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A key question that preoccupies any reader of Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms is to what extent it allows for the autonomy of each symbolic realm. The question is straightforward: Cassirer had been trained as a neo-Kantian philosopher of science and his earliest works, Substance and Function , Einstein's Theory of Relativity , and The Problem of Knowledge , are written from a more or less unqualified conviction that the highest task for philosophy is to secure the epistemological legitimacy of the modern mathmatical-physical sciences.

Skidelsky rightly observes that in his earlier work Cassirer "views the lower levels of objectivization as mere preliminaries to mathematic natural science. The answer to this question is not obvious. It is of course true that in the s Cassirer become a "philosopher of culture" as announced in the title of Skidelsky's book. Much of this transformation was no doubt nourished by Cassirer's new friendship with Aby Warburg, the rebellious son of a German-Jewish banking magnate who created a massive library in Hamburg that he hoped would become a center for the rebirth of anthropological and art-historical study.

When Cassirer finally secured a permanent post as Professor of Philosophy at the newly-founded University of Hamburg in he found himself drawn into the curious circle of Warburg's associates, amongst whom was the still-young art historian Erwin Panofsky, who benefited in turn from Cassirer's philosophical training and authored one of the Warburg Institute's first official lectures, "Perspective as Symbolic Form. The project was still an essentially Kantian inquiry into transcendental rules for the ordering of experience, but the very idea of a symbolic form introduced greater flexibility.


As Skidelsky explains, a Kantian category has a "fixed intellectual structure" that derives ultimately from the logical table of judgments, whereas a symbol is "open-ended"; it is unconstrained by the rules that animate mathematics and natural science This raised the puzzling matter of how such mythological rules or symbolic forms were to be compared to science.

Scholars who are bent upon refashioning Cassirer into a champion for cultural diversity often emphasize his admission that even mythical systems are anchored in "an original spiritual process" that is essentially the same for all human beings: underlying all cultural forms is the very same phenomenon of spontaneity, except that this spontaneity yields different symbolic forms across different historical and cultural contexts. As Skidelsky explains, Cassirer's philosophy is in this sense based upon a simple gesture: a historicization of Kant's transcendental subject But it is clear that Cassirer did not mean to surrender entirely his rationalist conviction that modern science was in some way superior to myth.

In the third volume to The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms , entitled The Phenomenology of Knowledge , Cassirer even seems to endorse the Hegelian notion of a phenomenology as a teleological system that moves from primitive to more sophisticated forms of expression and experience. Strictly speaking Skidelsky is right to observe that Cassirer does not go quite as far as Hegel, since there is for Cassirer no Aufhebung or sublation of the lower into the higher.

Skidelsky writes that "Each symbolic form has its own specific content, incommensurable with that of the other" This, however, is either poorly phrased or it is a step too far: despite all of his generosity toward mythical forms of expression, Cassirer is nonetheless firmly convinced that myth is an inferior mode of symbolization, and his entire inquiry presupposes that the lower mode prepares the way for and will eventually yield to a symbolic order that allows for increased self-consciousness.

Cassirer believes, for example, that prophetic religion is superior to pagan mythology in part because only prophetic religion allows for individuals to conceive of themselves as agents apart from the collective, an argument upon which Skidelsky remarks. But then in what sense does Cassirer consign us to a panoply of "incommensurable" forms?

One stratum is indeed compared to the other, and while their contents may well be different they are nonetheless ranked according to a common measure.

Cassirer seems in this respect a thoroughgoing modernist, whose philosophy bespeaks a firm commitment to the ideal that we should progress, and in fact historically have progressed, toward higher forms of freedom and self-consciousness. Indeed, when Cassirer moves on to his discussion of science he does not hesitate to call it "the highest and most characteristic attainment of human culture. Skidelsky suggests that for Cassirer this progressivist narrative was merely an assumption without foundation in logical argument.

One reason Cassirer felt little need to compose an ethical philosophy was that for him ethics was simply folded into the cultural narrative: the history of progress in our symbolic capacities was qua progress already a story of our ethical advancement. This, however, made Cassirer's philosophy fatally vulnerable to history. This may be one reason why so many of the student witnesses to the conversation between Cassirer and Heidegger felt that the older professor stood for an obsolete philosophy and that the younger man had achieved an almost Oedipal victory.

Cassirer was Heidegger's senior by fifteen years. Nevertheless I do not agree with Skidelsky that Cassirer "had no grip on Heidegger" This is simplifying and it obscures much of the nuance of their discussion. The two were ultimately deadlocked, to be sure, but Cassirer had some canny things to say against Heidegger's work, points he would elaborate at greater length in the notes later included in The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms , the posthumously published "fourth volume" that swelled beyond the confines of his three-volume system.

The opposite is also true: however much Heidegger may have benefited from a change in postwar cultural sensibilities, he also articulated some truly powerful objections to the neo-Kantian presuppositions that still animated Cassirer's philosophy, and we should evaluate these objections on philosophical terms alone. Skidelsky also notes -- correctly, I believe -- that there was a subtext of anti-Semitism at work in Heidegger's criticism. Cassirer and a number of the leading neo-Kantians in Germany at that time were Jewish, a fact that irked some German nationalist philosophers who complained that the editorial board of the journal Kantstudies was dominated by non-Germans who had no business expounding Kant.

Shortly before the Davos encounter Cassirer was the object of another such attack by a Nazi philosopher Heidegger himself expressed worries in private and in a letter to colleagues about Jewish influence on the German spirit, and in her memoirs Toni Cassirer suggests that she and her husband had heard rumors of Heidegger's anti-Semitism even before their encounter in Davos. This may help to explain why, in the written records of the Davos debate as transcribed by O. Skidelsky cites this complaint but unfortunately he seems to have relied upon an imprecise English translation where "scapegoat" appeared as "whipping boy" This misses the obvious resonance of Cassirer's statement.

Nevertheless Skidelsky's general point may still hold: Cassirer's philosophy was a victim of changing times.

Jeffrey Andrew Barash

Skidelsky tells the overall story of Cassirer's philosophical reception as a tragedy: "Seldom can an enterprise so splendidly conceived have met with such failure" He even confesses in his introduction that he changed his mind while composing the book. Originally he aimed to write "a plea for Cassirer's importance … against decades of neglect," but eventually he concluded that fatal problems afflicted Cassirer's work: "It was not just that many individual aspects of his system had fallen into disrepair, but that the whole thing was no longer obviously philosophy at all" 5.

This is an astonishing statement and it is hard to fathom what it could mean. After leaving Germany he taught for a couple of years at the University of Oxford , before becoming a professor at Gothenburg University. When Cassirer considered Sweden too unsafe, he applied for a post at Harvard University , but was rejected because thirty years earlier he had rejected a job offer from them. Cassirer died of a heart attack in April in New York City.

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His son, Heinz Cassirer , was also a Kantian scholar. Donald Phillip Verene, who published some of Cassirer's papers kept at Yale University, gave this overview of his ideas:. Cassirer's first major published writings were a history of modern thought from the Renaissance to Kant. In accordance with his Marburg neo-Kantianism he concentrated upon epistemology. His reading of the scientific revolution , in books such as The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy , as a "Platonic" application of mathematics to nature, influenced historians such as E.

Burtt , E. In Substance and Function , he writes about late nineteenth-century developments in physics including relativity theory and the foundations of mathematics. In Einstein's Theory of Relativity he defended the claim that modern physics supports a neo-Kantian conception of knowledge. He also wrote a book about Quantum mechanics called Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics Warburg was an art historian who was particularly interested in ritual and myth as sources of surviving forms of emotional expression.

In Philosophy of Symbolic Forms —29 Cassirer argues that man as he put it in his more popular book Essay on Man is a " symbolic animal ". Whereas animals perceive their world by instincts and direct sensory perception , humans create a universe of symbolic meanings. Cassirer is particularly interested in natural language and myth. He argues that science and mathematics developed from natural language, and religion and art from myth. In Cassirer took part in an historically significant encounter with Martin Heidegger in Davos. Cassirer argues that while Kant's Critique of Pure Reason emphasizes human temporality and finitude, he also sought to situate human cognition within a broader conception of humanity.

Ernst Cassirer

Cassirer challenges Heidegger's relativism by invoking the universal validity of truths discovered by the exact and moral sciences. Cassirer believed that reason's self-realization leads to human liberation. Forgot password? Don't have an account?

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