Bruno Cassirer Essay

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1. Biography

Cassirer was born on July 28, 1874, to a wealthy and cosmopolitan Jewish family, in the German city of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland). Part of the family lived in Berlin, including Cassirer's cousin Bruno Cassirer, the distinguished publisher, who later published most of Cassirer's writings. Cassirer entered the University of Berlin in 1892. In 1894 he took a course on Kant with Georg Simmel, who recommended Hermann Cohen's writings on Kant in particular. Cohen, the first Jew to hold a professorship in Germany, was the founder of the so-called Marburg School of neo-Kantianism, famous for interpreting Kant's transcendental method as beginning with the “fact of science” and then arguing regressively to the presuppositions or conditions of possibility of this “fact.” Kant was thus read as an “epistemologist [Erkenntniskritiker]” or methodologist of science rather than as a “metaphysician” in the tradition of post-Kantian German idealism. After learning of Cohen's writings from Simmel, Cassirer (then nineteen years old) proceeded to devour them, whereupon he immediately resolved to study with Cohen at Marburg. He studied at Marburg from 1896 to 1899, when he completed his doctoral work with a dissertation on Descartes's analysis of mathematical and natural scientific knowledge. This appeared, in turn, as the Introduction to Cassirer's first published work, a treatment of Leibniz's philosophy and its scientific basis [Cassirer 1902]. Upon returning to Berlin in 1903, Cassirer further developed these themes while working out his monumental interpretation of the development of modern philosophy and science from the Renaissance through Kant [Cassirer 1906, 1907a]. The first volume of this work served as his habilitation at the University of Berlin, where he taught as an instructor or Privatdozent from 1906 to 1919.

In 1919 Cassirer was finally offered professorships at two newly founded universities at Frankfurt and Hamburg under the auspices of the Weimar Republic. He taught at Hamburg from 1919 until emigrating from Germany in 1933. During these years Cassirer completed his three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms [Cassirer 1923, 1925, 1929b], which broke fundamental new ground beyond the neo-Kantianism of the Marburg School and articulated his own original attempt to unite scientific and non-scientific modes of thought (“symbolic forms”) within a single philosophical vision. In 1928 Cassirer offered a defense of Weimar [Cassirer 1929a] at the University's celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Republic, and in 1929–30 he served as the rector of the University, as the first Jew to hold such a position in Germany. In the Spring of 1929 Cassirer took part in a famous disputation with Martin Heidegger in Davos, Switzerland, where Heidegger explicitly took Cohen's neo-Kantianism as a philosophical target and defended his radical new conception of an “existential analytic of Dasein” in the guise of a parallel interpretation of the philosophy of Kant [Heidegger 1929]. Cassirer, for his part, defended his own new understanding of Kant in the philosophy of symbolic forms — against Heidegger's insistence on the ineluctability of human finitude — by appealing to genuinely objectively valid, necessary and eternal truths arising in both moral experience and mathematical natural science (see [Friedman 2000] [Gordon 2010]).

After his emigration Cassirer spent two years lecturing at Oxford and then six years at the University of Göteborg in Sweden. During this time he developed his most sustained discussion of morality and the philosophy of law as a study of the Swedish legal philosopher Axel Hägerström [Cassirer 1939a] (see [Krois 1987, chap. 4]). He also articulated his major statement on the relationship between the natural sciences and the “cultural sciences” [Cassirer 1942], which contained, among other things, an explicit rejection of Rudolf Carnap's “physicalism” (see [Friedman 2000, chap. 7]). Cassirer, like so many German émigrés during this period (including Carnap) then finally settled in the United States. He taught at Yale from 1941 to 1944 and at Columbia in 1944–45. During these years he produced two books in English [Cassirer 1944, 1946], where the first, An Essay on Man, serves as a concise introduction to the philosophy of symbolic forms (and thus Cassirer's distinctive philosophical perspective) as a whole and the second, The Myth of the State, offers an explanation of the rise of fascism on the basis of Cassirer's conception of mythical thought. Two important American philosophers were substantially influenced by Cassirer during these years: Arthur Pap, whose work on the “functional a priori” in physical theory [Pap 1946] took shape under Cassirer's guidance at Yale, and Susanne Langer, who promulgated Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms in aesthetic and literary circles (see, e.g., [Langer 1942]). Cassirer's American influence thus embraced both sides of his philosophical personality. One can only speculate on what this influence might have been if his life had not been cut short suddenly by a heart attack while walking on the streets of New York City on April 13, 1945.

2. Early Historical Writings

As indicated above, Cassirer's first writings were largely historical in character — including a discussion of Leibniz's philosophy in its scientific context [Cassirer 1902] and a large-scale work on the history of modern thought from the Renaissance through Kant, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit [Cassirer 1906, 1907a]. The latter, in particular, is a magisterial and deeply original contribution to both the history of philosophy and the history of science. It is the first work, in fact, to develop a detailed reading of the scientific revolution as a whole in terms of the “Platonic” idea that the thoroughgoing application of mathematics to nature (the so-called mathematization of nature) is the central and overarching achievement of this revolution. And Cassirer's insight was explicitly acknowledged by such seminal intellectual historians as E. A. Burtt, E. J. Dijksterhuis, and Alexandre Koyré, who developed this theme later in the century in the course of establishing the discipline of history of science as we know it today (see, e.g., [Burtt 1925], [Koyré 1939], [Dijksterhuis 1959]). Cassirer, for his part, simultaneously articulates an interpretation of the history of modern philosophy as the development and eventual triumph of what he calls “modern philosophical idealism.” This tradition takes its inspiration, according to Cassirer, from idealism in the Platonic sense, from an appreciation for the “ideal” formal structures paradigmatically studied in mathematics, and it is distinctively modern in recognizing the fundamental importance of the systematic application of such structures to empirically given nature in modern mathematical physics — a progressive and synthetic process wherein mathematical models of nature are successively refined and corrected without limit. For Cassirer, it is Galileo, above all, in opposition to both sterile Aristotelian-Scholastic formal logic and sterile Aristotelian-Scholastic empirical induction, who first grasped the essential structure of this synthetic process; and the development of “modern philosophical idealism” by such thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, Gassendi, Hobbes, Leibniz, and Kant then consists in its increasingly self-conscious philosophical articulation and elaboration.

In both the Leibniz book and Das Erkenntnisproblem, then, Cassirer interprets the development of modern thought as a whole from the perspective of the basic philosophical principles of Marburg neo-Kantianism: the idea that philosophy as epistemology (Erkenntniskritik) has the articulation and elaboration of the structure of modern mathematical natural science as its primary task; the conviction that, accordingly, philosophy must take the “fact of science” as its starting point and ultimately given datum; and, most especially, the so-called “genetic” conception of scientific knowledge as an ongoing, never completed synthetic process (see below). From a contemporary point of view, Cassirer's history may therefore appear as both “Whiggish” and “triumphalist,” but it cannot be denied that his work is, nevertheless, extraordinarily rich, extraordinarily clear, and extraordinarily illuminating. Cassirer examines an astonishing variety of textual sources (including both major and minor figures) carefully and in detail, and, without at all neglecting contrary tendencies within the skeptical and empiricist traditions, he develops a compelling portrayal of the evolution of “modern philosophical idealism” through Kant which, even today, reads as extremely compelling and acute.

Cassirer must thus be ranked as one of the very greatest intellectual historians of the twentieth-century — and, indeed, as one of the founders of this discipline as it came to be practiced after 1900. He continued to contribute to intellectual history broadly conceived throughout his career (most notably, perhaps, in his fundamental studies of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment [Cassirer 1927a, 1932]), and he had a major influence on intellectual history throughout the century. Aside from the history of science (see above), Cassirer also decisively influenced intellectual historians more generally, including, notably, the eminent intellectual and cultural historian Peter Gay and the distinguished art historian Erwin Panofsky (see, e.g., [Gay 1977], [Panofsky 1939]). As we shall see below, intellectual (and later cultural) history is an integral part of Cassirer's distinctive philosophical methodology, so that, in his case, the standard distinction between “historical” and “systematic” work in philosophy ends up looking quite artificial.

3. Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science

It was noted above that Cassirer's early historical works interpret the development of modern thought as a whole (embracing both philosophy and the sciences) from the perspective of the philosophical principles of Marburg neo-Kantianism, as initially articulated in [Cohen 1871]. On the “genetic” conception of scientific knowledge, in particular, the a priori synthetic activity of thought — the activity Kant himself had called “productive synthesis” — is understood as a temporal and historical developmental process in which the object of science is gradually and successively constituted as a never completed “X” towards which the developmental process is converging. For Cohen, this process is modelled on the methods of the infinitesimal calculus (in this connection, especially, see [Cohen 1883]). Beginning with the idea of a continuous series or function, our problem is to see how such a series can be a priori generated step-by-step. The mathematical concept of a differential shows us how this can be done, for the differential at a point in the domain of a given function indicates how it is to be continued on succeeding points. The differential therefore infinitesimally captures the rule of the series as a whole, and thus expresses, at any given point or moment of time, the general form of the series valid for all times,

Cassirer's first “systematic” work, Substance and Function [Cassirer 1910], takes an essential philosophical step beyond Cohen by explicitly engaging with the late nineteenth-century developments in the foundations of mathematics and mathematical logic that exerted a profound influence on twentieth-century philosophy of mathematics and natural science. Cassirer begins by discussing the problem of concept formation, and by criticizing, in particular, the “abstractionist” theory characteristic of philosophical empiricism, according to which general concepts are arrived at by ascending inductively from sensory particulars. This theory, for Cassirer, is an artifact of traditional Aristotelian logic; and his main idea, accordingly, is that developments in modern formal logic (the mathematical theory of relations) allows us definitively to reject such abstractionism (and thus philosophical empiricism) on behalf of the genetic conception of knowledge. In particular, the modern axiomatic conception of mathematics, as exemplified especially in Richard Dedekind's work on the foundations of arithmetic and David Hilbert's work on the foundations of geometry, has shown that mathematics itself has a purely formal and ideal, and thus entirely non-sensible meaning. Pure mathematics describes abstract “systems of order” — what we would now call relational structures — whose concepts can in no way be accommodated within abstractionist or inductivist philosophical empiricism. Cassirer then employs this “formalist” conception of mathematics characteristic of the late nineteenth century to craft a new, and more abstract, version of the genetic conception of knowledge. We conceive the developmental process in question as a series or sequence of abstract formal structures (“systems of order”), which is itself ordered by the abstract mathematical relation of approximate backwards-directed inclusion (as, for example, the new non-Euclidean geometries contain the older geometry of Euclid as a continuously approximated limiting case). In this way, we can conceive all the structures in our sequence as continuously converging, as it were, on a final or limit structure, such that all previous structures in the sequence are approximate special or limiting cases of this final structure. The idea of such an endpoint of the sequence is only a regulative ideal in the Kantian sense — it is only progressively approximated but never in fact actually realized. Nevertheless, it still constitutes the a priori “general serial form” of our properly empirical mathematical theorizing, and, at the same time, it bestows on this theorizing its characteristic form of objectivity.

