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Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945)


German philosopher and historian of ideas, often typed as one of the leading exponents of neo-Kantian thought in the 20th century. Cassirer's major works include The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-29). Cassirer saw that human beings were above all a symbolizing animals. The whole range of our achievements, science, religion, arts, history, political thought, religion, language – they all are unique parts of our evolutionary process and help us to understand our experience and the world.

"Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as 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." (An Essay on Man, 1944)

Ernst Cassirer was born in Breslau Germany (today Wroclaw, Poland) into a prominent Jewish family. His father, Eduard Cassirer, was a merchant. Cassirer's cousins included the publisher Bruno Cassirer, the wrtiter and art collector Paul Cassirer, and the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Goldstein. Paul Cassirer was an atheist; Judaism or Christianity mattered little at that time for many of the family.

Cassirer's first interest was science, but when he entered in 1892 the University of Berlin, he studied there law. He soon changed to literature and philosophy, pursuing further studies in history, languages, and the sciences at the Universities of Leipzig, Heidelberg, and Munich. In Berlin he was introduced to the work of Hermann Cohen (1842-1918)  and became in 1896 one of his students at the University of Marburg. Cohen had earned a reputation of being the most rigorous idealist of his time. His primary aim was to purify Kant's fundamental concept  "das Ding an sich" (the thing-in- itself).  Other influential thinkers for Cassirer were Herder, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Goethe, Leibniz, and Vico.

The Marburg school was at that time known as an important advocate of neo-Kantian though. In Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant claimed that the fundamental concepts and categories by means of which we organize experience – among them space and time – are universal and immutable. They determine the way we experience the world. Cassirer accepted the idea of categories but saw that they are open to constant development. He criticized Hegel who though he had found "absolute knowledge" and had developed unchanging categories of history. The great symbol systems from science to mythology are not modeled on reality but model it. Kant had started a "Copernican revolution" in philosophy by concentrating upon the form of knowledge rather than upon its contents.  

The principal term in Cassirer's philosophy is the symbolic form, which could be undersood as an expession of the human mind or spirit (Geist). Symbolic forms do not merely reflect the human experience in its diversity but rather produce it. "Like all the other symbolic forms art is not the mere reproduction of a ready-made, given reality. It is one of the ways leading to an objective view of things and of human life. It is not an imitation but a discovery of reality," Cassirer wrote in Essay on Man. The Kantian conceptual framework, "symbolic universe", that enables us to experience the world the way we do became Cassirer main object of study.

Cassirer's doctoral dissertation on Descartes' theory of knowledge was accepted in 1899. It appeared in 1902 with a critique of Leibniz which he had completed in two years at Marburg. The first two volumes of Das Erkenntnisproblem came out in 1906 and 1907. He also worked with an edition of Kant's collected works, published by his cousin Bruno Cassirer. The last opus in the series was Cassirer's Immanuel Kants Leben und Lehre, which appeared in 1918.

In 1902 Cassirer married his distant cousin, Toni Bondy; they had three children. Cassirer's position as Privatdozent at the University of Berlin was secured in 1906. Behind the slow start of his university career was more or less veiled anti-Semitism. His international reputation grew steadily and in 1914 Das Erkenntnisproblem won the Kuno Fischer Gold Medal from the Heidelberg Academy. After World War I Cassirer left Berlin when he was offered a position as full professor at the newly founded University of Hamburg. He came into contact with the circle surrounding the art historian Aby Warburg, and moreover, there he had all the first class resources of The Warburg Library at his disposal. 

Cassirer's colleague at both the university and the Warburg Institute from the early 1920s onwards was the art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), whose essay 'Idea: Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der älteren Kunsttheorie'  (1924) was inspired by Cassirer’s lecture on Platon. Cassirer's study Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Consodered from the Epistemological Standpoint ( 1921),  contained a preface from Einstein himself. They both shared similar new, revolutionary way of thinking. Cassirer also met Einstein in Hamburg, where the physicist gave a lecture on his theory.

The years in Hamburg marked Cassirer's shift from the great theories of science and philosophy to the world of art, language, myth, and culture. Once when he visited the Warburg Library, Cassirer said: "This library is dangerous. I shall either have to avoid it altogether or imprison myself here for years." The first volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms was published in 1923. Originally, according to Toni Cassirer, the idea for his new system of philosophy came on a crowded streetcar on a summer day in 1917. However, his principal philosophical concept, symbolic form, Cassirer derived from Heinrich Hertz's conception of the symbol in the art of the Hegelian aesthetician, Friedrich Theodor Vischer (1807-1887). The second volume, Language and Myth, followed two years later, and the third in 1929.

