Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture 
by Edward Skidelsky.
Princeton, 288 pp., £24.95, January 2009, 978 0 691 13134 4
Show More
The Symbolic Construction of Reality: The Legacy of Ernst Cassirer 
edited by Jeffrey Andrew Barash.
Chicago, 223 pp., £26.50, January 2009, 978 0 226 03686 1
Show More
Show More

Ernst Cassirer began his eclectic, productive and distinguished career as a philosopher of science, but turned to the study of culture apparently after discovering the Warburg Library in Hamburg, where he took up a professorship in 1919. He spent the rest of his life working out a synthesis able to contain the two cultures. He was prescient in getting out of Germany in 1933, and lucky in heading to Oxford and not Paris. From 1935 to 1941 he held a post in Sweden; then there were four years in America, at Yale and Columbia. He died in New York in 1945. Along the way he wrote a series of widely respected books aimed at both specialist and general readers, and earned the personal esteem and intellectual discipleship of a number of his academic colleagues in the New World. In 1929 he had had a spat with Heidegger at Davos, an event that achieved the sort of notoriety among the tribe of philosophers that Wittgenstein later earned by lifting a poker in the direction (perhaps) of Popper at a meeting of the Cambridge Moral Science Club. There was no poker on hand in Davos, although most then and since seem to think that Cassirer was at the wrong end of the philosophical stick.

Despite all this Cassirer is not a household name, and has not proved an unignorable source for current work, in the way that Heidegger and Wittgenstein have. Edward Skidelsky sees a recent positive shift in the winds of his reputation, but he is suspicious of the reasons for it. The very idealism and liberalism that make Cassirer seem to so many such an anachronism also render him newly appealing as the apostle of a positive future for humanity that seems a bit more decorous and nuanced than that embodied in American neoconservatism. A liberal cosmopolitan German Jew offering to bridge the gap between scientific and humanistic culture, Skidelsky speculates, is just what the world (or at least Germany) thinks it needs. Is it just coincidence that an intellectual biography and a volume of conference proceedings have just been published by two American presses, or are we anglophones about to rediscover Cassirer?

There are problems. As so often, the philosophical and the political-ideological questions overlap. Both are apparent in Cassirer’s choice of the symbol as a foundational term in explaining the construction of the world in his major work, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Any young philosopher setting out to establish a career would be well advised to think twice before making a committed intellectual investment in the symbol. This is more obvious now than it would have been in the first quarter of the 20th century, when Cassirer was making his way in the academy, but even then the affiliation might have been expected to conjure up something either hopelessly vague or uncomfortably religiose. To be sure this has not prevented the subsequent evolution of symbolic anthropology, symbolic action, symbolic interaction sociology and symbolic logic, but efforts to make precise and telling use of the term ‘symbol’ have always been hindered by its commonplace sense as meaning anything at all that stands for something else, especially when the relationship between symbol and referent is merely self-evident, or portentous in the murkiest of ways. The symbol has often defined that which is of great importance but a bit ineffable, or that which is so readily apparent as to seem trite. It was important in the development of psychoanalysis. Jung was especially comfortable with the word: his first published work of 1912 was Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (rather blandly translated as Psychology of the Unconscious) and at the end of his life he edited a volume called Man and His Symbols (1964). The radical Freud most of us read today was less interested than Jung in the idea of a collective unconscious, but the historical Freud dallied with it in his discussions of the symbol, especially after 1914, finding common ground between dreams and myths, legends, folk tales and linguistic idioms. The symbolic is a major category for Lacan, but there has been no dispelling of the mists gathered around the term.

