Vol. 32, Number 1, Spring-Summer 2003, 79-93.
Posted July 30, 2008
“. . .
Cassirer’s epistemological standpoint on symbols can be enhanced with
the metaphysical standpoint of Alfred North Whitehead and Henri Bergson.
. . . [and] may be used to enhance Whitehead’s metaphysics. In
particular, Whitehead is concerned that metaphysics be appli-cable, and
the framework that Cassirer sets forth . . . creates a solution to the
problem of symbolic representation. . . . [T]hese two thinkers
complement one another to a great degree.”
Cassirer, Whitehead, and Bergson:
the Development of the Symbol
It is not easy to understand how a sensible object can convey a meaning.
Is there something in the sensuous medium that is peculiarly capable of
standing for another thing? Is the meaning conveyed in some ways
independent or dependent upon the characteristics of a sensuous medium?
Obviously, these questions are complex and can be approached from any
number of standpoints. A promising venue of interpretation regarding
the issue of how symbols symbolize and signs signify is offered by the
philosophical anthropology of Ernst Cassirer. However, as excellent as
this account is I believe it can be improved through a supplementation.
In particular, I would suggest that Cassirer’s epistemological
standpoint on symbols can be enhanced with the metaphysical standpoint
of Alfred North Whitehead and Henri Bergson. The blending of these
perspectives, while a difficult undertaking, provides in my view an
essentially complete interpretation of the relationship between
expression and representation in the process of concept formation.
In addition, Cassirer’s epistemological standpoint may be used to
enhance Whitehead’s metaphysics. In particular, Whitehead is concerned
that metaphysics be applicable, and the framework that Cassirer sets
forth—and which I fill in using Whitehead—creates a solution to the
problem of symbolic representation. While Whitehead is good at creating
metaphysical systems to explain phenomena at a general level, he gave
little attention to detailed historical analysis. This is the reverse
of Cassirer, who wrote many detailed analyses regarding the development
of conscious-ness but avoided making metaphysical claims. The point is
that these two thinkers complement one another to a great degree.
However, rather than show this full complementation, I will focus on
enhancing the thought of Cassirer, by using Whitehead and leave the
other half of this project for another time.
Since general familiarity with Cassirer’s theory of symbols cannot be
assumed, I will begin with a summary of his account. However, this
summary is not intended to offer a complete survey of Cassirer’s symbol
theory but, rather, concentrates upon the relationship between the
expressive function of symbolic consciousness and the representational
function. I focus especially upon the transition from expression to
representation because it is here that the crucial moves occur in
explaining how a sensuous medium can bear a meaning. We share
expression with the animal world; representation, so far as we know, is
apparently either peculiar to human beings or, at the very least, human
beings emphasize representation in their conscious functioning to such a
high degree that many believe this emphasis justifies making a
distinction in kind between the form of human consciousness and the form
of consciousness in other animals.
Following my exegesis of Cassirer, I will call attention to certain
shortcomings in his view, which I will suggest, may be overcome with an
adequate metaphysics of the symbol. I find Whitehead’s philosophy of
the symbol useful for this purpose. The effected synthesis of the
symbol theories of Whitehead and Cassirer still leaves unanswered
questions. I think those further questions may be addressed by
appealing to some of Bergson’s key ideas. In the end I hope that the
resulting theory of the manner in which sensible things convey meanings
will constitute an interesting place to begin a still more comprehensive
account of the relations among language, consciousness, and the physical
Cassirer: The Sensuous Medium and the Symbol from an Epistemological
Cassirer argues for the existence of symbolic consciousness; i.e.,
consciousness is understood to be in a symbolic relation with the world.
