(Idea & History) Hermann Cohen After Marx

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[Max Lieberman, Women Plucking Geese (1871)]

In the introduction to the Religion of Reason, Hermann Cohen claims that the unity and uniqueness of the idea of God “elevates belief to a speculative height that by comparison all other problems become secondary, even if one treats them as questions of main importance by bestowing upon them objective and historical motives.” That core idea even survives the active dislike modern Jews show for the ritual and ceremonial “accessories” that surround it (p.32). This reference to objective and historical motives reminded me of Marx.

Cohen can claim what he claims about the Idea and get away with it because he was an ethical socialist, because he took social suffering, in particular poverty, as a primary philosophical datum, and because the religion of reason brings the problem of human suffering before the God of Israel, who is good, not merely moral (or “holy” as per Cohen).

Marx thought that once the problem of capital was resolved that Judaism would simply dissipate and disappear into the mist. For him, religion is an illusion. The economic and political problems that for Marx were the only real and historically objective things in the world, for Cohen, these belong to the history of human ephemera. These structures are unlike the power of the Idea which survives and stands over historical flux. For Cohen there is nothing more powerful than an Idea, here being the idea of God, which is what, in his view, was that which creates the idea of social justice, creating the idea humanity which resolves existential suffering vis-à-vis the problem of death.

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. http://religion.syr.edu
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