Ernst Cassirer – a modern humanist

Fredagen den 1 november gav Esther Oluffa Pedersen, en av Danmarks ledande Cassirer-kännare, 2019 års föreläsning till Ernst Cassirers minne under rubriken ”Ernst Cassirer – a modern humanist”. Vi har glädjen att kunna återge hennes anförande här i bearbetad form.

Ernst Cassirer – a modern humanist

It is an honour to have the opportunity to give the annual Ernst Cassirer Lecture here in Göteborg, where Cassirer spend most of his exile years. In the beautiful Torgny Lecture Hall, it is almost possible to hear the echoes from lectures Cassirer gave here in the 1930’s and until 1941, when he – with a Swedish passport – travelled on to the US on the last civilian boat over the Atlantic during wartime. To speak in Gothenburg in commemoration of Cassirer and his philosophical oeuvre is special for me personally since, as a young Ph.D. student, I attended the first conference devoted to Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy organised by the newly founded Swedish Ernst Cassirer Society in May 2004. Having written my Ph.D. thesis on his philosophy of myth, Cassirer and his manner of philosophising has become formative for my philosophical outlook in as an undercurrent that influences my approach to various philosophical themes and problems. [1] Thus, I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to say something about Ernst Cassirer as humanist.

There is always a lot to learn from engaging with Cassirer’s philosophy, and even though I do not completely agree with the manner of Cassirer’s resolute insistence on furthering the liberating movements of human kind’s philosophical endeavour, I agree with his contention that as philosophers we ought to adhere to humanist ideals and let these be the guiding thread of our work. The question, however, is how to interpret the ideal of humanism – and exactly this is the subject matter of my discussions with Cassirer here. Therefore, let me proceed to sketch an outline for the ensuing interpretation of Cassirer as a modern humanist.

I shall start by saying something about the connection between what I call three broad types of writing in the œuvre of Cassirer. These I define as writings on the history of philosophy and the history of ideas, writings on the theory and history of science, and finally the systematic philosophical writings.

From the discussion of the interconnection between Cassirer’s different philosophical endeavours, I will explain more detailed why I think Cassirer is a modern humanist. This is done in two steps – first I look into the two studies in the history of philosophy Freiheit und Form from 1916 and Individuum und Kosmos from 1927. I discuss the meaning of the understanding of progress which Cassirer adheres to in these studies. The next step involves analysing Cassirer’s reading of Immanuel Kant and his claim of a primacy of the practical.

The ensuing section is devoted to Cassirer’s early philosophical discussions in Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff from 1910. I argue that Cassirer’s conception of the function as an alternative to the traditional Aristotelian logic of substances is an important foundation for what I describe as his process philosophy and relational epistemology. The endeavour to establish and fully flesh out a process philosophy as the basis for a philosophy of culture I see as one of Cassirer’s most enduring contributions to modern philosophy and from its first formulation in Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff it endures and evolves throughout his philosophical undertakings.

The closing section deals with Cassirer’s effort to initiate a philosophy of culture as a critique of culture that can match and expand the scope of Kant’s critique of reason. From this point of departure I discuss whether Cassirer’s ideal of progress suffered a blow in his last book, The Myth of the State (published posthumously in 1945). Thus, the debated question whether Cassirer’s last book opened for a more pessimistic – but also more realistic – worldview and therefore invites us to reread his earlier philosophical works from the perspective of this more realistic view will be analysed. This discussion contains my concluding estimation of Cassirer as a modern humanist.

The Different Types of Philosophical Writings

Cassirer’s complete œuvre as it is published in the Felix Meiner Hamburg Edition consists of 26 volumes. In what follows, I want to emphasise how Cassirer’s philosophy from the outset spanned widely. A brief overview of Cassirer’s first four books gives ample evidence as within the three genres of philosophical writing outlined above.

Cassirer’s first publication from 1901 was a combination of his doctoral thesis and Habilitationsschrift as the doctoral work on Descartes made up a systematic and historical introduction to the analysis of Leibniz. Cassirer focused especially on the two philosophers’ endeavours to establish a mathematisation of science. Leibniz’ philosophy was a lifelong interest and source of inspiration for Cassirer. With his first book on Descartes and Leibniz, Cassirer clearly placed himself in the tradition of idealistic philosophy which he adhered to throughout the carrier. The concept of a mathesis universalis invented by Descartes and further developed by Leibniz was pivotal in Cassirer’s theory of concepts as I point out later.

The next book published by Cassirer was the first volume of Das Erkenntnisproblem, ”The Problem of Knowledge in Philosophy and Science in Modern Age”. It was published in 1906 and just a year later in 1907 the second volume came out. Just as Cassirer nurtured an enduring interest in the philosophy of Leibniz, he also continued to philosophise over the role, importance and developments of modern science throughout his career. The persistent occupation with the philosophy of science shows in the publication history of the four volumes of Das Erkenntnisproblem. The third volume discussing the developments of philosophy of science after Kant was published as late as 1920. The fourth and last volume dealt with contemporary science and expanded the scope of sciences to biology. In his survey of the contemporary sciences and the role of philosophy, Cassirer reached the conclusion that the time of all-pervasive philosophical constructive compositions was over. The manuscript to the fourth volume was written in exile here in Göteborg but published posthumously in 1950 in the United States in an English translation. This last volume is interesting as it maintains the fall of philosophy as the natural interpreter of science and instead claims that each singular science now intends to judge its own merits. Moreover, the publication history draws attention as Cassirer left the finished manuscript without a foreword in Sweden when leaving for the US in 1941. Conceivably, Cassirer was not completely persuaded that his analysis had captured the state of contemporary science. It is also possible that Cassirer did not publish the book himself because he was disconcerted with the conclusion he had reached and questioned what would be the right inferences. If this is the case it might point to a similar development in Cassirer’s philosophy of science as in his conception of the philosophy of myth in 1945. Regardless how we interpret the publication history of the last volume, the series of books on Das Erkenntnisproblem display his enduring interest in the theory and history of science.

