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