At Davos in the spring of 1929 Cassirer gave lectures before an invited international audience and had a debate with Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), a charismatic younger philosopher, who had little interest in the concept of the symbol, central to Cassirer's philosophy. The place had also been the scene of Thomas Mann's novel Magic Mountain (1924), which depicted a fight between liberal and conservative values, enlightened civilized world and nonrational beliefs. The debate marked the clash of two worlds of philosophy – the rich humanistic tradition represented by Cassirer and antihistorical, modern brand of phenomenology. At the opening dinner Heidegger was dressed in a ski suit.  (Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture by Edward Skidelsky, 2011, p. 209) Heidegger's major work, Sein und Zeit (1927), had just appeared; ahead lay his decision to join the the Nazi Party. Cassirer had been warned of Heidegger's rejection of all social conventions, whereas Cassirer's gentlemanlike behavior was his weapon against the attacks of the new star in philosophy. Later Heidegger complained that this "prevented the problems from being given the necessary sharpness of formulation". Cassirer himself said, that the antirational philosophy "renounces its own fundamental theoretical and ethical ideals. It can be used, then, as a pliable instrument in the hands of political leaders."

In spite of the political climate Cassirer was elected Rector of the University of Hamburg in 1929 – the first Jew to gain such position in German universities. Cassirer's speech in which he defended republicanism triggered protests and polemics. The republican parliamentary constitution was not a stranger in the history of German thought, he argued, but "it grew from its own soil and was nurtured by its most genuinely own forces, by the forces of idealist philosophy." He spent some time in Paris in 1931 and wrote there The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932). After Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933, a law was passed which would make it impossible for Jews to held official positions. Cassirer decided to leave Germany when he read from a newspaper an official declaration that "Recht ist, was dem Führer dient" (Law is what serves the Führer), and no one protested.

Before being dismissed from the university, Cassirer moved to England. He spent two years at Oxford, and then accepted a professorship at the University of Göteborg in Sweden. Due to his almost photographical memory Cassirer learned Swedish as quickly as he had learned English. Refusing to follow events in Germany, he would leave the room whenever Hitler's voice was broadcast on radio. During this period he wrote a work on Descartes’ influence on the Swedish queen Christine and her conversion to Catholicism. The art historian Ragnar Josephson (1891-1966) said that Descartes was the first foreign philosopher of stature to visit the country, Cassirer the second. (Ernst Cassirer: The Swedish Years by Jonas Hansson and Svante Nordin, 2006, pp.101-102)

Cassirer also lectured on Goethe, partly because the loss of the change to use German had begun to trouble him, and partly to save Goethe from the ideologists of the National Socialism. His publications were still in German; it was not until settling in the United States, however, that he began to publish in  English rather than his native German. In 1935 Ernst and Toni Cassirer became Swedish citizens. Many of the contemporary Swedish philosophers and intellectuals were their friends, including Åke Petzäll (1901-1957), the editor-in-chief of the philosophical journal Theoria. and the philosopher  Malte Jacobsson. Cassirer's book on Axel Hägerström (1868-1939), the most controversial philosopher in his country, was commented by Ingemar Hedenius (1908-1982) in 'Über den alogischen Charakter de sog. Werturteile.' (Theoria, vol. 5. no. 3, 1939). This article, in which Hedenius pointed out a mistake Cassirer made on Sophist moral theory,  sparked the beginning of his career as a moral philosopher. ('Between the National and the International – Theoria and the Logical Empiricists' by Johan Strang, in The Vienna Circle in the Nordic Countries: Networks and Transformations of Logical Empiricism, edited by Juha Manninen and Friedrich Stadler, 2010, pp. 84-87) 

After the outbreak of World War II and the German occupation of France, the Cassirers sailed  from Göteborg to New York on the little freighter Remmaren; it was the first Swedish ship to arrive in the U.S. in several moths. "One of the finest little ships that the port of New York has ever seen is the Swedish freighter Remmaren, which arrived yesterday from Gothenburg on a trip through North Sea floating mines. In service only six months, the ship is the last word in everything, Including interior decoration. (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, on June 5, 1941) Also the Russian structuralist theorist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), who had escaped the Nazis to Sweden, sailed on the same freighter to the United States. Their daily conversations stirred Cassirer's interest in structuralism. Some weeks before his death, Cassirer was invited by Jakobson to deliver a lecture at the New School for Social Research.Remmaren was sunk by a mine in 1942 off the Norwegian coast.