The fourth major book of the young Cassirer is Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff from 1910. This is a book on systematic philosophy with the aim to argue against all types of the Aristotelian logic of substance and replace these – in the view of Cassirer – false ontological assumptions with a new functional logic based on the modern mathematics that developed from Descartes and Leibniz’ ideas of a mathesis universalis. I shall return to Cassirer’s argumentation in Substance and Function but for now it suffices to underline that with Cassirer’s four first books, written within nine years, the impressive range of his philosophical endeavour has also been outlined.

Cassirer writes on the history of philosophy throughout the whole career, just as he writes on the theory and history of science and develops different projects of systematic philosophy. Furthermore, all Cassirer’s books – regardless whether they belong to the general class of history of philosophy, theory of science or systematic philosophy – are permeated by Cassirer’s interest in the history of philosophy and science as well as his own principle take on philosophy. There is a remarkable consistency and coherence in all of Cassirer’s writings. And while I want to underline that Cassirer contributed with influential works within all these genres, I do not want to argue that he pays much heed to distinguishing between them. Rather, it is as though Cassirer’s way of thinking philosophy permanently bases itself on the history of philosophy just as it always was informed by developments within the sciences. There are no neat demarcations between Cassirer the historian of philosophy, Cassirer the theoretician of science or Cassirer the systematic philosopher. Cassirer’s way of thinking systematic philosophy permanently based itself on the history of philosophy, just as it always was informed by developments within the sciences. In order to demonstrate how deeply rooted in the humanist tradition all Cassirer’s philosophy was, let me turn to two examples of studies in the history of philosophy.

The Olympian Historian of Philosophy

Cassirer’s works of the history of philosophy earned him the epithet ”the Olympian” from his contemporaries. [2] He is viewed as a sagacious wise man who communicates the wisdom of times past to his contemporaries. Cassirer’s works on the history of philosophy synthesise the discussed themes in a way that can make readers speculate whether he has ordered the material so as to give the answers that he beforehand wanted. In this sense, Cassirer may seem rather antiquated and like a whig historian.

Against such an adverse judgement, I would like to underscore the importance of the social and political situation in which Cassirer wrote and published his works on the history of philosophy. Once we take this broader context into consideration what looks like old fashioned whig history turns out to be indirect commentaries to the voices that are opposed to Cassirer’s liberalism.

In 1916 – in the middle of the world war – Cassirer published Freiheit und Form which is a reading of the German tradition of philosophers and artist ranging from Leibniz over Kant to Goethe Schiller and Humboldt. [3] The main argument is that freedom and form are interconnected and the German tradition shows this in manifold ways that, according to Cassirer and his reading of Goethe, can be used ”productively” not in order to return to a lost paradise but as ”a symbol of the existing and lasting” (387). However, it is not only a task for ”a single nation nor a single epoch” (387) to grasp the intercorrelation between freedom and form in the development of the German history of ideas as a productive reflection upon what is ”existing and continuing” (388). Accordingly, the rich history of ideas flowing from German intellectual history ought not be comprehended as a nationalistic inheritance of the German people. Cassirer underlined how the individual thinkers and artists of the German tradition were acutely aware that any limitation to a nationalistic perspective would be contra-productive to realising the aspirations of that same tradition.

Showcasing the different takes on freedom and form, Cassirer made evident that there is no substantial or permanent form into which freedom can be cast in order to be sustained. Rather, a harmonious relation between freedom and form is only attainable by considering how ”every positive determination contains within itself, in its real historical development, at the same time something negative; every solution contains in itself equally a new binding commitment” (392). And only when the goals of realizing freedom in one form are compared and balanced to the realization of freedom in other forms can the contours of the modern Geisteskultur be discerned. Furthermore, Cassirer, in good compliance with his Neo-Kantian outlook, accentuated that the different forms of freedom that can be developed in a societal setting must be estimated as aspirations to autonomy. Cassirer underlined that, in order to evaluate whether one form of freedom was overall valuable for promoting freedom, one would have to ask whether it furthers our overall ability to treat all human beings as ends in themselves. Thus, the different forms of freedom need to be balanced against each other, and only if they in an integrated and general form expand autonomy should each form of freedom be endorsed.

This meta-reflective assessment of the development of different forms of freedom furthermore entailed that Cassirer argued for the universal scope of the German Geistesgeschichte. The processes of self-liberation which he followed in the development of the German history of ideas were cultivated in a national context, but their scope went far beyond the nation state. The ideal of developing a culture with the aspiration to make room for a harmonious relation between freedom and form far surpasses any nationalistic conditions and limitations.

Writing in the time of German nationalistic upheaval and an ongoing inter-European war, Cassirer emphasised that the German history of ideas showed how philosophers as Hegel and Fichte fought to interpret the modern state as a nation state that enabled individual freedom. Both developed their philosophical thinking about the state by drawing on the ”concrete political-historical powers of life [Lebensmächte]” (385) and thus rung with the question of how to balance the urge for a stabile state form and the freedom of its members. Trying to develop a political philosophy which could balance constraints on freedom within a concrete state form, Cassirer underlined that Fichte to a much higher degree than Hegel was aware of the negative component, the binding of freedom, which necessarily was contained in the development of the modern state. This led Cassirer to conclude that Fichte maintained that the thought of freedom (Freitheitsgedanke) must be allowed its independence in any political philosophy. According to Fichte, the thought of freedom ”preserves its particular and independent gist which enables it continuously to articulate criticism at the current form of state. Since every objectivity, which thought and the ethical will gives itself, must […] be understood as one that could be superseded by a yet higher thought and ethical will” (385). In Cassirer’s interpretation, the political philosophy of Fichte thus insisted on critique as a requisite for political philosophy and Fichte thereby also emphasised the provisional character of all conceptions and theories of the state.

