Philosophy against Misosophy



Ernst Cassirer


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Donald Phillip Verene

From The Monist, 50:4, October 1966, 553-564. 

Post October 9, 2008


Cassirer’s View of Myth and Symbol

Donald Phillip Verene  

The work of Ernst Cassirer is concerned perhaps more than that of any other contemporary philosopher with myth and symbol.1  His theory of myth is an attempt to assess the philosophical significance of the data that anthropology has uncovered about man and the origin of culture and to regard a theory of primitive modes of thought as an essential part of a general theory of knowledge.  Many twentieth-century philosophers have examined the data of the physical and biological sciences and psychology, and employed it in formulating their epistemologies, but few have given attention to anthropological materials.2  A similar situation exists in regard to Cassirer’s concept of symbol.  A number of philosophers have been concerned with the nature of symbol, and particularly with the distinction between signals, signs, and symbols, but their concern has been associated for the most part with problems arising in logic and semantics.3  Cassirer regards the ability to symbolize as the distinguishing feature of human thought and considers all knowing as symbolic.  For Cassirer the nature of symbol is not a special problem in epistemology; it is the central issue.  He terms his philosophy “the philosophy of symbolic forms.”

My concern in this paper is to examine Cassirer’s theory of myth and his concept of symbol insofar as it relates to myth.  Cassirer’s theory of knowledge is built upon the premise that each of the major areas of culture, such as myth, represents a different type of knowledge and has its own logic; he terms each of these a “symbolic form.4  My specific concern, then, is to interpret and evaluate Cassirer’s theory of myth as a symbolic form.  Cassirer treats myth in two ways: (1) as the form of primitive thought; and (2) as a force in modern political life.  His account of myth as the form of primitive thought provides the basis for his account f the role of myth in modern society.  I wish to argue that Cassirer’s theory of myth is in its essential position tenable and fruitful, but that it may be questioned in two respects: (1) as a theory of primitive consciousness it fails to recognize adequately that the primitive has in addition to his mythical concept of the world a body of knowledge that can be described as rational and empirical; and (2) as a theory of the dynamics of modern political life it fails to recognize adequately the creative and perhaps necessary role that myth plays in rationalistic societies.  I should like first to exposit what I take to be the general outlines of Cassirer’s theory of myth and then to pose the above problem in terms of it.

Cassirer’s theory of myth cannot be understood apart from his general philosophical position.  The starting point for his philosophy of symbolic forms is Kant.  Cassirer takes Kant’s “revolution in method” as decisive—that instead of starting with the object as known and given, we must begin with an analysis of reason an determine the object by the way in which it is known.5  Although Cassirer adopts this principle and considers it the fundamental principle of idealism, he regards Kant’s philosophy to be inadequate as it stands.  In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant defines the object solely in terms of the concepts of physical science.  These concepts, Cassirer maintains, do not exhaust objectivity as such.  He regards Kant himself as realizing the narrowness of this position and Cassirer views the later two Critiques as attempts to account for other realms of objectivity.  Kant examines the realm of ethical freedom in the Critique of Practical Reason and the realms of art and organic natural forms in the Critique of Judgment.6 Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms is an attempt to continue this tendency in Kantian thought by regarding each major area of culture as having its own distinctive sort of objectivity.  In this way, Cassirer maintains, “the critique of reason becomes the critique of culture.7  The forms of culture that Cassirer examines in addition to myth are religion, language, art, history, and science.8  

Cassirer’s theory of symbol is also based on Kant.  Kant regards the object as the result of a synthesis of a perceptual manifold which involves the mind bringing the categories into connection with intuition.  The categories considered in their connection with intuition Kant terms the schema.  The schema is the idea of a sensuous-intellectual form.9  Cassirer’s theory of the symbol is essentially a reshaping of Kant’s idea of the schema.10  The symbol, Cassirer maintains, is not an accidental instrument of thought: it is the medium through which all thought occurs.11  Without symbols we could not accomplish the fundamental task of thought, that of apprehending the universal in the particular.12  A symbol, Cassirer maintains, is both sensuous and intellectual.  The spoken word, for example is at once something physical, a breath of air, and something intellectual, for it has a meaning.13  Cassirer and Kant are both concerned with the idea of a sensuous-intellectual form.  Cassirer does not conceive it as something that is reached by analysis, as its Kant’s schema, but as something that is phenomenally present in the symbol.  All symbols, whether they be mythic or artistic images, the words of natural languages, or scientific formulas, are similar in that they are the means by which a synthesis is created in the perceptual manifold.14  A further aspect of symbols, Cassirer maintains, is that they do not stand in isolation but have multiple connections with each other.  Each symbol is a factor in some system of symbols that is comprised by one of the major areas of culture, such as myth, religion, language, art, history, or science.  Each of these, Cassirer maintains, represents in largest terms the ways in which the perceptual manifold is brought under a synthesis.15

