Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) and Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) are today recognized as two members of a short list of canonical modern Jewish philosophers. This shared membership would have surprised and perhaps horrified both men. Spinoza was expelled from the Jewish community in 1656 and seems never to have looked back. For him, philosophy was a universalistic rational endeavor that could admit of no modifier, let alone one that evoked a community that, like other religious communities, was ruled by superstition and fear rather than by reason. For much of the two centuries that separated Cohen and Spinoza, the latter was considered by Jews and Christians alike to have been an atheist and a heretic. Jews hardly even viewed Spinoza as Jewish, despite the well-known fact that he never converted to Christianity. Cohen lived at a time when, for a variety of philosophical, political and historical reasons, Spinoza’s star was on the rise both within German philosophy and within the Jewish community. Nevertheless, central to Cohen’s philosophy – for the bulk of his intellectual career – was a critique of Spinoza. This critique was first expressed primarily on philosophical grounds, on an opposition to pantheism and its collapsing of the distinction between “Is” and “Ought,” a distinction that Cohen, following Kant, believed was central to the possibility of ethics. But in the final decade of Cohen’s life, his critique of Spinoza became much more vehement and ventured into the personal. In addition to the philosophical dispute, which also continued into Cohen’s final years, Cohen came to argue that Spinoza had intentionally betrayed the Jewish community and, in many ways, set the terms for modern political and philosophical anti-Semitism. A decade before the Zionist Joseph Klausner would publicly revoke the expulsion of Spinoza, and in the context of a dramatically increasing Jewish fascination with Spinoza, Cohen argued against the grain that the Jewish community had been completely justified in expelling such a person.
Despite significant philosophical differences, dramatically different historical and political contexts, and opposing relationships to their respective Jewish communities, there is also ostensibly much that these two figures have in common when considered in broad strokes. Both rose to significant philosophical prominence beyond the Jewish community, a feat that was surprisingly not much simpler in Cohen’s day than in Spinoza’s. In the face of different but arguably equally intense social and political pressures, both refused, on principle, to become Christian. In very different ways, and in markedly different historical and philosophical contexts, both were champions of political liberalism (indeed Spinoza is often considered to be one of liberalism’s philosophical founders) and of the separation of church and state. Both believed and argued in their writings that a notion of a rational religion would be of ethical and political utility. Both drew on Jewish sources, in different ways and for different ends, in philosophical writings intended for a broader audience, and both gave particular attention, again in different ways and to different ends, to the Hebrew prophets and to the philosophy of Maimonides. Both wrote philosophical treatises on ethics that are now recognized as their magna opera, and, for both of them, the central aim of their philosophical writings was to promote a form of human ethical life and to improve the ability of human beings to live together harmoniously. These similarities, although to some degree reductive, are sufficient to give one pause when considering how uncharitably Cohen reads Spinoza – both philosophically and Jewishly. Indeed it is perhaps ironically these commonalities, no less than the more well-known differences, that contributed to Cohen’s strong opposition to Spinoza.
The time is ripe for a new consideration of Spinoza and Cohen together, and in particular of Cohen’s reading of Spinoza. In addition to a growing interest in the reception of Spinoza within German philosophy and German Idealism, something that is highly relevant to Cohen’s reading of Spinoza, there is an increased interest in the Jewish reception of Spinoza and in Cohen’s relationship to Spinoza. In addition to several recent publications on Cohen and Spinoza, adding to a very small body of literature, a recent English translation of Cohen’s 1915 monograph on Spinoza renders Cohen’s late reading of Spinoza accessible to a broader audience. Furthermore, the recent publication of an English-language history of the Jewish reception of Spinoza gives a broader audience access to the Jewish context of Cohen’s relationship to Spinoza. These are only two examples of a small but growing trend which we hope our conference will advance.