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
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Cassirer finds the intellectual
background for this to lie in the thought of Oswald Spengler and Martin
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
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
(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
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
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.,
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.
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
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
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,
16 The Individual and the Cosmos in
Renaissance Philosophy, trans. Mario Domandi (New York: Harper
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.
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.
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
31 See Carl H. Hamburg, Symbol and
Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (The Hague:
Martinus Nijhoff, 1956), p. 58.
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.
LH, p. 200.
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).
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
51 See also Cassirer, “Judaism and the
Modern Political Myths,” Contemporary Jewish Record, 7 (1944),
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.
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,
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.
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:
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.
Donald Phillip Verene page