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Ernst Cassirer

This is the third article in a series on neglected
.1r misunderstood philosophers.

The others have
been on Dietzgen (in RP10) and Merleau-Ponty (in
RP11). Articles on r:ollingwood and Foucault are
planned; other suggestions would be welcome.

Although the works of Ernst Cassirer are readily
available in English, I suspect they only receive
limited attention. I shall try to provide some
biographical and bibliographical information and
also to place him in some philosophical context, in
the hope of stimulating wider interest in his work.

Cassirer was born in Breslau in 1874. He began
studying at Berlin, where interests in German literature and philosophy inspired a rapid move from
£he first course he undertook, jurisprudence.

Within Germany at this time, there was a new interest in the philosophy of Kant and the idealist tendencies of the 18th century, an interest initiated
by Otto Liebmann and Hermann Cohen. Cassirer went
to Marburg to study under Cohen, took his doctorate
on Leibniz, then returned home to Berlin where he
launched into a work aiming to give a comprehensive
picture of the development of epistemology in the
philosophy and science of modern times. He was under pressure from Cohen to take an academic post
but refused because of his dislike of provincial
towns with their latent anti-semitism. After the
appearance and immediate success of the first two
volumes of The Problem of Knowledge, Cassirer
yielded to Cohen’s pressure, providing he got a
place at Berlin. This was not easy, because
Cass~rer was both a jew and a follower of the controversial Marburg school, while such philosophy as
there was at Berlin was decidedly anti-idealist.

He did get his appointment as Privatdozent but only
through the intervention of W. Dilthey.

Even after the publication of substance and Function in 1910, Cassirer was still waiting for an
improvement in his academic prospects and still
being passed over for vacant Chairs. However,
immediately after the first WOrld War he was offered a Chair at the new university of Hamburg, where
he was eventually made Rector in 1930. Immediately
on Hitler’s becoming Chancellor of the Third Reich,
Cassirer resigned and prepared to emigrate. He was
offered three professorships, at Upsala in SWeden,
Oxford, and the New School for Social Research in
New York. He went to Oxford and lectured there
from 1933 to 1935, and in that year accepted a
personal chair at Goeteborg where he stayed almost
six years. In 1941 he went to Yale as visiting
professor but was unable to return to Sweden because
of the war. He accepted an invitation to teach at
Columbia University in 1944 and worked there until
his death in April 1945.

While at Marburg Cassirer came under the influence
of Kant and he constantly attributed to Kant a
fundamental revolution whereby philosophers were
freed from having to attain a reality more profound
than that given in experience. Cassirer saw the
whole history of philosophy not only as an attempt
to attain the true kpowledge of reality but also
as raising questions as to its attainability. The
answers of both rationalism and empiricism were
followed inevitably by scepticism.


It was the revolution in method effected in Rant’s
formulation of the problem which first promised
a way out of this dilemma… Now knowledge was
saved from the peril of sceptical disintegration;
but this salvation and liberation proved to be
possible only through a shift in the aim of knowledge. Instead of a static relation between
knowledge and object – as might be designated by
the geometrical notion of a congruence between the
two – a dynamic relation was sought and established.

No longer does knowledge, whether as a whole or
with a part of itself, ‘reach over’ or ‘journey’

into the transcendent world of objects. All these
spatial images are now recognised as images.

Knowledge is described nei ther as a part of
being nor as its copy. Howe~er, its relation to
being is by no means taken away from it but rather
is grounded in a new point of view. For it is now
the function of knowledge to build up and constitute the object, not as an absolute object but as
a phenomenal object, conditioned by this very

(The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol.3, p4-5)
Even with Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’, the
framework within which knowledge might be said to
occur was firmly fixed by the introduction of the
Categories. Likewise, the founders of the Marburg
school were interested primarily in scientific
knowledge. They saw in that the prototype of all
knowledge worthy of the name. However, Cassirer
became convinced that traditional epistemology, in
its usual acceptance of a scientific paradigm, was
too narrow. With his interest in Geistewissenschaften, or. cultural sciences, he sought to provide epistemological justification for all types
of knowledge. He realised that to do this the
basic principles of epistemology had to be radically expanded, so that the achievements of the
natural sciences did not prejudice the status of
non-scientific activity. With this demand for a
generalised epistemological basis for all knowledge,
Cassirer makes a radical break from the position
of orthodox neo-Kantianism but without abandoning
the essence of Kantianism itself. In fact he
creates ample room within the spirit of that tradition by speaking of man as a ‘symbolic animal’,
drawing on the work of the biologist Uexkull.

(Johannes von Uexkull, Theoretische Biologie (2nd ed.

Berlin 1938; Umwelt und Innenwelt’der Tiere (1909,
2nd ed. Berlin 1921)
In the human world we find a new characteristic
which appears to be the di5tinctive mark of human
life. The functional circle of man is not only
quantitatively enlarged; it has also undergone a
qualitative change. Man has, as it were, discovered a new way 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. There is an
unmistakeable difference between organic reactions
and human responses. In the first case a direct
and immediate answer is given to an outward
stimulus; in the second case the answer is delayed.

It is interrupted and retarded by a slow and
complicated process of thought~ •• No longer in
a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion
are parts of this universe. They are the varied
threads which weave the symbolic net, the tangled
web of human experience. All human progress in
thought and experience refines upon and strengthens
this net. No longer can man confront reality

immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face
to face •.• Instead of dealing with the things
themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in
linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical
symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or
know anything except by the interposition of this
artificial medium.

