Cassirer, Ernst

views updated May 29 2018


CASSIRER, ERNST (18741945), German philosopher of culture. Cassirer was born in Breslau, Silesia. He studied at the universities of Berlin, Leipzig, Heidelberg, and Marburg and completed his inaugural dissertation under the direction of the Neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen at Marburg in 1899. Between 1903 and 1919 Cassirer taught as privatdocent at the University of Berlin, and in 1919 he assumed the chair of philosophy at the newly founded University of Hamburg. Cassirer left Germany in 1933 with the rise of Nazism; he taught for two years at Oxford before accepting a professorship at the University of Göteborg in Sweden in 1935. Cassirer left Sweden for the United States in the summer of 1941, teaching first at Yale and then at Columbia.

Cassirer's published writings comprise nearly 125 items, ranging from short articles to books of eight hundred pages. They treat a wide range of subjects in history, linguistics, mythology, aesthetics, literary studies, and science. Because he wrote continuously on so many subjects it is difficult to form a sense of Cassirer's thought as a whole. The largest division within his writings is between his works on the history of philosophy and those that state his own philosophical position. In addition to these are subcategories of works on literary figures, especially Goethe, and on the philosophy of science.

The center of Cassirer's work in the history of philosophy is his four-volume study Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neuern Zeit (The Problem of Knowledge in Philosophy and Science in the Modern Age). The first two volumes (19061907) trace the problem of knowledge from Nicholas of Cusa to Kant. The third (1920) and fourth (first published in English translation in 1950) continue the theme through Hegel and into the first decades of the twentieth century. In addition to this large study, Cassirer's works on the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, Descartes, and Leibniz have become classics in their areas. The central work of Cassirer's original philosophy is his three-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms; 19231929), the groundwork of which was laid in his theory of scientific concept formation in Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (Substance and Function) in 1910. He extended his theory of concept formation to humanistic thought in Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften (The Logic of the Humanities; 1942). Cassirer recast his conception of symbolic forms in An Essay on Man (1944). This was followed by The Myth of the State (1946); both works were written in English.

Cassirer regards religion as part of the symbolic form of myth. In An Essay on Man he labels this as the symbolic form of "myth and religion" within a series of symbolic forms that includes also language, art, history, and science. Each of these areas of human culture represents a way in which people form their experience through symbols. Cassirer defines the human as an "animal symbolicum." Consciousness forms its object in many different ways. No one mode of formation offers a "literal" presentation of the real; all human activities are equally "symbolic." The symbol is the medium of all people's cultural activity, whether mythic-religious, linguistic, artistic, historical, or scientific. The interrelationships of all these manners of symbolizing form the system of human culture.

Religion arises as a stage within the mythical mode of symbolizing. In the second volume of Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (see part 4) Cassirer says that the break between religious consciousness and the mythical symbol occurs when consciousness begins to regard the images and signs of myth as pointing to meanings beyond immediate existence. Like true linguistic signs, Cassirer says, religious signs are understood as referring to an order of reality beyond the plane of immediate sensuous existence. In mythical consciousness the dancer who wears the mask of the god is the god; he does not signify the god who exists in another realm of being. Religion introduces a distinction between a finite and an infinite realm, a distinction that is beyond the power of the mythic symbol. For mythical consciousness, symbol and symbolized occupy a single plane of reality. In religious consciousness the sensuous and the spiritual divide, but they remain in this division as continuously pointing to each other in a relationship of analogy.

In An Essay on Man Cassirer approaches the relationship between myth and religion less in terms of the epistemology of the symbol and more in sociocultural and moral terms: "In the development of human culture we cannot fix a point where myth ends or religion begins. In the whole course of its history religion remains indissolubly connected and penetrated with mythical elements" (p. 87). Cassirer says that myth and religion originate in the "feeling of the indestructible unity of life" and in the fear of death as a break in this unity. In his phenomenology of the third volume of Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, Cassirer connects myth with the Ausdrucksfunktion of consciousness, with the primordial phenomenon of "expression." Religion never loses its roots as an expression of the unity of life and the fear of death.

