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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
Critique of Pure Reason,
trans. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan, 1958). A, ?????; B,
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
27 PSF, II, Part 2. See pp. 155-159
in particular. See also Essay on Man, pp.
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).
MS, pp. 3-4.
31 MS, Chap. 18, esp. pp. 279-280.
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,
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.
Donald Phillip Verene page