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Cassirer, Ernst Alfred

Cassirer, Ernst Alfred

(b. Breslau, Germany, 28 July 1874; d New York, N.Y., 13 April 1945),


Cassirer was the son of Eduard Cassirer, a merchant, and Jenny Cassirer. He married his cousin Tony Bondy; they had two sons and one daughter. He was awarded an honorary doctor of law degree by the University of Glasgow and won the gold medal of the Kuno Fischer Institute of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences in 1914.

Cassirer was the most important of the younger circle of the so-called Marburg school, which advocated the logical-transcendental tendency of neo-Kantianism. He came from a well-to-do Jewish merchant family that included many children. His cousin Bruno Cassirer was a well-known Berlin publisher. After graduating from the Johannes Gymnasium in Breslau, Cassirer began to study law in Berlin but soon changed to philosophy and literature. He studied history, art history, and natural science at the universities of Leipzig, Heidelberg, and Munich. Through Georg Simmel he became aware of Hermann Cohen and of neo-Kantianism, which had originated as a reaction against the reigning Hegelianism and its decline into materialism. After intensive work on the writings of Kant, Cassirer went to Marburg and there, through Hermann Cohen, the founder and head of the Marburg school, was exposed to important philosophical influences. He received his doctorate in 1899 with a dissertation on Descartes, which became the starting point for an outstanding work on Leibniz. The latter was awarded a prize by the Berlin Academy of Sciences. From 1906 Cassirer was a Privatdozent in Berlin. In 1919 he moved to Hamburg, where he carried out an effective program of pedagogical and scholarly work, becoming rector in 1930. While a professor at Hamburg he also strengthened the collaboration with the important library founded by Aby Warburg, which later became the Warburg Institute in London.

Political developments in Germany caused Cassirer to emigrate in 1933. He went first to England (All Souls College, Oxford) then in 1935 to Göteborg, Sweden. In 1941 he became visiting professor at Yale University and in 1944 went to Columbia University. He died in New York City in 1945.

Casstrer’s work, which is based on a profound knowledge of the history of philosophy and on intensive mathematical and scientific study, bears the mark of neo-Kantianism. Cassirer began his scholarly career as an historian of philosophy. For him the history of philosophy did not consist in the collecting and stringing together of facts and ideas; it ought, rather, to make clear the principal sense and thrust of the set of ideas and show their meaning systematically. In this way the historian attains the method through which the fundamental problems and concepts and the formative powers of cognition can be crystallized.

In his major systematic work, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie and Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, Cassirer presents an analysis of the formation of philosophic concepts and shows the connection between the theory of knowledge and the general intellectual culture. In tracing the development from objective to functional-rational thoughts, which has culminated in modern logic and in the mathematical and scientific disciplines, he also provides a history of human knowledge in general.

At the origin of every cognition is the formation of a concept. To the Aristotelian concept, which, formed by ever greater abstraction, becomes ever emptier, Cassirer opposes a new functional concept. It is characterized by the appearance and recognition of the particularities of a group of attributes and of their necessary connection. Cassirer saw the function of the scientific concept as the presentation of a rule by means of which the concrete details of a group of attributes are chosen. He examined the concepts of mathematics and of the natural sciences because the fundamental principles of cognition can be known most clearly through them. He considered chemistry in this light for the first time; according to him, it had developed, through the conception of energy, from a descriptive into an exact science. In his philosophic-historical investigations Cassirer also considered the ideas and conclusions of Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, and Newton, as well as other scientists.

On the fundamental problems of mathematics and natural science, such as number, space, time, and causality, Cassirer took a definite position. Mathematics—for Cassirer a theory of symbols, not of things—presented, as a theory of combinations, the possible modes of combination and of mutual dependence. He held, in opposition to Bertrand Russell, among others, an “ordinal” theory of numbers. As ordinal numbers, the integers designate positions in an ordered sequence, and their meaning consists in their reciprocal relations. The concept of number is a direct result of the laws of thought themselves and presupposes only the ability of the human mind to relate one thing to another thing.1 Mathematical concepts arise through genetic definition—that is, there must exist a definite mode of production, and the desired property must be shown to result there from by means of a strict deductive proof (real definition). This applies to all of mathematics.

