Her­mann Cohen and the Cri­sis of Liberalism

Paul E. Nahme

January 1, 2013

Her­mann Cohen (1842 – 1918) is often held to be one of the most impor­tant Jew­ish philoso­phers of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Paul E. Nahme, in this new con­sid­er­a­tion of Cohen, lib­er­al­ism, and reli­gion, empha­sizes the idea of enchant­ment, or the faith in and com­mit­ment to ideas, rea­son, and critique―the ani­mat­ing spir­its that move soci­ety for­ward. Nahme views Cohen through the lens­es of the crises of Impe­r­i­al Germany―the rise of anti­semitism, nation­al­ism, and secularization―to come to a greater under­stand­ing of lib­er­al­ism, its Protes­tant and Jew­ish roots, and the spir­its of moder­ni­ty and tra­di­tion that form its foun­da­tion. Nah­me’s philo­soph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal retelling of the sto­ry of Cohen and his spir­i­tu­al invest­ment in lib­er­al the­ol­o­gy present a strong argu­ment for reli­gious plu­ral­ism and pub­lic rea­son in a world rife with pop­ulism, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, and con­spir­a­cy theories.

Discussion Questions

Her­mann Cohen and the Cri­sis of Lib­er­al­ism by Paul E. Nahme is an in-depth philo­soph­i­cal dis­course on one the major the­o­log­i­cal archi­tects of mod­ern Jew­ish thought. Her­mann Cohen’s posthu­mous trea­tise, Reli­gion of Rea­son: Out of the Sources of Judaism, was viewed at the time by some as the fore­most work of Jew­ish the­ol­o­gy per­haps since Maimonides.

Cohen (18421918), was raised in a tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish fam­i­ly, enrolled in 1857 in Zacharias Frankel’s recent­ly opened Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in Bres­lau and embraced the Seminary’s Wis­senschaft des Juden­tums approach to the study of Judaism. His com­mit­ment to phi­los­o­phy, how­ev­er, led him away from rab­binic ordi­na­tion and to a cov­et­ed appoint­ment as Pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mar­burg where he was a lead­ing expo­nent of neo-Kantianism.

Nahme’s book, an expan­sion of his doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion, is a com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of Cohen’s philo­soph­i­cal roots and unique­ness. This book is for read­ers seek­ing a deep­er under­stand­ing of the root intel­lec­tu­al chal­lenges con­fronting mod­ern reli­gious thinkers and how the lead­ing Ger­man Jew­ish philoso­pher of the day addressed these chal­lenges. It was Max Weber, the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Ger­man Jew­ish father of soci­ol­o­gy, who cap­tured in a mem­o­rable phrase the unprece­dent­ed real­i­ty con­fronting reli­gion: Our age is char­ac­ter­ized by ratio­nal­iza­tion and intel­lec­tu­al­iza­tion and, above all, by the dis­en­chant­ment of the world.” The key word is dis­en­chant­ment,” the loss of enchant­ment in the found­ing myths that under­lie tra­di­tion­al faith and society.

The author notes that resur­gent con­tem­po­rary nation­al­ist pop­ulisms under­score the con­nec­tion between dis­en­chant­ment and the cri­sis of par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cy. Would be prophets and seers…exploit the moment of dis­en­chant­ment and the weak­ness inher­ent in lib­er­al democracy…active mass democratization…disenchants author­i­ty as such.” Nahme dis­cuss­es Cohen’s life­long com­mit­ment and involve­ment in Ger­man polit­i­cal lib­er­al­ism of the Weimar era and how it was destroyed by pop­ulist demagogues.

Her­mann Cohen’s lib­er­al the­ol­o­gy seeks to attach the pow­er of enchant­ment to rea­son and lib­er­al­ism and there­by cre­ate a new basis for Jew­ish reli­gion. While many con­tem­po­rary reli­gious thinkers still embrace this philo­soph­i­cal approach, they face oppo­si­tion and the crit­i­cism of being naive. Nahme acknowl­edges that Cohen has not been remem­bered fond­ly and his phi­los­o­phy has not received the recog­ni­tion in its after­life that it knew and deserved in its own time.” The author brave­ly res­ur­rects in four dense chap­ters Cohen’s reimag­ined enchant­ed” lib­er­al­ism, ide­al­ized mes­sian­ism and sec­u­lar­ized rea­son. Nahme has writ­ten a thought­ful and impor­tant book about a major Jew­ish philoso­pher, for the seri­ous reader.