism: whereas in Kant’s view reason itself must create the eternal law anew, in Judaism the One God would become “a useless machine” were he not the eternal source of moral law.[27] However, according to Cohen,

the difference between Kant’s and Judaism’s view concerning the autonomy of the moral law only points up towards another accord between them. For though Kant upholds the autonomy of the moral law, he does not at all deny the existence of God, to whom he refers as “the sovereign in the realm of morals.” Thus, self-legislation of human reason in no way implies, let alone impels, an abdication of this sovereign.[28]

This passage is especially striking because it is hard to discern any difference at all between what Cohen considers the Jewish God and Kant’s moral God, a God whom Kant’s categories of reason force him to posit as a necessary hypothesis for preserving Kant’s autonomous self-governing moral individual (a type of individual one feels hard pressed to give an example of anywhere in Jewish holy scriptures). According to Cohen, on the highest “idealized” plane of thought Kant and Judaism can be synthesized.

It is important to note that Cohen’s God-idea is, in his own view, a reinterpretation, or correction, of Kant’s system. This correction entails two central transformations of Kant’s position. First, Cohen transforms Kant by understanding the critique of reason “completely in terms of absolute idealism,” thereby excluding any notion of a transcendent reality. For Cohen, unlike Kant, the world of experience is not a manifestation of a metaphysical reality beyond knowledge but simply consists of the totality of being of experienced objects.[29]

Second, and in accordance with the denial of this metaphysical realm, Cohen rejects Kant’s doctrine of the postulates of practical reason. According to these, the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are necessary insofar as they are required to ensure the unity of virtue and happiness required by ethics. Cohen views this doctrine as a relapse of Kant into eudemonism-action on the basis of a desire for happiness, a tenet of Aristotelian ethics. Cohen believed that eudemonism violated the basic principles of Kantian ethics rightly understood (i.e., better understood than Kant himself did).

In this sense, Cohen believed his system represented a purification of Kant’s, which provided a true and consistent grounding of ethics.[30] In asserting ethical monotheism, Cohen rejected a pantheistic conception of God. As Julius Guttmann rightly stresses, for Cohen the God of ethics cannot be the God of pantheism as in Spinoza. According to Cohen’s interpretation of Kantianism, “nature and ethics are not identical, but correlated” and therefore “God, as principle of this correlation, must stand outside both spheres.”[31]

Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace” also clearly had a great influence on Cohen’s thought, particularly with respect to Cohen’s conception of a messianic future for mankind. Like Kant, Cohen believed in a natural progression toward a universal state where war would be abolished and the potential for each individual to become a fully autonomous moral being would be actualized. Kant attempted to articulate a complete philosophy of history grounded in this idea of progress. Cohen regards the essence of Jewish faith to be, as Guttmann puts it, the “messianic futurism of the prophets” reinterpreted in the spirit of modern liberalism “as a continual progress towards the messianic kingdom of ethics.”[32]

Yet Cohen, like Kant, conceives of mankind’s progress as asymptotic: mankind never arrives at a state of perfection or total cosmopolitan unity but is ever approaching this state at an ever-increasing rate of progress.

Cohen’s Anti-Zionism

Cohen believed that the Jews, as the creators of monotheism and the Bible, must act as the educators of mankind. According to Franz Rosenzweig, Cohen’s understanding of messianism led him to hope, for instance, for the conversion of Christians to the “pure monotheism” of his Judaism, a conversion “which he thought the liberal Protestant theology of his day was initiating.”[33] From this view of the Jewish people come Cohen’s arguments justifying the Jews’ loss of their state, their suffering, and Jewish martyrdom. According to Cohen, the meaning of Israel’s statelessness and its election is therefore

to be an eternal witness to pure monotheism, to be the martyr, to be the suffering servant of the Lord. The misery of Jewish history is grounded in messianism, which demands humble submission to suffering and hence the rejection of the state as the protector against suffering…the freely accepted suffering makes manifest the historic worthiness of the sufferer. For the prophets and by the prophets Israel became the rest or remainder of Israel, the ideal of Israel, the Israel of the future, that is to say, the future of mankind.[34]

It is through this understanding of the Jews’ messianic mission that Cohen comes to reject the modern solution to the Jews’ statelessness known as Zionism. Cohen did not accept either purely political Zionism (that of Herzl’s Der Judenstaat) or what became known as cultural Zionism (represented most significantly by the thought of Ahad Ha’am).

