Frederick Beiser

Jan 6, 2020

Hermann Cohen

An Intellectual Biography

Oxford University Press 2018

The eminent scholar of Neo-Kantianism, Frederick Beiser, has struck again, this time bringing his considerable analytical powers and erudition to the task of intellectual biography. For those of you aware of the distinguished philosophical career of Hermann Cohen (1842 - 1918) and the absence of an intellectual biography in English, Beiser’s scholarship is a long time coming. Though Cohen scholarship has experienced a mini-renaissance in the last thirty years in the English speaking world, knowledge of Cohen, his scholarship on Kant, his activity in the Jewish community, and his battle against anti-semitism in Germany have remained largely confined to academic Jewish studies. Fortunately Beiser’s new book Hermann Cohen: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford University Press, 2018) commands a broader audience with much to offer historians, philosophers, theologians in addition to Jewish thinkers. In the course of this NBN conversation, Professor Beiser and Avi Bernstein, Director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Brandeis University discuss Cohen’s

• Lifelong quest for a “religion of reason”

• Effort to “rescue” Kant from psychologists who had misunderstood him

• Hostility to Spinoza

• Interest in infinitesimally small quantities

• Left-of-center Wilhelmine politics

• System of philosophy

• Unrequited love affair with German culture

• Ontological argumentation for God

Cohen’s posthumously published Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism is left largely unremarked in Beiser’s book, as the author freely admits. With humility Beiser calls on his colleagues in Jewish Studies to go more deeply than he into this “masterpiece” of Cohen’s dotage, for in his estimation the Religion of Reason contains arguments for the idea of God that remain worthy of readers even today.

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