Philosophy against Misosophy



Ernst Cassirer


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Donald Phillip Verene

From Idealistic Studies, 8:8, January 1978, 14-32. 

“Philosophy is presented [in Cassirer's The Myth of the State] as an activity that should aim at the alteration of the historical process, that can aid in the securing of human freedom in the political sphere.  Philosophy is not only to present a picture of the forms within which human culture exists, it is also to act to shape these forms under the human ideals that constitute civilization.

“Although Cassirer’s philosophy is constructed on a different base from [Alfred North] Whitehead’s, I think if Cassirer’s thought were pressed to enumerate the ideals of civilization they would be similar to those in Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas, Part IV.”

Posted September 2, 2008


Cassirer’s Concept of Symbolic Form and Human Creativity

Donald Phillip Verene  

Most scholars regard Ernst Cassirer as a thinker in the Marburg Neo-Kantian tradition whose writings take him from its concern with the analysis of the logical foundations of science to problems in intellectual history, theory of language, and culture.1 The critical work on his thought has reflected and supported this view.2  There is a second image of Cassirer which is shared by the large number of students and general readers who have come to his thought through two works that appeared at the end of his life—An Essay on Man3 and the Myth of the State.4  These works have gone through numerous printings and have appeared in editions in most major Western and Oriental languages.5  These readers have found in Cassirer not primarily an epistemologist and historian of thought but a philosopher of humanity, an interpreter of the fragmentation of contemporary cultural life and the nature of the political world.  These two sides shown by Cassirer’s thought are not exactly opposed, but also they are not joined.

Cassirer’s thought has been employed by scholars in the humanities, linguistics, and social sciences such as A. W. Levi,6 H. and H. A. Frankfort,7 and Leo Weisgerber.8  It has had an influence on such thinkers on philosophical problems of symbolism and perception as Maurice Merleau-Ponty,9 Paul Ricoeur,10 and Susanne Langer.11  Among contemporary thinkers, Susanne Langer is the one figure who has most developed her thought from the perspective of Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms and whose thought has done the most to extend the spirit of his philosophy.  Although Cassirer’s work has been widely read and has had identifiable effects, no school of thought or particular sphere of influence has developed from it and only a limited amount of critical work has, in fact, appeared on it.12  A common impression of Cassirer’s work is that it is not a philosophy in any traditional sense but a series of scholarly researches.13  The fact that no overall unity in Cassirer’s thought has been readily seen, that no common impression has emerged which brings together its two sides, has prevented the critical assessment of its significance and the discovery of the full possibilities that lie within it.

The intention of this paper is to take a step toward understanding the general meaning of Cassirer’s thought by understanding its relationship to the concept of human creativity.14  My concern is to answer two questions: (1) In what sense is a theory of creativity present in Cassirer’s thought? and (2) What does Cassirer’s thought indicate for our understanding of creativity itself, particularly as it relates to symbolization, human culture, and political freedom?  My answers to these questions will be based on an analysis of the developmental relationships between Cassirer’s major philosophical works.  Broadly speaking, Cassirer’s works can be divided into two categories—those which are primarily historical, such as his four volumes of the Erkenntnisproblem,15 and his studies on the Renaissance16 and the Enlightenment,17 and those which directly present his original philosophy.  My discussion will be confined to the latter.18

Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms has its beginnings in Substance and Function (1910).19  In this work Cassirer presents a theory of scientific thought based upon a general theory of the subject-object relationship, mind, and reality.  Cassirer’s view is that the logic of scientific thought must be understood in terms of a theory of concept formation that takes seriality as fundamental rather than the notions of similarity and identity of properties that are the basis of generic class logic.20  What makes science possible, for Cassirer, is the ability of the mind to grasp empirical manifolds as serially ordered under a specific principle of arrangement, such that each element in the manifold is given a determinate position in relation to each other element, and such that elements not present can be determined through extension of the series.21  The pure form of this process can be expressed as F (a, b, c, …) in which a, b, c, etc., have no individual meaning apart from that given them in the series, and F, or the principle of arrangement of the series, has no content beyond its power to express their specific arrangement.22  Thus, in principle, and largely in fact, cognitive thought is in possession of a particular kind of “concrete universal”23 in which any particularly ordered manifold is connected, or connectible in principle, with any other by the fact that any element of a given series may be taken to represent a subseries of a more particular order.

What impresses Cassirer is that all metaphysical dispute over the “nature” of the concept has been put aside by modern science, which can begin from an empirical matrix of sensation and articulate an order within it expressible in the language of pure mathematical form.  Cassirer’s account of science has within it a concept of reality that is founded on a theory of the relativity of the relationship between subject and object.24  The distinction between the subjective and objective is something which is not given in experience but which is created within it.  It is not present in immediate perception which holds all content on a single plane without distinction.  We come to draw this distinction, Cassirer maintains, by singling out those elements in experience that are constant and invariable and calling them objective, and designating those elements that are changeable as subjective.