(An Essay on Man, pp24-25)
As the basic concepts of science are obtained by a
synthesising act of the mind, so,’ Cass,irer goes on
to argue, that synthesisirig activity of the mind
determines all types of knowledge. Our concepts,
in whatever field, are man-created intellectual
symbols by means of which experiential contexts are

Natorp of the Marburg school had stressed that
particulars do not remain isolated but are merged
into a context determined and defined by causal
interrelations. Cassirer extends this, holding
that the causal mode of integration is but one of
many possible modes. ‘Objectification’ is achieved
and the particular is fused into a context by many
means other than logical concepts and laws of
logical relations. Art, mythology and religion
are all held by Cassirer to exemplify those other
possible types of integration – but they do not
merely reflect an empirically ‘given’. All constitute their ‘objects’, their ‘world’ in conformity
with some independent principle of integration.

Each creates its own symbolic forms, forms which
are not of the same type as the symbols of science
but which, nevertheless, are epistemologically
equivalent to them, coming as they do from the same
sources. N~ one of these differing types of symbols
can be fully represented by any other, nor can it
be translated into or derived from any other.

These types of symbols are not to be regarded as
different ways in which the one and same ‘thing-initself’ reveals itself to us – rather, they are
modes whereby the mind achieves its ‘objectification’

of experience. Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’ then,
has to be extended to all spheres. The validity
of each approach cannot be derived from an object,
for that object presupposes the symbolic activity
and is constituted by it. There is no realm of
absolute fact serving as an immutable datum. What

we call fact is always theoretically orientated in
some way, $een in regard to some context and implicitly determined thereby. Theoretical elements
do not somehow become added to a ‘merely factual’

but they enter into the constitution of the factual

Cassirer published a number of works on the history
of philosophy, notably those on the Renaissance and
the Enlightenment, and in his more systematic works
he makes extensive forays into the history of philosophy. Criticism has been levelled at Cassirer on
the lines that his approach to the history of
philosophy is limited by his overriding concern
for the idea of symbolic form. SUch criticism is
certainly justified about his last work, The Myth
of the state, written in 1945, in which Cassirer
tried to offer some critical light on the theories
that allowed the rise of National Socialism in
Germany in the ‘305. Here, Cassirer’s concern with
man’s symbolic activity shapes his whole analysis
of political thought. He argues that man by his
symbolic activity creates his world, and that any
attempts t6regard symbolic worlds as absolute
realities, beyond critical discussion and change,
constitutes a denial and evasion of man’s proper
freedom. If The Myth of the State is seen as a
history of political thought then there are obvious deficiencies but the work does reveal
Cassirer’s fundamental concern: to show that what
is offered as ‘fact’ or ‘reality’ is but one of
many possibilities, and that symbolic thought
endows man witQ the ability to constantly reshape
his human universe.

Bibliographical Note
Cassirer’s most important work is the Philosophy
of Symbolic Forms. The English translation has a
useful introduction to the work of Cassirer by
C.W. Heldel (in vol.l). Cassirer also write An
Essay on Man (New Haven, 1944) as an introduction
to his thought for English readers.

For a full bibliography to 1964, consult H.J.

Paton and R. Kiblansky (eds) , Philosophy and
History’, Essays presented to Ernst Cassirer. NY,
1964. For a more comprehensive and criticalappreci~
tion.of the significance of·1 his workc:onsult P.A.” Schflpp
(ed) , The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, NY, 1949.’

Ordinary Language
and Radical Philosophy
Vincent di Norcia
Prior to the task of educating the workers,

al polarization of Moore’s common (?) sense to
and soldiers, there is the task of learning from them.1 Russell!s logicist scientism. While the debate bel
tween ordinary and ideal language models is a histoMao Tse-Tung
rical fact, philosophically it constitutes a pseudo.

problem. There is no real dilemma. The choice pre~
The debate provoked ~n RPB by the relat~vely ~nnocu- sented is not between two and only two alternatives.

ous editoriai comments in RP6 on the problem of ‘ortho Moreover the two alternatives presented are not what
dox English-language philosophy’ surprised ~e. It has they ap~ar to be. Russell and company did not .

seemed unable to sort out the complex relat~ons beprovide us with a genuine logic of empirical knowtween radical philosophy and common sense. Some
ledge or scientific inquiry. Moore and friends gave
fundamental distinctions are not being made. And they us at best pedantic reflections on the smart talk of
must be made, if one is to develop an emanCipatory
an Oxcam common room (without even the homosexual ‘inphilosophy and not an ideological one. Sayers, in
sinuations which would have given it life). So
his zeal to reject ord~ary lan~age p~ilosophY (or
through these portals the philosophical problems
OLP) tends to see only ~deology ~n ord~nary language~ which common sense and science actually raise cannot
Of course OLP has represented a propaganda victory

of upper class talk over the levelling realism of
The Russell/Moore debate is really between variants
plain people’s language. 2 But both usages are part
of an imperial ideology. The underlying and unspoken
of ordinary language.

issues involved in it are: (1) whether the King’s
The RP editorial itself started with the tradition- English is the proper model for all common sense.

Does it only too ‘properly’ screen reality through
1 Quoted in RP6, p46
the silken nets of language? Nets woven and mended
2 See Ernst Gellner’~ WOrds and Things (Penguin,
by the Oxford mandarins of ordinary language philo.1968), p266


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