Sociologist Georg Simmel published his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Money, in 1900 in Germany. Drawing on Kant, Marx, and Weber among many, many others, the book has Simmel’s singular style that separates him from pretty much every other sociologist that has ever lived. The closest analogue I know might be C. Wright Mills in his more poetic moods, but where Mills is fiery and desperate, Simmel is far more reflective. In looking at money as a ground and metaphor for modern human social existence, Simmel often seems awestruck and overwhelmed by the sheer power and meaning of money in our society. Just as often he expresses reserved horror at the injustice and inhumanity that is lubricated by monetary commensurability.
The Philosophy of Money is a hybrid work of philosophy and sociology, perhaps a “philosophical anthropology” similar to that which Ernst Cassirer and Hans Blumenberg would later engage in. It is only loosely an economic work, because Simmel never gets to the point where he can generalize over the behavior of economic populations. Rather, he focuses on the psychological and sociological effects of money as a cultural determinant. And it’s very much the idea of money rather than capital or work. He is fascinated by the implications of the introduction of a universally commensurable measure of value that has no intrinsic value of its own. Rather than focusing on how people argue over the allocations of values, he looks at how the prior requirement, the nature of valuation itself, influences those discussions.
The main themes, as I read them, are the following:
Money as a structural metaphor for human existence (almost every aspect of it)
The dual nature of the word “value,” moral and monetary
The physicalization, universalization, and commodification of value (through money or otherwise)
The effects of valuation and commensurability on human relations
The final theme ultimately becomes most important, but Simmel spends time laying the groundwork for it by examining the nature of value and how it is assigned and fixed, before he then moves on to how value is standardized and made portable and universal by money. Simmel’s treatment of “value” is heavily influenced by Kant’s first and third critique, which isn’t too surprising given that Simmel came out of the 19th century neo-Kantian movement which wanted to reclaim Kant’s worth after Hegelianism had petered out. Value, being something not assigned by nature but by creatures, becomes a crucial cognitive category in life, despite being something that each of us has comparatively little control over. (Language is also a category of this sort, though at least in 1900 “value”‘s constructed nature was a bit more clear than that of language.)
Simmel makes clear just how philosophical it is by declaring in the introduction that money has attracted his attention because it is the purest and most ubiquitous manifestation of the perennial problem that has vexed philosophers, the relation between the universal and the particular:
Money is simply a means, a material or an example for the presentation of relations that exist between the most superficial, ‘realistic’ and fortuitous phenomena and the most idealized powers of existence, the most profound currents of individual life and history. The significance and purpose of the whole undertaking is simply to derive from the surface level of economic affairs a guideline that leads to the ultimate values and things of importance in all that is human.
In the tradition of early modern philosophers, Simmel writes with no notes, footnotes, or references, and mentions of other authors are sparing. In a dense, 500-page work, this is quite foreboding, and Simmel seems to have been one of the last to get away with it to this extent. In compensation, though, he adopts what I can only call a sonata-like stye. Unlike James Joyce in the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, Simmel isn’t consciously trying to fit a musical form onto his writing. It’s just that because he is writing in a semi-casual yet resolutely abstract manner, he develops a very particular technique for keeping readers (and himself) located in the flow of the work. He repeats his major themes quite often, rephrasing them but leaving the underlying points unmistakable. (In fact, by rephrasing the points over and over, he makes it easier to grasp what is essential among those points.) So where Joyce’s chapter is one of the less successful conceits of Ulysses, because the form and content do not reach enough of a unity (similar to “Oxen of the Sun”) to give the feel of an organic whole, The Philosophy of Money feels very organic, through-composed, and linear. This, as well as Simmel’s comparatively plain German style, are helpful features, because Simmel is doing deep conceptual work rather than case studies or data analysis.
Alternatively, you can think of The Philosophy of Money as following a tree structure, points and subpoints emerging from a common root and diverging, except where most philosophers simply present their overarching root theses and then cover the tree branch by branch assuming the root theses have been fully assimilated, Simmel repeats some of the root and main branch material every time he finishes one subbranch or leaf and goes to another. This makes the book redundant at times, but also makes it far easier to absorb.
Simmel was aware that he was going against the current of both anthropological and philosophical investigations. His book is closer to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities than it is to Durkheim or even Weber, except Musil manifested his archetypes as “characters” and developed his themes through the stretched conceits of fiction. (Musil attended Simmel’s classes around this time.) Simmel just thinks and thinks and thinks, touching on specifics only as the urge strikes him. He is aware of the dangers of this approach, yet he finds his anchor in the concrete existence of money, the substance which we see and feel and count, something that is right before us and lacks the abstruse invisibility of “cognition” or “being.”
The unity of these investigations does not lie, therefore, in an assertion about a particular content of knowledge and its gradually accumulating proofs but rather in the possibility which must be demonstrated—of finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning. The great advantage of art over philosophy is that it sets itself a single, narrowly defined problem every time: a person, a landscape, a mood. Every extension of one of these to the general, every addition of bold touches of feeling for the world is made to appear as an enrichment, a gift, an undeserved benefit. On the other hand, philosophy, whose problem is nothing less than the totality of being, tends to reduce the magnitude of the latter when compared with itself and offers less than it seems obliged to offer. Here, conversely, the attempt is made to regard the problem as restricted and small in order to do justice to it by extending it to the totality and the highest level of generality.
Philosophy has become too windy, he says, and no longer touches down on anything that most people can recognize. Money is something that we all know.