Cassirer’s theory of myth as a symbolic form is essentially an account of primitive consciousness that is built upon a framework similar to that which Kant constructs for experience in general.  Cassirer means by myth a particular way of structuring experience that is most evident in primitive accounts of man and the world as expressed both in language and ritual.  Cassirer’s major works on myth are the second volume of his three volume work, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, titled Mythical Thought; and The Myth of the State.16 The former work contains Cassirer’s most extensive account of myth, in which he attempts to develop a complete logic of primitive mentality and to adduce a wealth of ethnological and linguistic evidence in support of his theory.  The latter work is an attempt by Cassirer to employ his theory of primitive mentality as a basis on which to explain the nature and role of political myths and propaganda in contemporary society.

Cassirer’s theory of myth as he present it in the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms employs Kant’s distinction between thought and intuition.  Cassirer describes myth as a form of thought, a form of intuition, and a life form.17  His discussion of myth as a form of thought and a form of intuition constitutes an account of the objective in primitive consciousness.  As a form of thought, Cassirer maintains, myth involves the employment of categories, such as cause, unity and multiplicity, coexistence, contiguity, and succession.  As a form of intuition myth involves the structuring of experience through the forms of space, time, and number.  Cassirer’ discussion of myth as a life form constitutes an account of the subjective in primitive consciousness.  He considers the concept of the I in relation to the development of the notions of soul, self, community, and personality in primitive conscoiusness.18  Cassirer maintains that if myth is considered in the abstract, its structure does not differ from that found in other forms of experience; it employs the same categories and forms of intuition as other forms of experience and it has a concept of the I or subject.  The difference between myth and other forms of experience, for Cassirer, is to be found in the particular way in which the general structure of experience is actualized in it.  The special modality that myth gives to this structure can be seen through Cassirer’s treatment of one of the categories of thought; cause is a good example.

Cassirer considers the category of cause to be of considerable importance for both myth and science; he maintains that their respective employments of it differ in “tonality,”19 in the way the category is schematized.  The primitive’s concept of a causal relationship is that of simple perceptual association;20 to view any two events as causally related it is sufficient for the primitive that they be spatially or temporally adjacent, e.g., certain animals are thought to be the bringer of a season because they appear coincidentally.  Scientific causality is based on something more than simple association.  Cassirer maintains that in science a specific state A is perceived in moment A1 and is followed by another state B in moment A2 but the fact that this occurs is not sufficient to establish a causal relationship between A and B.21  In scientific thought a specific factor α is isolated from the total State A and is linked with a specific factor β in B.  That α and β can be said to stand to each other as cause and effect presupposes an analysis of the nature of A and B such that their combination is conceivable as an instance of a universal rule of nature.  In science post hoc, ergo propter hoc and juxta hoc, ergo propter hoc are fallacies to be avoided, but in myth they are rules to be followed.22  Cassirer maintains that science is directed toward establishing universal relationships between specific causes and specific effects such that only certain causes can be thought to have certain effects.  In myth, however, anything can be thought to be the cause of anything, for anything can stand in spatial or temporal proximity to anything else.23

Cassirer proceeds on this basis to distinguish other features of mythic causality.  He maintains that science seeks to discover universal rules of change; but myth employs the idea of metamorphosis and is concerned with the record of an individual event.24 Science contains a concept of the “accidental,” as that which deviates from a given causal law; in myth nothing is considered accidental.25  Every event is interpreted as the result of demonic or divine will.  Science makes a sharp distinction between the properties of the part and the properties of the whole; myth makes no such distinction.26  In mythic consciousness the fate of the part is the fate of the whole; anyone who acquires an insignificant part of a man may gain control over his destiny, e.g., his name, his shadow, or his reflection in a mirror.

