Hermann Cohen’s Critical Idealism

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Berlin , Germany. Hermann Cohen: Judaism and Critical Idealism. Gordon Eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Namespaces Article Talk. Views Read Edit View history. In other projects Wikimedia Commons Wikiquote. By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. Western philosophy. Neo-Kantianism Marburg School. University of Marburg.

Paul Natorp [2]. Wikiquote has quotations related to: Hermann Cohen.

Critical Idealism and Messianism – From Hermann Cohen to Walter Benjamin and beyond

In Cohen's hands, this historical orientation contributes in no small part to other aspects of his writing that none of his readers can fail to notice: its obscurity, repetition, and sometimes unnecessary length. Cohen himself came to think that one commitment above all else unified his philosophy, from his earliest interpretation of Kant to his mature System of Philosophy. His early interpretation of Kant reveals both of these commitments in nascent form. It also reveals a problem that would occupy him throughout his later writings on epistemology and philosophy of science: the problem of explaining the origin of the a priori laws in human knowledge.

They were both defenses of Kant against objections that Cohen thought badly misunderstood his views on objectivity and the a priori. Cohen was responding to an interpretation of Kant in the s commonly held by figures of the Back-to-Kant movement such as Hermann von Helmholtz and Cohen's own senior colleague at Marburg, F. Lange, as well as by non-Kantian philosophers such as Adolf Trendelenburg. Very roughly, these figures thought that Kant held or that Kantian philosophers ought to hold that the character of human knowledge is determined by both objective and subjective factors.

On one hand, there are objects that exist independently of the subject's mind. These objects affect the subject's mind, and in so doing contribute the objective element to the subject's representations. On the other hand, there are structures in the subject's mind—say, the forms of human intuition, space and time. Because these structures are in the subject's mind and thus don't come from experience, they are a priori.

Further, these a priori structures organize the subject's representations and thereby contribute a subjective, mind-dependent element to them. But since on this interpretation of Kant the a priori is subjective, an explanation of knowledge's objectivity must appeal not to it, but to the objects that exist independently of the mind.

Cohen thought this interpretation of Kant was wrong, and he thought that influential objections to Kant depended on it. But Cohen was also concerned with J. Herbart's and in Cohen's own time, Helmholtz's contention that Kant thought spatial representations were innate. Since Cohen thought both Trendelenburg's and Herbart's objections depended on a misinterpretation of Kant, he thought those objections failed. See Biagioli for a broadly sympathetic account of Cohen's criticism of Helmholtz in particular; Hyder offers a defense of Helmholtz on geometry against Cohen's criticisms of him.

Thus Kant's Theory of Experience is above all an attempt to articulate and defend Cohen's alternative interpretation of Kant's a priori.


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On that interpretation, Kant's aim in the Critique of Pure Reason is to show how a priori laws of human thought explain the character of our experience of objects. For Cohen, because these a priori laws are necessary, they are objective. So Kant's explanation of objective experience appeals to them, and not to the effects of any alleged mind-independent objects. The second level of the a priori consists in the forms of sensibility and the understanding, that is, space, time, and the categories. The third level is thus the most important of the three levels.

For Cohen, these necessary, a priori laws define what an object of experience is for us. Cohen has a striking view of what a priori laws of the third level actually consist in, and of the possible experience they are constitutive of. Although he would emphasize this striking view more in later writings it is nevertheless explicit in the first edition of his Kant's Theory of Experience.

He did not think the third level of the a priori consists in cognitive structures in the subject's mind, structures we could discover by doing physiology as, for example Helmholtz and Lange thought or by introspection as, for example, J. Rather, he insisted that these a priori laws were the principles of mathematics and the fundamental laws of pure natural science, that is, mechanics. That is, on Cohen's interpretation, Kant's a priori has nothing at all to do with the cognitive activity of the knower.

Rather, it consists in the laws of mathematically precise natural science considered independently of — as if free-floating from — the mind of any particular knower. Cohen's interpretation of Kant is thus robustly anti-psychologistic: he thinks any consideration of how the human mind operates to produce representations is completely irrelevant to a philosophical theory of knowledge.

