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Full text of "The Philosophy Of Ernst Cassirer"


OU1 60591 


Call No.) f 3 ' ?/(52# 3 3> P Accession 

Thi/hook shouB berfoturned oil or before the, date last marked below 

Volume VI 



Already Published: 







In Preparation: 





Other volumes to be announced later 

Volume VI 







Copyright, 1949, by The Library of Living Philosophers, Inc. 
Printed in the United States of America 






A CCORDING to the late F. C. S. Schiller, the greatest ob- 
JTj\. stacle to fruitful discussion in philosophy is "the curious 
etiquette which apparently taboos the asking of questions about 
a philosopher's meaning while he is alive." The "interminable 
controversies which fill the histories of philosophy," he goes on 
to say, "could have been ended at once by asking the living phi- 
losophers a few searching questions." 

The confident optimism of this last remark undoubtedly goes 
too far. Living thinkers have often been asked "a few searching 
questions," but their answers have not stopped "interminable 
controversies" about their real meaning. It is none the less 
true that there would be far greater clarity of understanding 
than is now often the case, if more such searching questions had 
been directed to great thinkers while they were still alive. 

This, at any rate, is the basic thought behind the present un- 
dertaking. The volumes of The Library of Living Philosophers 
can in no sense take the place of the major writings of great 
and original thinkers. Students who would know the philoso- 
phies of such men as John Dewey, George Santayana, Alfred 
North Whitehead, Benedetto Croce, G. E. Moore, Bertrand 
Russell, Ernst Cassirer, Etienne Gilson, Karl Jaspers, et al., 
will still need to read the writings of these men. There 
is no substitute for first-hand contact with the original thought 
of the philosopher himself. Least of all does this Library pre- 
tend to be such a substitute. The Library in fact will spare 
neither effort nor expense in offering to the student the best 

* This General Introduction, setting forth the underlying conception of this 
Library, is purposely reprinted in each volume (with only very minor changes). 



possible guide to the published writings of a given thinker. We 
shall attempt to meet this aim by providing at the end of each 
volume in our series a complete bibliography of the published 
work of the philosopher in question. Nor should one overlook 
the fact that the essays in each volume cannot but finally lead 
to this same goal. The interpretative and critical discussions of 
the various phases of a great thinker's work and, most of all, 
the reply of the thinker himself, are bound to lead the reader 
to the works of the philosopher himself. 

At the same time, there is no blinking the fact that different 
experts find different ideas in the writings of the same philoso- 
pher. This is as true of the appreciative interpreter and grateful 
disciple as it is of the critical opponent. Nor can it be denied 
that such differences of reading and of interpretation on the 
part of other experts often leave the neophyte aghast before 
the whole maze of widely varying and even opposing interpreta- 
tions. Who is right and whose interpretation shall he accept? 
When the doctors disagree among themselves, what is the poor 
student to do? If, finally, in desperation, he decides that all of 
the interpreters are probably wrong and that the only thing for 
him to do is to go back to the original writings of the philoso- 
pher himself and then make his own decision uninfluenced (as 
if this were possible!) by the interpretation of any one else 
the result is not that he has actually come to the meaning of the 
original philosopher himself, but rather that he has set up one 
more interpretation, which may differ to a greater or lesser de- 
gree from the interpretations already existing. It is clear that in 
this direction lies chaos, just the kind of chaos which Schiller 
has so graphically and inimitably described. 1 

It is strange that until now no way of escaping this difficulty 
has been seriously considered. It has not occurred to students of 
philosophy that one effective way of meeting the problem at 
least partially is to put these varying interpretations and critiques 
before the philosopher while he is still alive and to ask him to 
act at one and the same time as both defendant and judge. If 
the world's great living philosophers can be induced to coSper- 

*In his essay on "Must Philosophers Disagree?" in the volume by the same 
title (Macmillan, London, 1934), from which the above quotations were taken. 


ate in an enterprise whereby their own work can, at least to some 
extent, be saved from becoming merely "desiccated lecture- 
fodder," which on the one hand "provides innocuous sustenance 
for ruminant professors," and, on the other hand, gives an op- 
portunity to such ruminants and their understudies to "specu- 
late safely, endlessly, and fruitlessly, about what a philosopher 
must have meant" (Schiller), they will have taken a long step 
toward making their intentions clearly comprehensible. 

With this in mind The Library of Living Philosophers ex- 
pects to publish at more or less regular intervals a volume on 
each of the greater among the world's living philosophers. In 
each case it will be the purpose of the editor of The Library 
to bring together in the volume the interpretations and criti- 
cisms of a wide range of that particular thinker's scholarly con- 
temporaries, each of whom will be given a free hand to discuss 
the specific phase of the thinker's work which has been assigned 
to him. All contributed essays will finally be submitted to the 
philosopher with whose work and thought they are concerned, 
for his careful perusal and reply. And, although it would be ex- 
pecting too much to imagine that the philosopher's reply will be 
able to stop all differences of interpretation and of critique, this 
should at least serve the purpose of stopping certain of the 
grosser and more general kinds of misinterpretations. If no fur- 
ther gain than this were to come from the present and projected 
volumes of this Library, it would seem to be fully justified. 

In carrying out this principal purpose of the Library, the 
editor announces that (in so far as humanly possible) each vol- 
ume will conform to the following pattern: 

First, a series of expository and critical articles written by the 
leading exponents and opponents of the philosopher's 

Second, the reply to the critics and commentators by the phi- 
losopher himself; 

Third, an intellectual autobiography of the thinker whenever 
this can be secured; in any case an authoritative and author- 
ized biography; and 

Fourth, a bibliography of the writings of the philosopher to pro- 


vide a ready instrument to give access to his writings and 

The editor has deemed it desirable to secure the services of 
an Advisory Board of philosophers to aid him in the selection 
of the subjects of future volumes. The names of the six promi- 
nent American philosophers who have consented to serve appear 
below. To each of them the editor expresses his deep-felt thanks. 
The first fruit of their consultation is the selection of Karl Jaspers 
as the subject of a subsequent study in this Library. 

Future volumes in this series will appear in as rapid succes- 
sion as is feasible in view of the scholarly nature of this Library. 
The next volume in this series will be that on Albert Einstein: 
Philosopher-Scientist, which is scheduled to come off the press 
during 1949, the year which will mark Professor Einstein's 
seventieth birthday. 






University of California University of Chicago 


University of Buffalo Cornell University 


American Council of Learned Columbia University 




A. DIMITRY GAWRONSKY: "Ernst Cassirer: His Life and 

His Work." i 

B. Four Addresses, delivered at Memorial Services, held 
under the Auspices of the Department of Philosophy of 
Columbia University in the Brander Matthews Theater 
of Columbia University, New York City, on June I, 

1945 39 

1. EDWARD CASE: "In Memoriam: Ernst Cassirer" 

A poem 40 

2. HAJO HOLBORN: "Ernst Cassirer" 41 

3. F. SAXL: "Ernst Cassirer" 47 

4. EDWARD CASE: "A Student's Nachruf" . . . . 52 

5. CHARLES W. HENDEL: "Ernst Cassirer" ... 55 

C. HENDRIK J. Pos: "Recollections of Ernst Cassirer" . 61 


1. HAMBURG, CARL H.: "Cassirer's Conception of Phi- 

losophy" 73 

2. SWABEY, WILLIAM CURTIS: "Cassirer and Meta- 

physics" 121 

3. STEPHENS, I. K.: "Cassirer's Doctrine of the A Prior?' 149 

4. KAUFMANN, FELIX: "Cassirer's Theory of Scientific 

Knowledge" 183 

5. GAWRONSKY, DIMITRY: "Cassirer's Contribution to the 

Epistemology of Physics" 215 

6. SMART, HAROLD R.: "Cassirer's Theory of Mathe- 

matical Concepts" 239 

7.) LEWIN, KURT: "Cassirer's Philosophy of Science and 

the Social Sciences" 269 

8. HARTMAN, ROBERT S.: "Cassirer's Philosophy of Sym- 
bolic Forms" 289 



9. LEANDER, FOLKE: "Further Problems Suggested by the 

Philosophy of Symbolic Forms" 335 

10. MONTAGU, M. F. ASHLEY: "Cassirer on Mythological 

Thinking" 359 

11. LANCER, SUSANNE K.: "On Cassirer's Theory of Lan- 

guage and Myth" 379 

12. URBAN, WILBUR M.: "Cassirer's Philosophy of Lan- 

guage" 401 

13. GUTMANN, JAMES: "Cassirer's Humanism" . . . 443 

14. SIDNEY, DAVID: "The Philosophical Anthropology of 

Ernst Cassirer and Its Significance in Relation to 
the History of Anthropological Thought" . . 465 

15. KUHN, HELMUT: "Ernst Cassirer's Philosophy of 

Culture" 545 

1 6. BAUMGARDT, DAVID: "Cassirer and the Chaos in Mod- 

ern Ethics" 575 

17. GILBERT, KATHARINE: "Cassirer's Placement of Art" 605 

1 8. SLOCHOWER, HARRY: "Ernst Cassirer's Functional Ap- 

proach to Art and Literature" 631 

1 9. REICHARDT, KONSTANTIN : "Ernst Cassirer's Contribu- 

tion to Literary Criticism" 66 1 

20. RANDALL, JOHN HERMAN, JR.: "Cassirer's Theory of 

History as Illustrated in His Treatment of Renais- 
sance Thought" 689 

21. SOLMITZ, WALTER M.: "Cassirer on Galileo: An 

Example of Cassirer's Way of Thought" . . . 729 

22. WERKMEISTER, WILLIAM H.: "Cassirer's Advance 

Beyond Neo-Kantianism" 757 

23. KAUFMANN, FRITZ: "Cassirer, Neo-Kantianism, and 

Phenomenology" 799 

ERNST CASSIRER: " 'Spirit' and 'Life' in Contemporary Phi- 
losophy" 855 


CASSIRER (to 1946): Compiled by CARL H. 
HAMBURG and WALTER M. SOLMITZ) . . . .881 

Chronological List of Principal Works 910 

Index (Arranged by ROBERT S. HARTMAN) 911 


AS SOON as it had become clear that there was a real place 
JTJIJL in philosophic literature for the type of book which it is 
the aim of this Library to present, it was also quite evident that 
such a series would not be complete without a volume on The 
Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. If there could ever have been any 
doubt, on this point, it existed merely among such provincial 
philosophical scholars as had not become personally acquainted, 
let alone familiar, with the writings and work of this prodigious 
and acute contemporary thinker. Anyone at all aware of Cas- 
sirer's philosophical contributions, and of the ever growing in- 
fluence of his thought upon younger thinkers, knew quite well 
that Cassirer's philosophy would have to be treated in this 
Library. It was not at all surprising, therefore, that the editor 
found a ready response among scholars everywhere to his invita- 
tion to contribute to a projected Cassirer volume. The present 
co-operative effort, accordingly, had been largely planned long 
before Professor Cassirer left the hospitable shores of Sweden 
to come to the United States in 1942. 

At the time, therefore, that the tragic news of Professor 
Cassirer's unexpected death, on April 13, 1945, reached the 
editor, many of the essays now appearing in this volume were 
already in the editor's hands and many others had been in the 
process of being written by their authors for some time past. 

Nevertheless, this tragic blow among its manifold unhappy 
consequences seemed to place a volume on the philosophy of 
Ernst Cassirer in the Library of Living Philosophers forever 
beyond the pale of possibility. For, with Cassirer dead, how 
could a volume on his philosophy appear in such a series? This, 
at any rate, was the first reaction of the editor to the unbe- 
lievable news of Cassirer's passing. And it was in this spirit, 
therefore, that letters went out almost immediately, notifying 



all contributors to the present book that, with the death of Cas- 
sirer, the original project of a volume on his philosophy if 
not actually completely abandoned would at least have to be 
changed so radically as no longer to fit into the framework of 
the Library. 

The storm of protest and the almost unanimity of objection 
which greeted this announcement forced, in the first place, a 
careful reconsideration of the hasty decision, and very quickly 
indeed, a complete reversal. Many of the contributors com- 
plained that the editor was conceiving of the word "living" in 
the title of the series far too literally or at least too narrowly. 
That, despite the fact that we would now never be able to pre- 
sent to the philosophical world either Cassirer's own auto- 
biography or his formal "Reply" to his critics, it was perhaps 
all the more necessary that the philosophical world should have 
an opportunity to see and view this great contemporary thinker's 
ideas from the varied points of view made possible precisely in 
the kind of book which the volumes in this series have been. 

Although it is true that the editor yielded to this almost uni- 
versal pressure and even more to the force and decisiveness of 
this argument, the yielding certainly did not take place in the 
least reluctantly. Of course it is true that he greatly regrets 
the anomaly of having a volume appear in a series dealing 
with "living" philosophers, when the philosopher with whose 
thought the volume is concerned is no longer among the physi- 
cally living. But, on the other hand, he would not be truthful, 
where he to claim that he feels that the present volume has 
for these reasons no legitimate place within the bounds of 
this particular series. After all, the volume on The Philosophy 
of Alfred North Whitehead (Vol. Ill of this Library} also had 
no formal "Reply" to the expository and critical articles in the 
book from the pen of Whitehead and yet seemed to fill a 
real philosophical need just the same. And, in the case of the 
Whitehead volume, this problem was in a sense at least even 
more serious than it would appear to be in the present instance. 
For, when the Whitehead volume appeared in print, Professor 
Whitehead himself was still very much alive even though he 
had just gone through a terrible siege of double pneumonia at 


the age of eighty. If, in Whitehead's case, we were prevented 
from carrying out the fundamental idea of this series by the 
commanding imperative of very serious illness, in the case of 
Cassirer we found ourselves stopped at the point of "The 
Philosopher's Reply" by the finality of death itself. But, 
though death might prevent us from giving our readers the 
very careful and minute formal "Reply," which the editor 
knows Cassirer had planned to write for the present volume, 
even that tragic fatality was not able to stop the continued 
strong influence which Cassirer's thought is having upon serious 
reflection in the contemporary world. Nor should it be allowed 
to stop the present volume. For better or for worse, therefore, 
the volume now is done or, more accurately speaking, is done 
as much as it could be done once Cassirer himself was no longer 
with us. And, frankly, though the reviewers almost inevitably 
will pick on the anomaly of the appearance of this book under 
the title of this series, after reading the material which has gone 
into the making of this book, the editor himself does not at all 
feel apologetic for its publication. For this volume will best 
fulfill its real function in philosophical literature if like its 
predecessors in this series it will send the reader of The Phi- 
losophy of Ernst Cassirer to the books and other writings of 
Cassirer himself, where he may learn by experience why he 
would have been the loser, if he had never made the detailed 
acquaintance of this acute philosophical mind and of the great 
and profound contributions which that mind has made to the 
thinking and knowing of man. 

There is one temptation in the writing of this Preface to 
which the editor dare not yield. It is all too tempting to discuss 
Cassirer the philosopher; but this is done by twenty-three con- 
temporary philosophers who have contributed to this volume 
and most of whom are far better qualified for this task than is 
the editor. It is even more tempting to trespass upon the good 
taste of editorial prerogatives by discussing here Cassirer the 
man, the gentleman, the personal friend. But to this temptation 
also the editor must turn a deaf ear, since others, who have 
known him much longer and far more intimately, have dis- 
cussed this aspect within the covers of this book. I shall merely 


say that I consider the personal acquaintance and contacts with 
Ernst Cassirer to be among the greatest experiences and privi- 
leges of my life. In the judgment of this writer, it is not too 
much to say of Cassirer: Ecce Homo! It is profoundly sad to 
contemplate his leaving us in the midst of his great creative and 
productive career, with dozens of tasks which he had set him- 
self unfinished and others barely begun. 

The editor's debt of gratitude to each of the contributors to 
this volume is so self-evident that a mere mention of this fact 
should suffice. But, in view of the fact that many of them have 
had to wait four years, or even longer, to see the arduous work 
of their mind finally in print, the editor's debt, in this instance, 
is even greater than usual. The reasons which have delayed the 
appearance of this volume time and again are, however, far 
too numerous to bear repetition here. Suffice it to record the 
editor's sincere regrets and abject apologies for a situation which 
has caused him much agony and ever increasing embarrassment, 
but over much of which he had little (if any) control. 

Special words of gratitude and appreciation need, however, 
to be penned for the never failing helpfulness and encourage- 
ment through all these three and one-half years since her illus- 
trious husband's death given by the widow of Ernst Cassirer, 
Mrs. Toni Cassirer. When at times the obstacles seemed almost 
insurmountable, it was Mrs. Cassirer's everlasting faith which 
kept the project going. Here truly is a woman who knew 
and still knows her husband's greatness and who never failed 
to understand the significance of what he was trying to do with 
his life and thought. 

Death did not spare the contributors to this volume either. 
Two of these are no longer with us. First, Kurt Lewin, whose 
essay for the present volume had been mailed to the editor 
on January 3rd, 1947, passed away very suddenly only five 
weeks later, namely on February nth, 1947. Thirteen months 
later, in March 1948, the news of F. Saxl's death reached us. 
The latter's contribution to this volume were remarks he de- 
livered on the occasion of the Memorial Services held for Cas- 
sirer at Columbia University. Little did he realize that, by the 
time his remarks would appear in print, he himself would have 


joined those for whom it is altogether fitting to hold memorial 
services. Of Kurt Lewin, Alexander M. Dashkin, writing in 
Jewish Education (for Feb.-March issue, 1947), had the fol- 
lowing to say: "Kurt Lewin was one of the very few men in our 
midst who had the right to be called a genius. He was an inven- 
tive, comprehensive mind, a warm large personality, with an 
indefatigable capacity for resourceful work." The editor is proud 
to be able to present, in this volume, what was undoubtedly one 
of the last pieces of such creative work from the pen of Kurt 

These lines are being written on the very eve of the editor's 
departure for five months' sojourn in Europe, including a se- 
mester's lecturing in one of Germany's newly re-opened univer- 
sities. This means that the burden of proofreading and seeing 
this volume through the press will largely have to fall upon 
other shoulders. In the editor's absence he counts himself ex- 
ceedingly fortunate in having been able to secure the able as- 
sistance of his present colleague, old friend and former student, 
Professor Robert W. Browning, of the department of philoso- 
phy at Northwestern University. Upon Dr. Browning and such 
additional aids as he is able to marshal, such, for example, as 
that of Dr. David Bidney of the Viking Fund, New York City, 
who has already kindly offered his good services because of his 
deep interest in this project and his knowledge of the editor's 
temporary absence , the detailed technical work of seeing this 
volume to final fruition will largely devolve. To them the edi- 
tor, as well as the contributors and readers, owe a deep and great 
debt of gratitude, especially in view of the fact that all such 
service on a project like this unsupported as it is by endow- 
ments or by any university press can only be a labor of love. 
The same goes for Professor Robert S. Hartman, of the De- 
partment of Philosophy of Ohio State University, another one 
of the editor's former students, who again was kind enough to 
undertake the laborious task of preparing the index and of see- 
ing it through the press. A brief look at the index will convince 
even the casual observer of the immensity of this task and of 
the consequent obligation under which the editor feels himself 
to Dr. Hartman. 


In conclusion the reader's attention must be called to the 
deplorable fact that the main works by Cassirer have been out 
of print for some time and are simply not to be had anywhere. 
This situation should certainly be remedied as soon as at all 
possible. New German editions of Cassirer's works are sorely 
needed. But, if Cassirer is ever truly to come into his own in 
the English speaking world, it is high time that some enterpris- 
ing university press in this country should soon supply the phil- 
osophical reading public with authorized translations into Eng- 
lish of at least most of Cassirer 's major works. Certainly some 
well-to-do reader of the present volume could do far worse 
than offer his financial aid to such an enterprising university 
press for the purpose of at least partial subsidies for such pub- 

P. A. S. 


August 3, 1948 


Grateful acknowledgement is made to the Yale University Press, to 
the Open Court Publishing Company, to Harper and Brothers, and 
to the Princeton University Press, for their kind permission to quote 
at length from the works of Ernst Cassirer, without requiring a de- 
tailed enumeration. Exact title, name of publisher, and place and date 
of publication of each of Cassirer's works are enumerated in the Bibli- 
ography to this volume, found on pages 885 to 909. 

We also wish to express our appreciation to the editors and publishers 
of the numerous philosophical and literary journals quoted, and to the 
publishers of all other books used by our contributors, for the privilege 
of utilizing source materials therein found relevant to the discussion of 
The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. 


Dimitry Gawronsky 

A Biography 


ERNST CASSIRER was born in Breslau on July 28, 1874. 
He was the fourth child of a rich Jewish tradesman j a 
brother and two sisters preceded Ernst. His brother died in 
infancy, before Ernst was born, and his mother therefore be- 
stowed upon the second boy, the impassioned love she had felt 
for her lost son and in memory of this tragic loss and the ordeal 
she underwent she called her second son Ernst. To the last days 
of her life, Ernst was her most cherished child, although two 
other sons and three daughters came after him. 

As a boy, Ernst was exceptionally cheerful and buoyant, yet 
easy to handle. In his games he displayed an inexhaustible 
imagination j he was full of new tricks and pranks, and nothing 
in his nature seemed to reveal that his life would be devoted to 
quiet and concentrated contemplation. He was endowed with a 
great courage and, as a boy of ten, it was nothing to him to swim 
the broad Oder River across and back. The most outstanding 
feature of the boy was his keen sense of fair play and justice. 
Althought the most beloved child of the family, he never toler- 
ated the slightest discrimination against his brothers and sisters, 
never accepted any favors, refused anything which was not also 
given to the others. 

Ernst was an impassioned music lover and never missed an 
opportunity to attend a concert or an opera. In his early classes 
at the "Gymnasium" he was just an average pupil, much more 
likely to be at the bottom than at the head of his class. He kept 
so busy playing with his brothers and friends that there was 
little time left for study. 

But a change was not far off. Ernst's maternal grandfather, 
although a self-taught person, was an exceptionally cultured 
man of wide intellectual scope and truly philosophical mind. 
He lived not far from Breslau, and every summer Ernst paid a 


visit to his grandfather. There, in conversations with his grand- 
father, whom he dearly loved, and in the latter's vast library, 
awoke and grew Ernst's interest in the problems of the intel- 
lectual life. All his life Cassirer was convinced that he inherited 
his philosophical vein of thought from his grandfather. At the 
age of twelve he had already thoroughly read many literary 
and historical works. Shakespeare, whose work he found in his 
father's library, especially appealed to him and Ernst read and 
reread all of Shakespeare's plays several times; only Hamlet 
was missing from his father's library, and Ernst was quite un- 
aware of the existence of this play. Then, on his thirteenth birth- 
day, he received a book containing Shakespeare's complete 
works and he was most amazed and thrilled to "discover" Ham- 

At this early age and for the remainder of his life 
Cassirer acquired the capacity for concentrated and persistent 
work. His entire behavior began to change slowly. Now there 
was only little time left for play, and in his class he became 
admittedly the best pupil. In higher classes Cassirer's teachers 
were often amazed at the depth of his knowledge and maturity 
of his judgment, and when he completed his studies at the 
"Gymnasium" his graduation certificate contained the highest 

Without losing any time, Cassirer entered the University of 
Berlin. He was then eighteen years of age and the major sub- 
ject he had selected for a study was jurisprudence. He made 
this choice more upon the insistence of his father, who was 
largely interested in the field of law, than of his own free will. 
Soon he gave up this line of study and began to concentrate 
upon German philosophy and literature. In addition he listened 
eagerly to lectures on history and art. And yet all these studies 
somehow did not give Cassirer complete satisfaction; something 
was lacking in them; he missed in them a certain degree of 
depth in understanding and failed to find any solution of funda- 
mental problems. It was undoubtedly this sense of dissatisfac- 
tion which caused Cassirer to change universities several times; 
he went from Berlin to Leipzig, from there to Heidelberg, and 
then back to Berlin. In the meantime he further enlarged the 


scope of his studies and found himself becoming more and more 
interested in philosophy. Thus it happened that in the summer 
of 1894 he decided to take a course on Kant's philosophy given 
by Georg Simmel, then a young and brilliant Privatdozent at 
the University of Berlin. 

This was a time when strong idealistic tendencies seemed to 
win a decisive victory over mysticism, which for many centuries 
had dominated German spiritual culture. Already in the first 
half of the thirteenth century Meister Eckhart, one of the 
greatest of the German mystics, had impressively revealed the 
very core of his creed in the following words: "Man, yes, I 
stood with God before time and the world were created; yes, 
I was included in the eternal Godhead even before it became 
God. Together with me God has created and is still and always 
creating. Only through me He became God." This conception, 
born out of titanic pride, infinite egotistic power, and ecstasy of 
passion, for five long centuries and virtually unopposed had 
dominated German spiritual culture; it never remained a move- 
ment of intellectuals only, or of any other small group of peo- 
ple; in fact, all the great folk movements in Germany during 
those five centuries were movements of outspoken mysticism. 

In the eighteenth century, however, tendencies of a very 
different nature came to the fore within German culture. Leib- 
niz and Wolf, Lessing and Goethe, Schiller and Kant created 
in Germany a bright atmosphere of genuine humanism; ideal- 
istic tendencies, intermingled with radical rationalism, became 
most potent in Germany's intellectual life. Yet, this triumph of 
reason and of humanism was only shortlived; with the begin- 
ning of the nineteenth century a huge wave of mysticism again 
arose in Germany, breaking through all ramparts of measure 
and reason and overflowing the spiritual culture of Germany. 
Then again, in the last third of the nineteenth century Otto 
Liebmann and Hermann Cohen initiated a philosophical move- 
ment which harked back to Kant and to the idealistic tendencies 
of the eighteenth century. Several philosophical "schools" soon 
arose in Germany, all quite similar in this basic tendency and 
diverging from each other in only more or less important 
details. When Ernst Cassirer began his academic studies, this 


neo-Kantianism dominated many of the German universities 
to an almost exclusive degree. Hans Vaihinger for a score of 
years kept in his desk the completed volume of his Philosophy 
of As lj y a fictional and pragmatistic conception of knowledge, 
and wrote his commentary on Kant in which he embarked upon 
an orthodox interpretation of Kant's texts, word by word and 
sentence by sentence. And Simmel, the future leading "philoso- 
pher of life," wrote and lectured on Kant's philosophy. 

For some weeks Cassirer regularly attended Simmel's lec- 
tures. Once, when lecturing on Kant, Simmel dropped the fol- 
lowing remark: "Undoubtedly the best books on Kant are 
written by Hermann Cohen; but I must confess that I do not 
understand them." 

Immediately after the lecture, Cassirer went to his bookshop 
and ordered Cohen's books; and no sooner had he begun study- 
ing them than his decision was made to go to Marburg and 
there to study philosophy under Cohen's guidance. However, 
Cassirer did not want to go to Cohen at once. The young stu- 
dent studied Kant's and Cohen's works thoroughly, as well as 
those of several other philosophers essential for the understand- 
ing of Kant, such as Plato, Descartes, and Leibniz. In addition 
he devoted a large part of his time to the study of mathematics, 
mechanics, and biology sciences which were indispensable for 
an understanding of Cohen's interpretation of Kant. 

When, in the spring of 1896, Cassirer finally arrived in 
Marburg to hear Cohen for the first time, he knew a great deal 
about Kant's and Cohen's philosophies. There was something 
very peculiar about Cohen's appearance: he was stout and short, 
with an incredibly huge head towering over his broad shoulders. 
He had an almost abnormally high forehead. His eyes flashed, 
fascinated, and penetrated, despite the dark glasses which he 
always wore. In his lectures and seminars, and even in his pri- 
vate conversations, one could not help experiencing the presence 
of a great mind and the heart of a prophet, filled to overflowing 
with an ecstatic belief in the value of truth and the power of 
goodness. No matter what problem Cohen discussed a mathe- 
matical, epistemological or ethical one he always spoke with 
a deep, intense passion, which was usually controlled perfectly 


by the measured flow of his slow and powerful language until 
the passion broke through in a few words or short sentences. 
Then Cohen would shout with mighty voice at his listeners, 
emphasizing the importance of his words with an energetic 
movement of his hands. 

However interesting Cohen's lectures were, his seminars 
were even more stimulating. He was truly a spiritual "mid- 
wife" in the Socratic sense. Always using the method of the 
Socratic dialogue, he had a great pedagogical ability to let the 
students themselves find the answers to questions discussed. His 
patience and his personal interest in the intellectual develop- 
ment of every single one of the students was inexhaustible. At 
the same time he was keenly concerned with their general wel- 
fare, and whenever his help was needed, he always gave it to 
his utmost. 

In the first seminar hour which Cassirer attended he volun- 
teered to answer a rather difficult philosophical question asked 
by Cohen. A conversation arose between them, and within a few 
minutes Cohen was quite aware of the type of student that sat 
before him. Later on this first meeting with Cassirer belonged 
to Cohen's most pleasant reminiscences, and he enjoyed telling 
it frequently and in great detail} how a new student, whom he 
had never seen before, very youthful in appearance, a little shy 
but determined, raised his hand and in a firm voice gave a quite 
correct and complete answer to his question. "I felt at once," 
said Cohen, "that this man had nothing to learn from me." At 
that time Cohen was surrounded by quite a few disciples, and 
some of them already had studied philosophy with him for 
years; but from the first moment Cassirer towered above them 
all. He was quite at home in all the most intricate problems of 
Kantian and Cohenian ways of thinking. 

It was a firmly established custom in Marburg that after 
every seminar Cohen's disciples, often five or six at a time, 
accompanied him to the threshold of his house. But Cassirer, 
who in every seminar distinguished himself by the scope of his 
knowledge and by the brilliancy of his philosophical mind, at 
first did not approach Cohen or his students. For years already 
Cassirer had been entirely'absorbed in his studies and had little 


time to spare for social intercourse; he did not enjoy any type 
of discussion with his friends, probably because his own inten- 
sive thinking furthered his intellectual progress even more. He 
became almost unsociable. In this mood he came to Marburg; 
he was always most polite and friendly to everybody, but kept 
so obviously aloof that Cohen's disciples nicknamed him "the 
Olympian." Most amazed of all was Cohen himself; he took a 
great liking to Cassirer and keenly felt the latter's outstanding 
philosophical talent; but he wondered at his strange behavior. 
Finally Cohen developed a peculiar suspicion. There was one 
group of people whom Cohen could not tolerate: the converted 
Jews; he never even shook hands with them. Cohen evidently 
thought that Cassirer was also converted and was avoiding any 
personal contact with his teacher because he was aware of 
Cohen's attitude towards such people. When Cassirer finally 
heard of this surmise, he at once called on Cohen, and this was 
the beginning of an intimate friendship between them which 
lasted to the end of Cohen's days. 

Now Cassirer became the acknowledged leader in the circle 
of Cohen's disciples. He lived in a house which for decades 
was a sort of headquarters for Cohen's students, and with 
several of these students Cassirer came into close personal con- 
tact. It was, however, still quite impossible to entice Cassirer to 
go to a party or to spend an evening in a cafe, which was the 
almost obligatory pastime of the German students; but he took 
a fancy to studying with some of his new friends. Thus he read 
Dante and Galileo with an Italian disciple of Cohen; he studied 
intricate Greek texts with a classical philologist, and for hours 
he discussed difficult mathematical problems with a mathema- 
tician. And the most interesting part of it was that all these 
people, although they were experts in their respective fields, 
willingly acknowledged Cassirer's superiority and received 
from him a great deal more than they were able to give him in 
return. Soon all students of Cohen knew that, whenever they 
needed a helping hand, they could turn to Cassirer, and this 
very busy man who treasured every minute of his time was 
always ready to spend hours explaining difficult problems to 
anybody who approached him. 


By the end of Cassirer's first semester in Marburg not only 
all the University, but all the town as well, knew of the prodigy. 
Cassirer became quite popular, but he did not enjoy popularity 
at all} he sincerely hated any kind of notoriety in connection 
with his person. 

Undoubtedly the credit for Cassirer's stupendous knowledge 
must be attributed to a large degree to his exceptional memory. 
Cohen told us several times that as a young student Cassirer was 
able to quote by heart whole pages of almost all the classical 
poets and philosophers. And, in a sorrowful voice, Cohen never 
forgot to add: "Even all modern poets, like Nietzsche and 
Stefan George, he could quote you by heart for hours!" This 
prodigious memory served Cassirer faithfully to the end of his 
days and made him capable of finding with the greatest of ease 
any quotations he needed in all those countless books he had 
read during his life time. Yet Cassirer's memory was not just a 
passive capacity, a sort of storage for acquired knowledge it 
was rather an er-mnern in Goethe's sense, a process of repeated 
and creative mental absorption, combined with a keen ability 
to see all essential elements of a problem and its organic relation 
to other problems. Cassirer's sharp and most active intellect 
constantly used the rich material of his memory, incessantly 
reviewing and reshaping it under different aspects, thus keeping 
it vividly present in his mind. 

When Cassirer came to Cohen, the latter's philosophy was in 
a state of transition. Cohen worked at that time on his own 
system of philosophy, which he began publishing a few years 
later. Cohen's chief goal at that time was to free Kant's philoso- 
phy from inner contradiction and to emphasize more strongly 
its fundamental methods and ideas. In his "critique of reason" 
Kant tried to measure the real power of the human intellect 
and the part it played in the cognition of the external world. 
The result Kant reached was the following: the human intellect 
not only classifies and combines our sensations and perceptions, 
but does much more besides j it forms them from the outset and 
makes them possible, so that even the simplest sensation exists 
in the human mind owing to the analytical and synthetical 
power of the human intellect which carries in itself visible marks 


of this power. We are very much mistaken when we think that, 
for instance, a "white ceiling' ' or a "brown floor" are just simple 
sensations} quite the contrary is true: "white," "ceiling," 
"brown," "floor" presuppose already whole systems of concepts, 
continuous application of analytical and synthetical functions of 
our intellect. Any sensory intuition, Kant taught in the central 
chapter of his Critique of Pure Reason, in the "Transcendental 
Deduction of the Pure Concept of Reason," is only possible as a 
product of the creative activity of the fundamental functions of 
our intellect; yet in the chapters preceding and following this 
one Kant insisted upon the necessity of accepting the sensory 
intuition as the very source of the creative synthetic power of 
our intellect. Furthermore, having showed the indispensability 
of reason for the true understanding of nature, for the creation 
of natural science as a thoroughly consistent system of knowl- 
edge, Kant still did not part with his conception of the "thing- 
in-itself," according to which all our knowledge has nothing 
to do with the world of ultimate reality, but can only deal with 
the sphere of humanly (i-e. y sensorily) conditioned appearances. 

Thus Kant decisively broke with the naive and shallow belief 
of the German Enlightenment in the miraculous power of the 
intellect, with its tendency to solve with the help of trite and 
schematic reasonings all mysteries of the cosmos; he put the 
greatest stress upon the necessity of clear insight into the basic 
limitations which characterize the creative work of human 
reason. Yet all these limitations Kant accepted only for the 
realm of theoretical knowledge, not for the field of ethical 
activity; in this latter sphere Kant was convinced that the 
knowledge of good as well as its materialization depend ex- 
clusively on the human intellect, that all emotions and feelings 
such as friendship, sympathy, love insofar as they are in- 
strumental in the realization of good, only obscure and debase 
the purity of moral principles. 

Cohen tried to rectify these inconsistencies. To him "sensa- 
tion" was only a problem which could be consciously put and 
solved by the methods of the human intellect: this bright 
yellow stain in the skies is in reality the centre of a whole 
planetary system which reveals in its substance and movements 


a miraculous chain of natural laws. This knowledge is genuine 
and is directed towards the true object, behind which no "thing- 
in-itself" is hidden. Yet, our knowledge is deficient and is able 
to progress slowly and painfully 5 only as a result of the infinite 
progress of science can a true knowledge of the object be won. 
And only the completely exploded object, reached at the 
infinitely remote limit of our knowledge, is the real "thing-in- 

Thus, Cohen's philosophy decisively preached the predomi- 
nant role of the intellect in the realm of knowledge and did 
away with some of the basic limitations of intellectual power 
which were accepted by Kant. Yet, it was quite different in the 
realm of volition; there Cohen was much less rationalistic than 
Kant and was convinced that it was the intensity of our emotions 
and feelings on which depended the energy of our volition; 
they supplied the "motor power" for our actions. 

Hence came Cohen's preference for mathematics and natural 
science; there the work of our intellect could be observed and 
studied in its unadulterated form. And, since the intellect was to 
Cohen the backbone of the human mind, he strongly insisted 
upon the necessity of starting philosophical studies with epis- 
temology. Cassirer knew this already from Cohen's books and 
eagerly studied mathematics and natural science before he went 
to Marburg. Now he devoted almost all of his time to these 
disciplines and to the problems of knowledge. 

During the first semester Cohen already began asking 
Cassirer which subject he would like to choose for his doctor's 
thesis. After some hesitation Cassirer decided to write on Leib- 
niz. Many reasons determined this choice. First of all there was 
the great versatility of Leibniz's prolific genius and his funda- 
mental achievement in the fields of logic, mathematics, and 
natural science, in which at that time Cassirer was primarily 
interested. Next, the exceptional difficulty of the task also chal- 
lenged Cassirer j Leibniz had set forth his philosophy not in 
book form mainly, but piecemeal, in his vast correspondence; 
and the system of his philosophy consequently had to be recon- 
structed out of these dispersed elements. In addition, the slowly 
developing recognition of Leibniz's great importance for the 


development of modern philosophy caused the Berlin Academy 
to make Leibniz the subject for a prize competition, and 
Cassirer decided to participate in this competition. 

In less than two years Cassirer had completed his sizable 
work on Leibniz. The first part of it, dealing with Descartes' 
theory of knowledge, was accepted by the Marburg philosophi- 
cal faculty as a doctor's dissertation and obtained the highest 
possible mark in form of the very seldom conferred "opus 
eximum." Cassirer was at once admitted to the oral examination, 
during which he once more kept his teachers breathless by the 
immensity of his knowledge and brilliancy of his understand- 
ing, and was awarded the doctor's degree "summa cum laude." 
The entire book on Leibniz Cassirer presented to the Berlin 
Academy. There he was not quite so fortunate: the Academy 
decided not to give the first prize to anyone j Cassirer's book 
obtained the second prize, followed by a long and most flatter- 
ing commendation, where his great erudition, philosophical 
talent and brilliancy of presentation were highly praised, but 
the prevalence of rational and systematic tendencies, along with 
the primary concentration upon the epistemological problems 
were given as reasons for the withholding of the first prize from 
him. Some 130 years before the Berlin Academy had made a 
similar grave mistake, which world opinion had to correct in 
subsequent years, by withholding the first prize from Immanuel 
Kant. Did not that famous Academy commit a similar error in 
Cassirer's case? 

Upon receiving his Doctorate from Marburg University, 
Cassirer went back to the home of his parents, who meanwhile 
had moved to Berlin. There he at once began working on a new 
problem, which grew out of his research on Leibniz he de- 
cided to give a comprehensive picture of the development of 
epistemology in the philosophy and science of modern times. 
He continued to live in seclusion, devoting all his time to his 
studies. Yet, his aloofness never was a matter of unsociability: 
it was his vivid awareness of the greatness of the task he had 
embarked upon, combined with the all-devouring interest in his 
work, which forced him to spare to the limit his time and 


It was on the occasion of a close relative's wedding in Berlin, 
in 1901, that Cassirer met his first cousin from Vienna. He had 
previously seen her only once, eight years earlier, when she was 
a child of nine. All artistic traits of Cassirer's nature, his love 
and deep understanding of music, his fine feeling for genuine 
beauty had in no way suffered from his assiduous scientific re- 
searches and philosophical meditations; they always added a 
great deal to the irresistible charm of his personality and were 
immediately and deeply felt by the young girl. This first meet- 
ing determined their whole future. They fell in love with each 
other and married a year later in Vienna. 

This was indeed an exceptionally happy and harmonious 
union. Their mutual understanding was perfect, and Cassirer's 
wife always succeeded, thanks to her remarkable understanding 
and insight, in creating for her husband, even during the most 
stormy periods of their life, appropriate conditions for his con- 
tinuous work. 

Immediately after the wedding the young couple went to 
Munich, where they lived for more than a year. It was during 
this year that their first son, Heinz, was born (he is now mem- 
ber of the philosophical faculty at the University of Glasgow, 
Scotland). In 1903 Cassirer returned with his family to Berlin, 
where he began writing his history of epistemology. Cohen 
constantly pressed upon him and urged him to embark upon 
an academic career, yet Cassirer showed little desire to go to 
some small university town and live there for years in its at- 
mosphere of gossip and latent anti-Semitism. He much pre- 
ferred to stay in Berlin, where most of his and his wife's 
relatives lived and where the treasure of the State and Uni- 
versity libraries were at his disposal. His work developed 
rapidly, and as early as 1904 the two volumes of his 
Erkenntnisfroblem ("Problem of Knowledge") were finished. 
It was one of Cohen's most cherished stories how once, while 
visiting Cassirer in Berlin in 1904, he had asked Cassirer how 
his work was progressing. "Without saying a word," Cohen 
would relate, "Cassirer led me into his study, opened a drawer 
of his desk, and there it was, a voluminous, completely finished 
manuscript of his new work." 


In 1906 the first volume of the Erkenntnis-problem ("Prob- 
lem of Knowledge") was published, followed by the second 
one in 1908. The outstanding qualities of this work were 
rapidly recognized by students of philosophy all over the 
world} it appeared in several editions and slowly became one of 
the standard works on the history of human thought. Cassirer's 
original intention had been to give a broad picture of modern 
European thought as it led to, and culminated in, the philoso- 
phy of Kant. This he did in the first two volumes of his 
Erkenntnis'problem. Fifteen years later he added one more 
volume, in which he set forth the development of epistemology 
in post-Kantian philosophy; and shortly before he came to 
America (in the summer of 1941) he finished the as yet un- 
published fourth volume, where he has given a broad picture 
of the evolution of epistemology up to our own days.* 

The more one studies this work of Cassirer, the more one 
admires the intellectual scope of the man who was able to write 
it. Immense was the number of books Cassirer had to study and 
familiarize himself with in the interest of this work. And yet, 
this is the least spectacular part of it. Really amazing is 
Cassirer's ability to penetrate scores of individual systems of 
thought, reconstruct them in all their peculiarities, accentuate 
all that is original and fruitful in them, and reveal all their 
weaknesses and inconsistencies. Cassirer had an incredibly fine 
mind for the slightest nuances of thought, for the minutest 
differences and similarities, for all that was of fundamental or 
of secondary importance; with steady grasp he picked up the 
development through all its stages and ramifications; and, in 
showing how the same concept acquired a different meaning, 
according to the diverse philosophical systems in which it was 
applied as a constructive element, Cassirer laid the first founda- 
tion for the ideas which he later developed as his theory of 
"symbolic forms." Scores of Italian and German, French and 
English philosophers, almost or completely fallen into oblivion, 
came back in Cassirer's book to new life and historical impor- 

* EDITOR'S NOTE: This (fourth) volume of Cassirer's Erkennlnis'problem is 
now being translated into English under the direction of Professor Charles W. 
Hendel and will in due time be published by the Yale University Press. 


tance as organic links in the development of ideas or as con- 
nections between well known philosophical systems} thus mak- 
ing the continuity of philosophical thought more consistent and 
true. He was the first to introduce into the history of philosophy 
such names as Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, Newton, and Euler, 
by giving a detailed analysis of their philosophical conceptions, 
scientific methods and achievements, and by proving their 
fundamental importance for the theory of knowledge. Kant's 
own assertion that he tried to introduce Newton's method into 
philosophy now became quite clear in Cassirer's representation 
of Newton's and Kant's systems of thought. Yet Cassirer's 
greatest achievement in this work consisted in the creation of a 
broad general background by connecting the evolution of 
knowledge with the totality of spiritual culture: mythos and 
religion, psychology and metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics 
Cassirer drew all these problems into his deliberations as soon as 
he found some links missing in the development of their 

Most noteworthy is also the style and the whole manner of 
presentation in this work. The most intricate philosophical prob- 
lems are treated in a quite clear and simple way; one gets the 
impression that the author deeply felt his responsibility to truth 
and to the reader; in every sentence he sincerely tried to help 
the reader to advance on the thorny path of truth. Cassirer's 
style makes any subject he discusses almost transparent, and 
his argumentation glides along like a broad and mighty stream, 
with great convincing power. 

The great success of his Erkenntnisproblem, which became 
obvious immediately after the appearance of the first volume, 
caused Cassirer to yield to Cohen's ardent desire and to embark 
finally upon an academic career. Yet, there was one condition 
attached to it he was ready to become Privatdozent only in the 
University of Berlin, since he still did not want to leave the 
city. He knew how difficult this undertaking was, first, because 
he was a Jew, and secondly, because he was Cohen's disciple and 
considered himself a member of the Marburg school, which 
at that time was one of the most renowned and hated 
"schools" in Germany. In his quiet manner Cassirer said to 


Cohen: "In this way I do not risk anything. I need not go any- 
where and waste my time. And if they do not want me it is all 
right with me." 

At that time philosophy was by no means brilliantly repre- 
sented at the University of Berlin. The famous Dilthey was 
already retired and only occasionally gave a few lectures for a 
selected group of students. Simmel was still there, but owing 
to his Jewish lineage and notwithstanding the importance of 
his books (especially his voluminous Soziologie, which became 
a standard work of pre-Hitlerite German science) and the 
brilliant success of his lectures, he was an assistant professor and 
virtually without any influence. The leading roles were played 
by Stumpf and Riehl, both quite serious scholars, but without 
any real importance (the following untranslatable pun was then 
very popular with the students at the University of Berlin: 
"Philosophic wird in Berlin mit Stumpf und Riehl aus- 
gerottet"). Stumpf was bitterly opposed to any form of idealis- 
tic philosophy ; Riehl tried to interpret Kant in a realistic sense 
and was an outspoken antagonist of the Marburg "school." Yet 
it was precisely these two men that Cassirer had to deal with 
when he decided to become Privatdozent of the University of 

According to the regulations valid at that time in the Uni- 
versity of Berlin a candidate for "Privatdozentur" had to pre- 
sent a scientific study in the form of a book or manuscript 
and then, if his study had been accepted, he was invited to a so- 
called colloquium, where he had to give a trial lecture and to 
answer questions or critical comments on views expressed by 
him. Cassirer sent in his Erkenntnisproblem, which was at once 
accepted. A few weeks later he was invited to the colloquium, 
and as subject for his trial lecture he had chosen the "Ding an 
sichy" one of the most intricate concepts of Kant's philosophy. In 
his Erkenntmsfwoblem Cassirer had given a very interesting 
interpretation of this notion: he showed that the "Ding an 
sich y " being within Kant's philosophy always a limit of a 
maximum or minimum value, radically changed its meaning 
according to the particular group or system of concepts with 
reference to which in any given case it played the role of the 


limit. Thus, the "Ding an s\ch" has one meaning in the 
"Transcendentale Aesthetik" (Part I of Kritik der reinen 
Vernunft^y and an essentially different meaning in the "Deduc- 
tion der reinen Verstandesbegriffe" (Part II of the same work), 
and it is, therefore, fruitless to define this notion without taking 
into consideration the peculiar nature of the specific ideas with 
which it is connected in any special case. 

Here again we can vividly feel the future originator of the 
theory of "symbolic forms." Yet, Stumpf and Riehl were, of 
course, not satisfied at all, and they both, especially the latter, 
violently attacked Cassirer's theory. "You deny the existence of 
real things surrounding us," said Riehl. "Look at that oven 
there in the corner: to me it is a real thing, which gives us heat 
and can burn our skin; but to you it is just a mental image, a 
fiction!" Time and again Cassirer tried to explain the true 
meaning of the Kantian criticism, that human reason creates our 
knowledge of things, but not the things themselves; yet with- 
out avail. When the colloquium was over, both Stumpf and 
Riehl pleaded against admitting Cassirer as Privatdozent. But 
Dilthey, who was also present at the colloquium, decisively 
took Cassirer J s side and finished his plea with these words: "I 
would not like to be a man of whom posterity will say that he 
rejected Cassirer." This was sufficient to turn the tide: without 
further discussion the faculty gave Cassirer the venia legendi. 

In subsequent years the writer of this biography came to 
Berlin many times and frequently had the opportunity of at- 
tending Cassirer's lectures. Thus he was able to observe 
Cassirer's rapidly growing popularity; he saw how the original 
attendance of a few students grew to several dozens, then to 
many scores. This was an outstanding success; for at that time 
Cassirer's lectures were not obligatory for anyone, and his class- 
room was, therefore, crowded only because the students felt 
that what they got from him was true and substantial knowl- 
edge. Besides, his delivery was most attractive, his speech was 
very vivid and fluent, exact and eloquent at the same time. 
Especially popular were Cassirer J s seminars; there, in close 
personal contact with his students, he displayed all the charm 
and benevolence of his nature, he analyzed with endless patience 


and sympathetic understanding any expressed opinion and, if 
necessary, cautiously corrected it or interpreted it in the most 
fruitful possible way. He was a true paidagogos in the Platonic 
sense, deeply convinced that the teacher is largely to blame for 
the insufficiencies of his pupil. 

However, when circumstances demanded it, Cassirer could 
show that he was a real master of fencing. Once it was in 
Berlin, in 1910 our common friend persuaded us to attend a 
lecture of a disciple of Avenarius. The lecture was quite con- 
fused and Cassirer was quite irritated by the lack of knowledge 
and understanding shown by the speaker. During the discussion, 
Cassirer took the floor and in the short space of less than half an 
hour he not merely revealed his amazingly deep and exact 
knowledge of Avenarius, but he uncovered so brilliantly all the 
inconsistencies of the main speaker that the entire lecture 
seemed literally to dissolve into thin air before our very eyes. 
When he finished, the audience cheered and laughed and went 
home without even listening to the lecturer's attempted stam- 
mering rejoinder. Much more important, however, was another 
occasion where Cassirer displayed his qualifications as a brilliant 
polemicist. It was when Leonard Nelson, the founder of the 
so-called New-Friesian "school," violently attacked Hermann 
Cohen. Here again it was the unfairness of the criticism, the 
lack of understanding or any desire for true understanding 
which induced Cassirer to answer Nelson. A polemic developed 
which could have become very interesting, if the opponents had 
been equal in intellectual stature. As things were, Cassirer 
towered above his antagonist to such a degree that all the time 
they fought on different levels: Nelson tried to ridicule single 
sentences, taken out of Cohen's books, especially of his Logik 
der reinen Erkenntnis, which is a profound and creative work 
but a hard nut to crack} whereas Cassirer was mainly interested 
in the very roots of the dissension and tried to show, by analyz- 
ing the original Kant-Fries relationship, the dangers of an ex- 
aggerated psychologism for epistemology. 

The first great systematic work of Cassirer appeared in 1910, 
his Stibstanzbegrif und Funktionsbegrif. Despite the origi- 
nality of the basic conception and whole structure of this work 


or, maybe just because of this , it was several years before 
the importance of this work was duly recognized by the scien- 
tific world and by the philosophically interested public. Then, 
however, it became the first work of Cassirer to be translated 
into several foreign languages, including English and Russian, 
As the title of the book indicates, it is devoted to the problem 
of concepts. (Although in the title of the authorized English 
translation, viz., Substance and Function, this fact is almost lost 
sight of.) For more than two thousand years the science of logic 
was based upon Aristotle's doctrine of concepts, which says 
that generalization is always the result of abstraction: from a 
group of similar things, for instance, round, oval, square, 
rectangular tables the attributes common to them all are ab- 
stracted and summarized in a general concept, "table." This 
theory, Cassirer argues, has one decisive weakness: whence and 
how do we get those groups of similar things that we allegedly 
use as the basis for our abstractions? How does it happen that 
from one perception, say that of a round table, we proceed to 
other perceptions which are similar to the first one and not to 
the perceptions of, for instance, "auto," "star," "water," in 
which case we would not obtain a group of similar things? Is it 
not obvious that we use the first perception as a kind of criterion 
with the help of which we are able to decide what belongs to 
our group of similar things and what not? Thus Aristotle's 
abstraction becomes only possible as the result of a selec- 
tion, of the coordinated activity of the human reason, which is 
the first and fundamental step toward general notions. "What 
lends the theory of abstraction support is merely the circum- 
stance that it does not presuppose the contents, out of which 
the concept is to develop, as disconnected particularities, but that 
it tacitly thinks them in the form of an ordered manifold from 
the first. The concept, however, is not deduced thereby, but 
presupposed; for, when we ascribe to a manifold an order and 
connection of elements, we have already presupposed the con- 
cept, if not in its complete form, yet in its fundamental func- 
tion." 1 

Thus Aristotle's theory of concept, based upon the abstraction 

1 Ernst Cassirer, Substance and Function. Chicago London, 1923, p. 17. 


of common elements from a group of similar things, is nothing 
else than an obvious circulus viciosus. Yet this is not all. The 
theory of abstraction shows also another decisive weakness: in 
order to form a concept only such attributes are retained which 
are common to all elements of a given group, whereas all 
particularities are not included in a general concept they are 
just thrown aside and fade away. And the more general a con- 
cept is, the less attributes it contains, the more particularities 
disappear in the process of abstraction. Yet, "the genuine con- 
cept does not disregard the peculiarities and particularities which 
it holds under it, but seeks to show the necessity of the occurrence 
and connection of just these particularities. . . . Here the more 
universal concept shows itself also the more rich in content." 2 
Scientific concepts are all of this kind} they are general ideas, 
but their true function consists of expressing the rule from which 
a number of concrete particular forms can be derived. 

In his Substance and Function Cassirer also undertook the 
difficult task of showing what particular kinds of concepts 
underly the different realms of the exact and natural sciences, 
what is the logical essence of such categories as number, space, 
time, energy, and so forth. Cassirer was particularly interested 
in the problem of how the structure of concepts changes its 
character when we pass from one field of science to another j 
for instance, from mathematics to physics, or from physics to 
biology, etc. In carrying out this plan, he made, for the first 
time in the history of human thought, the very important and 
successful attempt to give a systematic analysis of concepts 
which underly the science of chemistry. The last part of the 
book is devoted to the theory of knowledge proper, to the con- 
cepts and methods by which human reason transforms sensory 
impressions into the systems of objective science. 

The members of the Marburg school were very proud of this 
new performance of Cassirer. Yet, the opposition came this time 
from a quarter from which it had been least expected from 
Hermann Cohen himself. Already while reading the proofs, 
Cohen obtained the impression, that as he expressed it later 
in a letter to Cassirer "our unity was jeopardized." Especially 

pp. 19-20. 


one long paragraph in Cassirer's book seemed to Cohen to be 
quite inconsistent with the teachings of the Marburg school, 
and, although all of Cohen's closest disciples were convinced 
that Cohen was mistaken, Cassirer, who invariably held Cohen 
in deepest respect, at once decided to reshape the whole page, 
despite the fact that he did not agree with Cohen and that his 
book was already in the final stages of printing. Upon reading 
the finished book, Cohen wrote to Cassirer: "I congratulate you 
and all members of our philosophical community on your new 
and great achievement. If I shall not be able to write the second 
part of my Logic, no harm will be done to our common cause, 
since my project is to a large degree fulfilled in your book." 3 
But the criticism comes after that: "Yet, after my first reading 
of your book I still cannot discard as wrong what I told you in 
Marburg: you put the center of gravity upon the concept of 
relation and you believe that you have accomplished with the 
help of this concept the idealization of all materiality. The ex- 
pression even escaped you, that the concept of relation is a 
category; yet it is a category only insofar as it is function, and 
function unavoidably demands the infinitesimal element in 
which alone the root of the ideal reality can be found." 

The controversy goes back to Cohen's daring attempt to 
establish the infinitesimal numbers as an absolute element, to 
put this absolute element before the whole number and to de- 
rive the latter from the former. There can be little doubt, 
logically as well as mathematically, that this is an impossible 
undertaking; the value of a number depends always on its 
relation to other numbers in which it may be contemplated: 
five is only fiye in relation to one, yet it is an infinite number in 
relation to an infinitesimal one, and an infinitesimal number in 
relation to an infinite one. Cassirer's "function," as contrasted 
with "substance," meant just that: it is impossible to ascribe an 
absolute value to a mathematical element, since this value is 
determined by different relations to which it may belong. 

Cassirer's theory of concept proved its great fruitfulness for 
the whole field of theoretical knowledge; it freed the principles 
and methods of human reason from the shadow of absoluteness 

3 From Cohen's letter to Cassirer of August 24, 1910. 


and disclosed their functional nature as flexible instruments of 
human knowledge. And just as the functional concept contains 
a direction, a certain point of view which serves as a basis of 
measurement for the similarity of single elements and arranges 
them in groups and series according to their affinity, so "the 
ideal connections spoken of by logic and mathematics are the 
permanent lines of direction, by which experience is orientated 
in its scientific shaping. The function of these connections is their 
permanent and indestructible value, and is verified as identical 
through all changes in the accidental material of experience." 4 

The publication of this important work brought about no 
change in Cassirer's academic career j he was still Privatdozent 
in Berlin, and not one single German university invited him, 
even as an assistant professor. Every time a chair in philosophy 
became free, Cassirer was invariably listed by the respective 
faculty as a candidate, but, oddly enough, his name was always 
put in the second place. Cassirer himself was quite content with 
his limited academic activities in the University of Berlin ; he 
not only never complained, but he did not even seem to feel the 
unfairness of the situation. He enjoyed his life and work in 
Berlin, his great success as teacher and scholar, even though 
officially it remained unrecognized. 

Harvard University was the first to invite him, in 1914, for 
two years as visiting professor. However, personal reasons pre- 
vented Cassirer at that time from accepting this invitation. The 
same year he was awarded the Kuno Fischer Gold Medal by the 
Heidelberg Academy. Upon Cassirer's special request he was 
given a bronze medal instead, and the difference in monetary 
value 3,000 R.M. was sent to the Red Cross. 

Although Cassirer was highly absorbed by his research work 
and academic activities, he still found time to organize and 
direct a new edition of Kant's works. For this edition he wrote 
an extensive biographical and philosophical introduction to 
Kant's system. In this introduction he gives a very clear both 
popular and truly scientific picture of the evolution of Kant's 
central ideas and makes several important contributions to the 
understanding of Kant's philosophy. Perhaps the most important 

4 Op. cit., p. 323. 


of these contributions is Cassirer's analysis of the fundamental 
ideas of Kant's Kritik der Urteilskrajt and his explanation of 
why Kant based his theory of judgment upon two seemingly 
so different roots as the philosophy of art, on the one hand, and 
biology, on the other. 

Thus far all of Cassirer's publications had been devoted to 
the problem of knowledge. Although he was vitally interested 
in all the problems of art, ethics, and religion, and assiduously 
worked on them, he somehow did not feel ready to write down 
the results of his research; and meanwhile he was busy with the 
preparations for the third volume of his Erkewntws'problem. 
The outbreak of the First World War changed his plans. He 
was drafted for Civil Service, and his work consisted of the 
reading of foreign newspapers. Thus he was able to contemplate 
the war from different points of view and to obtain a truer 
picture of events j he knew already in the early stages of the 
war that Germany was doomed. Besides, his whole nature was 
absolutely contrary to the imperialistic megalomania of Prus- 
sian militarism. Yet he was a philosopher, not a politician, and 
he found his own way of expressing his attitude toward the 
ultimate spiritual values around which the struggle raged: he 
published his book Freiheit und Form. 

All truly humanitarian and idealistic tendencies of German 
culture, everything which proclaimed the dignity and freedom 
of individuals and of nations Leasing and Schiller, Kant and 
Goethe was convincingly and eloquently expounded by Cas- 
sirer in this book, providing a magnificent picture of man's 
struggle for his spiritual liberation, showing Lessing's cosmo- 
politanism and sublime tolerance, Schiller's keen sensitiveness 
and passion for freedom, Kant's radical, conception of natural 
right, and Goethe's redemption of the individual as milestones 
of this eternal process. 

Cassirer showed in this book that his feeling for all forms of 
poetry was just as deep and incisive as his understanding of 
science. His interpretation of Goethe's lyrics, his analysis of 
Goethe's poetical work in the different stages of its develop- 
ment belong to the best that has ever been written on this sub- 
ject. Cassirer's strong artistic vein enabled him to grasp the 


inner core of Goethe's symbols, to provide those symbols with 
profound and most surprising interpretation. "Mahomed," 
"Pandora" to mention only two examples in Cassirer's 
masterly exposition appeared suddenly in a new light and their 
unfathomable wisdom and beauty became visible to anyone. No 
less penetrating was his analysis of Goethe's achievements in the 
fields of aesthetics, morals, and religion. Cassirer always felt 
keenly that great poets and belletrists were, in their innermost, 
endeavoring to find a solution to the eternal problems of being 
and life, akin to the search of the great philosophers} they only 
expressed their thoughts and beliefs in the form of concrete 
symbols and images, and not in the form of abstract reasoning. 
Goethe's titanic personality, the originality, depth and versa- 
tility of his creative power irresistibly attracted Cassirer all his 
life, and in a long series of special articles he followed up his 
study of Goethe. Brilliant was the way in which he revealed the 
deepest ideological roots of Goethe's polemic attitude towards 
Newton, or described Goethe's conception of history, or com- 
pared the spiritual worlds of Goethe and Plato. All who knew 
Cassirer personally admitted that his face reminded them of 
Goethe^ yet their mental similarity was even more striking it 
was the same wide scope of spiritual interests, the same tend- 
ency to regard every event in the light of endless historical 
perspectives, to transform every single fact into an element of 
an infinite system. It was undoubtedly this affinity of mental 
tendencies which accounted for Cassirer's unique understanding 
of Goethe 

War nicht das Auge sonnenhaft, 

Die Sonne Konnt' es nie erblicken. . . . 

World War I brought a deep spiritual crisis in Europe. One 
belief especially had been shattered to its very foundation: the 
idea that human reason was a decisive power in the social life 
of man. When, at the beginning of the twentieth century, 
Georges Sorel advanced his theory that not reason but social 
myth was the driving power of human history, that the actions 
of human societies were determined not by objective truth and 
cool deliberation but by peculiar images, mostly born out of 
hatred, revulsion, contempt, and filled with strong impulses and 


emotions, images, which have nothing to do with truth and 
often represent the greatest possible falsehood the scholars 
only laughed at him and paid no attention at all to his "queer" 
ideas. Yet, the progress of the war and the subsequent years 
which saw the birth of several totalitarian ideologies and their 
victorious march to power in the largest countries of Europe, 
ruined and disarrayed by the war, clearly showed the extent 
of truth contained in Sorel's social theories. The stormy pace of 
historical events demanded a new approach to the problems of 
reality, different ways and means for its understanding. This 
was the background for Cassirer's theory of symbolic forms 
his great contribution to the understanding of the most vital 
problems of our time and of history. 

When the author of this article again met Cassirer, shortly 
after the termination of World War I, Cassirer was already 
quite absorbed in his new work. Cassirer once told how in 1917, 
just as he entered a street car to ride home, the conception of the 
symbolic forms flashed upon him 5 a few minutes later, when he 
reached his home, the whole plan of his new voluminous work 
was ready in his mind, in essentially the form in which it was 
carried out in the course of the subsequent ten years. Suddenly 
the onesidedness of the Kant-Cohen theory of knowledge be- 
came quite clear to Cassirer. It is not true that only the human 
reason opens the door which leads to the understanding of 
reality, it is rather the whole of the human mind, with all its 
functions and impulses, all its potencies of imagination, feeling, 
volition, and logical thinking which builds the bridge between 
man's soul and reality, which determines and moulds our con- 
ception of reality. "The true concept of reality cannot be pressed 
into a plain and abstract form of being, it rather contains the 
whole manifold and wealth of spiritual life. ... In this sense 
any new 'symbolic form' not only the concept and system of 
knowledge, but also the intuitive world of art or myth or langu- 
age, represents according to a saying of Goethe's a revela- 
tion directed from the inside toward the outside, a 'synthesis of 
world and mind,' which alone makes certain for us the genuine 
unity of both." 5 The whole world of reality can be grasped 

5 Ernst Cassirer, Phttosofhie der symbolischen Formen. Vol. I, p. 46. 


only with the help of certain mental images, symbolic forms, 
and the task of philosophy consists in the understanding of those 
mental and psychical functions which determine the structure 
of these symbolic forms. A queer image of primitive totemism 
may be vastly different from the modern conception of four- 
dimentional space, yet they both show a definite regularity of 
inward structure, they both can be reduced to some fundamental 
functions of the human mind. Even the spiritual world of 
lunatics reveals to an attentive analysis some definite regularities 
which find their expression in queer but still understandable 
symbolic forms and their study proved to be helpful for the 
diagnosis and treatment of certain mental diseases. 

The whole of human culture is reflected in our mind in an 
endless row of symbolic forms, and Cassirer now embarked 
upon the titanic task of first trying to analyze the structure of 
these forms in general, and, secondly, to show what special kind 
of symbolic forms underlie the different realms of human life 
religion, art, science, social activities. For many years the 
external conditions of his life were greatly favorable to this 
immense task: during World War I two new universities were 
founded in Germany, one in Hamburg and the other in Frank- 
furt, both quite progressive and democratic, and the first thing 
they both did was to offer Cassirer a full professorship in 
philosophy. Cassirer decided to accept the offer of the Uni- 
versity of Hamburg because it showed an exceptionally great 
eagerness for securing his services. He never regretted his 
choice in Hamburg he found everything he could desire: a 
large and most interested audience for his lectures, and the 
famous private "Warburg Library" with a rich collection of 
materials which Cassirer needed for his researches into symbolic 
forms. Many times Cassirer expressed his positive amazement 
at the fact that the selection of the materials and the whole in- 
ward structure of this library suggested the idea that its 
founder must have more or less anticipated his theory of 
symbolic forms as a system of fundamental functions of the 
human mind underlying all basic tendencies of human culture 
and explaining the particular nature of any one of them. 


In the years 1923-1929 the three volumes of his Philosophie 
der symbolischen Formen were composed and published. Based 
upon vast historical and systematical material, the work gives 
a penetrating analysis of Cassirer's general theory of symbolic 
forms and of its application to the problems of language, of 
myths, and of knowledge. Almost incredible is the wealth of 
concrete facts and original ideas by means of which Cassirer shows 
the fruitfulness of his theory. Almost the entire world's litera- 
ture on language and myths, almost all the realms of human 
science had been closely explored by him and the particular 
kinds of symbolic forms in those different realms shown in bold 
and broad relief. Yet, even this immense job did not take all of 
Cassirer's time and energy. During the same years, while work- 
ing out and writing down his Philoso'phie der symbolischen 
Formen y he finished the third volume of his Erkenntnityrob- 
lem y he wrote a book on Einstein's theory of relativity and pub- 
lished literally scores of philosophical and literary articles. Be- 
sides, he eagerly performed his duties as academic teacher, gave 
weekly several lectures and seminars, and was most accessible 
to any student who desired his help on philosophical problems. 

Despite this immense amount of intellectual work which 
Cassirer performed day after day, there was nothing of the 
ivory tower pedant in him; he spent almost every evening in the 
circle of his family and of his friends, and he showed a lively 
interest in all world-events. It was amazing to what a degree he 
was able to keep abreast of so many things which had no relation 
whatsoever to his scientific work he was a thorough connois- 
seur of classical music, and in the classical operas he knew not 
only every single melody, but also every word of the text, often 
even in several different languages. He knew a great deal about 
many fields of sport and was able to discuss some intricate prob- 
lems of passiance or skat. He was even interested in the most 
impersonal manner in stock exchange prices and tried to 
understand what was hidden behind their seemingly grotesque 
and unpredictable movements. Yet, there was only one game 
which he really cherished: chess. Only on rare occasions did he 
have the time and opportunity to play a game of chess or to 


analyze the game of an outstanding master; but when he did 
take the time for such it absorbed him to such a degree that as 
long as he busied himself with chess he did not hear or see any- 
thing that was going on around him. 

This great versatility proved to be a real blessing to Cassirer 
when, in 1930, he was elected rector of the University of Ham- 
burg. Now he had to represent the University at the various 
academic functions and to make speeches on literally every type 
of subject one day he spoke on the development of modern 
traffic, another day on the breeding of hogs, then again on the 
importance of athletic sports. And the most amazing part of it 
was that the scope of his understanding and the wealth of his 
knowledge were so vast that whatever subject he touched upon 
he was able to illuminate its different aspects and to show its 
true place in the whole of cultural life. 

Fourteen most prolific years of his life Cassirer spent in 
Hamburg; into this period fell also two large research works 
on the history of philosophy, one concerning the time of the 
Reformation, the other dealing with the development of Plato- 
nism in England. This latter work, published in 1932, was the 
last one he ever published in Germany. Meanwhile heavy 
storm clouds darkened the skies over Germany, the Hitler 
movement was on the verge of its first decisive victory, ready 
to take over the Reich government. Already years before Cas- 
sirer had recognized the great danger of this movement; he 
never listened to the speeches of Hitler or his henchmen, he 
never read their books and pamphlets; yet he seemed to know 
with uncanny foresight what Nazism was about to do to 
Germany and to the rest of the world. When their notorious 
slogan: "Right is what serves our Fuehrer" first came up, and 
Cassirer heard of it, he said: "This is the end of Germany." 
Cassirer, therefore, did not wait to be dismissed by the Nazis 
he tendered his resignation immediately after Hitler became 
Chancellor of the German Reich. He knew that there would be 
nothing for him to do in the "new" Germany, and he decided 
to emigrate. Within a very few weeks he was offered three pro- 
fessorships in three different countries one in Sweden (Upsala 
University), one in England (Oxford University), and one in 


the U.S. A. (New School for Social Research in New York). Cas- 
sirer went first to Oxford, where he lectured for two years 
(1933-35). When he arrived in England, he was only able to 
read English, but he could not speak a word of it. Yet, three 
months later he was already lecturing in English. Meanwhile 
he had received another offer, this time from the University of 
Goeteborg (Sweden). He decided to accept it, but only on one 
condition: that he would be given a personal chair, in order that 
no Swedish professor would have to lose his job. This condition 
was readily accepted, and, in September, 1935, Cassirer went to 

He stayed in Sweden for almost six years 5 and those years 
again were very fruitful years for him. In 1937 he published 
his book on Determinismus und Indeterminismus in der mod- 
ernen Physik. Cassirer himself regarded this book as one of his 
most important achievements. His capacity to penetrate into all 
the details of the most intricate problems of modern physics, 
as shown by this book, is truly amazing. Cassirer had been 
prompted to embark upon this difficult task by a prolonged and 
somewhat confused discussion which had arisen among several 
leading physicists and which had touched upon the funda- 
mental problems of epistemology, especially upon the principle 
of causality. The structure of the atom, the peculiar manner in 
which an electric particle jumps, as it were, from one pre- 
destined trajectory to another, the difficulties in recognizing 
and characterizing individual elements, and the necessity of 
applying statistical methods to the solution of quantum-theo- 
retical problems convinced many physicists not only of the im- 
possibility of going on exclusively with the methods of the 
so-called classical mechanics but even induced some of them to 
discard the principle of causality altogether and to introduce 
the concept of purpose into the interpretation of purely material 
phenomena. In order to analyze this problem, Cassirer gave 
a vast and detailed picture of the development of the basic 
concepts of mechanics and physics in modern times; he showed 
the historical continuity of thought, which led to the conception 
of the quantum theory, and convincingly demonstrated that it 
was not the principle of causality which was to blame for the 


difficulties with which this theory had to struggle, but the fact 
that the system of symbols used in it was too narrow: modern 
physics "is confronted with the necessity of applying different 
types of symbols, of schematic 'explanation/ to one and the 
same occurrence." 6 

This idea, in which Cassirer saw a consistent method of 
interpretation of the fundamental results of atomic physics, is 
one of the basic principles of his philosophy of symbolic forms. 
He once expressed it in a simple, yet truly classical, manner 
with the aid of the following concrete example: "We begin with 
a certain perceptual experience: with a drawing which we see 
before us. We may turn our attention, first of all, to the purely 
sensory 'impression' which we comprehend as a simple combina- 
tion of lines." Now we change our approach to this geometrical 
figure, we apply to it another set of symbolic forms, and "the 
spatial image becomes an aesthetic one: I comprehend in it the 
character of a certain ornament, with which there is connected 
in my mind a certain artistic sense and significance. . . . And once 
again the form of my contemplation may change, insofar as that 
which at first appeared to me as a pure ornament now reveals 
itself as the bearer of a mystic-religious significance." 7 Thus the 
same thing, in this particular case a geometrical figure, appears, 
when treated from different points of view, as the bearer of a 
very different significance, as a concept with different meanings. 

No sooner had Cassirer finished his epistemological interpre- 
tation of the quantum theory than he began working on the 
fourth volume of the Erkenntnisfroblem. In this volume, 
which is now awaiting publication, Cassirer is giving us an 
integral analysis of the development of epistemological and 
logical problems for the period of the last hundred years 
from the middle of the nineteenth century to practically our 
own day. This volume also contains a critical analysis of all 
important movements in the realm of contemporary philosophy. 

* Determinismus , p. 265. 

f From "Das Symbolproblem und seine Stellung im System der Philosophic" in 
the Zeitschrtft fur Aesthetik und Allgemeine KunstwitsenscJiaft, Vol. 21, pp. 194- 
195. Both of the above quotations come from this article j the translation is by 
the present writer. 


There were two more books Cassirer published during the 
six years he lived in Sweden, both of them very typical of his 
almost incredible versatility and mental adaptability. For, de- 
spite his advanced age, he mastered the Swedish language 
perfectly and so thoroughly imbued himself with Swedish art, 
philosophy, literature, and history that he was able to make a 
very important contribution to the development of Swedish 
philosophy with his book on Hagerstrom. Cassirer's second 
book is devoted to Descartes and his relation to the Swedish 
queen Christine} here he discusses one of the most difficult 
problems of Swedish history: why did Queen Christine resign 
her throne? Cassirer attempts his solution of this problem by 
spreading new light upon Descartes, on his influence upon 
Christine, and by giving a broad picture of the spiritual life of 
Europe in the seventeenth century. 

When Cassirer left Germany he arranged everything for the 
emigration of his daughter and two sons. One son and the 
daughter joined him almost immediately in England. But it 
took all of five years before his second son could join him in 
Goeteborg. This was a great sorrow of the emigration years 
he was never able to live together with all his children and 
grandchildren, whom he loved so dearly j there was always a 
separation from one or the other. 

In the summer of 1941 Cassirer accepted the invitation of 
Yale University and came to the United States as a visiting 
professor. His original intention was to remain here two years 
only and then to return to Sweden, where he had, in the mean- 
time, become a citizen. However, the outbreak of World War 
II upset his plans. At the end of two years he was unable to 
return to Sweden and willingly agreed, therefore, to prolong 
his contract with Yale University for another year. During this 
period Cassirer received an invitation to teach at Columbia 
University and in the summer of 1944, he left New Haven and 
went to New York. 

His arrival in America opened a new page in Cassirer's life. 
Here again one has to admire his great adaptability. This time 
it was not the English language, which he knew quite well by 
now, nor was it American philosophy the development of which 


he had studied closely for decades. In Substance and Function 
one already finds numerous references to American scholars 
and philosophers. But the methods of academic teaching in 
America are quite different from those of Europe. The co- 
operation between students and professors is much closer and 
more informal here than in Europe. Cassirer not only adapted 
himself willingly and easily to these different ways of teaching 
he sincerely liked and greatly appreciated them. He often 
said that to work together with a group of eager students who 
recognized no other authority than truth itself and kept ques- 
tioning their teachers until they were entirely and thoroughly 
satisfied was to him a new and most fruitful experience. 

During the last twelve years of his life Cassirer devoted in- 
creasingly more time to research in the fields of the social 
sciences. He felt that now the time had come for him to apply 
his philosophy of symbolic forms to this realm of human culture 
which had always strongly attracted him, but which he had never 
yet discussed systematically in his books. There had been good 
reasons for this delay. The social sciences cannot easily free 
themselves from the influence of deeply rooted subjective 
tendencies in the form of national and class ideologies, religious 
and racial prejudices, economic interests, etc. Cassirer undertook 
to explore in the first instance those aspects of human culture 
where the attitude of (at least relative) objectivity could more 
easily prevail. But the victorious advance of the totalitarian 
ideology in some of the largest countries of Europe finally 
urged him on to take a stand against these destructive forces 
which as was so obvious to him threatened to engulf the 
whole world. In 1941 he wrote, therefore, his first more 
comprehensive study in the field of the social sciences. Even 
this, however, dealt, in the main, with the epistemological side 
of the problem, with the characteristics of the particular 
methods and principles upon which this branch of human 
knowledge is based. 

His Essay on Man, published in 1944, and written by him 
in English, contains a comprehensive and integral exposition 
of his philosophy of symbolic forms and their application to 
different realms of human culture. In this book Cassirer not 


only summarizes his more than half-a-century long researches 
on languages and science, myth and religion, but he also shows, 
for the first time, at some length the decisive role the symbolic 
forms play in the realms of art and historical science. At the 
same time Cassirer also published several important articles on 
various subjects. In one of them he gave a quite original analysis 
of the Bible and showed why the Nazis had chosen the Jews 
as their ideological enemy Number One while the Nazis 
based their power upon historical and social myths, the Jews 
have always shown little inclination for mythical thought. 

Meanwhile he also persistently worked on what he now con- 
sidered to be his main task, namely, an undertaking of the 
driving forces of human history, especially those forces which 
made possible the appalling growth of totalitarianism in our 
time. In 1944 he finally put into finished form a voluminous 
manuscript which offers his solution to this problem. This book 
which was to be Cassirer's last is entitled The Myth of the 
State y and was written in English. Even if this were the only 
book ever written by him, it would still secure a considerable 
name for him as a scientist and philosopher for many genera- 
tions to come. This book begins with an exhaustive analysis of 
mythical thought, uncovering the intellectual, emotional, and 
volitional roots upon which the myth thrives in the social life of 
man. Then it gives a broad and general delineation, quite 
original in nature, of the development of political theory from 
the days of the early Greek philosophy to the very threshold of 
our own time, and uncovers, step by step, the technique not 
always clever, but always treacherous and persistent of the 
modern political myth which led human culture to the brink of 
complete destruction. The result of this penetrating and il- 
luminating investigation into the myth of the state is found, 
in concentrated form, in Cassirer's following words: 

"In the Babylonian mythology we find a legend that de- 
scribed the creation of the world. We are told that Marduk, the 
highest God, before he could begin his work, had to fight a 
dreadful combat. He had to vanquish and subjugate the serpent 
Tiamat and the other dragons of darkness. He slew Tiamat and 
bound the dragons. Out of the limbs of the monster Tiamat he 


formed the world and gave to it its shape and its order. . . . The 
world of human culture may be described in the words of this 
Babylonian legend. It could not arise before the darkness of 
myth was fought and overcome. But the mythical monsters 
were not entirely destroyed. They were used for the creation 
of a new universe and they still survive in this universe. The 
powers of myth were thus checked and subdued by superior 
forces. As long as these forces intellectual, ethical, artistic 
forces are in full strength, myth is tamed and subdued. But 
once they begin to lose their strength chaos arises again. Myth- 
ical thought then begins to rise anew and to pervade the whole 
of man's cultural and social life."* 

Despite his advancing age, Cassirer kept on working continu- 
ously, persistently, almost as much as he had worked in his 
youth, and, in fact, throughout his life. How often did he sit, 
writing at his desk, till late into the night, and the next morning 
the first rays of the rising sun found him again busy with his 
work. On April 13 (1945), the day of his death, Cassirer got 
up very early and spent the whole morning at his desk writing; 
then he went to Columbia University, never to return to his 

Ernst Cassirer belongs to the great tradition of classical phi- 
losophy. Goethe, trying to define the essence of classicism, once 
said: "Classicism is sanity, romanticism is illness," and Novalis, 
one of the greatest among the romanticists, unwittingly pro- 
vided the key to this judgment by his assertion that the essence 
of romanticism consists in the transformation of a single event 
or individual fact into an absolute and general principle of the 
whole. To Novalis and Schlegel everything was the emotion of 
love, even mathematics or a death sentence; to Fichte and 
Schopenhauer everything was volition, just as to Hegel every- 
thing was Objective Mind or to Schelling intellectual intuition: 
in each case one principle, one function, one special power 
dominates and determines the whole. Classicism, on the con- 
trary, always recognizes several principles as quite independent 

* EDITOR'S NOTE: Apparently Mr. Gawronsky, in making this quotation, had 
access to a manuscript version of the book} cf. pp. 297-98 of the published work, 
New Haven (1946). 


of each other, although closely connected and organically 
related and capable only in their organic interrelatedness of 
creating and forming the spiritual world of man. This was the 
very core of Cassirer's philosophical conviction. Throughout 
the multifarious realms of human culture he demonstrated the 
originality and independence of their respective symbolic forms 
and at the same time showed the closest connection to exist 
among all these forms, thus uniting them into one organic and 
harmonic whole. So great, moreover, was the scope of Cas- 
sirer's mental gifts, so inexhaustible his energy, so faithful his 
memory, so deep, swift, and versatile his power of comprehen- 
sion, his mind so original and imaginative, that he was able 
to undertake a unique voyage around the entire spiritual world 
of man and to discover, on his journey, innumerable treasures 
of human thought. 

Cassirer liked to tell the following story: once he met the 
great mathematician Hilbert, the "Euclid of our time," and 
asked him about one of the latter's disciples. Hilbert answered: 
"He is all right. You know, for a mathematician he did not have 
enough imagination. But he has become a poet and now he is 
doing fine." Cassirer always heartily laughed, when he told 
this story, and he had good reason for doing so, but a reason, of 
which he was never aware: he had enough imagination to be- 
come a true scholar and philosopher. His mental associations 
were amazingly rich, colorful, and always quite exact. He 
possessed in high degree the gift which Goethe called "im- 
agination for the truth of reality" or "exact sensory imagina- 
tion." However keen and daring his thinking was it always 
remained measured, objective, realistic. 

Truly original and prolific thinkers are usually very modest. 
Goethe wrote in the introduction to his absolutely new and 
revolutionary conception of botany that, in this work, he had not 
said anything which any man of common sense could not easily 
discover for himself. Kant frankly expressed his regret that he 
was not as gifted as Mendelssohn. And we all know how ab- 
solutely modest is Einstein. Thus, modesty was also one of 
Cassirer's most outstanding traits. He never claimed that this or 
that idea or conception had first been discovered or formulated 


by him. On the contrary, he was always in the habit of quoting 
numerous authorities both of the past and in the present who 
expressed similar ideas} and he always pointed out that really 
important ideas usually appear as the result of the close co- 
operation of many human minds. Goethe's assertion that only 
mankind as a whole is able to find the truth was part of Cas- 
sirer's very nature and made him largely oblivious to the 
uniqueness of many of his own deepest insights and significant 

It was this trait of Cassirer's mental attitude which made him 
so tolerant in all spiritual things and so appreciative of all earnest 
and sincere striving. His deep conviction that truth is im- 
mensely beyond the insight of any one individual mind never 
permitted him to discard any opinion without thorough investi- 
gation. And, just because he found so much truth in other 
thinkers, he never attempted to found a philosophical school of 
his own. And it was precisely his great love of truth which made 
deliberate falsehood and evil all the more loathsome to him. 
Throughout his life, therefore, he did not stop fighting against 
falsehood and evil in his own quiet but determined manner. 

Cassirer was a deeply religious man. He cared little for 
differing rites, rituals, confessions, or denominations} these 
only split mankind into so many groups and often turn them 
against each other. Yet the very core of any true religion, the 
cosmic feeling, a love as wide as the universe and as intense as 
the light of the sun, was always vivid in his heart. It was this 
feeling which urged Cassirer incessantly to explore all material 
and spiritual things, which filled his heart with deep sympathy 
for everything good'in the world, which strengthened his will 
to fight for this good. And it was this feeling which was the 
source of his charming humour the Infinite All was always 
present in his mind, it never permitted him to take either him- 
self or his surroundings too seriously, and he was, therefore, 
able to joke for hours in the most spirited and sympathetic 

To the very end of his life Cassirer retained his youthful 
spirit, his vivid interest in all the aspects of life around him and 
his readiness to be helpful to other people. It is difficult to 


imagine a kinder and more sympathetic person, a man with such 
an absolute devotion to the good. Symbolic of his whole nature, 
therefore, was the way of his passing: on the street he was met 
by one of his students, who addressed a question to him. Cas- 
sirer turned to answer, smiled kindly at the young man, and 
suddenly fell dead into his arms. 




Delivered at Memorial Services, held under the Auspices 

of the 
Department of Philosophy 


Columbia University 

Brander Matthews Theater, Columbia University 
June i, 1945 


This is the locust season of our days 

When the ripe meadows of the mind are bare, 

This is the month of the never-born maize 

Upon whose golden meats we shall not fare. 

This is the week of the stunted stalk 

And fruit that is dust on the bones of rock, 

This is the day of the hungry hawk 

And the songbirds dead by the fallen flock. 

This is the noon of our derelict plain, 

The sun-parched hour of most desolate pain. 

Yet there is a valley where sweet grain grows 
In strong-rooted stands, in tall splendid rows. 
Here toiled in the meadows a man wise and serene, 
And the meadows bore fruit and the meadows are green. 



WITH the passing of Ernst Cassirer one of the great 
philosophical interpreters of human civilization has been 
taken from us. The last true scion of the classic tradition of 
German idealism has been laid to rest. While we are wondering 
whether the Germans will ever be able to produce a new moral 
and intellectual order by returning to the liberal humanism of 
their own past, which they renounced so violently in recent 
decades, this meeting is a demonstration of our confident faith 
in these ideas as a precious part of our own culture. 

Soon after the classic school of German philosophy had been 
deprived of its great creative leaders with the deaths of Hegel 
and Schelling, German philosophy lost its dominant position to 
the new natural and historical sciences. Simultaneously Ger- 
man philosophy began to retreat from an active participation in 
the discussion of the fundamental political issues of the age. The 
programs of the political parties were little affected by the 
humane philosophy of the early part of the century. 

