TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 July 2014
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.