Cassirer’s discussion of the state closes the final chapter of Freiheit and Form and Cassirer concluded the discussion by pointing out that the pressing contemporary question to concentrate on answering was: ”Whether the German thought can preserve its power in order to deal with the completely new political-material task which awaits the it without being disloyal to the basic principles that make up the foundation of the German Geisteskultur” (386). It could hardly be stated more obviously that Cassirer thought of his own philosophical interpretation of the constellations and developments of thoughts on freedom and form in the German history of ideas as an intervention in the contemporary political situation. Cassirer did not put forth specific political recommendations, nor did he develop a systematic philosophy of freedom to answer the question of how to balance freedom and form in political-material situation of his days. Instead, he made it possible for his contemporaries to mirror their aspirations for the political future in the developments of the German history of ideas, stressing how Fichte – who is commonly known for his very nationalistic speeches to the German Nation in 1808 – underscored that the thought of freedom should always be allowed to criticise the current developments of the state. [4] In this sense, he vehemently urged the German reading public to reflect upon the question whether the war and the rise of nationalism in German politics was the appropriate manner to productively revitalise and rejuvenate the proud tradition of German culture.

I should like to argue that Cassirer’s indirect intervention in the contemporary political situation is a sign of his adherence to humanism as the classical tradition of philosophical reflection, historical and philological studies of the human past in order to interpret and understand the present. This kind of humanism does not claim to have ready answers to solve pressing societal or political problems but it offers the space and possibility to reflect upon the urgencies of today in the mirror of the past. Thus, it produces the tools of thought necessary to look at the present from a distance, suggesting more possible routes to take. In this sense, the historical-political reflection advances possibilities for self-liberation of the individual and argumentative tools for a liberal development of the state.

Individuum und Kosmos

Cassirer’s next large book on the history of philosophy, Individuum und Kosmos, can be said to be a similar but less palpable intervention. [5] All the while Cassirer was working on his magnum opus, the philosophy of symbolic forms, he found time to compose a large study of renaissance philosophy. It is dedicated to Aby Warburg and the working collective at the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg in Hamburg. Warburg decided to build a domicile for the library with its growing collection of books in the early 1920’s. In May 1926, the library moved in on Heilwigstrasse 116 in Hamburg. In 1933, four years after the death of Aby Warburg, the library fled to London. In 1936, in a lecture given at the Warburg Institute in London, Cassirer emphasised the importance of the library for the developments of his own thoughts in the 1920’s. Cassirer also underlined Warburg’s vision for the library and its rare collection of books: ”When Warburg ten years ago built his new house that was destined to receive his library, he wrote on the door of his new house a single word: the word MNEMOSYNE. By this he has expressed his thought in a suggestive and lapidary way. Mnemosyne – ’reminiscence’ – is the motto of his work and the maxim adopted by him in the whole of his historical research. He did not only mean to create a collection of books, he aspired to create a recollection of living forms […]” [6] Cassirer’s own studies in the history of philosophy and ideas can be seen as such examples of reminiscence.

The book, Individuum und Kosmos, takes off with an analysis of Nicolaus Cusanus, the German Renaissance philosopher, who studied in Padua in the 1420’s, while the ensuing three chapters are devoted to Italian Renaissance philosophy. Cassirer viewed Individuum und Kosmos as a counterpart to the famous Renaissance study of Jacob Burckhardt from 1860. [7] Just as Burckhardt aimed to capture the spirit of art and politics in the Italian Renaissance, Cassirer strove to present the spirit of Renaissance philosophy. His starting point was in full accordance with Burckhardt the problem of individuality as the main concern of the renaissance. This could be boiled down to a gradual liberation from two source, namely orthodox Christianity on the one hand and astrology and magic on the other. Both were powers that confined the human being. But Cassirer lamented that ”Burckhardt only depicted one side of this great process of liberation, in which the modern human being matures to a consciousness of itself” (41). In opposition to Burckhardt, Cassirer wanted to point out how this process of liberation was not always in conflict with the religious thinking of the Middle Ages but, as in the case of Nicolas Cusanus, could also be a continuation thereof. Additionally, Cassirer emphasised that Renaissance philosophy just as much as Renaissance art and politics helped pave the way for modernity.

According to Cassirer, the first and important liberating movement within the Renaissance in general and Renaissance philosophy especially was created by speculative philosophy and humanistic philology. Only subsequently did natural philosophy continue on the path laid out. Cassirer underlined that ”it is not foremost empirical-natural scientific reasons, it is not the new methods of observation and mathematical calculus, that defeated the astrological world view. The decisive blow had been given before these methods were developed to their full strength. It was not the new vision of nature but rather the new vision of the human being’s self-worth that made up the true motif of liberation” (138). The apex of the idea of human self-worth Cassirer found in the famous speech of Pico della Mirandola, De hominis dignitate (”On the Dignity of Man”) from 1486. [8]

Cassirer’s interpretation is not surprising, even though it is worth to notice that he paid tribute to the humanistic sciences as predecessors to natural philosophy and the developments of the natural sciences. What is really remarkable is Cassirer’s insistence on the important influence of Nicolaus Cusanus in a book devoted to the philosophy of the Italian Renaissance. According to Cassirer, Cusanus’ book De docta ignorantia, written in 1440 in Kues, Germany, was a stepping stone for the development of the Italian Renaissance philosophy. Cassirer stressed that Cusanus’ philosophical method of learned ignorance gave the initiating blow to the scholastic world view. Building on Aristotelian cosmology, the Middle Ages had erected a hierarchic view of cosmos with the earth as center and the heavens as godly limit which could be approached by way of continuous approximations. Against such assumptions, Cusanus declared that finite et infiniti nulla proportio and thus insisted on the disproportionality between the finite and the infinite (11). According to Cusanus, it makes no sense to understand some finite things or finite beings as closer to God than others. All finite is equally close and equally distant from God. Consequently, there can be no mediation between the finite and the infinite. Cassirer noted that, with Cusanus’ claim of the disproportionality of the worldly compared to God, ”the opposition in value between the lower sublunar and the higher heavenly world is eliminated [in one strike]. […] The difference we should account for between various bodies within the world is not a difference of substance but rather it is dependent upon various relations of mixture of the overall identical […] basic elements” (27). Thus, we search in vain after a ”physical centre”. Only understood as a metaphysical principle can the concept of God make up a midpoint of the earth and the heavenly spheres. And just as much as God is the focus, ”God is also the infinite boundary of all that exists since God’s being contains all others in itself” (31).

