of books by Ernst Cassirer

ERNST CASSIRER (1874-1845) was professor in philosophy in Hamburg, Germany, and emigrated in 1934 to the United States living in New York. Cassirer was a member of the Marburg School and studied the history of philosophical problems and thoughts. He believed that modern philosophy has to accept and reflect Einstein's theory of relativity overcoming Kant's philosophy as an answer to Newton's mechanical principles.

An Essay on Man
by Ernst Cassirer
Yale University Press, 1944

An essay on man originated 25 years after the publication of Symbolic Forms as a solicitation to write an English version of the latter. Cassirer at this time lived in exile and decided to write the much smaller volume 'An essay on man' addressing the philosophy of symbolic forms in a new and matured form. An essay on man is a historical sketch of human thoughts about man calling history a crisis in man's knowledge of himself'. History is one of man's struggle that sees the human mind alternately as free or guided by god, and, with the success of today's science and technology in mind, entirely materialistic. No longer do scientists justify their work by recognizing natures beauty as the creation of god. As Cassirer puts it, "..every philosopher believes he has found the mainspring and master-faculty of his own picture of human nature  --  Nietzsche's will to power, Freud's sexual instinct, or Marx's economic politics  --  with the empirical facts stretched to fit a preconceived pattern." This leads to a strange situation in modern philosophy. Cassirer maintains that we have no real insight into the general character of human nature, despite a rich body of facts. But a wealth of facts (information) is not a wealth of thought (knowledge). How does man deal with facts, create them, and communicate? Man uses symbols to converse with himself and with the physical world. It is these symbols (language) that allows relational thought and judgment. It is this relational thought system that allows man to develop science. Science, thus, is not  concerned with the 'truth of things' but the truth of propositions and judgments, i.e., the relation among symbols.

In 'An essay on man' Cassirer succinctly outlines the differences between science, mythology and religion, a problem important to all of us. For science literacy cannot be achieved, if we don't understand the limitations of the abstraction and objectification science introduces to man's culture. Science can restrict the subjective qualities of myth and religion, but it cannot destroy their reality, since every human experience has a claim to reality. Cassirer gives the following example. "In our scientific concepts we reduce the differences between two colors .. to a numeric difference [of wavelength]. But it is a very inadequate way of speaking if we declare number to be more real than color. What is really meant is that it is more general. ...  But to hypothesize number ...  as the ultimate reality, the very essence and substance of things, is a metaphysical fallacy."

Science gives an order in thoughts, morality gives an order in action, and art gives an order in the apprehension of appearances. Natural laws are discovered, they do not create reality. The introduction of new classes of numbers does not create new objects but new symbols. Cassirer's text is a lucid exploration of the structures of man's cultural activities. His essay is a tribute to the fact that what ever man does, he converses with himself, rather than with nature, god, or the universe.

May 29, 1999 / © Lukas K. Buehler go back to Book Review Home

The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vols. 1-3
by Ernst Cassirer
Yale University Press; 1955

The philosophy of symbolic forms was published in its original German form in 1923. It consists of three volumes. The first volume on language, the second volume on mythical thought, and the third volume on the phenomenology of knowledge.

In volume one, Cassirer gives a detailed analysis of linguistic forms and their development, from philosophical idealism and empiricism to modern linguistic science and the problem of phonetic laws. Language includes expressive movements, sign language and sounds. He describes the use of language to express space and time, numeric relations and language as expression of conceptual thoughts.

In volume two, Cassirer describes the origin of myth as a form of thought, as mythical consciousness of objects and as a form of intuition. He lays out a foundation of a theory of mythical forms pertaining to the concept of space and time and forms of expression and symbols such as mythical numbers and the system of sacred numbers. Myth is also a life form and relates the I to the soul, is involved in developing a feeling of self and a feeling of the unity with life, the experience of personality and personal gods.

In volume three, the phenomenology of knowledge, and the biggest of the three volumes, Cassirer analysis the objective and subjective world, concepts of perception, consciousness, mind and body, and representation. It deals with the scientific view of the world and the most abstract form of symbolic language, mathematics. What is a thing, how is it represented, what is time, and how is reality represented in space, time and numbers.

May 29, 1999 / © 1999 Lukas K. Buehler go back to Book Review Home