The murkiness associated with the symbol comes from its religious application, first of all (and this came very early) in its sense as a binding statement (symbolum) of Christian belief – the performance of a creed or confession – and then as the avowal of an immaterial presence in a material form, as in the bread and wine of the communion. This is the tradition that Coleridge invoked in proposing the symbol as the highest form of representation, one misunderstood in that age (he was writing in 1816) as made up merely of abstract notions and picture language: the symbol is marked by a ‘translucence’ of the whole in the part, and by its subsistence as ‘a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative’. There is nothing arbitrary about it. It is a living, breathing thing that sustains and nourishes, an organic component of the thing it also stands for. It infuses the temporal with the eternal. By contrast, abstractions and picture languages belong merely to the fancy, whose arbitrary couplings were defined by Coleridge under the rubric of allegory. Allegory is for him secondary, metaphysically impotent and trivial in comparison to the ever expanding moral and intellectual energy of the symbol, which ultimately expresses nothing less than the indwelling of the divine in the human and of every life in the one life. There is no redundancy: everything is connected.

But allegory has had its defenders, and arguably they have been the winners in the past century’s intellectual disputes about representation. Walter Benjamin, in The Origins of German Tragic Drama, took issue with a notion of the symbol that he saw as debased because it was no longer a theological complex of material and transcendental elements but just ‘a relationship between appearance and essence’, shedding a ‘sentimental twilight over the philosophy of beauty which has become more and more impenetrable since the end of early romanticism’. Paul de Man captured the spirit of an age in his claim that the Romantic preference for symbol over allegory, accepted as a truism by generations of literary historians, had to be understood as a ‘tenacious self-mystification’ that sought to keep at bay temporality and irony, the signatures of an allegorical mode that refuses the consolations of transcendence and eternity. These, de Man writes in Blindness and Insight, make up the modernity of Romanticism, and are its most authentic voice’, one ‘renouncing the nostalgia and the desire to coincide’. De Man opens up but does not develop the point that allegory’s commitment to time and its refusal of transcendence make it the proper vehicle for a politics. In the allegorical mode one is always conscious of the act of representation: it is so disjunctively visible as to fool no one. Allegory, in other words, fronts its identity as a sign, subject to the arbitrary relation between signifier and signified which Saussure made famous, and which has been at the core of the range of theoretical initiatives called structuralism and post-structuralism. Allegory tells us that it is artificial, and that any effort to have it taken for reality belongs in the domains of rhetoric and ideology. Where the symbol proposes to comfort, allegory invites the scalpel (and perhaps the sword) of critique and the imperative towards disbelief.

Cassirer started his philosophical life as a Marburg School neo-Kantian, with a commitment to putting Kant into time if not quite fully into history. He was not, in other words, a Hegelian, but he did propose that the world-structuring concepts of the understanding are evolutionary, and that they might thereby underwrite not only a progressive model of the natural sciences but one that was in harmony with mathematical logic. Steering a course between abstractionism and empiricism, Cassirer explores a genetic paradigm that does not intend or promise an end to history, but offers instead a principle of convergence that he would soon extend beyond the natural and mathematical sciences and into the world of culture and our knowledge of it, the world of Geisteswissenchaft.

Cassirer’s major publications of the 1920s are the ones in which this transition is effected: the three volumes translated into English (much later) as The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, dealing respectively with language, myth and scientific knowledge. For Kant, the symbol functions in the realm of analogy, implying not a similarity between things but between sets of relations: no objective knowledge is involved. But there is a mention of the symbol in section 59 of the Critique of Judgment – where the relationship between beauty and morality is discussed – that was found unstable and provocative enough to encourage a whole generation of Romantics to speculate about the ‘beautiful soul’ as that which might, without ethical labour, hold together the beautiful and the good in such a way that the first would entail the second. Kant more or less clearly forbids this sort of connection. When he writes that ‘the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good,’ he means that the one relates to the other by way of a set of analogies: as the one pleases immediately, so does the other; as the one assumes a universality it can never (and need not) prove, so does the other, and so on. He does not say that one leads to the other. He does however say that the apprehension of the symbol suggests some ‘unknown’ (unbekannte) connection between the theoretical and the practical spheres, and that such a connection is often implicit in the common language, as when we attribute moral qualities to non-human things; so a tree may be ‘majestic’ or fields ‘joyful’. Partly because of this, associating the beautiful with the good can take place ‘without too violent a leap’.

