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Cohen's Idealism & Its Relation With Benjamin

Cohen's Idealism & Its Relation With Benjamin

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1.1
Back to Kant
”:
Hermann Cohen’s Critical Idealism
In order to understand better the relation between Benjamin and Cohen and byimplication, therefore, Benjamin’s relation to Kant – it is first important to briefly establishthe historical and philosophical background to the neo-Kantian “return to Kant,” andspecifically Cohen’s appropriation of Kantianism. Having done so, the particularities of Kant’stranscendental idealism, Cohen’s critical idealism, and Benjamin’s speculative idealism canbe highlighted with greater clarity.Kant inaugurated
transcendental
idealism with the publication of the
Critique of PureReason
in 1871, establishing the critical limitations of epistemology. Cautioning against theinherent tendency of idealism since Plato for metaphysical flights of speculation, Kantwarned how
Plato
left the world of sense because it sets such narrow limits to ourunderstanding; on the wings of the ideas, he ventured beyond that world and into the emptyspace of pure understanding. He did not notice that with all his efforts he made noheadway’. For, ‘it is human reason’s usual fate, in speculation, to finish its edifice as soon aspossible, and not to inquire until afterwards whether a good foundation has in fact been laidfor it’
1
. Yet in the half-century since the death of Kant in 1804, German philosophy witnessedthe Hegelian reinvigoration of a “speculative” idealism, to the extent that by the time of Hermann Cohen’s birth on 7
th
April 1842, the philosophical climate had grown increasinglyhostile to all forms of speculative metaphysics. Within this intellectual milieu the newdiscipline of 
Erkenntnistheorie
that had originally developed out of Kantian philosophyreached it apotheosis in Otto Liebmann’s 1865 publication
Kant und die Epigonen
, with itsnow famous refrain: ‘Also muß auf Kant zurückgegangen warden’ (“Thus we must go back toKant”)
2
. The return to Kant was not only a response to the ‘mistrust and a feeling of “nausea” for philosophical speculation’
3
in the wake of the collapse of Hegelianism, but alsoa reaction to the success of empirical research in the sciences, which now threatened toleave philosophy, pursuing its dream of speculative metaphysics, trailing behind
4
.With the eruption of the Trendelenburg-Fischer debate, which reached its height atthe end of the 1860s, the Kantian
Erkenntnistheorie
of Adolf Trendelenburg was pittedagainst the neo-Hegelianism of Kuno Fischer over interpretative differences regarding theepistemological validity of transcendental idealism. Cohen’s interjection in this debate issignificant, laying the groundwork out of which Marburg neo-Kantianism would develop. His
1
Kant,
Critique of Pure Reason
, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, Hackett (Indianapolis, 1996), A5/B9.
2
Primarily in the works of philosophers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Reinhold, and Friedrich Beneke, cf.Lydia Patton,
Hermann Cohen’s History and Philosophy of Science
, Phd Thesis, McGill University,
 
2004, 46.
3
Poma,
The Critical Philosophy of Hermann Cohen
, 1
4
ibid.
 
essay ‘Zur Controverse zwischen Trendelenburg und Kuno Fischer’ (1871) developed into alonger work on
Kants Theorie der Erfahrung
5
,which was published later the same year, andwould become an influence upon Walter Benjamin’s critical interpretation of Kant in ‘OnPerception’ (1917)
 
and ‘On the Program of the Coming Philosophy’ (1918).Whilst Cohen had been a student of Trendelenburg’s at the University of Berlin, hiswork was critical of Trendelenburg’s
Erkenntnistheorie
interpretation of Kant, leading to therejection of Cohen’s
Kants Theorie der Erfahrung
when it was submitted as a
Habilitationsschrift 
in Berlin
6
. This lead Cohen to habilitate instead at the University of Marburg under the more sympathetic supervision of Friedrich Albert Lange. FollowingLange’s death in 1875, Cohen was appointed to his professorship, and in the followingdecades Cohen published the
System der Philosophie
, which became the ‘cornerstones of the Marburg School of neo-Kantianism’
7
: the
Logik der reinen Erkenntnis
(1902),
Ethik desreinen Willens
(1904), and the
 Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls
(1912)
8
. A further key text
,Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums
9
,written in last few years of Cohen’slife, following his departure from Marburg to the Institute of Judaism in Berlin in 1912, waspublished posthumously in 1919 following Cohen’s death the year before. The second major figure in the young Cohen’s intellectual development wasHeymann (Chajim) Steinthal, who along with Moritz (Moses) Lazarus, was the founder of the
Völkerpsychologie
movement that became influential towards the end of the 19
th
century.Steinthal and Lazarus adapted Johann Friedrich Herbart’s development of a Kantian scientificpsychology towards the analysis of anthropology, history and linguistics
. Cohen publishedseveral essays in their journal, the
 Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaf
,including a psychological approach to Plato’s theory of ideas, as well as his importantcontribution to the Trendelenburg-Fischer debate
. Whilst the arguments o
Völkerpsychologie
are of marginal importance for our analysis of Cohen’s neo-Kantianismhere, it will be of interest later to consider how Walter Benjamin’s critical transformation of certain neo-Kantian motifs develops them in a historical and psychological direction thatbears strong affinities with the method of 
Völkerpsychologie
, implicit in Cohen’s earlythought. The inadequacy of identifying Cohen’s interpretation of Kantian transcendental idealism inthe early pieces ‘Zur Controverse zwischen Trendelenburg und Kuno Fischer’ and the firstedition of 
Kants Theorie der Erfahrung
with his systematic reworking (and, importantly,
5
Hereafter, textual references to
Kants Theorie der Erfahrung
will be abbreviated as
KTE
.
6
Cf. Ulrich Sieg, ’Die frühe Hermann Cohen und die Völkerpsychologie’, Ashkenas 13 (2), 2003, 461-483; KlausChristian Köhnke,
Entstehung und Aufstieg des Neukantianismus
, Suhrkamp (Frankfurt am Main, 1986), 131-135;and Patton
, Hermann Cohen’s History and Philosophy of Science
, 12.
7
Patton,
Hermann Cohen’s History and Philosophy of Science
, 13
8
Cohen’s
System of Philosophy 
, which is comprised of the
Logic of Pure Cognition
, the
Ethics of Pure Willing
, andthe
 Aesthetics of Pure Feeling
, still remains untranslated in English. Hereafter textual references to the Germanoriginals will be abbreviated as
LRE
,
ERW 
, and
 ARG
respectively.
9
Translated by Simon Kaplan as
Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism
, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.(New York, 1972); hereafter textual references will refer to the English translation, abbreviated as
RR
.
10
Patton points out how there is now a renewed interest in the influence of 
Völkerpsychologie
upon Cohen’sthought, instigated primarily by Franz Rosenzweig (cf. Patton,
Hermann Cohen’s History and Philosophy of Science
,22).
11
Cf. Patton, Hermann Cohen’s History and Philosophy of Science, 47 and 60.
 
Platonising) of Kantianism in the
System der Philosophie
is evident from Cohen’s ownsignificant redrafting of 
Kants Theorie der Erfahrung
in the second edition of 1885.Nonetheless, a number of key principles can be distinguished in the early works which retainan important place in the fundamental tenets of the Marburg neo-Kantianism established inthe
System der Philosophie
two decades later. The following summary merely intends topick out these central themes as introduced in
Kants Theorie der Erfahrung
andsystematically developed in Cohen’s mature
System
, whilst laying aside consideration of thespecific differences between Cohen’s early and later writings. The Trendelenburg/Fischer debate focused upon the place of the TranscendentalAesthetic in Kant’s
Critique of Pure Reason
, and in particular upon the “subjective” status of the pure forms of intuition (space and time) in the light of contemporary scientific research.Cohen’s approach in his 1871 essay, however, is a broader examination of theepistemological project of Kant’s critical philosophy, an approach that specifically rejects allattempts to psychologize the pure a priori concepts of sensibility. This standpointcharacterises the methodology which becomes more fully developed in
Kants Theorie der Erfahrung
, and which was to eventually flourish into the
System der Philosophie
. Thus,Cohen’s epistemological return to Kant regards the ‘meaning and value of the Kantiandoctrine of space and time’ as ‘another way of enquiring into the principles of knowledge’(
KTE
229; trans. Poma 52). And, importantly, rather than taking the form, ‘Is the nature of things grounded in the conditions of our mind?’, Cohen proposes to pursue such an enquirythrough the alternative question: ‘must and can our thought be confirmed by the laws of nature?’ (
KTE
, 229; trans. Poma, 6). The first formulation, Cohen argues, is characteristic of the line of enquiry set out in Trendelenburg’s
Erkenntnistheorie
, which seeks the epistemological ground of knowledge of objects in the
analytic
conditions of the mind of the knowing subject. The significance of Cohen’s contribution to the Trendelenburg-Fischer debate – and the roots of Cohen’s
critical
opposition (
Erkenntnis
kritisch) to Trendelenburg’s epistemology (
Erkenntnistheorie
)
 
is hisproposal of a reversal of this procedure, a reversal he regards as the proper meaning of thetranscendental methodology of Kantian idealism. That is, ‘we become aware of naturallaws…through a
synthetic
process of reasoning – and can then enquire into the foundationof that reasoning, and into the grounds for claiming that the argument applies to the objectsof experience’
. Thus, Cohen declares the aim of his
Kant 
book ‘to establish Kant’s theory of a priority on a new basis’ (
KTE
, iii; trans. Poma, 8), specifically the discovery of the a prioricharacter of knowledge as
 producing
its experience, obtained through analysis beginningwith facts of science, and concluding with the formal functionality of the a priori elements.Our brief explication of critical idealism will consider four key themes in Cohen’sphilosophy: (1) the synthetic starting point in facts of science; (2) the character of Kantiansynthesis reinterpreted as origin (or “originative” production); (3) the
Platonising
of the
12
It appears Benjamin was more familiar with this methodological work on Kant than with Cohen’s other major workof methodology, the
Logik der reinen Erkenntnis
.
13
Patton,
Hermann Cohen’s History and Philosophy of Science
, 52.

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