An example of this is the shift from the qualities discoverable through the five senses, such as color, warmth, humidity, etc., that comprise the definition of the object in Aristotelian and scholastic science to the mathematical conception of the object in Galileo’s physics.25  For Galileo such sensible qualities of the object become only names which designate the subjective conditions under which the object is apprehended.  The true constitution of the object is regarded as those features of it that are expressible in the notational symbolism of geometry and arithmetic.  To put the same point in broader terms, what are taken as primary features of the object in common sense, that which can be seen and heard, become its subjective features in science.26 Subjectivity and objectivity, for Cassirer, is a distinction whereby the mind builds order in experience rather than being something itself given in experience against which the mind creates knowledge.  What stands constantly before us is not a given reality which thought copies, but the unit of thought itself.

At the center of Cassirer’s theory of cognitive thought is what the translators of the English edition of Substance and Function have called a doctrine of “creative intelligence.”27  For Cassirer the funda-mental notions that philosophy traditionally seeks to understand—mind, reality, subject, object, the external world, thing, causation, etc.—must be understood in terms of the relationships they actually establish between themselves in the process of human thought.  Their being is not something separable from what they are as principles of thought.  Cassirer does not attempt, an attempt that he would call “metaphysical,” to define their meaning independently of the roles they play in the creation of knowledge.  At the beginning of Cassirer’s philosophy there is a concept of mind as creative in the sense of an agency that is determinate of its own reality in a synthetic, processlike manner.

In the three volumes of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923, 1925, 1929)28 Cassirer expands the theory of cognition of Substance and Function into a total theory of human consciousness and culture.29  The three volumes of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms have an internal development among themselves.  Volume I deals with language, Volume II with mythical thought, and Volume III is titled the Phenomenology of Knowledge (Phänomenologie der Erkenntnis).  The center of Cassirer’s system is this “phenomenology of knowledge” of the third volume, in which conscious-ness is divided into three functions—the expressive (Ausdrucksfunktion), the representational (Darstel-lungsfunktion), and the conceptual (Bedeutungsfunk-tion)—each of which is shown as the grounding of the other in a broad set of dialectical relationships. Corresponding to each of these three functions of consciousness is a basic cultural form—to expression corresponds myth, to representation, language, and to conceptualization, science.30  At the basis of Cassirer’s theory of consciousness is his concept of “symbolic form,” which is the central concept of his philosophy and the one special term which he employs in it.  “Symbolic form” has three basic meanings.31  It refers to: (1) what we ordinarily think of as symbols in the broadest sense of this term—an act, sound, or object in which a meaning is involved, such as a gesture, a graphic, a word, mark, or number; (2) a structure of consciousness achieved through the use of such symbols, having its own internal “logic,” and constituting a major sphere of human cultural activity, such as myth, religion, art, history, or science; (3) those universals, categories, or principles whereby order occurs in experience and which constitute the traditional topics of our philosophical understanding of it, such as causality, object, thing, substance, quality, etc.

These three senses of symbolic form are interrelated and Cassirer frequently moves from one to the other without explicitly calling attention to the shift.  In relation to the first sense, no activity of the mind is more “symbolic” than another.  For Cassirer, to know is to elicit order from the manifold of perceptual experience, and to elicit such order is to symbolize.  Images, words, and numbers are all symbols.  Their difference is not in that one is more symbolic than the other, but in the ways that order is achieved through each in relation to a perceptual manifold.  Thus the fundamental question Cassirer asks is, if the mind creates order in experience, what is the medium through which this order occurs?  He finds this in the symbol which is always at once something physical and something spiritual—something that has a meaning.32  It is the symbol or the symbolic process of mind that cuts across all activity of the human world and which can be analyzed as a universal phenomenon.  Thus in a primary sense the term “symbolic form” refers to the activity of the mind whenever it creates knowledge.

The second and third senses of symbolic form are closely tied to each other.  The creation of knowledge is not limited to the cognitive activity of the mind, but occurs in all forms of mental activity—in mythic, artistic, religious, linguistic, and historical experience.33  The major ways in which the mind knows its object are writ large in cultural experience. Thus the term, “symbolic form,” also refers to the major forms of culture which themselves make up the worlds that lie within the human spirit.  A symbolic form in this sense refers to a mode of structuring experience such that major categories and forms of thought such as cause, object, thing, attribute, space, time, number, and self come together and order perceptual content in a particular way.  These universal forms of thought have no content apart from their presence in cultural activity and their character varies from one cultural sphere to another.  Thus it is possible to compare and contrast mythic and scientific causality,34 mythic and aesthetic space,35 linguistic and scientific concepts of number,36 etc.  The second and third senses of symbolic form follow from the first and themselves combine to allow Cassirer to conceive culture as a system of epistemic forms which arise as products of the three major functions of consciousness or fundamental modes of the subject-object relationship.

