Shira Billet



The Sources of Sociality: Hermann Cohen, German Idealism, and the Science of Judaism

The Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) was one of the most influential philosophers in Germany in the late nineteenth century. Cohen was a founder of neo-Kantianism, the intellectual movement that dominated Western scholarship in science, ethics, philosophy and religion from the late nineteenth century until the First World War. A proud and committed Jew, Cohen also engaged prolifically with questions of the philosophical meaning of Judaism. Indeed, his corpus is considered the foundation of modern Jewish philosophy. Although these two aspects of Cohen’s intellectual life – his neo-Kantianism and his philosophical Judaism – are often understood as distinct endeavors, for him they were completely interrelated. Cohen understood the fundamental philosophical aims of Kantianism and of Judaism to be one and the same: to make the world more ethical. In the light of historical events since Cohen’s death, his optimism about philosophical progress toward an ever more ethical world seems naïve, at best. It is an aim of my dissertation, however, to understand Cohen’s philosophy on its own terms, and the contribution it made to ethics and philosophy of religion in his own time, as well as the contribution that a recovery of Cohen’s thought can make to philosophical discourse in the 21st century.

My dissertation offers a new reading of Cohen’s philosophy, highlighting a particular aspect of Cohen’s thought that has important resonance with contemporary questions in ethics and philosophy of religion. I focus on the centrality of social concepts in Cohen’s understanding of epistemology, ethics, and religion. I distinguish between two broad types of sociality: (1) relationality or intersubjectivity, i.e the idea that individual identity and knowledge, on the one hand, and ethical obligations, on the other, are constituted by and presuppose some kind of relationship between two individuals; (2) collectivity, i.e. some conception of a collective existence of human beings that constitutes human knowledge, gives meaning to human identity, and sets the terms for human ethical responsibility.

Contemporary philosophers often claim that we can only obtain knowledge through social relationships or in the context of a community, replacing an earlier belief that the individual could know things through her mere capacity to reason. Similarly, ethicists often speak of ethical obligations as created through the responsibilities of a “self” to an “other” or of I-Thou relationships, replacing claims that ethical obligations are abstract rules that can be determined outside of relationships. And religion too is increasingly understood not in terms of an individual’s beliefs or practices, but rather in terms of faith communities, prayer communities, or communities of practice. (For example, theological elements of religion – such as the notions of creation, revelation, and redemption – are understood by Jews and Christians as relational concepts.)

This shift from the individual to the societal emerged in the nineteenth century for particular historical, political, and philosophical reasons. One might even say that nineteenth-century philosophy ushered in a “turn to the social” that set the terms for subsequent philosophical thinking. I argue in my dissertation that Cohen’s philosophy was constituted by this intellectual trend and also made its own unique contribution to the question of the social in ethics and religion – a contribution that has contemporary resonance. Thus, the dissertation is a project of intellectual history, but one that is profoundly animated by contemporary concerns in ethics and the philosophy of religion – and in particular in Jewish ethics and Jewish philosophy.

My central contribution is the exploration of the distinction between the two aspects of the social – the relational and the collective. In Cohen’s writings on ethics and religion, he distinguished between the role of intersubjective relationships (e.g. I-Thou relationships) and the role of human collectivities (e.g. communities, congregations, nation-states) in constituting ethical obligations. But he also considered these two aspects of sociality to be part and parcel of the broader question of the relationship between the isolated individual and the individual in society – whether a society of two or of many. The two aspects of sociality needed to be considered separately and also together in order to develop a fully robust understanding of ethics and of religion. In contemporary ethics and religion, the impersonal, human collective seems to be at odds with the personal, authentic, genuine intersubjective relationship. It was Cohen’s insight that intersubjectivity and collectivity are not at odds with one another but must be held together in any robust system of ethics and philosophy of religion.

In my dissertation, I closely read the works from Cohen’s corpus that utilize social concepts. Thus, I focus primarily on his writings on ethics and religion, although I also provide necessary contextualization from his writings on logic and epistemology. In all of these writings, Jewish sources play a significant role in Cohen’s discussions of sociality. Most of Cohen’s corpus, with the exception of one book and several shorter essays on religion and Judaism, has not been translated into English and is thus little known to Anglophone scholars. Thus, in my dissertation I aim both to introduce an audience of Anglophone scholars to Cohen’s ideas and arguments, and also to offer careful and close textual analysis of those arguments. Because I am highlighting Cohen’s role in a broader philosophical trend, i.e. the “turn to the social,” I am careful to situate Cohen’s claims in their contexts – their philosophical context, i.e. in relation to German Idealism and neo-Kantianism, two prominent and influential nineteenth-century philosophical movements, and their Jewish context, i.e. in relation to the Science of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums), a nineteenth-century Jewish intellectual and religious movement. These contexts of Cohen’s writings have not been adequately studied in relation to Cohen’s work.


Shira Billet
Shira Billet