In fact, some commentators have argued that Cohen offers the first genuinely anti-psychologistic interpretation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason Hatfield , ; Anderson , ; and Beiser , ; see Beiser especially for an account of how the young Cohen arrived at his anti-psychologism. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made that Otto Liebmann had an anti-psychologistic interpretation of Kant before Cohen [see Edgar , ; contrast Beiser , ]. Despite the robustness of Cohen's anti-psychologism, it is not always easy to locate in his writings.

On almost every page of Kant's Theory of Experience and later, The Logic of Pure Knowledge Cohen helps himself to the language of transcendental idealism and transcendental psychology, giving the impression of an active, conscious mind, with faculties of sensibility and understanding that produce the subject's experience of objects.

But, Cohen insists, this language is actually anti-psychologistic: understood properly, the Kantian's talk of cognitive faculties really refers to the methods of mathematically precise natural science. Kantian theory of knowledge thus turns out to be the philosophical investigation of the methods natural science uses to represent objects.

For Cohen, these distinctive views are consequences of his interpretation of Kant's philosophical method. Cohen and his students, Paul Natorp and Ernst Cassirer, would take this philosophical method to be the defining characteristic of Cohen's Kantianism, rather than any of Kant's particular arguments or doctrines Cassirer [], ; Natorp , We can see Cohen's view of philosophical method in its nascent form emerge from his interpretation of Kant's Analytic of Principles and the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.

However, Cohen would articulate the method clearly only much later, in his mature writing. According to Cohen, for Kant mathematical natural science is the starting-point of philosophical investigation. It is the explanandum that Kantian philosophy seeks to explain. It is then up to philosophy to identify and articulate the a priori laws in that experience that are responsible for making it objective. If it is less than obvious that this is Kant's method in the Critique of Pure Reason , Cohen insists, it is at least clear in the Prolegomena.

There, Kant is explicit that he begins by assuming that mathematical natural science provides us with genuine objective knowledge, and that it contains synthetic a priori principles; Kant is likewise explicit that his task is to identify the necessary conditions of those principles' possibility, and that doing so will explain the objectivity of mathematical natural science.

Cohen seems cheerfully undaunted by this textual anomaly. Taking Kant's method in the Prolegomena as his guide, Cohen claims that the method of Kantian philosophy is this. He thinks philosophy takes the theories of mathematical natural science as its starting point. Further, Cohen identifies the a priori of his third level, the laws of mathematical natural science, with the synthetic a priori principles Kant thinks mathematical natural science contains.

In this Book

It can be difficult to see how this method allows for any philosophically critical evaluation of theories in the history of science — a kind of evaluation Cohen never shies away from. On the transcendental method, philosophy does not seek philosophical grounds for casting doubt on or rejecting mathematical or scientific theories. Rather, it starts by taking those theories and their objectivity for granted. It starts with them as facts , as explananda in need of philosophical explanation. But Cohen often criticizes and rejects theories he does not like, and does so for philosophical reasons.

This is especially clear in the historical sections of his Principle of the Infinitesimal Method and its History , where Cohen uses apparently philosophical principles to criticize and reject various efforts in the history of mathematics to define, for example, limits and infinitesimals. But Cohen's criticisms do not violate the transcendental method. The principles that serve as the basis for his criticisms emerge from a philosophical investigation of theories given in the history of science.

They are thus principles that turn out to be required for the philosophical explanation of those theories and their objectivity. Cohen's student and colleague at Marburg, Natorp, would emphasize a major advantage of the transcendental method for Cohen Natorp , —7. This method allows Cohen to avoid what he and his students took to be the two major errors of other post-Kantian philosophy. First, because Cohen sought to explain the possibility of experience by appeal to a priori laws in it, he avoided the physiologically-oriented psychologism of Helmholtz and Lange, among others.

But second, the transcendental method anchors Kantian philosophy to mathematical natural science as its starting point. This anchor prevents philosophy from taking off on the speculative, metaphysical flights of fancy that, in the minds of many Kantian philosophers in the s and s, decisively undermined the Idealist Naturphilosophie of the first half of the nineteenth century. For Cohen and his students, the transcendental method thus makes possible a philosophy that is properly scientific, without absorbing it completely into physiology and psychology.