Cassirer maintains that myth differs from science not only in its employment of categories such as cause; it also differs in respect to forms of intuition.  The primitive’s structuring of sense experience in intuition is accomplished in terms of a general distinction between the sacred and the profane.  Spatial, temporal, and numerical differentiations are accomplished through formulations of this dichotomy; these stand in contrast to the mathematical conception of space, time, and number found in science.27  The primitive also has a distinctive concept of the I.  Originally for the primitive there is no clear distinction between himself and the world.28 Even as he achieves a distinction between himself and his surroundings he does not at first distinguish between his psychic and physical nature.  Although he ultimately distinguishes between himself and the world, he does not make a sharp distinction between himself and others.29  

Cassirer’s purpose in The Myth of the State is to apply his findings concerning the logic of myth in primitive mentality to the problem of the nature of modern political myths.30  Cassirer regards modern totalitarian societies as attempts to establish the state on a mythical rather than a rational base.  Cassirer maintains that political myths follow the same logic as do myths in primitive thought and that their use in modern society essentially represents a reversion to nonrational modes of thought.31  The rational ordering of society, which has been the subject of political philosophy since Plato, is most strongly threatened during times of social and economic stress.  When reason fails it is always possible to resort to the earlier mode of mythical thought.  “For myth,” Cassirer writes, “has not been really vanquished and subjugated.  It is always there, lurking in the dark and waiting for its hour and opportunity.”32  In primitive life both nature and society are mythical structured, but in modern life man possesses the ability to structure experience rationally.  Modern man has structured nature into a system of laws but he has failed to accomplish this for society.  In our social world we allow techniques of prediction and types of explanation that we have forever cast our of our  understanding of the natural world.33  Cassirer maintains that there is no reason to believe that the social world is any less subject to laws than the natural world.  As he states, “For there is, after all, a logic of the social world just as there is a logic of the physical world.”34  The discovery of this logic, Cassirer maintains, will lead to the exclusion of mythical modes of thought from the social world as it did from the physical world.

Cassirer’s theory of myth considered both as a theory of primitive mentality and as a theory of the nature of modern political myths has a number of advantages.  It takes seriously the fact that myths, whether primitive or political, play an important role in social life such that they cannot be explained simply as false beliefs or as the poetic expressions of single individuals.  Considered as an account of primitive mentality Cassirer’s theory of myth provides not simply a list of the characteristics of primitive thought but a systematic treatment of the similarities and differences between primitive and other forms of thought.  By regarding myth as having a logic of its own, yet one which is based on categories present in other forms of experience, Cassirer is able both to distinguish myth from and relate it to human culture as a whole.35  Perhaps one of the most commendable aspects of Cassirer’s theory of primitive thought is that he develops his account directly through the empirical materials available on primitive life.  Indeed, he takes the fundamental principles of the Kantian analysis of experience as his starting point, but his procedure is always to show how these principles can serve to elucidate the empirical data.  Cassirer’s account of modern political myths is not developed as fully as his account of primitive thought.  His view that the political myths of modern totalitarian states exhibit the same logic as primitive myths is a valuable suggestion.  In the final chapter of The Myth of the State and in another article36 Cassirer has shown how the structure of Nazism can be conceived in these terms.  Cassirer’s analysis in these places shows that there is  more than a superficial resemblance between the logic of primitive mentality and the logic of modern political myths.

Although Cassirer’s theory of myth has definite advantages it is not without difficulties.  Considered as an account of primitive mentality Cassirer’s theory of myth appears not to give an adequate description of the kind of thinking the primitive employs in his daily life and drafts.  Malinowski argues, in Magic, Science and Religion, that every primitive community “is in possession of a considerable store of knowledge, based on experience and fashioned by reason.”37  He maintains that in practical activities and crafts such as agriculture and shipbuilding the primitive employs rules that are rationally organized and empirically based.  The primitive is well aware, Malinowski claims, of the effects of crops of weather, soil conditions, and pests and in building canoes of the importance of proper materials, principles of stability, and hydrodynamics.38  The primitive craftsman is capable not only of entertaining the principles of these activities in his own mind but of explaining them to his assistants.  Side by side with this body of empirical knowledge yet distinguished from it the primitive has a body of magical rites and myth.  Malinowski maintains that for the accomplishment of the immediate tasks of his existence the primitive relies on his empirical knowledge but to overcome the unforeseen and catastrophic eventualities of his existence he relies on magic and myth.39  Magic rites are appended to the actual planting of gardens to guard against droughts and blights and to the building of a canoe to guard against sudden gales or heavy tides.

Malinowski does not mean that the primitive is in full possession of science.40  The primitive cannot be said to exercise an attitude of disinterested curiosity and his principles are not genuinely systematic.  Malinowski’s point is that if we observe the primitive closely we discover that he employs two modes of thought—one which is rational and empirical and the other mythical.  If Malinowski’s observations are correct, Cassirer’s theory of myth provides only a partial account of primitive mentality.  Cassirer’s theory may be correct as an account of the way the primitive regards the world in his employment of myths but when he engages in direct practical action he regards the world differently.  For example, in his myths the primitive may employ a concept of cause based on simple association, but in his practical activities he isolates specific causal factors and connects them with specific effects, although perhaps not in as systematic a fashion as science.  The difficulty is not with Cassirer’s theory of myth itself but with the ambiguity about how widely we are to interpret it as a description of primitive mentality.

