Ernst Cassirer (July 28, 1874 – April 13, 1945) was a German-Jewish philosopher, educator, and prolific writer, and one of the leading exponents of neo-Kantian thought in the twentieth century. Cassirer accepted Kant’s idea of categories, but maintained that rather than the categories being fixed and immutable, they are constantly developing. He suggested that these basic concepts, which pre-exist any effort to classify particular experiences, are most clearly revealed in the cultural symbols of language, science, and mythology. Whereas animals perceive their world by instincts, man has created his own universe of symbolic meaning that structures and shapes his perception of reality. In Die Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 3 vol. (1923–29; The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms), Cassirer examined the mental images and the functions of the mind underlying every manifestation of human culture, and attempted to unite scientific and non-scientific modes of thought (“symbolic forms”) within a single philosophical vision.
Cassirer played a mediating role between the two major traditions of twentieth-century academic philosophy, the “analytic” and “continental” traditions, which held radically different perspectives on the relationship between the scientific and humanistic elements of their systems.
Cassirer was born on July 28, 1874, in Breslau, Germany (today Wrocław, Poland) into a wealthy and cosmopolitan Jewish family. Part of the family lived in Berlin, including a cousin, Bruno Cassirer, a publisher who later published most of Cassirer's writings. In 1892 Cassirer entered the University of Berlin, where he studied literature and philosophy. In 1894, he studied Kant with Georg Simmel, who particularly recommended the writings of Hermann Cohen, the founder of the so-called Marburg School of neo-Kantianism, which interpreted Kant's transcendental method as beginning with the “fact of science” and then arguing regressively to the presuppositions or conditions of possibility of this “fact.” In this way Kant was understood as an “epistemologist [Erkenntniskritiker]” or methodologist of science, rather than as a “metaphysician,” as he was regarded by post-Kantian German idealists. Nineteen-year-old Cassirer immediately resolved to study with Cohen at Marburg, where he stayed from 1896 to 1899, when he completed his doctoral work with a dissertation on Descartes' analysis of mathematical and natural scientific knowledge. His dissertation served as the Introduction to Cassirer's first published work on Leibniz's philosophy and its scientific basis (Cassirer 1902).
Many academic opportunities were closed to Cassirer because he was a Jew. Cassirer returned to Berlin in 1903, and began work on his monumental interpretation of the development of modern philosophy and science from the Renaissance through Kant (Cassirer 1906, 1907a). The first two volumes of Das Erkenntnisproblem appeared in 1906 and 1907. The first volume of this work served as his habilitation (certification to teach) at the University of Berlin, where he became an instructor or Privatdozent from 1906 to 1919. In 1904 Cassirer married his distant cousin, Toni Bondi; they had three children. He also worked on 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 1919, Cassirer was offered professorships at two universities at Frankfurt and Hamburg, newly established under the Weimar Republic. From 1919 until he emigrated from Germany in 1933, Cassirer taught at Hamburg while he completed his three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (Cassirer 1923, 1925, 1929b). This work elaborated Cassirer’s attempt to unite scientific and non-scientific modes of thought (“symbolic forms”) within a single philosophical vision.
In 1928, at the University's celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Republic, Cassirer offered a defense of Weimar (Cassirer 1929a), and in 1929-30 he became the first Jew in Germany to serve as a university rector. In the spring of 1929 Cassirer took part in a famous disputation with Martin Heidegger in Davos, Switzerland, where Heidegger explicitly took Cohen's neo-Kantianism as a philosophical target and Cassirer defended his own new understanding of Kant. Despite their deep disagreements, Cassirer and Heidegger remained friends until Cassirer's was forced to leave Germany in 1933 when the Nazis came to power.
Cassirer spent two years teaching at Oxford and then six years at the University of Göteborg in Sweden. During this time he developed his theories of morality and philosophy of law in a study of the Swedish legal philosopher Axel Hägerström (Cassirer 1939) (see (Krois 1987, chap. 4)). He also formulated his ideas on the relationship between the natural sciences and the “cultural sciences” (Cassirer 1942).