Cohen's The Principle of the Infinitesimal Method and its History and the second, edition of Kant's Theory of Experience reveal the considerable extent to which he modified and deepened his epistemology and philosophy of science over the course of the s and early s. Beyond merely terminological changes, in The Principle of the Infinitesimal Method and the second edition of Kant's Theory of Experience , Cohen offers a better developed and more clearly articulated account of the substance of his epistemological view.

Cohen's increased clarity about critical idealism emerged in part from work on the history of philosophy he did in the s and early s. He presents his view of that history in both The Principle of the Infinitesimal Method and a long introduction he added to the second edition of Kant's Theory of Experience. As Cohen sees it, Plato and Leibniz play roles in the development of critical idealism that are second only to Kant's.

Like Kant, both sought to understand mathematics as paradigms of knowledge in general. In contrast with this Platonic-rationalist antecedent to critical idealism, Cohen argues, stands an Aristotelian-empiricist tradition. Members of this uncritical tradition believe, in one way or another, that we must explain the objects of our thought by appeal to objects that exist independently of the mind.

At the same time, Cohen's willingness to reject certain Kantian doctrines reveals the extent to which his critical idealism was a commitment only to what he took to be Kant's philosophical method. For example, in one of the many sections he added to the second edition of Kant's Theory of Experience , Cohen argues that the proper way to understand the notion of the thing-in-itself is not as Kant seems to suggest as an object that exists independently of the subject's representations, somehow affecting the subject and thereby giving rise to her sensations.

Rather, Cohen argues that we must think of the thing-in-itself as the totality of all experience, taken as an object of thought Cohen , ff. Since it is the totality of all experience, rather than merely the experience we happen to have at our particular point in the history of science, the thing-in-itself is the ideal that science and critical philosophy aim at. The Principle of the Infinitesimal Method is perhaps most significant for how it presents a detailed illustration of what the critique of knowledge done according to the transcendental method looks like.

The book is a philosophically critical history of the development of calculus. In it, Cohen aims to establish the validity of calculus' foundational concepts — concepts such as limit and infinitesimal — in the face of philosophical objections against them. He also aims to establish a connection between the concept of infinitesimals and natural science's capacity to represent reality.

In fact, these two aims are connected. For Cohen, the concept of an infinitesimal magnitude is valid for use in calculus, because it is a necessary condition of the possibility of natural science's representation of real objects Richardson Cohen sees this connection between infinitesimals and reality in the section of the Critique of Pure Reason that Kant called the Anticipations of Perception. In the Anticipations, Kant introduces the idea of magnitudes that can vary continuously from a finite magnitude to zero. He calls these continuously variable magnitudes intensive magnitudes.

Kant argues that there is an important connection between continuously variable magnitudes, sensation, and reality. While Cohen thinks Kant's concern with sensation is a mistake, he thinks the connection between continuously variable magnitudes — that is, infinitesimals — and reality is exactly right.

Hermann Cohen's Critical Idealism (Amsterdam Studies in Jewish Philosophy)

The connection is this. For Cohen, mathematical natural science can represent real objects only if it represents them as having unique identity conditions. Those identity conditions are defined by unique locations in space and time. But, Cohen insists, the mathematical units that natural science uses to represent space and time must themselves be defined by appeal to infinitesimal magnitudes. That final claim — that the mathematical units of space and time must be defined by appeal to infinitesimals — follows for Cohen from the principle of continuity.

That the principle of continuity serves this function for mathematical natural science is, for Cohen, a fact of science revealed by his historical investigation of the development of calculus. However, Cohen would not remain satisfied with his account of calculus' foundational concepts and their significance for a philosophical theory of knowledge. His final major work in epistemology was the Logic of Pure Knowledge , the first part of his projected System of Philosophy. Nothing is given to pure thinking — not the data of sensible intuition, not the activity of a Fichtean I, not the Absolute.

But more than that, he thinks an analysis of the infinite is precisely what first raises the philosophical question of pure thinking — that is, the question of how pure thinking functions to let mathematical natural science represent objects Cohen , The concept of pure thinking, and the closely related concepts of generation and origin , are central to Cohen's project in the Logic.

