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Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos Paperback – February 6, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


When they met at Davos in 1929, Cassirer and Heidegger sent tremors through the world of continental philosophy that radically transformed the terrain of European thought. With the hermeneutic skill of a master seismologist, Peter E. Gordon identifies the forces that produced their explosive meeting and traces the aftershocks that continue to reverberate to this day. (Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley)

Continental Divide conjugates an even-handed reconstruction of the debate and its lasting significance with an astute analysis of how philosophy revisits its own past in order to define its present circumstances. Of interest to both specialists and generalists, this study sets the benchmark for all future discussions of the relation of Heidegger and Cassirer. (Thomas Sheehan, Stanford University)

A paradigm of philosophically informed intellectual history, this fascinating, wide-ranging book provides a comprehensive account of an epic intellectual confrontation, and uses it as a lens through which to focus on the ideas, forces, characters, and personalities that shaped the debate at a crucial cusp of European thought. (Robert B. Brandom, University of Pittsburgh)

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 2010-11-01)

[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 2011-02-03)

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 2011-11-04)

About the Author

Peter E. Gordon is Amabel B. James Professor of History and Harvard College Professor, Harvard University. He is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for European Studies and co-chair of the Harvard Colloquium for Intellectual History.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 5, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674064178
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674064171
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #763,388 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Rudolph V. Dusek on July 29, 2010
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.
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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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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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.
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