In the spring of 1929, Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer met for a public conversation in Davos, Switzerland. They were arguably the most important thinkers in Europe, and their exchange touched upon the most urgent questions in the history of philosophy: What is human finitude? What is objectivity? What is culture? What is truth?
In eighty years since it took place, the Davos encounter has gained a symbolic significance, and has even been seen to echo The Magic Mountain in its embodiment of an ultimate and irreparable rupture in twentieth-century Continental thought.
In Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, out this spring, intellectual historian Peter E. Gordon draws on philosophy and history to reanimate the conversation, its origins, and its aftermath—in the process resuscitating an event that has become entombed in its own mythology.
“The Heidegger-Cassirer dispute has often come to serve as a philosophical allegory, a dramatization for all manner of concerns, not only philosophical but also cultural and, perhaps most of all, political,” Gordon writes of his project.
“And, because it was after all a confrontation, it is frequently taken to symbolize various dualistic struggles: reason versus unreason, epistemology versus metaphysics, liberalism versus fascism, Enlightenment versus anti- Enlightenment, and so forth. I regard such allegorical readings with deep suspicion, for two interrelated reasons: they are typically evasive, insofar as they reduce issues of great philosophical complexity to mere slogans or simplistic worldviews, and they are occasionally offensive, insofar as they suggest that intellectual questions are best settled once and for all by decomposing them into nonintellectual battles waged under this or that ideological flag. It is indeed one of my hopes that this book may help us to better understand just why the Davos disputation has been so frequently transformed into an allegory. But this is an ancillary purpose. My chief task here is a combination of historical narrative and philosophical reconstruction: I wish to deepen our philosophical and historical comprehension of the debate itself, and for this reason I try, wherever necessary, to de-allegorize, to promote understanding in place of polemic.”
“The Davos disputation endures in philosophical memory not because it offers definitive answers, but rather because the questions it raises are still felt to be compelling. My modest hope is that the reader will come away from this book with a renewed understanding of the Davos disputation and a deepened appreciation of its continued significance.”