All three concepts have to do with the principles that, on Cohen's view, define what an object is for mathematical natural scientific theories. Cohen now argues that pure thinking generates those principles from itself. For Cohen, pure thinking generates the pure principles of knowledge through judgment — the epistemic structure that, he thinks following Kant , relates different concepts to one another.

Consequently, in the Logic Cohen aims above all to articulate the twelve different types of foundational judgments that, he thinks, make it possible for mathematical natural scientific theories to represent objects. To be sure, Cohen's twelve types of judgment partly reflect the section of the first Critique that Kant called the table of the functions of judgment. But Cohen does not merely reproduce Kant's doctrine.

For Cohen, these judgments express the most foundational moments in the origin of pure thinking. Moreover, he develops his accounts of them at least partly from reflection on the concepts of the infinite, infinitesimals, and continuity. This should hardly be surprising, given his claim that pure thinking's function in knowledge is first revealed by an analysis of the infinite. While the structure of Cohen's Logic at least partly reflects Kant's table of the functions of judgment, Cohen is also pains to emphasize another way he thinks his views break decisively with Kant's.

In the Logic , Cohen rejects Kant's view that in human knowledge there is a faculty of sensible intuition that is independent of the faculty of understanding. For, on Cohen's view, mathematical natural science can represent objects only in virtue of judgments that express principles of pure thinking. In the absence of pure thinking, Cohen maintains, there can be no representation of objects.

I leave it as an open question how much Cohen's views in the Logic differ from the conceptualist interpretation of Kant. Cohen never gave up the view that the concepts of the infinite, infinitesimals, and continuity were central to a philosophical account of pure thinking and knowledge.

Yet his account of those mathematical concepts was never convincing to mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics in the analytic tradition. Gottlob Frege complained that Cohen's views in the Principle of the Infinitesimal Method were too unclear to be intelligible Frege []. Bertrand Russell objected that Cohen failed to understand that mathematicians now had a formal treatment of continuity and limits that freed them of any commitment to infinitesimals Russell , Ch. Even Cassirer, Cohen's own student, abandoned Cohen's account of infinitesimals, likely in response to Russell's objections.

Consequently, Cassirer also abandoned many of the details of Cohen's theory of knowledge in the Logic. Cohen thought the transcendental method must be used in ethics, no less than in epistemology and philosophy of science. He thus sought to extend its application beyond a treatment of the laws of nature to the laws of human action. He ultimately argued that the result of this application was a Kantian ethical justification for democratic socialism. Cohen's first attempt to apply the transcendental method to ethics was his Kant's Foundations of Ethics , which first appeared in In it, he is motivated by a dissatisfaction that Kant could not provide a transcendental deduction of the moral law the way he had for the categories in the first Critique Cohen , In the first Critique , Kant had argued that the categories are justified, because they are necessary conditions for the possibility of experience.

But in the Critique of Practical Reason , he argued that the moral law cannot be justified as a necessary condition of experience, because we can experience ourselves only as beings whose actions have natural causes, and cannot experience ourselves as free moral agents. Cohen thinks this was an inadequate justification of the moral law.

He attempts to show that an improved justification results from transcendental reflection on the idea of a pure will, that is, the idea of a will that is not conditioned by any antecedent causes and is therefore free. With Kant, he argues that such a will is possible only on the condition that the moral law applies to it. But unlike Kant, he does not assert the actuality of a pure, free will.

Rather, he argues that freedom of the will is itself a regulative ideal, an end at which we aim our actions Cohen , —ff. However, Cohen did not remain satisfied with this account of the foundations of the moral law, nor with his early view of how the transcendental method applies in the domain of ethics. In his Ethics of Pure Will , the second part of his System of Philosophy , he offers a significantly revised account of both.

Here, Cohen's account is shaped by two commitments. First, he asserts that the subject matter of ethics is humanity, that is, human moral agency Cohen , 3. He thinks the aim of ethics is to construct a normative theory of the human moral agent and its will. Second, unlike in his earlier Kant's Foundations of Ethics , Cohen now takes seriously the requirement that the transcendental method begins with a fact of science. For Cohen, just as epistemology and philosophy of science must begin by accepting the theories of pure natural science as given, ethics according to the transcendental method must begin with a science of humanity.

