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Ernst Cassirer and the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: A Teaser

Ernst Cassirer was rather evidently a genius, and Michael Friedman’s summary of his magnum opus The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms makes me want to go through his work comprehensively, as soon as I have a large chunk of time. Part of the reason being just so that I can determine whether or not I agree with Friedman’s assessment. Also to do: compare and contrast with C.S. Peirce and Wilfrid Sellars, as well as his most obvious philosophical successor Hans Blumenberg.

Just as the genetic conception of knowledge is primarily oriented towards the “fact of science” and, accordingly, takes the historical development of scientific knowledge as its ultimate given datum, the philosophy of symbolic forms is oriented towards the much more general “fact of culture” and thus takes the history of human culture as a whole as its ultimate given datum.

The conception of human beings as most fundamentally “symbolic animals,” interposing systems of signs or systems of expression between themselves and the world, then becomes the guiding philosophical motif for elucidating the corresponding conditions of possibility for the “fact of culture” in all of its richness and diversity.

Characteristic of the philosophy of symbolic forms is a concern for the more “primitive” forms of world-presentation underlying the “higher” and more sophisticated cultural forms — a concern for the ordinary perceptual awareness of the world expressed primarily in natural language, and, above all, for the mythical view of the world lying at the most primitive level of all.

For Cassirer, these more primitive manifestations of “symbolic meaning” now have an independent status and foundational role that is quite incompatible with both Marburg neo-Kantianism and Kant’s original philosophical conception. In particular, they lie at a deeper, autonomous level of spiritual life which then gives rise to the more sophisticated forms by a dialectical developmental process.

From mythical thought, religion and art develop; from natural language, theoretical science develops. It is precisely here that Cassirer appeals to “romantic” philosophical tendencies lying outside the Kantian and neo-Kantian tradition, deploys an historical dialectic self-consciously derived from Hegel, and comes to terms with the contemporary Lebensphilosophie of Wilhelm Dilthey, Henri Bergson, Max Scheler, and Georg Simmel — as well as with the closely related philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The most basic and primitive type of symbolic meaning is expressive meaning, the product of what Cassirer calls the expressive function (Ausdrucksfunktion) of thought, which is concerned with the experience of events in the world around us as charged with affective and emotional significance, as desirable or hateful, comforting or threatening. It is this type of meaning that underlies mythical consciousness, for Cassirer, and which explains its most distinctive feature, namely, its total disregard for the distinction between appearance and reality. …

What Cassirer calls representative symbolic meaning, a product of the representative function (Darstellungsfunktion) of thought, then has the task of precipitating out of the original mythical flux of “physiognomic” characters a world of stable and enduring substances, distinguishable and reidentifiable as such. …

We are now able to distinguish the enduring thing-substance, on the one side, from its variable manifestations from different points of view and on different occasions, on the other, and we thereby arrive at a new fundamental distinction between appearance and reality. This distinction is then expressed in its most developed form, for Cassirer, in the linguistic notion of propositional truth and thus in the propositional copula. Here the Kantian “categories” of space, time, substance, and causality take on a distinctively intuitive or “presentational” configuration.

The collapse of appearance and reality at the primitive level also echoes some schools of Buddhist philosophy that take a quasi-skeptical attitude toward ontology, e.g. Madhyamaka. Can the Kantian a priori and general categorical structure bear this sort of weight?


  1. Reading the excerpt you gave struck me as eerily similar to Owen Barfield’s own thoughts on epistemology, consciousness, language, and symbolism. I wondered if anyone else had thought the same thing and a simple Google search affirmed the hunch: http://www.anthonyflood.com/langercassirerbarfield.htm

    Furthermore, it would seem logical to draw connections between Cassirer and Rudolf Steiner (a major influence on Barfield), but those searches have yielded fewer results except for in Barfield’s own “Rudolf Steiner’s Concept of Mind” http://www.scribd.com/doc/33324528/Owen-Barfield-Rudolf-Steiner-s-Concept-of-Mind

    Like you, with more time I’d love to compare these different philosophers and how they might illuminate each other’s work.

  2. There is an interesting article in the Journal of the History of Ideas 64.4 (2003), by Benjamin Lazier, which links Blumenberg with Hans Jonas, rather than Cassirer. “Overcoming Gnosticism:
    Hans Jonas, Hans Blumenberg, and the Legitimacy of the Natural World”.

  3. I’ve been reading the PSF for a couple of years after having read many of Cassirer’s books inj the late 70’s. He is much deeper than most reviewers sense.

  4. Yes, Cassirer is indeed “much deeper than most reviewers sense.” This should be no surprise since reviewers are so deeply immersed in their own self-sense — enabled by the symbolic universe in which they find themselves thrown — that they cannot imagine themselves outside of it. How can you comprehend a philosophy of symbolism when you yourself are but one of the symbols?

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