Ernst Cassirer - an intellectual journey to an extraordinary philosopher

Interview with the owner of the Chair of Cultural Philosophy/Aesthetics Prof. Dr. Gerald Hartung

The philosopher Ernst Alfred Cassirer is, nowadays, considered as a thinker who progressed from the philosophy of culture to the concept of freedom and political philosophy. Who was this man?

Hartung: In fact, nowadays, we remember Ernst Cassirer as a representative of the liberal educated bourgeoisie of the epoch around 1900. A representative of a philosophical line of thought in the tradition of Immanuel Kant - keyword: Neo-Kantianism - and as the founder of a philosophy of culture. Stephan Zweig once called this epoch the "world of yesterday", in which Cassirer was deeply rooted throughout his life. We must note that the socio-cultural reality of Cassirer's world and the attitude of mind associated with it, have been lost. Although some of the ideals of that time - for example, social advancement through education, cultural cosmopolitanism - still seem familiar to us from afar. In this respect, the study of Cassirer's life and work is an intellectual journey.
Here are some data about his life: Ernst Cassirer was born on July 28, 1874 in Breslau (today: Wroclaw) into a merchant family. At this time the Cassirer family already was a widely branched family of Jewish origin. They originally came from Silesia. Important merchants, publishers and scholars belonged to the Cassirer family. Ernst Cassirer grew up in Breslau and studied from 1892 first in Berlin, then in Marburg. During his studies of philosophy, his main focus became the history of philosophy (Descartes-Leibniz-Kant). Under the philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) - one of the most important representatives of German philosophy of the time and representative of German Jewry - he was introduced to the study of Kant's philosophy and the school of Neo-Kantism. Cassirer became Cohen's master student. With his four-volume work "The Problem of Rationale in the Modern Philosophy and Science" (from 1906), he wrote an impressive study that set new standards for the historiography of philosophy and simultaneously provided an assessment of the position of philosophy in his time. Cassirer habilitated at the Berlin University in his second attempt. The first attempt failed under scandalous circumstances and is an example of the discrimination against Jewish scholars in the university system of the time. In 1919, Cassirer was appointed to the newly founded University of Hamburg. Here, he experienced the propserity period of his work in Germany: he got in touch with the Cultural Scientific Library of Warburg. He published his three-volume "Philosophy of Symbolic Forms" (1923, 1925, 1929), was a counterpart of Martin Heidegger (at the Davoser Hochschultage (1929), which subsequently became famous) and was electedas the rector of University of Hamburg (1929/1930). In 1933, Cassirer left Germany immediately. He anticipated that he would be deprived of the basis for living and working as a result of the takeover of the government led by the National Socialist Party. Cassirer died in American exile in the spring of 1945.
Who was Cassirer apart from these data on his life? He was an outstanding scholar. Additionally, he was an important representative of German intellectual culture, which, in the tradition of the philosopher Kant, was dedicated to scientific enlightenment, political liberalism and cultural cosmopolitanism. He has represented these directions in his numerous books on the history of mind and science and, above all - as the testimonies of his contemporaries prove - he has lived them: his humanism has a timeless dimension, his work on factual problems of the history of philosophy and science stands above the ideological conflicts of his time. And yet his life has been damaged by anti-Jewish resentment, by expulsion from the bourgeois existence in Hamburg, by the years in the uncertainty of exile. His work has also remained unfinished, as the extensive materials in his estate show. Cassirer was not allowed to live the life of a university professor and scholar in Germany. A look back from our time at his life and the examination of his work are urgently needed - but the damage remains. This should be clear in our minds.

His main work "Philosophy of Symbolic Forms" appeared in three volumes in the 1920s. For him, symbols illustrate the diversity of ways of accessing the world. Which symbols are these, and what was he interested in?

