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Reviewed by:
  • Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos
  • Larry McGrath
Peter Gordon. Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010. 426 pages.

The disputation between Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer at Davos, Switzerland on March 26, 1929, is of a peculiar kind in the history of ideas. On the one hand, Heidegger and Cassirer were vanguards of German philosophy at the time. Their encounter lends the impression of a titanic clash of ideas, the embodiment of phenomenology versus neo-Kantianism. On the other, eighty years of historical reflection has since expunged the debate’s philosophical content. The drama of “The Heidegger Controversy,” and the cottage industry of intellectual historical scholarship dedicated to revising its script, penned most forcefully by Richard Wolin, cast the disputation as foreshadowing 1933, the year Heidegger expressed his allegiance to the Third Reich. The drama’s endurance might be attributed to the versatility of Cassirer’s role. Although Heidegger “won,” debates continue to roil the question of just what lost: humanism, modernism, reason, or perhaps liberalism? Caught between the lofty march of ideas and debasing political reductions, the disputation today appears at once too philosophical and not enough. [End Page 1140]

Peter Gordon’s Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos revives the Arbeitsgemeinschaft between Heidegger and Cassirer from these two distortions. Gordon’s patient reconstruction of its conceptual stakes and analysis of its social ramifications situates the disputation as a “philosophical event” (215). That is to say it deserves to be understood philosophically and historically. Gordon’s thesis is that while the disputation came to bear a socio-political dimension, its philosophical content cannot be reduced to society or politics. Continental Divide pairs the philosophers’ personal correspondences with their formal treatises in order to redeem the irreducibly philosophical meaning of the disputation in tractable prose.

The intensive introduction distills the jargon of Heidegger’s Being and Time and renders concise Cassirer’s prolific three volume series, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. It grounds Gordon’s philosophical commentary, which extends from the authors’ oeuvres to the central question of their dispute: to which legacy does Kant belong? It is in the fourth chapter that readers find a blow-by-blow account of the two hours Heidegger and Cassirer shared. Here, the centerpiece of the book, Gordon narrates the disputation’s distension, as sparring textual interpretations of the first Critique became wider issues of method, ethics, and freedom. The conceptual bond that Gordon forges between what unfolded on that spring morning and the decades of thought subtending it is tight enough to squelch allegorical portrayals of the event.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the Davos disputation. And while Continental Divide intervenes within the continuously mounting scholarship that takes it to “symbolize various dualistic struggles: reason versus unreason, epistemology versus metaphysics, liberalism versus fascism, Enlightenment versus anti-Enlightenment, and so forth” (xii), the book also goes beyond the disputation. Gordon extracts from Heidegger’s and Cassirer’s thought a programmatic, if not methodological, argument for the way that intellectual histories should be written. Since the task of intellectual history is to situate ideas in their broader historical context, the discipline confronts the intractable problem of just what counts as context. In a 2004 essay that anticipates Continental Divide, Gordon warns, “intellectual historians’ expectation that all ideas are eventually to be construed in terms of politics may distort our understanding of the intellectual past” (“Continental” 224). Given the tarnish left by Heidegger’s reactionary politics, his thought generally, and Davos in particular, serve as a nearly ideal test case for resisting what Gordon sees as his discipline’s prejudice. Protecting the disputation’s context from political renderings requires preserving its conceptual value as an object of intellectual historical inquiry, since, “here,” in the domain of politics, “intellectual history may turn anti-intellectual, as if the historical inscription of ideas meant nothing more than their unmasking as power” (247).

In the first two chapters, Gordon relates the disputation to its philosophical and social context. This begins with Kant’s resurgence as a ground for scientific reason in German academia at the end of the nineteenth century. Despite their movements away from scientific paradigms, Cassirer toward [End Page 1141] culture and...


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