Religion also has roots in the "sympathy of the Whole" that underlies magical practices in primitive societies. But religion arises, Cassirer says in An Essay on Man, when the totem and taboo system of society based on magical practices begins to break down. In the taboo system the individual has no responsibility for his own actions. Religion gives scope to a new feeling, that of individuality. Cassirer regards the prophetic books of the Old Testament as an example of the rise of the new ideal of individual moral responsibility that marks the appearance of religious consciousness out of the taboo system. In religion there develops this first sense of the moral self.


Works by Cassirer

There are two comprehensive bibliographies of Cassirer's writings: a topical arrangement can be found in Philosophy and History: Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer, edited by Raymond Klibansky and H. J. Paton (Oxford, 1936), pp. 338353, and a chronological listing appears in The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, edited by Paul A. Schilpp (Evanston, Ill., 1949), pp. 881910. Of particular interest to the study of Cassirer's conception of myth and religion are the following: Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 3 vols. (Berlin, 19231929), translated by Ralph Manheim as The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, 3 vols. (New Haven, 19531957), especially volume 2, Mythical Thought; Sprache und Mythos (Leipzig, 1925), translated by Suzanne K. Langer as Language and Myth (New York, 1946); Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften: Fünf Studien (Göteborg, 1942), translated by C. S. Howe as The Logic of the Humanities (New Haven, 1961); An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture (New Haven, 1944); and The Myth of the State (New Haven, 1946). Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 193545 (New Haven, 1949), edited by Donald Phillip Verene, is a volume of Cassirer's previously unpublished papers. It includes a description of the corpus of Cassirer's manuscripts housed at Yale University.

Works about Cassirer

For bibliographies of critical work on Cassirer, see "Ernst Cassirer: A Bibliography," Bulletin of Bibliography 24 (1964): 103106, and "Ernst Cassirer: Critical Work 19641970," Bulletin of Bibliography 29 (1972): 2122, 24, both compiled by Donald Phillip Verene, and "Bibliographie des textes sur Ernst Cassirer," Revue internationale de philosophie 28 (1974): 492510, compiled by Robert Nadeau. These bibliographies list critical works on Cassirer in all languages. The main source for critical views on Cassirer's thought remains The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, edited by Paul A. Schilpp (Evanston, Ill., 1949). The essays in this volume cover all aspects of Cassirer's thought, but most are expository. Other book-length works are Carl H. Hamburg's Symbol and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (The Hague, 1956); Seymour W. Itzkoff's Ernst Cassirer: Scientific Knowledge and the Concept of Man (Notre Dame, Ind., 1971) and Ernst Cassirer: Philosopher of Culture (Boston, 1977); and David R. Lipton's Ernst Cassirer: The Dilemma of a Liberal Intellectual in Germany, 19141933 (Toronto, 1978). There are two biographies of Cassirer in essay form, one by Dimitry Gawronsky in The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, the other by Cassirer's wife, Toni Cassirer, Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer (1950; reprint, Hildesheim, 1981).

New Sources

Bayer, Thora Ilin. Cassirer's Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms: A Philosophical Commentary. New Haven, Conn., 2001.

Friedman, Michael. A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Chicago, 2000.

Graeser, Andreas. Ernst Cassirer. Munich, 1994.

Itzkoff, Seymour W. Ernst Cassirer: Scientific Knowledge and the Concept of Man. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, Ind., 1997.

Krois, John Michael. Cassirer, Symbolic Forms and History. New Haven, Conn., 1987.

Lofts, Steve G. Ernst Cassirer: A "Repetition" of Modernity. Albany, N.Y., 2000.

Strenski, Ivan. Four Theories of Myth in 20th Century History: Cassirer, Eliade, Lévi-Strauss and Malinowski. Iowa City, Iowa, 1987.

Sundaram, K. Cassirer's Conception of Causality. New York, 1987.