In explicitly embracing late nineteenth-century work on the foundations of mathematics, Cassirer comes into very close proximity with early twentieth-century analytic philosophy. Indeed, Cassirer takes the modern mathematical logic implicit in the work of Dedekind and Hilbert, and explicit in the work of Gottlob Frege and the early Bertrand Russell, as providing us with our primary tool for moving beyond the empiricist abstractionism due ultimately to Aristotelian syllogistic. The modern “theory of the concept,” accordingly, is based on the fundamental notions of function, series, and order (relational structure) — where these notions, from the point of view of pure mathematics and pure logic, are entirely formal and abstract, having no intuitive relation, in particular, to either space or time. Nevertheless, and here is where Cassirer diverges from most of the analytic tradition, this modern theory of the concept only provides us with a genuine and complete alternative to Aristotelian abstractionism and philosophical empiricism when it is embedded within the genetic conception of knowledge. What is primary is the generative historical process by which modern mathematical natural science successively develops or evolves, and pure mathematics and pure logic only have philosophical significance as elements of or abstractions from this more fundamental developmental process of “productive synthesis” aimed at the application of such pure formal structures in empirical knowledge (see especially [Cassirer 1907b]).

Cassirer's next important contribution to scientific epistemology [Cassirer 1921] explores the relationship between Einstein's general theory of relativity and the “critical” (Marburg neo-Kantian) conception of knowledge. Cassirer argues that Einstein's theory in fact stands as a brilliant confirmation of this conception. On the one hand, the increasing use of abstract mathematical representations in Einstein's theory entirely supports the attack on Aristotelian abstractionism and philosophical empiricism. On the other hand, however, Einstein's use of non-Euclidean geometry presents no obstacle at all to our purified and generalized form of (neo-)Kantianism. For we no longer require that any particular mathematical structure be fixed for all time, but only that the historical-developmental sequence of such structures continuously converge. Einstein's theory satisfies this requirement perfectly well, since the Euclidean geometry fundamental to Newtonian physics is indeed contained in the more general geometry (of variable curvature) employed by Einstein as an approximate special case (as the regions considered become infinitely small, for example). Moritz Schlick published a review of Cassirer's book immediately after its first appearance [Schlick 1921], taking the occasion to argue (what later became a prominent theme in the philosophy of logical empiricism) that Einstein's theory of relativity provides us with a decisive refutation of Kantianism in all of its forms. This review marked the beginnings of a respectful philosophical exchange between the two, as noted above, and it was continued, in the context of Cassirer's later work on the philosophy of symbolic forms, in [Cassirer 1927b] (see [Friedman 2000, chap. 7]).

Cassirer's assimilation of Einstein's general theory of relativity marked a watershed in the development of his thought. It not only gave him an opportunity, as we have just seen, to reinterpret the Kantian theory of the a priori conditions of objective experience (especially as involving space and time) in terms of Cassirer's own version of the genetic conception of knowledge, but it also provided him with an impetus to generalize and extend the original Marburg view in such a way that modern mathematical scientific knowledge in general is now seen as just one possible “symbolic form” among other equally valid and legitimate such forms. Indeed, [Cassirer 1921] first officially announces the project of a general “philosophy of symbolic forms,” conceived, in this context, as a philosophical extension of “the general postulate of relativity.” Just as, according to the general postulate of relativity, all possible reference frames and coordinate systems are viewed as equally good representations of physical reality, and, as a totality, are together interrelated and embraced by precisely this postulate, similarly the totality of “symbolic forms” — aesthetic, ethical, religious, scientific — are here envisioned by Cassirer as standing in a closely analogous relationship. So it is no wonder that, subsequent to taking up the professorship at Hamburg in 1919, Cassirer devotes the rest of his career to this new philosophy of symbolic forms. (Cassirer's work in the philosophy of natural science in particular also continued, notably in [Cassirer 1936].)

4. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms

At Hamburg Cassirer found a tremendous resource for the next stage in his philosophical development — the Library of the Cultural Sciences founded by Aby Warburg. Warburg was an eminent art historian with a particular interest in ancient cult, ritual, myth, and magic as sources of archetypal forms of emotional expression later manifested in Renaissance art, and the Library therefore contained abundant materials both on artistic and cultural history and on ancient myth and ritual. Cassirer's earliest works on the philosophy of symbolic forms appeared as studies and lectures of the Warburg Library in the years 1922–1925, and the three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms itself appeared, as noted above, in 1923, 1925, and 1929 respectively. Just as the genetic conception of knowledge is primarily oriented towards the “fact of science” and, accordingly, takes the historical development of scientific knowledge as its ultimate given datum, the philosophy of symbolic forms is oriented towards the much more general “fact of culture” and thus takes the history of human culture as a whole as its ultimate given datum. The conception of human beings as most fundamentally “symbolic animals,” interposing systems of signs or systems of expression between themselves and the world, then becomes the guiding philosophical motif for elucidating the corresponding conditions of possibility for the “fact of culture” in all of its richness and diversity.

Characteristic of the philosophy of symbolic forms is a concern for the more “primitive” forms of world-presentation underlying the “higher” and more sophisticated cultural forms — a concern for the ordinary perceptual awareness of the world expressed primarily in natural language, and, above all, for the mythical view of the world lying at the most primitive level of all. For Cassirer, these more primitive manifestations of “symbolic meaning” now have an independent status and foundational role that is quite incompatible with both Marburg neo-Kantianism and Kant's original philosophical conception. In particular, they lie at a deeper, autonomous level of spiritual life which then gives rise to the more sophisticated forms by a dialectical developmental process. From mythical thought, religion and art develop; from natural language, theoretical science develops. It is precisely here that Cassirer appeals to “romantic” philosophical tendencies lying outside the Kantian and neo-Kantian tradition, deploys an historical dialectic self-consciously derived from Hegel, and comes to terms with the contemporary Lebensphilosophie of Wilhelm Dilthey, Henri Bergson, Max Scheler, and Georg Simmel — as well as with the closely related philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The most basic and primitive type of symbolic meaning is expressive meaning, the product of what Cassirer calls the expressive function (Ausdrucksfunktion) of thought, which is concerned with the experience of events in the world around us as charged with affective and emotional significance, as desirable or hateful, comforting or threatening. It is this type of meaning that underlies mythical consciousness, for Cassirer, and which explains its most distinctive feature, namely, its total disregard for the distinction between appearance and reality. Since the mythical world does not consist of stable and enduring substances that manifest themselves from various points of view and on various occasions, but rather in a fleeting complex of events bound together by their affective and emotional “physiognomic” characters, it also exemplifies its own particular type of causality whereby each part literally contains the whole of which it is a part and can thereby exert all the causal efficacy of the whole. Similarly, there is no essential difference in efficacy between the living and the dead, between waking experiences and dreams, between the name of an object and the object itself, and so on. The fundamental Kantian “categories” of space, time, substance (or object), and causality thereby take on a distinctive configuration representing the formal a priori structure, as it were, of mythical thought.

What Cassirer calls representative symbolic meaning, a product of the representative function (Darstellungsfunktion) of thought, then has the task of precipitating out of the original mythical flux of “physiognomic” characters a world of stable and enduring substances, distinguishable and reidentifiable as such. Working together with the fundamentally pragmatic orientation towards the world exhibited in the technical and instrumental use of tools and artifacts, it is in natural language, according to Cassirer, that the representative function of thought is then most clearly visible. For it is primarily through the medium of natural language that we construct the “intuitive world” of ordinary sense perception on the basis of what Cassirer calls intuitive space and intuitive time. The demonstrative particles (later articles) and tenses of natural language specify the locations of perceived objects in relation to the changing spatio-temporal position of the speaker (relative to a “here-and-now”), and a unified spatio-temporal order thus arises in which each designated object has a determinate relation to the speaker, his/her point of view, and his/her potential range of pragmatic activities. We are now able to distinguish the enduring thing-substance, on the one side, from its variable manifestations from different points of view and on different occasions, on the other, and we thereby arrive at a new fundamental distinction between appearance and reality. This distinction is then expressed in its most developed form, for Cassirer, in the linguistic notion of propositional truth and thus in the propositional copula. Here the Kantian “categories” of space, time, substance, and causality take on a distinctively intuitive or “presentational” configuration.

The distinction between appearance and reality, as expressed in the propositional copula, then leads dialectically to a new task of thought, the task of theoretical science, of systematic inquiry into the realm of truths. Here we encounter the third and final function of symbolic meaning, the significative function (Bedeutungsfunktion), which is exhibited most clearly, according to Cassirer, in the “pure category of relation.” For it is precisely here, in the scientific view of the world, that the pure relational concepts characteristic of modern mathematics, logic, and mathematical physics are finally freed from the bounds of sensible intuition. For example, mathematical space and time arise from intuitive space and time when we abstract from all demonstrative relation to a “here-and-now” and consider instead the single system of relations in which all possible “here-and-now”-points are embedded; the mathematical system of the natural numbers arises when we abstract from all concrete applications of counting and consider instead the single potentially infinite progression wherein all possible applications of counting are comprehended; and so on. The eventual result is the world of modern mathematical physics described in Cassirer's earlier scientific works — a pure system of formal relations where, in particular, the intuitive concept of substantial thing has finally been replaced by the relational-functional concept of universal law. So it is here, and only here, that the generalized and purified form of (neo-)Kantianism distinctive of the Marburg School gives an accurate characterization of human thought. This characterization is now seen as a one-sided abstraction from a much more comprehensive dialectical process which can no longer be adequately understood without paying equal attention to its more concrete and intuitive symbolic manifestations; and it is in precisely this way, in the end, that the Marburg “fact of science” is now firmly embedded within the much more general “fact of culture” as a whole.

5. Cassirer, Hegel and the Cultural Sciences

Cassirer emphasizes the kinship between his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in the Prefaces to both the second (1925) and third (1929) volumes. Recent commentators ([Skidelsky 2008] [Moss 2015]) have illuminatingly built on this circumstance in further articulating the relationship between Cassirer and Hegel. Considerable light is shed on this relationship by Cassirer’s treatment of the problem of the Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften in The Logic of the Cultural Sciences (1942).

Hegel had conceived nature (Natur) and spirit (Geist) as two different expressions of a single divine infinite Reason, which manifests itself temporally from two different points of view. His project of an encyclopedia of philosophical sciences had three parts, the logic, the philosophy of nature, and the philosophy of spirit, where the logic had the task of depicting the dialectical conceptual structure of infinite divine Reason itself. But this Hegelian project for securing the ultimate logico-metaphysical identity of nature and spirit found ever fewer followers as the century progressed, as the rising tide of neo-Kantianism—aided by further developments within the natural sciences instigated by Hermann von Helmholtz—undermined the appeal of the original Naturphilosophie of Schelling and Hegel together with their Absolute Reason. The result was the problem of the Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften as it presented itself to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [Cassirer 1942] develops a characteristically methodological perspective on this problem by treating both disciplines as empirical rather than “speculative” sciences (in the sense of Schelling and Hegel) and elucidating their methodological relationship within the philosophy of symbolic forms.

