Symbolic Forms and Cultural Studies: Ernst Cassirer's Theory of Culture

Symbolic Forms and Cultural Studies: Ernst Cassirer's Theory of Culture

by Cyrus Hamlin

Cassirer thought of culture anthropologically as the entire complex of human modes of meaning and existence: it encompassed science, technology, language, and social life in addition to art, religion, and philosophy. This conception of culture and Cassirer’s theory of symbolism anticipated much of later cultural theory. In this collection of essays,


Cassirer thought of culture anthropologically as the entire complex of human modes of meaning and existence: it encompassed science, technology, language, and social life in addition to art, religion, and philosophy. This conception of culture and Cassirer’s theory of symbolism anticipated much of later cultural theory. In this collection of essays, eminent Cassirer scholars examine the many different aspects of his thinking on this subject and demonstrate how pioneering and important it is to cultural studies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This is the most comprehensive collection of serious scholarly studies on Cassirer's thought since the Library of Living Philosophers released its collection over fifty years ago. This collection rivals that one in scope and depth, and has the added benefit of historical distance."—Randall E. Auxier, Editor, Library of Living Philosophers

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

Symbolic Forms and Cultural Studies


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10329-8

Chapter One

The Variety of Symbolic Worlds and the Unity of Mind


Ernst Cassirer developed his philosophical conception during a period of new philosophical orientations. His book Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff came out in 1910. In France, Henri Bergson published his Essai sur le données immédiates de la conscience in 1889 and then in 1903 his even more influential Introduction á la métaphysique. In the United States, in 1904, Williams James published his famous article "Does Consciousness Exist?" and in 1907 his lectures on Pragmatism came out. In German philosophy we have on the one hand the dominance of neo-Kantianism and a variety of very traditional conceptions like scholasticism, historicism, or other forms of academic philosophy, and on the other hand a number of of new orientations. In 1913 Edmund Husserl outlined his Ideen zur einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. The great works of twentieth-century German philosophy date to the 1920s, among them Wittgenstein's Tractatus (published 1921), Cassirer's Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923, 1925, 1929), Heidegger'sSein und Zeit (1927), and Husserl's Krisisschrift (in part in 1936, in a critical edition in 1954), and, finally, Wittgenstein's Philosophische Untersuchungen (1953, though completed in 1949). Of course, there are other great works in German philosophy from the last century. But the works mentioned here, at any rate, belong to these great works and brought a decisive influence to bear on twentieth-century thought-and not only in German philosophy.

If one would try to characterize what is new in these works, what they brought about as new ways or keys to thinking, then there are-roughly-the following points:

1. We see an attempt to transcend the conceptual systems taken for granted in rationalistic systems of philosophy of reason as well as in empiricist epistemologies, an attempt to attain a greater closeness to experience in its totality, including our feelings, moods, and strivings (Husserl, Cassirer and Heidegger).

2. We have an attempt to relativize the conceptual and logical relationships as they had been developed in the framework of the rationalistic and empiricist traditions by a new reference to their linguistic and general symbolic realization, deepening our knowledge of the historical and cultural reality of the human mind (the early Wittgenstein and Cassirer).

3. We have an attempt to return philosophy from an orientation to the scientific construction of concepts and theories back to the everyday situations of human life and to the entirety of human existence (Husserl, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the late Wittgenstein).

It is no simple chance-and no rhetorical trick-that only the name of Cassirer occurs in all three perspectives. It is characteristic of Cassirer's thinking that he grapples with all perspectives of human existence and their different forms of expression. In this way he hopes to grasp what mankind really is in its entirety. His philosophy of symbolic forms can be defined by the following three seminal theses:

1. Scientific knowledge does not frame the pattern for our knowledge in general. On the contrary, our knowledge is to be considered as a variety of different forms of comprehending our world: "The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is not concerned exclusively or even primarily with the purely scientific, exact conceiving of the world; it is concerned with all the forms assumed by man's understanding of the world. It seeks to apprehend these forms in their diversity, in their totality, and in the inner distinctiveness of their several expressions."

2. The different ways of comprehending our world are connected to different symbolic forms which all have their own, irreducible principles of construction: "None of these forms [i.e., the symbolic forms] can simply be reduced to, or derived from, the others; each of them designates a particular approach, in which and through which it constitutes its own aspect of 'reality.'"

3. In these different ways of comprehending our world the emotional dimension of human existence is to be emphasized and reflected upon. "All thought and all sensory intuition and perception rest on an original foundation of feeling."

Plurality seems to be the main characteristic of Ernst Cassirer's philosophy, not only the plurality of the ways we comprehend our world, but also of the forms of our expression and existence. And this seems to be the point which makes him a modern thinker in whose work many intellectual streams come together. Actually, this characterization touches only one side of Cassirer's thinking. For his concern is not simply to show the plurality which governs human thinking and acting, but also to exhibit the unity of human relations to the world and of forms of existence. By acknowledging the variety and unity in man's intellectual life, Cassirer's thinking is drawn into a tension by which a certain ambivalence is conveyed into his thinking. This is not just a tension between two motives of his thinking, but a tension between the philosophical tradition within which Cassirer grew up and the modern world, many of whose developments were not recognized in this tradition. I will try to accentuate this tension as a main feature of his thinking.

Cassirer's intellectual origins are twofold. First, there is the tradition of Kantian philosophy especially in the form of the Marburg school represented by Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp. Second, there is the work of Goethe which not only intellectually fascinates him, but also accompanies him through his life in the thoroughly and literally weighty shape of the Weimar edition-even in the worried times of emigration.

Whereas the Kantian tradition emphasizes the unity of reason-a reason which is everywhere and always the same for everyone-Goethe stresses the variety of sensible and especially of creative forms of action and life. Cassirer settles the tension between these intellectual attitudes by raising this creative and shaping character to the definition of reason. Creative shaping in the sense of the production of forms is necessary for us to have an intellectual life at all. It is this concept of creative shaping which in Cassirer's eyes allows us to bring together the spontaneity of conscious reason and creativity in Goethe's sense.

The difficulties of such a mediation, which at first glance could appear as a trivializing harmonization, constitutes at the same time its fruitfulness. This mediation is difficult because where in Goethe the sensuous concrete forms of deeds and works represent and testify to the creativity of the mind, the spontaneity of reason resides for Kant only in the logical order of categories and forms of intuition. In his attempt to mediate between these two perspectives Cassirer focuses on the connection of the conceptual and perceptible worlds of sense and the sensory.

In a similar way the concept of creative shaping mediates between the two historical sources of the modern mind which Cassirer relies upon: the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. He is interested especially in the creative character of reason in both epochs. The Renaissance in his eyes represents a union of art and science, of shaping production and mathematical representation-a union which embodies reason in the production of works and in poeisis. In the Enlightenment he finds first and foremost "the fundamental tendency and main endeavor ... not simply to observe life and portray it in terms of reflective thought" but rather "an original spontaneity," attributing "to thought not merely an imitative function but the power and task of shaping life itself." Cassirer sees both epochs as stations in an overall movement, an unbroken line of development of reason to self-liberation from a heterogeneous life.

Actually, one could raise the same objection to both attempts at mediation, that they are not interpretations but rather intellectual inversions of Kant or Goethe, of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. But this is not the point here. What we are interested in is the central idea which provides the intellectual impulse for the systematic conception of Cassirer's philosophy. This central idea seems to be brought about by the aforementioned attempted mediations. But then it develops its own intellectual force, and this force is the guiding idea of the philosophy of symbolic forms. We can pursue the development of this guiding idea in two views of human life and action. On the one hand, we can focus on the expressive behavior of man, especially on the production of works as a form of expressive behavior. On the other hand, we can focus on the specific symbolic activities of man, the symbolic processes, including the production and use of signs.

Looking at the expressive and productive behavior of man we can state as a first principle of Cassirer's philosophical perspective that our intellectual and cultural existence is founded upon our action. "It is not mere observation but action which constitutes the center from which man undertakes the intelligent organization of reality. It is here that a separation begins to take place between the spheres of the objective and subjective, between the world of the I and the world of things." This founding of being on doing holds true in Cassirer's eyes for the entirety of intellectual and cultural reality. Only in his intellectual deeds does man grow to consciousness of himself. In and by his actions, the human world articulates and organizes itself into a cosmos, within which man is able to orient himself. Our entire intellectual cultural being is founded upon our acting and doing, that is, it is practically founded.