Cassirer’s account of the nature of modern political myths does not appear to recognize adequately the creative function that myth can have in society.  Gregor Sebba, in an article, “Symbol and Myth in Modern Rationalistic Societies,”41 points out that there is evidence to suggest that the stability and endurance of a society is not wholly attributable to the rationality of its institutions or the excellence of its constitutional principles.  Professor Sebba points out that efforts to construct governments on a wholly rational base after the First World War were unsuccessful.  Although the Austrian Constitution of 1920 and Germany’s Weimar Constitution were models of technical excellence and rational construction, they were shortlive.42  Professor Sebba also points out that other analyses have shown that the endurance and efficiency  of governments such as Great Britain, the United States, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries is due not directly to constitutional or institutional excellence but to the existence of an adequate homogeneity in the body politic and to an adequate symbolization of the established social political order.  Professor Sebba states, “From this viewpoint, the most rationalistic modern states appeared to be mythically superior to some antirationalistic totalitarian states that had to impose a myth of the state from above precisely because no political myth held the body politic together.”43  

The analyses which Professor Sebba discusses suggests that the difference between a totalitarian society, based on a myth of the state, and a free society, based on constitutional principles, is not attributable to the presence of political myths in the former and the relative absence of them in the latter.  The difference would appear to be that in the totalitarian society myth is totally substituted for reason and the society moves wholly within mythic images; in a free society myth becomes an adjunct to reason.  Although myth is operative in a free society it is always subject to the criticism of reason.  Political myths in a free society provide an imaginative embodiment of the principles of the society.  The truth and acceptability of such myths depends upon how well they embody these principles.  In a totalitarian society there is no such tribunal of reason; myths are regarded as carrying their own truth with them, or are justified on the basis of further myths.  Cassirer’s view that the logic of political myths is identical to that of primitive myths is perhaps correct, but his view that political myths constitute a dangerous and destructive force in society is only partially correct.  It overlooks that fact that myth can function as a means of imaginative symbolization and can serve to create cohesiveness within a free society.  The difficulty is not with Cassirer’s analysis of the role of myth in totalitarian societies as such but with his further implication that myth is incompatible with a rationalistic conception of the state.

In conclusion it may be said that Cassirer’s theory of myth is based on Kantian principles.  His theory of myth is part of his general theory of symbolic forms; he regards myth as representing one of a number of ways in which experience is structured.  Cassirer’s failure to account for the rational and empirical aspects of primitive thought and his failure to recognize the creative use of political myth in modern society do not represent unresolvable conflicts in his theory.  They are problems, I think, which could be treated by an expansion rather than an abandonment of the essential framework of his theory.



1 A notable exception is the work of John Dewey.  See Cassirer’s comment on Dewey in An Essay on Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944), p. 78.  Other philosophers who have been concerned with problems in myth and symbolism who immediately come to mind are Wilbur Urban, Charles Morris, and Susanne Langer.

2 Anthropological materials appear to have received most attention in ethics, particularly in relation to issues of ethical and cultural relativism.  The nature of myth and religious symbol has received considerable attention in philosophy of religion, particularly in the work of such figures as Tillich and Bultmann.

3 For a discussion of Cassirer’s concept of symbol as it relates to other views see Carl H. Hamburg, Symbol and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1956), Chapter 6 in particular.  For a complete biography of critical work done on Cassirer see Donald Verene, “Ernst Cassirer, A Bibliography,” Bulletin of Bibliography, 24, No. 5 (1964), 103-106.

4 The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. I, Language, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), pp. 73-85, hereinafter cited as PSF accompanied by the appropriate volume number (Vol. II, Mythical Thought, 1955; and Vol. III, The Phenomenology of Knowledge, 1957).

5 PSF, I p. 78.

6 PSF, I, p. 79.

7 PSF, I, p. 80.

8 Cassirer apparently does not consider these to be the only symbolic forms.  He mentions but does not discuss forms of ethics (Sitte), law (Recht), economics, and technology.  See PSF, II, pp. xiv-xv.

9 Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan, 1958).  A, ?????; B, 176-179.

10 For a discussion of the relationship between Kant’s schema and Cassirer’s concept of symbol see Charles Hendel’s general introduction to Cassirer’s philosophy in PSF, I, pp. 12-15.