[Cassirer 1942] argues that the empirical evidential basis for the cultural sciences starts from the same realm of perceived physical objects and processes distributed in space and time as do the natural sciences—in this case documents, artifacts, rituals, performances—but it goes on to imbue them with a symbolic “sense” or “meaning” that is not at issue in the natural sciences. We must distinguish, in particular, between the representative function (Darstellungsfunktion) and the expressive function (Ausdrucksfunktion) of thought, and only a prejudice privileging “thing perception [Dingwahrnehmen]” over “expressive perception [Ausdruckswahrnehmen]” can support the idea that the natural sciences have a more secure evidential basis than he cultural sciences. (It is precisely this prejudice which, according to Cassirer, lies behind Carnap’s “physicalism.”) For Cassirer, by contrast, both forms of perception are equally legitimate. While the natural sciences take their evidence from the sphere of thing perception, the cultural sciences take theirs from the sphere of expressive perception—and, in the first instance, from our lived experience in a human community sharing a common system of “cultural meanings.”

Yet we also have the capacity, in the cultural sciences, to extend such meanings beyond their originally local contexts. Whereas intersubjective validity in the natural sciences rests on universal laws of nature ranging over all (physical) places and times, an analogous type of intersubjective validity arises in the cultural sciences independently of such laws. Although every “cultural object” has its own individual place in (historical) time and (geographical-cultural) space, it can still continuously approach a universal cultural meaning (in history or ethnography) as it is continually interpreted and reinterpreted from the perspective of other times and places. Universal cultural meaning thereby emerges only asymptotically, in a way similar to the genetic conception of knowledge of the Marburg School (now seen as based on the significative function of thought). Rather than an abstract mathematical relation of backwards-directed inclusion, however, we are concerned, in the historical cultural sciences, with a hermeneutical relation of backwards-directed interpretation and reinterpretation—and, as a result, there is no possibility, in these sciences, of reliably predicting the future.

We can further illuminate Cassirer’s evolving attempt to situate himself between Kant and Hegel by considering his evolving relationship to Heidegger. In the 1929 Disputation at Davos Cassirer challenged Heidegger’s radical “finitism” by appealing to the presumed necessary and eternal validity found in both the mathematical sciences and morality. And after the Disputation Cassirer added five footnotes to Being and Time (1927) in The Phenomenology of Knowledge before its publication, where he suggested that his attempt to begin the Hegelian phenomenology with mythical thought rather than ordinary sense perception could also address Heidegger’s concerns. In 1931, however, Cassirer published a review of [Heidegger 1929], which took a different approach from his remarks at Davos. Instead of primarily emphasizing the “eternal” validity found in the mathematical sciences, Cassirer now placed his main emphasis on the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of Kant’s thought, as expressed in the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of the Power of Judgement. His main point was that, whereas the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason may indeed be written from the perspective of human finitude, the rest of Kant’s system embeds this perspective within a wider conception of “the intelligible substrate of humanity.”

[Cassirer 1931] mirrors his just-completed attempt to embed the Marburg genetic conception of knowledge within a wider conception of the development of human culture as a whole. The way in which Cassirer situates his new philosophy of culture with respect to both Hegel and Heidegger then illuminates his fundamental divergence from Hegel—as it came to be expressed in Cassirer’s works on history and culture after he left Germany for good in 1933. By building the Marburg conception of knowledge, in his new philosophy of culture, on top of the more primitive forms of mythical thought [Ausdruckswahrnehmen] and ordinary language [Dingwahrnehmen], Cassirer takes himself to have done justice to the insights of both Hegel and Heidegger while avoiding both the infinite divine reason of the former and the radical human finitude of the latter. Yet he has now conceded to Heidegger that Kant’s theory of human cognition involves only the notion of potential rather than actual infinity. In particular, Kant’s treatment of the regulative use of the ideas of reason from a merely theoretical point of view leaves their actual content quite indeterminate. In the case of the idea of transcendental freedom, for example, we are only able to determine it negatively (from a theoretical point of view), as a species of causality that is not bound by the conditions of time-determination governing the phenomenal world.

In the Critique of Practical Reason, however, Kant asserts that transcendental freedom acquires a determinate content from pure practical reason, through our immediate awareness of the moral law as normatively binding on our will (as a fact of reason), and that the (practical) objective reality thereby conferred on this idea can then be transferred to the ideas of God and Immortality. This is because the moral law unconditionally commands us to seek the Highest Good—the realization of the Kingdom of Ends here on earth—which is an infinite task requiring infinite (practical) faith and hope. The resulting divergence from the indeterminate and merely potential infinity arising within theoretical reason is visible in the famous passage on the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me at the end of the Critique of Practical Reason, from which Cassirer quotes in his 1931 review of Heidegger.

What the Critique of the Power of Judgement adds to this conception is then the further idea that rigorous mathematical scientific understanding of the phenomenal world (“mechanistic” understanding) runs out considerably before we arrive at the history of human culture, so that the future is in principle open to the possibility of our continuously approximating the Highest Good without limit. But Cassirer, as we have just seen, has now achieved a parallel result though his methodological distinction between the natural and the cultural sciences. He is thereby in a position to replace what he takes to be the oppressive (speculative) infinity of Hegel’s Absolute Reason with the liberating (practical) infinity of our human (practical) reason [Cassirer 1939, 28]: “In his philosophy of history Hegel wanted to provide the definitive speculative demonstration that reason is substance and infinite power. For this, however, we must, according to him, above all attain the insight that reason is ‘not so powerless as to pass for a mere ideal, a mere ought.’ This form of proof has become shaky; the critique of the foundations of the Hegelian system has pulled the ground out from under it. If we turn back from the Hegelian meaning of idea to the Kantian, from the idea as ‘absolute power’ back to the idea as ‘infinite problem,’ we must of course give up the speculative optimism of the Hegelian view of history. But, at the same time, we thereby also avoid fatalistic pessimism with its prophecies and visions of decline. [Our] acting again has a free path to decide for itself out of its own force and responsibility, and it knows that the direction and future of culture will depend on the manner of this decision.” It is in this way, for Cassirer, that our cultural future always lies open and is always up to us.


Selected works by Cassirer:

(Fuller bibliographies may be found in [Schilpp 1949], [Krois 1987]; many of Cassirer's German writings are reprinted by the Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt.)

  • (1902) Leibniz’ System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen. Marburg: Elwert.
  • (1906) Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Erster Band. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer.
  • (1907a) Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Zweiter Band. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer.
  • (1907b) “Kant und die moderne Mathematik.” Kant-Studien 12, 1-40.
  • (1910) Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff: Untersuchungen über die Grundfragen der Erkenntniskritik. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer. Translated as Substance and Function. Chicago: Open Court, 1923.
  • (1921) Zur Einsteinschen Relativitätstheorie. Erkenntnistheoretische Betrachtungen. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer. Translated as Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Chicago: Open Court, 1923.
  • (1923) Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Erster Teil: Die Sprache. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer. Translated as The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume One: Language. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955.
  • (1925a) Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Zweiter Teil: Das mythische Denken. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer. Translated as The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Two: Mythical Thought. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955.
  • (1925b) Sprache und Mythos: Ein Beitrag zum Problem der Götternamen. Leipzig: Teubner. Translated as Language and Myth. New York: Harper, 1946.
  • (1927a) Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance. Leipzig: Teubner. Translated as The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy. New York: Harper, 1964.
  • (1927b) “Erkenntnistheorie nebst den Grenzfragen der Logik und Denkpsychologie.” Jahrbücher der Philosophie 3, 31–92.
  • (1929a) Die Idee der republikanischen Verfassung. Hamburg: Friedrichsen.
  • (1929b) Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Dritter Teil: Phänomenologie der Erkenntnis. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer. Translated as The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Three: The Phenomenology of Knowledge. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.
  • (1931) “Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik. Bemerkungen zu Martin Heideggers Kantinterpretation.” Kant-Studien 36, 1–16. Translated as “Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics.” In M. Gram, ed. Kant: Disputed Questions. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1967.
  • (1932) Die Philosophie der Aufklärung. Tübinen: Morh. Translated as The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951.
  • (1936) Determinismus und Indeterminismus in der modernen Physik. Göteborg: Göteborgs Högskolas Årsskrift 42. Translated as Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956.
  • (1939a) Axel Hägerström: Eine Studie zur Schwedischen Philosophie der Gegenwart. Göteborg: Göteborgs Högskolas Årsskrift 45.
  • (1939b) “Naturalistische und humanistische Begründung der Kulterphilosophie.” Göteborg Kungl. Vetenskaps- och Vitterhets-Semhälles Handlingar. 5e Földjen, Ser. A, Band 7, Nr. 3. Translated as “Introduction: Naturalistic and Humanistic Philosophies of Culture” in (1942/1961) below.
  • (1942) Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften. Göteborg: Göteborgs Högskolas Årsskrift 47. Translated as The Logic of the Humanities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961. Translated as The Logic of the Cultural Sciences. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
  • (1944) An Essay on Man. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • (1946) The Myth of the State. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Note: Cassirer's unpublished writings are now appearing in volumes edited by J. Krois and E. Schwemmer, Nachgelassene Manuskripte und Texte. Hamburg: Meiner.

Secondary and Other Relevant Literature:

  • Aubenque, P., L. Ferry, E. Rudolf, J.-F. Courtine, F. Capeillières (1992) “Philosophie und Politik: Die Davoser Disputation zwischen Ernst Cassirer und Martin Heidegger in der Retrospektive.” Internationale Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 2: 290–312.
  • Burtt, E. (1925) The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science. London: Paul, Trench, Trubner.
  • Cassirer, T. (1981) Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer. Hildesheim: Gerstenberg.
  • Cohen, H. (1871) Kants Theorie der Erfahrung. Berlin: Dümmler.
  • ––– (1883) Das Princip der Infinitesimal-Methode und seine Geschichte: ein Kapitel zur Grundlegung der Ekenntnißkritik. Berlin: Dümmler.
  • Dijksterhuis, E. (1959) De Mechanisering van get Wereldbeeld. Amsterdam: Uitgeverif Meulenhoff. Translated as The Mechanization of the World Picture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.
  • Friedman, M. (2000) A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Chicago: Open Court.
  • Gay, P. (1977) The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 2 vols. New York: Norton.
  • Gordon, P. (2010) Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Heidegger, M. (1927) Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer. Translated as Being and Time. New York: Harper, 1962.
  • ––– (1928) “Ernst Cassirer: Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. 2. Teil: Das mythische Denken.” Deutsche Literaturzeitung, 21: 1000–1012. Translated as “Book Review of Ernst Cassirer's Mythical Thought.” In The Piety of Thinking. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.
  • ––– (1929) Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik. Bonn: Friedrich Cohen. Translated (together with a protocol of the Davos disputation with Cassirer) as Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 1990.
  • Ihmig, K.-N. (2001) Grundzüge einer Philosophie der Wissenschaften bei Ernst Cassirer. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
  • Kaegi, D. and E. Rudolph, eds. (2000)70 Jahre Davoser Disputation. Hamburg: Meiner.
  • Knoppe, T. (1992) Die theoretische Philosophie Ernst Cassirers: Zu den Grundlagen transzendentaler Wissenschafts- und Kulturtheorie. Hamburg: Meiner.
  • Koyré, A. (1939) Etudes galiléennes. 3 vols. Paris: Hermann. Translated as Galileo Studies. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978.
  • Krois, J. (1987) Cassirer: Symbolic Forms and History. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Langer, S. (1942) Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Moss, G. S. (2015) Ernst Cassirer and the Autonomy of Language. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
  • Paetzold, H. (1995) Ernst Cassirer — Von Marburg nach New York: eine philosophische Biographie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
  • Panofsky, E. (1939) Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Pap, A. (1946) The A Priori in Physical Theory. New York: King's Cross Press.
  • Renz, U. (2002) Die Rationalität der Kultur: Zur Kulturphilosophie und ihrer transzendentalen Begründung bei Cohen, Natorp und Cassirer. Hamburg: Meiner.
  • Schilpp, P., ed. (1949) The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. La Salle: Open Court.
  • Schlick, M. (1921) “Kritizistische oder empiristische Deutung der neuen Physik?” Kant-Studien, 26: 96-111. Translated as “Critical or Empiricist Interpretation of Modern Physics?” In H. Mulder and B. van de Velde-Schlick, eds. Moritz Schlick: Philosophical Papers. Vol. 2. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1979.
  • Schwemmer, O. (1997) Ernst Cassirer. Ein Philosoph der europäischen Moderne. Berlin: Akademie.
  • Skidelsky, E. (2008) Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture. Princeton: Princeton Unversity Press.

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945)

Ernst Cassirer was the most prominent, and the last, Neo-Kantian philosopher of the twentieth century. His major philosophical contribution was the transformation of his teacher Hermann Cohen’s mathematical-logical adaptation of Kant’s transcendental idealism into a comprehensive philosophy of symbolic forms intended to address all aspects of human cultural life and creativity. In doing so, Cassirer paid equal attention to both sides of the traditional Neo-Kantian division between the Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften, that is, between the social sciences and the natural sciences. This is expressed most systematically in his masterwork, the multi-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923-9). Here Cassirer marshaled the widest learning of human cultural expression—in myth, religion, language, philosophy, history, art, and science—for the sake of completing and correcting Kant’s transcendental program. The human being, for Cassirer, is not simply the rational animal, but the animal whose experience with and reaction to the world is governed by symbolic relations. Cassirer was a quintessential humanistic liberal, believing freedom of rational expression to be coextensive with liberation. Cassirer was also the twentieth century’s greatest embodiment of the Enlightenment ideal of comprehensive learning, having written widely-acclaimed histories of the ideas of science, historiography, mathematics, mythology, political theory, and philosophy. Though cordial with both Moritz Schlick and Martin Heidegger, Cassirer’s popularity was eclipsed by the simultaneous rise of logical positivism in the English-speaking world and of phenomenology on the European continent. His professional career was the victim, too, of the political events surrounding the ascendency of Nazism in German academies.

Table of Contents

  1. Biography
  2. Philosophy of Symbolic Forms
  3. Cultural Anthropology
  4. Myth
  5. Language
  6. Science
  7. Political Philosophy
  8. The Davos Conference
  9. References and Further Reading
    1. Cassirer’s Major Works
    2. Further Reading

1. Biography

Ernst Cassirer was born in 1874, the son of the established Jewish merchant Eduard Cassirer, in the former German city of Breslau (modern day Wrocław, Poland). He matriculated at the University of Berlin in 1892. His father intended that he study law, but Cassirer’s interest in literature and philosophy prevented him from doing so. Sampling various courses at the universities at Leipzig, Munich, and Heidelberg, Cassirer was first exposed to the Neo-Kantian philosophy by the social theorist Georg Simmel in Berlin. In 1896, Cassirer began his doctoral studies under Herman Cohen at the University of Marburg.

Cassirer’s interests at Marburg ran, as they would always, toward framing Neo-Kantian thought in the wider contexts of historical thinking. These interests culminated in his dissertation, Descartes: Kritik der Matematischen und Naturwissenschaftlichen Erkentniss (1899). Three years later, Cassirer published a similarly historical book on Leibniz’ System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen (1902). Cassirer was also the editor of Leibniz’ Philosophische Werke (1906). His focus on the development of modern idealist epistemology and its foundational importance for the history of the various natural sciences and mathematics reached its apex in Cassirer’s three-volume Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neuren Zeit (1906-1920), for which he was awarded the Kuno Fischer Medal by the Heidelberg Academy. The first volume, Cassirer’s Habilitationschrift at the University of Berlin (1906), examines the development of epistemology from the Renaissance through Descartes; the second (1907) continues from modern empiricism through Kant; the third (1920) deals with the development of epistemology after Kant, especially the division between Hegelians and Neo-Kantians up to the mid-twentieth century; and the fourth volume of Das Erkenntnisproblem on contemporary epistemology and science was written in exile in 1940, but only published after the end of the war in 1946.

Although his quality as a scholar of ideas was unquestioned, anti-Jewish sentiment in German universities made finding suitable employment difficult for Cassirer. Only through the personal intervention of Wilhelm Dilthey was Cassirer given a Privatdozent position at the University of Berlin in 1906. His writing there was prolific and continued the Neo-Kantian preoccupation with the intersections among epistemology, mathematics, and natural science. Cassirer’s work on, and with, Einstein exemplifies the quality of his contributions to the philosophy of science: Der Substanzbegriff und der Funktionsbegriff (1910), and Zur Einstein’schen Relativitätstheoretische Betrachtung (1921). These works also mark Cassirer’s conviction that an historian of ideas could make a major contribution to the most contemporary problems in every field.

After the First World War, and in the more tolerant Weimar Republic, Cassirer was invited to a chair at the new University of Hamburg in 1919. There, Cassirer came into the cultural circle of Erwin Panofsky and the Warburg Library of the Cultural Sciences. Immediately Cassirer was absorbed into the vast cultural-anthropological data collected by the Library, affecting the widest expansion of Neo-Kantian ideas into the previously uncharted philosophical territories of myth, the evolution of language, zoology, primitive cultures, fine art, and music. The acquaintance with the Warburg circle transformed Cassirer from a student of the Marburg School’s analysis of the transcendental conditions of thinking into a philosopher of culture whose inquisitiveness touched nearly all areas of human cultural life. This intersection of Marburg and Warburg was indeed the necessary background of Cassirer’s masterwork, the four-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923-1929).

In addition to his programmatic work, Cassirer was a major contributor to the history of ideas and the history of science. In conscious contrast with Hegelian accounts of history, Cassirer does not begin with the assumption of a theory of dialectical progress that would imply the inferiority of earlier stages of historical developments. By starting instead with the authors, cultural products, and historical events themselves, Cassirer instead finds characteristic frames of mind that are defined by the kinds of philosophical questions and responses that frame them, which are in turn constituted by characteristic forms of rationality. Among his works at this time, which influenced a generation of historians of ideas from Arthur Lovejoy to Peter Gay are Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance (1927); Die Platonische Renaisance in England und die Schule von Cambridge (1932); Philosophie der Aufklärung (1932); Das Problem Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1932); and Descartes: Lehre, Persönlichkeit, Wirkung (1939). Cassirer’s philosophy of science had a similar influence on the historical analyses of Alexander Koyré and, through him, Thomas Kuhn.

In 1929, Cassirer was chosen Rektor of the University of Hamburg, making him the first Jewish person to hold that position in Germany. However, even as Cassirer’s star was rising, the situation for Jewish academics was deteriorating. With Hitler’s election as Chancellor came the ban on Jews holding academic positions. Cassirer saw the writing on the wall and emigrated with his family in 1933. He spent two years at Oxford and then six at Göteborg, where he wrote Determinismus und Indeterminismus in der modernen Physik (1936), Descartes: Lehre, Persönlichkeit, Wirkung (1939), and Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften (1942). In 1931, he wrote the first comprehensive study of the Swedish legal theorist and proto-Analytic philosopher, Axel Hägerström.

In 1941, Cassirer boarded the last ship the Germans permitted to sail from Sweden to the United States, where he would hold positions at Yale for two years and then at Columbia for one. His final books, written in English, were the career-synopsis, An Essay on Man (1944), and his first philosophical foray into contemporary politics, The Myth of the State (1946), published posthumously. Cassirer’s death in New York City on April 13, 1945, preceded that of Hitler and the surrender of Germany by mere weeks.

2. Philosophy of Symbolic Forms

“The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is not concerned exclusively or even primarily with the purely scientific, exact conceiving of the world; it is concerned with all the forms assumed by man’s understanding of the world” (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. III, 13). For Cassirer, Neo-Kantianism was less about doctrinal allegiance than it was about a common commitment to explore the cognitive structures that underlie the variety of human experience. After the death of Cohen, Cassirer became increasingly interested in value and culture. Inspired by the Warburg Library, Cassirer cast his net into an ocean of cultural expression, trying to find the common thread that united the manifold of cultural forms, that is, to move from the critique of reason to the critique of culture.

As to what precisely symbolic forms are, Cassirer offers perhaps his clearest definition in an early lecture at the Warburg Library (1921):

By ‘symbolic form’ I mean that energy of the spirit through which a mental meaning-content is attached to a sensual sign and inwardly dedicated to this sign. In this sense language, the mythical-religious world, and the arts each present us with a particular symbolic form. For in them all we see the mark of the basic phenomenon, that our consciousness is not satisfied to simply receive impressions from the outside, but rather that it permeates each impression with a free activity of expression. In what we call the objective reality of things we are thus confronted with a world of self-created signs and images. (“Der Begriff der Symbolischen Form im Aufbau der Geisteswissenschaften”)

An illustration Cassirer uses is that of the curved line on a flat plane. To the geometer, the line means a quantitative relation between the two dimensions of the plane; to the physicist, the line perhaps means a relation of energy to mass; and to the artist, the line means a relation between light and darkness, shape and contour. More than simply a reflection of different practical interests, Cassirer believes each of these brings different mental energies to bear in turning the visual sensation of the line into a distinct human experience. No one of these ways of experiencing is the true one; though they each have their distinctive pragmatic uses within their individual fields. The task of the philosopher is to understand the internal directedness of each of these mental energies independently and in relation to the others as the sum total of human mental expression, which is to say, culture.

The first two forms Cassirer discusses, in the first two volumes respectively, are language and myth. The third volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms concerns contemporary advances in epistemology and natural science: “We shall show how the stratum of conceptual, discursive knowledge is grounded in those other strata of spiritual life which our analysis of language and myth has laid bare; and with constant reference to this substructure we shall attempt to determine the particularity, organization, and architectonics of the superstructure – that is, of science” (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. III, xiii). Cassirer works historically, tracing the problem of philosophical knowledge through the Ancient Greeks up through the Neo-Kantian tradition. The seemingly endless battle between intuition and conceptualization has been contended in various forms between the originators of myths and the earliest theorists of number, between the Milesians and Eleatics, between the empiricists and rationalists, and again right up to Ernst Mach and Max Planck. Cassirer’s position here is conciliatory: both sides have and will continue to contribute their perspective on the eternal questions of philosophy insofar as both recognize their efforts as springing from the human’s multifaceted and spontaneous creativity—as symbol-forming rather than designating endeavors that in their dialectics, each with the other side, construct more elaborate and yet universal ways to navigate our world:

Physics gains this unity and extension by advancing toward ever more universal symbols. But in this process it cannot jump over its own shadow. It can and must strive to replace particular concepts and signs with absolutely universal ones. But it can never dispense with the function of concepts and signs as such: this would demand an intellectual representation of the world without the basic instruments of representation. (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. III, 479)

The fourth volume, The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms, was published posthumously. Along with other papers left at the time of his death, the German original is now found in the first volume of Cassirer’s Nachgelassene Manuskripte und Texte, edited by John Michael Krois and Oswald Schwemmer in 1995. The English volume, assembled and edited by Donald Philip Verene and John Michael Krois in 1996, contains two texts from different periods in Cassirer’s writings. The first, from 1928, deals with human nature rather than metaphysics proper. In agreement with Heidegger, curiously, Cassirer seeks to replace traditional metaphysics with a fundamental study of human nature. Much of the thematic discussion of this part receives a refined and more complete expression in Cassirer’s 1944 Essay on Man. What is of novel interest here concerns his discussion of then contemporary philosophical anthropologists like Dilthey, Bergson, and Simmel and also the Lebensphilosophen, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, who otherwise receive short shrift in his work. His critical remarks of these latter thinkers involve their treatment of life as a new sort of metaphysics, one marred, however, by the sorts of dogmatism of pre-Kantian metaphysics.

