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Cassirer's Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms: A Philosophical Commentary

Cassirer's Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms: A Philosophical Commentary

by Thora Ilin Bayer

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This book—the first commentary on Ernst Cassirer’s Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms—provides an introduction to the metaphysical views that underlie the philosopher’s conceptions of symbolic form and human culture.

Thora Ilin Bayer focuses on the meaning of Cassirer’s claim that philosophy is not itself a symbolic form but the


This book—the first commentary on Ernst Cassirer’s Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms—provides an introduction to the metaphysical views that underlie the philosopher’s conceptions of symbolic form and human culture.

Thora Ilin Bayer focuses on the meaning of Cassirer’s claim that philosophy is not itself a symbolic form but the thought around which all aspects of human activity are seen as a whole. Underlying the symbolic forms are Cassirer’s two metaphysical principles, spirit (Geist) and life, which interact to produce the reality of the human world. Bayer shows how these two principles of Cassirer’s early philosophy are connected with the phenomenology of his later philosophy, which centers on his conception of “basis phenomena”—self, will, and work.

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Jeffrey Andrew Barash
An important contribution to studies of Cassirer�s philosophy and of metaphysics in the twentieth century.

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Cassirer's Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms

A Philosophical Commentary
By Thora Ilin Bayer

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08331-9



At his death in 1945 Cassirer left a quantity of unpublished papers, among which were manuscripts concerning a "metaphysics of symbolic forms." These manuscripts were on a topic not previously thought to be part of his conception of a philosophy of symbolic forms. They have only recently come to light, and their appearance invites a new perspective, a new understanding of Cassirer's philosophy.

Cassirer left his professorship at the University of Hamburg in May of 1933, following Hitler's appointment as chancellor of Germany in January. As a Jew, Cassirer had no future in his homeland, and two months later he was formally dismissed, in absentia, from his university position. Cassirer taught for two years (1933-1935) at All Souls College, Oxford, before taking up a professorship at the University of Goteborg, Sweden. In 1941 he accepted a position at Yale University, and that summer the Cassirers came to the United States on the last ship to leave Sweden. At the time of his death, Cassirer had moved to an appointment at Columbia University. He died suddenly of a heart attack on the Columbia campus on April 13, 1945.

In the summer of 1946, after the end of World War II, Mrs. Cassirer returned to Sweden and brought to the United States the papers which her husband had left on their departure. The papers remained in storage and unexamined by any Cassirer scholar until 1972, when I surveyed them. They are now permanently housed at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

My survey of the papers led to the publication of a volume of twelve of Cassirer's essays and lectures from the last decade of his life, Symbol, Myth, and Culture. These were pieces in which Cassirer summarized and introduced to new audiences, in Sweden and principally in the United States, his conception of culture and symbolic form. Most prominent among the papers remained two manuscripts marked as an unpublished text of a fourth volume to his three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, published in the 1920s and translated into English in the 1950s. The first of these three volumes concerns language, the second, mythical thought, and the third is a phenomenology of knowledge, showing the genesis of scientific thought from pretheoretical expressive and representational functions of consciousness.

Cassirer's Unpublished Metaphysics

Missing in Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms was a treatment of the metaphysical principles that supported it. One of the principal criticisms made by Cassirer's first commentators, the contributors to a volume of twenty-three essays published on Cassirer's work in the Library of Living Philosophers series, was that Cassirer had no metaphysics or was in fact antimetaphysical. Several of these essays make this point quite strongly. Because Cassirer died during the preparation of this volume, which appeared in 1949, he made no reply to his critics as is usual in this series.

Cassirer had indicated in the preface to the third volume of his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms that he intended to publish a discussion of the principles of spirit (Geist) and life (Leben). He never did so, but in an essay on Max Scheler's philosophical anthropology that was printed in lieu of a reply in the Library of Living Philosophers volume, he made some leading comments about these two principles. The view that Cassirer had a philosophy without a metaphysics reinforced the popular view that his philosophy of symbolic forms was basically an extension of Marburg neo-Kantianism.