Cohen’s rejection of Zionism as derived from his idea of Jewish messianism is perhaps nowhere more bluntly stated than in a letter he wrote in response to Martin Buber, who had written to Cohen of his reasons for supporting Zionism. Here Cohen considers the Jewish question in the modern age as concerning the relationship of the Jewish people, dispersed throughout various nation-states, to each of these individual nation-states. In Cohen’s view, the Jewish people must “establish and explain its political relationship to each individual state.”[35] Cohen accuses the Zionists of misrepresenting the history of Judaism as “mere ideology,” of disregarding the messianic ideal of Judaism.[36] The Zionists, Cohen claims, view the Jews’ long history of suffering and statelessness as a “ghetto mentality,” something to flee rather than take pride in.

But according to Cohen, “the ghetto mentality is not the ghost, but the true spirit of Judaism and of Jewish reality.”[37] Cohen did not favor Jews assimilating into their respective nation-states but, instead, maintaining themselves as an ethnicity within each. He therefore did not accept Herzl’s and other political Zionists’ arguments that the liberal state could not protect Jews against all anti-Semitism since it necessarily allowed for hatred within a private sphere safeguarded from state control and coercion. On the contrary, Cohen saw the modern liberal state as a solution to the Jewish problem and maintained that Jews had a “moral obligation” to the liberal state.

Thus he declared that “no restriction of civil rights must be allowed to make us waver in our sense of obligation to the country we claim as our own.” [38] In Cohen’s view the state is the “hub of culture,” and modern history demonstrates that the liberal state is undergoing a universal transformation into a world state. As he asserts in his book Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism:

The state matures before our eyes into a confederation of states. Messianism becomes a factor in world history. The state, as an individual state, based on the nation, is built up into a confederation of states…this is the intrinsic logic of the development of the state, against which no opposition can arise.[39]

The Jewish people are to be like “divine dew in the midst of many peoples.” Cohen thus favors the Jews’ integration into the modern nation-state; “the moral world, as it evolves in history, is our true promised land.”[40]

Cohen declares in his letter to Buber, on behalf of all good liberal Jews who acknowledged this messianic mission: “we are free of all discord between our Judaism and our Germanism.”[41] He would repeat this avowal in his notorious pamphlet Germanism and Judaism, which he published in the midst of World War I in an effort to urge Jews worldwide to support Germany against the Allied powers. That “no opposition” could arise to challenge the universal spread of liberalism and the confederation of liberal states is a prophecy of Cohen’s that proved tragically false. The weakness of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism in Germany give, in historical hindsight, an eerie and tragic quality to Cohen’s optimism; one can hardly help calling it blind optimism.

Cohen’s Divergence from Traditional Judaism

Key elements of Cohen’s conception of messianism and his anti-Zionism are serious departures from traditional Judaism and previous Jewish thought. Perhaps most striking is that Cohen sees no conflict between modernity and Judaism. Not only are the two in no way in conflict, but Judaism in his view supplies two fundamental elements of modernity: through the Prophets’ discovery of world history and mankind and through the idealization of monotheism into ethical monotheism. Moreover, Cohen does not view the liberal state with its separation of church and state, its relegation of religion to the private sphere, and its basis not in man’s duty to God but in man’s natural rights and human dignity, as a challenge to Judaism or religiosity generally.

In Cohen’s thought, messianism is no longer a hope for God to intervene in history and through a miracle usher in the messianic age. Just as Cohen dismisses the belief in a onetime historical revelation at Sinai, so he dismisses the hope for the miraculous coming of the messiah. For him the messianic age is a natural result of historical progress, an age not beyond all time but in the future. It can be thought of as eternal in the sense that the progress of mankind and world history is eternal.

Cohen argues that “man himself, assisted by religion, must accomplish his salvation.”[42] And this “religion” is an ethical monotheism stripped of the biblical law. Traditional pious Jews would, of course, consider the idea that man is the author of his own salvation blasphemy. Cohen also dismisses the idea of a messianic figure, a king or ruler of the earth; the “messiah” is thus completely depersonalized by Cohen, idealized into a historical process. Furthermore, Cohen dispenses with the traditional understanding that with the coming of the messiah the Temple will be rebuilt and the Jews will recover their state. For Cohen, not merely Zionism as a modern political movement but the idea of Zion itself, the hope for a return to Jerusalem in deed and in spirit, is not part of the highest Jewish ideal.

Cohen’s depersonalization of the messiah mirrors his depersonalization of God generally. Cohen’s thought dispenses with the idea of a loving and holy God who is active in history while also transcending it. Instead Cohen speaks of the God-Idea, a concept that seems half-Platonic, half-Kantian, but certainly not the God of mercy and jealousy who parted the Red Sea and revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses. All this has been “idealized” out by Cohen.

Indeed, unlike the God presented in the Bible, who is in a crucial sense radically mysterious, who will be what he will be, Cohen’s God-idea seems to suggest that the human mind can gain true and complete intellectual knowledge of God. Furthermore, Cohen’s Kantian belief that the individual should achieve absolute autonomy seems a clear break with the Jewish idea of humility and loving devotion to the Law. If the individual can become a self-regulating autonomous moral agent, where is the need for a holy and redeeming God? Cohen’s religion of reason seems to leave “no place for absolute obedience or for what traditional Judaism considered the core of faith.”[43]

Furthermore, Cohen, with his Kantian loathing of all eudemonism, rejected traditional Jewish concepts associated with hell. He also found unacceptable to his natural and nonmiraculous vision of a messianic future otherworldly ideas of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the dead, which had been prevalent in traditional Judaism and were defended by Maimonides.[44]

On the other hand, elements of Cohen’s thought are still indebted to traditional Judaism. He opposed Jewish assimilation and did not convert to Christianity. He saw in assimilation neither a dignified nor a philosophically coherent doctrine. He rejected Christ as the messiah, and was firmly on the side of this-worldly messianism as opposed to a Christian otherworldliness.

According to Cohen, Jews, unlike Christians, do not seek to conceive of God in a mystical sense but instead to know God through their will and acts. Christianity, by contrast, because of the Incarnation, struggles to resist a temptation toward full pantheism and a “folding of God back into the world.” Cohen maintains that making an identity of God and the world fundamentally undermines true morality.[45]

Furthermore, unlike the political Zionists, Cohen does not abandon the traditional sources of Judaism. True, his process of “idealizing” from the sources of Judaism produces significant deviations from Jewish tradition, but still he did not think these sources, and above all the Prophets, should be abandoned. Furthermore, as Gershom Scholem points out, Cohen’s anti-Zionism preserved, albeit with different justifications, the ancient tendency of Orthodox Judaism to proclaim historical passivity as a commandment flowing from Jewish messianism.[46] In addition, Cohen’s liberalism was not in keeping with the most famous liberalism advanced by a Jew before him, that of Spinoza, who had been excommunicated by the Jewish community. As Leo Strauss argued,

Far from rescinding the excommunication, Cohen confirmed it acting as a judge in the highest court of appeal…. He condemned Spinoza because of his infidelity in the simple human sense, of his complete lack of loyalty to his own people, of his acting like an enemy of the Jews and thus giving aid and comfort to the many enemies of the Jews, of his behaving like a base traitor.[47]

Cohen opposed Spinoza for the additional reason that there is no place in the latter’s thought for the enlightenment of the people: Spinoza “cannot admit a Messianic future of mankind when all men will be united in genuine knowledge of God.”[48] In Cohen’s view, as in the traditional view, “by denying that the God of Israel is the God of all mankind Spinoza has blasphemed the God of Israel.”[49]

Guttmann argues that there are indeed key elements of Cohen’s mature system that may be labeled Jewish either in origin or in substance. He sees Cohen as purposefully and doggedly formulating a place in his neo-Kantian system for “the Jewish faith in the divinity-grounded moral order of being.” Guttmann asserts, for example, that Cohen’s doctrine of atonement “corresponds completely to Judaism’s view.” Yet, as Guttmann adds, “along with the purification of man, Judaism posits the grace of God, and within Cohen’s system the idea of the forgiving God can only hint at that faith which provides man with the power of moral renewal.”[50]

Guttmann’s final word on the issue is that the “methodological bases of [Cohen’s] thought restrain him from the possibility of interpreting God as a reality.”[51] Guttmann, like many others, saw in Cohen the man, and his individual intellectual example, a transcendence of these methodological restraints. Guttmann had no doubt that God, at some primary level, was a reality for Cohen.

Cohen’s Thought and the Contemporary Situation

As a historical subject-a fascinating, if tragic, chapter in the history of ideas and one of the most important German Jewish interpretations of Judaism in the modern period-Cohen’s thought is of clear interest. It must be asked what, though, is still alive in Cohen’s oeuvre, given the unavoidable sense that his political optimism and faith in modern culture seem now in crucial respects “extraordinarily naïve,” as Mark Lilla, echoing many others, puts it.[52]

As Alan Mittleman rightly points out, an overall evaluation of Cohen’s project today is less a matter of the “internal Jewish argument between Reform and Orthodoxy than the ‘robust faith’ in progress that Cohen shares with his Enlightenment forbearers.”[53] Rosenzweig once stated that Cohen believed “in the messiah of the nineteenth century.”[54] Today, with a full century having transpired since late-nineteenth-century optimism, the perspective on Cohen and the ideals he prized is complex.

