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Continental Divide Hardcover – 8 Jun 2010


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  • Hardcover: 390 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (8 Jun. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674047133
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674047136
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 16.5 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,562,776 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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In Rosenzweig and Heidegger, Gordon concludes with a reading of the 1929 debate between Heidegger and Cassirer at a philosophical conference at Davos, Switzerland...Gordon here returns to this primal scene and reconstructs the event with extraordinarily thoughtful and scrupulous precision. This debate has achieved legendary status in the history of contemporary thought and is regarded as opening an abyss between those who base philosophy on scientific reason, and the human power of reflection, and those who are haunted by the unthinkable, the unsaid, and the unsayable...By judiciously reconstructing Cassirer's and Heidegger's arguments, Gordon definitively unveils the subtle refinement of Heidegger's positions and shows with new clarity that this struggle over Kant's legacy has relentlessly unfolded over the 20th century. A work of exceptional significance. -- N. Lukacher Choice 20101101 [An] extraordinary book...Each of its pages of sustained philosophical explication excites and astonishes, and in the process teaches us new ways of thinking about the history of ideas...After [Gordon's] brilliant reading, we can no longer simply ascribe Heidegger's and Cassirer's differences to inimical philosophies...Gordon's manifesto will resonate with historians of my generation. -- David Nirenberg New Republic 20110203 Continental Divide provides the definitive narrative and analysis of the Davos incident, its background, its context and its aftermath. Gordon neither abstracts the philosophical debate from its contemporary setting, nor reduces it to its extraphilosophical ramifications. He has a masterly understanding of the philosophy, but insists that abstract ideas, too, very often wear layers of historical clothing...He sees that the hermeneutic disagreement was genuine and that real philosophical issues were at stake in the collision of Cassirer's celebration of rational spontaneity with Heidegger's concept of thrownness--the collision, that is, of idealism with existentialism. Gordon refuses to boil those ideas off in either uncritical historicism or easy political editorializing. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and his narrative never ascends to such a lofty historical perspecti ve that the philosophical air becomes too thin to breathe. -- Taylor Carman Times Literary Supplement 20111104

About the Author

Peter E. Gordon is Professor of History, Harvard University.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman TOP 500 REVIEWER on 21 July 2014
Format: Hardcover
In March 1929, philosophers Martin Heidegger (1889 -- 1976) and Ernst Cassirer (1874 -- 1945) met in Davos, Switzerland for a public series of individual lectures and for a discussion and debate. The Davos meeting has assumed an important, near legendary, stature in the history of Continental philosophy. In his book "Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos" (2010) Peter Gordon gives an account of the the two philosophical protagonists, their Davos meeting, and of what proceeded and followed the Davos meeting. Most importantly, Gordon discusses what was and what was not at stake in the discussion between Cassirer and Heidegger. The book displays a rare combination of historical and philosophical insight. Gordon is Amabel B. James Professor of History and Harvard College Professor, Harvard University. Recently issued in paperback, his book won the Jacques Barzun Prize of the American Philosophical Society.

At the time of their Davos meeting, Cassirer and Heidegger were renowned. The older philosopher, Cassirer, was an urbane German-Jewish philosopher and a neo-Kantian who had written extensively on the history of philosophy, including a three-volume statement of his own philosophical approach, "The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms". Heidegger was born in rural Germany to a family of modest means and saw himself as an outsider. Before the Davos debate, Heidegger and published only one book, but it was extraordinary and made him famous. The book,"Being and Time" (1927) has become a classic of philosophical literature. In their Davos debate, Cassirer and Heidegger explored the issues that divided them and also tried to see the extent to which they shared common ground.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By William Podmore on 15 Nov. 2013
Format: Hardcover
Peter Gordon is the Amabel B. James Professor of History at Harvard University. In this fascinating book, he explores the famous debate between the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer at Davos in 1929.

These two men were the most eminent representatives of the then leading schools of idealism in philosophy - Heidegger for existentialism and Cassirer for neo-Kantianism. Heidegger notoriously became a Nazi; Cassirer, a Jew, had to flee Germany. Some may find it surprising that two thinkers, apparently so different, shared the same basic philosophy, but the proof is here.