In the last third of the century, however, a renascence of 
philosophical thought took place, which is usually called the 
rise of neo-Kantianism. But though a great deal of the new 
philosophical discussion centered around a fresh study and 
appreciation of Kant, the new philosophical movement did not 
aim at the enthronement of the Konigsberg philosopher as the 
patron saint of a new scholasticism but had much broader and 
deeper objectives. It sprang from the moral and intellectual 
dissatisfaction with the then fashionable ideas which seemed 
incapable of overcoming the growing materialism and natural- 
ism. Many went even so far as to consider these philosophies 
the logical outcome of modern scientific research. In contrast, 



the new generation of German philosophers asserted that the 
progress of the individual natural and historical sciences 
stemmed very largely from the discoveries of classic philosophy 
and that research would lose its direction and meaning without 
a critical awareness of its basic methods. However, philosophy 
was not only to act as a guide to the various academic depart- 
ments but was to gain fresh vigor from them. 

Ernst Cassirer began his studies when the new philosophical 
movement had already gained influence in German universities. 
Lotze was probably the chief bridge-builder between the classic 
idealism and the neo-idealism which then found its leaders 
in Dilthey and in the neo-Kantian schools of Marburg and 
the South- West, represented by Cohen and Natorp and by 
Windelband and Rickert. But it should not be forgotten that 
the sciences and arts took an active part in producing the new 
philosophy. German mathematics and physics from Helmholtz 
to Planck and Einstein were deeply conscious of their philo- 
sophical roots and not all the historians got lost in contemporary 
national politics. Harnack and his school of ecclesiastical his- 
tory, the school of the history of religion from which Troeltsch 
made his way into philosophy, and Meinecke's work in the 
history of ideas are only a few examples of the manner in 
which historians helped to buttress the new philosophical move- 

Ernst Cassirer took his place among the best scholars of this 
group, and while he remained always grateful for being the 
member of a group of common spirit and purpose, he soon 
began to chart a course of his own in accordance with his 
personal gifts. In his early studies Cassirer concentrated on 
achieving a fuller understanding of the much-praised and little- 
known Leibniz, the real founder of the German philosophical 
tradition. Leibniz was the father of the theory of knowledge 
which, in contrast to almost the whole philosophy of the i8th 
century, Kant included, saw in the study of nature and of history 
two manifestations of the one human quest for knowledge. He 
did not consider the humanities a lower, or less mature, form of 
academic achievement. Both were branches of Wissenschaft, 
science, i.e., both were producing scientific truth though by dif- 


ferent methods. Throughout his life Cassirer remained a stu- 
dent of Leibniz by keeping abreast both of the progress of 
the natural sciences and of the liberal arts. 

However, Cassirer believed that his basic approach to phi- 
losophy was Kantian in origin, Kant had maintained that the 
way to a transcendental order could be gained only through 
an analysis of the forms and methods of human thought, and 
he had demonstrated the power of his new critical idealism in 
the philosophical study of the natural sciences, ethics, and 
finally aesthetics. The neo-Kantians and particularly Cassirer 
went farther. Their epistemology included the methodology 
of history and moreover of all forms of creative civilization, 
finally encompassing even the expressions of pre-scientific hu- 
man thought and imagination as revealed in language and 

This is the key to the truly universal scope of Cassirer's 
studies. In addition to Leibniz and Kant, it was the spirit of 
Goethe which gave life to Cassirer's thought, 

Wer nicht von 3000 Jahren 
Sich weiss Rechenschaft zu geben 
Bleibt im Grunde unerfahren 
Muss von Tag zu Tage leben. 1 

In Cassirer's personality and work Goethe's program of edu- 
cation became a living reality again. The totality of Western 
civilization was to be reconstructed and made a part of the 
consciousness of the modern individual and of present-day 
civilization. The study of the processes and creations of civiliza- 
tion would lift the individual to a position from which he could 
see farther than "from day to day" and could begin to grasp 
the ideal forms and categories of the human mind. 

In this version of idealistic philosophy philosophical studies 
became in large sections identical with historical research. In 
general, Cassirer confined his historical interest to the history 
of human thinking and avoided the discussion of the social and 
political forces. However, he was not satisfied with the old- 

l Tr.: He who cannot account for 3000 years is basically inexperienced and 
therefore can only exist from day to day. 


fashioned type of history of philosophy which dealt chiefly 
with the doctrines of the leading philosophers, and linked them 
together by a loose chain of abstract speculation. Thus, between 
a social and political interpretation of historical civilization on 
one side and a history of mere ideas on the other his history of 
human thought held its own place. His work ranged from the 
tedious editing of small texts and discoveries to his monu- 
mental edition of Kant. Beyond the editing it proceeded to the 
analytical and interpretative monographs and articles covering 
ancient science and the philosophy of practically all ages of 
Western civilization. Even those historians who care little about 
philosophy cannot by-pass the new historical vistas which he 
opened particularly on the Renaissance and the European 

But as closely as his historical and philosophical studies were 
intertwined, the unity of his many interests is to be found in 
the philosophical conviction that man can participate in a 
higher order of life only through the realization of the peren- 
nial forms of human thought. He drew these philosophical con- 
clusions most clearly in his great Erkenntnistheorie and in his 
Philosofhie der symbolischen Formen. Cassirer's writings mir- 
ror far more than do those of most of his German colleagues 
his unusual gift as a teacher. He had a unique facility for clear 
and logical exposition, and all the products of his pen display 
his extraordinary sense of balance and aesthetic form. His ca- 
pacity to project himself into the psychological and mental 
environment of a past age or of an individual thinker of the 
past did not make him forget the individual needs of a present- 
day audience or student. His understanding of human nature 
made him take his listeners or pupils as seriously as the 
philosophical and historical subjects he tried to expound to 
them. These qualities explain his success as a teacher in Ger- 
many, in Sweden, and in America. 

Cassirer gave up his professorship in Hamburg when the 
Hitlerites came to power in Germany. This was natural, con- 
sidering that he was one of the chief exponents of that liberal 
tradition of German thought which the Nazis tried to destroy 
by all means. But, being at the same time a Jew, he had to 


take refuge in foreign countries. No German was as deeply 
steeped in the German cultural tradition and very few had 
contributed so much to its growth within his generation as 
Ernst Cassirer. Many other German scholars who found them- 
selves in a similar situation preferred to cut all their ties with 
their Jewish origin. Prior to Hitler not very many Germans 
would have criticized anyone for doing just that; on the con- 
trary, many would have applauded such an attitude. Actually, 
Cassirer's unwillingness to abandon his Jewish faith proved a 
handicap in his earlier academic career, but he was too honest 
to dissimulate his heritage. He was also conscious that a great 
deal of his moral integrity and intellectual strength had come 
to him through his Jewish culture. Nor did this make him feel 
suspicious or bitter. There was little of Heinrich Heine in him, 
but much more of Felix Mendelssohn, to whom he can be 
compared in many respects. As Mendelssohn helped to dis- 
cover for the Germans some of the greatest treasures of their 
cultural past, and at the same time contributed by his own 
creative work to the continuation of their classic tradition, so 
did Cassirer in the philosophic field. 

Yet Cassirer's life and work do not belong to Germany 
alone. The philosophical revival of the last third of the nine- 
teenth century was not merely a German event. It had its 
parallels and found its students in many lands, e.g., in the 
Italy of Benedetto Croce and to a lesser, though considerable, 
degree in modern French philosophy or in the Spain of Ortega 
y Gassett, from where it recently has spread far over Latin 
America. Among his German contemporaries, Cassirer was 
probably the one most conscious of the international significance 
of philosophy. Certainly he was the one German philosopher 
of distinction who had least indulged in construing the Kantian 
and post-Kantian German philosophy as a complete refutation 
of the philosophy of Western European Enlightenment. While 
German philosophers and historians were prone to describe 
the Kantian philosophy as a separation of the superior German 
from Western-European civilization, Cassirer was always mind- 
ful of the fact that Kant had his roots in the Western European 
Enlightenment, or for that matter, that it was impossible to 


think of Goethe without Shaftesbury and Spinoza. These were 
some of the reasons which made him approach Western- 
European thought with the same warmth of understanding 
which he showed in his German studies. He deserved the re- 
spect and affection of the philosophers of other countries which 
they showed him so often. Never did scholars of so many lands 
cooperate in expressing their admiration for a colleague of theirs 
as happened in the symposium on History and Philosophy, 
which the Oxford Press presented to him at his 6oth birthday. 

His knowledge of other civilizations, his truly cosmopolitan 
outlook, and the friendships which he acquired among his 
American colleagues and students, made the years of his exile 
not only bearable, but fruitful. Others of his age never again 
came into their own after being separated from the world in 
which they had spent the major part of their life. No doubt 
the events cast a tragic shadow over the last years of his career, 
but they did not change his fundamental beliefs, nor even his 
joy in research and teaching. The core of his personality was 
unaffected. He was unassuming and undemanding. His greatest 
satisfaction lay in giving others knowledge and wisdom. 




IT MUST have been in 1920 that I first met Ernst Cassirer. 
Although the war had been lost by Germany, the air was 
full of hope. The collapse of material power had produced a 
strong and favourable reaction in the intellectual field, and 
one of the symptoms of this was the foundation, in Hamburg 
now more anti-militaristic than ever of a new university. High 
hopes were entertained for the new institution, which was to 
be of good standing and to form an intellectual centre for the 
Hansa city. Of particular importance was the chair of philoso- 
phy, for which Cassirer had been chosen. The new university 
elected a man whose international reputation at that time was 
far greater than the recognition which the older seats of learn- 
ing had bestowed on him. He lent a peculiar dignity to the 
young arts faculty, and an ever-growing number of students 
came to his courses, eager for the truth and for learning, after 
the many deceptions of the war years. 

On a day memorable in the annals of the Warburg Institute, 
Cassirer came to see the library collected by Professor Warburg 
over a period of about thirty years. Warburg's nerves had 
broken down in 1920 under the strain of the post-war events, 
and he had been sent to Switzerland for recovery. Being in 
charge of the library, I showed Cassirer around. He was a 
gracious visitor, who listened attentively as I explained to him 
Warburg's intentions in placing books on philosophy next to 
books on astrology, magic, and folklore, and in linking the sec- 
tions on art with those on literature, religion, and philosophy. 
The study of philosophy was for Warburg inseparable from 
that of the so-called primitive mind: neither could be isolated 
from the study of imagery in religion, literature, and art. These 


48 F. SAXL 

ideas had found expression in the unorthodox arrangement of 
the books on the shelves. 

Cassirer understood at once. Yet, when he was ready to 
leave, he said, in the kind and clear manner so typical of him: 
"This library is dangerous. I shall either have to avoid it alto- 
gether or imprison myself here for years. The philosophical 
problems involved are close to my own, but the concrete his- 
torical material which Warburg has collected is overwhelming." 
Thus he left me bewildered. In one hour this man had under- 
stood more of the essential ideas embodied in that library than 
anybody I had met before. Why, then, did he seem to hesitate? 
I expected that, if anyone, he would help me with the difficult 
task of continuing the library without its founder. But it seems 
that the workings of his mind would not allow him or, at 
least, not yet allow him to be drawn into the dangerous chan- 
nels of Warburg's creation. Only much later did I understand 
that the reason was not narrowness, but self-restraint. Those 
who knew Cassirer will realize that the decision to keep aloof 
from certain problems at a certain moment was dictated by 
the austere logic of his own method. 

But, after an interval of waiting, the situation changed 
radically; and, from that moment on, for ten years, I never 
appealed in vain to Cassirer for collaboration. He had begun 
writing the first volume of his Philoso^hie der symbollschen 
Formen and, in developing his systematic ideas, he studied the 
voluminous concrete material prepared by ethnologists and 
historians. Warburg had collected the very material which 
Cassirer needed. More than that: looking back now it seems 
miraculous that Warburg had collected it for thirty years with 
a view to the very problems which Cassirer was then beginning 
to investigate. In the 1890*8 (inspired by Friedrich Theodor 
Vischer), Warburg had set out to study symbolic expression 
in art. His experience in studying the rites and arts of the 
New Mexico Zunis had taught him that the study of symbolic 
expression in art could not be isolated from that of religion, 
magic, language, and science. (In a number of still unpublished 
writings, Warburg had, on the one hand, tried to formulate 
a practical theory of the symbol in the history of civilization; 


while, on the other hand, he had built up a library containing the 
concrete materials for these studies, beginning with books and 
articles on the general problem of symbolic expression and 
arranging all the historical sections with a view to this problem.) 
At the time of Cassirer's first visit, Die Philosofhie der sym- 
bolischen Formen was just taking shape in Cassirer J s mind. It 
came as a shock to him, therefore, to see that a man whom he 
hardly knew had covered the same ground, not in writings, but 
in a complicated library system, which an attentive and specula- 
tive visitor could spontaneously grasp. That was the reason why, 
at our first meeting, Cassirer immediately felt that the alterna- 
tive confronting him was either to ignore the Institute or else 
to submit to its spell. 

When the time was ripe for him, Cassirer became our most 
assiduous reader. And the first book ever published by the Insti- 
tute was from Cassirer's pen. It dealt with the problem on which 
Warburg had started, namely to establish the categories of 
primitive thought in the primitive cultures proper, as well as in 
modern primitivism, as for example in astrology. 

Warburg was a man of a very imaginative and emotional 
type, in whom historical imagination, nourished by concrete 
historical experience, always struggled against an ardent de- 
sire for philosophical simplification. Yet he had created a tool 
which a master, whose greatest gifts were in the line of systema- 
tization, could use, and who, just at this moment, was eager 
to find the concrete material on which to build his system. 
Cassirer found it laid out in the library of a man who was still 
alive, but who was living in darkness behind doors which 
seemed never again to open for him. 

Years went by. The first volume of Cassirer's magnum opts 
appeared, while we published some corollaries to it and some 
lectures. One day Cassirer went to Switzerland to pay a visit 
to Warburg. It was a meeting of which both Cassirer and 
Warburg often spoke in later years. The patient had prepared 
himself for this day for weeks and months previously. Cassirer 
came, full of sympathy and with the apprehension and awe that 
mental illness inspires. In the years of anguish and isolation 
Warburg's thought, which had never been arrested by the ill- 

50 F. SAXL 

ness, had centred around Kepler. Warburg had come to the 
conclusion, although separated from all books, that modern 
thought was born when Kepler broke the traditional supremacy 
of the circle, as the ideal form in cosmological thought, and 
replaced it by the ellipse. Cassirer, who never took notes but 
possessed a memory of almost unlimited capacity, at once came 
to Warburg's aid, giving chapter and verse for this idea by 
quoting from Kepler. It was, probably, Warburg's first ray 
of light in those dark years. He learnt through Cassirer that 
he had not wandered in a pathless wilderness, but that his 
scientific thought at least was sane. Cassirer's memory was 
always miraculous} but it had never worked as miraculous a 
cure as it did on that day. 

In later years, when Warburg was back in Hamburg, a warm 
friendship sprang up between the two men. Warburg admired 
the clarity of thought and form in the philosopher; and Cassirer 
was impressed by the man who grasped life and history with 
such passion and who had gone through mental experiences 
which gave every utterance of his about art or religion, about 
philosophy and literature, a deep and wise ring. 

The character of Cassirer's scholarship, however, was such 
that, though enriched and extended, its intrinsic direction was 
never changed by his co-operation with Warburg. A reader 
familiar with Cassirer's work, but unfamiliar with these per- 
sonal details, would never divine the intimate relationship 
which existed between the two men, so much did all the writings 
of those years appear as the necessary continuation of Cassirer's 
earlier work. When Warburg died in 1929, it was Cassirer 
who spoke at his grave: a commemoration of the strange and 
fruitful meeting of two thinkers of almost diametrically op- 
posed character and tendency. Yet they had one great goal in 
common: to understand the nature and history of the symbolic 
expression of the human mind. 

If the Warburg Institute has grown into a stable institution, 
we owe much of its success to Cassirer's advice and help. If 
Warburg were alive, he would testify how greatly he admired 
Cassirer. But above all, he would express his deep gratitude to 
the man who, better than any psychiatrist, had helped him to 


find the way back into the world. Even those of you who knew 
Cassirer could hardly imagine the immense impression that his 
clear and calm personality made on a mind cut off from the 
world and striving hard to reach the port of health by exerting 
his powers of reason. Cassirer, Olympian and aloof, was yet 
the most humane and learned doctor of the soul. Higher praise 
could hardly be given to any man. 







I SHOULD like you to know something of what the stu- 
dents in the Department of Philosophy at Columbia felt for 
Ernst Cassirer. By recounting to you the substance of my own 
experience and my own feelings I shall be summing up the 
experience and the feelings of all of us here who were the 
students of Ernst Cassirer. For, my relations with Ernst Cas- 
sirer were surely typical and most representative. 

As a mere apprentice to that trade in which Ernst Cassirer 
was a revered guild-master, I am aware that language is a 
fragile bridge to understanding, and one that is too easily col- 
lapsible. Thus, if someone were to ask me: "How well did 
you know Ernst Cassirer?," I should feel the need of beginning 
my answer by making a certain verbal distinction. In terms 
reminiscent of one of the great problems with which Professor 
Cassirer came boldly to grips, I should have to reply: "Just 
what do you mean by the word 'know'?" 

If by your question you mean to inquire whether I enjoyed 
a personal friendship with my teacher, whether our acquaint- 
ance was an intimate one, then regretfully I should have to 
answer that in this sense I did not "know" Ernst Cassirer. The 
time was too short, the days were too few for this. 

But if your meaning is: "Did I have an understanding of 
the kind of man that Ernst Cassirer was?," then I should 
answer, and every one of his students would answer with me: 
"I did, and I do." 

Ernst Cassirer was an exile, a Jew, who wrote: "In our life, 
in the life of a modern Jew, there is no room left for any joy 
or complacency. All this has gone forever. No Jew whatsoever 



can and will ever overcome the terrible ordeal of these last 
years." And yet Ernst Cassirer was a man whose presence be- 
spoke serenity as surely as do the green leaves bespeak the 
springtime. This sereneness of countenance and mind was noted 
by all. But it was not the serenity which is unconscious of the 
storm j it was, rather, a kind of winged serenity which surveyed, 
which comprehended, and yet which nobly overrode the storm. 
And so, having seen this, we knew that Ernst Cassirer was a 
good man. For only the good are serene. 

We were impressed by the depth and variety of his knowl- 
edge. The depth we were prepared for, but the variety amazed 
us. I recall that, after I had seen An Essay On Man, I asked two 
members of the department whether Professor Cassirer were 
really at home in all the varied fields surveyed by this book. 
They assured me that, in truth, he was. And I am ashamed to 
confess that I was dismayed at this confirmation} for it seemed 
to me that I, a beginner in philosophy, could never hope my- 
self to be the master of such a manifold of learning. But this 
dismay was supplanted soon by a spirit of emulation; and the 
kind of scholarship which was Ernst Cassirer's became for me 
something to strive for, a goal which I might not attain, but a 
goal which was truly clear, for I had seen it defined in the 
being of a living man. 

In the lecture hall we were particularly impressed by the 
profound and appropriate allusions made to every field of 
knowledge. In the seminar room we learned to wait for the 
brilliant interjection, the almost casual sentence which put a 
philosopher or a problem in a new and more illuminating light. 
In short, we came to realize, all of us, in time, that as a man 
of learning and wisdom, as a scholar, Ernst Cassirer was 

He was an ardent man. I understood this on the day of the 
last class he taught. I was on my way to class that day, when 
in the distance I was glad to see Professor Cassirer walking in 
the same direction. I quickened my pace in order to catch up 
with him. When I came closer I saw that, as he walked, he 
was reading a book, which absorption accounted for the slow- 
ness of his step. As I watched him, he paused to concentrate on 


what he was reading, and, in that moment, I perceived that 
Ernst Cassirer, at the age of seventy, was more ardently in- 
terested in the contents of that book than most young men 
have ever been interested in the contents of any book. And so 
I did not disturb Professor Cassirer, and I am glad now that I 
did not, for the discreet man does not intrude upon a lover. 

Thus, being serene and good, being learned and wise and 
ardent, being all these things, Ernst Cassirer was a great man. 

And so we, the students of philosophy at Columbia esteem 
it to have been a great privilege and a great honor in our lives 
that, in this great university of the New World, we were the last 
students of the lineal descendant of Immanuel Kant, that we 
were the last students of the last flowering of German philoso- 
phy. And I do not speak from paper or from notes or in 
words formulated coldly and with deliberation, but I speak 
from the heart when I say: We loved Ernst Cassirer. 




WE ARE gathered together in a memorial to Ernst Cas- 
sirer. We meet here to convey to each other, in some 
poor words, what he meant to us as man and philosopher. It 
will take more, of course, than we have to give in this meeting 
to reveal what significance his work has and will continue to 
have for many others besides ourselves} and, fortunately, there 
is to be a volume of studies of his philosophy, where this 
further and more adequate appraisal may have place. But we 
can, at this moment, do something good for ourselves and for 
the memory of our friend, if we simply speak of the things 
that promptly stand out in our consciousness now rather than 
strain at the impossible task of offering a comprehensive pic- 
ture of the whole man and his work. These first thoughts that 
come in the dawning realization of our loss have a very personal 
character. Each one of us has his own individual feelings and 
appreciations. We are sharing these together in this hour and 
making the man we have known even more real for each other 
as we here tell how we best remember him. 

Four years ago, almost to the day, Ernst Cassirer came to 
this country, accompanied by his wife, without whom we who 
have but known him these few years cannot think of him. 
They came here direct from Sweden, on the last ship permitted 
to go out, in May, 1941. They made themselves at home in 
America, where they already had some dear ones waiting for 
their arrival. I believe that we can say that Ernst Cassirer was 
happy here, both in New Haven, where he first came to live, 
and then in New York. 

Let me speak to you after his own fashion. It was always 
his way, when telling of some other thinker or philosopher, 



first to quote something that was completely characteristic of 
the man. He often quoted at greater length, some people felt, 
than he needed to do. I recall a publisher saying this in criticism 
of one of his manuscripts. "We want more Cassirer," he com- 
plained, "and less of what other people have thought." But 
what other people had learned and thought was too important 
to Ernst Cassirer to be made so little of. He always knew that 
many artists of the mind had searched for and shaped the 
truths or the problems for inquiry with which he himself was 
concerned and he believed it a duty to give their "authority," 
in this fine and original sense of the term, before he ventured 
to present his own contribution to the matter. This was his 
style of life and thought. It expressed both his generous regard 
for other thinkers and his modest estimate of his own place 
alongside them in the halls of philosophy. 

I have in my hands a precious document and memento writ- 
ten in his own hand. Last year at this time he was saying fare- 
well to his friends at Yale. He spoke at the Philosophical Club 
meeting where all of us assembled to express to him our appre- 
ciation of the three good years we had been privileged to have 
together in our study of philosophy. This is what he said to 
us on that occasion: 

Looking back on my long academic life I must regard it as a long 
Odyssey. It was a sort of pilgrimage that led me from one university to 
the other, from one country to the other, and, at the end, from one 
hemisphere to the other. This Odyssey was rich in experiences in human 
and intellectual adventures. What was most delightful and gratifying in 
this long academic journey was the fact that it became also, more and 
more, a sentimental journey. For at any new place I was lucky enough 
to find new friends. I found colleagues who were ready to help me in 
my work, and I found students who were interested in my philosophical 

When I came to this country I cherished the hope that the same would 
happen here. And this hope was not disappointed. But, on the other hand, 
I found something more and something better something that passed 
all my expectations. I was not only supposed to give my own lectures 
and hold my own courses. I was invited to have a share in the work of my 
colleagues. During my first year I had the pleasure and the great privilege 
to be invited to a seminar on the philosophy of history . . . ; in my second 


year I could participate in a seminar on the philosophy of science . . .; 
in my third year we had a conjoint seminar on the theory of knowledge, 
. . . That was, indeed, a new experience to me and a very suggestive 
and stimulating one. I look back on these conjoint seminars with real 
pleasure and gratitude. I am sure I have learned very much from them. 

Of course, it was in a sense a rather bold enterprise, the bringing 
together of so many philosophers. As a rule philosophers seem not to be 
very fond of such a close cooperation. They are apt to disagree in their 
views, in their interests, in their very definition of what philosophy is and 
means. And the task that had to be solved here was so much the more 
doubtful and risky since three different generations were expected to 
have a share in a common work. To the struggle between philosophers 
there was added the struggle between the generations. In many of our 
modern systems of education we are told that it is hopeless to reconcile the 
views of men belonging to different generations. We are told that, there 
is a deep and insurmountable gap between the generations; that every 
new generation must feel in its own way, think its own thoughts and 
speak its own language. I regard this as a misleading and dangerous 
dogma and as a dogma that throughout my life I found constantly 
contradicted by my own personal experience. The older I grow, so much 
the more I become interested in the work and the thoughts of the 
younger men. And I always found that they readily answered to my 
interest. To my great satisfaction I had the same experience here. . . . 

Of course the younger people criticized me sometimes rather severely. 
They could not always agree with me; they thought perhaps that they 
had outgrown, a long time ago, some of the philosophic ideas and ideals 
that were still very dear to me. But, after all, they listened to me and 
they tolerated my very old-fashioned philosophy. They could see my 
point as well as I could see theirs. 

This ended his "brief report," as he then called it, on his 
life amongst us, though he had even other things to express, 
more personal, on that occasion. But what he said in these 
words just quoted belongs to no particular group of colleagues 
and students or university. It was as much his message to Co- 
lumbia this year as it was to Yale then. It was his report on his 
American sojourn. And while it reports our academic life as 
he really saw it, it has greater truth still as a revelation of him- 

That friendship of which he told, the eager interest in ideas, 
the tolerance of mind . . . "they could see my point as well as 


I could see theirs." All this happened because of him. It was 
his doing. "I was lucky enough to find new friends." Lucky? 
Oh no, he was himself the architect of these rewarding per- 
sonal and academic relations which we all so much enjoyed. He 
was the philosopher who brings to birth the philosophic spirit 
and way of life in those who lived and worked with him. 

"The older I grow," he had said, "the more I become in- 
terested in the thoughts of the younger men." Very few men 
of seventy will even think of saying that, and there are fewer 
still who, if they were to say it, would ever be believed. We 
know that he said this, however, in all sincerity and without the 
shadow of a boast. He spoke with transparent honesty when he 
acknowledged such an intellectual benefit for himself in his 
association with youth and with the younger scholars. It was a 
confession made in fine simplicity by one who was a genuine 
teacher of men. 

He rejoiced, as you saw, at the idea especially of keeping 
three generations in touch with each other in common work, the 
young, the middle-aged and the old. He was well aware of the 
risk involved in such an enterprise in education. We realize 
from his own words, too, that he felt the severity of the youth- 
ful criticism directed at his particular philosophic beliefs and 
ideasj but we saw him, too, meeting the criticism with reason 
and patience and generosity, and it was, in fact, by so doing that 
he brought several generations so happily together in adven- 
tures of learning. Here is another classic trait of the philosopher. 
We all remember Socrates at the same age and doing the same 

No man of his high caliber could live through these last 
twenty-five years without giving profound thought to the 
whole plight of humanity in all the nations of the world. He 
knew what adversity meant close at home. His knowledge of 
vast periods of history brought multitudes of other instances 
that could weigh down the spirit with a heavy burden. He was 
sensitive to the pain and the hopelessness that many have to 
suffer and must continue to suffer. Yet his vision kept in view 
the dignity and continuity of man's long struggle forward to a 
life that befits humanity. Thus he succeeded in attaining sere- 


nity himself. Yet he was never aloof and abstracted, for he 
gave thought and individual sympathy for the small personal 
trials of everyone whom he knew. It was good for one's soul 
to be with him. And no one who knew him at all could miss 
that cheerfulness which was a sort of spiritual radiance that 
warmed and brightened our fellowship. This is the thing, I 
believe, we should bear in mind now, as we go on to recall all 
the other things that Ernst Cassirer has meant to us. 





Hendrik J. Pos 


HONORED by the invitation to contribute to the Cassirer 
volume, I should like to carry out this assignment by 
saying something about Cassirer, the man, as well as about his 
philosophical significance. I had the privilege of studying Cas- 
sirer's works even before I first heard his lectures in Hamburg 
during the summer semester of 1928. I then met him in the 
Spring of 1929 at the Second University Congress in Davos; 
and since 1934 I have been in closer personal relationship with 
him, which led to my spending a month with him in Goteberg 
in the summer of 1936, for the purpose of co-operating on a task 
which, due to unforeseen circumstances, was never brought to 
completion. The last word I ever had from him was a postcard, 
dated May 1940, expressing his concern over how I had fared 
since the invasion. Shortly thereafter I was interned, and when 
the war was over the news of his death reached me. 

When I was a young student, Ernest Cassirer's works on the 
history of the theory of knowledge, Substance and Function, as 
well as on Einstein's theory, opened up to me the whole world 
of scientific thought, which was far removed from a student of 
classical philology. This study became determinative for my 
philosophical development, insofar as I learned from it the 
nature of natural science in contrast to cultural (social) science, 
and how the former has gradually created its own correct path 
for itself, a path which leads form Galileo through Newton to 
Einstein and the moderns. If, as a young admirer of the Greeks, 
one is inclined to take all of Plato's and Aristotle's speculative 
thought for immutable truth, then nothing is more instructive 
than to take cognizance of the inexorable course pursued by 

* Translated by Dr. Robert W. Bretall. 



science since the Renaissance. To this end Cassirer's Erkenntnis- 
problem is an excellent guide. Endowed with a wonderfully 
flexible style, he knows how to transpose himself into every 
point of view, to present it con amore y and at the same time to 
trace the great lineage which leads from speculative ontology 
and abstract verbalism to the rational empiricism of modern 
natural science. It is most gratifying that the three volumes 
which carry the treatment up to Hegel, are very soon, through 
the interest of Professor Hendel of Yale, to be completed with 
the fourth volume, which Cassirer had left in manuscript. In 
this major work of its kind Cassirer exhibited an unexcelled 
mastery, command, and disposition of his material, and in 
addition, a luminous facility of presentation, which remains 
unique in German philosophy. It is a history of recent philoso- 
phy from the standpoint of the progress of the natural sciences. 
It may be that here and there in the quotations there is some 
room for improvement: the whole [work] is the expression of 
an idea, which emerges clearly from the development of the 
natural sciences in modern times, the idea, namely, of the transi- 
tion from metaphysical speculation to rational understanding. 
Here it is shown how, by a gradual process of trial and error, and 
under the decisive influence of scientific savants, the intellectual 
and technical mastery over nature has come about; and how, in 
this process, the basic viewpoints have altered. One cannot claim 
that any old philosophical position fits into this development 
equally well: ontologism sees itself compelled to separate the 
empirical development of science from the philosophical deter- 
mination of fundamental principles, in order thus to keep the 
changes of empirical science far away from the philosophical 
enterprise. Cassirer demonstrated at what cost the a prioristic 
and established results of philosophy are purchased by this 
method. He also showed how the historical development has 
shoved aside this dualism, which amounts to a doctrine of the 
twofold nature of truth, and how Kant's method of the analysis 
of basic principles an analysis which proceeds from the very 
fact of existing science does justice to the progress of science 
without robbing philosophy of her own task. Further, he showed 
how the application of Kant's analysis to natural science today 


makes it necessary to go beyond the content of Kant's doctrine. 
Of this the Relativity theory is the classical demonstration, inso- 
far as it modifies the intuition of space and time, which Kant 
still was able to lay down as the foundation of physics. This 
[theory] makes it clear that the advance of knowledge consists 
not only in the material of new experience being incorporated 
into the fixed categories, but also in the fact that the basic as- 
sumptions themselves must be revised from time to time, in 
order to bring new facts into non-contradictory connection with 
old. Philosophically considered, Cassirer taught how to extend 
the idea of the process under which the Marburg school sub- 
sumed "knowledge," to include the basic categories themselves 
and their determination thereby going beyond Kant and his 
orthodox adherents. This was the only way of safeguarding 
Kantianism against the reproach of dogmatism, and of prevent- 
ing it from being left behind by the advance of science, as had 
happened in the case of ontological speculation. Through his 
"scientism" Cassirer's philosophy has achieved an international 
reputation which puts him close beside the kindred figure of 
Leon Brunschvicg. At -Davos I was present at conversations 
during which the two thinkers made the discovery of their 
spiritual affinity. 

Cassirer was so many-sided, that his total work was far from 
exhausted by his writings in the field of epistemology. To others 
it may be left to come to closer terms with the abiding merit of 
his studies in the history of epistemology, in theory of relativity, 
and in the problem of causality in recent physics. I turn now to 
his philosophy of culture, set down in the first two volumes of 
the Philosofhie der symbolischen Formen. In 1923 appeared 
the volume on language, and in 1925 that on mythical thought. 
The first is a phenomenology of the formation of our world- 
view in terms of a philosophy of language; whereas the second 
volume lays bare the driving force which conditioned the crea- 
tion of a religion. Cassirer was the first to apply the basic ideas 
of neo-Kantianism concerning spirit and its creative energy to 
the pre-scientific world-view. Here, too, he was guided by that 
historical sense which distinguishes his treatment of the problem 
of knowledge. With the aid of an intensive study of the struc- 


tures of primitive languages for which the Warburg Institute 
in Hamburg provided him with the jviferials he sought to 
construct a line of development leadihg from the most ele- 
mentary categories of the world to the more objective ones, and 
finally to the cognitive results of the sciences. The primitive 
languages, taken as witnesses to a very remote stage of the hu- 
man grasp of the universe, offered him valuable supporting 
evidence for his notion of the gradually advancing "symbolical" 
formation of the world-picture, which in the interest of ob- 
jectivity and of comprehensive unification, gets farther and 
farther away from the original, primitive intuitions. He showed 
in a convincing manner how an originally strong, vital, and 
qualitatively conditioned world-view gives way gradually to an 
objective and more universal one, this transition attesting itself 
in the transformations of language as it proceeds from a sensory, 
qualitative stage to a symbolical-abstract mode of expression. 
Thus it becomes clear how the requirements of science make it 
necessary to introduce symbols which in precision and fruitful- 
ness surpass those of language. 

One may perhaps harbor some doubt as to whether the cur- 
rent linguistic structure of a society is, indeed, always so faithful 
an expression of its manner of thought and feeling whether 
now and then, let us say, the external structure may not be in- 
adequate to the thought-content. No damage is thereby done 
to the methodological principle of Cassirer 's theory of language, 
and it is to be gratefully acknowledged that through him the 
researches instigated by Wilhelm von Humboldt and by Wundt 
have been fruitfully continued and have received their philo- 
sophical foundation. The basic idea which sustains both the 
theory of language and the theory of knowledge is the fact 
that, by introducing symbols, the human consciousness succeeds 
in ordering and governing the welter of sensations. The cate- 
gories expressed in languages pave the way for that logical 
order for which the sciences are striving. 

Cassirer's philosophy of culture is a philosophy of the logos, 
not in the narrow sense of "ratio" or of the intellect in the purely 
theoretical sense, but rather in the sense of that spiritual, form- 
indudng energy which appears in science, society, and art. As a 


critic Cassirer was as ill disposed to metaphysics as toward that 
irration? 1 ' *n which stirred mightily in Germany between the 
two world wars. His Kantian rationalism was bound to come 
into conflict with the intuitionism of the waxing phenome- 
nology, and especially with the ontological and "philosophy of 
life" stamp which Heidegger imparted to it. The Kant inter- 
pretations presented by Cassirer and Heidegger, together with 
the ensuing discussions, constituted the focal point of the Inter- 
national Davos University course in 1929. 

The two standpoints could be mutually clarified, but they 
could not be brought any closer together. Cassirer [on his part] 
emphasized the spiritual law, the form, by means of which man 
liberates himselfs from his immediacy and his anxiety. This is 
the way in which the finite mind participates in the infinite. 
Whereas Heidegger expounded his book on Kant and the Prob- 
lem of Metaphysics, which had just been published. He ex- 
pressed the opinion that Kant's central problem was not at all 
that of scientific knowledge, but rather the problem of the 
metaphysical comprehension of being. Kant's philosophy he de- 
clared to be a philosophy of finite man, whose access to the In- 
finite is denied, but whose orientation toward the transcendent 
confirms his very finitude. The difference was clear. Heidegger 
persisted in the terminus a quo, in the situation at the point of 
departure, which for him is the dominating factor in all phi- 
losophizing, Cassirer [on the other hand] aimed at the 
terminus ad quern, at liberation through the spiritual form, in 
science, practical activity, and art. The contrast was not theoreti- 
cal, but human. Here stood, on the one side, the representative 
of the best in the universalistic traditions of German culture, a 
man for whom Idealism was the victorious power which is called 
to mold and spiritualize human life. This man, the heir of Kant, 
stood there tall, powerful, and serene. His effect upon his 
audience lay in his mastery of exposition, in the Apollonian ele- 
ment. From the beginning he had within him the liberal culture 
of Central Europe, the product of a long tradition. In both 
spiritual lineaments and external appearance, this man belonged 
to the epoch of Kant, of Goethe, and of Kleist, to each of whom 
he had dedicated some of his literary efforts. And over against 


him stood an altogether different type of man, who struggled 
with Cassirer over the deepest intentions of Kant's writings. This 
man too had a gigantic intellect. As a man, however, he was 
completely different. Of $etit bourgeois descent from southwest 
Germany, he had never lost his accent. In him this was readily 
forgiven, being taken as a mark of firm-rootedness and peasant 
genuineness. There was, however, much more that was of inter- 
est in this man. In his youth he was destined for the priesthood, 
and was to receive his seminary education at Constance. He ran 
away, however, and became a renegade. At home as almost no 
one else in Aristotle and the scholastics, in Kant and Hegel, he 
constructed for himself a philosophy which, on the side of 
method, came close to the phenomenology of his teacher, Hus- 
serl. In point of content, however, this philosophy was of course 
entirely his own: there lay feelings at the base of it which 
were concealed by the gigantic intellectual superstructure. But 
when one listened to his lectures, listened to this gloomy, some- 
what whining and apprehensive tone of voice, then there flowed 
forth the feelings which this man harbored or at least which he 
knew how to awaken. These were feelings of loneliness, of op- 
pression, and of frustration, such as one has in anxious dreams, 
but now present in a clear and wakeful state of mind. 

The bearer of this mood-philosophy had the ear of Germany's 
academic youth, not on account of his prodigious knowledge of 
the history of philosophy, but rather because he translated feel- 
ings which in that youth found a soil already prepared. This 
man came to be regarded as the great hope. His searching book 
on Kant had succeeded in showing those dark, melancholy feel- 
ings as determinative even for the philosophy of the famous 
sage of Konigsberg. Man is a finite being and cannot escape his 
finitude this, the book taught, was to have been the deepest 
meanings of Kant's thought. This carried conviction, from the 
very first, for the youth of a land where the feeling of frustra- 
tion had for ten years now been alive in a sense other than the 
merely metaphysical one. The little man with the sinister wilful 
speech, who was at home with these morose feelings, who loved 
to say that philosophy is no fun, the despiser of Goethe [this 
man] over against the representative of Enlightenment, basking 


in spiritual fortune, for whom the philosopher's life was joy and 
inspiration, and who in Goethe paid homage to the universal 

The whole discussion was the intuitive representation of this 
profound cleavage between the two men. The one abrupt, nega- 
tive, his attitude one of protest} the other kindly, gracious, ac- 
commodating, always concerned to give his partner more honor 
than he deserved. The two men reached an agreement on the 
meaning of Kant's Schematism, which represents the original 
intermingling of sense and understanding. This, however, left 
the main questions undecided: each one viewed Kant from the 
standpoint of his own humanity, with the difference, however, 
that the one admitted that metaphysical expressions are not 
lacking in the text, whereas the other would in no wise grant 
that the main concern of the Critique of Pure Reason was aimed 
at grounding the scientific knowledge of nature philosophically. 
Long went the discussions back and forth, until finally they 
terminated. The conclusion was not without human symbolism; 
the magnanimous man offered his hand to his opponent: but it 
was not accepted. 

The Davos conversations were symbolical of the tragic decline 
toward which German philosophy was hastening. Whoever 
at that time still did not grasp what was going on, could get a 
glimpse of it four years later, when fate divided the two Kant 
interpreters as irreconcilably as had their manners of thought: 
for Ernst Cassirer there no longer was any room in Germany. 
He emigrated to Oxford. In the same year his opponent in the 
Davos discussions was appointed rector of the University of 
Freiburg, and in his inaugural address professed himself un- 
reservedly for National Socialism. Germany's spiritual collapse 
had taken place, and Heidegger placed his philosophy at the 
service of the self-destruction of the German intelligentsia. 

When Ernst Cassirer was forced to leave the University of 
Hamburg in 1933, he stood at the peak of his international 
reputation. It was primarily because of him and Husserl that 
German philosophy, at that time, flourished before the world. 
For the regime, quite naturally, this was no reason whatsoever 
for making an exception in his case. On the contrary, interna- 


tional recognition was then taken as a proof of unreliability, 
especially if on top of this one was a non-Aryan. Cassirer loved 
the free-thinking Hamburg, whose newly founded university he 
had co-operatively helped to build ever since 1919. The leave- 
taking must have been painful, perhaps even more so than the 
cutting injustice perpetrated by his dismissal. So magnificent 
a person was he, however, that no word of bitterness was ever 
heard from him about the injustice done. With Olympian 
serenity he departed. A man who for many years had lived in 
Cassirer's shadow became his successor, and expressed his pleas- 
ure at the course of events. Cassirer rapidly made friends in 
Oxford. He learned English and delivered lectures. It was not 
easy to gain a genuine understanding for neo-Kantianism. It 
was during his stay in England that Cassirer celebrated his 
sixtieth birthday. The co-operative volume, Philosophy and 
History, which was presented to him on this occasion (Oxford, 
Clarendon Press, 1936) is a living testimonial to the diversity 
of influence and of inspiration which radiated from him upon 
philosophers and historians of culture in all countries. The 
twenty-two essays had been edited by Cassirer's student Kli- 
bansky and the Oxford Kantian scholar and historian of phi- 
losophy, H. J. Paton. The contributions came from England, 
France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and 
America. In the preface the editors wrote: "It is our hope that 
this book may bear witness to that enduring spiritual bond which 
unites scholars of different countries and different traditions." 
The name of Cassirer actually symbolized a universalism and 
internationalism which recognizes every member of mankind for 
its spiritual contribution to the whole culture pattern, on the 
presupposition that through such mutual recognition, the unity 
of mankind will be honored and promoted. 

The further course of Cassirer's life was to bear still further 
testimony to this universalism. In 1935 he emigrated to Sweden, 
where his former student Jacobson vacated for him the chair 
in philosophy at the University, while he himself accepted the 
appointment as Governor of the Province of Bohnslau. Here 
too Cassirer made devoted friends and enthusiastic students. 
And here in the summer of 1936 I had the privilege of being 


allowed to carry on a series of conversations with him in a sub- 
ject for which we had conceived the plan of a co-operative 
volume during his stay in Amsterdam: the influence of the 
Greek language on philosophy. Was Greek from the very first 
a language well adapted to philosophical thought? Or did the 
thinkers rather take the instrument at hand in its natural state 
and adapt it to their particular needs of expression? How far 
does the unconscious influence of the inner linguistic form of 
Greek extend to the construction of metaphysical concepts? 
These and similar questions we discussed intensively} during 
which process Cassirer unfolded his masterly gift of intellectual 
sympathy and dialectical skill. After these preparatory conversa- 
tions we promised each other to work them out during the next 
summer. It never got that far. Since 1936 I have remained in 
correspondence with Cassirer, but have never seen him again. 
A very promising participation in a Hegel conference at Amers- 
foort had to be declined by him for reasons of health. In Sweden 
too Cassirer did fruitful work. His stay in the North furnished 
him the occasion for taking up his Cartesian studies once more 
and for engaging in documentary research on Descartes' life in 
Stockholm. The fruits of these years were many an article in the 
philosophical journal Theoria, edited by Ake Petzall, a book 
on the development of the concept of causality, and the book on 

In May, 1941, Cassirer came to America with the last ship 
which was permitted to make the crossing. Of his work at Yale, 
until 1944, and at Columbia until his death on April 13, 1945, 
Professor Charles Hendel has given a beautiful account in the 
Journal of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Sept., 
1945, 156-159). The quotation there reproduced really consti- 
tutes the autobiography of Ernst Cassirer. A great man looks 
back upon the Odyssey of his life, in the course of which he has 
had to wander from land to land and from continent to conti- 
nent. He did it modestly, cheerfully, and magnificently. Sub- 
jectively considered, this man's gratitude to others is perfectly 
sincere; whereas taken objectively, it is not without irony, since 
it was not he but the others who had cause to be grateful. But 
that is the way Ernst Cassirer was; he sought no glory, and yet 


he gained it; he esteemed others higher than himself, but 
actually was their superior. This was the secret of the inspiring 
and uplifting effect which emanated from his presence. There 
was nothing in him of professorial vainglory, and yet he was a 
teacher beyond compare. He did not hesitate to cite the writings 
of a man who had lived for many years in his shadow and who 
was openly jealous of him. And I can still hear him speaking, 
in Davos, to a very young instructor: "You and I have the same 
philosophical interests, and I am very glad of this." This was his 
self-giving virtue, the generosite of the Descartes he so greatly 
admired. One scarcely knows what to marvel at most, this man's 
gigantic intellect, his consummate form of expression, or his 
chivalrous humanity. 

His philosophy reveals his character through its capacity for 
transposing itself sympathetically into various and sundry phil- 
osophical viewpoints, without thereby losing the distinctive 
lines of his own thinking. To the editor of this book I have to 
express my gratitude for the opportunity of bearing witness, by 
a short and fleeting sketch, to my grateful admiration for a man 
to whom German philosophy owes more than to any other of 
its current representatives (viz.,) that in the time of its shame 
and its decline, it has been able to maintain its age-old renown 
in the eyes of the world. 





Carl H. Hamburg 


IF IT IS the mark of a great thinker that death cannot 
interrupt the continuity of his intellectual influence, and 
if, furthermore, an ever growing demand for his published 
thought may be taken as one way of measuring his greatness, 
the late Ernst Cassirer must well be accorded this rare title. 
Within three years after an untimely death cut short his teach- 
ing career at Columbia University, there have rolled off the 
presses several printings of his Essay on Man (first published 
in 1944), Language and Myth (translated in 1946 and already 
out of print) and Myth of the State (fourth printing since 
1946), all of which have simultaneously been translated into 
Spanish and some of which will soon appear in French, Ger- 
man, and Dutch. In addition, we may expect in the not too 
distant future English editions of Determinism and Indeter- 
minism in Modern Physics? the fourth volume of his famous 
Erkenntnisproblem? the Philosophy of the Enlightenment? 
and possibly, the Logic of the Humanities? Spanish transla- 
tions of Kant's Life and Work? and the Philosophy of Sym- 
bolic Forms 6 as well as posthumous publication in German of 

1 Dcterminlsmus und Indeterminismus in der modernen Physik} Historische und 
systematische Studien zum Kausalproblem. (Goeteborgs Hoegskolas Arsskrift. Vol. 
XLIIj 1936) 5 ix, 265 pp. 

*To be published sometime in 1948, this volume will deal with physical, 
biological and historical methods. (Approx. 500 pp.) 

1 Die Philosophic der Aufklaerung. (Tuebingen, Mohr, 1932)$ 491 pp. 

* Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaftenj Fuenf Studien. (Der Gegenstand der 
Kulturwissenschaftj Ding- und Ausdruckswahrnehmung j Naturbegriffe und Kul- 
turbegriffej Formproblem und Kausalproblem j Die "Tragoedie der Kultur".) 
(Goeteborgs Hoegskolas Arsskrift $ Vol. XL VII $ 1942)$ 139 pp. 

* Kant's Leben und Lehre. Vol. XI of . Cassirer's edition of Kant's ScMften 
(Berlin, Bruno Cassirer, 1918) j viii, 448 pp. 

* Philosophic der symbolischen Formen (see Bibliography in this Vol.) 



his Kleinere Schriften 7 and the collection of essays into a 

Now, if these publishing announcements may be taken to 
reflect a considerable preoccupation with the work of Cassirer, 
such interest is certainly not properly taken cognizance of in our 
teaching curricula. It is doubtful whether in any of the many 
courses, offered on the subject of "Contemporary Philosophy" 
in American colleges and universities, more than summary 
if any mention is made of the philosophy of Cassirer. In the 
case of this thinker, we seem to be facing the rather familiar 
paradox that a lively 'interest' in his philosophy goes hand in 
hand with just as lively an ignorance concerning what his 
philosophy is about. Although there is undoubtedly more than 
one reason for this circumstance, a decisive one, I believe, must 
be seen in the fact that, whereas Cassirer achieved early fame 
with his historical works, his philosophy proper was not de- 
veloped before the publication of his Philosophie der sym- 
bolischen Foremen, the latest volume of which appeared in 1929, 
at a time when in Germany phenomenology and the "lebens- 
philosophischen" precursors of existentialist philosophies had 
all but eclipsed the classicism of Cassirer's theme and style. 

Cassirer's philosophy proper has, accordingly, neither re- 
ceived the attention that a German intelligentsia gave to lesser 
intellectual events in the anxious pre-Hitler years nor has an 
English-speaking audience had the opportunity to satisfy by a 
closer study of a translated version of the Philosophie der 
symbolischen Formen the interest in his thought which such 
books as An Essay on Man and Language and Myth have al- 
ready provoked. Although it is to be hoped that arrangements 
for an English translation of Cassirer's magnum of us will soon 
be made, in the meantime there may be some value in sketching 
somewhat broadly what may be termed his 'conception of phi- 
losophy.' To this purpose we shall examine Cassirer's symbolic- 
form concept, upon the proper understanding of which hinges 
both his conception of what philosophy has been and what it 
must be, if it is to give full and impartial attention to the 

T Containing a number of previously published essays, most of which are out 
of print by now. 


phenomena of the "natural" as well as of the "cultural" 
sciences, to both the Natur- und Kulturwissenschaften. 

a. Terminological distinctions 

The term "symbolic form" is employed by Cassirer in at 
least three distinct, though related, senses: 

(1) It covers what is more frequently referred to as the 
"symbolic relation," the "symbol-concept," the "symbolic func- 
tion," or, simply, the "symbolic" (das Symbolische) . 

(2) It denotes the variety of cultural forms which as myth, 
art, religion, language, and science exemplify the realms of 
application for the symbol-concept. 

(3) It is applied to space, time, cause, number, etc. which 
as the most pervasive symbol-relations are said to constitute, 
with characteristic modifications, such domains of objectivity as 
listed under (2). 

In correspondence with this division, we shall in the sequel 
deal first with the "symbol-concept." Indication will be given 
of both the "cultural" import attributed to it by Cassirer and 
the essentially Kantian epistemological provisions within which 
it is developed. We shall attempt an adequate definition of this 
concept and consider both objections and a possible defense for 
its maintenance. We shall examine, secondly, how a philosophy 
thus oriented may be conceived as a transition from a critique of 
reason to a critique of culture. As such, it would suggest a 
widening of the scope of philosophic concern by putting the 
"transcendental question" beyond science to other types of 
institutionalized activities which, such as art, language, science, 
etc., actually define the meaning of the term "culture." And, 
thirdly, we shall view Cassirer's inquiry into symbolic forms as 
a study of the basic (intuitional and categorial) forms of syn- 
thesis (space, time, cause, number, etc.) and their characteristi- 
cally different functioning in a greater variety of contexts than 
was considered by Kant. If presented thus, one could clarify just 
what type of metaphysics would be both possible and profitable 
within Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms. 


b. The Symbol-Concept. Efistemological considerations 

As the most universal concept to be formulated within Cas- 
sirer's philosophy, the symbol-concept is to cover "the totality 
of all phenomena which in whatever form exhibit 'sense in 
the senses' (Sinnerjuellung im Sinnlichen) and in which some- 
thing 'sensuous' (ein Sinnliches) is represented as a particular 
embodiment of a 'sense' (Bedeutung y meaning)." 8 Here a 
definition of the symbol-concept is given by way of the two 
terms of the "sensuous" on one hand and the "sense" (mean- 
ing) on the other, and a relation between the two, which is most 
frequently referred to as "one representing the other." The 
extremely general character of this pronouncement must be 
noted. Cassirer's claim exceeds by far what has ordinarily been 
admitted about the "symbolical character" of knowledge. Al- 
though not all philosophers would subscribe to the idea that 
all knowledge is of a mediate type, it could perhaps be said that 
to the extent that knowledge is taken to be mediate, it may also 
be said to be "symbolical" by virtue of its dependence upon 
(sets or systems of) signs which determine the discursive 
(linguistic or mathematical) medium within which it is attained. 
Whereas the history of ideas discloses a varying emphasis put 
by different thinkers upon sometimes one, sometimes another 
of the (symbolic) media to be trusted for the grand tour to the 
"really real," it also appears to substantiate Cassirer's general 
formula, according to which all knowledge as mediate is 
defined as implying (besides an interpretant, mind, Geisi) 
both: the given-ness of perceptual signs (sensuous vehicles, ein 
Sinnliches) and something signified (meaning, Sinn). But, al- 
though Cassirer's above quoted symbol-definition would indeed 
be wide enough to cover such area of considerable agreement 
with respect to the symbolically mediate character of knowl- 
edge, note that it formulates no restrictions with respect to 
cognitive discourse. The "representative" relation which is 
asserted to hold between the senses and the sense (mean- 
ing) is, in other words, not taken to be exhaustively defined by 

*PMlosopMe der symbolischen Formen, Vol. Ill, 109. To be abbreviated 
henceforth as: PSF. 


grammatical, logical, or mathematical syntax-types, which de- 
termine the conventional forms of discourse within which 
knowledge is held to be mediated. Instead, it is to cover "the 
whole range of all phenomena within which there is sense in 
the senses," i.e., in all contexts in which (e.g., on the expressive 
and intuitional levels) experience is had as of "characters" 
(persons) and "things" in space and time. The issue, therefore, 
of a confrontation by "signs" of "facts," which would be 
germane to all those views which consider essentially the dis- 
cursive dimension of symbol-situations, cannot even come up 
for a philosophy according to which "facts" cannot be evidence 
for (or against) "symbols," simply because their very "factu- 
ality" is not considered meaningful outside of some determinate 
symbolic context. The objection, therefore, raised by many 
philosophers against scholasticism, to the effect that the latter 
replaced the consideration of facts by that of symbols (names), 
need not invalidate Cassirer's position for which 

there is no f actuality ... as an absolute . . . immutable datum; but 
what we call a fact is always theoretically oriented in some way, seen 
in regard to some . . . context and implicitly determined thereby. Theo- 
retical elements do not somehow become added to a 'merely factual,' but 
they enter into the definition of the factual itself. 9 

Once the "facts," the state of affairs, the objects, which are 
designated by conventional signs, are realized as themselves 
partaking of expressive (qualitative) and perceptive (intui- 
tional) "symbolisms" of their own, the question of the appli- 
cation of symbols to facts is replaced by the question concerning 
the "checking"of one symbol-context by another, considered 
more reliable or more easily institutable. 

In this connection, a brief consideration of the issue of con- 
firmation may be to the point. In Carnap's version 

the scientist describes his own observations concerning a certain planet 
in a report Oi. Further, he takes into consideration a theory T, con- 
cerning the movements of planets (also laws assumed for the justifiable 
application of his instruments. C.H.). From Oi and T the astronomer 

9 PSF, Vol. Ill, 475. See also: Substance and Function, 143. 


deduces a prediction; he calculates the apparent position of the planet for 
the next night. At that time, he will make a new observation and formu- 
late it in a report Oz. Then he will compare the prediction P with Oa 
and thereby find it either confirmed or not. 10 

A theoretical symbolism, in other words, is confirmed when 
the phenomena, which the symbolism predicts, are observed. 
Concededly, however, there is a hypothetical reference to con- 
text not only in the theory to be confirmed but also in the ob- 
servations which do the confirming. "All observation involves 
more or less explicitly the element of hypothesis." 11 On the 
view proposed by Cassirer, to say that a theory (in combination 
with statements regarding initial conditions) is confirmed by 
"observation" would not require recognition of and recourse to 
any non-symbolic factuality, disclosed to the senses free from 
all elements of interpretation} but it would, instead, be equiva- 
lent to saying that hypothetically constructed contexts (theories 
regarding the orbit of a planet) would be confirmable if from 
it certain data can be deduced (its position at a certain time) 
such that, by appropriate co-ordination of a perceptual context, 
what are defined as light-rays in one context, will be interpreted 
as the determinate color and shape of a "thing" (planet) in 
another. Furthermore: we have an "interpretant" with his 
attendant "perspectives," a sign-signified relation on both the 
theoretical and the observational levels. To hold that the 
former stands in need of confirmation by the latter and not 
vice versa ,to maintain that "the scientific criterion of objec- 
tivity rests upon the possibility of occurrence of predicted per- 
ceptions to a society of observers" (ibid., 5), is fully intelligible 
within the provisions of Cassirer's view which cannot except ob- 
servation from a symbolic interpretation. Whether as observa- 
tion of pointer-readings or of "things," the "confirmatory" 
character of observation does not depend upon its confrontation 
by non-symbolic facts of symbolic theories, but rather upon the 
easily (almost immediately) institutable and shareable nature 
of the perceptual context in which we have "facts" and to 

10 Rudolf Carnap, Foundations of Logic and Mathematics, i. 

11 Victor Lenzen : Procedures of Empirical Science, 4. 


which all other contexts can be co-ordinated in varying degrees 
of explicitness. 

We suggest, therefore, that whereas the import of symbolic 
media for the intelligibility of reality is certainly not a new 
discovery and has been realized by philosophers from Plato to 
Dewey, the thesis that a symbolic relation obtains for any 
possible (culturally encounterable) context in which we per- 
ceive or observe a "world," expresses what is most distinctive in 
Cassirer's conception of philosophy. 

A comparable extension of the philosophical concern beyond 
the cognitive to other types of signifying and modes of sign- 
usages has been advocated more recently by positivistic thinkers, 
who are intent upon establishing a more secure foundation for 
the discipline of semiotics. Unfortunately, Cassirer himself 
nowhere explicitly differentiates his own type of inquiry from 
the kind of sign-analyses carried on by, e.g., Carnap and 
Morris. 12 We shall, therefore, briefly consider both areas of 
agreement and points of divergence characteristic of the two 
schools of thought before proceeding to examine the epistemo- 
logical orientation within which Cassirer's own philosophy of 
symbolic forms is developed. 

Note that Cassirer could well agree with a view according 
to which "the most effective characterization of a sign is the 
following: S is a sign of D for I to the degree that I takes 
account of D by virtue of the presence of S," 18 where I stands 
for the interpretant of a sign, D for what is designated, and 
S for the vehicle (mark, sound, or gesture) by means of which 
D is designated to I. Yet, although the proposal to understand 
sign-processes as "mediated-taking-accounts of" is also implied 
in Cassirer's conception of the matter, there would be a charac- 
teristic shift of terms. Where Morris, e.g., has his "interpre- 
tant," Cassirer would speak in terms of "Bewusstsein" or 
"Geist:" "the meaning of spirit (Geist) can be disclosed only 
in its expression; the ideal form (what is designated) comes to 

"Rudolf Carnap j Foundations of Logic and Mathematics^ 1939. Charles W. 
Morris, Foundations of the Theory of Signs, 1938$ and Language , Signs and 
Behavior, 1946. 

M Charles W. Morris, foundations of the Theory of Signs, 4. 


be known only in and with the system of sensible signs by 
means of which it is expressed." 14 Likewise, the distinction be- 
tween the sign-vehicle (S) and the designation of the sign (D) 
by Cassirer is put in terms of a correlation alternatively called 
"the sign and the signified," "the particular and the general," 
"the sensuous and its sense" (das Sinnliche imd sein Sinn). 
There is agreement, then, on this basic point: for anything to be 
a sign does not denote a property characterizing a special class 
of objects, but speaking in the material mode it indicates 
that it participates in the sign-process as a whole within which 
it "stands" to somebody for something, or in the formal mode 
that it can be defined only in terms of a three-term relation 
of the form "I-S-D," where "I" designates the "taking- 
account-of," "S" the mediators of the "taking-account-of," and 
"D" what is taken account of. In Cassirer J s language: "The act 
of the conceptual determination of what is designated (ernes 
Inhalts) goes hand in hand with the act of its fixation by some 
characteristic sign. Thus, all truly concise and exacting thought 
is secured in the 'SymboUk* and 'Semiotik* which support it." 15 
For a correct understanding of Cassirer's position all depends 
here upon the interpretation we put upon this metaphor of "the 
sign and the signified going hand in hand." For Morris, mani- 
festly, the relationship suggested is one interchangeably alluded 
to as one of signs "indicating," "announcing," or "suggesting" 
the presence of whatever they denote, designate, or signify. 
For Cassirer, on the other hand, HusserPs dictum in the matter 
holds: "Das Bedeuten ist nicht eine Art des Zeichen-Seins im 
Sinne der Anzeige" (To signify is not a way of being a sign in 
the sense of being an indication.) 18 The indicative function of 
signs, upon the broad basis of which Morris attempts to sketch 
the foundations of a semiotic, is accordingly of just the kind 
that Cassirer would have to consider as inadequate for an under- 
standing of the symbolic function properly speaking. In the 
formulation of this distinction by Susanne Langer: "The funda- 
mental difference between signs and symbols is this difference 

"PSF, Vol. I, 1 8. 
M PF,Vol. I, 1 8. 
16 Edmund Husserl, Logische Untersuchungen, Vol. II, 23. 


of association, and consequently of their use by the third party to 
the meaning function, the subject: signs announce their objects 
to him, whereas symbols lead him to conceive their objects." 17 
Against this establishment of a "fundamental" difference, 
Morris has advanced the objection that too much is made of 
what essentially seems to amount to a mere difference of degree. 

A symbol is on the whole a less reliable sign than is a sign (that is a 
signal) . . . (the latter) being more closely connected with external 
relations in the environment is more quickly subject to correction by the 
environment. . , . But, since signals too have varying degrees of re- 
liability, the difference remains one of degree. 18 

Now, regardless of whether or not one agrees with Morris 
that environmental correction in the case of signals is in all 
contexts more reliable than purely symbolic procedures such as 
provided, e.g., by derivations or calculations, one need not argue 
that, once the behavioristic approach is taken with regard to both 
signs and symbols, they may indeed be considered as compara- 
ble and not fundamentally distinct means through which 
behavior may be informed in different degrees of reliability. To 
take signs as related to dispositions of behavior is to be primarily 
interested in the modes in which they come to inform, incite, 
appraise, or direct action. To emphasize signs in their symbolic 
use is to inquire not so much into what they "announce," "ap- 
praise," etc., but into their "meaning," the "domain of objec- 
tivity" they appear to condition. An inquiry into the symbolic 
function of signs, as Cassirer puts it, 

is not concerned with what we see in a certain perspective, but (with) 
the perspective itself ... [so that] the special symbolic forms are not 
imitations, but organs of reality, since it is solely by their agency that 
anything real becomes an object for intellectual apprehension and as 
such is made visible to us. The question as to what reality is apart from 
these forms, and what are its independent attributes, becomes irrelevant 
here. 19 

Cassirer insists, in other words, that the truly symbolic (the 

17 Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 61. 

18 Charles W. Morris, Signs, Language and Behavior > 50. 

19 Language and Myth, translated by S. Langer, 8. 


properly "significative") meaning of sign- functions cannot be 
looked for in the indicative office performed by them, but refers 
to their role as "organs of reality" as which they are said to 
"bring about" (condition) what is meant by an "object" in the 
various universes of discourse, intuition, and expression. 

In accordance with three senses in which the symbolic-form 
concept is used (see above), to say that "the symbolic forms 
are . . . organs of reality" would be equivalent to the following 
three expressions of the thesis: 

1 i ) No meaning can be assigned to any object outside the cul- 
tural (mythical, artistic, common-sensical, scientific) contexts 
in which it is apprehended, understood, or known. 

(2) No meaning can be assigned to any object except in refer- 
ence to the pervasive symbolic-relation types of space, time, 
cause and number which "constitute" objectivity in all domains, 
with the modifications characteristic of the media listed under 


(3) No meaning can be assigned to any object without, in 
whatever form, assuming a representative relationship ex- 
pressed in the symbol-concept which, abstractable from any 
context, would be said to hold between given "sensuous" 
moments, on the one hand, and a (in principle) non-senuous 
"sense" moment, on the other. 

How, we must ask now, is both the pervasiveness and the 
objectifying office of the symbolic- form concept to be demon- 
strated? Keeping Cassirer's Kantian orientation in mind, it will 
follow that his inquiry into the objectifying pervasiveness of 
symbols cannot properly be expected to point to or to discover 
facts or activities hitherto unknown or inaccessible to either the 
sciences or such other culturally extant types of experience- 
accounting as religion, myths, the arts. Kant, it will be re- 
membered, set out to clarify his "misunderstood" Kritik by 
demonstrating in the Prolegomena that neither mathematics 
nor the physical sciences would be "possible" unless the pure 
forms of intuition and certain categorial determinations were 
presupposed as valid for all experience. Analogously, Cassirer 
maintains that the symbol-concept must be taken as just as 
pervasive as are, in fact, the sciences, arts, myths, and languages 


of common sense, all of which may be conceived as employing 
symbols in their respective experience-accountings. To say, 
furthermore, that symbols "objectify" would, on this interpre- 
tation, mean nothing else than that these various domains 
themselves, in their symbolic evaluation of the perceptive data 
to which they apply, furnish the only contexts within which 
one can meaningfully speak of any kind of "objectivity." There 
is, in other words, no point in producing examples to illustrate 
what exactly Cassirer means when he credits symbols with 
"bringing about" rather than merely "indicating" objects, 
simply because all sciences, arts, myths, etc. would have to be 
taken as illustrating this general contention. We must distin- 
guish here two aspects of this contention: (i) That all the 
above-listed "domains of objectivity" do indeed presuppose 
the employment of symbols, and (2) That there is no objec- 
tivity outside the contexts established by these various domains. 
As regards the latter aspect, its acceptance follows from 
Cassirer's endorsement of what he took to be Kant's trans- 
cendental method. Could Kant prove the adequacy of this 
method by the use he made of it with respect to "experience as 
science?" The answer may be in the affirmative, if one keeps in 
mind the state of the mathematical and physical disciplines with 
which he was familiar. As a contemporary writer has put it: "In 
relation to his information Kant's intuition of Euclid's axioms 
is unobjectionable. . . . Without the aid of Einstein's conception 
of a curved physical space, we should not conclude that Kant 
is altogether wrong." 20 The answer may be in the negative, if 
one considers that Kant presented his "forms" of intuition and 
understanding as immutable human faculties, and took them to 
be as final as Aristotelian logic, Euclidean geometry, and New- 
tonian physics were thought to be necessary. But, whatever be 
one's evaluation of Kant's position, this much of it is never 
questioned by Cassirer, namely that the determinateness with 
which we experience the "objective" world is never passively 
received ab extra, but that it is, in principle, analyzable as 
"conditioned" by acts of synthesizing the manifold given in per- 

20 Andrew P. Ushenko, Power and Events, xv. 


ception. What Kant had maintained was that there can be no 
objectivity in the physical sense without assumption of the 
synthesizing forms laid down by the Transcendental Analytic. 
This point is generalized by Cassirer to include other than 
physical domains, to be accounted for by types of synthesis 
other than those listed in the first Kritik. That aspect of Cas- 
sirer's general contention, then, according to which there can 
be no objectivity outside the contexts established by the sciences, 
arts, myths, etc., instead of being explicitly demonstrated, 
constitutes his basic philosophical commitment to Kant's view- 

Regarding the other aspect of his thesis, viz., that all the 
contexts within which such objectivity is encountered, are to 
be taken as sign-systems, in so far as all of them imply specific 
evaluations of the "same" sensory data, on what evidence are 
we to accept it? Or better: what sort of evidence is possible for 
this contention within the commitment to Kant's position as 
indicated? With respect to Kant's inquiry it is maintained by 
Cassirer that he aimed to develop the epistemological conse- 
quences from the facts of the sciences with which he was fa- 
miliar. It was their actual employment of "judgments" both 
related to experience (synthetic) and yet necessary (a priori) 
which seemed to Kant to demand a revision of both the 
empiricist and the rationalist pronouncements with respect to 
the character of human knowledge. In the stage at which he 
analyzed it, it could be said that his analysis was adequate for 
science as he knew it. Kant, in other words, was not concerned 
with adducing evidence that there are synthetic judgments a 
priori the evidence for their actual employment being taken 
to issue from an impartial examination of the sciences them- 
selves. It was but their "possibility" that Kant felt had to be 
accounted for by making those necessary presuppositions about 
human cognition through mediation of which science as a re- 
sult of the activation of that cognition would become intelligi- 
ble. Consequently, these presuppositions, the forms of intuition 
and understanding, are not the evidence from which the syn- 
thetic a priori judgments of the scientist are thought to be 
derivable, but the sciences themselves are taken as the evidence 


that justifies and postulates the epistemological characterization 
of the "mind" with which the first Kritik is concerned. 

This brief reminder serves to explain Cassirer's analogous 
conviction that his theory of the symbolically-mediate character 
of reality, far from standing in need of ingenious philosophical 
demonstrations, merely formulates, on a level of highest gen- 
erality, a semiotic function which, in various modifications, is 
assumed as a matter of fact by all who, within the legitimate 
contexts of their respective branches of investigation, inquire 
into the nature of physical, artistic, religious, and perceptual 
"objects." A re-examination of this evidence in the light of 
more recent developments in the mathematical, physical, psy- 
chological, linguistic, religious and anthropological researches 
considered by Cassirer, would be both surpassing the compe- 
tency of one inquirer and not be to the immediate purpose. 

For the remainder of this section, it will be our chief concern 
to elucidate how the symbol-concept must be understood in 
order to warrant the universal use and significance which 
Cassirer attributes to it. Before proceeding to this task, however, 
note that rightfully or not Cassirer did take for granted its 
actual employment, not just in the analysis of the various 
disciplines, but in the very construction of the domains to which 
these analyses refer. In support of this contention, we point to 
the following: 

(i) Early in the first volume of the Philosofhie der sym- 
bolischen Formen y where Cassirer prepares for the introduction 
of the symbolic-form concept, he raises the question ". . . 
whether there is indeed for the manifold directions of the 
spirit ... a mediating function, and whether, if so, this function 
has any typical characteristics by means of which it can be 
known and described." 21 Yet, although it is a foregone con- 
clusion that such a "mediating function" must be ascribed to 
the symbol-concept, Cassirer, instead of presenting specific 
arguments for this core idea, immediately goes on to say: "We 
go back for an answer to this question to the symbol-concept as 
Heinrich Herz has postulated and characterized it from the 
point of view of physical knowledge." (ibid.) As soon as the 

11 PSF, Vol. 1, 1 6. 


question is raised, in other words, whether there is a function 
both more general and flexible than, e.g., the concepts of 
"spirit" and "reason," elaborated by traditional philosophy, the 
answer, in the form of the proposed symbol-concept, is not 
argued for at all but is presented as being actually effective and 
recognized as such by Herz with respect to physical science, 
and such other thinkers as Hilbert (mathematical logic), Hum- 
boldt (comparative linguistics), Helmholtz (physiological 
optics), and Herder (religion and poetry). 

(2) In 1936, the Swedish philosopher Konrad Marc-Wogau 
had commented upon certain difficulties he found inherent in 
Cassirer's various versions of the symbol-concept. In a re- 
joinder to these objections, Cassirer makes this very character- 
istic statement: "In his criticism, Marc-Wogau seems to have 
overlooked this one point, namely that the reflections to which 
he objects, are in no way founded upon purely speculative con- 
siderations but that they are actually related to specific, concrete 
problems and to concrete matters of fact." 22 It is significant that, 
here again, where the "logic of the symbol-concept" has been 
challenged, Cassirer makes no attempt to take up his critic's 
suggestions on the same analytical level on which they were 
made, but, instead, goes on to cite a variety of instances (drawn 
from psychology, linguistics, mathematics, and physics) for 
which outstanding representatives have emphasized the sym- 
bolical character of their respective subject-matters. 

Strange as this attitude may appear to those who would ex- 
pect an original philosophy to develop and reason from its own 
axioms, it is only consistent in the light of the above-mentioned 
transcendental orientation in which Cassirer read and accepted 
Kant. The thesis, accordingly, that the mind (Bewusstsein, 
Geist) is symbolically active in the construction of all its uni- 
verses of perception and discourse is not suggested as a dis- 
covery to be made by or to be grounded upon specifically philo- 
sophical arguments. Instead of presupposing insights different 
from and requiring cognitive powers or techniques superior to 
those accessible to empirical science, the thesis is developed as 

iat (Tidskrift for Filosofi och Psykologi.) II, 158. 


issuing from an impartial reading of the scientific evidence in all 
branches of investigation. 

Certain difficulties about such a position could perhaps be 
felt from the outset. It may be questioned, for instance, whether 
scientific situations could be encountered at any time which 
would give univocal testimony to the symbolically-mediate 
character of both their methods and their subject-matters. One 
may also wonder whether the scientific crown-witnesses (on 
whom Cassirer relies so heavily), when reflecting upon the 
symbolic nature of their domains, do so qua scientists, or 
whether, when so reflecting, they must be considered philo- 
sophical rather than scientific spokesmen for their disciplines. 
Finally, a philosophy resting its case squarely on the evidence of 
not just one (especially reliable) science, but of all the sciences 
including all religious and imaginative sense-making as 
within the province of what Cassirer calls "Kulturwissen- 
schajten" seems dangerously committed to generalize upon 
enterprises notorious for their proneness to scrap both their own 
theories and attendant philosophical explanations of their 

Considerations of this type need not be fatal, however, to 
a philosophy thus far considered. A philosophical reading of 
the evidence of the sciences will indeed not face "univocal situa- 
tions." Nor will such situations be encountered within any 
other inquiry. The cognitive enterprise, whether in the form 
of large philosophical generalizations, or of the more readily 
controlled scientific generalizations, is admittedly guided by 
hypotheses and thus does imply decisions with respect to the data 
that are considered relevant for their respective generalizations. 
The further contention that the methodological testimony of 
the scientists cannot be credited with the same respectability as 
his methodological effectiveness also need not be damaging to a 
philosophy whose center of gravity is determined by the scien- 
tist's findings. Any philosophy, one could say, which is pro- 
posed as a critique and mediation of symbolisms, must obviously 
do justice to the most reliably constructed symbol-systems of 
the sciences and, in doing that, it can hardly afford to disregard 
the statements on method merely because they come from some- 


body who employs them successfully. At any rate, an adequate 
interpretation of the scientific symbolisms always requires atten- 
tion to both the factual and the (methodo-) logical subject- 
matters, and there does not seem to be any Qrima -facie evidence 
why the method-conscious scientist is to be trusted less in this 
connection than the science-versed philosopher. The objection, 
finally, that any philosophy whose ambition it is to bring into 
conformity its account of "reality" with the latest results of 
the sciences is doomed to "eternalize" highly contingent 
validity-claims, need likewise not endanger the position taken 
by Cassirer. It would be the alternative to the self-corrective 
character of the evidence trusted by him that would be fatal to 
any philosophy. The ambition to make final pronouncements, 
to issue once-and-for-all "truths/' is certainly not germane to a 
thought-system which, by Kantian orientation, is not straining 
to lay hold upon a final reality-structure, but which is advanced 
frankly as an attempt to discharge the "culture-mission" of 
mediating the reality-accounts offered by the various cultural 

We must conclude therefore: the thesis that all contexts (in 
which we objectively have a world, structure, domain of 
reality) may be analyzed as differently oriented symbolic evalu- 
ations of the perceptive data, is offered as evidenced by all the 
inquiries made of these contexts. As such, the thesis is sug- 
gested as a generalization upon the pervasive features of the 
artistic, religious, and scientific domains, guided by Kant's 
transcendental hypothesis that the pervasive features of all 
experience cannot be prior to and independent of the synthesiz- 
ing activities of a symbol-minded consciousness which has and 
reflects upon them. 

What Cassirer never tires of attributing to Kant is the latter's 
"Revolution der Denkart y " by which philosophers were freed 
from having to attain a reality more profound (or more im- 
mediate) than the only one given in experience, either as en- 
countered or as reflected upon by the only valid methods of 
scientific synthesizing. Instead of undertaking in the fashion 
of ontological metaphysics to determine fixed traits of being, 
the transcendental method would bid us to examine the types 


of judgments which logically condition whatever may validly 
be asserted as "objective." The "objectivity," however, with 
which the first Kritik furnishes us, actually turns out to be an 
exclusively "physical" one. The transcendental method, as used 
in the Kritik, has not provided us Cassirer thinks with the 
clue for "Objektivitat uberhauyt" but specifically with just 
one type of objectivity, viz., the one that may be formulated 
within the system of principles constitutive of Newtonian 
physics. 23 

In brief: what Cassirer accepts of Kant is the transcendental 
method which, instead of revealing immutable structures of 
Being, inquires into the culturally given "fact" of science and, 
"being concerned not with objects but with our mode of know- 
ing objects," 24 makes for a more flexible analysis of experience 
by allowing for different types of "objectivity," comprehended 
as corresponding to different "modes of knowing." In Cassirer's 
version: "The decisive question is always whether we attempt to 
understand function in terms of structure or vice versa. . , . The 
basic principle of all critical thinking the principle of the pri- 
macy of the function before the object assumes a new form in 
each discipline and requires a new foundation." 28 Cassirer's 
position implies both an acceptance of Kant's methodological 
strictures and a demand for a wider application of the "critical 
method." More specifically: Kant's method was to limit the 
philosopher's concern to an elucidation of the mode of knowing 
governing "reality" as scientifically accessible. It was, in conse- 
quence, to deny him the right of engaging in ontological pur- 
suits, i.e., to discover or construct "realities," offered as "meta- 
physical," apprehension of which would involve an employment 
of cognitive powers superior to those certified by the first 
Kritik as "constitutive" of (or regulative for) experience, i.e., 
of science as the only legitimate inquiry through which the 
permanent structure of this experience may be known. 

23 We are concerned here merely with Kant's attempt to formulate his "Grund- 
satze" in conformity with Newtonian physics, not with the success of this attempt. 
On this point, see A. Pap: The Afriori in Physical Theory, Pt. II. King's Crown 
Press, 1946. 

a< Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, "Einleitung," Par. VII. 


If then the philosopher qua cognitor, not qua moralizer 
was to be restricted to an examination of the source, scope and 
validity of the "mode of knowing" that makes possible experi- 
ence as science, or if, in Cassirer's extended version, he is to be 
restricted to an examination of all the various modes of knowing 
and comprehending that make possible experience, however 
structured (as science, or myth, art, religion, or common sense), 
the issue of highest philosophical universality will logically arise 
as one of attempting to reduce the variety of such distinguish- 
able modes to so many comparable instances of one fundamental 
function. And such a function would at once have to be general 
enough to characterize all modes of knowing and comprehend- 
ing through which experience is realized as structured, and yet 
permit of all the differentiations that specifically modify the 
various cultural media for which it must account. Now, it is 
Cassirer's contention that, historically, philosophy both aimed 
and fell short of elaborating principles of such high generality 
that would, on the one hand, be valid for all domains and, on 
the other, be susceptible of modifications characteristic of the 
specific differences distinguishing these domains. Before turning 
to a closer examination of the symbol-concept which, Cassirer 
believes, satisfies the requirements of such a universal yet 
modifiable function, it is significant to note here that Cassirer 
conceives of his own efforts as within the general direction of 
what philosophers, with varying degrees of awareness and suc- 
cess, have always striven for. In this connection, Cassirer has 
spoken of both the "culture-mission" of philosophy and the 
"antinomies of the culture-concept." By the latter, reference is 
made to the characteristic conflicts that arise as the various 
cultural media of religion,, art, language, and science tend to set 
off their special domains by claiming superiority of insight for 
their respective perspectives. Thus, although the first cosmo- 
logical and physical scientists everywhere started out from the 
distinctions and discriminations made by common sense and 
reflected by language, they soon opposed to this basic fund of 
accumulated knowledge specifically new principles of division, 
a new "logos 33 from the vantage-point of which all non-scientific 


knowledge appeared as a mere distortion of "the truth. " Simil- 
arly, while both art and religion in their early stages developed 
closely together, if not at times in actual interpenetration, 
further development of these two cultural media resulted in 
either of them claiming superior vision and closer approxima- 
tion to the "really real" as over against the other. Instead of 
contenting themselves with the specific insights which they 
afford, the various cultural disciplines tend Cassirer points out 
to impose the characteristic form of their interpretation upon 
the totality of being, and it is from this tendency towards the 
"absolute," inherent in each one of them, that there issue the con- 
flicts that Cassirer considers "antinominal" within the culture- 
concept. Yet, although it is in intellectual conflicts of this type 
that one would expect philosophy, as a reflection on the highest 
level of universality, to mediate among the various claims, the 
different "dogmatic systems of metaphysics satisfy this expecta- 
tion and demand only imperfectly} they themselves are im- 
mersed in this struggle and do not stand above it." 26 Upon 
analysis, it is suggested, most philosophical systems turn out 
to be merely so many hypostatizations of a particular logical, 
ethical, esthetical, or religious orientation. 

We have briefly adduced these considerations because it is 
against their background that one can understand the impor- 
tance Cassirer attributes to his own "philosophy of symbolic 
forms," which is presented as having a chance of succeeding 
where all former "systems" could only failj not in the sense, 
to be sure, that it holds the key to all the problems that have or 
will come up, but in the sense, nevertheless, that with the 
symbol-concept it puts at the philosopher's disposal an intel- 
lectual instrument of greatest universality and modifiability. As 
such, it is commended as impartially comprehending all "do- 
mains of reality" as of a determinable, symbolically-mediate 
type for which philosophical analysis may indicate their specific 
modalities of sign-functioning, instead of super-imposing one 
privileged modality of meaning (logical, esthetic, ethical, etc.) 
with respect to which all other "visions" are reduced to mere 

*PSF,VoL I, 13. 


approximations and appearances (at best), or illusions (at 

c. Exposition of the Symbol-Concept 

We have considered so far the epistemological setting within 
which Cassirer's thesis is developed. We have listed what, we 
believe, represent three essentially distinct senses in which the 
symbolic-form concept is employed, and we have contrasted it 
from both the usually agreed upon view, according to which 
knowledge-as-mediate is indeed taken as "symbolical," and 
from the more current behavioristic position, according to which 
the pervasive character of sign-situations is interpretable as in- 
volving objects which as signs indicate the presence (or the 
conditions for the realization of the presence) of other objects- 
as-signified. We have then attempted to render meaningful 
Cassirer's contradistinction from this position by stressing that 
his concern is with symbols, taken not as "indications" but as 
"organs of reality." Interpreting "organs of reality" in a sense 
termed "transcendental" by Kant, we could say that Cassirer's 
type of inquiry constitutes a most erudite attempt to provide 
evidence for the thesis that no empirical "reality" (objectivity, 
structure) can be meaningfully referred to except under the 
implicit presupposition of the symbolic (constitutive) "forms" 
of space, time, cause, number, etc. and the symbolic (cultural) 
"forms" of myth, common sense (language), art, and science, 
which furnish the contexts (Sinnzusammenhange) within which 
alone "reality" is both encounterable and accountable. 

We must now examine more closely exactly what is asserted 
when it is said of the constitutive and cultural "forms" which 
condition "reality," however accounted, that they are "sym- 
bolical." For this purpose, let us go back to the already stated 
definition of the symbol-concept, according to which "it is to 
cover the totality of all those phenomena which exhibit in what- 
ever form 'sense in the senses' (Sinnerfiillung im Sinnlicheri) 
and all contexts in which something 'sensuous* by being what 
it is (in der Art seines Da-Seins und So-Seins} is represented 
as a particular embodiment as a manifestation and incarnation 
of a meaning." 27 According to this passage, the symbol-concept 

"PSF, Vol. Ill, 109. 


would apply to all contexts in which a "sensuous" moment may 
be distinguished from a "sense" moment, with the proviso 
that a relation holds with respect to these two terms which is 
most frequently referred to as "one representing the other." 
For Cassirer (as for most other philosophers) the term "senses" 
covers all perceptual cues which such as colors, sounds, etc. 
suffice to act as vehicles for any and all meaning, where "mean- 
ing" covers all the embodiments to which the senses are amen- 
able as related to an interpreter of these cues, i.e., to the full 
complexity of perspectives which the term "interpreter" (Gei$t y 
Bewusstsein) suggests. To realize yet more distinctly what both 
the "senses" and the "sense" (meaning) connote in this defini- 
tion, we must attempt further to clarify the relation that is sup- 
posed to hold between the two terms, if they are to function 
symbolically. This relation, we suggest, is taken by Cassirer 
both in a polar and a correlative sense. 

( i ) The polarity of "sense" and "senses." 

Stressing the polarity of this relation, Cassirer states suc- 
cinctly that "the symbolic function is composed of moments 
which are different in principle. No genuine meaning (Sinn) as 
such is simple, but it is one and double and this polarity, which 
is intrinsic to it, does not tear it asunder and destroy it, but 
instead represents its proper function." 28 

This function, we may say, establishes a relation between the 
"senses" as signs and the "sense" as signified by them in 
such a way that these two terms must be conceived as polar, 
opposite and (potentially, if not actually) distinguishable from 
each other. This polar distinction of the two symbol-moments, 
as maintained by Cassirer, can be read from a variety of pro- 
nouncements made by him apropos the three modal forms, 
termed respectively: the expression-function (Ausdrucksfank- 
tiori)\ the intuition-function (Anschauungsjunktion) and the 
and the conceptual-function (reine Bedeutungsjunktion). Space 
forbids even a selective reproduction of the illustrative material 
offered by Cassirer. The gist of the matter will be intelligible, 
however, if the following points are kept in mind. 