Hartung: This question can hardly be answered in the given short time. A separate monograph would be necessary and such have already been written on the subject. I will try anyway: The three-volume "Philosophy of Symbolic Forms" is an impressive attempt to introduce philosophy to the diversity of cultural phenomena. While philosophy around 1900 usually gives priority to knowledge in the tradition of Kant, Cassirer speaks of different approaches to human reality as being equal and complementary. He is concerned with language, technology, law, art - the list can be continued. The basic idea here is that we humans create a reality for ourselves in various media (the symbolic forms) that is completely different from the given nature, from the found environment of other forms of life (plants, animals). In the tradition of Herder and Humboldt, Cassirer speaks of culture as the other nature (natura altera). This other or second nature of man, which we call culture, is an extremely dynamic entity. In the sense of the approach typical to the Enlightenment epoch, Cassirer describes it as the genuine task of humanity, to work its way "out of self-inflicted immaturity" (Kant). Against the background of the "Philosophy of Symbolic Forms" it is said: We humans must gradually realize that our reality of life is the product of our shaping through language, imagination, sense of justice, knowledge (among other things). If we understand this, then we must, see ourselves as form-givers (homo symbolicus) and thus also take responsibility for the medial shaping of our life reality. Cassirer emphasizes again and again that this is no reality which we find and to which we have to adapt (as other life forms do in their respective environments). But, he states, our reality of life is a symbolic universe that is shaped by us and for whose design we have to take responsibility. Despite the adverse living conditions of the 1930s and 1940s, Cassirer at no time gave up hope that we human beings, through recognition of the symbolic structure of our life reality and, as a consequence, through self-knowledge as creators of our symbolic worlds, are in principle capable of achieving the humanization of our culture(s). By cultural philosophy, Cassirer understands the work on this option, despite the permanent objection of social reality, which is characterized by contradictions, conflicts, hatred and violence as well as other practices. Cassirer stands in the tradition of the Epoch of Enlightenment, the ideals of the French Revolution, the ideas of tolerance towards those who think and live differently - he represents the cosmopolitan side of German intellectual history.

In the second volume of this work, he deals with the phenomenon of myth, which he describes as the archetype of human existence. Can you explain this?


Hartung: This question points to a fundamental question of systematics within Cassirer's philosophy. These systematics are in principle still familiar to us today, but the terminology is outdated and therefore some translation work is required. In the Epoch of Enlightenment philosophy and still in German idealism (the epoch of the philosophers such as Fichte, Hegel, Schelling), the protagonists were firmly convinced that the development of the cultural history of mankind had a goal. This is a secularization of salvation-historical expectations, as they were (and in part still are) widespread especially in Christian-influenced cultural areas. What is meant is the idea that cultural history between the beginning (creation) and the end (judgment) is a reasonable happening. In Schiller's famous words, "The history of the world is the judgement of the world", which the philosopher Hegel quotes, this conviction is expressed in a striking way. Two scandals occurred in the 19th century: On the one hand it was claimed that mankind should not count on foreign help if it wants to proceed a goal (varieties of criticism of religion); on the other hand it was claimed that there is no goal at all in history, but only struggle for existence and variation of options for adaptation (Darwinism). This means that all models of progress for social and cultural historiography are actually off the table, although even today vulgar and ideological model stories of progress or decadence still find many supporters.
If we now remember my answer to the previous question, we can already guess what option Cassirer remains in order to preserve an idea of cultural progress. The humanization of humanity through self-awareness. In all his works, both in the scientific-theoretical ('Concept of Substance and Concept of Function', 1910) and in works on Renaissance philosophy, on Kant, on Rousseau and on the philosophy of the Enlightenment, he repeatedly and vividly describes the path from myth to logos. But not in a real-historical sense, but with the intention of holding up the mirror of humanity's ideal possibilities to their real history.
So what happens in the second volume of the 'Philosophy of Symbolic Forms'? On the basis of the ethnographic, ethological, sociological and cultural-historical research literature of his time, Cassirer sketches the story of the beginning of the cultural development of mankind in a state of immaturity, i.e. the lack of insight into one's own abilities to shape the reality of life. He attempts to trace the gradual breaking up of a state caught up in mythical narrative through the awakening of an awareness of one's own creative power and responsibility. This story unfolds over hundreds of pages and is not captivating in every detail. The consistency with which Cassirer pursues his program of idealizing the reality of human life through the development of human powers is impressive. The point is that myth and logos are not opposing forces. Rather, man's capacity of self-distancing is linked to the fact that he sets options of a possible world against his mere reality. The real, actual human being is opposed by the image of the possible, future human being. The first step of this self-distancing happens pictorially. It is the ability for the emotional, pictorial reality formation, which enables humans to take distance from its bare factual existence already on an early stage of its cultural development. This first step is followed by many more steps in which the sense of self and the imagination are rationalized and disciplined. Cassirer uses the history of science as a red thread for the development of the dynamics of rationalization and discipline. Particularly in the history of physics, it can be demonstrated, how mythical explanations of natural phenomena - lightning and thunder - are gradually being replaced by physical explanations. The teaching of abstract numbers and geometry are established in the history of mathematics. In the fields of mathematics and physics, substantial forces acting in nature are replaced by functional concepts - numbers, laws. In his ealry work, Cassirer gives the impression that all cultural phenomena are at some point disciplined as concepts of functions, similiar to the mathematical symbols. According to him, this is being achieved through the recognition of their symbolic structure and the self-awareness of their creator. Meanwhile, the late Cassirer is more skeptical in this respect. Even in his last work, which was published posthumously under the title 'The Myth of the State', he does not move away from his assumption that the path of mankind leads from myth to logos. But he recognizes that the rationalization and disciplining of pictorial-mythical thinking will probably never succeed completely. Thus Cassirer also refers to the propaganda machinery of totalitarian regimes, which aims at a renewed incapacitation of humanity. At the same time, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, who lived in the Californian exile, gave a much mure ruthless analysis of the effects of modern cultural industry.

