Review of Daniel Weiss, Paradox and the Prophets

Daniel Weiss, Paradox and the Prophets: Hermann Cohen and the Indirect Communication of Religion, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 352 pgs. $74

Mark Randall James
University of Virginia 

Hermann Cohen was one of the leading lights of 19th century German neo-Kantianism, which in various ways went ‘back to Kant’ to articulate an account of reason and philosophy that corrected the excesses of German Idealism while consolidating its insights. Hermann Cohen’s own Marburg School learned from Hegel to ask after reason’s social and historical actualization, but adopted Kant’s vision of philosophy as transcendental reflection and his insistence on the unavoidable gap between the ideal and the actual. Like Kant, Cohen’s philosophical system marries a strong ethical center and social consciousness with a thoroughgoing defense of reason and science. Cohen is important for understanding the contemporary divide between analytic and continental philosophy, since it was above all against the Marburg School that both the logical positivists and the phenomenologists were reacting. Cohen was also the teacher of the better-known Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Unfortunately, because his ‘children’ have set the terms for so much of 20th century thought, Cohen has been fated to be read primarily as a mere ‘precursor.’

In In his new book Paradox and the Prophets: Hermann Cohen and the Indirect Communication of Religion, Daniel Weiss argues provocatively that Cohen should be read rather as their ‘successor’ (4), as a philosopher uniquely suited to help recover the rationality of religion in our postmodern age. In the modern period, religions have tended to articulate themselves in opposition to reason, or science, or cognition. Religion famously gives rise to intractable disputes, which seem to underscore its irrationality, and there can be no doubt that Western religions have fostered their share of anti-rational ideologies. But according to Weiss, Hermann Cohen shows that religion is not necessarily irrational but may be distinctively rational. Religions may have a logic of their own, though one that does not proceed from a priori universals, but rather arises from and remains related to the sources and practices of particular religious traditions. As Weiss points out, to delimit the legitimate sphere of religious rationality is also implicitly to defend other legitimate spheres of rationality, like that of natural science: “[Cohen] developed his religious thought not because he wanted to save religion, but because he wanted to save science in an age of religion” (252).1  Cohen’s construal of religion’s rationality may be most pertinent for those theologians who, like many of their peers in the humanities and much of the general public, too often foster a casual skepticism about the sciences.

Weiss argues that Cohen’s account of religious rationality led him, like Plato and Kierkegaard, to become a profoundly rhetorical philosopher. Cohen’s late masterpiece Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism (RoR) exhibits a distinctive style, modeled on the plurality of Jewish textual sources. According to Weiss, Cohen communicates religious concepts indirectly through the juxtaposition of two different voices, which Weiss labels ‘philosophy’ and ‘Scripture.’ Philosophy uses clear theoretical language that satisfies reason’s demand for universality, but cannot do justice to the singularity of individuals and the unique God: it says ‘too little.’ Scripture (by which Weiss means primarily quotations or paraphrases of the Bible and rabbinic texts) speaks in concrete and personal terms, but cannot avoid anthropomorphism and sensuality: it says ‘too much.’ Failing to attend to the interplay between these two distinct voices, Cohen’s interpreters have remained stuck within the terms of two diametrically opposed readings of Cohen, each privileging one of these voices. The ‘philosophical’ reading, privileging the philosophical voice, argues that RoR is a consistent continuation of his neo-Kantian philosophical system.  The ‘religious’ reading, privileging the Scriptural voice, argues that RoR  represents a radical break with the earlier system. More recent readers, recognizing this conceptual multiplicity but without considering the question of its rhetorical function, have tended either to accuse Cohen of vacillation and contradiction, or to attempt to reconcile the two voices into a single coherent theoretical account. Weiss’ view mediates between these two latter options: Cohen’s double-voiced style is rooted in the insight that religious concepts cannot be thought without contradiction, but they can be performed as coherent unities.  This thesis enables Weiss to explain the dichotomous history of Cohen interpretation as a failure to recognize Cohen’s rhetorical strategy.