*PSF, Vol. Ill, 1 10. 


a. If the representative relation between the senses and their 
sense is of an expressive type (of which myth, art, and the reali- 
zation of "persons" are taken as instances), "reality" is had as 
a universe of "characters," with all events in it having physiog- 
nomic traits and all manifestation of sense through the senses 
being restricted to what is expressible in terms of man's emotive, 
affective (evaluational) system. Where the "world," in other 
words, is taken in its primary expression-values, all of its phe- 
nomena manifest a specific character which belongs to them in an 
immediate and spontaneous fashion. Cassirer's description of 
these "expression-phenomena" as "being inherently sombre or 
cheerful, exciting or appeasing, frightening or reassuring" 29 
parallels Dewey's account, e.g., according to which "empiri- 
cally, things are poignant, tragic, settled, disturbed . . . are such 
immediately and in their own right and behalf . . . any quality 
is at once initial and terminal." 30 It would therefore be a mis- 
reading of what Cassirer terms the "reine Ausdrucksphaenom- 
ene" if they were taken to issue from secondary acts of inter- 
pretation, as products of an act of "empathy." The basic error 
of such an "explanation" would consist in the fact that it re- 
verses the order of what is phenomenally given. This interpre- 
tation "must kill the character of perception, it must reduce it 
to a mere complex of sensory data of impression in order to then 
revive the dead matter of impression by an act of empathy." 31 
What is overlooked in the empathy-theories is that, in order to 
get at the sensory data (the hot and cold, the hard and soft, the 
colors, sounds, etc.), we must already disregard and abstract 
from the expressive "Urfhaenomene?* in which a "world" is 
had prior to the working out of the various representative 
schemes and conceptual frameworks to which it subsequently 
submits. What typifies an expression-phenomenon, we conclude, 
is that, whereas it possesses specific (immediate, non-derivative) 
meanings not realized on the perceptual level as distinct 
from the sensuous vehicles with which they go "hand in hand," 
it must still be recognized as an instance of a symbolic function, 

, Vol. Ill, 85. 
30 Experience and Nature, 96. 
n PSF, Vol. Ill, 85. 


in so far as subsequent analysis, on the level of reflection, will 
make what Cassirer considers a "polar distinction" between its 
two constitutive moments which, as the sign (senses) and the 
signified (sense) define that function. 

b. The polarity between these two moments is encountered 
in a more developed form in the intuitive mode of the symbolic 
function, for which a perception is not merely taken as a qualita- 
tive presence (Praesenz) but as a cue for the representation of 
something else. 

The construction of our perceptive world begins with such acts of divid- 
ing up the ever-flowing series of sensuous phenomena. In the midst of 
this steady flux of phenomena there are retained certain determinate 
(perceptive) units which, from now on, serve as fixed centers of orien- 
tation. The particular phenomenon could not have any characteristic 
meaning except if thus referred to those centers. All further progress of 
objective knowledge, all clarification and determination of our percep- 
tive world depends upon this ever progressing development. 32 

The passage from the expression-mode to the intuition-mode 
of "making sense in the senses" is described by Cassirer as a de- 
velopment in which progressively an organization of the sensory 
flux is brought about by singling out certain data, realized as 
comparatively constant, significant or relevant for action, by 
operating, in brief, a division of the perceptually given into 
"presentative" and "representative" moments. 83 Now, the 
selective and organizing office of sensory perception has been 
noted by both scientists and philosophers for some time. If a 
symbolic interpretation is put upon whatever evidence exists for 
this fact, it is because such "selectivity" entails a distinction of 
the constant from the variable, of the necessary from the con- 
tingent, of the general from the particular, distinctions, in 
brief, which, for Cassirer, "imply the very source of all objecti- 
fication." 34 And it is to language that we are referred as both 
the outstanding agency which establishes the basic objectifying 
distinctions and the medium which reflects the "foci of atten- 

"PSF,Vol. Ill, 165. 

88 This, of course, is a metaphorical, not a genetic account. A "flux" prior to 
any and all "organization" is a contrary-to-fact abstraction, 
"PSF, Vol. Ill, 1 80. 


tion," the "perspectives" which condition whatever discrimina- 
tion is exercised when some (rather than other) perceptions are 
taken to "represent" the quasi-permanent units as which, on the 
intuition-mode, we have the world as organized in spatio- 
temporal "things-with-properties." Skipping at this point 
further consideration of the evidence adduced by Cassirer for 
this view, 85 what matters for the present purpose is that the 
intuition-mode of symbolic representation is conceived as in- 
volving, besides the sensory data, an "original mode of sight" 
(eine eigene Weise der Sicht) and that both these moments are 
said to stand in a polar relationship to each other in so far as the 
"sight," the "perspective," as something posited (em Seteungs- 
modus), is not reducible to or constructible from the sensory 
data which it "sees." Cassirer argues in this connection against 
both rationalist and empiricist epistemologies which, regardless 
how differently they provide answers to the question of the 
"relation of our perceptions to an object," take the same basic 
course in explaining this relation either in terms of "associa- 
tions" and "reproductions" or in terms of judgments and "un- 
conscious inferences." "What is overlooked in either approach 
is the circumstance that all psychological or logical processes to 
which one has recourse come rather too late. . . . No associative 
connection of them can explain that original Setzungsmodus, 
according to which an impression (taken representatively) 
stands for something 'objective'." 36 The intuition-mode of the 
symbol function is proposed therefore as both an original and 
ultimate mode of sight which, although inseparable from the 
sensory impressions which it sees y must be distinguished from 
them as sharply as the dimensions of "meaning" (sense) from 
the dimension of "signs" (senses). 

c. The polar relation between the sensuous- and the sense- 
moments is even more readily realized in Cassirer's discussion 
of the theoretical mode of the symbol function. Within this 

88 In his Die Sprache und der Aufbau der Gegenstandswelt, Jena, 1932 (sec 
Bibliography for translations) . Also in the Philosofhie der symbolischen Formen, 
Language and Myth> and "The Concept of Group and the Theory of Perception," 
(Journal of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. V, 1944, 1-35.) 

86 PSF, Vol. Ill, 148. 


dimension, also referred to as the "level of cognition," there 
obtains, as within the expression- and the intuition-modes, an 
organization and determination of sensory data, with this dif- 
ference, however, that now "the moments which condition the 
order and structure of the perceptual world are grasped as such 
and recognized in their specific significance. The relations which, 
on the former levels, were established implicitly (in der Form 
blosser Mitgegebenheit) are now explicated." 37 

This "explication," proceeding by way of an abstractive iso- 
lation of the relations which, while applicable to perception, 
are, in principle, of a non-perceptual character, is evidenced, 
"writ large" so to speak, in the constructive schemata, the con- 
ventional systems of conventional signs by mediation of which 
scientific knowledge is attained. A considerably detailed demon- 
stration of this thesis was given by Cassirer long before the 
development of his philosophy of symbolic forms. His con- 
tention that all scientific concept-formation is definable as an 
ever more precise application of relational thinking was first 
presented in his influential Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbe- 
griff (1910) and reasserted in the concluding sections of his 
"Phaenomenologie der Erkenntnis" (PSF, Vol. III.) where 
recent developments (until 1929) of the mathematical and 
physical sciences are considered in confirmation of this thesis. 
What is established by the scientific concept is referred to vari- 
ously as a "function," a "principle," a "law of a series," a "rule" 
or "form," where all these terms are employed with the same 
connotation which his early work had given them, i.e., as ex- 
pressing relations between (terms designating) phenomena. 
"To 'comprehend conceptually' and to 'establish relations' turn 
out upon closer logical and epistemological analysis to be 
always correlative notions." 38 Instead of defining the concept 
as extensively determining a class, having members, it is main- 
tained that theoretical concepts 

always contain reference to an exact serial principle that enables us to 
connect the manifold of intuition in a definite way, and to run through it 

"PSF, Vol. Ill, 3 30. 
"PSF, Vol. Ill, 346. 


according to a prescribed law. . . . (Thus) no insuperable gap can arise 
between the 'universal' and the 'particular,' because the universal itself 
has no other meaning and purpose than to represent and to render 
possible the connection and order of the particular. If we regard the 
particular as a serial member and the universal as a serial principle, 
it is at once clear that the two moments, without going over into each 
other and in any way being confused, still refer throughout in their 
function to each other. 39 

The symbolic function, implied in the theoretical mode, becomes 
comparable to both the expression- and intuition-modes in that 
here too we are bidden to distinguish between the "principle of 
the series" and the "manifold" ordered into the members of the 

Let us put this polarity into the language of symbolic logic. 
If we are to define the meaning of a concept not extensionally 
(by specification of the members that are subsumed) but in 
terms of a prepositional function p(x), we are clearly desig- 
nating two distinguishable moments. 

The general form of the functions designated by the letter C 0' is to be 
sharply contrasted with the values of the variable V which may enter 
this function as c true' values. The function determines the relation of 
these values, but it is not itself one of them: the C 0' of C 0(x)' is not 
homogenous to the xi, X2, Xs, etc. [Both the function and the values of 
the variables belong to an entirely different conceptual type (Denk- 

And this formulation only throws into relief the distinctness of 
the two moments which, as the principle (form) of the series 
and its members (material) are held to define all theoretical 
(conceptual) symbolisms. The distinctive trait of theoretical 
concept-formation must, accordingly, be sought in the elabora- 
tion of distinctive "points of view" which, as "principles" or 
"forms" determine the selection of the perceptually given mani- 
fold into specifically ordered series. In this connection, Cassirer 
argues against certain empiricist doctrines which regard the 
"similarity" of the intuitively apprehended phenomena as a 

39 Substance and Function (Swabey tr.), 223^ 
*PSF 9 VoL III, 349-350. 


self-evident psychological fact, fit to account for the serial re- 
lations established by concepts. But, as he points out, 

the similarity of certain elements can only be spoken of significantly when 
a certain point of view has been established from which the elements can 
be designated as like or unlike. The difference between these contents, 
on the one hand, and the conceptual species by which we unify them, 
on the other, is an irreducible ]act$ it is categorial and belongs to the 
form of consciousness. 41 

It designates, as we have seen, the polar contrast between the 
members of a series and the form of the series. 

(2) The correlativity of "sense" and "senses." 

Above, we have considered a number of passages indicative 
of Cassirer's conviction that on all levels on which we, symboli- 
cally, have a world, be it as organized in qualitative expres- 
sion-characters, be it as "broken" into spatio-temporally ordered 
"things-with-properties," be it in the relational order-systems 
of the sciences, we are always in a position to make a dis- 
tinctio rationis" between the "sight" (die Sicht; the form of a 
manifold) and the sensory data that are variously determinable 
within these different sights. We have treated of this conviction 
as implying an interpretation of polarity between the two mo- 
ments of the symbol function. We must now qualify this char- 
acterization by pointing out that, in another sense (to be 
specified), both moments are taken as correlative to a degree 
that makes it inconceivable to refer to or define either moment 
except under implicit presupposition of the other. If, in agree- 
ment with Cassirer's actual usage, we call the perceptive mani- 
fold the "matter" of the symbolic function and the sense- 
perspective (Sinn-Persfektive) its "form," we are bidden to 
think of these terms as correlative in such a way that it is not 
only impossible in any actual context to separate one from 
the other, but also to assign any meaning to either term without 
implication of the meaning of the other. 

Our problem here makes contact with the metaphysical con- 
troversy about universals. From what has been said so far about 

41 Substance and Function, 25. 


the relation between the "form" and "matter" of a series, there 
can be no doubt that Cassirer could not, without qualifications, 
have subscribed to either the realist or the nominalist position. 
Partial agreement is indicated with St. Thomas, 42 whom he 
credits with having maintained a "strict correlation, a mutual 
relationship between the general and the particular." 43 What 
attracts him in this version is the fact that it is free from the 
various space- and time-metaphorical separations that have 
traditionally been assumed to characterize the universal as be- 
ing before or after, within or outside the particular. Cassirer's 
insistence that no meaning can be given to the universal "form" 
independently of a "matter" for which it is valid, is reasserted in 
a number of ways, such as, e.g., the "sight" determining the 
"how"-character of "what" is seen, or the "principle of a series" 
exhausting its meaning in the order it establishes among the mem- 
bers of the series, or the "p" of a prepositional function not be- 
ing definable independently of the variables for which it holds. 44 
Now, it has been suggested that Cassirer's thought here is not 
free from contradiction on the grounds that the two moments 
by which he aims to define the symbol-concept cannot both: 
(a) belong to two entirely different dimensions and (b) yet be 
tied together in such close correlation that the definition of one 
could not be given except in terms of the other. These objections 
were voiced by the Swedish philosopher Marc-Wogau. 45 It is 
to these objections that we must now give some attention, before 
considering Cassirer's defense in the sequel. 

d. The Symbol-Concept. Objections and Defense 
Marc-Wogau writes: 

A closer examination seems to me to lead to the result that the positive 
meaning of Cassirer's "symbolic relation" is of a dialectical character; 
the symbolic relation, as conceived by Cassirer, covers both the idea of 
an opposition between the sensuously given (the sign) on the one hand, 

48 "Universalia non sunt res subsistentes, sed habent esse solum in singularibus." 
Contra Gentiles , Lib. I, 165. 
48 /W, Vol. Ill, 351. 

44 On this point, see also B. Russell, Principles of Mathematics, 85. 
48 In: Theoria (Tidskrift for Filosofi och Psykologi, 1936), 279-332, 


and the " Sinner juettunff* (the signified) on the other, and also the idea 
of an identity between the two. The first idea is clearly asserted by 
Cassirer, the second issues as a consequence from certain of his definitions 
and assertions. 46 

Now, the second idea concerns the correlativity of the two 
symbol-moments which, according to Marc-Wogau, entails 
their identity as a consequence. Let us follow his reasoning: 

'Sign' and 'Signified' ... are to be mutually conditioned by each other 
in their determinate character. One moment has meaning only in re- 
lation to the other. But that implies that the thought about the one term 
involves the thought about the other. If the one term is being thought 
of, the other is thereby being thought of too. The two moments of the 
relation would, in consequence, coincide. If A and B are to be connected 
in such a way that A can be determined only with reference to B and 
B can be determined only in reference to A, it becomes impossible to 
distinguish A and B : they coincide (zusammen] alien) . 4T 

With respect to another characterizatioin of the symbol by Cas- 
sirer, according to which it is said to be "immanence" and 
"transcendence" in one: in so far as it expresses a meaning 
non-intuitive in principle in an intuitive form," 48 Marc-Wogau 

In this definition, two moments are distinguished which are related in 
a specific way. When Cassirer characterizes this relation by saying that 
"the symbol is not 'the one or the other,' but that it represents the 'one 
in the other' and 'the other in the one,' " the question seems to crop up 
how, under such circumstances, a possible distinction between the 'one' 
and the 'other' could even be made. By this definition is there not 
posited an identity between the two moments of the symbolic relation 
which would conflict with the insistence upon their polarity? 49 

In Cassirer's rejoinder to these objections, 50 at least two 
different lines of argumentation may be distinguished. For one, 
considerations are adduced, designed to render questionable 

441 Theoria, (1936), 291. 

47 Theoria, (1936), 292. 

48 PSF, Vol. Ill, 447- 

* w'**> v*yjw/, 33 1. 
60 In Theoria, (1938)1 '45-'75. 


Marc-Wogau's belief that there are logical grounds on which 
the maintained correlativity of the two symbol-moments could 
be refuted. Furthermore, illustrations from empirical sciences 
are reproduced for the purpose of supporting his contention that 
the two symbol-moments (although correlative) cannot only 
still be distinguished, but purporting to show that and how such 
isolation of the two moments has been accomplished. In this 
connection, Cassirer quotes extensively from contemporary re- 
search into color and acoustical phenomena which are presented 
by him as documenting as a fact what Marc-Wogau had denied 
as a possibility. 

( i ) The logical issue. 

Marc-Wogau's objection that, if two terms of a relation are 
thought of as "mutually determined," they will, of necessity, 
also be identical, is countered by Cassirer's reference to the 
actual employment of "implicit definitions" in modern mathe- 
matical logic. Now, implicit definitions may be defined as "de- 
noting anything whatsoever provided that what they denote 
conforms to the stated relations between themselves," 51 where 
the stating of the relations is presumably to be given within the 
axiom-system selected. With the discovery of non-Euclidean 
geometries, Cassirer remarks, it became increasingly clear to 
those concerned with their logical foundation, that their ele- 
ments the points, lines, angles, etc. could not be defined 
anymore in the explicit way in which Euclid could take them as 
intuitively evident. "Neither the basic elements, nor the basic 
relations could have been defined, if by a definition one under- 
stands the indication of the 'genus *proximmn? and of the 'dif- 
ferentia specified."* 2 A way out, Cassirer suggests, was opened 
by Pasch's investigations 53 which were continued and brought to 
a systematic conclusion with Hilbert's Grundlagen der Geomet- 
rie.** Hilbert's analyses, of considerable influence upon the 
development of mathematical logic, may be summarized by 
saying that, for him, the geometrical elements and relations are 

51 Cohen and Nagel, An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method, 135. 

K Theoria, 169. 

88 See Substance and Function, 101. 

"ibid., 93 . 


not to be taken as independent entities, intuitively grasped, for 
which ^xplicit definitions could be given, but as terms whose 
meaning is specified by the relations which are axiomatically 
prescribed for them. "The axioms which they satisfy determine 
and exhaust their essence." 55 Basic geometrical concepts are, 
accordingly, held to be only implicitly definable, i.e., within 
a logical system; and it is gratuitous to ask for a determination 
of their meaning independently of this system. It follows, 
of course, that, if in Hilbert's geometry the signification of 
points, lines, the relations of "between-ness," "outside," etc., 
cannot be formulated except in relation to a selected axiom- 
group, a variety of other elements and relations, if they satisfy 
the formal conditions of the same axioms, must be considered 
as equivalent to it. Against the very possibility of structural 
isomorphisms, of different (though logically justifiable) inter- 
pretations of the same basic calculus, the objection could perhaps 
be raised that they merely prove the impossibility of arriving 
at completely determined elements by means of implicit def- 
initions. This apparent limitation, however, also marks the 
very strength of mathematical, deductive thought, as was stated 
by Cassirer distinctly in his Substance and Function: 

Two different types of assertions, of which the one deals with straight 
lines and planes, the other with cycles and spheres . . . are regarded as 
equivalent to each other in so far as they provide for the same con- 
ceptual dependencies. . . . The points with which Euclidean geometry 
deals can be changed into spheres and circles, into inverse point-pairs 
of a hyperbolic or elliptical group of spheres . . . without any change 
being produced in the deductive relations of the individual propositions 
. . . evolved for these points. . . . Mathematics recognizes (in these 
points) no other 'being' than that belonging to them by participation in 
this form. For it is only this 'being' that enters into proof and into the 
processes of inference and is thus accessible to the full certainty that 
mathematics gives to its subject-matter. 56 

The relevance of these considerations for the problem at 
hand may perhaps be put thus: Marc-Wogau's contention that, 
if the terms of a relation are mutually determined, they there- 

w Theoria, 1 69. 

M Substance ana Function (Swabey tr.), 93. 


by must also be identical, is refutable, if we maintain the justi- 
fiability of implicit definitions, respectively of the different 
mathematical (logical) calculi which they make possible. And 
vice versa: Marc-Wogau's charge, if taken seriously, would 
not only refute the "logic" of the symbol-concept (with its 
two distinct, yet correlative moments, its "sensuous" represen- 
tation of the "non-sensuous"), but it would also have to refute 
the "logic" of all those disciplines that could not constitute their 
respective syntax-forms except by employment of implicit defi- 
nitions. In consequence, Cassirer is convinced that, if the scien- 
tist can proceed effectively with elements the meaning of which 
is indefinable outside the axiom-system within which they occur, 
the philosopher neither may (nor need) hope for more secure 
foundations regarding the symbol-concept. Marc-Wogau's 
charge of a contradiction inherent in this concept is thus 
countered by Cassirer's reference to scientific syntax whose 
elements are not considered identical merely because their 
definition implies mutual determination. 

(2) The empirical issue. 

Regardless, however, whether correlativity of the relational 
terms implies their "identity" or not, is there any other than 
just formal evidence for the "fact" that, notwithstanding such 
correlativity, a distinction between the symbol-moments is not 
only logically permissible but also actually achievable? Before 
examining the empirical evidence adduced in answer to this 
question, it will be worth while to consider the issue here raised 
in its full generality. 

The symbol-concept, we suggested above, was to result from 
Kant's epistemology, in so far as it was to cover all the "syn- 
thesizing acts" which variously condition the many expressive, 
perceptual, and conceptual forms in which we have the respec- 
tive worlds of myth, art, common sense, and science. Instead 
of departing from a taken-for-granted opposition between a 
statically conceived "self" and a just as statically conceived 
"world," the philosophy of symbolic forms was proposed 

to examine the presuppositions upon which that opposition depends and 
to state the conditions that are to be satisfied if it is to come about. It 
finds that these conditions are not uniform, that there are rather different 


dimensions of apprehending, comprehending and knowing the phenom- 
ena and that, relative to this difference, the relationship between 'self 
and 'world' is capable of characteristically different interpretations. . . . 
True, all these forms aim at objectification on the level of perception 
(zielen auj gegenstandliche Anschauung hin)^ but the perceived objects 
change with the type and direction of such objectification. The phi- 
losophy of symbolic forms, accordingly, does not intend to establish a 
special dogmatic theory regarding the essence and properties of these 
'objects,' but it aims, instead, to comprehend these types of objectifica- 
tion which characterize art as well as religion and science. 87 

It follows that, if no objectivity is held to be encounterable 
except within the symbolic forms of myth and religion, of art, 
common sense, and science, there also can be no chance to break 
out of the "charmed circle" of these forms. If it is only under 
the pervasive presupposition of these forms that we can appre- 
hend, comprehend and know all the objects, however struc- 
tured, how then will it be possible even to conceive of a polar 
concept which, such as the "sensuous manifold," is claimed to 
be distinguishable from the formal moment of the symbol- 
relation? What answer, in other words, can be given to Marc- 
Wogau's charge that, to be consistent, Cassirer cannot hope even 
to make a "distinctio rationis** between the perceptual "matter" 
and the significant "form" of the symbol-concept? As mentioned 
earlier, it is typical of Cassirer's procedure that the resolution 
of this problem is not left to logical or specifically "philo- 
sophical" considerations as have conventionally been devoted 
to the "form-matter" issue. The latter is to be evaluated, in- 
stead, in the light of empirical evidence. Let us be clear once 
more for just exactly what this empirical reference is to provide 
evidence. What is under discussion concerns the question 
whether the "material" moment of the symbol-concept (to 
which we have variously referred as the "sensuous manifold," 
the "sensory- or perceptual data") although indeterminable 
outside any given context ("perspective," "sight," "principle" 
or "form of a series") can nevertheless be distinguished, i.e., 
conceived as different in principle from the sense-perspectives 
within which it becomes manifest. 

For evidence of the fact that this problem has been realized 

87 Theoria (1938), 151. 


by scientists, Cassirer quotes these remarks from Karl Buehler: 

No theory of perception should forget that already the most simple 
qualities, such as 'red' and 'warm' usually do not function for them- 
selves but as signs for something else, i.e., as signs of properties of 
perceived things and events. The matter looks different only in the 
comparatively problematic borderline-case where one seeks to determine 
the 'Ansich* of these qualities in fercepion 

But it is, of course, exactly this "borderline-case," i.e., whether 
conditions for the isolation of the "Ansich" of perceptual data 
can be instituted or not (and how such isolation is to be inter- 
preted), that is at issue. The question, in other words, is whether 
perceptual data can be stripped of their various representative 
functions, and the relevance of having recourse to empirical 
investigations would concern the technical possibility of operat- 
ing such a reductive stripping of these data. For evidence of the 
empirical feasibility of that reduction, Cassirer mentions the 
German physiologists Helmholtz, Hering and Katz. Katz, 
e.g., 59 had initiated a procedure involving, a.o., the observation 
of colors through a punctured screen (ILochschirm) . "It turned 
out that hereby (the colors) change their phenomenal character 
and that there takes place a reduction of the color-impression 
to ... the dimension of plane- (Flaechen-) colors." 60 Hering 
performs similar reductions by means of a vision-tube (eine 
irgendwie fixierte Roehre)^ whereas Helmholtz, more ingeni- 
ously, gets along without any instruments and achieves com- 
parable effects by "looking from upside down, from under one's 
legs or under one's arms." Thus, Hering: 

Place yourself near the window, holding in your hands a piece of 
white and a piece of grey paper closely together. Now, turn the grey 
paper towards the window, the white one away from it, so that the 
retinal image of the grey paper will be more strongly illuminated than 
the white one 5 but even though one will notice the change in light- 
intensity, the now "lighter" but really grey paper will still appear as 
grey, while the now "darker" but really white paper will be seen as 
white. If now both papers are looked at through a tube, one will soon 

M Die Krise der Psychologic (1927), 97. 

59 In his Der Aufbau der Farbwelt, (ind edition 1930). 

90 Grundziige elner Lehre <vom Lichtsinn. Paragraph 4. 


see both papers (if held so that one will not shade the other) on one 
and the same level, and now the grey paper will be seen as the lighter 
one, the white one as the darker one, corresponding to the difference in 
the two light-intensities. 60 

And Helmholtz: 

We know that green plains appear at a certain distance in somewhat 
different color-tones; we get used to abstract from this change and we 
learn to identify the different 'green' of distant lawns and trees with 
the corresponding 'green' of these objects, seen at close range. . . . But 
as soon as we put ourselves into unusual circumstances, when we look, 
e.g., from under our legs or arms, the landscape appears to us as a flat 
picture. . . . Colors thereby lose their connection to close or distant 
objects and now face us purely in their qualitative differences. 61 

Similar reductions with respect to other than color-phenomena 
are also referred to by Cassirer in this connection. 182 

Now it seems that, if examples of the above-mentioned type 
are taken as evidence for the fact that the severing of sensory 
data from representative contexts is not only possible but actu- 
ally (technically) achievable, Cassirer would both be proving 
too much (with respect to what can be maintained within his 
own strictures) and not enough (with respect to what he pre- 
sumes to prove). For one, to suggest that Helmholtz's, Her- 
ing's, and Katz's investigations succeeded in "de facto" isolating 
the "pure color-phenomena" from their representative office, 
would be to maintain more than Cassirer could allow for, after 
taking pains to point out that the sensuous moment can never 
actually be encountered independently of the sense (context-) 
moment. To maintain such "isolation" would certainly not be 
compatible with his contention that "there is nothing in con- 
sciousness without thereby also positing . . . something other and 
a series of such 'others.* For each singular content of conscious- 
ness obtains its very determination from consciousness as a whole 
which, in some form, is always simultaneously represented and 
co-posited by it." 83 Nor could, or need, the alluded empirical 

61 Hcmdbuch der Physiologischen Oftik, (1896), 607. 

62 For haftical phenomena: Katz, Der Aufbau der Tastwelt (1925), 255. For 
odor phenomena: Henning, Der Geruch (1924.), 275, 278. 
m PSF, Vol. I, 32. 


illustration prove that this is not the case. What they may be 
taken to support is not the view that color- values can be stripped 
of their representative function, but only that by an appropri- 
ate shift from a normal perception perspective to a controlled 
two-dimensional perspective different interpretations hold 
with respect to color-phenomena. The latter have, in effect, not 
"really" been stripped of their representative office, but they 
now "represent" plane instead of surface colors. 

That the above is a preferable way of stating the matter is 
suggested by an earlier pronouncement: 

(After) the complete reduction of the color-impressions, they do not 
represent ... a particular thing . . . (but) appear as members of a 
series of light-experiences (Ltchterlebnisse) . But even these 'Lichter- 
lebnisse* betray a certain structure in so far as they are sharply con- 
trasted with each other, and in that they are organized in that contrast. 
Not only do they have different degrees of coherence so that one color 
appears separated from the other by a larger or smaller distance (where- 
from issues a determinate principle of their serialization), but there 
are assumed in this series certain privileged points around which the 
various elements can be organized. Even when reduced to a mere 
light-impression, the individual color-nuance is not just 'present' as 
such but it also is representative. The individual 'red,' given here and 
now, is given as V red, as a member of a species which it represents. . . . 
Without this (co-ordination to a series), the impression would not even 
be determinable as 'this one, 1 as TO$S te in the Aristotelian sense. 64 

We must conclude, therefore, that it becomes impossible on 
Cassirer's own view to conceive of the sensory moment of the 
symbol-concept as isolable from any serial context. Thus, 
whereas, under specifically controlled conditions, color-, sound-, 
and other sensory data may cease to function representatively 
for esthetic qualities, thing-surfaces and shapes, or for con- 
ventional language-signs, their reduction will still not go be- 
yond the physical and physiological contexts within which they 
are identifiable as of a determinate wave-length, intensity, pitch, 
etc. Marc-Wogau's charge that the "material" moment of the 
symbol-concept is not distinguishable from its sense-moment 
would, accordingly, hold if and only if the symbol-concept 

, Vol. Ill, 157. 


allowed of application in one and not more than one sense- 
context. To be sure, within any one perspective, the "whatness" 
of a phenomenon is never determinable in separation from its 
"how-ness," from the respective "sight" in which it is seen. With 
a variety of symbolic contexts, however, there is also given the 
possibility of their contrast and of distinguishing them as dif- 
ferently oriented "modes of sight," of which it can be said that 
they are "of" sensory data in the sense that a reduction to the 
physico-descriptive dimension can be performed for all of 
them. When Cassirer insists, therefore, that "there is always a 
world of optical, acoustical and haptical phenomena in which 
and by means of which all 'sense/ all apprehending, compre- 
hending, intuiting and conceiving alone is manifest," 65 then the 
conceivability of these sensory phenomena, as distinct from the 
"sense" they manifest, must be interpreted to mean that a phys- 
ical context (acoustics, optics, etc.) can be co-ordinated to all 
other contexts in which the senses represent different types of 
(expressive, intuitional, theoretical) sense. 

The "material" moment of the symbol-concept, we could 
say, as reference of and relevance for the sense-endowing 
"formal" moment, may not be separately encountered or isol- 
able within one context, but it is nevertheless distinguishable 
as one context. To speak of it as "material," would seem to be 
justified, if one considers the term to stand in the Aristotelian 
sense for what is taken as that of which manifold determina- 
tions are possible. What the term also suggests is that we are 
dealing here with what as matter in space and time, is ac- 
cessible to physical determination. In this sense, the material 
moment refers not just to one among other contexts, but to the 
most reliably controlled and pervasive one to which all other 
contexts may indeed be "reduced." 

In support of our belief that this interpretation of the "in- 
dependent variability" of the two symbol-moments is adequate 
with respect to what Cassirer aims to maintain, let us turn, in 
conclusion, to an illustration adduced by him on various oc- 
casions: 186 Cassirer bids us to think of a black line-drawing, a 

"Theoria (1939)) *S3- 

"E.g in: Zeitschrift fur Aesthetik, 1927, (Vol. XXI), 195. PSF, Vol. Ill, 
331. Theoria (1938), 154. 


"Linienzug" distinguished as a simple "perception experience." 

Yet, while I still follow the various lines of the drawing in their visual 
relations, their light and dark, their contrast from the background, 
their up-and-down movements, the lines become, so to speak, alive. 
The spatial form (das GebUde) becomes an aesthetic form: I grasp in 
it the character of a certain ornament ... I can remain absorbed in the 
pure contemplation of this ornament, but I can also apprehend in and 
through it something else: it represents to me an expressive segment of 
an artistic language, in which I recognize the language of a certain 
time, the style of an historical period. Again the 'mode of sight' may 
change, in so far as, what was manifest as an ornament, is now dis- 
closed to me as a vehicle of a mythico-religious significance, as a magical 
. . . sign. By a further shift in perspective, the lines function as a 
sensuous vehicle for a purely conceptual structure-context. . . . To the 
mathematician, they become the intuitive representation of a specific 
functional connection. . . . Where, in the aesthetic sight, one may see 
them perhaps as Hogarth beauty-lines, they picture to the mathematician 
a certain trigonometric junction, viz., the picture of a sin-curve, 
whereas the mathematical physicist may perhaps see in this curve the 
law of some natural process, such as, e.g., the law for a periodic oscilla- 

All depends here upon what is taken to remain "identical" in 
all these modes of sight. When we say that it is the "Linien- 
zug" which figures as the material moment in all contexts, in 
what sense can we say that it is the "same" one, since we know 
that it is seen as so many different things from context to con- 
text? Cassirer's rather metaphorical pronouncements in this 
connection can be clarified in the light of our interpretation. In 
the passage quoted above, he speaks of the simple (schlichte) 
"perception experience" in which the line-drawing is phenomen- 
ally given before it "comes to life," i.e., enters into the various 
perspectives mentioned. But clearly, if experienceable at all, 
this "simple perception experience" must itself be taken as a 
mode of sight and not as a moment prior and common to all 
other sights. This formulation is particularly unhappy in the 
light of other passages where Cassirer generalizes upon the il- 
lustration given above by remarking that 

the material moment is no psychological datum , but rather a liminal 


notion (Grenzbe griff). . . . What we call the 'matter' of perception 
is not a certain sum-total of impressions, a concrete substratum at the 
basis of artistic, mythical or theoretical representation. It is rather a 
line towards which the various formal modes converge. (Erne Linie 
. . . in der sich die verschiedenen Weisen der Formung schneiden.)* 7 

This space-metaphorical version of the issue would be amen- 
able to the interpretation suggested in so far as the "matter of 
perception" qua "convergence of the various formal modes" 
could well be taken as the "reductibility" of all contexts to the 
physico-physiological one from which Cassirer's actual evidence 
is concededly derived. (Helmholtz, Hering, Katz, Buehler, 


We conclude from the preceding discussion that a consistent 
meaning may be assigned to Cassirer's theory of the symbol- 
concept. The extreme generality of this concept is manifest when 
expressed as a propositional function. We could say that the 
property (of a "sensuous" representing "sense") limits in no 
way whatsoever the scope of the particulars which may enter the 
argument as true values. A symbolic relation, in other words, 
must hold for all facts, because, as indicated above, no facts are 
held to be statable without reference to some context; and no 
context can fall outside the symbol formula, because, as a con- 
text (Sinnzusammenhang), it must establish some exemplifica- 
tion of a representative relationship. Now, this "representation 
of sense through the senses" can take three distinct modal forms: 

1 i ) If the referent of the senses is the affective-emotive system 
of man, the senses are said to make "expressive sense." 

(2) If the referent of the senses is the volitional-teleological 
system of man, the senses make "common"-(thing-perceptual) 

(3 ) If the referent of the senses is a system of theoretical order- 
signs, the senses make conceptual, i.e., scientific sense. 

It is to each of these "modi" of the symbolic relation that 
there correspond the various cultural media. Thus: 

67 Theoria (1938), 155-156. ED. NOTE: Cf. infra 330 f. 


( i ) The expression-modus is taken to be exemplified in the 
domains of myth, art, and (the substrata of) language, in all of 
which media we deal with what Cassirer terms "Ausdrucks- 
Charaktere" and what are variously referred to by other 
contemporary philosophers, in related connotations, as "terti- 
ary qualities," "essences," "prehensions," "significant forms," 

(2) The common sense or empirical-intuitional- (empirische 
Anschaulichkeit)-modus is taken to be exemplified in the "nat- 
ural world-view" which is both constituted and reflected, 
Cassirer holds, by the "world of language." 

(3) The conceptual (theoretical) modus is taken to be exem- 
plified by the order-systems in which we have the "world of 

The philosophy of symbolic forms is, accordingly, a philos- 
ophy of the cultural forms from which alone we can read the 
various modalities within which symbolic functioning occurs and 
of which the symbol-concept furnishes the most general formu- 

From these cultural exemplifications of the "modi" of the 
symbol-concept we must distinguish the "qualities" of the 
most pervasive symbol-relations which, such as space, time, 
cause, number, etc., are "constitutive" (in the Kantian sense) of 
any and all objectivity. "The form of the simultaneous consti- 
tutes a quality distinct from the form of succession." 68 But since 
each "quality" is never manifest but in one of the three specified 
modal forms, 

we may conceive certain spatial forms (e.g. certain lines) as an artistic 
ornament in one case, as a geometrical draft in another ... so that, in 
consequence, the quality of a relation can never adequately be given 
except in reference to the total system from which it is abstracted. If, 
e.g., we designate the temporal, spatial, casual, etc., relations as Ri, R2, 
Rs . . ., there belongs to each of these a special 'index of modality' 
|*i, 1*2, [*s . . . which indicates the context within which they are to 
be taken. 69 

It follows that Cassirer could not consider as adequate any 

, Vol. I, 29. 

* PSF, Vol. 1, 3 1. 


philosophical analysis of space, time, cause, number, etc., unless, 
besides mathematical and physical spaces, it also attempted to 
account for the expressive and intuitional spaces of common 
sense, art, myth, and religion. 

In the light of the above, it will now be clear in which sense 
Cassirer's theory of symbolic forms could be presented both as 
a "philosophy of culture" and a "metaphysics of experience." 
There can be little doubt that Cassirer himself preferred to 
think of his work as providing "Prolegomena" for a philosophy 
of culture. In this form, the Philosophie der symbolischen For- 
men is actually developed, starting, as it does, from a philos- 
ophy of language (Volume I, 1923) and moving on to a 
philosophy of myth (Volume II, 1925) and to a philosophy of 
(perceptual and conceptual) knowledge (Volume III, 1929). 

All that would seem to be required, however, in order to 
formulate Cassirer's various analyses of language, myth, and 
the sciences as a "metaphysics of experience," would be to bring 
together the many penetrating examinations of "expressive 
space" (in the volumes on Language and Myth), of the "em- 
pirical space" of common sense (in the volumes on Language 
and Phenomenology of Knowledge), of mathematical and 
physical spaces (in the volumes on Phenomenology of Knowl- 
edge and Substance and Function), and to arrange them within 
a single scheme of exposition, doing the same for the other 
"categories." The result would be at least as universal a treat- 
ment of the pervasive (symbolic) traits of "Being" as is ex- 
pected of a metaphysical treatise. 

To develop Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms as a 
"metaphysics of experience" may appear bold, if not outright 
paradoxical, in view of both Cassirer's frequent polemics against 
"metaphysical speculations" in his early writings and in con- 
sideration of the pronounced anti-metaphysical tenor of the 
entire neo-Kantian movement of which Cassirer was one of 
the most brilliant exponents. A closer examination of some of the 
relevant passages, however, will back our contention that the 
issue is essentially a terminological one. It concerns not so much 

10 In accordance with the then ongoing Hegel-Renaissance, Cassirer preferred 
the title : "Phaenomenologie der Erkenntnis." 


the possibility (or legitimacy) of metaphysics as a significant 
philosophical enterprise as rather the questionability of what 
the term "metaphysics" has connoted so far. Take, e.g., this 
passage from Substance and Function: 

When empirical science examines its own procedure, it has to recog- 
nize that there is in the (metaphysical) struggles a false and technical 
separation of ways of knowing that are both alike indispensable to its very 
existence. The motive peculiar to all metaphysics of knowledge is here 
revealed. What appears and acts in the process of knowledge as an 
inseparable unity of conditions is hypostatized on the metaphysical view 
into a conflict of things. 71 

Now compare this passage with another one, written almost 
thirty years later: 

The history of metaphysics is by no means a history of meaningless 
concepts or empty words ... it establishes a new basis of vision and from 
it gains a new perspective for knowing the real. 72 

What appears on the surface as a complete shift from a rejection 
to an acceptance of metaphysical thinking must be recognized, 
however, as a mere shift in emphasis with respect to an essen- 
tially identical point of view. To be sure, Cassirer's statements 
in Substance and Function are not as positive with regard to 
metaphysics as the point he makes in the study on Hagerstrom y 
where he asserts that "the genuine, the truly metaphysical 
thoughts have never been empty thoughts, have never been 
thoughts without concepts" (ibid.). Yet, in this same context 
he goes on to warn us exactly as he did in his earlier work 

the difficulties, dangers and antinomies of metaphysics arise from the 
fact that its 'intuitions' themselves are not expressed in terms of their 
true methodological character. None (of the great metaphysical in- 
sights) is considered as giving insight into only a portion, but all are 
claimed to generally span the whole of reality. . . . The subsequent 
contest, resulting from such (partial) claims becomes at once a dialectical 
conflict. (Ibid.) 

M Substance and Function (Swabey tr.), 237. 

" Axel Hagerstromi Eine Studie zur Scfawedischen Philosofhie der Gegewwart, 


Cassirer's position is thus a consistent one. He does not side 
with the positivistic contention that metaphysics is not only 
"false," but also "meaningless." Instead, he distinguishes the 
genuine character of the problems with which the great meta- 
physicians have dealt, from the still imperfect modes in which 
their findings have been presented. The metaphysical objective 
is taken to be legitimate, whereas the metaphysical results can- 
not be accepted without qualification, simply because meta- 
physicians have offered "partial truths" as "universal" ones and 
because, in focussing upon one aspect of symbolization (viz. 
the mathematical, religious, aesthetic, or moral one), they have 
lost sight of the equal validity of such other aspects as also must 
be accounted for as legitimate paths to what in any perspective 
may be referred to as the "real." 

Now, since this denial of a privileged status for any one form 
of representation is exactly what Cassirer has claimed for his 
philosophy of symbolic forms, there does not seem to be any 
reason why within his own pronouncements his work may 
not indeed be considered as a kind of metaphysics, oriented 
around the central notion of the symbol-concept, which charac- 
terizes all aspects (contexts; Sinnzusammenhange) of the 
"real," pervading as a common theme, the polyphony of all 
cultural forms in which reality is perceived, understood, and 
known. Now, if emphasis is put upon the mjost universal rela- 
tional forms (space, time, cause, number, etc.) which reappear 
in characteristic modifications in all of these forms, we would 
be offered a metaphysics of (cultural) experience. If, on the 
other hand, our exposition proceeds by way of separate analyses 
of language, myth, religion, the mathematical and physical 
sciences, the character of Cassirer's work would be more obvi- 
ously one of a philosophy of culture. Regardless, however, 
which form of presentation is chosen, each will center around 
the idea of the symbol-concept. 

Cassirer himself, when offered an opportunity to present 
(in abbreviated form) his thoughts to an English-speaking 
audience, subtitled his Essay on Man "An Introduction to a 
Philosophy of Human Culture" Here, the emphasis is on the 
cultural realities, the languages and rituals, the art-masterpieces 


and scientific procedures. To comprehend them philosophically 
requires to realize them as so many symbolic manifestations 
of different types of synthesizing activities. 

The content of the culture-concept cannot be separated from the basic 
forms and directions of significant (g^istigen) production; their 'being* 
is understandable only as a 'doing.* It is only because there is a specific 
direction of our aesthetic imagination and intuition that we have a 
realm of aesthetic objects and the same goes for all our other energies 
by virtue of which there is built up for us the structure of a specific 
domain of objectivity. 73 

An analysis of culture could, correspondingly, proceed along 
both "material" and "formal" lines. It could either undertake a 
descriptive classification of the products of the various cultural 
activities, or it could seek "behind" this great diversity of mani- 
festations the characteristic types of intuiting, imagining, and 
conceiving, i.e., the "doings," in terms of which the "works" 
become intelligible. It is only in focussing on the "doings" that, 
according to Cassirer, we may hope to find a common de- 
nominator. "We seek not a unity of effects, but a unity of 
action; not a unity of products, but a unity of the creative 
process." 74 But this "unity of the creative process" as is ob- 
vious by now can be nothing else than the unity and univer- 
sality of the symbolic function, expressed in the symbol- 

The "culture-concept" must, accordingly, eclipse the "nature- 
concept" which, in Substance and Function, still stands for the 
regulative idea of "lawfulness" 'per se. It does so by reason of 
the circumstance that, whatever the "nature-concept" connotes 
at various historical periods, it is intelligible only as a function 
of what the cultural media of art, religion, and science take it 
to mean. Whereas "culture" creates, in an uninterrupted flow, 
ever new linguistic, artistic, religious, and scientific symbols, 
both "philosophy and science must break up these symbolic 
languages into their elements. . . . (We must learn) to inter- 
pret symbols in order to decipher the meaning-content they 

, Vol. 1, 1 1. 

74 Essay on Man, 70. 


enclose, to make visible again the life from which they orig- 
inally came forth." 75 

Measured against this considerable task, what we have in 
the three volumes of the Philosofhie der symbolischen Formen 
can hardly be expected to provide a full answer. Doubtless, a 
more detailed examination of the various cultural phenomena 
than offered so far would be required to make good the implied 
promise. Cassirer himself was aware of the tentative char- 
acter of his attempts in what he thought was the right direc- 

The 'Philosophy of Symbolic Forms' cannot and does not try to be a 
philosophical system in the traditional sense of this word. All it attempted 
to furnish were the 'Prolegomena' to a future philosophy of culture. 
. . . Only from a continued collaboration between philosophy and the 
special disciplines of the 'Humanities' (Geisteswissenschafteri) may one 
hope for a solution of this task. 76 


78 Logik der Kulturwissenschaften, 94.$ . 


William Curtis Swabey 



1 RNST CASSIRER is known to students of epistemology 
1 and metaphysics as a learned, lucid, and skillful repre- 
sentative of the neo-Kantian or "critical idealistic" point of 
viewj no one can deny the competence with which he reviews 
"the problem of knowledge in the science and philosophy of the 
modern age," expounding, quoting, and criticizing innumer- 
able authors, himself always firmly anchored in the critical 
idealism of the Marburg School. In what follows I undertake, 
with all becoming diffidence, to make explicit certain difficulties 
which I find, not so much in Cassirer's writings as such, but in 
the point of view of idealism itself. The learned material 
which Cassirer presents, the information concerning mathe- 
matics and physics from Galileo and Cusanus down to Einstein 
and the quantum theory, is after all susceptible of more than one 
interpretation 5 just as scripture supports various systems of 
theology, so science does not oblige a philosopher to embrace 
either idealism or realism. Cassirer's assemblage of historical 
material, which he so eloquently and persuasively interprets 
in the light of Kantianism, could be interpreted in the light of 
realism, were there a sufficiently learned and skillful realistic 
philosopher who was willing to undertake the task. Naturally, 
in such a wide-spread application of the historico-critical 
method, Cassirer has had to leave behind most of the scholastic 
architectonic, which Kant offered to the world as never to be 
changed 5 the modern disciple merely retains a "point of view," 
which is, as a matter of fact, extremely difficult to reduce to a 
few definite assertions. The Kantian "thing-in-itself" has dis- 
appeared and with it that vestige of realism, which was always 



in the back of Kant's mind: the a priori has become fluid and 
indefinite. The old opposition to metaphysics, on the one 
hand, and to empiricism, on the other, remains. Emphasis is 
placed on relations, especially upon those involved in serial 

The comments which follow will be made in the name of 
metaphysics. By metaphysics I understand a theory of being 
in general, a science which would deal with the fundamental 
types of being and reality. It would take its stand on the in- 
escapable ontological claims of all our thought and speech. 
I do not, however, understand by metaphysics a discipline 
which would deal primarily with those problems which Kant 
dealt with under the caption Transcendental Dialectic; it may 
be true that a degree of agnosticism is indeed the proper attitude 
with regard to the dogmas of the metaphysics of religion; 
metaphysics, as I understand it, is not to be understood as 
primarily the science of the meta-empirical (and consequently 
the un verifiable), but rather as that science which clarifies the 
fundamental ontological claims of our thought. It is my opinion 
that metaphysics, in this sense, is led to a standpoint of dualistic 
realism, a standpoint which is perhaps not final, but which is 
at any rate the only natural way of thinking. The dualism of 
Descartes and Locke, although encumbered with many dubious 
assertions in each case, still seems to me the philosophy which 
is most clearly suggested by our common ways of talking; it is 
perhaps in the end the only intelligible system, or, if it too 
conceals some insoluble problems, it is the least unintelligible 
system. By dualistic realism I mean a system which posits a 
world of bodies and minds in continual interaction. Bodies are 
self-existent entities with spatial attributes; minds are non- 
spatial beings which continually interact with bodies and fur- 
thermore know them both by perception and in other more 
elaborate and indirect ways. Dualistic realism seems to the 
idealist utterly unworthy of philosophy; for him, it is common- 
place, if not downright vulgar; he would prefer to leave 
behind mere things and delve into the mysteries of symbolism 
and the super-sensuous regions. The realist, although sharing 
to some extent the aspirations of the idealist, nevertheless puts 


common sense clarity and intelligibility first, in his list of philo- 
sophic values, and views mathematics as a dubious guide with 
regard to problems of being and real existence. The idealist of 
the type of Cassirer does not regard natural science as con- 
cerned with a self-existent nature. On the contrary, nature is 
the product of a synthesis of sensations and the history of 
science is a process in which thought perpetually re-creates its 

The attitude of the criticist is one of reflection } he deals not 
with things, but with thought about things j he lives in a world 
of second intentions. Thus, such a philosopher as Cassirer does 
not offer us a theory of bodies and minds, or of universals, 
essences, relations and individuals in general j he speaks rather 
as a scholar writing in a well-stocked library } nature is for 
him something known only indirectly, primarily through the 
books of scientists} it is an object postulated and described 
by a series of authorities. Ultimately it exists only in their 
minds j it undergoes, in the advance of science, modifications 
making for greater extensiveness and unity. Cassirer, it is true, 
has come to recognize points of view other than that of 
science} namely, the standpoints of language and myth. Never- 
theless the world exists, for the critical idealist, primarily as 
an object of consciousness. In the end, I presume, it will be 
found to exist only in the minds of historians} they, in turn, 
will exist only in each other's minds. Being is everlastingly 
dependent upon being known. My thesis is that the attitude 
of critical idealism cannot consistently be maintained} thought 
always claims to know an independent reality (or at least be- 
ing)} and a consistent philosophy can only be reached by 
following out the ontological claims of our unsophisticated 

The sub-title of Cassirer's Substanzbegriff und Funktions- 
be griff is: Untersuchungen iiber die Grundfragen der Erkennt- 
niskritik. The phrase Erkenntniskritik, or "critique of knowl- 
edge," is worthy of our attention. How can knowledge be 
criticized? If knowledge is knowledge it knows its objects as 
they sre. The knowledge which can be destroyed by criticism 
is not true knowledge} it is mere seeming knowledge and 


nothing can replace such false knowledge save true knowledge. 
Critique of knowledge must mean a criticism of certain sciences 
as they actually exist, in which it is shown that they use con- 
venient fictions and are thus not literally true. Still this is a 
criticism of historically existing sciences and not of knowledge 
as such. How can one criticize the sciences without in some way 
knowing? One would, otherwise, have no way of being aware 
of the shortcomings of the disciplines he was attempting to 

It is characteristic of the critical standpoint which Cassirer 
consistently occupies that metaphysics is regarded as obsolete. 
As Cassirer uses the word, metaphysics is merely a name for 
certain bad habits of thought inherited from a crude and unen- 
lightened past. In this Cassirer is in agreement with the prag- 
matists and positivists. But philosophers are not to be left 
without any employment at all; they may study "critique of 
knowledge." They may pore over the treatises of mathema- 
ticians and physicists and note the methods used and the funda- 
mental trends. Yet it cannot be said that Cassirer, in the 
chapters he has devoted to mathematics, physics, and chemistry, 
writes merely as an historian of science. An account of these 
sciences, taken merely as offered in the works of scientists, 
would generally be in realistic terms; such an account, made 
into philosophy, would be what is called materialism or mech- 
anism. But Cassirer is an idealist; he thinks of the sciences as 
dealing with "experience." What a strange object is experience! 
It is neither a body nor a set of bodies, neither a mind nor a set 
of minds. From the standpoint of dualism experience is the 
result of the interaction of mind and body; our bodies are 
affected by external things in various ways and our brains, 
parts of our bodies, affect, according to certain laws of psycho- 
physical correspondence, our minds; the result is what we 
call experience. Experience is not as such the object of knowl- 
edge; it is better to say that we know material things and 
minds (including our own) by means of experience. To make 
"experience" the all-inclusive object is itself a form of meta- 
physics; it inescapably commits us to idealism. Or, if we sup- 
pose that the intention is merely to deny the ontological validity 


which science naturally claims for its assertions, still such 
denial implies that philosophy possesses, at least in general 
terms, a knowledge of what is, of being. The traditional name 
of the branch of philosophy which deals with the fundamental 
types of being is metaphysics. My contention is that every phi- 
losophy, even that sort which makes a point of repudiating meta- 
physics, involves some theory, however obscure, of the nature 
of being as such. The criticist himself deals with metaphysical 
problems, but in an indirect and inconsistent fashion. 

If we start from the world as given to us in daily life and 
common language, we easily distinguish between bodies and 
minds. We find a world of bodies characterized by size, shape, 
and state of motion or rest, having a continuous existence in 
contrast to the coming and going of our perception, and dis- 
playing regularity of behavior. But there are also minds which 
have sensations, thoughts, and feelings ; by means of these 
sensations and thoughts we somehow know bodies and are in 
continual interaction with them; now it is true that, if we 
regard knowledge as a matter of being affected from without, 
we are likely to conclude that we know only our own sensa- 
tions. But the causal theory of sensation itself presupposes 
.knowledge of an external world. This world, by acting upon 
our organisms, engenders an awareness of sense-qualities. The 
idealist abandons the external material world on the basis of 
facts drawn from that world itself; the realist feels that the 
path of true philosophy consists in following the fundamental 
ontological assumptions. As an historian, Cassirer postulates 
a common sense world in which such persons as Leibniz, New- 
ton and Kant really existed as psycho-physical beings. And yet, 
like Kant, Cassirer is an idealist. Locke had laid the foundations 
of a dualistic outlook; but, by thinking of the immediate object 
or idea as "in the mind," he prepared the way for Berkeley, 
Hume, and Kant. The world of bodies lost its absoluteness 
and substantiality. Physical nature came to be replaced by 
experience taken substantively. But what definite conception 
can we form of experience? We know that neither Kant nor his 
modern disciple would plead guilty to any simple form of 
Berkeleyanism (such as that recently outlined by Professor 


Stace), 1 which would reduce the world to spirits and their sense- 
data, following one another according to inexplicable laws. 

Cassirer's discussions of -logic, mathematics, physics, and 
chemistry, emphasize the importance of judgment in discover- 
ing relations. In general he is antagonistic to any purely em- 
pirical account of mathematical or scientific conceptions. The 
great object of science is relations, especially those giving rise 
to serial orders. Relations, he holds, are not given to the senses, 
but are evidence of the comparative and postulational activity 
of the mind. But it is precisely here that difficulties appear. 
Kant sharply distinguishes between what "comes in from 
without" and the mind's own contribution. From the stand- 
point of realism, however, it is obvious that the mind cannot 
produce relations between things which are not already related } 
thus, if two things are correctly judged to be similar or differ- 
ent, it must be because they are already similar or different, 
etc. Kant thought of the mind as "receiving" the "raw material 
of sense" from "outside}" but this is all built upon a dubious 
metaphor. Let me indicate how, as I suppose, the matter would 
stand from the standpoint of psycho-physical dualism. We 
postulate a brain as well as a mind} the latter is really merely a 
series of thoughts. When the brain is stimulated in certain ways 
sensa appear or occur} they occur, however, in relation to other 
sensa which are either actually present or belong to the recent 
or remote past} we experience sensa as simultaneous or succes- 
sive, similar or different. When the brain is stimulated probably 
a considerable area is affected} old "traces" and habits are re- 
activated and the mind finds itself perceiving a real thing in 
a world of material things. In all this there is no more occa- 
sion to think of relations as creatures of pure consciousness or 
of a transcendental mind than there is to think of the sensa 
themselves in such a way. What we know is merely that per- 
ception of things occurs; the categorial interpretation as well 
as the data are the psychic accompaniments of brain-processes. 
Thus the brain or the laws of psycho-physical correspondence 
may take the place of the transcendental ego and its super- 
natural spontaneity. But, at the same time, we must maintain 

1 Stace, W. T., The 'Nature of the World (Princeton University Press, 1940). 


also our essential doctrine that such perception, even though 
occurring under such psycho-physical laws, is still perception, 
a revelation of what is. 2 A psychological theory, whether it 
comes under such transcendental psychology as Kant gives us 
or such physiological psychology as has just been suggested, 
nevertheless merely tells us under what conditions we come 
to know a part of the real world. But the idealist thinks of 
"synthetic activity" as creating a second world within the mind, 
which in turn soon becomes the one real world. 

In the first chapter of Substance and Function Cassirer re- 
views the theories of ancient and modern logicians concerning 
the concept; the general trend of his discussion may be de- 
scribed by saying that he finds the traditional class-concept to 
be in process of being supplanted by a new form of concept, 
which is that of serial order. Modern mathematical science no 
longer views nature as made up of things or substances; it is 
primarily concerned with relations, and these relations give rise 
to series of points, numbers, instants, etc. Hence Cassirer holds 
that the form of the concept which is fruitful for modern 
mathematical science is no longer the generic concept which 
merely expresses what a number of pre-existent entities have 
in common, but rather the "principle of serial order," which, 
once assumed, "generates" the individuals which conform to it. 
Against this view, I would suggest the following objections. 
Cassirer is mistaken if he imagines that such "principles" can 
ever take the place of class-concepts. For a serial order pre- 
supposes a group of entities which are ordered, whether real or 
unreal, such as points, numbers, colors, temperatures, etc. We 
can only refer to these elements by means of concepts in the 
traditional sense. Furthermore, a principle of serial order is 
not a concept at all; it is a proposition. Thus, of a row of 
soldiers, I may be able to say that each man is taller than the 
one before him. This is a mere description of given individuals, 
but it is expressed in a proposition. In mathematics I may 
grandly postulate a series of unreal entities, such that each one 
is related to the preceding one in a certain way; still here too 

2 Cf. Sellars, R. W., The Philosophy of Physical Realism (New York, Mac- 
inillan, 1932), 70. 


the principle of serial order is not what is commonly called a 
concept. Or, consider such relations as similarity, equality, 
greater than, etc. How are relations in any sense rivals of 
class-concepts? Relations are relations, concepts are concepts, 
but of course there are concepts of relations and relations of 
concepts. Here I shall venture a definition. Concepts are uni- 
versals connected with words as their meanings} universals are 
potentially recurrent features of either real or unreal entities. 
They are capable of appearing more than once (cf. blue, square, 
etc.}) while individuals are unique beings which occur once and 
once only. Individual things may be unreal, e.g., points, in- 
stants, geometrically perfect bodies, etc.} but all such things 
have, with reference to concepts, what is called their essence, 
which consists of those properties which entitle them to belong to 
a given class. Thus an individual man may be considered merely 
as a man and must have those properties which warrant us in so 
considering him. These properties are said to constitute the 
essence of man. The concept of man has these properties as its 
connotation. When we take these points into account, it becomes 
highly doubtful whether there is any justification for replacing 
the class-concept by a "principle of serial order." 

Everything to which we can refer has its concept, points, 
instants, numbers, relations, as well as the types of plant and 
animal. Thus, if we speak of circles or triangles or of numbers, 
of variables, or of series, we do so by means of words, which 
have the traditional type of class-concept as their meanings. It is 
true that all members of a class are similar to each other in 
certain respects; nevertheless similarity alone does not define a 
class (since the members of all classes are similar to other mem- 
bers of their respective classes) unless we tell wherein the 
members are similar, and this can be done only by mentioning 
the feature that all the members of the class have in common. 
This common element may be either determinate or determi- 
nable. Thus color is a determinable feature and can occur in 
actuality only when rendered perfectly specific, namely, as 
this nuance of this particular color. When the common element 
is determinable it demands supplementation; nevertheless, we 
cannot deny that all the things named by a generic term have 


something in common} this is a universal and may belong to 
the essence of those individuals. This doctrine, however, im- 
plies nothing which would minimize the importance of rela- 
tions. Still, it is true that the relations of a thing do not make 
it what it is, that is, do not belong to its essence. Thus a lamp 
or a shoe is what it is by virtue of its definitive properties, 
without regard to when or where it is, by whom manufactured 
or to what use it is put. It should be remarked, however, that 
nothing has an essence save with reference to some defining 
concept. Thus, if a lamp is no longer regarded as a lamp but 
as a piece of metal it is said to have a different essence. 
Furthermore, nothing can lose its essence without being annihi- 
lated; if the lamp is thrown into a furnace and melted, it ceases 
to exist as a lamp. The properties of water as water do not 
change when water is frozen or vaporized or made to stand 
upright in a glass tumbler; its nature includes the facts that 
it will evaporate when heated, solidify when chilled, stand up- 
right when enclosed in a glass, etc. Thus the essence of a sub- 
stance is not affected by its relations to other things; if we con- 
sider water solely as a liquid, then we know from experience 
that it continues to exist as a liquid only as long as a certain 
range of temperatures persists; if these temperatures pass be- 
yond certain limits, liquid water is annihilated. Thus, whether 
a thing exists or not depends on its relations, but its essence 
is not so dependent. There is, therefore, a good meaning in 
the old doctrine that relations are all extra-essential, the only 
exceptions being found in those cases in which things are named 
by the relations in which they stand; husband, captain, servant, 
etc. The chief point which I wish to make is that the logic of 
the concept and essence applies to all things, including points, 
instants, numbers, propositions, and relations; it can by no 
means be replaced by "functional relations" or "principles of 
serial order." Thus, beings may stand in serial relations, but 
they must have their essence prior to and apart from their 
relations; this is because we are dealing, in our statements 
about essence, merely with entities as such. Numbers, points, 
instants and the rest must be entities before they can stand in 
relations to each other. 


Cassirer is in general an advocate of a "logical" theory of 
number; but he rejects the emphasis upon the correspondence 
of classes characteristic of Frege and Russell. His fundamental 
aim is to vindicate the priority of serial order as a basis for 
mathematical science. His theory is therefore the opposite of 
that which defines number in terms of equivalent classes. Two 
groups are said, according to Russell, "to belong to the same 
number" when there is a relation of possible co-ordination be- 
tween the members of the two groups. Cassirer's opinion that 
the definition of number as a class of classes by no means 
corresponds to the meanings of the names of numbers in daily 
life seems to be sound. "The 'how many' of the elements, in 
the ordinary sense, can be changed by no logical transformation 
into a bare assertion concerning 'just as many'." 3 Cassirer him- 
self advocates an ordinal theory of numbers according to which 
"the individual number never means anything by itself alone" 
and "a fixed value is only ascribed to it by its position in a total 
system." 4 According to the "cardinal" theory, to which Cassirer 
is opposed, "the members (of the number series) are deter- 
mined as the common properties of certain classes before any- 
thing whatever has been established as to their relation of 
sequence. Yet in truth it is precisely in the element here at 
first excluded that the peculiar numerical character is rooted." 5 
This is Cassirer's statement of his view. The philosophy of 
number is a matter concerning which a non-mathematician 
may well be cautious. Perhaps I shall not be wrong, if I call 
attention to a principle which is rather generally accepted, 
namely, that we gain insight into the meaning of even the most 
general propositions only by analysis of particular illustrative 
cases. In application to the problem of number it is difficult 
to see how mathematicians or anyone else can understand any- 
thing whatever save with reference to relations which are 
actually given in sensuous experience. I can well believe that 

1 Cassirer, Ernst, Substance and Function, (Swabey tr., Open Court Publishing- 
Company, Chicago, 1923), 48. Since most of my quotations from Cassirer's writ- 
ings will be from this particular volume, I shall hereafter abbreviate it : SF. 

4 1 bid. 



in the case of ordinary calculation blind symbol-manipulation 
takes the place of "intuitive" understanding, and there is no 
reason why it should not; mathematics is, on the whole, a 
technique for dealing with relations far too complex for us 
to understand. Nevertheless, the basis of mathematics must be 
in the relation of small numbers which can easily be grasped. 
The relations of small numbers may be illustrated by sense- 
data and those of the larger numbers understood by analogy 
with the smaller ones. Taking its start from simple sensuous 
experiences the mind conceives and postulates an infinite system 
of numbers 5 number is given to sensuous experience as the 
form-quality of a group of entities. Three-ness is a quality of 
each and every group of three, etc. Now it is true that numbers 
form a series, a series stretching to infinity. My point, with 
regard to Cassirer's theory of number, is that the "principle" 
or "form" of the series cannot be understood save by reference 
to its individual members, which must be given before "the 
principle of the series" can be understood. If we say that a given 
number can only be understood in its relations to all other 
numbers, it follows that no number can be understood; for the 
series of numbers can never be given as a whole. If, therefore, 
to understand "3" it were necessary to understand all the num- 
bers, the task would be an impossible one. But knowing what 
i, 2, and 3, etc., are, as patterns or form-qualities, with refer- 
ence to small groups, we see that they are capable of being 
arranged in a series such that each number is equal to the 
preceding number plus one. But, if I did not know what num- 
bers were and had no notions of addition, equality, etc., I could 
form no idea of such a series or its principles. The elementary 
number-equations seem to be related to a fact of experience, 
namely, that the same group can always be taken in different 
ways. Thus six apples can be taken by the mind as one group, 
or, in various ways, as two or three groups: the fact that these 
transformations are always possible is so easily verified that 
it is natural to suppose that the laws of arithmetic are a priori. 
They may, however, be regarded as well-established generali- 
zations based on easy and oft-repeated mental experiments. 


It is quite true that such numbers as zero, fractions, and 
those which are labelled negative, irrational, and imaginary 
are not "funded qualities" of given groups; they require a 
more involved derivation. Fundamentally, however, the point 
must be insisted upon that these are not numbers in the original 
sense of the word; they are rather fictions or quasi-numbers, 
which could never be understood did we not have definite con- 
cepts of the small integers, y* represents a division which can- 
not be carried out; the symbol is meaningful only because we 
are ready to substitute for the abstract concept of pure unity 
the concept of distance or area or material object. In the same 
way, to understand -2 we go beyond the notion of number to 
that of a series having direction. According to Dedekind, irra- 
tional numbers are "cuts," or divisions in the number-series. 
"The 'cuts' may be said to be numbers," says Cassirer, "since 
they form among themselves a strictly ordered manifold in 
which the relative position of the elements is determined accord- 
ing to a conceptual rule." 6 But there is here a point which 
calls for comment. Words may change their meanings, but 
meanings themselves do not change. A new concept of number 
is only a new meaning attached to an old word. The point I 
would make is that, whereas irrational numbers may be in some 
sense as good as other numbers, i.e., they may conform to 
certain laws, still they are not numbers in the original sense 
of the word. Unless we start with what Frege scornfully re- 
ferred to as "pebbles and gingerbread nuts," i.e., with that con- 
ception of number, of "how many," which the child applies to 
his fingers and toes, we cannotjunderstand the new extended 
sense of the word in which V 2 ma y be said to be a number. 
The technical kinds of number are not numbers in the primary 
sense of the word, and they can only be defined in terms of 
experience in roundabout ways, as, for example, imaginary 
completions of processes, which cannot in fact be completed. 
A number is a quality of a finite group; an infinite number is, 
on the face of it, something inconceivable, or even self-contra- 
dictory. Cassirer would say that we grasp an infinite series 
when we know the law by which it is generated. I would say, 

9 SF, 61. 


however, that we know that law only in terms of the relations 
of small whole numbers; these relations seem to me to be 
simply given in the same elementary way in which the sense- 
qualities are given; there seems no point in speaking, as Kant 
did, of a dual origination of sense-qualities "coming in from 
the outside" and relations having the more noble characteristic 
of having been generated in the mind. From the standpoint of 
physiological psychology, both qualities and relations originate 
within the mind on the occasion of the activation of the brain; 
from the standpoint of realistic epistemology, relations hold 
between material things, whether or not these relations are 
known by any mind. 

A question of prime importance for the understanding of 
Cassirer's position is concerned with the meaning to be attached 
to the phrase a priori. I presume that the meaning which most 
philosophers would give to the term would be simply the 
intuitively certain. Thus the multiplication table and the axioms 
of Euclid are commonly regarded as at least legitimate examples 
of what was formerly regarded as a priori. The a priori in this 
sense cannot change; it is capable of becoming intuitively cer- 
tain to all who understand the meaning of the propositions. 
Man may be mistaken as to what is self-evident; but the rule 
holds that "once self-evident, always self-evident." If a prin- 
ciple is at a later time discovered not to be self-evident, this 
implies that the earlier thinkers were mistaken in regarding the 
principle as self-evident. Thus, if the "axioms" of geometry 
are not, in the light of modern thought, self-evident, they were 
not so in the days of Kant, either, although he falsely thought 
that they were. The a priori then admits of no variation. Kant 
claimed this sort of truth not only for the axioms of Euclidean 
geometry but for his whole transcendental system as well. Mod- 
ern mathematical science, however, no longer recognizes the 
unique authority of Euclidean geometry; it recognizes other 
systems which it offers impartially to physics; this science 
chooses, for certain purposes, a non-Euclidean system; indeed, 
no one has given a more lucid account of this whole develop- 
ment than Cassirer himself in his essay, Einstein's Theory of 
Relativity. How, then, can one still defend the a priori? The 


answer is, only by changing the meaning of the term and 
ascribing this new meaning to Kant as his "deeper meaning." 
And if this is done it becomes a real question whether rational- 
ism differs significantly from empiricism. Cassirer emphasizes 
the "active," "synthetic," and "relating" functions of the mind 
as opposed to the passive receptivity of sense-perception. The 
mind exercises its intellectual functions and in this consists its 
a priori character. Yet it may be questioned whether this doc- 
trine has a clear meaning. The mind can only distinguish that 
which is already different } it can rightly regard as similar only 
that which is already similar, etc. If we assume, as dualistic 
realism does, a world of independently existent things, these 
things must have numerical, spatial, and causal relations. The 
mind cannot create these relations. Or, if we retreat to a 
Berkeleyan world of bodiless spirits, there will still be relations 
of one sort or another between these spirits. Our minds are 
active in shifting their attention from one object to another and, 
furthermore, in speaking and in writing} using words, we 
"create worlds," "weave relations," "split asunder," and "re- 
combine what we have separated," etc. In the use of words, 
therefore, we are no doubt creative} but it is difficult to see 
how our "judgmental activity" can actually either affect or 
create things or relations. 

However, let us return to the subject of space. Cassirer, in 
Substance and Functlon y quotes with approval the view of Well- 
stein that Kant's intuitive theory of mathematics was a "resid- 
uum of sensualism still attached to the Kantian idealism." 7 
The new mathematics, Cassirer believes, brings out the logical 
rather than the empirical character of pure mathematics. Now 
this opinion seems to be widespread if not universal among 
students of modern mathematics. We may sum up the matter 
by saying that, in so far as mathematics is a logically necessary 
system of deductions, it is certain but not true} in so far as it is 
true, it is not certain a priori. It was only Kant's extraordinary 
invention of an a priori sensibility which was compatible with the 
supposed character of Euclidean geometry, namely, that it was 
both a priori and true of real things. It is interesting to recall 

1 SF, 1 06. 


here the view of geometry which Hume propounds in his 
Treatise of Human Nature. He tells us that in geometry "we 
ought not to look for the utmost precision and exactness. None 
of its proofs extend so far. It takes the dimensions and propor- 
tions of figures justly; but roughly, and with some liberty." 8 
For Hume the only possible criteria of existential truth were 
sense-data, and sense-data are often compatible with several 
geometrical propositions. Modern geometry may well be, as 
Cassirer says, a purely logical system dealing with postulated 
relations in an abstract manifold; this, however, is not the ele- 
mentary geometry of the older thinkers; with regard to that 
(elementary) system events seem to have shown that Hume, 
who was no great admirer of mathematics, was more nearly 
correct than Kant, who earnestly sought to eternalize the 
mathematical science of his time by giving it a transcendental 

Metaphysics deals with problems of an entirely different 
order. It deals with the nature of being and of real existence, 
if the two are to be distinguished, with the difference between 
mind and matter, universal and individual, etc., but without 
taking anything from the special sciences. But for Cassirer 
metaphysics is merely a name for certain unfortunate intel- 
lectual tendencies, which disappear in the light of critical phi- 
losophy. Let us see what he has to say in the chapter entitled 
"The Problem of Reality" in Substance and Function. The 
fundamental vice of metaphysics is, in general, that it sets up, 
as an opposition of things (Widerstreit der Dinge) what in the 
process of knowledge is an inseparable unity of conditions. Thus 
persistence and change, unity and plurality, thought and being 
are falsely opposed to each other in the metaphysical approach. 9 
"If once things and the mind become conceptually separated 
they fall into separate spatial spheres, into an inner and an outer 
world, between which there is no intelligible causal connection." 
(271) But this is a very cavalier way of speaking. It refers to 
metaphysics in a broad condemnatory way without distinguish- 

8 Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part 2, Section 4. (Selby-Bigge 
ed., p. 45)- 


ing the actual doctrines held by metaphysicians. It is not clear 
that metaphysicians must fall into the fallacies named. Mind 
and body may be entirely distinct from each other in essence and 
yet in constant interaction. If mind is essentially non-spatial, it 
cannot be spatially separated from bodies, since only what is in 
space can be spatially remote from anything else. Furthermore, 
the essential distinction of mind and body does not imply that 
mind cannot know body. 

If we consult immediate experience, wHich is free from re- 
flection, says Cassirer, we find that it is wholly without the 
distinction between the objective and the subjective. (272) 
For such experience there is only one level of being which con- 
tains all content within itself. The intellectual experiment 
which Cassirer proposes is a difficult one; just what are we to 
subtract to reach "immediate experience?" Still, without chal- 
lenging the proposition laid down, we may point out that most 
of us are familiar with two distinctions, namely, that between 
the objective and the subjective and that between the mental 
and the physical. Thus, another person's mind is objective, in 
the sense of really existent, although wholly mental in charac- 
ter. The same is true of our own minds. On the other hand, an 
hallucinatory dragon may be physical in nature and yet unreal, 
which is, I suppose, what Cassirer means by subjective. Even 
if we grant that the supposed "immediate experience" does not 
contain the opposition between the subjective and the objective, 
it might contain the opposition between the mental and the 
physical. If we were conscious of any distinctions at all (and 
otherwise how could we be conscious or how could there be 
experience?) we might note the difference between sense-data 
and the thought which plays over them and calls, as Cassirer 
says, some of them subjective and others objective. In fact, if 
our words referring to the mind have a bona fide meaning, 
there must be an immediate experience by the mind of the mind 
itself, an original form of self-knowledge, an awareness of 
awareness. At a later stage, our primitive awareness of sense- 
data becomes a perception of things and our awareness of the 
activity of thought becomes an explicit knowledge of the mind 
by itself. 


But let us return to the contemplation of the one plane of 
immediate experience} at this stage all seems objective, and 
hence there is no occasion for the "false metaphysical problem" 
as to how we pass from the subjective to the objective. But, says 
Cassirer, at the first appearance of reflection a division sets in, 
according to which, data are not simply accepted but are dis- 
tinguished in their value. Unique and fleeting observations, he 
says, are forced into the background while typical experiences 
which recur under similar conditions are emphasized. Cassirer 
is here attempting a hypothetical reconstruction of the process 
by which our belief in an external world arises. The mind sorts 
out its impressions and there emerges a consciousness of ob- 
jective things. 

Along with the loose associative connections of perceptions united only 
under particular circumstances (as, for example, under definite physio- 
logical conditions) there are found fixed connections, which are valid for 
a whole field of objects and belong to this field independently of the 
differences given in the particular place and time of observation. We find 
connections which hold their ground through all further experimental 
testing and through apparently contrary instances and remain steadfast 
in the flux of experience while others dissolve and perish. It is the former 
that we call "objective" in a pregnant sense, while we designate the latter 
by the term "subjective." 10 

Now none can doubt that in the pursuit of empirical knowl- 
edge, it is important to separate trivial and accidental connec- 
tions from those which are universal and are said to be "essen- 
tial" and "necessary." But how is this connected with the 
distinction between the subjective and the objective? It is a fact, 
let us say, that on Friday the I3th I lost my purse, and it is also 
a fact that water is essential to life. The first is no more sub- 
jective than the second. If, however, I permitted myself to 
generalize from the former occurrence, I would propound a 
false superstitious law of bad luck. Such a generalization would 
indeed be false and would be founded on inadequate observa- 
tion. A law of this type might be called "subject! vej" but the 
occurrences which cause some men to accept it as true are as 


objective as any other occurrences. It seems that Cassirer is seek- 
ing to reduce the distinction between the subjective and the ob- 
jective to that between particular events and universal laws. 
But the former are as objective as the latter. He says: 

We finally call objective, those elements of experience which persist 
through all change in the here and now and on which rests the un- 
changeable character of experience, while we ascribe to the sphere of 
subjectivity all that belongs to this change itself and that only expresses 
a determination of the particular unique here and now. 11 

But this sentence is obscure, particularly with reference to the 
phrase "elements of experience;" it might mean that colors, 
sounds, tactile qualities, and the like are objective, for they are 
recurrent elements in all experience; we gather from the con- 
text, however, that this would be far from what he means. He 
has in mind laws or connections, but laws or connections are 
merely propositions supposed to be true descriptions of the way 
in which events occur; and what occurs universally is no more 
objective (really existent) than what occurs once and once only. 
However, perhaps we can make clear what Cassirer means 
if we refer to the classic instance of the wine which was sweet to 
Socrates when well, but bitter to Socrates when ill. Should we 
say that the wine is objectively sweet because it is normally 
tasted as sweet by Socrates and others; while it is tasted as 
bitter only by Socrates when he is ill? This would be a way of 
permitting the feelings of the majority to function as the 
criterion of objectivity; although this is an attractive and popu- 
lar answer to the question, it seems scarcely well founded; un- 
less, perchance, we choose to define objectivity with reference 
to the majority. There is another way of dealing with this prob- 
lem which commences by asking us to define our terms. Let 
us say that those features of bodies are objective which belong 
to them without reference to observers. Sweetness is merely an 
effect produced by bodies acting on our psycho-physical organ- 
isms and belongs to the wine no more than does the bitterness, 
save in the sense that the wine has the power to produce a 
certain sensation in the minds of most people. It is merely con- 


venient to name the wine according to the more common re- 
sponse. But this convenience does not constitute objectivity in 
the sense of real existence, apart from all onlookers. 

Cassirer himself goes on to mention the Democritean distinc- 
tion between the primary and secondary qualities of bodies. For 
him it is an illustration of the "transformation of objectivity 
into subjectivity." "The seen color, the heard tone, remains 
something *realj j only this reality does not subsist in isolation 
and for itself, but results from the interaction of the physical 
stimulus and the appropriate organ of sensation." 12 Similar con- 
siderations apply to the illusions of the senses. The distinction 
between the subjective and the objective is thus, for Cassirer, 
not a fixed line of demarcation but a moving and relative 
barrier, such that the same content of experience can be called 
subjective and objective, according as it is conceived relative 
to different logical frames of reference. 

Sensuous perception, as opposed to the hallucination and the dream, 
signifies the real type of the objective; while measured by the schema 
of exact physics, sense perception can become a phenomenon that no 
longer expresses an independent property of things but only a subjective 
condition of the observer. 13 

Such a view commits us to a boundless relativism in which no 
definite distinction can be drawn between the mental and the 
physical. The mental is identified with the subjective and un- 
real. Erkenntniskritik thus seems to involve an attitude of 
intellectual nihilism, in which both mind and nature disappear 
in a bottomless abyss of relativity. 

The standpoint of dualistic realism, on the other hand, even 
if not capable of proof, is not self-refuting. At an early stage 
men, and probably animals too, become conscious of the thing- 
world of which they themselves are parts ; they find themselves 
continually interacting with these things. When we consider the 
way in which sensations originate it becomes probable that colors 
and tones belong to external things only in the sense that they 
are produced by them. The seen color may be considered either 

"W,2 7 4. 



as a predicate of external things or in its own right 5 when taken 
in its own right, it becomes what some call a sense-datum and 
others as essence. In any case, the seen color is not mental in 
the sense of belonging to the inner essence of mind as con- 
sciousness or knower; on the other hand, it does not belong to 
nature as an interacting system of bodies. Taken merely as ob- 
jects by themselves colors, sounds, odors, and the like belong to 
the non-existent, to the realm of being, which is so much broader 
than the realm of existence. Thus the change which took place 
with regard to the secondary qualities need not be described as 
one in which what was previously thought to be physical comes 
to be thought of as mental 5 it may be described as a change in 
which what was previously thought to be an intrinsic property 
comes to be regarded as a mere relative predicate. 

Cassirer's approach to the problem of knowledge is that of 
a reflective historian of philosophy and science; he thus seems 
to avoid any definite metaphysical position of his own; never- 
theless, it seems fair to say that a definite ontological platform 
is involved in so far as we may speak of Cassirer as an idealist. 
This position is one of phenomenalism. The things which we 
postulate in daily life are posited to explain, as Hume put it, 
the constancy and coherence of our perceptions. The senses 
alone do not show us a world of nature, but our minds have a 
natural tendency to postulate as much uniformity as they can; 
sense-perception gives us a fragmentary, incomplete order 
which we make perfect by the assumption that things exist be- 
fore and after our actual perceptions. Science carries the process 
further. The "things" which it posits are "metaphorical expres- 
sions of permanent connections of phenomena according to law 
and thus expressions of the constancy and continuity of experi- 
ence itself." 14 In comment upon this position, which Cassirer 
maintains in agreement with the views of Hume and Kant, it 
may be remarked that an account of how we come by a belief 
need not involve the notion that that belief is itself false. To 
explain, as John Stuart Mill did, the origin of our belief in an 
external world does not imply that no external world exists. 
In fact, we may say that such an explanation starts with an 
assumption of the validity of that belief in so far as there is talk 

14 SF, 276. 


of "sensations" or "perceptions" which are intermittent, a 
notion which is significant only in contrast to continuously 
existent things. Does the mind "construct" things? Why should 
we not say that, on the occasion of the occurrence of sensations, 
the mind comes to know of things as continuously existent 
entities which interact with each other and with the mind it- 

But let us seek to discover the proper formulation of 
Cassirer's idealism. Metaphysical realism, he says, postulates an 
absolute gap between the immanent and the transcendent, and 
declares that there is no logical inference by which we can pass 
from the former to the latter. The realist, he says, finds it 
necessary to leap the gap by insisting on the transcendent refer- 
ence of knowledge, Cassirer denies, however, that such con- 
siderations invalidate his own form of critical idealism. 

Critical idealism, [he writes,] is distinguished from the realism here 
advocated, not by denying the intellectual postulate at the basis of these 
deductions of the concept of objective being, but, conversely, by the fact 
that it grasps this intellectual postulate more sharply and demands it for 
every phase of knowledge, even the most primitive. Without logical 
principles which go beyond the content of given impressions there is as 
little a consciousness of the ego as there is a consciousness of the object. 
. . . No content can be known and experienced as "subjective" without 
being contrasted with another content which appears as objective. 15 

The essential thought here is that the subjective and the ob- 
jective are correlative and that consciousness is not immediately 
given to itself as such. This doctrine is no doubt derived from 
the position taken by Kant in his "Refutation of Idealism" in 
the Critique of Pure Reason, namely, that knowledge of the 
subject is secondary and is dependent upon knowledge of the 
object "with regard to its determinations in time." But why 
cannot the realist welcome considerations of this sort? There is 
a directness of reference in the mind's knowledge of external 
things as well as in its knowledge of itself j no doubt the two 
forms of knowledge develop $ari passu and cannot exist apart 
from each other. Still, if there is knowledge of things, those 
things must exist apart from knowledge and prior to it. In a 

15 W, 295. 


word, being must antedate being known; we cannot suppose 
that things known exist only in our knowledge of them; for, 
"creative knowledge" is not knowledge at all in the human 
sense of the word. The thought that being depends on being 
known brings us to most surprising results. For then the knower 
would also derive his being from being known either to himself 
or to another. It is impossible, however, for a thing to depend 
on itself, and not plausible to suppose that one knower derives 
his being from being known by another and so on ad infinitum. 
Surely in the end we must reach a type of being which is self- 

We have just seen that Cassirer holds that there is no con- 
sciousness of the ego nor of material things without "logical 
principles" which "go beyond the content of given impressions." 
However, this position seems open to question. A man may 
think of whatever he likes, gods, devils, angels, or atoms. There 
is, in such thinking, a certain directness; we contemplate our 
object, whatever it may be, without, however, necessarily af- 
firming its existence. A man may, therefore, consider his own 
mind, which he does whenever he speaks of it. Where are the 
"logical principles" said to be involved? No doubt it is true that 
the self, however it may be defined, is not among given im- 
pressions or sense-data. Still, I can mean myself just as I can 
mean the table. All objects of thought are given as objects; 
although we are not thereby entitled to regard them as real. 
The real existence of the self is postulated to explain certain 
facts just as that of the table is postulated to explain certain 
others; no doubt this "explanation" does presuppose certain 
logical principles. Nevertheless, has Cassirer shown that the 
assertions of the "metaphysical realist," namely, that there are 
minds and that these minds know things external to themselves, 
are false? 

"If we determine the object, not as an absolute substance 
beyond all knowledge, but as the object shaped in progressing 
experience, we find that there is no epistemological gap to be 
laboriously spanned by some authoritative decree of thought, 
by a 'trans-subjective command'." 16 Naturally the object is not 


"beyond all knowledge," since by definition it is the object of 
knowledge. How can an object be "shaped in progressing ex- 
perience?" Do scientists re-make the world? Does Cassirer 
mean to deny that the thing known is distinct from the knowing 
mind and existentially independent of that mind? Cassirer him- 
self goes on to say: 

This object may be called transcendent from the standpoint of a psycho- 
logical individual; from the standpoint of logic and its supreme principles, 
nevertheless, it is to be characterized as purely "immanent." It remains 
strictly within the sphere which those principles determine and limit, 
especially the universal principles of mathematical and scientific knowl- 
edge. This simple thought alone constitutes the kernel of "critical 
idealism." 17 

Here then we have a statement offered as the essence of critical 
idealism and well worthy of our attention. Cassirer grants that 
the object is transcendent from the standpoint of the psycho- 
logical individual. Does he mean that the object is not trans- 
cendent with reference to the "mind" taken in some other 
sense? Apparently he does, for he goes on to say that the object 
is immanent "from the standpoint of logic and its supreme 
principles." However, we may well ask whether there is any- 
thing to which logic does not apply. In asserting that the object 
is immanent in this sense, have we not a meaningless statement, 
since there is no transcendent realm with regard to which the 
immanent is a limited sphere? In a word, in so far as Cassirer's 
idealism merely asserts (if we may cite such laws as non- 
contradiction and excluded middle as "supreme principles of 
logic") that "what is" is self-consistent and determinate, we 
can hardly deny that the doctrine is not in conflict with dualistic 
realism. Such idealism would be merely a re-affirmation of logic 
and mathematics and not a recognizable epistemological asser- 
tion. If Cassirer's idealism contradicts realism at any point it 
must be because he regards the principles of logic and mathe- 
matics as inherent in the mind, just as Kant did. Cassirer goes 
on to assert "the objective validity of certain axioms and norms 
of scientific knowledge." "Die Wahrheit des Gegenstands dies 

17 Cf. SF, 297. 


allein ist die Meintmg hangt an der Wahrheit dieser Axiome 
tmd besifat keinen anderen und fester en Grund." 16 But how can 
an object be true? An object is real or unreal; only a proposition 
is capable of truth. The fact that certain logical laws are uni- 
versally presupposed in other propositions does not imply that 
being is dependent upon being known and is therefore not 
incompatible with dualistic realism. The assertion of the in- 
volvement of logical principles in more particular judgments 
implies a conflict with realism only if logical truths are supposed 
to represent the necessary thoughts of a universal consciousness; 
all things may then be said to be within this universal mind. But 
this universal mind seems to be merely a postulated correlative 
of universal truths. Cassirer says nothing about a universal 
mind, and thus seems to leave the conception of idealism indefi- 
nite. He does, however, conceive of the mind as perpetually en- 
gaged in a constructive activity. We are left with a protean 
"thought" which postulates, on the one hand, bodies, and on the 
other, selves. The thesis which we seek to defend in this criticism 
is that such "construction" is merely metaphorical. The mind 
may range through the realm of being, the world of thinkables, 
in an exploratory fashion, merely considering hypotheses; but, 
in all this it creates nothing; it merely discovers pre-existent 
possibilities. When it posits some one of these thinkable objects 
as really existent it likewise produces nothing; it merely makes 
an assertion which may be either true or false. But such idealism 
as that of Kant and Cassirer would lose much of its attractive- 
ness were it deprived of the picturesque and poetic notion of 
mind, the supreme magician, endlessly producing and destroy- 
ing worlds. 

The concept of thing, according to Cassirer, is merely a su- 
preme ordering concept of experience. At first we believe that 
we know things directly; but reflection destroys this naive con- 
fidence. The impression of the object comes to be separated 
from the object itself, which becomes an unknowable and 
elusive thing-5n-itself . But from the standpoint of critical ideal- 
ism, Cassirer says, the concept of an object or thing is merely 

18 Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (original German edition, 1910), 395. 


an instrument of knowledge; this amounts to saying that objects 
are merely fictions, useful in stating propositions regarded as 
true. Helmholtz took the position that "Each property or 
quality of a thing is in reality nothing but its capacity to produce 
certain effects on other things." On this Cassirer makes the 
following comment: 

We do not grasp the relations of absolute things from their interaction, 
but we concentrate our knowledge of empirical connections into judg- 
ments, to which we ascribe objective validity. Therefore the relative 
properties do not signify in a negative sense that residuum of things that 
we are able to grasp, but they are the first and positive ground of the 
concept of reality. 19 

We see then that, for Cassirer, the great objects of knowledge 
are relations. Thing-concepts are merely means for stating rela- 
tions. Now, undoubtedly this view is an attractive one; yet it 
contains certain difficulties. How can there be relations without 
relata? The weight of a body can perhaps be defined in terms 
of its power of influencing other bodies, and the sense-qualities 
are explained as mere powers, possessed by bodies, of producing 
sensations. Nevertheless, size, shape, and relative position 
cannot be taken from bodies without annihilating them. Rela- 
tivism of this extreme sort constitutes a species of nihilism which 
forces us to admit that we can form no conception of the real 
whatsoever. Or, if we are left with truths, what are these truths 
about? If realism is to be defended, it must be because not all 
the properties of bodies are relative. Thus the numerical expres- 
sion of size varies with the unit of measurement, but size is what 
is measured; it is not the result of measurement. So, too, 
although a body appears differently when viewed from differ- 
ent angles, we need not deny that bodies possess determinate 
shapes. The difficulty which I feel here is concerned with the 
question whether such a complete relativism can really be in- 
telligibly stated. At any rate, Cassirer and other idealists must 
continue to use language which implies the existence of the 
world of material things. Who are the knowers who "use the 
thing-concept to organize their experiences?" Are they men? 

19 SF, 306. 


And what is experience? From the standpoint of dualism, ex- 
perience involves the interaction of minds and things; it is pri- 
marily a matter of minds being affected by things. Experience is 
itself not a thing made up of parts, and it is not the primary 
object of knowledge; "we" do not "deal with" experience, but 
rather we have experience of things and thus learn their ways. 
The making of an object out of experience is, of course, the 
irremovable mark of Kantian idealism. 

The realist believes that physical things are more than mere 
ordering concepts. It is true that physical things, whether those 
dealt with by common sense or those postulated by physical 
science, are not "given to sense," if we are to understand thereby 
a wholly passive process. We must distinguish between sensing 
and perceiving; the latter involves the use of "thing-concepts." 
In postulating public and continuously existent things we neces- 
sarily go beyond the sensations of the moment. The very con- 
cept of really existent things, in contrast to things which are 
merely thinkable, implies at least some degree of lawfulness of 
behavior, in other words, some sort of interaction and causality. 
Cassirer seems to say the same thing but with a different em- 
phasis; he seems to think that what we must postulate is a 
creation of our own minds, enjoying no absolute being. We 
may, however, appeal to the parallel case of the religious man 
who feels that he must postulate a God; he nevertheless postu- 
lates this God as an eternal and indestructible being. Must we 
not postulate nature as (very likely) an everlasting system of 
things in perpetual interaction: some of their interactions con- 
stitute the occasions for the occurrence of minds who know them 
and interact with them in various ways? But for Cassirer there is 
no self-existent nature of which we have real but imperfect 
knowledge; hypothesis replaces hypothesis, and "reality" is 
defined by the law of sequence, by which world-system over- 
comes world-system; for him, there is progress towards com- 
prehensiveness and consistency, but no progressive revelation 
of a reality which is there, whether known or not. 





I. K. Stephens 


WHEN Locke cleared the philosophical stage of its 
"props" in the form of innate ideas, he offered, as a sub- 
stitute for this particular traditional basis of certainty, our im- 
mediate perception of the agreement or disagreement of our 
ideas. Whatever ground this theory might have supplied as a 
basis for empirical certainty, however, was shattered by Hume 
when he called attention to the fact that "relations of ideas" dif- 
fer in principle from "relations of matters of fact." He admitted 
that there are necessary relations between our ideas, but denied 
that there are any such relations between "matters of fact." Since, 
for Hume, knowledge must be based upon ideas, and certainty 
must be based upon necessary connections, the only field in 
which the mind can possibly attain certainty is in the field of the 
"relations of ideas." Since relations of matters of fact lack this 
character of necessity, our knowledge pertaining to this field of 
experience is deprived of all logical grounds for a claim to 

The problem which Hume raises here is simply that concern- 
ing the objective validity of the conceptual order of 'the mind. If 
one desires to defend a claim to certainty in knowledge pertain- 
ing to "matters of fact," it is incumbent upon him to show how 
the mind can impose its concepts upon "matters of fact," upon 
the "given in experience," in such a manner as to guarantee 
that conceptual necessity will govern the given. He must show 
how the relation between the ideas of the mind and matters 
of fact can be so interpreted as to furnish a solid ground on the 
basis of which the necessity which admittedly holds for rela- 
tions of ideas can be guaranteed to hold in the mind's conceptual 


dealings with matters of fact. This is essentially the problem of 
the a priori; and every significant doctrine of the a priori which 
has been formulated in philosophy since Hume raised the prob- 
lem has been designed as a basis for its solution. 

Now this bit of skeptical infection, which Hume injected 
into the thought stream of modern science and philosophy, first 
took effective hold in the mind of Kant. After a long period of 
intellectual insomnia and after many mental contortions and 
gyrations, Kant finally came out of the attack with a new 
Copernican Revolution in philosophy and with a brand-new 
conception of the a priori, which he regarded as a sound basis for 
the defense of the citadel of empirical certainty against Hume's 
skepticism. Subsequent developments in the fields of science, 
mathematics, and logic have, however, shaken the Kantian 
foundation and torn gaping holes in his defenses. As these 
defenses have disintegrated, under the bombardment of the 
guns of recent developments in science, mathematics, and logic, 
however, a long line of "successors to Kant" have appeared on 
the scene to render valiant service in attempts to secure the 
foundations and to repair the breaches, through some sort of 
modification, or reformulation, or regrounding of the Kantian 
a priori. It should be pointed out, however, that in spite of all 
these gallant efforts, Hume's denial of certainty in the realm of 
empirical knowledge still stands. 


In that long line of "critical philosophers" who claim a philo- 
sophical lineage from Kant, possibly no one is more worthy 
of the distinction than is Cassirer. His penetrating and thorough 
analysis of Kant's system of philosophy, his precise understand- 
ing of just what Kant was attempting to do, and his profound 
and extensive knowledge of the recent developments in science, 
mathematics and logic, revealed to him many of the funda- 
mental weaknesses in Kant's position; but, despite these facts, 
he still seems to me to find more of permanent value in Kant's 
system of philosophy than do most of those who claim to "stem 
from Kant." His doctrine of the a priori, however, is not simply 


Kant's doctrine reformulated with its elaborate architectonic 
omitted; nor is it Kant's doctrine revised and brought up-to- 
date in the light of recent developments in science, mathematics, 
and logic. Kant's doctrine of the a priori and the ingenuity with 
which Kant applied it in his attempt to solve Hume's problem 
seem to be to Cassirer as they have been to many other 
Kantians a source of inspiration and a useful guide in the 
formulation of his own doctrine of the a priori. As he himself 
puts it, he sees in Kant "not an end, but an ever new and fruit- 
ful beginning for the criticism of knowledge." 1 

With Kant, and with most Kantians, Cassirer is in funda- 
mental agreement on at least two points with respect to the 
a priori; (i) that the a priori is of the mind, and (ii) that all 
certainty is based on logical necessity and that logical necessity 
is grounded in the a priori. Also like Kant and most Kantians, 
Cassirer conceives the major task of philosophy to be the critical 
analysis of knowledge and the explication of the a priori; to the 
accomplishment of this task he devotes his entire ponderous sys- 
tem of philosophy. Nowhere in his voluminous writings, so 
far as I have been able to determine, has Cassirer set forth, in 
any sort of definite and summary statement, his doctrine of the 
a priori. It pervades every phase of his philosophy and appears 
on almost every page of his philosophical writings; but it is a 
difficult and hazardous task to analyze it out of his system and 
to pin it down in a definite statement which will do justice to 
its total meaning and value. This difficulty is further increased 
by two other factors, (i) His doctrine of the a priori seems to 
have gone through at least two phases of development, and the 
detailed results of these two different phases of its formulation 
are significantly different, (ii) In each of these two formula- 
tions his doctrine of the a priori is so inextricably bound up with 
some other special aspect of his philosophical theory that it is 
extremely difficult to isolate it and evaluate it, without going 
thoroughly into these intimately associated theories. 

The first phase of its development, set forth in his Sub- 
stanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (1910), is formulated on the 

1 Das Erkenntnisfroblem, Vol. I (1922), 14. 


basis of a very thorough critical analysis of the physical sciences 
and of mathematics, and is thoroughly dominated by what 
seems to me to be a tremendously exaggerated regard for the 
position and the value of mathematics and the mathematical 
concept in the theory of knowledge. Throughout this whole 
work, as Gerard Heymans remarks, "Cassirer looks steadfastly 
towards mathematics and insists that what is valid for this is 
valid also for all the other sciences." 2 Here his doctrine of the 
a priori is intricately bound up with his "mathematical theory of 
the concept" and reflects a powerful influence from the mathe- 
matical interest. Since another essay in this volume deals with 
Cassirer's "theory of the mathematical concept,"* I shall omit 
its discussion here and shall confine my discussion to those more 
basic aspects of this earlier formulation which seem to carry over 
into the later formulation. 

This second formulation, which is contained primarily in 
Cassirer's Philosophie der symbolischen Formen y is based on a 
critical analysis of the whole of culture and is, in a definite 
sense, a modification and extension of the earlier formulation 
to constitute a basis for a "general theory of meaning." Here 
Cassirer has relinquished, to some extent, his former emphasis 
upon the place and value of mathematics and the mathematical 
concept. And, though he still insists that "for such a theory of 
meaning, mathematics and mathematical natural science will 
always constitute a weighty and indispensable paradigm," he 
admits that "it in no wise exhausts its content." 3 In this second 
formulation, however, his doctrine of the a priori has found a 
new "love" in the form of his elaborate doctrine of "signs." 
Since any attempt to extricate it from its many "entangling 
alliances" with this theory would lead far beyond the intended 
scope of this paper, I shall feel justified here in avoiding also 
any discussion of this aspect of his doctrine, except in so far as 
it seems necessary in order to do justice to his doctrine of the 
a priori. 

Cassirer agrees with Kant that the correct approach to the 

8 "Zur Cassirerschen Reform der Begriffslehre," Kant-Studien, Vol. 33 (1928), 

* EDITOR'S NOTE : Cf. Professor Harold R. Smart's essay infra on this subject. 
3 "Zur Theorie des Begriffs," Kant-Studien. Vol. 33 (1928), 130. 


discovery of the a priori is through the method of a critical 
analysis of knowledge. He emphasizes, over and over, the 
futility of the attempts on the part of previous "metaphysical 
philosophers" to deduce the "fundamental forms of the mind" 
from some "original fundamental principle." The original diffi- 
culty in such an attempt always consists in the fact that such 
philosophers can determine neither the correct "beginning 
point" nor the correct "end point." If they were granted these 
two points, "they might succeed in connecting them through 
the constant application of one and the same methodological 
principle in a synthetic-deductive process." But since they have 
neither "point," they are much in the same position as Kant's 
speculative "dove," which succeeded in generating a tre- 
mendous amount of action, but was unable to produce any for- 
ward motion. As Cassirer correctly asserts, such philosophers 
have always started out from "some definite metaphysically 
hypostatized logical, or aesthetic, or religious principle," and 
the results obtained from the process have never been worth 
the efforts spent. 

Granted, however, that the critical analysis of knowledge is 
the only method that will lead to the discovery of the genu- 
inely a priori elements of knowledge, the question naturally 
arises, How is one to recognize it, when he comes upon it in 
the analysis? Unless one has some distinguishing criterion in 
terms of which to recognize the a priori when he finds it, he 
would still be in the same position as the "metaphysical philoso- 
pher" who had no "end point." Cassirer's answer to this ques- 
tion, in the first formulation of his doctrine of the a priori, 
would seem to run as follows: Since the a priori is an "element 
of form," which is necessarily involved in every creative act of 
mind, and since all knowledge is the product of such creative 
activity, a critical analysis of knowledge will reveal the a priori 
as that "element of form" which is always present in every 
creative act of mind and which remains invariant through all the 
changing and shifting contents of experience. It is to the end of 
discovering just such a set of "invariant elements of form" that 
he devotes that searching and exhaustive critical analysis of 
science and mathematics set forth in his Substanzbegriff und 


One of the most obvious aspects of science, says Cassirer, is 
that it is a going concern, "a historically self-developing fact." 
Kant's failure to recognize this fact becomes, according to 
Cassirer, one of the chief sources of weakness in Kant's system. 
Kant developed and formulated his doctrine of the a priori 
under an undue predilection for Newtonian Mechanics, which 
he seemed to regard as an example far exellence of pure 
Reason, and as definitely finished. Scientific knowledge, how- 
ever, is never static; it is in constant process of development; 
and the one definite end toward which it seems ever to be 
directed is the discovery of certain permanent elements in the 
flux of experience, "that can be used as constants of theoretical 
construction." Of such nature are the concepts of science: hy- 
potheses, laws of nature, scientific principles, and the like. In 
the history of this process, however, we are met with a constant 
changing and shifting of just such seemingly constant elements. 
What seems to be secure on one level of development is found 
inadequate on the next level. One particular system of concepts 
follows another in constant succession; hypotheses formulated 
on one level yield their place to other hypotheses on the higher 
level; scientific principles, which seem to be secure and firmly 
established on one level of development, are supplanted by 
other principles on the next level of development; and even 
"the categories under which we consider the historical process 
must themselves be regarded as mutable and susceptible to 
change." But no system of concepts, no single hypothesis or 
system of hypotheses, no scientific principle, and no category 
which gives way to a successor is ever entirely annihilated. In 
each case of substitution the earlier form is taken up into the 
new form which must contain the answers to all the questions 
raised under the previous form. This one feature, Cassirer 
claims, guarantees the logical continuity from stage to stage; 
establishes a logical connection between the earlier and the 
latter; and "points to a common forum of judgment to which 
both are subjected." 4 

This "common forum of judgment," at the bar of which 

4 Substance and. Function^ 268. 


every concept, hypothesis, principle, and category must justify 
its relative claim to truth, consists in a set of logically prior 
"supreme principles of experience in general," which must 
always be present and effective as an "ultimate constant standard 
of measurement" in terms of which these relative claims may be 
measured and established. 

Since we never compare the system of hypotheses in itself with the naked 
facts in themselves, but always can only oppose one hypothetical system of 
principles to another more inclusive, more radical system, we need for 
this progressive comparison an ultimate constant standard of measure- 
ment of supreme principles of experience in general. Thought demands 
the identity of this logical standard of measurement amid all the changes 
of what is measured. 5 

Now, according to Cassirer, the critical analysis of knowledge 
ends in just such a set of ultimate logical principles, a set of 
"fundamental relations, upon which the content of all experi- 
ence rests," and beyond which thought can not go, for "only in 
them is thought itself and an object of thought possible." 6 

They are the "universally valid formal functions (Fiwctions- 
form) of rational and empirical knowledge" and constitute 

a fixed system of conditions, and only relative to this system do all as- 
sertions concerning the object as well as those concerning the ego, con- 
cerning object and subject, gain an intelligible meaning. There is no 
objectivity outside the frame of number and magnitude, permanence 
and change, causality and reciprocal action ; all these determinations are 
only the ultimate invariants of experience itself and therefore of all 
reality which can be established in it and by it. 7 

These forms, then, constitute the genuine a priori elements 
of knowledge, for they are "those ultimate logical invariants 
which lie at the foundation of every determination of a con- 
nection in general according to natural law" and "only such 
ultimate logical invariants can be called a priori."* To this list 
of ultimate invariants, Cassirer adds "the categories of space 
and time, magnitude, and the functional dependency of magni- 

8 ibid. 

8 Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff. (1910), 410. 
4 ii. 


tudes, etc.," since they, too, are "established as such elements 
of form, which cannot be lacking in any empirical judgment or 
system of judgments." 9 This group of "logical invariants" con- 
stitutes that system of "unchanging elements demanded by all 
scientific thought" and "fulfill a requirement clearly urged by 
inductive procedure itself." 10 They also seem to constitute the 
basic structural form of the mind, and the basic principles of 
that "transcendental logic" upon which alone a truly universal 
logic can be developed. For Cassirer insists that "a truly uni- 
versal logic can be constructed only upon a 'transcendental* 
logic, i.e., a logic of thought-objects." Such a logic, he insists, is 
in diametrical opposition to the formal logic, which, as Kant 
defined it, has as its chief excellence the fact that it "abstracts 
from all experience of objects and their differences." 11 In this 
traditional formal logic, the concept is a mere "form emptied 
of all its objective content and meaning}" whereas, in his "truly 
universal logic," concepts are "concrete universals" which not 
only "embrace" but "comprehend" the particular subordinated 
to them. 

Now when Cassirer defines the a priori as "those ultimate 
logical invariants which lie at the foundation of every determi- 
nation of a connection in general according to natural law," he 
designates this as "a strictly limited meaning of the a friori" 
It seems that a more comprehensive meaning of the term would 
include all those concepts, categories, and interpretive principles 
which are implicitly contained in this set of "ultimate forms," 
all arranged in a logical structure of superordination and sub- 
ordination. The task of science is to discover these concepts, 
categories, etc.; and the procedure by which it accomplishes 
this task is the constant comparison of these various concepts, 
hypotheses, etc., with this "constant standard of measurement 
of supreme principles of experience in general." And the 
method followed here, says Cassirer, "shows the same 'rational 7 
structure as was found in mathematics." 12 Induction and deduc- 

1 Substance and F unction > 269. 

"Ibid., 268. 

M "Zur Theorie des Begriffs," Kant-Studien. Vol. 33 (1928), 131. 

"Substance and Function y 269. 


tion do not differ in their goal, but only in the means of reaching 
their goal. 

"The tendency to something unchanging, to something 
permanent in the coming and going of sensuous phenomena, is 
thus characteristic of inductive thought no less than of mathe- 
matical thought." 13 Genuine theoretically guided induction is 
never satisfied, says Cassirer, short of the establishment of a 
connection in the given "which can be ... clearly surveyed ac- 
cording to the principle of its construction." 14 All thought is a 
process of objectifying. Its function and purpose, both in induc- 
tion and in deduction, is to establish unity in the flux of sensory 
experience. This can be done only on the basis of those trans- 
cendental forms which constitute the structural unity of the 
mind. In so far, then, as induction, through its method of con- 
tinually testing its conceptual devices by constant reference to 
that body of "ultimate invariants" is able to develop concepts, 
hypotheses, etc., which stem logically from this system of in- 
variant principles, and to apply them in its conceptual dealings 
with "matters of fact," it can gain knowledge of empirical 
objects which possesses the same degree of necessity and cer- 
tainty as does knowledge of the objects of mathematics. For 
"we do not know 'objects' as if they were already independently 
determined and given as objects, but we know objectively, by 
producing certain limitations and by fixating certain permanent 
elements and connections within the uniform flow of experi- 
ence." 15 The superiority of the mathematical concept over the 
ordinary generic concept, its "greater value for knowledge," its 
"superior objective meaning and validity," seems to be due to 
its closer logical affinity for this set of "supreme principles." 

In the first formulation of his doctrine of the a priori, 
Cassirer's attempt to solve Hume's problem seems to have 
turned out to be much the same as the attempt made by Kant, 
namely, to show how, at least in the realm of mathematics and 
the exact sciences, synthetic propositions a priori are possible. 
He seems to have become conscious later, however, that he had 

18 Ibid., 249. 

14 ibid., 253. 


committed the same fallacy of which he accused Kant, i.e., he 
had confined his critical analysis within too narrow limits. For, 
if the a priori is the "necessary condition for all meaningful 
experience/' and its function is to guarantee the unity of all 
knowledge, then it must be present and effective wherever 
there is meaningful experience and a claim to knowledge. The 
world of mathematics and the exact sciences is not the beginning, 
but the end of this "objectifying process," and its roots reach 
down into earlier levels of "fashioning." Thus these a priori 
forms, which come to clearest expression on the level of scien- 
tific knowledge, must apply no less, mutatis mutandis, to all the 
fundamental functions of mind on all the lower levels of cul- 
ture and in all its special "phases." Thus, for Cassirer, in the 
second attempt to formulate his doctrine of the a priori, 

The Critique of Reason becomes, therefore, the Critique of Culture. 
It seeks to show how all the content of culture, in so far as it is more 
than a mere single content, in so far as it is grounded in a formal prin- 
ciple, presupposes an original act of the mind. Herein the fundamental 
thesis of Idealism finds its essential and complete verification. So long 
as philosophical consideration has reference simply to the analysis of 
purely formal knowledge and is limited to that task, just so long the force 
of the naive realistic world view cannot be broken. 1 * 

An initial clue to Cassirer's position here is revealed in his 
statement of the demand made upon critical philosophy. The 
demand is 

... to include the various methodological tendencies of knowledge, in 
all their recognized originality and independence, in a system in which 
the individual members, in exactly their necessary variety, are reciprocally 
conditioned and required. The postulate of a kind of pure functional 
unity now enters in the place of the postulate of the unity of the sub- 
strate and the unity of origin, by which the ancient concept of being 
was essentially governed. From this there arises a new task for the phil- 
osophical criticism of knowledge. It must follow as a whole and survey 
as a whole the course which the special sciences have traveled individually. 
It must put the question, whether the intellectual symbols under which 
the special disciplines consider and describe reality are to be thought as 

18 Philosofhie der symbotischen Former*. Vol. I (1923), n. 


a simple juxtaposition or whether they can be understood as different 
expressions of one and the same basic mental junction. And if this latter 
presupposition should be verified, then there arises the further task of 
setting up the universal conditions of this function and of clarifying the 
principle by which it is governed. 17 

In the light of this statement, it would seem that Cassirer's 
first fundamental assumption is that knowledge, which philoso- 
phy is to subject to critical analysis, is necessarily a unity; and, 
furthermore, that this unity must be assured and explained in 
terms of certain "basic mental functions" and a "rule" which 
"governs the concrete multiplicity and variety of these knowl- 
edge functions," integrating the totality of their products into 
an organic whole. These "basic mental functions" for which all 
the varieties of intellectual symbols are to be regarded as differ- 
ent expressions, together with the "rule" which governs these 
functions, seem now to constitute, for Cassirer, the fundamental 
a priori elements of knowledge. The categories, which Kant 
considered as the "original concepts of the understanding," as 
its basic a priori forms and the necessary conditions for the possi- 
bility of experience, are here relegated to a subordinate level 
in the structure of the a priori. Kant's error, both as to the 
number and nature of these categories, says Cassirer, was due to 
the fact that he did not know at that time what the subsequent 
developments in "critical and idealistic logic" have made com- 
pletely clear on that point, namely, that 

the forms of judgment mean only unified and living motives of thought, 
which pervade all the diversity of its special forms and are constantly en- 
gaged in the creation and formulation of ever new categories. The richer 
and more plastic these variations prove to be, the more do they testify 
to the individuality and to the originality of the logical function out of 
which they arise. 18 

In the light of these considerations, critical analysis must, 
according to Cassirer, be extended to the whole of culture, to all 
its different "phases" or "provinces," Art, Language, Myth, 

17 Ibid., 8-9. Italics are mine. 

18 Das Erkenntnisfroblem. Vol. I (1922), 18. 


Religion, and Science, and to all the different levels of its de- 
velopment. For, 

It is proper not only for Science, but for Language, for Art, and for 
Religion, that they supply the building materials, from which is con- 
structed for us not only the world of the "real," but also the world of 
the "mental," the world of the "ego." We cannot insert them in the 
given world as simple creations, but must concewe them as functions, by 
means of which every specific fashioning of Being and every special 
division and differentiation of the same is carried out. 19 

Each of these special "provinces" is determined by a special 
"point of view" which the mind "freely takes" with respect 
to the given in experience. This special point of view determines 
a special function which governs the mind's dealings with the 
given, in that special province. It determines the formulation 
of the categories and the concepts by means of which the mind 
interprets and expresses the real from that specific "point of 
view." In each of these special provinces, therefore, we get a 
manifestation of "one side of the real." And in all these prov- 
inces, taken together as a unity, we get a complete picture of 
the totality of the real. True, the pictures of the real presented 
from these different "points of view" are very dissimilar. But 
this is just what we should expect. For, 

Since the means utilized by these functions in the performance of these 
acts are different, and since the standards and the criteria which each 
separate one presupposes and applies are different, the result is different. 
The scientific conception of truth and of reality is different from that 
of Religion or of Art thus it is indeed a special and incomparable 
fundamental relation which is, not so much indicated, as rather estab- 
lished in them between the "inner" and the "outer," between the Being 
of the ego and of the world. 20 

The results obtained in each of these provinces must, there- 
fore, be measured and evaluated in terms of its own standards 
and not in terms of the standards and demands of any other. 
And only in such manner of dealing with them can the question 

10 Philosophic der symbolischen Formen. Vol. I (1923), 24. 


be raised "whether and how all these different forms of world- 
comprehension and I-comprehension can be unified if they do 
not indeed portray one and the same self-existing 'thing', they 
at least perfect (ergdnzen) a totality, a unified system of mental 
performance (Tuns)" 21 

Now if, under these conditions, the unity of knowledge, 
which it is the specific function of the a priori to guarantee, 
seems to fall apart into several separate provinces of knowledge, 
each with its own a priori forms, its special categories, standards 
and criteria, which apply only within its own special field of 
"construction," Cassirer informs us that it is just as much the 
function of the a priori to preserve this diversity as it is to 
guarantee the unity of knowledge. This "unity in diversity'" he 
says, is an essential demand of consciousness. In spite of this 
essential diversity, there is still a "unity of meaning" which 
binds all these provinces together into a "unity of systems" 
without destroying the separate and distinctive meaning and 
value of any system. This, he insists, is just what an analysis of 
culture reveals. 

For every one of these "connections of meaning" (Bedeutungszusam- 
menhange), Language as well as scientific knowledge, Art as well as 
Myth, possesses its own constitutive principle which impresses all the 
special fashionings in it as if with its seal. ... It belongs to the essence 
of consciousness itself, that no content can be posited in it without, posit- 
ing, at the same time, through this simple act of positing, a complex of 
other contents with it. 22 

Myth, Art, Language, and Science are, in this sense, impressions to 
Being (Pragungen zum Sein): They are not simple portrayals of a 
present reality, but they exhibit the great lines of direction of mental 
movement, of the ideal process, in which the real as one and many is 
constituted for us as a multiplicity of configurations, which are still, 
ultimately, held together through a unity of meaning. 23 

One ground on which Cassirer rejects the single system of 
the structure of the mind, which speculative philosophers of 

21 Ibid. 

22 ibid., 3 i. 

23 Ibid., 43. Italics mine. 


the past have attempted to deduce from a "single original 
principle" and to arrange in a unique progressive series, is the 
fact that such a system is inadequate for the explanation of this 
diversity. Explained in terms of such a system, the diversity 
gets swallowed up in the unity of the system. Instead of such a 
system, says Cassirer, critical philosophy demands, and the 
analysis of culture reveals, a complex system in which 

Every form is, so to speak, assigned a special plane within which it 
operates and in which it unfolds, with complete independence, its own 
specific individuality but just in the totality of these ideal modes of 
operation appear, at the same time, definite analogies, definite typical 
modes of relating, which can be singled out and described. 24 

Now as a means of explaining how all these various levels 
and phases of culture are integrated into a logically unified 
system of systems, Cassirer appeals to that set of "fundamental 
relations upon which the content of all experience rests." These 
logical invariants, he claims, permeate all the forms which 
determine all the fashionings of experience on all the different 
levels and in all the different phases of culture. From the 
lowest level of "Expression" in terms of mythical concepts, 
through the level of "Representation" in terms of the concepts 
of language, to the highest level of "pure Meaning" compre- 
hended in terms of the "concepts of natural law," he traces the 
development of culture. In doing so, he offers an incredible 
array of evidence in support of his claim that the same "motive 
of construction" and the same basic "structural form of the 
mind" persist through all these different levels of develop- 
ment. Although he admits that, in the advancement from stage 
to stage in the process of development, certain changes and 
"transformations," certain "characteristic metamorphoses" 
occur, he still insists that these "supreme principles" remain 
fundamentally the same, though appearing, on each successive 
level, under a "new form and covering." With every transition 
from a lower to a higher level of culture, there occurs a "trans- 
formation" in the "point of view" which the mind takes. This 



transformation gives rise to new demands and requires new 
"norms" in terms of which to meet them. As the development 
proceeds, there is a constant "shifting of mental meaning" and 
"out of every one of these shiftings there arises a new 'total 
meaning' of reality." 25 

Even on the mythical level of culture, says Cassirer, we find 
exhibited, in all its various "fashionings," a certain definite 
"mental tendency," a "fixed direction of thought," which the 
mind follows in all its expressions of experience on this level. 
This fixed direction of thought he attributes to the "form of 
the mythical consciousness," which is "nothing more than the 
unity of the mental principles by which all its constructions, in 
all their variety and in all their vast empirical richness, are 
ultimately governed." 26 Also on this level of "Expression," 
there is a "unity of point of view" under the dominance of 
which man's "mytho-religious intuition" shapes all the con- 
ceptual devices by means of which he carries out the organiza- 
tion of society as well as the organization of the world. And 
although this "point of view" may be more definitely deter- 
mined in each particular society by the living conditions under 
which that society exists and develops, we can clearly detect, 
as a common element in all of them, certain "general and per- 
vading motives of construction." 27 

The mental principles which the mind employs in carrying 
out these constructions are, Cassirer claims, the general cate- 
gories which constitute the fundamental forms of the social 
consciousness on this level of cultural development. They re- 
veal, he says, "the lawfulness of consciousness," the unity of a 
"structural form of the mind," and are just as genuinely a priori 
as are the fundamental forms of "knowledge" exhibited on the 
various successive higher levels of cultural development. They 
are, in fact, the logical ancestors of those forms 5 for all those 
forms of culture, Art, Law, Science, and all the rest, had their 
genesis in this mythical consciousness. Not one of them had, in 

85 Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Vol. Ill (1929), 523. 
96 Philosophic der symbolischen Formen. Vol. II (1925), 16. 
*lbid., 220. 

1 66 I. K. STEPHENS 

the beginning, anything like a distinct and clearly defined form. 
They can all be traced back to a primitive stage in which they 
all existed together in the immediate and undifferentiated unity 
of mythical consciousness. And out of this undifferentiated 
state, all those fundamental forms of knowledge, space, time, 
number, continuity, property, and the rest, have been de- 

They are the most general forms of perception, which constitute the 
unity of consciousness as such, and, therefore, just as well that of mythi- 
cal consciousness as that of pure knowledge. In this respect it can be 
said that each of these forms must have run through a previous mythical 
stage before receiving its definite logical form and impress. 28 

It is obvious that the world picture presented on the level 
of Myth is quite different from that presented on the scientific 
level. This difference, Cassirer claims, is not to be explained on 
the assumption that these world-pictures are constructed on the 
basis of a difference in the "nature" or the "quality" of the 
categories used, but on the basis of a difference in the 
"modality" of the categories. Space, time, number, causality, 
and all the rest of the basic forms of consciousness are present 
and effective on the mythical level just as they are on all the 
higher levels of culture, but with a difference in "modality." 
By the "quality" of a relation he means "the special manner of 
connecting, by means of which it creates a series in the whole of 
consciousness," such as is exemplified in the form of "together" 
as compared with "successive," the "simultaneous" as con- 
trasted with "successive connection." By the "modality" of a 
relation, however, he means its "meaning for the whole" 
(Sinnganzen) . This character of a relation "possesses its own 
nature, its own self-contained formal law. Thus, for example, 
that universal relation which we call time represents equally an 
element of theoretical scientific knowledge, and also an essential 
moment for definite structures of aesthetic consciousness." 29 Al- 
though it may seem that these two senses in which the concept 

d., 78. 
P kilo sof hie der symbolischen Formen, Vol. I (19*3), 39. 


time is used, namely, as the uniform measure of all change and 
as the rhythmical measure of music, have nothing in common 
except the name} nevertheless, says Cassirer, 

This unity of naming contains in itself a unity of meaning, at least 
in so far as there is posited in both that universal and abstract quality 
which we designate by the expression "succession." But it is obviously 
a special "manner," indeed a unique "mode" of succession which rules 
in the consciousness of natural law, as the law of the temporal form 
of events, and that which rules in the comprehension of the rhythmical 
measure of a tone structure. 80 

Now the transition from a lower to a higher level in the de- 
velopment of culture is always the result of a "transformation" 
or a "permutation" in the "modality" of those various funda- 
mental forms "within which alone thought and its world are 
possible." This "permutation" in the "meaning for the whole" 
seems to arise out of a new "point of view" with respect to ex- 
perience. And experience interpreted from this new point of 
view gives a new world-picture. In order to express the new 
relations and meanings which emerge with this transformation 
in the modality of those fundamental relational forms, the 
mind is under necessity of creating a new set of concepts. Even 
the old concepts that are retained on the new level take on an 
entirely different meaning from that which they express with 
respect to the lower level. For instance, the concept of "truth" 
and the concept of "reality" have a meaning for science which 
is entirely different from that which they express on the level 
of myth. It is the function of the concepts utilized on each level 
of culture, however, to express with objective validity the 
relations and meanings which are characteristic of that particular 
level, i.e., those relations and meanings logically determined 
by the specific formal modalities operative on that particular 
level. The function of thought on all the different levels of 
culture is to "objectify}" and this is done in each case by 
"producing certain limitations and fixating certain permanent 
elements and connections within the uniform flow of experi- 

90 ibid. 


ence." This task is performed by means of the concepts used. 
Thus the concepts used on any particular level of culture ex- 
press the meanings and fixate the relations peculiar to that 
particular level with a sufficient degree of logical necessity to 
guarantee their objective validity. But since the concepts uti- 
lized by the mind on the different levels are different, and 
express different meanings and relations, the world-picture 
presented on the different levels will be different. All these dif- 
ferent world-pictures, however, present different views of the 
one total reality. And all these different processes of objectifying 
contribute to one and the same ultimate end, namely, the re- 
duction of the world of mere impressions to a logically in- 
tegrated objective world. 

The different creations of mental culture, Language, Scientific 
Knowledge, Myth, Art, and Religion, in all their inner variety, become, 
therefore, members of one great problem of connection manifold tend- 
encies, all of which are related to the one goal of transforming the 
passive world of mere impressions . . . into a world of pure mental 

expression. 81 

The problem posed by Hume, however, was not the problem 
of developing in the mind a system of ideas with their necessary 
connections, but the problem of finding a logical basis on which 
to guarantee that these necessary connections of ideas must hold 
in the mind's dealings with matters of fact. In his first formula- 
tion of his doctrine of the a priori, Cassirer seems to attempt 
to solve this problem, at least in part, by an implicit denial that 
any such problem exists. He seems to think that the problem 
arose for Hume because he, like Kant in the first part of his 
Critique of Pure Reason, was assuming an untenable dualism 
between a "mundus sensibilis'* and a "mundus intelligibilis" 
In the second formulation, however, he seems to realize more 
fully that there is some necessity of explaining how and why 
there must be a necessary harmony between the conceptual order 
of the mind and the "uniform flow of experience." Here the 
"symbol" becomes the mediating device which seems to turn 
the trick. Symbols, he seems to think, are created by "a pure 


activity of the mind" and are specifically and peculiarly de- 
signed by the mind to perform this feat. "All those symbols 
appear from the beginning with a definite claim to objective 
value. They all transcend the circle of the mere phenomena of 
consciousness and claim, in opposition to them, to represent a 
universal validity." 32 In fact, their "structure" represents the 
"essential kernel of the objective, of the real." Every symbolic 
structure, furthermore, possesses a characteristic "double 
nature." On the one side, it is essentially bound to the sensuous; 
but "its subjection to the sensuous contains in itself at the same 
time a freedom from the sensuous," an essential connection with 
the mental, with the conceptual order of the mind. 

"In every linguistic 'sign', in every mythical or artistic 
'image' appears a mental content which, in and for itself, tran- 
scends the sensuous, permuted Into the form of the sensuous, 
the visible, the audible, the tastable." 33 

Cassirer attributes to Pierre Duhem the credit for being the 
first to show that only within the structure of a definite symbolic 
world is it possible to approach the world of physical reality. 
It was his claim that what first appears to us as a purely factual 
manifold, as a factual variety of sense impressions, gains phys- 
ical meaning and value only when it is portrayed in the 
province of numbers. This portrayal, however, is wrongly 
interpreted, says Cassirer, if we think it simply consists in "sub- 
stituting for the individual contents given in experience contents 
of another kind and coinage. To every special class of experi- 
ence, is co-ordinated a special substrate which is the complete 
expression of its genuine, its essential 'reality'." 34 

Now it is Cassirer's claim that the function of mind in all its 
objectifying processes is to establish harmony between opposites. 
This harmony, however, is essentially different from the mere 
matter of agreement, and requires a genuine synthetic act of the 
mind. It seems to be the function of the symbol to mediate this 
synthesis and the function of the concept to "fix" the connec- 
tions established in the synthesis. For the first work of the con- 

88 ibid., 4 i. 

34 Philosophic der symbolischen Formen. Vol. Ill (1929), 478. 


cept, he asserts, is "to grasp, as such, the moments upon which 
rests the organization and order of perceptual reality and to 
recognize them in their specific meaning. The connections which 
are posited implicitly in perceptual existence in the form of mere 
'given-withness' (Mitgegebenheii) are developed from it. . . ," 35 
Furthermore, "The logical concept does nothing more than fix 
the lawful order which already lies in the phenomena them- 
selves y it follows consciously the rule set up, which experience 
follows unconsciously." 36 It is the mind itself, guided by the 
logical demands of its "supreme logical functions" which "sets 
up" the rule which the concept follows consciously and experi- 
ence follows unconsciously. Thus those functions seem to de- 
termine both the conceptual order of the mind and also the 
"uniform flow of experience," and do it in such a fashion that 
there must be complete harmony between these two "op- 
posites." The mind's task is to make a synthesis of the two and 
it accomplishes this feat by means of the concept. For, 

Such a "synthesis of opposites" lies concealed in every genuine physical 
concept and in every physical judgment. For we are always concerned 
with referring two different forms of the manifold to one another and, 
in a certain measure, penetrating them with one another. We always 
proceed from a mere empirical, a "given" plurality; but the goal of the 
theoretical construction of the concept is directed at changing it into a 
rationally surveyable, into a "constructive" plurality. 87 

On the lower levels of culture, these concepts and symbols 
are so completely immersed in the sensuous that it is difficult 
to detect in them any connection with those "fundamental func- 
tions" of the mind which they express. As the process of objecti- 
fying advances from the lower to the higher levels, however, 
the mind gradually succeeds in extricating them from their 
subjection to and their contamination with the sensuous and in 
creating concepts and symbols which reveal more and more the 
genuine nature of those functions. On the lower levels, we see 
those forms only "as if through a glass darkly," only in 
their distorted "modalities;" but when the highest level is 

85 Ibid.y 330. 

M I***., 333- 
87 Ibid., 480. 


reached, the level of pure mathematics and the pure math- 
ematical natural sciences, where they have "put off the cor- 
ruptible and put on incorruption," we shall "see them face to 
face" and recognize them for what they genuinely are, "pure 
meanings." This is the ultimate end towards which the whole 
creative process is directed, the "one far-off divine event to 
which the whole creation moves." For this is the realm in which 

the bond between "concept" and "reality" is severed with complete 
consciousness. Above "reality," as the reality of phenomena, is raised 
a new realm: The realm of pure meaning; and in it henceforth is 
grounded all certainty and all constancy, all final truth of knowledge. 
On the other hand, the world of "ideas," of "meanings," although it 
renounces all "similarity" with the empirical sensuous world, it cannot 
dispense with its relation to it. 88 


This is, admittedly, an inadequate and in some respects, no 
doubt, an erroneous exposition of Cassirer's doctrine of the 
a priori. It has omitted many aspects of his doctrine which, if 
taken into consideration, might effect a "transformation" in 
the "modality" of those aspects that are considered here. My 
first reaction to the whole delineation of his doctrine of the 
a priori is simply to regard it as an extremely thorough, meticu- 
lously painstaking attempt on the part of another brilliant 
philosopher to elaborate and defend a theory of the priori 
which is, from the beginning, palpably indefensible. A careful 
analysis of his doctrine, however, reveals many points which, 
if taken in isolation from the rest of his system or if given a 
slightly different interpretation from that which his whole 
system demands, would appear perfectly sound and thoroughly 
defensible. This slight difference in interpretation is, however, 
to use Whitehead's expression, "just that slight difference 
which makes all the difference in the world." 

To his claim that the a priori is of the mind and is the basis 
of all necessity and of all certainty in knowledge, I readily 
agree. But I contend that his conception of the essential nature 
of the a priori is untenable, both in the light of logic and from 

18 ibid., 527. 


the standpoint of what is revealed in a critical analysis of 
knowledge. Furthermore, such a conception of the a priori 
is inadequate as a basis for explaining and guaranteeing that 
type of necessity which grounds the only type of certainty which 
the mind can have with respect to matters of fact. An analysis 
of knowledge does not reveal any set of invariant principles 
which are necessarily common to all thinking minds and which, 
by some inherent logical power which they possess, are opera- 
tive in any of the mind's categories and concepts in such a 
fashion as to force their character of logical necessity upon the 
given in experience. The a priori character of any concept or 
category of the mind is not derived from any logical connection 
which it may have with any fundamental set of "basic func- 
tions ;" but from the definitive attitude of the mind which gives 
rise to this conceptual order and determines the characteristics 
which the given must exhibit, if it is to be classified under the 
category or the concept determined by that definitive attitude. 
The only certainty the mind can have with respect to any sensory 
datum yet to be given rests upon the mind's certainty with 
respect to the meaning of its own concepts and categories. This 
meaning is established and determined by the mind itself, by 
virtue of the definitive attitudes which it takes, and can be 
strictly and consistently adhered to regardless of what may be 
given in experience. This definitive attitude determines the 
criteria which any given datum must satisfy if it is to be in- 
terpreted under the concept or under the category which 
embodies and expresses these criteria. Failing to satisfy these 
criteria, the given datum is excluded from such classification 
and interpretation. For every classification which the mind 
makes is an implicit interpretation. But every interpretation is 
an implicit prediction with respect to some subsequent datum of 
experience. The interpretation of any set of sensory data under 
any definite concept or category implicitly asserts that such a 
set of data will be followed by certain other definitely specifiable 
data, namely, those which are implicitly demanded by the 
definitive criteria which constitute the essential meaning of the 
concept or the category under which the original data were 
classified. The only necessity which the mind can impose on the 


given, therefore, is the necessity which the given is under of 
conforming to certain definitive criteria of the mind or else 
being excluded from classification and interpretation under the 
specific concept or category which those definitive criteria es- 
tablish. The mind can know, then, prior to the experiencing of 
any particular datum of experience, the character which that 
particular datum must exhibit if it is to be classified under any 
definite concept or category. The mind knows this because the 
mind itself, by its own definitive attitudes, determines those 
criteria to which the datum must conform, or else y and can make 
them hold regardless of what the given datum may or may not 
do. Thus all the necessity which the mind is capable of imposing 
on the given, through the use of its "conceptual order," is 
derived (i) from the character of its own legislative acts which 
determine the essential meaning of its conceptual devices and, 
(ii) from the alternative which the mind has of excluding from 
classification under any concept or category any given element 
of experience which does not conform to the criteria which are 
established by those legislative acts for the concept or the cate- 
gory in question. Such necessity, therefore, does not rest upon 
some logical connection which these concepts and categories 
have with some "fixed system of conditions," relative to which 
alone any assertion concerning anything whatsoever can have 
any meaning. This contention of Cassirer reflects the powerful 
influence of his undue predilection for mathematics, and also his 
misconception of the genuine nature of mathematics itself. 

There is a definite sense in which the a 'priori principles of 
knowledge may be considered as the "formal structure of the 
mind," but not the sense in which Cassirer uses the expression. 
Those initial principles and criteria of interpretation which 
formulate the mind's definitive attitudes constitute the formal 
conceptual structure with which the mind meets and interprets 
the given in experience. It is in this way that the mind organizes 
and systematizes the chaotic flux of the given into a predictable 
and intelligible world. This conceptual "structure of the mind," 
however, is neither an inherent structure of all thinking minds } 
nor is it by any means invariant. Even those most fundamental 
categories of the mind, those which formulate the mind's de- 


finitive attitudes that determine the different types of the real, 
are not invariant, at least not in the sense that they must remain 
the same regardless of any change in the complexity of the 
given which the mind must encounter} or regardless of any 
possible change in the dominant interests and purposes of 
society. In fact, it seems to be carrying the defense of a claim 
to the point of absurdity to insist that those "rational functions" 
which Cassirer designates as "the ultimate invariants of ex- 
perience itself" have remained invariant throughout the history 
of culture. Furthermore, if the character of invariance be desig- 
nated as the criterion of the a priori, I doubt that any single 
"element of form," not even excepting such forms as Space, 
Time, Number and Magnitude, Permanence and Change, 
Causality and Reciprocal Interaction would qualify as a priori; 
for these fundamental forms have certainly undergone rather 
remarkable change in the process of man's cultural develop- 
ment from the primitive level to its present state. Cassirer does, 
of course, allow for certain "shiftings of intellectual accent" 
and certain "modal transformations" in the process j but I doubt 
whether the difference between the primitive man's vague sense 
of time and of space and the modern scientist's conception of a 
fused space-time can be explained in terms of such "shiftings" 
and "transformations ;" or whether man's hazy anthropo- 
morphic conception of a mythical causal agent could be recon- 
ciled in this way with the purely formal definition of cause as it 
is used today by the theoretical scientist. If the change be ex- 
plained in terms of a refinement in definition, it can be said in 
reply that a relation is what it is by definition, and any refine- 
ment in definition means a change in the nature of the relation. 
Even those forms are creations of the mind; and what the mind 
has created it can change when the demand arises. And the de- 
mand for such a change is, usually, not merely a logical demand, 
but a practical one, a demand created by the appearance of some 
new type of the "given" for the proper interpretation of which 
the previous forms have proven inadequate. 

The relative permanence of these forms and also their a 
priori character I would readily grant; but I would deny that 
they are invariant and also that invariance is the criterion for 


the determination of the a priori character of any form. It may 
be that, to paraphrase Wordsworth, "Each hath had elsewhere 
its origin and commeth from far" and that each does come 
"trailing clouds of glory." Such clouds of glory may be marks 
of their ancient origin j but neither the clouds of glory nor its 
ancient origin is a mark of its a priori character. In, the case of 
these forms, as in the case of all other forms and "functional re- 
lations of rational and empirical knowledge," whatever char- 
acter of the a priori they may possess is due to a definitive 
and legislative act of the mind itself. Whatever degree of 
permanence or invariance they may show is explicable, I think, 
on the grounds of their practical value as instruments for han- 
dling the given, and not on the grounds that they satisfy some 
"ideal logical demand." Furthermore, if invariance and an- 
tiquity of origin be sure marks of the a priori, then I see no 
grounds on which to exclude the category of substance, against 
which Cassirer so vigorously inveighs throughout his entire 
system j for certainly this category has as ancient and as honor- 
able a history as can be claimed for any of those "functional 
relations" to which he attributes the a priori character. 

It is true, as Cassirer claims, that Culture, in all its different 
forms and on all its different levels, is a creation of the mind. 
It includes all those devices, both mental and physical, which 
the mind has created for the purpose of handling the given in 
experience and of reducing that given to an ordered and in- 
telligible world. It seems to be the characteristic function of the 
mind to create just such conceptual tools and to use them to 
this definite end. The "original motive" which lies behind this 
"constructive activity," however, is not a "will to logic," but 
a "will to live," a will to satisfy certain vital and emotional 
interests of the organism. And it is the "will to live" rather 
than a "will to logic" which tends to determine those definitive 
attitudes of the mind and, thus, the nature and meaning of its 
categories and concepts. Cassirer, it seems, would insist that 

There's a Logic that shapes our concepts, 
Rough-hew them how we will. 

I would insist on substituting for "logic" certain vital and emo- 


tional interests of the organism. For the thinking organism, 
confronted with the chaotic welter of experience, is confronted 
likewise with a practical necessity of doing something about it. 
Otherwise I doubt that any tendency to think would ever have 
arisen. The ability to think is, I take it, an evolutionary product, 
and has developed in the human species as a result of its sur- 
vival value. The tendency to regard man as primarily a "think- 
ing being" rather than as an "acting being" has led to many 
misinterpretations of the function of mind. Mind's function 
is not that of "harmonizing thought and Being," but rather that 
of adjusting the organism to the chaotic flux of experience in 
ways that will preserve and promote certain vital and emotional 
interests which the organism has. This function it performs by 
taking certain definitive attitudes towards the given in experi- 
ence and in formulating these attitudes into definite categories 
and concepts which will serve as efficient guides to the organism 
in its processes of adjustment. Thinking is only one means 
of solving these problems of adjustment - y and most beings, who 
have the ability to think, generally use it only when more 
primitive means prove inadequate. The human mind itself is 
only man's ability to create and to use conceptual devices as a 
means to that end. Such conceptual devices are created by the 
mind, usually, just to serve that end. They may be changed or 
even discarded when they prove inadequate to serve this 
purpose or when the mind hits upon other devices which serve 
the purpose better. The standard against which the mind is 
constantly checking its categories, concepts, hypotheses, etc., is 
not a set of invariant logical functions, but usually the practical 
results derived from their application to the flux of experience 
and the consonance of those results with experience itself. 

Cassirer admits that "No number . . . 'is' anything other than 
it is made in certain conceptual definitions." This is true, of 
course j but the same can be truly said of all the concepts and 
categories which the mind uses. The superior value which 
number and all other mathematical concepts have for deductive 
purposes rests upon the exactness and precision with which they 
may be defined. Again, the relations in terms of which math- 
ematical concepts are defined are quantitative relations and, 


therefore, susceptible to more definite and precise expression 
and analysis than are those with which ordinary classificatory 
concepts are defined. The very essence of number is simply a 
definite position in a purely logical series. Number is not a 
"concrete universal," but a purely abstract universal, a purely 
logical entity, the quintessence of abstraction. The relata them- 
selves are creations of the mind and, for that reason, the mind 
is able to force them to conform to relations established by its 
concepts. The given sensory data of experience, however, are 
not created by the mind and cannot be forced to conform to 
those relations. They either do, or they do not. If they do not, 
the mind has the alternative of excluding them from classifica- 
tion under the concept which established those relations. Upon 
this ability of the mind to formulate concepts by definition, and 
to reject from classification and interpretation under those con- 
cepts any datum which does not conform to the criteria which 
their definitions establish rests the a priori character of all con- 
cepts, mathematical as well as the ordinary generic concepts. 

Mathematics is, in its entirety, a creation of the mind and is 
the most efficient tool for handling certain types of the given 
those types in which the quantitative aspects are more important 
than are the qualitative aspects that the mind has ever created. 
Mathematics, however, demands nothing more than that, if a 
certain relation holds among a certain set of entities, be they 
abstract or be they concrete entities, then certain other sets of 
relations must also hold among those same entities. But those 
certain other sets of relations which must hold are implications 
of the definition which established the meaning of the original 
relation. If three points in a plane are arranged in the form 
of a right triangle these are all pure abstractions , then the 
square on the hypotenuse must be equal to the sum of the 
squares on the other two sides. The certainty of the statement 
contained in the "then" clause of this theorem is assured by the 
implications of the definition of a right triangle. The relations 
stated in the "then" clause can be known to hold a priori, neces- 
sarily, only on the ground that the mind is in position to exclude 
from the class of right triangles all triangles which do not 
conform to the criteria specifically stated or implied in the 


definition of a right triangle. If we substitute for these abstract 
entities certain concrete entities, a triangular plot of ground for 
the plane and fence posts for the abstract points, we know that 
the same relations must hold among these entities also. If we 
measure accurately the distances between the posts along the 
shorter sides of the triangle and, upon these measurements, 
calculate accurately the length of the supposed hypotenuse and, 
then, upon these calculations, buy the wire to fence the piece 
of ground, we may come out several rods short. Such a disap- 
pointing and inconvenient result does not constitute an empirical 
demonstration of the falsity of the Euclidean theorem, but 
demonstrates the falsity of the original assumption that the 
posts were related in the form of a right triangle. It is just this 
character of mathematical concepts which makes them so useful 
as means of discovering relations among concrete entities which 
would likely never be discovered otherwise. But the certainty 
obtained in this way is of the same type, and rests upon the 
same basis, as that gained through the mind's application of any 
of its concepts to the concrete data of experience. For all cer- 
tainty in empirical knowledge rests upon the mind's ability to 
formulate definitions of concepts and to make those definitions 
hold with respect to the given by rejecting all cases which do 
not conform to the demands established in those definitions. 
The application of mathematical concepts in the interpretation 
of the given can, therefore, like the application of any other 
type of concepts, never be more than hypothetical. And the 
certainty derived from their application is of the same type as 
that derived from the application of other types of concepts. 
Also the a priori character of mathematical concepts is of the 
same nature as that of any other type of concepts. Whatever 
superiority they may have over the ordinary classifi.catory con- 
cept is due to properties which they possess other than their a 
priori character. 

The a priori is not some inherent character of logical necessity 
or "logical priority to the possibility of experience" possessed by 
any relation or group of relations. Those initial principles and 
definitive criteria which have the character of a priori necessity 
and certainty possess it by virtue of the definitive attitude which 
the mind takes toward them and the alternative which the mind 


has of excluding from classification under them any given case 
which fails to conform to the definitive attitude formulated in 
them. The chemist, for instance, may know with absolute 
certainty the truth of the chemical formula HC1 + NaOH -> 
NaCl + H 2 Oj but only on the grounds that in the case of any 
experiment in which these results fail to follow, the chemicals 
used were either not HC1 or not NaOH or were neither HC1 
nor NaOH. In such a case he may demand either a re-labeling 
or a re-filling of the containers from which the chemicals were 
obtained. On this same basis, one may assert with absolute 
certainty that all crows are black. This statement may be ac- 
cepted as a mere hypothetical principle, susceptible to verifica- 
tion or refutation by future experience, or it may be taken as a 
definitive principle and, in that case, it would not be susceptible 
to refutation at all. It would be an a priori principle. The dif- 
ference between the two cases is simply a difference in the 
attitude which the mind takes with respect to the principle. It 
is just such a definitive attitude of the mind that establishes the 
a priori character of any principle, not excepting space, time, 
number, magnitude, permanence, change, causality, reciprocal 
interaction, or any other relation. 

The assertion that this particular set of "universal functions," 
or any other particular set of relations or presuppositions "form 
a fixed system 5 and only relative to this system do assertions 
concerning the object, as well as concerning the subject, gain 
any intelligible meaning" is an assertion which is not only un- 
warranted but definitely untenable in the light of recent de- 
velopments in logic and mathematics. These developments have 
definitely shown that various sets of postulates may serve as a 
logical basis from which the same deductive system may be de- 
rived. They have also definitely shown that deductive systems 
are purely analytical and tautological and that there are no 
synthetic propositions a priori. As Reichenbach has correctly 
said, "The evolution of science in the last century may be re- 
garded as a continuous process of distintegration of the Kantian 
synthetic a priori" In the light of the combined results of the 
developments in science, mathematics, and logic during the last 

* Hans Reichenbach, "Logistic Empiricism in Germany," Journal of Philosophy ', 
vol. 33 (1936)1 H5- 


century, it would be difficult, at least, to justify the claim that 
any one set of postulates is the only one relative to which ex- 
perience would be possible} or that any one set of presupposi- 
tions is the only one in terms of which valid judgments con- 
cerning the object or the subject of knowledge can have any 
meaning. It must be admitted that some set of logically prior 
principles is necessary for the possibility of any knowledge of 
anything at all. But this logical priority is not the inherent 
birthright of any particular set of principles. If there has ever 
been any justification for the Rationalist's claim that any certain 
set of "first principles" is logically indispensable for the ex- 
planation of the experienced world of particulars, and that such 
logical priority is a guarantee for the truth of those principles, 
the grounds for that justification have been definitely elimi- 
nated by the revelations of modern logic and mathematics rela- 
tive to the nature of deductive systems. 

It is true, of course, that all knowledge is purely relational 
and that man's whole categorial and conceptual scheme is a 
purely relational scheme. It is also true that such a relational 
scheme has meaning only within a more or less definitely fixed 
set of "reference objects" which constitute a general "frame of 
reference" somewhat analogous to a set of co-ordinate axes, 
the points of the compass, meridians of longitudes and parallels 
of latitude, etc. Those relations which Cassirer designates as the 
"fixed system" of "supreme principles" may be regarded, in the 
main, as just such a system of reference objects, and as consti- 
tuting such a "frame of reference." But such reference objects 
are neither true nor false, neither right nor wrong. They are 
only methodological devices which render possible the achieve- 
ment of some desired end. They may be convenient or incon- 
venient, adequate or inadequate, for the accomplishment of this 
end. And although some such set of "reference objects" is neces- 
sary for the accomplishment of this end, no particular set is 
necessarily invariant. Nor is any particular set of such relations 

It is true, of course, that no given datum of experience ever 
comes with its meaning attached, so that it may be read off by 
the mind in some sort of mtellectuelle Anschauung or some 


Wordsworthian state of "wise passiveness." Each given datum 
receives meaning only through some interpretive construction 
being put upon it. And interpretation always involves the ap- 
plication of some set of distinguishing and definitive criteria and 
interpretive principles, some set of "reference objects," in terms 
of which interpretation gives meaning to the given datum of 
experience. Some such set of "elements of form" must, there- 
fore, be logically prior to any knowledge at all. Such elements 
are creations of the mind and are a priori. Even the most primi- 
tive judgment involves the implicit application of such elements 
to the object of the judgment. This certainly does not imply, 
however, that any particular set of such a 'priori elements can be 
legitimately singled out and designated as the only set in terms 
of which even a meaningful experience is possible. 

If one desires, therefore, to seek for the a priori either in the 
intellectual creations of the childhood of the individual or in 
those of the childhood of the race, he will likely find it there. 
For the a priori always serves as a means for the conceptual 
handling of "matters of fact," and wherever man is engaged in 
this sort of enterprise he will be using it. It is also true that any 
adequate conception of the a priori must be one that is applicable 
anywhere, on any level and in any phase of human experience 
where the work of an interpretive mind is recognizable. On this 
ground, there is certainly justification for Cassirer's insistence 
that certain a priori "elements of f orm" may be found on every 
level and in every phase of human experience. But I see no 
justification for his extension of the Critique of Reason into a 
Critique of Culture for the purpose of discovering the nature of 
the a priori. If his purpose was to show that the a priori consists 
of a set of invariant principles, then it seems to me that his mon- 
umental efforts have turned out to be a case of "Love's Labor's 



Felix Kaufmann 




FUTURE writers of textbooks on the history of philosophy 
will have little difficulty in assigning Ernst Cassirer a place 
within their neat schemes of philosophical doctrines. He will be 
classified as a neo-Kantian, and, more specifically, as an out- 
standing member of the Marburg school of neo-Kantians, 
alongside of Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp. Cassirer him- 
self frequently professed his close affiliation with this group of 
thinkers 1 and was profoundly influenced by Cohen's interpreta- 
tion of Kant's philosophy. 

It is one of Cohen's lasting accomplishments to have shown 
that Kant's intuitionistic theory of mathematics, as exhibited in 
some of the arguments in his Transcendental Aesthetics, repre- 
sents only a transitory, pre-critical, stage in his philosophical 
development, which led to the transcendental method in the 
strict sense. This can be seen from Kant's diary, as well as from 
a comparison of the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, 
with the Prolegomena and with the second edition of the Crit- 
ique. Cohen submits that this trend in Kant's thought represents 
genuine philosophical progress, the full implications of which 
were grasped neither by Kant himself nor by the idealistic 
schools which emerged after him. Accordingly, he assigns the 
task to his own generation of philosophers of understanding 
Kant better than he understood himself, 2 just as Kant had de- 
manded that we understand Plato better than he understood 

*See e.g., Cassirer's Preface to Determinismus und Indeterminismus in der 
modemen Physik t viii. 

2 See Preface to the ist ed. of Hermann Cohen's Logik der Reinen Erkenntnis, 
xi, xii. 



himself. A substantial part of Cassirer's life-work is an execution 
of this program. It will, therefore, be appropriate to start our 
analysis of his theory of knowledge with a brief outline of his 
interpretation of Kant's epistemological doctrine. 


In a famous passage of the preface to the second edition of the 
Critique of Pure Reason Kant has drawn an analogy between 
his work and the work of Copernicus. 

The experiment . . . ought to be made, whether we should not succeed 
better with the problems of metaphysic, by assuming that the objects 
must conform to our mode of cognition, for this would better agree with 
the demanded possibility of a priori knowledge of them, which is to 
settle something about objects, before they are given us. We have here 
the same case as with the first thought of Copernicus who, not being 
able to get on in the explanation of the movements of the heavenly 
bodies, as long as he assumed that all the stars turned round the spectator, 
tried, whether he could not succeed better, by assuming the spectator 
to be turning round, and the stars to be at rest. (F. Max Miiller trans- 
lation [1896:1922], 693.) 

This analogy suggested the facile interpretation of Kant's 
philosophy, of his "Copernican Revolution," as a subjectivistic, 
anthropocentric doctrine. But more penetrating students of 
Kant as were the members of the Marburg school realized 
that this interpretation is apt to conceal the core of Kant's trans- 
cendental method. They realized that his approach was far more 
"revolutionary." He did not try to offer a new solution to the 
time-honored problem of the origin of knowledge by proposing 
a transformation which makes the subject the initial system, the 
"center of the universe." Kant rather disposed of the whole 
problem in its traditional formulation by refuting all attempts 
toward explaining pre-scientific and scientific experience in 
terms of the dogmatic assumption of things-in-themselves. This 
point is emphasized by Cassirer time and again, perhaps most 
forcefully in his analysis of Kant's philosophy in the eighth 
book of the Erkenntnisproblem. 

Kantian philosophy is not primarily concerned with the ego, nor with 
its relations to external objects, but with the principles and the logical 


structure of experience. Neither "internal" nor "external" objects exist 
in- and for- themselves j they are given under the conditions of experi- 
ence. Accordingly, we have to develop the norms and rules of experi- 
ence before we make statements about the nature of things. Hitherto 
things and the ego had to be projected on a metaphysical background, 
to be derived from a common substantial origin in order to be grasped 
in their context; but now the question takes a new turn. What is now 
sought is the fundamental logical form of experience as such, which 
must apply to "internal" as well as "external" experience. Knowledge 
with respect to objects cannot be entirely different from knowledge 
with respect to our ego; both kinds of knowledge should be united by 
an all-embracing principle. In this principle we have the genuine, true 
unity of "origin," and we need only go back to this unity to dispose of 
the "absolute contrasts" presupposed by traditional ontology. These 
observations amount to a clear delineation of Kant's method; judgments 
about things rather than things are its theme. A problem of logic is 
posed, but this logical problem is exclusively related to and aimed at 
that peculiar and specific form of judgment by which we claim to know 
empirical objects. 8 

Kant's transcendental method starts from the fact of (scien- 
tific) experience and seeks to determine how this fact is possible. 
In other words, he clarifies the meaning of "objective experi- 
ence." In making explicit the elements of experience and the 
different types and levels of synthesis involved, we arrive at 
synthetic propositions a priori. These propositions are a priori 
for experience inasmuch as they contain constitutive principles 
of experience, but they are not independent of experience in the 
sense of being valid beyond the realm of (possible) experience. 
The time-honored ontological principles are found to be 
pseudo-principles and the related ontological problems to be 
pseudo-problems, as soon as it is recognized that the "transcend- 
ent use" of the categories implied in their formulations is ille- 
gitimate. Yet this "extermination" of ontological principles does 
not amount to their complete annihilation} they are re- 
interpreted as regulative principles of scientific inquiry. 

The unity of empirical knowledge is not "given" (gegeberi) 
but "set as a task" (auj 'gegeberi) ; in other words, it is not pre- 
established by things-in-themselves, but conceived as an ideal, 

* Erkenntnisfroblem, Vol. II, 662 f. Cf. also Vol. Ill, 3 ff. 


a guiding principle, for scientific inquiry. Critical philosophy 
seeks to grasp the nature of this unity by analyzing it into its 
elements and determining the place of each element within the 
whole, in teleological terms, by determining its function in the 
constitution of the whole. 


In referring to Ms meaning of the term "function" in Cas- 
sirer's philosophy, we are led to another strong influence in 
shaping his thought, the influence of Hegel. Broadly speaking 
and making allowance for the unavoidable inaccuracy of such 
a formula we may say that Cassirer used a somewhat modified 
Kantian method in promoting a goal set by HegeL Although he 
is well aware of the basic defects of HegePs metaphysical 
system, 4 he accepts as leitmotif of his own analysis HegePs 
principle that truth as the "whole" is not given all at once but 
must be progressively unfolded by thought in its movement. 
The unity of knowledge must be discovered in the progress of 
knowledge from its primary and primitive stages to "pure" 
knowledge; it reveals itself in the form of this process. None 
of the phases of this process must be disregarded if we are to 
grasp the form of the process. 5 

Accordingly, Cassirer sets himself the task of determining 
what particular type of unity is sought and (temporarily) found 
in the different domains and at the different stages of human 
thought, and he seeks to disclose how the transition from one 
stage to another is necessitated by the inner dialetic of the move- 
ment of thought. 

In his first systematic work, Substanzbegriff und Funktions- 
begn-jfy Cassirer was guided by the idea that the structure and 
basic principles of knowledge could be most clearly discerned in 
mathematics and mathematical physics, where knowledge had 
reached its highest level. His chief aim was to corroborate his 
thesis that the progressive emancipation of thought from the 
so-called data of immediate experience manifests itself in the 
development of these sciences. This process of emancipation, 

4 See Erkenntnis'problem, Vol. Ill, 362-377. 

9 See e.g., Preface to Vol. Ill of Philosophic der symbolischen Formen, vi fl. 


which can never be completed, is most conspicuous in the re- 
placement of the thing-concept by the concept of law. Even the 
thing-concept is an intellectual construct of a highly complex 
structure, yet it shows a close affinity to the (allegedly) pure 
data of immediate perceptual experience. As long as it is made 
not only the starting-point but also the pivot of philosophical 
analysis, a certain kind of interpretation of mental activity in 
general and of the formation of scientific concepts in particular 
is suggested, an interpretation which has, indeed, prevailed in 
philosophical thought from the very outset. According to this 
view the activity of the mind consists exclusively in determining 
and isolating common qualitative elements within the vast 
variety of existing things, uniting them into classes, and repeat- 
ing this procedure as long as possible. By comparing and dis- 
tinguishing actually present objects of thought mathematical 
objects as well as empirical objects we arrive at an ever more 
embracing hierarchy of beings. The proposed interpretation 
seems to be in harmony with common sense and to save us from 
a dualism between percept and concept. The universals are 
taken to be "in re" to be part of the perceptible world. 

However, this traditional view does not bear closer exami- 
nation. In the first place, it fails to account for the fact that 
scientific (and even pre-scientific) concepts are not random ag- 
gregates of qualities, but are established with a purpose. We do 
not as Lotze remarked form a class of reddish, juicy, edible 
things, under which cherries and meat might be subsumed 5 and 
the reason why we don't do it is that we consider such a notion 
quite irrelevant for theoretical as well as practical ends. Ref- 
erence to it is not supposed to be productive of any new results. 
Thus we are led to the conclusion that qualitative similarity is 
not the only basis in all instances for the formation of concepts. 
Realizing that this process involves judgments concerning the 
relevance of a concept for the promotion of given ends, we can 
no longer maintain that the mental activity involved is confined 
to the recognition of qualitative similarities or differences and to 
selections on this basis. 

But this is only half the story. It might still be suggested that 
such a similarity is a necessary condition for the formation of 


concepts. But even this view is untenable. What is required is 
rather a relation in terms of which the variety of (actually or 
potentially) given objects may be ordered. Such a relation does 
not dispose of the qualities of the individual objects con- 
cerned if it did, it would not be of any aid in investigating 
specific objects ; but it replaces fixed qualities by general rules 
which enable us to grasp uno actu a total series of possible, 
qualitative determinations. This is of decisive theoretical and 
practical import. As inquiry proceeds, thing-concepts are gradu- 
ally replaced by relation-concepts, and a hierarchy of laws, 
stating invariant relations in terms of mathematical functions, 
occupies the place formerly held by a hierarchy of intrinsic 
qualities. The transition from Aristotle's physics to Galileo's 
and Newton's physics is marked by this change in the conceptual 
framework of science. 

Cassirer insists that there are guiding principles in arranging 
perceptual material, even on the pre-scientific level, principles 
which cannot be considered as inherent in the material j but this 
autonomy of form, this spontaneity of the mind, becomes ever 
more conspicuous and extensive as science advances. The totality 
of experience as it represents itself on any given stage of 
knowledge is not a mere aggregate of data of perception} it has 
a complex and intricate structure which constitutes its unity. 

But this coherence of the body of knowledge established at a 
given time does not exhaust what we mean by "unity of science." 
There is, moreover, a "dynamic unity" of scientific procedure. 
The dynamic unity becomes manifest in the very process of the 
reconstruction of scientific systems. Even if we change most 
general principles like those of Newton's mechanics , which 
we avoid as long as less incisive changes in the theory can 
restore its agreement with the results of observation, we do not 
alter the fundamental form of experience, nor break the con- 
tinuity of inquiry. This is seen when we consider that the new 
system is supposed to yield solutions of problems that emerged 
within the frame of the old system, but could not be solved 
there. It would indeed be impossible to demonstrate the ad- 
vantage of the new system, unless there were invariant stand- 
ards of comparability. These standards are the fundamental 


invariants of experience; to make them explicit is the main ob- 
jective of critical (transcendental) philosophy, which, accord- 
ingly, may be regarded as the general theory of the invariants of 

If we say that knowledge of these "logical invariants" is 
knowledge a priori y this should not be taken to mean that it is 
prior (in time) to experience. It only means that these "logical 
invariants" are implicitly presupposed in any valid statement 
about facts. That is why the notion of space, but not that of 
color, is considered a priori in Kant's theory of knowledge; 
space is indeed an invariant for every physical construction; 
color is not. 


When Cassirer laid down these views in Substance and 
Function and supported them by a thorough analysis of mathe- 
matical and physical terms, as they emerged in the historical 
development of these sciences, Einstein's Special Theory of 
Relativity had only recently been developed and the General 
Theory had not yet been formulated. Cassirer's analysis of 
physical concepts in this work is therefore confined to classical 
physics in the strict sense. But soon after the General Theory of 
Relativity had been well established, Cassirer extended his 
analysis to both the Special and the General Theory. 6 

The geometry underlying Einstein's General Theory of 
Relativity is Riemannian geometry, which is a "Non-Euclid- 
ean" geometry. The Euclidean parallel postulate is replaced in 
it by the postulate that no "straight line" (geodesic) can be 
drawn through a given "point" which is "parallel" to a given 
"straight line." Still Euclidean geometry remains applicable 
in the "limiting case" of weak gravitational fields, like that of 
the earth, where the "curvature of space," determined by the 
strength of the gravitational field, comes close to zero. (Eu- 
clidean space is then interpreted as the space of zero-curvature.) 
The establishment of Einstein's theory had been considered 
by empiricist philosophers as a death-blow to Kant's doctrine. 

* Cf. Einstein's Theory of Relativity. (The authorized English translation of 
this work from the pen of Cassirer is printed as a "Supplement" pp. 347-45 6 
in the Swabeys' English rendition of Substance and Function; Open Court, 1923.) 


They claimed that his whole system breaks down with the col- 
lapse of one of its chief pillars, the aprioricity of Euclidean 
geometry. Is this claim well founded? 

Even when Gauss, Lobachevski, Bolyai, and Riemann first 
constructed systems of non-Euclidean geometries without, how- 
ever, applying them to physical science, it had been maintained 
that such systems are in conflict with Kant's philosophy. Yet 
this view was certainly wrong. What had been demonstrated by 
the non-Euclidean geometries provided it could be shown 
that they were free from contradictions was only that the 
Euclidean postulate is not an analytical consequence of the 
other postulates; but Kant had never maintained that a system 
of geometry different from Euclidean geometry is self-contra- 
dictory. Rather he had, in distinguishing the synthetic a priori 
from the analytical a priori, precluded such a view. 

Kant did maintain that Euclidean geometry is a priori for 
physics; and this statement cannot be squared with Einstein's 
General Theory of Relativity. But it is another question 
whether this fact and the fact that space and time cannot be 
isolated in Einstein's theory so that they apparently lose their 
physical objectivity undermines the roots of Kant's doctrine. 
Cassirer submits that either of these facts leaves the funda- 
mentals of critical philosophy untouched. In support of this 
view he offers a penetrating analysis of the meaning of "physi- 
cal objectivity," which he prefaces by a declaration of the partial 
independence of the epistemologist from the scientist. The 
epistemologist is bound to accept scientifically established facts 
and laws, and these delimit indeed his universe of discourse; 
but he is not bound to accept the scientist's interpretation of 
these facts and laws in general philosophical terms, such as 
the term "objectivity." The main reason why the epistemologist 
is not bound to accept the scientist's interpretation is that analy- 
sis made by the former reaches beyond that of the scientist. 

Each answer, which physics imparts concerning the character and 
the peculiar nature of its fundamental concepts, assumes inevitably for 
epistemology the form of a question. When, for example, Einstein gives 
as the essential result of his theory that by it "the last remainder of 
physical objectivity" is taken from space and time . . ., this answer of the 


physicist contains for the epistemologist the precise formulation of his 
real problem. What are we to understand by the physical objectivity, 
which is here denied to the concepts of space and time? To the physicist 
physical objectivity may appear as a fixed and sure starting-point and as 
an entirely definite standard of comparison; epistemology must ask that 
its meaning ... be exactly defined/ 

We arrive at such a definition by clarifying the function of the 
notion of objectivity in physical inquiry. Similar considerations 
apply to Kant's doctrine that Euclidean geometry is the one 
a priori true geometry. 

We are no longer concerned with what space "is" and with whether 
any definite character, whether Euclidean, Lobatschefskian or Rieman- 
nian, is to be ascribed to it, but rather with what use is to be made of 
the different systems of geometrical presuppositions in the interpretation 
of the phenomena of nature and their dependencies according to law. 8 

We could say that Euclidean space was indeed a priori for 
Newtonian physics, since Euclidean geometry is presupposed 
in it, whereas, by this very token, Riemannian space is a priori 
for the General Theory of Relativity. This interpretation seems 
to be in harmony with Einstein's view, lucidly expressed in his 
lecture on Geometrie umd Erfahrung? 

Kant, on the other hand, held undoubtedly that Euclidean 
geometry would have to underly physical science at any stage 
of its development, and this view was mistaken. But to concede 
this is not to admit that Einstein's General Theory has refuted 
the fundamentals of Kant's transcendental method. This method 
can be upheld after it has been freed from some time-bound 

Commenting upon Cassirer's argument I would suggest that 
aprioricity in a more incisive sense could be claimed for some 
topological properties of space. Hermann Weyl has made the 
point (in his remarkable Philosophie der Mathematik und 
Naturwissenschajt [Munchen, 1927], 97) that the number 
four of the dimensions of the space-time continuum is a priori 

7 Einstein* 's Theory of Relativity, (Swabey tr.) 356. 

8 /^.,439. 
'Berlin, (1921.) 


in Kant's sense. This would imply, it seems to me, that the 
four-dimensionality of space-time is implicitly presupposed in 
perceptual experience perceptual experiences being located in 
four-dimensional space-time so that it could never be refuted 
by perceptual experience. This interpretation is in harmony 
with Kant's general conception of synthetic a priori as per- 
taining to the form of experience; and it is, moreover, sup- 
ported by modern psychological analysis of the structure of 

When Einstein's Special and General Theories had been 
firmly established, they were first regarded as a revolution in 
physics, rendering the fundamental notions and principles of 
classical physics obsolete. But Einstein himself has always 
stressed the continuity of the process of inquiry leading to this 
theory; and nowadays his theory is considered the perfection 
of classical physics rather than its destruction. But the second 
great event in twentieth century physics, the emergence of 
quantum physics, is taken to be more truly revolutionary, and 
to impose on us a revision not only of fundamental physical 
notions, but also of philosophical categories, particularly of the 
category of causality. Here, then, seems to exist an even deeper 
cleavage between the Kantian theory for which Newton's 
magnum of us represented the "fact of science" and a theory 
of knowledge which is in conformity with modern physics. 

But even in this case we are cautioned by Cassirer against 
assuming that the transcendental method has been rendered 
obsolete by recent developments in physics. He discusses quan- 
tum physics in his Determinisnws und Indeterminismus in der 
modernen Physik a work which offers perhaps the most 
accomplished elaboration of his theory of science. It is essential 
for the transcendental method, Cassirer points out, that it deals 
not directly with things but rather with our empirical knowl- 
edge of things, more precisely with the form of experience. 
Kant agrees with Hume's critique of the notion of causality 

10 Determinismus und Indeterminismus in der modernen Physik. (Sub-title: 
Historische und systematische Studien zum Kausalproblem.) Goteburg (1936). 


inasmuch as it established that there is no innate, self-evident 
idea of causality, no subjective necessity rooted in our mental 
organization which compels us to acknowledge a rigid causal 
nexus among phenomena. But Kant's epistemological analysis 
does not stop at this point, as did Hume's. Whereas he admits 
that the principle of causality does not enable us to state any 
specific physical law, he vindicates this principle as a "postulate," 
as a "regulative principle" of science. It is a statement of the 
resolution not to give up the search for causes and to strive to- 
ward an ever more comprehensive system of knowledge, a 
resolution which is basic for scientific inquiry. 

Cassirer is, of course, fully aware of the fact that Kant had 
not been quite consistent in the development of this idea, that 
he had, in the "Analogies of Experience," offered a "deduc- 
tion" of the principle of causality. But this, Cassirer declares, is 
one more point where we have to understand Kant better than 
he understood himself, if we are to be true Kantians. We have 
to follow him only so long as he does not part with his own 
professed principles, the principles of the transcendental 

The preceding remarks should not create the impression 
that Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics is pri- 
marily concerned with a defense of Kant's transcendental 
method. This is by no means the case. The object of this book 
is rather a reconsideration of the structure of physical science 
in the light of the development of quantum physics. One of 
Cassirer's most important points is the distinction between 
three types of statements in physics, viz., a) statements of the 
results of measurements (Massaussagen), b) laws, c) prin- 
ciples. This distinction was suggested by Russell's theory of 
types which had been established for the purpose of pre- 
cluding the emergence of antinomies in logic and Cantorian set 
theory. The theory of types is governed by the so-called Vicious 
Circle Principle: "Whatever includes all of a collection must 
not be one of the collection," which "enables us to avoid the 
vicious circles involved in the assumption of illegitimate totali- 
ties." 11 Cassirer's hierarchy of types of physical statements is 

u Whitehead-Russell, Prmcipia Mathematka, Vol. I, 40. 


meant to preclude similar predicaments in the analysis of em- 
pirical science. 

Concerning (a): Statements of the results of measurement 
are attained by transposing reports of sensory experiences into 
determinations in terms of numerical relations. These "state- 
ments of the first order" are singular propositions. They relate 
to definite space-time points. 

Concerning (b) : Realization that physical laws are a distinct 
type of physical statements implies rejection of the sensation- 
alists' view most vigorously defended by J. S. Mill that a 
physical law is but an aggregate of particular truths, and that 
"all inference is from particulars to particulars." This view has 
always been one of the chief targets of Cassirer's criticism. Time 
and again he has pointed out that it is not in accordance with 
actual scientific procedure and that the great scientists of the 
modern age, from Galileo on, were fully aware of the hetero- 
geneity of fact-statements and laws. A law is a hypothetical 
judgment of the form: "If x then y;" it does not connect single 
magnitudes with definite space-time points; rather it refers 
to classes of magnitudes, classes which have an infinite number 
of elements and are thus inexhaustible by simple enumera- 
tion. 12 

Concerning (c) : The distinction between fact-statements and 
laws had been widely recognized before; but the difference be- 
tween laws and principles had remained almost unnoticed. 
Whereas facts are brought into a definite order by laws, the 
laws themselves are integrated into a higher unity by principles, 
such as the principle of the conservation of energy or the prin- 
ciple of least action (which is the most general of all physical 

The three types of statements may be differentiated in a 
formal way by calling them, respectively, "individual," "gen- 
eral," and "universal." 

In defending the tripartition against the tendencies (repre- 
sented by Mill) toward levelling down these distinctions, Cas- 
sirer makes an interesting remark which indicates his attitude 

M Determinismus . . ., 5 iff. 


toward "dogmatic empiricism." "The defect of dogmatic em- 
piricism," he points out, 

does not consist in its attempt to link all knowledge to experience and 
to recognize nothing but experience as a criterion of truth, but rather in 
its failure to go far enough in the analysis of experience, in its stopping 
short of a clarified notion of it. It is not infrequently a vague assumption 
of continuity that leads to this attitude; empiricism refrains from strictly 
separating the various stages of knowledge in order to be able to develop 
them from each other. But this development is deceptive, if one seeks to 
understand it as a mere reproduction of similarity. Somewhere in the 
process of knowledge we must acknowledge a genuine "mutation" 
which leads to something new and independent. 13 

The failure of dogmatic empiricism to give a proper account 
of the practice of physical inquiry becomes most obvious in an 
analysis of statistical laws which latter have gained an ever 
higher significance since Gibbs' and Boltzmann's foundation 
of statistical mechanics. Boltzmann's kinetical theory of gases 
interprets the physical properties of a gas, such as its density, its 
pressure, its specific heat, as resultants of the movements of its 
molecules} but it does not attempt to determine the move- 
ments of each single molecule. Some hypothetical assumptions 
concerning statistical averages, for instance average velocity, are 
made, and the behavior of the gas is explained in terms of 
these hypotheses. It is clear that such a procedure cannot be 
interpreted as an inference from particulars to particulars, as 
Mill and his disciples would have it. 

There is one more methodological conclusion which we may 
draw from Boltzmann's theory, a conclusion which provides a 
cue to the philosophical interpretation of quantum physics, 
namely that physics does not attempt to answer every "Why- 
question" 14 which may possibly be asked, and that its success is 
largely due to this self-restraint, and to a selection of problems 
in accordance with certain regulative principles of inquiry. 

Having realized this, we shall no longer maintain that Hei- 
senberg's principle of indeterminacy, which occupies a central 

"Ibid., 132. 


place in quantum physics, means a complete break with the 
fundamental ideas of classical physics. Heisenberg's principle 
states that the precision in determining simultaneously two 
"conjugate magnitudes," such as the position and the velocity of 
an electron, is limited by Planck's constant h. In the older (un- 
critical) view, which interpreted electrons as "material points," 
pre-established thing-like entities, this principle seemed to in- 
volve sceptical resignation, the acknowledgment that the finite 
human mind cannot trespass certain boundaries. Critical analysis, 
however, reveals that the traditional formulation of these 
"insoluble problems" is inadequate, and that the pertinent 
arguments of the sceptics lose their point as soon as we formu- 
late the problems adequately. We have to dispose of the idea 
that a material point is a pre-established entity, existing inde- 
pendently of the relations into which it may enter, and to 
realize that "material point" is defined in terms of the system 
of these relations. Cassirer points out that there is no basic 
difference in this respect between the notion of a "material" 
physical point and the notion of an "ideal" mathematical point. 
In the so-called axioms of geometry, a mathematical point is 
"implicitly defined" in terms of a system of formal relations. 
"Material point," on the other hand, is implicitly defined in 
terms of a system of relations which we call a physical theory. 
Hence "material" points are intellectual constructs, as are 
"ideal" geometrical points j and the demand that "absolute" 
locations should be assigned to them is as illegitimate as would 
be the corresponding demand for geometrical points. 


We have already mentioned that Cassirer's analysis of physi- 
cal theories is performed with the purpose of corroborating his 
thesis that the decisive stages in the advancement of science are 
marked by a progressive emancipation from "naive" realism, 
which starts from a conception of things-in-themselves and 
interprets knowledge as a conformity of our thoughts with those 
pre-established "objects." Each new stage in scientific progress 
is characterized by a specific type of "objectification," by the 
creation of new scientific objects, represented in the symbols 
of the language of science. All of Cassirer's elaborate and en- 


lightening interpretations of scientific theories are but so many 
variations of this central theme. The same is true of his analysis 
of mathematical concepts. 

A substantial part of Substance and Function is devoted to this 
analysis. Russell's Principles of Mathematics had, at the time, 
been published only a few years before, and Whitehead- 
RusselPs Principa Mathematica had not yet appeared. The 
number of mathematicians and philosophers engaged in work- 
ing on problems of the "foundations of mathematics" was still 
small. This situation changed rapidly during the following two 
decades. Principa Mathematica demonstrated what can be 
achieved in the way of a unification of logic and mathematics j 
Hilbert took the final step in the "formalization" of mathe- 
matics, and Brouwer advanced his criticism of the application 
of the principle of excluded middle, a criticism which seemed to 
affect not only Cantor's set theory, but large sections of classical 
mathematics. Spirited controversies between logicists (Russell), 
formalists (Hilbert), and intuitionists (Brouwer) ensued and 
attracted wide attention j and it was generally assumed that basic 
philosophical issues were at stake. However, there were only a 
small number of philosophers who were prepared to face the 
difficulties in studying the rather "technical" books and papers 
in the field. 

Cassirer was one of those few. In chapter IV of Part III of 
the third volume of his Philosofhie der symbolischen Formen 
(1929) he offers a well-considered interpretation of some of 
the major pertinent problems, an accomplishment which de- 
served more attention than it has actually received. Philosophers 
should be grateful to him for his placing these problems in 
their proper historical setting. And they should, moreover, find 
some of his critical remarks apt and incisive. I, for one, have 
no doubt that he is right in rejecting i) Russell's reduction of 
the number concept to the class concept, 2) Brouwer's (and 
Becker's) interpretation of the role of time in mathematics, 
and 3) Hilbert's philosophical interpretation of his formaliza- 
tion of mathematics, according to which the visible marks as 
such would be the object of mathematics. 15 Each of these points 

18 The present writer came to similar conclusions, in a book, Das Unendliche in 


is of major philosophical significance. Russell's way of relating 
the class concept to the number concept is closely linked with 
his sensationalist and nominalist view concerning universals. 
Brouwer's emphasis on the time factor in mathematics (and his 
demand for actual construction in mathematics) raises the basic 
issue of the meaning of possibility (which is indeed the prob- 
lem of universals seen from another angle). And Hilbert's 
interpretation of his formalization involves the same problem. 
Cassirer never tires of stressing that we have to interpret 
"reality" and "experience" in terms of "possibility", though 
there is no "realm of possibilities" beyond experience. He 
analyzes mathematical systems, for instance those of different 
types of geometry, in order to make it clear that they do not 
contain any assertions about "real" things or facts, but deal with 
pure possibilities. These possibilities cannot be derived from 
sense perception. "Experience as such does not contain in itself 
a principle for the production of such possibilities, its role is 
confined to a selection among them in the application to given 
concrete cases. Its real accomplishment consists in determina- 
tion rather than in constitution." 16 "One could say, using a 
metaphor taken from the language of chemistry, that sense 
experience has essentially a 'catalytic' function in the develop- 
ment of the theories of the natural sciences." 17 Sense experience 
is indispensable for the process of forming exact concepts, but it 
is no longer contained as an independent ingredient in the 
product emerging from this process, in the scientific concept. 
And the process of establishing scientific concepts, which is a 
process of objectification, has its own immanent principle of 
development. Each subsequent (higher) stage of development 
terminates the earlier stage, but it assimilates rather than ex- 
terminates that earlier stage. 18 A striking example is the prog- 
ress from Newton's system to Einstein's Special Theory and 
General Theory of Relativity. 

der Mathematik und seine Ausschaltung, which appeared shortly after the publica- 
tion of Cassirer's work. 

* Philosofhie der symbolischen Formen, Vol. Ill, 487. 

"Ibid., 485. 

18 Hegel expresses this view by using the word "aufgehoben," which may mean 
cancelled (abrogated) or "preserved." 


Each stage of obj edification is represented by a specific sys- 
tem of linguistic symbols. But this fact must not be interpreted 
as a creation of concepts (meanings) by words, as radical nom- 
inalists would have it. The meaning is the nuclear point, the 
true wpd-rcpov <pucret. However we should not regard the word 
as a mere appendix to the concept, it is rather one of the most 
important means for the actualization of the concept, for its 
separation from the "immediately given." Hence linguistic 
signs are indispensable in the process of objectification,'and 
it is proper to approach the theory of knowledge from the angle 
of an analysis of scientific language. But in doing this we should 
bear in mind that the theory of knowledge is not the whole of 
philosophy, and that the activity of the scientist is not the 
only nor the first attempt of man to transform a chaos 
of immediate experiences into a cosmos. The symbolism of scien- 
tific language is therefore not the only symbolism a study of 
which is required for an understanding of the nature of man, 
who should be defined as an animal symboUcum rather than as 
an animal rationale 

It is the task of systematic philosophy ... to grasp the whole system of 
symbolic forms, the application of which produces for us the concept of 
an ordered reality, and by virtue of which subject and object, ego and 
world are separated and opposed to each other in definite form, and it 
must refer each individual in this totality to its fixed place. If we assume 
this problem solved, then the rights would be assured, and the limits 
fixed, of each of the particular forms of the concept and of knowledge 
as well as of the general forms of the theoretical, ethical, aesthetic and 
religious understanding of the world. Each particular form would be 
"relativized" with regard to the others, but since this "relativization" 
is throughout reciprocal and since no single form but only the systematic 
totality can serve as the expression of "truth" and "reality," the limit 
that results appears as a thoroughly immanent limit, as one that is re- 
moved as soon as we again relate the individual to the system of the 
whole. 20 

The three volumes of Cassirer's Philosophic der symbolischen 

19 An Essay on Man (1944), 26. 

w Einstein's Theory of Relativity, (Swabey translation), 447. 


Formen (summarized in his Essay on Man) represent a re- 
markable contribution towards this goal. The chief critical 
outcome of this approach is a refutation of sensationalism as 
well as of dogmatic realism. Cassirer realized that such a refuta- 
tion, in order to be fully convincing, must start at the level of 

We shall conclude our brief outline of Cassirer's epistemology 
by referring to his important study "The Concept of Group and 
the Theory of Perception," 21 which suggests a mathematical 
interpretation of some of the results of Gestalt psychology, and 
contains a devastating criticism of the traditional sensationalist 
theory of perception, according to which perception is merely 
a bundle of sense-impressions. 

This doctrine, Cassirer points out, has been definitely shat- 
tered by physiological and psychological research initiated by 
Helmholtz's and Hering's investigations. There is first of all 
the established fact of perceptual constancy involving both 
color constancy and constancy of spatial shape and size. A sheet 
of paper which appears white in ordinary daylight is recognized 
as white in very dim light as well ; a piece of velvet which looks 
black to us under a cloudy sky looks also black to us in full 
sunshine} a piece of paper which looks blue to us in daylight 
looks blue also in the reddish-yellow light of a gasflame. Con- 
sidering that every change of illumination is accompanied by 
a modification in the stimulation of the retina, we realize that 
these facts cannot be squared with the sensationalist's theory of 
perception, which claims that the stimuli are simply "copied" 
in perception. We have to admit, on the basis of this evidence, 
that the stimuli are transformed in a certain direction. 

Experiments concerning perceptions of shape and size lead 
to similar conclusions. 

When an object is moved away from our eyes, the images on the retinae 
become smaller and smaller. Nonetheless, within certain distances, the 
perceptual size of the object is constant. Variations of shape, which result 
from the fact that a figure is turned out of the frontal-parallel position, 

21 This article appeared first in French in the Journal de Psychologle (1938), 
368-414. It was recently translated into English by Dr. A. Gurwitch and 
published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. V (1944-45), 1-35. 


are also "counterbalanced" by the eye to a high degree, so that we 
perceive the figure in its "true" shape. What is meant by this "truth" 
a kind of truth which seems to contradict the objective facts, the real 
conditions of physical stimulation? In raising this question, psychological 
inquiry comes close to the fundamental epistemological problems of the 
theory of perception, even though it may try to confine itself strictly to 
empirical observation. 22 

The theory of knowledge has to take account of the fact that 
"we do not merely re-ac? to the stimulus, but in a certain 
sense act 'against' it," and thereby accomplish a "transforma- 
tion." This fact gives rise to the question whether the group 
concept, the nuclear concept in the mathematical theory of 
transformations, can offer a clue for an interpretation of the 
phenomena of perception. 

Group theory, which has developed in the last hundred years 
into one of the most important mathematical disciplines, has 
also substantially contributed to a deeper understanding of the 
nature of mathematics, and particularly of geometry. A group 
(as defined by Lie and Klein) is a system of unique operations 
A, B, C, . . . so that from the combination of any two operations 
A and B there results an operation C which also belongs to the 
totality: A B = C. The system must contain the Identity 
Element which, when combined with any other element, leaves 
this other element unchanged. Furthermore, there must be an 
inverse operation S" 1 established for any given operation S, 
such that S" 1 cancels out (reverses) Sj and finally, the associa- 
tive law A (BC) = (AB) C must hold. Now it has been defi- 
nitely established in F. Klein's famous "Erlanger Program of 
1872" that the geometrical properties of any figures are com- 
pletely describable in terms of group theory. Our familiar 
metrical Euclidean geometry is a member of a family of geom- 
etries, each of which investigates the invariant properties 
of a particular group. The groups may be classified in an order 
of increasing generality. We arrive from metrical geometry 
successively at affinitive geometry, projective geometry, and 
topology (analysis situs} by considering movements with re- 


spect to ever wider "principal groups of transformations." With 
every extension of the "principal group" some distinctions 
which could be made in a geometry corresponding to the nar- 
rower principal group disappear. Thus the distinction between 
circles and ellipses disappears in affinitive geometry} all kinds 
of conic sections (circles, ellipses, hyperbolae, parabolae) be- 
come indistinguishable in projective geometry, and as we come 
to topology we can no longer differentiate between any figures 
that may be derived from each other by continuous reversibly 
unique distortions. 

Helmholtz was the first to attempt an application of group 
theory to an investigation of the phenomena of perception. 
But this approach could not stand up under experimental tests. 
Since that time the psychology of perception has made great 
strides, particularly through the work of the Gestalt psycholo- 
gists (Wertheimer, Kohler, Koffka, Katz, and many others) 
who followed a trend of thought suggested by Ehrenfels. 
Gestalt psychologists have performed systematic studies of in- 
variances of perceptual experiences with respect to certain kinds 
of variations in the stimuli. It is characteristic of phenomenal 
forms ($haenomenale Gestalten) that their specific properties 
remain unchanged when the absolute data upon which they 
rest undergo certain modifications. Thus a melody is not sub- 
stantially altered when all of its notes are subjected to the 
same relative displacement j an optical spatial figure remains 
approximately the same when it is presented in a different place 
or on a different scale, but in the same proportions. 23 

These phenomena, Cassirer submits, are closely related to 
group theory. 

What we find in both cases are invariances with respect to variations 
undergone by the primitive elements out of which a form is constructed. 
The peculiar kind of "identity" that is attributed to apparently altogether 
heterogeneous figures in virtue of their being transformable into one 
another by means of certain operations defining a group, is thus seen 
to exist also in the domain of perception. This identity permits us not only 
to single out elements, but also to grasp "structures" in perception. To 

28 W. Kohler, Die fhysischen Gestalten in Ruhe ttnd im stationary Zustand, 
(1920), 37, quoted by Cassirer in Ibid., 25. 


the mathematical concept of "transformability" there corresponds, in the 
domain of perception, the concept of "transposability." 24 

However, we must not interpret this correspondence as an 
identity. There is no complete invariance of phenomena of 
perception with respect to such variations as mentioned above. 
Gestalt psychologists have fully recognized that we should 
speak of more or less effective tendencies toward invariance, the 
degree of effectiveness depending on various factors of which 
we have to take account in describing a perceptual field. Wert- 
heimer has, accordingly, introduced the concept of "Gestalt 
dispositions," by which he understands tendencies toward "laws 
of organization" of the perceptual material. 

It could not escape Cassirer's attention that these results of 
modern psychology square well with Plato's conception of the 
relation between perception and thought. Moreover, he em- 
phasized that they vindicate some basic ideas of Kant's concern- 
ing the function of imagination which Kant had laid down in 
the Critique of Pure Reason (chapter on Schematism) and in 
the Critique of Judgment. But the most obvious philosophical 
conclusions to be drawn from these psychological results is 
the untenability of the sensationalist's interpretation of percep- 
tion as a process of mere reproduction. Considering that this 
interpretation is at the very heart of the sensationalist doctrine, 
it is difficult to understand how this doctrine should be able 
to continue to have any influence after its lifeline has been cut. 


Brief and fragmentary as our presentation of Cassirer's con- 
tributions to the theory of knowledge had to be, it has, I hope, 
brought into sharp focus the guiding principles of his analysis 
of cognition. This should enable us to determine in a broad way 
the relation of his teachings to other contemporary philosophi- 
cal doctrines. 

Although he is inclined to stress points of agreement rather 
than points of disagreement, and generously acknowledges 
merits even where he disapproves, Cassirer makes it unmistak- 
ably clear that he is strongly opposed to uncritical realism and 



sensationalism. Moreover, he rejects all varieties of transem- 
pirical metaphysics j philosophy is, to him, as it was to Kant, 
analysis of experience. He combats "atomism" wherever he 
finds it and endorses a coherence theory of truth which bears 
some resemblance to HegePs pertinent views ; but he would 
not accept the chief tenets of the doctrines of Bradley and 
other neo-Hegelians, who claim that the real subject of a 
judgment is the Absolute, and that our particular judgments 
are inconsistent. 

Can it then be said that Cassirer is a "positivist" who dis- 
poses of metaphysical sentences as meaningless pseudo-state- 
ments? We should hardly expect a historian of philosophy, who 
has taken so much pains in interpreting the teachings of the 
great "metaphysicians" of the past, to endorse this view without 
qualifications. Although he concedes that metaphysical sentences 
are not meaningful at face value, he insists that they can be 
transformed into meaningful sentences by interpreting onto- 
logical principles as regulative principles of cognition. "What 
metaphysics ascribes as a 'property to things in themselves now 
proves to be a necessary element in the process of obj edifica- 
tion." 25 This way of dealing with metaphysical doctrines had 
been established in Kant's "Transcendental Dialectics," and the 
philosophers of the Marburg school have consistently followed 
this clue. It would be a good thing for the more uncompromis- 
ing anti-metaphysicians to give this Kantian and neo-Kantian 
approach a second thought. Desirable as it is to get rid of 
pseudo-problems, we should, in disposing of them, be careful 
lest we pour out the baby with the bath. 

Cassirer took issue with this cavalier way of treating meta- 
physical doctrines in one of his later works. 26 There he quotes 
with approval a statement made half a century ago by the 
great physicist Heinrich Hertz, which was aimed at the anti- 
metaphysicians among his fellow-scientists. "No consideration 
which makes any impression on our mind can be disposed of by 
labeling it as 'metaphysical j' every thinking mind has needs 

88 Substance and Function. 303^ 

26 Axel Hagerstrom: Eine Studie zur schwedischen Philosofhie der Gegenwart 


which the natural scientist is wont to call 'metaphysical'." 

Heinrich Hertz was anything but a metaphysician j his great 
work, Die Prinzfyien der Mechanik, from which the sentence 
quoted above is taken, has indeed more definitely disposed of 
the "metaphysical" concept of force than any preceding treatise 
on physics. But he realized that the attempts of scientists to- 
wards making their fundamental notions clear frequently stop 
short of the level of clarity that can be reached if clarification 
of meaning is made the primary objective of inquiry. That's 
where the philosopher steps in, but in doing this he has to be 
constantly on his guard against hasty interpretations of scien- 
tific findings which seem to lend support to his specific doctrine. 
It is shown by the record that scientists who become philoso- 
phers in their leisure hours are hardly less exposed to this 
danger than professional philosophers, though in a slightly 
different form. Whereas their accounts of the work accomp- 
lished in their own field are usually accurate, they are prone 
to exaggerate the range of applicability of their methods to 
other domains of inquiry and, consequently, to underrate the 
significance of other methods. But we should gratefully ac- 
knowledge the fact that a number of prominent scientists like 
Helmholtz, Mach, and Poincare who discussed the "founda- 
tions" of their sciences, have offered most valuable aid to phi- 
losophers in their attempts to grasp thoroughly the methods of 
science. Ernst Cassirer used this help to the best advantage. 

There is one more point to be made in this context. The fact 
that the process of clarification is carried farther by philosophers 
than by scientists, qua scientists, may be stressed by saying that 
philosophical analysis penetrates deeper than scientific analysis. 
Understood in this sense, the statement is legitimate. But it 
should not be taken to imply that the "realm" of scientific 
knowledge is strictly separated from the "deeper realm" of 
philosophical knowledge, and that the scientist qua scientist and 
the philosopher qua philosopher have to refrain from crossing 
the borderlines. This view, which may be historically linked to 
the medieval doctrine of the twofold truth, has been defended 
more or less explicitly by prominent contemporary philoso- 
phers and scientists, such as Whitehead, Eddington, and Jeans, 


but it is certainly not endorsed by Cassirer. He holds that the 
scientist can in principle never go too far in the process of 
clarification of his terms and methods, and that the philosophers 
can never come too close to the scientist's work. 

Cassirer's "scientific attitude" and his familiarity with mod- 
ern mathematics and physics represents no minor link between 
his teaching and the doctrine of logical positivism, which has 
so emphatically stressed this attitude and so thoroughly ana- 
lyzed the principles of mathematics and natural science. 27 This 
affinity became even greater as logical positivism gradually 
freed itself from vestiges of sensationalism, which were largely 
due to the influence of Mach and Russell. But there are im- 
portant doctrinal differences which should not be overlooked. 
The logical positivists are radical anti-metaphysicians in the 
sense described above. They regard ontological statements as 
altogether meaningless and seek to eliminate them by a logical 
analysis of language} whereas Cassirer transforms them into 
regulative principles of inquiry. Another point of difference is 
Cassirer's rejection of "physicalism," (radical behaviorism), 
which has for some time prevailed among logical positivists. 
But it should be noted that the leading philosopher of the 
group, Rudolf Carnap, has, in the last decade, modified his 
physicalistn to an extent which comes close to its complete 
abandonment. 28 

There is, moreover, the issue of the universals which divides 
the two doctrines. Cassirer is clearly opposed to nominalism, 
whereas the logical positivists are among the staunchest nomi- 
nalists in contemporary philosophy. Cassirer's "conceptualistic" 
view is well expressed in the following sentence: 29 

That the general birch-tree "exists" can only mean that what is to be 

27 Philipp Frank, one of the leading members of this group, is basically in 
agreement with Cassirer's interpretation of quantum physics and considers his 
philosophical work as a whole as a (highly welcome) symptom of a "disintegrating 
process inside of school philosophy." See his discussion of Cassirer's Determinismus 
und Indeterminismtts in der modernen Physik in his volume, Between Physics and 
Philosophy (Cambridge, 194.1), 191-210. 

88 1 have discussed this change in Carnap's view in Ch. XI of my Methodology 
of the Social Sciences, New York, (i 944) . 

* Axel Hagerstrb'm, 5 1 . 


stated by it is not a mere name, not simply a flatus vocis; the statement 
is meant to refer to relations of the real. We express by the notion 
"general birch-tree" merely the fact that there are judgments which do 
not refer to this or that here and now given birch-tree, but claim to 
apply to "all" birch-trees. I can uphold this logical participation, this 
[XTet of the particular in the general, without transforming it into an 
ontological statement in which two fundamental forms of reality are 

In the paper mentioned above, Philipp Frank quotes Jacques 
Maritain as saying "that the aim of the Vienna circle and of the 
whole movement of logical empiricism was to 'disontologize 
science'." 30 We might say with equal right that one of the aims 
of Cassirer's theory of knowledge is to disontologize philosophy 
without destroying it. 


The relation of Cassirer's philosophy to pragmatism in gen- 
eral, and to Dewey's instrumentalism in particular, might, at 
first glance, seem to be more remote than its relation to logical 
positivism, and to imply a larger number of conflicting tenets. 
But this cannot be unreservedly maintained. The neo-Kantian- 
ism of the Marburg school is, indeed, in some important re- 
spects closer to pragmatism than to logical positivism. We 
shall confine ourselves to a brief comparison between Cassirer's 
and Dewey's theories of knowledge and make the point that 
some striking differences between their doctrines are less funda- 
mental than one might suppose them to be. Dewey's philosophy, 
it might be suggested, is through and through naturalistic; 
Cassirer's philosophy, on the other hand, is through and through 
idealistic. We are thus confronted with two diametrically op- 
posed philosophical approaches. 

But such an interpretation is all too facile, and cannot bear 
closer examination. We should be aided in a more thorough 
appraisal of the relation between the two philosophies by con- 
sidering their historical settings. Dewey, as well as Cassirer, was 
profoundly influenced (though in a different way) by Kantian 
and Hegelian teachings} and both were also under the impact 

90 Between Physics and Philosophy, 195. 


of the naturalist-empiricist reaction to these teachings. Each 
of the two men was too penetrating a thinker to ignore the 
strong points in either of the conflicting philosophical trends. 
It is, of course, undeniable that Dewey broke determinedly 
away from the Hegelian tradition and rejected in unambiguous 
terms Kant's apriorism and dualism (as he saw them) j whereas 
Cassirer considers himself as a faithful, though not orthodox, 
follower of Kant, and to some extent, even of Hegel. Quite 
a number of doctrinal differences, which should by no means 
be minimized, can be historically interpreted in terms of this 
split. But we have to ask whether the split goes to the roots, 
whether it leads to opposite theoretical or practical conclusions. 

We might look for a clue to an answer to this question by 
considering the manner in which our two philosophers deal 
with the notions of "development" and "progress." When Cas- 
sirer uses these terms, we are reminded of Aristotle's entelechy 
and self-perfection, of Leibniz' monads, and of Hegel's dia- 
lectical movement of the objective mind. When Dewey uses 
these terms, one is under the spell of Darwin's Origin of 
Species. We know that the effect of this shift in meaning from 
spiritual development to biological evolution can be tremen- 
dous. It is apt to lend support to a transvaluation of traditional 
values and to the irrationalism of a Nietzsche, Pareto, Sorel. 
But we know as well that Dewey is most vigorously opposed to 
these irrationalist tendencies, and shall therefore not conclude 
that an irreconcilable conflict between the two doctrines is 
proved by a pragmatic test. Since we cannot thoroughly under- 
stand diversities unless we are able to grasp the underlying 
identities, we shall start by referring to the common features 
of the two doctrines. 

First of all, they are close to each other in the professed aim 
of their theories of knowledge, which is to clarify the basic 
principles of scientific inquiry. Consequently, they are opposed 
to any interpretation of philosophy, according to which philoso- 
phy could and should "legislate" to science. Moreover, they 
agree that one should rather define "(factual) truth" in terms 
of knowledge, as outcome of inquiry, than knowledge in terms 
of "truth." Both philosophers reject the correspondence theories 


of truth as proposed by realists and by sensationalists, e.g., 
Bertrand Russell. They endorse a coherence theory of truth, 
where "coherence" is not understood as mere consistency of the 
body of established knowledge, but interpreted in terms of the 
principles of empirical procedure. Linked with this point is 
the conception of inquiry as a process which is guided by a set 
of "postulates." Kant's regulative principles as interpreted by 
the Marburg school, are not very different in function from 
Peirce's and Dewey's leading principles though the latter are 
more flexible and the resemblance between Cassirer's and 
Dewey's reinterpretations of traditional epistemological contro- 
versies in terms of such methodological principles is sometimes 

These considerations should suffice for a rejection of the 
view that Cassirer's decidedly idealistic approach is diametric- 
ally opposed to Dewey's decidedly naturalistic approach. As 
a matter of fact, we need not go very far in the study of Dewey's 
work to discover that his naturalism is heavens apart from those 
crude types of naturalism which would "reduce" human ac- 
tivity to behavior of inanimate bodies. I do not see why 
Cassirer should have had to take issue with a naturalism which 
is characterized as follows: 

The term "naturalistic" has many meanings. As it is here employed 
it means, on one side, that there is no breach of continuity between 
operations of inquiry and biological operations and physical operations. 
"Continuity," on the other side, means that rational operations grow 
out of organic activities, without being identical with that from which 
they emerge. 81 

Nor was he bound to have any substantial objections to Dewey's 
outline of the "cultural matrix of inquiry" in the third chapter 
of the Logic (and in earlier works), which might well have led 
to the definition of man as a symbol-making animal, as sug- 
gested by Cassirer. 

Yet there are indeed incisive differences between the two 
doctrines which have direct bearing upon methodological is- 
sues. We shall briefly examine two of them. The first relates 

"Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry^ i8f. 


to the problem of the nature of meanings. While Dewey is not 
an extreme nominalist, he is much closer to nominalism than 
Cassirer, even though Cassirer is as little a conceptual realist 
as was Kant. 32 Dewey treats comprehension of meaning and 
sensation on an almost equal footing. Immediate experience 
of both types is taken to be preliminary} it indicates a problem, 
but it cannot by itself establish knowledge. Only in its proper 
setting within the context of empirical inquiry is such experi- 
ence conducive to knowledge. Cassirer would endorse this view 
as far as sensation is concerned. This tenet is indeed as essential 
in his philosophy as it is in Dewey's. But he would not accept 
the view that comprehension of meaning is in a similar sense 
controlled by empirical inquiry as is sensation. He would, 
moreover, insist upon a sharp differentiation between verifies de 
raison and verites de fait, and, accordingly, upon the autonomy 
of pure logic and pure mathematics. 

Although I am in agreement with Cassirer on this issue, I 
think that in another respect Dewey's theory of inquiry is su- 
perior to Cassirer'sj namely, in its analysis of scientific testing. 
One might be tempted to emphasize this point by declaring 
that Cassirer's interpretation of science is static, whereas Dew- 
ey's approach is dynamic. These terms are indeed suggestive of 
an important difference between the two approaches, but they 
should not mislead us into conceiving of Cassirer as an orthodox 
disciple of Parmenides. He realizes as well as any pragmatist 
that scientific inquiry is a potentially endless self-correcting 
process 5 but (like the classical economist) he focuses his atten- 
tion upon states of equilibrium, where the material of avail- 
able perceptual experience is "absorbed" by theoretical systems. 
Dewey, on the other hand, concentrates upon the processes that 
emerge from (particular) states of disequilibrium indeter- 
minate situations and lead to the attainment of new equilib- 
ria (determinate situations). And he deals more thoroughly 
with the conditions of "warranted assertability," with the criteria 
for the distinction between warranted and unwarranted asser- 

The analysis of warranted assertability is intimately con- 

18 See $ufra, i89f, 208 f. 


nected with the problem of determining the relation between 
propositional meaning and the criteria of verification of propo- 
sitions (the so-called truth-conditions). Cassirer's discussion, 
in his Erkenntnisproblem, of Kant's criticism of the ontological 
argument gives some hints as to where he stands on this issue; 
but I do not think that it suffices for a full understanding of 
his position. This problem is as actual in contemporary theory 
of knowledge as was the problem of the relation between essence 
and existence in Greek and medieval philosophy j and I would 
even submit that it is a "modern" version of this time-honored 
metaphysical issue. As such it is closely linked with the peren- 
nial problems of matter and form, which are a leitmotif 
throughout Cassirer's work. 

It would be a rewarding task to compare Cassirer's general 
treatment of these problems with their treatment in HusserPs 
phenomenology. But in making such an attempt I should have 
to overstep the boundaries of space allotted to me and the 
limits of my assignment, and I am too well aware of Heraclitus' 
warning to venture this. I shall therefore confine myself to the 
remark that HusserPs approach to the problems of matter and 
form 33 is rather different from Cassirer's approach, which is 
more in line with the classical interpretation of matter as both 
a challenge and an obstacle to the 'forming' activity of the 

In the General Introduction to The Library of Living Phi- 
losophers y the editor resumes F. C. S. Schiller's question: "Must 
philosophers disagree?" When one studies Ernst Cassirer's 
work, which sheds a flood of light on different philosophical 
aspects with a view towards synthesizing them, one feels that 
disagreement among philosophers need not persist unabated. 




88 In the sth and 6th of his Logische Untersuchungen, in the Ideen, in Formale 
und transcendental* Logik, and in Erfahrung und Urteil. 

Dmitry Gawronsky 



MO OTHER epistemological problem has caused philoso- 
phers and scientists as great a headache as the application 
of mathematics to the cognition of real things. Mathematics 
and material things seem to belong to two quite different worlds 
mathematical concepts, relations, and laws reveal such an 
absolute precision and necessity, two qualities, these latter, 
which do not exist in the same form in the world of reality. The 
geometrical straight line, for instance, is physically a quite im- 
possible concept: first, because this line consists exclusively of 
one dimension and, not having any thickness, could not be 
represented by any really existing thing; and, secondly, it is 
conceived as a form which has absolutely no curbs or bends, 
and this, again, is a physical impossibility. One could argue 
that the concept of straight line is given us even if not in a 
perfect, then at least in an approximative form by real things, 
for instance by a straight slender stick. Yet, this argument is 
hardly sound; first of all, this slender stick is not just a gift 
of nature, but had been manufactured by man who was guided 
in this job by his idea of a straight line; and, secondly, even if 
by some miracle such a rod could be found in nature, even then 
it could be transformed into an exact mathematical concept only 
through an infinite process of attenuation and straightening, 
whereby the straight line itself, as the limit of this infinite proc- 
ess, would always be present in our mind as a directing and 
controlling prototype. 

The more obvious it becomes that mathematical concepts 
and real things belong to two different spheres, the more diffi- 
cult grows the question: how is it possible that even the subtlest 
and most complicated mathematical relations and laws find 



their successful application to the world of reality? Only two 
directly opposite philosophical tendencies naive empiricism 
and absolute idealism avoid with ease this epistemological 
difficulty; but they both do it at the cost of even greater diffi- 
culties. Empiricism locates the source of mathematical notions 
and conceptions in the sphere of real things, without being able 
to explain satisfactorily their absolute validity and necessity, 
the infinite character of their methods of construction and cal- 
culation. And absolute idealism does exactly the opposite: in 
its mystical belief in the infinite power of human reason, it 
regards all real things as derived in all their qualities and func- 
tions from this reason; it disregards the simple fact that reason 
may be largely instrumental in the understanding of the uni- 
verse. At the same time, the conception that reason "creates" 
the universe is overbearing and ridiculously false. 

Plato's idealism reveals its close connection with Orphism in 
its conception of the Idea as a prototype of which real things 
endeavor to partake; and it discloses the same exaggerated be- 
lief in the power of the human mind in its ethical teaching of 
virtue as the knowledge of good. Yet the revival of Platonism 
in modern times struck deep roots in the realm of exact knowl- 
edge and influenced decisively the founders of exact science: 
Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. The problem of knowledge 
ceased to be the concern of pure philosophy only the great 
men of science felt keenly the desire to elucidate this problem 
and to understand the very nature the principles, the methods, 
the attainable goals of the creative work they were doing. 

Exact science, this rewriting of nature in mathematical letters, 
became now a crucial test of man's successful mental conquest of 
nature, and this fact induced Ernst Cassirer to devote a large 
part of his research to this field of human knowledge: "only 
in exact science in its progress which, despite all vacillation, 
is continuous does the harmonious concept of knowledge ob- 
tain its true accomplishment and verification; everywhere else 
this concept still remains only a demand." 1 

To this problem the contribution of exact science to epis- 

1 Ernst Cassirer, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosofhie und Wissenschaft 
der neueren Zeit. Vol. I., p. 1 1 . 


temology Cassirer devoted constant and assiduous study 
throughout his entire life. He first approached the problem 
from the historical point of view he showed how slowly and 
painfully the scientific notion of nature detached itself from 
purely mystical and metaphysical conceptions. Even Coperni- 
cus, who methodically controlled and reversed immediate sen- 
sory impressions by mathematical reasoning and proceeded upon 
the principle "Mathemata mathematicis scribuntur? introduced 
aesthetic motives into his demonstrations and regarded, for in- 
stance, our sun as the center of the entire universe, since no 
other place would be more suitable to its dignity and majestic 

It was Leonardo da Vinci who freed exact science from all 
arbitrary elements and waged a systematic battle against all 
attempts to introduce spiritual causes into the explanation of 
physical phenomena. (Only mathematics, every concept and 
law of which is permeated by the spirit of absolute necessity, is 
able to provide us with an adequate basis upon which to build 
our knowledge of nature.) Kepler already had gone so far as 
not only to recognize clearly both sense impressions and intel- 
lectual concepts as fundamental sources of our knowledge of 
nature, but also to emphasize their thorough and organic in- 
terrelation. According to him, perception incites and controls 
our reasoning and is a genuine and reliable beginning of our 
knowledge; but all this only because it contains though in a 
hidden and obscure form elements of intellectual concepts and 
mathematical relations. 

All these basic tendencies were decisively deepened and en- 
larged by Galileo. He, too, recognized sense impressions as a 
fundamental source of our knowledge; yet for him these im- 
pressions did not remain in the realm of individual perceptions 
rather they acquired the form of organically unified experi- 
ence, founded upon and formed by mathematical concepts and 
laws of absolute necessity. Truth is what is organically con- 
nected with the whole of experience, what belongs to this whole 
as a consistent part of it; and the knowledge of any single fact 
is only possible by way of studying its relations to the totality 
of known and established facts. 


The second generation of great scientists Huyghens, Boyle, 
and Newton showed much less interest in general episte- 
mological problems and tried primarily to purify and clarify 
their experimental methods. They tried to avoid all general 
concepts and theories and they went so far in this direction that 
as Goethe put it "they expressed the clear intention to 
observe natural phenomena as well as their own experiments 
separately, placing them side by side and without making any 
attempt to connect them somehow artificially with one another." 
Yet, continued Goethe, they put a firm trust in mathematics and 
stood in awe before the usefulness of its application to physics 
and thus, "while they tried to be on their guard with ideality, 
they admitted and kept the highest ideality." Those great 
scientists and especially the greatest of them, Newton de- 
veloped their mathematical methods to an amazing degree, 
methods which enabled them meticulously to control their 
experiments and to deduce from them exact and fundamental 
knowledge. Newton's purely mathematical and seemingly quite 
abstract concepts of "absolute" space and time, of force and 
movement, soon became the very foundation of all physical 
science. The basic epistemological problem the application of 
ideal concepts to reality attained, through Newton's pro- 
cedure, such a degree of precision that it soon became the focal 
point of an impassioned and prolonged controversy in which 
Clarke, Leibniz, and Euler played the leading part, and which 
so decisively influenced the young Kant that not only did New- 
ton's system become the very object of his theoretical philoso- 
phy, but Kant even tried to introduce Newton's methods into 

In the first two volumes of his Erkenntnisproblem in der 
Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit Cassirer de- 
scribed and analyzed, step by step, the historical development 
of the struggle of human thought with this basic epistemologi- 
cal question} the same question lies at the core of his extended 
work, Substanzbegrif und Funktionsbegriff. In this book, how- 
ever, Cassirer's approach to the problem is different here he 
seeks the solution by a subtle analysis and systematic recon- 
struction of the whole complex of epistemological principles 


and methods. His first step is to show that a logical concept is 
never a simple summing up of qualities common to a certain 
group of similar things} before this summing up can take place 
the human mind must have the ability to establish in its con- 
sciousness such a grouping of similar things. This is done by a 
special mental process of identification which establishes a 
criterion. This process of identification, using any one particular 
as an instance which satisfi.es the conditions set forth by the 
criterion, collects a group of similar particulars, related to one 
another, and bound together by the criterion common to them 
all. The material of our perceptions can be formed and ordered 
in many different ways according to the criterion which is used 
in any single case; every given criterion forms a special series of 
perceptions in which a certain relation among the single ele- 
ments of this series prevails. This relation can be determined 
by the degree of similarity or difference among the successive 
terms of the given series, but it also can be determined by num- 
ber or size, by dimensions of space or time. 

This structure of concept as a succession of terms connected 
with one another by a certain criterion Cassirer named "func- 
tional" concept. Mathematical concepts are all of this kind 
what an integral number is can be understood only if this num- 
ber is regarded as a term within an infinite series where the 
relation of any two contiguous terms is that of n to n + 1 } 
negative, fractional, irrational and even transcendent numbers 
can be defined only as terms of infinite series whose structure is 
determined by certain rules, according to which all terms of 
these series are connected with one another and derived from 
one another. This holds true of all fields of mathematical science 
geometry and algebra, the infinitesimal calculus, quantum 
theory, and so forth. As Georg Cantor once said, mathematics is 
a free science, free in the sense that its concepts are neither de- 
rived from nor limited by the world of real things. Infinity 
is the very soul of mathematical concepts} and the law which 
determines the relation between single terms spreads endlessly 
in all directions and forms a perfectly harmonious system whose 
every term is bound by infinite relations to all other terms of the 
same system. 


The concepts of mechanics reveal the same nature, the same 
inward structure as the mathematical concepts. Take as ex- 
amples the concepts of velocity as uniform and rectilinear 
motion, of uniform acceleration, of continuous space and of 
mass reduced to a point they all represent ideal constructions 
and criteria determining an infinite succession of forms, which 
can be derived from one another according to a constant rule. 
Yet, all these sharply and exactly formed ideal concepts not 
only help and further our knowledge of real things, but they 
actually constitute the very foundation of this knowledge. In 
order to understand this paradox one must ask himself the 
following question: what exactly is it to which we apply these 
ideal notions? Is it sensations, perceptions, or objects of the 
external world? The philosophy of critical idealism, whose basic 
tendencies Cassirer faithfully espoused and strongly developed 
throughout his life, gives the following answer: the primary 
stuff of our consciousness consists of disconnected, fluctuating, 
chaotic sensations, into which the human mind slowly and 
steadily brings regularity and order by connecting (and bind- 
ing) dispersed sensations and forming them into objects. It 
would be quite wrong to think that there exist two sharply 
separated realms the realm of sensations and the realm of 
objects and that the true goal of our knowledge consists in 
an unequivocal connection of sensations with the corresponding 
objects. The truth is that in the given form these two separated 
realms do not exist at all and that the actual process of our 
knowledge consists in something quite different. Take the 
simplest sensation, and you will find present in it already a 
considerable amount of objective elements. Modern psychology 
teaches us that an infant of six months, not yet able to distin- 
guish separate sensations from one another, is, none the less, 
already able to comprehend the expressions of his mother's face 
correctly, and consequently feels whether his mother is pleased 
with him or not. On the other hand, take any object, even a 
highly complex and well known one, and you will always find 
that some subjective impressions doggedly stick to it. What 
really and truly is going on in our consciousness is not a grasp- 
ing at objects but a continuous process of objectification the 


raw material of our sensations is gradually and systematically 
being worked over by the concepts and methods of our mind, 
is being formed and objectified; what we name "objects" are 
in reality nothing else but more or less advanced stages of this 
infinite process of obj edification. A completely finished object, 
one freed of all elements of uncertainty and subjectivity, can 
be given only as the ultimate result of the development of 
science, it is the infinite and final goal of human knowledge. 
And, conversely, our sensations are always, to a greater or 
smaller degree, imbued with elements of objectivity an abso- 
lutely pure sensation is only thinkable as the ultimate result of 
an endless process of subjectification. 

These considerations open the way toward the solution of our 
epistemological problem: the profuse and fruitful application of 
the ideal concepts of mathematics and mechanics to the world 
of real things. Now we can see just what made this problem so 
difficult: the primary separation into two different and inde- 
pendent worlds the world of ideal concepts and the world 
of real things is nothing more than a wrong presumption. 
Take, for instance, sudh a "real thing" as matter which sur- 
rounds us everywhere in such impressive quantities. Greek 
science first thought that matter was continuous substance; then 
it surmised that matter was of atomic structure. And now we 
know that matter is nothing but condensed energy and that this 
energy has miraculously enough an atomic structure! Our 
knowledge of the atomic bomb no matter how real and potent 
its destructive power may be is still only one, and by no means 
the final, stage within the infinite process of objectification; and 
our ideal concepts of mathematics and mechanics are the driving 
forces, which mold and regulate this process, which transform 
our sensations into more and more advanced stages of objectifi- 
cation. The intellect and its ideal concepts from the outset 
perform an organic and absolutely necessary function within 
this process no knowledge of real things would be possible 
without them. 

Guided by this conviction, Cassirer, in his book, Substanz- 
begrif und Funktionsbegrifi, unfolded step by step the syste- 
matic work of objectification performed by natural science and 


showed the basic importance of some very complicated branches 
of mathematics, including the quantum theory. However, 
strangely enough, not once in this book did he mention the 
theory of relativity, although Einstein's first fundamental 
publication concerning this subject had appeared five years 
earlier and had aroused a truly sensational interest. In 1921, 
two years after Einstein's concept of the curvature of light 
(when it passes through a field of gravitation) was brilliantly 
proved by astronomical observations, Cassirer published a book- 
let on the theory of relativity. Yet even in 1910 Einstein's 
theory was already very much talked of, and that not merely 
in scientific circles, but everywhere and by everyone. Thus, 
there must have been some reasons for Cassirer's silence on 
relativity at that time, which should prove to be of great inter- 
est, if it could be discovered what "precisely" the reasons were. 
In his first publication on the theory of relativity, the famous 
"Elektrodynamik bewegter Systeme," (1905), Einstein, for the 
first time in the history of human thought, put the following 
question in so many words: We all know Newton's definition of 
"absolute, true, and mathematical time;" but in what way can 
this concept be applied to the world of real occurrences? Sup- 
pose, for some special purpose, we have to synchronize three 
watches one in New York, another in San Francisco, and the 
third halfway between them, say in Norfolk, Nebraska. The 
only correct way to do that would be to send, let us say at 12:00 
P.M. sharp, a light signal from Norfolk to the two other cities, 
and when this signal would arrive in each of the two cities, the 
time on their watches should be put at 12:00 P.M. plus one 
hundredth of a second, since it would take the light signal that 
much time to reach those cities. This procedure seems to be 
quite correct and even matter-of-course; yet Einstein proved 
that it was incorrect, since it did not allow for the rotation of 
the earth. In our example the light signal would reach New 
York earlier than San Francisco, since New York would, so 
to speak, move to meet this signal, whereas San Francisco 
would, as it were, run away from it. Thus, concluded Einstein, 
time, within a given system, depends on whether this system 
is moving or not and if it is on the velocity of its movement. 


In a second example Einstein showed that there is only one 
way to measure the length of a moving object, namely, to use 
light signals and synchronized watches; but, inasmuch as syn- 
chronization of watches depends upon the movement of a given 
system, the length of an object must also depend on this move- 

These two examples given by Einstein were so surprisingly 
novel, so impressive, so convincingly true that the attention of 
the scientific world was immediately focused on him. However, 
this was only the beginning $ he also discovered other most in- 
genious and important physical laws, as, for instance, the exact 
correlation between electric and magnetic fields, and, in particu- 
lar, the relation between mass and energy: E = mc 2 ; this 
formula was made so popular by the atomic bomb that one can 
now find it even in newspaper advertisements. The great 
authority of Einstein as a true genius of natural science was, 
thus, firmly and indisputably established. 

And yet: an objective study of the whole complex of Ein- 
stein's theories shows clearly that there is also another side to 
them and that Einstein's case at certain points repeats a phe- 
nomenon which is sometimes met in the history of natural 
science, namely, that a well recognized authority advances a 
theory which is obviously inconsistent and later may even be 
proved wrong. Yet such a theory may nevertheless be immedi- 
ately accepted and, supported as it is by the weighty name of 
its famous originator, it is likely to become a part of accepted 
science. The most striking example of this kind is provided by 
the physics of Aristotle: as late as in the seventeenth century 
the official doctrine in physics accepted Aristotle's thesis that 
the velocity of a falling object is proportional to its weight; 
viz., ten bricks tied together fall ten times faster to the earth 
than a single brick; or that a stone dropped on a moving ship 
from the top of a mast falls not to the base of this mast but 
into the water, an experiment Aristotle allegedly performed 
many times. So great was Aristotle's authority that the physi- 
cians among his followers implicitly believed his assertion that 
the heart is the center of the nervous system. Galileo tells us 
that ^t one time a human body was dissected in the presence 


of a large group of Aristotelians and the dissection incontro- 
vertibly proved that it is the brain which is the center of the 
nervous system. Thereupon the spokesman of the Aristotelians 
declared: "You gave us such clear and evident proof, that, were 
it not asserted by Aristotle that the nerve-center lies in the 
heart, we would be forced to the admission that you are right." 
Yet, Aristotle is not the only great authority of whom this 
sort of thing is true. Other instances could easily be cited. But 
this is not the place for such however interesting stories. 

Something akin to it we find in some elements of Einstein's 
theory of relativity. Having proved that the necessity of using 
light signals for the measurement of time and space in moving 
systems is bound to influence the results of this measurement, 
Einstein, without reason or explanation, stops following up 
this absolutely correct and revolutionary idea and supersedes 
it by another explanation which is quite wrong: in a moving 
system the time and the length of objects change because the 
movement of a system influences the motion of watch mecha- 
nisms by slowing them down and influences the length of ma- 
terial objects by physically contracting them. This sounds so 
incredible that we must quote Einstein himself. "A balanced 
watch placed on the equator moves by a very small amount 
slower than an exactly identical watch would move under other- 
wise quite identical conditions except that it is placed at the 
pole." 2 In this quotation Einstein does not speak of the watch 
in general, but rather he stresses that it has to be a balanced 
watch. Why? Because, according to Einstein and his most 
famous followers, like, for instance, Max von Laue, only the 
balance wheel (this regulating gear of a watch), is slowed 
down by the velocity of the moving system to which this 
watch belongs. At once the question arises: And how about other 
kinds of timepieces which work without coiling spring and 
balance wheel, for instance, clepsydra or hourglass? Einstein 
did not think of them; yet he did think of the pendulum-clock, 
and therefore added the following words: a balance-watch "in 

* Einstein's "Elektrodynamik bewegter Systeme," reprinted in the Fortschritte der 
mathematmhen Wissenschaften, No. 2, p. 38. (Translation by the present writer.) 


opposition to a balance-clock which represents from the point 
of view of physics the same system as the terrestrial globe; 
this case has to be excluded," If what Einstein says here is true, 
then there is nothing easier than to avoid all complications by 
simply using pendulum-clocks exclusively, never the balance- 
watches j then the theory of relativity would not be a novel and 
revolutionary conception of time and space, but merely a ques- 
tion of using incorrect or correct technical instruments. Yet 
Einstein's attempt to make his theory dependent on the kind 
of timepieces used is just as strange and contains just as much 
truth as, for instance, the assertion that the validity of non- 
Euclidean geometry depends on the type of glasses a mathema- 
tician wears. 

Einstein's so-called special theory of relativity, the only one 
to which we are here referring, did not introduce any new 
mathematical formula; it was rather an attempt to give a new 
interpretation to the Lorentz-transformation, and the fallacy 
of Einstein's interpretation could not in any way invalidate 
the importance and fruitfulness of the Lorentz-transformation. 
Yet this fallacy of interpretation is the source of all the para- 
doxes and inconsistencies of Einstein's theory. Take, for 
instance, the so-called and very famous at that "paradox 
of the watch" which Einstein later expressed in the following 
drastic form: 

If we could put a living organism into a box and compel it to perform 
the same regular movements as a balance-watch does, then it would be 
possible to achieve that this organism would return to its starting place 
after as long a flight as you like and would not show any changes what- 
soever, whereas quite similar organisms which all this time stayed quietly 
in their place would be superseded by several consecutive generations. 
The long time which this journey lasted was for the moving organism 
not more than one single moment, provided only that it moved approxi- 
mately with the velocity of light. This is an inevitable consequence of 
our fundamental principles imposed upon us by experimental knowledge. 8 

In reading these words one involuntarily thinks of what 

'Einstein, "Die Relativitatstheorie." Vierteljahnschrift der naturforsckenden 
Gesellschaft, Zurich, Vol. 56, p. 12. (Translation by the present writer.) 


Aristotle said after asserting that a stone, dropped on a moving 
ship from the top of the mast, falls into the water: "This experi- 
ment I performed several times." First of all, Einstein's allega- 
tion completely contradicts Einstein's own "fundamental princi- 
ple" of relativity. According to this principle, movement is 
always relative to some other system, and there is no way of 
ascertaining which of these two systems really moves and which 
is in the state of immobility, or which part of this relative move- 
ment is performed by either of these systems. Yet Einstein's 
example of a moving organism brings back the idea of absolute 
movement: the surviving organism was really in a state of 
motion, whereas the extinct generations were in a state of im- 
mobility. Furthermore, the assertion that time slows down 
under the influence of movement is quite wrong. If one follows 
up Einstein's brilliant example of the synchronization of three 
watches in three different cities, one finds the following phe- 
nomenon: so long as a watch recedes from the observer, the time 
on this watch appears to him as retarded; but the moment this 
watch begins approaching the observer, the time on it appears 
as accelerated in the same degree, and as an ultimate result there 
is absolutely no loss or gain of time. 4 

Truth is always simple, understandable, impressive. This is 
the case with all elements of Einstein's theory which are veri- 
fiably correct. Only those elements of Einstein's theory are 
difficult which are basically wrong. The famous originator of 
the quantum theory, Max Planck, once said of the theory of 
relativity: "It is hardly necessary to emphasize that this novel 
conception of time puts the highest demands upon the power 
of imagination of a physicist and upon his ability of abstraction. 
Its boldness surpasses everything which previously had been 
accomplished in the speculative philosophy of nature and even 
in philosophical epistemologyj compared to it, non-Euclidean 
geometry is mere child's play." 5 It certainly was not Einstein's 
intention to enrich the "speculative philosophy of nature" with 

4 See my booklet, "Der fkysikalische Gehalt der speziellen Relattvitatstheorie," 
Stuttgart, Engelhorns. 

8 Max Planck, Acht Vorlesungen iiber theoretische Phy$ik t 1910, p. 117. 
(Translation by the present writer.) 


his theory ; he is a great physicist, and some parts of his theory 
will probably live forever in the science of men; but the in- 
correct parts of his theory belong nowhere, not even to specula- 
tive philosophy. 

It is most interesting to observe in what manner Cassirer, in 
his booklet, 7,wr Einstein* schen Relativitatstheorie, deals with 
the theory of relativity, this amazing combination of profound 
truths and striking inconsistencies. Cassirer knew Einstein per- 
sonally and, as he tells in the preface to his booklet, showed the 
manuscript to Einstein before having it printed. In the whole 
booklet one does not find one single word of criticism or doubt; 
at the same time, only those elements of Einstein's theory are 
discussed which are undoubtedly fruitful and true. Cassirer 
regards the theory of relativity as one link in the long chain of 
scientific and philosophical development, as an important con- 
stituent in the whole structure of epistemology. He starts with 
the general problem of measuring and shows that it is the first 
step to the objectification of our sensations, their transformation 
into elements of scientific experience. Our methods of measuring 
are always based upon some principles and axioms. One of these 
axioms always was that units of time, length, mass, are quite 
independent of whether they are applied in a moving or a 
motionless system. Einstein showed the incorrectness of this 
axiom by proving that these units themselves depend on the 
velocity of a given system. Cassirer does not at all discuss the 
question: What is the cause of this change? He does not even 
mention Einstein's explanation according to which even uniform 
and rectilinear motion physically affects the mechanism of a 
watch, an explanation which, by the way, directly contradicts 
Galileo's and Newton's principle of inertia. 

In order to explain the crisis into which science was thrown 
by the negative result of Michelson's experiment, let me use 
the following imaginary example: an observer on a highway 
sees an automobile moving with the velocity of a hundred miles 
per hour; at the same time he sees a plane flying in the same 
direction with the velocity of three hundred miles per hour; 
the observer does not doubt for a moment that if the passen- 
gers of the car compared their velocity with the velocity of the 


plane they would find a difference of two hundred miles. 
How greatly amazed one would be, if he were told that in 
relation to him the plane still flies at the velocity of three 
hundred miles! Einstein's method of solving this difficulty was 
the following: he showed on the examples of synchronization 
of watches and measuring of length within a moving system 
that both operations could be performed only with the help 
of light signals; and then he said (not literally, to be sure): 
You see, our units of time and length are not at all as matter- 
of-course as we used to think of them; they are rather uncertain, 
they change along with the velocity of a given system, and, 
since this is the case, why should we not presuppose that the 
changes these units undergo are just big enough to explain the 
fact that our plane flies relatively both to the highway and to 
the speeding car with the same velocity of three hundred miles? 

One can hardly regard this as a solution to our problem, in- 
asmuch as the problem itself is simply transformed into a sup- 
position. At the same time Einstein's analysis of the problem of 
synchronization contains all the elements of the correct solu- 
tion. Yet, amazingly enough, he did not follow up the novel 
and most promising road he had himself discovered. But this 
method to transform the problem into a supposition Ein- 
stein used once more, when he replaced Newton's law of gravi- 
tation with a slightly different law of a very complicated mathe- 
matical structure. Newton derived his law of gravitation from 
Kepler's third law of planetary motion; this was a simple and 
most convincing demonstration of Newton's law. Einstein's 
procedure was different; he tried to construct a mathematical 
formula which had to satisfy the following conditions: to con- 
tain Newton's formula as first approximation and to produce the 
amount of the perihelion movement of the planet Mercury; it 
was an ad hoc formula, a transformation of a problem into a 

Cassirer does not criticize or reject this procedure; he gives 
a quite adequate description of it and introduces his own analysis 
with the following spirited words of Goethe: "The highest art 
in science and life consists in transforming a problem into a 
postulate; one gets through this way." But Cassirer does not 


dwell on this subject} whereas Einstein's conception of matter 
as condensed energy, this daring and practically most important 
of his theories, is discussed at great length. Cassirer shows that 
the entire history of physics had been dominated by a peculiar 
dualism in the apprehension of nature. Democritus introduced 
the concepts of the atom and of empty space as the only sources 
of physical reality. In the subsequent centuries this dualism 
transformed itself into the acceptance of pure form concepts 
(like space and time), on the one hand, and of substance con- 
cepts (like matter), on the other. Descartes was the first to 
attempt a unification of these two concept groups} by levelling 
any distinction between them he dissolved, as it were, the sub- 
stance of a physical object into a system of purely geometrical 
relations. Yet Cartesian physics proved to be ineffectual, and 
Newton refuted Descartes 1 physical theories and went back to 
the old dualism of space as a kind of a vessel and of matter as 
substance contained in it. Faraday was the first to bring about 
a new conception of matter, by advancing the theory that matter 
consists of lines of force, that it is nothing but a spot within a 
field of force. This theory stirred up a strong development of 
the so-called "field-physics," which did not accept the existence 
of matter and space as two separate factors, but regarded matter 
as an "offspring of field." Einstein's theory of relativity repre- 
sents the last link within this development} it does not accept 
space, time, matter, and force as independent factors, but re- 
gards the physical world as a four-dimensional multiplicity. 
Along with this new conception of the world another historical 
development has been brought to its conclusion. Leibniz already 
had completely dissolved matter into force, yet he retained a 
distinction between two kinds of forces, "active" and "passive" 
forces. Einstein's theory brings about the ultimate fusion be- 
tween the two fundamental principles of modern physics 
the principle of the conservation of mass and the principle of the 
conservation of energy. The qualitative difference between 
matter and energy disappears entirely. 

This method is typical of Cassirer's treatment of Einstein's 
theory the historical continuity of scientific thought appears 
clearly and convincingly in Cassirer's argumentation. The prin- 


ciples of physics introduced by Galileo and further developed 
by Newton are only confirmed and enlarged in the theory of 
relativity. And since Cassirer, with his keen sense of con- 
sistency and exactness of scientific truth, concentrated his atten- 
tion only on those elements of Einstein's theory which are 
correct and fruitful, Cassirer acquitted himself of this task most 
brilliantly. He does not mention with even one single word 
Einstein's assertion that uniform and rectilinear movement 
influences a watch mechanism and slows it down, or that this 
movement keeps a living organism indefinitely alive, or that 
there is a basic difference between a balance-watch and pendu- 
lum-clock. Only one of Einstein's assertions is casually men- 
tioned by Cassirer, despite the fact that it definitely belongs 
to the group of erroneous elements within Einstein's theory. 
I am referring to Einstein's assertion (repeated several times 
by himself, and many thousands of times by his followers) that 
Euclidean geometry loses its validity within a system which is 
in a state of motion, even of uniform and rectilinear motion. 
Take, for instance, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to 
its diameter (pi); it changes its value within such a moving 
system, it becomes smaller, according to Einstein. Why? The 
reason, says Einstein, is quite simple. If you have a rotating 
disk, then, since all moving objects become shorter in the di- 
rection of their movement, the circumference of this disk will 
be smaller than the circumference of the same disk in the state 
of immobility, and the corresponding ratio will drop below pi. 
This whole argument is entirely wrong $ and the fact that so 
many earnest scientists willingly accepted it is very strange 
indeed. This is such a striking example of mass-suggestion (not 
to say gullibility) in the field of "exact" ( ! ) science that it is 
worth while to dwell a bit more upon this subject. 

In order to prove that moving objects become shorter in the 
direction of their movement, Einstein invented a very ingenious 
example which, when adapted to American geography, might 
take the following form: suppose that an immensely long air- 
ship of approximately 3000 miles in length is flying in west- 
east direction over American territory, with one end over San 
Francisco and the other end over New York, just at the moment 


when we are trying to find out the precise length of this air- 
ship. There is only one way to do that, namely, to notice, at 
precisely the same moment, both ends of the airship, one in 
San Francisco and the other in New York, and then figure out 
the distance between these markings. For this purpose we must 
have perfectly synchronized watches placed in both cities. Yet 
this is impossible, as we have already seen the watch in San 
Francisco will be slower than the watch in New York; there- 
fore we shall be marking the rear end of the airship later than 
the front end, and the airship will consequently appear to us 
to be shortened. Very well. But now suppose that two airships 
move simultaneously, but in opposite directions is it not abso- 
lutely clear that in this case the second ship will appear longer 
in exact proportion as the first ship will appear shorter? Thus, 
if you take a rotating disk, you will have to admit by the same 
reasoning that, since the two halves of its circumference always 
move in opposite direction, one half shortens in exactly the same 
proportion in which the other half lengthens 5 the effect of 
rotation is neutralized, pi remains absolutely unchanged, and 
there is no reason whatsoever to dethrone Euclidean geometry 
on this illusory ground. 

During the last years of his stay in Germany Cassirer devoted 
increasingly more time to the study of the quantum theory, and 
when, in the spring of 1933, he decided to leave Germany, he 
went to Switzerland and there he wrote the first draft of his 
Determinismus und Indeterminismus in der modernen Phystk. 
This book was his last major contribution to epistemology and 
to the philosophy of natural science. The subsequent years of 
his life, with their frequent peregrinations and changes of place 
of activity, deprived him to some degree of the steady tran- 
quillity which was so favorable to his assiduous work. Besides, 
the new social phenomenon which suddenly appeared on the 
stage of history and at once began threatening the future of 
mankind totalitarianism based upon and supported by the 
fanaticism of deceived masses moved Cassirer to transfer the 
center of gravity of his studies to the problems of social science. 

Quantum theory and the theory of relativity are the two 
outstanding: achievements of theoretical phvsics in the last half- 


century. Yet, how different was their ultimate fate! Max Planck 
was compelled to advance his incredible and almost incompre- 
hensible conception that energy has a discontinuous structure 
and consists of elementary quanta, of which all other amounts of 
energy are multiples, since otherwise it was impossible to ex- 
plain the peculiar and quite "unclassical" manner in which 
energy is radiated by a black body. From the outset it was 
obvious that here a perfectly new and truly revolutionary 
principle was being introduced into physics. Yet Planck tried 
by every means to retain the continuity of scientific thought and 
was only willing to admit the quite "inevitable deviation from 
the laws of electrodynamics in the smallest possible degree. 
Therefore, as far as it concerns the influence of a radiation field 
upon an oscillator, we go hand in hand with the classical 
theory." 6 Which means that Planck, although accepting energy 
quanta for the radiation, still retained the point of view of 
classical physics upon the absorption of energy by an oscillator. 
From the very beginning Planck based his theory strictly upon 
experience and experiment, and his hypothesis, despite its 
breath-taking character, advanced therefore from one great 
triumph to another, never meeting with any serious opposition. 
The road of the theory of relativity was quite different. Ein- 
stein made a great discovery by recognizing the decisive role 
the light signals play in the measuring of time and space ; this 
discovery was in perfect harmony with the Galileo-Newtonian 
mechanics} it was a correct and most important materialization 
of their general concepts of time and space. Yet, instead of con- 
tinuing this line of development, he made a quite inconsistent 
and "anti-classical" supposition to the effect that uniform and 
rectilinear motion influence the mechanism of a balance-watch. 
This was a violent and quite unwarranted break with classical 
mechanics. And the paradoxes involved in the suppositions of 
a living organism surviving in a fraction of a second several 
consecutive generations of its kind, or of a rotating disk invali- 
dating Euclidean geometry, helped to create such an unsound 

9 Max Planck, Vorlesungen iiber die Theorie der W armestrahlung y 3rd Ed. p. 
148. Quotation taken from Cassirer's book, p. 136 (Translation by the present 
writer) . 


sensation around this theory that it slowly became even a 
political issue the reactionaries were against it because of Ein- 
stein's Jewish lineage, and the communists were for it because 
of the "revolutionary spirit" of this theory. A line of cleavage 
in the field of science which is nothing short of scandalous. But 
now back to Cassirer's book, Determinismus und Indeter- 

Cassirer's first step consists in the analyzing of the factual 
procedure of physics, of the concrete way in which it achieves 
its knowledge of nature. He distinguishes three different forms 
of assertion within the physical sciences, three basically differ- 
ent stages on the way towards the obj edification of our "world 
of sense" into the "world of physics." The first form of physi- 
cal assertions Cassirer calls "judgments concerning measure- 
ment" the data of our perceptions are gradually transformed, 
with the aid of concepts of measurement and of number, into 
more and more objectified assertions. The sensibility of our 
organs of perception is superseded by the sensibility of our 
physical instruments. In this way the material of our knowl- 
edge has increased tremendously and the horizon of reality has 
been widened in all directions. This enriched material of our 
experience becomes the basis for the next step, for its unifica- 
tion and systematization with the help of natural laws; Cassirer 
called this stage of objectification "assertions about laws." These 
laws combine smaller or larger groups of facts into one single 
formula. Yet our science does not stop here} it is not satisfied 
with unification of innumerable facts through a limited system 
of lawsj it constantly explores the possibility of unifying these 
laws, of connecting them with one another and sometimes de- 
riving them from one another. This endeavor characterizes the 
third stage of objectification which Cassirer calls "assertions of 
principles." Thus, D'Alembert's "principle of virtual displace- 
ment" made possible the unification of statics and dynamics 
under one and the same system of mechanical laws; and the 
principle of conservation of energy builds bridges connecting all 
branches of physics. 

Yet human thought does not confine itself to these three 
stages of physical knowledge it belongs to the very essence of 


the human mind to continue the search for ever more and more 
general laws and principles, and it finds such in the systems of 
mathematical, logical, and epistemological concepts. The law of 
causation belongs to the system of epistemological concepts; it 
does not contain any assertion about this or that special occur- 
rence in nature; it only asserts the thorough and consistent uni- 
formity of all natural events and of nature as a whole. Every 
single law of nature may some day turn out to be incorrect, even 
the sunrise in the morning; yet, even if this event should occur, 
one thing will be absolutely certain: there will be some cause 
for that event. Without this law of causation no natural laws, 
and, therefore, no human knowledge is possible. 

The law of causation was always regarded as the main pillar 
of the classical physics. But when the development of the 
quantum theory convincingly revealed its fundamental differ- 
ence from the classical physics, there appeared a tendency within 
this theory to break even with causality and to replace the classi- 
cal determinism with a modernized form of indeterminism. 
This attack upon the law of causation has been launched by 
some physicists mainly from the following point of view: the 
first point of view is based upon a statistical interpretation of 
quantum theory it operates only with immense numbers of 
elementary particles of electricity and denies the possibility of a 
precise description of the conditions of single elements within 
a given system; only laws of probability can be applied to such 
systems, only statistical results can be obtained by these laws 
there remains, therefore, no place for causation within these 
systems. It is with ease that Cassirer uncovers the fallacy of this 
point of view. Statistical results, he points out, very often have 
the character of strict necessity; the only condition being that 
they must not be arbitrary or incoherent, but based upon laws. 
The kinetic theory of gases is the best example of how statistical 
methods and laws of probability lead to strict uniformity and, 
therefore, to a complete vindication of the law of causation. 

The second point of view which has led to the denial of 
causality is more radical, even if not so well founded. This 
attack is led by the well-known physicist and Nobel prize- 
winner Heisenberg and is based upon his principle of "uncer- 


tainty" or "indeterminacy." All elements of physical observa- 
tion and experiment are given to us, says Heisenberg, not in the 
form of absolutely exact knowledge, not as Kantian trans- 
cendent "things-in-themselves" rather they are the results of 
our instruments of measurement and depend strictly on the 
delicacy of these instruments. But this quite matter-of-course 
fact leads us within the quantum theory to the following 'pe- 
culiar paradox: suppose that an observer has the task of deter- 
mining exactly the position and the velocity of an electron; in 
order to do that he must irradiate this electron and put it under 
a microscope 5 the experiment shows that the shorter the waves 
of light are which we use for this irradiation the more exactly 
can the position of this electron be determined ; but at the same 
time the electron, as a result of the "Compton-effect," changes 
its velocity, and this change is the greater the shorter are the 
waves of the irradiating light. Thus, concludes Heisenberg, it 
is quite impossible simultaneously to perform an exact measure- 
ment of both the position and the velocity of an electron, since 
the more exact one measurement is the more uncertain the other 
one becomes. Heisenberg's conclusion is: "Thus quantum me- 
chanics has definitely established the worthlessness of the law of 

It is almost incredible how many serious scientists have been 
influenced by this conception of Heisenberg's. A new wave of 
mass-suggestion was on the verge of submerging a large num- 
ber of physicists people who by the very virtue of their pro- 
fession should be fairly rational. Cassirer's attempt to combat 
this contemporary aberration in science was quite timely, there- 
fore. His method of demonstrating the erroneousness of Hei- 
senberg's deduction was as simple as it was convincing. He 
showed that Heisenberg, in order to demonstrate his "principle 
of indeterminacy," at every step applied the very same law of 
causation which he tried to disprove with the help of these 
"uncertainty relations." Take, for example, the "Compton- 
effect," upon which Heisenberg's demonstration rests; the im- 
pact between light quanta and electrons makes an application 
of the law of causation and yields experimental results strictly 
in accordance with this law. 


Cassirer died less than four months before the first explosion 
of the atomic bomb proved to the entire civilized world the 
great danger which lies in the mere development of exact 
science: it releases forces too powerful to be controlled j it makes 
man so powerful that the very existence of mankind appears to 
be endangered. This dark prospect reminds us of the philo- 
sophical thesis Cassirer defended and developed all his life 
that scientific progress is only beneficial for man in so far as it is 
supported and guided by equally as vigorous progress of man's 
ethical, spiritual, cultural, and social life. 




Harold R. Smart 



IN AN important article in Kantstudien (XII, 1907), en- 
titled "Kant und die moderne Mathematik," Cassirer 
makes an assertion which throws much light on his theory of 
mathematical concepts. He declares that "it cannot be denied 
that c Logistik' [i.e., symbolic or mathematical logic] has revivi- 
fied formal logic, and . . . nourished it anew with the life blood 
of science." And this development, he continues, is of great sig- 
nificance with respect to Kantian doctrines. Although it is cer- 
tainly true that symbolic logic "can never supplant or replace 
'transcendental' logic," it is equally certain that formal logic 
as thus rejuvenated "offers more pregnant suggestions and 
affords more trustworthy 'guiding threads' than Kant possessed 
in the traditional logic of his time." 

This statement clearly foreshadows one of the principal 
tasks Cassirer set himself early in his career, which he has 
attempted to carry through by means of his profound and criti- 
cal study of the history of mathematics in its relations both with 
philosophy and with the other sciences, from the earliest times 
down to the immediate present. That it is a truly formidable 
undertaking thus to seek to preserve and reinterpret the tran- 
scendental logic of Kant in such a way as finally to bring it into 
good and fruitful accord with recent tendencies in formal sym- 
bolic logic and mathematics, will readily be admitted. Indeed, 
it is not going too far to say that most authorities would at the 
very outset declare that purpose to be one which could not 
possibly be realized 5 so far apart are Kantian doctrines at 
least as usually presented and those of most contemporary 
logicians and mathematicians, that, like oil and water, they 
simply cannot be made to mix. 



Did not Kant firmly declare that concepts without percepts 
are empty ; was it not his settled doctrine that mathematical 
judgments are synthetic a priori; did he not maintain, at least 
in the "transcendental aesthetic," that mathematics is possible 
as a science only because space and time are pure forms of intui- 
tion or pure intuitions} was it not in particular his thesis that 
mathematical inference proceeds by means of Constructions' 
which must be either directly intuitable in actual space, or 
clearly imaginable? Taking these and kindred doctrines into 
account, is it not the consensus of authoritative commentators 
that Kant deceived himself both in underestimating the revo- 
lutionary character of his contributions to logic, and in cherish- 
ing the belief that the validity of the main tenets of formal 
logic was unimpaired thereby? And finally, do not contempo- 
rary symbolic logicians and mathematicians, with one unani- 
mous voice, sharply oppose every one of those typical Kantian 
doctrines and assertions? 

Initially improbable though success in such a venture might 
seem, however, Cassirer does not shrink from facing coura- 
geously all of the tremendous difficulties it involves; and what- 
ever may be one's final judgment in the matter, all hands will 
readily agree that, quite apart from his success or failure in this 
particular regard, his own positive doctrines stand forth as of 
intrinsic worth on their own account. It soon becomes clear, 
indeed, to Cassirer's readers, that one has to do with no slavish 
disciple of any of the traditional lines of thought. The historical 
and critical studies so assiduously pursued are by no means 
ends in themselves, but serve rather as most carefully selected 
source material for constructive philosophical undertakings of 
the most significant and original sort. Such being the case, it is 
to be expected that the materials supplied in this way will be 
handled with the greatest freedom and boldness, and that, as 
finally presented, Cassirer's doctrines will frequently diverge 
more or less widely from their anterior sources of inspiration. 

Take, for example, the concept of number the concept 
which Cassirer significantly declares to be not merely basic to 
the special science of mathematics but "the first and truest 


expression of rational method in general." 1 Although critics 
frequently charge Kant with basing this concept upon the pure 
intuition of time, this is true, so Cassirer avers, only in so far as 
time appears as "the type of ordered sequence" as such. In 
Kant's own words, 

the pure image ... of all objects of the senses in general is time. But the 
pure schema of quantity, in so far as it is a concept of the understanding, 
is number, a representation which combines the successive addition of one 
to one (homogeneous). Thus number is nothing but the unity of the 
synthesis of the manifold of a homogeneous intuition in general a 
unity due to the fact that I generate time itself in the apprehension of 
the intuition. 2 

As Cassirer sees it, however, further development of this 
doctrine has followed two very different directions, the one 
emphasizing the active 'understanding' and the process of 
creative synthesis, the other stressing the passive 'sensibility' 
and irrational intuition. 

The latter alternative is that adopted, for example, by most 
varieties of empiricism, and by intuitionism, and it naturally 
conforms best to the traditional formal logic of the generic 
concept i.e., the logic which regards the concept as a common 
element abstracted from a class of particulars. 8 Against all three 
of these lines of thought empiricism, intuitionism, and the 
subject-predicate logic Cassirer brings to bear a devastating 
criticism, supported by profuse historical evidence. These his- 
torical and epistemological studies demonstrate convincingly 
that in terms of no one, nor of any combination of the three, 
can Kant's question as to the 'possibility' of the science of pure 
mathematics be answered at all satisfactorily. 

There remains, then, for further consideration, what Cassirer 
regards as the only other genuine alternative, namely the 
postulation of the creative synthesis of the pure understanding 

1 Substance and Function, Eng. transl., 26. 

8 Translation quoted from N. Kemp Smith's Commentary to Kant's Critique of 
Pure Reason^ 2nd ed., 129. Cassirer makes a similar gloss on Kant's notion of space 
with reference to geometry. 

3 Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, Ch. Ill, 402!. 


as the absolutely essential epistemological and logical prius, 
upon which the possibility of number in particular and of 
mathematics in general must depend. In Kantian language, the 
synthetic activity of knowing is a process of generating relations 
i.e., to know is to relate} and to relate, so Cassirer continues, 
is to introduce order into a 'manifold' or series; and serial order, 
in this precise sense of the word, finds its first and fundamental 
expression in the series of ordinal numbers. Logical or critical 
idealism maintains, in short, that there is nothing more ultimate 
for thought than thinking itself, and thinking consists essen- 
tially in the positing of relations (das Beziehungssetzen). 

From this point of view, Cassirer declares, "number appears 
not merely as a production of pure thought, but actually as its 
prototype and origin ... as the primary and original act of 
thought, " which all further scientific and logical thinking 
presupposes. 4 In this pregnant sense of the word, number is, 
indeed, the "schema" of serial order in general, the "ideal 
axis," so to speak, about which thought organizes its world. 
Pythagoreanism erred only in its too enthusiastic identification 
of number with the whole truth, with the entire system of ideal 
relations constitutive of reality. Only "after we have conceived 
the plan of this system in a general logical theory of rela- 
tions," whereby the members of a series may be variously 
ordered for example, "according to equality and inequality, 
number and magnitude, spatial and temporal relations, . . . 
causal dependence," and the like can we ascribe to the several 
sciences their true epistemological import as so many progres- 
sively successful applications of this logical theory to the data 
of experience. 5 

In further elucidation and development of this thesis 
which is perhaps more accurately and directly anticipated by 
the Cartesian-Leibnizian theory of a mathesls universalis than 
it is by the Kantian transcendental logic Cassirer refers, on 
the one hand, to the so-called calculus of relations as recently 
worked out by the symbolic logicians, and, on the other hand, 
to the relevant stages in the origination and subsequent history 


of such basic mathematical concepts as those of number and 

The main purpose of the critical study of the history of 
mathematics is to illustrate and confirm the special thesis that 
ordinal number is logically prior to cardinal number, and, more 
generally, that mathematics may be defined, in Leibnizian 
fashion, as the science of order, Cassirer's readers do not need 
to be told how impressive in both amount and quality is the 
historical evidence he adduces in support of these tenets, nor 
how great is the skill with which he marshalls his interpretative 
expositions to the same end. 

As Cassirer is no doubt well aware, however, other authori- 
ties, among them some as critical of mere empiricism as he him- 
self is, differ sharply with this interpretation of the same 
historical data, and at least two other plausible alternatives have 
been ably presented, namely the exactly opposite thesis that 
cardinal number is logically prior to ordinals, and the perhaps 
even more inviting thesis that cardinal and ordinal are strictly 
complementary aspects of number, neither of which can claim 
priority over the other. Thus it seems rather unwise to place 
too much confidence in any one interpretation, unless indeed 
weighty evidence of another sort can be marshalled in support 
of one of the three, which cannot be matched in favor of either 
or both of the others. 

And of what sort can such evidence be? Not of any epistemo- 
logical variety, it would seemj for to ground an historical 
interpretation on an epistemological theory, and then to claim 
that the interpretation confirms the theory, is hardly justifiable 
at the bar of logic. As for the logical evidence, Cassirer himself 
concedes that order "does not exhaust the whole content of the 
concept of number. )>tt A "new aspect," he declares, "appears as 
soon as number, which has hitherto been deduced as a purely 
logical sequence of intellectual constructs, is understood and 
applied as an expression of flwratity" 

But when the question almost asks itself is it not so 
understood and applied? Certainly many unbiassed witnesses 
are prepared to answer, in no uncertain voice, that it functions 

6 Substance and Function, 41. 


in this sense from the very beginning. Nay, testimony on this 
point is well-nigh universal to the effect that 'in the beginning' 
was simple counting, a process resting directly on the concept 
of cardinal number. And, as far as contemporary logic is con- 
cerned, an able expositor of the doctrines of Principa Mathe- 
matica explains, in terms exactly matching those used by 
Cassirer, but having a precisely opposite import, that "two 
important concepts" essential to the formation of the series of 
ordinal numbers, namely 'o 5 and 'successor,' "introduce a new 
idea not used in the definition of cardinal number, namely the 
idea that the cardinal numbers form a discrete series of next 
successors beginning with o." 7 

These comments are not offered, however, as by any means 
indicating a complete refutation of Cassirer's doctrines, but 
rather merely to reveal the diversity of views prevailing on 
this matter. Epistemological theories apart, it is tacitly admitted 
by all hands that cardinal and ordinal actually function, mathe- 
matically, as complementary to each other. In any event, 
Cassirer relies more heavily upon the aforementioned calculus 
of relations, than he does upon the historical evidence, in direct 
and positive support of his theory of the formation of mathe- 
matical concepts. For it is by means of this calculus, so he avers, 
that number can indeed be "deduced as a purely logical se- 
quence of intellectual constructs." More specifically, in the 
classification of relations into transitive, intransitive, symmetri- 
cal, asymmetrical, and so on, Cassirer sees, ready to hand as it 
were, the perfect instrumentality whereby "the more exact 
definition of what we are to understand as the order of a given 
whole" is to be attained. Prior to this development the basic 
thesis of critical idealism, namely that thinking consists in the 
positing or generating of relations, appeared as a bare epistemo- 
logical postulate, illustrated, and even, if you please, in a sense 
confirmed by the history of scientific thought, but all the while 
lacking its fundamental logical articulation, its systematic expo- 
sition and confirmation. In particular, to Bertrand Russell and 
his colleagues Cassirer gratefully attributes the epochal dis- 

T Eaton, General Logic, 468. 


covery "that it is always some transitive and asymmetrical rela- 
tion that is necessary to imprint on the members of a whole a 
determinate order." 8 

From this point of view, numbers ordinal numbers, that is 
stand forth as "a system of ideal objects whose whole content 
is exhausted in their mutual relations." In such a system, 
Cassirer maintains, the 'what' of the elements is disregarded, 
and merely the 'how' of a certain progressive connection is 
taken into account. Here, in short, is 

a general procedure which is of decisive significance for the whole for- 
mation of mathematical concepts. For whenever a system of conditions 
is given that can be realized in different contents, then we can hold to 
the form of the system itself as invariant, undisturbed by the difference 
of contents, and develop its laws deductively. 9 

This state of affairs is as clearly evident in geometry as it 
is in the science of number. Mathematical space may be defined, 
in Leibnizian terminology, as an "order of coexistence." Geo- 
metricians may still talk of points, straight lines, and planes 5 
but in the course of time these familiar objects have become 
divested of all intuitive content, and all connection between 
these elements is developed deductively from purely con- 
ceptual definitions. The relation expressed by the word 'be- 
tween,' for example, though seemingly possessing an irreducible 
sensuous connotation, has nevertheless been freed from this 
narrow restriction, and is now determined, mathematically, 
solely by means of definite logical prescriptions, which alone 
endow it with the meaning it possesses in the deductive pro- 
cedure of mathematics. In other words, according to Cassirer, 
it is always and everywhere "the relational structure as such," 
rather than any absolute properties of the elements entering 
into the structure, which constitutes the real 'object' of mathe- 
matical investigation. The particular elements entering into 
any deductive complex of relations, 

are not viewed according to what they are in and for themselves, but 

* Substance and Function, 38. 


simply as examples of a certain universal form of order and connection; 
mathematics . . . recognizes in them no other 'being' than that belonging 
to them by participation in this form. For it is only this being that enters 
into proof, into the process of inference, and is thus accessible to the full 
certainty, that mathematics gives its objects. 10 

Thus the fundamental work of the science does not con- 
sist, for example, in comparing, dividing, and compounding 
specific given magnitudes, but rather "in isolating the generat- 
ing relations themselves, upon which all possible determination 
of magnitude rests, and in determining the mutual connection 
of these relations." Although it may be true, psychologically 
speaking, that the meaning of a relation can only be grasped 
by means of some given terms which thus serve as its material 
basis, still (Cassirer insists) the logical import of the relation 
is wholly independent of any such origin, and is the resultant 
of a purely rational and deductive procedure. To put the point 
in terminology long since familiar to British and American 
philosophers, Cassirer apparently concurs in the doctrine that 
relations are prior to, and independent of, or 'external* to 
their terms. 

On the logical plane, therefore, it seems that Cassirer simply 
appropriates for his own purposes and construes in his own 
fashion that special portion of formal symbolic logic having to 
do with relations, in abstraction from other branches of the 
subject, towards which, indeed, he manifests, on occasion, 
considerable opposition. With respect to this state of affairs the 
following points naturally suggest themselves for discussion. 

The first of these points, put in the form of a question, is: 
What becomes of Kant's doctrine of the categories, in the light 
of the significance Cassirer attaches to the calculus of relations? 
Partly by explicit statement, partly by plain implication, the 
answer is that that doctrine is completely nullified. For, as a 
little reflection will suffice to show, it is quite impossible to 
reconcile the basic thesis of Kant's transcendental logic that the 
categories are functional forms of relationship immanent in 
scientific knowledge as embodied in synthetic judgments, with 


the thesis advanced by Cassirer that the "generating relations" 
productive of "serial order" are logically prior to, and inde- 
pendent of their terms, and purely ideal in nature. This is, in 
short, entirely to abandon the Kantian conception of the a priori, 
and to revert, instead, to that of Leibniz. 

Now it would be a natural though a serious error to assume 
that this point concerns only students of Kant and Leibniz, and 
that it is without intrinsic importance for anyone who is simply 
trying to understand contemporary mathematics. For to follow 
Cassirer in this respect is definitely to play into the hands of 
those formalists who see in mathematics not a genuine science 
among others, but a mere extension and elaboration of formal 
logic is to rededicate oneself to that very abstract rationalism 
which Kant did so much to overthrow. In fact, it almost seems 
as if preoccupation with the sins and omissions of a one-sided 
empiricism had induced Cassirer, against his own better judg- 
ment, to adopt the opposite extreme, even in the face of Kant's 
convincing demonstration that such a one-sided rationalism is 
just as untenable. 

This interpretation of Cassirer's position gains further con- 
firmation by a closer examination of his attitude of acceptance 
towards the calculus of relations. In view of his just and pene- 
trating criticism of other parts and aspects of the doctrines of the 
symbolic logicians (to be touched upon later in this essay), his 
exemption of this particular calculus from the force of those 
criticisms can only be explained as due to certain inherently 
formalistic tendencies in his own thought. That is to say, it is 
not, in the last analysis, with abstract formalism in logic and 
mathematics as such, but rather merely with certain specific 
features and portions of that formalism, that Cassirer finds him- 
self in disagreement. Otherwise he would readily perceive, for 
example, that, since the calculus of relations is in many essential 
respects strictly analogous to the calculus of classes a fact to 
which attention is explicitly called by the highest authorities 
the charge of circularity which he so acutely brings against this 
latter calculus also applies, mutatis mutandis^ to the former. If 
the derivation of cardinal numbers from classes be condemned 
as circular reasoning, then, for strictly analogous reasons, the 


derivation of ordinal numbers from relations must be circular 
also; and if, on the contrary, the latter can be successfully de- 
fended against such a charge, then, again for strictly analogous 
reasons, so can the former. 11 Since, however, Cassirer simply 
contents himself with laying down the general thesis, and no- 
where undertakes such an explicit derivation on his own account, 
it is impossible to justify this contention further by a critical 
study of details. 

What still further complicates matters here, and beclouds 
the specific issue in question, is the fact that Cassirer envisages 
the issue as one ultimately involving a conflict between "the 
logic of the generic (or class) concept" and "the logic of the 
relational concept." As he sees it, "if the attempt to derive the 
concept of number from that of a class were successful, the 
traditional form of logic would gain a new source of confirma- 
tion. The ordering of individuals into the hierarchy of species 
would be, now as before, the true goal of all knowledge. . . ," 12 

But surely this antithesis between the two species of concepts 
is not as definitive as the preceding statement implies. As good 
a historian of science as Cassirer does not need to be told of the 
inherently important, if largely subsidiary, role which classifi- 
cation as a matter of fact does play, even in such an abstract 
science as mathematics. Granting that "the ordering of indi- 
viduals into the hierarchy of species" is not the "true goal" of 
any science, still it is quite impossible to deny that classification 
does represent a most useful and perfectly legitimate scientific 
procedure, or that it is explicitly recognized as such by scientists 
and logicians. If 'to relate/ in the widest possible sense of the 
word, be taken to mean what Kant meant by it, namely, not 
merely to establish order in a series, but, more generally, 'to 
organize into a system,' then may not a class be construed as a 
rudimentary kind of a system, and may not classification itself 
be looked upon as a kind of relating? For that matter, no small 
part of the business of the very calculus of relations itself con- 
sists in classifying relations into a hierarchy, and determining 

11 See, on this whole question, the illuminating discussion, in Ch. V, of Lewis 
and Langford's Symbolic Logic. 

12 Substance and Function^ 53. 


the differentiae of the various species and sub-species of re- 
lations. Thus little indeed would be left of the calculus, if the 
'logic of the generic concept' were to be rejected as entirely 

In view of such considerations, Cassirer will find many sup- 
porters for his strictures on the logic of the generic concept who 
will yet not feel inclined to follow him all the way in denying 
to it any epistemological value whatsoever and thus leaving the 
logic of the relational concept in sole possession of the field. 
But for students of Kant there is a still more fundamental con- 
sideration which may appropriately be emphasized here. 

From a strictly Kantian point of view, as Norman Kemp 
Smith well points out, 18 generic and relational concepts, as here 
defined, both refer to a distinction, not in the form, but in the 
specific content of knowledge. Just as a generic concept (or 
universal) expresses a common quality or qualities to be ascribed 
to each distinguishable element of a nexus of complex contents, 
so a relational concept (or universal) expresses relationships 
specified as holding amongst the elements severally. A category, 
on the other hand, is not a content of any sort, or any aspect of 
a content, but a general form of organization, a "function of 
unity," whereby contents are related in the judgment. No 
superficial verbal similarity turning upon the common use of the 
term 'relation' should be allowed to conceal the fact that Kant 
and the symbolic logicians are concerned with two vastly dif- 
ferent matters, nor that their basic logical doctrines are ftinda- 
mentally opposed in principle. The problems Kant wrestled 
with in his transcendental logic are in large part simply ignored 
by the symbolic logicians, or handed over to epistemology} 
whereas what the symbolic logicians regard as basic logical 
problems could scarcely have appeared in that light to Kant. 

Precisely in this connection, however, a fundamental episte- 
mological antithesis or antinomy appears between the doctrines 
of orthodox symbolic logicians and Cassirer's critical idealism. 
For precisely at this point certain other Kantian influences make 
themselves most strongly felt and give rise both to a criticism of 
epistemological theories of the Russellian type, as well as to the 

** Commentary to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, 38, 178. 


application and development of an epistemology on Leibnizian 
and Kantian lines. Not only does Cassirer call attention to the 
circularity inevitably involved in the attempt to derive cardinal 
number from the concept of a class, 14 but he also stoutly insists 
quite in the spirit of Kant, and in complete opposition to more 
fashionable contemporary tenets on the synthetic character of 
mathematical propositions or judgments. In the article already 
drawn upon, "Kant und die moderne Mathematik," Cassirer 
explains that by synthetic he means, (a) not reducible to that 
species of subject-predicate propositions, in which the predicate 
merely explicates the meaning of the subject term; (b) not 
deducible from the mere formal laws of thought; and (c) the 
functional relationship in which mathematical propositions 
stand to empirical phenomena, and, lacking which, mathematical 
concepts would be nothing better than hollow fictions. 

Since points (a) and (b) are now conceded by everyone, their 
mere mention seems sufficient here; but point (c) is a different 
matter. After the most elaborate epistemological tour de force 
by which Russell and his collaborators seek to convince them- 
selves and others that, although their absolutely basic "atomic 
propositions" admittedly stem directly from sense experience, 
nevertheless the world of logic and mathematics, as such, in its 
unsullied purity, is a transcendent realm, they can only account 
it a "lucky accident," which might just as well have been other- 
wise, that the propositions of logic and mathematics apply to the 
realm of physical phenomena. In other words, the two realms 
having been severed so completely by those thinkers, Cassirer 
points out that it is actually an epistemological and logical im- 
possibility to establish any real connection between them. As 
Cassirer sees it, on the other hand, the objectivity of scientific 
knowledge of phenomena is guaranteed precisely by virtue of 
the "synthetic unity of the concept" to use an appropriate 
Kantian phrase whose sole function is to introduce order 
into the ideal 'manifolds' of mathematics, and, through them, 
in turn, into the experiential manifolds of the spatio-temporal 
world of physics. 

* Substance and Function, Ch. II, sec. iiij see also Smart, The Philosophical 
Presuppositions of Mathematical Logic, Ch. VI. 


Thus, to take a simple example, Cassirer maintains that 
thought follows a straight, undeviating path, in proceeding 
from the logical calculus of relations, to such a special type of 
generating relation as is compactly symbolized by the general 
algebraic equation of the second degree, from which, in turn, 
every species of conic section circle, ellipse, parabola, etc. 
may be deductively derived. And this same mathematical con- 
cept of the conic section it is which alone enables the natural 
scientist to introduce order or synthetic unity into the manifold 
of astronomical phenomena, thus making possible knowledge 
of those phenomena which is at once objective and systematic. 
Only in this wise, so Cassirer declares in a pregnant passage, 

only when we clearly understand that the same basic syntheses upon 
which logic and mathematics depend, also control the formation of ex- 
periential knowledge, thereby for the first time making it possible to 
speak of the ordering of phenomena according to scientific laws and 
thus to ascribe objective meaning to these phenomena, is the true justifica- 
tion of those principles attained. 15 

Nor is this by any means the end of the matter. Not only are 
single concepts and judgments thus synthetic, but the whole 
process of deduction, characteristic of mathematical inference, 
is itself progressive, productive of new knowledge. In this re- 
spect also Cassirer opposes the essentially static ideal of logic 
and mathematics fostered by the symbolic logicians, in their 
thesis that the propositions of these sciences are analytic or 
tautological, and also in their complementary doctrine that 
deduction is a mere re-arranging of the elements of discourse in 
accordance with fixed rules of procedure. Epistemologically 
speaking, this doctrine becomes the thesis that thought merely 
'discovers' relationships eternally 'there,' subsisting in that 
transcendent realm which reveals itself to a critical inspection 
to be nothing but the naive hypostatization of certain logical and 
mathematical concepts, and their consequent deprivation of any 
objective meaning or truth. 

Now according to Cassirer this ideal of mathematical knowl- 
edge is not only self -contradictory j it directly conflicts with the 

15 "Kant und die moderne Mathematik," Kantstudien, vol. XII, 45 (1907). 


plainest possible evidence, namely, the progressive character 
which the long history of that science reveals as its most out- 
standing feature. Every important advance in mathematics, 
from the earliest times down to the immediate present, involves 
both an extension and a deepening or enrichment of funda- 
mental concepts, and their progressive liberation from what 
have conclusively shown themselves to be extraneous sensuous 
connotations. "Just as the field of rational numbers is broadened 
by gradual steps of thought into the continuous totality of real 
numbers, so, by a series of intellectual transformations, does the 
space of sense pass into the infinite, continuous, homogeneous 
and conceptual space of geometry . . ," 16 illustrative examples 
which could be repeated ad nauseam in confirmation of this 
view of the continuing 'creative advance' of mathematical 

Hence arises for Cassirer a question which the symbolic logi- 
cians, in their blindness, blandly ignore, namely how is this 
creative advance possible j how, in epistemological terms, can 
it be justified to reason, and how, more precisely, is it to be 

In the case of the physical sciences answers to such questions 
are comparatively easy to come by, the only difficult logical 
problem being that of the closer determination of the nature of 
induction. But in common with many, perhaps most contempo- 
rary logicians, Cassirer denies a role to induction in the mathe- 
matical sciences. True, he apparently does not share the vulgar 
prejudice or presupposition dominating the thinking of so many 
authorities on this matter, namely, that there is some necessary 
connection between induction and specific experimental tech- 
niques confined to certain natural sciences, so that it is dog- 
matically and arbitrarily settled beforehand that where there is 
no experimentation of the sort in question, neither can there be 
any induction. Rather Cassirer excludes induction (and an- 
alogy!) from mathematical inference, on the ground that, 
whereas the former "proceeds from the particular to the uni- 
versal . . . [and] attempts to unite hypothetically into a whole 
a plurality of individual facts observed as particulars without 

" Substance and Function, p. 106. 


necessary connection," the latter proceeds always from "the 
law of connection," which serves as "the original basis by virtue 
of which the individual case can be determined in its meaning." 
In other words, "the conditions of the whole system are pre- 
determined, and all specialization can only be reached by adding 
a new factor as a limiting determination while maintaining these 
conditions." 17 In sum, mathematical inference always "proceeds 
from the properties of the connection to those of the objects 
connected, from the serial principle to the members of the 
series," and never in the reverse order. 

One minor but nevertheless interesting point included in the 
preceding general statement may appropriately be mentioned 
here before proceeding to a more detailed study of this concep- 
tion of mathematical inference. The symbolic logicians never 
tire of proclaiming it as an ideal of their procedure that "all of 
pure mathematics" can (or should) be shown to follow de- 
ductively from a certain set of primitives primitive or un- 
defined ideas, primitive propositions or postulates, and the like. 
Nothing not explicitly included or provided for in this founda- 
tional nexus is to be permitted entry into the subsequent un- 
foldment or 'development' of the series of logico-mathematical 
propositions. Otherwise the purely analytical or tautological 
nature of those propositions might easily become infected with 
a 'synthetic' impurity! Cassirer, on the other hand, realistically 
points to the actual practice of mathematicians, and shows con- 
clusively that their practice never conforms to any such extrane- 
ously imposed ideal. In fact, quite the contrary is the case. Only 
by and in so far as modifications and specifications not explicitly 
provided for or foreseen in the formulation of the foundational 
nexus, but deliberately introduced at certain stages as new facts 
or limiting determinations, as the deduction proceeds, can the 
special cases or conclusions, in which the procedure character- 
istically issues, be derived. To employ the same simple example 
utilized earlier in this exposition: from the general equation of 
the second degree, the equations of such conies as the ellipse, 
the parabola, etc., could never be derived simply by the ana- 
lytical 'development' of that equation. On the contrary, such 

*lbid. 81, 82. 


special cases can be derived from the general equation only by 
introducing limitations not explicitly contemplated in the for- 
mulation of that equation, and not formally connected with it in 
any way. In this sense they are added from without, somewhat 
as the minor premise is added to the major premise in the tra- 
ditional syllogism; the only restrictions on this typical deductive 
procedure being such as are prescribed by the basic laws of 
thought themselves. 

This is not, however, the major factor in mathematical de- 
duction. It will be recalled that one main epistemological thesis 
of Cassirer's critical idealism is that the creative, synthetic ac- 
tivity of thought displays itself in the positing or generating 
of relations; and, as was indicated above, it is in terms of this 
thesis that he construes all scientific reasoning. Thus the prob- 
lem of the 'possibility' of mathematics, as one progressive 
science among others, may be more definitely characterized as 
the problem of determining the rationale, the logical 'go,' so to 
speak, of that process in the special field in question. 

At this point the Kantian doctrine that mathematical reason- 
ing proceeds by means of the 'construction' of its objects, either 
in intuition or imagination, reveals its positive significance for 
Cassirer. Not that he views the reference to intuition or imagi- 
nation as the important factor in that conception; for what 
mathematician does not realize that such limitations on his 
creative activity have long since been transcended; and does 
not Cassirer himself, on every appropriate occasion, proclaim 
the liberation of mathematics from reliance on sensuous or per- 
ceptual guides as one of the greatest intellectual triumphs of 
recent times? Rather what on this view is of permanent worth in 
the Kantian doctrine is the emphasis upon construction as a typi- 
cal mode of procedure; only the construction must be under- 
stood in a purely ideal sense, and as carried out by pure thought, 
independently of experience. And here again, as so frequently 
happens, Cassirer turns to Leibniz, rather than to Kant, for 
further insight, for more positive guidance, in developing his 
own ideas. To put it very briefly, it is by means of what Leibniz 
called real, causal, or genetic definitions, that, according to Cas- 
sirer, the ideal constructions characteristic of mathematical de- 


duction are carried through. Such definitions, which Cassirer 
regards as perhaps the most striking exemplification of the pro- 
ductivity of thought, serve in effect as rules or laws for the 
construction of specific mathematical objects, or complexes of 
such objects. For the traditional definition of a circle, for ex- 
ample, in terms of genus, species, and differentia, Leibniz would 
substitute a definition revealing its "mode of generation," and 
similarly for the definition of parallel lines and of all such 
mathematical constructs. 

No doubt these and the other specimens Leibniz offers of 
this type of definition are rather too elementary, too empirical, 
to be wholly convincing as samples of purely ideal construc- 
tions ; but Cassirer maintains that the principle involved can 
easily be generalized in such a way as to bring out its full sig- 
nificance. 18 At all events, in presenting his proposed new type of 
definition, Cassirer points out that Leibniz envisaged it as an 
instrumentality for combatting two erroneous tendencies preva- 
lent in the logical theories of his time, tendencies, which, as 
Cassirer maintains, still confuse fundamental issues in con- 
temporary logic. 

The first of these tendencies is nominalism the Hobbesian 
doctrine that all definitions are merely nominal. It needs no 
citing of names to confirm the fact that this doctrine is enthu- 
siastically fostered by many logicians of the present time. And 
nominalism in this respect inevitably leads on to the sweeping 
conclusion that mathematics in its entirety is nothing but a sym- 
bolic technique, a manipulation of conventional symbols, which 
as such is devoid of objective import, and in respect to which it is 
nonsense to talk of truth. The "freedom" of mathematics is 
hereby purchased at the heavy expense of its renunciation of all 
claims to yielding knowledge of the real world. Consistency in 
the formulation and application of conventional rules of an 
empty symbolism is all that remains. 

The second erroneous tendency is in a sense antithetical to the 
preceding, in that it hypostatizes ideas, endows them with a 

lf See the article, "Kant und die moderne Mathematik," and also Leibniz* System 
in semen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen y 108 ff., and Pkilosofhie der symbolischen 
Formen, Pt. HI, Ch. IV. 


quasi-ontological status, and attributes to them 'being' in a 
transcendent realm quite apart from human experience. On this 
view, the sole test of the reality of an idea is its abstract possi- 
bility of being thought in complete abstraction from any ques- 
tion as to its actual realization in experience, its epistemological 
functioning. Adoption of this doctrine commits one to the 'copy' 
theory of truth, reduces thought to the role of a passive spec- 
tator, and sets up an impassable barrier, a dualism, between the 
world of ideas and the factual world between truths of reason 
and truths of matter of fact. Finally it should be emphasized 
that neither of these tendencies has anything to do with the 
actual science of mathematics as such, but is instead the product, 
pure and simple, of abstract, gratuitously a priori theorizing. 

Thus, according to Leibniz's distinguished commentator and 
disciple, these two equally untenable lines of thought, far from 
providing a satisfactory foundation for the formation of mathe- 
matical concepts, succeed only in setting up an empty scaffolding 
of formal consistency and abstract possibility. Through the 
instrumentality of the causal or genetic definition, on the other 
hand, thought can produce out of its own creative, synthetic 
resources, all that is so conspicuously lacking in the rejected 
doctrines such at least is Cassirer's profound conviction. To 
define the circle to revert to this simple example as a plain 
curve, so constituted that it encloses a maximum area within a 
given perimeter, is merely a matter of words, which leaves it 
doubtful whether there actually be such a curve; and, even in 
case this question can be answered affirmatively, it still remains 
open to doubt whether the prescribed condition be fulfilled by 
just the one sort of curve. Such doubts can be stilled if and only 
if a fully determinate "mode of generation" can be specified, 
and if the desired characteristics can be shown to be actually 
produced by this mode of generation by a rigorous deductive 
proof. In this wise, according to Cassirer, the definition may 
truly be said to generate the object in question out of its con- 
stituent elements. And what is true in this simple case holds 
true (so Cassirer maintains) of mathematics generally. Always 
and everywhere the necessary and sufficient prerequisite to the 
formation of mathematical concepts, and to the ascription to 


them of definite contents, shows itself to be the same. What 
Cassirer calls a genetic definition may on occasion (he points 
out) find more detailed embodiment in a set of axioms or 
postulates, especially where not a specific object but a whole 
branch of mathematics multi-dimensional geometry, the 
theory of groups is in question. But in any case, the creative 
synthesis, involving one or more elementary structural ele- 
ments, and producing out of these elements, by means of the 
generating relations embodied in the definitional nexus, the 
whole contextual content of the field in question, is what char- 
acterizes the differentia of mathematical inference as such. 

Now it can hardly be denied that Cassirer's criticisms of 
fashionable tendencies in contemporary logic such as the nom- 
inalistic theory of definitions, the thesis that mathematical pro- 
positions are analytical or tautological, and the static concepion 
of deduction are well-founded and that his own contrasting 
views on these matters are much nearer the truth. His basic 
contention, moreover, that mathematics is a progressive science, 
sharing with the other sciences the common search for, and at- 
tainment of objective knowledge, is one of those truisms which 
too many contemporaries, in their over-zealous preoccupation 
with symbolic techniques as such, have seemingly lost from 
view. The question remains, however, whether, on the basis of 
Cassirer's own theory of the formation of mathematical con- 
cepts, the 'possibility' of mathematics, in the sense just de- 
scribed, can be fully accounted for. As already pointed out, in 
spite of his opposition to abstract formalism in certain important 
respects, Cassirer nevertheless concurs with such a line of 
thought in other equally decisive respects. He concurs, for ex- 
ample, in holding that mathematics is nothing but a prolonga- 
tion of formal logic, differing only in the somewhat more 
restricted range of its assertions $ and also in the widely preva- 
lent view that mathematical inference, unlike inference in other 
fields, is purely deductive in character. And these two doctrines 
imply the strictly a priori character of the propositions in both 
logic and mathematics, in the anti-Kantian, rationalistic sense of 
that word. 

Nevertheless a close study of such a work as Substance and 


Function will reveal highly significant evidence pointing in an- 
other direction. So sincere is the author's desire to let the 
historical record speak for itself, uncolored by his personal pre- 
dilections, that he actually succeeds, to a remarkable degree, in 
allowing that record to bear witness directly opposed to all of 
those formalistic tenets. Both arithmetic and geometry, he is at 
pains to emphasize, developed from humble beginnings in com- 
mon sense experience, and both numerical and spatial concepts 
were for long encumbered with all sorts of sensuous connota- 
tions. In mathematics, quite as in the other sciences, more 
general principles had to wait upon the acquisition and analysis 
of particular facts; and the more general principles, in turn, 
led to the discovery of other particular facts, which, again in 
turn, led to the formation of still more general principles such 
is the plain historical record, as faithfully presented by Cassirer 
himself, there for all who have eyes to read. Yet in every other 
science this doubly reciprocal relationship between particulars 
and universals is held to exemplify and to depend upon the co- 
operative procedures of induction and deduction; and no one 
more persuasively than Cassirer himself insists upon the in- 
separability of these two aspects of scientific inference in every 
other science except mathematics! 

Why the exception? Why refuse to designate by the same 
name a procedure so obviously the same in every significant 
respect; why refuse the name of induction to a procedure in 
mathematics which would undoubtedly be called by that name, 
if pursued in any other department of human knowledge? Or 
why, save for some extraordinarily compelling reason, adhere 
to or postulate a theory of mathematical inference which not 
only runs counter to the whole history of that special science, 
but renders impossible a consistent logical theory of scientific 
inference in general? This is surely a question definitely de- 
manding an answer; a question that only stares one the more 
fully in the face the more persistently it is ignored by the vast 
majority of logicians. Every logician construes reasoning by 
analogy as an essential and characteristic instrument of inductive 
generalization; histories of mathematics are full of examples 
of reasoning by analogy; yet the obvious conclusion is not 


drawn. New mathematical theories are evolved to embrace and 
systematize under a set of common principles various particular 
theorems and topics hitherto regarded as unrelated or inde- 
pendent so Cassirer, like every other historian, repeatedly 
points out. Precisely the same result attained in any other science 
would be held up as a typical product of inductive reasoning} 
yet in the special case of mathematics no one seems to be willing 
to conceive that it could possibly call for a modification of the 
hallowed doctrine that mathematical inference is purely deduc- 
tive. Could any more conspicuous example of Bacon's "Idols 
of the Tribe" easily be found? And observe well! it is, in the 
last analysis, precisely and solely because of the uncritical ac- 
ceptance of this doctrine that certain puzzling (not to say in- 
soluble) epistemological problems with regard to the nature 
and import of mathematical knowledge rise up to plague so 
many contemporary logicians. 

It would be grossly unfair, of course, to criticize Cassirer 
alone in this connection; the point is, rather, that by his clear 
presentation of the historical evidence he supplies all the requi- 
site material to overthrow that prevalent but one-sided theory 
of mathematical inference, which is actually merely the conse- 
quence of unjustified epistemological presuppositions, and 
which so blindly ignores such abundant and conclusive evidence 
to the contrary. 

What these presuppositions are, and that they are indeed un- 
justifiedj it will not, perhaps, be too difficult to discover, once 
attention is turned in their direction. At bottom, it will be found, 
there is little save verbal terminology, and sometimes scarcely 
even that, to distinguish Cassirer's critical idealism from lines 
of thought he vigorously opposes, so far as this important matter 
is concerned. 

Who, for example, is the author of the assertion that "the 
mathematician need not concern himself with the particular 
being or intrinsic nature of his points, lines, and planes, ... ;" 
on the contrary, a 'point' merely "has to be something that satis- 
fies our axioms?" Not Cassirer, though (as noted above) he says 
the same thing in other words, but Bertrand Russell. 19 And who 

19 Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy -, 59. 


declares that in mathematics "a field of free and universal 
activity is disclosed, in which thought transcends all limits of 
the 'given'," in that "the objects which we consider . . . have 
only an ideal being?" Not Bertrand Russell, but Cassirer. 20 
True, according to Russell thought merely discovers the sub- 
sisting essences of this ideal, trans-empirical realm $ whereas 
according to Cassirer thought actively creates those universals, 
thus generating its own world out of its own internal resources. 
Nevertheless both thinkers emphasize equally the complete 
"liberation" of thought from all experientially imposed limita- 
tions. 21 

The fact that Cassirer presents such a telling criticism of 
Russellian epistemology, in this regard, cannot be allowed to 
obscure the complementary fact that precisely analogous ob- 
jections may be urged against his own epistemology. Surely 
'discovery' is no more a pure metaphor, as applied to the role 
of thought in knowledge, than is 'creation.' 22 In plain language, 
the relation of mathematics to logic is equally close, and the 
separation of mathematical concepts from experience is equally 
complete, whichever metaphor may be used to characterize the 
actual functioning of thought. On no other grounds can it be 
explained why Cassirer explicitly recognizes that he as well as 
Russell has to show how mathematical concepts, originally con- 
strued as non-experiential and purely logical in origin, can yet 
be 'applied' so directly and effectively to the solution of em- 
pirical problems. To insist upon the inseparability of mathemat- 
ics and formal logic is ipso facto to cut mathematics off from 
all essential connection with experience} and to insist, with 
Cassirer, that nevertheless mathematical knowledge is as ob- 
jective as all other scientific knowledge, because, forsooth, all 
truth is literally created by thinking, is if so jacto to reduce 
scientific truth as such to formal consistency within a closed 

80 Substance and Function, 112. 

81 The hostile critic would be tempted to express the same idea in rather different 
terms, to the effect that the "liberation" in question actually amounts to a confine- 
ment of thought within the four walls of an a priori formalism. 

M Cf. the present writer's The Philosophical Presuppositions of Mathematical 
Logic Chs. Ill VI, on this point, and also for a remarkable similarity between 
the views of Josiah Royce and Cassirer on such matters. 


circle of ideas the whole world, in Schopenhauerian language, 
is my idea and objectivity (as Russell has somewhere justly 
observed) must be construed, in the last analysis, as merely a 
species of subjectivity. 

There is, however, here as in other contexts, another tend- 
ency, or another phase of Cassirer's thought, which sharply 
conflicts with such abstract rationalism. For above everything 
else he insists on the essential continuity of scientific thought 
in general, and of mathematical thought in particular. And, 
although carrying on a persistent warfare against all species of 
empiricism and positivism, he at the same time emphatically 
maintains that it is the prime function of scientific laws and 
general mathematical formulas alike to render the 'particulars' 
particular scientific facts, or specific mathematical truths 
intelligible, by incorporating them in a concrete systematic 
nexus. Apart from such a nexus, he insists, neither particulars 
nor universals have any meaning. Even in the case of mathe- 
matics, he seems to argue, the construction of concepts does not 
take place in complete abstraction from perceptually given and 
intuitively apprehended data, though it does of course involve, 
from the very beginning, an attempt to free those concepts more 
and more, not from their roots in experience as such, but rather 
simply from irrelevant, transitory, and merely sensuous con- 
notations. 23 The historical accuracy of this contention cannot be 
denied, and neither can its epistemological significance be over- 

The point is that in mathematics, just as in all other sciences, 
new concepts and new theories are evolved in the process of 
seeking a solution to some hitherto recalcitrant problem in- 
herited from an earlier stage in the development of the science. 
These new concepts and theories usually represent the end 
product of a long and arduous labor of preparation, of trial 
and error; and their significance is measured, not merely by 
reference to the particular problem or problems they solve, but 
also in terms of the enrichment of meaning they bestow upon 
previously accepted concepts and theories. As Cassirer so well 

" Philosofhie der symbolischen Formen y III, 45 iff., esp. 468f. 


the unity and self-sufficiency of the mathematical method depends upon 
the fact that the creative, generative procedure to which the science 
owes its origin, never comes to an end at any given point, but displays 
itself in ever new forms, and in this wise maintains itself forever as one 
and the same, as an indestructible totality. 24 

What is of decisive significance here is that within the science 
of mathematics itself (quite as in every other science) there is, 
on such a view, what may be called an immanent logic, which 
carries the science forward on its own momentum. The history 
of mathematics in its entirety is nothing less than a standing 
repudiation of any and all attempts to 'deduce' its fundamental 
concepts and theories from any fixed and arbitrary set of formal 
postulates and definitions. For that matter logical principles, 
as such, differ absolutely, both in nature and function, from the 
premises or other foundations of any given science such at 
least is one lesson plainly taught by the transcendental logic of 
Kant. And on the other hand, the only logic mathematics (or 
any other science) needs or uses, in the course of its own pro- 
gressive development, resides in those logical principles accord- 
ing to which, but not from which, mathematical reasoning pro- 
ceeds. In the very nature of the case, the foundations of no 
science are properly to be described as logical} for the good and 
sufficient reason that it is their proper function to define or 
determine (and this means progressively to redefine), not the 
method, but the general nature of the content, the subject- 
matter, of the science in question. If it be true, as everyone 
acknowledges it to be, that the elementary content of mathe- 
matics was supplied by, or taken from crude experience, then it 
is equally true and undeniable that the whole history of the 
science must logically be regarded as an account of the precise 
way in which that first crude material has been (as Cassirer is 
fond of repeating) elaborated, refined, enriched in meaning, 
and increased in extent. It cannot be too strongly emphasized 
that an enormous burden of proof rests upon the shoulders of 
anyone trying to maintain any other thesis proof which would 
not only have to disregard all the historical evidence, but run 
directly counter to it. 

* Of. cit., 469. 


Thus it is only as an inevitable consequence of the quixotic 
endeavor to base mathematics on formal logic, that the self- 
stultifying thesis that the science has absolutely no content can 
be understood, and that the insoluble problem of the 'applica- 
tion' of mathematical concepts rises up to plague both scientists 
and philosophers. On the view clearly implicit in Cassirer's 
emphasis on the continuity and progressive character of mathe- 
matical knowledge, on the other hand, no such artificial prob- 
lems can arise, for the good and sufficient reason that on that 
view mathematics has never entirely lost contact with experi- 

What, then, it may be asked, is the true import of the dictum 
proclaimed by Cassirer himself, along with so many other 
authorities, that no other meaning is to be ascribed to any 
mathematical concept (even to such as seem most empirical, 
such as the solids of geometry), than that contained in and pre- 
scribed by the basic postulates and definitions? Does not this 
fundamental methodological principle render any reference 
to experience logically inoperative and purely incidental? No 
matter what the whole previous history of mathematics says or 
implies, who can deny that such is the state of affairs at the 
present time? 

But surely the answers to these questions are not far to seek. 
The phrase 'no other meaning than that prescribed by the basic 
postulates' means just what it says; and it does not say that no 
meaning whatsoever is to be ascribed to such basic concepts and 
propositions. For that matter, precisely the same assertion, mu- 
tatis mutandis, may be made concerning the basic concepts and 
definitions of any science biology, for example 5 for pre- 
cisely herein lies the only justification for calling them 'basic.' 
That such an assertion lends itself to misinterpretation to the 
effect that 'no other meaning' means 'no meaning at all' has, 
however, unfortunately revealed itself to be the case. It is true, 
of course, that the only experience immediately and directly 
relevant to mathematics at any given stage is the highly ab- 
stract experience represented, in the main, by what the next 
preceding stage of the science has made of space, number, and 
the like; just as, in physics, the only directly relevant experience 


is what the next preceding stage of that science has made of 
space-time, the constitution of the atom, and the like. No de- 
veloped science ever falls back upon the crude experience of the 
c plain man/ for the purpose of verifying or testing its concepts 
and theories} comparatively rarely does it do so, indeed, even 
in the most elementary laboratory work of the undergraduate. 
In all cases the experience really in question is that which both 
insures the continuity of scientific knowledge and provides the 
material essential for further progress. It goes without saying 
that experience, in such contexts, is restricted to what is relevant 
to the science in question j and, just as the mathematician ab- 
stracts from all or most of the physical properties, attributes, 
and relations of things, so the physicist abstracts from all of the 
properties, attributes, and relations of things, other than such as 
logically come within his purview as a physicist. 25 But just as 
physics yields genuine knowledge of the real world only because 
it does not abstract from all properties, attributes, and relations, 
precisely the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of mathematics 
a fact which disposes of all those problems concerning the appli- 
cation of mathematics to experience, as neither the theories of 
Russell nor even those of Cassirer himself are able to do. More- 
over, it is only because, and to the extent that this is so, as Kant 
plainly intimated, that its 'possibility' as a science can be under- 
stood. What Cassirer says so well of mathematical symbols, 
namely that they are neither meaningless signs, as some would 
argue, no mundane instrumentalities for communication with a 
transcendent realm of hypostatized ideas, as others suggest, but 
are rather explicative of meanings immanent in mathematical 
thought, is directly to the point in this connection. And for this 
very reason, if for no others, a calculus of relations, conceived 
as a branch of formal symbolic logic, is just as impotent, and for 
strictly analogous reasons, as the so-called subject-predicate 
logic, with respect to the generation of the synthetic concepts 
and judgments of mathematics. 

In the light of the preceding discussion it would seem that 
much the same observation applies to Cassirer's theory of math- 

* See the present writer's article entitled "Cassirer versus Russell," in Philosophy 
of Science, Vol. X., no. 3 (July, 1943), 174. 


ematical concepts, with respect to its relation to contemporary 
symbolic logic, that commentators apply to Kant's transcen- 
dental logic, with respect to its relation to traditional formal 
logic. That is to say, it is rather in spite of misleading associa- 
tions and entanglements with abstract formalism than because 
of any positive guidance accruing from such a source, that Cas- 
sirer, like Kant before him, has accomplished so much of solid 
and enduring worth. 




Kurt Lemn 



following remarks 1 on the relation between Cassirer's 
JJL views on the development of science and the recent history 
of psychology are the expression of a person who has always 
felt the deep gratitude of a student to his teacher. 

During the period from 1910, when, as a graduate student, 
I listened to the lectures of the then "Privatdocent" Cassirer, 
to 1946, psychology has undergone a series of major changes 
related to basic issues of Behaviorism, Gestalt psychology, Psy- 
choanalysis, Field Theory and the present problem of an in- 
tegrated social science. The experiment has reached out from 
"psycho-physics" into any number of areas including motiva- 
tion, personality > and social psychology. The mathematical 
problems of representing psychological fields and treating data 
statistically have proceeded step by step to new levels. Tech- 
niques of interviewing, observation, and other forms of fact- 
finding have grown into a rich and well-established method- 
ology. The scientific infant of 1910, which had hardly cut his 
cord to mother philosophy and was looking with astonished eyes 
and an uneasy heart to the grown-up sciences, not knowing 
whether he should try to copy them or whether he ought to 
follow his own line this scientific infant has perhaps not yet 
fully developed into maturity, but has certainly reached a stage 
of strength and progress which makes the psychologies of 1910 
and 1946 rather different entities. Still, throughout this period, 
scarcely a year passed when I did not have specific reason to 

1 Some sections of this paper are also published in Lewin, Kurt, "Problems of 
Group Dynamics and the Integration of the Social Sciences: I. Social Equilibria." 
Human Relations (1947) Vol. I. 



acknowledge the help which Cassirer's views on the nature of 
science and research offered. 

The value of Cassirer's philosophy for psychology lies, I feel, 
less in his treatment of specific problems of psychology al- 
though his contribution in this field and particularly his recent 
contributions are of great interest than in his analysis of the 
methodology and concept-formation of the natural sciences. 

To me these decades of rapid scientific growth of psychology 
and of the social sciences in general have provided test after 
test for the correctness of most of the ideas on science and scien- 
tific development expressed in his Substanzbegrif und Funk- 
tionsbegriff. Since the primitive discussions of the psychologists 
of 1910 about whether or not psychology ought to try to include 
not only qualitative but also quantitative data, and Cassirer's 
general discussions of the problem of quality and quantity up 
to the present problems of research in personality, such as the 
treatment of biographical data, and Cassirer's discussion of the 
interdependence of "historical" and "systematic" problems , 
I have felt with increasing strength the power and productivity 
of his basic approach to science. 

It is not easy to point in Cassirer's work to a specific concept 
or any specific statement which provides a striking new insight 
and solves a previously insoluble problem. Still, as "participant 
observer" of the recent history of psychology, I may be per- 
mitted to state that Cassirer's approach seems to me a most 
illuminating and constructive help for making those decisions 
about methods and about the direction of the next step, upon 
which it depends whether a concrete piece of research will be a 
substantial contribution to a living science or a well polished 
container of nothing. 


The relation between logic and theory of science on the one 
hand and the progress of empirical science on the other is not 
a simple one and is not easily transformed into a mutually pro- 
ductive state of affairs. 

Since Kant philosophers have tried more or less successfully 
to avoid telling the empirical scientist what he "ought" to do or 


not to do. They have learned, with a few exceptions, to regard 
science as an object they should study rather than rule. This 
laudable and necessary removal of philosophy from the authori- 
tarian place of the boss or the judge over science has led to a 
tendency of eliminating all "practical" relations between phi- 
losophy and the empirical sciences, including the perhaps pos- 
sible and fruitful position of philosophy as a consultant to 
science. As the scientist tries to progress into the eternal frontier 
of the unknown, he faces highly complex and intricate problems 
of methods, concepts, and theory formation. It would seem 
natural that he should turn to the philosophical study of the 
nature of science for information and help on the method- 
ological and conceptual aspects of the pressing problems he is 
trying to solve. 

There are certain lines along which such help might be forth- 
coming and certain dangers involved in the all around co- 
operation of scientists and philosophers on the theory and prac- 
tice of such an "applied theory of science." To start with the 
latter: as a rule, the philosopher can hardly be expected to have 
the detailed knowledge of an active research worker in a specific 
branch of an empirical science. As a rule, therefore, he should 
not be expected to make direct contributions to empirical 
theories. The tragi-comic happening of half a decade ago, when 
a certain group of philosophers tried to revive good old classical 
behaviorism just after it had fulfilled its usefulness for psy- 
chology and was happily dying, should be a warning against 
such inappropriate overstepping of boundaries. On the other 
hand, such danger should not minimize the essential advantages 
which a closer cooperation between the philosopher and the 
scientist should offer to both. 

As far as I can see, there are two main lines along which 
valuable and more than accidental help for the empirical and 
particularly the social sciences may emerge from a closer rela- 
tion to philosophy. One has to do with mathematical logic, the 
other with comparative theory of science. 

The development of mathematical logic has proceeded con- 
siderably beyond what Cassirer had to offer. Mathematical logic 
seems to provide a fruitful possibility of assistance for specific 


problems of measurement for basic mathematical questions re- 
garding qualitative and quantitative data, for general mathema- 
tical problems of representing social and psychological fields, 
and so on. The insight provided by mathematical logic could 
probably have avoided some of the past headaches and should 
be of considerable potential assistance to the social scientist in the 
coming period of the quantitative measurement of social forces. 

Mathematical logic has, however, not been of much avail 
and, in my judgment, is not likely to be of much avail for 
guiding the psychologist or social scientist through certain other 
major methodological perplexities. 

The logician is accustomed to deal with problems of correct 
conclusions or other aspects of science and concepts which are 
"timeless," which hold as much for the physics of Copernicus as 
for modern physics. These problems are doubtless of great 
interest to the research-worker. They make up, however, only 
a small section of the problems of scientific strategy which are 
the concern of the daily struggle of progressing into the un- 
known. The main problems, which the scientist has to face and 
for which he has to find a solution, are inevitably bound to the 
particular state of development of his science, even if they are 
problems of method rather than content. 

It is unrealistic and unproductive for an empirical scientist to 
approach problems of scientific method and procedure in a way 
which does not take cognizance of the basic fact that, to be 
effective, scientific methods have to be adjusted to the specific 
state of affairs at a given time. This holds for the techniques 
of fact-finding, for the process of conceptualization and theoriz- 
ing, in short, for more or less all aspects of research. Research 
is the art of taking the next step. Methods and concepts, which 
may represent a revolutionary progress today, may be outmoded 
tomorrow. Can the philosopher gain insight into the develop- 
ment of science in a way useful for these vital time-bound 
aspects of scientific labor? 

The logician may be inclined to place these problems outside 
the realm of a theory of science. He may be inclined to view 
them not as philosophical problems but as questions which 
should be dealt with by historians. Doubtless the researcher is 


deeply influenced by the culture in which he lives and by its 
technical and economic facilities. Not these problems of cultural 
history, however, are in question when the social psychologist 
has to make up his mind whether or not "experiments with 
groups" are scientifically meaningful, or what procedure he may 
follow for developing better concepts of personality, of leader- 
ship, or of other aspects of group life. Not historical, but con- 
ceptual and methodological problems are to be answered, ques- 
tions about what is scientifically right or wrong, adequate or 
inadequate 5 although this correctness may be specific to a special 
developmental stage of a science and may not hold for a pre- 
vious or a later stage. In other words, the term "scientific de- 
velopment" refers to levels of scientific maturity, to levels of 
concepts and theories in the sense of philosophy rather than of 
human history or psychology. 

It is this approach to science as emerging systems of theorems 
and concepts to which Cassirer has contributed so much. When- 
ever Cassirer discusses science, he seems to perceive both the 
permanent characteristics of scientific systems and procedures 
and the specific conceptual form. 

Philosophy of science can come to an insight into the nature 
of science only by studying science. It is, therefore, in permanent 
danger of making the science of the past a prototype for all 
science and of making past methodology the standard by which 
to measure what scientific methods "ought" to be used or not 
to be used. Cassirer has in most cases successfully avoided this 
danger by looking at the scientific mehods of the past in the way 
in which the research-worker at that time would perceive them. 
He discloses the basic character of science as the eternal attempt 
to go beyond what is regarded scientifically accessible at any 
specific time. To proceed beyond the limitations of a given level 
of knowledge the researcher, as a rule, has to break down 
methodological taboos which condemn as "unscientific" or "il- 
logical" the very methods or concepts which later on prove to 
be basic for the next major progress. Cassirer has shown how 
this step by step revolution of what is "scientifically permis- 
sible" dominates the development of mathematics, physics, and 
chemistry throughout their history. 


A second reason why I feel Cassirer's approach is so valuable 
to the social scientist is his comparative procedure. Although 
Cassirer has not fully developed what might be called a system- 
atic comparative theory of the sciences, he took important steps 
in this direction. His treatment of mathematics, physics, and 
chemistry, of historical and systematic disciplines is essentially 
of a comparative nature. Cassirer shows an unusual ability to 
blend the analysis of general characteristics of scientific method- 
ology with the analysis of a specific branch of science. It is this 
ability to reveal the general rule in an example, without de- 
stroying the specific characteristics of a particular discipline at a 
given stage of development, which makes the comparative treat- 
ment of some branches of mathematics and of the natural 
sciences so illuminating for research in the social sciences. This 
comparative approach opens the way to a perception of similari- 
ties between different sciences and between apparently un- 
related questions within the same science. 

We shall discuss here only one type of problem as an example 
of the structural similarities between the conceptual problems 
of the present social sciences and problems of mathematics and 
the physical sciences at certain stages of development, namely 
that of "existence." 


Arguments about "existence" may seem metaphysical in 
nature and may therefore not be expected to be raised in 
empirical sciences. Actually, however, opinions about existence 
or non-existence are quite common in the empirical sciences and 
have greatly influenced scientific development in both a positive 
and a negative way. Labelling something as "non-existing" is 
equivalent to declaring it "out of bounds" for the scientist. 
Attributing "existence" to an item automatically makes it a duty 
of the scientist to consider this item as an object of research; it 
includes the necessity of considering its properties as "facts," 
which cannot be neglected in the total system of theories j 
finally, it implies that the terms by which one refers to the item 
are accepted as scientific "concepts" (rather than regarded as 
"mere words"). 


The problem of "existence" is, therefore, one of the most 
illuminating examples for the way in which facts, concepts, and 
methods are closely interdependent aspects of an empirical 
science. To demonstrate the way in which this interdependence 
is functioning in every phase of science is the central theme of 
this aspect of Cassirer's philosophy. 

Cassirer follows the steps by which mathematics is gradually 
transformed. Geometry and the theory of numbers, for instance, 
changes from a study of separate forms or entities, which are to 
be described and analysed one by one with the objective of 
finding "permanent properties" into a discipline which deals 
with problems of interrelations and transformations. 2 

Geometry, as the theory of invariants, treats certain unchangeable rela- 
tions; but this unchangeableness cannot be defined unless we understand, 
as its conceptual background, certain fundamental changes relative to 
which they hold. The unchanging geometrical properties are not such 
in and for themselves, but only in relation to a system of possible trans- 
formations that we implicitly assume. Constancy and change thus appear 
as thoroughly correlative moments, definable only through each other. 3 

In physics an equivalent change occurs on the basis of an 
increasingly close interdependence of fact finding and theory. 

It has been shown, in opposition to the traditional logical doctrine, that 
the course of the mathematical construction of concepts is defined by the 
procedures of the construction of series. We have not been concerned 
with separating out the common element from a plurality of similar im- 
pressions but with establishing a principle by which their diversity should 
appear. The unity of the concept has not been found in a fixed group of 
properties, but in the rule, which represents the mere diversity as a 
sequence of elements according to law. 4 

In truth, no physicist experiments and measures with the particular 
instrument that he has sensibly before his eyes; but he substitutes for it 
an ideal instrument in thought, from which all accidental defects, such 
as necessarily belong to the particular instrument, are excluded. For 
example, if we measure the intensity of an electric current by a tangent- 
compass, then the observations, which we make first with a concrete 

a Substance and Function (Swabcy tr.) , 68. 

* Ibid., 90$ wording changed by K. Lewin, in line with German original. 

4 Ibid., 148. 


apparatus, must be related and carried over to a- general geometrical 
model, before they are physically applicable. We substitute for a coppei 
wire of a definite strength a strictly geometrical circle without breadth ; 
in place of the steel of the magnetic needle, which has a certain magni- 
tude and form, we substitute an infinitely small, horizontal magnetic 
axis, which can be moved without friction around a vertical axis; and 
it is the totality of these transformations, which permits us to carry the 
observed deflection of the magnetic needle into the general theoretical 
formula of the strength of the current, and thus to determine the value 
of the latter. The corrections, which we make and must necessarily make 
with the use of every physical instrument, are themselves a work of 
mathematical theory; to exclude these latter, is to deprive the observation 
itself of its meaning and value. 5 

Until relatively recently psychology, sociology, and anthro- 
pology were dominated by a methodology which regarded 
science as a process of "collecting facts." This methodology 
showed all the earmarks of early Greek mathematics and pre- 
Galilean physics. During the last ten years the hostility to 
theorizing has greatly diminished. It has been replaced by a 
relatively wide-spread recognition of the necessity for develop- 
ing better concepts and higher levels of theory. 

This change has its corollary in certain changes regarding 
what is considered "existing." Beliefs regarding "existence" in 
social science have changed in regard to the degree to which 
"full reality" is attributed to psychological and social phenom- 
ena, and in regard to the reality of their "deeper," dynamic 

At the beginning of this century, for instance, the experi- 
mental psychology of "will and emotion" had to fight for rec- 
ognition against a prevalent attitude which placed volition, 
emotion, and sentiments in the "poetic realm" of beautiful 
words, a realm to which nothing corresponds which could be 
regarded as "existing" in the sense in which the scientist uses 
the term. Although every psychologist had to deal with these 
facts realistically in his private life, they were banned from the 
realm of "facts" in the scientific sense. Emotions were declared 

'/*., 144. 


to be something too "fluid" and "intangible" to be pinned down 
by scientific analysis or by experimental procedures. Such a 
methodological argument does not deny existence to the phe- 
nomenon, but it has the effect of keeping the topic outside the 
realm of empirical science. 

Like social taboos, a scientific taboo is kept up not so much by 
a rational argument as by a common attitude among scientists: 
any member of the scientific guild who does not strictly adhere 
to the taboo is looked upon as queer j he is suspected of not 
adhering to the scientific standards of critical thinking. 


Before the invention of the atom bomb the average physical 
scientist was hardly ready to concede to social phenomena the 
same degree of "reality" as to a physical object. Hiroshima and 
Nagasaki seem to have caused many physical scientists to change 
their minds. This change was hardly based on philosophical con- 
siderations. The bomb has driven home with dramatic intensity 
the degree to which social happenings are both the result of 
and the conditions for the occurrence of physical events. The 
period during which the natural scientist thought of the social 
scientist as someone interested in dreams and words (rather 
than as an investigator of facts which are not less real than 
physical facts and which can be studied no less objectively) has 
gradually been coming to an end. 

The social scientists themselves, of course, have had a 
stronger belief in the "reality" of the entities they were study- 
ing. Still this belief was frequently limited to the specific narrow 
section with which they happened to be familiar. The economist, 
for instance, finds it a bit difficult to concede to psychological, 
to anthropological, or to legal data that degree of reality which 
he gives to prices and other economic data. Some psychologists 
still view with suspicion the reality of those cultural facts with 
which the anthropologist is concerned. They tend to regard only 
individuals as real and they are not inclined to consider a 
"group atmosphere" as something which is as real and measur- 
able as, let us say, a physical field of gravity. Concepts like that 


of "leadership" retained a halo of mysticism even after it had 
been demonstrated that it is quite possible to measure and not 
only to "judge" leadership performance. 

The denial of existence of a group or of certain aspects of 
group life is based on arguments which grant existence only to 
units of certain size, or which concern methodologic-technical 
problems, or conceptual problems. 


Cassirer 6 discusses how, periodically throughout the history 
of physics, vivid discussions have occurred about the reality of 
the atom, the electron, or whatever else was considered at that 
time to be the smallest particle of physical material. In the social 
sciences it has usually been not the part but the whole whose 
existence has been doubted. 

Logically, there is no reason for distinguishing between the 
reality of a molecule, an atom, or an ion, or more generally 
between the reality of a whole or its parts. There is no more 
magic behind the fact that groups have properties of their own, 
which are different from the properties of their subgroups or 
their individuals members, than behind the fact that molecules 
have properties, which are different from the properties of the 
atoms or ions of which they are composed. 

In the social as in the physical field the structural properties 
of a dynamic whole are different from the structural properties 
of their subparts. Both sets of properties have to be investigated. 
When one and when the other is most important, depends upon 
the question to be answered. But there is no difference of reality 
between them. 

If this basic statement is accepted, the problem of existence 
of a group loses its metaphysical flavor. Instead we face a series 
of empirical problems. They are equivalent to the chemical 
question of whether a given aggregate is a mixture of different 
types of atoms, or whether these atoms have formed molecules 
of a certain type. The answer to such a question has to be 
given in chemistry, as in the social sciences, on the basis of an 

f Ibid., 151-170. 


empirical probing into certain testable properties of the case in 

For instance, it may be wrong to state that the blond women 
living in a town "exist as a group" in the sense of being a dy- 
namic whole that is characterized by a close interdependence of 
their members. They are merely a number of individuals who 
are "classified under one concept" according to the similarity of 
one of their properties. If, however, the blond members of a 
workshop are made an "artificial minority" and are discrim- 
inated against by their colleagues, they may well become a 
group with specific structural properties. 

Structural properties are characterized by relations between 
parts rather than by the parts or elements themselves. Cassirer 
emphasizes that, throughout the history of mathematics and 
physics, from Anaxagoras and Aristotle to Bacon, Boscovich, 
Boltzman and the present day, problems of constancy of rela- 
tions rather than of constancy of elements have gained im- 
portance and have gradually changed the picture of what is 
considered essential. 

The meaning of the mathematical concept cannot be comprehended, 
as long as we seek any sort of presentational correlate for it in the given ; 
the meaning only appears when we recognize the concept as the expres- 
sion of a $ure relation, upon which rests the unity and continuous con- 
nection of the members of a manifold. The function of the physical 
concept also is first evident in this interpretation. The more it disclaims 
every independent perceptible content and everything pictorial, the 
more clearly its logical and systematic function is shown. . . . All that the 
"thing" of the popular view of the world loses in properties, it gains 
in relations; for it no longer remains isolated and dependent on itself 
alone, but is connected inseparably by logical threads with the totality 
of experience. Each particular concept is, as it were, one of these threads, 
on which we string real experiences and connect them with future possi- 
ble experiences. The objects of physics: matter and force, atom and 
ether, can no longer be misunderstood as so many new realities for in- 
vestigation, and realities whose inner essence is to be penetrated when 
once they are recognized as instruments produced by thought for the 
purpose of comprehending the confusion of phenomena as an ordered 
and measurable whole/ 

'Ibid., 1 66. 



If recognition o the existence of an entity depends upon 
this entity's showing properties or constancies of its own, the 
judgment about what is real or unreal should be affected by 
changes in the possibility of demonstrating social properties. 

The social sciences have considerably improved their tech- 
niques for reliably recording the structure of small or large 
groups and of registering the various aspects of group life. 
Sociometric techniques, group observation, interview techniques, 
and others are enabling the social scientist more and more to 
gather reliable data on the structural properties of groups, on 
the relations between groups or subgroups, and on the relation 
between a group and the life of its individual members. 

The taboo against believing in the existence of a social entity 
is probably most effectively broken by handling this entity 
experimentally. As long as the scientist merely describes a lead- 
ership form, he is open to the criticism that the categories used 
reflect merely his "subjective views" and do not correspond to 
the "real" properties of the phenomena under consideration. If 
the scientist experiments with leadership and varies its form, 
he relies on an "operational definition" which links the concept 
of a leadership form to concrete procedures of creating such a 
leadership form or to the procedures for testing its existence. 
The "reality" of that to which the concept refers is established 
by "doing with" rather than "looking at," and this reality is 
independent of certain "subjective" elements of classification. 
The progress of physics from Archimedes to Einstein shows 
consecutive steps, by v^hich the "practical" aspect of the ex- 
perimental procedure has modified and sometimes revolution- 
ized the scientific concepts regarding the physical world by 
changing the beliefs of the scientists about what is and what is 
not real. 

To vary a social phenomenon experimentally the experi- 
menter has to take hold of all essential factors, even if he is 
not yet able to analyze them satisfactorily. A major omission 
or misjudgment on this point makes the experiment fail. In 
social research the experimenter has to take into consideration 
such factors as the personality of individual members, the group 


structure, ideology and cultural values, and economic factors. 
Group experimentation is a form of social management. To be 
successful it, like social management, has to take into account 
all of the various factors that happen to be important for the 
case in hand. Experimentation with groups will therefore lead 
to a natural integration of the social sciences, and it will force 
the social scientist to recognize as reality the totality of factors 
which determine group life. 


It seems that the social scientist has a better chance of accom- 
plishing such a realistic integration than the social practitioner. 
For thousands of years kings, priests, politicians, educators, pro- 
ducers, fathers and mothers in fact, all individuals have 
been trying day by day to influence smaller or larger groups. 
One might assume that this would have led to accumulated 
wisdom of a well integrated nature. Unfortunately nothing is 
farther from the truth. We know that our average diplomat 
thinks in very one-sided terms, perhaps those of law, or eco- 
nomics, or military strategy. We know that the average manu- 
facturer holds highly distorted views about what makes a 
work-team tick. We know that no one can answer today even 
such relatively simple questions as what determines the pro- 
ductivity of a committee meeting. 

Several factors have come together to prevent practical ex- 
perience from leading to clear insight. Certainly, the man of 
affairs is convinced of the reality of group life, but he is usually 
opposed to a conceptual analysis. He prefers to think in terms 
of "intuition" and "intangibles." The able practitioner fre- 
quently insists that it is impossible to formulate simple, clear 
rules about how to reach a social objective. He insists that 
different actions have to be taken according to the various situa- 
tions, that plans have to be highly flexible and sensitive to the 
changing scene. 

If one tries to transform these sentiments into scientific lan- 
guage, they amount to the following statements, a) Social 
events depend on the social field as a whole, rather than on a 
few selected items. This is the basic insight behind the field 


theoretical method which has been successful in physics, which 
has steadily grown in psychology and, in my opinion, is bound 
to be equally fundamental for the study of social fields, simply 
because it expresses certain basic general characteristics of inter- 
dependence, b) The denial of "simple rules" is partly identical 
with the following important principle of scientific analysis. 
Science tries to link certain observable (phenotypical) data with 
other observable data. It is crucial for all problems of inter- 
dependence, however, that for reasons which we do not need 
to discuss here it is, as a rule, impracticable to link one set of 
phenotypical data directly to other phenotypical data. Instead, 
it is necessary to insert "intervening variables." 8 To use a more 
common language: the practitioner as well as the scientist views 
the observable data as mere "symptoms." They are "surface" 
indications of some "deeper-lying" facts. He has learned to 
"read" the symptoms, like a physicist reads his instruments. 
The equations which express physical laws refer to such deeper- 
lying dynamic entities as pressure, energy, or temperature 
rather than to the directly observable symptoms such as the 
movements of the pointer of an instrument. 

The underlying methodological principle is but one expres- 
sion of the nature of the relation between concepts, scientific 
facts and scientific fact finding. In the words of Cassirer, 

Strictly speaking, the experiment never concerns the real case, as it lies 
before us here and now in all the wealth of its particular determinations, 
but the experiment rather concerns an ideal case, which we substitute 
for it. The real beginnings of scientific induction furnish the classical 
example of this. Galileo did not discover the law of falling bodies by 
collecting arbitrary observations of sensuously real bodies, but by de- 
fining hypothetically the concept of uniform acceleration and taking it as 
a conceptual measure of the facts. This concept provides for the given 
time-values a series of space-values, such as proceed according to a 
fixed rule, that can be grasped once for all. Henceforth we must at- 
tempt to advance to the actual process of reality by a progressive con- 
sideration of the complex determinations, that were originally excluded: 
as, for example, the variation of acceleration according to the distance 
from the centre of the earth, retardation by the resistance of the air, etc. 9 

'Tolman, E. C, "The Determiners of Behavior at a Choice Point," Psycho- 
logical Review, (1938), Vol. 45, 1-41. 
* Substance and Function fEnp-1. tr.V * CA 


If we consider the factors involved in the measurement of motion, . . . 
it is evident that the physical definition of motion cannot be established 
without substituting the geometrical body for the sensuous body, without 
substituting the "intelligible" continuous extension of the mathematician 
for sensuous extension. Before we can speak of motion and its exact 
measurement in the strict sense, we must go from the contents of per- 
ception to their conceptual limits. ... It is no less a pure conceptual con- 
struction, when we ascribe a determinate velocity to a non-uniformly 
moving body at each point of its path; such a construction presupposes 
for its explanation nothing less than the whole logical theory of in- 
finitesimal analysis. But even where we seem to stand closer to direct 
sensation, where we seem guided by no other interest than to arrange its 
differences as presented us, into a fixed scale, even here theoretical 
elements are requisite and clearly appear. It is a long way from the 
immediate sensation of heat to the exact concept of temperature. 10 

The dynamics of social events provides no exception to this 
general characteristic of dynamics. If it were possible to link a 
directly observable group behavior, B, with another behavior, 
B 1 , B = F (B 1 ) where F means a simple function then 
simple rules of procedure for the social practitioner would be 
possible. When the practitioner denies that such rules can be 
more than poor approximations he seems to imply that the 
function, F, is complicated. I am inclined to interpret his 
statement actually to mean that in group life, too, "appearance" 
should be distinguished from the "underlying facts," that simi- 
larity of appearance may go together with dissimilarity of the 
essential properties and vice versa, and that laws can be formu- 
lated only in regard to these underlying dynamic entities 
k = F (n,m) where k,n,m refer not to behavioral symptoms 
but to intervening variables. 11 

For the social scientist this means that he should give up 
thinking about such items as group structure, group tension, or 
social forces as nothing more than a popular metaphor or 
analogy, which should be eliminated from science as much as 
possible. Although there is no need for social science to copy 
the specific concepts of the physical sciences, the social scientist 
should be clear that he, too, needs intervening variables and 


11 Cf . Lewin, Kurt, A Dynamic Theory of Personality (tr. by D. Adams and 
K. Zener), New York: McGraw-Hill (1935). 


that these dynamic facts rather than the symptoms and appear- 
ances are the important points of reference for him and the 
social practitioner alike. 


The relation between theory formation, fact finding and 
mathematization, which Cassirer has described in regard to 
the physical sciences, has come much to the fore in the psy- 
chology of the last decade. Different psychological trends have 
led from different sides and with partly different objectives 
to a strong emphasis on mathematization. This need springs 
partly from a desire of a more exact scientific representation 
of the results of tests or other fact findings and has led to an 
elaborate development of statistical procedures. In part the 
emphasis on mathematization springs from the desire of a 
deeper theoretical insight. 12 Both geometrical and algebraic 
concepts are employed to this end. 

Mathematical economics since Pareto (1909) is another ex- 
ample of the development of a social science which shows many 
of the characteristics discussed by Cassirer. 

One of the most striking illustrations of the function of 
theorems, concepts, and methods in the development of science 
is their role in the integration of the social sciences which is 
just beginning to take place. It may be appropriate to mention 
this problem and to refer briefly to considerations I have pre- 
sented elsewhere. 13 

Many aspects of social life can be viewed as quasi-stationary 
processes. They can be regarded as states of quasi-stationary 
equilibrium in the precise meaning of a constellation of forces 
the structure of which can be well defined. The scientific treat- 

18 Hull, C. L., Principles of Bettavior, New York: Appleton Century (1943)$ 
Kohler, W., The Place of Value in a World of Facts. New York: Liveright (1938) j 
Lewin, Kurt, "The Conceptual Representation and the Measurement of Psycho- 
logical Forces," Contributions to Psychological Theory, Vol. I, No. 4, Duke Uni- 
versity Press (1938)5 Lewin, Kurt, "Constructs in Psychology and Psychological 
Ecology," Studies in Tofological and Vector Psychology, III, University of Iowa. 

11 Lewin, Kurt, "Problems of Group Dynamics and the Integration of the Social 
Sciences: I. Social Equilibria," Human Relations (1947), Vol. I. 


ment of social forces presupposes analytic devices which are 
adequate to the nature of social processes and which are tech- 
nically fitted to serve as a bridge to a mathematical treatment. 
The basic means to this end is the representation of social 
situations as "social fields." 

This technical analysis makes it possible to formulate in a 
more exact way problems of planned social changes and of re- 
sistance to change. It permits general statements concerning 
some aspects of the problem of selecting specific objectives in 
bringing about change, concerning different methods of bring- 
ing about the same amount of change, and concerning differences 
in the secondary effects of these methods. The analytic tools 
used are equally applicable to cultural, economic, sociological, 
and psychological aspects of group life. They fit a great variety 
of processes, such as production levels of a factory, a work- 
team and an individual worker; changes of abilities of an indi- 
vidual and of capacities of a country; group standards with and 
without cultural value; activities of one group and the interac- 
tion between groups, between individuals, and between indi- 
viduals and groups. The analysis concedes equal reality to all 
aspects of group life and to social units of all sizes. The applica- 
tion depends upon the structural properties of the process and of 
the total situation in which it takes place. 

How is it possible, one may ask, to bring together under one 
heading and procedure such diversified data? Does that not 
necessarily mean losing in concreteness what one might gain 
in scientific generality? 

In the same way as the natural sciences, the social sciences 
have to face the problem of how to get hold conceptually of 
the disturbing qualitative richness of psychological and cul- 
tural events, how to find "general" laws without giving up 
reaching the individual case. Cassirer describes how the mathe- 
matical constructive procedure solves this problem by changing, 
as it were, the very meaning of equality and scientific abstrac- 
tion. Speaking of equalities of mathematical sets he says, "This 
similarity, however, means nothing more than that they are 
connected by a definite rule, such as permits us to proceed from 
one manifold to another by continued identical application of 


the same fundamental relation}" 14 "The genuine concept does 
not disregard the peculiarities and particularities which it holds 
under it, but seeks to show the necessity of the occurrence and 
connection of just these particularities." 15 

The individual case is not excluded from consideration, but is fixed and 
retained as a perfectly determinate step in a general process of change. 
It is evident anew that the characteristic feature of the concept is not 
the "universality" of a presentation, but the universal validity of a 
principle of serial order. We do not isolate any abstract part whatever 
from the manifold before us, but we create for its members a definite 
relation by thinking of them as bound together by an inclusive law. And 
the further we proceed in this and the more firmly this connection ac- 
cording to laws is established, so much the clearer does the unambiguous 
determination of the particular stand forth. 16 

The consideration of quasi-stationary equilibria is based on 
analytic concepts which, within the realm of the social sciences, 
have emerged first in psychology. The concepts of a psycho- 
logical force, of tension, of conflicts as equilibria of forces, of 
force fields and of inducing fields, have slowly widened their 
range of application from the realm of individual psychology 
into the realm of processes and events which had been the 
domain of sociology and cultural anthropology. It seems that 
the treatment of economic equilibria by mathematical economics, 
although having a different origin, is fully compatible with this 

The fusion of the social sciences will make accessible to 
economics the vast advantages which the experimental pro- 
cedure offers for testing theories and for developing new in- 
sight. The combination of experimental and mathematical pro- 
cedures which Cassirer describes has been the main vehicle for 
the integration of the study of light, of electricity, and of the 
other branches of physical science. The same combination seems 
to be destined to make the integration of the social sciences a 



14 Substance and Function (Engl. tr.), 31. 
"/Ml., 19. 
"Ibid., 20. 


Robert S. Hartman 


I DWELT on the birth of the ego out of the mythical 
collective. . . . [The] ego detaches itself from the collec- 
tive in the same way that certain figures of Rodin wrest them- 
selves out of the stone and awaken from it." Thus, in a speech 
at the Library of Congress, 1 Thomas Mann described his 
creation of the Joseph figures. In a similar way Cassirer could 
have described and did describe 2 the birth of modern self- 
consciousness from the matrix of pre-historic myth and medi- 
eval metaphysics, the creation of its symbolic forms out of the 
raw material of rites and gestures, the emergence of logical 
functions from natural material, their gradual liberation and 
therewith the self-liberation of consciousness from sensuous 

Symbolic forms are progressive states of the self-emergence 
of consciousness. That emergence may be followed in the grad- 
ual unfolding of metaphysical thought into modern science as 
Cassirer has shown in the first three volumes of the Erkenntnis- 
problem or it may be demonstrated in the gradual unfolding 
of the raw material and mirroring produce of the self -evolving 
consciousness as Cassirer has done in his Philosofhie der 
symbolischen Formen? 

Both forms of presentation demonstrate one and the same 
process of creative thought: in the first case with the emphasis 
on the creating mind, in the second with the emphasis on the 
created form. As the form, in its successive elaboration, mirrors 

1 The Atlantic Monthly, February 1943, 97 ff. 
* Cf. Erkenntnisfroblem I, 1 1 f. 

1 All references in this essay are to that work, and will be referred to by PSF, 
unless otherwise stated. The translations are my own. 



the laboring mind, so the mind, in its successive effort, reflects 
the form wrought. In the Erkenntnisfroblem Cassirer has 
shown the work of the objective spirit in its course; in the 
Philosophic der symbolischen Formen he has shown, in the 
evolution of its work, the course of the objective spirit. In both 
cases he stands at the end of the development, surveying it and 
focusing it within his own mind, thus re-creating the energy of 
cultural development and sculpturing its forms before our own 
eyes, a philosophical seer, whose visual, "synoptic" 4 view of 
philosophy both in its historical and conceptual dimension 
has rendered to us in ontogeny what the objective spirit has 
wrought throughout generations in phylogenic labor. Thus 
he has created a new symbolic form, which points beyond itself 
toward still higher formations. His work for us, represents 
what he calls "a new Composition* of the world, which proceeds 
according to specific standards, valid only for itself." 5 Such a 
form "must be measured with its own measure. The points of 
view, according to which it is to be judged . . . must not be 
brought to it from outside, but must be deduced from the 
fundamental principle of its own formation." 8 No rigid meta- 
physical category must interfere with such "a purely immanent 

Let us then measure Cassirer with his own measure. We 
shall be unable, within the limits of this essay, to extend our 
measurements into all the ramifications of the philosophy of 
symbolic forms. But we shall be able to follow its formative 
principle. From it we shall deduce, and by it justify, our own 
procedure. Thus we may hope to catch the spirit of that great 
work the spirit of creation itself. 

The philosophy of symbolic forms is a philosophy of creation. 
The category of creativity is the one we shall apply to and 
deduce from his system. In order to do so we must first clear 
the way and determine his philosophy negatively against its 
two poles, the raw-material of creation and the source of the 
creating act. The symbolic form is neither the one nor the 

4 PSF, III, viii. 
'I but. 


other, but represents the process of creation itself. Confinement 
to the raw-material would lead to metaphysics, confinement to 
the source of the creative act to psychology. Cassirer's philoso- 
phy is neither metaphysics nor psychology} it is neither con- 
cerned with pure Being nor with pure Consciousness, but with 
the context and interaction of both. 

The characteristic and peculiar achievement of each symbolic form 
the form of language as well as that of myth or of theoretical cognition 
is not simply to receive 7 a given material of impressions possessing already 
a certain determination, quality and structure, in order to graft on it, 
from the outside, so to speak, another form out of the energy of con- 
sciousness itself. The characteristic action of the spirit begins much 
earlier. Also, the apparently "given" is seen, on closer analysis, to be 
already processed by certain acts of either the linguistic, the mythical, 
or the logico-theoretical "apperception." It "is" only that which it has 
been made into by those acts. Already in its apparently simple and im- 
mediate states it shows itself conditioned and determined by some 
primary function which gives it significance. In this primary formation, 
and not in the secondary one, lies the peculiar secret of each symbolic 
form. 8 

Thus there is no "primary datum" underlying the creative 
activity of consciousness. Every primary datum is already 
spiritually 9 imbued, even the simplest spatial perceptions, like 
left and right, high and low. 10 The same is true of the original 
sensuous perceptions of time, number, and causality. If these 
categories were substantial elements, they could point to an 
absolute Being} but such a Being, presupposed by dogmatic 
metaphysics, does not exist. Our consciousness cannot posit any 
content without, by that very act of positing, setting a whole 
complex of other contents. This fact cannot be explained by 
dogmatic metaphysics from the presupposition of an absolute 
Being j on the contrary, the existence of such a being is contra- 
dicted by that very activity of consciousness. 11 An "immediate 

T In the sense of the Platonic "receptacle." 
*PSF,ll 9 120. 

The adjective "spiritual" is used in the sense of the German "geistig." 
10 PSF, II, 120. 

" PSF 9 I, 31 f., with reference to Kant's Versuch die negatwen Grossen in die 
Weltweisheit rimuf&hren. 


datum" is already a material-spiritual context, it is a creatum: 
the germ of a symbolic form. 

It is obvious, on the other hand, that we cannot understand 
the form through insight into the natural causes of its origina- 
tion, by the method of psychology rather than that of meta- 
physics. What consciousness contributes to the form is as im- 
portant as are the contributions of the schemata of space, time, 
and number; but it is as little real by itself as are the latter. 
There is a third "formative determination," which explains the 
world of symbolic forms neither from the nature of the abso- 
lute nor from the play of empirico-psychological forces. Al- 
though that determination may agree with the method of psy- 
chology in acknowledging the fact that the subjectum agens of 
the symbolic forms is to be found nowhere else than in the 
human consciousness, it does not necessarily have to take 
consciousness in either its metaphysical or in its psychological 
determination but in a critical analysis which goes beyond 
both. "The modern critique of cognition, the analysis of the 
laws and principles of knowledge, has freed itself more and 
more determinedly from the presuppositions both of meta- 
physics and of psychologism." 12 

Neither from the side of an absolute being nor from that of 
consciousness alone can reality be comprehended. Only in the 
combination of both, in the symbolic form as constituted by the 
creative activity of the spirit, in the produce, the autonomous 
creation of the spirit do we have reality and therewith truth ; 

for the highest truth which opens itself to the spirit is finally the form of 
its own activity. In the totality of its own accomplishments and the 
cognition of the specific rules by which each of them is being determined, 
as well as in the consciousness of the connection which combines all these 
rules into the unity of one task and one solution: in all this the spirit 
possesses the knowledge of itself and of reality. 13 

And that knowable reality alone is real. 

To the question what absolute reality should be outside of that totality 
of spiritual functions, what the "thing in itself" might be in this sense 
to this question there is no further answer. It must be understood more 

"PSF, II, I5 . 
11 WF, 


and more as a falsely put problem, a phantom of thought. The true 
concept of reality cannot be pressed into the abstract form of Being, but 
becomes merged in the variety and abundance of the forms of spiritual 
life a life on which is imprinted the stamp of inner necessity, and there- 
with the stamp of objectivity. In this sense each new "symbolic form," 
not only the conceptual world of cognition but also the plastic world of 
art, as well as that of myth and of language, signifies, in the words of 
Goethe, a revelation from the inner to the outer, a "synthesis of world 
and spirit," which alone truly assures us of the original unity of both. 14 

The world of symbolic forms is the world of life itself. 
Neither in the primitive intuition of the spirit 15 nor in the 
primitive perception of natural being can life be comprehended. 
Life has left both these states behind, it has transformed itself 
into the form of the spirit. 16 "The negation of the symbolic 
forms would therefore, instead of apprehending the fullness of 
life, on the contrary destroy the spiritual form, to which that 
fullness necessarily is bound." 17 

We must not passively contemplate these spiritual realities, 
but put ourselves right into the midst of their restless activity; 
only thus shall we comprehend these realities not as static con- 
templations of a metaphysical Being but as formative functions 
and energies. In doing so we shall discover in them, however 
different the "Gestalten" they produce, certain universal and 
typical principles, 18 the principles of creation itself. Recognizing 
creation we become creative ourselves: not as dogmatic meta- 
physicians but as artists vitalized by and vitalizing our ma- 

Thus, in our interpretation, Cassirer's philosophy is meta- 
physics as little as Rodin's figures are stone: if no creative hand 
had ever touched the stone it might have remained stone. The 
creative touch proved that mere "stone" it never was. If no 
creative philosophy had ever liberated the spirit from the 
mould of the scholastic system into which it had been "melted 
down," 19 then metaphyiscs might have remained metaphysics. 

" PSF, 1, 4 8 f. 

M /W,I,5i. 

17 Ibid. 

"F,I, 5 i. 

a * Erkenntnisfroblem, I, 1 1 . 


"Only slowly the individual moments of thought, which in 
that system were held together as if by a dogmatic force, step 
forth in freer movement." 20 From the intellectual struggles of 
the Renaissance, to the liberating strike of Kant's Critique of 
Reason, to Cassirer's "Critique of Culture," 21 the life-giving 
touch works on and transforms metaphysics, until it culminates 
in the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. But being capable of such 
transformation it shows itself never to have been mere "meta- 
physics." Critical philosophers, and Cassirer in particular, could 
vitalize metaphysics as Rodin could the stone. It may be instruc- 
tive to compare the nature of Cassirer's material with that of 

Rodin's "stone" never was just stone. Rodin only knew 
living surfaces. These surfaces consisted of infinitely many 

The play of light upon them made manifest that each of these move- 
ments was different and significant. At this point they seemed to flow 
into one another; at that to greet each other hesitatingly; at a third to 
pass by each other without recognition, like strangers. There were 
undulations without end. There was no point at which there was not 
life and movement. ... He saw only innumerable living surfaces, only 
life. 22 

Cassirer's philosophy never was just metaphysics. 23 Meta- 
physics, as ontology, is the discipline of pure Being, but there 
never was pure Being. In the interaction of the thinker's mind 
with the raw material of his thought arises a new reality: 
Reality proper. That reality appears in "symbolic forms" 
forms which rise under the dynamic movement of thought like 
Rodin's figures under the magic of his hands. Like on Rodin's 
surfaces, the light of reality plays on these forms, which refract 
it in a thousand manifestations. 

When one characterizes language, myth, art, as "symbolic forms," 

M Rilke, Rainer Maria, Rodin, New York: The Fine Editions Press, 1945, n f. 

9 Somewhat doubtful in this respect is W. C. Swabey in his book-report on 
the PMlosophie der symbolise/ten Formen, Philosophical Review, vol. XXXIII, 
No. 2, 1924, 195. 


then there seems to lie in that expression the presupposition that all of 
them, as definite formative modes of the spirit, point back to a last 
primary layer of reality, 24 which is seen through them only, like through 
a strange medium. Reality seems to become comprehensible for us only 
in the particular state of those forms; in them it both conceals and re- 
veals itself. The same fundamental functions which give the world 
of the spirit its determination, its imprint and character, appear on the 
other hand as just so many refractions which Reality, uniform and 
unique in itself, experiences as soon as it is being apperceived and ap- 
propriated by the "subject." The philosophy of symbolic 'forms is, 
seen under this point of view, nothing but the attempt to indicate for 
each of them, as it were, the definite index of refraction. It wants to 
recognize the particular nature of the different refracting media. 25 

Those indices determine the activity of the spirit, defining 
it in terms of the "modalities" 26 which the spirit assumes in 
each particular medium. The life of the spirit thus is "multi- 
dimensional j" 27 there are undulations without end, movements, 
dynamic processes. Like Rodin's statues they grow out of the 
undifferentiated sensuous matrix into the determinacy of ob- 
jective thought indeed, like Rodin's own "Thought," a head 
growing out of the stone, or his "Thinker," shaped from him- 
self, pondering the abundance of forms crowding "The Gate 
of Hell," in deep symbolism. 

The process of differentiation is a process of objectivation. As 
Rodin followed religiously the laws of nature, the way he him- 
self successively discovered them, 28 so Cassirer follows the laws 
of the spirit as he uncovers them. There are two main laws, The 
Law of Continuity each phase is the fulfilment of the preced- 
ing one and The Law of New Emphasis each phase de- 
velops the preceding one. 29 These, of course, are nothing but the 
laws of growth itself. As the forms grow their "moments" 
change, their "accents" shift. The three stages or "dimensions" 

" Cf. II, 50. 
* PSF, III, 3. 

II, i6il, 9 ff,2 9 ff. 

38 Story, Sommerville, "Auguste Rodin and His Work," in Rodin, New York: 
Phaidon Edition, Oxford University Press, 1939, n. 


of shift are Expression, Presentation, Meaning (Ausdruck, 
Darstellung, Bedeutung). These stages are not isolated from 
one another but contain "points" at which the forms flow into 
one another, greet each other hesitatingly or pass each other 
without recognition, like strangers. In the first stage, Expres- 
sion, the subject "possesses" the environment as a variety of 
physiognomic experiences. 30 Long before there are "things" 
there is such structurization of experience. "Existence," "re- 
ality," are at that stage physiognomically manifest. The ab- 
straction of "pure" perception, which is the starting point of 
dogmatic sensualism, is here already transcended. The datum 
which the subject experiences as being "opposite" to him is here 
transparent with inner life, not exterior or dumb. This is the 
stage at which myth and art originate, and where, with hesitat- 
ing greeting, they meet language, which, in the Sentence, takes 
up 31 and transcends that stage, setting the new dimension, 
Presentation. The sentence, however, only very gradually 
swings itself upward into the new dimension. It remains bound 
to the physiognomic realm, substituting logical determination 
for spatial demonstration. Only gradually it expands from per- 
ceptual and emotional perspectives to full objectivation, in three 
steps again: the mimic, where it remains in the plastic world, 
in the spatial meanings of the copula, the demonstrative pro- 
nouns, the definite article, onomatopoetic formations, and the 
rendering of the physiognomic characters through voiced or 
voiceless consonants, higher or lower vowels j the analogic, 
where in the relation of sounds the relations of the objects are 
expressed , and, finally, the symbolic, where all similarity be- 
tween the world of language and that of objects has dis- 
appeared. Only in this last form, in the distance from the lower 
stages, language comes entirely into its own. 32 The three stages 
of language are thus, as it were, steps by which the spirit passes 
from the physiognomic to the presentative dimension, and 
beyond it into that of meaning. 

Whereas language and mythos partly flow into, partly greet 

" PSF, III, 5245 71. 


each other, mythos and logos pass by each other without recog- 
nition, like strangers. The scientific concept is past the physio- 
gnomic level. 83 "Cognition" implies distance from the world, 
a "cut" between "nature" and the world of feeling. The concept 
starts its career on the level of perception, where it meets 
language, to ascend in harmony with it, in order, finally, to 
transcend it through three stages again, corresponding to the 
three stages of language} the mimic, in the platonic *pwww 
from things to ideas, 34 with its correspondence between both; 
the analogic, in Kepler-Galileo-Newtonian science, where the 
correspondence between the world of objects and that of con- 
cepts has disappeared in detail but still persists in the corre- 
spondence of structures, especially in the model of a 
given space j and the symbolic, in the modern scientific concept 
with its purely symbolic "space" without any correspondence to 
the perceptual world. In this last stage the process of objectiva- 
tion is completed, the symbols stand freely and in full self- 
consistent significance above the raw material of the world. 
Yet, they point to it and give it its final and culminating mean- 
ing, fulfilling in their lofty sweep the grunt, the first gesture 
of the man of primal times. 

Rodin's "Man of Primal Times" 35 shows precisely this: the 
unlimited promise of that first gesture, the unfolding of thought 
from hand. 

It indicates in the work of Rodin the birth of gesture. That gesture 
which grew and developed to such greatness and power, here bursts 
forth like a spring that softly ripples over this body. It awakens in the 
darkness of primal times and in its growth seems to flow through the 
breadth of this work as though reaching out from bygone centuries to 
those that are to come. Hesitatingly it unfolds itself in the lifted arms. 
These arms are still so heavy that the hand of one rests upon the top of 
the head. But this hand is roused from its sleep, it concentrates itself 
quite high on the top of the brain where it lies solitary. It prepares for 
the work of centuries, a work that has no measure and no end. 8e 

"PSF,!!!, 526. 

M Alsowcalled "The Age of Bronze." 
* Rilke, op. cit tj 24. 


Gesture is the first awkward manifestation of the spontaneity 
of spirit which flowers forth in the full bloom of the symbolic 
forms. In its beginning even the primal forms of the synthetiz- 
ing function of consciousness, 87 space, time, and number, are 
nothing but corporeal motions "that softly ripple over the 
body." Space arises from the demonstrative gestures of Here 
and There, I and Thou, and expands in concentric circles around 
the speaker, whose body is the first system of spatial coordina- 
tion. 88 Thomas Mann's Joseph is still a mythical but also already 
an individual figure, as he describes his own and his Ishmaelite 
fellow travelers' universes: 

The world hath many centres, one for each created being, and about 
each one it lieth in its own circle. Thou standest but half an ell from 
me, yet about thee lieth a universe whose centre I am not but thou art. 
. . . And I, on the other hand, stand in the centre of mine. For our 
universes are not far from each other so that they do not touch; rather 
hath God pushed them and interwoven them deep into each other. 89 

That body-space finally becomes the pure-brain-space of mod- 
ern relativity theory. Time, originally woven into the spatial 
determination of Here and There as Now and Then, 40 becomes 
the purely mental symbol of our physical science. And number 
itself, "originally a hand concept, not a thought concept," 41 
develops out of its bodily encumbrance into the lofty realm it 
has so elaborately carved out today; now not only a content 
of thought but even a way of thinking, 42 a means of sharper and 
sharper determination of the indeterminate. 43 

Thus, like filigree work chiseled out from heavy walls, the 
final Gestalten of the symbolic forms stand out in relief against 
the background of metaphysics. The vertical "schemata" of the 
structure, reaching throughout the whole dis-cursus of con- 
sciousness, 44 are the formative principles: space, time, and 

"PSF,!!!, 1 6. 

M PSF,I, 156. 

89 Mann, Thomas, Joseph in Egyft, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1 939, Vol. 1, 4. 

*PF,I, i6 7 ff. 

41 /W, III, 397- 

*PSF, III, 468. 


number. The horizontal "dimensions" are the forms of expres- 
sion, presentation, and meaning. These latter are principles of 
differentiation, carrying forward the relief into ever finer 
ramifications. Thus the creative activity of the spirit resembles 
that of sculpture even in the method, "the process of removal," 45 
to use the words of Michelangelo. The combination of both the 
horizontal and the vertical principles of formation are the sym- 
bolic forms, myth, language, art, religion, theoretical cognition: 
peculiar energies of the spirit, 46 with their own "modalities" 
and their own particular "planes of reality" (Seinsebenen)* 1 
their own position and Gestalt on the metaphysical background. 
Their ultimate refinement has lost all semblance to its meta- 
physical matrix, just as filigree on a wall, or a sculptured hand 
by Rodin, have lost all semblance to their own concrete ma- 
terial. It has lost almost even the texture of the background. 
It is pure symbol either script, as the filigree on the walls of 
the Alhambra of Granada, or something sui generis, as a mem- 
ber sculptured by Rodin. "A hand laid on another's shoulder 
or thigh does not any more belong to the body from which it 
came from this body and from the object which it touches 
or seizes something new originates, a new thing that has no 
name and belongs to no one." 48 It is a symbol. 

The symbol, though of sensuous material, yet transcends 
that materiality and points toward a content in the higher 
forms of Meaning. Its materiality is completely absorbed, in 
that function of meaning, 49 its "symbolic pragnanz." It is 
subjected under the sensuous; yet that subjection is at the same 
time freedom from the sensuous. 51 The capacity of the sen- 
suous material to point toward a world of meanings, to 
symbolize it without co-inciding with it this clothing of the 
sensuous with ideal meaning is indeed "das Mysterium des 

45 Cf. II, 2 89* Erkenntnisfroblem I, 5 f. 


*PSF,l, 28 f. 
48 Rilke, op. /., 30. 

"PSF, III, 234. The similarity of Cassirer's terminology with that of Gestalt 
psychology is a conscious one. Symbolic forms are "Gestaltcn." 
, 41. 


Wirkens schlechthin"** the mystery of creative activity far 
excellence. It cannot suddenly accrete to the sensitive faculty 
out of nothing, but must be part of the very nature of that 
faculty from its first beginnings. There is, in the sensuous 

to use an expression of Goethe, an' "exact sensuous imagination," which 
appears active in the most diverse realms of spiritual and mental creativity. 
Each of these realms gives rise, as the true vehicle of its own immanent 
process, beside and above the world of perception, to a free world of 
images, a world which in its immediate quality still bears the hue of 
the sensuous, but that sensuousness is formed and therewith spiritually 
dominated. We do not encounter the sensuous as a simple datum, but as 
a system of sensuous varieties, which are being produced in all kinds of 
free creation. 53 

In other words, not only is there no absolute metaphysical Be- 
ing, there is, on the other hand, not even an absolutely given 
sensuous perception. The network of meanings is present in 
germ, in f>otentia y in the first ripples of expression. Already then 
there is not only the substance of the material, but also the 
function of meaning in it. "The fundamental function of mean- 
ing is there before the positing of the individual sign, so that 
in that positing that function is not created but only fixated, 
only applied to an individual case." 54 Substance and function, 
material and meaning, the sensuous and the "intelligible" are 
originally fused in the unity of primary symbols. As the 
process of objectivation, of spiritualization continues, the sub- 
stantial is gradually chiseled off, "in a process of removal," 
and the functional appears in greater and greater purity. But 
substance and function never lose their mutual interdependence 
the filigree of the Alhambra is still on the wall, and Rodin's 
sculptured hand is still of bronze. That primary fusion in the 
symbolic, this primacy of the symbolic junction, is the secret 
of all symbolic forms and all spiritual activity. There is no Out- 
side or Inside here, no Before or After, nothing Active or Pas- 
sive. Here we have a union of elements, which did not have 

11 POT, m, 119. 

"POT, I, 19 f. 
" POT, I, 41. 


to be constructed, but was a primary meaningful whole which 
belongs only to itself and interprets itself alone. In the fusion 
of body and soul we have the paradigm and prototype of such 
a relation. 55 

The moments of succession, as we find them in space and 
time, the connections of conditions such that the one appears as 
"thing," the other as "quality," the connection of successive 
events such that the one appears as cause, the other as effect: 
all these are examples of how the original fusion is gradually 
loosened and ramified. At the end of the development stands 
modern man, his intellect almost disengaged from his sensuous 
and social 86 background. Not without reason Cassirer's last 
published work had to be An Essay on Man. 

The principles of formation, present in the gestures of the 
man of primal times, brought about the intellect of the man 
of modern times. The hand resting on the brain of Rodin's 
figure symbolizes the entire power of that primal gesture. 
That hand does not rest there any more it has emancipated 
itself in the actions of that brain, 87 from which proceeded both 
modern science and technology, more like Ares than Athene. 
In the Critical philosophy the threads had been laid bare by 
which intellect is knitted to perception. For Kant "the intellect 
is the simple transcendental expression for the fundamental 
phenomenon that all perception, as conscious, always and neces- 
sarily must be jormed perception." 58 In Cassirer's philosophy 
the threads are traced back to their very origin in the original 
skein of cultural life: the critique of reason is expanded and 
empirically substantiated in Cassirer's critique of culture. But, 
after showing the entire many-branched labyrinth of man's 
development to modernity, Cassirer focuses on the hero him- 
self, a modern Theseus, who has left the guiding hand of 
nature and, at the end of his course, encounters a monster, the 
master of the maze, the Minotaur of Machinery, ready to de- 
vour him. Will man slay it or will he be slain? 

55 PSF, in, 117. 

M Originally spatial. 

OT PSF, II, 266: Technology as "organ projection." 

" PSF, III, 2124. 


It all depends on whether the original power of symboliza- 
tion is still living in him. For symbolization is power. Rodin's 
sculptured limbs are creations of a powerful energy which has 
appropriated the material and bent it to its will. The power of 
symbolization is a power of concentration and condensation, a 
Kraft der Verdichtung active in all symbolic forms. "It is as if 
through the creation of the new symbol, a tremendous energy 
of thought is being transformed from a relatively diffuse into 
more concentrated form." 80 That energy is the spontaneity, the 
creative freedom of the spirit, a freedom not arbitrary, but 
producing within the modalities of the symbolic forms. 161 It is a 
power which contains within itself the entire force of cultural 
evolution the symbol concentrates in one intense moment the 
entire cultural energy, diffuse in its manifold forms from past 
to future: a "revelation in the material." 62 Man will slay the 
monster, if he has the power of the symbol: to find his way 
back to nature and at the same time to look forward into the 
future, if he is able to concentrate and symbolically to divine 
past and future in the present. He must become a prophet: 
a symbol himself of his own origin and destination. 63 

For us Cassirer was such a "symbolic man," and so was 
Rodin. Both knew the nature and power of the symbol. Rodin 
saw man himself as a symbol. "When I have a beautiful wom- 
an's body as a model, the drawings I make of it also give me 
pictures of insects, birds, and fishes. That seems incredible and 
I did not know it myself until I found out." 84 Cassirer found 
a similarly incredible content in the "symbolic forms" of the 
spirit. Each of them symbolizes the totality of cultural evolu- 
tion. Consciousness cannot posit anything without positing 
every thing j in the Goethean words, often quoted by Cassirer, 

Truly the mental fleece 
Resembles a weaver's masterpiece, 

**PSF, III, 466. 

60 Ibid. 

"PSF,e.g. I, 20. 

"PSF, I, 46. 

M Cf. Essay on Man y 55, 61. 

** Story, op. tit., 14 f. 


Where a thousand threads one treadle throws, 
Where fly the shuttles hither and thither 
Unseen the threads are knit together, 
And an infinite combination grows. 

The symbol, the material content clothed with the ideal mean- 
ing of the whole infinite composition, is therefore the "natural" 
product of consciousness, the symbolic function its natural func- 
tion. A healthy consciousness must in every act, to the degree 
and extent of that act, shuttle back and forth throughout the 
aeons of cultural development and knit all of them into the 
act. To the degree that it achieves this it is free from its sensuous 
origins: it is human. The essence of humanity is a free con- 
sciousness, roaming widely over cultural space and time. "Hu- 
man culture taken as a whole may be described as the process 
of man's progressive self-liberation.'* 65 The more symbolic an 
act, therefore, the more it is a truly human act. The more it 
presents a cultural content, the more it must represent all 
culture. Ethically as well as epistemologically, the develop- 
ment of presentation is progressive representation. Man's self- 
liberation proceeds proportionately to his capacity for symbolic 
representation. Representation is the act of manifesting spiritual 
energy in sensuous material. It is the fundamental function of 
consciousness, exhibited in the primal gesture of the savage as 
well as in the mathematical analysis of the man of advanced 
studies. Between both activities is a difference of degree, but 
not of kind. In all intellectual activity this function is being 
applied, or rather, all intellectual activity is this function. Only 
in human behavior it is not yet manifest} only man himself 
has not yet become a symbol unto himself. In the social sphere 
the relationship between symbol and reality has not yet been 
found. It must be found} social reality must be filled with 
symbolic meaning. Thus the tension between symbol and 
reality 66 would be consummated. The other alternative of con- 
summation would be the effacement of man, the flattening out 
of the spirited ripple that rose as form over the faceless deep. 
The differentiation of the formless, similar to the structuriza- 

85 Essay on Man, 228. 


tion of the Awpov by the 9<*S or the articulation of 5Xi) by \MW 
this is the function of Form in Cassirer's philosophy (even 
though limited to the field of human culture and on the level 
of transcendental correlation rather than that of metaphysical 
opposition, as it was in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle 
and later in that of Hegel). 67 Form is not a static thing, a shape, 
but a dynamic principle, the totality of characters that transform 
sensuous impressions into intellectual and spiritual expressions." 
In its totality alone the form finds truth} truth is the whole 
herein Cassirer agrees with Hegel, calling part of his own 
philosophy a "Phenomenology of Cognition." 09 

The end, the "telos" of the spirit cannot be comprehended or pro- 
nounced, if one takes it by itself, severed from its beginning and middle. 
Philosophical reflection does not in this way set off the end against 
middle and beginning, but takes all three as integral moments of one 
unique total movement. 70 

In this total context, then, every element of the form, every 
one of its "differentials" 71 is representative of the whole. As for 
Rodin the beauty of the woman is representative of all creation, 
so for Cassirer the characteristic of one cultural unit, whether 
a vowel in language, a ritual in religion or an algorithm in 
mathematics, mirrors monadlike 72 the whole universe of forms. 
As Rodin's model is an end product of evolution, but as such 
again a middle term between the universal premise of evolution 
and the conclusion drawn by Rodin's pencil, so the symbolic 
unit is an end of the formative development preceding it, but 
also a mediator between that development and Cassirer's con- 
ception of it. At the same time these units are mediators be- 
tween the preceding and successive stages, and focal points of 
the entire development. 

The form of sensuous reality is based on the fact that the individual 
moments of which it is built up do not stand by themselves, but that 

OT Cf. PSF, III, 13, 230, and infra 312 ff., 322. 
, 12. 

, I, 40} III, 235- 
, 102. 


between them takes place a peculiar relation of "corn-positing" (Mit- 
setzung). Nowhere is here anything isolated and detached. Even that 
which seems to belong to a certain single spatial point or temporal 
moment, does not remain immersed in the mere Here and There. It 
reaches beyond itself into the totality of all empirical contents. 73 

The higher reality unfolds itself, the richer its pattern be- 
comes and the fuller of symbolic functions will be the contents 
that offer themselves to consciousness. 

The farther that process continues, the wider a circle consciousness is 
able to span in a single moment. Each of its elements is now saturated, 
as it were, with such functions. It stands in varied meaningful contexts, 
which again are connected and which, by virtue of that connection, 
constitute a whole, which we denote as the world of our "experience." 
Whatever contexts one may isolate from this totality of "experience" 
. . . always their orders will show a definite structure and a common 
fundamental character. They are of such a nature, that from everyone 
of their moments a transition is possible to the whole, just as the con- 
stitution of the whole is presentable and presented in every moment. 74 

Every phenomenon is now only a letter within the script of 
total reality. 75 

Thus it is possible to span the whole world in a moment. 
Physical science is doing that, comprehending the totality of 
events by representing each event through its four space-time 
coordinates and reducing the variation of these coordinates to 
(more or less) final invariant laws/ 8 It thus obtains what science 
calls the "truth" of the phenomena, which is nothing else but 
their totality, "taken not in their concrete state but in the form 
of an ideal coordination" That coordination is based both 
on logical connections and logical distinctions, on synthesis 
as well as analysis. The higher a symbol, that is to say the more 
numerous and the more complex the phenomena it refers to, 
the more different will be its own form, its shape, from that 
of the phenomena themselves, and the greater the "distance" 

l, 80. 


between the sensuous and the symbolic content of consciousness 
but the greater that "distance" the greater, because the more 
comprehensive, the more "universal," will be the "truth." Fi- 
nally the symbol contains nothing but the 'principle of the forms 
it represents, the constitutive law of their structure, the genetic 
essence of their formation. It thus refers not to the similarity of 
the forms, but to their inner connective law, which may or may 
not express itself in similarities of form. 78 Thus the common 
constructive principle of the conic sections is not betrayed in 
any similarity of shape. Again we are reminded of Rodin, who 
in all his work looked for the latent principles of natural move- 
ment. "Such was the basis of what is called my Symbolism. 
I do not mind being called a Symbolist, if that will define the 
essential principle of sculpture." 79 It was not enough for Rodin 
to study nature and follow it so closely that "The Man of 
Primal Times" was suspected to be cast from the living model. 
He tried to find the principle of movement by what he called 
a method of "logical exaggeration." "My aim was then, after 
the 'Burghers of Calais,' to find ways of exaggerating logi- 
cally." 80 Indeed, what could be sensuously as well as significantly 
more expressive than calling ellipse, parabola and hyperbola 
"logical exaggerations" of the circle! 

Logical exaggeration consists, among other things, in the 
"constant reduction of the face to a geometrical figure, and the 
resolve to sacrifice every part of the face to the synthesis of its 
aspect," 81 that is to say, the totality of its features. That totality 
is sometimes enhanced by subtraction. 

Take the Cathedral of Chartres as an example: one of its towers is 
massive and without ornamentation, having been neglected in order 
that the exquisite delicacy of the other could be better seen. In sculpture 
the projection of the sheaths of muscles must be accentuated, the shorten- 
ings heightened, the holes made deeper. Scultpure is the art of the hole 
and the lump. 82 

I, 88. 

70 Story, op. cit., 14. 

J bid. 


The "process of removal" thus is a succession of dialectic steps 
in the totality of the form's movement. 

Not in continuous quantitative accretion, but in the sharpest dialectic 
contradiction the various fundamental ideas oppose each other in the 
truly critical epochs of cognition. . . , 88 The myth [e.g.,] would not be 
a truly spiritual form, if its unity were nothing but oppositionless sim- 
plicity. . . , The individual stages of its development do not simply 
join themselves one to the other, but often oppose each other in sharp 
contrast. The process consists in the fact that certain fundamental traits, 
certain spiritual determinations of the preceding stages are not only 
elaborated and supplemented, but are also being negated, indeed an- 
nihilated. 84 

Whatever obstructs the law of process of the total form is being 
eliminated. The symbol itself cannot contain anything that is not 
part of the totality: it shows "hole and lump." It is not similar 
to the symbolized content, but somehow in its shape is found the 
principle of the totality of the represented forms, visible to the 
eye of the synoptic seer, whether he be of plastic imagination 
like Rodin or of philosophical imagination like Cassirer. Some 
day, perhaps, a logic of symbolic forms will be written, based 
on the combined insight of both philosopher and artist. 

That logic would have to be symbolic of the entire fullness of 
life, its symbolism saturated with live meanings and not "sick- 
lied o'er with the pale cast" of positivism. Cassirer's philosophy 
of symbolic forms is such a truly symbolic logic, culminating, 
as it does, in the symbols of mathematics, the "logic of inven- 
tion," as it was called both by Galileo and Leibniz. But Cas- 
sirer's "Ansatz" the method and tendency of his work, points 
further: to an expansion of his method into the very field of the 
arts, into a logical symbolism or symbolic logic of painting and 
sculpture as well as of music, thus, in due time, to a method 
which will make these forms of consciousness as definitely and 
determinedly symbolic of life's fullness maybe even in the 
form of communication 85 as now are the "rational" signs of 

88 Erkenntnisproblem, I, 5. 
M PF, II, 289. Cf. infra 879 f. 

85 Cf . Langer, Susanne K., Philosophy in a New Key, Cambridge, Mass. : Har- 
vard University Press, 1942, 2i8fL, and passim. 


language and mathematics. Seen under this view, not of eternity 
but of long term development, Cassirer's "phenomenology of 
cognition" is as much a precursor of a new logic as was HegePs 
phenomenology only in a much wider sense, comparable, per- 
haps, to Leibniz' divined rather than elaborated scientia gener- 
alis as a precursor of modern mathematical science. 

Indeed, in its emphasis on the totality of the formative 
process Cassirer's philosophy agrees with HegePs phenome- 
nology; in its emphasis on the fullness of life it draws inspiration 
from Leibniz' scientia generalis. With Hegel he has only the 
"Ansatz" 9 * in common; HegePs phenomenology "finally, so to 
speak, sharpens itself into a highest logical point. . . . How rich 
and varied ever its content, its structure is subject to a single 
and in a way uniform law." 87 The logic to which Cassirer points 
is a logic of creation, a logic of invention in a sense much wider 
even than that divined by Galileo and Leibniz as wide and 
varied, in fact, as life itself. The structure of his work does 
not suffer from HegePs shortcomings, from compression into 
a too narrow scheme. On the contrary, if criticism is in order, 
Cassirer's work seems almost too little inhibited, too artfully 
rambling at times in the fascinating regions it discloses, the 
style too ornamental sometimes to be fully effectful. 88 It is a 
work of art, full of life, showing, as does Rodin's work, "life in 
movement." 89 For Rodin it is the life of natural forms, for 
Cassirer the life of cultural forms. Rodin had nude models 
moving about in his studio, 

to supply him constantly with the picture of nudity in various attitudes 
and with all the liberty of ordinary life. He was constantly looking at 
them, and thus was always familiar with the spectacle of muscles in 

88 In contrast, for example, to the condensed imagery of Bergson. HegePs often 
atrocious German cannot be compared to the elegance of Cassirer's style. Although 
Cassirer was not as electrifying a personality as was Bergson, he was an absorbingly 
interesting lecturer. His classrooms, as one of his students expressed it, "seemed 
to be the halls where there was no life but the life of thought. In his lectures the 
spirit itself seemed to speak to the brains of men." This is a far cry from the utter 
dryness of HegePs presentation, the effect of which seems to have been one of the 
riddles of his time (not only to Schopenhauer). 

w Story, of cit. t 9. 


movement. Thus the nude, which today people rarely see, and which 
even sculptors only see during the short period of the pose, was for 
Rodin an ordinary spectacle. . . . The face is usually regarded as the 
only mirror of the soul, and mobility of features is supposed to be the 
only exteriorization of spiritual life. But in reality there is not a muscle 
of the body which does not reveal thoughts and feelings. 90 

Only the highest functions of the human mind seem to express 
the creativity of the spirit} Kant, and in a way even Hegel, as 
well as most of the post-Kantian philosophers before Cassirer, 
were interested in them mainly. Even Cassirer demonstrated 
the creativeness of thought first in its highest functions, in the 
field of abstract science. 91 Only gradually he worked down from 
the brain to the lower and lowlier parts of the body, finally to 
the gestures of the members, the movement of the muscles, 
until the entire body of man stood before his eyes vibrating 
with spiritual life. All the forms of that life were then con- 
stantly before his view; for over thirty years he constantly 
looked at them. He seemed, like Rodin, "obsessed by a sort of 
divine intoxication for form." 92 "The living motion of the spirit 
must be apprehended in its actuality, in the very energy of its 
movement." 93 "Procedere" is only apprehensible through proc- 
ess, in its Fortgang. Only by constantly following the forms of 
the spirit and sculpturing them in their process can one appre- 
hend them. 

The true, the concrete totality of the spirit must not be denoted in a 
simple formula at the beginning and so to speak presented ready made, 
but it develops, it finds itself only in the constantly advancing process 94 
of critical analysis itself. 95 

Just as the eyes of the sculptor must follow his models' mo- 
tions constantly and apprehend them in motor empathy, so the 
spirit itself, as analysis, must follow the "stetig weiterschrei- 

90 Story, op. cit.y 13. 

91 In Substance and Function. 
"Story, of. cit. t 26. 

""Im stetig weiterschreitenden Fortgang." The translation cannot render the 
plastic expressiveness of Cassirer's style. 

"PSFJy 10. 


tenden Fortgang? "the steadily further striding onwalking," 
of the symbolic forms parading before the philosopher's eyes 
like models before the artist. "The perimeter of spiritual reality 
can be designated, defined and determined only by pacing it 
.off in the process." 96 The whole of the objective spirit thus 
reveals itself gradually as an organic unity, steadily growing 
and developing in a "definite systematic scale, an ideal progress, 
as the end of which may be stated that the spirit in its own 
formations and self-created symbols not only is and lives, but 
that it comprehends them as they are." 07 In this respect again 
the philosophy of symbolic forms connects with HegePs phe- 
nomenology: "the end of development consists in the com- 
prehension and expression of spiritual reality not only as sub- 
stance, but 'just as much as subject'." 98 But there is an important 
difference between HegePs and Cassirer's phenomenology, 
which can be illustrated by Cassirer's attitude toward HegePs 
historical theory. 

The concept of a history of science contains the idea of the conservation 
of a universal logical structure in the succession of particular conceptual 
systems. Indeed: if the earlier content of thought would not be con- 
nected with the succeeding one by some identity, there would be nothing 
to justify our comprising the scattered logical fragments then at hand, 
in a series of becoming events. Each historical series of evolution needs 
a "subject" as a substratum in which to present and exteriorize itself. 
The mistake of the metaphysical theory of history lies not in the fact 
that it demands such a subject, but in the fact that it reifies it, by speak- 
ing of the self-development of an "Idea," a progress of the "World 
Spirit," and so on. We must renounce such reified carrier standing 
behind the historical movement; the metaphysical formula must be 
changed into a methodological formula. Instead of a common sub- 
stratum we only demand an intellectual continuity in the individual 
phases of development." 

That is to say, just as the sculptor is not interested in the per- 
sonality of his models as such, but in their symbolic significance 
for the laws of nature, so the philosopher of symbolic forms 


* Erkenntnisfroblem, I, 16. Italics mine. 


is not interested in the subject matter of the forms as such, 
but only their significance for the whole context in which they 
appear. "It is the task of philosophy . . . again and again, from 
a concrete historical aggregate of certain scientific concepts and 
principles to set forth the universal logical functions of cogni- 
tion in general." 100 In this respect the histories of science and of 
philosophy are two aspects of one and the same intellectual 
process, for which Galileo and Kepler, Newton and Euler are 
just as valid witnesses as Descartes or Leibniz. 101 The process 
is an empirical logical, not a metaphysical logical process. It is 
the historical process by which the cultural realities have 

From the sphere of sensation to that of perception, from perception to 
conceptual thinking, and from that again to logical judgment there 
leads, for critical epistemology, one steady road. Each later moment 
comprises the earlier, each earlier prepares the later. All the elements 
constituting cognition refer both to themselves and the "object." Sen- 
sation, perception, are in germ already comprehension, judgment, con- 
clusion. 102 

Neither in the treatment of the philosophical systems nor 
in that of the cultural forms is Cassirer concerned with estab- 
lishing a metaphysical subjective idealism. He is not dogmatic 
in any way 5 the dogmatic systems of metaphysics are in most 
cases nothing but 

hypostases of certain logical, aesthetical, or religious principles. The more 
they seclude themselves into the abstract generality of principle, the 
more they preclude themselves from other sides of spiritual culture and 
the concrete totality of its forms. 103 

With that totality Cassirer is concerned, in it he finds intellec- 
tual creativity active. The existence of such creativeness thus 
becomes for him not a matter of principle even though orig- 
inally it was a postulate 104 but a question of fact. In the rich- 
ness of that concrete totality he finds, through the ingenious 

100 ibid. 

101 Erkenntnisproblem, I, i o. 

* Erkenntnisfroblem, 1, 1 8. 


interpretation of the symbolic function, a whole systematic of 
the spirit, where each particular form receives its meaning pure- 
ly by the position it has within the system, a kind of periodic 
system of cultural forms. Only that system is never closed, but 
ever active, ever in process, 105 reality thus never being but 
ever becoming, the ideal goal of the process rather than the 
process itself. 

Being concerned with the universal meaning in concrete re- 
ality rather than in an abstract principle, which would only 
detract from that meaning, and in the sifting of that meaning 
from all the forms of reality itself, Cassirer is not interested only 
in completed philosophical systems, nor in fully grown cultural 
forms. Similar or even identical concepts might conceal differ- 
ent, even contrasting meanings, 106 and most significant features 
might be found in byroads hitherto overlooked. The manifold 
attempts and beginnings of research in all cultural forms are 
the trickles from which the formula of universal cultural prog- 
ress must be distilled. 107 In the frozen shapes of these forms the 
original dynamics of their movement must be detected. Cassirer 
inquired into all these forms, torsos, trunks of forms, with 
never resting zeal, presenting not only full grown treatises 
like the three great master works, but a host of monographs on 
particular questions. In all this his reasoning was profound; 
he aimed to crystallize the leading idea of cultural movement, 
its dynamic soul. Similarly Rodin in an unheard of procedure 
for a sculptor, exhibited 

human figures deprived of a head, legs or arms, which at first shock 
the beholder, but on examination are found to be so well balanced and 
so perfectly harmonized that one can only find beauty in them. His 
reason for this is artistically profound. ... In the development of a 
leading idea of thought, of meditation, of the action of walking, his 
desire was to eliminate all that might counteract or draw attention from 
this central thought. "As to polishing nails or ringlets of hair, that has 
no interest for me," he said; "it detracts attention from the leading 
line and the soul which I wish to interpret." 108 

1M Perhaps, in the light of the newest atomic achievements, this is also true for 
the periodic system of elements. 
108 Cf. Erkenntnlsfroblem^ I, 10. 
10T Cf. Erkenntnis'problem, I, 9. 
108 Story, op.cit., 13. 


Just as little did Cassirer have time for the trimmings of the 
cultural process. His painstaking search for phenomena was the 
search for the essential, the symbolic in them. But, since the 
symbolic is never found in purity 109 but only fulfilled in the 
totality of the process, and the process is never finished but al- 
ways proceeding, the search for the symbol itself is never ending 
but always asymptotic. Just as for Rodin and for every great 
master it was never Cassirer's habit "to undertake a work, 
complete it and have done with it. He always had by him a 
number of ideas and thoughts on which he meditated patiently 
for years as they ripened in his mind." 110 By the time he wrote 
the Essay on Man Cassirer saw the problems of the Philosophy 
of the Symbolic Forms from a different angle and in a new 
light. 111 

Now it was no longer so much the totality of the process that 
interested him, but one moment of its concrete fullness: the 
reference to man. The asymptotic openness of the process, the 
lofty culmination in merely intellectual symbols now has given 
place to a fuller harmony: a human universe. Now the sym- 
bolic forms were to help man to slay the monster and continue 
the process of life itself. Now it is no longer science which is 
the great culmination, but art Cassirer has moved toward the 
new logic towards which we see his work tending. On the last 
page of the Essay we read the famous words of Kant, that we 
can learn all about Newton's principles of natural philosophy, 
however great a mind may have been required to discover them; 
but we cannot learn to write spirited poetry, however explicit 
may be the precepts of the art and however excellent its models. 
We learn that the highest of forms is not an abstract "logical 
function," but that it is genius himself, homo creator. Now the 
whole of science is a flat dimension as compared with the di- 
mension of man himself. Not only "ex analogia universi" but, 
even more, "ex analogia hominis" we must understand the 
world. And it is on a note of musical harmony that this last 
great work of Cassirer ends: 

All these functions complete and complement one another. Each one 

" PSF, III, 142. 
110 Story, op. cit., 13. 
** Essay on Man, vii. 


opens a new horizon and shows us a new aspect of humanity. The dis- 
sonant is in harmony with itself; the contraries are not mutually exclu- 
sive, but interdependent: "harmony in contrariety, as in the case of the 
bow and the lyre." 112 

The spirit of Leibniz, in the new form of warm human concern, 
has conquered the Hegelian aloofness in Cassirer's mind. Now 
spontaneity and productivity are no more prerogatives of "the 
objective spirit" or "the symbolic function," but are "the very 
center of all human activities." 113 The philosophy of symbolic 
forms has become the philosophy of man. Man himself now is 
the central symbolic form. The symbolic process is now no 
longer so much one of "dematerialization," 114 "a process of 
removal," but of spiritualization, a process of strengthening 
the differentiation of matter by a new energy: the spiritual 
energy of harmonization. That energy combines the human 
world into a symphony of meanings. It strengthens itself 
through its wedlock with matter. Has it been an original partner 
of matter from the beginning? Has the harmony between it and 
matter been pre-established from the beginning and is the whole 
development of the forms nothing but the elaboration of that 
pre-established harmony? And is the appearance of that har- 
mony in the logic of symbols nothing but that harmony's 
revelation in matter? Cassirer never answers these Leibnizian 
questions} although, with unconcerned assurance, he makes 
positive statements in all these respects covering up meta- 
physical concern with reference to "miracles" and "ultimate 
mysteria." But he seems to be in profound agreement with 
Leibniz. "Leibniz was the first great modern thinker to have 
a clear insight into the true character of mathematical sym- 
bolism," 115 and into the nature of symbolism in general. 

For him [Leibniz] the problem of the "logic of things" is insolubly 
connected with the problem of the "logic of signs." The "Sctentia gen- 
erdu" needs the "Characteristica general**" as its tool and vehicle. The 

112 Essay on Man, 228. 

118 Essay on Man, 220. 

114 PSF, III, 387. 

118 Essay on Man, 217 j cf. Erkenntnisfroblem, II, 1425. 


latter does not refer to the things, but their representations: it does not 
deal with the res but the "notae rerum" But this does not prejudice their 
objective content. For that "pre-established harmony" which, in ac- 
cordance with the fundamental thought of Leibniz' philosophy, rules 
between the world of the ideal and the real: it also connects the world 
of signs with that of objective "meanings." The real is subject, without 
any limitation, to the ideal. 116 

There is no such division between ideal and real world in the 
philosophy of Cassirer. Critical philosophy welds the two 
worlds into transcendental unity. But the seam appears in the 
notion of the symbol. Cassirer cannot help using Leibnizian 
language. In that way he slides over the metaphysical problem 
which has been put and answered by Leibniz. With Leibniz 

the analysis of the real leads to the analysis of the ideas, the analysis of 
the ideas to that of the signs. With one stroke therewith the concept 
of the symbol has become the spiritual focus, the true center of the 
intellectual world. In it the principles of metaphysics and cognition run 
together. 117 

This very same characteristic can be given of Cassirer's philoso- 
phy of symbolic forms; only that the form's metaphysical in- 
gredients, by definition, are as metaphysical unknowable. 
His philosophy is thus in a way frustrating; one would like to 
say, it is so by definition. The quest for a metaphysics "behind" 
the symbolic form is invalid. But the question concerning the 
nature of that energy, which welds phenomena into structural 
totality and thus brings about symbols, is still valid. Its answer 
would lead into metaphysics a metaphysics of Leibnizian har- 
mony with humanistic emphasis: "the highest, indeed the only 
task of all these forms is to unite men!" 11 * 

What a new key is sounded here! How much has totality 
become harmony and harmony humanism! Human harmony 
all over the world presupposes universal symbols. Leibniz was 
right: without a Characteristica generalis we shall never find a 
Scientia generalis. Modern symbolic logic follows the same 


118 Essay on Man, 129. Italics mine. Whether these forms actually do unite men 

is another question. See below notes 132, 133. 


tendency. 119 But therewith the problem of human harmony is 
not solved. "In an analysis of human culture we must accept 
the facts in their concrete shape, in all their diversity and 
divergence." 120 The diversity of produced languages divide 
menj the unity of linguistic functions may unite them. Even 
more, however, may they become united by a universal logic 
of artistic imagination, an aesthetic logic, which is not inferior 
to intellectual logic, as was the one constructed by Baum- 
garten, 121 but superior to it, extending not only over the whole 
surface of things but also sounding the depths of the under- 
standing consciousness. Only then will it truly be possible to 
"comprehend the world in a moment," to make actual the 
brotherhood of man. Science, following the Leibnizian 
"Ansatz" has conquered the totality of things. Exact science is 
completely under Leibniz's spell. 122 But science has diluted the 
metaphysical richness of his method. "For Leibniz the concept 
of symbol was so to speak the 'vinculum substantiate? between 
his metaphysics and his logic. For modern science it is the 
'vmculum substantiate* between logic and mathematics and be- 
tween logic and exact natural science." 123 For the author of the 
Philosophy of Symbolic Forms this fact implied a distinct prog- 
ress and advantage. It was a fascinating discovery to find the 
intermediate function between the logical universal and the 
concrete individual, 124 the common denominator between ex- 
tension and intension, to discover the world of things as a world 
of symbols, as representations rather than as objects, 125 and to 
rise, in the process of dematerialization, to the pure "conceptual 
sign" without any Nebensinn that is to say without any 
material appendage, in spite of the necessity of meaning to find 
a sensuous substratum for its actualization. 127 But for the author 

" 1 ML 

181 Essay on Man, 136. 

, III, 55. 
'"PSF, I, tfif. 
m PSF, 111,373- 


of An Essay on Man it is different. The fascination of intellec- 
tual discovery now seems to have given way to an endeavor of 
moral persuasion a development similar to Kant's, although, 
in my opinion, less consciously planned for. In the Philosophy 
of Symbolic Forms it is the fascinating function of the concept 
to refer from the very beginning to the totality of thought, to 
the whole of all possible thought formations. 128 Precisely that 
which has not happened here or anywhere else is posited as 
norm 129 by the concept and is pre-formed in anticipation by the 
symbol. 130 The fascination of the Essay on Man is no more the 
all comprehensive potentiality of thought but that of man him- 
self. The kingdom of the possible must now be actualized by 
man. He must make true what has never been true before, his 
own total harmonic life. Now a new miracle has to happen: not 
the miracle of the concept, "that the simple sensuous material, 
by the way in which it is considered, gains a new and manifold 
spiritual life}" 131 but a miracle of social life: that the human 
material, by the way in which it is considered, gains a new and 
manifold spiritual life. Now the question arises, how man's 
spiritual creations can reactively ennoble their creator himself. 

This is only possible, obviously, if they do not remain merely 
intellectual achievements, but take hold of the whole of man's 
nature} if culture is integrated by the symbol not only, so to 
speak, horizontally, in the totality of its forms, but also in the 
person of its creator, vertically, so to speak, to the very founda- 
tions of his soul in a word, if man himself is integrated into his 
culture. For such an achievement the intellectual logic is not 
sufficient. The author of the Essay on Man does no longer 
seem to find it so important that the symbolic function is the 
vinculum substantiate between logic and mathematics and be- 
tween logic and exact natural science. For him it seems now to 
be all important that it be the vinculum substantiate between 
logic and morality. 

It is one of the peculiarities of creation that the works created 

128 PSF, m, 39 i. 
, 111,370. 

PSF, III, i 97 f., 21 if, 234- 

m PSF, 1, 27. 


appear as strangers to the creator. Since the essential act of 
creation is a subconscious one, the miracle of encompassing the 
spiritual in the material takes place in the very depths of the 
creating soulj the memory of it is faint, indeed, non-existing, 
and the re-cognition of the created as created almost impossible. 
Herein lies the fascination of the work for the creator 5 but 
herein also the danger of abstracting himself from his creations, 
of disintegration between man and culture instead of integra- 
tion. The very variety and differentiation of cultural forms, in 
which lies the progress of the spirit and in the totality of which 
lies its harmony, also makes for differences and separations. 
"Thus what was intended to secure the harmony of culture be- 
comes the source of the deepest discords and dissensions." 182 
This is the great antinomy, the dialectic, not only of the religious 
life 133 but of all cultural life. The "process of removal" some- 
times "iiberschlagt sich" gets out of hand, and degenerates into 
an urge of destruction. The great problem then is how to main- 
tain the continuity between the soul of man and his creations, 
how to weave him and the symbolic forms into one cultural 
pattern, a pattern of morality. When man is identified with his 
works, he is moral; for then he is identified with the works of 
all mankind. How can that integration be achieved? Again let 
us glance at the artist. 

Rodin and his works were one. 

It was impossible to separate him from his work. His statues were the 
states of his soul. Just as Rodin seemed to break the fragments around 
the statue away from the block in which it had been concealed, so he 
himself seemed to be a sort of rock hiding various forms and crystallized 
growths. 184 

The symbolic forms are the states of man's soul. "The contents 
of culture cannot be separated from the fundamental forms and 
directions of spiritual creation: their 'being' cannot be appre- 
hended otherwise but as 'doing'." 135 As the sculpture is "con- 
cealed" in the block, "pre-existent" in its shape, grain, texture, 

*** Essay on Man, 130. 
138 Ibid, and Chap. VII. 
** Story, op. cit.f n. 


"like the chicken in the egg," 136 and the sculptor must "col- 
laborate" with the stone to free the figure concealed in it, so 
man must "collaborate" with himself to free the symbolic forms 
within him and create culture out of himself. Culture is indeed 
the process of man's progressive self-liberation. "Language, art, 
religion, science, are various phases in this process." 137 Man is 
his own "matter" and his own "form." Cassirer's philosophy 
here completes and substantiates empirically Kant's "Coperni- 
can revolution." Matter and form 

are now no more absolute powers of Eemg y but they serve the designa- 
tion of certain differences and structures of meaning. The "matter" of 
perception, as it was understood by Kant originally, could still appear 
as a kind of epistemological counterpart to Aristotle's WP<OTYJ uXiq. Like 
it, it is taken as the merely indeterminate before all determination, 
which must expect all determination from the form which accrues to 
it and imprints itself on it. The situation changes after Kant's own de- 
velopment of the "transcendental topic" and his designation, within that 
topic, of a definite position to the opposition of "matter" and "form." 
Now they are no more primal determinations of Being, ontic entities, 
but pure concepts of reflection, which in the section on the "Amphiboly 
of the Concepts of Reflection" are being treated on the same line with 
Agreement and Opposition, and Identity and Difference. They are 
no more two poles of Being in insoluble "real" opposition, 138 

but concepts of transcendental comparisons referring to states 
of consciousness. They are "states of man's soul." "From the 
point of view of phenomenology there is as little a 'matter in 
itselP as a 'form in itself there are only total experiences, 
which can be compared under the point of view of matter and 
form, and determined and articulated accordingly." 139 

In the Essay on Man the transcendental "relativization" 140 
of the contrast between matter and form has been applied to 
man 5 man is the sculptor of the symbolic forms forms of his 
own consciousness. But the relationship already appears clearly 
in the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Indeed, it is the differ- 

136 In words of the Spanish sculptor Jose* de Creeft. 
187 Essay on Man, 228. 
138 m 1 , III, 13. 
189 PSF, III, 230. 


entiation of man's "space" by which man actually carves out 
the symbolic forms, pre-existent in it. Space is the universal 
matrix of these forms and it is a state of man's own con- 
sciousness. Plato's rcp&Tov SeKTixdVj space as common matrix of 
all determinations, is actually being confirmed by the philoso- 
phy of symbolic forms, 141 even though its "space," like Kant's, 
is very different from Plato's metaphysical "receptacle." It is a 
formative, dynamic principle, indeed, the formative principle 
of consciousness itself in its relation to the world the form 
of our "outer experience." It is a living "material," living in 
and through the life of its shaper, just as is the "stone" of 
Rodin. All the symbolic forms have their particular "spati- 
ality," 142 their particular form of correlation 148 according to their 
particular modality. From empirical perceptual space develops 
conceptual space. 144 Perceptual space is already filled with sym- 
bolic forms and interpenetrated by them. Language forms the 
first space-words. In abstract geometry space is a system of 
topological determinations: proximity of points, distance, inter- 
section of lines, incidence of planes and spaces. From topologi- 
cal develops metric and projective space. The development of 
space is at the same time the development of relational thought, 
the gradual awakening of consciousness and its world-aware- 

ness. 145 

There is no power of the spirit which has not co-operated in this gigantic 
process of formation. Sensation, intuition, feeling, phantasy, creative 
imagination, 146 constructive [!] conceptual thought and the manner 
of their interpenetration create each time a new spatial Gestalt. 

At the same time there is a definitive direction of the process: 
"the ' Auseinanderseteung* between world and ^o" 148 the 

1 PSF, m, 49 i. 

148 ibid. 

144 PSF, m, 49*. 

148 Cassirer refers in this connection to Carnap, Rudolf, Der Raum, tin Beitrag 
zur Wissenschaftslehre, Berlin, 1922. 

14 *The German word "Einbildungskraft" '-"power of in-forming," gives the 
spatial implication. 

"PSF, III, 493. 

148 Italics mine. 


progressive "ex-position" and "ex-secution" of the separateness 
of man and world, their gradual differentiation. Gradually man 
releases space and its forms from and out of himself, until 
finally it seems to be an independent Gestalt y standing opposed 
to and as counter-pole of him. The mythical consciousness of 
space is still entirely woven within the sphere of subjective feel- 
ing, but already there appears an opposition of cosmic powers, 
as in the Platonic Timaeus, the Chinese Yin and Yang, and the 
innumerable forms of "cosmic bisexuality." 149 Language con- 
tinues the separation and deepens it: the mythical physiog- 
nomic space becomes presentative space. Conceptual mathe- 
matical, geometrical, and physical thought complete the proc- 
ess: the anthropomorphic conditions are being pushed back in 
favor of "objective" determinations which result from the meth- 
ods of counting and measuring. Now we have the space of pure 
meaning or signification. 150 A similar process of differentiation 
takes place within the elemental units of the symbolic forms. 
The flux of perceptual impressions is being subdivided into 
centers around which the undifferentiated variety clusters, like 
the diffuse matter in space, which gradually clustered into nebu- 
lae, and continues to concentrate its diffuse matter into condensed 
energy "through millions and mountains of millions of cen- 
turies." 151 Similarly the process of symbolic formation continues 
to concentrate diffuse energies as long as there is man. The 
diffuse matter in space is being organized by being referred to a 
natural center. Ever new worlds are in formation and "gain a 
general relation to the center, the first formative point of crea- 
tion." 152 Similarly in the world of symbolic forms centers are 
formed as points of reference. Thus the name becomes name 
only through reference to such centers. The names "red" or 
"blue," for instance, 153 do not mean certain blue or red nuances, 
but express the specific manner, in which an undetermined 
variety of such nuances is seen as one and conceptually set as 

** Treated symbolically in Mann's Joseph novels. Cf. Slochower, Harry, No 
Voice is Wholly Lost, New York 1945, 350 n. 
PSF, III, 493 f. 
"* Kant, Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, 2. Teil, 7tes Hauptstuck. 

PSF, 111,497- 


one. 154 In physical-geometrical thought the given is not only 
being divided and assembled around fixed centers, but "cast 
into form," 155 the harmonious form of mathematical symbols, 
which is as opposed to the original diffusion of formative ener- 
gies as the well ordered system of planets is to the primal 
diffusion of matter. For Laplace Kant's theory of the heavens 
was the inspiration for a mathematical theory of the creation 
of the world. 156 For Cassirer Kant's theory of knowledge was 
the inspiration for a theory of the creation of the cultural world, 
one of whose culminations is mathematics. In both cases the 
world is modelled in space a work of plastic imagination. 157 
If all activity of thought expresses itself in spatial forms, then 
its creative activity must needs be a kind of plastic sculpturing. 
Cassirer himself has never, to my knowledge, drawn this con- 
clusion, but it deduces itself logically from his philosophy. 

In sculpturing the world of symbolic forms, man sculptures 
and forms his own soul. What he looks at in the variety of 
forms is his own inner life. Rodin "used to contemplate his 
creations lovingly, and sometimes even seemed to be astonished 
and contemplative at the idea of having created them, speaking 
as if they existed apart from himself." 158 Thus man stands 
wonderingly before his creations, astounded at the world, which 
he has created created so unconsciously that it took several 
thousand years of contemplative thought until, in the mind of 
Kant, he recognized in it himself. This same difficulty veiled 
the world of symbolic forms before man's mind in a world of 
metaphysics. Again and again man tried to lift the veil, but the 
attempt was doomed to pathetic failure. As for Schiller's 
"Young Man of Sai's," curiosity could only yield horror: the 
look into the abyss of nothing or the abyss of his own self. In 

184 "In-eins-gesefon und in-eins-gesetzt." "Einsicht" becomes "Eins-sicW "In- 
sight" becomes "One-sight." 

** PSF, III, 498. 

lw Or might have been, if he knew Kant's treatise. Whether or not he actually 
did is unknown. 

m Cf . Rodin : "If we can imagine the thought of God in creating the world, 
we shall find that He first thought of the modelling, which is the unique principle 
in Nature and perhaps of the * planets." Story, of. cit.> 14. 

w Story, of, c*t. t n. 


a very real sense we are all thinkers pondering "The Gate of 
Hell." Thinking is fraught with shocking surprises, shocks 
which are dialectic hiatuses in the process of the souPs self- 
discovery. That process leads to successive "crises" "separa- 
tions" of existence, in which the unconscious and uncontem- 
plated process of spiritual development becomes a problem to 
itself, in which "Ausserung* becomes "Ausserliches" self-ex- 
pression becomes the exterior world. 159 This estrangement of 
the symbolic forms from their creator arises from the very 
fundamental principle of their creation. 

The acts of expression, presentation, and meaning are not immediately 
present to themselves, but become apparent only in the totality of their 
accomplishment. They are only by confirming themselves, and giving 
notice of themselves through their action. They do not originally reflect 
on themselves, but they look at the work which they are to execute, to 
the reality the valid form of which they are to build up. 160 

Hence these forms can only be described within their works 
and in the language of these works. Language, myth, art: 

each of these exteriorizes its own individual world of creations, which 
latter cannot be understood otherwise than as expressions of the self- 
activity, the "spontaneity" of the spirit. But this self-activity does not 
proceed in the form of free reflection, and therefore remains hidden 
to itself. The spirit creates the series of linguistic, mythical and artistic 
Gestalten, without in them recognizing itself as creative principle. Thus 
each of these series becomes for it an "exterior" world. 161 

The free creations of the spirit are then regarded as "things" 
and the power and independence of the spirit compelled into 
systems of dogmatic concepts. 182 Only the Critical philosophy 
succeeds in prying open this dogmatism. The thing, far from 
being a self-sufficient being, is for it only "an intellectual partial 
condition of being, a single conceptual moment, which only in 
the complete system of our knowledge comes to full effect." 168 
It is now nothing but the general principle of the series, so to 

160 PSF y III, 1 1 8. 

m PSF, II, 267. Cf. Erkenntnisfroblem I, 7. 

1W Erkenntnisfroblem I, vf. 



speak, its general term. 184 The whole of reality is process, and 
the things are condensations of that process, much as matter is 
in physical field theory. 165 There is now no more metaphysical 
absolute, but only becoming. "By regarding the conditions of 
science as 'become,' we recognize them precisely thereby as 
creations of thought." 166 In doing so we recognize the opposition 
of subject and object as a metaphysical artifice, "the charac- 
teristic procedure of metaphysics." 167 Thus metaphysics es- 
tranges man from his creations} it must be overcome if man 
is to become responsible for his culture. It is no wonder, there- 
fore, that the most metaphysical people has also fallen victim 
to the most tremendous "crisis," the most barbaric separation 
of man and culture: what the German scientists of extermina- 
tion strove to annihilate was the man-of-culture, 168 termed by 
them "the beast of intelligence" "die Intelligenzbestie" In 
their scientific one-sidedness they were both "metaphysical" 
and barbaric. 169 

To overcome this metaphysical crisis man must "collaborate" 
with himself as the sculptor does with his material. He must 
fuse his own form with his own matter. The metaphysical crisis 
must be transformed, through cultural critique, into harmonic 
responsibility of man for his world. This is only possible by 
man's recognizing in the cultural forms his own consciousness, 
by comprehending these forms as symbolic for the unity of 

, ill, 3 73 . 

165 That theory should, theoretically, be deducible from Kant's Critique of Pure 

ie * Erkenntnis'problem I, vi. 

Substance and Function, 271$ Cf. PSF, I, 24. 

""Cf. Kerenyi, Karl, Romandlchtung und Mythologle, Bin Briefwechsel mit 
Thomas Mann, Zurich: Rhein Verlag, 1945* 4 2 

169 Cf. Bluhm, Heinz, "Ernst Cassirer und die deutsche Philologie," Monats- 
hefte filr Dcutsdten Unterrlcht, Vol. XXXVII, No. 7, November 1945, 471. 
Ilya Ehrenburg, The Tempering of Russia, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, i944> 
276, on examining the diary of a dead German who at the front continued read- 
ing philosophy and whose notebook related the philosophy and practice of exter- 
mination interspersed with quotations from Plato, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, 
wrote: "In perusing the brown notebook one is amazed at the mental poverty 
of these scholarly cannibals. To torture people they need philosophical quotations. 
. . . One feels like killing Fritz-the-philosopher twice: one bullet because he tor- 
tured Russian children 5 another because after murdering a baby, he read Plato." 


man <md his world. Symbolism is to be the vehicle of man's 

How else should man be able to sound the depths of his own 
consciousness and at the same time roam over the width of the 
world? The variety of forms would be too manifold for com- 
prehension, if there were not the principle of the symbolic 
function to organize them. The consciousness would be too 
fleetingly incomprehensible, if there were not the material em- 
bodiments of its energies. How else should we be able to 

penetrate to this purely inner world of consciousness as last concen- 
tration of the spiritual, if for its demonstration and description we have 
to renounce all the concepts and points of view, which have been created 
for the presentation of the concrete reality of things. Where would 
there be a means to comprehend the incomprehensible, to express in 
any way that which itself has not yet assumed any concrete form 
either of the perceptual space and time order, or of an intellectual, 
ethical or aesthetic order? If the consciousness is nothing but the pure 
potentiality of all the "objective" forms, so to speak the pure receptivity 
and preparedness for them, then it cannot be seen how precisely this 
potentiality itself can be treated as a fact, indeed, as the primary fact 
of all spirituality itself. ... It is obvious that this paradoxical demand 
can only be satisfied, if at all, mediately. We can never uncover the 
immediate being and life of consciousness purely as such, 170 but it is a 
meaningful task to understand the process of objectivation 171 

by treating it from a double perspective, shuttling back and 
forth between the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem y 
thus truly following the method of that weaver's masterpiece 
or, even better, instead of treating the objectivity of the law 
rather find the Gestalt 172 of cognition, thus transforming the 
method of psychology into that of the symbolic forms. 

We start from the problems of the "objective spirit," the Gestalten of 
which it consists and in which it exists; but we do not rest there as a 
mere fact, but try, through a reconstructive analysis, to penetrate to their 
elementary conditions, the "conditions of their possibility." 173 

170 In this connection Cassirer's criticism of Berg-son's method is of importance, 
PSF, III, 4 2ff. 
m PSF, III, 6zf. 
m PSF, III, 66. 
111 /W, III, 67. 


In other words, we look for the "various forms and crystal- 
lized growths" within the rock that is man, and then proceed 
to carve them out, helped by our knowledge of the grain and 
texture, the geology and palaeontology of those forms. Thus 
we would find the correspondence between the manifold of 
objective formations and subjective states of consciousness, a 
"truly concrete view of the c full objectivity' of the spirit on the 
one hand and its 'full subjectivity' on the other." 174 To do so 
we must delve down deeply into the roots of consciousness: 

We must consider not only the three dimensions of the logical, the 
ethical and the aesthetic, but in particular the "form'' of language and 
the "form" of mythos, if we want to penetrate down to the primary be- 
havioral and formative conditions of consciousness. 175 

In this way, then, the vertical integration of man will be 
joined to the horizontal integration of his culture. Man must 
live on all the levels of his consciousness, on the deepest of 
myth as well as on the highest of mathematics, music, 178 and 
mysticism. This vertical task has only just begun, but the great 
minds of our age are preparing the synthesis. Bergson joins 
"mechanics and mysticism," 177 Thomas Mann joins mythos and 
language, 178 and asks for a chair in "mythology" to join mythos 
and logos. 179 Cassirer joins all spiritual forms in the synthesis 
of cultural symbolism. 

174 Ibid. 
17 ' 1 bid. 

178 See above note 85. 

177 The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, New York: Henry Holt and 
Company, 1935, chapter IV. Bergson's philosophy is based on the form of our 
inner experience, time; Cassirer's is based on that of our outer experience, space. 
Therefore the latter is led to the central notion of the symbol, which the former 
rejects, the former to that of metaphysical intuition which the latter rejects. Cas- 
sirer's philosophy can be understood in terms of the plastic arts, Bergson's in terms 
of music. A synthesis of both philosophies would be the true philosophy of sym- 

""Kerenyi, of. '/., 50. According to Cassirer, PSF, I, 268, language as a form 
is between mythos and logos. 

179 Kerenyi, op. cit. t 84, 82. The separation of the myth from logos is the 
immediate cause of the latest world catastrophe. The combination of both, in 
particular of mythos with the science of psychology, is one of the guarantees of 
the future. "I have long been a passionate friend of this combination j for indeed, 
psychology is the means to take the myth out of the hands of the fascist obscurants 


In this way he has given us a tool, a "grammar of the sym- 
bolic function," 180 a key with which to open the treasure house 
of our own culture. But simply to open it and wander around 
in it as in a museum will not solve the crisis. We must appropri- 
ate all the symbolic forms as our own creations. The symbols 
must not remain mute and dumb signs for us, but be charged 
with all the meaning of life. We must enter into their own 
lives and live on their level. Our survival depends on our ca- 
pacity to handle symbols in communication, discussion, and 
agreement in settling conflicts by handling symbols rather 
than the powers they stand for. We must "do away with pres- 
ence in order to penetrate to representation. . . . The regress 
into the world of signs is the preparation for that decisive break- 
through in which the spirit will conquer its own world, the 
world of idea." 1 * 1 

We are standing before that decisive event. We must either 
live through symbols or die in the flesh. The symbols will be 
filled with life if they reach through our entire self, far above 
and below the merely intellectual level. We must recognize the 
states of our soul in them, as did Rodin in his creations j "he was 
the companion of these white mute creatures of his, he loved 
them and entered into their abstract lives." 182 So we must enter 
the life of human culture and lovingly develop it and us in it. 
In this sense the philosophy of symbolic forms may be said to 
be a comprehensive aesthetics, the work of an artist for artists: 
the vision of man as creator of all his works, the vision of culture 
as human creation. Indeed, it seems that Cassirer himself has 
had that vision very consciously 5 the volume on Aesthetics was 
to be the crowning volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic 
Forms It is the crisis itself that has separated Cassirer from 

and to 'transfunction* it into the humane. That combination actually represents 
to me the world of the future, a humanity, that is blessed from on high, through 
the spirit, and *f rom the depths that lie below'." Thomas Mann, Kerenyi j op. cit., 
82. Cf. Buxton, Charles Roden, Prophets of Heaven and Hell, Virgil, Dante, Mil- 
ton, Goethe, Cambridge: At the University Press, 1945, 2$L + 

** pg p T _ a 

181 PSF, III, 3*561 54- Cf. Ill, 330. 

182 Story, op. cit., n. 

183 Bluhm, op. cit., 468. PSF, I, 120. 


the symbolic forms of the arts 5 his book could not be written 
"due to the unfavorable political conditions." Otherwise he 
himself might have performed that vertical synthesis of man 
and cast man's inner life into the forms of the new logic. Maybe 
he would have called that new form the form of man's "sym- 
bolic Pr'dgnanz" man's existence as symbol of his own uni- 
versal thought: transcending his material confinement in uni- 
versal meaning. 

How Cassirer would have integrated man himself into his 
culture we can only guess. He has given us one lowly example 
for symbolic Pragnanz: he integrates the life of a wavy line in 
all fields of meaning. Let us quote that passage, not only as a 
symbolic review of the whole philosophy of symbolic forms, its 
artistic empathy and the sweep of its meaning, but also as a pre- 
view into realms to which Cassirer's philosophy points. 

In the purely spatial determination there is a peculiar "mood," the up 
and down of lines in space contains an inner motion, a dynamic rise 
and fall, a psychic being and life. It is not we who feel our own inner 
states in a subjective way in the spatial form: but that form presents 
itself to us as a spirited whole, an independent manifestation of life. 
Its steady and calm flow or its sudden break, its roundness and whole- 
ness or its brokenness, its hardness or softness : all this appears as character 
of its own being, its objective "nature." But all this recedes and seems 
as if it were annihilated and extinguished as soon as the line is taken in 
another meaning as a mathematical design, a geometrical figure. Now 
it becomes a mere scheme, the means of presenting a universal geometric 
law. Where before we had the up and down of a wavy line and in it 
the harmony of an inner mood there now we find the graphic pres- 
entation of a trigonometric function, a curve the whole content of which 
is absorbed in its analytic formula. The spatial Gestalt is nothing else 
now than the paradigm of that formula; it is only the hull into which 
a mathematical thought, imperceptible in itself, is clothed. And the latter 
does not stand by itself, but in it a universal law presents itself, the 
order of space in general. Every single geometric form is by virtue of 
that order connected with the totality of all other spatial forms. It 
belongs to a certain system an aggregate of "truths" and "theorems," 
of "reasons" and "consequences" and that system denotes the universal 
form by which each individual geometric figure is alone possible, that is 
to say, constructable and "understandable." And again the situation is 


different, when we consider the line as mythical sign or as aesthetic 
ornament. The mythical sign expresses the fundamental mythical con- 
trast between the "holy" and the "profane." It is established in order 
to separate these two realms from each other, to warn and to terrify and 
to bar the uninitiated from approaching or entering the holy. And 
thereby it does not function only as a mere sign, as a mark by which the 
holy is being recognized; but it possesses a magically compelling and re- 
pelling power, which resides in it objectively. Of such a compulsion the 
aesthetic world knows nothing. Contemplated as an ornament the line 
is removed both from the sphere of "meaning" in the logico-conceptual 
sense as that of magico-mythical significance and warning. It now 
possesses its import in itself, which uncovers itself only in the purely 
artistic contemplation, the aesthetic intuition as such. Here again the 
experience of the spatial form completes itself only through belonging to 
a total horizon and opening that horizon up for us, ... by standing in a 
certain atmosphere, in which it not only simply "is," but in which it 
so to speak lives and breathes. 184 

Imagine the hero of this tale to be man rather than a wavy 
line! How he would be seen in all realms of meaning, all forms 
of culture a symbol himself of his own striving and achieve- 
ment, the central system of co-ordination of all life activities. 
"The symbolic process is like a unique life and thought current 
which flows through consciousness and which in its flowing 
motion alone brings about the variety and continuity of con- 
sciousness in all its fullness." 185 In the unity of that flow man 
would become integrated, from the mythical depth of con- 
sciousness the well of the past from which Thomas Mann 
brought forth his Joseph figures 186 to the highest height of 
mathematics, music, and mysticism. 187 

181 PSF, III, 231 j Cf. Cassirer "Das Symbolproblem und seine Stellung im Sys- 
tem der Philosophic," Zeitschrift fur Asthettk und, allgemeine Kumtwissenschajt, 
Bd. XXI, 191 ff. Cf. supra 112 f. 

185 PSF, III, 234- 

188 Cf . Thomas Mann on the combination of psychology and myth in Kerenyi, 
op. cit., 82$ also "Freud and the Future," in Freud, Goethe, Wagner, New York: 
Alfred A. Knopf, 1942, 298. 

** For then the process of objectivation would not be completed in the mathe- 
matical symbols symbols for nature rather than for human nature. It may be 
that those symbols will also aid in the objectivation of man toward himself, the 
objectivation of his own psyche: his emotions and desires. Perhaps Spinoza was 


So far the highest realms of the vertical synthesis have not 
been reached. Cassirer's work is unfinished and waits for com- 
pletion. The mysticism of the artist, the musicality of the mathe- 
matician, all these are symbolic forms and elaborations of lower 
forms as truly as mathematics is the elaboration of the lower 
symbolic forms of myth and language. Perhaps Cassirer had 
intended to show us these connections in his projected volume 
on the symbolic forms of Aesthetics. As it is, the work must 
be completed by us, the epigones. But we too shall only be 
precursors, preparers of the day "when the human intelligence, 
elevated to its perfect type, shall shine forth glorified in some 
future Mozart-Dirichlet or Beethoven-Gauss." 188 Cassirer's 
work points toward a future of symbolic forms so rich that 
man's present culture appears very primitive indeed. 

In 1910, at about the time when Cassirer's first great work 
appeared, another great mind was concerned with the future. 
Leo Tolstoy, shortly before his death, dictated to his daughter 
Anastasia a strange prophecy. He predicted the coming of 
world wars, the sway of a strange figure from the North, "a 
new Napoleon," and finally, a "federation of the United States 
of nations." After that 

I see a change in religious sentiment. . . . The ethical idea has almost 
vanished. Humanity is without the moral feeling. But then a great re- 
former arises. ... I see the peaceful beginning of an ethical era. . . . 
In the middle of this century I see a hero of literature and art rising . . . 
and purging the world of the tedious stuff of the obvious. It is the light 
of symbolism that shall outshine the torch of commercialism* 

Cassirer's life was dedicated to the self-liberation of man 
through symbolism. Everything for him, like for Rodin, 190 

on the right road with his geometric ethics. But the "grammar of emotions" may 
have to be written, ultimately in a more fitting script: that of musical and mysti- 
cal symbolism. To the latter point see Essay on Man, 102. Concerning the in- 
sufficiency of mathematical symbolism even for the comprehension of nature cf. 
Cassirer, "Goethe and Kantian Philosophy" in Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, 64.8., 8 if. 

388 James Joseph Sylvester in a paper on Newton's rule for the discovery of 
imaginery roots of algebraic equations, quoted from . T. Bell, Men of Mathe- 
matics, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1937, 4O4f. 

1S9 Forman, Henry James, The Story of Prophecy, New York: Tudor Publish- 
ing Company: 1939, 25 3 f. 

190 Story, of. cit., 17. 


was "idea and symbol j" like Rodin "he sought in the energy 
of the human body and its symbolism for the origins of all re- 
ligions, all philosophy and poetry." 191 The ethical era to come 
must be built to a large extent on his work. His morality was, 
like Rodin's, 192 the comprehensive love of life and of all its 
forms. Rodin "opened a vast window in the pale house of 
modern statuary, and made of sculpture, which had been a 
timid, compromised art, one that was audacious and full of 
life." 193 So Cassirer opened a large window in the pale house 
of modern critical philosophy and made of epistemology, which 
had been a timid, compromised discipline, one that was auda- 
cious and full of life. He prepared the horizontal-vertical 
integration of man's soul and culture a symbolic cross, to 
which man will not be fixed in agony, but in which he will live. 



2 Story, op. cit., n. 


Folke Leander 



ONE should take everything for what it is, not criticize it 
for not being what it is not" such was the critical maxim 
of the Swedish poet-philosopher Thomas Thorild (1759-1806), 
on whom, incidentally, Cassirer has written an excellent book. 
It is, however, exceedingly difficult to criticize Cassirer for 
what he does say, and much easier to point to the unsolved 
problems which he never set out to solve. Cassirer's method in 
The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is that of concentrating his 
attention on a very limited number of major problems, treating 
them exhaustively, adducing a great wealth of linguistic, mytho- 
logical, and psychological material to prove his point. The 
numerous and widespread errors he refutes are disproved very 
thoroughly. He rarely "sticks his neck out," as the Americans 
say. There is a certain finality about all this and little tempta- 
tion for the student to quote a passage and disagree with it. In 
fact, if you accept the view that all thought, in so far as it is 
really thought, must necessarily be true, all criticism must con- 
sist in drawing attention to omissions. Only, in Cassirer's case 
you rarely find the omissions mixed up with and vitiating what 
he does say, which latter will generally be found to be unim- 
peachable, as far as it goes. These introductory remarks may 
serve to explain the nature of the following pages, which are 
intended primarily to point to further problems suggested by 
Cassirer's philosophy. The problems suggested are: i) the uni- 
fication of the pre-scientific symbolic forms; 2) a more careful 
distinction between form and material j 3) an analysis of the 
logic of history and the logic of philosophy. I will try to show 
how these desiderata grew out of Cassirer's own philosophy. 




The Unification of the Pre-Scientific Symbolic Forms 

As Theodor Litt 1 has remarked, the whole of Cassirer's 
philosophy of symbolic forms may be regarded as a synthesis 
of Kant and Herder, or as an adoption into the former's phi- 
losophy of the wider sphere of interest represented by the latter. 
Kant's epistemology, devised to explain the possibility of New- 
tonian physics, must be broadened so as to include aesthetics, 
the theory of language, and the philosophy of mythology. It 
is high time for epistemologists to rid themselves of the superior 
attitude often taken towards language, myth, and especially art, 
as if these things did not concern them. As Cassirer shows they 
are the basis of our knowing life, the basis upon which even 
science rests. Cassirer has admirably instructive studies of two of 
the pre-scientific symbolic forms, language and myth. There is, 
however, no volume on art, and this fact is seldom mentioned. 

So far so good. We have every reason to be grateful for 
these excellent books. Yet one should like to know more about 
the way these pre-scientific symbolic forms are related to one 
another. How does Cassirer know there are three of them? 
How does he arrive at them? He simply takes over the popu- 
lar delimitations without caring about the objections that 
myth may be a mixture of artistic imagination and practical emo- 
tion of a certain kind, and language a crudely delimited type of 
art or, alternatively, art a crudely delimited type of language. 
He projects the idea that aesthetics is the general science of 
pre-scientific symbolism ; but he rejected it without anything re- 
sembling real disproof. 2 

In Sfrache und Mythos (Leipzig 1925), pp. 65!?., he dis- 
cusses at length the relations of language, myth and art. He 
begins by pointing out that language and myth have "a com- 
mon root" and are the products of an ultimately identical 
mental function (eine lefote Gemeinsamkeit in der Fwnktion 
des Gestaltens). They are both the products of "metaphorical 
thinking." He quotes from Max Muller: "Whether he wanted 

1 Kant und Herder als Deuter der geistigen Welt, Leipzig (1930), 285 f. 
* Die Sfrache, Berlin (1923), 12 of. 


to or not, man had to speak in metaphors, not because he could 
not restrain his poetic imagination, but rather because he had 
to use it to the utmost in order to find expressions for the ever- 
growing needs of his mind." The growth of intuition, accord- 
ingly, is correlative to the growth of poetic symbolism. The 
common root of language and myth turns out also to be the 
root of poetryj in fact, we are told, they are originally one, 
and the distinctions between them were gradually introduced. 
"Myth, language and art begin as a concrete, undivided unity, 
which is only gradually resolved into a triad of independent 
modes of spiritual creativity." 3 

The critic will remark that there are distinctions and dis- 
tinctions they need not all be of the same kind. Some may be 
fundamental and "real," whereas others are "merely empirical," 
more or less arbitrary cuts in a flowing continuum. Cassirer's 
Kantianism will scarcely allow him to put the distinctions be- 
tween abstract and concrete, or theoretical and practical, moral 
good and sensuous satisfaction on a level with the arbitrary dis- 
tinction between, say, a chair and a sofa, where all sorts of 
intermediary forms are conceivable. It is a question of logic 
whether you accept "real" distinctions as ultimately different 
from "merely empirical" or "pragmatic" ones. But whatever 
your ultimate decision on this point of logic will be, you will 
certainly have to admit a difference of status. Now the critic 
may maintain that the distinctions gradually emerging between 
language, myth, and art are of the "merely empirical" variety 
and that pre-scientifi.c symbolism is "really" the same activity 

Cassirer describes the creation of myth and language in the 
very terms in which others describe the process of artistic crea- 
tion. Myth arises from an emotional tension between man and 
his environment: 

then the spark jumps somehow across, the tension finds release, as the 
subjective excitement becomes objectified, and confronts the mind as a 
god or a daemon. . . . 4 As soon as the spark has jumped across, as soon 
as the tension and emotion of the moment has found its discharge in 

9 Language and Myth (S. Langer translation, 1945), 98. 


the word as the mythical image, a sort of turning point has occurred in 
human mentality: the inner excitement which was a mere subjective 
state has vanished, and has been resolved into the objective form of 
myth or of speech. 5 

If anything can be objected to in this statement, it is that the 
additional practical emotion characteristic of myth is here over- 
looked in favour of a complete identification with art. The 
subjective practical emotion is never completely expressed in 
the mythical image, as is the case in pure art, but remains as 
terror and awe; and to this is added the practical act of "belief." 
There is a profound difference between scientific symbolism 
on the one hand, and pre-scientific symbolism on the other. 
The function of the latter, according to Cassirer, is intuitive 
elaboration of experience (Intensivierung is his own term), 
whereas the former aims at discursive mastery, by means of 
rules and procedures, of a world already intuitively appre- 
hended. Science moves on the discursive level, the level of gen- 
eral concepts (Allgemeinbegriffe} and laws. But this level of 
rationality could not exist by itself and must everywhere attach 
itself to something more basic. The intuitive level of experience 
is experience elaborated by means of linguistic, mythical, and 
artistic symbolism. 6 

*., 3 6. 

8 In myth, says Cassirer, "thought does not dispose freely over the data of 
intuition, in order to relate and compare them to each other, but is captivated and 
enthralled by the intuition which suddenly confronts it. It comes to rest in the 
immediate experience j the sensible present is so great that everything else dwindles 
before it." (Ibid. y 32.) ". . . the immediate content, whatever it be, that commands 
his religious interest so completely fills his consciousness that nothing else can exist 
beside and apart from it. The ego is spending all its energy on this single object, 
lives in it, loses itself in it." (Ibid., 33.) This would also be an excellent description 
of the aesthetic attitude, the common element being intuitive elaboration, or 
"Intensivierung," of experience. 

"Language and myth stand in an original and indissoluble correlation with one 
another, from which they both emerge but gradually as independent elements. They 
are two diverse shoots from the same parent stem, the same impulse of symbolic 
formulation, springing from the same basic mental activity, a concentration and 
heightening of simple sensory experience. In the vocables of speech and in primitive 
mythic figurations, the same inner process finds its consummation: they are both 
resolutions of an inner tension, the representation of subjective impulses and 
excitations in definite objective forms and figures." (Ibid., 88.) Can anyone fail 


The sharp distinction between the two levels of experience 
discursive and intuitive does not imply, of course, that mean- 
ings belong merely to the discursive level. There are also mean- 
ings on the intuitive level, though of a different kind. They 
may be termed "felt identities/' "affinities," "qualia," "char- 
acters}" as caught and held in symbols, Cassirer terms them 
"Sfrachbegriffe," "mythische Begriffe," etc. 

It appears, then, that language, myth, and art have a common 
task in the theoretical life of man, namely, the intuitive mastery 
of experience. This would seem to make it imperative to dis- 
criminate between the theoretical and the practical-emotional 
aspects of myth, in which case the former could hardly fail to 
be identified with art. A similar failure to distinguish between 
the theoretical and the practical vitiates Cassirer's use of the 
term "expressional phenomenon," by which he means the emo- 
tional qualities of phenomena. In so far as emotion is subservient 
to intuition, it is aesthetic} but it may also obstruct the intuitive 
elaboration of experience and may then be called practical. 
Practical emotional qualities are stimuli to immediate practical 
reaction: we give up the attitude of contemplation, of intuitive 
elaboration. Thus sudden fear, if detrimental to intuition, is 
practical, whereas the grandiose, the sublime and even the ter- 
rible may be aesthetic qualities. The distinction is blurred by the 
use of the term "expressional qualities" no less than in the 
phrases current among English-speaking philosophers: "terti- 
ary qualities" and the like. 

One should also note that the function Cassirer ascribes to 
language is intuitive mastery of experience. For one of the 
things that have evidently puzzled him most, is the "logical" 
element of language. But, when raising this problem, he in- 
variably makes a metabasis eis allo genos and passes from pre- 

to see that this is a perfect description of the process of artistic creation? Could 
there be a better proof that myth and language are aesthetic products? 

If discursive thinking "tends toward expansion, implication, and systematic 
connection, the verbal and mythical conception tends toward concentration, tele- 
scoping, separate characterization." (Ibid., 56.) "Here thought does not confront 
its data in an attitude of free contemplation, seeking to understand their structure 
and their systematic connections, and analyzing them according to their parts and 
functions, but is simply captivated by a total impression." (Ibid., 57.) 


scientific to scientific symbolism, asserting that the same 
"Logos" that is operative in scientific symbolism, is also at work 
in pre-scientific symbolism. If we ask what is here meant by 
Logos, we find that several different meanings are crowded 
together into one term. "Logos" may mean spiritual synthesis 
in general: and in this case it is, of course, true that Logos is 
operative in pre-scientific symbolism. But Logos may also mean 
the thinking of scientific and general concepts: and in this case 
it can be shown, I think, that Logos is altogether outside of in- 
tuition and of pre-scientific symbolism, although it may leave 
results that may be absorbed in the latter. (I shall explain pres- 
ently what is meant by the last clause.) 

As we have seen, meanings, according to Cassirer, are found 
also on the intuitive level; as caught and held in linguistic 
symbols they are "Sfrachbegriffe" not to be confused with 
general or scientific concepts. When he asserts that the same 
Logos is operative in the creation of "S-prachbe griff eP which 
on a higher level is operative in the creation of scientific con- 
cepts, this assertion is only acceptable if Logos means Geist in 
general. But Cassirer also means that "Sprachbegriffe" are a 
confused and preliminary creation of Logos in the sense of 
scientific intellect. This latter assertion seems to me untenable. 

The confusion is made possible by the fact that general and 
scientific concepts may be "absorbed" into intuition. An electric 
charge is one thing for the engineer in his capacity of scientific 
specialist 5 it is a different thing for the layman and even for 
the engineer himself qua non-specialist. What was originally 
a mere formula, a rule of procedure, may through practice and 
experience of its effects be transformed into an intuitive affinity, 
a quale, a Gestalt, a characteristic physiognomy. As John Dewey 
puts it: 

In the situation which follows upon reflection, meanings are intrinsic; 
they have no instrumental or subservient office, because they have no 
office at all. They are as much qualities of the objects in the situation as 
are red and black, hard and soft, square and round. And every re- 
flective experience adds new shades of such intrinsic qualifications. 7 

1 Essays in Experimental Logic, (1916) 17. Cf. also How We Think, (1933), 
135 ff. ("Things and Meanings")* and Logic, (1938) ch. VIII ("Immediate 


Perhaps Dewey's term "intrinsic qualifications" is better than 
any of those I have so far used (affinity, physiognomy, quale, 
etc.). Discursive procedures, then, may grow intuitive, ideas 
may lose their intellectual quality by habitual use. And, as a 
parallel process, general and scientific concepts may be trans- 
formed into "Sfrachbegriffe" Dewey distinguishes between 
two types of grasp of meaning: the strictly logical type and the 
"aesthetic" perception of intrinsic qualifications, which is some- 
times called acquaintance-knowledge. We apprehend chairs, 
tables, books, trees, horses, stars, rain, etc., promptly and di- 
rectly $ we need not think about these things in order to identify 
them; we cannot help seeing them as chairs, tables, etc. 

Certainly logical thought-processes leave results in intuition j 
the starry heavens, for instance, look different to us from what 
they did to a contemporary of Dante. But there is also a move- 
ment in the opposite direction. "Red" meant originally an in- 
tuitively felt affinity j but when definite procedures have been 
developed, e.g. y the colour-pyramid, it may mean a loom 
within the system. 

In spite of all this give and take, however, the intuitive and 
the discursive levels remain different. Since the aim and func- 
tion of "Sfrachbegriffe?* is altogether different from that of 
general and scientific concepts, the former cannot be viewed as 
an inferior and undeveloped variety of the latter. Yet the inter- 
play between the levels is certainly misleading. On the intuitive 
level, Cassirer says, meanings are "fused" (eingeschmolzen) 
with the concrete. 8 And he paints a picture of the poor Logos 
like a butterfly grovelling in the dust, until in science it dis- 
engages itself from the many-coloured intuition, rises into the 
air, and starts out on a proud flight in its own proper element. 9 

1 Phanomenologie der Erkenntiris, (1929), 327. 

9 Phanomenologie der Erkenntms, 395!. "It is true that an abyss appears to yawn 
between the scientific concept and the verbal concept however, looked at more 
closely this abyss is exactly the same gulf which thinking had to bridge earlier 
before it could become verbal thought. . . . Now thought has to tear loose not 
merely from the here and now, from the respective location and moment, but it 
has to reach beyond the totality of space and time, beyond the limits of perceptual 
description, and of description and describability in general. . . . The Vehicle* of 
word-language which served for so long a time, will now bear him no farther- 
but he feels himself strong and powerful enough to risk the flight which is to 
carry him to a new goal." 


But this metaphor is objectionable. The Logos flying discur- 
sively in the air is different from that working intuitively within 
experience. Both are needed $ but the intuitive Logos is no 
preliminary variety of the scientific Logos. 

This panlogistic tendency is incompatible with the main 
body of Cassirer's thought. For he teaches that language is in 
essence intuitive elaboration (Intensvolerung) of experience. 
And he also teaches that the "logical" element of language, in 
so far as "Sprachbegriffe" are concerned, should not be called 
logical at all, if we distinguish between an intuitive and a dis- 
cursive, logical level of experience. Language is correlative to 
intrinsic qualifications, characters, physiognomies, qualia, affini- 
ties, or whatever term may be used for the meanings belonging 
to the intuitive level. 

All this, the critic will add, proves that language is essentially 
an aesthetic activity. Of course, in reasoning language is the 
bearer of logical meanings; yet even pure mathematics has 
an aesthetic side, since it is an existential thought-process. The 
mathematical concepts are embodied in aesthetically meaningful 
concrete processes. Words, says Cassirer, are mere "signs" or 
"vehicles" of logical meanings. 10 The relation between intuitive 
meanings and language is that of vital incarnation. Words ex- 
press intuitive meanings but state y or are mere signs of, logical 
meanings. On the intuitive level, says Cassirer, "the word which 
denotes that thought content is not a mere conventional symbol, 
but is merged with its object in an indissoluble unity." 11 If the 
lightning is seen as a snake, it will also be called "the snake of 

"For it is precisely the 'Logos/ which was at work from the beginning in the 
creation of language, which, in the progress to scientific knowledge, frees itself 
from the limiting conditions which originally clung to it which proceeds from 
its implicit form into its explicit form." (Ibid. y 388) 

10 "For theoretical thinking, a word is essentially a vehicle serving the funda- 
mental aim of such ideation: the establishment of relationships between the given 
phenomenon and others which are "like" it or otherwise connected with it according 
to some co-ordinating law. . . . The word stands, so to speak, between actual 
particular impressions, as a phenomenon of a different order, a new intellectual 
dimension) and to this mediating position, this remoteness from the sphere of 
immediate data, it owes the freedom and ease with which it moves among specific 
objects and connects one with another." Language and Myth, (Langer tr.) 56f. 

11 Language and Myth, 58. 


the sky:" intuitive elaboration and linguistic naming is here one 
and the same activity. "The spiritual excitement caused by some 
object which presents itself in the outer world furnishes both 
the occasion and the means of its denomination. Sense impres- 
sions . . . naturally strive for vocal expression." 12 Language and 
intuition are correlative and develop together. Intuitive mean- 
ings are vitally fused with intuition, and so they are fused with 
language. Scientific and general concepts, on the other hand, 
are externally related to intuition and have a corresponding 
status in its correlative, language. Since this is Cassirer's own 
view, why does he reject the aesthetic theory of language? He 
not only rejects it but misrepresents it as wanting to reduce 
language to mere animal expression, to mere "naturliche Sym- 
bolik" mere "Laut der Emfindung." But surely nothing of 
the sort has been meant by those who have held the theory in 

A significant omission is Cassirer's failure to mention Baum- 
garten in his survey of the history of the philosophy of lan- 
guage. Certainly his view of oratio sensitive as correlative to 
cognitio sensitiva t or intuition, is worthy of close attention. The 
"distinct" concepts, Leibniz had said, are exemplified in our 
conceptual methods of recognizing objects as belonging to a 
class; but there is also an intuitive way of recognizing them. 
We immediately see chairs as chairs and feel no need of pro- 
ceeding by rule. This is the level of "clear but confused" cate- 
gories, i.e. y of everyday intuition and, as Baumgarten pointed 
out, in its most intense form the level of art. For art is perfectio 
cognition/is semitivae y qua talis. In the same way, ordinary 
speech is inherently aesthetic, oratio sensitiva, although the 
word poetry is reserved for its more intense form, oratio sensi- 
tiva ferfecta. What Baumgarten means by "sensitive" speech 
might be freely expressed as follows. The nature of speech is 
that of "painting a picture" of something, e.g., of something 
I want you to do, or of the field where the point is localized 
on which I want you to give me information. Of course, the 
analogy with painting must not be pressed: it only lays hold of 

18 Ibid.) 89. H. Usener, as quoted by Cassirer. 

18 Ibid., 3 of. Cf. also Zur Logik der Kulturwtsstnscfaften, 37^ ' 


the fact that the function of speech is that of conjuring up some- 
thing concrete, however "thin," schematic, and bare of details 
it may be. Even a newspaper headline is oratio sensitiva, al- 
though ordinarily very far from ferfecta. 

It is strange that Cassirer, the distinguished Leibnizian 
scholar, should have made no use of the philosophy of lan- 
guage proposed by Baumgarten, the founder of aesthetics. Here 
is a perfect distinction between the conceptual and the intuitive 
levels of experience. The "affinities" or general "characters" 
belonging to the latter level are accounted for as "confused 
concepts." And language is seen to be the correlative of intui- 
tion. All this returns in Cassirer's own philosophy, even the 
doubtful part of Leibniz-Baumgarten, namely, the view of 
intuitive reason as an imperfect and preliminary form of scien- 
tific reason. Only Baumgarten's insight into the fundamentally 
aesthetic nature of intuition and language has fallen out of the 
picture. I believe it will have to be re-introduced. 


A More Careful Distinction between Form and Material 

One may note in Cassirer a certain attachment to what Dewey 
has termed "the museum conception of art." Dewey holds the 
view that any experience to the extent to which it is an experi- 
ence, is aesthetic 14 an idea that goes back to Baumgarten, 
Herder, and the romantics. From this point of view a "tran- 
scendental aesthetics" would not be the doctrine of mathemati- 
cal time and space but simply aesthetics. The subjects dealt with 
by Kant at the end of his system, in the Critique of Judgment, 
would be placed at the very beginning of the system. Or rather, 
since all rationality is "absorbed" and all practical emotion is 
expressed in intuition, the doctrine of intuition would be at 
once at the end and at the beginning of the system, which would 
accordingly be as circular as experience itself: Theodor Litt 
says that if Kant had ever discovered real intuition as some- 
thing very different from mathematical tiipe and space, he 
would hardly have failed to place art on this level ; and further, 

14 Art at Experience, (x 934) . 


"he could not have been able to escape the insight which 
dominated a Herder, namely that aesthetic experiences stand 
by no means alone in this regard, but rather constitute the 
highest intensification of the spiritual situation which runs 
through all and every sensory world view." 16 In short, the true 
"transcendental aesthetics" is simply aesthetics; intuition and its 
correlative, the pre-scientific symbolism, may be divided and 
subdivided in many ways by means of "merely empirical" dis- 
tinctions, but "really" it is one identical activity everywhere 
an activity, which in its more intense form is recognized as 
aesthetic. A division of our intuitive acts into "more intense" 
and "less intense" would itself be merely empirical. "We all 
take some pleasure," says Dr. Barnes, "in seeing how things 
look, in observing their colour, their contour, their movement, 
whether they are moving in our direction or not. In so far as 
we are successful in finding what is characteristic, appealing, 
or significant in the world about us, we are, in a small im- 
promptu way, ourselves artists." 16 He adds that "the artist 
differs from the ordinary person partly by his ability to make 
what he sees a public object, but chiefly in the range and depth 
of his vision itself." 17 A novelist spending weeks and months on 
working out a "great" intuition, merely intensifies an activity 
in which we are all engaged. We all want clarity of vision and 
imaginative interpretation of experience. As Cassirer points out, 
the poet does not "know" what he wants to say, until he has 
said it; he obscurely feels something working within him, but 
he does not know what, until he has defined it in a work of 
art. 18 Similarly, it might be added, workmen had no "class- 
consciousness" until Marx and others created their "myths" (as 
Sorel would say) ; surely there were all sorts of obscure feelings 
among the workmen, but they were not articulated. In the 
same way, we are all dependent upon poets, prophets and 
artists for our imaginative interpretation of experience. There 
is no difference of kind between our everyday intuitive activities 

v Kant und Herder, 61 . 

M Albert C. Barnes: The Art in Painting, 3rd ed. (1937) 12. 

"Ibid., 13. 

* Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften, 1 30. 


and those of the great "seers," merely a difference of intensity 
and degree. Just as the science of biology deals with cells as 
well as elephants, so the science of intuition deals with everyday 
intuitive awareness, however insignificant, as well as with those 
greater intuitions recognized as aesthetic. 

Anyone who takes such a broad view of aesthetics will almost 
inevitably be led to look upon the division of Art into various 
arts and genres as "merely empirical" distinctions. Surely the 
distinction between art and science is "real" in a sense in which 
the distinctions between various arts are superficial and "prag- 
matic." Cassirer on the other hand, not having freed himself 
entirely from the "museum" idea of art, believes that the main 
arts and genres are a priori, inherent in the very idea, the "cate- 
gory" of art. I do not know whether or not Cassirer would 
nowadays accept the "panaesthetic" conception of experience. 
But, even if he does, he will certainly cling to his view of cer- 
tain major arts as a priori, categorically (not merely em- 
pirically) distinct. 

The objections to such a view seem to me very strong. After 
all, a human race may be conceived having neither eyes nor ears 
and yet endowed with a type of experience resembling our own 
in certain general traits. Their art would be very different from 
ours. Further, new arts constantly arise in the course of his- 
tory. Painting grew out of Byzantine mosaics j sculpture was 
originally an integral part of architecture both may be an 
integral part of town-planning; music had no existence apart 
from song, etc. Recent arts are the movies and the radio drama. 
Art is the activity of organizing a material so as to be pleasing 
in perception so as to give the perceiver an integral, rounded 
"experience." Since any material or combination of materials 
may be shaped into beauty, the number of artistic media is in 
principle unlimited. To what art belong good manners, a per- 
sonal style of dressing and talking, pleasant conversation the 
sort of aesthetic shaping that we all practice daily? Are they 
one art or several arts? It might seem as if all the means used 
to give a total unified impression ought to be considered one 
art. Song is not a combination of two arts, poetry plus music, 
like one cake put upon another. In dancing to music, the move- 


ments and the music are fused into one organic whole $ the 
division into two arts is "merely empirical," whereas the 
aesthetic reality is an integral whole. When the Greeks painted 
their statues, this was not a simple addition of two arts. A 
church service, in so far as it is an aesthetic experience, is a 
whole, although numerous media may be empirically distin- 
guished. Man, says Schiller, "soil alles Inner veraussern und 
alles Aussere formen" The emphasis should be put upon 
"alles Aussere" all materials can be shaped into beauty, the 
possible media are infinite in number. Historical traditions arise, 
certain media become traditional like colours on canvas or theat- 
rical representation. But there are always numerous media 
which do not fit into the classifications based upon the more 
important traditions. Dewey asks: 

What can such classifications make out of sculpture in relief, high and 
low, of marble figures on tombs, carved on wooden doors and cast in 
bronze doors? What about carvings on capitals, friezes, cornices, cano- 
pies, brackets? How do the minor arts fit in, workings in ivory, alabaster, 
plaster-paris, terra-cotta, silver and gold, ornamental iron work in brack, 
ets, signs, hinges, screens and grills? 19 

All classifications can here be made, since the materials are a 
continuum with all sorts of intermediary forms and endless 
overlappings and combinations. If we distinguish between aes- 
thetic "form" and the "material" formed, it seems evident 
that the differences between the various arts and genres belong 
altogether to the material side and leave aesthetic form un- 

If one were to accept such a theory, Cassirer objects, 

one would, by so doing, be led to the strange conclusion that, by 
calling Beethoven a great musician, Rembrandt a great painter, Homer 
a great epic poet, Shakespeare a great dramatist, only inconsequential 
empirical marginal conditions were expressed by such assertions, con- 
ditions aesthetically quite unimportant and for their characteristics as 
artists entirely superfluous. 20 

In the same way, one might argue, it is no indifferent matter 

w Art as Experience, p. 223. 

20 Zw Logik der Kulturwissensckaften, p. 130. 


that Ariosto wrote a romance and Virgil an epic, or that 
D. G. Rossetti wrote sonnets and Wordsworth long poems as 
well as short. No such things are indifferent or rather, the 
one important thing, to which everything adds up, is that 
Wordsworth was Wordsworth and Rossetti was Rossetti. Of 
course, it is no matter of indifference that Shakespeare wrote 
for the stage, or, in brief, all such circumstances added together, 
that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. Yet aesthetically the essen- 
tial point is that the stage as a traditional medium belonged to 
the "material" side of his works of art, not to their "formal" 
side. And on the material side there are no barriers between 
media they may merge by insensible gradations. 

Cassirer is quite right in saying: "Beethoven's intuition is in 
the realm of music. Phidias' intuition is in that of sculpture, 
Milton's in epic poetry, and Goethe's in lyric poetry. All of this 
concerns not merely the external husk, but the core of their 
creative work." 21 But this only means that the imagination of 
an artist works within some medium. Perhaps it was a mere 
coincidence that originally presented this medium to his imagi- 
nation. Perhaps he has to change and develop the medium in 
order to make it a vehicle for what he wants to say. Perhaps, 
having had an initial experience of various media, he chooses 
the one which for some reason or other suits him best a deaf 
man, for instance, is not likely to choose music, nor a colour- 
blind man painting. One puts a false interpretation upon these 
facts, if one infers that the types of intuition enumerated by 
Cassirer are categorial and a priori divisions. 

One may very well, it may be added, recognize the non- 
categorial and merely empirical status of the arts and at the 
same time dislike the romantic confusions, rooted in a love of 
suggestion for its own sake. Irving Babbitt was thoroughly 
right in The New Laokoon, An Essay on the Confusion of the 
Arts (1910). These romantics want to put us in a state of 
sensuous, even voluptuous dreaming, they want to thrill us 
with strange and surprising effects. There is no contradiction 
between clear insight in the non-aesthetic character of such 
endeavours and recognition of the merely empirical status of 
the arts and genres. 

"ibid., 131. 


A similar tendency to apriorize merely empirical distinctions 
can be noticed in Cassirer's philosophy of language. When he 
speaks of "the form of a language," it is clear that the word 
"form" does not merely denote the nature of essence of lan- 
guage in general but also the fundamental and enduring lin- 
guistic habits of a particular people. Cassirer here uses the 
word "form" in the same way as Humboldt did when speaking 
of the innere Sprachform of a particular language. There is no 
objection to such a terminology, unless it leads to confusion 
between enduring linguistic habits (or even among these only 
the habits denominated grammatical) and linguistic form per 
se. For such a confusion would mean that "empirically" distin- 
guished, historically conditioned habit-systems are apriorized 
into eternal subdivisions of speech as a universal form of ac- 

Suppose we distinguish carefully between linguistic and ar- 
tistic "form," on the one hand, and habits and traditions on the 
other. Suppose further that we call the "merely empirical" 
distinctions made among the latter: Stilbegriffe. Then we would 
have adopted a term introduced by Cassirer in Zur Logik der 
Kulturwissenschajten y using it in approximately the same sense 
as he does. In order to write the history of language and of art 
thus Cassirer begins his exposition of what he means by 
Stilbegriffe we need a great variety of terms describing the 
structure of artistic and linguistic phenomena. Open any gram- 
mar or any history of art or literature, and you will be able 
to grab them with both hands. Thus Wolfflin distinguishes be- 
tween a "picturesque" and a "linear" style, and Humboldt in- 
troduces the notion of "polysynthetic" languages. These types 
of concepts, Cassirer goes on to say, differ both from those of 
natural science and from the concepts of value (Wertbegriffe). 

