Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Symbolic Forms and Cultural Studies

Symbolic Forms and Cultural Studies: Ernst Cassirer’s Theory of Culture

Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 318
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Symbolic Forms and Cultural Studies
    Book Description:

    Cassirer thought of culture anthropologically as the entire complex of human modes of meaning and existence: it encompassed science, technology, language, and social life in addition to art, religion, and philosophy. This conception of culture and Cassirer's theory of symbolism anticipated much of later cultural theory. In this collection of essays, eminent Cassirer scholars examine the many different aspects of his thinking on this subject and demonstrate how pioneering and important it is to cultural studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15683-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxviii)

    The essays in this volume examine Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of “symbolic forms” as a theory of culture. Some address this topic in general philosophical terms, while others investigate more specific issues. In this introduction we address the question of culture in the broader contexts of theory and practice, to which Cassirer has much to offer.

    The term “cultural studies” and its basic methodological orientation derive from the activities of the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England. Beginning in the 1960s, the study of literature at that institution was expanded to include nontraditional depositories of culture, such as film...

  5. Abbreviations of Works by Ernst Cassirer
    (pp. xxix-xxx)
  6. Part One: Culture as a Philosophical Concept

    • 1 The Variety of Symbolic Worlds and the Unity of Mind
      (pp. 3-18)

      Ernst Cassirer developed his philosophical conception during a period of new philosophical orientations. His bookSubstanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriffcame out in 1910.¹ In France, Henri Bergson published hisEssai sur le données immediatés de la consciencein 1889 and then in 1903 his even more influentialIntroduction á la metaphysique.² In the United States, in 1904, Williams James published his famous article “Does Consciousness Exist?” and in 1907 his lectures on Pragmatism came out.³ In German philosophy we have on the one hand the dominance of neo-Kantianism and a variety of very traditional conceptions like scholasticism, historicism, or other forms...

    • 2 Cassirer’s Concept of a Philosophy of Human Culture
      (pp. 19-27)

      Cassirer’s philosophy, in the end, is a philosophy of culture. He makes this clear in the title of his bookAn Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Culture, published a year before his death, which he intended to be a summary of his philosophy of symbolic forms. In a review of this work, Brand Blanshard, while expressing admiration for Cassirer’s great learning, regrets its lack of speculative depth. He says: “It is hard not to think, as one reads a book so wealthy as this in historic and scientific erudition, but at the same time so oddly...

    • 3 The Modern Concept of Culture as Indicator of a Metaphysical Problem
      (pp. 28-34)

      In this essay I will not attempt to give an interpretation of Cassirer’s philosophy, that is, of his philosophy of symbolic forms; rather, by starting with problems and results in Cassirer’s work, I want to thematize our presentday concept of culture and show its role in our general orientation in philosophy. My thesis is that the concept of culture is coming more and more to fulfill a metaphysical function and that in this way the philosophy of culture is being transformed—explicitly or implicitly—into a newprima philosophia.

      Of course, the philosophy of culture also can be considered a...

    • 4 Cassirer’s Symbolic Theory of Culture and the Historicization of Philosophy
      (pp. 35-46)

      Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of culture steered philosophical thought in a new direction. In contrast to both the unmediated unity of being in traditional metaphysics and the epistemic unity of the transcendental subject in modern, critical philosophy, his theory of cultural symbols assumes the object of philosophical reflection to be irreducibly pluralist. His approach raises two fundamental questions. First, is the philosophy of symbolic forms a substitute for metaphysics or does it require a metaphysical foundation to remain consistent with its own principles? Second, how can it discuss contingent matters, such as the historical process of culture, without losing its philosophical...

  7. Part Two: Problems in the Philosophical Interpretation of Culture

    • 5 “Art” and “Science” in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms
      (pp. 49-60)

      Whatever else one might say about him, Ernst Cassirer would seem indubitably to be a modern philosopher, not only in the contingency of his birth, but in the nature of his concerns. Like so many modernist artists, he is consumed by a passion to understand relations rather than things; thus it is not surprising thatThe Philosophy of Symbolic Formsis a philosophy of culture. Not merely because its basic analytic tool is semiotic of a particular kind, but because of the urgency one senses on every page to connect regions that otherwise are in danger of falling into isolation...

    • 6 The Subject of Culture
      (pp. 61-77)

      It is often forgotten that Cassirer’s “critique of culture” entails a “critique of the subject” of culture: for culture exists only insofar as an individual subject actively engages with other subjects in its continual construction and reconstruction. For the most part, however, Cassirer speaks about the subject of culture in the most general and abstract of terms: it is the anonymous force of the “energy ofGeist” that constitutes the cultural world. The task of the philosophy of symbolic forms, as a “critique of culture,” as a philosophy of Geist, is to establish the structure of the different forms of...

    • 7 Styles of Change: Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophical Writing
      (pp. 78-96)

      On first looking into a text by Cassirer, nearly every reader notices two things: first, the clear language, which loses none of its immediacy even when Cassirer elucidates the most complex theoretical contexts, and, second, the difficulty, despite this clarity and vividness of language, of reconstructing the argumentative process of Cassirer’s thought.¹ Cassirer’s texts blend the objects represented with the author’s own position or thesis in each work. This individual, if not idiosyncratic type of argumentation often has the effect of making the place and voice of the author seem to disappear behind the problem in question. It is thus...