Although Cohen does not explicitly discuss his own style, Weiss shows in chapter 1 that Cohen had given serious consideration to the question of style in his earlier essay “The Style of the Biblical Prophets.”2  The prophets adopt a “double-voiced, oscillating style” (43 n.15), both tragic and ironic, threatening the destruction of the whole people while promising the deliverance of a remnant. By juxtaposing apparently contradictory statements, they engender “a single ethical orientation” that any one-sided theoretical account would inevitably distort (51). Weiss argues that Cohen’s RoR adopts an analogous strategy, oscillating between Scriptural sources and philosophy to express practical religious concepts that cannot be theorized without distortion. Weiss does not shrink from the implication that Cohen saw his own work as somehow prophetic. 3

In chapter 2, Weiss shows how the necessity of a double-voiced style follows from Cohen’s own systematic account of philosophy and religion and from his understanding of classical Jewish sources. Weiss shows how Cohen carved out a conception of reason that includes both religion and philosophy as distinct spheres. Against Hegel, religious rationality is distinct from and cannot be subsumed by philosophy. Against Schelling, however, religion is not a non-rational sphere outside of (and thus possibly opposed to) reason. Rather, both religion and ethical philosophy are expressions of reason’s reflections on the same reality, namely, concrete human Sittlichkeit (typically translated ‘morality’ but translated ‘ethicality’ by Weiss to highlight its character as the object of the science of Ethics, the branch of philosophy primarily in view here).  Religion and philosophy are delimited, for Cohen, by their respective methods. Ethics, following Cohen’s broadly Kantian conception, considers individual humans objectively as instances of one general human nature. Religion treats human beings as ungeneralizable individuals, related as singular ‘I’ to a ‘Thou’ and to the unique God. Each method “[refracts] their shared subject matters of human being and God in different ways” (87). Ethics must subsume the individual in the universal (to do otherwise would give license to egoism); but Religion must guard the individual in her individuality (to do otherwise would be totalizing).

Yet Cohen also insists that there cannot be two self-sufficient scientific methods with the same object, which would undermine the unity of reason. Developing the theme of chapter 1, Weiss argues that Cohen’s account of the classical Jewish sources in RoR hints at a way past this apparent impasse. Weiss’ consistent attention to Cohen’s reflections on the style of the Jewish sources is one of the great strengths of his book. Cohen identifies an inherent duality within the Jewish sources (exemplified in the Talmud): between theory and practice, between Moses and the prophets, between halakhah and aggadah, etc. These sources do not present static concepts, but rather attempt to express, in written form, the oral dynamic of thought and its necessarily practical orientation: “Just as the problem is alive, so is the word.” 4  Weiss suggests that Cohen makes this a model for religious reason in general.  Religious concepts can be expressed theoretically only with multiple voices, yet they can be concretely realized in the practical unity of lived ethical and religious life. Weiss explicitly takes the Kantian antinomies as his model for this inevitable theoretical conflict, a point to which we shall return. 5

Chapter 3 considers a possible objection: in the introduction, Cohen appears to offer an unproblematic account of religious concepts in a single, philosophical voice. Weiss argues that this section should be read rather as Cohen’s ironic performance of the failure of any one voice to express religious concepts. Cohen is thus tacitly criticizing his own attempt a few years earlier, in Der Begriff der Religion, to offer a philosophical account of religion without dialectical relation to these sources.

Weiss develops his account of Cohen’s style in chapter 4, drawing on Kierkegaard’s theory of indirect communication in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Kierkegaard reflects on the “irresolvable cognitive multiplicity” of certain practices: “there are things that can be done even though they cannot be thought (124).  Weiss suggests that Cohen’s text be read as a Kierkegaardian “sign of contradiction,” a sign designed to provoke activity in the reader by allowing opposite theoretical interpretations.  Weiss happily follows more recent Kierkegaard scholarship in rejecting the attribution of mere ‘anti-rationalism’ to Kierkegaard.  In finding such a ‘sign of contradiction’ in Cohen, however, Weiss does not address the fact that Cohen claims repeatedly, in the body of the text, that religion shows its “share in reason” precisely by its structural analogy with philosophy: “Religion . . . in accordance with its share in reason, has to strive to be analogous to ethics . . .”6  I find it difficult to fully reconcile Weiss’ Kierkegaardian account of Cohen’s paradoxical and contradictory style with Cohen’s consistent rhetoric of analogy and harmony.

Chapters 5 and 6 put Weiss’ theory to work reading portions of Cohen’s text. In chapter 5, Weiss works through a number of examples in which, he argues, Cohen expresses a single religious concept through a paradoxical oscillation of the voices of Scripture and philosophy. For example, our practical relation to God, enacted above all in prayer, is a paradoxical passion without sensuality that can only be expressed by oscillating between the too sensual Scriptural language of ‘love of a person’ and the bloodless philosophical language of ‘love of an idea.’ (See also my discussion of autonomy below).

Chapter 6 clarifies that the practices to which religious concepts correspond should not be understood merely empirically but rather as infinite tasks oriented towards an ideal. Weiss shows how Cohen thinks these concepts through the mathematical notion of the infinitesimal, a quantity that is infinitely small and thus, paradoxically, must be thought as both something and nothing. Notwithstanding its paradoxical character, however, the infinitesimal is useful practically for solving mathematical problems. Reading Cohen in light of the paradoxes of infinitesimal quantities helps clarify how the ‘infinite task’ of ethics may be both infinitely far off (not realizable until the messianic age) and infinitely close (potentially realizable in the next moment). Cohen’s interest in the infinitesimal and its paradoxes is strong evidence for Weiss’ thesis that Cohen’s thought has a paradoxical substructure. 7

Weiss’s Kierkegaardian account of philosophical style, and his insistence on the possible limitations of theoretical clarity, is a welcome challenge (akin to that of ‘ordinary language’ philosophers) to certain strands of Anglo-American philosophy that downplay the loss involved in bringing analytic clarity to natural language. His attempt to carve out a sphere of religious rationality with a logic distinct from that of the generalizing logic of philosophy and science may prove fruitful for theologians and philosophers of religion. Weiss’ book should prove particularly interesting to practitioners of Scriptural Reasoning because his book can be characterized as a philosophical attempt to articulate the distinctive reason appropriate to the scriptures of Judaism.

However, although I am persuaded by Weiss that Cohen should be read as a rhetorical philosopher who appropriated the style of traditional Jewish sources, I am less sure that this style should be characterized in terms of a paradoxical antinomy between two irreconcilable theoretical perspectives. I shall focus on one illustrative example, Weiss’ treatment of Cohen on autonomy and divine command in chapter 5. Weiss’ strategy is to demonstrate the “fundamental theoretical incompatibility of the two approaches” by exhibiting an antinomy (162). On the one hand, the method of Ethics, which is based on the autonomy of the will, inevitably leads to “the dissolution of the individual” in totality (163). 8 On the other hand, “if autonomy is not absolute” then the human being as I, as individual, will be lost” (163). 9 Weiss summarizes this argument in paradoxical terms: “In other words, both autonomy and lack of autonomy will cause the individual to be lost” (163)! To make sense of this, Weiss interprets Cohen as offering a “paradoxical-practical compatibility,” that is, “because they are not compatible, except in the individual’s engaged act of ethical willing, Cohen’s written-theoretical account must present them as both compatible and non-compatible” (163). The best theoretical reason can do is to oscillate between these one-sided accounts in a kind of endless dynamic balancing: “if a person is inclined to think of the command as external, she should learn to push her way of thinking more toward internality, and vice versa” (161). The concrete practice of moral life may be a coherent unity, but the corresponding theoretical antinomy between Scripture and philosophy is unsublatable.

It seems to me that there are a few potential problems for this reading. First, Weiss has shown that Cohen’s treatment of biblical style emphasizes precisely the Bible’s many-voiced character. But this makes it hard to see how Cohen’s philosophical writing could treat Scripture as a single voice opposed to philosophy. Should we not expect rather to find antinomies or contradictions within the Scriptures themselves? This is exactly what we find here. Immediately after claiming that Ethics leads to the dissolution of the I in the state and the totality of humankind, Cohen observes that the ‘social prophets’ share the same outlook:

The dissolution of the individual . . . is the climax Ethics can achieve for the human individual.  The prophets of social morality, in their messianic monotheism, join in the achievement of this climax.  In the prophets’ vision of mankind the individual, as a particular man, vanishes.10

In this case, philosophy and Scripture speak with a single voice. This voice, however, is opposed to another Scriptural voice, namely, the “one-sided religious and religiously determined moral view” that seeks to assert the individuality of the self by “[isolating] man in his moral power.”11 The contradiction Weiss identifies is not between ‘Scripture’ and ‘philosophy’ but within Scripture itself.

Second, Weiss characterizes Cohen’s style as an oscillation between two voices, whose function is to require the reader to continually correct the one-sidedness of an overly universalist or overly particularist formulation of religious concepts. This notion of ‘oscillation’ can be interpreted in two different ways. First, Weiss might have in view a methodological oscillation, a circular process of thinking that aims to ensure a progressively more adequate theoretical understanding of some object, analogous to the scientific method or the hermeneutic circle.  Weiss indeed emphasizes the priority of method over content in Cohen (133), and he insists that, for Cohen, religious concepts are dynamic concepts that require a methodology of ongoing Scriptural commentary: “they have their life and their continued existence between the thinker and the sources” (83).  As a thesis about Cohen, this account of oscillation is unobjectionable: it asserts that the genre of Cohen’s text, a kind of philosophical commentary on Scripture, requires a thinker to refine her religious concepts by oscillating back and forth between scriptural text and philosophical reflection.

But usually Weiss claims that this oscillation is not a methodological but a rhetorical one, necessary for the very expression of religious concepts. For example, we saw above that, for Weiss, no theoretical progress is possible with respect to the problem of autonomy and divine command: the best the thinker can do is oscillate between assertions that are too abstract and universal and those that are too sensual and particular. This oscillation of content would seem to discourage further attempts at conceptual clarification as fruitless, and for this reason, I find it difficult to reconcile with the developmental thrust of RoR. For when Cohen identifies contradictions within the Jewish sources from which he is developing the concept of religion, he does not oscillate between them.  Rather, he tries to unify them, treating contradictions as the engine for the further theoretical articulation of a new religious concept. In the case of autonomy, for example, Cohen argues: “Both points of view require unification with one another, if the moral, the religious man is to be generated out of the fellowman, as the individual, as I.” 12  On their own, these one-sided views are what Cohen calls mere “abstractions,”13 but their concrete unification is achieved through Ezekiel’s theoretical concept of the individual I, which is also concretely realized through a practice, that of repentance.  Scripture itself includes both the antinomies and their sublation, and this sublation has both a theoretical and a practical component. While Weiss rightly insists that, for Cohen, the unification of these concepts cannot occur apart from religious practice, I think he tends to overstate the impossibility of theoretically articulating and developing such concepts.

I suspect that a Hegelian dialectic, rather than a Kantian one, would have provided a better model for the rhetorical dynamic that Weiss has identified.14 Kant conceived of his antinomies as inevitable and eternal features of human reason. While both sides of the antinomy may serve a useful regulative (i.e. practical) function, any theoretical attempt to arrive at a unified conception through a process of reasoning is fruitless a priori.  By contrast, Hegel’s dialectic takes aim at precisely the putative inevitability of Kantian antinomies: if reason is conceived as a vital, social, and historical activity, then abstract Kantian antinomies are capable of sublation when reason is actualized in new forms of social life. Thought and practice are dialectically related — social change is inseparable from new patterns of thought. When this dialectic is taken up within the context of the Marburg school’s insistence, against Hegel, that the task of human reason is infinite, the implication is that no antinomy is final, that further fruitful reasoning is always possible.

