Intellectual history Think Piece

Radical Optimism: Hermann Cohen’s Influence on Modern Jewish Thought

By Sarah Denne

By Sarah Denne

The name Hermann Cohen is less well known today than the names of his famous students and intellectual heirs, the luminaries of modern Jewish thought. Martin Buber’s dialogical philosophy, Franz Rosenzweig’s theology of narrative, and Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of the face are indebted to Cohen’s work. Cohen articulated a radical optimism in German Jewish thought during the twentieth century, a time of extreme violence and oppression towards Jews in particular. Many of us today are skeptical of optimism. I believe, however, that Cohen’s radical optimism has something to teach us in a time of extreme social pessimism, political polarity, and impending climate disaster.

Hermann Cohen was born in 1842 in Coswig, Germany. He grew up in an observant Jewish household and brought his Torah training with him to various universities before receiving his doctorate at the University of Halle in 1865. During his doctorate, he studied classical and modern philosophy, focusing on the writings of Immanuel Kant. His major three volume philosophical work, System of Philosophy (1902), follows the form of Kant’s three critiques. His best known book, however, was the Religion of Reason out the of the Sources of Judaism, published in 1919 after his death. This work is a response to Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Mere Reason which argues that religious faith can and should be based on reason rather than tradition or history. Cohen embraces Kant’s vision of a religion of reason; however, Cohen wants to show that Judaism, rather than being contrary to a religion of reason as Kant presumed, can actually contribute in a unique way to the progress of religion and to European civilization. What is most suggestive about this project is the radical social optimism that was deeply tied to Cohen’s Judaism and influenced prominent Jewish philosophers after him who were grappling with the ruins of World War II.

Cohen’s optimism has two key elements: his definition of humanity as essentially innocent before God and his messianism which strives towards peace and justice through social trust. Following Kant’s theory of religion, Cohen believes that religions are progressive and develop towards purer forms that better supplement morality. In his Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, Cohen shows how Judaism also develops and contributes to morality in unique ways. However, Cohen does not equate religion and morality, though they are closely related in his thought. Rather, religion in general and Judaism in particular add something that is essential to the realization of morality. Judaism has concepts of sin and atonement – which I will explain next – that produce a distinct view of the human. This view of the human is distinct from, and superior to, the vision of humanity that is possible under German nation state.

To make this argument, Cohen appeals to Plato in his 1916 essay “The Social Ideal in Plato and the Prophets.” According to Plato, a human is a human as part of the polis; the state defines one’s humanity and being both outside of the state or a criminal of the state revokes one’s status as human. For Cohen, the instability of the category of human as tied to the state is morally problematic. Without religion, morality equates humanity with goodness and thus is unable to treat a person who is ‘not good’ according to the rules of the state as fully human. Thus, under Plato and under the state, a criminal becomes non-human. This is a problem because, according to Cohen, justice, which is supposed to be the primary duty of the state, is not possible when individuals who transgress state law lose their humanity and are punished unjustly. An alternative to the Platonic ideal is found in the Biblical prophets who challenge the state, punitive visions of justice, and definitions of humanity that rely on citizenship.

According to the prophets, a person is a human as created by God. More specifically, the primary relationship between humans and God is that of correlation, meaning that both humans and God are altered through relationship with one another. Under Jewish law, God is the sovereign rather than the state. This means that God’s law has primacy for the Jewish people over the laws of a human ruler, and thus theocracy is the proper form of government. By implication, humans are defined through correlation and relationship with God rather than through their status as citizens or non-citizens. Moreover, all transgressions are shegagah, meaning innocent, and a part of human weakness. Because of this, humans are not essentially corrupt and are always capable of renewal and returning to God. Further, because of shegagah, a person can trust that God will provide atonement, meaning righting the relationship between God and the individual when it is broken. This vision of atonement and sin relies on God as sovereign rather than the state and on humans as essentially innocent. Together, this means that justice, to be true justice, should be merciful rather than punitive. Under Judaism, the concept of the human includes both humans who are ‘good’ and who are ‘bad’ contrary to the state’s definition of humanity, which defines ‘bad’ humans and strangers as non-human and thus worthy of exile, punishment, and suffering.