Indeed, after World Wars I and II and the Holocaust-to say nothing of Soviet tyranny with its horrific fusion of scientific atheism, European philosophy, and Eastern despotism-thoughtful contemporary citizens of the West, Jews and non-Jews alike, have at times expressed the feeling that they now stand “on the other side of an abyss” (in Fackenheim’s language). But the bloody experiences of the twentieth century can have a dual effect on one’s overall orientation.

On the one hand, the shattering of earlier, more “naïve” modern notions of progress and universal culture as a cure for human evils creates a feeling of disorientation and doubt. Well-known historical events, of which the introduction of nuclear weaponry into warfare is the most significant, have called into question the basic worth not only of modern culture but of modern science as well. On the other hand, those same bloody experiences have only strengthened the resolve of great numbers of thoughtful Jews and non-Jews to defend modern liberal democracy, both politically and theoretically, as an extraordinary accomplishment that has weathered the storms of modern tyranny and must continue to do so. Such loyalty to liberal democracy can be said to transcend traditional nationalist patriotism.

It is not merely a matter of a stern sobriety founded on the realization of the dangers of utopian visions, where democracy is defended in some Churchillian spirit as “the worst type of regime, except for all the others.” On the contrary, for many, the experience of Hitlerism and Stalinism made the flourishing of the “bourgeois” Western democracies seem by comparison like a new golden age. Mittleman is rather understated when he concludes in reference to Cohen’s legacy: “The modern Western faith in a rational and immanent solution, in a horizon of political and moral progress, while tattered, is at least residual. It has not lost its hold on the imagination, although it has perhaps lost its right to have such a hold.”[55]

What, then, is questionable in this “right to have such a hold”? The question involves the relationship between philosophical truth and historical experience. The most significant issue in evaluating Cohen’s project seems to be the status of history itself; that question is at once moral, philosophical, and political. Has twentieth-century political history dethroned Kantian (and for that matter, Hegelian) history-making any philosophy that places historical progress at its center seem a delusion, a dream violently cut short?

Scholars of Cohen such as Mittleman, as well as Kenneth Seeskin, point out that Cohenian or Kantian hope in progress is not merely a theory to be disproved by empirical-i.e., historical-considerations.[56] Indeed, the a priori theoretical basis of Cohen’s liberal theology stands in sharp contrast, for example, to his critic Rosenzweig, who called his own theology a form of radical empiricism.[57] Cohen presents faith in progress as a belief based on a synthetic, a priori requirement of morality. To this observation David Novak adds:

To dismiss [Cohen] in toto because some of his premises are now unacceptable is as foolish as dismissing Maimonides in toto because his Aristotelian cosmology is now unacceptable…. A philosopher is as important, maybe more important, as a guide to show us how to understand a datum as he is in showing us what he conceives as its essential properties.[58]

On the whole, however, this type of defense is unsatisfying. Novak’s example-that Maimonides can be of interest today despite the invalidation of Aristotelian cosmology and teleology-begs the central question. The connection between Maimonides’ teleological account of man, which draws on both Aristotelian and the biblical cosmology, and his ethical teaching ought to be of fundamental rather than secondary interest to any serious student of Maimonides.

Likewise, it hard to see how one could bracket off, as Novak suggests, Cohen’s manner of understanding “a datum” from his conclusion as to its essential properties. What is involved is a philosophy of history based on a priori Kantian principles, and which issues in a synthesis of Plato and the Prophets. Cohen is not like Nietzsche, or like Buber or Levinas, for that matter; his philosophy cannot be mistaken for a thoroughgoing skepticism or an enigmatic mysticism.

Cohen asks that his thought be embraced as a project of realizing the religion of reason on earth. There is a deep fusion of history and philosophy, of theory and practice, that is arguably inherent in any robust philosophy of history that, like Cohen’s, issues in an idealist, optimistic political vision of the future. This entanglement of theoretical postulates and predicted empirical results seems to make it untenable to exempt Cohen’s system from the tribunal of empirical (historical) experience.

