The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   99

An Essay on Man

An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture

by Ernst Cassirer

Yale University Press, 1944
Ernst Cassirer (1874--1945) was a Jewish German intellectual historian and philosopher, the originator of the ``philosophy of symbolic forms.'' After a distinguished teaching career in Germany, he fled the Nazis, first to Oxford, then Goteborg, then finally Yale, which gives an annual series of lectures in philosophy in his honor; he died as a visiting professor at Columbia. Having read and admired his historical works, particularly The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, I was curious about his own doctrines. The summary of them included in his semi-historical book The Myth of the State left me quite confused: reading it gave me no sense of what a symbolic form was, except that it had something to do with what Kant called forms of apperception (no surprise: Cassirer was a neo-Kantian). Similarly, on that basis I couldn't have told you what Cassirer thought a myth was, though it had something to do with emotions whose ``motor-expressions'' were rituals.

Now, I don't think I'm a stupid man, or a bad reader. In the line of professional duty I've read a great deal on subjects which are fairly tricky conceptually, like mathematical logic and quantum field theory and learning theory, and it at least felt like I understood them. And I'm not normally blocked by dense prose, either. Nonetheless, what I got from those passages was a diffused feeling of frustrated incomprehension: there was something there, and I just wasn't getting it. (I may add that, pursuing my hobby of psychoceramics, I've read a great deal of dense prose where there really isn't anything to be grasped, and the difference is palpable.) Such befuddlement is, of course, the reason why introductory books are written, so I started looking around for an introduction to Cassirer. Lo: the man wrote one himself, An Essay on Man. The preface tells us it was intended for those who hadn't German enough to tackle the three volumes of his The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, supposedly even for those who aren't scholars. Having read it, matters are a bit clearer, but not much.

The start is good. There is, Cassirer declares, a ``crisis in man's knowledge of himself.'' I dare say it takes a philosopher, perhaps even a German philosopher, to deem the absence of an adequate and generally accepted philosophical anthropology a ``crisis,'' but this dramatization is harmless, and Cassirer has a real point.

No former age was ever in such a favorable position with regard to the sources of our knowledge of human nature. Psychology, ethnology, anthropology, and history have amassed an astonishingly rich and constantly increasing body of facts. Our technical instruments for observation and experimentation have been immensely improved, and our analyses have become sharper and more penetrating. We appear, nevertheless, not yet to have found a method for the mastery and organization of this material.... Unless we succeed in finding a clue of Ariadne to lead us out of this labyrinth, we can have no real insight into the general character of human culture; we shall remain lost in a mass of disconnected and disintegrated data which seem to lack all conceptual unity. [End of ch. 1]
Slightly more Englishly: it'd help if we had a big picture about what people are like, and why they are that way. What Cassirer set out to do was to master the actual facts of the relevant particular sciences (in which, very soundly, he included biology, logic, mathematics and physics, in addition to those in the quotation above), and to produce a synthesis, a body of general doctrine about human beings and human culture in light of which the discoveries of the sciences, and the existence of the sciences, would make sense. It was an ambitious and worthwhile undertaking, though Cassirer was engagingly modest about it: note that his subtitle says a philosophy of culture, not the. There is also a pleasing whiff of the Enlightenment about the project (and, of course, the title).

``Symbolic form'' is still maddeningly vague, but my impression is that it is almost, but not quite, a ``universe of discourse'' in the sense of logic. Tentatively, I'd suggest it be defined as ``a subject matter plus patterns of employing symbols to deal with it.'' I can sort of see how this might be related to a form of apperception, but the details aren't so much left vague in the Essay as non-existent. The canonical symbolic forms Cassirer discusses are: myth, language, art, religion, history and science. I think Cassirer would have said that people sometimes have ``mythic'' perceptions, and artistic (``aesthetic'') ones, but probably not scientific or historical ones. Mythic or magical perceptions would be ones colored by a vaguely-described vague feeling that everything is alive, interconnected and significant. (I have severe doubts about that: the people who came up with the myth of Armageddon don't seem to have thought of themselves as fused with the Adversary in an all-encompassing web of life.) The material on aesthetics was very interesting, but mostly because Cassirer was very good at explaining what others had thought about the puzzles, and what the problems with their ideas were, his positive ideas being quite impenetrable to me. ``Religion'' here blurs into ethics, which may or may not be adequate; in any case it's a very interior sort of religion. (Perhaps cultic activities were to fall under ``myth''.) Even when he talks about history he's mostly talking about the historian's ``bringing the past to life,'' illustrated by our understanding the motives of particular persons. Human beings as social animals do not interest him --- though presumably the means we use to order our lives in common qualify as symbolic forms within the meaning of the act. The chapter on science is mostly devoted to the idea that science is a means of bringing conceptual order to our experience of the physical world, and to illustrations from the development of mathematics and its applications. (At one point Cassirer says that material objects are composed of our sense impressions; but I think he meant that our representations of material objects are constructions or inferences from sense impressions.)

``Symbol,'' naturally a key and much-employed term, is never clearly defined or described. Symbols are to be distinguished from mere ``signs,'' but I couldn't tell you how. Animals are allowed signs, but symbols are reserved for us forked radishes. I think the idea is that a given symbol has many possible meanings, while a given sign has only one. Unfortunately, the example Cassirer gives in this connection (ch. 3) is that multiple phrases can have the same reference, which is not only irrelevant to how many senses a symbol can have (in different contexts), but is even true of conditioned stimuli, which he takes to be prototypical signs. Cassirer ignores the problem of how to gradually evolve symbolic capacity in merely signing animals (if the chasm is that profound). To be fair, at the time macromutations were still being defended by Goldschmidt, so he had a biological authority for big sudden jumps. Likewise, he has some very odd-seeming comments about language, the brain, the effects of brain-lesions, etc., which seem to derive from the German school of holistic neuropsychology, now quite discredited. But clearly his impulse to respect what the brain-fanciers and the animal-trainers had discovered was eminently sound. (I can't help but wonder whether Dennett will look similarly antiquated in fifty years.) I am uncomfortable with his statements about how symbols exist in a parallel world to the merely physical universe: the real problem, I should think, is to explain how physical objects and events can come to be symbolic --- how semantics emerges from physics (taking both very generally).

I learned a good deal from reading An Essay on Man, and if I'd read it three years ago I'd have learned a hell of a lot. (Since then my subjects have over-lapped with Cassirer's more than I'd suspected.) Cassirer's erudition was profound, and he is always exceptional at explaining what other people thought, and both acute and generous about their merits and defects. The problem is, I learnt very little about Cassirer's ideas, and I still don't know whether this is because he's bad at self-exposition, or whether I'm just too dumb to twig him.

ix + 237 pp. (Yale UP)/294 pp. (Doubleday), no illustrations, bibliographic footnotes, index of names and subjects (analytical for subjects)
Anthropology and Archaeology / Art / Languages and Linguistics / Mind, Consciousness, etc. / Philosophy / Philosophy of Science / Religion
Currently in print as a trade paperback (1962), ISBN 0-300-00034-0, US$16; out of print as a pocket-sized paperback (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954); out of print as a hardback. LoC B3216.C33 E8
4 November 1999