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The Logic of the Cultural Sciences: Five Studies

The Logic of the Cultural Sciences: Five Studies

by Ernst Cassirer, S.G. Lofts (Translator)
This new translation of The Logic of the Cultural Sciences (formerly entitled The Logic of the Humanities) makes Ernst Cassirer's classic study, long out of print, available to English readers. A German Jew living in exile at the beginning of the Second World War, Cassirer wrote this book—one of his clearest and most concise--in response to the


This new translation of The Logic of the Cultural Sciences (formerly entitled The Logic of the Humanities) makes Ernst Cassirer's classic study, long out of print, available to English readers. A German Jew living in exile at the beginning of the Second World War, Cassirer wrote this book—one of his clearest and most concise--in response to the crises besetting his era. It represented to him a rethinking and completion of his magnum opus The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. S. G. Lofts's translation stays close to the original German and accurately reflects the echoes of the philosophical debates of Cassirer's day.

In the book's five linked studies, Cassirer considers the intellectual structure of the disciplines we commonly refer to as the humanities. He defines and justifies the basic philosophical perspective of the philosophy of symbolic forms, and he contributes a wealth of ideas to continuing debates about culture and what is unique in human nature.

About the Author:
S. G. Lofts is Humboldt Fellow at the University of Heidelberg.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Cassirer Lectures Series
Product dimensions:
8.28(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.45(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Logic of the Cultural Sciences

By Ernst Cassirer

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2000 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08114-6

Chapter One


The Object of the Science of Culture


Plato has said that astonishment is the authentic philosophical emotion, and that we must see in it the root of all philosophical activity. If that is so, the question arises as to what objects first awakened this astonishment in man, and thus led him to the path of philosophical reflection. Were these objects "physical" or "spiritual"? Was it the order of nature or was it man's own creations that took the lead? It may appear that the most obvious hypothesis is that the astronomical world first began the ascent out of the chaos. We encounter the veneration of the stars in almost all the great cultural religions. Here man was first able to free himself from the stifling spell of feeling and to rise up to a freer and larger intuition over the whole of being. The subjective passion that strives to subdue nature through magical powers receded; in its place there stirs the idea of a universal objective order. In the trajectory of the stars, in the exchange of day and night, in the regular return of the seasons man found the first great example of a uniform event. This event was raised infinitely above his own sphere and completely removed from the power of his will and desire. It retained nothing of that temperamentality and unpredictability that characterize not only ordinary human action but also the activity of the "primitive" demonic powers. That there is an effect and thus a "reality" that is enclosed within fixed boundaries and bound to certain unchangeable laws: such was the insight that began to dawn here for the first time.

But this feeling must immediately be connected with another. For even closer to man than the order of nature stands that order that he finds in his own world. Here, too, it is by no means mere arbitrariness that rules. From his first movements, the individual sees himself determined and limited by something over which he has no power. It is the power of custom that binds him. It watches over his every step and allows scarcely a moment of free space in his activity. Not only his actions, but also his feelings and ideas, his beliefs and delusions are governed by it. Custom is the perpetually constant atmosphere in which he lives and exists; he cannot escape from it any more than from the air that he breathes. It is no wonder that in his thought also the intuition of the physical world cannot be separated from the ethical world. Both belong together, and they are one in their origin. In their cosmology and in their ethics, all the great religions have been based upon this theme. They are in agreement, insofar as they attribute the creator-god a double role and the twofold task of being the founder of the astronomical and ethical order and of saving both from the forces of chaos. In the Gilgamesh epic, in the Vedas, in the Egyptian account of creation we find the same intuition. In the Babylonian myth of creation Marduk leads the fight against the shapeless chaos, against the monster Tiamat. After his victory over it, he erects the eternal signs and symbols of the cosmic and civil order. He determines the trajectory of the stars; he sets down the signs of the zodiac; he fixes the succession of the days, months, and years. And at the same time he sets the boundaries to human action that cannot be crossed unpunished; it is he who "looks into the innermost depths, who does not permit the evildoer to escape, who breaks the insubordinate and succeeds in establishing the law."