It is not possible in a short space to do justice to Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms or the questions that surround the internal relationships of its elements.37  Its basic significance for an understanding of his theory of creativity lies in the fact that in the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms the doctrine of “creative intelligence” of Substance and Function is extended from a theory of scientific cognition to a theory of culture.  The relationship between the principle of arrangement of a series and the members of the series that forms the basis for mathematical and scientific concept formation is seen by Cassirer to be connected to a broader and more fundamental activity of the human spirit—the process of symbolization itself.  Culture as a whole becomes the model of the creative activity of mind in which cognitive, semicognitive, and noncognitive mental activities are understandable as variations of a single synthetic act of mind and apprehensible as a phenomenon in the symbol.

The picture of mind and of culture that is present in the three volumes of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is one in which little tension exists between man and the process whereby culture is created.  The fundamental problem is seen as one of showing that by starting from a concept of symbol it is possible to connect theory of knowledge with theory of culture and to do so in such a way that each form of culture can be understood in its own terms and that no one form comes to dominate over the others in the total system of forms.38  In the final essay of the Logic of the Humanities (1942),39 titled “The Tragedy of Culture,” Cassirer takes up the question of the relation of culture to man and the self-estrangement inherent in the cultural world.  It is here that Cassirer makes his most direct statements about the nature of creativity and here that his thought begins to point strongly toward the normative concerns of a philosophy of culture discernible in An Essay on Man and directly present in the Myth of the State.  In this essay Cassirer regards the creative process as the basis of culture and culture as the process itself writ large.  Cassirer regards conflict as an essential moment within the process whereby culture comes about and develops in its particular forms.  This conflict exists in two basic ways: (1) between the subjective I and the world of culture; and (2) within the historical development of cultural life wherein civilizations rise and fall and cultures confront each other.  Cassirer rejects the view that the I in the act of the creation of culture is fundamentally self-alienated.40  The separation of consciousness into I and world is itself an achievement of consciousness which involves the overcoming of their immediate unity in its original state.  This point must be seen in relation to Cassirer’s earlier essay, which he published immediately after the third volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, titled “‘Spirit’ and ‘Life’ in Contemporary Philosophy” (1930),41 in which he argues that spirit (Geist) and life (Leben) should not be conceived as antitheticals, as opposing substances with distinct essences.  To fix the distinction between spirit and life so that spirit is seen as the self-alienation of life fails to account for the positive content of both.  This can be accounted for, Cassirer maintains, only if spirit is seen as a transformation of life.42  The opposition between I and I, or between the I and itself, is bridged, and can only be bridged, by the existence of culture, which exists as ever present as the basis of all spiritual communication.

Cassirer maintains that the conflicts that arise within the historical development of human culture, those between periods of cultural life and the rise and fall of civilizations, are never final.  Such conflicts are never absolute conflicts but always display an element that is present in any creative act; the changes they entail are never sheerly novel occurrences but always are tied to something that exists as that against which the change occurs.43 For Cassirer, culture in its historical process is dramatic, and is at any moment potentially tragic for in its development content can be simply lost.  He maintains, however, that at no point does the tragedy of culture become complete.  There is no absolute tragedy of culture, for each conflict does not have as its result the destruction of culture itself, but becomes a revelation of the further dimensions of its essential process.44  The questions of the tensions within culture and the relationship between culture and life, which are treated as general problems in the Logic of the Humanities and Cassirer’s essay on spirit and life, become concrete issues in An Essay on Man (1944) and the Myth of the State (1946).  These two works are directed to tensions present in Western culture in our time.  An Essay on Man has been a puzzling book for some of Cassirer’s commentators because it has been seen as primarily a summary of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, in which Cassirer might be expected to make clearer interrelationships between the various symbolic forms of culture and explain more fully the foundations of his system.45 Looked at in this way it answers few of these questions and, in fact, makes these questions more complicated by adding to his earlier work discussions of art and history.  If, however, the Essay on Man is looked at in relation to the developing concern within Cassirer’s thought with the relationship between spirit and life, and man’s concept of himself as an agent who creates culture, the meaning of this work emerges in a new light.

Although the Essay on Man is not without significance for the analysis of problems present in his earlier epistemological analysis of culture, this is not the true source of its intellectual power.  This revolves around two points.  (1) Cassirer is concerned to show that a philosophy of culture based on a concept of the universality of the symbolic function of mind can provide man with an adequate picture of his own nature.  This concern arises from what Cassirer terms “the crisis in man’s knowledge of himself,” in which contemporary intellectual life has lost its ability to present man with a context in which to form a fundamental and unified concept of himself.46  When this occurs, man’s own creation—culture—becomes confusing to him and his philosophical powers and life begin to lose vitality.  (2) Cassirer is also fundamentally concerned to show that symbolic behavior can be seen as a transformation of animal intelligence.  Thus his chapter on “From Animal Reactions to Human Responses,” and that preceding it on “A Clue to the Nature of Man: the Symbol,” can be seen as an attempt to resolve through the use of biological and psychological material the problem of the relationship of spirit and life, which he faced earlier only in metaphysical terms.  For when man becomes confused about his own nature and its reflection in culture, he also becomes confused about his relationship to life.47  Such confusions, as Cassirer makes clear in the Myth of the State, have not only intellectual consequences but social consequences for the continuance of civilized life.

