Cassirer on Kantian Themes

Immanuel Kant is one of the most renowned philosophers who influenced the field of philosophy immensely especially with his transcendental idealism theory. By transcendental idealism, Kant believed that the human-self constructs knowledge out of sense impressions and from natural concepts existing in the universe which are categorized. Some other contributions include the synthetic and analytic approaches to philosophy. In the synthetic approach, Kant was not interested in the history of a theory, its development or its justification but rather how a theory applied in explaining given phenomena. Kant is also known for a number of themes in his works such as on Thought and Being, the A Priori, consciousness, self-consciousness, apperception, ethics, knowledge and others. Ernst Cassirer is one of the many philosophers who came later and were intellectually developed in the works of Kant. He critiqued and commented on the works of Kant alongside other philosophers especially in the Marburg School and Neo-Kantianism. Some of these philosophers agreed with the theories and methods fronted by Kant while others were opposed to them. In his works, Cassirer agrees with some of the Kantian themes while in others he seems to disagree. Although, Cassirer identified with Neo-Kantianism and contributed to the advancement of the theory and method presented by Kant, there have been questions regarding the worth of his contribution and his position towards Kant`s work. Therefore, it is clear that Cassirer digested the work of Kant and his transcendental philosophy and incorporated it with contemporary science to make Kant Aufhebung in his synthetic philosophical vision.
Ernst Cassirer came into prominence by training and working alongside the Neo-Kantian Marburg School in Germany. He was mentored by Hermann Cohen whom he followed in his philosophical ideologies until Cohen`s death. Both were strict followers of Kant. Later on, Cassirer proposed his `animal symbolicum` philosophy through which he addressed the phenomenology of knowledge. His project was a critique of culture as presented by Kant`s transcendental philosophy. It is clear that the “last universal intellectual”, as Cassirer was popularly named did not develop the notion of culture in originally but developed and advanced it from critique Kant`s works. He stated right at the outset that his work was directed at transforming Kant`s critique of Reason to critique of culture to make it more complete. Here in this context, culture is viewed as a transcendental concept that changes how knowledge, in light of nature, is viewed. Kant, as indicated in “An essay on man” believed that knowledge was natural. Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule” He viewed it as naturally present in man and God given.
Cassirer, alongside other members of the Neo-Kantian Marburg school, have professed their support for Kant`s transcendental method. However, the critique of culture has been accused of lacking originality by some scholars and that it is a continuation of Kant`s work. However, Cassirer makes it a point to introduced his work as one that adheres to Kant`s transcendental method same as the larger Neo-Kantian Marburg School. In one of the most famous scholarly debates, Cassirer faced Martin Heidegger in Davos in 1929. In during the introduction that Cassirer clarified his point and adherence to the transcendental method. He said
I remain within Kant`s basic methodological version of the transcendental. What is important about the transcendental method is that it takes its departure from what is actual fact. Thus, I ask how the fact of language is possible. How can it be made intelligible that we can communicate through this medium from one individual existence to another? Or: how is it possible that we can as much as grasp an object of art as something which is objectively there and structured?
Cassirer`s conception of culture has been brought into doubt in modern day. This is largely attributed to the modern world taking to the negative portrayal of culture by Heidegger. This negative portrayal of culture arises in modern times in instances where cultural animosity and culture wars are witnessed. In the 21[st] century, the west, especially in the fight against terrorism and terrorists is viewed by some as highly a perpetrator of cultural misunderstanding which has led to a negative attitude towards Islam as a religion and the Islamic culture and the people who practice it. Borrowing from Cassirer, this loosely translates to replacing `reason` with `culture` which does auger well with some philosophers. To Cassirer, culture was a necessary direction given that his teacher, Cohen, had already clarified that Kant`s work was dealt with conditions of scientific knowledge but did not query scientific knowledge. Therefore, Cassirer quest in critique of culture is to broaden the transcendental method and apply in various situations.
Cassirer viewed the necessity of culture as an alternative way to address the history of theory. Cassirer was aware than Kant had ignored the history of theories from the very start. Although he claimed his work to be founded in Kant, Cassirer never explicitly observed this shortcoming in Kant. However, he indicated that the main objective was not to trace history of a theory for the sake of history but rather it`s the most significant way to understand any human production in order to comprehend how it came to be what it is or what it was then. In short, Cassirer observed that Kant had been interested in what had already become. While this was important, Cassirer viewed the need to understand the process of becoming to grasp the inner forms as very important. He thus advocated a move from “forma formata” to “formaformans” This appears to be an advancement of the work of Kant rather than a new concept. However, the method differed in that to attain this shift in perspective, Cassirer began with the objective expression of spirit in a way that Kant had never addressed. He named this expression of spirit as the work of culture.
In the modern world, culture has caused all sorts of problem. It has resulted into segregation of society has been a major ground for discrimination. Heidegger in opposition to Cassirer in rooting for culture observed that culture is not safe ground for reason but rather the problem. He argued that culture had alienated man from the original existence and that it has been involved in setting up abstract rules that have no structure. One of the rules with no structure exists in the name of fashion. It is argued that one can people tend to copy one another and within no time the copying of one person`s idea is termed as fashion. Furthermore, some societies have elevated their cultures above others. There are no rules used or a standard system to measure, evaluate and compare one culture against another. For this reason, culture is viewed as a crisis of reason. It encourages exclusivity and stifles freedom. Communication breaks down as people and ideas are organized along cultural divides.