The Marburg neo-Kantians had focused their account of knowledge quite narrowly on forms of scientific and theoretical cognition. Cassirer was understood as simply extending the principles of Kantian critique to noncognitive areas of symbolic formation as found in myth, religion, art, and history. His philosophy was commonly seen as a series of analyses of various areas of human culture to show how each employs Kantian categories in different ways and how each can be understood as a type of knowledge.

But what understanding of reality, especially human reality, did this entail? Cassirer seemed not to have given a reply to this. His thought appeared to his readers and commentators as an expansion of Kantian epistemology coupled with work in the history of thought, represented by the ground-breaking studies he had written on the problem of knowledge in modern philosophy, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Platonic renaissance in England, and individual studies of various philosophers. Brand Blanshard, in a review of the last work Cassirer published, An Essay on Man (1944), saw Cassirer's philosophy still to be a series of scholarly researches not mobilized in the interest of any metaphysical theory.

The manuscripts that make up the fourth volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms appeared in a German edition in 1995 as the first volume in what is planned to be a twenty-volume edition of Cassirer's unpublished papers. The following year, this volume appeared in an American edition, which John Michael Krois and I edited. Cassirer's title for this volume is The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms. The first part of it, written in 1928 at the time he was finishing the third volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, concerns the principles of spirit (Geist) and life (Leben).

The second part, written in Sweden about 1940, shortly before his departure for the United States, introduces his concept of "basis phenomena" (Basisphanomene), an idea Cassirer writes of nowhere else in his published or unpublished works. These phenomena, for which Cassirer uses various terms, including "I," "action," and "the work," underlie all human experience and make human reality possible. The concept of basis phenomena, coupled with the great distinction between spirit and life, constitute Cassirer's metaphysics and offer the most that he has said about how his concept of symbolic form is grounded in a concept of the real.

It was a unique event in twentieth-century philosophy that an unknown major work of a major philosopher came to light so long after his death. The papers of figures such as Husserl and Peirce have, as a body, influenced the understanding of their thought. In Cassirer's case, here is a single, complicated work that changes one's opinion of his philosophy and how he ultimately understood his philosophy.

It is a work that requires a commentary, and the exposition by Thora Ilin Bayer that follows is extraordinarily useful-indeed, essential-for the comprehension of Cassirer's metaphysics. No other commentary currently exists on this work. Bayer's commentary is keyed to the text with references to the pages of the English and German editions, but it is also written as a narrative that can be read on its own, which allows the reader to see much of what Cassirer himself saw when reflecting on his own philosophy. Bayer does not propose to solve problems that may lie within Cassirer's metaphysics. Her method of commentary takes the reader progressively through Cassirer's claims, and she reminds the reader how each point stands in relation to the general themes of Cassirer's position.

The publication and analysis of Cassirer's metaphysics comes at a time of new international interest in Cassirer studies. Several of Cassirer's works of original philosophy have been continuously in print since their first publication in English. This has been true of the three volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms since their translation into English in the 1950s, and of An Essay on Man (1944) and The Myth of the State (1946). These last two works, which Cassirer wrote in English while at Yale, have been translated into every major European and Asian language. This is a remarkable record of readership. Cassirer is one of those philosophers, along with Dewey, Whitehead, Nietzsche, and the Existentialists, to mention a few, whose works have attracted continual attention beyond professional philosophy and academics.

Almost since their publication, Cassirer's The Philosophy of the Enlightenment and The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy have been standard texts in the history of ideas. But it is only within the last decade that Cassirer's original philosophy has begun to receive systematic scholarly attention. The beginning of this period is marked by the appearance of John Michael Krois's Cassirer: Symbolic Forms and History, for some time the only major study in English of Cassirer's philosophy. Although before that some valuable critical writings on Cassirer had appeared, it is only in the past few years that a body of work on Cassirer has begun to accumulate and that a common interest in Cassirer's work has developed that has brought together scholars from various countries and in various fields.

Evidence of this is the formation in the last several years of an International Ernst Cassirer Society (Internationale Ernst Cassirer-Gesellschaft), which has been involved in several conferences and meetings held on Cassirer's philosophy in Europe and in the publication of various volumes of essays on Cassirer. A yearlong cycle of lectures on Cassirer was organized at the University of Hamburg, the papers of which have appeared as Ernst Cassirers Wesen und Wirkung.