Robert Musil published two large volumes of his unfinished The Man Without Qualities in his lifetime. Pseudoreality Prevails (as well as a short introduction) was published in 1930, and Into the Millennium (The Criminals)was published in 1933. He died in 1942 with nothing further published. Musil expected to live until 80 in order to finish the book, but died at age 59: the work was nowhere near completion, and since the book was a process without a foreordained end, Musil did not leave any clear plan for the book’s ending.
Genese Grill‘s new study, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities: Possibility as Reality, provides an invaluable structure–the best I’ve encountered–for assessing the later sections and unfinished draft material of The Man Without Qualities. Grill wrote a superb chapter in the Camden House Companion to the Works of Robert Musil on The ‘Other’ Musil: Robert Musil and Mysticism, on which this book builds.
Anyone reading The Man Without Qualities is confronted with a perplexing shift as Into the Millennium progresses. After the surgical examination of European pre-war ideologies and populations in Pseudoreality Prevails, the autopsy gradually fades after Ulrich’s sister Agathe shows up in Into the Millennium. The socio-political commentary continues, but it is broader, more comical, more inane–best represented by the increasing dominance of the crackpot Meingast (based on Ludwig Klages, a Weininger-esque self-hating Jew with anti-semitic theories). Without such formidable intellectual content to critique, Ulrich (and Musil) seek a more mystical solution to the fragmenting and dissolution of modernity.
Ulrich pursues a mysterious “Other Condition” with his sister Agathe, some kind of intellectual-erotic union (consummated in the draft material) that puts the everyday world into suspension, at least briefly. It is left open whether this Other Condition is achieved or is even achievable, and its exact nature remains elusive. It’s easier to define it as what it is not: everyday reality, the political situation, bad expressionism, superficiality, irrationality, etc. This diagram from Musil’s notebooks (as translated by David Luft in Robert Musil and the Crisis of European Culture, 1880-1942) does not narrow the field:
Musil’s Diagram of the “Other Condition”
Musil’s simultaneous training in science and the humanities drove him to accept nothing less than exactitude in even the most spiritual dimensions, hence his twin ideals of “precision and soul.” He was suspicious of both the scientific technician and the bad expressionist that reaches too easily for transcendence. He demeaned Heideggerian pseudo-Romantic attempts to proclaim spiritual superiority as Schleudermystik (“cut-rate mysticism,” more literally “centrifugal mysticism”), “whose constant preoccupation with God is at bottom exceedingly immoral” (III.46).
Grill’s major achievement is in bringing together the disparate, unpublished material of Musil’s last years into a structure that clarifies, at least somewhat, Musil’s ambitions. Because Musil dealt in abstractions and stretched them by taking little for granted, the intent still remains very open to interpretation. My disagreements below are not based on what I think Musil intended, because I don’t have a clear idea of that. Instead, they’re attempts to contextualize the material in a different way. The passages below are almost wholly those used in her book, and I’m grateful to her for highlighting them.
In essence, Grill argues that the Other Condition was a primary force behind both the book and the writing of the book, a suspension of assumptions and embrace of contingency that opened up realms of possibility not available in daily life. Grill spends a fair bit of time drawing a striking comparison between Musil’s ambition and Proust’s. Musil’s focus on introspection and subjectivity was as great as Proust’s, even though the socio-political material makes this less obvious. (Two other close peers are James Joyce and Alfred Döblin.)
But Grill also points out the strong contrast between them: while Proust left a closed structure behind to serve as a working memory palace for understanding life through art, Musil’s attitude and the state of the Other Condition mandated that no such closure occur. (Hence Musil’s one-time plan to have the novel break off in the middle of a sentence.) Hence the novel’s fragmentation into possibility and ambivalence need not be seen as a failure on any level. Such a closure would have been a betrayal of the very principles behind the novel.
Grill’s argument proceeds roughly as follows through the four chapters:
Musil’s emphasis on circle-patterns in the later sections model the book’s rejection of linear everyday reality, embrace of contradiction and self-refutation, and a suspension of one’s attitudes to allow for a Nietzschean liberation from thoughtless conventions.
Transgression and “crime” constitute a means of veering out of repetitive patterns of life, thought, and metaphor. Agathe and Ulrich’s union is an attempt to escape those patterns, and is representative of the Other Condition, an attempt to find a supra-moral ethics.
Life is structured by our words and metaphors. They become ossified and stifling, and Musil saw the role of his writing as offering as much freedom from the confining strictures of our shared metaphorical life as possible.
The idea of the “still life” is paradoxical and central, offering on the one hand a deceased frozen moment, on the other a suspension from the regular flow of life that opens up all nonextant possibilities and a aesthetically disinterested revivification of metaphor.
The intersection of metaphor and life is a theme that I have been rather preoccupied with, but I had not given much thought to Musil’s treatment of it until reading Grill’s book.