The exclusion of all mediation between world and God led Cusanus – according to Cassirer – to search ”for generality and the most general in the particular, in the sensuous immediate” (32). This new focus on the particular as a representation of the universal entailed an immense upgrading of individuality. Thus, Cusanus prompts us to understand ”that it is absurd for us to even want to think of the absolute in itself apart from a characterisation from an individual point of view [Blickpunkt] – and on the other hand it also becomes evident that none of these points of view can claim superiority over the others, because it is rightly the concrete totality of points of view that may convey a true image of the whole” (33).

I think many of us hear Cassirer’s own systematic philosophy ring through his interpretation of Cusanus. Cassirer sees in Cusanus a co-combatant against Aristotelian logic and against substantial definitions of being. And Cassirer furthermore points to Cusanus as a German thinker who gave inspiration to the famous Italian Renaissance. As such, Cusanus is a bridge from the roots of German philosophy to the Italian apotheosis of the individual human being. This implies that the ideals of self-liberation and the dignity of the individual as an individual, which Pico della Mirandola so famously argued for in his speech in 1486, should not be viewed as foreign to the German roots of philosophy. As such, Cassirer’s insistence of starting a study on Italian Renaissance with a German thinker is an indirect but unmistakable argument for the interrelatedness of German and Italian thinking in the Renaissance.

Different and highly influential strains in German intellectual life of the 1920’s urged to separate German philosophy from liberal rationalistic European thinking in order to gain foothold in the chaotic existence. Instead of an open confrontation with the political myths such as Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes [9], the life philosophies of for example Max Scheler [10] and Martin Heidegger [11] or the dialectical theology of Karl Barth in his commentaries to Paulus’ letter to the Romans [12], Cassirer put forth an alternative description of the worth of liberation in Renaissance philosophy. Even though he read Spengler while writing Individuum und Kosmos, he did not write about the similarities he saw between Spengler’s manner of argumentation and astrology in the renaissance. [13] Instead, Cassirer underlined the intimate connection to German thinking by way of Cusanus. Cassirer strove to pave a path that would allow his readers to reflect on the intellectual and personal costs that were involved in giving up on liberalism. Indirectly, he seemed to say that to part with modern reason with its roots in Renaissance philosophy was to risk to fall back to a way of thinking reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

I agree with Gregory Moynahan’s assessment in Ernst Cassirer and the Critical Science of Germany. Moynahan writes:

Cassirer’s specific methodology of historical reconstruction is explicitly revisionist, and begins by establishing a unified knowledge-ideal of a certain period as a postulate. There can be no absolute proof that this ideal exists or that it is correctly discerned, but ”the more this postulate is realized in the development and soundings of particular phenomena, the more it has demonstrated its rights and its ’truth.’ In this regard, Cassirer’s definition of truth in history is the same as that of any other science, and follows the Leibnizian model: it is not based on a direct transcription of reality, but on the progressive internal narrowing of error and the discovery of continuities, measurable only within its own modes of presentation and, correlatively, its increasing range of explanatory ability. […] Cassirer’s approach to history […] attempts to describe new continuities and relations of historical forms that may depart substantially from earlier assumptions, while also suggesting new normative forms from which specific modes of knowledge, society and politics can develop. [14]

In the light of this analysis, we should reconsider what at first seems to be whig Olympian history writing and begin to understand Cassirer’s writings as deliberate interventions. In an attempt to create space for a reflective distance to urgent social and political challenges, Cassirer puts forward an alternative ideal of knowledge. Cassirer does not set out to eliminate the positions in his contemporary intellectual landscape he disagrees with. Rather, he urges – as an adherent to the tradition of classical humanist philosophy dating back to the Renaissance – each individual to think through different alternatives and mirror the contemporary in the historical in order to make up his or her own mind. And this then leads me to Cassirer’s discussion of Kant’s claim of the primacy of the practical.

Modern Humanism and the Primacy of the Practical

Cassirer argues in Freiheit und Form that Kant’s critical philosophy expressed the important problems of the intellectual life at Kant’s times. With the development of Kant’s critical philosophy, a ”general system of the consciousness of culture” (150) had been reached. This was so because Kant transformed German philosophy from its school concept into a proper and true world concept. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant introduced the notion of a world concept of philosophy as the key concept to understand the architecture of reason. [15] The world concept of philosophy contains everything ”which necessary interests everybody” (B868). Understanding ourselves as part of the world implies to view the human being as a Weltbürger, a cosmopolitan. In this sense, Kant differentiated between the school concept of philosophy and the world concept. The school concept entails a stock of knowledge compiled in an understandable manner in books which can be learned. Thus, if we adhere to a school concept of philosophy, we also maintain that all interesting knowledge can be accumulated and ordered in a way which makes it accessible to us through study. Against such a claim, Kant put forth the world concept of philosophy. It underlines that to conceive of the systematic unity of reason is the end purpose (Endzweck) of all philosophical endeavours. But this purpose is not ready attainable in any book of philosophy. Rather, it makes up the open directedness of all philosophising in the sense that all philosophy should be measured by its contribution to think about how to equip and change the world in order to make it a place in concordance with the cosmopolitan ideal of humanity.
According to Cassirer in Freiheit and Form, Kant’s critical philosophy succeeded in preparing the ”interconnection between speculation and life, between critical reflection and creative forming [Gestaltung]” (152) exactly because Kant put the practical ideal of the world concept of philosophy as the end purpose of his undertakings. This implied that there is no final version of the systematic unity of reason. To philosophise is to direct oneself to realising the cosmopolitan ideal. In Kant’s philosophy, this is possible exactly because it is not concerned with concrete being or actions but with the conditions of possibility of knowing and acting. The critical philosophy revolves around questions about what ought to be the case – questions of sollen. And Kant’s concept of freedom is not concerned with ”the action which commences in itself but rather the action which has its purpose and its norm in itself” (153). This understanding of freedom is what Kant aimed at when he underscored the primacy of the practical, and it amounts to a formulation the world concept of philosophy.