When something in the sensuous medium has meaning, it has this meaning
through the functioning of consciousness; consciousness gives phenomena
meaning. Cassirer begins his account in a Kantian manner by asking what
the conditions must be in order for symbolism to occur, but he develops
his account in a Hegelian manner, using a phenomeno-logical analysis in
the Hegelian sense, i.e., by tracing the development of consciousness.1
Should the reader wonder why Cassirer’s standpoint is characterized as
epistemological rather than metaphysical, it is because Cassirer does
not provide the genetic causes of the development of conscious
functioning and concept formation; he attempts only to provide the
structure of consciousness.2
His failure to give a genetic account of each element in consciousness
leads eventually to the gaps in his account, about which more will be
The three structural levels of human conscious functioning that he
identifies are expression (Ausdrucksfunktion), representation (Darstellungs-funktion),
and pure significance (reine Bedeutungs-funktion)3
The expressive function is the most basic. Expression is tied to its
present existential context and cannot be detached therefrom. For
example, a squirrel chattering a warning to other squirrels that a cat
is in the yard is a symbolic expression. Human beings also symbolize
their immediate surroundings by expressively calling attention to
particular features of the situation.4
In the expressive function, meaning is unified with the sensuous medium
of the present existential situation. When the situation changes, the
meaning disappears along with the sensuous medium through which it was
conveyed. Hence, expressive meaning is completely dependent upon
sensuous existential conditions. The experiencing subject(s) is part and
parcel of the same situation and has no enduring self-identity at this
level. Whatever durable identity an experiencing subject may have
requires more sophisticated symbolic functioning than pure expression
In contrast to the contextual dependency of the expressive function of
consciousness, the representational function allows the experienced
meaning to be detached from its existential situation and carried—by no
particular sensuous medium—from one situation to another. Hence,
representational meaning at this level of consciousness is independent
of the sensuous medium. Clearly, some important transition occurs when
experiencing beings move from expressive forms of consciousness into
representational forms. How does this transition occur? I will explain
both the expressive and the representational functions in more detail
below, and then attempt to explain the transition.
(a) The Expressive Function
Cassirer holds that the expressive function is the most basic symbolic
function of consciousness. It is of an original character. He argues
that it is impossible to derive expression from a bare sensation unless
it is original to that sensation not as an appurtenance, but as the
total; therefore, expression is immediate and comes wholly formed in a
In human experience the expressive function and its kind of meaning is
preserved in mythical consciousness. For mythical consciousness the
symbol, the meaning symbolized, and the existential situation all come
together. To think any one of these elements is to think the whole
existential situation. Myth does not contain the thing-attribute
category, the view of both whole and parts. It sees only the whole. By
investigating myth, we can avoid the problem of inserting a theoretical
distinction into a description of nature, which is to describe nature
not as it is but as it is after a theoretical analysis.
Myth is an expressive world, most evident to us in the present whenever
we come into contact with living things. In mythic consciousness, the
world is alive. There are no things, only subjects; i.e., “I” and
“thou.” The world is animated. “The understanding of expression is
essentially earlier than the knowledge of things” (Symbolic Forms
The “thou” is given; thus other subjects are basic knowledge, not
derived. The “I” is the dependent knowledge. Consciousness can only
know itself by differentiating itself from its counterpart, the “thou”
or the outer world (Symbolic Forms III 89). As this
differentiating process moves along, the “thou” of the outer world is
gradually replaced by “thous,” and these are then replaced by “its,”
i.e., subjects become objects. So, the expressive function gives the
experiencing consciousness a world of subjects, alive with activity in a
present existential context.
(b) The Representational Function
In the prior section we summarized how, for Cassirer, the mythical world
helps us to understand the expressive function. The mythical world is a
world of flux, where forms slip into one another. There is little
linguistic stability. For example, any god is only a god of the moment,
of the event or object or form that is present, and hence there does not
exist enough structural stability in consciousness to allow for
full-fledged conceptual thought.
Representation is an entirely new level of consciousness, a difference
of kind in conscious functioning, not of degree alone. The
representa-tional symbol carries meaning across existential contexts.
Cassirer focuses on language’s ability to do just this. Somehow
language endows the symbol with a power of detachment from, or
transcendence of, the material/sensuous mode of conveyance through which
it is presented to consciousness.
How does language accomplish this? In representation, a single factor
is detached from a total existential milieu; then, through
representation, it functions to reconstitute that situation when the
situation no longer exists. The whole situation is condensed into this
single factor, and it is this movement that allows us to remove the
“phenomenon” from the spatial and temporal flux. Also, the condensation
of meaning renders the symbol “pregnant.” (I shall discuss this below.)
