Cohen, Spinoza, and the Nature of Pantheism

Jewish Studies Quarterly:171-180 (2018)
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The German text of Cohen’s Spinoza on State & Religion, Judaism & Christianity (Spinoza über Staat und Religion, Judentum und Christentum) first appeared in 1915 in the Jahrbuch für jüdische Geschichte und Literatur. Two years before, in the winter of 1913, Cohen taught a class and a seminar on Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. This was Cohen’s first semester at the Hochschule, after retiring from more than thirty years of teaching at the University of Marburg. Cohen’s fame at the time was at its zenith, and his move to the Hochschule was a cause for celebration and excitement. According to the testimony of some students who attended the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus seminar, Cohen left no place for any expression of dissent (regrettably, the academy frequently encourages such authoritarian behavior). The text of Spinoza on State, which was the product of this seminar, still bears the marks of this “didactic” attitude. It is bombastic and feebly argued. Thus, in one moment of emotional crescendo in the text, we can literally hear Cohen shout: When Spinoza, with merciless severity, makes his own nation the object of contempt – at the time that Rembrandt lived on the same street and immortalized the ideal type of the Jew - no voices rises in protest against this humanly incomprehensible betrayal. Such patriotic rhetoric is quite typical of Cohen’s Spinoza on State, as the work reads more like a series of rants against the devil incarnated (“the demonic spirit of Spinoza”) in the figure of the traitor from Amsterdam than like a sustained and serious philosophical polemic. From time to time, one can observe hints of critical arguments, but hardly any are fleshed out. The text is also replete with rudimentary factual and interpretative errors. Thus, when Cohen argues that Spinoza traces his pantheism to Jewish sources, Cohen erroneously cites Spinoza’s reference in E2p7s to “some of the Hebrews [quidam Hebraeorum]” who argued for the identity of Sekhel, Maskil, and Muskal (the Intellect, the Intellecting Subject, and the Intellected Object) – a Maimonidean doctrine that has nothing to do with pantheism – while the text Cohen clearly had in mind was Spinoza’s claim, in Letter 73, that the traditions (traditionibus) of the “ancient Hebrews [antiquis Hebraeis]” agree with Spinoza’s claim that “all things are in God.” Similarly, and on the very same page, Cohen ascribes to Spinoza the claim that “the God of the Old Testament is only a body,” a claim which is nowhere to be found in Spinoza’s works, and which can be inferred from Spinoza’s text only through a patent fallacy. If I may add one last example, consider the following passage from Cohen’s Spinoza on State: [For Spinoza] divine law is grounded in our mind. Yet this does not mean that our mind bears responsibility for producing and obeying the law. Instead, it means that, by definition, the human mind and God are identical, inasmuch as He exists in the human mind. Hardly any claim in this brief passage is correct. Yet, what is most striking is Cohen’s derivation of the identity of God and the human mind from the claim that God exists in the human mind. If I exist in North America, this obviously does not imply that I am identical to North America (there are, for example, a couple of North American porcupines and alligators that are distinct from me). What rule of inference Cohen sought to employ in this argument, and how this impressive inference of the identity of God and the human mind is supposed to square with Cohen’s view of Spinoza as a pantheist – i.e., as considering the physical nature to be divine – is beyond my grasp. Instead of tracking down the dozens of crude errors and fallacies in Cohen’s text, I would like to concentrate here on one crucial issue: Cohen’s critique of Spinoza’s pantheism. By doing this, I will have to pass silently over a couple of surprising agreements between the two figures, such as the (false) claim that all of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible taught the same universal and simple morality. My discussion of pantheism will be divided into two sections. In the first, I will examine Cohen’s understanding of Spinoza’s pantheism. In the second, I will briefly examine the historical validity of Cohen’s claim that pantheism is a Christian doctrine, diametrically opposed to Judaism.

Author's Profile

Yitzhak Melamed
Johns Hopkins University


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