Ernst Cassirer: The Last Kantian


Why read Ernst Cassirer?  Cassirer occupies a unique place in twentieth-century philosophy. His work pays equal attention to foundational and epistemological issues in the philosophy of mathematics and natural science and to aesthetics, the philosophy of history, and other issues in the “cultural sciences” broadly conceived. More than any other German philosopher since Kant, Cassirer thus aims to devote equal philosophical attention both to the (mathematical and) natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and to the more humanistic disciplines (Geisteswissenschaften). In this way, Cassirer, more than any other twentieth-century philosopher, plays a fundamental mediating role between C. P. Snow’s famous “two cultures.” He also plays a similarly mediating role between the two major traditions in twentieth-century academic philosophy — the “analytic” and “continental” traditions — whose radically different (and often mutually uncomprehending) perspectives on the relationship between scientific and humanistic elements in their subject gave rise to a fundamental split or gulf between philosophy as it came to be practiced in the Anglo-American world, on the one side, and as it was practiced in most of the rest of the world, on the other. Cassirer, by contrast, had fruitful philosophical relations with leading members of both traditions — with Moritz Schlick, the founder and guiding spirit of the Vienna Circle of logical empiricists, whose work in logic and the philosophy of science had a decisive influence on the development of philosophy in the United States, and with Martin Heidegger, the creator of a radical “existential-hermeneutical” version of Husserlian phenomenology which quickly became dominant in continental Europe.1

Cassirer would flee Nazi Germany for America and bring his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms with him. Many of us already know the extent of the symbolic or linguistic turn in France. Alain Caillé suggests, “the bulk of the liveliest French thought of the postwar period gravitates around this notion of symbolism.”2 This is a trajectory with a complicated genealogy, reaching from poststructuralist figures like Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and Jean Baudrillard back through structuralist thinkers like Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and Claude Lévi-Strauss to interwar figures like Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, the Collège de sociologie, and the surrealists to Marcel Mauss, Émile Durkheim, and Ferdinand Saussure.

It is a commonplace that Claude Lévi-Strauss, the key figure steering postwar French thought toward a preoccupation with the symbolic, conceived structural anthropology on the linguistic model pioneered by Saussure, Jakobson, Greimas, and others. Building on Saussure’s exclusion of the historical dimension of language in order to establish a synchronic science of language as a system, Lévi-Strauss defined the symbolic as a closed order of social representations that form a system, the function of which is to render the perception of the world coherent by superimposing on the continuum of reality a grid of taxonomic oppositions and syntagmatic associations. Likewise, Lévi-Strauss drew heavily from Saussure’s semiological principle, in which linguistic values emerge through differential relations among signs. Linguistics, as Marcel Hénaffwrites, opened for Lévi-Strauss a new approach to the study of myth, indeed of all cultural systems: “what is important is not the figures or themes as such but the system of their differences, of their reciprocal relations.” Accordingly, Lévi-Strauss and those directly influenced by him studied symbolism as a code, as an invariant structure, at the expense of acts of speech within living contexts. (Breckman, 10-11)

In a series of lectures in at the Warburg Library during the 20’s Cassirer would formulate his on theory of the culture industry. In these lectures he’d promote 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. Because of his liberal humanist discourse, his proclivities to systematic thought he would for the most part go by the wayside during the so called postmodern era. And, yet, a careful study of his works reveals a man who was already investigating much of the same territory that only now in our post-Marxist age as the notions of Symbolic Order and the manipulation of our socio-cultural matrix by the massive Media-Industrial Complex is more and more exposed we would do well to return to such philosophers.

As Breckman states it the thought and work of Cassirer lie at a deeper, autonomous level that 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. One need not agree at all with Cassirer. I certainly do not, and yet one can discover in his thought the demise of liberal humanism which he entombs in his systematic philosophy. One might say he gave a rendition and summing up of the whole of Kantian Enlightenment thought in is German Idealist and Romantic streams. So for that alone one could benefit. As one of the last of the neo-Kantians Cassirer defines and delimits that era of thought, bringing the humanist and scientific worlds of culture together in a last ditch effort to provide a foundation of liberal humanist learning. That he would fail in the totalizing effort is not the point, but that his parallel stream of thought should be aligned in hour philosophical histories along with the vogue of all those French Intellectuals we seem to revere at the expense of many others.