When we recognize similar things, we posit a lingual concept, but
positing does not stop here: “It [concept formation in language] does
not content itself with positing different things as identical . . . it
also composes the individual positings thus gained into comprehensive
totalities, into distinct groups and series” (Symbolic Forms III
115). This is how the positings of blue, red, green, and so forth
become the totality of color.6
Cassirer points out that, “The decisive act is . . . that within the
sequence of these particulars we create definite intervals which provide
a characteristic division and articulation . . . certain favored points
are gradually singled out, and around them the other members group
themselves” (Symbolic Forms III 116). This singling out and
subsequent grouping is what forms the structure of the representational
function of consciousness.7
The singling out of points and subsequent grouping is the major function
of the representational consciousness, and it is this function that
allows meaning to become independent of the present existential
situation. Grouping is done in abstraction from experience; in fact, it
almost always involves the coordination of multiple experiences. This
ability to group separate phenomena depends initially on the ability to
distinguish pieces of one’s experience from the experience as a whole.
An example of this ability is the way representational consciousness
distinguishes between a thing and an attribute (Symbolic Forms
III 118ff.). That is, we move from the “thou” orientation of the
mythic, expressive function to the “it” orientation of the
representational function. Only a “thing” can have “attributes.” A
“thou” has personal traits, not attributes. For example, the storm god
is angry (a personality trait); the storm is violent (attribute). The
representational function allows consciousness to hold a phenomenon and
consider it as an object or thing. It can then take one of the
attributes of these things as yet another thing. The attribute can then
function as a symbol, or representation of the whole.
In the representational function of consciousness, consciousness makes
itself and its objects of contemplation independent of present
existential situations. The experiencing subject is able to build up a
complete temporally independent world of symbols. The symbol is born
of, or from, a particular existential situation, but it then, somehow,
gains the ability to transcend all particular situations. The symbol,
once freed from the present situation, then seemingly floats among
infinitely many situations, with a power to represent different
situations in one condensed symbol. The representational world grows as
each object of perception takes on the ability to represent more and
more diverse things and more and more diverse functions. The phenomena
speak to the consciousness as symbolic elements in a symbolic structure.
This symbolic structure is made possible by what Cassirer terms
symbolic pregnance. The term pregnance is meant to convey the symbol’s
ability to move from one situation to the next and still provide meaning
to vastly different situations. A symbol is pregnant with possible
Cassirer discusses this strange ability in the context of the
distinction between matter and form. Matter is the concrete being, or
sensuous medium, of the symbol, while form is the varying meaning that
is carried along with the symbol. According to Cassirer, the split
between the physical and mental world, or the stratum of matter and that
of form, rests in the relative independence of the two realms. Although
they are never absolutely separable, each seems able to operate without
the other. Matter must always be in some form, but it can shift from
one mode of signification to another, either through a shift in the
modality of meaning or within the restricted sphere of one of the forms
(expressing or representing):8
It is with a view to
expressing this mutual determination that we introduce the concept and
the term “symbolic pregnance.” By symbolic pregnance we mean the way in
which a perception as a sensory experience contains at the same time a
nonintuitive meaning which it immediately and concretely represents.
Here we are not dealing with bare perceptive data, on which some sort of
apperceptive acts are later grafted, through which they are interpreted,
judged, transformed. Rather, it is the perception itself which by
virtue of its own immanent organization, takes on a kind of spiritual
articulation—which, being ordered in itself, also belongs to a
determinate order of meaning . . . . It is this ideal interwovenness,
this relatedness of the single perceptive phenomenon, given here and
now, to a characteristic total meaning that the term “pregnance” is
meant to designate. (Symbolic Forms III 202)
It is the mutual determination of meaning between structure and material
that results in the building of consciousness. The symbolic function is
not reducible to any other elements of consciousness because it is the
foundation of consciousness. The phenomenon gains objectivity, or
symbolic pregnance, by participation in the structure: “The symbolic
pregnance that it gains detracts in no way from its concrete abundance;
but it does provide a guarantee that this abundance will not simply
dissipate itself, but will round itself into a stable, self-contained
form” (Symbolic Forms III 203). The object as the perception of
a sensory experience has within it the ability to symbolize a
multiplicity of unrelated objects. Perception and sensation are still
separate but not absolutely. They find their connection in the object,
more specifically in the object’s symbolic pregnance.
Cassirer’s account, though promising, leaves us with some questions.