To this miracle of the ethical order, however, others no less imposing and mysterious are joined. For everything that man creates, and that comes forth from his own hands, still surrounds him as an incomprehensible mystery. When he considers his works, he is very far from suspecting himself as their creator. They stand far above him; they are not only far beyond that which the individual is able to achieve but also beyond everything that the species is able to achieve. If man attributes them an origin, it can only be a mythical origin. A god has created them; a savior brought them down from heaven to earth and taught man their use. Such myths of culture traverse the mythology of all times and all peoples. What the technical skill of man has produced over the course of the centuries and millennia are not deeds accomplished by him but gifts and presents from above. For each tool there exists such a supernatural origin. Among some primitive peoples still today-for example the Ewe in South-Togoland-sacrifices are offered at the annual harvest banquet to certain individual tools such as the ax, the plane, and the saw. And the intellectual instruments that man has himself created must appear still further removed from him than these material tools. They too are regarded as manifestations of a power that is infinitely superior to his own. This applies above all to language and writing, the conditions of all human relations and all human community. The god from whose hand writing has emerged always possesses a particular and privileged place in the hierarchy of divine powers. In Egypt the moon god Thoth appears at once as the "scribe of the gods" and as the judge of the heavens. It is he who allows gods and men to know what is due to them; for it is he who determines the measure of things. Speech and writing are considered as the origin of measure; for they are characterized above all by the ability to fix the fleeting and variable and to remove it from the accidental and arbitrary.

Already in the sphere of myth and religion, we sense in all this the feeling that human culture is not something given and self-evident, but rather that it is a kind of miracle that requires explanation. But this leads to a deeper self-contemplation as soon as man not only feels himself called and authorized to pose such questions, but instead goes beyond this to develop a separate and independent procedure, a "method" by means of which he can answer them. This step occurs for the first time in Greek philosophy-and herein lies its meaning as the great spiritual turning point in history. Here, for the first time, a new power is discovered which alone can lead to the science of nature and to the science of human culture. In the place of the undetermined multiplicity of mythical attempts at explanation, which turn sometimes toward one phenomenon and sometimes toward another, steps the idea of the general unity of being, to which the same unity of cause must correspond. This unity is accessible only to pure thought. The numerous colorful and diverse creations of the myth-forming imagination [Phantasie] are now subjected to the critique of thinking and thus uprooted. But to this critical task a new positive task is coupled. Thinking must, out of its own powers and out of its own responsibility, reconstruct that which it has destroyed. In the systems of the pre-Socratics we can follow with what admirable consistency this task was tackled and carried out step by step. In Plato's doctrine of Ideas and in Aristotle's metaphysics it found a solution that remained for centuries decisive and exemplary. Such a synthesis would not have been possible if it had not been preceded by a monumental work of individual thinkers. In it a number of tendencies are involved which at first sight appear to be diametrically opposed and take very different ways in their approach to posing and solving problems. Nevertheless, if we consider its starting point and its goals, it becomes possible for us to sum up this whole monumental work of thought to some extent in one fundamental idea, which Greek philosophy first discovered, and which it developed and expanded upon in all its factors. It is the concept of logos that played this role in the development of Greek thought. Already in its first expression, which it found in the philosophy of Heraclitus, we sense its meaning and future richness. Heraclitus's doctrine appears, at first sight, to rest completely on the Ionian philosophy of nature. He too sees the world as a totality of materials that transform themselves reciprocally into each other. However, this appears to him only as the surface of events, behind which he wants to make visible a depth that has not yet disclosed itself to thinking. The Ionians, too, did not want to content themselves with the mere knowledge of the "what"; they asked about the "how" and the "why." But this question is posed by Heraclitus in a new and much more rigorous sense. And by putting it this way, he is aware that perception, within whose limitations the previous philosophical speculation of nature had moved, is no longer able to answer them. Only thought can give us the answer: for here, and here alone, is man freed from the limits of his individuality. He no longer follows his "own opinion," but rather he grasps something general and divine. A universal world of law has replaced "private" insight, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. It is in this way, according to Heraclitus, that man first escaped from the mythical dream world, and from the narrow and limited world of sense perception. For this is precisely the character of being awake and of having awoken, that individuals possess a common world, while in dreams each lives in his own world and remains stuck and immersed in it.