In my own pantheon I place Cassirer with the novelist Thomas Mann, who also fled Nazi Germany for America, and represents the last encyclopedic effort of the liberalist humanist in German thought as novelist; an inheritor of Goethe’s Enlightenment and its Romantic and Late Romantic decadence. Mann’s two great novel’s (outside the mythical Joseph tetralogy), The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus would portray this symbolic heritage in dramatic fashion.

  1. Friedman, Michael, “Ernst Cassirer“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  2. Breckman, Warren. Adventures of the Symbolic: Postmarxism and Democratic Theory (p. 10). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

5 thoughts on “Ernst Cassirer: The Last Kantian

  1. I’m glad you bring to light the richness of Cassirer’s thoughts for your readers. However, I think there’s a historical “element” here that should be further explored. To bring this “element”, generally speaking, into the Twenty First Century, Cassirer is and was, for purpose of “symbolic form”, a kind of counter weight to Heidegger. Irrationally and unsophisticatedly spoken, it could be further said, in an attempt to illuminate the “element” in modern symbolism, that Heidegger was the archetype to Trump and Cassirer was the archetype to Sanders: Much in the same way Trump and Sanders both represent the American symbolism of “freedom” and “democracy”, both philosophers were and are somehow lumped into the category of Phenomenologist. When I put it like this it should, I hope, become a bit clearer as to what was at stake, generally speaking, in the Davos Disputation between Cassirer and Heidegger in 1929.

    “Gabriel Motzkin (Jerusalem/Cambridge) called Heidegger the ‘sublime’ thinker, because he erected influential structures, but dealt less with the finishing touches of the statics. Cassirer on the other hand was more precise, consequent, like when in his Philosophy of Culture, even when it is not so obvious, individual and universal elements are reconciled.” ( ©2016)

    Only recently has it been brought into context in relative terms that the “father” of modern phenomenology, Husserl, is and was a mereological thinker—a categorization that the modern analytic mereologist, analytic in the sense of predicate logic being the starting point for argumentation and judgments—do not approve of. And what this means, at least from my experience, is that here within one can find the common thread—the umbrella—which was the common ground to such thinkers as Scheler, Husserl, Bahktin, Cassirer and, yes, even Heidegger (to mention a few). However I would argue that Heidegger literally “breaks” with the tradition of Phenomenology—the unspoken mereological discourse—and (Heidegger) is, thus, representatively symbolic of the “world to come”…and I mean this in unappealing individualistic sort of way: Os and 1s, and the nothingness that holds our lives together and, consequently, “universally” hostage….that is when we’re not out shopping.

    “In my mind”, Cassirer remains true to the at the time unconscious mereological movement that was moving and shaking the world of metaphysics. Put in another way, Cassirer’s philosophy does not attempt to reduce existence’s meaning to the probable and possible reality revealed in and through a finite, individual, but/and actually goes above and beyond in its attempt to generate a universal perception of possibility and probability arising from the realm of the infinite dynamic (statics) of the finite to infinite / infinite to finite (one and the many) dynamic of the only “knowable” aspect of any perception or relation: Cassirer’s rejection of predicate logic revealing anything “substantial” or “real” reflects this indefensible, irreconcilable position and his embracing of the “true” value that “myth” plays in constructing, deconstructing living, flowing consciousness (aka life).

    Obviously Heidegger’s arguments “won”, historically, over Cassirer’s—just like Trump did over Sanders—however, my experience in the logical dimension of the finite/infinite “knowledge” (Spinoza gives a wonderful a priori accounting in his first six Definitions in the Definitions of God in the Ethics) as it is only an Ontology of Difference or, in its widest interpretation, substantial form forming, would say that the “apocalypse” that unconsciously occurred “yesterday” is attempting, right now, to find a new beginning in our self-destructing “todaying” lives. I would suggest reading Cassirer through the experience of one and the many or finite/infinite, but with the help of a mythological flavor. Garlic, in my experience, is a good flavor to help a person get through “the story”.