Wisner, David A. "Ernst Cassirer, Historian of the Will." Journal of the History of Ideas 58 (1997): 145161.

Donald Phillip Verene (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Cassirer, Ernst Alfred

views updated May 11 2018

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

Cassirer, Ernst

views updated May 23 2018

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.

Cassirer, Ernst

views updated May 17 2018


Neo-Kantian philosopher; b. Breslau, Poland, July 28, 1874; d. New York, April 13, 1945. At the age of 18 Cassirer entered the University of Berlin and in 1894 began studying I. kant under Georg Simmel (18581918). In 1896, now at the University of Marburg, he worked directly with Hermann Cohen (18421918), the guiding force of the neo-Kantian movement. Cassirer married in 1901 and established himself in Munich; later he moved to Berlin, where he became a Privatdocent. He accepted a full professorship in 1917 at the newly founded University of Hamburg, where he later became rector. By this time he had broken from Cohen's interpretation of Kant and had received the inspiration for his master work on symbolic forms. In 1933 he lectured at Oxford, and in 1935 he removed his family to Göteborg, Sweden. Cassirer went to Yale University as a visiting professor in 1941. In 1944 he left New Haven for Columbia University.

The philosophy of Ernst Cassirer has been characterized as idealistic naturalism, a characterization that perhaps accents best the line of advance Cassirer made beyond neo-Kantianism. His major work, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (tr. R. Manheim, 3 v., New Haven 195357), attempts to locate the exact place of mind in the framework of nature. Here he uses culture as the locus of mind in nature. The symbolic function is given as the ground of the possibility of a world. The sign relation in its office of organ of reality brings about, rather than indicates, the object. In this Cassirer's true debt to Kant can be seen. Somewhat in the manner that Kant assumed synthetic a priori judgments, Cassirer assumes the function of the symbolic relation, and proceeds to concern himself with the possibility of this alone. Cassirer felt that Kant's transcendental critique had not gone far enough. Its limitations could be found in the consideration of the theoretical sciences alone: the objectivity of Euclidian geometry and Newtonian physics had been reached, but not objectivity as such. For this a broader interpretation of knowledge was needed to include the intuition and expression of language, myth, religion, and art. From Kant's critique of reason the transition had to be made to a critique of culture.

Cassirer distinguishes three modal forms of the symbol function: the expressional, the intuitional, and the conceptual. The expressional function stems from emotive or affective experience and is found in such expressions of culture as art and myth. In this perspective there is a certain mingling of the sign and the signified. The intuitional function is on the level of volitional and teleological concerns. On this level there is a greater systemization of the sensuous, even though the data may be expressed in commonsense language. The final form is the conceptual function. Here theoretical interests have full play and the expression is that of science, the highest development of relational thinking. It may be questioned whether the formulation of the three modalities of symbolic representation is completely exhaustive of the varieties of experience. Cassirer offers no justification of these, merely presenting them as the actual situation of knowledge forms. Nor does he argue for the symbolic form concept; he cites empirical data from the evidence of the Kulturwissenschaften alone. The question of what reality is apart from the symbolic forms is considered irrelevant by Cassirerthere is no encountering of a world except in the mythical, artistic, perceptual, or scientific forms. These are the contexts of the object that is experienced and known. Space, time, cause, number, etc., constitute the objectivity of these symbol relations.

Among Cassirer's major works is his history of epistemology, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, 3 v. (Berlin 1906, 1907, 1920; Eng. The Problem of Knowledge, tr. W. H. Woglom and C. W. Hendel, New Haven 1950). Cassirer presented the directing lines of his philosophy of science in his early work (1910), Substance and Function (tr. W.C. Swabey and M. C. Swabey, Chicago 1923). Later works include The Platonic Renaissance in England (tr.J. P. Pettegrove, Austin, Texas 1953); The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (tr. J. P. Pettegrove and F. C. A. Koelln, Princeton 1951); an analysis of the most complicated problems of quantum theory in physics and knowledge, Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics (tr.O. T. Benfey, New Haven 1956); and Essay on Man (New Haven 1944) and Myth of the State (New Haven 1946).

