July 28, 1874|
Breslau, Silesia, Prussia
(now Wrocław, Poland)
|Died||April 13, 1945
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Academic advisors||Hermann Cohen
|Notable students||Hans Reichenbach
Nimio de Anquín
Ernst Cassirer (/, /; German: [kaˈsiːʁɐ]; July 28, 1874 – April 13, 1945) was a German philosopher. Trained within the Neo-Kantian Marburg School, he initially followed his mentor Hermann Cohen in attempting to supply an idealistic philosophy of science; after Cohen's death, he developed a theory of symbolism, and used it to expand phenomenology of knowledge into a more general philosophy of culture. He is one of the leading 20th century advocates of philosophical idealism.
Cassirer was born in Breslau (Silesia, modern day southwest Poland), into a Jewish family. He studied literature and philosophy at the University of Berlin. After working for many years as a Privatdozent at the Friedrich Wilhelms University in Berlin, he was elected in 1919 to the Philosophy chair at the newly founded University of Hamburg, where he lectured until 1933, supervising amongst others the doctoral thesis of Leo Strauss. Because he was Jewish, he left Germany when the Nazis came to power.
After leaving Germany he taught for a couple of years in Oxford, before becoming a professor at Gothenburg University. When Cassirer considered Sweden too unsafe, he applied for a post at Harvard, but was rejected because thirty years earlier he had rejected a job offer from them. In 1941 he became a visiting professor at Yale University, before moving to Columbia University in New York City, where he lectured from 1943 until his death in 1945.
His son, Heinz Cassirer, was also a Kantian scholar.
History of science
Cassirer's first major published writings were a history of modern thought from the Renaissance to Kant. In accordance with his Marburg neo-Kantianism he concentrated upon epistemology. His reading of the scientific revolution, in books such as The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (1927), as a “Platonic” application of mathematics to nature, influenced historians such as E. A. Burtt, E. J. Dijksterhuis, and Alexandre Koyré.
Philosophy of science
In Substance and Function (1910), he writes about late nineteenth-century developments in physics including relativity theory and the foundations of mathematics. In Einstein's Theory of Relativity (1921) he defended the claim that modern physics supports a neo-Kantian conception of knowledge. He also wrote a book about Quantum mechanics called Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics (1936).
Philosophy of symbolic forms
At Hamburg Cassirer discovered the Library of the Cultural Sciences founded by Aby Warburg. Warburg was an art historian who was particularly interested in ritual and myth as sources of surviving forms of emotional expression. In Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923–1929) Cassirer argues that man (as he put it in his more popular 1944 book Essay on Man) is a "symbolic animal". Whereas animals perceive their world by instincts and direct sensory perception, humans create a universe of symbolic meanings. Cassirer is particularly interested in natural language and myth. He argues that science and mathematics developed from natural language, and religion and art from myth.
In 1929 Cassirer took part in an historically significant encounter with Martin Heidegger in Davos. Cassirer argues that while Kant's Critique of Pure Reason emphasizes human temporality and finitude, he also sought to situate human cognition within a broader conception of humanity. Cassirer challenges Heidegger's relativism by invoking the universal validity of truths discovered by the exact and moral sciences.
Philosophy of the Enlightenment
Cassirer believed that reason's self-realization leads to human liberation. Mazlish (2000) however notes that Cassirer in his The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932) focuses exclusively on ideas, ignoring the political and social context in which they were produced.
The Logic of the Cultural Sciences
In The Logic of the Cultural Sciences (1942) Cassirer argues that objective and universal validity can not only be achieved in the sciences, but also in practical, cultural, moral, and aesthetic phenomena. Although inter-subjective objective validity in the natural sciences derives from universal laws of nature, Cassirer asserts that an analogous type of inter-subjective objective validity takes place in the cultural sciences.
The Myth of the State
Cassirer's last work The Myth of the State (1946) was published posthumously; at one level it is an attempt to understand the intellectual origins of Nazi Germany. Cassirer sees Nazi Germany as a society in which the dangerous power of myth is not checked or subdued by superior forces. The book discusses the opposition of logos and mythos in Greek thought, Plato's Republic, the medieval theory of the state, Machiavelli, Thomas Carlyle's writings on hero worship, the racial theories of Arthur de Gobineau, and Hegel. Cassirer claimed that in 20th century politics there was a return, with the passive acquiescence of Martin Heidegger, to the irrationality of myth, and in particular to a belief that there is such a thing as destiny. Of this passive acquiescence, Cassirer says that in departing from Husserl's belief in an objective, logical basis for philosophy, Heidegger attenuated the ability of philosophy to oppose the resurgence of myth in German politics of the 1930s.
- Substance and Function (1910) & Einstein's Theory of Relativity (1921), English translation 1923 (at archive.org)
- Kant's Life and Thought (1918), English translation 1981
- The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science, and History since Hegel (1919), English translation 1950 (online edition)
- Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923–29), English translation 1953–1957
- Language and Myth (1925), English translation 1946 by Susanne K. Langer
- The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (1927), English translation 1963 by Mario Domandi
- Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), English translation 1951
- Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics: Historical and Systematic Studies of the Problem of Causality (1936), English translation 1956
- The Logic of the Cultural Sciences (1942), English translation 2000 by S.G. Lofts (previously translated in 1961 as The Logic of the Humanities)
- An Essay on Man (written and published in English) (1944)
- The Myth of the State (written and published in English) (posthumous) (1946)
- Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer, 1935-1945 ed. by Donald Phillip Verene (March 11, 1981)
References and further reading
- Barash, Jeffrey Andrew. The Symbolic Construction of Reality: The Legacy of Ernst Cassirer (2008) (excerpt and text search)
- Friedman, Michael. A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (2000) (excerpt and text search)
- Gordon, Peter Eli. Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (2010)
- Krois, John Michael. Cassirer: Symbolic Forms and History (1987)
- Schilpp, Paul Arthur (ed.). The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (1949)
- Schultz, William. Cassirer & Langer on Myth (2nd ed. 2000) (excerpt and text search)
- Skidelsky, Edward. Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture (Princeton University Press, 2008), 288 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-13134-4. (excerpt and text search)
- Hardy, Anton G. "Symbol Philosophy and the Opening into Consciousness and Creativity" (2014) ()
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