The second text in Verene and Krois’s assembled volume comes from 1940, well after the project had been otherwise finished, and its theme is what Cassirer terms “basis phenomena”: phenomena so fundamental that they cannot be derived from anything else. The main basis phenomena concerns how the tripartite structure of the self’s personal relation to the environment is mirrored in a tripartite social structure of the “I,” the “you,” and that which binds society: “work.” Not to be confused with the Marxist conception of work, for Cassirer work is anything made or effected, any subjective operation on the objective world. The initial and most fundamental production of work, for Cassirer, is culture—the sphere in which the “I” and “you” come together in active life.

Several objections to Cassirer’s masterwork have been raised. First, the precise identity and number of forms is ambiguous over Cassirer’s corpus. In the lecture from 1921, Cassirer names language, myth-religion, and art as forms, but that number cannot be considered exhaustive. Even in his summatory Essay on Man, consecutive pages maintain different lists: “myth, language, art, religion, history, science” (222) and then “language, myth, art, religion, science” (223); elsewhere science is omitted (63); mathematics is sometimes added; and religion is sometimes considered part of mythic thinking. The first two of the four volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms—on language and myth respectively—would seem to indicate that each volume would treat a specific form. But the latter two volumes break the trend to deal with a host of different forms. Moreover, it is ambiguous how precisely those forms are related. For example, myth is sometimes treated as a primitive form of language and sometimes non-developmentally as an equal correlate. Arithmetic and geometry are the logic that undergirds the scientific symbolic form, but in no way do they undergird primitive forms of science that have been superseded. Whether the forms are themselves developmental or whether development takes place by the instantiation of a new form is also left vague. For example, Cassirer indicates that the move from Euclidean to non-Euclidean geometry involves not just progress but an entirely new system of symbolization. However, myth does not seem to develop itself into anything else other than into something wholly different, that is, representational language.

There is, however, a certain necessity to Cassirer’s imprecision on these points. Taken together, the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is a grand narrative that exposits how various human experiences evolve out of an originally animalistic and primitive articulation of expressive signs into the complicated and more abstract forms of culture in the twenty-first century. As “energies of the spirit” they cannot be affixed with the kind of rigid architectonic featured in Kant’s transcendental deduction of purely logical forms. Though spontaneous acts of mental energy, symbolic forms are both developmental and pragmatic insofar as they adapt over time to changing environments in response to real human needs, something that resists an overly rigid structuralism. Those responses feature a loose sort of internal-logic, but one characterized according to contingent cultural interactions with the world. Therefore, one ought not to expect Cassirer to offer the same logical precision that comes with the typical Neo-Kantian discernment of mental forms insofar as logic is only one form among many cultural relations with life.

3. Cultural Anthropology

Cassirer’s late Essay on Man (1944) expresses neatly his lifelong attempt to combine his Neo-Kantian view of the actively-constituting subject with his Warburgian appreciation for the diversity of human culture. Here, as ever, Cassirer begins with the history of views up into his present time, culminating in the presentation of a definitive scientific thesis that he would then proceed to refute. Johannes von Uexküll’s  Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (1909)argued that evolutionary biology has taken too far the view that animal parts and functions develop as a response to environmental factors. In its place Uexküll offers the “functional circle” of animal activity, which identifies the interaction of distinct receptor and effector systems. Animals are not simply reacting to the environment as it presents itself in sensory stimuli. They adapt themselves, consciously and unconsciously, to their environments, sometimes with clear signs of intelligence and insight. Different animals use diverse and sometimes highly complex systems of signals to better respond and manipulate their environments to their advantage. Dogs, for example, are adroit at reading signals in body language, vocal tones, and even hormone changes while being remarkably effective in expressing a complex range of immediate inner states in terms of the vocalized pitch of their whimpers, grunts, or barks, as well as the bends of their tails, or the posture of their spines. In Pavlov’s famous experiments, dogs were conditioned to react both to the immediate signals of meat—its visual appearance and smell—and also to mediate signals, like a ringing bell, to the same effect.

Cassirer thinks this theory makes good sense of the animal world as a corrective to a too-simple version of evolution, but doubts this can be applied to humans. Over and above the signals received and expressed by animals, human beings evolved to use symbols to make their world meaningful. The same ringing of the bell would not be considered by man a physical signal so much as a symbol whose meaning transcends its real, concrete stimulation. For man, a bell does not indicate simply that food is coming, but induces him to wonder why that bell might indicate food, or perhaps whether an exam is over, or the fulfillment of a sacrament, or that someone is on the telephone. None of those symbols would lead necessarily to a response in the way the conditioned dog salivates at the bell. They instead prompt a range of freely creative responses in human knowers within distinct spheres of meaning:

Symbols—in the proper sense of this term—cannot be reduced to mere signals. Signals and symbols belong to two different universes of discourse: a signal is a part of the physical world of being; a symbol is a part of the human world of meaning. Signals are ‘operators’; symbols are ‘designators’. Signals, even when understood and used as such, have nevertheless a sort of physical or substantial being; symbols have only a functional value. (Essay on Man 32)

Between the straightforward reception of physical stimuli and the expression of an inner world lies, for Cassirer, the symbolic system: “This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality” (Essay on Man 24). That dimension is distinctively Kantian: the a priori forms of space and time. Animals have little trouble working in three-dimensional space; their optical, tactile, acoustic, and kinesthetic apprehension of spatial distances functions at least as well as it does in humans. But only to the human is the symbol of pure geometrical space meaningful, a universal, non-perceptual, theoretical space that persists without immediate relationship to his or her own interaction with the world: “Geometrical space abstracts from all the variety and heterogeneity imposed upon us by the disparate nature of our senses. Here we have a homogenous, a universal space” (Essay on Man 45). In terms of time, too, there can be no doubt that higher animals remember past sensations, or that memory affects the manner in which they respond when similar sensations are presented. But in the human person the past is not simply repeated in the present, but transformed creatively and constructively in ways that reflect values, regrets, hopes, and so forth,

It is not enough to pick up isolated data of our past experience; we must really re-collect them, we must organize and synthesize them, and assemble them into a focus of thought. It is this kind of recollection which gives us the characteristic human shape of memory, and distinguishes it from all the other phenomena in animal or organic life. (Essay on Man 51)

As animals recall pasts and live within sensory space, human beings construct histories and geometries. Both history and geometry, then, are symbolic engagements that render the world meaningful in an irreducibly human fashion.

This symbolic dimension of the person carries him or her above the effector-receptor world of environmental facts and subjective responses. He or she lives instead in a world of possibilities, imaginations, fantasy, and dreams. However, just as there is a kind of logic to the language of contrary-to-fact conditionals or to the rules of poetic rhythym, so too is there a natural directedness expressed in how human beings construct a world of meaning out of those raw effections and receptions. That directedness cannot, however, be restricted to rational intentionality, though reason is indeed an essential component. In distinction from the Neo-Kantian theories of experience and representation, Cassirer thinks there is a wider network of forms that enable a far richer engagement between subject and object than reason could produce: “Hence, instead of defining man as an animal rationale, we should define him as an animal symbolicum” (Essay on Man 26).

With his definition of man as the symbolic animal, Cassirer is in position to reenvision the task of philosophy. Philosophy is much more than the analysis and eventual resolution of a set of linguistic problems, as Wittgenstein would have it, nor is it restricted, as it was for many Neo-Kantians, to transcendentally deducing the logical forms that would ground the natural sciences. Philosophy’s “starting point and its working hypothesis are embodied in the conviction that the varied and seemingly dispersed rays may be gathered together and brought into a common focus (Essay on Man 222). The functions of the human person are not merely aggregrate, loosely-connected expressions and factual conditions. Philosophy seeks to understand the connections that unite those expressions and conditions as an organic whole.

4. Myth

Max Müller was the leading theorist of myth in Cassirer’s day. In the face of Anglophone linguistic analysis, Müller held myth to be the necessary means by which earlier people communicate, one which left a number of traces within more-developed contemporary languages. What is needed for the proper study of myth, beyond this appreciation of its utility, is a step by step un-riddling of the mythical objects in non-mythical concepts so as to rationally articulate what a myth really means. Sigmund Freud, of course, also considered myth to be a sort of unconscious expression, one that stands as a primitive version of the naturally-occuring expression of subconscious drives.

Cassirer considers myth in terms of the Neo-Kantian reflex by first examining the conditions for thinking and then analyzing the objects which are thought. In his Sprache und Mythos (1925), which is a sort of condensed summary of the first two volumes of Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Cassirer comes to criticize Müller, more so than Freud, for an unreflective realism about the objects of myth. To say that objects of any sort are what they are independent of their representation is to misunderstand the last century of transcendental epistemology. Accordingly, to treat myth as a false representation of those objects, one waiting to be “corrected” by a properly rational representation, is to ignore the wider range of human intellectual power. Naturalizing myths, as Müller and his followers sought to do, does not dissolve an object’s mythical mask so much as transplants it into the foreign soil of an alternative symbolic form:

From this point of view all artistic creation becomes a mere imitation, which must always fall short of the original. Not only simple imitation of a sensibly presented model, but also what is known as idealization, manner, or style, must finally succumb to this verdict; for measured by the naked ‘truth’ of the object to be depicted, idealization is nothing but subjective misconception and falsification. And it seems that all other processes of mental gestation involve the same sort of outrageous distortion, the same departure from objective reality and the immediate data of experience. (Language and Myth, trans. Langer [1946], 6)

Müller’s view of myth is a symptom of a wider problem. For if myth is akin to art or language in falsifying the world as it really is, then language is limited to merely expressing itself without any claim to truth either: “From this point it is but a single step to the conclusion which the modern skeptical critics of language have drawn: the complete dissolution of any alleged truth content of language, and the realization that this content is nothing but a sort of phantasmagoria of the spirit” (Language and Myth, trans. Langer [1946], 7). Cassirer rejects such fictionalism in myth and language both as an appeal to psychologistic measures of truth that fail to see a better alternative in the philosophy of symbolic forms.

For Cassirer, myth (and language, discussed below) does reflect reality: the reality of the subject. Accordingly, the study of myth must focus on the mental processes that create myth instead of the presupposed ‘real’ objects of myth:

Instead of measuring the content, meaning, and truth of intellectual forms by something extraneous which is supposed to be reproduced in them, we must find in these forms themselves the measure and criterion for their truth and intrinsic meaning. Instead of taking them as mere copies of something else, we must see in each of these spiritual forms a spontaneous law of generation; and original way and tendency of expression which is more than a mere record of something initially given in fixed categories of real existence. (Language and Myth, trans. Langer [1946], 8)

The mythic symbol creates its own “world” of meaning distinct from that created by language, mathematics, or science. The question is no longer whether mythic symbols, or any of these other symbolic forms, correspond to reality since it is distinct from that mode of representation, but instead it is a question on how myths relate to those other forms as limitations and supplementations. No matter how heterogeneous and variegated are the myths that come down to us, they move along definite avenues of feeling and creative thought.