11 PSF, I p. 85.

12 PSF, I p. 86.

13 PSF, I p. 109.

14 PSF, I pp. 107-111.

15 Cassirer states this directly in terms of perceptual experience in a article, “Das Symbolproblem und seine Stellung im System der Philosophie,” Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allegemeine Kunstwissenschaft, 21 (1927), 194-195.  He considers a simple line drawing and states that we may first regard it as  merely a spatial combination, then as an aesthetic ornament, then as a religious symbol, and finally as a set of mathematical relationships.  In each case we are apprehending the perceptual manifold under a separate form.  See also PSF, III, pp. 200-201.

16 Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946), hereinafter cited as MS.  This work was published shortly after Cassirer’s death and was written in English.  PSF, II was published twenty-one years earlier; the original German edition appeared in 1925.  Cassirer published a number of discussions of myth but they are either restatements or special discussions of his views in PSF, II.  These secondary discussions are as follows: “Die Begriffsform im mythischen Denken,” in Wesen und Wirkung de Symbolbegriffs (Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1956), pp. 1-70; Language and Myth, trans. Susanne K. Langer (New York: Harper, 1946); “Mythischer, ästhetischer und theoretischer Raum,” Vierter Congress für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissen-schaft, 1951, 21-36; and An Essay on Man, Chapter 7.  He also published an article, “Judaism and the Modern Political Myths,” Contemporary Jewish Record, 7 (1944), 115-126, which is a special discussion of views that appear in MS, Chapter 18.

17 These are the terms which Cassirer uses to designate Parts I, II, and III of PSF, II.  Part IV, the final part, Cassirer titles, “The Dialectic of the Mythical Consciousness.”  Cassirer’s major concern in PSF, II appears to be to isolate the elements that constitute the form of mythical consciousness.  It is apparently an account of the general relationship between the subjective and the objective in mythical consciousness.

18 In describing mythical consciousness Cassirer employs the Kantian framework only quite generally.  He differs from Kant in that he does not discuss the categories of thought as if they comprised a closely structured or exhaustive set; he discusses only some of those which Kant discusses and he does so quite loosely.  Cassirer also differs from Kant in that he considers number a form of intuition and his discussion of the concept of the I perhaps does not fit the Kantian framework at all.

19 Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff. Untersuchun-gen über die Grundfragen der Erkenntniskritik (Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, 1910). English trans.: Substance and Function and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, trans. W.C. and M.C. Swabey (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1923; rpt. Dover Publications, 1953). Hereinafter cited as SF with page references to the English edition.

20 PSF, II, pp. 60-61.

21 PSF, II, pp. 43-44.

22 PSF, II, p. 44.

23 PSF, II, p. 45.

24 PSF, II, p. 47.

25 PSF, II, pp. 47-49.

26 PSF, II, Part 2.  See pp. 79-82 in particular.

27 PSF, II, Part 2.  See pp. 155-159 in particular.  See also Essay on Man, pp. 87-108.

28 Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 3 vols. (Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, 1923, 1925, 1929). English trans.: The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim, 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953, 1955, 1957). Hereinafter cited as PSF with page references to the English edition.

29 Cassirer’s theory of myth in PSF, II is not an isolated examination; it ultimately serves as the basis for his theory of the “expressive function” (Ausdrucksfuntion) of consciousness that is part of the general phenomenology of knowledge con-structed in PSF, III.  In this volume Cassirer correlates the structure of mythical consciousness with the structure of immediate perception as it is described in investigations in the psychology of perception (PSF, III, pp. 61, 67).  In PSF, III, Cassirer constructs a complete system of knowledge in which mythical consciousness is shown to be the primary form of consciousness from which other forms develop.

For a discussion of the systematic relationships between the symbolic forms see Donald Verene, “An Examination of Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.”  Ph.D. dissertation, Washington University (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1964).

30 MS, pp. 3-4.

31 MS, Chap. 18, esp. pp. 279-280.

32 MS, p. 280.

33 MS, pp. 288ff.

34 MS, p. 295.

35 For an assessment by Cassirer of what he takes to be the advantages of his account of myth over the views of Frazer, Tylor, Lévy-Bruhl, Spencer, Max Müller, and Freud, see MS, Part 1.

36 See above, n. 16.

37 Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1948), p. 26.

38 Ibid., pp. 27-34.

39 Ibid., p. 32.

40 Ibid., pp. 34-36.

41 Published in Altizer, Beardslee, and Young (eds.), Truth, Myth and Symbol (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962), pp. 141-168.

42 Ibid., p. 164.

43 Ibid., p. 165.

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