Cassirer held that with their basic concepts the natural sciences can express the empirically given in relationships. Mass, force, atom, ether, absolute space, and absolute time become instruments of thought, with the aid of which appearances are ordered and reduced to an organized and measurable whole that can be comprehended.2 Physics does not seek a representation of reality; rather, it considers the structure of all events from the point of view of measurability and strives to reduce the structure to a numerical order. The true objects of cognition are relationships; the concepts of things are only a means of establishing relationships.

The book Determinismus and Indeterminismus in der modernen Physik was designed primarily to provide logical clarification of the newly emerging problems of modern physics. Cassirer was one of those who cautioned against precipitately burdening the indeterminism of quantum theory with metaphysical speculations. He did not wish to see the concept of cause replaced by that of purpose. Just as every perceptual experience can be seen from various points of view(mathematical, aesthetic, mythical), so physics must use new explanatory and representational schemata in order to describe microphysical facts.

Cassirer made thorough studies of the problems of space and time in connection with Einstein’s theory of relativity. He thought he could show that Einstein’s theories did not conflict with those of Kant, even though with the theory of relativity “a step beyond Kant” had been taken.3 In depriving space and time of the last remnants of physical objectivity, the standpoint of critical idealism obtains “the most definite application and accomplishment within the empirical science itself”.4 The spatiotemporal order is never given directly and sentiently; rather, it is the product of an intellectual construction. For Cassirer, Euclidean space is one possibility among many. We establish reality and experience by means of pure possibilities, and we achieve from various mathematical systems—for example, non-Euclidean geometries— the knowledge that we are dealing with pure possibilities, which cannot be derived from sense perception.5

Even though the problem of knowledge is Cassirer’s chief concern, his investigations in the history of philosophy—of Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, and the Renaissance—as well as his works on the history of literature and culture are marked by a comprehensive knowledge of all the subjects treated and by a feeling for the essential and a profound insight into the relationships of cultural history.

After World War I, Cassirer began to free himself from the narrow conception of neo-Kantianism. For over a decade he labored on a work that he regarded as “Prolegomena to any future philosophy of culture”; in the Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, summarized in the later work Was ist der Mensch?, he developed the theory that human reason alone does not provide access to reality. The mind in its totality, with all its functions, feeling, willing, thinking, is responsible for the union of subject with object. Man grasps reality with the help of “symbolic forms,” such as language, myth, art, science, and religion, which place themselves between him and the universe. These symbols must form the basic principles for a theory of man—that is, for an adequate philosophical anthropology.

All of Cassirer’s writings display a basically humanistic attitude, which also expressed itself in his life and actions. His work also testifies to creative imagination, constant reflection on and reorganization of an immense amount of material, and an unfailing knowledge and tolerance.

Political circumstances in Germany prevented wide dissemination of Cassirer’s philosophical work. Moreover, after World War II phenomenology, Lebensphilosophie, and existentialism largely dominated the field. Nevertheless, Cassirer enriched the history of philosophy and the classic problem of the theory of knowledge; in addition, he promoted basic research and provided valuable starting points for a philosophical anthropology and history of culture.


1.Das Erkenntnisproblem, IV, 74.

2.Substanzbegrijff and Funktionsbegriff, p. 220.

3.Zur Kritik der Einsteinschen Relativitätsthearie, p. 82.

4.Ibid., p. 79.

5.Die Philosophie der symholischen Formen, III, 489.


