Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 304
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    Ernst Cassirer
    Book Description:

    This is the first English-language intellectual biography of the German-Jewish philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), a leading figure on the Weimar intellectual scene and one of the last and finest representatives of the liberal-idealist tradition. Edward Skidelsky traces the development of Cassirer's thought in its historical and intellectual setting. He presents Cassirer, the author ofThe Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, as a defender of the liberal ideal of culture in an increasingly fragmented world, and as someone who grappled with the opposing forces of scientific positivism and romantic vitalism. Cassirer's work can be seen, Skidelsky argues, as offering a potential resolution to the ongoing conflict between the "two cultures" of science and the humanities--and between the analytic and continental traditions in philosophy. The first comprehensive study of Cassirer in English in two decades, this book will be of great interest to analytic and continental philosophers, intellectual historians, political and cultural theorists, and historians of twentieth-century Germany.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2894-4
    Subjects: Philosophy, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-8)

    On April 23, 1929, in the famous Swiss resort of Davos, two of the leading philosophers of the day met in debate. On the one side was Ernst Cassirer, distinguished representative of the German idealist tradition and champion of the Weimar Republic. On the other was Martin Heidegger, the younger man, whose recently publishedBeing and Timehad shaken the idealist tradition to its foundations, and whose politics, though still uncertain, were plainly far from liberal. It was a symbolic moment. The old was pitted against the new, the humanism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries against the radicalism of...

    (pp. 9-21)

    Cassirer was a child of what has been called “the revolt against positivism” in late nineteenth-century Europe. Like the other children of this revolt, his ambition was to “restore the freely speculating mind to the dignity it had enjoyed a century earlier.”¹ But unlike so many of them, his revolt against positivism did not take the form of a rebellion against science or scientific reason. On the contrary, it wasin the nameof science that Cassirer first developed his critique of positivism. Although his antipositivist spirit was later to manifest itself in studies of culture, society, and finally politics,...

    (pp. 22-51)

    The neo-Kantian movement played a central role in the revolt against positivism in the 1870s and 1880s. It helped revive the idealist conception of the mind as an active force, as the author of natural and moral law. This change in philosophical fashion was closely bound up with the emergence of Germany as a nation-state. The active, autonomous subject of German idealism was well adapted to express the new spirit of national self-confidence. The revival of Kant—and to a lesser degree Fichte—was moreover part of a conscious attempt to promote a distinctively German philosophical tradition. Positivism, with its...

    (pp. 52-70)

    Cassirer devoted the first decade of his career to “epistemology,” or what would now be called the philosophy of science. He brought out works on Descartes, Leibniz, and then, in 1906 and 1907, the first two volumes ofDas Erkenntnisproblem, a magisterial survey of the scientific revolution from an idealist standpoint. These works made Cassirer famous across Germany, but secured him no more than a lowlyPrivatdozenturat the University of Berlin.

    Meanwhile, certain students of logic, foremost among them Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, were reawakening that discipline from its millennial slumbers. Cassirer took a close interest in their...

    (pp. 71-99)

    We have seen how symbolic logic helped liberate Cassirer from Cohen’s mathematical dogmatism, allowing him to view mathematical synthesis as a special case of a broader, nonmathematical synthesis. But as we have also seen, Cassirer initially regarded this broader synthesis as a mere preliminary to the “higher” one of mathematical natural science. Something more was required to persuade him that synthesis might proceed in many different directions, not all of them culminating in physics.

    This additional stimulus came from the arts. Cassirer was, as mentioned in chapter 2, a student of German literature before turning to philosophy, and remained all...

    (pp. 100-127)

    From 1919 until his exile in 1933, Cassirer held a chair in philosophy at the newly founded University of Hamburg. These were the most fruitful years of his life. He was free of the tutelage of Cohen, he had gained the institutional recognition he so evidently deserved, and he was surrounded by a congenial set of like-minded scholars in one of the most liberal towns in Germany. It was in these conditions that he brought out, in the years 1923, 1925, and 1929, the three volumes ofThe Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.

    The Philosophy of Symbolic Formsis the work...

    (pp. 128-159)

    “In ‘worldview,’ in that which I regard as theethosof philosophy,” wrote Cassirer in his private notes, “I believe I stand closer to no other philosophical ‘school’ than to the thinkers of the Vienna Circle.”¹ This declaration should be taken at face value. Cassirer genuinely shared the logical positivists’ respect for the exact sciences and what might more broadly be called “scientific civilization.” He was, like them, an internationalist, politically progressive, if not revolutionary, and a believer in rational argument as the true method of philosophy. Cassirer and the Vienna Circle were above all united in their hostility to...

    (pp. 160-194)

    I have suggested that Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms can be seen as an attempt to defend the heritage of the Enlightenment in interwar Germany. But what exactly was Cassirer trying to defend the heritage of the Enlightenment against? To what threat is his work a response?

    The answer, insofar as one can encapsulate a climate of opinion in a single word, is something called Lebensphilosophie—the philosophy of life. This term must serve as placeholder for the many varieties of irrationalism that flourished in early twentieth-century Europe. It includes thinkers of the rank of Nietzsche and Bergson, whose influence...

    (pp. 195-219)

    Lebensphilosophie was a popular movement, growing up outside or on the fringes of academic philosophy. To trained eyes, it revealed a fatal inconsistency: in attempting to discredit science, it drew freely and unthinkingly on its findings. This was the gist of Russell’s devastating rejoinder to Bergson. “Of Bergson’s theory that intellect is a purely practical faculty, developed in the struggle for survival, and not a source of true beliefs, we may say, first, that it is only through intellect that we know of the struggle for survival and the biological ancestry of man: if the intellect is misleading, the whole...

    (pp. 220-238)

    “It was all in vain,” said Cassirer to Toni on hearing the news of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. “I shall never write a word again.”¹ It is a curious comment. Could Cassirer really have believed that a series of abstruse works in the philosophy of science, language, and culture might have helped prevent the collapse of democracy in Germany? If so, he was more than usually deluded. Yet his remark can be understood in another, more sympathetic sense. Although not directly political, Cassirer’s philosophy has as its ultimate goal the preservation of what might be called liberal civilization in Germany....

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 239-268)
    (pp. 269-280)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 281-288)