- Infinite Conversation
The public debate that took place between Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) in the spring of 1929 at the second annual Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurse in Davos, Switzerland, is remembered by scholars of twentieth-century culture not only for the light that it sheds on these figures' opposed philosophical positions but also as an indication of the path that European philosophy—and, more controversially, European politics—would follow in the years to come. Cassirer, an assimilated Jew and staunch supporter of the Weimar Republic, had studied under the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen and made a name for himself both as an historian of philosophy and as a formidable philosopher of science. The younger Heidegger, whose Being and Time had been published a few years earlier (1927), had broken from the transcendental phenomenology of his mentor, Edmund Husserl, and was now viewed as a representative of the "new philosophy," as a champion of life and the irrational opposed to attempts to codify philosophy as a rigorous science. A few years after the debate, concurrent with the rise of Nazism, Cassirer would leave his post in Hamburg and move to England, then Sweden, before settling in the United States. Heidegger, to whom hindsight has tended to award victory in the debate, would assume the rectorship at the University of [End Page 152] Freiburg (though he would resign just a year later) and join the Nazi Party. Both philosophers would remain productive into their final years, though with time the incommensurability of their respective positions would only become more pronounced.
In his exciting new study, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, the intellectual historian Peter E. Gordon attempts to separate the philosophical kernel of the Davos debate—ostensibly, the correct interpretation of Immanuel Kant's critical philosophy—from its political shell. Indeed, Gordon's claim that what occurred between Cassirer and Heidegger was above all a philosophical conversation ought to be read as a challenge to the more politically charged analyses of the same event developed by, among others, Hans Blumenberg, Pierre Bourdieu, and Geoff Waite. This is not to say that politics plays no role in Continental Divide. Gordon is quick to admit that the afterlife of the Davos debate has been decidedly extraphilosophical. But, he notes, the danger of an allegorical interpretation of this event is that "by dissolving the philosophical into the political, it threatens to divest us of any remaining criteria by which to decide intellectual debate other than the anti-intellectual contingencies of sheer power" (357). By reducing philosophy to politics, Gordon avers, we sacrifice the ability to ground our political choices in anything other than force. His opposed strategy is to locate the exchange between Cassirer and Heidegger in an intellectual-historical force field that includes neo-Kantianism and phenomenology, existentialism and vitalism, all the while stressing that the heart of the debate remained a clash between two incompatible readings of Kant's project. When Cassirer and Heidegger's respective positions are grasped on their own terms, as well as in relation to the wider situation of Weimar-era philosophy, Gordon wagers, we will finally begin to understand why a relatively specialized discussion came to be treated as a critical juncture in both the intra- and the extraphilosophical culture of Europe.
In the first chapter of the book, Gordon provides a summary analysis of the intellectual climate during the years of the Weimar Republic. Though the title of this chapter, "Philosophy in Crisis," points synechdocally to the wider transformations occurring in Germany at the time, the core of the crisis that Gordon describes is the usurpation of neo-Kantianism as Continental Europe's dominant philosophy. In brief, neo-Kantianism, especially in the form given to it by the Marburg School philosopher Hermann Cohen, sought to downplay the metaphysical dimension of Kant's work in favor of the epistemological dimension. The result of this endeavor was a reconfigured [End Page 153] Kantianism qua logic of scientific knowledge, for which the more mysterious dimensions of Kant's project—the pure spatiotemporal...