Cohen canvasses three possibilities for such a science of humanity. But Cohen rejects this possibility as a lapse back into pre-critical speculation Cohen , 13ff. Alternatively, ethics might start with naturalistic human sciences such as psychology. But, Cohen objects, making these sciences the starting point for ethical reflection would violate Kant's insistence that ethics distinguishes between normative and non-normative considerations, between what Cohen calls Being and the Ought Cohen , 9ff.

Thus Cohen argues that ethics begins with the science of jurisprudence, that is, the science that investigates law and human beings considered precisely as agents whose actions are bound by law's normative constraints Cohen , 66ff. Cohen does not have in mind a jurisprudence that is concerned only with positive law.

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Rather, the transcendental method in ethics begins with pure jurisprudence, which investigates the very concept of law and its essential features such as universality. Pure jurisprudence is thus the science of universal laws of human action. Pure jurisprudence in this sense was one topic of German legal theory around the turn of the twentieth century. Rudolf Stammler's The Theory of Justice is representative. For Cohen, this evolving body of pure legal doctrine constitutes a fact of science. Ethics according to the transcendental method accepts it as given.

Then, by reflecting on this evolving body of legal doctrine, ethics seeks to construct a theory of the human being as a moral agent Schwarzschild Pure jurisprudence guides ethics in constructing a theory of humanity by overcoming a problem that, Cohen thinks, any theory of humanity faces. He claims the concept of humanity has a tension contained in it: a human being is at once an individual and a member of various pluralities, such as religious communities or economic collectives Cohen , 3ff.

Further, the wills of pluralities of individuals do not necessarily cohere: individuals do not necessarily will things that are consistent with what other individuals will, or with what the community as a whole wills. But, Cohen suggests, without an account of what an individual may will consistently with the wills of others, we have no coherent account of the moral agent as both an individual and a member of a plurality.

Thus any theory of humanity requires an account of how to reconcile individuals' wills within a plurality. As Cohen puts it, individuals' wills must be unified into a totality. Or, in somewhat less opaque language, we must understand how the universal laws of an ideal state can reconcile the wills of individuals and pluralities Wiedebach , Pt. Finally, according to Cohen, if we want to think systematically about what those universal laws are, we must start by reflecting on the evolving body of legal doctrine provided by pure jurisprudence—the science of universal laws.

Cohen's emphasis on the universal character of ethical laws is clearly Kantian in spirit, and he certainly intends the universal laws of an ideal state to be the laws people must give to themselves in Kant's realm of ends. But still, it is not obvious how exactly to characterize the relation of Cohen's ethics to Kant's. On one plausible reading of Kant, a general theory of the moral will was the basis for his theory of law in the Doctrine of Right. But on Cohen's view of how to apply the transcendental method to ethics, ethics begins with a theory of law from pure jurisprudence and then, by reflecting on pure law, it seeks to construct a general theory of the moral agent and its will.

Thus Cohen's account of the foundations of ethics might differ fundamentally from Kant's—indeed, it might turn Kant's account on its head. However, while a doctrine of pure, universal laws makes possible a coherent theory of the concept of humanity, Cohen thinks the laws of any actual state will fall short of pure law's ideal form. He maintains that states, in the course of their development through history, tend to amend their laws so as to better approximate the ideal laws. Cohen does not argue from some antecedent philosophical theory of human nature that history is somehow compelled to exhibit this progress Cohen , Rather, he simply accepts it as a datum of history: philosophy can no more deny this progress than it can deny progress in the history of physics and mathematics.

At the same time, Cohen's optimism was tempered by an awareness of injustice in the non-ideal world: moral progress must be unending, precisely because no actual state will ever realize the ideal completely Schwarzschild , — There is, in Cohen's terms, an unbridgeable gap between Being and the Ought.

As Cohen saw it, political progress was, and ought to be, moving towards democratic socialism. The laws of an undemocratic state cannot genuinely reconcile the wills of individuals and pluralities of individuals, even if the state has the power to control their behavior. He thus opposed Wilhelmine Germany's system of tiered suffrage, under which lower-class men from some regions voted only in national elections and women did not vote at all. Moreover, Cohen argued that, as states amend their laws to better approximate ideal laws, legal frameworks should emerge to govern the economic activity of democratically-constituted pluralities of people.

In other words, he thought that an ideal state would allow democratic workers' collectives to own the means of production. Lange's History of Materialism , Cohen argues that this socialism follows straightforwardly from a proper understanding of Kant's categorical imperative Cohen , For Cohen, not treating people merely as a means entails not exploiting their labor Holzhey , Along with Lange, Cohen thus advocated a socialism with Kantian, rather than Marxist, foundations. The repeal of Bismark's Anti-Socialist Laws would have offered him some evidence that Germany was moving towards that democratic socialist ideal.

Cohen's Kantian socialism was an important influence on socialist political leaders such as Eduard Bernstein, a social democratic member of the Reichstag Gay Politics was not the only sphere in which Cohen thought philosophy must engage with culture. In the third part of his System of Philosophy , the Aesthetics of Pure Feeling , he argued that critical philosophy could not leave art without a philosophical foundation Cohen [], 1. In his aesthetics, Cohen sought to avoid Schelling and Hegel's view that art is an expression of ideas that can be distilled from it and expressed in purely conceptual terms.

Likewise, Cohen rejected Helmholtz's physiological approach to aesthetics, exemplified by his physiological and experimental investigation of tone-perception in music. But these two domains of objects — the world as it is and the world as it ought to be — are the only possible objects we can be conscious of. Thus, Cohen argues, pure feeling must be the consciousness that we are conscious. That is, it is our basic level of consciousness of the fact that we can be conscious of both the objects of natural science and of ethical ideals Guyer According to Cohen, this lawfulness of pure feeling is what produces the object of aesthetic judgment.

Apart from systematic philosophical considerations, Cohen's aesthetics is of interest for the light it promises to shed on his philosophy of religion. Cohen came to believe that concepts central to philosophy of religion should be articulated by interpreting historical scriptural texts, including prayers and biblical poetry and prose Kepnes , Ch. Thus recent commentators have used Cohen's account of lyric poetry in the Aesthetics of Pure Feeling to help make sense of his account of an individual's love for God Poma , as well as his conception of compassion Wiedebach Cohen retired from Marburg in , in order to teach at the Academy of Jewish Sciences, a rabbinical seminary in Berlin, where he remained until his death.

In he had written his Ethics of Maimonides , and after he worked above all else on religious philosophy, writing The Concept of Religion in the System of Philosophy and his monumental Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism , which appeared in , after his death. Cohen initially faces a problem in defining the relation of religion to systematic philosophy Holzhey In both the Concept of Religion and the Religion of Reason , he identifies the two central concepts of religion as humanity and God Cohen [], 11ff.

But he had already offered philosophical accounts of those concepts in his ethics. For Cohen, ethics is the theory precisely of humanity.

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But also, in his Ethics of Pure Will , Cohen defined God as the conjunction of two ideas: the concept of ideal ethical laws unifying all humanity into a harmonious realm of ends, and the faith that, at the end of history, this ideal would be realized. Thus Cohen's ethics seem to offer complete, systematic accounts of both of religion's central concepts.

Consequently, Cohen appears to face a dilemma: religion has a distinctive role to play in philosophy just in case his philosophical ethics offered only incomplete accounts of humanity and God. But this is unacceptable to Cohen. Cohen must thus offer an account of the distinctiveness of religion in relation to systematic philosophy, and do so in a way that does not entail the incompleteness of his ethics. The crux of his account of religion's distinctiveness seems to be the vaguely Tolstoyan assumption that insofar as individuals are moral, they are alike, but that every individual is immoral in his or her own way.

In the Religion , Cohen claims that systematic philosophical ethics is concerned with individuals only insofar as they are members of pluralities or humanity as a whole—that is, only insofar as they are bound by ethical laws. But this is not the only way to conceive of individuals. We can also recognize an individual's particular moral failings, and we can recognize the particular ways an individual suffers because of those failings Zank On Cohen's account, it thus turns out that systematic philosophical ethics does not address certain pervasive features of our lived moral experience: our varied, multiple, and particular moral failings, as well the suffering they bring us Bonaunet , 49ff.

This is not, he thinks, a criticism of ethics for being incomplete. It is only the recognition of what ethics is, and is not, concerned with.