I bought the book maybe months ago, not knowing when I was going to get to it. As often happens, circumstance brought me to the book sooner than I thought it would. Continental Divide is a big bear of a book that moves at an elegant clip, reconstructing and contextualizing the famous debate between Cassirer and Heidegger at Davos in 1929. At the center of the debate at the center of the book stands “the human.” At the shadowy edge of the book, there’s Judaism, or the religion of reason. For Cassirer, to be human is defined by spontaneous form or symbol creation, the articulation of freestanding worlds in myth, religion, art and science that are autonomous vis-à-vis empirical-temporal reality. For Heidegger, it means to be receptive to the thrown, temporal character of existence as a whole. Basic to aesthetic philosophy, at play for both thinkers are images and the imagination, the transcendental imagination as worked out in relation to the first edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. For Heidegger, the imagination roots human being into the temporal structure of the finite world, whereas for Cassirer the imagination is “spiritual,” namely the platform for the infinitization of consciousness.
A conscientious intellectual historian, Peter maintains strict neutrality. But there are hints here and there as to a “diminished admiration” for Heidegger (p.xiii). Reading Continental Divide, Cassirer ends up looking pretty good, perhaps even “better” than Heidegger, as a thinker, not just as a person. It occurred to me well into the text that Cassirer much more than Heidegger might be the better person to think through contemporary questions re: mental spontaneity and network plasticity, precisely because his thought depends upon the trans-subjective validity of philosophical judgment re: the formation of a “common and objective world” alongside new multiplicities and “functional determinations and meanings,” and “multiple spheres for transcendental inquiry,” multiple structures of Being. In contrast, Heidegger at Davos threw cold water over the possibility of reconciliation, reason, consciousness, and “Geist” in favor of “hard fate” and “Being in general…as something that is not a creative human achievement” (see pp.198—201, 202-7, 208).
I think it is starting at this relatively late point in Peter’s careful reconstruction of the Davos dispute that Heidegger begins to reflect, philosophically, the ugly hardening of conceptual discourse and figures that I often associate with this late period in Weimar German culture. Neuesachlichkeit. That’s how I read the hardness of the “hard fate,” the ontological nihilism and anti-humanism, and the rejection of multiplicity. Peter laments as “tragedy” the fact that the debate between Cassirer and Heidegger was politicized (p.363-4, 357). But if concepts “ramify” into life, as Peter also talks about in the introduction to the book (p.3), then don’t they have to ramify also politically? Judiciously, Peter skirts the relationship between Heidegger and Nazism and whether or not there might be a correlation between thought and life, or, in this case, ontology and worldview. Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, which I don’t think is not philosophically relevant, or if so only in an indirect or opaque manner. But it’s 1929, and we’re inching up to 1933 and the infamous Rector Address, and we are, of course, reading in historical hindsight. A more direct intervention on Peter’s part might have actually clarified waters that have, indeed, been muddied, not tragically, but inevitably, by the wrong kind of philosophical politics.
If there’s an intervention to be had in Continental Divide, maybe it comes from the side of “Judaism.” But its place is complicated, both at Davos and in Peter’s text, folded into and mostly hidden in the deep dark of the dispute. The first sign of Jewishness appears already in the book’s preface, where Peter calls Franz Rosenzweig a “minor curiosity” at the “periphery” of European intellectual history. One might suppose that this includes the tradition of Jewish philosophy represented by Rosenzweig, compared to what is represented as the “main action” between Cassirer and Heidegger. But we’re not quite done with it. There at the margins of the Continental Divide lurks the question regarding Cassirer’s Jewishness and Cassirer’s conception of Judaism as ethical culture, something about which Cassirer was very private, as Peter tells us (pp.317-22). It takes only a little deconstruction to see how the unhappy shadow, the margins of Jewishness and German Jewish liberalism might lend a different critical angle onto this seminal event in continental philosophy and European intellectual history.
At stake politically in the unfolding of the transcendental imagination at Davos are the liberal values, which Cassirer taught us to see in his Philosophy of the Enlightenment. These are presented by Cassirer not in terms of anemic reason and the isolating binaries between subjects and objects, but rather in the interrelations between reason and the life of the body and to emotion as well as to myth, religion, society, history, and politics. Did Cassirer ignore the deep religious foundation of politics, as per Voeglin and Strauss or was Cassirer right in the attempt to separate these spheres? Against the “myth of the state,” of law as revelation, against theopolitics and “mythico-religious passivity,” Cassirer upheld the “dignity” of human spontaneity, autonomous form creation, and the tradition of Jewish ethical monotheism embodied by his late teacher, Hermann Cohen (pp.300-322). Memorializing the murder of Cohen’s widow Martha at Theresienstadt, these are the human and religious values that enjoy against “modern political myths” the right of the elegiac last word given to them by Peter in an important penultimate chapter, “After Davos.”