I. Original Works. Cassirer’s writings are Descartes’ Kritik der mathematischen and naturwissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis (Marburg, 1899), his inaugural diss., repr. as an intra, to Leibniz’ System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen (Marburg, 1902; 2nd ed., Darmstadt-Hildesheim, 1962); Substanzbegriff and Funktionsbegriff (Berlin, 1910); Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie and Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, 3 vols., I (Berlin, 1906; 3rd ed., 1922); II (Berlin, 1907; 3rd ed., 1922); III (Berlin, 1920; 2nd ed., 1923)—the MS of Cassirer’ proposed vol. IV appeared first, in English, as The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science, and History Since Hegel (New Haven–London, 1950), trans, by W. H. Woglom and C. W. Hendel, with forward by Hendel, and later, in German, as vol. IV of Erkenntnisproblem, with the title Von Hegels Tod bis zur Gegenwart 1832–1932 (Stuttgart, 1957); Zur Kritik der Einsteinschen Relativitätstheorie. Erkenntnistheoretische Betrachtungen (Berlin, 1921; 2nd ed., 1925); Die Philosophie der symholischen Formen, 3 vols, and index (Berlin, 1923–1931); Kants Leben and Lehre (Berlin, 1918; 4th ed., 1924), published as vol. XI of Immanuel Kants Werke, ed., by Cassirer and Hermann Cohen (Berlin, 1912); Determinismus and Indeterminismus in der modernen Physik. Historische and systematische Studien zum Kausalproblem Göteborg, 1937); Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften Göoteborg, 1942); Was ist der Mensch? Versuch einer Philosophie der menschlichen Kultur (Stuttgart, 1960), originally publ. as An Essay on Man (New Haven, 1944).

II. Secondary Literature. A bibliography to 1949 is given in Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, P. A. Schilpp, ed. (Evanston, I11., 1949); the German ed. (Stuttgart-Berlin-Cologne-Mainz, 1966) contains a bibliography to 1957. See also F. Ueberweg, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, IV (13th ed., Tübingen, 1951). 443–444.

Edith Selow

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Cassirer, Ernst

Cassirer, Ernst



Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945), German philosopher, was born in Breslau (now Wroclaw) in Silesia. He was educated at the universities of Berlin, Leipzig, Heidelberg, Munich, and Marburg. At Marburg he was the most gifted disciple of Hermann Cohen and later became an exponent of the Marburg school of Neo-Kantianism. He began his career as a Privatdozent at the University of Berlin and was a civil servant during World War i, but in 1919 he was made professor of philosophy at the newly established University of Hamburg, becoming Rektor (president) in 1930. A Jew, Cassirer resigned when Hitler came to power in Germany. After two years at Oxford, from 1933 to 1935, he went to the University of Göteborg, in Sweden. In 1941 he left for the United States, where he joined Yale’s philosophy department and then, in 1944, that of Columbia University in New York. He died in New York on April 13, 1945.

In addition to Cohen’s Neo-Kantianism, the important influences on Cassirer were Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, Herder’s philosophy of history, and Hertz’s views of physics. Although he ranks foremost as a philosopher of culture, Cassirer also contributed more to philosophical anthropology than any of his contemporaries. His concept of man as the symbolizing animal led him not merely to work out a philosophy of language but also to write significantly on the methodology of the sciences, as well as on primitive culture, myth, politics, religion, and literature.

In his masterwork, the three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923–1929), he attempted a systematic analysis of the whole range of human creation. None of the areas of human culture— language, myth, knowledge, science, art, and religion—give us direct access to the world. Rather, they are different “forms of apprehension,” which originate in primitive symbols, images, and acts. The very notion of human consciousness presupposes these “forms.” Man does not find order and intelligibility in the world; his consciousness creates it. The categories of the understanding, there-fore, need no longer be deduced theoretically (as in Kant) but can be empirically checked and verified. The methods and symbols of the (so-called) exact sciences derive no less from formal constructions than do those of mathematics. The creative activity of the human mind accounts for all human experience, and the significance of the role of symbols becomes nowhere more obvious than in the exact sciences. Physics developed from an initially crude realism to a highly symbolic construction, which does not so much “describe” the world as “order” it. This same movement away from concrete particularity to abstract structure characterizes all other endeavors and achievements of the human mind.