On further consideration we can make out three aspects of this philosophical conception:

1. Only in acting does being, that is, what someone or something really is, appear: "We can never lay bare the immediate life and being of consciousness as such." "The paradise of immediacy is closed to it." "For all these acts of expressing, representing and signifying are not immediately present as such and can never become visible except in their achievement as a whole. They are only insofar as they are active and manifest themselves in their action." In our doing and working we become who we are.

2. Our intellectual distinctions rest upon our actions, and our actions ensure their common use. Our actions are bodily concrete events which are elements of a common and public world. The internal connection of our linguistic and our symbolic distinctions in general with these public events consolidates the use and, thereby, the meaning of these distinctions.

3. Only in their constructive or investigative actions can the development of the sciences be founded and proved. Especially in his studies of the Renaissance, Cassirer accentuates this aspect of the practical foundation of the sciences and our intellectual life in general. Looking at Leonardo da Vinci, Cassirer points out that it was not the methodological element, that is, the well-defined and constructed conceptual order and the corresponding rules of procedure, which brought about the breakthrough of the new spirit in modern thought. It was rather the resolute putting aside not only of the language of the scholars but also of scholastic scholarship in general, which gave raise to the new spirit of the modern age. Not logic, which was oriented to linguistic grammar, but mathematics, not scholarly rumination on a procedure which set up the outcome in advance, but the technical trying-out of things were decisive factors in this change. Formulated a bit more loosely one could say that in Cassirer's view the main discovery of the Renaissance was that there is only learning by doing or, better, learning by producing something.

The conception of "doing by producing" is not only a question of style. On the contrary, it is founded upon the specific understanding of doing and action in general supposed by Cassirer. Doing in its founding function for being-as Cassirer conceived it-is shaping: shaping of expressive forms in general and of images and concepts in particular. In a very general way Cassirer defines our intellectual existence by the capability to bring the chaos of sensual impressions into a solid shape. So he writes that it is the common task of all symbolic forms and of the different products of our intellectual culture "to transform the passive world of mere impressions into a world of pure intellectual expression."

We are expressive beings able to give a form to expressions. Our mind is the capability or power to shape the forms of our figurative or conceptual expression. This is the meaning of Cassirer's famous formula that man is an animal symbolicum. Symbolic forms are ways of intellectual shaping. Using them or, better, intellectually moving in them, we produce and are confronted with fixed forms of expression, worlds of images and concepts which define our culture. That is why man as an expressive being is at the same time a cultural being.

One question evoked by this conception is whether the interpretation of human acting as the production of forms of expression is not an aesthetization of human existence? Such an all-encompassing aesthetization would conceive all our actions first and foremost as the presentation of our personality by a symbol-an image or a concept-of our acting, our attitude, or our view of life on the whole. Political necessities or technical relations, objective constraints, possibilities and tasks in these aesthetic points of view would appear only as moments or factors, as marginal circumstances of our main activity, i.e., of our presentational shaping and producing.

Actually, Cassirer himself raises this question of aesthetization particularly in regard to our technical acting. On the one hand, he emphasizes the objectifying role of the use of tools and thereby of our technical acting in general. For in our technical acting we are compelled to acknowledge the laws of reality. Our technical activity in this way becomes a principle of reality which make us learn the decisive difference between dream, wish, or fantasy and reality. "Natura non nisi parendo vincitur" is Francis Bacon's formula, which Cassirer quotes in this context. On the other hand, our technical acting is part of the overall task to shape the world in which we live and so to shape our own self. Technical acting as a moment of world- and self-shaping seems to be a specific variation on the main notion of a comprehensive aesthetization.

Cassirer's answer to this question, it seems, is not up to the standard of functional analysis he himself propagates in his philosophy of symbolic forms. Whereas technical work remains in a purely objective world, testifying only to itself and not to its creator, the work of art always testifies to the individual existence, the life of the artist. Aside from the difficulty of understanding contemporary works of art in this way, Cassirer's distinction does not address the core of the problem. This is the question of whether we should conceive the whole of human life and all human acting as a more or less successful shaping, a production of forms through which we express ourselves and perceive others.


Excerpted from Symbolic Forms and Cultural Studies Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Cyrus Hamlin is professor of comparative literature and German and the director of graduate studies in the department of comparative literature at Yale University. John Michael Krois teaches philosophy at the Humboldt-Unïversität zu Berlin.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >