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.
Hermann Cohen and the Crisis of Liberalism
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 (1842−1918), 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.
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