I would argue that when Grill says that “Abstraction, insofar as it is connected to universal forms, is always closer to timelessness and further from utility than representation, which is drawn from and comments upon particularities of place and moment” (32), she has muddled the issue a bit. Abstraction remains present to a far greater degree in particularities than we realize. It is obscured by the sheer reinforcement of the metaphorical structures that come to seem purely representative. Seemingly “abstract” thinking can be more liberating than the desiccated imagery of poetry precisely because it is not more abstract, but only more free:
In our poems there is too much rigid reason; the words are burned-out notions, the syntax holds out sticks and ropes as if for the blind, the meaning never gets off the ground everyone has trampled; the awakened soul cannot walk in such iron garments. (1564)
Leaving the precise, measurable, and definable sensory data out of account; all the other concepts on which we base our lives are no more than congealed metaphors [erstarren gelassene Gleichnisse]. (626)
Here Musil unites an attack on the surface beauty of most poetry with his brilliant, earlier critique of empiricism, suggesting that they both come out of an adherence to an underlying conceptual structure that is taken for granted (selbstverständlich):
The relationship between youth and empiricism seemed to him profoundly natural, and youth’s inclination to want to experience everything itself, and to expect the most surprising discoveries, moved him to see this as the philosophy appropriate to youth. But from the assertion that awaiting the rising of the sun in the east every day merely has the security of a habit, it is only a step to asserting that all human knowledge is felt only subjectively and at a particular time, or is indeed the presumption of a class or race, all of which has gradually become evident in European intellectual history. Apparently one should also add that approximately since the days of our great-grandfather’s, a new kind of individuality has made its appearance: this is the type of the empirical man or empiricist, of the person of experience who has become such a familiar open question, the person who knows how to make from a hundred of his own experiences a thousand new ones, which, however, always remain within the same circle of experience, and who has by this means created the gigantic, profitable-in-appearance monotony of the technical age. Empiricism as a philosophy might be taken as the philosophical children’s disease of this type of person.(1351)
In particulars lie generalities. As Grill puts it, “Newly experienced sensations are often all too quickly congealed into an all-too-limited circle of established beliefs” (Grill 84). This applies equally to the empiricist philosopher and the expressionist poet. Musil and Proust may speak of typologies explicitly, but they openly question them, while poets of specificity sneak the archetypes in under the guise of “representing” particulars.
Consequently, I think Grill is absolutely correct when she argues that Musil’s circular structures “suggest that all experience is metaphorical,” and that this is crucial to understanding Musil’s project. She has convinced me that Musil was as keen an observer of the contingent metaphorical structure of life as Ernst Cassirer or Hans Blumenberg.
Musil, however, also possessed a lyricism to attempt to bring out his themes in a literary fashion. For example, this passage from the “Valerie” section:
Ulrich had stumbled into the heart of the world. From there it was as far to his beloved as to the blade of grass beside his feet or to the distant tree on the sky-bare heights across the valley. Strange thought: space, the nibbling in little bites, distance distanced, replaces the warm husk and leaves behind a cadaver; but here in the heart they were no longer themselves, everything was connected with him the way the foot is no farther from the heart than the breast is. Ulrich also no longer felt that the landscape in which he was lying was outside him; nor was it within; that had dissolved or permeated everything. The sudden idea that something might happen to him while he was lying there—a wild animal, a robber, some brute—was almost impossible of accomplishment, as far away as being frightened by one’s own thoughts. / Later: Nature itself is hostile. The observer need only go into the water. / And the beloved, the person for whose sake he was experiencing all this, was no closer than some unknown traveler would have been. Sometimes his thoughts strained like eyes to imagine what they might do now, but then he gave it up again, for when he tried to approach her this way it was as if through alien territory that he imagined her in her surroundings, while he was linked to her in subterranean fashion in a quite different way. (1443)
Life is nur ein Gleichnis,except that the nur is inaccurate: Gleichnis is all we have and is far more malleable than it appears day to day. The Other Condition suspends the seeming necessity and allows for greater play (in the sense of Kant’s Third Critique) with the nominal components of existence.
Yet because the construction of the world-as-metaphor is a communal one, this is not something that can be accomplished alone. Hence the need for the union that Ulrich seeks with Agathe. I think that Grill understates the necessity for intersubjectivity in the Other Condition as conceived by Musil, the need for it to exist between people in a fundamentally communal way. I think that that is the problem that Musil is addressing in this passage, where Ulrich, writing in his diary, seems to be losing track of himself:
But I also fear that there’s a vicious circle lurking in everything that I think I have understood up to now. For I don’t want—if I now go back to my original motif—to leave the state of “significance,” and if I try to tell myself what significance is, all I come back to again and again is the state I’m in, which is that I don’t want to leave a specific state! So I don’t believe I’m looking at the truth, but what I experience is certainly not simply subjective, either; it reaches out for the truth with a thousand arms.
The Romantic posture died because the sole Romantic dreamer had nothing binding him or her to “our” world, nor even a way to pick himself or herself out once other minds were absent. For Musil, it seems, one other person might be enough. Agathe provides the needed reference point.
What of, then, the admissions of failure, such as this heartbreaking passage?
The experiment they had undertaken to shape their relationship had failed irrevocably. Vast regions of emotions and fancies that had endowed many things with a perennial splendor of unknown origin, like an opalizing sky, were now desolate. Ulrich’s mind had dried out like soil beneath which the layers that conduct the moisture that nourishes all green things had disappeared. If what he had been forced to wish for was folly—and the exhaustion with which he thought of it admitted of no doubts about that!—then what had been best in his life had always been folly: the shimmer of thinking, the breath of presumption, those tender messengers of a better home that flutter among the things of the world. Nothing remained but to become reasonable; he had to do violence to his nature and apparently submit it to a school that was not only hard but also by definition boring. He did not want to think himself born to be an idler, but would now be one if he did not soon begin to make order out of the consequences of this failure. But when he checked them over, his whole being rebelled against them, and when his being rebelled against them, he longed for Agathe; that happened without exuberance, but still as one yearns for a fellow sufferer when he is the only one with whom one can be intimate.
Grill argues, I think convincingly, that this does not make permanent the failure nor exclude a greater success. If the exploration of possibility does not encompass the imagining and inhabiting of the possibility of total and utter failure, and the accompanying despair, then the project will become complacent and rigid.
