__Review of Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man
AnthonyFlood.com, May 13, 2008Review of Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man: Yale University Press, 1944. From The Philosophical Review, Vol. 54, No. 5, September 1945, 509-510.This is the last book Professor Cassirer wrote. One cannot read it without feeling afresh how deep a loss the philosophic community sustained in his recent death. He was a mind of extraordinary range, equally at home, to all appearances, in the ancient literatures and in modern science, in history and in mathematics. He wrote extensively in both German and English. He had taught at Berlin, Hamburg (where he was rector of the university), Gothenburg, Oxford, Yale, and Columbia. Yet, as those who knew him will recall, he carried his learning lightly, and there was little suggestion about him of the Teutonic scholar; what impressed one rather was a singular simplicity, frankness and charm. Technically speaking, he had been for many years and in various countries a refugee. But no one thought of him as such. His cosmopolitanism, his gracious-ness, and his rare gift for language made him quickly at home in any land.
This book is full of evidences of Cassirer’s breadth of learning. It is in a sense a summary of his general philosophy. Some twenty years ago he published a massive work in three volumes on The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which has never been translated. Thinking it not very likely that it ever would be, he wrote this book to present to English readers, with new illustrations and reflections, the main drift of the earlier argument. The central contention is that if we would understand the nature of man, we must study, not his supposed metaphysical essence, but his functions or activities, what he does. And the most distinctive thing about his activities is that they are symbolic. He does not, like the animal, live in the immediate; he can look before and after; he can set up remote ends, ideal satisfactions, and pursue them persistently and variously. To know what he is, therefore, one must inspect these symbolic activities closely, bring to light their ends, and if possible discover some single end that gives direction to them all and brings them into harmony. In the first part of his book Cassirer lays this down as his avowed purpose.
But then the plot thickens. These symbolic activities embrace all the more important activities of man, and if they are to be duly scrutinized, one must offer something of a phenomenology and philosophy of myth, religion, language, art, literature, history, and science. On this tremendous task Cassirer launches bravely out. It would be impossible for so rich a mind to range over so vast a region without saying much that is illuminating, and this he does. If one wants to know what a ripe intelligence thinks about the various theories of the origin of language, or Frazer’s theory of magic, or the play theory of art, or Croce’s or Nietzsche’s or Lamprecht’s or Ranke’s theory of history, or the religious significance of taboo, or the place of Pythagoreanism in the development of science, one will find the answers here, together with countless other carefully weighed conclusions and arresting obiter dicta. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Ernst Cassirer On Fascism and National Socialism
George H. Smith
Libertarianism, Jan. 29, 2016
The philosopher and historian Ernst Cassirer was born in 1874 into a family of Polish Jews. After studying at various German universities, he went on to write numerous important works on science, philosophy, and history, including his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (in three volumes), and The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, which remains one of the best overviews of Enlightenment thought ever written. After being introduced to the ideas of Immanuel Kant by the brilliant sociologist Georg Simmel, Cassirer went on to become a defender of the neo‐Kantianism of the “Marburg School.” (For an explanation of the important differences between the Marburg School and Kant’s ideas, such as the repudiation of Kant’s unknowable “thing‐in‐itself,” see Chapter Two of Edward Skidelsky, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture Princeton University Press, 2008).
When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Cassirer vacated his teaching position at the University of Hamburg and moved to Sweden. Later, fearing that Jews would be unsafe in that country, he moved to England and taught at Oxford for two years. Then, beginning in 1941, Cassirer taught at Yale and, lastly, at Columbia University (NYC) until his death in 1945.
Cassirer was a classical liberal in the German tradition of Kant, Goethe, and Wilhelm von Humboldt. (See my essay The Culture of Liberty: Wilhelm von Humboldt.) In contrast to English liberalism and its stress on economic freedom and politics, German liberals focused more on the cultural aspects and benefits of a free society. Individuality, moral autonomy, and cultural diversity were dominant and recurring themes in German liberalism.
Until his last work, The Myth of the State, Cassirer wrote very little on political subjects. He began writing this book in 1944, after being commissioned by Fortune Magazine to write an article on National Socialism, or Nazism. Cassirer expanded this article into a book, finishing it in 1945, just days before his death in April of that year. As Edward Skidelsky (cited above, p. 223) said of The Myth of the State: The origins of Nazism “are sought not in the barracks and beer cellars of Munich and Vienna, but in the works of Machiavelli, Hegel, Carlyle, and Arthur de Gobineau.”
I shall not discuss the intellectual antecedents of National Socialism until my next essay. Here I shall focus on Cassirer’s application of his theory of mythological thinking to modern totalitarianism. Cassirer had a keen interest in the nature and social role of myths; indeed, the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is titled Mythical Thought. I shall quote liberally from the final chapter of The Myth of the State (“The Technique of the Modern Political Myths)” in this summary of Cassirer’s views. As we shall see, Cassirer’s ideas apply not only to fascism or to Nazism, but more broadly to totalitarian governments in general. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
The Humanism of Ernst Cassirer
The Hudson Review, Mar. 2013
If you find contemporary philosophy unappealing, this biography of Ernst Cassirer may bring you back to the discipline you once thought you might love when you read Plato’s Phaedo for the first time. Many college students and much of the reading public are apparently put off by the cold detachment of Anglo-American logical positivism and its projects, which always begin with a working knowledge of predicate logic. The aim of Rudolf Carnap, Moritz Schlick, and Otto Neurath was to develop a purified formal language that would codify all (empirical) knowledge in a single scientific theory, and then to purge philosophy of metaphysics and metaphor. Predicate logic is a late-nineteenth-century algebraization of traditional logic, invented by Gottlob Frege and improved by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead before and after 1900. It encompasses not only forms of Aristotle’s syllogistic, but also the propositional logic of the Stoics, and the nascent discipline of set theory. The logical positivists renovated the program of Comtean positivism by deploying the powerful and expressive new logic to “rationally reconstruct” everything from physics to sociology.
The other philosophical pole is equally unattractive. It stems from Lebensphilosophie in Germany and France, which also flourished before and after 1900 in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Oswald Spengler, and later Martin Heidegger. These thinkers mocked the pretension of reason (as well as the abstract rules of liberal democracy), which shuts us off from the abundance of life and reduces the powerful, cruel aristocrats of the human spirit to the paltry level of the bourgeois and quotidian. The influence of this philosophy ran deep in the twentieth century, because it attracted thinkers put off by logical positivism; but its irrationalism profoundly damaged the commitment of philosophy to liberalism and humanism. So, shall we reduce reason to logic, foreswear history and metaphysics, and reduce ethics to epistemology? Or shall we awaken Man to his own nothingness, and await the next disclosure of Being or the siren call of the transient moment? Neither option is my idea of a good time, and I’m a professor of philosophy. In sum, contemporary Western philosophy seems to have abandoned a politically and philosophically essential middle ground. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Cassiers after Hitler – The Scattered Generations
The Cassirers, whilst of Jewish lineage were not religious. As Werner Falk said:
“They were not Jews who tried to conceal that they were Jews. But there were members of the family people who got baptized, people who became outspoken German nationalists – all that sort of thing. The common attitude in the family was illustrated by that of Isidor. You could never see him near a Synagogue. He thought the Synagogue was something for women. My grandmother – his wife – could go there but not him.”
As with many other Jews of their time the Cassirers also identified as patriotic Germans. This was not just a self-perception. Elsewhere on this site is displayed a telegram to Lydia Cassirer from Field Marshal Von Hindenburg thanking her for her contribution to Germany’s First World War effort. Isidor’s grandson, Ernest Cassirer writes:
My grandmother’s commendations were for having opened up the Cassirer villa for use by German soldiers in need of rehabilitational treatment after war related amputations. I have many newspaper articles with pictures of this activity. Also pictures of my grandmother with the Kaiser.
In retrospect, perhaps the greatest irony was the Certificate dated 10 May 1935 attesting to the presentation of the Cross of Honour to Isidor Cassirer’s son, Dr. Rudolph Cassirer, in the name of Führer and Reichs Chancellor, Adolph Hitler.
At the time this represented the still constrained power of Hitler, which remained subject to the decree by Reichs President, von Hindenburg, that the award be made to all veterans of active service in the German army. Hitler complied and it was sent to all veterans – Jew and Gentile alike. That did not inhibit Hitler from escalating the systematic murder of all Jews in the following years.
Despite their patriotic self-perception the Cassirer Breslau generation found that they were Jewish enough to become targets of anti-Semitism. Werner Falk talked of his experiences as an older school child:
And then we went back to Berlin and there was the 1919 revolution and all the anxiety connected with that. I mean we had shooting in the street and went to school past a big hotel which had been turned into a fortress. So it wasn’t a very peaceful early days.
And then one consequence of this was that I never managed to get into the right school. I mean, what do I mean by the right school? There were two gymnasia where young people of our class and religion would go. They were academically famous and if you had been to any of them you would have been with your likes. But I had to go because I couldn’t get into these – it was all too late – I had to go to school which was the opposite of this. It was in a very reactionary Berlin district where there were no Jews but only reactionaries. It was stupid. The teachers were reactionaries and anti-Semites and the students, these boys, also. I mean we got the full brunt of anti-Semitism there and I remember I was a big strong 12 year old [in 1918] and I remember in the lunch break the few Jewish guys that were there in that school would line up behind me in a corner of the courtyard and the college students would attack us and we would defend ourselves. It wasn’t pleasant at all. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
FOR FURTHER REFERENCE:
An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture: Ernst Cassirer, NY: Doubleday Books, 1944— The first impulse for the writing of this book came from my British and American friends who repeatedly and urgently asked me to publish an English translation of my Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.
Ernst Cassirer: YouTube, Frogcast, Jan. 7, 2018— After Cohen’s death, Cassirer developed a theory of symbolism and used it to expand phenomenology of knowledge into a more general philosophy of culture. Cassirer was one of the leading 20th century advocates of philosophical idealism.
John David Ebert on Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Myth 1/9: YouTube, Sep 10, 2019
Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945): The Information Philosopher — Ernst Cassirer was a neo-Kantian philosopher who had a great influence on the philosophical implications of quantum physics, by personal contacts with the major quantum physicists, and through his 1936 book Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics.
This week’s French-language briefing is titled Communiqué: Israël tend la main au peuple libanais mais reste sur un pied de guerre face au Hezbollah