- Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos
Much ink has been spilled on the dispute between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger that took place in the Swiss resort town Davos in 1929—famous since Thomas Mann staged his Magic Mountain there—and which has since been referred to as the “Davos Dispute.” While the debate itself and accounts accompanying it have been widely known to historians [End Page 508] of philosophy, Harvard historian Peter E. Gordon shows in this marvelous new book how memory has shaped the event into something much larger than anyone could have foreseen. It is, Gordon claims, the silent work of memory that has made this debate, rather innocuous at the time, into what can be retrospectively be considered the truly earth-shattering philosophical event of the twentieth century.
In hindsight, the symbolism of the debate between a German who became a leading Nazi philosopher in 1933 and a Jew who, in the same year, was dismissed from his professorship and forced to flee Germany, could not be greater. It only grows if one connects the historic events with their respective philosophies: on the one side the liberal modern Cassirer, whose philosophy allegedly glorified the Weimar stalemate, and on the other side the radical Heidegger, whose call for “authentic existence” took on a bone-chilling reality as he embraced Hitler in 1933 as the führer to lead Germany back to its authentic roots.
Two volumes—the 1999 collection, 70 Jahre Davoser Disputation, edited by E. Rudolph and D. Kaegi, and, in 2000, A Parting of the Ways by Michael Friedman—were the first to delve into the debate’s symbolic meaning. It was Friedman’s thesis that the fateful “parting of the ways” between Continental and Analytic philosophy could be traced to this meeting, which was also attended by Rudolf Carnap. Despite these studies, there has until now not been a comprehensive treatment that pulls together all threads into one narrative, covering the entire intellectual, historical, cultural, and philosophical landscape of the time. Gordon’s book achieves just that and will be, for years to come, the landmark work on this encounter.
The book begins from the background in post-World War I philosophy in Germany, which was perceived, along with culture, as being in crisis (ch. 1), to “set the stage” on the “Magic Mountain” (ch. 2). It proceeds to summarize the individual lectures by Cassirer and Heidegger, giving a detailed interpretation of the protocol prepared by students of the interlocutors (chs. 3–4). The author then takes a deep breath in chapter 5 to place the debate in the larger context of Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s philosophies. But the story does not end there, as chapter 6 examines the relation between both thinkers after the debate. Finally, in chapter 7, Gordon assesses the newer debates concerning this dispute up to the debate between Bourdieu and Habermas concerning Heidegger’s Nazi involvement, though it does not re-engage with Friedman’s thesis, as might have been desired.
Regarding his interpretation, Gordon juxtaposes Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s philosophies along the Kantian distinction between spontaneity and receptivity, where both paradigms make different claims on the “normative image of humanity” (5 ff.). Whether humanity is interpreted as spontaneous and world-creating, in optimistic Enlightenment terms (Cassirer), or as receptive and open to the world, i.e. as the “shepherd” rather than the “lord of being” (Heidegger), both are answering the fourth of Kant’s questions, “What is man?” While this distinction is useful for understanding the basic relation between them, it is also—as the author would concede—somewhat too coarse to do justice to their mutual differences and commonalities. Were one to assert a systematic critique, Gordon does not really make up his mind as to the true significance of these paradigms: are they mutually exclusive oppositions or, as he implies elsewhere, two alternative versions of philosophical modernism with a common ground? There is evidence for both readings. This question, however, is for the philosopher to answer—the philosopher who wants to push...