Profile: Ernst Cassirer

Edward Skidelsky on the last philosopher of culture

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), the one-time giant of German idealism, is now known only to cultural historians and the odd amateur enthusiast. To most British philosophers he is no more than a name. On the Continent, he is better known, but mainly just as the man who got the worst of Heidegger. Perhaps no other major philosopher has suffered such a precipitous drop in reputation.

Cassirer was born in 1874 into a wealthy German-Jewish household. There is not a lot be said about his life. He was a German professor in the old style, devoted to learning and culture, a political liberal and a decent family man. He would have lived out his days peacefully in Hamburg had the Nazis not forced him into English, Swedish and finally American exile. He died in New York in 1945. A few years later he was granted a volume in the prestigious “Library of Living Philosophers” series – the first and only dead philosopher to be so honoured. But his star was on the wane. Logical positivism had conquered the English-speaking world, existentialism the continent. Cassirer’s mellow humanism belonged to another era.

Cassirer’s main achievement is his “philosophy of symbolic forms”, set out in three volumes over the 1920s. Cassirer takes his cue from Kant’s doctrine that reality is in some sense our “construction” but adds that this construction does not proceed in one unique direction. Myth, religion, language, art and science are all ways of constituting reality, each with its own internal standard of truth. None represents the world “as it really is”. Cassirer is a metaphysical ironist. He wants to be able move freely from one world-picture to another without acknowledging any as ultimate. His target is “dogmatism” – the ingrained tendency of the human mind to elevate a single conceptual framework into reality as such, thereby denying legitimacy to all the others.

This looks like relativism, but it is not quite. Cassirer combines Kant’s reticence about the “thing-in-itself” with Hegel’s vision of history as a grand narrative of gradually unfolding freedom. The symbolic forms all have their place in this narrative. At the bottom lies myth, the primal matrix of human culture. Religion emerges gradually out of myth, art out of religion. Meanwhile, and in a different direction, myth gives birth to the lawfully ordered universe of science. Cassirer does not deny the tension between these developments, but insists that they are all expressive of the same basic urge to order the world through symbols and so transcend the limits of merely biological existence. “Human culture taken as a whole,” he writes, “may be described as the process of man’s progressive self-liberation.”

This rather rosy picture is subject to one important qualification. Myth may be refined and spiritualised in the higher symbolic forms, but it is never entirely overcome. It is, as Cassirer puts it, “always there, lurking in the dark and waiting for its hour and opportunity.” It is the eternal Id of human history, urging us to throw off the burden of consciousness and return to a simpler, more concrete form of existence. Cassirer’s ulterior target is not hard to seek. Interwar Germany was overrun by prophets and saviours of every kind, from Heidegger through to Hitler, all of them hostile to modern civilisation. When Cassirer talked about myth, he had these trends very much in mind. For him, as for his contemporary Freud, mythological analysis was a tool for the understanding and exorcism of political irrationalism.

In his last, posthumously published work, The Myth of the State, Cassirer finally makes explicit the political dimension of his thought. Here, Nazism is presented as a technologically orchestrated revival of mythical modes of thought and social organisation. “The new political myths do not grow up freely; they are not wild fruits of an exuberant imagination. … Henceforth myths can be manufactured in the same sense and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon – as machine guns or airplanes.” Cassirer’s remarks on fascism could be applied to many other contemporary trends. Religious fundamentalism, for instance, displays the same unsavoury synthesis of the primitive and the modern, the irrational and the positive. Mere technological sophistication is no proof against barbarism; indeed, the two often go hand in hand.

Cassirer’s philosophy is at first glance very appealing. It offers a comprehensive theory of historical progress while at the same time making sense (as many such theories do not) of the possibility of regress. It does justice to modern science without succumbing to scientism. It even has a place for religion, provided it serves ethical ends. Surely this was a philosophy tailor-made for postwar liberalism. Why, then, did it meet with such failure? Why was the postwar scene dominated by philosophies indifferent or actively hostile to liberalism – existentialism on the one hand, with its tendency to political extremism, and the analytic movement on the other, with its studiously neutral technicism?