While we see that language is the vehicle through which consciousness
makes the leap from expression to representation (from dependence on the
sensuous existential situation to independence therefrom), we do not see
why or how. The closest that we get to how is the discussion of symbolic
pregnance. If symbols can move from situation to situation providing
meaning in each, and we call this ability symbolic pregnance, then we
have not really answered the question of how. We just know that it
occurs and have given a name to it. What is needed is some kind of a
metaphysics; i.e., we need the being of the symbol, the being of
symbolic pregnance. What are these things, really?
Whitehead: The Sensuous Medium and the Symbol from a Metaphysical
Now we can begin to approach the genesis of symbolism from a different
viewpoint. Whereas Cassirer works outward from consciousness, Whitehead
starts with metaphysical categories and works his way toward conscious
functioning. For Whitehead, symbolism originates in perception and,
therefore, an analysis of his theory concerning perception is in order.
He distinguishes among three modes of perception: presentational
immediacy, causal efficacy, and conceptual analysis. Presentational
immediacy and causal efficacy are joined together through symbolic
reference, so that conceptual analysis can then take place. This
process, familiar to most readers of Process Studies, will be
explained in the following pages, and will assist us in filling out the
relationship between expression and representation in conscious
(a) Direct Recognition
Both presentational immediacy and causal efficacy are subsumed under the
heading of “direct recognition.” Whitehead defines direct recognition
as “that type of mental functioning which by its nature yields immediate
acquaintance with fact” (7-8). Direct recognition does not include
symbolism. It is bare fact.
(i) Presentational Immediacy
Whitehead defines presentational immediacy throughout
Symbolism in an attempt to
continue refining the concept for our understanding. I am forced to
mimic this approach in an attempt to find my way through the labyrinth
of his thought, for if I put the torch aside I fear I would find neither
the exit nor the entry nor the bathroom. He first defines
presentational immediacy as “the familiar immediate presentation of the
contemporary world, by means of our projection of our immediate
sensations, determining for us characteristics of contemporary physical
entities” (13). Whitehead’s use of the word “projection” is meant to
convey the role that our sensory organs play in perception. Our eyes
“project” images into space.
Using the example of a wall and a percipient, Whitehead writes that the
wall and the percipient share a relation, but each is also independent
of the other. Whitehead then refines presentational immediacy by
defining it as follows: “It [presentational immediacy] expresses how
contemporary events are relevant to each other, and yet preserve a
mutual independence” (16). Contemporary events are to be understood as
the percipient and the perceived object. Both are processes and, at any
point in time, each is an event in time.
Whitehead states that presentational immediacy is what is usually called
sense perception, but he makes certain modifications: “Presentational
immediacy is our immediate perception of the contemporary external
world, appearing as an element constitutive of our own experience. In
this appearance the world discloses itself to be a community of actual
things, which are actual in the same sense that we are” (21). Here,
Whitehead is attempting to separate himself from the sensationalist
schools. Not only is he refining their view, but he is also laying the
foundation for a new beginning, causal efficacy. The final aspect of
presentational immediacy is objectification. Whitehead writes:
. . . introduce[s] into human experience components which are again
analysable into actual things of the actual world and into abstract
attributes, qualities, and relations, which express how those other
actual things contribute themselves as components to our individual
experience . . . . I will therefore say that they [the abstractions]
“objectify” for us the actual things in our “environment.” (17)
So, for Whitehead, when we abstract we objectify, and we can only
abstract when we have the power of perceiving in the mode of
presentational immediacy. He sums up his views on presentational
immediacy clearly as follows:
The main facts about
presentational immediacy are: (i) that the sense-data involved depend on
the percipient organism and its spatial relations to the perceived
organisms; (ii) that the contemporary world is exhibited as extended and
as a plenum of organisms; (iii) that presentational immediacy is an
important factor in the experience of only a few high-grade organisms,
and that for the others it is embryonic or entirely negligible. (23)
Presentational immediacy gives us the ability to abstract and objectify.
However, unlike the traditional schools of thought, Whitehead does not
see this mode of perception as the original mode. That is, abstraction
is not a fundamental function. To begin a philosophy with
presentational immediacy would be a mistake. The fundamental function,
for Whitehead, is causal efficacy.
(ii) Causal Efficacy
Causal Efficacy is the second type of direct recognition. Whitehead
states that this mode is one that is common to all organisms, both
higher and lower. Causal efficacy is quite simply conformity;
conformity in space and conformity in time. To use Whitehead’s
language, it is the way in which one event conforms to the conditions of
a past event. Whitehead’s explanation of causal efficacy is in almost
constant dialogue with the schools of Hume and Kant.
According to Whitehead, both schools make the basic mistake of viewing
time as pure succession. This, however, is an abstraction from the
actual nature of time. Time conforms. The present conforms to the
past. Each epochal occasion includes all that happened before (cf.
Cooper for an explanation of how causal efficacy grounds experienced
time). By transforming time into pure succession, Hume and Kant cut off
the knowledge of cause. “It is not just that, against Hume, we have an
experience of causal connection: we have a form of experience which
is causal connection” (Machlachlan
As noted above, Whitehead held that presentational immediacy gave the
wall and the percipient as independent. But in causal efficacy,
independence does not exist. Everything is conformity. The wall and
the percipient conform to each other. There is no independent,
(b) Symbolic Reference
Symbolic reference is the joining of the two modes of direct
recognition, or pure perception. Symbolic reference results in the
world that we know as human beings and, as such, we play a role in this
function. It is not a product of conceptual analysis, bur rather the
condition for conceptual analysis, because the world does not actually
contain any concepts. Concepts are created through abstraction and
Whitehead defines symbolism as occurring when an object in experience
eliciting the consciousness of another object. Thus we have a symbol,
the thing directly perceived, and a meaning, the consciousness of which
is elicited by the symbol: “The organic functioning whereby there is
transition from the symbol to the meaning will be called ‘symbolic
reference.’ This symbolic reference is the active synthetic element
contributed by the nature of the percipient” (8). Symbolic reference
requires an act of the percipient in order for it to occur. Thus the
percipient is involved in creating his/her own experience.10
These, then, are the elements in the perception of a high-grade
organism. Causal efficacy is the most basic element. It is the
conformity of the spatio-temporal structure and the objects within that
structure to one another. Presentational immediacy is a function only
of higher-grade organisms. It is the mode in which objects appear given
to consciousness. It is thus the mode that gives independence to actual
entities, although these entities can never be truly independent because
of their causal efficacy. Symbolic reference is the act of the
percipient, which allows for symbolic meaning. These elements operate
within consciousness, but they also exist metaphysically.
The Metaphysical and Epistemological Synthesis and Further Problems
Cassirer’s approach to the question of symbolic formation is grounded in
epistemological analysis. Whitehead’s approach is metaphysical. Despite
these differences, some aspects of their thought overlap. By combining
these two theories, it may be possible to bridge the metaphysical gap
between Cassirer’s expressive function and the representational
function. We are attempting to discover what allows for this transition
of meaning between the present existential situation to the independence
of meaning and how this transition occurs. I proceed by first
commenting on the overlaps and agreements in their theories. I will
then comment about further problems that remain.
The first overlap is the parallel between what each believes to be the
original or most primitive function. Cassirer’s expressive function is
the original element in perception that comes in whole form in a
perception. It gives an active character to the primitive worldview
because the outerworld is seen as a “thou,” rather than as multiple
“its.” Whitehead’s causal efficacy is the most primitive element in
perception. It can be found both in higher and lower organisms. Causal
efficacy gives the outer world to the percipient as active just as the
What the expressive function and causal efficacy do is give the world to
us in an original, active view, a living efficacy.
The next area of agreement between Cassirer and Whitehead is in the
parallel functions of represen-tation and symbolic reference.
Representation is the relation between two spatially and/or temporally
separate phenomena whereby one represents the other. Symbolic reference
is the transference from meaning to symbol through an act of the
percipient whereby one object in experience elicits the consciousness of
another object in experience. The agreement seems to be in the
definition of representation and symbolism, one object in experience
stands for, or represents another. Whitehead gives the action of the
percipient a name, symbolic reference. Although Cassirer does not give
the action of the percipient a name, it is implied as part of the entire
In order to abstract a part from the whole, and then to condense the
whole into one of its parts, there must first be an objective view. One
does not perceive parts or attributes unless one can see these not as a
“thou,” but as a part of an object, something that can be separated,
something that is not living, not active, but dead and independent.
While Cassirer seems certain that such an act takes place, he does not
provide a cause as to why we can view perceptions as objects. The
furthest he ventures is to point to the development of language.
Language is the aid by which we posit a permanence. The word forms a
bond with the object, which we can hold in our minds as though the
object were permanent. However, this ability of language presupposes the
ability to see permanence. Words can only posit a permanence because we
see words as already permanent.
Whitehead does provide an answer to this need for objectification or
permanency. Presentational immediacy is that view by which we see the
givenness of the world of objects which are actual in the same sense in
which we are actual. If we translate this into Cassirer’s schema we
find that the ability to use language in an objective way arises from
the functioning of presentational immediacy. Presentational immediacy
allows us to see the world as composed of objects, and if we have such
an ability, then it would be possible for us to use language in an
objective sense, which would ultimately result in the emergence of the
representational function. However, we have simply moved the gap from
being between the representational and expressive functions to being
between the expressive function and presentational immediacy.
I believe that Cassirer was operating under a metaphysical
understanding, but since it was outside of his developmental method, he
did not write about it, at least in the first three volumes of The
Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. There are, however, certain hints of
his understanding throughout the text. In discussing Hegel’s Spirit, we
catch a glimpse of Cassirer’s metaphysical grounding.13
In the posthumously published fourth volume of The Philosophy of
Symbolic Forms, Cassirer provides his metaphysical grounding in a
discussion of life (Leben) and spirit (Geist). Cassirer
identifies Leben as the base phenomenon, as the starting point
for all theories. It is the action of Geist, however, that
causes the building of the symbolic world. The nature of Leben
is such that it continuously jumps over its boundaries. As this occurs,
Leben destroys itself. It is Geist that preserves what
Leben has accomplished (10-11, 219-20). In fact, Geist is
the conduit to freedom for Cassirer, since without Geist the
cultural world could not have been constructed.14
However, this explanation leaves unanswered the question of how we can
progress from one stage to the next. How is it that Spirit and Life
bring about a move from the expressive function to the representational
function, or rather to the ability to perceive in the mode of
presentational immediacy? While Whitehead has given us a metaphysics, it
seems that we need something to set it in motion. This initial impetus
may be found in the thought of Bergson.15
I shall show how by importing two ideas.16
The first is Bergson’s élan vital. Roughly translated it is
“life force.”17 The work
of the élan vital is creative evolution. It is the impetus to
change, and to change in new ways. It basically inserts life into
matter. The second idea in Bergson is durational moments. The
durational moment is the amount of time that one can hold the same idea
or perception before consciousness. 18
In humans it can last two to three seconds. I say humans because not
all living things have the same durational moments; although everything
does have some élan vital within, i.e., everything is alive. In
fact it is this difference in the length of durational moments that
shows the effect of the élan vital. In causing change and
creative evolution the élan vital creates longer durational
moments by inserting increasingly greater indeterminacy into matter.
How does consciousness move from this expressive view to a
representational view? Whitehead answers that it is presentational
immediacy, or an ability to see things as objects given to
consciousness. Cassirer answers that the move is a selecting of objects
from the sensuous flow, and then positing these objects as reference
points in building up the representational structure.19
But neither of these answers is a real answer to the question; each is
simply the identification of steps along the way. I suggest that we can
explain how the progression occurs by using durational moments. As the
élan vital creates entities with longer and longer durational
moments, it gives nascent consciousness the power to hold something
before the mind for longer and longer periods of time.20
When we have shorter durational moments we operate in the expressive
world, with expressive space and expressive time. We can only apprehend
or perceive what we are in contact with, i.e., the present existential
situation. There is no abstract existence for expressive consciousness.
What exists is only what exists in the present. There is no perception
of permanence or impermanence. Rather, the present existential
situation is the sole conveyor of the existence of past and future.
The move from a durational moment of one second to that of two to three
seconds is a massive move, one that would result in very different
orientations to the world.21
According to Bergson, the reason we can view an entity as an object is
because it has a much shorter durational moment than we do. We cannot
perceive these shorter durational moments, so the entity seems to be
dead, and unchanging.22
As we evolved, gaining longer and longer durational moments, we gained
the ability to see some entities as objects. Along with this ability we
gained the ability to hold the object before the mind for longer and
longer amounts of time. We could then select elements from the sensuous
flow, hold them before the mind, and posit them as reference points.
This is the origin of mental representations. It may have been this
increase in the durational moments of humans that allowed us to
gradually build up the representational world, and ultimately our
current purely significative world, i.e., the world of concepts, in the
fully abstract sense. Thus, the independence of the symbol from its
original existential situation could have been caused by the development
of increased durational moments in the human consciousness.
“We start . . . from the problems of the objective spirit, from the
formations in which it consists and exists; however, we shall not stop
with them as a mere fact; we shall attempt by means of reconstructive
analysis to find our way back to their elementary presuppositions, the
conditions of their possibility” (Symbolic Forms IV 57). At this
point it is also necessary to explain what is meant by the objective
spirit. The objective spirit is a Hegelian division of Geist.
The objective spirit deals with the human culture. The influence of
this idea is present in Marxism, for example. The objective spirit then
is the movement of a people toward freedom as meant in the Hegelian
sense. A tracing of the objective spirit would mean a tracing of the
history of culture. The objective spirit also contains at every moment,
that which has transpired before.
Cassirer distinguishes between scientific rationality and rationality in
a broader sense. Scientific theories are only highly refined
applications of the broader field of conscious functioning, but
philosophical rationality requires an epistemological standpoint far
broader than scientific reasoning can attain. Cassirer conceives human
consciousness as the outcome of an extended biologico-cultural process.
Thus, rationality from the epistemological standpoint is historical but
not historicist. What distinguishes the historical from the historicist
view is that the former emphasizes rational structure discernible in the
present, analyzable as the outcome of an ordered process. Hence, it
adopts a priori description and transcendental argumentation as its
method. The historicist account would settle for narrative rationality
and clearly Cassirer wants to do more than tell a story, even a good
We will not be discussing this function of consciousness in this paper
since it lies beyond our present scope. However, whatever may be said
of the transition from expressive to representational forms of
consciousness will certainly have applications to the transition from
representational to purely significative forms of consciousness.
Cassirer refers to this feature of consciousness as the “signal” in his
later work: cf. “Essay” 22-23.
Cassirer argues against the traditional notions of sense perception
which conflate perception and sensation by making the content of the
perception the same as the content of the sensation. These theories
make the simple sensation such as color the starting point, and then
insert expression as an act of the mind. Perception, for these
theories, is a conditioning force on reality. This means that nature is
no longer being examined as is, but is instead being added to by the
theoretical consciousness. This is precisely what Cassirer wants to
avoid in searching for the development of consciousness, i.e., he wants
to avoid a false starting point and post hoc theoretical interpretations
of the starting point.
Cassirer draws upon the idea of First Universals in the work of Lotze
for support of this account of the most rudimentary level of
representation: cf. Symbolic Forms III 115-16, and
Symbolic Forms I 281-82, and Lotze 22-24.
Unfortunately, it would take us too far afield to discuss in detail
exactly what happens in this building up of the symbolic world; however,
Von der Luft provides just such a detailed explanation.
For instance, consider the shifting meanings for a simple line. In the
optical sphere, “A peculiar mood is expressed in the purely spatial
determination: the up and down of the lines in space embraces an inner
mobility, a dynamic rise and fall, a psychic life and being” (Symbolic
Forms III 200). In the mathematical sphere the line “becomes a mere
schema, a means of representing a universal geometrical law” (200).
From the mythical sphere the line “is set up in order to make a
separation between the two provinces [the sacred and the profane], and
to warn and frighten, to bar the uninitiated from approaching or
touching the sacred’” (201).
I again remind the reader that for Whitehead, objects are events. Thus
the conformity expressed throughout this section in the nature of time
is applicable to the conformity of one event to another. An actual
entity both conforms to the world, and the world conforms to it. Causal
efficacy, then, is a metaphysical fact, not merely a mode of perception.
But in so far as it exists actual entities conform to it, and thus
perception is a derivative of it. See Jorge Luis Nobo 351-52, for an
account of this dual nature.
One might ask how this transference from symbol to meaning is possible.
Whitehead’s answer is a structural intersection between presentational
immediacy and causal efficacy. Interested readers should consult
“For the reality we apprehend is in its original form not a reality of a
determinate world of things, originating apart from us; rather, it is
the certainty of a living efficacy that we experience. Yet this access
to reality is given us not by the datum of sensation but only in the
original phenomenon of expression and expressive understanding. If an
expressive meaning were not revealed to us in certain perceptive
experiences, existence would remain silent for us. Reality could never
be deduced from the mere experience of things if it were not in some way
already contained and manifested in a very particular way, in expressive
perception.” (Symbolic Forms III 73)
These words of Cassirer
show the relation between the expressive function and causal efficacy.
The singling out of a part from the whole and then making it represent
the whole seems to be inherently dependent upon action by the
A direct quote from Hegel is found at Symbolic Forms III 78 where
Cassirer uses the objective spirit as evidence for the mutual existence
of the expressive and representative functions. Cassirer has been
characterized as a neo-Kantian by many: cf. Carl Hamburg and
Klaus Oehler (217-19). However, recently support has been building to
see Cassirer in a Hegelian light, especially with respect to The
Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: cf. Donald Phillip Verene and
John Michael Krois. I am more inclined to support the views of Verene
and Krois, although the influence of Kant is undeniable.
This is probably too short a mention for those interested in the
relation between freedom and the cultural world. Baeten provides an
account of the relation between freedom and myth, which is part of the
culture, according to Cassirer. Interested readers should consult her
article as well as the second volume of Symbolic Forms for
Cassirer’s description of the mythical world.
An anonymous referee of the paper made the following comment regarding
the relation between Bergson and Whitehead with which I fully agree: in
Process and Reality Whitehead brackets the phenomenological and
experiential description of time and events for the sake of giving a
systematic description of the most generic traits of existence. We do
not get in Process and Reality an account of time as experienced
by human consciousness except incidentally and illustratively; rather,
we get a non-temporal description of temporality. Bergson’s project is
exactly the other side of this coin—to find a language in which to
describe the experience of time, and to construct an epistemology in
which we can say we “know” what we are talking about. Unfortunately,
both Bergson and Whitehead call these activities “metaphysics,” which
greatly confuses the issue. In truth, Whitehead is doing systematic
metaphysics of a synchronic and descriptive variety, while Bergson is
doing phenomenological metaphysics of a diachronic and descriptive
Bergson’s metaphysics, to my knowledge, has never been applied to the
theory of concept formation or to the formation of symbols, but I am
bringing it in here in full force. The work of the élan vital
can easily be construed as the behavior of Cassirer’s Leben, and
the creation of longer durational moments is the breaking through of the
boundaries. However, for those not happy with the concept of Geist,
what I develop here can be taken as an alternate account to the
Bergson has a vitalist metaphysics. The effected synthesis in the
symbol theories of Cassirer and Whitehead is achieved via this vitalist
metaphysics. Susanne Langer has previously attempted to synthesize
Cassirer and Whitehead, but she used a materialist metaphysics. This
ultimately fails because of misplaced concreteness: cf.
Randall Auxier’s “Langer.”
In explaining durational moments Pete Gunter writes: ‘‘‘Lived time,’ far
from being made up of instants, is dynamic throughout. No two
‘segments’ of it—if there are segments—are identical; all differ
qualitatively. And, far from being separate, successive states of
consciousness merge into each other without sharp boundaries. Bergson
calls this inner time ‘duration’ to distinguish it from mathematical
time and to stress the fundamental endurance of each of its moments into
the next” (269).
The example used by Cassirer was that of color. The reference points are
blue, red, yellow, etc. They then form the boundaries or structure of
what we call in totality, color.
In the fourth volume of Symbolic Forms, Cassirer refutes the
theory of Bergson for its irrational elements and its overemphasis on
the past to the detriment of the future (209-11). First, I think
Cassirer’s account of Bergson is incorrect in its dealing with time:
cf. Pete Gunter’s article, cited above, in which he argues against
the traditional notion of irrationality in Bergson. Secondly, Cassirer
need not have done away with experienced time. Experienced time, as I
argue, is a possible mechanism to understand how consciousness develops.
In short, Cassirer dumped too much of Bergson and left himself no way
to explain how the progression of consciousness can occur.
A change in durational moment is a qualitative change rather than a mere
quantitative change. Pete Gunter provides an excellent account of this
in the aforementioned work. So, as Cassirer might say a change in
durational experience is a change not of degree alone but of kind.
This notion appears to be taken up by Whitehead in his method of
extensive abstraction (Auxier, “Influence” 316-17).
“Susanne Langer on Symbols and Analogy: A Case of
Misplaced Concreteness?” Process Studies 26
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