In 1941 Sweden also became unsafe, and Cassirer tried to go to Harvard, but was turned down because he had turned Harvard down thirty years earlier. Instead he taught at Yale from 1941 to 1944, and at Columbia University from 1944 to 1945. During this period he produced two books in English (Cassirer 1944, 1946). An Essay on Man was an introduction to the philosophy of symbolic forms, Cassirer's distinctive philosophical perspective. The Myth of the State explained the rise of fascism according to Cassirer's conception of mythical thought. He also influenced two significant American philosophers; Arthur Pap, whose work on the “functional a priori” in physical theory (Pap 1946) took shape under Cassirer's guidance at Yale, and Susanne Langer, who promulgated Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms in aesthetic and literary circles (see, e.g., (Langer 1942)). Cassirer died suddenly of a heart attack on April 13, 1945, while walking on the streets of New York City.
Cassirer’s philosophy was based primarily on Immanuel Kant’s principles concerning the ways in which humans use concepts to structure their experiences of the world. Cassirer revised the Kantian view to include a wider range of human experience. Kant had claimed, in Critique of Pure Reason (1781), that the fundamental concepts and categories by means of which humans organize experience, including concepts of space and time, are universal and immutable. Cassirer accepted Kant’s idea of categories, but maintained that they are not immutable but are constantly developing. He criticized Hegel for thinking that he had found "absolute knowledge" and had developed unchanging categories of history. Cassirer declared that the great symbol systems, from science to mythology, were not modeled on reality, but modeled 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, Essay on Man).
Cassirer devoted himself to the study of the Kantian conceptual framework, the "symbolic universe," that enables human beings to experience the world the way they do. Other thinkers who influenced Cassirer’s thought were Herder, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Goethe, Leibniz, and Vico.
The 1929 ‘Davos encounter’ between Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer is viewed by intellectual historians as a landmark in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. The contrast between Cassirer, a Jew, and the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who supported National Socialism, was quite striking. Cassirer acted as the advocate of what remained of the old European humanist tradition while Heidegger represented the emerging existentialist movement that would soon supplant the old tradition in significance and force. Heidegger took Hermann Cohen's neo-Kantianism as his specific philosophical target, and promoted his radical new conception of an “existential analytic of Dasein” as a parallel interpretation of the philosophy of Kant (Heidegger 1929). Cassirer defended his own new understanding of Kant, the philosophy of symbolic forms, by appealing to what he took to be genuinely objectively valid, necessary and eternal truths arising in both moral experience and mathematical natural science.
The Davos debate highlighted the emergent themes of the so-called “Kant-crisis” of the 1920s, and clarified neo-Kantian doctrines on the status of objectivity and the possibility for intersubjective consensus in both knowledge and ethics.
Cassirer’s major work, Die Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 3 vol. (1923–29; The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms), is considered a standard for a philosophy of culture. In great detail, Cassirer examined the mental images and the functions of the mind underlying every manifestation of human culture. Another work, Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (1910; Substance and Function), deals with the process by which concepts are formed. Cassirer argued that concepts, rather than being abstracted from a number of particular instances, pre-exist any effort to classify particulars. He examined the many forms of man’s cultural expression and concluded that human beings are characterized by a unique ability to use “symbolic forms” of myth, language and science to understand himself and the world of nature. Man, says Cassirer in his later Essay on Man (1944), is a "symbolic animal." Whereas animals perceive their world by instincts, man has created his own universe of symbolic meaning that structures and shapes his perception of reality. Man is thus able to conceive of utopias (political ideals) and therefore to make advances in forms of political association.
Among Cassirer's other writings are Sprache und Mythos (1925; Language and Myth), Die Philosophie der Aufklärung (1932; The Philosophy of the Enlightenment), and The Myth of the State (1946).
"What we call nature... is a poem hidden behind a wonderful secret writing; if we could decipher the puzzle, we should recognize in it the odyssey of the human spirit, which in astonishing delusion flees from itself while seeking itself." (Ernst Cassirer)
Cassirer's last major work was The Myth of the State, published posthumously in 1946 after Cassirer's sudden death. Cassirer argued that the idea of a totalitarian state evolved from ideas advanced by Plato, Dante, Machiavelli, Gobineau, Carlyle and Hegel. He concluded that the Fascist regimes of the twentieth century were symbolized by a “myth of destiny” and by the promotion of irrationality.
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