The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer

The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer

by Donald Phillip Verene


Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Wednesday, October 24  Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.


The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer by Donald Phillip Verene

The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms marks the culmination of Donald Phillip Verene’s work on Ernst Cassirer and heralds a major step forward in the critical work on the twentieth-century philosopher. Verene argues that Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms cannot be understood apart from a dialectic between the Kantian and Hegelian philosophy that lies within it. 

Verene takes as his departure point that Cassirer never wishes to argue Kant over Hegel. Instead he takes from each what he needs, realizing that philosophical idealism itself did not stop with Kant but developed to Hegel, and that much of what remains problematic in Kantian philosophy finds particular solutions in Hegel’s philosophy. Cassirer never replaces transcendental reflection with dialectical speculation, but he does transfer dialectic from a logic of illusion, that is, the form of thinking beyond experience as Kant conceives it in the Critique of Pure Reason, to a logic of consciousness as Hegel employs it in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Cassirer rejects Kant’s thing-in-itself but he also rejects Hegel’s Absolute as well as Hegel’s conception of Aufhebung. Kant and Hegel remain the two main characters on his stage, but they are accompanied by a large secondary cast, with Goethe in the foreground. Cassirer not only contributes to Goethe scholarship, but in Goethe he finds crucial language to communicate his assertions. Verene introduces us to the originality of Cassirer’s philosophy so that we may find access to the riches it contains.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810127784
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 12/30/2011
Series: Topics in Historical Philosophy
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Donald Phillip Verene is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy and director of the Institute for Vico Studies at Emory University.

Read an Excerpt


Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer


Copyright © 2011 Donald Phillip Verene
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2778-4

Chapter One

Linguistic Form: The Critique of Reason Becomes the Critique of Culture

Critical Idealism

Cassirer's sentence, "The critique of reason becomes the critique of culture" (PSF 1:80), more than any other, captures the sense and aim of his philosophy. It is a motto. Cassirer regards the expansion of the Kantian concern with the critique of reason to the critique of culture as a natural and necessary step in the fruition of philosophical idealism. He says: "As long as philosophical thought limits itself to analysis of pure cognition, the naïve-realistic view of the world cannot be wholly discredited" (PSF 1:80). The transcendental method of asking how our knowledge of the object is possible and thereby discovering the principles of how we construct the object must be applied throughout all spheres of experience.

Each sphere of experience comes about through an original act of the human spirit. The purpose of philosophy is to delineate these areas as having their own formations of space, time, number, cause, and so forth. In its delineation philosophy acts as a modifying force within culture because of its concern with culture as a whole. It shows the validity of each sphere as relative to the validity of the others. Taken on its own terms individually, each sphere seeks "to imprint its own characteristic stamp on the whole realm of being and the whole life of the spirit. From this striving toward the absolute inherent in each special sphere arise the conflicts of culture and the antinomies within the concept of culture" (PSF 1:81).

Cassirer's attachment to critique does not allow him to adopt Hegel's "speculative sentence" (spekulativer Satz), in which the subject-term passes into the predicate-term and its meaning is so modified by its connection with the predicate that it emerges as a newly formed subject (PS 61–63). To accept this view of philosophical statement Cassirer would need to accept Hegel's principle of Aufhebung, in which each stage of consciousness is canceled yet preserved in a succeeding stage, until all the stages culminate in the synthesis of the stage of Absolute Knowing of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Cassirer says that Hegel's phenomenology of these stages has one purpose—to prepare the ground for logic. He says that as rich and diverse as these stages of consciousness are in their content, "their structure is subordinated to a single and, in a certain sense, uniform law—the law of dialectical method, which represents the unchanging rhythm of the concept's autonomous movement. All cultural forms culminate in absolute knowledge; it is here that the spirit gains the pure element of its existence, the concept [Begriff]" (PSF 1:83).

Cassirer understands Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit itself to be aufgehoben in Hegel's Science of Logic. He says: "Of all cultural forms, only that of logic, the concept, cognition [Erkenntnis], seems to enjoy a true and authentic autonomy" (PSF 1:83). Hegel's speculative logic is thought in discourse with itself, a self-development of the Begriff that finally arrives at the Absolute Idea. Cassirer finds this process to be the ultimate form of reductionism. He concludes: "With all Hegel's endeavor to apprehend the specific differentiations of the spirit, he ultimately refers and reduces its whole content and capacity to a single dimension—and its profoundest content and true meaning are apprehended only in relation to this dimension" (PSF 1:84).

Cassirer points out that this reduction of all cultural forms to the one form of logic appears to be inherent in the concept of philosophy itself and to be especially inherent in philosophical idealism. Philosophy that is based in the idea comes naturally to logic as the means through which ideas are rationally structured. The alternative to seeking the totality of cultural forms in the universal terms of logic is to seek their totality in historical terms. Apprehending cultural forms historically would preserve their particularity but would do so at the sacrifice of any sense of their logical unity. Cassirer claims: "An escape from this methodological dilemma is possible only if we can discover a factor which recurs in each basic cultural form but in no two of them takes exactly the same shape" (PSF 1:84).