The alleged dethroning of Kantian and Hegelian history inevitably led certain thinkers to reconsider a much older vision of history, or what they hoped was a sturdier understanding of the fate of the human race. But here the question of naïveté once more arises. For the return to a pre-Enlightenment faith, to an orthodoxy with its accompanying supernatural eschatology, seems no less naïve than a resurrection of the nineteenth-century belief in progress to large numbers of “educated humanity” (to use Mittleman’s phrase).[59] What, then, is still sturdy, still worth holding on to, among the alternatives Cohen’s (failed) synthesis opens up and a simple return to orthodoxy it rules out? Here again the issue is modern liberalism, with which all of Cohen’s dreams were bound up.

Regarding liberalism’s ambiguous yet ubiquitous status today, the theorist Raymond Geuss is an excellent guide. In an important essay, “Liberalism and Its Discontents,”[60] he points out that, on the one hand,

we seem to have no realistic alternative to liberalism; that is, we know of no other approach to human society and politics that is at the same time as theoretically rich and comprehensive as liberalism and also even remotely as morally acceptable to wide sections of the population in Western societies, as they are now in fact constituted.

Yet, on the other hand, he admits a common feeling:

There are signs of a significant theoretical, moral, and political disaffection with some aspects of liberalism. Liberalism has for a long time seemed to lack much inspirational potential; it is good at dissolving traditional modes of life and their associated values, but less obviously good at replacing them with anything particularly distinctive or admirable.[61]

Geuss’s conclusion is interesting and relevant to the issue of Cohen. Although Geuss resigns himself to the fact that the discontent with liberalism cannot be completely dispelled “as long as the real social, economic, and political institutions and circumstances of our life do not change,” he takes this as a kind of “vindication” of liberalism-though a pared-down liberalism of a more classical sort that is “reflexively anti-utopian and asserts that no system either of action or thought is perfect. This should hold as much for liberalism as for anything else. This kind of discontent, then, might not necessarily be an objection but a sign of the continuing vitality of this tradition.”[62]

Reassessing Liberalism

Discontent with Cohen’s messianic liberalism, then, can constructively lead back to reassessing a more limited, yet perhaps more realistic, form of liberal politics that sees liberalism not as a palliative for all problems but as a philosophy that begins by granting that certain problems are insoluble at the merely political level. In other words, the modern state, even if it is becoming some kind of universal state, cannot perfect our souls.

Dissatisfaction with Cohen’s project can be of help in soberly reassessing liberal-democratic positions. At the same time, Cohen himself stands as a philosophic thinker to be emulated in intensity and devotion, if not in direction or result. The noble sentiments expressed in 1918, shortly after Cohen’s death, by Gershom Scholem-who sharply opposed Cohen’s critique of Zionism-still ring true nearly ninety years later:

Like all men, Cohen misunderstood himself, and many of his obscurities (which perhaps now dominate our view) sprang from his false interpretation of his own essence. And yet it is still this existence which made his life of teaching palpable in the world…. The demands of such a life are that it be comprehended and completed, and he who does this, cannot go astray.[63]

The place and future of the individual Jew, and of the Jews as a nation, in a modernity now spread to all corners of the globe is by no means certain. The problems Cohen grappled with have not been solved either politically or philosophically. At most it has become clear that some of them do not admit of solution-or at any rate, of a merely human political solution. To become mature, or wise, is to have a greater awareness of one’s own ignorance. As Cohen declared in a speech toward the end of his life: “One must unlearn. One must begin again from the beginning.”[64] Such is the spirit with which Cohen and the liberal Jewish hopes that he embodied must be approached today-lest our scorn for naïveté become a source of our own.

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[1] Emil Fackenheim, Hermann Cohen:  After Fifty Years, Leo Baeck Twelfth Memorial Lecture (New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1969), 5.

[2] Hermann Cohen, Reason and Hope: Selections from the Jewish Writings of Hermann Cohen, trans. and ed. Eva Jose (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1973), 127.

[3] Quoted in Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 167.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cohen, Reason and Hope, 66.

[6] Ibid., 67.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 76.

[9] Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens,” 167.

[10] Ibid., 74.

[11] Ibid., 76.

[12] Ibid., 72, 74-77.

[13] Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens,” 167.

[14] Cohen, Reason and Hope, 120-21, 75-76.

[15] Ibid., 76.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 75.

[18] Ibid., 74.

[19] Ibid., 74-75.

[20] Ibid., 124.

[21] Ibid., 120.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 141.

[25] Fackenheim, Hermann Cohen, 11.

[26] Cohen, Reason and Hope, 71.