In Heidegger's magnum opus Being and Time (1927), he praised idealism as the only correct philosophy, writing, "idealism affords the only correct possibility for a philosophical problematic."

Gordon writes of neo-Kantianism that Kant's "dualism between concepts and intuitions had struck a great many critics as an unfortunate and perhaps indefensible compromise with empiricism, because it presupposed an unverifiably metaphysical object-independence. It was [Hermann] Cohen's major achievement to do away with this dogmatic reading of the thing-in-itself by suggesting that it was merely a thought-object, an object which had its origin in thought alone. ... The thing-in-itself was accordingly abandoned in favor of a purely conceptual coherentism that replaced the empiricist model of truth as correspondence to an independent object, with a purely intellectualistic model of truth as the systematic coherence among concepts. And it was this argument perhaps most of all that both proponents and critics saw as the defining feature of Marburg neo-Kantianism: its rejection of metaphysics."

The materialist view, the scientific view, is that space-time is not human-dependent.
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Amazon.com: 4 reviews
43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
Exemplary and Fascinating History and Philosophy 29 July 2010
By Rudolph V. Dusek - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Continental Divide is a fine book both as intellectual history and as philosophy. It centers around the famous debate between Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer at Davos in 1928. (Davos has come down a bit in intellectually since then. Cassirer, Heidegger, et al have been replaced by bond brokers and Bono.) The topic of the debate was about the interpretation of Kant's First Critique, but it had implications concerning philosophical method in general, enlightenment rationalism versus irrationalism, and parliamentary liberalism versus anti-democratic nationalism in Germany. The time of the debate was that of the late Weimar Republic in Germany, when the democratic experiment of the twenties was beginning to unravel, soon to completely collapse and be replaced by Hitler's Nazism in the depression. Heidegger would not actually join the Nazis until five years later, but in retrospect the debate was seen as a prelude to the collapse of liberal rationalism into the maelstrom of Nazism. It also is seen, on the level of pure philosophy as the triumph of philosophy of life and existentialism in Europe over more conceptual logical approaches to method. (In fact the emigration of the Vienna Circle logical positivists after the murder of their leader Schlick, the death of many Polish logicians in the holocaust, and the death of the minority of French logicians in the resistance while Sartre avoided risk but later portrayed himself as a warrior of the resistance, also contributed to the decline of logical and linguistic approaches on the contintent.)

Many on the next generation of European philosophers were interested spectators at the debate. (Others falsely claimed or misremembered that they were present. Gordon unfortunately does not attempt a complete list. A few who claimed to be or were present, such as Sohn-Rethel are not noted by Gordon.) Even those who were not personally present, such as Leo Strauss, referred to the debate as exemplifying the collapse of liberalism.

Gordon mentions some extraordinary events at Davos surrounding the debate. One is a mock debate by the students. Levinas, then an uncritical partisan of Heidegger (doubts rose after the latter's allegiance to Nazism), played the part of Cassirer, because of his bushy hairdo (whitened with flour for the occasion). The most amazing thing about this incident was that Cassirer and Heidegger themselves were in the audience of the student satire of the debate. One wonders what they thought of it.

Gordon not only traces the historical and political reverberations of the debate . He also makes astute philosophical remarks about the actual positions of the debaters. One point he develops in detail is the issue of transition between mythic conceptions of space and the mathematical, physical conception of space. Cassirer developed this issue in detail in his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Volume 2: Mythical Thought (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Mythical Thought), but Gordon, rightly, claims accounting for this transition was problematical for Heidegger.

Overall, this is an exemplary work both in history and in philosophy.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Heidegger and Cassirer at Davos 26 April 2012
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In March 1929, philosophers Martin Heidegger (1889 -- 1976) and Ernst Cassirer (1874 -- 1945) met in Davos, Switzerland for a public series of individual lectures and for a discussion and debate. The Davos meeting has assumed an important, near legendary, stature in the history of Continental philosophy. In his book "Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos" (2010) Peter Gordon gives an account of the the two philosophical protagonists, their Davos meeting, and of what proceeded and followed the Davos meeting. Most importantly, Gordon discusses what was and what was not at stake in the discussion between Cassirer and Heidegger. The book displays a rare combination of historical and philosophical insight. Gordon is Amabel B. James Professor of History and Harvard College Professor, Harvard University. Recently issued in paperback, his book won the Jacques Barzun Prize of the American Philosophical Society.