Cassirer believed that reason`s self-realization leads to human liberation. Cassirer ignores the political and social context in which ideas are produced. Kant shares this and says that one ought to think autonomously, free of the dictates of external authority. To Kant, enlightenment was the innate thirst for knowledge. In “An essay on man” the line “In doubt his mind or body to prefer Born but to die, and reas`ning but to err” clearly captures the fact that continuous third for knowledge was driven by doubt of the mind. Cassirer also addressed this theme in his works especially through the book “the philosophy of enlightenment” However, many critics argue that the scholar used a sympathetic approach to address the topic as the subject was very politically sensitive at the time. As such, Cassirer did not comment much about this theme and express his thoughts in comparison to Kant. However, the implication would affect other areas as it dealt largely with knowledge, maths and science being the major ones.
On Geometry, Cassirer did not follow the path followed my many philosophers who studies the works of Kant. Cassirer did not seek to defend the truth of Euclidean geometry but instead developed a logicism model based on the arithmetic works of Richard Dedekind. This issue of geometry and Kantianism had attracted many philosophers` attention. In his works, Kant had indicated that
Geometry is a science that determines the properties of space synthetically, and yet a priori. What, then, must the representation of space be for such a cognition of it to be possible? It must originally be intuition for from a mere concept no propositions can be drawn that go beyond the concept, which, however, happens in geometry (Introduction, V). But this intuition must be encountered in us a priori, i.e. prior to all perception of an object, thus it must be pure, not empirical intuition. For geometrical propositions are all apodictic, i.e. combined with consciousness of their necessity e.g., space has only three dimensions but such propositions cannot be empirical or judgments of experience, nor inferred from them (Introduction, II).
Cassirer was more determined to explain modern mathematics without condemning any part of it on the basis of the principles applied. He was also interested on understanding and explaining the historical development of mathematics and geometry specifically and assess how it remained a unified science over time after various changes and discovery of new theories that changed its concept and ontology. Enlightenment
Cassirer rubbishes the logicist theory of the nature of mathematics which would reject Kant`s original conception of a priori character of mathematical knowledge. According to this logicist view, mathematics is wholly representable with the pure logic hence qualifies as analytic and not synthetic. However, Cassirer was opposed to this view that mathematics, with his knowledge of later developments such as the law of relativity which Kant had not encountered during his time, was purely analytic from a philosophical point of view. Philosophy in its entirety according to Cassirer was to assess “logic of objective knowledge.” He goes ahead to add that
Thus a new task begins at that point where logistic ends. What the critical philosophy seeks and what it must require is a logic of objective knowledge. Only from the standpoint of this question can the opposition between analytic and synthetic judgments be completely understood and evaluated. . . . Only when we have understood that the same fundamental syntheses on which logic and mathematics rest also govern the scientific construction of empirical knowledge, that they first make it possible for us to speak of a fixed lawful order among appearances and thus of their objective meaning — only then is the true justification of the principles [of logic and mathematics] achieved.
Pure formal logic is simply an abstraction from synthetic composition of natural scientific knowledge. Logic in mathematic developed independently has no philosophical significance. In this regard, Cassirer diverts from the teaching of his teacher Cohen and employs a more abstract understanding of modern mathematical formulas and knowledge to develop genetic conception of knowledge.
Kant is known for his stand on ethics and morality. His contribution is best known through the deontological ethics theory. This theory was based on the view that the morality of an action can only be judged on the principle behind it which is the moral law or obligation. The source of this moral has been questioned on various grounds. For one, Kant wanted to know what is it that makes peoples actions be susceptible to evaluation as being right or wrong. He thus concluded that the morality is tied to human beings rationality and the possession of a free will (determinism). To Kant, ethics were a priori because they were attached to reason which is practical. Other philosophers such as Thomas and Baron D`Holbach were of a contrary opinion in regards to ethics. They opposed Kant`s views on ethics based on free will and posited the determinism theory which claims that everything in the universe in controlled by causal laws. This theory is based on the materials physicalism theory which sees everything on the universe as mere matter. Therefore, humans have no souls or mind to guide them in their free will.
Although Kant openly opposed determinism, some of its aspect put in a dilemma. He acknowledged that the idea of principle universal causality as a synthetic a priori which is to say that humans cannot prove by experience and that at the same time humans were programmed to think in a deterministic way. However, the notion of morality is what made Kant reject the theory of determinism as a whole though some aspects of critique of reason applied in determinism. Having adapted an Aufhebung towards Kant`s ideas, it is important to understand what Cassirer thought of determinism. This is because Cassirer, as a person ascribing to Neo Kantianism was mandated to support Kant. However, he seems to explain what he felt were inconsistencies in Kant`s works.
Cassirer was not very clear in explaining his understanding of determinism. As is characteristic of his works, Cassirer did not present a clear statement on his position on the issue. He rather used the position of others such as Kant and Hobbes to explain this which can be frustrating in the sense that he has does not offer his contribution but rather offers comments. For instance, in reference to determinism, he did not seek to explicitly support any of the views. The use of the term determinism relies on the William James definition that “the philosophical sense of a doctrine that everything that happens is determined by a necessary chain of causation.” Cassirer thus claimed that the term determinism changed meaning from being associated with necessity, as understood by Kant to the later meaning. He thus developed three types of determinism: psychological one represented by Oswald Spengler, metaphysical one linked to Hegel and physicalist linked to August Comte and colleagues.
From the discussion above it clear that Cassirer made his worthwhile contribution to Philosophy. His symbolism system and other contribution are founded on Kant`s earlier works. It clear that is Cassirer`s work, which has been made him to be called the last intellectual on the universe, comprises of his own contribution that involves an original reformation of Kant`s work and various themes. It is obvious that Cassirer had unique view on the various themes discussed by Kant. What I feel that Cassirer is attempting to do is to bring a more harmonized view of humanity and knowledge instead of the somehow fragmented view that is used to perceive humanity and knowledge in general. In doing so, Cassirer has contradicted himself in some way and also Kant has been aufgehoben in his system.
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