See Also: neo-kantianism.

Bibliography: p. a. schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (Evanston, Ill. 1949). c. h. hamburg, Symbol and Reality (The Hague 1956). r. allers, "The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer," The New Scholasticism 25 (1951) 184192. j. m. krois, Cassirer, Symbolic Forms, and History (New Haven 1987). s. g. lofts, Ernst Cassirer: A 'Repetition' of Modernity (Albany 2000).

[m. j. m. regan]

Cassirer, Ernst

views updated May 08 2018


CASSIRER, ERNST (1874–1945), philosopher. Son of a well-to-do merchant from Breslau, Cassirer received his doctorate at the University of Marburg as a student of Hermann *Cohen with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. In 1906 he started his teaching career at the University of Berlin and received a full professorship at the newly founded University of Hamburg in 1919, of which he was rector from 1929 to 1930. In 1933 he went to Oxford, England, where he taught from 1933 to 1935, then to the University of Goteborg, Sweden, until 1941, and finally he left for America. He lectured first at Yale University (1941–44), and later at Columbia University until his death. Cassirers first major work was Leibniz' System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen (1902), supplemented by a valuable edition of Leibniz' selected works (1904–1915). In 1906–07 he published the first two volumes of Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, one of the most learned historical studies of the problem of knowledge, a work which ultimately traced that problem from Nicolaus of Cusa to the end of the 19th century (vol. 3, 1920; vol. 4 published in an English translation from manuscript as The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science, and History since Hegel (1950; published in Germany, 1957). In his later publications, Cassirer founded his own theory of the history of ideas. The goal of his new genetic method was what he called "unity" ("Einheit"). The genetic method involved regarding each work as the response to a situation and each response as a logical sequence to a preceding one. He wrote a number of important studies working with the genetic method. These are Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance (1927), Das Problem Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1932), Die platonische Renaissance in England und die Schule von Cambridge (1932), Die Philosophie der Aufklaerung (1932), Descartes (1939), and The Myth of the State (1946).

Cassirer's starting point was and remained the neo-Kantianism of Hermann Cohen. But, as Cohen admitted, he soon transformed the general philosophical position held by the Marburg School. In his Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (1910), he showed why in mathematics, physics, and chemistry the traditional concept of "substance" had to be replaced by the concept of "function". Instead of seeking in vain to present a faithful copy of given existing things, the critical exploration of nature should seek merely to unveil precise functional relations between given phenomena on the basis of verifiable scientific hypotheses. In his chief work, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (3 vols., 1923–29) and in his Essay on Man (1944) Cassirer develops, on the basis of an overwhelmingly rich store of detailed material, the thesis that language, mythology, and science do not present different realms of real objects but rather vitally different symbolic expressions for understanding the world in which man lives, thinks, and feels. The center of the Philosophie der symbolischen Formen was a new "critique of culture" in place of the classical enlightenment "critique of reason." He also wrote Freiheit und Form (1916), Kants Leben und Lehre (1918), Idee und Gestalt (1921), Zur EinsteinschenRelativitätstheorie (1921), and Determinismus und Interdeterminismus in der modernen Physik (1936). From 1919 until its closure in 1942 by the Nazis Cassirer was a member of the board of trustees of the Lehranstalt fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums and a member of the academic board of the *Akademie fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums.


P.A. Schilpp (ed.), Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (1949). add. bibliography: J.M. Krois, Cassirer. Symbolic Forms and History (1987); O. Schwemmer, Ernst Cassirer. Ein Philosoph der europäischen Moderne (1997); M. Friedman, A Parting of the Ways. Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (2000); M. Ferrari, Ernst Cassirer. Von der Marburger Schule zur Kulturphilosophie (2003); T. Meyer, Ernst Cassirer. Eine Biographie (2005).

[David Baumgardt /

Thomas Meyer (2nd ed.)]

Ernst Cassirer

views updated May 29 2018

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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