[27] Ibid., 81.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Julius Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism, trans. David W. Silverman (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), 401.

[30] Ibid., 402.

[31] Ibid., 405.

[32] Ibid., 404.

[33] Franz Rosenzweig, “Zion and the Remnant of Israel,” in Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought, ed. Nahum H. Glatzer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 351.

[34] Strauss, “Introductory Essay” to “Hermann Cohen: Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, 242.

[35] Hermann Cohen and Martin Buber, “A Debate on Zionism and Messianism,” in The Jew in the Modern World, ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): Cohen’s response, 572.

[36] Ibid., 573.

[37] Ibid., 573-74.

[38] Ibid., 573.

[39] Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism,  trans. Simon Kaplan (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972), 361.

[40] Cohen and Buber, “Debate,” Cohen’s response, 574.

[41] Ibid., 574.

[42] Cohen, Reason and Hope, 122.

[43] Strauss, “Introductory Essay.”

[44] Ibid., 243.

[45] Alan Mittleman, “‘The Significance of Judaism for the Religious Progress of Humanity’ by Hermann Cohen: An Introduction and Translation,” Modern Judaism, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2004): 41.

[46] Gershom Scholem, “Reflections on Jewish Theology,” in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, ed. Werner J. Dannhauser (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), 289.

[47] Strauss, “Preface” to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, trans. Elsa M. Sinclair (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), 19. For a detailed discussion of the place of his critique of Spinoza in Cohen’s thought as a whole, and its development, see Franz Nauen, “Hermann Cohen’s Perceptions of Spinoza: A Reappraisal,” AJS Review, Vol. 4 (1979): 111-24.

[48] Ibid., 19.

[49] Ibid., 18.

[50] Guttman, Philosophies of Judaism, 416.

[51] Ibid., 415.

[52] Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 242.

[53] Mittleman, “Introduction,” 42-43.

[54] Rosenzweig, “Zion,” 351.

[55] Mittleman, “Introduction,” 43.

[56] Ibid, 43. For a critical appraisal of Cohen as an articulate spokesman for what Seeskin sees as the central place of the “notion of autonomy” in the Jewish philosophic tradition, see Kenneth Seeskin, Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), Ch. 6, esp. 150-51, 157-58, 178-80. Seeskin notes that Cohen’s neo-Kantianism is, as a philosophical position and not merely a political program, resistant to strictly empirical (historical-political) observations and criteria. As Seeskin puts it regarding Cohen’s ethical worldview: “We need only recall that the validity of the moral law has nothing to do with our attempts to realize it. Even if everyone should fail, it would be the same stern, unindulgent principle that Kant described in the Critique of Practical Reason” (160).

[57] Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. William W. Hallo (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1983), 214.

[58] David Novak, “Universal Moral Law in the Theology of Hermann Cohen,” Modern Judaism, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1981): 113.

[59] Mittleman, “Introduction,” 43.

[60] Raymond Geuss, “Liberalism and Its Discontents,” Political Theory, Vol. 30, No. 3 (2002): 320-38. Reprinted as Ch. 1 of Raymond Geuss, Outside Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). 

[61] Ibid., 320-21.

[62] Ibid., 336. Geuss elaborates on his view regarding the relationship of “Kantianism” to “classical” forms of liberalism:

What I do wish to assert…is that as a matter of fact the majority of liberal theoreticians in the nineteenth century, and a not insignificant number in the early twentieth century, saw Kant as an opponent of their basic project and that this is a fact that liberals who wish to be Kantians should recognise and take some kind of position on rather than ignoring. (326)

Later he states his criticism of “Kantianism” more precisely:

Which parts, then, of classical liberalism deserve to be further developed and cultivated? In the first place the criticism of theocratic conceptions of society or, what is another form of the same thing, of absolutist (that is, explicitly or implicitly theocentric) forms of ethics. Kantian philosophy is no more than at best a half-secularised version of such a theocratic ethics, with ‘Reason’ in the place of God. This does not amount to much more than a change of names. (329)

[63] Gershom Scholem, “In Memory of Hermann Cohen” (speech translated from a previously unpublished copy), Modern Judaism, Vol. 5, No. 1, Gershom Scholem Memorial Issue (1985): 1-2.

[64] “The Significance of Judaism for the Religious Progress of Humanity” (trans. Alan Mittleman), Modern Judaism, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2004).

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RORY SCHACTER studied political theory, classical Greek, and Jewish philosophy at the University of Toronto, and holds an MA in religious studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.