A Positive Future

David Simpson

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

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in