This does make for a somewhat politically and socially restricted attitude, however, and Grill explicitly states her belief that Musil’s position was one of a guardian of possibility and liberality, not as an activist or polemicist. I think this is generally true, though with slight restrictions. I do believe that Musil held fast to the worth of his method, and that while he was open to revision and modification of that method, he did not doubt the fundamental correctness of the application of reason and aesthetic disinterest to every aspect of life. That is to say, the Other Condition was to be malleable to the point of imagining total failure, but not to the point of utter self-annihilation.
And the method is more pragmatic than it is Romantic, depending on an alternating (or circular) pattern of engaging and disengaging, accepting and questioning. In a key section, Grill discusses Musil’s depiction of the two types of metaphors, “Nebel” (mist) and “Erstarren” (petrifact), and concludes:
Neither stone nor mist, therefore, is alone the true element, but rather, they work together to satisfy our shifting human instincts and desires for oscillation–oscillation between freedom and necessity, or perhaps freedom and an artificially imposed set of limitations. (Grill 69)
This is because even in the freedom of constructing new misty metaphors, the process is necessarily selective, as Grill stresses. A metaphor’s value lies not only in its highlighting connections between disparate concepts, but in leaving the possibility open for difference. It is this balance that makes a metaphor irreducible (and here the connection with Blumenberg’s metaphorology is strongest).
Now, as he realized that this failure to achieve integration had lately been apparent to him in what he called the strained relationship between.literature and reality, metaphor and truth, it flashed on Ulrich how much more all this signified than any random insight that turned up in one of those meandering conversations he had recently engaged in with the most inappropriate people. These two basic strategies, the figurative and the unequivocal, have been distinguishable ever since the beginnings of humanity. Single-mindedness is the law of all waking thought and action, as much present in a compelling logical conclusion as in the mind of the blackmailer who enforces his will on his victim step by step, and it arises from the exigencies of life where only the single-minded control of circumstances can avert disaster. Metaphor, by contrast, is like the image that fuses several meanings in a dream; it is the gliding logic of the soul, corresponding to the way things relate to each other in the intuitions of art and religion. But even what there is in life of common likes and dislikes, accord and rejection, admiration, subordination, leadership, imitation, and their opposites, the many ways man relates to himself and to nature, which are not yet and perhaps never will be purely objective, cannot be understood in other than metaphoric or figurative terms, No doubt what is called the higher humanism is only the effort to fuse together these two great halves of life, metaphor and truth, once they have been carefully distinguished from each other. But once one has distinguished everything in a metaphor that might be true from what is mere froth, one usually has gained a little truth, but at the cost of destroying the whole value of the metaphor. The extraction of the truth may have been an inescapable part of our intellectual evolution, but it has had the same·effect of boiling down a liquid to thicken it, while the really vital juices and elements escape in a cloud of steam. It is often hard, nowadays, to avoid the impression that the concepts and the rules of the moral life are only metaphors that have been boiled to death, with the revolting greasy kitchen vapors of humanism billowing around the corpses, and if a digression is permissible at this point, it can only be this, that one consequence of this impression that vaguely hovers over everything is what our era should frankly call its reverence for all that is common. For when we lie nowadays it is not so much out of weakness as out of a conviction that a man cannot prevail in life unless he is able to lie. We resort to violence because, after much long and futile talk, the simplicity of violence is an immense relief. People band together in organizations because obedience to orders enables them to do things they have long been incapable of doing out of personal conviction, and the hostility between organizations allows them to engage in the unending reciprocity of blood feuds, while love would all too soon put everyone to sleep. This has much less to do with the question of whether men are good or evil than with the fact that they have lost their sense of high and low. Another paradoxical result of this disorientation is the vulgar profusion of intellectual jewelry with which our mistrust of the intellect decks itself out. The coupling of a “philosophy” with activities that can absorb only a very small part of it, such as politics; the general obsession with turning every viewpoint into a standpoint and regarding every standpoint as a viewpoint; the need. of every kind of fanatic to keep reiterating the one idea that has ever come his way, like an image multiplied to infinity in a hall of mirrors: all these wide- spread phenomena, far from signifying a movement toward humanism, as they wish to do, in fact represent its failure, All in all, it seems that what needs to be excised from human relations is the soul that finds itself misplaced in them. The moment Ulrich realized this he felt that his life, if it had any meaning at all, demonstrated the presence of the two fundamental spheres of human existence in their separateness and in their way of working against each other. Clearly, people like himself were already being born, but they were isolated, and in his isolation he was incapable of bringing together again what had fallen apart. He had no illusions about the value of his philosophical experimentation; even if he observed the strictest logical consistency in linking thought to thought, the effect was still one of piling one ladder upon another, so that the topmost rungs teetered far above the level of natural life. He contemplated this with revulsion.(647)
This passage, Grill points out, provides a key piece of anticipatory groundwork for what Ulrich and Agathe will embark upon many hundreds of pages later. The greater emphasis on concrete political reality obscures the greater significance that Musil is juggling these concepts metaphorically in increasing degree, and that the motion toward the Other Condition is already proceeding. For illuminating the join between the earlier and latter sections of The Man Without Qualities in a way that gives real shape to the whole, Grill’s book is tremendous.
In the history of philosophy, “the nothing itself nothings,” has, of course, a dubious status as either brilliant ridicule or very uncharitable reading. But as Stone has taught us, in context that sentence is a very charitable reading of Heidegger. No, the real insult to Heidegger occurs near the end of Carnap’s (1931) paper [I have linked to an English translation]. Carnap ends his paper (which is rarely read, but often cited) with a two-fold insult to Heidegger: first, “Metaphysicians [that is, Heidegger] are musicians without musical ability.” (Cf. Heidegger’s Stimmen in “What is Metaphysics?”) Second, Carnap THEN GOES ON TO PRAISE NIETZSCHE and his poetry. To say this as a serious joke: Heidegger’s lecture courses on Nietzsche are a response to Carnap’s two-fold insult.