Hegel, of course, would reject Cohen’s notion of a distinct religious sphere of reason.  But Cohen’s work bears comparison with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit insofar as he seeks to display a dialectical development embodied in the history of Judaism and recounted in its literary sources.  Cohen demonstrates Judaism’s ‘share’ in reason by displaying the dynamic movement of thought15 implicit in its texts— from the fundamental concept of the unique God to its development in the prophetic discovery of the fellowman through compassion, to the discovery of the I through the consciousness of sin, and so on.  His dialectical development of the concept of autonomy, outlined above, is a case in point.

Exploring these Hegelian aspects of Cohen’s thought will, I suspect, tend to confirm Weiss’ central claims: that for Cohen, religious concepts give rise to theoretical contradictions that cannot be resolved merely at the level of theory, and that this requires Cohen to adopt a distinctive style that juxtaposes these contradictions. But this Hegelian lens may help make more intelligible Cohen’s commitment to religion’s rationality and the legitimacy of his hope that rational inquiry into its concepts may be fruitful.


1. Weiss is quoting Motzkin here.  Weiss’s frequent use of mathematical and scientific examples are signs of his own sympathetic engagement with the sciences.
2. A partial English translation can be found in Reason and Hope: Selections from the Jewish Writings of Hermann Cohen, ed. Eva Jospe, Hebrew Union College Press (1993), 106-119.
3. E.g. Weiss 40, 78, 80, 212.
4. RoR 29, qtd. 83.
5. Weiss refers several times to Critique of Pure Reason B 694f.
6. RoR 135; cf. 60, 114f, and the discussion of autonomy below.
7. To the extent that Weiss offers Cohen as a model for modern philosophers, however, it should be noted that contemporaries of Cohen reformulated the mathematical foundations of calculus in terms of limits, thereby obviating the need for infinitesimals and their paradoxes. (Weiss mentions this only in a brief footnote: 183 n.9). This is a reminder that it is difficult to prove that a particular concept is unavoidably paradoxical.  Probably Weiss should not be read as attempting such a proof.  Rather, I take him to be defending the claim that paradox is not, in itself, a sign of irrationality, particularly where its function is to express a coherent practice.
8. See RoR 178.
9. See RoR 202.
10. RoR 178, emphasis added.
11. RoR 180.
12. RoR 180.
13. RoR 204.
14. Weiss tends in general to downplay the Hegelian side of Cohen’s thought.  We can see this formally in the fact that Weiss’s footnotes engage in an ongoing and generally sympthetic dialogue with Kant, while his references to Hegel are sparse and usually critical. Weiss may be taking the Marburg’s School’s rhetorical anti-Hegelianism too much at face value.  The famous essay ‘Kant und die Marburger Schule,’ (Kant-Studien, 17 (1912), 193-221), by Cohen’s colleague Paul Natorp is illustrative.  Natorp takes ‘Hegelian’ as a charge against which the Marburg school must be defended.  He does this by rejecting Hegel’s absolutist identification of the ideal and the real that dissolves the infinite ethical task of human beings (213).  Weiss echoes this criticism repeatedly.  But Natorp also notes that the Marburg School sought to reason regressively from science, ethics/law, art, and religion as given social facts; that they reject the Kantian oppositions between intuition and understanding; and that they trace reason’s development in terms of a triadic dialectic that seeks to overcome one-sidedness.  (Weiss gives little attention to these dimensions of Cohen’s thought.)  Natorp is perfectly aware that Hegel taught these things; but he defends against the charge of Hegelianism by claiming that these moves were already implicit in Kant and Plato (210ff).  Natorp in fact acknowledges the rich Hegelian dimension to his and Cohen’s thought, even as he rejects the label ‘Hegelian.’
15. This, of course, raises the problem, rightly emphasized by Weiss, of how to express the active dynamic of thought in writing (Weiss 81).

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