To understand man, therefore, we must understand his language, whose symbolic construction and function show the same development from the directly perceived to the abstract.

Cassirer’s philosophy attempts to deal with every aspect of human experience. In his morphology of consciousness he shows that the human spirit moves in many directions, although the patterns in each differ. History, for Cassirer, is the story of man’s growing awareness of himself as a being expressing its own autonomy. The tendency away from enslavement to matter and toward everincreasing freedom is therefore always present. This freedom itself is never entirely absent; the extent of its existence depends upon the meaning-giving intelligible aspect of consciousness provided by the creative and liberating use of symbols.

Cassirer’s work has influenced twentieth-century semantics, anthropology, and social psychology at least as much as it has philosophy. Although the idealistic strain of his Neo-Kantianism may be largely passé, his contributions to the philosophy of language and of culture promise to be of permanent value.

Paul Arthur Schilpp


1902 Leibniz’ System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen. Marburg (Germany): Elwert.

(1906–1920) 1950 The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science and History Since Hegel. 3 vols. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → First published as Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit.

(1910–1921) 1953 Substance and Function and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. New York: Dover. → First published as Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff, 1910, and Zur Einstein-schen Relativitätstheorie, 1921.

(1916) 1918 Freiheit und Form: Studien zur deutschen Geistesgeschichte. 2d ed. Berlin: Cassirer.

1918 Kants Leben und Lehre. Berlin: Cassirer.

1921 Idee und Gestalt: Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, Kleist: Fünf Aufsätze. Berlin: Cassirer.

(1923–1929) 1953–1957 The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. 3 vols. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A historical and critical analysis of the images, symbols, and function of the human mind to be found in every human culture. First published in German. Volume 1: Language, 1953. Volume 2: Mythical Thought, 1955. Volume 3: Phenomenology of Knowledge, 1957. The Index to the German edition, published in 1931, was not translated into English.

(1925) 1946 Language and Myth. New York: Dover. → First published as Sprache und Mythos.

(1927) 1964 The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy. Translated with an introduction by Mario Domandi. New York: Barnes & Noble. → First published as Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance.

1932a Goethe und die geschichtliche Welt: Drei Aufsätze. Berlin: Cassirer.

(1932b) 1951 The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Princeton (N.J.) Univ. Press. → First published as Die Philosophie der Aufklärung.

(1932c) 1953 The Platonic Renaissance in England. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press. → First published as Die platonische Renaissance in England und die Schule von Cambridge.

(1937) 1956 Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics: Historical and Systematic Studies of the Problem of Causality. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → First published as Determinismus und Indeterminismus in der modernen Physik.

1939 Descartes: Lehre-Persönlichkeit-Wirkung. Stockholm: Bermann-Fischer. (1942) 1961 Logic of the Humanities. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → First published as Logik der Kulturwissenschaften.

(1944) 1956 An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition in German was published by W. Kohlhammer Verlag (Stuttgart) in 1960.

(1945) 1961 Rousseau, Kant, Goethe: Two Essays. Princeton (N.J.) Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.

1946 The Myth of the State. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press; Oxford Univ. Press.


Schilpp, Paul A. (editor) (1949) 1958 The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. New York: Tudor. → A critical examination, by 23 American and European scholars, of every aspect of Cassirer’s work. Also contains complete bibliography of Cassirer’s writings and publications.

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Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer

The German philosopher and intellectual historian Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) was the most distinguished member of the Neo-Kantian school of philosophy.

Ernst Cassirer was born in Breslau, Silesia, on July 28, 1874, the son of a wealthy and cultured Jewish tradesman. He was educated at the universities of Berlin, Leipzig, and Heidelberg. His varied interests finally focused on philosophy after hearing Georg Simmel's lectures on Kant. This led him to Marburg, where Hermann Cohen, the leading Neo-Kantian of the period, lectured. Cassirer set himself to master both Kant's voluminous writings and Cohen's interpretations; though he went well beyond both, they formed the essential foundation for his subsequent work.