His ingenuous waggery reminded me of this story that Raymond Smullyan tells about Carnap:
In item # 249 of my book of logic puzzles titled What Is the Name of This Book?, I describe an infallible method of proving anything whatsoever. Only a magician is capable of employing the method, however. I once used it on Rudolf Carnap to prove the existence of God.
“Here you see a red card,” I said to Professor Carnap as I removed a card from the deck. “I place it face down in your palm. Now, you know that a false proposition implies any proposition. Therefore, if this card were black, then God would exist. Do you agree?”
“Oh, certainly,” replied Carnap, “if the card were black, then God would exist.”
“Very good,” I said as I turned over the card. “As you see, the card is black. Therefore, God exists!”
“Ah, yes!” replied Carnap in a philosophical tone. “Proof by legerdemain! Same as the theologians use!”
[I read Smullyan’s books of logic puzzles when I was a kid and recommend them to all parents. I always enjoyed them until he started talking about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, at which point my brain melted. I’m not sure if I was mentally capable of understanding logic to that extent at a young age, regardless of how it was explained.]
It’s possible that if Heidegger had more anecdotes like this, I might feel more fondly toward him. But let’s hear more of Carnap’s words and his praise for Nietzsche, where he seems to in part be channeling Cassirer as well as a bit of Wittgenstein. Metaphysical systems are myths, he says, they are forms of life.
I thought of editing this down but it’s lovely enough that I decided just to quote the entire concluding section:
Our claim that the statements of metaphysics are entirely meaningless, that they do not assert anything, will leave even those who agree intellectually with our results with a painful feeling of strangeness: how could it be explained that so many men in all ages and nations, among them eminent minds, spent so much energy, nay veritable fervor, on metaphysics if the latter consisted of nothing but mere words, nonsensically juxtaposed? And how could one account for the fact that metaphysical books have exerted such a strong influence on readers up to the present day, if they contained not even errors, but nothing at all? These doubts are justified since metaphysics does indeed have a content; only it is not theoretical content. The (pseudo)statements of metaphysics do not serve for the description of states of affairs, neither existing ones (in that case they would be true statements) nor nonexisting ones (in that case they would be at least false statements). They serve for the expression of the general attitude of a person towards life (“Lebenseinstellung, Lebensgefühl”) .
Perhaps we may assume that metaphysics originated from mythology. The child is angry at the “wicked table” which hurt him. Primitive man endeavors to conciliate the threatening demon of earthquakes, or he worships the deity of the fertile rains in gratitude. Here we confront personifications of natural phenomena, which are the quasi-poetic expression of man’s emotional relationship to his environment. The heritage of mythology is bequeathed on the one hand to poetry, which produces and intensifies the effects of mythology on life in a deliberate way; on the other hand, it is handed down to theology, which develops mythology into a system. Which, now, is the historical role of metaphysics? Perhaps we may regard it as a substitute for theology on the level of systematic, conceptual thinking. The (supposedly) transcendent sources of knowledge of theology are here replaced by natural, yet supposedly trans-empirical sources of knowledge.
On closer inspection the same content as that of mythology is here still recognizable behind the repeatedly varied dressing: we find that metaphysics also arises from the need to give expression to a man’s attitude in life, his emotional and volitional reaction to the environment, to society, to the tasks to which he devotes himself, to the misfortunes that befall him. This attitude manifests itself, unconsciously as a rule, in everything a man does or says. It also impresses itself on his facial features, perhaps even on the character of his gait. Many people, now, feel a desire to create over and above these manifestations a special expression of their attitude, through which it might become visible in a more succinct and penetrating way. If they have artistic talent they are able to express themselves by producing a work of art. Many writers have already clarified the way in which the basic attitude is mani-fested through the style and manner of a work of art (e.g. Dilthey and his students). [In this connection the term “world view” (“Weltanschauung”) is often used; we prefer to avoid it because of its ambiguity, which blurs the difference between attitude and theory, a difference which is of decisive importance for our analysis.] What is here essential for our considerations is only the fact that art is an adequate, metaphysics an inadequate means for the expression of the basic attitude.
Of course, there need be no intrinsic objection to one’s using any means of expression one likes. But in the case of metaphysics we find this situation: through the form of its works it pretends to be something that it is not. That the metaphysician is thus deluding himself cannot be inferred from the fact that he selects language as the medium of expression and declarative sentences as the form of expression; for lyrical poets do the same without succumbing to self-delusion. But the metaphysician supports his statements by arguments, he claims assent to their content, he polemicizes against metaphysicians of divergent persuasion by attempting to refute their assertions in his treatise. Lyrical poets, on the other hand, do not try to refute in their poem the statements in a poem by some other lyrical poet; for they know they are in the domain of art and not in the domain of theory.
Perhaps music is the purest means of expression of the basic attitude because it is entirely free from any reference to objects. The harmonious feeling or attitude, which the metaphysician tries to express in a monistic system, is more clearly expressed in the music of Mozart. And when a metaphysician gives verbal expression to his dualistic-heroic attitude towards life in a dualistic system, is it not perhaps because he lacks the ability of a Beethoven to express this attitude in an adequate medium? Metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability. Instead they have a strong inclination to work within the medium of the theoretical, to connect concepts and thoughts. Now, instead of activating, on the one hand, this inclination in the domain of science, and satisfying, on the other hand, the need for expression in art, the metaphysician confuses the two and produces a structure which achieves nothing for knowledge and something inadequate for the expression of attitude. Our conjecture that metaphysics is a substitute, albeit an inadequate one, for art, seems to be further confirmed by the fact that the metaphysician who perhaps had artistic talent to the highest degree, viz. Nietzsche, almost entirely avoided the error of that confusion. A large part of his work has predominantly empirical content. We find there, for instance, historical analyses of specific artistic phenomena, or an historical-psychological analysis of morals. In the work, however, in which he expresses most strongly that which others express through metaphysics or ethics, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, he does not choose the misleading theoretical form, but openly the form of art, of poetry.
Karl Popper, among others, later complained that Carnap was giving away the store with this attitude. Perhaps he was. Shoving huge domains of life (including much of what falls under the rubric of “science”) out of philosophy and into the realm of art is not exactly a philosophy-boosting move, even if it taunts Heidegger.
Smullyan extends and somewhat reverses this line of thought as follows:
Suppose I have a world view that is internally perfectly consistent, that is, logically consistent, consistent with all the experiences I have ever had, and consistent with all my feelings and intuitions. For the moment, let us make the further assumption (totally unrealistic as it almost certainly is) that the view is consistent with any experience I ever will have in the future. Let us call such a view a perfect world view. Now suppose that you also have a perfect world view but that yours is logically incompatible with mine. It seems to me that the valuable contribution of the positivists (and, for that matter, the pragmatists) is the realization of the question, “How in principle could you or I ever show each other to be wrong?” In other words, can we really hope to get anything more from philosophy than consistency?
It could well be that our world views are in fact perfect, yet it might be consistent for each of us to deny that the other’s world view is perfect. (Indeed, it might even be consistent to deny that one’s own world view is perfect!) Actually, if I believed your world view to be perfect (though false), I think I am now sufficiently influenced by the positivists to realize that my arguing with you could be of no avail. Thus, I think that our very process of arguing with each other indicates our lack of belief in the perfection of each other’s world views; we hope either to show the other view to be inconsistent or to produce some new experience in the other person that will change his mind or call forth to full consciousness some latent intuition. This, I think, is what metaphysicians of the past have been up to. As Carnap has rightly pointed out, metaphysicians are not content just to present their systems (unlike artists and poets, who only present their works of art), but they try to refute the metaphysical systems of others. I have just proposed what I believe this refutation to really be.
The point, then, is, in mathematical language, to construct a model of your language within mine. Put less precisely, though more expressively, the point is for me to be able to see the world through your eyes. After having gone through such an experience, it is more than likely that my own world view might become considerably enlarged. After all, even in a perfect world view, one has not necessarily decided the truth of every statement; there may be many alternative ways of extending it to produce a more comprehensive perfect world view.
To the reader with some knowledge of mathematical logic, I acknowledge that I of course realize that my fanciful analogies have their weak points… But I believe that all I have said about perfect world views should apply a fortiori to those that are not perfect.
The technique of philosophizing that I am suggesting might be put in the form of a maxim: “Instead of trying to prove your opponent wrong, try to find out in what sense he may be right.” This is a sort of tolerance principle, not too unrelated to that of Carnap.* To repeat my main point, much may be gained from constructing possible models of other world views within one’s own. I believe that this is in the spirit of much of modern analysis. But I would like to see this applied more to some of the great metaphysical systems of the past.
* Indeed, it can be thought of as a semantic counterpart of Carnap’s principle of tolerance. His principle says that a language should be regarded as acceptable if it is consistent–or equivalently, if it has a model. My principle is to try to find such a model–or rather an interesting model of the language.
Cassirer does not get close in stature to the much more problematic Heidegger, and he certainly also lacks the philosophical radicalism of a Wittgenstein, Foucault, or Derrida and the incisive scientific acumen of a Russell, Quine, or Rawls. Attempts to revive his fortunes are, I am afraid, doomed to failure.
The two words “stature” and “radicalism” should awaken suspicion at the terms of the judgment. They also hint at one possible reason why so much of the recent press on Cassirer has been lukewarm or dismissive: He is too reasonable.
First, a little context: hyper-learned philosophy scholar Frederick Beiser, who is also an avowed exponent of the cultural-historical tradition of which Cassirer was a part, recently criticized a history of 19th century continental philosophy for being, essentially, a dictionary of received ideas, an anthology of current trends and little else:
The editors might grumble here that in chiding them for not including Trendelenburg, Lotze and the neo-Kantians I have not judged them by their own criteria. For their volume is meant to describe “revolutionary responses to the existing order“, and Trendelenburg, Lotze and the neo-Kantians were not revolutionary; indeed, they represented the establishment and existing order, given their opposition to materialism and given their ensconced place in German university life.
It is precisely here, however, that it is necessary to raise questions about the editors’ criteria and their guiding themes of “revolutionary responses to the existing order.” That theme is so vague and equivocal that it signifies contradictory viewpoints. The revolutionary response to the existing order can mean the revolution on behalf of modern values by Feuerbach, Marx and the German materialists; or it can also mean the reaction against modern values by Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. The existing order can be pre-secular, non-liberal and monarchical society prior to 1848, the remaining traces of the ancien régime; and it can also be the more secular, liberal and democratic order circa 1870. The editors never spell out this ambiguity; they simply exploit it, so that they have a convenient device for including everyone according to the exigencies of the standard curriculum.
Behind the editors’ theme of “revolutionary responses to the existing order” there lies an old myth, one that the editors have scarcely articulated yet tacitly adopted: namely, that the important philosophy of the nineteenth century came not from “academic philosophers” but from the radical individual thinkers outside the university, viz., from such solitary thinkers as Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.
Not the least troublesome aspect of this myth is that some of these so-called revolutionary thinkers were themselves deeply reactionary. It is only by turning a blind eye to Nietzsche’s reactionary politics and to Kierkegaard’s and Dostoyevsky’s fundamentalist Christianity that it is possible to make them relevant to us today. Any impartial contemporary student of nineteenth-century philosophy who knows the movement in all its breadth will find Cohen, Simmel and Weber more sympathetic company than Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Dostoyevsky.
Behind this chronologically localized criticism is a larger specter haunting the history of philosophy, which is the extent to which the history of philosophy is chronicled as a history of radicalism. There is a persistent urge to reject any uniformitarian or gradualist model of philosophy in favor of a history of wild, epochal thinkers making fundamental changes to the ways that we see the world.
Not only does this provide for a more exciting model of punctuated equilibrium, but it also makes for a much simpler and more teachable one, as we can leap from Descartes to Hume to Kant to Hegel without bothering to examine the secondary, non-epochal thinkers in between them.
And the insidious nature of this assumption goes beyond Beiser’s specific criticisms. The criticism of Cassirer reinforces the more general problem at work. I’m not interested in defending Cassirer here per se, but in showing that many of the criticisms seem to be made in bad faith.
Edward Skidelsky wrote a recent book on Cassirer, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture, in which he opened with a confession that Cassirer had let him down, and declares a lowered estimation of Cassirer:
I now saw that the problems facing Cassirer’s enterprise were far more serious than I had initially supposed. It was not just that many individual aspects of his system had fallen into disrepair, but that the whole thing was no longer obviously philosophy at all. Cassirer’s thought is inductive, not deductive in its method. Setting out from the variety of human culture, it attempts to comprehend it as an organic whole. But most twentieth-century philosophy, analytic and continental, has sought a standpoint beyond the variety of culture—an absolute conception of consciousness, meaning, or the world. Viewed from this angle, Cassirer does not so much mediate between analytic and continental traditions as fall foul of them both. His “reconciliation” is on terms that neither can accept.
There is, of course, no reason to accept as final the conception of philosophy prevailing in modern philosophy departments. But there are reasons to doubt whether Cassirer’s inductivist conception of the discipline could readily be revived. Cassirer was able to conceive of philosophy as the interpretation of culture only because he shared with most of his generation a conception of culture itself as an essentially liberating force.
The twentieth century was not kind to that idea. The cancerous growth of bureaucracy, the murderous perversion of science, the self-prostitution of the humanities—none of this portended liberation. The younger generation accordingly sought a standard of truth over and above culture’s shifting tides. The logical positivists found it in the verification principle, Heidegger in authentic existence. Others turned to the Bible or the wisdom of ancient Greece. All agreed that the humanism of the past two centuries had failed. “We encountered situations,” wrote Karl Jaspers in 1948, “in which we no longer had any inclination to read Goethe, but seized on Shakespeare, the Bible or Aeschylus, if indeed we could still read at all.”
We have inherited Cassirer’s liberal political attitudes, but not the cultural sensibility that underlay them. With our skepticism toward progress, our distaste for “bourgeois” formalities, our fascination with charisma, and our endless talk of commitment, authenticity, and roots, we remain, consciously or not, Heidegger’s children. We are politically liberal, spiritually illiberal. Is this combination a stable one? And if not, how long can it last? These are questions that this book raises, but cannot answer.
Edward Skidelsky, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture
Skidelsky berates Cassirer for working from a conception that he thinks unrecoverable. Yet consider how he describes the alternative conceptions: “a standard of truth over and above culture’s shifting tides.” An absolutist, acultural view of truth. This is bizarre, partly because Cassirer hardly held to cultural relativism, but also because Heidegger’s influence has been primarily shunted through cultural relativism. (I’ll get to the logical positivists later.)
As evidence, I present David Simpson’s equally odd review of Skidelsky’s book from the London Review of Books, in which he doesn’t seem to realize he’s attacking Cassirer from the opposite side that Skidelsky is:
While we should not slavishly follow Heidegger’s every move, we can’t really get behind Cassirer, however benign his intentions, however serene his demeanour. Standing between us and him are the massive intellectual forces of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Adorno and many others; not all of them Heidegger’s children, all of the time, but none of them relatives of Cassirer’s. These forces are not just intellectual or ‘authentically philosophical’; they articulate a profound scepticism about the project of progressive culture in the light of world events that are not at all comfortably consigned to a vanished past.
To return to the question with which I began: are these books the sign of a return to Cassirer? I doubt it, and so do most of these authors. Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Blumenberg and Carnap all found Cassirer wanting, and those who attend conferences about him are also unable to convince themselves that he can be reinvented for the 21st century.
How did the opposing attacks get so confused? I contend it is because their essence is identical: Cassirer was not a radical. Whether the radicalism was in the form of metaphysical absolutism or cultural relativism, what matters is that the position was radical.
Meanwhile, there is the trendy criterion that a thinker must be able to be “reinvented for the 21st century” in order to merit study. What does that even mean? I suspect it is just another way of saying that a thinker must be radical. (If Carl Schmitt can be “reinvented” for the 21st century, I daresay there’s nothing stopping Cassirer.)
And indeed, Simpson cites four problematic thinkers as “massive intellectual forces,” who have little in common besides being indisputably radical: Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and Adorno.
Derrida and Lacan lead nowhere but back to themselves, solipsists far less successful than Freud, makers of minor metaphors that will hang on through their cults but slowly dissipate from cultural memory, their best arguments returned to the sources from whom they were borrowed.
I have far more patience for Foucault and Adorno, who are serious and durable thinkers, but as Habermas among many others have pointed out, both of their systems offer no escape, rational or otherwise. Their critique can only be used in part, or else it is simply so self-negating as to be pointless. It is no insult to say that they reject Cassirer, because they reject everyone.
But when taken in part, Foucault and Adorno can only be used to argue for reform of a Cassirer-like project of intellectual rationalism, not an indisputable indictment of it. I suppose this is a good thing as it permits scholarship to continue.
Meanwhile, Simpson bizarrely lists Blumenberg as a detractor from Cassirer; I suppose when evidence is not at issue, you might as well pile on the names. Blumenberg does convincingly criticize Cassirer’s terminus ad quem view of myth as uniformly directed to one ideal outcome, but that hardly is an indictment of the man’s whole work.
Yet in looking at Heidegger, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and Adorno, one is struck ultimately by their comparative inconsequentiality. These “massive intellectual forces” simply have not dominated intellectual discourse outside of their disciplines: Habermas and Sartre loomed far larger in public life. (Indeed, Sartre’s disappearance over the last 30 years should serve as a warning to all never to trust the current canon.)
Instead, consider this sample of hugely influential intellectual forces of the 20th century: Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, Kurt Godel, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Sigmund Freud, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Martin Luther King.
Yes, many of them made their mark through practical action, but that does not disqualify their influence. All of them, without exception, fall closer philosophically to Carnap and Cassirer than to Heidegger or any of the other names Simpson or Skidelsky cites. Simpson is using a rather parochial measure of massiveness.
Which brings us to Carnap. The logical positivist view is certainly one that has held greater sway Cassirer’s cultural view. Contra Skidelsky, we are vastly more Carnap’s children than we are Heidegger’s, and thank goodness for that. So the charge of Cassirer’s irrelevance relative to Carnap is at least plausible.
Yet Skidelsky and Simpson have it wrong in opposing Carnap and Cassirer. As Michael Friedman points out, Cassirer had already moved toward admitting a logical absolutism into his philosophy, undercutting Skidelsky’s attack:
By sharply distinguishing between intuitive or representative meaning and the purely formal or significative meaning characteristic of modern abstract mathematics, in the tradition of Leibniz’s “universal characteristic,” Helmholtz’s theory of signs, and Hilbert’s axiomatic conception of geometry, Cassirer has clearly moved out of the Kantian camp and has come extremely close, in fact, to the position of Carnap and the logical positivists.
Michael Friedman, A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (2000)
And as was recently demonstrated in these pages, logical positivism was hardly as absolutist as its most extreme exponents and detractors made it out to be: in Carnap’s own words, “The fabric of life can never quite be comprehended.” Logical positivism does not exclude Cassirer’s empirical philosophy of culture from the world.
Friedman, who has argued in the past with Sluga over Cassirer, makes the following case for Cassirer’s relevance, which I cite simply in order to contrast its rhetoric with that of Cassirer’s critics above:
The essence of Cassirer’s approach is to employ the most sophisticated and comprehensive resources of conceptual intellectual history (and thus the resources of a paradigmatic Geisteswissenschaft) in attempting to craft a new philosophical orientation appropriate to the problems and predicaments of the present.
For Cassirer this meant, in particular, that we attempt to trace the conceptual evolution of both modern science and modern philosophy – and the conceptual interactions between them – within the framework of an historicized (and to this extent Hegelian) version of a broadly Kantian theory of the most general forms and categories of human thought, and this approach was later generalized and extended, in the philosophy of symbolic forms, to embrace what we might call the conceptual history of all of human culture as a whole.
Now this last step, as I have said, is one that I myself am not prepared to take. But Cassirer’s earlier approach, exemplified in his more narrowly scientific works, makes particularly good sense, I believe, within our present, post-logical-empiricist and post-Kuhnian situation in philosophy of science and scientific epistemology.
Michael Friedman, “Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger” (2002)
And this all seems very reasonable and sensible, and indeed not so far off from the realms which many subsequent thinkers, from Quine to Sellars to Kuhn to Blumenberg to Apel to Habermas, have explored.
If anything, the bashing of Cassirer seems to be an outgrowth of his being too reasonable, too sensible, too down-to-earth, as though admitting the tenability of his position would put the more abstruse theorists out of a job. The embrace of radicalism appears to be a desperate stab at relevancy for areas of the profession feeling increasingly at risk of complete inconsequentiality. I believe this tendency to be self-defeating.
Embracing radicalism is an understandable reaction to the actual victory of science and the problems that it has brought, but it is not a particularly credible or respectable one. It does explain, though, the phenomenon of someone like Slavoj Zizek, who offers all of the radicalism of a Foucault with none of the content.
Beiser, who is something of an iconoclastic establishmentarian, seems far more heterodox by prescribing the truly deviant step of deep research, something that he follows Cassirer in practicing:
There are two kinds of philosophical historians: derivative and original. While the derivative follow the standard curriculum, the original have the powers to reform and create a new curriculum. It is the ideal and obligation of every genuine philosophical historian to be original, to get beyond the standard curriculum, to resist the pressure of pedagogical interests and intellectual fashions, so that he can give an accurate account of the depth and breadth of an historical period. No period of the philosophical past stands in more need of an original historian than nineteenth century philosophy. The standard tropes and figures do no justice to its depths, riches and powers. The ultimate purpose of this review is to give the reader some indication of how we must strive to get beyond them.
The derivative historians are that much more harmful when they dismiss unfashionable thinkers as unrecoverable. When Skidelsky calls Cassirer “old Europe’s answer to Francis Fukuyama,” he only sounds small and myopic.
To answer Skidelsky’s implied question from earlier: Is culture an essentially liberating force? Not necessarily. Does it have the potential to be? Yes. That is sufficient.
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?