The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms 
by Ernst Cassirer, translated by Steve G. Lofts.
Routledge, 1412 pp., £150, September 2020, 978 1 138 90725 6
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Ernst Cassirer​ got a warm welcome when he moved to the United States in 1941. He was a near perfect embodiment of the idea of the great European thinker: not only a multilingual intellectual historian, doubtless familiar with every significant document of Western civilisation, but also a synoptic philosopher who had explored the deep questions that animate cultures and give meaning to human lives. Before leaving Germany he had written a dozen imposing books in which he analysed literature, art, politics, religion, science and mathematics in terms of what he called philosophische Anthropologie, meaning that he presented them all as systematically interconnected expressions of human creativity. And although he was now well into his sixties, he was planning to add several more to the pile. The word ‘magisterial’ might have been made for him, but he was also urbane and inquisitive, and humbly grateful to the universities – first Yale, then Columbia – which had faced down conservative prejudice to offer work to a Jewish refugee like him. His Yale colleague Charles Hendel was relieved to find that Cassirer was ‘not a prima donna’ (unlike ‘many European professors’), and indeed that he ‘liked his students’ and was working on his spoken English in the hope of better serving them.

Cassirer had always been apolitical, but Hendel persuaded him to suspend his studies of ‘past history’ for a while, in order to provide the public with a philosophical explanation of ‘what is happening today’. The result was a short book, written in English, that attributed the catastrophe of Nazism to a perversion of what was, for Cassirer, the central institution of political life: the state as locus of sovereign authority and guarantor of social order. He started with the ‘rational theory of the state’ as set out in Plato’s Republic, and traced its development through the theology of the Middle Ages and the worldly realism of the Renaissance to the enlightened 18th century, where, as he saw it, philosophers had at last summoned up the courage to ‘think against their own time’. But the political triumph of critical reason did not last. Romantic nationalists began to cultivate folksy fantasies of cultural belonging, initiating a revival of ‘mythical thought’ which would lead, in the 20th century, to a new kind of nationalism, fuelled not by ‘love’ and nostalgic ‘lyrics’ but by ‘hatred’ and steely ‘technics’.

Breaking with the habit of a lifetime, Cassirer referred explicitly to his own experience: he had been one of those cultivated Germans who, before 1933, had failed to recognise the growing menace of irrational populism: ‘When we first heard of the political myths,’ he wrote, ‘we found them so absurd … that we could hardly be prevailed upon to take them seriously.’ But he could now see that this Olympian insouciance had delivered a free pass to Hitler, Nazism and the ‘totalitarian state’. After enduring several years of exile in England and Sweden, and then a perilous Atlantic crossing, he now appealed to his American readers to ‘carefully study the technique of the political myths’ so as not to ‘commit the same error a second time’. Cassirer died unexpectedly in April 1945, at the age of seventy, so The Myth of the State was published posthumously. Instead of being the ephemeral pamphlet he had envisaged, it was a valediction and an epitaph.

Rather like the political initiatives of his contemporaries Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, Cassirer’s book owed its clout to the intellectual capital he had built up outside politics. But his intervention, unlike theirs, drew on the theoretical work that had made him famous. He practised philosophy in a style that was going out of fashion, seeing himself not as a bold freethinker acting alone but as a member of an intellectual community entrusted with a glorious inheritance: the tradition in which the pristine wisdom of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had been tested and elaborated from one generation to the next, through Aquinas, Ficino and Descartes, down to Kant, Hegel, Frege, Husserl, Russell and Heidegger. He saw the history of philosophy, like the history of science, as a series of intellectual excursions which at first threw up a lot of dust, but then settled down to form an intellectual acquis communautaire, an ever expanding archive of knowledge whose inheritors were under an obligation to preserve it, to mend and extend it, and to explain the latest developments and make them available to all.