At the time of their Davos meeting, Cassirer and Heidegger were renowned. The older philosopher, Cassirer, was an urbane German-Jewish philosopher and a neo-Kantian who had written extensively on the history of philosophy, including a three-volume statement of his own philosophical approach, "The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms". Heidegger was born in rural Germany to a family of modest means and saw himself as an outsider. Before the Davos debate, Heidegger and published only one book, but it was extraordinary and made him famous. The book,"Being and Time" (1927) has become a classic of philosophical literature. In their Davos debate, Cassirer and Heidegger explored the issues that divided them and also tried to see the extent to which they shared common ground.

As did contemporaries to the debate, Gordon compares the discussion to the conversations between Naptha and Settembrini for the heart of Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann's novel, "The Magic Mountain". Mann's philosophical novel also was set in Davos. Gordon sees the debate as revolving broadly around a question posed by Kant: "what is man?". Gordon finds the debate between Cassirer and Heidegger turned on what he termed two competing "images of humanity" each of which derived in part from Kant. Cassirer's position derived from what Gordon terms "spontaneity" the ability of the human mind to shape reality and to create meaning in science, culture, ethics and other forms of endeavor. Heidegger's thought turned on what the philosoper termed "thrownness" or receptivity. It described man as a finite recipient of the world and of conditions which human beings do not control Human being in the world is historical with no philosophical "grounding". Heidegger's thought began with religious questions although it abandoned religion. Cassirer's began with science and proceeded outward, particularly to ethics. Gordon's book explores and develops these complex, difficult themes in the Davos debate and in what proceeded and followed the debate.

The heart of the book is in the third and fourth chapters. In the former chapter, Gordon discusses the individual lectures that Cassirer and Heidegger presented at Davos. Somewhat paradoxically, Cassirer lectured on "philosophical anthropology", a subject with some ties to Heidegger, while Heidegger lectured on Kant, Cassier's specialty, and offered a tortured reading of Kant's thought (which Heidegger himself ultimately abandoned.) In the pivotal fourth chapter, Gordon gives the text of the debate between Cassirer and Heidegger together with Gordon's own extended commentary and analysis of virtually every passage.

Gordon's book shows great erudition about German philosophy in the years before WW II. He sets the stage for the discussion by giving the broad philosophical background that produced it. He discusses the thought of Cassirer and Heidegger in the years that led up to the debate, and their writings in the years which followed. He discusses the impact on the debate on other philosophers including Leo Strauss, Jurgen Habermas, and Emannuel Levinas.

The debate took place in 1929, on the cusp of Nazism. In 1933, Heidegger infamously declared his allegiance to Nazism and became the rector at Freiburg. Cassirer was forced to leave Germany and ultimately settled in the United States, Inevitably, the debate at Davos became politicized in philosophical memory. A major aim of Gordon's study is to depoliticize the debate and to try to understand the disagreements between Cassirer and Heidegger in philosophical terms. Gordon argues that philosophical disagreements have meaning in their own right and are not mere metaphors or fronts for politics. This is an important conclusion, philosophically and historically.

Gordon's primary aim is for an exposition of the philosophical positions at stake, coupled with analysis to help clarify the positions, including their broad divergencies and their limited commonalities. Gordon states that he began the study with a qualified partial admiration for Heidegger but became increasingly sympathetic towards Cassirer as the study proceeded. Gordon declines to decide which protagonist was more nearly correct in his position or who "won" the debate at Davos. The issues and positions of both philosophers continue to be discussed. In his conclusion, Gordon writes: "one is tempted to ask whether a true resolution of this conflict is at all likely or even possible. For in fact these two philosophical principles, throwness and spontaneity, mark the opposing facets of a conceptual divide, the very persistence of which might be understood as the historical predicament of philosophy itself. .... To force its resolution, or to foreclose prematurely upon its continued debate, would be to deny what may very well be an essential tension of the human condition."

Gordon has written a difficult, thoughtful work of philosophy in its own right. The book will be of most benefit to readers steeped in philosophy and with an interest in philosophical questions, particularly as derived from Kant.

Robin Friedman
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
A Stellar Debate 29 Dec. 2014
By toronto - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Extraordinary.
This book has many, many virtues:
(1) It is a clear exposition of the elements of the Davos debate between Cassirer and Heidegger. From this, you can get a real sense of what it is like for two masters of philosophy to expound and argue. Philosophy students would learn a lot about how to argue.
(2) The event throws a powerful light on the tensions in Weimar Culture, and the text covers them in exemplary fashion.
(3) The erudition of both philosophers shines through: the whole debate centers around the interpretation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which both men have at their fingertips.
(4) Gordon makes very clear what is at stake between the two interpretations and the world views of Cassirer and Heidegger. He is very, very judicious between the two. It is not a hatchet job on either man: rather the reader comes away deeply impressed by both figures and their committments.
(5) Gordon is an excellent writer. I am in awe of his capacity to navigate through both the narrative and the philosophical arguments.
14 of 37 people found the following review helpful
another Liberal's input on Heidegger 31 Dec. 2012
By The Southerner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
My two-star rating reflects the usefulness of the book's subject for myself, but of course as a rule one should never trust any secondary literature on Heidegger. All of the liberals from the Academy with any interest in philosophy routinely go out of their way to spit and trample on the grave of Heidegger, and what else should be expected? If they are able to control themselves then Heidegger is simply fitted into the postmodernist fabric as being nothing more than the inauguration of Derrida.

Gordon isn't as bad as, say, William D. Blattner's two books. Those books, especially the B&T guide, remain the worst secondary literature on Heidegger I've ever read. Farias's great historiographical book was even-handed but collapsed when trying to convey MH's thinking after 1930. Gordon is able to both moderate that peculiar, liberal humanitarian moralizing while conveying B&T in the now superficial, traditional terminology that secondary-literature has adopted in its attempt to explain it. I can't believe people still call Heidegger an existentialist.

I could see someone that hasn't read any of Heidegger's books after the 1930's enjoying this book, or someone who has just studied or taken a course on Being and Time. Its for that level of understanding, the very beginning. I came to this book as a veteran and I admit it was boring for me. I bought it because I had read Geoff Waite's awesome essay on Heidegger, Cassirer and 'Esotericism' and wanted to know the details of Davos. There really wasn't much to learn outside of an appreciation of Leo Strauss's comments regarding the emptiness and lostness of Cassirer and all of academic philosophy in the face of Heidegger. Gordon provides the context for this despite himself.

The aim of the book is to concoct a basis for possible defense of Cassirer, because Heidegger was a Nazi and Liberalism can no longer be openly defended on rational grounds. The lengths to which Gordon's emotionalism went to achieve such a possibility, like bunkering himself in Cassirer's language in total disregard of Heidegger's responses and contorting traditional philosophical terminology beyond its its context in order to repeatedly create straw-man arguments was tiresome. Basically he assumes the role of the professional administrator and implements affirmative-action. Heidegger remains very important and Cassirer has rightfully been forgotten, so we have to assign more esteem to Cassirer, which is an esoteric way of sticking up for Liberalism, in spite of the facts.

The only secondary-literature on Heidegger worth reading are Geoff Waite's two essays (Jstor) and Reiner Schurmann's books. Waite is just a fun and witty Marxist who knows the score and somehow still believes in Communism, but Schurmann is genuinely insidious. Schurmann is a highly sophisticated liberal reading of Heidegger that tries to convert the reader while simultaneously presenting Heidegger's teachings as is. To do this he cherry-picks at will whatever jargon is useful from the postmodernist dust-bin. His comments on 'conservative' readers of Heidegger (where are they?) are deliberately obfuscatory and overlap with his own caricature of the man.
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