In spite of early and brilliant publications Cassier was blocked by anti-Semitic prejudice from a professorship in Germany. By the time he was 30, he had finished the first two volumes of a monumental work tracing the history of epistemology. This won him wide recognition and finally acceptance at the University of Berlin, but only as a lecturer.

In 1910 Cassirer published his first systematic work, Substance and Function, a profound essay on the nature of concepts and generalization. Still he was passed over for professorial appointments. In 1914 Harvard University invited him, but the outbreak of World War I prevented his acceptance. When the war ended, however, the new University of Hamburg offered him a professorship. He taught there from 1919 to 1930 and served as rector from 1930 to 1933. At Hamburg the superb Warburg Library enabled him to begin his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-1929). Warburg had gathered a unique treasure of books on primitive cultures and studies of imagery, magic, folklore, and mythology. With these source materials Cassirer began to fashion a systematic comparison of the fundamentally different kinds of "symbolic forms" through which men interpret their experience. Although a continuation of Kant's analysis of human powers of synthesis, Cassirer's work took into account types of thinking which Kant had ignored as irrational. Cassirer thus subjected mythical thinking to detailed analysis and undertook to revise the Kantian accounts of scientific, moral, and esthetic thinking. The principles and methods used to structure these different areas of experience, Cassirer argued, must be seen as flexible and developing.

With the electoral triumph of the Nazi party in 1933, Cassirer immediately resigned his position in disgust and went to Oxford University. After 3 months of intensive study he learned to speak English. He lectured at Oxford until 1935, when the University of Göteborg in Sweden offered him a personal chair. Becoming a Swedish citizen, he once again learned a new language and later wrote a book on Swedish philosophy.

In the summer of 1941 Cassirer came to the United States as a guest professor at Yale University. In these years of exile he wrote continuously—books on physics, on political philosophy, on the history of ideas, and finally An Essay on Man (1944), a systematic study written in English. At the time of his death Cassirer was a visitor at Columbia University and was preoccupied with plans for further applications of his central discovery: the functions played by symbolic forms. He left a rich legacy which has not yet been fully assimilated and exploited.

Further Reading

An inquiry into Cassirer's work should begin with Paul Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (1949). It contains biographical essays, descriptive and critical essays on his philosophy, and an exhaustive bibliography of his works. Carl H. Hamburg, Symbol and Reality (1956), is a study of Cassirer's central conception.

Additional Sources

Itzkoff, Seymour W., Ernst Cassirer: philosopher of culture, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

Lipton, David R., Ernst Cassirer: the dilemma of a liberal intellectual in Germany, 1914-1933, Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1978. □

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Cassirer, Ernst

Ernst Cassirer (ĕrnst käsēr´ər), 1874–1945, German philosopher. He was a professor at the Univ. of Hamburg from 1919 until 1933, when he went to Oxford; he later taught at Yale and Columbia. A leading representative of the Marburg Neo-Kantian school, Cassirer at first devoted himself to a critical-historical study of the problem of knowledge. This work bore fruit in the monumental Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit (3 vol., 1906–20) and Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (1910, tr. Substance and Function, 1923). In his chief work, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (3 vol., 1923–29, tr. Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, 1953–57), he applied the principles of Kantian philosophy toward the formation of a critique of culture. His view that all cultural achievements (including language, myth, and science) are the results of man's symbolic activity led Cassirer to a new conception of man as the "symbolic animal." Cassirer wrote many other studies on science, myth, and various historical subjects. These include two written in English: An Essay on Man (1944) and Myth of the State (1946).

See P. A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (1949, repr. 1973); studies by S. W. Itzkoff (1971), D. R. Lipton (1978), J. M. Krois (1985), and P. E. Gordon (2010).

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