In the Myth of the State Cassirer turns his attention directly to the nature of the political world.  Here he brings to bear the most original part of his philosophy of symbolic forms—his theory of mythical consciousness—together with his power of historical analysis on the problem of understanding the political activity of the twentieth century.  In particular Cassirer’s concern is to explain the German National Socialist state of the 1930’s and early 1940’s, but the implications of his analysis go much further than this. Cassirer’s ultimate concern is with the direction of modern political life and the role philosophy can play in the establishment of human freedom in the historical process of civilization.  Cassirer sees the basis of the Nazi state to lie in its ability to join technique with the logic of the mythical world.48  The power of the Nazi state is seen to lie in its ability to structure political life in terms of the mythic concepts of fate, destiny, mimetic language use, and ritual. The concept of freedom is replaced with that of fate.

Cassirer finds the intellectual background for this to lie in the thought of Oswald Spengler and Martin Heidegger.49  Cassirer sees behind Spengler’s theory of history a reduction of historical reality to mythic structures such that, as he says, in Spengler the philosophy of history becomes the art of divination. He sees in Heidegger’s concept of Geworfenheit or “thrownness” a view of man which regards him as a being confined within the historical conditions of his existence, a being who can understand these conditions but not change them.50  What troubles Cassirer, and what becomes the theme of the last chapter of the Myth of the State, is that on such views philosophy no longer is seen as an agency of human freedom.  The proper understanding of the relationship between spirit or culture and life is lost, and man confines his understanding of himself simply to exploring the structures of the immediate conditions of his existence without seeing himself as the creator of these structures and the developer of them into the forms of cultural order.  Such views are not only intellectually deplorable but socially dangerous, as man can no longer make sense of his culture as an act of human freedom.  In the world of human affairs it allows for the substitution of the logic of myth for the logic of reason.51

A reading of the last chapter of the Myth of the State presents quite a different picture of Cassirer’s conception of philosophy than the one arising from his origins in Neo-Kantian epistemology.52  Philoso-phy is not discussed here as the organizer and surveyor of human knowledge but as the agency that is to intervene in the creative tensions of culture and affect their outcome.  I do not mean that Cassirer sees philosophy as an activity that is to become a direct part of particular struggles, but it is to supply the necessary element of the self-knowledge that man requires in order to see himself as the agent in these struggles and to grasp the dynamics of their intellectual structure.

The answer to the first of my original two questions—that of the developmental unity of Cassirer’s thought and the presence of a theory of human creativity within it—is now at hand.  Cassirer’s philosophical position develops from a theory of scientific cognition based on a doctrine of “creative intelligence,” to a theory of culture based on a concept of the synthetic activity of mind as universally present in the act of symbolization, to a view of the creative act as writ large in the internal tensions of the cultural world and the relation of life to spirit, to a view of the philosophy of culture as an activity wherein man can come to a knowledge of himself, to a concept of philosophy as having duties to reflect on and attempt to shape the political life of man.  The movement is one from the creative act as cognitive to the creative act as ultimately philosophical and, as philosophical, ultimately ethical.  My concern is not to show that the significance of Cassirer’s thought is concentrated in his political thought, but that his thought has a normative side and that it is connected to his epistemology.

The answer to my second question—that of the implications of Cassirer’s thought for the theory of creativity itself—can be stated in four points:

(1) The beginning point for a theory of human creativity is in a theory of culture.

(2) Culture provides the ever present context in which any act of human creativity can occur.

(3) The internal structure of the symbol provides a basis for a theory of the creative act.

(4) Philosophy is seen as an agency of human creativity not only in the sense of its being a synthetic mode of thought but in the sense of its having a normative role in social life.

(1) In regard to the first point, Cassirer’s thought suggests that analysis of creativity should begin with analysis of human culture seen as the process in which the nature of human creativity is writ large.  In this sense Cassirer’s thought offers a beginning point that differs from those most usually taken in the analysis of creativity, which most often focuses on the artistic process or the psychological processes involved in the origination of new ideas, practical innovation, or personality development as models for understanding creativity.53

For Cassirer to understand the processes wherein experience itself is generated is to understand the fundamental sense in which the human mind is creative.  Cassirer’s thought suggests that only when some understanding of the creative process in its largest terms is achieved (i.e., when it is understood as the activity responsible for cultural experience itself) can it be properly understood in its more particular forms, such as in aesthetic experience, intellectual achievement, or development of the individual.  Thus on Cassirer’s view any particular process of mind that might be singled out as creative must be understood in terms of a total theory of mind as creative, such that it can be seen as derivative from that process whereby culture itself comes about and within which it necessarily occurs.  In this respect Cassirer’s approach to creativity through a theory of culture is like Plato’s procedure in the Republic, in which the nature of the individual is seen as writ large in the structure of the state and in fact continuous with it. 