  8. Part Three: Comparative Studies

    • 8 Bakhtin and Cassirer: The Philosophical Origins of Carnival Messianism
      (pp. 99-116)

      Toward the end of the 1960s, as the Soviets tightened their grip upon Eastern Europe, a far more subtle invasion made its way toward the West. The translation of Mikhail Bakhtin’sRabelais and His Worldin 1968 unleashed a new subversive dynamic in literary studies, which with time would make the pungent winds of the body’s after and the raucous cries of the marketplace popular subjects in the seminars of our best universities. The unkind object of this essay is to demonstrate that Ernst Cassirer, genteel and urbane though he was, is nevertheless in some sense responsible for this wondrous...

    • 9 From Culture to Politics: The “Aufhebung” of Ethics in Ernst Cassirer’s Political Philosophy in Comparison with the “Political Theology” of Ernst Kantorowicz
      (pp. 117-126)

      Cassirer did not write an ethics, and there are interpreters of his work who consider this a deficiency. This criticism reminds me of a question an interlocutor whose name we don’t know is supposed to have directed to Martin Heidegger: “When will you write ethics?” Heidegger tells us about this event in his famous “Letter on Humanism,” which he wrote to Jean Beaufret in 1946.¹ In the wake of “destroying” the traditional understanding of humanism he raises this question after a revealing reference to a pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, and provides the following answer: ethics derives from the Greek “ethos” which...

    • 10 Speaking of Symbols: Affinities between Cassirer’s and Jung’s Theories of Language
      (pp. 127-156)

      At first glance, the differences between the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer and the psychology of C. G. Jung would seem to outweigh any affinities.¹ To begin with, the one was a philosopher who taught in university departments, the other a psychologist with no philosophical training and a practice to run. (One of the most important philosophical sources for Jung was the second edition of theAllgemeines Handwörterbuch der philosophischen Wissenschaften[1832] by Wilhelm Traugott Krug [1770–1842], a distinctly popular, if famous, work.) As far as personal background and education are concerned, Cassirer was born of factory-owning, Jewish parents in...

    • 11 “Eine zarte Differenz”: Cassirer on Goethe on the Symbol
      (pp. 157-184)

      Being “the very hinges of all thought,” the really important terms of discourse tend to be, as I. A. Richards pointed out some sixty years ago, highly ambiguous: “In general we will find that the more important a word is, and the more central and necessary its meanings are in our pictures of ourselves and the world, the more ambiguous and possibly deceiving the word will be.”¹ The term “symbol” is a preeminently notorious example of such linguistic equivocation. It and its “beauty” and “meaning” itself (for both of which Richards and C. K. Ogden found sixteen discrete meanings...

    • 12 Goethe as Model for Cultural Values: Ernst Cassirer’s Essay on Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar
      (pp. 185-200)

      “Each of us reads his own Goethe; and each has formed in the course of years a specific image of Goethe, which he is rather unwilling to revise.”¹ This sentence occurs in the essay that Ernst Cassirer wrote in February 1940, in immediate response to Thomas Mann’s Goethe novelLotte in Weimar.² Cassirer was then living in Sweden, in the sixth year of his voluntary exile from Hitler’s totalitarian regime in Germany. Five months earlier, at the beginning of September 1939, Thomas Mann had returned to Princeton, New Jersey, following a summer trip to Europe. Mann’s return preceded by a...

  9. Part Four: Cassirer’s Philosophical Outlook

    • 13 The Missing Core of Cassirer’s Philosophy: Homo Faber in Thin Air
      (pp. 203-226)

      The title of this essay is intended to express, first, the claim that Cassirer’s project is indeed philosophical and systematic (and not merely historical); second, that this philosophy has a core principle; and third, that this core is not elaborated nor applied to the cultural material which it was supposed to explain. Thus Cassirer’s oeuvre shows, on the one hand, the blueprint of a systematic historical epistemology and, on the other hand, the material which should have been interpreted and explained by this epistemology. The material is ordered so as to suggest a progressive epistemic development, but Cassirer nowhere applies...

    • 14 The Davos Disputation and Twentieth-Century Philosophy
      (pp. 227-243)

      The Davos disputation between Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer in 1929 is of course well known to all students of Cassirer. What is perhaps not so well known is the way in which the Davos disputation can be seen as a watershed in the development of twentieth-century philosophy more generally and, in particular, in the evolving split between analytic and continental philosophical traditions. For it turns out that Rudolf Carnap (a leading representative of the Vienna Circle of logical empiricists) attended the Davos disputation, took a very serious interest in Heidegger andBeing and Timewhen he returned to Vienna,...

    • 15 Why Did Cassirer and Heidegger Not Debate in Davos?
      (pp. 244-262)

      In March 1929, when Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer met to debate at academic conferences held in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos, the situation had the potential for a dramatic confrontation.¹ Here were two philosophers with reputedly antithetical views, separated by a generation gap (Cassirer was fifteen years older), one came from a modest background in provincial Germany (and intentionally stayed away from the city) while the other stemmed from a wealthy family whose name was synonymous with modernism in the arts and the metropolis of Berlin, where he had lived so long.² Eyewitnesses called attention to the fact...

  10. Appendix: How the Cassirer Papers Came to Yale
    (pp. 263-270)
  11. List of Contributors
    (pp. 271-273)
  12. Index
    (pp. 274-288)