Cassirer was one of the first German-Jewish rectors at the University of Hamburg. His inaugural address in 1929, on the forms and transformations of the philosophical concept of truth, is a clear plea to the Weimar Constitution. Did he see the impending Nazi regime coming?

Hartung: Even though this question may not seem complicated, it is not easy to answer. This is because Cassirer left hardly any documents behind that would suggest his personal assessment of the circumstances of the time. There is no doubt that Cassirer experienced anti-Jewish resentment throughout his life, since he was a representative of an important family and known for his Jewish origin. The positive attitude towards liberalism, modern culture and the Weimar Republic was obvious. During his time as Rector of the University of Hamburg, he also had negative experiences with students and colleagues who clearly articulated their National Socialist sentiments. It can only be assumed indirectly, to which extent he was aware of the final consequences of National Socialist policies for his life and his work. He already left Germany with his family in spring. Additionally, he actively renounced his academic livelihood as a university professor. This clear consequence can only be understood against the background of a massive threat as early as spring 1933.
In any case, Cassirer refused to let the passage of time infect his work throughout his life. There is a good example of this. In the years 1931/1932 Cassirer worked on a book with the title 'Die Philosophie der Aufklärung' (The Philosophy of the Enlightenment), which was published by Mohr (Siebeck) at the end of 1932 in a renowned book series on the history of philosophy. During my research for an introduction for a new edition, which I carried out in 1998, I came across an interesting correspondence between the publisher Siebeck and Cassirer concerning the question of whether the book should have a contemporary foreword. In fact, the preface is one of Cassirer's most haunting texts from the time before his exile, precisely because he was written under time pressure. In a few pages, Cassirer makes it clear that, for him, historical knowledge also implies a philosophical ethos. Although his hope is shaken, whether the validity of fundamental insights of the Enlightenment epoch will survive the political tendencies of the present without any harm. The nature of man, the meaning of sciences, the course of history, or the idea of inalienable, natural principles of law are such insights of the Enlightenment epoch. Cassirer continues to rely on the support and comfort of intellectual-historical studies and, of the "community of mind and spirit" with a few befriended scholars, what seems to be at least as important for him. But he never says a word about concrete contemporary historical events of the early 1930s, about personal experiences or disappointments.

After the Nazis came to power, Cassirer immediately emigrated to England. Where did his further path lead him to?

Hartung: In 1933, with the onset of National Socialist rule in Germany, a period of great uncertainty begin for Cassirer and his family, which lasted until the end of his life. In spring 1933, Cassirer left Germany with his wife and three children a few weeks after Adolf Hitler was elected Reich Chancellor. Via Vienna he came to England, where he taught as a visiting professor at Oxford University. Two years later, at the invitation of a former student, he went to Gothenburg University of Applied Sciences as a university lecturer and became a Swedish citizen in 1939. In 1941, Cassirer left Sweden and escaped to the United States of America. He first taught at Yale University in New Haven, then as a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York. On April 13, 1945, Cassirer died in New York as a result of a stroke. What seems to be a superficial view of an international academic career in today's age of increased mobility, was a time of enormous hardship and a feeling of constant danger. The Cassirers left Sweden on the last ship that was able to leave Gothenburg during the occupation of the country by the German Wehrmacht. In the USA there was no firm commitment for Cassirer. In order to open up the prospect of further employment, Cassirer took it upon himself, at the age of nearly 70, to teach and publish in the English language. It is said, that he has not considered to return to Germany with the end of the war in sight. His children have established themselves in Sweden and the USA. The reception of his philosophy in Germany has only begun, more than 50 years after his death. There is the chance of a delayed retunr for his work.