(2) In regard to the second point, on Cassirer’s view any single act of creativity must take place within one of the forms of human culture.  The I’s apprehension of itself, or of another I, or of an object, always has culture as a middle term, but not a middle term in the sense of a medium that is in itself separate from the I, for the being of this I is constituted through such activity.  Any act which brings something new into existence does so only in relation to one form of culture or another.  In the forms of human cultural life—such as myth, religion, language, art, history, or science—reside the permanent possibilities out of which the human spirit can be extended by the individual act.54

Each one of these forms represents a major way in which consciousness apprehends itself in the construction of experience and which it in turn holds out as a concrete framework for creation to the individual agent.  Individual creation comes about through the assumption of a particular standpoint on the object by the individual consciousness, that consciousness itself has already to some extent taken and which is writ large in culture, and in turn the outcome of such creation is intelligible only in relation to this cultural form.  Thus when an artist constructs a new work or a scientist a theory, the possibility of their accomplishment and its ultimate intelligibility rest on a form of cultural activity that we can call art or science.

(3) In regard to the third point, Cassirer’s thought suggests a parallelism between the internal structure of the symbol and the structure of the creative act, such that in the symbol the creative act is present as a describable phenomenon.55  Cassirer’s concept of the symbol brings together two great notions of German Idealism—Kant’s view in the first Critique, that knowledge is had through a synthesis in the manifold, and Hegel’s view in the Phenomenology of Spirit, that the mind can encounter itself as an internally diverse unity through attention to the forms of its construction of the object.56  That relationship between the universal and the particular element in experience that is stated in abstract terms by Kant as a principle of knowledge, and which is presented by Hegel as an opposition within a given stage of consciousness, is seen by Cassirer as a cultural phenomenon in the symbol.  The symbol is the fundamental unit of mind present in all cultural life.

The symbol is internally and inherently dialectical, a unity of inseparable opposition between the universal and the particular.  The nature of these oppositions takes several forms.  A word is at once a breath of wind or a mark on paper—something physical and something having a meaning.  The symbol is never merely physical but it is never without physical being.  In the realm of meaning the word always has a particular meaning, but never a unique meaning, as it is always part of the vocabulary of a language.  As its meaning is the result of the linguistic function of consciousness it is further tied to the world of the human spirit generally, and ultimately derives its significance from its place within it in relation to other cultural forms.  For Cassirer the connection between the universal and the particular in the symbolic process can be seen in purely formal terms in the mutually determinative relationship between the members of a series and the law of their arrangement.  But it can also be seen in the act of perception itself in what Cassirer terms “symbolic pregnance” (symbolische Prägnanz).57  Cassirer uses this term to refer to the fact that in sensory experience we are never presented with a bare perceptive datum which is then interpreted and joined with further conceptual content through apperceptive acts.  Instead, we are always presented in perception with an act that contains a definite direction and determinate character.58  Symbolic meaning, Cassirer maintains, is already present in the most immediate phase of mental apprehension of the object.  Conceptual meaning arises not by a separate act added to perceptual experience but by a transformation of it.  This process is what separates animal from human mentality and is the basis for transforming the concept of man as rational animal into man as symbolizing animal.59

The importance of Cassirer’s concept of the symbol for the formulation of a theory of the creative act lies in two directions.  (1) By describing the central unit of human consciousness or thought, the symbol, in terms often associated with creativity, Cassirer provides a basis for a theory of the creative act that is modeled directly on the working of mind itself and not on some particular process of it (e.g., those I have mentioned above in point one).  (2) By developing a “logic of the creative act” from Cassirer’s concept of the nature of the symbol, there would be reason in advance to believe that in principle such a theory would be sufficiently rich conceptually to allow for the interpretation of creativity as it occurs in all forms of mental life (e.g., as it occurs in both art and science).  It would further follow from this that any account of the creative act once developed from the nature of the symbol would be best pursued in terms of the particular context of culture in which it occurs.

(4) In regard to the fourth point, Cassirer’s view of philosophy as it appears in the Myth of the State has implications for how philosophy can view itself as a creative agency in the course of human affairs. Philosophy is seen in this work not simply as being creative in the sense of being synthetic in its understanding of man’s cultural life or in intellectually resolving tensions within it.  Philosophy is presented as an activity that should aim at the alteration of the historical process, that can aid in the securing of human freedom in the political sphere.  Philosophy is not only to present a picture of the forms within which human culture exists, it is also to act to shape these forms under the human ideals that constitute civilization.60  Cassirer’s thought suggests that a theory which sees all activity of consciousness as fundamentally creative process must see itself not simply as the observer of this process, but as the originator of a version of this process itself.