Originally Cassirer planned to return to Sweden, his second home country, after he finished teaching in the United States. He was visiting professor at Yale University during the period 1941-1944, and went then to Columbia University. He died on April 13, 1945, of a heart attack on the street outside of Columbia University. Cassirer had finished The Myth of the State (1946), an analysis of the archaic forces of myth, which he held to be dangerous to mankind. Referring to the lure of Nazism, he said: "But here are men, of education and intelligence, honest and upright men who suddenly give up the highest human privilege. They have ceased to be free and personal agents." Toni Cassirer told in a letter to Malte Jakobsson of her fantasy that her husband would be buried on the university hill in Göteborg, but later, when the subject was taken up for consideration, she dismissed it.

"My question: Is it possible that the homogeneous process of abstraction and symbolic self-definition that Cassirer chronicled as part of the advance of Western civilization was itself only a contingent, and possibly localized, historical phenomenon? From the time of the first advances of the Greeks and the in bumps, jolts, and reversals, the inertial progress finally arrives at out won century - great advances in science, technology, and power, but now an international barbarism. Somewhere, we seem to have missed a fundamental dimension of human nature and thought." (Seymour W. Itzkoff in Ernst Cassirer: Scientific Knowledge and the Concept of Man, 1971)

In Language and Form Cassirer wrote that language and myth began as one, originally standing "in an indissoluble correlation with one another, from which they both emerge but gradually as independent elements..." Language also bears within self, from its very beginning, the power of logic. In the earliest phases language clings to the concrete phenomenon, exemplified among others by the Arabic use of between five to six thousand terms to describe a camel. Myth develops into art and the development of written language leads eventually toward mathematics and science, although in poetry language still has its original power. "The greatest lyric poets, for instance Hölderlin or Keats, are men in whom the mythic power of insight breaks forth again in its full intensity and objectifying power."

From the beginning of his career Cassirer was interested in both natural sciences and humanities – literature, history and the arts. Cassirer considered all forms of intellectual activity creative. As a symbol-creating animal, human being is the product of a new mutation in life. Science, language, art, religion, mythology – they all are man-made worlds, expressing the creativity of spirit, or mind, itself. In this capacity they help us to articulate our experience and our knowledge. Symbolic forms have great creative powers but they can also be destructive. Aware of full horrors of Nazism, Cassirer saw that whole nations could fell victims of political myths. When intellectual, ethical and artistic forces lose their strength, mythical thought start to emerge and pervade the whole of man's cultural and social life.

In the United States Cassirer wrote An Essay on Man (1944) and The Myth of the State. His work influenced especially Wilbur Marshall Urban (Language and Reality, 1939) and Susan Langer's aesthetic thought in her Feeling and Form (1953). In 1946 Langer published her translation of Cassirer's Sprache und Mythos (1925) into English. Like Cassirer, Langer argued that man is essentially a symbol-using animal and concluded that "art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling".

In England, where philosophers were interested in such questions as the distinction between truth and falsity, Cassirer did not have many followers – he was too much product of the classic tradition of German philosophical idealism. In the 1960s John Passmore considered this (A Hundred Years of Philosophy, 1966) a serious drawback and a justification for denying that Cassirer is a "philosopher", as the world was then commonly understood by British philosophers (such as Bertrand Russell, Alfred Ayer or Ludwig Wittgenstein). Passmore had also reservations about Cassirer as a historian. "His bold and imaginative analyses of human culture have, indeed, the same sort of suggestiveness as Toynbee's The Study of History, and comparable limitations." After a relative mild interest in his thoughts, Cassirer started to attract again attention in the 1990s. The International Ernst Cassirer Society was founded in 1993. However, many of Cassirer's central works wait for their translation into English.

For further reading: The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, ed. by Paul Schlipp (1949); Symbol and Reality by Carl H. Hamburg (1956); Ernst Cassirer: Scientific Knowledge and the Concept of Man by Seymor W. Itzkoff (1971): Ernst Cassirer: The Dilemma of a Liberal Intellectual in Germany, 1914-1933 by David R. Lipton (1978); Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer, 1935-1945, ed. by Donald Phillip Verene (1979); Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer by Toni Bondy Cassirer (1981); Ernst Cassirer: A "Repetition" of Modernity by S. G. Lofts (2000); Cassirer and Langer on Myth: An Introduction by William Schultz (2000); Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer by Toni Cassirer (2003); Chaos and Cosmos: On the Image in Aesthetics and Art History by Karen Ann Lang (2006); Ernst Cassirer: The Swedish Years by Jonas Hansson and Svante Nordin (2006); The  Symbolic Construction of Reality: The Legacy of Ernst Cassirer, ed. by  Jeffrey Andrew Barash (2008); Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture by Edward Skidelsky (2011) 