At the end of the day, all our philosophical endeavours must, according to Cassirer, be measured up against the ideal of a cosmopolitan world society. If our philosophical strivings can be said to further the cosmopolitan ideals, they accord with philosophising in concord with the primacy of reason. This implies that philosophising hinges on its point of departure, and only by posing the right questions can philosophy give credence to the primacy of the practical. In Freiheit und Form, Cassirer emphasises that our philosophical questions ”do not [depend] on the ’What’ but rather on the ’How’ – not on the content of the principle but on the way the principle is justified” (153). In this description, we can see the foundation of Cassirer’s interest in the form-giving function rather than the substance of being. In view hereof, we should understand Cassirer’s turn towards functional explanations and his continuous insistence on the liberating potential of functional explanations as a manner of honouring the ideal of the primacy of the practical. This also explains, on a more systematic level, why Cassirer insists on writing all his histories of philosophy in a revisionist manner, highlighting the processes of liberation in the development of thought rather than the exhaustive narration and discussion of the many competing developments.

In line with this interpretation, to commit oneself to the world concept of philosophy implies to commit oneself to understand the endeavour of philosophy as an open-ended system as well as a system with a clear direction or goal. It is open-ended because we are not able to circumscribe the content of all our philosophical knowledge, nor is our philosophical knowledge complete. Furthermore, the direction of all philosophical endeavours is given by the primacy of the practical as so many attempts to create a cosmopolitan world society. This goal ought to be the measure of all philosophical activities. Given that Cassirer understood his own work as a philosopher as contributing to developing the world concept of philosophy, this explains his concern with human self-liberation.

In the lecture on critical idealism and the philosophy of culture from 1936 that I quoted earlier, Cassirer accentuated how his own conception of critical idealism does not ”pretend to be able to understand the contents and the scope of culture so as to give a logical deduction of all its single steps and a metaphysical description of the universal plan according to which they evolve from the absolute nature and substance of mind. […] [However, neither] does it think that the single stages and processes by which the universe of culture is built up lack true and real unity.” [16] Cassirer sought to maintain an ordering system of culture without attributing a definite content. This implied for Cassirer that ”we may consent to the conception of Kant and Hegel that the process of culture is the process of the consciousness of freedom: for this freedom of consciousness is intended and actualized in every process of thought, will, or feeling that leads us from a mere passive state to a definite form of activity. Critical idealism […] hopes to come to a sort of grammar and syntax of the human mind, to a survey of its various forms and functions, and to an insight into those general rules by which they are governed.” [17] Such a grammar and syntax would offer insight into the forms and function that can help further human self-liberation.

Even though Cassirer never developed a systematic theory of ethics or a political philosophy, he viewed his philosophical endeavour as a contribution to self-liberation. He, furthermore, very clearly sided with liberal democracy, as became evident in his speech to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the Weimar Constitution in 1928. [18] His focus on self-liberation implied a concern for the individual worth and value of each human being. The fact that Cassirer took the Kantian idea of the world concept of philosophy as seriously as he did may partly explain why he did not write on ethics and political philosophy proper. Cassirer viewed his philosophical endeavours as so many attempts to philosophise under the ideal of the primacy of the practical and therefore did not feel compelled to work specifically on ethics or political philosophy.

From this attempt at saying something about Cassirer’s indebtedness to Kant’s critical philosophy, let me proceed to talk about the concept of function as Cassirer developed it in Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff.

Function as a point of view

Cassirer bases his undertakings in systematic philosophy on a move away from substantial explanations of what is the case in order to promote functional explanations of how something can be the case. This implies a shift from ontological to functional questions, and this is the topic of Cassirer’s first book on systematic philosophy, Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff. [19] In order to show the fallacy of the concept of substance, Cassirer points out that traditional logic of substances depends on the principle of abstractions in order to delimit one concept from another. So, for example, in order to reach the concept of ’ball’ we think of round, hollow and bouncing – we abstract from a formless material three necessary conditions. These are not sufficient for the definition of ’ball’ – we also need to say something about the seize and perhaps even about the function of balls. Nevertheless, the main idea is that a substantial definition emphasises the necessary and sufficient traits or attributes of an existing thing in order to let us recognise this thing in the world. Knowing the definition of ’ball’ makes it possible for me to discern a ’ball’ from say a die. Balls are round and therefore dissimilar to the square dice; balls are hollow, dice are solid, and so on.

With an example borrowed from Rudolf Hermann Lotze, Cassirer wants to disclose the limits of such definitions by abstraction by pointing out how necessary traits of two objects may be very similar even though they have nothing in common: ”if we group cherries and meat together under the attributes red, juicy and edible, we do not thereby attain a valid logical concept but a meaningless combination of words” (7). The similarities between these necessary traits or attributes does not tell us anything about the ontological similarities of cherries and meat. On the contrary, we would judge a person to be rather eccentric who maintained that such a categorisation is enlightening. Cassirer points out how the example shows ”that the general formal rule in itself does not suffice; on the contrary, there is always a tacit reference to another intellectual criterion to supplement it” (7). In the case of the combination of cherries and meat, we might solve the strange similarity in categorisation by pointing out that cherries are edible raw and meat only edible cooked. But this would be plainly wrong as a well-known delicacy is steak tartare.
Cassirer wants us to become aware of the tacit reference to a context of use which is at play in almost all definitions. Thus, cherries and meat can – under most circumstances – be differentiated by the difference between raw and cocked food. But sometimes it is better to differentiate them by pointing out that cherries are food from plants while meat is food from animals. It might seem that this would be a necessary and sufficient condition to separate cherries from meat. But the differentiating condition that cherries are plant parts and meat is taken from animals makes the aforementioned similarities arbitrary. Therefore, the overall conclusion is that we cannot make use of conditions of similarity and difference without placing these conditions within a context of meaning. To compare conditions of similarity and difference is only intelligible given that we already speak about the similar and dissimilar substances from a given point of view. Cassirer writes: ”The similarity of certain elements can only be spoken of significantly when a certain ’point of view’ has been established from which the elements can be designated as like or unlike” (25).

As a result, Cassirer argues that we are better off if we abandon substantial definitions in favour of functional definitions. This is so exactly because the functional definitions take as their point of departure a certain ’point of view’. In order to exemplify how a functional definition always commences with defining a point of view, Cassirer points to mathematical definition of series of numbers. Let us take the simple series 1, 2, 3, 4. Most people who have a basic school education would take these numbers to be the beginning of the series of natural numbers, which continues with 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and is derived at by always adding 1 to the previous number. Thus, the mathematical point of view is n+1. But what happens if we remove the number 3? The series then becomes 1, 2, 4. Many would see these numbers as the beginning of the series of numbers defined by the doubling of the previous number. It develops like this: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and is defined as 2n (with n starting from 0). What happens if we take way the number 4 instead of 3? Some might recognize these three numbers as the beginning of the Fibonacci series which develops like this: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89. The mathematical point of view is to always add the last two numbers in the series (1+2= 3, 2+3 = 5, 3+5 = 8 etc.). Even though it is possible to see the numbers 1, 2, 3 as the beginning of the Fibonacci series, most of us would probably insist that we understand the three numbers as the beginning of the series of natural numbers.

Cassirer’s main point is that the concept of a number such as ”four” can only be given a determination if ”four is given by its place in an ideal and therefore timelessly valid whole of relations” (25). Thus, the definition of ”four” varies in the first and the second series – but within each series ”four” is completely and timelessly determined by the logical order that generates the series. It is not the closeness of ”four” to ”three” or ”two” which defines it – but the different generating principles that make up the logical order of the series. This implies that the ”the content of the concept cannot be dissolved into the elements of its extensions, because the two do not lie on the same plane but belong in principle to different dimensions” (26).

The content of the concept is comparable with the substantial definition – it is the ”number” of a series. The extension of the concept is relative to the other elements and their relations and is thus defined by the form of the series or the generating principle. The extension of a concept gives us the point of view which is necessary as the context of the concept. Thus, a concept with the same content – say 4 – may have different extensions as the concept is part of different series. In this manner, Cassirer avoids both the Aristotelian definition of ”species concept” and the ”thing”. The functional definition underlines that the logical order of the connection of the parts in the whole is the relevant defining feature. This furthermore implies that the ”point of view” which Cassirer had called the tacit reference is the logical order or form which distributes extensions to all parts. The part can only be given a meaning as part of a whole.

In Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff, Cassirer argues that the model of functional definitions of concepts in mathematical series can be expanded to explain our sensuous experience. As the contemporary science of gestalt psychology clearly showed, the sensuous experience of our surroundings depends on a frame of reference that enables us to detect the elements. We only fix meaning to a figure background image by deciding which frame of reference we want to focus upon. For Cassirer, this implies that even the most basic sensuous experience is given as a whole and not as separate elements which we associate to each other.

Basically, Cassirer wants to point our attention to the fact that we do not start with an experience of the sensuous and then afterwards judge it to be of so and so a kind. There is no materia nuda which awaits our conceptualisation. Rather, all our sensuous experiences are always in the form of ”sensing as” – seeing as, hearing as, smelling as, touching as, tasting as – there is an implicit ordering context which makes our experience a particular experience within a whole. Therefore, Cassirer talks of the ”logical prius” (25) and the whole as prior to the parts. Dependent on which conceptional whole is predominant for the individual experience or in the cultural framework in which the individual is embedded, the particular will be moulded to stand out as ’x’. Cassirer writes: ”the question here can never be how we go from the parts to the whole, but how we go from the whole to the parts. […] only the total result itself is ’real’ in the sense of experience and of the psychological process, while its individual components have only the value of hypothetical assumptions” (335).

The shift from concepts of substance to concepts of function entails giving up on any copy-theory of knowledge. The neat categorisations of different substances is given up in order to underline the dynamic development of our cognisation of our environment. The task of philosophy is not to depict the world as it is given, but rather to point our attention to the processual character of all knowledge. This theory of functional concepts makes up the theoretical basis for Cassirer’s subsequent philosophy of symbolic forms.

The Philosophy of Symbolic Form as a Critique of Culture

In the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Cassirer sets out to develop a critique of culture that can be compared to the critique of reason carried out by Kant. [20] In this sense Cassirer’s ambition is to enlarge the scope of critical philosophy to contain cultural practices such as the use of language in ordinary life, mythical thinking and mythical rites, religious practices and beliefs in a systematic philosophy which also covers the newest developments of the natural sciences. Cassirer thus attempts to unfold a philosophical system which will be able to pay due heed to as different practices as myth and science. The connecting tie is made up of the process of symbolisation. In the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Cassirer for the first time focuses his attention to the physical side of symbolisation. He argues that in order for the process of differentiation of parts from the whole of consciousness to take place, the symbol must be linked to a physical form. [21] Thus, a word uttered is a forming of the air to stand out as a particular sound. The performance of a mythical rite takes place by using material objects. And the calculation of a mathematical equation is undertaken by using a specific denotation. Even though we can do more or less complicated calculus in our head, this ability is dependent upon our learning mathematics by learning to operate a denotation system.

This insistence on the physical form of all symbolization is – in my opinion – a major breakthrough for Cassirer’s process philosophy. By way of the understanding of form as always connected to a physical shaping of the world, Cassirer is able to give an argument to explain why our experiential world has so much stability as it does. Given the physical forms in which our dynamic, functional and processual cognisation takes place, the potential ever-changing ”seeing as” is given a stable form. We culturally become accustomed to the regularity of connections between processes of symbolisation and specific forms. This also gives credence to why the substance theory of knowledge has been so popular – it is because of the relative permanence of the symbolic forms that we may think we meet the world as neatly divided up in substances.

However, one of Cassirer’s aims is exactly to demonstrate that underneath the relative permanence of culturally formed symbolisations, the dynamic and processual cognisation is at play. This Cassirer especially does in the central chapter on symbolic pregnance in the third volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. [22] To some extent, it is right to say that he reiterates the ideas from Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff as he underlines that ”the ’now’ of perception [Wahrnehmung] is a now with fulfilled future and saturated future – a preagnans futuri as Leibniz would have called it” (231). However, there is also something more at play, as Cassirer underscores that the preagnans futuri of ”the now of the perception is the unified stream of life and thought that streams through consciousness and above all in this streaming movement does it bring about the diversity and the unity of consciousness as well as its continuity and constancy” (231). Cassirer thus emphasises the priority of the synthesis of consciousness on the one hand. But he just as much underlines the necessity of the discursive act of judging and conjecturing – it is through this act that the stream of consciousness is fixed and given a communicative meaning. And the means to do so is the fixation of the flow synthesis onto a physical form. This is new and different in comparison to the ideas of functional concepts in Cassirer’s earlier philosophy.

By insisting that any judgment has to be carried by a sign – let it be the famous line curve or the moulding of air into language – Cassirer also insists that our acts of symbolisation have a material basis which changes the world. And this forming of the outer world by way of symbolic formation of meaning makes it possible for Cassirer to argue that it is the same process of symbolisation that takes place in mythical thought and in modern science. The major difference concerns the systems of formation that are at hand and in use. With different systems of formation, we also end up with different concepts. The exactness of the scientific concepts is obtained by the clearly defined reference system, and the fluidity of mythical concepts is in a similar manner a product of a flexible system of reference within mythical thought.

Cassirer has many favourite dictums – and one of these is that the human ability to cognise did not come to being as Athene jumped out of the forehead of Zeus in full armour. The meaning of the dictum of course is, that it takes long learning and practice to develop the Geisteskultur of the modern world. As we acknowledge the long-stretched learning process preceding the inventions of modern science, we also admit that each individual has to acquire the symbolic forms of her culture. To understand better this historical process of learning is the purpose of the critique of culture. Coming to understand the process of attaining and developing cultural forms in the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms Cassirer believed was a means to develop a better orientation in culture. And in this sense, Cassirer thought of the project of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms as a part of philosophy that takes the world concept of philosophy as its guiding thread. By creating an overview of some of the developments of the human processes of symbolisation, Cassirer laid out the tools for all to use to orient themselves towards the symbolic formations of self-liberation.

However, the political reality of Germany in the interwar period moved exactly opposite compared to what Cassirer was inviting his contemporaries to pursue. With the National Socialist overtake of control over Germany in 1933, Cassirer lost his foothold in Germany and was forced to flee and thereby experienced palpably in his personal life the force of non-liberal political developments. Cassirer’s two last books, written in the United States, can be viewed as his effort to intellectually come grips with the political developments of his time. The books seem to point in two opposite directions. In An Essay on Man, Cassirer claims that the loss of orientation in modernity, due to the diversity of forms of knowledge and the lack of a clue of Ariadne to come through the labyrinth of modern culture, is something that we just need to reflect upon in the right way in order to understand the harmony which subsides in modern culture. This is done with reference to the cryptic Heraclitus quotation of the harmony of contrary as in the bow and the lyre. [23] In the other book, The Myth of the State, Cassirer explains that the political catastrophe of the Second World War was partly created by the return of mythical thinking in modern times. [24] The new regimes have cleverly employed mythical means of signification to create modern technical myths. These myths enfeeble the whole process of self-liberation which has been Cassirer continuous preoccupation to point out throughout his philosophical career.

Under the politics of Nazi Germany, modern humans were caught in immediacy and precluded from acting. How can this be? Are the modern technical myths a sign of failure for Cassirer’s belief in the strength of humanism? Or should we rather understand The Myth of the State as a turning point in Cassirer’s method of argumentation? It could amount to something like this: in times of upheaval, more powerful forms of argumentation are needed than the insistence of every individual’s ability to reflect and the indirect pointing towards the movements of humanism, liberalism and cosmopolitanism that have been influential in the past and could become influential in the present and future. If this is the case, then it seems that Cassirer would have wished to have employed this method of argumentation much earlier in his career, something that he did not do. There is thus no really compelling reason for thinking that Cassirer changed his mind on how to write the history of ideas. Furthermore, in a lecture given in January 1945, Cassirer insisted that the triumph of the new political myths was only temporary. He underlined how ”politics is very far from being a positive science, let alone an exact science. It is in many respects still an occult science. I do not doubt that later generations will look at many of our political theories with the same feeling with which a modern astronomer looks at astrology […] In the science of politics we have not yet found a firm ground. […] The belief that man, by the skilful use of magic rites and magic formulas, is able to change the course of nature has prevailed for many thousand years in human history. […] It is, therefore, not to be wondered at that myth and magic have still such an overwhelming influence in political thought and action. Small groups try to enforce their wishes and fantastic ideas on whole nations […] They may succeed for a while; they may even achieve great triumphs. But their triumphs will always be ephemeral. There is, after all, a logic of the social world just as much as there is a logic of the physical world.” (25)

I think we should view the argumentation in The Myth of the State as a sign of Cassirer’s desperation, which he only in this book allowed himself to show publicly. However, having given us access to it, it also allows us to question whether Cassirer’s method of argumentation, in line with the indirect pointing to the developments of liberation in human culture, really was the most effective way of conveying his humanistic message to his audience?