Because it is easy enough to think we can make the leap, there is a risk that we will confuse the proper domains of the ethical and the aesthetic. Cassirer wants to adapt the symbol to an epistemology, which Jeffrey Barash in his introduction to The Symbolic Construction of Reality rightly deems quite un-Kantian. Cassirer is interested in clarifying the sense of an unknown but substantial connection that comes along with the symbol, making him what Enno Rudolph calls a ‘constructive historicist’. Like Hegel, among others, he wants to put some empirical flesh on Kant’s ascetic subjectivism, transforming Kant’s merely analogising symbol into a tool of the understanding: man can realise himself only in the world and with the world, a world that is ‘pure expression of the human spirit’ expressing itself in symbols. This human spirit is one thing with many subsets whose variance is not absolute but apparent; ultimately there is a ‘totality’ holding together the natural and cultural sciences.

Cassirer, in other words, appears to be a ‘whole world/one world’ theorist, believing in an original, formative power that energises both natural and mathematical science and art, language and myth. Gabriel Motzkin argues in his contribution to Barash’s volume that the symbolic forms are not finally unified – there is no ‘collapsing into one world’, and human knowledges are not finally integrated into the natural world – but the energy that works through history does seem to suggest greater and greater co-ordination as well as greater complexity in what Cassirer calls a ‘close fusion’ of history and system. The cognitive and the imaginative are brought together as symbols whose convergence it is the task of philosophy to demonstrate. In Language and Myth Cassirer writes that symbols must be understood ‘not in the sense of mere figures which refer to some given reality by means of suggestion and allegorical renderings, but in the sense of forces each of which produces and posits a world of its own’. Philosophy must complicate the apparent separateness of these worlds in examining ‘their mutual limitation and supplementation’; each has an ‘individual assignment’ carried out co-operatively within an organically structured ‘spiritual reality’. In the words of Suzanne Langer, Cassirer’s translator and one of his leading disciples, the genesis of symbolic forms is ‘the odyssey of the mind’. Fabien Capeillères and Donald Phillip Verene insist, however, that the odyssey of the mind can operate only by way of work.

Is this a happy story, with a restored Odysseus projected towards hearth and home? In 1932, at the point of some very unenlightened developments in German politics, Cassirer published The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, which now reads (as it probably always did) as a desperate if dignified statement of continuing belief in the positive power of human reason. This ‘bright clear mirror’ must be exposed to the light ‘to release again’ the forces that brought about the Enlightenment. These include faith in thought as having ‘the power and the task of shaping life itself’, and a confidence in critique (and self-critique) as ‘an indispensable instrument of life and of the constant renewal of the spirit’. The work of the spirit and the power of thought in shaping life were the tasks of the symbol in Cassirer’s work of the 1920s, but when he returns to the symbol in 1944, writing now from America in An Essay on Man, his tone is more hesitant. Man, he says, ‘has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium . . . he lives . . . in the midst of imaginary emotions, in hopes and fears, in illusions and disillusions, in his fantasies and dreams.’ Something seems out of balance in the operation of the symbol: what is emerging is a disjunction between the real world and ‘man’s symbolic activity’, which is increasingly directed not towards shaping an integrated world or imagining totality, but towards ‘constantly conversing with himself’. There is still a ‘way to civilisation’ open to man, but it no longer seems inevitable that we will set out on the right road. In 1944 this much must have seemed obvious.