This factor that recurs in each cultural form is the symbol, the major features of which were noted in the introduction. In accord with what was said earlier regarding the function-concept as the basis of the symbol, Cassirer speaks of an "index of modalities": "If we designate the various kinds of relation—such as relation of space, time, causality, etc.—as R1, R2, R3, we must assign to each one a special 'index of modality' [Index der Modalität], µ1, µ2, µ3, denoting the context of function and meaning in which it is to be taken. For each of these contexts, language as well as scientific cognition, art as well as myth, possesses its own constitutive principle which sets its stamp, as it were, on all the particular forms within it" (PSF 1:97).

Cassirer's concept of an index of modality plainly shows his commitment to transcendental, reflective, and critical understanding of the logical features of the symbolic forms. Regarded horizontally, so to speak, in the totality of cultural forms, each manifests the same kinds of relations that give them structure, but the modality of each varies. Regarded vertically, so to speak, in the totality of cultural forms, each interacts with each other form dialectically. They display internal development, and this internal development is in tension, not only with itself but also with the other forms in the totality of culture. But there is no overall dialectic governed by a telos of the Absolute.

The dilemma that Cassirer finds, in terms of the logical and the historical approach to the comprehension of cultural forms, is mirrored by a dilemma in Cassirer's own philosophical method. He says that in developing his account of language as a symbolic form "I have not been able to pursue any charted philosophical course, but have been compelled throughout to seek my own methodological path" (PSF 1:71). He says philosophical inquiry into language "can neither disregard empirical particulars nor can it wholly submit to them and still remain entirely faithful to its own mission and purpose. In the face of this methodological dilemma, the only possibility was to formulate the questions asked of linguistics with systematic universality, but in each case to derive the answers from actual empirical inquiry" (PSF 1:71).

This method of formulating questions from a purely philosophical and often specifically epistemological standpoint and seeking the answers in terms of the special sciences is pursued, by Cassirer, throughout his presentation of each of the symbolic forms. It is his own form of transcendentalism. If Cassirer errs in this twofold approach it is on the side of too much empirical detail, not on the side of becoming overly speculative in formulating or pursuing the questions.

Language as the First Symbolic Form

Why does Cassirer begin his multivolume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms with a volume on Language? Seen from one perspective, the "first" volume of this work is his earlier Substance and Function, and the first symbolic form is theoretical cognition as found in mathematics and the mathematical science of nature. Cassirer is clear that the basis of his conception of a philosophy of symbolic forms is first advanced in Substance and Function, but at the same time he realized that epistemology could not be limited to the natural sciences and exclude the problems of the cultural sciences (PSF 1:69). In Substance and Function science is not treated as such as a symbolic form. Such a treatment appears in the third part of the third volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and is restated many years later in the final chapter of An Essay on Man.

Why does Cassirer not begin the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms with an analysis of mythical thought, which is the subject of the second volume? Repeatedly throughout his corpus Cassirer asserts the primacy of myth, not only for an understanding of the origin of culture but also as the form of thought that lies at the beginning of any form of culture when it is approached genetically. In the volume on Language Cassirer begins his account of language with an analysis of it in its phase of sensuous expression that corresponds to the linguistic form from which mythical thought arises.

Language occupies a unique place in Cassirer's pantheon of symbolic forms because language enters into each of the other forms and in a sense makes them possible. Distinctive to science are mathematical formulae and systems of formal notation. But in order for these to be employed, linguistic statements are required. There is a language of science through which these formal systems live. Distinctive to myth is the narrative employment of language that expresses archetypal images of the cosmos, society, and the human being. Language is required for the production of religious and aesthetic imaginations and for historical investigation. Language is the medium of these and all other forms of culture.

There is the commonly held view that each area of human culture is a "language," such that there is a language of science, a language of art, a language of history, and so forth. But Cassirer does not regard the common element that runs through all spheres of culture to be the words and sentences of natural languages. The common denominator of all such spheres is the symbol—and the word and the sentence of natural languages is a particular form of the symbol. Although language makes both myth and science possible, there is a particular sense of the symbol that constitutes linguistic form per se. Language qua language, on Cassirer's view, neither presents the object in its pure immediacy to consciousness nor deliberately constructs the object from its own power to recapitulate systems of meaning. When consciousness uses language linguistically, it uses words or sentences to represent things or events or thoughts. Linguistic symbolism is representational symbolism. All natural languages are structures of representation.

In his exchange with Heidegger at Davos, Cassirer pointed to the importance of language as the key to the existence of a common human world in which we as individuals live and through which individual differences are bridged. Cassirer says: "This occurs repeatedly for me in the primal phenomenon of language. Each of us speaks his own language, and it is unthinkable that the language of one of us is carried over into the language of the other. And yet, we understand ourselves through the medium of language. Hence, there is something like the language. And hence there is something like a unity which is higher than the infinitude of the various ways of speaking. Therein lies what is for me the decisive point. And it is for that reason that I start from the Objectivity of the symbolic form, because here the inconceivable has been done."

