- Kant's Theory of Experience at the End of the War:Scholem and Benjamin Read Cohen A Commentary
I. Kant "Today"
At the end of one side of a manuscript entitled "On Kant" and housed in the Scholem Archive in Jerusalem, one reads the following pronouncement: "it is impossible to understand Kant today."1 Whatever it might mean to "understand" Kant, or indeed, whatever "Kant" is here meant to be understood, it is certain, according to the manuscript, that such understanding cannot come about by way of purporting to have returned to or spoken in the name of "Kant." For "[t]oday," so the document begins, "there are many people who call themselves Kantians, and who profess to have—or actually do have—cognitions in Kantian terminology." Whatever the degree of truth or falsity to such cognitions, however, neither those who produce these cognitions nor a philosophy consisting in these cognitions have a right to call themselves "Kantian," since it is "obvious" that "such terminology is not equivalent to Kantian language" but is abstracted from "language" as innovations towards the better description of the world. Were cognitions reducible to the use of certain fundamental concepts abstracted as terminology, [End Page 462] philosophy as such would be reducible to the trials and errors of philosophers who seek cognition but can only hope to approach it from the standpoint of invention—such that no philosopher will have ever attained an understanding of the cognitions denoted by the name "philosophy" until the end of philosophy. Thus, the manuscript continues, "[i]t is out of the question that these people, or even just one of them, understand this terminology." Reduced to the future comprehensibility of the cognitions transmitted in terminology, as "Kantians" would have it, philosophy itself is impossible to understand "today" ("On Kant" 443-44).
Coming from a twenty-six-year-old Walter Benjamin who had only recently decided on the topic for his dissertation, and his twenty-year-old friend Gershom Scholem, who knew less of Kant than of mathematics as he jotted down these notes detailing their joint study of Hermann Cohen's Kants Theorie der Erfahrung in the summer of 1918, these pronouncements certainly smack of the hyperbole of youth.2 Nonetheless, such soundings of the death knell of Kantianism were far from isolated fantasies of two friends disenchanted with the academics and politics back home.3 In a lengthy obituary written a few years later for the "last" of the neo-Kantians, Alois Riehl, Heinrich Rickert—with whom Benjamin had studied in Freiburg—also proclaims the death of neo-Kantianism by accusing it of "misunderstanding" and "misusing" the terms of its own name.4 The name "neo-Kantianism" has been abused, Rickert argues, because thinkers call themselves "neo-Kantian" who have no inclination of returning to Kant's discoveries in the context of his own time. The only right they have to be called neo-Kantian comes from the fact that they returned to Kant at [End Page 463] a time when Kant was all but forgotten or no longer understood, all the while as they drove philosophy forwards as a science in pursuit of their own agendas. The neo-Kantian insistence that Kant's writings may be abstracted into certain fundamental concepts that anyone capable of philosophical reasoning should be able to understand, so Rickert, is thus made possible only by the fact that what Kant intended or achieved with the concepts "has become difficult to understand in our own time" (ibid.). Neo-Kantianism is thus a philosophy of the future to the extent that its leading ideas derive from debates that Kant had, in fact, already settled a hundred years earlier; its futurity is exclusively a function of the belatedness of its own ideas vis-à-vis "Kant" in his "own" epoch. To the extent that the neo-Kantians seem united in their individual pursuits only on the use of a few fundamental concepts [Grundbegriffe] abstracted from Kant, neo-Kantianism appears to be little more than a movement of idiosyncrasies, which, though "new" to the extent that they depart from Kant, attain the character of a historically contingent, one-time phenomenon announcing nothing other...