What is the difference between this ‘artificial medium’ now interposing itself between man and his world and the operations of what many others – including Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) – were calling ideology? Cassirer seems to hint at a Western Marxist vocabulary only to avoid it. In The Myth of the State, published two years later, things are again seen as out of balance, with mythical thought now having the upper hand over other symbolic forms. The second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms had been devoted to myth, which Cassirer had sought to redeem from its low estimation by philosophers. Following Schelling, he set out to argue that all forms of culture and objective knowledge began as myth, which is to be admitted to the philosophical sphere rather than banished from it: it is one of the ways in which consciousness ‘creates a world of its own in accordance with a spiritual principle’. But myth, it now turns out, has always been a latent danger, ‘lurking in the dark and waiting for its hour’, safe only as long as it is held in check by other forces. After 1914 a ‘new technical tool’ for myth-creation had appeared in the hands of those ‘very skilful and cunning artisans’, modern politicians. Here we might expect a discussion of the radio and modern mass media, but this would be too materialist for Cassirer. He refers instead to ‘a change in the functions of language’ from the semantic to the magical. Hitler, in other words, was a sorcerer: ‘I find to my amazement that I no longer understand the German language.’ Words that used to be logical and referential are now violently emotive; only a few words ‘have survived the general destruction’. New social rituals were devised to perform the violence, so that even a greeting in the street became a political gesture. These rites became so pervasive and monotonous that people came to behave like automatons, with the politicians pulling the strings and pushing the buttons. German rearmament played its part in this history, but what really matters for Cassirer, the ‘real rearmament’, is ‘the origin and rise of the political myths’.

Others then and since have commented on the refiguring of the German language under the Nazis. Victor Klemperer kept himself sane during the war years partly by collecting notes for what would eventually be published in 1947 as Lingua Tertii Imperii, a study of language under the Third Reich, and in Austerlitz W.G. Sebald discusses the bureaucratese of genocide. In emphasising the formative powers of language and the irrational lure of supercharged meanings, Cassirer aligns himself with a familiar principle of cultural critique. But these late thoughts never developed into a sociology. The English translations of the three volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1953-57) earned him a posthumous readership among those seeking a model for the wholeness of the world or at least for a way of bridging the gap between scientific and humanistic culture. The works of intellectual history – on Rousseau, on the Renaissance, on the Enlightenment – remain as current as such things ever do, and the early, more specialised writings on philosophy and the philosophy of science presumably continue to deserve their readers. But there is little in the popular writings likely to attract attention except as a symptom of a historical moment, and even then what is offered is a very selective rendering of, for example, the genesis and function of Fascism. The question must arise: why read Cassirer now?

Skidelsky is engagingly open in his admission that Cassirer is ‘a stranger to our age’, at best an instance of exemplary failure, the representative of an impossible ideal. As early as 1918, the synthesis Cassirer sought was destined to run aground somewhere between the ‘reinvigorated positivism’ of the natural sciences and the ‘political mysticism’ of the humanities. The philosophical core of his work was the attempted ‘historicisation of Kant’s transcendental subject’, but this could not succeed against a strong and credible consensus for which transcendental philosophy was by definition outside history – otherwise, why do it? Humanism might prove acceptable to some in its radical Wittgensteinian form, as long as it had passed through and not gone around ‘the logicist mill’, and was willing to make a space for silence. Meanwhile left-leaning philosophers who did not go the Marxist route went for positivism; purging science and logic of all cultural baggage seemed to provide the best hope for progressive knowledge. For them, the inherited metaphysical tradition seemed like an encumbrance, as did the whole vocabulary of feelings and other irrational dispositions. Cassirer could not follow them. He had begun his philosophical life as part of the Marburg School’s reiteration of the moral vocation of reason and by embracing a rewriting and projection of the never-to-be-apprehended Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’ into the experienced world as the goal of an infinite task of converging knowledges. Skidelsky gives a close, technical account of the ways in which Cassirer was never just a Marburg School stereotype; but he aligned himself neither with the logical positivists nor with the Heideggerian, existentialist tradition which between them carved up the field of 20th-century philosophy, as they arguably continue to do. Neither had any patience with the turn to culture, and that is the turn Cassirer chose to take.

