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Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos by Peter E. Gordon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. Pp. 448. $39.95 cloth.
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 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. …