Science is fundamental for Cassirer because its productions are not relative to any individual or any culture. There is no individual or private science and there is no sense of true science that is relative to the particular culture in which scientific discoveries are made. There is no such thing as Chinese science, or French science, or American science, beyond such phrases perhaps pointing to some cultural idiosyncrasy under which scientific research is conducted. The form of science and its findings are universal. Language, like science, offers an important form of objectivity. While each natural language forms a world, it is through language that individuals bridge their particularity. There are no private languages; each particular culture has a language.

One way to grasp why Cassirer moves from his account of science, in Substance and Function, to language as the way to begin the presentation of his philosophy of symbolic forms is that, in traditional terms, man is uniquely a rational animal and man's capacity of rationality produces science. Man is also uniquely a linguistic animal (the question of nonhuman languages will be treated in chapter 6). Man produces a common world by representing the world in words and sentences. Language allows human beings to place what is sensed at a distance and to approach the world mediately. Language mediates among individuals and between the individual and the objects experienced in the world external to the individual.

When Cassirer speaks of the unity of all languages he is not claiming, I think, that all languages can be reduced to some single entity or form. He is certainly aware of the radical differences among various languages and language groups, as investigated by linguistic studies. In the volume on Language there are citations concerning 110 different languages and language groups. What is achieved in any language is in one manner or another a representation of the object in which the linguistic act refers to the object as something having its own independent existence, the meaning of which is grasped in the linguistic formulation. Cassirer notes that "the true and original element of all language formation is not the simple word but the sentence" (PSF 1:303).


Cassirer discusses two forms of gesture that lie at the basis of sign language and that reflect the two basic tendencies of the linguistic act itself. Neither of these is derived from the other and both are routes by which language achieves its power of representation. "On one side stands the indicative [die hinweisenden] and on the other is the imitative gesture [die nachahmenden]" (PSF 1:180). The indicative gesture has its origin in the grasping movement manifested in human infants, which develops into a pointing movement, allowing an object too far away to be grasped, to be nonetheless designated. This primordial power of "pointing there" is bound up with our grasp of the world in its sensory immediacy. Cassirer regards conceptual knowledge as grounded in this original "pointing there." He says: "All progress in conceptual knowledge and pure 'theory' consists precisely in surpassing this first sensory immediacy. The object of knowledge recedes more and more into the distance, so that for knowledge critically reflecting upon itself, it comes ultimately to appear as an 'infinitely remote point,' an endless task" (PSF 1:181).

The mediate grasp of the object in thought that appears in the judgment and inference points to the logical concept which characterizes reason. Cassirer concludes that "both genetically and actually, there seems to be a continuous transition from physical to conceptual 'grasping.' Sensory-physical grasping becomes sensory interpretation which in turn conceals within it the first impulse toward the higher functions of signification [Bedeutungsfunktion] manifested in language and thought" (PSF 1:181).

In making this claim Cassirer plays upon the way in which the German word for concept implies a sense of mental grasping—"Griefen," grasping, "Begriefen," conceiving. He further plays on the sense in which, in German, "indication" is connected to "demonstration." He says: "We might suggest the scope of this development by saying that it leads from the sensory extreme of mere 'indication' (Weisen) to the logical extreme of 'demonstration' (Beweisen)" (PSF 1:181–82). To speak of something, that is, to formulate it in language, is in a significant sense to show it forth, that is, to demonstrate its meaning. The discursive power of language as the power to course through a subject matter provides the basis for its theoretical or orational understanding.

The imitative gesture in sign language in its purest form ties the maker of the gesture very closely to the outward sensory impression of the object. But, as Cassirer points out, most developed sign-language systems include an abundance of gestures that are symbolic in the sense that they do not mimic the object directly but designate its character indirectly. Cassirer claims that "the beginnings of phonetic language seem to be embedded in that sphere of mimetic representation and designation which lies at the base of sign language. Here the sound seeks to approach the sensory impression and reproduce its diversity as faithfully as possible" (PSF 1:190).

This use of language appears to be very close in principle to the mythic or purely expressive function of language. In the myth the sensory immediacy of the object is preserved. The word and the object are interwoven into a single plane of reality. The mimetic use of language can involve a kind of sound painting. Cassirer says: "Although this type of sound painting recedes as language develops, there is no language, however advanced, that has not preserved numerous examples of it. Certain onomatopoeic expressions occur with striking uniformity in all the languages of the globe" (PSF 1:190–91).


Excerpted from THE ORIGINS OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF SYMBOLIC FORMS by DONALD PHILLIP VERENE Copyright © 2011 by Donald Phillip Verene. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. 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.

Table of Contents















Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews