Ernst Cassirer, 1874--1945

01 Jun 2000 14:00

German philosopher and intellectual historian; escaped from the Nazis, first to Oxford, then to Goteborg and finally to Yale. I've only just started to read him, beginning with what was first to hand, namely the historical works, and frankly I'm puzzled.

What, exactly, is a "symbolic form"? It seems to have some connection to Kant's ideas about the structures which we necessarily impose upon phenomena; but on the other hand Cassirer sometimes talks about them as though they evolved through time. Also, he speaks of "science" and "myth" as symbolic forms, though I don't think he would have said we have "scientific" or "mythic" perceptions. And did Cassirer believe in noumena? And, on the subject of myths, having read his Myth of the State, which he begins with a summary of his thoughts on what myths are and what they do, all I can tell you is that he thought they had something to do with emotions, could be about any subject at all, and had rituals as their "motor expressions." (Perhaps that was a bad exposition on his part; perhaps I'm just dense.)

And just what principles did he employ in historical research? His Philosophy of the Englightenment, for instance, is rightly a standard work, as it has been ever since 1932. (And what went through his mind, the mind of a man prodigiously learned and cultivated in the German scholarly tradition, as he wrote a deeply sympathetic book about the eighteenth century and the philosophes, about Progress, Enlightenment, the March of Reason and Experience, the Progress of Toleration and all the rest, while outside the brown shirts marched in the streets?) Yet every once in a while there is what I can only think of as an erruption of oddity, when he devotes pages and pages to some writer who was obscure in his own day, and now is all but forgotten, who either thought he was carrying on the tradition of Leibniz, or who seems to have anticipated Kant and Hegel in some particular. (This'd make some sense if he thought those worthies represented the One True Tradition in philosophy, but he never comes out to say as much. Perhaps he thought it went without saying.) And why give over the last quarter of the book, ninety pages or so, to aesthetics and art criticism, of all things? Similar comments apply, with even more force, to The Myth of the State: here is a book, ostensibly about modern totalitarianism, which spends more time trying to figure out just what Machiavelli admired about Cesar Borgia than it does talking about totalitarianism! (He's illuminating about Machiavelli, actually, but that's not the point.) Some of this would make sense if he thought of history as mostly driven by Ideas, and teleologically at that, but I'm not at all sure that's the case.

Later (28 Oct. 1999). I've now read Cassirer's Essay on Man, which was written as his own introduction to his thought for those who hadn't German, supposedly even for those who weren't scholars. Matters are a bit clearer, but not as much as I'd like. I've explained why in my review of the Essay, linked to below, and shan't repeat myself here.