An example Cassirer uses to illustrate his understanding of myth-making is the Avesta myth of Mithra. Attempts to identify Mithra as the sun-god, and thereby analogize it to the sun-god of the Egyptians, Greeks, and other early people, are misguided insofar as they stem from the attempt to explain away the object of mythical thinking in naturalistic rational terms. Cassirer points out that the analogy doesn’t hold for strictly interpretive reasons: Mithra is said to appear on mountain tops before dawn and is said to illuminate the earth at night as well, and cannot be the mythical analog of the sun. Mithra is not a thing to be naturalized, but evidence of an alternate spiritual energy that fashions symbolic responses to experiential confusions. What Mithra specifically reflects is a mode of thinking as it struggles to make sense of how the qualities of light and darkness result from a single essential unity: the cosmos.

As historical epochs provide new and self-enclosed worlds of experience, so too does myth evolve in conjunction with the needs of the age as an expression of overlapping but quite distinct patterns of mental life. Myths are hardly just wild stories with a particular pragmatic lesson. There is a specific mode of perception that imbues mythic thinking with its power to transcend experience. Similar to Giambattista Vico’s vision of historical epochs, Cassirer views the development of culture out of myth as a narrative of progressively more abstract systems of representation that serve as the foundation for human culture. Like Vico, too, there is continuity between the most elevated systems of theoretical expression of modern day—namely, religion, philosophy, and above all natural science—and a more primitive mind’s reliance upon myth and magic. However, Cassirer shares more with Enlightenment optimism than with Vico’s pessimistic conviction about the progressive degeneracy of scientific abstraction.

5. Language

The first volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923), on language, is guided by the search for epistemological reasons sufficient to explain the origin and development of human speech. Language is neither a nominal nor arbitrary designation of objects, nor, however, does language hold any immediate or essential connection to the object of its designation. The use of a word to designate an object is already caught in a web of intersubjectively-determined meanings which of themselves contain much more than the simple reference. Words are meaningful within experience, and that experience lies, as it did for Kant, as a sort of middle-ground between the pure reception of objects and the autonomous activity of reason to generate forms within which  content could be meaningful. In contrast to Kant and the Neo-Kantians, however, those forms cannot be presumed to be identical among all rational agents over the spans of history. Animal language is essentially a language of emotion, expressions of desires and aversions in response to environmental factors. Similarly the earliest words uttered by our primitive ancestors were signs to deal with objects, every bit a tool alongside other tools to deal with the primitive’s sensed reality. As the human mind evolved to add spatio-temporal intuitions to mere sensation, a representational function overtook the mind’s merely expressive operations. The primitive vocalized report of received sensations became representations of enduring objects within fixed spatial points: “The difference between propositional language and emotional language is the real landmark between the human and the animal world. All the theories and observations concerning animal language are wide of the mark if they fail to recognize that fundamental difference” (Essay on Man 30). The features of those objects were further abstracted such that from commonalities there emerged a host of types, kinds, and eventually universals, whose meaning allowed for the emergence of mathematics, science, and philosophy.

The animal’s emotive signals operate as a practical imagination in a world of immediate experience. Proper human propositional speech, on the other hand, is already imbued at even its most basic levels with theoretical structures that involve quintessentially spatio-temporal forms linking subjects and their objects: “Language has a new task wherever such relationships are signified linguistically, where ‘here’ is distinguished from ‘there,’ where the location of the speaker is distinguished from the one spoken to, or where the greater nearness or distance is rendered by various indicative particles” (“The Problem of the Symbol and its Place in the System of Philosophy” in Luft [2015], 259). The application of dimensionality, and temporality as well, transforms the subjective sensation into an objective representation. Prepositions, participles, subjunctives, conditionals, and the rest, all involve either temporal or spatial prescriptions, and none of them seems to be a feature of animal space. The older animalistic content is not entirely discarded as the same basic desires and emotions are expressed. The means of that expression, however, are formally of an entirely different character that binds the subject to the object in ways supposed to be binding for other rational agents. Although the interjection “ouch!” expresses pain well enough, and although animals have variously similar yelps and cries, it lacks the representational form of the proposition “I (this one, here and now) am (presently) in pain..” In the uniquely human sphere of ethics, too, the reliance on subjunctive and conditional verbal forms—“I ought not to have done that,” for example—always carries language beyond simple evocations of pleasures and aversions into the symbolic realm of meaningfulness.

The Neo-Kantian position on language allows Cassirer to address two contemporary anomalies in linguistic science. The first is the famous case of Helen Keller, the unfortunate deafblind girl from Alabama, who, with the help of her teacher Anne Sullivan, went on to become a prolific author and social activist. Sullivan had taught Helen signs by using a series of taps on her hand to correspond to particular sense impressions. Beyond her disabled sensory capacities, Cassirer argued, Helen was unable to cognize in the characteristically human way. One day at a water pump, Sullivan tapped “water” and Helen recognized the disjunction between the various sensations of water (varying temperatures, viscocities, and degrees of pressure) and the “thing” which is universally referred to as such. That moment opened up for Helen an entire world of names, not as mere expressive signals covering various sensations but as intersubjectively valid objective symbols. This discovery marked her entry into a new, symbolic mode of thinking: “The child had to make a new and much more significant discovery. She had to understand that everything has a name—that the symbolic function is not restricted to particular cases but is a principle of universal applicability which encompasses the whole field of human thought” (Essay on Man 34f).

The second case is the pathology of aphasia. Similar to Helen Keller, what had long been thought a deficiency of the senses was revealed by Cassirer to be a cognitive failing. In the case of patients with traumatic injuries to certain areas of the brain, particular classes of speech act became impossible. The mechanical operation of producing the words was not the problem, but an inability to speak objectively about “unreal” conditions: “A patient who was suffering from a hemiplegia, from a paralysis of the right hand, could not, for instance, utter the words: ‘I can write with my right hand,’ because this was to him the statement of a fact, not of a hypothetical or unreal case” (Essay on Man 57). These types of aphasiacs were confined to the data provided by their sense impressions and therefore could not make the crucial symbolic move to theoretical possibility. For Cassirer, this was good evidence that language was neither mere emotional expression nor free-floating propositional content that could be analyzed logically only a posteriori.

In addition to these cases of abnormal speech pathology, Cassirer’s attention to the evolution of language enabled him to take a much wider view of both the form of utterance and its content than his more famous counterparts among the linguistic analysts. In Carnap’s Logical Syntax of Language, for example, the attempt is made to reduce semantic rules to syntax. The expected outcome was a philosophical grammar, a sound and complete system of words in the sort of logical relation that would be universally valid. For Cassirer, however, “human speech has to fulfill not only a universal logical task but also a social task which depends on the specific social conditions of the speaking community. Hence we cannot expect a real identity, a one-to-one correspondence between grammatical and logical forms” (Essay on Man 128). Contrary to the early analytical school, language cannot be considered a given thing waiting to be assessed according to independent logical categories, but instead needs to be assessed according to the a priori application of those categories to verbal expressions. Accordingly, the task of the philosopher of language must be refocused to account for the diversity and creativity of linguistic dynamics in order to better encapsulate the human rational agent in the fullest possible range of his or her powers.

6. Science

Cassirer was perhaps the last systematic philosopher to have both exhaustive knowledge of the historical development of each of the individual sciences as well as thorough familiarity with his day’s most important advancements. Substance and Function (1910) could still serve as a primer for the history of major scientific concepts prior to the twenthieth century. The first part examines the concepts of number, space, and a vast array of special problems such as Emil du Bois-Reymond’s “limiting concepts”; Robert Mayer’s methodological advancements in thermo-dynamics; the spatial continuities of atoms in the physics of Roger Boscovich and Gustav Fechner; Galileo’s concept of inertia; Heinrich Hertz’s mechanics; and John Dalton’s law of multiple proportions. Each of these is examined with a view toward the epistemological presuppositions that gave rise to those problems and how each scientist’s innovations represented a novel way of posing problems through an application of spatio-temporal concepts.

This historical survey allows Cassirer to offer his own contributions to these problems along recognizably Neo-Kantian lines in the second part of Substance and Function. Science cannot be considered a collection of empirical facts. Science discovers no absolute qualities but only qualities in relation to other qualities within a particular field, such as the concept of mass as the sum of relations with respect to external impulses in motion, or energy as the momentary condition of a given physical system. Concrete sensuous impressions are only transformed into empirical objects by the determination of spatial and temporal form. The properties of objects, in bringing them into meaningful discourse by means of measurement, are thus mathematized as a field of relations: “The chaos of impressions becomes a system of numbers; but these numbers first gain their denomination, and thus their specific meaning, from the system of concepts which are theoretically established as universal standards of measurement” (Substance and Function 149). Objects as they stand outside possible experience are not the proper subject matter of science, anymore than they are for mathematics. Proper science examines the logical connections among the spatio-temporal relationships of objects precisely as they are constituted by experience.

Abandoning the particular sensuous properties of objects for their logical relations as members of a system refocuses the scientific inquiry on how the natural world is symbolized by mathematical logic. Science becomes anthropomorphized insofar as whatever content is available to experience will be content that the human being spontaneuosly and creatively renders meaningful: “No content of experience can ever appear as something absolutely strange; for even in making it a content of our thought, in setting it in spatial and temporal relations with other contents we have thereby impressed it with the seal of our universal concepts of connection, in particular those of mathematical relations” (Substance and Function 150). However, this in no way reduces science to mere relativism of personal inner projections, as if one way of representing the world were no better than any other. Though we do not know objects independent of mental representation, scientific understanding functions objectively by fixing the permanent logical elements and their connections within a uniform manifold of experience: “The object marks the logical possession of knowledge, and not a dark beyond forever removed from knowledge” (Substance and Function 303). Thus, science is absolutely tied to empirical reality, by which Cassirer means the sum of logical relations through which humans cognize the world. Therefore science, too, as much as language or myth, symbolically constitutes the world in its particular idiom: “The symbol possesses its adequate correlate in the connection according to law, that subsists between the individual members, and not in any constitutive part of the perception; yet it is this connection that gradually reveals itself to be the real kernel of the thought of empirical ‘reality’” (Substance and Function 149).

This Neo-Kantian vision of science is not something Cassirer thinks stands to “correct” science as currently practiced. On the contrary, the great modern scientists themselves have assumed precisely the same view, though in terms lacking the proper philosophical rigor. Newton’s assumption of absolute space and time put science on its first firm foundation, and in doing so he had to relinquish a purely sense-certain view of experience. Space and time in classical physics fix natural processes within a geometric schema, and fix mass as a self-identical thing within infinitely different spaces and different times. What Newton failed to realize was that this vision of space and time imputed ideal forms into what he believed was the straightforward observation of real objects. Kant had already shown as much. James Clark Maxwell’s theory of light waves breaks with this system of transcribing observational circumstances with mathematical equations that associate spatial positions with affair-states. Maxwell’s spatial point simultaneously has two correlate directional quantities: the magnetic and electrical vectors, whose representations in mathematics are readily cognizable but whose observation as such is impossible. The theory of Maxwell was therefore functionally meaningful without requiring a substantial ontology behind it. The definitive theory of light he discovered was not about a permanent thing situated within space and time but a set of interrelated magnitudes that could be functionally represented as a universal constant.

Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz was among the first natural scientists to properly acknowledge the difference between observational descriptions of reality and symbolic theoretical constructions of it. As Cassirer quotes Helmholtz:

[I]n investigating [phenomena] we must proceed on the supposition that they are comprehensible. Accordingly, the law of sufficient reason is really nothing more than the urge of our intellect to bring all our perceptions under its own control. It is not a law of nature. Our intellect is the faculty of forming general conceptions. It has nothing to do with our sense-perceptions and experiences unless it is able to form general conceptions or laws. (Essay on Man 220)

The alleged sensory manifold held so dear in naively realist science gave way before Helmholtz’s demonstration that such is an ideally defined totality according to the rule which distinguishes properties on the basis of numerical series. That ideal unit is, for Helmholtz, the “symbol,” which cannot be considered a “copy” of a non-signifying object-in-itself (for how could that be conceived?) but the functional correspondence between two or more conceptual structures. Thus what is discovered by Helmholtzian science are the laws of interrelation among phenomena, the laws which are the very condition of our experiencing something as an object in the first place.

To Helmholtz’s experimental demonstration, Cassirer is able to add the relational but still universal nature of scientific designation; that is, the crucial differentiation between substance-concepts and function-concepts:

For laws are never mere compendia of perceptible facts, in which the individual phenomena are merely placed end to end as on a string. Rather every law, as compared to immediate perception, comprises a […] transition to a new perspective. This can occur only when we replace the concrete data provided by experience with symbolic representations, which on the basis of certain theoretical presuppositions that the observer accepts as true and valid are thought to correspond to them. (The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms III, 21)

Accordingly, the truth of science does not depend upon an accurate conceptualization of substances so much as it does on the demonstrating the limits of conceptual thinking about those substances, that is, their symbolic functions.

The scientist cannot attain his end without strict obedience to the facts of nature. But this obedience is not passive submission. The work of all the great natural scientists – of Galileo and Newton, of Maxwell and Helmholtz, of Planck and Einstein—was not mere fact collecting; it was theoretical, and that means constructive, work. This spontaneity and productivity is the very center of all human activities. It is man’s highest power and it designates at the same time the natural boundary of our human world. In language, in religion, in art, in science, man can do no more than to build up his own universe – a symbolic universe that enables him to understand and interpret, to articulate and organize, to synthesize and universalize his human experience. (Essay on Man 221)

Cassirer’s essay Zur Einsteinschen Relativitätstheorie (1921) was his last major thematic enterprise before the first volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. In it he sees himself following Cohen’s task of updating Kant’s philosophical groundwork for science. Kant had taken for granted that the forms of science in his own day represented scientific thinking as such. His epistemological groundwork accordingly needed to support Newtonian physics. After Kant’s death, science leapt past the limits set by Newton just as mathematics pushed the limits of Euclidian three-dimensional geometry. Einstein’s theories of relativity effectively dismantled the authority of both; the fact that they did proved to Cassirer the non-absolute status of scientific symbolization as a doctrine about objects. An elucidation of the epistemological conditions that could allow for Einstein’s relativity was now necessary.

Cassirer replaced Kant’s static formalism with his attention to the varied and alterable features of mathematical science that could accomodate radical new forms of mathematical logic and, by extension, systems of natural science. Pure Euclidean geometry was so influential because it dealt concretely and intuitively with real things as uniform and absolute substances. And it still works with most material applications. When non-Euclidian geometry came to the fore with Gauss, Riemann, and Christoffel, it was considered a mere play of analytical concepts that held some logical curiosity but no applicability. Over time a gradual shift ensued from the widening of the concept of experience to include non-uniform concepts of space.

Pure Euclidean space stands, as it now seems, not closer to the demands of empirical and physical knowledge than the non-Euclidean manifolds but rather more removed. For precisely because it represents the logically simplest form of spatial construction it is not wholly adequate to the complexity of content and the material determinateness of the empirical. Its [i.e., the Euclidean] fundamental property of homogeneity, its axiom of the equivalence in the principal of all points, now marks it as an abstract space; for, in the concrete and empirical manifold, there never is such uniformity, but rather thorough-going differentiation reigns in it. (“Euclidean and non-Euclidean Geometry,” in Luft [2015], 243)

It is thus not the case, as traditionally thought, that the new physical sciences simply adopted a more abstract vision of mathematics as its basis. Their physics represent a more widely-encompassing symbolic representation that expresses a new mode of experience, one less concerned with the sense impressions of real objects than with the reality of their logical relations.

Einstein needed a geometry of curvature that varied according to the relation of mass and energy in order for general relativity to work, but this of itself does not mean Euclidean geometry was or even could be proven wrong by Minkowski space-time. In the terminology of symbolic forms, Cassirer thinks Einstein’s relativity has transcended the symbolic forms of natural objects with those of pure mathematical relations. The result is the fracture of non-commensurable ways of analyzing one and the same “substance”: physically, chemically, mathematically, and so forth. Those forms ought not to be reduced to a single “meta” method that levels their differences as merely partial views. Each ought to be retained as equally valid parts of the total determination of the object. Thus Einstein was right to abandon absolute Newtonian space-time for relative Minkowski space-time. But his reason for doing so did not concern the former’s falsity. In place of a single absolutist description, the new relativism embraced an epistemology that featured a wider variety of equally valid modes of thinking about one and the same object. Objects, in Cassirer’s idiom, are relative to the symbolic form under which they are expressed.

The One reality can only be disclosed and defined as the ideal limit of diversely changing theories; but the setting of this limit itself is not arbitrary; it is inescapable, since the continuity of experience is established only thereby. No particular astronomical system, the Copernican no more than the Ptolemaic…may be taken as an expression of the ‘true’ cosmic order, but only the whole of these systems as they continuously unfold in accordance with a certain context. …We do not need the objectivity of absolute things, but we do require the objective determinacy of the way of experience itself. (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms III, 476)

Cassirer’s view of the evolution of science may be compared with Thomas Kuhn’s view insofar as both reject a single consistent progress toward absolute truth. Cassirer’s symbolic forms echo in Kuhn’s paradigms as incommensurable frameworks of meaning that stand in discomfitted relationships with one another. But where Kuhn sees the conditions for shifted paradigms in the quasi-sociological language of the community crises brought about by insoluable intra-paradigm problems, Cassirer sees a more epistemological metamorphosis in the evolution and expansion of human thinking. More than just a professional and social shift away from Pythagoras or Galileo to Einstein or Plank, Cassirer thinks rational agency matures to embrace more variegated, more useful, and more precise symbols. This evolution does not bring the rational agent  closer to the truth of objects, but it does bring more useful and exacting means by which to think about those objects. Insofar as science, more so than myth or language, cultivates that progression through its activity, it presents, for Cassirer, the prospect to carry human nature to the very highest cultural achievements possible: “Science is the last step in man’s mental development and it may be regarded as the highest and most characteristic attainment of human culture” (Essay on Man 207).

7. Political Philosophy

Cassirer’s political philosophy has its roots in Renaissance humanism and the classics of Modern thought: Machiavelli, Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, and Humboldt. Ever concerned with a subject’s connection to the wider sphere of cultural life, Cassirer noted that the Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance conceptions of politics were framed within a holistic worldview. In Modern times, a holistic order still obtained, but after Machiavelli, this order is based upon intrapersonal relationships rather than the divine or the natural. These social and political relationships are, like symbolic forms, neither entirely objective nor entirely subjective. They represent the construction of ourselves in the framework of our ideal comprehensive social life.

Man’s social consciousness depends upon a double act of identification and discrimination. Man cannot find himself, he cannot become aware of his individuality, except through the medium of his social life. […] Man, like the animals, submits to the rules of society but, in addition, he has an active share in bringing about, and an active power to change, the forms of social life. (Essay on Man 223)

As it did for Kant, human dignity derives from the capacity of rational agents to pose and constrain themselves by normative laws of their own making. Cassirer stresses against Marx and Heidegger, respectively, that it is neither the material nor ontological conditions that man is born or thrown into that determines political order or social value. Rather, it is the active processes by which the human person creates laws for themself, social institutions for themself, and norms for themself are paramount in determining the place of the human being in society. Politics is not simply the study of the relations between social institutions, as Marx and his sociological disciples believed, but of their meaningful construction within the symbolic forms of myth-making, art, poetry, religion, and science.

Human culture taken as a whole may be described as the process of man’s progressive self-liberation. Language art, religion, science, are various phases in this process. In all of them man discovers and proves a new power – the power to build up a world of his own, an ‘ideal’ world. Philosophy cannot give up its search for a fundamental unity in this ideal world (Essay on Man, 228).

The opponent in Cassirer’s last work, The Myth of the State, is Heidegger and the kind of twentieth century totalitarian mythologies of “crisis” by which he and so much of Germany were then entranced. Even if he did stand mostly alone, Cassirer stood firmly against the myth of Aryan supremacy, the myth of the eternal Jew, and the myth of Socialist utopia. He did not oppose the creative acts that gave rise to these myths but the unthinking allegiance they demanded of their acolytes. In so doing, Cassirer felt Germany, and not just Germany, had abandoned its heritage of classical liberalism, tradition of laws, and its belief in the rational progress of both science and religion for a worldview based in power and struggles for personal gain masking as equality. With obvious reference toward Heidegger and the National Socialists, Cassirer laments:

Perhaps the most important and the most alarming feature in this development of modern political thought is the appearance of a new power: the power of mythical thought. The preponderance of mythical thought over rational thought in some of our modern systems is obvious. (Myth of the State, 3)

Cassirer’s focus in Myth of the State is mostly not, however, the contemporary state of European politics. In fact, only in the last chapter is the word Nazi mentioned. The great majority is caught up instead with history, almost jarringly so given the immediate crisis and Cassirer’s personal place in it. He has far more to say about medieval theories of grace, Plato’s Republic, and Hegel than he does about the rise of Hitler or the War. Back in the First World War, Cassirer’s wife Toni would write in her biography, Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer, that despite some limited clerical duties on behalf of Germany, their major wartime concerns were whether there was sufficient electricity to write and whether the train tickets were first class (Toni Cassirer, 1948, 116-20): “We weren’t politicians, and didn’t even know any politicians” (Ibid., 117). And that aloofness stayed with Cassirer until the end. Charles W. Hendel, who was responsible for Cassirer’s appointment at Yale and who later became the posthumous editor of Myth of the State, illustrates how frustrating Cassirer’s silence on contemporary political matters were: “Won’t you tell us the meaning of what is happening today, instead of writing about past history, science, and culture? You have so much knowledge and wisdom—we who are working with you know that so well—but you should give others, too, the benefit of it” (Myth of the State x). In the early twentieth-first century, Edward Skidelsky declaimed Cassirer’s reluctance to speak about contemporary politics as a symptom of a greater philosophical shortcoming:

“[Cassirer’s] is an enchanting vision. But it is also a fundamentally innocent one. Liberalism may have triumphed in the political sphere, but it was the illiberal philosophy of Heidegger that won the day at Davos and went on to leave the deepest stamp on twentieth-century culture. Who now shares Cassirer’s faith in the humanizing power of art or the liberating power of science? Who now believes that the truth will make us free?” (Skidelsky 2008, 222)

8. The Davos Conference

The historical event for which Cassirer is best known is the famous conference held in Davos, Switzerland in 1929. Planned as a symposium to bring together French- and German-speaking academics in a spirit of international collaboration, the conference was set in the resort town made famous by Thomas Mann’s epic The Magic Mountain (1924). Counting nearly 1,300 attendees, more than 900 of who were the town’s residents, the conference featured 56 lectures delivered over the span of three weeks. Among those in attendance were contemporary heavyweights like Fritz Heinemann and Karl Joël, and rising stars like Emmanuel Lévinas, Joachim Ritter, Maurice de Gandillac, Ludwig Binswanger, and a young Rudolf Carnap. The centerpiece of the conference was to have been the showdown between the two most important philosophers in Germany: Cassirer and Heidegger. Curiously, there never was a disputation proper, in the sense of an official point-by-point debate, in part because neither man was up for it: Cassirer was bed-ridden by illness and Heidegger was less interested in attending lectures than the resort town’s recreational activities. As a characteristic expression of his disdain toward stuffy academic conferences, Heidegger even gave one of his own talks while wearing his ski-suit.

Cassirer was the student and heir of Hermann Cohen, the unchallenged leader of Marburg Neo-Kantianism. Heidegger was the most brilliant student of the Southwest Neo-Kantian Heinrich Rickert, but was recommended to the chair of Marburg by none other than Marburger Paul Natorp. On at least three separate occasions, Cassirer and Heidegger were considered for the same academic post, as successor to Husserl, then to Rickert, and finally for the leading position in Berlin in 1930 (Gordon, 2010, 40). Cassirer and Heidegger were thus the two greatest living thinkers in the tradition of Kantian philosophy, and were invited to Davos to defend their rival interpretation on the question of whether an ontology could be derived from Kant’s epistemology. Their positions were contradictory in clear ways: Cassirer held the Marburg line that Kant’s entire project required that the thing-in-itself be jettisoned for a transcendental analysis of the forms of knowing. Heidegger wanted to recast not only Kant but philosophy itself as a fundamental investigation into the meaning of Being, and by specific extension, the human way of Being: Dasein. The debate about the proper interpretation of Kant went nearly nowhere, and Heidegger’s interpretation had more to do with Heidegger than with Kant. Cassirer, the co-editor of the critical edition of Kant’s works and the author of a superb intellectual biography, was no doubt the superior exegete. Nevertheless, Heidegger was doubtless the more captivating and original philosopher.

Beyond their divergent interpretations of Kant, the debate brought to the fore two competing intellectual forces that were at genuine odds: Cassirer’s Neo-Kantian maintenance of the spontaneous mental freedom requisite for the production of symbolic forms was pitted against Heidegger’s existential-phenomenological concentration on the irrevocable “thrownness” of human beings into a world of which the common denominator was their realization of death. Cassirer thought Heidegger vastly overstated Dasein’s thrownness and understated its spontaneity, and that his subjectivism discounted the objectivity of the sciences and of moral laws. Also, if both the character of rationality and the inviolable value of the human person lie in a subject’s spontaneous use of theoretical and practical forms of reasoning, then the danger was clear: Heidegger’s Dasein had one foot in irrationality and the other in nihilism.

The historical significance of the Davos Conference thus lay, ironically, in its symbolic meaning. Primed by the cultural clash between humanism and iconoclasm represented by Thomas Mann’s characters Settembrini and Naphta, the participants in Davos expected the same battle between the stodgy old enlightenment Cassirer and the exciting, young, radical Heidegger. No doubt some in the audience fancied themselves a Hans Castorp, whose soul, and the very fate of Europe, was caught in the tug of war between Settembrini/Cassirer’s liberal rationalism and Naphta/Heidegger’s conservative mysticism. (Though, to be sure, Mann’s model for Naphta was György Lukács and not Heidegger.) In the Weimar Republic’s “Age of Crisis,” it was not so much what either man said, but what each symbolized that mattered. As Rudolf Carnap wrote in his journal, “Cassirer speaks well, but somewhat pastorally. […] Heidegger is serious and objective, as a person very attractive” (Friedman, 2000, 7). In a subsequent satirical reenactment, a young Emmanuel Lévinas mocked Cassirer by performing in buffo what he took to be the salient point of his lectures at Davos: “Humboldt, culture, Humboldt, culture” (Skidelsky, 2008, 1). Indeed what Cassirer defended was then subject to parody among the young. Cassirer was the last of the great polymaths like Goethe, the last comprehensive historian like Ranke, the last optimist like Humboldt, and the last of the Neo-Kantian academic establishment. Heidegger represented the revolution of a new German nation, one that would sweep away the old ways of philosophy as much as Hitler would sweep away Wilhelmine politics. Heidegger welcomed crisis as the condition for new growth and invention; Cassirer saw in crisis the collapse of a culture that took so long to achieve. Cassirer was the great scholar. Heidegger was the great philosopher. Cassirer clung to rational optimism and humanist culture while Heidegger championed existential fatalism. In 1929, the Zeitgeist clearly favored the latter.

The consequences of Davos, like the meaning of the conference itself, operated on two levels. On the level of the factual, Cassirer and Heidegger would maintain a somewhat detached respect for the other, with mutually critical yet professionally cordial responses in print over the years to come. Neither man came to change either his interpretation of Kant or his philosophy generally in any major way due to the conference. Symbolically, however, Davos was a disaster for Cassirer and for Neo-Kantianism. Europe was immediately swept up in increasingly violent waves of nationalism. Days after Hitler’s election as Chancellor in 1933, Jews were banned from teaching in state schools. The Night of the Long Knives happened five years after Davos, and then the Night of Broken Glass four years after that. Neo-Kantian philosophers, especially the followers and friends of Hermann Cohen, were mainly Jewish. Cassirer fled to England and then Sweden in 1933 in fear of the Nazi’s, even while Heidegger was made Rektor at Freiburg. The Wilhelmine era’s enlightened cultural humanism, and its last defender, had clearly lost.

9. References and Further Reading

What follows is a list of Cassirer’s major works. For an exhaustive bibliography, see For the contents of Cassirer’s archive at Yale, see

a. Cassirer’s Major Works

  • (1899) Descartes: Kritik der Matematischen und Naturwissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis (dissertation at Marburg).
  • (1902) Leibniz’ System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen. Marburg: Elwert.
  • (1906) Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Erster Band. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer.
  • (1907) Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Zweiter Band. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer.
  • (1910) Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff: Untersuchungen über die Grundfragen der Erkenntniskritik. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer.
  • (1916) Freiheit und Form: Studien zur deutschen Geistesgeschichte. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer.
  • (1921) Zur Einsteinschen Relativitätstheorie. Erkenntnistheoretische Betrachtungen. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer.
  • (1923) Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Erster Teil: Die Sprache. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer.
  • (1925) Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Zweiter Teil: Das mythische Denken. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer.
  • (1925) Sprache und Mythos: Ein Beitrag zum Problem der Götternamen. Leipzig: Teubner.
  • (1927) Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance. Leipzig: Teubner.
  • (1929) Die Idee der republikanischen Verfassung. Hamburg: Friedrichsen.
  • (1929) Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Dritter Teil: Phänomenologie der Erkenntnis. Berlin: Bruno Cassirer.
  • (1932) Die Platonische Renaissance in England und die Schule von Cambridge. Leipzig: Teubner.
  • (1932) Die Philosophie der Aufklärung. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr.
  • (1936) Determinismus und Indeterminismus in der modernen Physik. Göteborg: Göteborgs Högskolas Årsskrift.
  • (1939) Axel Hägerström: Eine Studie zur Schwedischen Philosophie der Gegenwart. Göteborg: Högskolas Årsskrift.
  • (1939) Descartes: Lehre, Persönlichkeit, Wirkung. Stockholm: Bermann-Fischer Verlag.
  • (1942) Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften. Göteborg: Högskolas Årsskrift.
  • (1944) An Essay on Man. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • (1945) Rousseau, Kant, Goethe: Two Essays. New York: Harper & Row.
  • (1946) The Myth of the State. New Haven: Yale University Press.

b. Further Reading

  • Barash, Jeffrey Andrew (2008), The Symbolic Construction of Reality: The Legacy of Ernst Cassirer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bayar, Thora Ilin (2001), Cassirer’s Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms: A Philosophical Commentary. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Braun, H.J., Holhey H., & Orth, E.W. (eds.) (1998), Über Ernst Cassirers Philosophie des symbolischen Formen. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
  • Cassirer, Toni (1948), Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer. Hildesheim: Gerstenberg.
  • Friedman, Michael (2000), A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Peru, IL: Open Court.
  • Gaubert, Joël (1996), La science politique d'Ernst Cassirer: pour une réfondation symbolique de la raison pratique contre le mythe politique contemporain. Paris: Éd. Kimé.
  • Gordon, Peter E. (2010), Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Hamlin, C., & Krois, J.M. (eds.) (2004), Symbolic Forms and Cultural Studies: Ernst Cassirer’s Theory of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Hanson, J. & Nordin, S. (2006), Ernst Cassirer: The Swedish Years. Bern: Peter Lang.
  • Heidegger, Martin (1928), “Ernst Cassirer: Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. 2. Teil: Das mythische Denken.” Deutsche Literaturzeitung, 21: 1000–1012.
  • Itzkoff, Seymor (1971), Ernst Cassirer: Scientific Knowledge and the Concept of Man. South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press.
  • Krois, John Michael (1987), Cassirer: Symbolic Forms and History. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Langer, Suzanne (1942), Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Lipton, D. R. (1978), Ernst Cassirer: The Dilemma of a Liberal Intellectual in Germany, 1914-1933. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Lofts, S.G. (2000), Cassirer: A “Repetition” of Modernity. Albany: SUNY Press.
  • Lübbe, Hermann (1975), Cassirer und die Mythen des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
  • Luft, Sebastian (ed.) (2015), The Neo-Kantian Reader. New York: Routledge.
  • Paetzold, Heinz (1995), Ernst Cassirer — Von Marburg nach New York: eine philosophische Biographie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
  • Renz, Ursula (2002), Die Rationalität der Kultur: Zur Kulturphilosophie und ihrer transzendentalen Begründung bei Cohen, Natorp und Cassirer. Hamburg: Felix Meiner.
  • Rudolph, Enno (ed.) (1999), Cassirers Weg zur Philosophie der Politik. Hamburg: Felix Meiner.
  • Schilpp, Paul Arthur (ed.) (1949), The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. Evanston: Library of Living Philosophers.
  • Schultz, William (2000), Cassirer and Langer on Myth: An Introduction. New York: Routledge.
  • Schwemmer, Oswald (1997), Ernst Cassirer. Ein Philosoph der europäischen Moderne. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
  • Skidelsky, Edward (2008), Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Tomberg, Markus (1996), Der Begriff von Mythos und Wissenschaft bei Ernst Cassirer und Kurt Hübner. Münster: LIT Verlag.
  • Verene, Donald Phillip (ed.) (1979), Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer, 1935-1945. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Verene, Donald Phillip (2011) The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.


Author Information

Anthony K. Jensen
Providence College
U. S. A.


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