Cassirer was in many ways unlucky. Exiled from Germany, he was not granted enough time in his new American homeland to build up an intellectual following. But his eclipse cannot be put down solely to bad luck; it also has an authentically philosophical explanation. Cassirer’s thought is inductive, not deductive in its method. Setting out from the variety of human culture, it seeks to comprehend it as an organic whole. But most twentieth-century philosophy, analytic and continental, has sought a standpoint beyond the variety of culture – an absolute conception of consciousness, meaning, or the world. Viewed from this standpoint, Cassirer’s enterprise does not look like philosophy at all, but a form of empirical anthropology or cultural studies.

This shift in philosophical fashion has a lot to do with the practicalities of departmental politics. Philosophy in the twentieth century was under pressure to distinguish itself from the burgeoning fields of psychology and sociology. It needed a sphere of a priori truths to call its own, a bulwark against potential trespassers. Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms was singularly unhelpful for that purpose. But a profounder issue was also at stake. Cassirer was able to conceive of philosophy as the interpretation of culture only because he shared with most of his generation a conception of culture itself as an essentially liberating force. The twentieth century was not kind to that conception. The cancerous growth of bureaucracy, the murderous perversion of science, the self-prostitution of the humanities – none of this spelled liberation. The younger generation accordingly sought a standard of truth over and above culture’s shifting tides. The logical positivists found it in the verification principle, Heidegger in authentic existence. Others turned to the Bible or the wisdom of ancient Greece. All agreed that Cassirer’s brand of liberal progressivism had failed.

Sixty years later, the tide has turned again in favour of Cassirer. The horrors of the two world wars have faded; Europe and Germany are reunited; democracy has triumphed over much of the globe. Liberal progressivism is back in fashion, and Cassirer offers a more appealing version of it than American neoconservatism. Meanwhile, the barriers that kept philosophy apart from the special sciences are coming down. Many philosophers today are happy to think of themselves after the fashion of Cassirer, as interpreters of the latest findings in physics, biology and psychology. Some even do empirical research themselves – a movement known as “experimental philosophy”. In this climate, interest in Cassirer has started to revive. In Germany especially, where guilt over his expulsion and subsequent neglect runs high, he has become something of a cultural icon.

Before we rush to rehabilitate Cassirer, however, we should remind ourselves of the reasons for his neglect. Cassirer, like most of his generation, thought that science was moving stepwise towards perfection, and the entire culture with it. He admitted that this process was unending, and that it might be derailed, but there was no doubt in his mind as to its overall direction. This is why he never felt inspired to develop a foundational metaphysics, logic or ethics. He had no need of a standpoint from which to judge and criticise contemporary trends; he was content, so to speak, to entrust himself to history. The disasters of the twentieth century ought to have banished such complacency forever. To assume that human culture, even “taken as a whole,” is “the process of man’s progressive self-liberation,” is to shut off the critical perspective we so sorely need. It is to leave ourselves defenceless against whatever monstrosity can pass itself off as the wave of the future.

Further reading
An Essay on Man, Ernst Cassirer (Yale University Press
A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger, Michael Friedman (Open Court)

Edward Skidelsky is a lecturer in philosophy at Exeter University and the author of Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture (Princeton University Press)

  1. Fascinating article. Never knew he even existed. I can see why people couldn’t get too excited about his philosophy with so many more passionate philosophies around. I guess its the question of whether a philosophy is a descriptive theory or an fictional ideal to aim for – it’s far easier to sell the ideal I suppose.

  2. Emanuel L. Paparella

    Intriguing profile. It was Cassirer who dubbed Vico the first philosopher to fully understand the philosophical import of mythology. No wonder Vico, like Cassirer, is also making a come-back of sort.

  3. A fine article in few words. It’s funny how our consciousness can unconsciously mirror developments in contemporary culture. I’ve read Cassirer since I first came upon his “Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics.” In the past decade or so, I’ve been drawn to him as if his work were magnetic. What grips me at present is his idea that the most primitive elemens of culture are always with us, waiting to erupt, infect our emotions and destroy the structure we have inherited or built. The other is his idea that the emergence of language is the basis for a certain alienation from oneself because it distances us from the primary experience of the senses devoid of mediating structures.

    Irwin Savodnik

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