There isn’t much flesh and blood on the figure of Cassirer that emerges from these books. I find myself wishing to hear more about what it was like to be the first Jew elected to the rectorship of a German university, as Cassirer was in 1929, and more about what he said in defence of the Weimar Republic. The closest we come to the living figure is in Skidelsky’s account of the Davos debate between ‘the great cultural antagonists of Weimar Germany’, Cassirer and Heidegger. This was also a debate between ‘a Jew and a future Nazi’, as Michael Roubach puts it more bluntly in his essay in The Symbolic Construction of Reality. Melodrama is hard to resist here, although Roubach and Barash, who also has a long essay on the Davos debate and its contexts, play by the rules of scholarly disinterest. Heidegger stands against the idea of the unity of consciousness, and sees the subject of philosophy as Dasein in its unnegotiable factuality (it is all there is) and unavoidable homelessness, its fallenness and direction towards death. Kant is for him the philosopher of human finitude, while for Cassirer he is the embodiment of human creativity and spontaneity. For Cassirer, man should know that he can be something; for Heidegger he must recognise that he is next to nothing. Skidelsky thinks that Cassirer lost out not just for political and historical reasons but on ‘authentically philosophical’ grounds. The ‘scholarly, courteous and emollient’ Cassirer might have been the better dinner companion, but ‘the lapsed seminarian, dark and fervid’, looking (according to Cassirer’s wife) like a ‘workman’ and dressed belligerently in his ski-suit, carried off the philosophical laurels. The pairing is theatrical: on one side, ‘this little dark brown man’, ‘almost rude’ (in the words of a student onlooker); on the other, ‘the man with the white hair, not only externally but also internally an Olympian’.

What were the authentic philosophical grounds on which the little brown man carried not only the day but much of the rest of the century? For Skidelsky it is all about how one responds to the death of God, how one assesses the case for and against ‘immanent infinitude’ and its implication of progressive culture in the tradition of Goethe and Humboldt. I am not sure how exclusively philosophical such a disagreement can be – though perhaps I am simply failing to recognise it. But Skidelsky is writing to counter those among Cassirer’s defenders who cry foul on political grounds and dismiss Heidegger’s capture of the flag as some sort of injustice, so perhaps he should not be held to an absolute standard here.

To return to the question with which I began: are these books the sign of a return to Cassirer? I doubt it, and so do most of these authors. Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Blumenberg and Carnap all found Cassirer wanting, and those who attend conferences about him are also unable to convince themselves that he can be reinvented for the 21st century. Skidelsky admits the lack of anything in Cassirer’s work that is adequate to the ‘historical logic of catastrophe’. Gideon Freudenthal takes issue with his sense that Fascism is an archaic rather than a modern phenomenon, and finds that even his minimal analysis comes too late from one wholly given over to ‘the heavenly realm of ideas’. And Fania Oz-Sulzberger, in a brief concluding essay that is clearly attempting to save the case, ends up with only the weakest of commendations. Yes, Cassirer is an idealist, offers a very German Enlightenment, fails to mention any women, places too much emphasis on aesthetics and ignores anything outside high culture, but (and now the bathos) he can still usefully be read as a man of his times and he gets across something of the ‘mood and substance’ of the Enlightenment that we have forgotten. This is hardly a ringing endorsement. Skidelsky at one point claims that ‘the tide has turned in favour of Cassirer’, but his reasons for so concluding are dubious to say the least: ‘The horrors of the two world wars have faded; Europe and Germany are reunited; liberal democracy has triumphed over much of the globe.’ Try telling that to the unemployed of the former East Germany, to the victims of later wars, to the global poverty culture that underpins the ‘triumph’ of liberal democracy. This claim looks like a hangover from the book Skidelsky tells us he began to write, before his ‘early enthusiasm began to wane’.

While we should not slavishly follow Heidegger’s every move, we can’t really get behind Cassirer, however benign his intentions, however serene his demeanour. Standing between us and him are the massive intellectual forces of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Adorno and many others; not all of them Heidegger’s children, all of the time, but none of them relatives of Cassirer’s. These forces are not just intellectual or ‘authentically philosophical’; they articulate a profound scepticism about the project of progressive culture in the light of world events that are not at all comfortably consigned to a vanished past. Our ‘postmodern bitterness’, as Oz-Sulzberger calls it, is not likely to vanish any time soon, except by way of the vaporous phantasms of ideology, a word Cassirer never uses and one that designates a concept he only begins to think about at the very end, too little and too late.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences