Deflationary Optimism


I came across this just now and thought I’d post it.  In a letter to his mother from 1918, Franz Rosenzweig—while reading through Hermann Cohen’s Logic of Pure Cognition—writes

Cohen is insanely hard. I would never have believed that a philosophical book would hold such difficulties for me.  Moreover-whether understanding him is accordingly worthy, is not yet certain for me; I almost believe it is not. But now I have begun it and am reading it through.

Rosenzweig, of course, ends up taking up Cohen’s infinitesimal method (of sorts) in the Star, but I find this passage somewhat comforting.

23 thoughts on “Deflationary Optimism

  1. Someone should take upon the thankless task for translating some of Cohen’s neo-Kantian stuff into English – I will worship this person like a god. I’ve only ever seen one book in English and it’s not his Kantian stuff – a heroic feat of glory anyone?

    • I’ve actually been tinkering with the idea of translating the Logic. The only problems I can see are that no one would be interested in publishing it, it is insanely hard, translation requires — by my lights at least — a thorough understanding of the text….

      Anyone want to help?

      • Heroes don’t need help, Alexei – they charge alone into the darkness and then get all the rewards just for themselves.

        You’re right concerning the publication interest, I think you should definitely send out some fillers and see if anyone is interested. You wouldn’t want to spend 10 years of your life for nothing. I think it’s probably better to translate something like Kant’s Concept of Experience, get the masses interested in Cohen and then do some heavy stuff like Logic. Once it’s going you’ll have plenty of volunteers, I think.

      • Yeah, I’m not so much of a hero as I am a sidekick anyway.

        The experience book is actually pretty straightforward, from what I remember (actually, one of the things I love about all of the Neo-Kantians is how clear their German is). Of course, I only flipped through the INtro and first two chapters before moving on, so maybe it becomes crazy-complicated quite quickly.

        Have you any Ideas about who might be interested in publishing translations of the Neo-Kantians? They’ve been so maligned I can’t actually think of a press that would be willing to do it (I probably shouldn’t say it, but I’m pretty sure some of the first editions of Cohen’s work — if not Rickert’s too — are now public domain, since copyright = lifetime+50 years. Unless I’m mistaken).

      • I’m pretty sure Cohen’s probably public domain since most of his works are in full-text in Google Books. I’m not sure about the publishers. My first thought would be to look into those Cambridge Texts or SUNY series on Contemporary Continental Philosophy, but I know that those green Cambridge books are primarily student-reading oriented and they didn’t even want to publish Maimon because they weren’t sure it would be used in class. Maybe there’s an up-and-coming series at Fordham? I don’t know what the neo-Kantian meter is at these days – maybe some Heidegger fans can get excited about this, just for the reasons of historical situating? I think it’s going to be the main challenged to show that it’s actually relevant as opposed to a simple “it must be translated because it is important” – I do know that Kant’s lectures on geography will come out in the nearest future (in that blue Cambridge series, sorry I only identify them by colors), so this could have an effect of some interest in Kant. Is there any Rickert or Natorp in English?

      • Rickert’s fascinating, actually. There’s a heavily abridged English edition of his Die Grenzen der naturwisseschaftlichen Begriffsbildung (i.e. it’s a selection –the greatest hits — of the last three chapters of the book), published by Cambridge’s Green history of philosophy series (I think). But that’s it. For anything approximating serious study, the abridged book is useless. So far as I’m aware, there’s nothing by Natorp in English. Cassirer is all translated though (although someone mentioned to me that there’s a weird abridgment issue with the philosophy of symbolic forms too — I’ve never looked at the German). It’s all really strange, if you ask me. One would think that the post-metaphysicians and pittsburgh Hegelians out there would love the Neo-Kantians (the whole Logic as normative discipline, etc). But there it is.

        To be honest, though, I have no idea how I would pitch a translation project. Past sending a sample translation, and saying something like, “Cohen’s book is like the most important study/reconstruction on Kant in the German speaking language, and people should really be reading it in English circles” I don’t really know what else to say. I’m not a scholar of Neo-Kantianism and I wouldn’t be able to put together a critical edition (at least not in the next 10 years).

        In any event, it’s not clear to me that SUNY Press actually publishes translations (although Northwestern UP does). My first impulse was to try contacting MIT Press (Thomas McCartney has a German Thinkers series there, which has published all the Blumenberg in English) I’ll have to look at Fordham too. We’ll see, maybe I’ve just discovered how to spend my saturday nights for the next 15 years.

        So there you go I guess. Heidegger really did kill neo-kantianism, at least in the English speaking world….

      • Translation proposals work the same way (for the most part) as book proposal – sample is always good, then all that stuff about why you think it’ll be important, marketing points, intended audience. I don’t know enough about Cohen and Co. but I would think that a good specialist scholar or two could be of help, you know? I’d email one and ask them why there aren’t any good translations and whether anyone is working on any etc etc… It’s clearly a strange gap in the literature.

      • Dermot Moran is coming out with a neo-Kantian reader, supposedly next year. I emailed him a question about the table of contents and he emailed back an offer to do a translation . . . That might be one place to start.

  2. Nice, looks like these just came out in 2000/2001. No Russian translations of Cohen either, but that’s mainly because all the Russian neo-Kantians who were studying in Germany were, well, studying in Germany and spoke the language.

    Motherland is calling for heroes, she will not forget.

  3. I think that there’s a neo-Kantian renaissance on the horizon. Here’s some stuff that may be of interest:

    There was a big Neo-Kantianism conference at Cornell a few years ago with Paul Guyer, Michael Friedman, Rolf-Peter Horstmann and others. Most of the papers were published in The Philosophical Forum, Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2008. Guyer mentioned that his paper was taken from what will be a long work on German aesthetics in the second half of the 19th Century.

    Rudolph Makkreel and Sebastian Luft just edited a collection on “Neo-Kantianism in Contemporary Philosophy” that’s available from Indiana U Press.

    Dermot Moran’s edited 450pp “Neo-Kantian Reader” is going to be available in May — he might be the guy to e-mail about translations, since this book is supposed to include a lot of material never before available in English.

    Peter Eli Gordon’s book on the Cassirer/Davos debate is supposed to include a lot of historical background on Neo-Kantianism, and I’ve heard that Peter Fenves’ forthcoming book on Benjamin will deal with B. and neo-Kantianism.

    There’s probably some stuff that I’m forgetting….

    • Thanks, Rob. If I have the time, perhaps I’ll even throw up a post linking to some of this stuff you mention.

      There’s some crossover with Rosenzweig here too. That is, many of the people that work on FR are familiar with Cohen’s work, and more broadly, a good deal of the other Neo-Kantians because, at least in my view, FR had two texts under his nose when he wrote the Star: Cohen’s Logic(as indicated in the post above) and Schelling’s Weltalter. Now if some of those people would translate some of Cohen’s stuff…like Alexei I’m not sure if I’d want to commit myself to banging my head against the wall for the foreseeable future.

  4. HA! so maybe Neo-Kantianism is the next big thing after all (thus making it thrice cooler than Latourianism and objectology)!

    Thanks everyone for the suggestions, maybe I will contact Moran, and see what he’s up to (he’s been writing some pretty solid stuff on Husserl’s debt to Neo-Kantianism in recent years).

    Shahar, may I ask you a question? Why do you think the Weltalter was Rosenzweig’s Schelling of choice? I don’t know much Schelling, and I have only a really basic understanding of the Star. But My impulse would have been to say the the System of Transcendental Idealism was the primary inspiration (especially given the importance FR placed upon the turn of 1800). Anyway, I’m just curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.