In the case of the natural sciences, Cassirer argued that the growing hegemony of mathematics over the past few decades had swept away the classical category of ‘substance’ and replaced it with a dynamic notion of ‘function’, while Einsteinian relativity showed that the basic concepts of physics were not so much ‘copies’ of pre-existing facts as ‘constructed projects’ directed towards future investigations. A similar movement could, he thought, be observed in recent philosophy: classical conceptions of a closed world of determinate truths were giving way to the notion of an infinite universe whose features were provisional results of interminable negotiations between the realities we encounter in experience and the various mentalities, theories and sensibilities we bring to bear on them. His habit of referring to this doctrine as ‘idealism’ will have put some readers off, but he understood the word in his own, post-classical way. Idealism in his sense implied, first, that human existence is thoroughly historical, in that the concepts, stories, schemes and emotions by which we set store are continuous cultural processes which got underway thousands of years ago and will carry on as long as the human race survives. Second, he thought that previous idealists had construed the formative power of the human mind too narrowly, confining themselves to the prosaic, reactive processes of ‘intellect’ and ‘representation’ and overlooking a more fundamental poetic faculty which he called ‘symbolisation’.

There were three main forms of symbolisation, according to Cassirer. The most basic was ‘language’, which came first in the development both of the individual and of the race. Then there was ‘myth’, and finally ‘science’ or ‘cognition’. He explored each of them in successive volumes of the work that has always been referred to as his ‘masterpiece’: Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, which appeared between 1923 and 1929. It is an impressive and unusual performance. Cassirer departed from the 20th-century habit of treating language as a set of abstract structures – phonemic, syntactical, semantic or logical – to concentrate instead on the fact that it inhabits what he called the ‘physical medium of sound’, and that its ‘coming into being’ depends on the sustained passage of breath through vocal cords. He paid attention to the diverse physiognomies of different languages (citing evidence from Japanese, Finnish, Mayan, Inuit, Malay and Yakut), and to the games children play with sounds before having any idea that they might be freighted with linguistic meaning.

Cassirer’s treatment of the natural sciences displayed a similar relish for particularity: he regarded them not as abstract disciplines but as collections of constantly evolving practices which get past the ‘variability, mutability and iridescent ambiguity’ of language by saturating the universe with mathematical ‘concepts’ whose function isn’t so much descriptive as ‘productive and constructive’. His treatment of myth was equally arresting, in that he understood it as another positive form of sense-making, in which language serves as a source of images, rhythms, counting systems and rhymes which are taken to encapsulate sympathies and equivalences between unrepeatable items within a singular ‘cosmos’. In The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms he illustrated these notions by reference to alchemy, numerology, prophecy, totemism and astrology. It wasn’t until he got to America and agreed to write about ‘what is happening today’ that he began to apply his theory of mythical thinking to the political culture of Germany – a country he had always loved for its cultural riches but from which, under the Nazis, he had been abruptly excluded.

Symbolic Forms combines systematic theory with lavish documentation on an astonishing scale, and it soon became a beacon for ambitious initiatives in cultural theory, and art history in particular. (In Hamburg in the 1920s, Cassirer engaged in discussions with Aby Warburg, Fritz Saxl and above all Erwin Panofsky, who paid tribute to him with essays like ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’ and ‘Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism’.) After he died, American publishers issued English translations of many of his works, including Symbolic Forms. Interest in Cassirer gradually subsided. But over the years a handful of followers have been bringing out a new and improved version, in the hope of reviving his reputation and, as their publicity puts it, winning him the sort of recognition already enjoyed by Husserl, Heidegger and Wittgenstein.*

I wish them luck with that. It took me the best part of a locked-down month to get through Symbolic Forms – it is longer than War and Peace – and while I was constantly impressed by Cassirer’s scope, lucidity and command of detail, I felt starved of brilliance, insight and rigour. It was disappointing to find that Cassirer makes no attempt to explain why his three grand categories – language, myth and science – should be considered uniquely suited to mapping the structures of the human mind. He simply takes them for granted and divides and subdivides them and then fills them with illustrative details culled from his prodigious reading. He never wavers in his conviction that all the glories of human culture can be fitted together like a giant meta-cultural jigsaw puzzle, without a single gap or a single piece left over. Nothing makes him hesitate or reconsider, let alone despair. He is never surprised or excited.