For further reading:

  • Descartes, Kritik der Matematischen und Naturwissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis, (1899, dissertation)
  • Leibniz' System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen, 1902
  • Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, 1906-1920 (3 vols.) - The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science and History since Hegel (Vol. 3, tr. William H. Woglom and Charles W. Hendel, 1950)
  • Der Substanzbegriff und der Funktionsbegriff, 1910 - Substance and Function and Einstein's Theory of Relativity (tr. William Curtis Swabey and Marie Collins Swabey, 1923)
  • Freiheit und form. Studien zur deutschen Geistesgeschichte, 1916
  • Immanuel Kant's Leben und Lehre, 1918 - Kant's Life and Thought (tr. by James Haden, 1981)
  • Zur Einstein'schen Relativitätstheorie. Erkenntnistheoretische Betrachtung, 1921 - Einstein's Theory of Relativity (tr. William Curtis Swabey and Marie Collins Swabey, 1923, reprinted as Substance and Function and Einstein's Theory of Relativity, 1923)
  • Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 3 vols., 1923-1929 - Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Vol. I: Language (tr. Ralph Manheim, 1953); Vol. II: Mythical Thought (tr. by Ralph Manheim, 1955); Vol. III: The Phenomenology of Knowledge (tr. Ralph Manheim, 1957)
  • Sprache und Mythos, 1925 - Language and Myth (tr. Susan K. Langer, 1946)
  • Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie dr Renaissance, 1927 - The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (tr. Mario Domandi, 1963)
  • Die Platonische Renaisance in England und die Schule von Cambridge, 1932 - The Platonic Renaissance in England (tr. J. P. Pettegrove, 1953)
  • Philosphie der Aufklärung, 1932 - The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (tr. Fritz C.A. Koellin and James P. Pettegrove, 1951; new ed., with a new foreword by Peter Gay, 2009)
  • Das Problem Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1932 - The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (tr. Peter Gay, 1954)
  • Deternimismus and Indeterminismus in der modernen Physik, 1936 - Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics (tr. O.T. Benfey, 1956)
  • Descartes, Lehre, Persönlichkeit, Wirkung, 1939
  • Axel Hägerström, Eine Studie zur schwedishen Philosophie der Gegenwart, 1939 (Göteborgs högskolans årsskrift XLV)
  • Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften, 1942 - The Logic of the Humanities (tr. 1961) / The Logic of the Sciences of Culture (tr. S.G. Lofts, 2000) /
  • An Essay on Man: Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Culture, 1944
  • Rousseau, Kant, Goethe: Two Essays, 1945 (tr.  James Gutman, Paul Oskar Kristeller and John Herman Randall, Jr.)
  • The Myth of the State, 1946
  • Idee und Gestalt, Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, Kleist, 1971
  • Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer, 1979 (ed. Donald Philip Verene)
  • Symbol, Technik, Sprache, 1985
  • The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. IV: The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms, 1996 (edited by J.M. Krois and D.P. Verene)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1998- (25 vols., edited by Birgit Recki)
  • Ziele und Wege der Wirklichkeitserkenntnis, 1999 (edited by Klaus Christian Köhnke and John Michael Krois)
  • Goethe-Vorlesungen: Der junge Goethe, Göteborg 1940-1941, 2003 (edited by John Michael Krois)
  • Kulturphilosophie: Vorlesungen und Vorträge 1929-1941, 2004 (edited by Rüdiger Kramme and Jörg Fingerhut)
  • Vorlesungen und studien zur philosophischen Anthropologie, 2005 (eds. Gerald Hartung, Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink, Jutta Faehndrich)  
  • Kleinere Schriften zu Goethe und zur Geistesgeschichte 1925-1944 mit Beilagen, 2006 (edited by Barbara Naumann and  Simon Zumsteg)
  • Zu Philosophie und Politik: mit Beilagen, 2008 (edited by John Michael Krois und Christian Möckel)
  • Vorlesungen und Vorträge zu philosophischen Problemen der Wissenschaften, 1907-1945, 2010 (eds. Jörg Fingerhut, Gerald Hartung und Rüdiger Kramme)
  • The Warburg Years (1919-1933): Essays on Language, Art, Myth, and Technology, 2013 (translated and with an introduction by S.G. Lofts with A. Calcagno)
  • Vorlesungen zu Hegels Philosophie der Moral, des Staates und der Geschichte, 2013 (edited by Christian Möckel)
  • Vorlesungen und Vorträge zu Kant, 2016 (edited by Christian Möckel)

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