The direction which Cassirer’s thought points in this respect would appear to be the analysis of the relationships that exist in contemporary political life between mythic thought-forms, technique, and human reason.  Man is only in a position to shape his freedom, freely to hold to values, when he is not confused about the forces that shape his political life. The transformation of the life of the state onto a foundation composed of a union of mythic thought-forms and technological processes is by no means something that ended with the fall of the Nazi state. The technology of human affairs, of managing behavior, thought, and emotion, as well as mythic thought-forms are much in existence below the surface of contemporary political life and are not much understood.61  How man is to deal with these forces now that they have entered political life is not a question that can be left to fields of specialized inquiry.  It is philosophy that must have something to say about the possibilities of dealing with these tensions.62

In conclusion, let me say that my intention has not been to deal with the critical problems and difficulties that lie within Cassirer’s thought, as indeed such problems exist within it.  My intention has been rather to see what can be learned by a positive reconstruction of its central ideas.  This paper has aimed at two things: (1) to make clear something of the general meaning of Cassirer’s thought, a point, the unclarity of which has practically been a constant of the critical writing on his thought.  My view has been that there is a line of continuous development within Cassirer’s systematic philosophy, from Substance and Function in 1910 to the Myth of the State in 1946, published after his death, in which his thought moves from a theory of science to a philosophy of political freedom.  (2) In so doing I have attempted to show how the concept of human creativity is involved implicitly and explicitly in Cassirer’s thought, such that the assertion that all human activity is symbolic activity can be seen as equivalent to the assertion that all human activity is creativity, and that kinds of creativity are distinguishable from each other by the fact that they follow the directions of the symbolic process in human culture seen as a structure of symbolic forms.63



1 For an analysis of Cassirer’s relationship to Marburg Neo-Kantianism see: William H. Werkmeister, “Cassirer’s Advance Beyond Neo-Kantianism” and Fritz Kaufmann, “Cassirer, Neo-Kantianism, and Phenomenology,” The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer in The Library of Living Philosophers, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp (Evanston: The Library of Living Philosophers, Inc., 1949), pp. 759–854. Also Seymour W. Itzkoff, Ernst Cassirer: Scientific Knowledge and the Concept of Man (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971), chs. 3 and 4, esp., pp. 62–68.

2 See D. P. Verene, “Ernst Cassirer: A Bibliography,” Bulletin of Bibliography, 24 (1964), 104–06, 103; and “Ernst Cassirer: Critical Work 1964–1970,” Bulletin of Bibliography, 29 (1972), 21–22, 24.

3 New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944.  Herein-after cited as EM.

4 New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946.  Herein-after cited as MS.

5 These include for EM translations into Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Hebrew, Chinese, German, Korean, and Portugese; and for MS translations into Spanish, Swedish, Portugese, German, Italian, Korean, and Japanese.  In addition to EM and MS a work that is widely read by English readers as an introduction to Cassirer’s thought is Language and Myth, trans. Susanne K. Langer (New York: Dover Publications, 1953; orig. pub. New York: Harper, 1946).

6 Literature, Philosophy and the Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962).

7 Before Philosophy, the Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1949), chs. 1 and 8.

8 See Robert L. Miller, The Linguistic Relativity Principle and Humboldtian Ethnolinguistics: A History and Appraisal (The Hague: Mouton, 1968), p. 42, n. 23.  Also see references to Cassirer in A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions (New York: Vintage Books, n.d.); Ludwig von Bertalanffy, “On the Definition of the Symbol,” Psychology and the Symbol: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, ed. J. R. Royce (New York: Random House, 1965); and W. M. Urban, Language and Reality: The Philosophy of Language and the Principles of Symbolism (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1939).

9 Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), pp. 124–27 and 235.  For a discussion of the relationship between Merleau-Ponty and Cassirer see Theodore Kisiel, “Aphasiology, Phenomenology of Perception and the Shades of Structuralism,” to appear in the proceedings of the Fifth Lexington Conference on Phenomenology: Pure and Applied.

10 See Ricoeur’s criticisms of Cassirer’s theory of the symbol in Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 10–21.

11 See Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), p. 410; Philosophical Sketches (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1962), pp. 58–59; and Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. I (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), pp. 80–81, n. 10.

12 For a list of reasons for the lack of influence exerted by Cassirer’s thought see Itzkoff, p. 222.  I would add to this list the effect of the political events of Cassirer’s time.  Having to leave Germany in 1933, going first to England and then to Sweden and the United States, Cassirer was during some of the most mature years of his career never in a position for sufficient time personally to pass on his ideas to a generation of students who might have gone on to teach and develop them.  For details on these years see Dimitry Gawronsky, “Ernst Cassirer: His Life and Work,” Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, pp. 28–37; and Toni Cassirer, Aus meinem Leben mit Ernst Cassirer (New York: Privately issued, 1950), pp. 187–310.