What’s important here is that, for Cohen, Judaism contains a conception both of individual humans and of humanity in general. These conceptions significantly influence his prophetic ethics for two reasons. First, because God is unique and humans correlate to God, then each human is also unique. This means that individuals matter and cannot be subsumed into a whole. There is no sense then of utilitarian ethics, which is often the logic of the state, that would sacrifice one for the many. Part of the correlation, too, is that the individual is established in a relationship with God and with other humans. Second, the concept of humanity as a whole is still important and is established through God. Rather than humanity as a collection of citizens, God establishes humanity as a community under God’s laws of peace and justice. While God establishes the concept of humanity, it is only realized through human action. Therefore, humanity is a task. What this means is that the concept of humanity is not established as a fact of nature but is rather a product of striving towards greater peace, justice, and loving relationship. This is a key part of Cohen’s optimism: individuals are often tribalistic (think of Plato’s citizens versus barbarians) but have the potential to unite under a universal concept of humanity through encouraging peaceful and just communities beyond the boundaries of states.

For Cohen, optimism, just like the concept of humanity, is a task for which communities continually strive. This process of striving and its goal is called messianism. Messianism strives toward an ideal world by actualizing prophetic morality and the unity of humankind. This ideal world is defined by three things: justice, charity, and peace, and is contrasted with the German nation state. Cohen argues that the state is unable to provide justice, charity, and peace because it is based on punitive discipline, economic inequality, and separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. According to the prophets, the social ideal of justice, peace, and charity can only be realized in community and the abolishment of the state. In community, love between humans actualizes the love between God and humans. Thus, correlation between humans, which is created through compassion, also establishes the correlation between humans and God.

This is also what Cohen means about the task of the concept of humanity: the people around us are not inherently our neighbors, they only become our neighbors through compassion cultivated over time. The task of Judaism is striving towards compassion and thus actualizing humanity as a unified community. Importantly, being a neighbor to another requires some kind of social trust in other people and in the possibility of achieving justice in this world. The possibility of justice is based on the idea of redemption and atonement, which assume that humans can improve. Improvement, and thus ethics, is a task that is both individual and communal. As an individual, one is a human as created by God and has the capacity of always turning back to God and to morally improve. As a community, people must primarily be concerned with eradicating poverty and challenging the state’s role in maintaining class hierarchy which the Biblical prophets spoke out against. Messianism is, therefore, not a quietist hope for the future but acting to bring a promised future of peace, justice, and charity into the present. Thus, optimism itself is an ideal that must be assumed and worked towards.

Cohen’s optimism stems primarily from his messianism. Messianism, for Cohen, relies on a strong and radical optimism about the definition of humanity and the possibility for being in positive relationship, relying on others, and maintaining some form of social trust. Social trust and optimism are necessary for developing a new kind of society beyond state violence, founded primarily in the teachings of the prophets. For Cohen, this social ideal is only possible within a religious framework. It looks like a community where people relate not as citizens but as siblings involved in a shared task of renewal.

One could claim that Cohen proposes an outdated and naïve optimism, that his social hopes made sense at the end of the 19th century and represent the last legs of a fading Enlightenment tradition, one that cannot stand against the atrocities of the 20th century. There are two responses to this. The first is that many of Cohen’s followers – including Buber and, most notably, Leo Baeck – experienced the violence of the world wars and maintained their philosophy. None turned back on their ideas of social trust and redemption, but rather doubled down on the need for optimistic philosophy in order to salvage the possibilities for justice and peace after breakdown. Second, Cohen’s optimistic philosophy is founded on a relationship between God and the world and God and humans. Without God, there would be no optimistic philosophy, no social trust, and no ideal progress. Thus, Cohen is not naïve about the state of the world but rather deeply committed to God’s faithfulness in the world.

Many Jewish thinkers after the Shoah claimed that there was no reason to have faith in God and that, in fact, God is now absent in the world. Cohen’s wife died in the Holocaust, a tragic counterpoint, it would seem, to his philosophy of social improvement and rational optimism. But the question arises: how can we protest atrocity without a hopeful vision of a possible future and without some level of trust that we can build this with other people? Cohen’s radical optimism is not the rose-colored glasses; it’s the ‘nevertheless’ after the glasses have shattered. 

Sarah Denne is a second year PhD student in religious studies at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on the intersection of modern Jewish and Christian thought with contemporary literature.

Edited by Tingfeng Yan

Featured Image: Dörbecker, Karl: Portrait of Hermann Cohen, Leo Baeck Institute, 78.214, formerly 78.1401.