    We should be living in era that has been more greatly represented by and expressive of the works of Cassirer than those of Heidegger—but “unfortunately fortunately”—in this Tragic Comedy we are living—life is always subject to the arbitrary, fickle flooring called existence…a flooring that pays no heed to good and bad or right and wrong. Trump is “wrong” and so that means it’s now time to (try and) make “garlic juice”.

    On Garlic: Taking liberties with George Berkeley’s Poem, On Tar…
    Garlic®, it’s the real thing…

    Cheers from Dresden!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yea, there’s always much more to be said…. I wasn’t writing a book, only a small post to keep his name out there. In fact this is my own point that many have passed certain thinkers by who should actually be brought back into the mainstream.

      Thanks for adding more to the mix…


      • As you can tell, I like Cassirer. Ironically, twenty-five years ago I went to Freiburg to study Heidegger— only to be ‘unsurprisingly’ disappointed. The ‘”man” was taught in the context of a personality cult. Nothing new was being explored there, and the ‘word of Heidegger’ was considered sacred. I only stumbled upon Cassirer about ten years ago while doing research for my book. Why do we live in an era when Slavoj Žižek and Bernard-Henri Lévy are the pop stars of philosophy? “O cruel! O you gods!” Cheers from Dresden! Thanks again for this site and your thoughts!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Actually I enjoy Zizek as well… too many people don’t actually read him, but just take what people say about him to heart. It’s a shame that no one actually reads the works of the past few years in depth. I feel like that on Heidegger as well… people seem to either worship him, or see him as a fascist slime ball, rather than putting him in the place of philosophy. Even you I see disparage, and I wonder how in depth you know these various philosophers. I’m not sold of Cassirer that much, either. I just see where his notions of symbolic forms comes in handy in a cross reference to many French notions of Lacan and others of the Symbolic Order etc. I have not total likes or dislikes except the Brandom/Sellars/ Neorationalists that have begun their normative outlay of the past few years from Brassier, Negarestani, and others …

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve only read excerpts from Zizek. I just wasn’t impressed, but that’s not to say, and in agreement with your criticism, that I should make grand judgments without having read more. I, too, avoid modern philosophers, and there again you are right, I shouldn’t. And perhaps in ten to fifteen years when my little kids have grown up enough, I’ll have some time to indulge myself. As for my past, two of my professor’s from undergraduate studies were former students of Erich Fromm, Max Wertheimer, Aron Gurwitsch, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and Hans Jonas at the New School of Social Research. One prof did his doctorate work under Arendt, and the other, the one who took me under his wing, did his doctorate under Dorian Cairns, was in charge of maintaining Dorian Cairns manuscripts, and was also closely tied to the Husserl family here in America. And then I spent five semesters at the Albert-Ludwig University reading Heidegger, but I went there with a strong Husserl bent. So that was and is to this day my ‘core.’ However, what broke my ‘core’, and enabled me to finally understand what I’d studied for almost eight years, was living and working in China. Up until that experience, I didn’t have a clue as to what I’d actually read all those years.

        I do find Heidegger symbolic or representative of the world we got. Our grand ‘self’, as it comes to us via Descartes, is in my book where and when of identity and difference collapse into a single moment happens, with difference being completely negated (you can find its complete death in Hume), and what we get is a whole lot of nothingness to prove it — that identity needs no floor to stand on. The Earth doesn’t even revolve around the sun anymore…everything revolves around our, single, finite perceptions that are grounding in an abyss. Is it any wonder we have no respect for the planet we are living on? As for “Lacan and others of the Symbolic Order etc.” and “Brandom/Sellars/ Neorationalists that have begun their normative outlay of the past few years from Brassier, Negarestani, and others” I have no idea what or who you are talking about. The last time I actually engaged in research or simply read new philosophers was well over six years ago. Besides Dr. Seuss and some other various children’s books, I read a lot of Captain Underpants these days. It makes my boys laugh. But I would agree with you in that Heidegger, like any and all philosophers, past and present, are definitely worth reading, and I should curtail my ever waxing cynicisms and hyperbolic statements. We’re all a part of the aromatic story… Cheers from Dresden!!!


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