Two major international and interdisciplinary conferences held in the past few years brought together scholars principally from the United States, Germany, France, and Israel; one in October 1996 at Yale University, the other in May 1998 in Israel. Both of these focused attention on Cassirer's metaphysics, including his conceptions of symbol and culture. In addition to the edition of Cassirer's unpublished papers just mentioned, the publication of a twenty-five volume edition of all of Cassirer's previously published works has begun to appear in German. New studies and editions of Cassirer's works continue to appear in Germany as well as in France and Italy.

All of this was inconceivable only a few years ago. The danger is that Cassirer will become an industry, as has occurred with other figures. But these publishing commitments and the memberships in the Cassirer society represent a genuine new interest in Cassirer's work, which attracts not only philosophers but scholars from across the humanities.

The cause of this pattern of interest is probably twofold. Perhaps one cause is simply that the existence and nature of an archive of unpublished work by a major thinker, who writes about topics of contemporary appeal, has been brought to light. This in itself excites interest. The second cause very possibly lies in the connection between Cassirer's thought and certain movements in contemporary thought, such as structuralism, phenomenology, linguistics, and hermeneutics. To cite one example, Cassirer's posthumous article in the first volume of the journal Word, titled "Structuralism in Modern Linguistics" (1946), became a source for the term "structuralism."

Beyond its connections with these movements and their methods, which have strongly influenced the fields of the humanities, Cassirer's approach to culture offers a total philosophy. In Cassirer's philosophy the perennial questions are still alive. Cassirer's thought proceeds without a technical vocabulary and offers a way to consider the ancient Socratic questions about the nature of the human world and the nature of self-knowledge. Cassirer offers intellectual morale. His works are readable, and he brings the whole of human culture back into view, and with it the viability of a metaphysics of culture.

Beyond the incorporation of Cassirer's ideas in the works of Susanne Langer, no school of Cassirerian philosophy was ever formed. Cassirer had to leave Germany just at the time when many scholars there were beginning to study critically his volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. He left Oxford after only two years for Goteborg and six years later came to the United States, while the war was still in progress. Cassirer never had a proper place or a good situation in which to present his new philosophy in a sustained manner to advanced students or to colleagues. He would in all likelihood have enjoyed more favorable conditions in the United States following the war, but his sudden, untimely death precluded him from doing so.

To approach Cassirer's metaphysics, which is a new key to his thought, the reader may wish to have in mind the development of his philosophy. Cassirer published more than 125 books and articles in a period of nearly fifty years, including several items that appeared posthumously. These works comprise 11,380 pages, not including Cassirer's unpublished papers-more pages than the Prussian Academy edition of Kant's collected works. In what follows I have divided Cassirer's work into four periods. Within each of these, and throughout his career, there is a dialectic between his works of systematic philosophy and his historical studies. Each of these supplements the other.

Cassirer never wished to "throw his ideas into empty space" but always saw the need to ground his philosophy in the history of thought. This dialectic between philosophy proper and history is both Cassirer's strength and his weakness. The meaning and originality of his philosophical ideas are revealed through their connections with the thought of others, yet his continual quotations and historical discussions tend to absorb his ideas and inhibit his ability to develop further statements of them on their own terms. This is his style of thought, even in his work on metaphysics. One of the virtues of the commentary that follows is that it allows us to focus on the ideas themselves and their structure. Because Cassirer moved back and forth throughout his career between so many subjects, the four divisions that follow should not be regarded as sharp divisions in his thought. They are general positions from which most of the various threads of his thought can be grasped.

Marburg Neo-Kantianism and the Problem of Knowledge

Cassirer wrote his doctoral dissertation under Hermann Cohen at the University of Marburg in 1899, "Descartes' Critique of Mathematical and Natural Scientific Knowledge." This became the introduction to his first book, which appeared three years later, Leibniz' System (1902). Cohen had founded the Marburg school of neo-Kantianism about 1870.


Excerpted from Cassirer's Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms by Thora Ilin Bayer Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Jeffrey Andrew Barash
An important contribution to studies of Cassirer's philosophy and of metaphysics in the twentieth century.
—author of Martin Heidegger and the Problem of Historical Meaning

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