On the other hand Cassirer is always pleasant literary company. Between the lines, you glimpse a lovable character bursting with curiosity: a David Attenborough of the cultural world, taking pleasure in every manifestation of symbolic activity from the humblest to the most magnificent. (He even embraced some snarky barbs directed at him by Heidegger and his students.) This congenial impression is confirmed many times over in a beautiful memoir, Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer, written by his widow, Toni, shortly after his death, but not published in full until 1981. She begins by recalling how they were introduced to each other in 1901, when she was an unworldly 18-year-old and he was 27 and already – as everyone took care to inform her – the holder of an outstanding doctorate in philosophy from Marburg and winner of a prize from the Berlin Academy of Sciences. He presented her with a copy of his book on Leibniz, which confounded her, so she decided to give herself a crash course in the history of philosophy (she never got further than the pre-Socratics).

They were married the following year, and while she was content to look on as he wrote book after book, she wasn’t the slightest bit interested: ‘I never wanted to learn the language of philosophy,’ she said, ‘and inwardly I always struggled against it.’ But it was the perfect hobby for a husband and father, not only because it kept him occupied, but also because it nourished his habit of finding nothing but goodness in everything and everyone he came across. Soon after getting married they wandered the streets of Berlin, and she marvelled as he greeted all sorts of acquaintances – a barber, a bank clerk, a servant or a professor – with exactly the same laughter, interest, respect and solicitude. Thanks to his philosophical labours, it seems, he was incapable of snobbery, incuriosity, rudeness, anger or disdain.

She loved him for his amiability and forbearance, but there was a snag. They had been born into different branches of a very prosperous Jewish family – he in Breslau, she in Vienna – but they hadn’t been brought up to think of themselves as Jews, and had never been exposed to antisemitism. Soon after meeting him, however, she began to notice some incongruities. She was bemused by his determination to subject himself to the pompous rituals of German university life, given that he was wealthy enough to become an independent man of letters; but then she heard him talk about his Marburg Doktorvater, Hermann Cohen. She discovered that Cohen attached enormous importance to his Jewishness (he thought of himself as ‘a Jew who happened to be German’), and that he took pride in being the first Jew to hold a chair in philosophy in Germany. She realised that her husband, too, perhaps unconsciously, considered himself duty-bound, as the Jewish student of a pioneering Jewish professor, to pursue a brilliant academic career.

Soon afterwards the young couple took a holiday, not in the kind of grand hotel to which they were accustomed but in a simple middle-class Pension on Lake Müritz in northern Germany. When Ernst had to leave on a trip for a few days the other guests welcomed Toni to their table. She found them perfectly pleasant, at least until they started talking about what should be done with the Jews. On Ernst’s return she told him about the encounter. He assured her that their fellow guests weren’t cannibals but good German Spießbürger, who might say silly things in private but would never dream of putting them into practice. She went on worrying for the next twenty years, and he went on looking on the bright side, but in 1933, when he was forced out of his job, he came round to her view. They shut up their beloved house in Hamburg, equipped themselves with poison in case they were caught, and left Germany for good.

To Toni’s amazement, he went on calmly writing books. He was, it seems, unable to believe his bad luck, and was fascinated by the new experiences that exile afforded him: the dowdiness and tactless provincialism of Oxford, the warm conviviality of Sweden, and – best of all – the brash commercialism of America. He was bemused by American antisemitism (‘restricted’ hotels in the Land der Freiheit) but he loved the busy streets and the big cars and above all the palatial drugstores where he could buy time-saving snacks. He was charmed by witty advertisements in the newspapers and commercial jingles on the radio, and was so taken with the Powers Girls that he resolved, with his customary smile, to follow their advice and never settle for any hair tonic except Kreml’s. But despite his affection for America, Toni knew that he could never abandon his ‘idea of Germany’ – ‘the land of Kant, Goethe and Beethoven’ – even if he was forced to concede that ‘human culture is by no means the firmly established thing that we once supposed it to be.’

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