Perhaps we should take the immensely detailed and pioneering process philosophy and the insistence on philosophy’s world concept as the lasting and enduring aspects of Cassirer’s impressive philosophical lifework, and part with the insistence on a correlation between humanism and descriptions of historical progress. This would be my suggestion. It would however not imply that we should cease to take the breadth of Cassirer’s work as a positive ideal, nor that we should part with Cassirer’s insistence of the interconnectedness of the history of philosophy and science with contemporary theory of science and systematic philosophy. I think one of the most intriguing features of Cassirer’s philosophy is exactly the insistence on this interconnectedness. But we may write our histories of philosophy in a less revisionist way.


[1] See Esther Oluffa Pedersen: Die Mythosphilosophie Ernst Cassirers. Zur Bedeutung des Mythos in der Auseinandersetzung mit der Kantischen Erkenntnistheorie und in der Sphäre der modernen Politik, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2009.

[2] See, for example, The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. A Novel Assessment by J. Tyler Friedmann & Sebastian Luft, Berlin: DeGruyter, 2015, p. 3.

[3] Ernst Cassirer, Freiheit und Form [1916], vol. 7 in Gesammelte Werke, Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 2001 – references are given in the text. Quotations are translated from the German by Esther Oluffa Pedersen.

[4] See Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Reden an die deutsche Nation [1808], Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 2008. In his introduction to the jubilee publication, Alexander Aichele underscores how the Reden have been read as ”performative racism” (p. viii) and regardless how they are normatively classified it is ”without doubt true to call the Reden a piece of ”political rhetoric”” (p. xiv). 

[5] Ernst Cassirer, Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance [1927], vol. 14 in Gesammelte Werke, Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 2001 – references are given in the text. Quotations are translated from the German by Esther Oluffa Pedersen.

[6] Ernst Cassirer, ”Critical Idealism as a Philosophy of Culture” (64–91), in Symbol, Myth, and Culture. Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935–45, ed. Donald Philip Verene, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979, p. 78.

[7] See Jacob Burckhardt, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, ein Versuch [1860], Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer Verlag, 2009.

[8] See Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man. A New Translation and Commentary, transl. F. Borghesi, M. Papio & M. Riva, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[9] Oswald Spengler, Der Untergang des Abendlandes. Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte [1918-1922], München: Beck, 1990.

[10] See Max Scheler, Vom Ewigen im Menschen. Religiöse Erneuerung [1921], in Gesammelte Werke, vol. V, Bern: Francke-Verlag, 2000.

[11] Even though Sein und Zeit was published in 1927, Martin Heidegger’s philosophical attack on neo-Kantianism had already become know by way of his teachings at the university of Marburg from 1923 to 1927. 

[12] See Karl Barth, Der Römerbrief [1919, 1922], Würzburg: Echter, 1997.

[13] In the lecture ”The Technique of Our Modern Political Myths”, given at Princeton University on January 18, 1945, Cassirer drew attention to his reading of Spengler while working on Individuum und Kosmos. He wrote: ”When I first read it [Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes], I was engrossed in studies of the philosophy of the Italian Renaissance. What struck me most at this time was the close analogy between Spengler’s book and some astrological treatises of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which I had studied recently. Of course, Spengler does not make an attempt to read the future of cultures in the stars. Nevertheless, his prognostics are of the same type and express exactly the same mentality as the prognostics of the astrologers.” Cassirer, ”The Technique of Our Modern Political Myths” (242-267), in Symbol, Myth, and Culture. Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935–45, ed. Donald Philip Verene, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979, p. 261.

[14] Gregory Moynahan, Ernst Cassirer and the Critical Science of Germany, 1899–1918, New York: Anthem Press, 2013, p. 163.

[15] All references to Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft [1781/87], follow the pagination of the second (B) edition.

[16] Cassirer, ”Critical Idealism as a Philosophy of Culture”, p. 89–90.

[17] Ibid.

[18] See Ernst Cassirer, Die Idee der republikanischen Verfassung. Rede zur Verfassungsfeier am 11. August 1928, vol. 17 in Gesammelte Werke, Hamburg: Felix Meiner 2004.

[19] Ernst Cassirer, Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff. Untersuchungen über die Grundfragen der Erkenntnistheorie, vol. 6 in Gesammelte Werke, Hamburg: Felix Meiner 2000 – references are given in the text. Quotations are translated from the German by Esther Oluffa Pedersen.

[20] See Ernst Cassirer, Die Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Die Sprache, vol. 11 in Gesammelte Werke, Hamburg: Felix Meiner 2001.

[21] See Cassirer’s concise discussion of the concept of symbolic form in the article ”Der Begriff der symbolischen Form in der Aufbau der Geisteswissenschaften” from 1923, in Aufsätze und kleine Schriften (1922-1926), vol. 16 in Gesammelte Werke, Hamburg: Felix Meiner 2003.

[22] See Ernst Cassirer, Die Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Phänomenologie der Erkenntnis, vol. 13 in Gesammelte Werke, Hamburg: Felix Meiner 2002 – references are given in the text. Quotations are translated from the German by Esther Oluffa Pedersen.

[23] See Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man. An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture [1944], vol. 23 in Gesammelte Werke, Hamburg: Felix Meiner 2006, p. 222.

[24] See Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State [1945], vol. 25 in Gesammelte Werke, Hamburg: Felix Meiner 2007, p. 7.

[25] Cassirer, ”The Technique of Our Modern Political Myths”, p. 265–266.