With this the whole of Western thought was given a new task and embedded in a new direction from which subsequently it has never been able to deviate. Ever since this thinking went through the school of Greek philosophy, all knowledge of reality has, to some extent, been bound to the fundamental concept of logos-and thus to "logic" in the largest sense of the word. Nor did this change when philosophy was displaced from its sovereign position and the "universal and divine" were sought in another place inaccessible to it. Christianity contests Greek intellectualism but cannot, and does not want to, return to a mere irrationalism: for the concept of logos is also deeply embedded in it. The history of Christian dogmatics shows the persistent struggle that the fundamental motives of the Christian religion of salvation had to lead against the spirit of Greek philosophy. Considered from the perspective of intellectual history, there was in this struggle neither a victor nor a vanquished; but nor could a real internal reconciliation of this conflict ever come about. It will always be futile to attempt to bring the concept of logos of Greek philosophy and of the Gospel according to John under one denominator. For the mode of mediation between the individual and the universal, the finite and the infinite, man and God is quite different in each case. The Greek concept of being and the Greek concept of truth are to be compared, according to the simile of Parmenides, to a "well-rounded sphere" that rests firmly on its own center. Both are complete and perfect in themselves; and between them exists not only a harmony but a genuine identity. The dualism of the Christian worldview brings this identity to an end. Henceforth no effort of knowledge and pure thought is able to heal this rift that cuts through being. Admittedly, Christian philosophy too by no means renounced the aspiration toward unity that belongs to the concept of philosophy. However, as little as it is able to resolve the tension between these two opposing poles, it nevertheless tries to reconcile them within its own sphere and with its own ways of thinking. All the great systems of scholastic philosophy have grown out of such attempts. None of them dares to contest the opposition that exists between revelation and reason, between belief and knowledge, between the regnum gratiae and the regnum naturae [the realm of grace and the realm of nature]. Reason, philosophy, cannot by its own powers construct a worldview; all elucidation of which it is capable originates not from itself but from another and higher source of light. But if it holds its gaze firmly directed toward this source of light-if, instead of opposing an independent and automatic power to faith, it allows itself to be guided and directed by it-then it will reach its assigned goal. The basic force of faith, which can be bestowed on man only through a direct act of grace, through divine illuminatio, determines both the content and the extent of knowledge. In this sense the term fides quaerens intellectum [faith seeking understanding] becomes the quintessence and motto of all medieval Christian philosophy. In the systems of high scholasticism, and particularly in Thomas Aquinas, it might appear as if the synthesis had been accomplished and the lost harmony restored. "Nature," "grace," "reason," and "revelation" do not contradict each other; on the contrary, the one points to the other and leads to it. As a result, the cosmos of culture appears once again closed and related to a fixed religious center.

But this elaborately constructed structure of scholasticism, in which the Christian faith and ancient philosophical knowledge should have reciprocally supported and maintained each other, collapses before that new ideal of knowledge that has determined and shaped, more than anything else, modern science. The mathematical science of nature returns to the ancient ideal of knowledge. Kepler and Galileo are able to begin directly from the fundamental ideas of Pythagoras, Democritus, and Plato. But at the same time, in their research these ideas assume a new meaning. For they are able to build the bridge between the intelligible and the sensuous, between the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [the intelligible universe and the visible universe], in a way that had continued to elude ancient science and philosophy. Before mathematical knowledge the last barrier separating the "sensuous world" and the "world of understanding" now appears to fall. Matter as such proves to be permeated with the harmony of number and to be ruled by the lawfulness of geometry. Before this universal order all those oppositions that had found their fixation in Aristotelico-scholastic physics disappeared. There is no opposition between the "common" and the "superior" world, between the world "above" and the world "below." The world is one, as surely as the knowledge of the world, the mathematics of the world is and can only be one. This basic idea of modern research found its radical philosophical legitimization in Descartes's concept of mathesis universalis. The cosmos of universal mathematics, the cosmos of order and measure, encloses and exhausts all knowledge. It is in itself completely autonomous; it requires no support and can acknowledge no other support than the one that it finds in itself. Now, for the first time, reason grasps the whole of being in its clear and distinct ideas, and only now is it able to completely penetrate and dominate this whole with its own powers.


Excerpted from The Logic of the Cultural Sciences by Ernst Cassirer Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Donald Phillip Verene
Philosophy of culture is one of the youngest fields of philosophy, and the work of Cassirer, more than that of anyone else, has given it shape. . . . S. G. Lofts offers a valuable translation of this most rewarding and crucial work of Cassirer.
—(Donald Phillip Verene, from the foreword)

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