It is remarkable that during his teaching activities in New Haven (USA) he developed his cultural-philosophical theory of symbolic forms into a philosophical anthropology. Through which contents did he thereby also reach a wider audience?

Hartung: A few years ago, I was involved in the edition of the documents that Cassirer wrote on the subject of philosophical anthropology in the 1930s and 1940s, which are now in his estate. I have written a book on this subject, which contains the long answer to this question. The short answer could be the following: In his symbol-philosophical works, Cassirer has provided intelligent descriptions of the functioning of symbolic forms as media for opening up and shaping the world. However, the question of justification, the famous why-question, had not been asked by him. Critics have pointed this out to him. He rejected metaphysical questions already in the 1920s. In his view, the being of man can only be understood through an analysis of his activity. But why is symbolic activity - in language, law, morality, religion, knowledge, etc. - the fundamental mark of difference between humans and other life forms? Cassirer's late answer to this question leads to a circular conclusion: the symbolic activity marks the decisive difference, because man is an "animal symbolicum". The fact that man is a form of life that expresses itself indirectly through symbolic forms as media becomes evident in the practise of this activity. Cassirer's strategy becomes clear in the following: he must prove that the human life form can form and stabilize itself in the network of its symbolic forms. In this way, the why-question is not answered, but at least defused. This is the project of his anthropological foundation of cultural philosophy. Cassirer relies on the powers of man to shape the world responsibly.

Ernst Cassirer died on April 13, 1945. The Second World War ended on May 8, 1945. His analysis of the emergence of National Socialism entitled "On the Myth of the State" was published posthumously. In it, he writes that philosophy cannot overcome the political myth completly, but can only tame it. Philosophy could contribute to this by understanding it and thus helping to fight it. He concludes his work with the words:

"We should look into the face of the enemy in order to know how to fight him." What possibilities does philosophy have today to, at least, tame destructive powers?


Hartung: The role of philosophy in society is both weak and strong. Its weakness lies in the fact that it is not heard at all times. Its strength lies in the fact that it is able to point out options of another world even against the pressing situation of bare facts. How effective freedom of thought can be is currently demonstrated by the force with which anti-liberal or totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe classify the freedom of science as dangerous and limit the possibilities of critical thinking. In this respect, too, a deep look at Cassirer's philosophical work can be instructive. In the course of his life, Cassirer's life-historical distortions in particular, have made it increasingly clear that the ideals of the Enlightenment and political liberalism are in danger. I therefore return to my answer to the previous question. Cassirer seeks to understand human existence through the analysis of activity. This then also means that only in the proof of the success of the project of humanization of man through himself, the ideals become visible in their effectivness. Man is considered as speaking, recognizing and judging, a morally feeling being, and as being responsible for his actions. Since there is no guarantee of success for this project and no reassurance in case of failure, Cassirer knew about the risks. Although the border to pre-human life forms has been crossed (the process of evolution is irreversible), the other border will always remain permeable. What is meant is the always threatening inhumanity of man. Cassirer's philosophy of culture has its own peculiar ethos in the hope of an assertive humanity of man. In this way Cassirer preserves the heritage of philosophical idealism even in dark times.

What significance does Cassirer, his work and his person, have for today's philosophy?

Hartung: The answer to the final question is a kind of cumulation of my previous answers. Cassirer gives us a hint that the legacy of the Enlightenment, the ideals of the French Revolution and Humboldt humanism should not be abandoned even in dark times. Out of resignation no (better) world has emerged yet. Cassirer's work gives us many cause for reflection and critical questioning. It contains no final answers to urgent problems, but it demands respect. By this, I mean the recognition of a stupendous erudition, the outstanding skill in linking historical and systematic perspectives on our reality of life, and the unwavering will to make sense of the cultural history of mankind.

Uwe Blass (Interview on 28th September 2020)


Prof. Dr. Gerald Hartung habilitated in 2002 at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Philosophy at the University of Leipzig and worked there as a private lecturer. In 2008, he came as a professor's representative to the University of Wuppertal, and took over the Chair of Cultural Philosophy/Aesthetics in 2010.



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