13 In his review of EM Brand Blanshard states: “It is hard not to think, as one reads a book so wealthy as this in historic and scientific erudition, but at the same time so oddly inconclusive, that Cassirer was rather a distinguished reflective scholar than a great speculative philosopher.  The learning is not mobilized in the interest of any theory.” Philosophical Review, 54 (1945), 510.

14 For a discussion of the relation between Cassirer’s thought and other figures in terms of creativity see Eugene T. Gadol, “Der Begriff des Schöpferischen bei Vico, Kant und Cassirer,” Wissenschaft und Weltbild, Part I, 22 (December 1968), 24–36; Part II, 22 (March 1969), 8–19.

15 Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, Vols. I-III (Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, 1906, 1907, 1920).  Vol. IV orig. pub. in English as The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science, and History since Hegel, trans. W. H. Woglom and C. W. Hendel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950).

16 The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. Mario Domandi (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964).

17 The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. F. C. A. Koelln and J. P. Pettegrove (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951).

18 Cassirer’s published writings, which number approximately 125 items and span a period of 47 years, do not classify easily into periods or particular categories.  A full study of the development of his thought would need to show the relationship between his historical works and those which directly present his philosophy, as well as the relation of these to his studies of German literature, particularly his essays on Goethe.  For a classificatory scheme of Cassirer’s writings see Philosophy and History: Essays Pre-sented to Ernst Cassirer, ed. Raymond Klibansky and H. J. Paton (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963), pp. 338–50.

19 Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff. Untersuch-ungen 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 SF, pp. 14–17.

21 SF, pp. 148–50.  Cf. “Die Begriffsform im mythischen Denken,” Wesen und Wirkung des Symbolbegriffs (Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1956), p. 9.

22 SF, p. 26.

23 SF, pp. 20–21.

24 SF, pp. 272–73.

25 Cassirer, “The Influence of Language upon the Development of Scientific Thought,” Journal of Philosophy, 39 (1942), 316–17.  In SF see pp. 254–55.

26 SF, p. 275.

27 SF, p. v.

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 states: “I first projected this work, whose first volume I am here submitting, at the time of the investigations summed up in my book Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (Berlin, 1910)” PSF, I, p. 69.  In SF see pp. 232–33.

30 PSF, III, pp. 61, 108, and 282.

31 See Carl H. Hamburg, Symbol and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1956), p. 58.

32 PSF, I, p. 109.

33 These are forms which Cassirer discusses.  He also mentions forms of customary morality (Sitte), law (Recht), economics (Wirtschaft) and technology (Technik). See PSF, II, pp. xiv-xv.

34 PSF, II, pp. 43–59.

35 Cassirer, “Mythic, Aesthetic and Theoretical Space,” trans. D. P. Verene and L. H. Foster, Man and World, 2 (1969), pp. 3–17.

36 PSF, III, pp. 342–56.

37 Regarding such problems see, for example, William H. Werkmeister, “Cassirer’s Advance Beyond Neo-Kantianism,” pp. 796–98; and Wilbur M. Urban, “Cassirer’s Philosophy of Language,” pp. 438–41 in The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer.

38 PSF, I, pp. 80–84.

39 Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften: Fünf Studien, Göteborgs Högskolas Arsskrift, Vol 47 (Göteborg: Wettergren and Kerbers Forlag, 1942).  English trans.: The Logic of the Humanities, trans. Clarence Smith Howe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961).  Hereinafter cited as LH with page references to the English edition.

40 LH, pp. 188–89.

41 “‘Geist’ und ‘Leben’ in der Philosophie der Gegenwart,” Die Neue Rundschau, 41 (1930), 244–64.  English trans.: The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, R. W. Bretall, pp. 857–80.

42 The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, p. 875. Cf. LH, p. 215.

43 LH, p. 200.

44 LH, p. 211.

45 Cassirer’s own comments in the Preface to EM give support to this approach: “My critics should, however, be warned that what I could give here is more an explanation and illustration than a demonstration of my theory.  For a closer discussion and analysis of the problems involved I must ask them to go back to the detailed description in my Philosophy of Symbolic Forms” (p. viii).  My view of the ethical thrust of EM is not intended to exclude its significance for an understanding of the specific parts of Cassirer’s epistemology.  I would emphasize another sentence in Cassirer’s Preface: “Since that time [the publication of PSF] the author has continued his study on the subject.  He has learned many new facts and he has been confronted with new problems” (p. vii).  My view of EM as having an ethical standpoint and a particular relationship to MS was suggested to me by my recent study of Cassirer’s unpublished papers at Beinecke Library, Yale University.

46 EM, pp. 21–22.

47 In this regard, note the end points of Cassirer’s discussions in chs. 4 and 5 in which he draws out the implications of the distinction between animal and human mentality of ch. 3. He speaks of the impor-tance of man’s symbolic ability for forming an ethical-religious concept of the future (pp. 54–55) and for conceiving ethical-political ideals (pp. 60–62).

48 MS, p. 282.

49 MS, pp. 289–93.

50 The differences between Cassirer and Heidegger do not seem to lie in their specific phenomenological analyses (see the exchange of footnotes between Being and Time, H. 51, n. xi, and PSF, III, pp. 149, n. 4; 163, n. 2; 173, n. 16; 189, n. 34) but in their interpretation of Kant and the ultimate implications their philosophies have for a theory of man and human freedom.  See also Carl H. Hamburg’s translation of the record of their meeting at Davos in 1929, “A Cassirer-Heidegger Seminar,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 25 (1964), 208–22; Heidegger’s review of PSF, II, Deutsche Literaturzei-tung, 21 (1929), 999–1012; and Cassirer’s review of Heidegger’s book on Kant, Kant-Studien, 36 (1931), 1–26.  An account of the entire Davos meeting showing something of the general character of the meeting and the involvement of other participants exists in the form of the Davoser Revue: Zeitschrift für Literatur, Wissenschaft, Kunst und Sport, Vol. 4, No. 7, 15 April 1929.  For a comparison of Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s views on Kant see Calvin O. Schrag, “Heidegger and Cassirer on Kant,” Kant-Studien, 58 (1967), 87–100.

51 See also Cassirer, “Judaism and the Modern Political Myths,” Contemporary Jewish Record, 7 (1944), pp. 115–26.

52 For a clearly stated analysis of Cassirer’s thought from the standpoint of political philosophy see John J. Schrems, “Ernst Cassirer and Political Thought,” The Review of Politics, 29 (1967), pp. 180–203.

53 Although the literature on creativity is quite large these are the basic approaches to be found within it, e.g., see S. J. Parnes and H. F. Harding, eds., A Source Book for Creative Thinking (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962).  For a view that approaches creativity in a way other than those of the above but which employs an aspect of aesthetic experience as a model see Carl R. Hausman, “Mystery, Paradox, and the Creative Act,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 7 (1969), pp. 289–96.

54 Cassirer states: “Wir können nur in diesen Formen anschauen, erfahren, vorstellen, denken; wir sind an ihre rein immanente Bedeutung und Leistung gebunden” (“Zur Logik des Symbolbegriffs,” Wesen und Wirkung, p. 209).

55 In EM Cassirer states: “If we content ourselves with contemplating the results of these activities—the creations of myth, religious rites or creeds, works of art, scientific theories—it seems impossible to reduce them to a common denominator.  But a philosophic synthesis means something different.  Here we seek not a unity of effects but a unity of action; not a unity of products but a unity of the creative process” (p. 70).

56 For an analysis of Cassirer’s relationship to Hegel see D. P. Verene, “Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer: The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 30 (1969), 33–46.  See also Charles W. Hendel’s Introduction in PSF, I, pp. 32–35; 62.

57 PSF, III, pt. II, ch. 5, esp. p. 202.

58 For an example of this see PSF, III, pp. 200–01.  See also “Das Symbolproblem und seine Stellung im System der Philosophie,” Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, 21 (1927), pp. 194–95.

59 EM, ch. 2.

60 Although Cassirer’s philosophy is constructed on a different base from Whitehead’s, I think if Cassirer’s thought were pressed to enumerate the ideals of civilization they would be similar to those in Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas, Part IV.  As Whitehead states them: “I put forward as a general definition of civilization, that a civilized society is exhibiting the five qualities of Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Art, Peace” (New York: Macmillan, 1933, p. 353).

61 To my mind the one thinker who makes clear the extent of these problems is Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Knopf, 1964); Propaganda (New York: Knopf, 1966); and The Political Illusion (New York: Knopf, 1967).

62 Cassirer states: “The great thinkers of the past were not only ‘their own times apprehended in thought.’  Very often they had to think beyond and against their times.  Without this intellectual and moral courage, philosophy could not fulfill its task in man’s cultural and social life.  It is beyond the power of philosophy to destroy the political myths.  A myth is in a sense invulnerable.  It is impervious to rational arguments; it cannot be refuted by syllogisms.  But philosophy can do us another important service.  It can make us understand the adversary” (MS, p. 296).  For a criticism of Cassirer’s negative account of the role of myth in political life see D. P. Verene, “Cassirer’s View of Myth and Symbol,” The Monist, 50 (1966), pp. 559–64.

63 A version of this paper was originally presented at the Society for Philosophy of Creativity session at the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division meeting, Boston, 1972.  I am most grateful for the remarks of the two commentators at this session, James Haden and William Werkmeister.

Cassirer page

Donald Phillip Verene page