Liberalism & (German) Enlightenment After Weimar Germany (Ernst Cassirer)

What is one to do with the old German Jewish liberal tradition? On Facebook recently re: a group of posts re: Weimar and post-Weimar German philosophy and political theology, YM asked me if there was room on my boat for Ernst Cassirer. For me, Cassirer is among the last decent bunch of the group. It must be my reconstructed prejudice for liberalism and Enlightenment.

Cassirer had always been on my radar as a forgotten figure in German philosophical letters, and one of Hermann Cohen’s last students. I never thought too much of him, one way or the other. It was while working on a project on the aesthetics of the classical German Jewish liberalism of Mendelssohn, Geiger, and Cohen that I stumbled on his magnificent The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Leave aside for the moment that there is a clear prejudice in favor of the German Enlightenment (the French create the problem, the British-Scots take a first stab at a solution, and the Germans, usually Lessing, resolve it). But the book is a chapter by chapter refutation about every loose generalization sent up against the Enlightenment. Check out Cassirer if you ever thought that Enlightenment thought is necessarily individualistic-atomistic, intellectually arid rationalistic, anti-imagination, anti-religion, ahistorical or non-historical. What I learn from Cassirer is that these assertions, the assertions of “unhappy consciousness” going back to Hegel and including Heidegger, are simply not true, or not necessarily so.

If liberalism and the Enlightenment are really the dead dogs their critics say it is, one should at least stop sucker-punching. Cassirer’s book helps one look past the caricature, to see a more robust set of claims and counter-claims. I just don’t see how one can continue to make the kinds of claims one continues to hear about liberalism and the Enlightenment in the critical literature.

I like Philosophy of Enlightenment much better than Cassirer’s symbolic forms trilogy, and, of course much, much better than Heidegger. The still abiding importance of Cassirer’s book was indicated by the devotion of an entire chapter dedicated to it in a more recent edited volume entitled What’s Left of Enlightenment? I think his study is conceptually neater and more generative than Gay’s two volume study, precisely because of its polemical charge against the kind of German philosophical anti-enlightenment that dominated the discussion in the 1930s and after. Also, Cassirer turned me back to Leibniz, who helped me think through Mendelssohn and who, interestingly loops forward to the parts of Deleuze and postmodernism that I like the most –the philosophy of the surface.

My German Jewish liberalism project is now on the backburner. You can see its first articulations in the essay on ceremonial aesthetics in Mendelssohn that appeared in Wiese Urban (eds.) German-Jewish Thought between Religion and Politics and an essay on Lessing’s Jerusalem in a forthcoming volume edited by Aaron Hughes and James Diamond on the “medieval” in modern Jewish thought. I have a warm spot for the classical German liberals, and Cassirer was the last of them. I’m looking forward to reading Peter Gordon’s book on Heidegger and Cassirer at Davos. I would like to think that there was no necessary inevitability in Heidegger having “won” the dispute. Like I said, I need to read Peter’s book to get a better handle on this. I like in the picture of the two together how the tall Jew towers over the little Heidegger.

Obviously, my animus to the Weimar gang is loaded. For me, Cassirer and Adorno, and I’d add Hans Blumenberg, represent, philosophically, the last decent Germans, before their countrymen, including the class of mandarin Jews, lost their collective minds to totalitarian impulses.

It’s been too easy for too long to despise the liberal bourgeoisie. Paul Mendes-Flohr’s German Jews is a step in the right direction towards rehabilitating the good name of German Jewish liberalism. One day maybe I’ll write an essay defending Kafka’s father. I like how he cuts a sweaty, Rabelaisian figure against his snarky, precious, genius son. Why not? Psychologically, I’ve had for a long, long time a warm spot for fathers and philistines.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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