    • Hi, Alexei. Well, it could be that I’m just more familiar with the Weltalter! I know why you would say STI. I’ll give you my quick and dirty answer now and I’ll come back to this when I get a chance to flesh it out. Really, I’m just taking Rosenzweig at his word, for one, in letters from 1918-1921 he routinely refers to the Weltalter as influencing the Star a great deal. In fact, I think in the “Urzelle” Rosenzweig actually claims that Parts 2 and 3 of the Star are completing the Weltalter. Rosenzweig’s constructive impetus, I think, is wholly dependent on the Weltalter. Broadly, I’d say what makes FR so enamoured with the Weltalter is the business of severing freedom from apriori reason/necessity. Schelling’s insistence that we can know atemporal essences a priori, but cannot know the temporal fluxes of existence that way, in my opinion, is exactly how the Star, like the Weltalter proceeds, that is, as history. There is a need, in both thinkers, for a sort of turning inside out and/or extroversion/introversion (think of the introverted entities, God, man, world, in the Star part 1 and what happens as the text unfolds) in order to make intelligible that which occurs in freedom all the while sustaining its unintelligible component (the Act, the action of freedom, the incomprehensible free act). At bottom, the free relations that occur in day to day experience and in language require a logical foundation in order to give us any sort of rigorous knowledge. I’m on the run in between classes, sorry this is so allusive and sketchy. Hope it helps…

    • Yeah I’ve been reading that book for a little while now (I got it out for the Deuber-Mankowsky essay on Cohen and Benjamin, which turned out to be OK, but the rest is pretty interesting.)

      • I might take a look at some of the essays myself, the one on jurisprudence as a organon of ethics looks interesting. In any case, I say we have a new goal here at PE, since “speculative realism” is officially RIP, we might need to put our efforts into making Cohen and Co. make a glorious comeback!

  5. Hi all. Great to see so much enthusiasm to get some of this stuff translated. I actually had plans to put together an anthology of Marburg neo-Kantian epistemological writings in 2003 but was unable to find a publisher at the time (Karl Ameriks at Cambridge, for example, said they would not be interested), and since then have not had time to go back to it, much to my regret. At that time I also found other people who had written detailed proposals some years before but who had also eventually been overtaken by more pressing commitments. I did manage to contact just about everyone who was seriously working on this stuff in the English speaking world at the time, though, and got a lot enthusiastic responses and offers to do translations, so I could also dig those out those proposals and contacts if anyone actually has the time and energy to get the thing up and running. I also have some ideas for how to try and get some funding for this (and some very prominent academics who would back the project, at least by writing a report on its significance) and even know a publisher who said they would publish the anthology, but again, have never had time to actually press on with it. It may be worth mentioning that in 2005 I edited a special issue of Angelaki (10.1) for which I commissioned several papers on Cohen, Natorp and early Cassirer, and my introduction to that has a summary of basically all that had been published in English up to then, and what translations are available (published and unpublished), including some of Cohen and Natorp. From what they told me about it, I´m not holding out great hopes regarding the Moran and Luft anthology, frankly, since when I spoke to them some years ago about it, at least, they didn´t seem much interested in commissioning new translations for it and Moran at least seemed to have an overly broad conception of neo-Kantianism. However, to be fair, I have yet to see what is going in there. It will surely have some valuable pieces of course (they must surely be including a translation of Natorp´s “Kant and the Marburg School” at the very least), but whatever they include will obviously only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the stuff that is richly deserving of translation. Anyhow, all this is just to say that I have done a fair bit of the groundwork for this and so, if people want to get in touch with me about getting the whole thing properly kick-started, I´d be happy to take on some editorial duties when I have time (though it´s unlikely I´ll be able to do much for a few months yet).

    • Thanks, Damien. I have your email in case anyone wants to get in touch with you (since my email on the blog somewhere).

      I wonder if anyone – Shahar, Alexei, Jon (Cogburn) or anyone else – could do a good post (whenever you have time) about why we should pay attention to neo-Kantians like Cohen. I mean as a kind of a simple case for all of this translations – could be a good exercise for a translation proposal.

      To mimic for a second he who must not be named, we can imagine an alternative history of philosophy in which Heidegger does not push neo-Kantians out of philosophical fashion, or an alternative history in which Cohen and Co. make a glorious come-back and defeat everything Heideggerian (then we can dream up various future factions and school in our new movement – fun, fun, fun).

      Seriously though, I’m yearning for some good old turgid and obscure German philosophy…

  6. Get ready, folks–the Neo-Kantian Reader is coming after all! After some things going topsy turvy for a while, the volume is going to be edited by me and will include a good amount of hitherto unknown texts. So stay tuned–and, sorry for the delay.

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