So far no objection can be raised. Certainly history and the 
enquiry into general terms must keep pacej a theory of language 
and a theory of art are indispensable in writing the history 
of these activities. 22 But are the basic concepts in these theories 

M "On the one hand it is clear that the creation of a theory of language is not 
possible without constant reference to the results achieved in the history of language 
and in psychology of language. Such a theory can not be erected in the empty space 
of [mere] abstraction or speculation. But it is equally clear that empirical research 
in the realm of linguistics as in that of the psychology of language must constantly 


the concepts of "language" and "art" also Stilbegriffe? Cas- 
sirer says nothing about "art" in this context; but "language" 
evidently is included among the "concepts of style." 23 He says 
nothing about the relation of "concepts of style" to "concepts 
of value" and seems to have altogether forgotten that the latter 
have also a function in the theories of art and language. "Art" 
is obviously a value term, since a work of art is the better, the 
more it is art; on the other hand, no "picturesque" or "linear" 
work of art is the better, the more picturesque or linear it is. 
Similarly, "polysynthetic" is no value term, but "speech" is: 
only in so far as a person manages to express what he wants to 
express and this is a question of degrees has he achieved 
articulate speech. 

Thus Wertbegriffe are seen to denote the "form" or eternal 
nature of art and language, whereas Stilbegriffe denote em- 
pirically demarcated tendencies and habits. But no such sharp 
distinction is to be found in Cassirer's book. The student of his 
thought is left with the task of working it out for himself. 


An Analysis of the Logic of History and the 
Logic of Philosophy 

As we have seen, "Logos" in its highest, purest and most 
intense form is supposed to be identical with mathematical 
science. In The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms Cassirer always 
means mathematical science, when speaking of Wissenschaft. 

presuppose concepts which can only be taken from the linguistic 'theory of forms.' 
If investigations are to be initiated to ascertain in which order the various classes 
of words occur in the linguistic development of the child, or to ascertain in which 
phase the child moves from the use of the 'single word sentence* to the 'paratacticaP 
sentence, and from this latter to the 'hypotacticaP sentence, it must be clear that in 
such procedure [of investigation] the meaning of quite definite basic categories 
of the 'theory of forms,' of grammar and of syntax, are laid down as basic. Else- 
where also it is shown again and again that empirical research loses itself in 
'Schemfrobleme' and gets entangled in insoluble antinomies, if careful conceptual 
reflection concerning what precisely language 'is* does not come to the aid of such 
research and accompanies it constantly in the putting of its questions." Zur Logik 
der Kulturwissenschajten, 75. 
*Ibid., 75 f. 


History and philosophy are silently allowed to drop out of the 

Modern philosophers since Descartes have been chiefly in- 
terested in the thought-processes of mathematicians and scien- 
tists. They have until recently evinced little interest in those 
of the historians. And very few have even today discovered 
that their own philosophical activities might be as interesting 
logically as those of scientists and mathematicians. The logic 
of philosophical thought is a field which has not been discovered 
at all by the majority of philosophers. Yet it is difficult to see 
why general statements should not be made about the activity 
of philosophizing. 

When exalting mathematical science to the highest place in 
our knowledge-getting life, Cassirer seems to have forgotten 
the claims of his own subject, philosophy. He has said excellent 
things on the activities of mathematicians and scientists, and 
also some good things on history. On the activity of philosophiz- 
ing there is little more than a chapter on "Subjective and 
Objective Analysis" in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. 
And this chapter does not take us very far. 

A brief criticism of other thinkers may be helpful. Dewey 
touches upon the logic of philosophy, or more specifically the 
logic of logical enquiry, in the Introduction to his Logic. 2 * He 
believes that the philosopher's thought-processes can be ac- 
counted for by a pragmatic logic 5 they present no special diffi- 
culties. Similarly, logical positivists, when occasionally con- 
fronted with the problem, affirm that their own philosophy is 
a hypothesis of the same sort as any other scientific hypothesis. 
Their own philosophy, in other words, is only probable and 
must be verified by experience. But anyone who says: "Our 
philosophy is only a hypothesis," is surely talking nonsense; for 
in this statement is implicitly contained another one: "The 
criterion of verification is the ultimate court of appeal deciding 
the fate of each and every philosophy." An absolute, unhypo- 
thetical statement has been made. To put it in other words: 
anyone who asserts that "'philosophies are hypotheses" thereby 
affirms hypothesis-verification as the ultimate truth about our 

* Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, by John Dewey (New York, 1938). 


knowledge-getting life. To put it in a third manner: when we 
are supposed to be choosing between various systems of philo- 
sophical axioms by testing their applicability to experience, we 
are also supposed already to have a philosophical system, of 
which the idea of "applicability to experience" forms a part. 
This shows that the logic of philosophy does present special 
difficulties and does not fit into pragmatic logic. 

What, then, is the logic of philosophical thinking? If phi- 
losophy is self-knowledge, the logic of philosophy is an account 
of what happens in self-knowledge. That self-knowledge does 
not fit into pragmatic logic can easily be shown. It is often 
affirmed that all a priori truth is analytic and all empirical state- 
ments merely probable. But if one can be sure of an analytic 
truth, one can certainly also be sure of the existence of the 
thought-process in which the analytic truth is being sought; and 
one can also affirm with certainty that the existential thought- 
process in question belongs to a certain kind of thought-processes, 
those which the theory calls analytic. Here is an element of 
self-knowledge which is at once a priori and empirical. Further, 
no verification of a hypothesis can take place, unless we can 
know with certainty that we are verifying a hypothesis; an 
infinite regress of verifying that we are verifying provides no 
escape from nihilism it is like lifting oneself by one's boot- 
straps. Without an assertion somewhere there can be no proba- 
bility, only a mass of hypothetical sentences; even an infinite 
amount of "if-then"-sentences does not provide us with a 
single probability. Self-knowledge that we are verifying is 
accordingly indispensable. Similarly, the philosophical method 
of analyzing linguistic statements presupposes the absolute 
knowledge (at once empirical and a priori) that "this is a lin- 
guistic statement" and this is a piece of self-knowledge, 
knowledge of our own activity of speaking and of reconstruct- 
ing other people's expressions. 

In short, knowledge of our own activities and attitudes 
verifying analytic thinking, expressing oneself (speaking), re- 
constructing expressions (listening, reading), imagining, ob- 
serving, philosophizing, etc., must in a sense be immediate 
and direct, for otherwise the whole structure of knowledge 


would break down. Self-knowledge is the basis of all other 
knowledge. Now self-knowledge is in one respect historical 
(knowledge of individual processes) and in another respect 
philosophical (knowledge of the general categories of activity, 
like those just mentioned). The history of philosophy is the 
history of a growing insight into the nature of our own ac- 
tivities. And the method of philosophy has been a sort of 
direct inspection of our activities, often called "reflection" 
upon them. 

Now what has just been advanced as a criticism of prag- 
matism and logical positivism indicates the way I believe mod- 
ern philosophy will develop. 25 And it also indicates a realm 
which Cassirer has left unexplored. The logical analysis of what 
philosophers are doing and how they do it the logic of think- 
ing the Idea, as Hegel would say has become a problem to 
modern neo-Hegelians like Emil Lask, Theodor Litt, Richard 
Kroner and Benedetto Croce. 26 But Cassirer remains a neo- 
Kantian and refuses to venture into these problems. Abstract 
mathematics and unreal scientific constructions are to him the 
true nature of Logos. We go beyond him by identifying Logos 
with the Idea and interpreting philosophy as the self-conscious- 
ness of Logos. 

The subject may also be approached from another angle, by 
a detour over the subject of "freedom and form." This was 
the theme of a volume of essays which Cassirer published dur- 
ing the first world war: Freiheit und Form (Berlin, 1916). 
The basic idea is that freely developing life finds its own law 
within itself, that "form" is no restriction on freedom, unless 
it be merely external, pseudo-classical, conventional, based upon 

* Those interested in a fuller development of this criticism may read my article, 
"Analyse des Wirklichkeitsbegriffs," in Theoria, vol. IX, (1943). 

*E. Lask: Die Logik der Philosofhie und die Kategorienlefare, Ges. Schr. II, 
Tubingen, 1923. 

Th.Litt: Einleitung in die Philosophic, 1933, p. 1-33$ Kant und Herder , 1930, 
ch. 3 j Das Allgemeine im Aufbau der geisteswissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis, Leipzig* 
1941 (a brief summary). 

R. Kroner: Von Kant bis Hegel, MI, Tubingen, 1921-1924, esp. vol. I, pp. 
103$, 2895. Croce anticipated the Germans by several years. See his Logica come 
scienza del concetto furo, Bar. 1908. 


outer pressure. In the volume mentioned Cassirer applied this 
idea to the fields of aesthetics, ethics, and politics. 

As Cassirer himself points out, the problem of The Philoso- 
phy of Symbolic Forms is also at bottom a question of freedom 
and form. It might seem as if myth and language cut us off from 
reality, covering it with a many-coloured veil of "subjective" il- 
lusions. The free expansion of individuality might seem detri- 
mental to our knowledge of reality. But Cassirer shows that this 
is not really the case. Pre-scientific symbolism is really a method 
of exploring reality, having its own type of objectivity, its own 
"form," in which the expansion of individuality issues. 

What, according to Cassirer, is the "objectivity" or truth 
of myth? His answer is that the truth of myth is what myth does 
in the intuitive elaboration of experience. This view may be 
elucidated by a quotation from an American writer on art: 

Science may seem dry and trivial or mechanical to those who have no 
desire to understand the world intellectually; and poetry seem tedious, 
futile, or trifling to those who care nothing for imaginative under- 
standing. Each is right in his own sphere, and wrong only in supposing 
that his sphere leaves room for no other. 27 

The artist, he adds, is primarily the discoverer, just as the 
scientist is; the scientist invents abstract laws which may be 
used for the purposes of calculation and prediction; the artist 
explores reality in a different way. We see only by utilizing the 
vision of others, and this vision is embodied in the traditions 
of art. Pre-scientific symbolism, according to Cassirer, serves 
the purpose of imaginative, intuitive understanding. The pas- 
sage just quoted corresponds to Cassirer's thought (and to the 
general trend of contemporary philosophy) also in another 
respect: in its tendency to leave out history and philosophy 
altogether. Failure to analyze the last-mentioned activities is 
indeed the weakness of contemporary thought. When this 
analysis has been performed, it will be clear, I believe, that 
individuality plays no less a role in history and philosophy 
than in art, myth, and language, and that here too the expansion 
of individuality is compatible with "form" and objectivity. 

* A. Barnes: The Art in Painting, 37. 


Only science is in substance impersonal. Of course, it takes indi- 
viduals to create it, but individuality is no part of the results, 
which are strictly impersonal. "Freedom and form" as the 
Leitmotiv of Cassirer's philosophy cannot come into its own 
as long as mathematical science is taken to be the apex of our 
knowing life. As a system of practical procedures science is our 
way of controlling the forces of nature. Yet, if nature be some- 
thing of the kind pictured by Alfred N. Whitehead, practical 
control is surely something very different from real understand- 
ing in the sense of Verstehen. Maybe natural history can only 
be dead history to us, a mere chronicle; at all events real under- 
standing, where it is possible, i. e., in the human world, touches 
the rock-bottom of reality in a way that cannot be rivalled by 
the merely external approach of science. The apex of knowledge 
cannot therefore be sought in the latter; it is the self-knowledge 
of the mind. 

If there is any truth in what has just been said, the problem 
of "freedom and form" is the fundamental problem of logic 
and epistemology. The compatibility of individuality of vision 
with objective truth must be established not only on the level 
of artistic, mythical, and linguistic symbolism but also on the 
level of historical and philosophical knowledge. Every philoso- 
pher has his own truths to reveal, and these truths are not 
mutually incompatible; only by being intensely himself, by 
working out his own deepest inspiration, will he bring a unique 
contribution to the progress of thought. Even if Cassirer has 
not worked out the theory of freedom and form in philosophi- 
cal progress, he has, by his whole work, given us a brilliant 
illustration of it. 




M. F. Ashley Montagu 



GRIFF (1910) we learn that the study arose out of 
the attempt to comprehend the fundamental conceptions of 
mathematics from the point of view of logic. Cassirer found 
that it became necessary to analyze and trace back the funda- 
mental presuppositions of the nature of a concept itself. This led 
to a renewed analysis of the principles of concepts in general. 

In the course of his analysis of the special sciences it became 
evident that the systematic structure of the exact sciences 
assumes different forms according to the different logical per- 
spectives in which they are regarded. Hence the necessity of 
the analysis of the forms of conceptual construction and of the 
general function of concepts 5 for it is obvious that the con- 
ception which is formed of the fundamental nature of the 
concept is directly significant in judging the questions of fact in 
any criticism of knowledge or metaphysics. 

From such considerations with respect to the processes of 
knowing, and the conceptual formalization of that knowing 
as related to the pure sciences, Cassirer was led to a consideration 
of the more fundamental problem of the primitive origins of 
these processes and their development. The first fruits of his 
studies in this field he published in 1923, as the first instalment 
of a large work entitled Philosofhie der symboUschen Formen 
(Bruno Cassirer Verlag, Berlin) j this first volume was devoted 
to "Die Syrache" in which the nature and function of language 
was considered. A second volume devoted to "Das mythische 
Denizen" which is discussed in the present chapter was pub- 
lished in 19255 and the third and last volume, entitled "Pha- 
nomenologie der Erkenntnis" made its appearance in 1929. 


Of these volumes I think it is no exaggeration to say that they 
constitute perhaps the most important and certainly the most 
brilliant work in this field which has yet been published. 

Before entering upon a presentation of Cassirer's treatment 
of the nature of mythological thinking it is necessary to present 
something of his views with respect to the nature of language as 
propaedeutic to the former. 

Cassirer insists on the fact that in consciousness, whether 
theoretical, artistic, or linguistic, we see a kind of mirror, the 
image falling upon which reflects not only the nature of the 
object existing externally but also the nature of consciousness it- 
self. All forms brought into being by the mind are due to a 
creative force, to a spontaneous act in the Kantian sense, thanks 
to which that which is realized is something quite other than a 
simple reception or registration of facts exterior or foreign to 
the mind. We are now dealing not only with an entering into 
the possession of facts, but with the lending to them of a 
certain character, with an integration of them in a determinate 
physical order. Thus, the act of consciousness which gives birth 
to one or the other of these forms, to science, to art, and to 
language, does not simply discover and reproduce an ensemble 
of pre-existent objects. This act, the processes which give birth to 
it, lead rather to this objective universe, and contribute towards 
constituting its being and structure. The essential function of 
language is not arbitrarily to assign designations to objects al- 
ready formed and achieved j language is rather a means indis- 
pensable to that formation, even of objects. Similarly, in the 
plastic arts, the creative act consists in the construction of space, 
in conquering it, in opening a path of access to it, which each 
of these arts makes according to the manner that is specific 
to it. Similarly, in respect of language it is necessary to return 
to the theory of Wilhelm von Humboldt according to which 
the diversity of languages expresses the diversity of aspects from 
which the world is seen and conceived by the different linguistic 
groups, and which consequently contribute to the formation of 
the different representations of the world. But one cannot ob- 
serve the intimate operations of the mind which are at work in 
the formation of language. Psychology, even after having 


abandoned the concepts of apperception and of association con- 
cepts which during the nineteenth century stood in the way of 
the realization of Humboldt's ideas -does not provide a 
method which permits direct access to the specific process of 
the mind which ends by leading to the production of the ver- 
bal. What experimentation and introspection renders percepti- 
ble are the facts impregnated by language and by them, not the 
manner of formation, but the achieved state. 

If one wishes to go back to the origin of language and, in- 
stead of being content with the linguistic facts and findings, one 
seeks to discover the creative principle, one can be satisfied only 
with those regions in which the formation of the language is 
known, in all its particulars, and to attempt by an analysis of 
the structure of the languages of these regions, by a regressive 
method, to arrive at the genetic factors of language. 

Cassirer's study deals with the languages of a number of 
regions of this kind, inquiring into their mode of arriving at 
an objective representation of the world. According to Cassirer 
the lower animals are incapable of such objective representa- 
tions; they find themselves enclosed in an environment, in 
which they live, move, and have their being, but which they are 
unable to oppose, and which they are incapable of viewing 
objectively, since they cannot transcend it, consider or conceive 
it. The impressions they receive do not pass beyond the level of 
urges to action, and between these they fail to develop those 
specific relations which result in a true notion of that objectivity 
which is essentially defined by the constancy and identity of the 
object. This transition from a world of action and effectiveness 
to the world of objective representation only begins to manifest 
itself, in mankind, at a stage which coincides with a certain 
phase in the development of language; viz., at that stage which 
the child exhibits when it grows to understand that a whole 
thing corresponds to a particular value or denomination, and 
at which it is constantly demanding of those about it the names 
of things. But it does not occur to the child to attach these 
designations to the representation of things already stabilized 
and consolidated. The child's questions bear rather more on the 
things themselves. For in the eyes of the child, as in the eyes 


of primitive peoples, the name is not an extrinsic denomination 
of the thing which one arbitrarily attaches to it, but it is rather 
an essential quality of the object of which it forms an integral 
part. The principal value of this denominative phase is that it 
tends to stabilize and to consolidate the objective representation 
of things and permits the child to conquer the objective world 
in which it is henceforth to live. For this task he needs some 
name. If, for a multiplicity of impressions one sets apart the 
same name, these different impressions will no longer remain 
strange to one another 5 in this way they will come to represent 
simply aspects of the modes of appearance of the same thing. 
The loss of this conceptual and symbolic function of the word 
leads to such effects as one may observe in those suffering from 
aphasia. That which language renders possible on the plane of 
objects, viz., a separation or distinction between subjects and 
thingSy it permits equally in the domain of sentiment and voli- 
tion. In this domain also language is more than a simple means 
of expression and of communication} this it is only at the begin- 
ning of human life, when the infant gives expression without 
any reserve to the states of pleasure and of pain which it experi- 
ences y and it is language which provides the infant with a 
means of getting into contact with the outside world. Language 
prolongs these affective states, but it does not in any way alter 
them. Things, however, present another aspect as soon as the 
child acquires representational language. Henceforth, his vocal 
expressions will no longer be simple exclamations, nor of pure 
expansiveness apart from these emotional states. That which the 
child expresses is now informed by the fact that his expressions 
have taken the form of intelligible words, the child hears and 
understands what he himself says. He thus becomes capable of 
knowing his own states in a representative and objective man- 
ner, of apperceiving and looking at them as he does at external 
things. He thus becomes capable of reflecting upon his own 
affective life, and of adopting in relation to that life an attitude 
of contemplation. In this way his affective energies gradually 
lose that power of brutal constraint which it exercises, during 
early infancy, upon the "self." The fact that emotion attains 
to a consciousness of itself, renders man to some extent free of 


it. To the pure emotion are henceforth opposed those intellec- 
tual forces which support representational language. Emotion 
will now be held in constraint by these forces, it will no longer 
obtain an immediate and direct expression, but will have to 
justify itself before language, which now assumes the position 
of an instrument of the mind. In this connection we may recall 
the Greek idea that man must not abandon his passions, that 
these rather must be submitted to the judgment of the Logos, 
to that reason which is incorporated in language. 

Thanks to its regulative powers, language transforms senti- 
ments .and volitions, and organizes them into a conscious will, 
and thus contributes to the constitution of the moral self. There 
is still another domain into which one can gain entry only 
through the medium of language, it is the social world. Up to a 
certain point in the moral evolution of humanity, all moral and 
intellectual community is bound to the linguistic community, 
in much the same way as men speaking a foreign language are 
excluded from the protection and advantages which are alone 
enjoyed by members of the community considered as equals. 
And in the development of the individual, language constitutes 
for the child, who is beginning to learn, a more important and 
a more direct experience than that of the social and normative 
bond. But when for his characteristic infantile state he com- 
mences to substitute representational language, and experiences 
the need of being understood by his environment, he discovers 
the necessity of adapting his own efforts without reservation to 
the customs characteristic of the community to which he belongs. 
Without losing anything of his own individuality, he must 
adapt himself to those among whom he is destined to live. It 
is thus through the medium of a particular language that the 
child becomes aware of the bond which ties it to a particular 
community. This social bond becomes closer and more spiritual- 
ized during the course of its development. When the child 
commences to pose the questions What is it? and Why? not 
only is he going to penetrate into the world of knowledge, but 
also into a conquest of that world and a collective possession 
of it. Not only does the tendency to possess a thing begin to 
give way before the desire to acquire knowledge, but what is 


still more important, the relations which hold him to his en- 
vironment are going to be reorganized. The desire for physical 
assistance begins to transform itself into a desire for intellectual 
assistance} the contact of the child with the members of its 
environment is going to become a spiritual contact. Little by 
little, the constraint, the commands and prohibitions, the 
obediences and resistances, which up to now have characterized 
the relations between the child and the adult gives way to that 
reciprocity which exists between the one who asks and waits for 
a reply, and the one who takes an interest in the question 
asked and replies. Thus arise the bases of spiritual liberty and 
of that free collaboration which is the characteristic mark of 
society in so far as it is human. 

Finally, Cassirer assigns a capital importance to language 
in the construction of the world of pure imagination, above all 
to that state of conscious development wherein the decisive 
distinction between the real and the imagined is not made. The 
question that has so much occupied psychologists, whether the 
play of the child represents for it a veritable reality or merely 
a conscious occupation with fictions, this question, asserts Cas- 
sirer, is malposed, since the play of the child, like the Myth, 
belongs to a phase of consciousness which does not yet under- 
stand the distinction between that which is real and that which 
merely is simply imagined. In the eyes of the child the world 
is not composed of pure objects, of real forms, it is, on the 
contrary, peopled by beings who are his equals; and the charac- 
ter of the living and the animate is not limited for him, to that 
which is specifically human. The world, for him, has the form 
of Thou and not of That. This anthropomorphism of the child 
arises out of the fact that the child speaks to the things which 
surround him, and the things speak to him. It is no accident 
that there is no substitute for dumb playj when playing the 
child does not cease to speak of and to the things with which 
he is playing. It is not that this activity is an accessory com- 
mentary of play, but rather it is an indispensable element of it. 
The child views every object, all beings, as an interlocutor of 
whom he asks questions and who reply to him. His relation to 
the world is above all else a verbal relation, and Cassirer asserts 


that the child does not speak to things because he regards them 
as animate y but on the contrary y he regards them as animate be- 
cause he speaks with them. It is much later that the distinction is 
made between that which is pure thing and that which is ani- 
mate and living. The most developed of languages still retain 
traces of this original state. The lack of such distinctions is 
strikingly evident when we study the languages, the mental 
instruments, of the simpler peoples, a study which is obviously 
necessary for any true understanding of mythological thinking. 

Cassirer's approach to mythology is that of the neo-Kantian 
phenomenologist; he is not interested in mythology as such, 
but in the processes of consciousness which lead to the creation 
of myths. It will be recalled that he was originally concerned 
with inquiring into the bases of empirical knowledge, but since 
a knowledge of a world of empirical things or properties was 
preceded by a world characterized by mythical powers and 
forces, and since early philosophy drew its spiritual powers 
from and created its perspective upon the bases of these mythical 
factors, a consideration of them is clearly of importance. The 
relation between myth and philosophy is a close one; for if the 
myth is taken to be an indirect expression of reality, it can be 
understood only as an attempt to point the way, it is a prepara- 
tion for philosophy. The form and content of myth impede the 
realization of a rational content of knowledge, which reflection 
alone reveals, and of which it discovers the kernel. An illustra- 
tion of this effect of myth upon knowledge may be seen in the 
attempts of the sophists of the Fifth Century to work from 
myth to empirical knowledge, in their newly founded scientific 
wisdom. Myth was by them understood and explained, and 
translated into the language of popular philosophy, as an all 
embracing speculative science of nature or of ethical truth. 

It is no accident, remarks Cassirer, that just that Greek 
thinker in whom the characteristic power of creating the mythi- 
cal was so outstanding should reject the whole world of mythi- 
cal images, namely, Plato. For it was Plato who was opposed to 
the attempts at myth-analysis in the manner of the Sophists 
and rhetoricians; for him these attempts represented a play 
of wit in a difficult, though not very refined, subject (Phaedrus* 


229). Plato failed to see the significance of the mythical world, 
seeing it only as something opposed to pure knowledge. The 
myth must be separated from science, and appearance be dis- 
tinguished from reality. The myth however transcends all ma- 
terial meaning} and here it occupies a definite place and plays 
a necessary part for our understanding of the world, and accord- 
ing to the philosophy of the Platonic school it can work as a true 
creative and formative motive. The profounder view which 
has conquered here has, in the continuity of Greek thought, not 
always been carried through nor had quite the same meaning. 
The Stoics as well as the neo-Platonists returned to the Platonic 
view as did the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. 

In the newer philosophy the myth becomes the problem of 
philosophy when it is recognized that there exists a primordial 
directive of the spirit, an intrinsic way of forming knowledge. 
The spirit (Geist) forges the conditions necessary to itself. In 
this connection Giambattista Vico may be regarded as the 
founder of the new philosophy of language and of mythology. 
The real and true knowledge of the unitary idea of the spirit is 
shown in the triad of Language, Art, and Myth. 

The critical problem of the origin of the aesthetic and ethical 
judgment, which Kant inquired into, was transferred by Schel- 
ling to the field of myth. For Kant the problem does not ask for 
psychological origins or beginnings but for pure existence and 
content. Myth does not make its appearance, like morality or 
art, as a self-contained world in itself, which may be measured 
by objective values and reality measurements, but it must be 
understood through its own immanent laws of structure and of 
being. Every attempt to make this world understandable by 
simple direct means only reveals the reflection of something 

In the empirical comparisons of myths a distinct trend was 
noticeable to measure not only the range of mythical thinking 
but also to describe the unitary forms of consciousness and its 
characteristics. Just as in physics the concept of the unit of the 
physical world led to a deepening of its principles, so in folklore 
the problem of a general mythology instead of special research 
gained for it a new lease on life. Out of the conflicting schools 


there appeared no other way than to think in terms of a 
single source of myth and of a distinct form of orientation. 
From this way of treating myth arose the conception of a funda- 
mental mythical view of the world. Fundamental and character- 
istic motives were found for the whole world, even where space 
and time relations could not be demonstrated. As soon as the 
attempt was made to separate these motives, to distinguish be- 
tween them, and to discover which were the truly primitive 
ones, conflicting views were again brought to the fore more 
sharply than ever. It was the task of folklore in association with 
folk psychology to determine the order of the appearances and 
to uncover the general laws and principles with respect to the 
formation of myths. But the unity of these principles disap- 
peared even before one had assured oneself of the existence of 
the necessary fullness and variety of myths. 

Besides the mythology of nature, there is the mythology 
of the soul. In the first there are involved a large variety of 
myths which have a definite object of nature for their kernel. 
One always asked of each single myth whether it bore a distinct 
relation to some natural thing or event. One had to approach 
the matter in this way because only in this way could phantasy 
be distinguished, and a strictly objective position arrived at. 
But the arbitrary power of building hypotheses, seen in a strictly 
objective way, showed that it was nearly as great as the creation 
of phantasy. The older form of the storm and thunder my- 
thology was the opposite of the astral mythology which itelf, 
again, took different forms, sun mythology, lunar mythology, 
and stellar mythology. 

Another approach to the ultimate unity of myth creation 
attempted to see it not as a natural but more as a spiritual unity, 
expressing this unity not in the field of the object but as in the 
historical field of culture. Were it possible to find such a field 
of culture for the general origin of the great fundamental 
mythical motives and themes, as a center from which they 
eventually spread over the whole world, it would be a simple 
matter to explain the inner relation and systematic consequences 
of these themes and motives. If any such relation in a known 
form is obscure, it must appear at once, if one but refers to the 


best historical source for it. When the older theorists, e.g., 
Benfey, looked to India for the most important motives, there 
seemed to be certain striking evidences for the historical unity 
and association of myth forming; this became even more so 
when Babylonian culture became better known. With the find- 
ing of this homeland of culture the answer was also found to the 
question as to the home of myth and its unitary structure. 
The answer to Pan-Babylonianism is that myth could never 
have developed a consistent world viewpoint if it had been 
constituted out of a primitive magic, idea, dream, emotion or 
superstition. The path to such a Weltanschauung was much 
more likely to be there where there was in existence a distinct 
proof of a conception of the world as an ordered whole a con- 
dition which was fulfilled in the beginning of Babylonian 
astronomy and cosmogony. From this spiritual and historical 
viewpoint the possibility is opened up that myth is not only a 
form of pure phantasy but is in itself a finished and compre- 
hensive system. What, remarks Cassirer, is so interesting about 
this theory in the methodological sense is that not only does 
it attempt the empirical proof of the real historical origin of 
myth, but it also attempts to give a sort of a priori substantia- 
tion to the proper direction and goal of mythological research. 
That all myths have an astral origin and should in the end 
prove to be calendric, is stated by the students of the Pan- 
Babylonian school to be the basic principle of the method. It is 
a sort of Ariadne's thread, which is alone able to lead through 
the labyrinth of mythology. By this means it was not very 
difficult to fill in the various lacunae which the empiric tradi- 
tion had somehow failed to make good, but this very means 
showed ever more clearly that the fundamental problem of the 
unit of the mythological consciousness could not really be 
explained in the manner of the historical objective empirical 

It becomes more and more certain that the simple statement 
of unity of the fundamental mythical ideas cannot really give 
any insight into the structure of the forms of mythical phantasy 
and of mythical thinking. To define the structure of this form, 
when one does not desert the basis of pure descriptive con- 


siderations, requires no more elaborate conception than Bastian's 
concept of "Volkergedanken" Bastian maintained that the varie- 
ties of the objective approach do not simply consider the con- 
tent and objects of mythology, but start off from the question 
as to the function of myth. The fundamental principle of this 
function should remain to be proved; in this way various 
resemblances are discovered and relations demonstrated. From 
the beginning the sought-for unity is both from the inside 
and the outside transferred from the phenomena of reality to 
those of the spirit. But this idealism, as long as it is received 
psychologically and determined through the categories of psy- 
chology, is not characterized by a single meaning. When we 
speak of mythology as the collective expression of mankind, 
this unity must finally be explained out of the unity of the 
human soul and out of the homogeneity of its behaviour. But 
the unity of the soul expresses itself in a great variety of 
potencies and forms. As soon as the question is asked which 
of these potencies play the respective roles in the building up 
of the mythical world, there immediately arise conflicting and 
contradictory controversial explanations. Is the myth ulti- 
mately derived from the play of subjective phantasy, or does 
it in some cases rest upon a real view of things, upon which 
it is based? Is it a primitive form of knowledge (Erkenntnls} 
and in this connection is it a form of intellection, or does it be- 
long rather to the sphere of affection and conation? To this 
question scientific myth-analysis has returned different an- 
swers. Just as formerly the theories differed with respect to 
the objects which were considered necessary to the creation 
of myths, in the same way they now differed in respect of the 
fundamental psychic processes to which these are considered to 
lead back. The conception of a pure intellectual mythology 
made its reappearance, the idea that the essence of the myth 
was to be sought in the intellectual analysis of experience. 

In opposition to Schelling's demand for a tautegorical (ex- 
pressing the same thing in different words, opposed to allegori- 
cal) analysis of myth an allegorical explanation was sought for 
(See Fritz Langer, Intellektualmythologle^ Leipzig, 1916). 

In all this is evident the danger to which the myth is ex- 


posed, the danger of becoming lost in the depths of a particular 
theory. In all these theories the sought-for unity is transferred 
in error to the particular elements instead of being looked for 
in that spiritual whole, the symbolic world of meaning, out 
of which these elements are created. We must, on the other 
hand, says Cassirer, look for the fundamental laws of the 
spirit to which the myth goes back. Just as in the process of 
arriving at knowledge The Rhapsody of Perceptions (Rha-p- 
sodie der W ahrnehmwngeri) is, by means of certain laws and 
forms of thinking, transmuted into knowledge, so we can and 
must ask for the creation of that form unity, the unending and 
manifold world of the myth, which is not a conglomerate of 
arbitrary ideas and meaningless notions, a characteristic spiritual 
genitor. We must look at the myth from a genetic-causal, teleo- 
logical standpoint j in this way we shall find that what is pre- 
sented to us is something which as a complete form possesses a 
self-sufficient being and an autochthonous sense. 

The myth represents in itself the first attempts at a knowl- 
edge of the world, and since it furthermore possibly represents 
the earliest form of aesthetic phantasy, we see in it that particu- 
lar unity of the spirit of which all separate forms are but a 
single manifestation. We see too, here, that instead of an 
original unity in which the opposites lose themselves, and seem 
to combine with one another, that the critical-transcendental 
idea-unit seeks the clear definition and delimitation of the 
separate forms in order to preserve them. The principle of this 
separation becomes clear when one compares here the problem 
of meaning with that of characterization that is, when one 
reflects upon the way in which the various spiritual forms of 
expression, such as "Object 71 with "Idea or Image," and "Con- 
tent" with "Sign," are related to one another. 

In this we see the fundamental element of the parallelism, 
namely, the creative power of the "sign" in myth as in lan- 
guage, and in art, as well as in the process of forming a 
theoretical idea in a word, and in relation to the world. What 
Humboldt said of language, that man places it between him- 
self and. the internal and external world that is acting upon 
him, that he surrounds himself with a world of sounds with 


which to take up and to work up the world of objects, holds 
true also for the myth and for the aesthetic fancy. They are 
not so much reactions to impressions, which are exercised from 
the outside upon the spirit, but they are much more real 
spiritual activities. At the outset, in the definite sense of the 
primitive expression of the myth it is clear that we do not 
have to deal with a mere reflection or mirage of Reality (Seiri), 
but with a characteristic treatment and presentation of it. Also 
here one can observe how in the beginning the tension between 
"Subject" and "Object," "Internal" and "External," grad- 
ually diminishes, a richer and multiform new middle state 
stepping in between both worlds. To the material world which 
it embraces and governs the spirit opposes its own independent 
world of images the power of Impression gradually becomes 
more distinct and more conscious than the active power of Ex- 
pression. But this creation does not yet in itself possess the 
character of an act of free will, but still bears the character 
of a natural necessity, the character of a certain psychic "mecha- 
nism." Since at this level there does not yet exist an inde- 
pendent and self-conscious free living "I," but because we here 
stand upon the threshold of the spiritual processes which are 
bound to react against each other, the "I" and the "World," 
the new world of the "Sign" must appear to the conciousness 
as a thoroughly objective reality. Every beginning of the 
myth, especially every magical conception of the world, is 
permeated by this belief in the existence of the objective power 
of the sign. Word magic, picture-magic, and script-magic pro- 
vide the fundaments of magical practices and the magical view 
of the world. When one examines the complete structure of the 
mythical consciousness one can detect in this a characteristic 
paradox. For if the generally prevailing conception, that the 
fundamental urge of the myth is to vivify, is true, that is that it 
tends to take a concrete view in the statement and representa- 
tion of all the elements of existence, how does it happen, then, 
that these urges point most intensely to the most unreal and 
non- vital; how is it that the shadow-empire of words, of 
images, and signs gains such a substantial ascendancy and power 
over the mythical consciousness? How is it that it possesses this 


belief in the abstract, in this cult of symbols in a world in which 
the general idea is nothing, the sensation (Empfindung), the 
direct urge, the (sensible) psychic perception and outlook seem 
to be everything? The answer to this question, says Cassirer, 
can be found only when one is aware of the fact that it is 
improperly stated. The mythical world is not so concrete that it 
deals only with psychically 'objective' contents, or simply 
'abstract' considerations, but both the thing and its meaning 
form one distinct and direct concrete unity, they are not differ- 
entiated from one another. The myth raises itself spiritually 
above the world of things, but it exchanges for the forms and 
images which it puts in their place only another form of restric- 
tive existence. What the spirit appears to rescue from the 
shackles now becomes but a new shackle, which is so much 
more unyielding because it is not only a psychical power but a 
spiritual one. Nevertheless, such a state already contains in it- 
self the immanent condition of its future release. It already 
contains the incipient possibility of a spiritual liberation which 
in the progress of the magical-mythical world-idea will even- 
tually arrive at a characteristic religious world-idea. During this 
transition it becomes necessary for the spirit to place itself in 
a new and free relation to the world of images and signs, but, 
at the same time, in a different way than formerly, sees through 
this relationship, and in this way raises itself above it, though 
living it still and needing it. 

And in still further measure and in greater distinctness 
stands for us the dialectic of these fundamental relations, their 
analysis and synthesis, which the spirit through its own self- 
made world of images experiences, when we here compare the 
myth with all other forms of symbolic expression. In the case 
of language also there is at first no sharp line of separation by 
means of which the word and its meaning, the thing content 
of "idea" and the simple content are distinguished from one 
another. The nominalist viewpoint, for which words are con- 
ventional signs, simply flatus vocis, is the result of later reflec- 
tion but not the direct expression of the direct natural language 
consciousness. For this the existence of things in words is not 
only indicated as indirect, but is contained and present in it any- 


way. In the language consciousness of the primitive and in that 
of the child one can demonstrate this concrescence of names and 
things in very pregnant examples one has only to think of 
the different varieties of the taboo names. But in the progression 
of the spiritual development of language there is also here 
achieved a sharper and ever more conscious separation between 
the Word and Being or Existence, between the Meaning and 
the Meant. Opposed to all other physical being and all physical 
activity the word appears as autonomous and characteristic, in 
its purely ideal and significative function. 

A new stage of the separation is next witnessed in art. Here, 
too, there is in the beginning no clear distinction between the 
"Ideal" and the "Real." The beginning of the formation and 
of the cultivation of art reaches back to a sphere in which the 
act of cultivation itself is strongly rooted in the magical idea, 
and is directed to a definite magical end, of which the picture 
(Bild) is yet in no way independent, and has no pure aesthetic 
meaning. Nevertheless already in the first impulse of char- 
acteristic artistic configurations, in the stages of spiritual forms of 
expression, quite a new principle is attained. The view of the 
world which the spirit opposes to the simple world of matter 
and of things subsequently attains here to a pure immanent 
value and truth. It does not attach itself or refer to another; 
but it simply /V, and consists in itself. Out of the sphere of 
activity (Wirksamkeit), in which the mythical consciousness, 
and out of the sphere of meaning, in which the marks of lan- 
guage remain, we are now transferred to a sphere, in which so to 
say, only the pure essence (Sein), only its own innermost nature 
(Wesenheii) of the image (Bildes) is seized as such. Thus, the 
world of images forms in itself a Kosmos which is complete in 
itself, and which rests within its own centre of gravity. And to 
it the spirit is now first able to find a free relation. The aesthetic 
world is measured according to the measure of things, the 
realistic outlook according to a world of appearance: but since 
in just this appearance the relation to direct reality, to the 
world of being and action (Wirken), in which also the magical- 
mythical outlook has its being, is now left behind, there is thus 
made a completely new step towards truth. Thus there present 


themselves in relation to Myth, Language, and to Art, con- 
figurations which are linked directly together in a certain histori- 
cal series, by means of a certain systematic progression (Stujen- 
gang), and ideal progress (Fortschritt), as the object of which 
it can be said the spirit in its own creations, in its self-made 
symbols, not only exists and lives, but gains its significance. 
There is a certain pertinence, in this connection, in that dominant 
theme of HegePs Phenomenology of the Spirit, namely, that 
the object of development lies in the comprehension and ex- 
pression of the fact that the spiritual being is not only "Sub- 
stance" but just as much "Subject." In this respect the problems 
which grow out of a "Philosophy of Mythology" resolve 
themselves once more to such as arise from the philosophy of 
pure logic. Then also science separates itself from the other 
stages of spiritual life, not because it stands in need of any 
kind of mediation or intervention through signs and symbols, 
seeking naked truth, the truth of "things-in-themselves," but 
because it uses the symbols differently and more profoundly 
than the former is able to do, and recognizes and understands 
them as such, i.e., as symbols. Furthermore, this is not accom- 
plished at one stroke 5 rather there is here also repeated, at 
a new stage, the typical fundamental relation of the spirit to 
its own creation. Here also must the freedom of this creation 
be gained and secured in continuous critical work. The utiliza- 
tion of hypotheses, and its characteristic function to advance the 
foundations of knowledge, determines that, so long as this 
knowledge is not secured, the principles of science are unable 
to express themselves in other than dinglicher, i.e., material, 
or in half mythical form. 

Every student of primitive peoples and of mythology would 
recognize in Cassirer's views on mythological thinking, which 
have here been presented only partially, a valuable contribution 
towards the clarification of a difficult problem. In a brilliant 
chapter in which Cassirer discusses "the dialectic of the mythical 
consciousness," he shows how interrelated and interdependent 
the mythical and religious consciousness are, and that there can 
really be no distinction between themj there is a difference in 
form, but not in substance. An admirable discussion of the rela- 


tion of "speech" to "language" and of "sound" to "meaning" 
(already dealt with at length in the first volume of the Sym- 
bolischen Formen) leads to a brief discussion of writing. 

Cassirer points out that all writing begins as picture-signs 
which do not in themselves embrace any meaning or communi- 
cative characters. The picture-sign takes the place rather of the 
object itself, replaces it, and stands for it. 

This statement is perfectly true of all forms of primitive 
writing. One of the most primitive forms of writing, for ex- 
ample, with which we are acquainted is that invented and 
practiced by certain Australian tribes. On the message sticks 
which they send from one tribe to another the signs which they 
make fulfill all the specifications stated by Cassirer. 

Cassirer also states that at first writing forms a part of the 
sphere of magic. The sign which is stamped on the object draws 
it into the circle of its own effect and keeps away strange in- 

The anthropological data lend full support to this idea. It 
may even be that the magicians were the first to invent writing, 
though it would at present be impossible to prove such a sug- 
gestion or even to prove that the magicians were among the 
first to use picture signs. The evidence does, however, suggest 
that this is highly probable. 

I can only have succeeded in giving a faint indication of the 
value and quality of Cassirer's contribution to our understanding 
of mythological thinking in general and that of pre-literate 
peoples in particular. To appreciate Cassirer's great work at 
its full value the reader is recommended to go to the original 
work. This essay must be regarded as but a footnote to it. 



Susanne K. Langer 




EVERY philosopher has his tradition. His thought has de- 
veloped amid certain problems, certain basic alternatives of 
opinion, that embody the key concepts which dominate his time 
and his environment and which will always be reflected, posi- 
tively or by negation, in his own work. They are the forms of 
thought he has inherited, wherein he naturally thinks, or from 
which his maturer conceptions depart. 

The continuity of culture lies in this handing down of usable 
forms. Any campaign to discard tradition for the sake of novelty 
as such, without specific reason in each case to break through a 
certain convention of thought, leads to dilettantism, whether it 
be in philosophy, in art, or in social and moral institutions. As 
every person has his mother tongue in terms of which he can- 
not help thinking his earliest thoughts, so every scholar has a 
philosophical mother tongue, which colors his natural Weltan- 
schauung. He may have been nurtured in a particular school 
of thought, or his heritage may be the less conscious one of 
"common sense," the popular metaphysic of his generation 5 but 
he speaks some intellectual language that has been bestowed 
on him, with its whole cargo of preconceptions, distinctions, 
and evaluations, by his official and unofficial teachers. 

A great philosopher, however, has something new and vital 
to present in whatever philosophical mold he may have been 
given. The tenor of his thought stems from the pastj but his 
specific problems take shape in the face of a living present, and 
his dealing with them reflects the entire, ever-nascent activity 
of his own day. In all the great periods of philosophy, the lead- 
ing minds of the time have carried their traditional learning 


lightly, and felt most deeply the challenge of things which were 
new in their age. It is the new that calls urgently for interpre- 
tation} and a true philosopher is a person to whom something in 
the weary old world always appears new and uncomprehended. 

There are certain "dead periods" in the history of philosophy, 
when the whole subject seems to shrink into a hard, small shell, 
treasured only by scholars in large universities. The common 
man knows little about it and cares less. What marks such a 
purely academic phase of philosophical thought is that its sub- 
stance as well as its form is furnished by a scholastic tradition; 
not only the categories, but the problems of debate are familiar. 
Precisely in the most eventful epochs, when intellectual activity 
in other fields is brilliant and exciting, there is quite apt to be 
a lapse in philosophy; the greatest minds are engaged else- 
where; reflection and interpretation are in abeyance when the 
tempo of life is at its highest. New ideas are too kaleidoscopic 
to be systematically construed or to suggest general proposi- 
tions. Professional philosophers, therefore, continue to argue 
matters which their predecessors have brought to no conclusion, 
and to argue them from the same standpoints that yielded no 
insight before. 

We have only recently passed through an "academic" phase 
of philosophy, a phase of stale problems and deadlocked "isms." 
But today we are on the threshold of a new creative period. 
The most telling sign of this is the tendency of great minds 
to see philosophical implications in facts and problems belong- 
ing to other fields of learning mathematics, anthropology, 
psychology, physics, history, and the arts. Familiar things like 
language or dream, or the mensurability of time, appear in new 
universal connections which involve highly interesting abstract 
issues. Even the layman lends his ear to "semantics" or to new 
excitements about "relativity." 

Cassirer had all the marks of a great thinker in a new philo- 
sophical period. His standpoint was a tradition which he in- 
herited the Kantian "critical" philosophy seen in the light of 
its later developments, which raised the doctrine of transcen- 
dental forms to the level of a transcendental theory of Being. 
His writings bear witness that he often reviewed and pondered 


the foundations of this position. There was nothing accidental 
or sentimental in his adherence to it; he maintained it through- 
out his life, because he found it fruitful, suggestive of new 
interpretations. In his greatest works this basic idealism is 
implicit rather than under direct discussion; and the turn it 
gives to his treatment of the most baffling questions removes it 
utterly from that treadmill of purely partisan reiteration and 
defense which is the fate of decadent metaphysical convictions. 
There is little of polemic or apologetic in Cassirer's writings; 
he was too enthusiastic about solving definite problems to spend 
his time vindicating his method or discussing what to him was 
only a starting-point. 

One of the venerable puzzles which he treated with entirely 
new insight from his peculiarly free and yet scholarly point 
of view is the relation of language and myth. Here we find 
at the outset the surprising, unorthodox working of his mind: 
for what originally led him to this problem was not the con- 
templation of poetry, but of science. For generations the advo- 
cates of scientific thinking bemoaned the difficulties which nature 
seems to plant in its path the misconceptions bred by "igno- 
rance" and even by language itself. It took Cassirer to see 
that those difficulties themselves were worth investigating. 
Ignorance is a negative condition; why should the mere absence 
of correct conceptions lead to w/Vconceptions? And why should 
language, supposedly a practical instrument for conveying 
thought, serve to resist and distort scientific thought? The 
misconceptions interested him. 

If the logical and factual type of thought which science de- 
i mands is hard to maintain, there must be some other mode of 
thinking which constantly interferes with it. Language, the 
expression of thought, could not possibly be a hindrance to 
thought as such; if it distorts scientific conception, it must do 
so merely by giving preference and support to such another 

Now, all thinking is "realistic" in the sense that it deals 
with phenomena as they present themselves in immediate 
experience. There cannot be a way of thinking that is not true 
to the reports of sense. If there are two modes of thinking, 


there must be two different modes of perceiving things, of 
apprehending the very data of thought. To observe the wind, 
for instance, as a purely physical atmospheric disturbance, and 
Mnk of it as a divine power or an angry creature would be 
purely capricious, playful, irresponsible. But thinking is serious 
business, and probably always has been 5 and it is not likely that 
language, the physical image of thought, portrays a pattern of 
mere fancies and vagaries. In so far as language is incompatible 
with scientific reasoning, it must reflect a system of thought that 
is soberly true to a mode of experiencing^ of seeing and feeling, 
different from our accepted mode of experiencing "facts." 1 

This idea, first suggested by the difficulties of scientific 
conception, opened up a new realm of epistemological research 
to its authorj for it made the forms of misunderstanding take 
on a positive rather than a negative importance as archaic forms 
of understanding. The hypostatic and poetic tinge of language 
which makes it so often recalcitrant to scientific purposes is a 
record not only of a different way of thinking, but of seeing, 
feeling, conceiving experience a way that was probably para- 
mount in the ages when language itself came into being. 
The whole problem of mind and its relation to "reality" took 
a new turn with the hypothesis that former civilizations may 
actually have dealt with a "real world" differently constituted 
from our own world of things with their universal qualities 
and causal relationships. But how can that older "reality" be 
recaptured and demonstrated? And how can the change from 
one way of apprehending nature to another be accounted for? 

The answer to this methodological question came to him 
as a suggestion from metaphysics. "Es ist der Geist der sich 
den Korper baut y " said Goethe. And the post-Kantian idealists, 
from Fichte to Hermann Cohen, had gone even beyond that 
tenet; so they might well have said, "Es ist der Geist der sich 
das Weltall baut" To a romanticist that would have been little 
more than a figure of speech, expressing the relative importance 
of mind and matter. But in Cassirer's bold and uncomplacent 
mind such a belief which he held as a basic intellectual postu- 
late, not as a value- judgment immediately raised the ques- 

1 Cf . Language and Myth> i of. 


tion: How? By what process and what means does the human 
spirit construct its physical world? 

Kant had already proposed the answer: By supplying the 
transcendental constituent of form. Kant regarded this form 
as a fixed pattern, the same in all human experience; the cate- 
gories of thought which find their clearest expression in science, 
seemed to him to govern all empirical experience, and to be 
reflected in the structure of language. But the structure of 
language is just what modern scientific thought finds uncon- 
genial. It embodies a metaphysic of substance and attribute; 
whereas science operates more and more with the concept of 
junction, which is articulated in mathematics. 2 There is good 
reason why mathematicians have abandoned verbal propositions 
almost entirely and resorted to a symbolism which expresses 
different metaphysical assumptions, different categories of 
thought altogether. 

At this point Cassirer, reflecting on the shift from substantive 
to functional thinking, found the key to the methodological 
problem: two different symbolisms revealed two radically dif- 
ferent forms of thought; does not every form of Anschauung 
have its symbolic mode? Might not an exhaustive study of 
symbolic forms reveal just how the human mind, in its various 
stages, has variously construed the "reality" with which it dealt? 
To construe the equivocally "given" is to construct the phe- 
nomenon for experience. And so the Kantian principle, fructified 
by a wholly new problem of science, led beyond the Kantian 
doctrine to the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. 

The very plan of this work departs from all previous ap- 
proaches to epistemology by not assuming either that the 
mind is concerned essentially with facts, or that its prime talent 
is discursive reason. A careful study of the scientific miscon- 
ceptions which language begets revealed the fact that its subject- 
predicate structure, which reflects a "natural" ontology of 
substance and attribute, is not its only metaphysical trait. Lan- 
guage is born of the need for emotional expression. Yet it is 
not exclamatory. It is essentially hypostatic, seeking to distin- 
guish, emphasize, and hold the object of feeling rather than 

* See Substance and Function, Ch. I. 


to communicate the feeling itself. To fix the object as a per- 
manent focus point in experience is the function of the name. 
Whatever evokes emotion may therefore receive a name; and, 
if this object is not a thing if it is an act, or a phenomenon 
like lightning, or a sound, or some other intangible item , 
the name nevertheless gives it the unity, permanence, and 
apparent substantiality of a "thing." 

This hypostasis, entailed by the primitive office of language, 
really lies deeper even than nomenclature, which merely reflects 
it: for it is a fundamental trait of all imagination. The very word 
"imagination" denotes a process of image-making. An image 
is only an aspect of the actual thing it represents. It may be 
not even a completely or carefully abstracted aspect. Its im- 
portance lies in the fact that it symbolizes the whole the thing, 
person, occasion, or what-not from which it is an abstract. 
A thing has a history, an event passes irrevocably away, actual 
experience is transient and would exhaust itself in a series of 
unique occasions, were it not for the permanence of the symbol 
whereby it may be recalled and possessed. Imagination is a 
free and continual production of images to "mean" experience 
past or present or even merely possible experience. 

Imagination is the primary talent of the human mind, the 
activity in whose service language was evolved. The imagina- 
tive mode of ideation is not "logical" after the manner of 
discursive reason. It has a logic of its own, a definite pattern of 
identifications and concentrations which bring a very deluge of 
ideas, all charged with intense and often widely diverse feelings, 
together in one symbol. 

Symbols are the indispensable instruments of conception. To 
undergo an experience, to react to immediate or conditional 
stimuli (as animals react to warning or guiding signs), is not to 
"have" experience in the characteristically human sense, which 
is to conceive it, hold it in the mind as a so-called "content of 
consciousness," and consequently be able to think about it. 3 To 
a human mind, every experience a sensation of light or color, 
a fright, a fall, a continuous noise like the roar of breakers 

Cf. Language and Myth, 38. 


on the beach exhibits, in retrospect, a unity and self-identity 
that make it almost as static and tangible as a solid object. By 
virtue of this hypostatization it may be referred to> much as an 
object may be fainted at; and therefore the mind can think 
about it without its actual recurrence. In its symbolic image the 
experience is conceived, instead of just physiologically remem- 
bered. 4 

Cassirer's greatest epistemological contribution is his approach 
to the problem of mind through a study of the primitive forms 
of conception. His reflections on science had taught him that 
all conception is intimately bound to expression; and the forms 
of expression, which determine those of conception, are symbolic 
forms. So he was led to his central problem, the diversity of 
symbolic forms and their interrelation in the edifice of human 

He distinguished, as so many autonomous forms, language, 
myth, art, and science. 5 In examining their respective patterns he 
made his first startling discovery: myth and language appeared 
as genuine twin creatures, born of the same phase of human 
mentality, exhibiting analogous formal traits, despite their ob- 
vious diversities of content. Language, on the one hand, seems 
to have articulated and established mythological concepts, 
whereas, on the other hand, its own meanings are essentially 
images functioning mythically. The two modes of thought 
have grown up together, as conception and expression, respec- 
tively, of the primitive human world. 

The earliest products of mythic thinking are not permanent, 
self-identical, and clearly distinguished "gods;" neither are 
they immaterial spirits. They are like dream elements objects 
endowed with daemonic import, haunted places, accidental 
shapes in nature resembling something ominous all manner of 
shifting, fantastic images which speak of Good and Evil, of 
Life and Death, to the impressionable and creative mind of 
man. Their common trait is a quality that characterizes every- 
thing in the sphere of myth, magic, and religion, and also the 

4 See An Essay on Man, chapters 2 and 3, fassim. 
9 Language and' Myth^ 8, 


earliest ethical conceptions the quality of holiness* Holiness 
may appertain to almost anything; it is the mystery that appears 
as magic, as taboo, as daemonic power, as miracle, and as 
divinity. The first dichotomy in the emotive or mythic phase 
of mentality is not, as for discursive reason, the opposition of 
"yes" and "no," of "a" and "non-a," or truth and falsity; the 
basic dichotomy here is between the sacred and the profane. 
Human beings actually apprehend values and expressions of 
values be-fore they formulate and entertain jacts. 

All mythic constructions are symbols of value of life and 
power, or of violence, evil, and death. They are charged with 
feeling, and have a way of absorbing into themselves more 
and more intensive meanings, sometimes even logically conflict- 
ing imports. Therefore mythic symbols do not give rise to dis- 
cursive understanding; they do beget a kind of understanding, 
but not by sorting out concepts and relating them in a distinct 
pattern; they tend, on the contrary, merely to bring together 
great complexes of cognate ideas, in which all distinctive fea- 
tures are merged and swallowed. "Here we find in operation a 
law which might actually be called the law of the levelling and 
extinction of specific differences," says Cassirer, in Language and, 
Myth. "Every part of a whole is the whole itself, every speci- 
men is equivalent to the entire species." 7 The significance of 
mythic structures is not formally and arbitrarily assigned to 
them, as convention assigns one exact meaning to a recognized 
symbol; rather, their meaning seems to dwell in them as life 
dwells in a body; they are animated by it, it is of their essence, 
and the naive, awe-struck mind finds it, as the quality of "holi- 
ness." Therefore mythic symbols do not even appear to be 
symbols; they appear as holy objects or places or beings, and 
their import is felt as an inherent power. 

This really amounts to another "law" of imaginative con- 
ception. Just as specific differences of meaning are obliterated 
in nondiscursive symbolization, the very distinction between 
form and content, between the entity (thing, image, gesture, or 

6 See Die Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, II, 
f Pp. 91-92. 


natural event) which is the symbol, and the idea or feeling 
which is its meaning, is lost, or rather: is not yet found. This 
is a momentous fact, for it is the basis of all superstition and 
strange cosmogony, as well as of religious belief. To believe in 
the existence of improbable or quite fantastic things and beings 
would be inexplicable folly if beliefs were dictated essentially 
by practical experience. But the mythic interpretation of reality 
rests on the principle that the veneration appropriate to the 
meaning of a symbol is focussed on the symbol itself, which 
is simply identified with its import. This creates a world punctu- 
ated by pre-eminent objects, mystic centers of power and holi- 
ness, to which more and more emotive meanings accrue as 
"properties." An intuitive recognition of their import takes the 
form of ardent, apparently irrational belief in the physical 
reality and power of the significant forms. This is the hypostatic 
mechanism of the mind by which the world is filled with 
magical things fetishes and talismans, sacred trees, rocks, 
caves, and the vague, protean ghosts that inhabit them and 
finally the world is peopled with a pantheon of permanent, 
more or less anthropomorphic gods. In these presences "reality" 
is concentrated for the mythic imagination} this is not "make- 
believe," not a willful or playful distortion of a radically differ- 
ent "given fact," but is the way phenomena are given to naive 

Certainly the pattern of that world is altogether different 
from the pattern of the "material" world which confronts our 
sober common sense, follows the laws of causality, and exhibits 
a logical order of classes and subclasses, with their defining 
properties and relations, wherfeby each individual object either 
does or does not belong to any given class. Cassirer has summed 
up the logical contrast between the mode of mythic intuition and 
that of "factual" or "scientific" apprehension in very telling 

In the realm of discursive conception there reigns a sort of diffuse 
light and the further logical analysis proceeds, the further does this 
even clarity and luminosity extend. But in the ideational realm of myth 
and language there are always, besides those locations from which the 


strongest light proceeds, others that appear wrapped in profoundest 
darkness. While certain contents of perception become verbal-mythical 
centers of force, centers of significance, there are others which remain, 
one might say, beneath the threshold of meaning. 8 

His coupling of myth and language in this passage brings us 
back to the intimate connection between these two great sym- 
bolic forms which he traces to a common origin. The dawn of 
language was the dawn of the truly human mind, which meets 
us first of all as a rather highly developed organ of practical 
response and of imagination, or symbolic rendering of impres- 
sions. The first "holy objects" seem to be born of momentary 
emotional experiences fright centering on a place or a thing, 
concentrated desire that manifests itself in a dreamlike image or 
a repeated gesture, triumph that issues naturally in festive dance 
and song, directed toward a symbol of power. Somewhere in 
the course of this high emotional life primitive man took to 
using his instinctive vocal talent as a source of such "holy ob- 
jects," sounds with imaginative import: such vocal symbols are 

In savage societies, names are treated not as conventional ap- 
pellations, but as though they were physical proxies for their 
bearers. To call an object by an inappropriate name is to con- 
found its very nature. In some cultures practically all language 
serves mystic purposes and is subject to the most impractical 
taboos and regulations. It is clearly of a piece with magic, 
religion and the whole pattern of intensive emotional symbolism 
which governs the pre-scientific mind. Names are the very es- 
sence of mythic symbols; nothing on earth is a more concen- 
trated point of sheer meaning than the little, transient, invisible 
breath that constitutes a spoken word. Physically it is almost 
nothing. Yet it carries more definite and momentous import 
than any permanent holy object. 9 It can be invoked at will, 
anywhere and at any time, by a mere act of speech; merely 
knowing a word gives a person the power of using it; thus it 
is invisibly "had," carried about by its possessors. 

8 Language and Myth, 9 1 . 

* "Often it is the name of the deity, rather than the god himself, that seems 
to be the real source of efficacy." (Language and Myth, 48) 


It is characteristic of mythic "powers" that they are com- 
pletely contained in every fragment of matter, every sound, and 
every gesture which partakes of them. 10 This fact betrays their 
real nature, which is not that of physical forces, but of meanings; 
a meaning is indeed completely given by every symbol to which 
it attaches. The greater the "power" in proportion to its bearer, 
the more awe-inspiring will the latter be. So, as long as mean- 
ing is felt as an indwelling potency of certain physical objects, 
words must certainly rank high in the order of holy things. 

But language has more than a purely denotative function. 
Its symbols are so manifold, so manageable, and so economical 
that a considerable number of them may be held in one "spe- 
cious present," though each one physically passes away before 
the next is given; each has left its meaning 'to be apprehended 
in the same span of attention that takes in the whole series. Of 
course, the length of the span varies greatly with different men- 
talities. But as soon as two or more words are thus taken together 
in the mind of an interpretant, language has acquired its 
second function: it has engendered discursive thought, fb" 

The discursive mode of thinking is what we usually call 
"reason." It is not as primitive as the imaginative mode, because 
it arises from the syntactical nature of language; mythic en- 
visagement and verbal expression are its forerunners. Yet it is 
a natural development from the earlier symbolic mode, which 
is pre-discursive, and thus in a strict and narrow sense "pre- 

Henceforth, the history of thought consists chiefly in the 
gradual achievement of factual, literal, and logical conception 
and expression. Obviously the only means to this end is lan- 
guage. But this instrument, it must be remembered, has a double 
nature. Its syntactical tendencies bestow the laws of logic on 
us; yet the primacy of names in its make-up holds it to the 
hypostatic way of thinking which belongs to its twin-phe- 
nomenon, myth. Consequently it leads us beyond the sphere of 
mythic and emotive thought, yet always pulls us back into it 
again; it is both the diffuse and tempered light that shows us 
the external world of "fact," and the array of spiritual lamps, 

** Cf. Language and Myth, 92. 


light-centers of intensive meaning, that throw the gleams and 
shadows of the dream world wherein our earliest experiences lay. 

We have come so far along the difficult road of discursive 
thinking that the laws of logic seem to be the very frame of 
the mind, and rationality its essence. Kant regarded the cate- 
gories of pure understanding as universal transcendental forms, 
imposed by the most naive untutored mind on all its perceptions, 
so that self-identity, the dichotomy of "a" and "non-0/' the rela- 
tion of part and whole, and other axiomatic general concepts 
inhered in phenomena as their necessary conditions. Yet, from 
primitive apprehension to even the simplest rational construc- 
tion is probably a far cry. It is interesting to see how Cassirer, 
who followed Kant in his "Copernican revolution," i.e., in the 
transcendental analysis of phenomena which traces their form 
to a non-phenomenal, subjective element, broadened the Kan- 
tian concept of form to make it a variable and anthropologi- 
cally valid principle, without compromising the "critical" 
standpoint at all. Instead of accepting one categorial scheme 
that of discursive thought as the absolute way of experiencing 
reality, he finds it relative to a form of symbolic presentation; 
and as there are alternative symbolic forms, there are also al- 
ternative phenomenal "worlds." Mythic conception is categori- 
ally different from scientific conception; therefore it meets a dif- 
ferent world of perceptions. Its objects are not self-identical, 
consistent, universally related; they condense many characters in 
one, have conflicting attributes and intermittent existence, the 
whole is contained in its parts, and the parts in each other. The 
world they constitute is a world of values, things "holy" against a 
vague background of commonplaces, or "profane" events, in- 
stead of a world of neutral physical facts. By this departure, the 
Kantian doctrine that identified all conception with discursive 
reason, making reason appear as an aboriginal human gift, is 
saved from its most serious fallacy, an unhistorical view of mind. 

Cassirer called his Essay on Man, which briefly summarizes 
the Philosophic der symbolischen Formen y "An Introduction 
to a Philosophy of Human Culture." The subtitle is appropriate 
indeed; for the most striking thing about this philosophy viewed 
as a whole is the way the actual evolution of human customs, 


arts, ideas, and languages is not merely fitted into an idealistic 
interpretation of the world (as it may be fitted into almost any 
metaphysical picture), but is illumined and made accessible to 
serious study by working principles taken from Kantian episte- 
mology. His emphasis on the constitutive character of symbolic 
renderings in the making of "experience" is the masterstroke 
that turns the purely speculative "critical" theory into an 
anthropological hypothesis, a key to several linguistic problems, 
a source of psychological understanding, and a guidepost in the 
maze of Geistesgeschichte. 

It is, as I pointed out before, characteristic of Cassirer's 
thought that, although its basic principles stem from a philo- 
sophical tradition, its living material and immediate inspiration 
come from contemporary sources, from fields of research beyond 
his own. For many years the metaphysic of mind has been 
entirely divorced from the scientific study of mental phe- 
nomena} whether mind be an eternal essence or a transient 
epiphenomenon, a world substance or a biological instrument, 
makes little difference to our understanding of observed human 
or animal behavior. But Cassirer breaks this isolation of specula- 
tive thought} he uses the Kantian doctrine, that mind is con- 
stitutive of the "external world," to explain the way this world 
is experienced as well as the mere fact that it is experienced; and 
in so doing, of course, he makes his metaphysic meet the test 
of factual findings at every turn. His most interesting exhibits 
are psychological phenomena revealed in the psychiatric clinic 
and in ethnologists' reports. The baffling incapacities of im- 
paired brains, the language of childhood, the savage's peculiar 
practices, the prevalence of myth in early cultures and its per- 
sistence in religious thought these and other widely scattered 
facts receive new significance in the light of his philosophy. And 
that is the pragmatic measure of any speculative approach. A 
really cogent doctrine of mind cannot be irrelevant to psy- 
chology, any more than a good cosmological system can be 
meaningless for physics, or a theory of ethics inapplicable to 
jurisprudence and law. 

The psychiatric phenomena which illustrate the existence of a 
mythic mode of thought, and point to its ancient and primitive 


nature, are striking and persuasive, 11 Among these is the fact 
that in certain pathological conditions of the brain the power of 
abstraction is lost, and the patient falls back on picturesque 
metaphorical language. In more aggravated cases the imagina- 
tion, too, is impaired} and here we have a reversion almost to 
animal mentality. One symptom of this state which is significant 
for the philosophy of symbolism is that the sufferer is unable to 
tell a lie, feign any action, or do anything his actual situation 
does not dictate, though he may still find his way with immedi- 
ate realities. If he is thirtsy, he can recognize and take a glass 
of water, and drink j but he cannot pick up an empty glass and 
demonstrate the act of drinking as though there were water in 
it, or even lift a full glass to his lips, if he is not thirsty. Such 
incapacities have been classified as "apractic" disorders} but 
Cassirer pointed out that they are not so much practical failures, 
as loss of the basic symbolic function, engagement of things 
not given. This is borne out by a still more serious disturbance 
which occurs with the destruction of certain brain areas, inability 
to recognize "things," such as chairs and brooms and pieces of 
clothing, directly and instantly as objects denoted by their 
names. At this point, pathology furnishes a striking testimony 
of the real nature of language: for here, names lose their 
hypostatic office, the creation of permanent and particular items 
out of the flux of impressions. To a person thus afflicted, words 
have connotation, but experience does not readily correspond to 
the conceptual scheme of language, which makes names the pre- 
eminent points of rest, and requires things as the fundamental 
relata in reality. The connoted concepts are apt to be adjectival 
rather than substantive. Consequently the world confronting the 
patient is not composed of objects immediately "given" in ex- 
perience; it is composed of sense data, which he must "associate" 
to form "things," much as Hume supposed the normal mind to 

Most of the psychological phenomena that caught Cassirer's 
interest arose from the psychiatric work of Kurt Goldstein, who 

11 For a full treatment of this material see Philosophic der symbolischen For men ^ 
III, part 3, fassim. 


has dealt chiefly with cases of cerebral damage caused by physi- 
cal accident. But the range of psychological researches which bear 
out Cassirer's theory of mind is much wider; it includes the 
whole field of so-called "dynamic psychology," the somewhat 
chaotic store of new ideas and disconcerting facts with which 
Sigmund Freud alarmed his generation. Cassirer himself never 
explored this fund of corroborative evidence; he found himself 
in such fundamental disagreement with Freud on the nature of 
the dynamic motive which the psychologist regarded as not 
only derived from the sex impulse, but forever bound to it, and 
which the philosopher saw liberated in science, art, religion, 
and everything that constitutes the "self-realization of the 
spirit" that there seemed to be simply no point of contact be- 
tween their respective doctrines. Cassirer felt that to Freud all 
those cultural achievements were mere by-products of the un- 
changing animalian "libido," symptoms of its blind activity and 
continual frustration; whereas to him they were the consumma- 
tion of a spiritual process which merely took its rise from the 
blind excitement of the animal "libido," but received its im- 
portance and meanings from the phenomena of awareness and 
creativity, the envisagement, reason, and cognition it produced. 
This basic difference of evaluations of the life process made 
Cassirer hesitate to make any part of Freud's doctrine his own; 
at the end of his life he had, apparently, just begun to study the 
important relationship between "dynamic psychology" and the 
philosophy of symbolic forms. 

It is, indeed, only in regard to the forms of thought that a 
parallel obtains between these systems; but that parallel is 
close and vital, none the less. For, the "dream work" of 
Freud's "unconscious" mental mechanism is almost exactly 
the "mythic mode" which Cassirer describes as the primitive 
form of ideation, wherein an intense feeling is spontane- 
ously expressed in a symbol, an image seen in something or 
formed for the mind's eye by the excited imagination. Such ex- 
pression is effortless and therefore unexhausting; its products 
are images charged with meanings, but the meanings remain 
implicit, so that the emotions they command seem to be centered 


on the image rather than on anything it merely conveys; in the 
image, which may be a vision, a gesture, a sound- form (musical 
image) or a word as readily as an external object, many mean- 
ings may be concentrated, many ideas telescoped and interfused, 
and incompatible emotions simultaneously expressed. 

The mythic mind never perceives passively, never merely contemplates 
things; all its observations spring from some act of participation, some 
act of emotion and will. Even as mythic imagination materializes in 
permanent forms, and presents us with definite outlines of an 'objective' 
world of beings, the significance of this world becomes clear to us only 
if we can still detect, underneath it all, that dynamic sense of life from 
which it originally arose. Only where this vital feeling is stirred from 
within, where it expresses itself as love or hate, fear or hope, joy or 
sorrow, mythic imagination is roused to the pitch of excitement at which 
it begets a definite world of representations. (Philosofhie der symboli- 
schen Formen y II, 90.) 

For a person whose apprehension is under the spell of this mythico- 
religious attitude, it is as though the whole world were simply annihilated; 
the immediate content, whatever it be, that commands his religious in- 
terest so completely fills his consciousness that nothing else can exist 
beside and apart from it. The ego is spending all its energy on this single 
object, lives in it, loses itself in it. Instead of a widening of intuitive 
experience, we find here its extreme limitation; instead of expansion 
. . . we have here an impulse toward concentration; instead of extensive 
distribution, intensive compression. This focussing of all forces on a 
single point is the prerequisite for all mythical thinking and mythical 
formulation. When, on the one hand, the entire self is given up to a 
single impression, is 'possessed' by it and, on the other hand, there is the 
utmost tension between the subject and its object, the outer world; when 
external reality is not merely viewed and contemplated, but overcomes 
a man in sheer immediacy, with emotions of fear or hope, terror or 
wish fulfillment: then the spark jumps somehow across, the tension finds 
release, as the subjective excitement becomes objectified and confronts 
the mind as a god or a daemon. (Language and Myth, 32-33.) 

. . . this peculiar genesis determines the type of intellectual content 
that is common to language and myth . . . present reality, as mythic or 
linguistic conception stresses and shapes it, fills the entire subjective 
realm. ... At this point, the word which denotes that thought content 
is not a mere conventional symbol, but is merged with its object in an 
indissoluble unity. . . . The potential between 'symbol' and 'meaning* is 


resolved; in place of a more or less adequate 'expression,' we find a 
relation of identity, of complete congruence between 'image 1 and 'object/ 
between the name and the thing. 

. . . the same sort of hypostatization or transubstantiation occurs in 
other realms of mental creativity; indeed, it seems to be the typical process 
in all unconscious ideation. (Ibid., 57-58.) 

Mythology presents us with a world which is not, indeed, devoid of 
structure and internal organization, but which, none the less, is not 
divided according to the categories of reality, into 'things' and 'properties.' 
Here all forms of Being exhibit, as yet, a peculiar 'fluidity;' they are 
distinct without being really separate. Every form is capable of changing, 
on the spur of the moment, even into its very opposite. . . . One and 
the same entity may not only undergo constant change into sucessive 
guises, but it combines within itself, at one and the same instant of its 
existence, a wealth of different and even incompatible natures. (Philoso- 
phic der symbolischen Formen y III, 71-72.) 

Above all, there is a complete lack of any clear division between 
mere 'imagining' and 'real' perception, between wish and fulfilment, 
between image and object. This is most clearly revealed by the decisive 
role which dream experiences play in the development of mythic con- 
sciousness. ... It is beyond doubt that certain mythic concepts can be 
understood, in all their peculiar complexity, only in so far as one realizes 
that for mythic thought and 'experience' there is but a continuous and 
fluid transition from the world of dream to objective 'reality.' (Ibid., II, 


The world of myth is a dramatic world a world of actions, of 
forces, of conflicting powers. In every phenomenon of nature it [mythic 
consciousness] sees the collision of these powers. Mythical perception 
is always impregnated with these emotional qualities. Whatever is seen 
or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere an atmosphere of joy 
or grief, of anguish, of excitement, of exultation or depression. . . . All 
objects are benignant or malignant, friendly or inimical, familiar or 
uncanny, alluring and fascinating or repellent and threatening. (An 
Essay on Man y 76-77.) 

The real substratum of myth is not a substratum of thought but of 
feeling. ... Its view of life is a synthetic, not an analytical one. . . . 
There is no specific difference between the various realms of life. . . . 
To mythical and religious feeling nature becomes one great society, 
the society of life. Man is not endowed with outstanding rank in this 
society. . . . Men and animals, animals and plants are all on the same 
level. (Ibid., 81-83.) 


To all these passages Freud could subscribe wholeheartedly j 
the morphology of the "mythic mode" is essentially that of 
dream, phantasy, infantile thinking, and "unconscious" ideation 
which he himself discovered and described. And it is the recog- 
nition of this non-discursive mode of thought, rather than his 
clinical hypothesis of an all-pervading disguised sexuality, that 
makes Freud's psychology important for philosophy. Not the 
theory of "libido," which is another theory of "animal drives," 
but the conception of the unconscious mechanism through which 
the "libido" operates, the dream work, the myth-making process 
that is the new generative idea which psychoanalysis con- 
tributed to psychological thinking, the notion that has put 
modern psychology so completely out of gear with traditional 
epistemology that the science of mind and the philosophy of 
mind threatened to lose contact altogether. So it is of the utmost 
significance for the unity of our advancing thought that pure 
speculative philosophy should recognize and understand the 
primary forms of conception which underlie the achievement of 
discursive reason. 

Cassirer's profound antipathy to Freud's teaching rests on 
another aspect of that psychological system, which springs from 
the fact that Freud's doctrine was determined by practical inter- 
ests: that is the tendency of the psychoanalyst to range all 
human aims, all ideals on the same ethical level. Since he deals 
entirely with the evils of social maladjustment, his measure of 
good is simply adjustment} religion and learning and social 
reform, art and discovery and philosophical reflection, to him 
are just so many avenues of personal gratification sublimation 
of passions, emotional self-expression. From his standpoint they 
cannot be viewed as objective values. Just as good poetry and 
bad poetry are of equal interest and importance to the psycho- 
analyst, so the various social systems are all equally good, all 
religions equally true (or rather, equally false, but salutary), 
and all abstract systems of thought, scientific or philosophical or 
mathematical, just self-dramatizations in disguise. To a phi- 
losopher who was also a historian of culture, such a point of view 
seemed simply devastating. It colored his vision of Freud's work 
so deeply that it really obscured for him the constructive aspect, 


the analysis of non-discursive ideation, which this essentially 
clinical psychology contains. Yet the relationship between the 
new psychiatry and his own new epistemology is deep and close; 
"der Mythos als Denkform" is the theme that rounds out the 
modern philosophical picture of human mentality to embrace 
psychology and anthropology and linguistics, 13 which had 
broken the narrow limits of rationalist theory, in a more ade- 
quate conceptual frame. 

The broadening of the philosophical outlook achieved by 
Cassirer's theory of language and myth affects not only the 
philosophical sciences, the Geisteswissenschaften, but also the 
most crucial present difficulty in philosophy itself the ever in- 
creasing pendulum arc between theories of reason and theories 
of irrational motivation. The discovery that emotive, intuitive, 
"blind" forces govern human behavior more effectively than 
motives of pure reason naturally gave rise to an anti-rationalist 
movement in epistemology and ethics, typified by Nietzsche, 
William James, and Bergson, which finally made the truth- 
seeking attitude of science a pure phantasmagoria, a quixotic 
manifestation of the will. Ultimately the role of reason came to 
appear (as it does in Bergson's writings) as something entirely 
secondary and essentially unnatural. But at this point the exist- 
ence of reason becomes an enigma: for how could instinctive life 
ever give rise to such a product? How can sheer imagination and 
volition and passion beget the "artificial" picture of the world 
which seems natural to scientists? 

Cassirer found the answer in the structure of language; for 
language stems from the intuitive "drive" to symbolic expres- 
sion that also produces dream and myth and ritual, but it is a 
pre-eminent form in that it embodies not only self-contained, 
complex meanings, but a principle of concatenation whereby the 
complexes are unravelled and articulated. It is the discursive 
character of language, its inner tendency to grammatical de- 

" This is the title of the first section in Vol. II of Philosophic der symbolischen 

"The knowledge of linguistics on which he bases vol. I of his Philosophic 
der symbolischen Formen is almost staggering. His use of anthropological data 
may be found especially throughout vol. II of that work. 


velopment, which gives rise to logic in the strict sense, i.e., to the 
procedure we call "reasoning." Language is "of imagination all 
compact," yet it is the cradle of abstract thought; and the 
achievement of Vernunft, as Cassirer traces it from the dawn of 
human mentality through the evolution of speech forms, is just 
as natural as the complicated patterns of instinctive behavior and 
emotional abreaction. 

Here the most serious antinomy in the philosophical thought 
of our time is resolved. This is a sort of touchstone for 
the philosophy of symbolic forms, whereby we may judge its 
capacity to fulfill the great demand its author did not hesitate 
to make on it, when he wrote in his Essay on Man: 

In the boundless multiplicity and variety of mythical images, of reli- 
gious dogmas, of linguistic forms, of works of art, philosophic thought 
reveals the unity of a general function by which all these creations are 
held together. Myth, religion, art, language, even science, are now 
looked upon as so many variations on a common theme and it is the 
task of philosophy to make this theme audible and understandable. 



Witt* M. Urban 



C^RNST CASSIRER is, in my opinion, the first of modern 
1 d philosophers to see the full significance of the relations 

of problems of language to problems of philosophy and, there- 
fore, the first also to develop a philosophy of language in the 
full sense of the word. Others, it is true, had made important 
contributions without which the more systematic treatment of 
Cassirer would have been impossible. In the field of linguistics 
itself contributions of a philosophical nature had become more 
and more frequent, and of these Cassirer has made full use, his 
erudition in this field being such as to command our admiration. 
In the field of the special sciences scientists had become increas- 
ingly aware of the problems of methodology which their lan- 
guages and symbolisms present, and with these Cassirer is 
equally familiar. For these reasons, no less than because of his 
own philosophical acumen, he has been enabled, not only to 
formulate the problems of a philosophy of language in a sys- 
tematic fashion but also, as I believe, in general to find the right 

It is because of the outstanding character of his work that 
his philosophy of language becomes of great importance, not 
only for the understanding of his own philosophy, but for the 
equally significant purpose of understanding the role which 
philosophies of language play in the life of modern philosophy 
as a whole. It is because of this outstanding character that the 
present writer has learned so much from this philosophy of 
language and is glad, therefore, to undertake the task of pre- 
senting it for this volume. Cassirer's treatment of language is so 



fundamental for his philosophy as a whole that it is impossible 
to present it without trenching, to some extent at least, upon 
topics assigned to other contributors. It is to be hoped that where 
this is inevitable, it will serve to clarify rather than to confuse 
the important issues in modern science and philosophy, to the 
solution of which this study of Cassirer's philosophy should con- 
stitute an important contribution. 


The chief source of Cassirer's philosophy of language is his 
monumental work, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen? the 
first volume of which is devoted exclusively to the philosophical 
study of language, the second to the language of myth, and the 
third to the language of science. All three are, in Cassirer's 
terminology, "symbolic forms," and it is the interrelations of 
these three forms which constitute the central problem of the 
work as a whole. 

The relation of this work to his earlier investigations will 
perhaps best serve to indicate its standpoint. The investigations 
of Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff, so he tells us, pro- 
ceeded from the assumption that the basal conception of knowl- 
edge (and its essential law) shows itself most clearly in the field 
of mathematics and mathematical natural science, where the 
highest stage of universality and necessity is achieved. The 
Philosophic der symbolischen Formen> however, goes beyond 
this earlier standpoint in both content and method. It seeks to 
show that "theoretical and form elements" are not confined to 
scientific construction, but are found also in the "natural world 
picture" and in the constructions of the imagination, mythical, 
aesthetic, etc. 2 This statement of the problem, formulated as it 
is in terms of the Kantian idiom, serves also to indicate the 
relation of the philosophy of symbolic forms to the critical 
idealism of Kant. Cassirer accepts, he tells us, the critical prin- 
ciples of Kant, but extends them to other spheres than the 
theoretical, widening the Kantian conception of "form" to the 

1 Die Philosophic der symbolischen Formen (Berlin, 1929) j hereafter abbreviated : 

*PSF., Ill, v. 


more general notion of symbolic form. 8 Otherwise expressed, 
the Kritik der Vernunft, in its various forms, becomes a Kritik 
der Sfrache, in its various forms and symbolic expressions. Such 
a critique was, indeed, like many other developments in philoso- 
phy since Kant, already implicit in the Kantian philosophy; it 
has been Cassirer's task, as well as his good fortune, to have 
made this explicit. 


The Theme of a Philosophy of Language, according 
to Cassirer 


The chief reason why Cassirer is able to develop a philosophy 
of language of such significance is, I believe, because he formu- 
lates the theme of such a philosophy in the main with truth and 
adequacy. 4 

This theme, stated in Hegelian terms, which, as we shall 
see, are not foreign to Cassirer's way of thinking, may be said 
to be "language as the actuality of culture." "Language," he 
tells us, "stands in a focal point of spiritual being, in which rays 
of entirely differing origin unite and from which lines run into 
all the realms of the spirit." Of these various realms, these 
ways in which culture actualizes itself, the theoretical or sci- 
entific form is that in which knowledge chiefly manifests itself, 
and it is with this language that philosophy is, if not solely, yet 
chiefly concerned; but there are other ways and other languages, 
and the knowledge value of these becomes also part of the 
problem of a philosophy of language. Thus the critique of lan- 
guage becomes, so he holds, the basis of the critique of knowl- 
edge, the basal theme of a philosophy of language being the 
"Erkenntniswert der Sprache."* 


The theme of these three volumes is not an arbitrary pro- 

9 1 but., I, 9 ff } also III, 7 ff. 

4 Ibid., I, Preface. 

5 Ibid., I, Einleitung und Problemstellung, 1-4.1. 


nouncement, as is the case of so many current dicta on language, 
but is shown to have developed out of the history of philosophic 
thought itself. Chapter I of Vol. I is entitled "Das Sprachpro- 
blem in der Geschichte der Philosophic." 

Histories of philosophy have, in the main, either ignored or 
been unaware of the philosophies of language presupposed by 
the great philosophers. With his more than ordinary historical 
erudition, Cassirer has been enabled to rewrite the history of 
European philosophy from this standpoint. In making explicit 
the assumptions or presuppositions regarding language on the 
part of the philosophers, and in showing how they predeter- 
mined in various ways the results of their thinking, Cassirer has 
enabled us to see the central place of problems of language in 
the entire history of philosophy. 

From Plato on (he speaks of the famous Seventh Epistle as 
the first attempt made to determine the Erkenntniswert der 
Sprache in a purely methodological manner) the "value of the 
word" becomes, either explicitly or implicitly, an essential part 
of the problem of knowledge. The outstanding phenomenon 
from this point of view, is, of course, the opposition of nominal- 
ism and realism, each representing, so to speak, a fundamental 
evaluation of the word. 

The opposition of rationalism and empiricism in modern phi- 
losophy is, in a sense, the continuation of the same problem. The 
ideal of a lingua universalis y held by Descartes and Leibnitz, to 
say nothing of lesser rationalists, was an expression of the ideal 
of universal reason; logos, in the sense of language, and in the 
sense of reason, being, for all of this way of thinking, in prin- 
ciple inseparable. Empiricism, on the other hand, proceeds, as 
Cassirer tells us, from a completely opposite standpoint and 
reaches contrary results. Although recognizing, as did Locke, 
that problems of knowledge cannot be separated from language, 
it starts with the assumption that the primary form of knowl- 
edge is simple awarness of sense data, to which language is a 
mere addendum. The empirical philosophy of language be- 
comes the basis for a theory of knowledge which seeks to 
eliminate the universal} Berkeley even proposing "to confine 


his thought to his own ideas divested from words," believing 
that thus he "cannot then be mistaken." 

As the Kantian "critical" philosophy represents the media- 
tion between rationalism and empiricism in epistemology, so 
philosophies of language, influenced by the Kantian criticism, 
represent a crucial point in connection with the speech problem 
in the history of philosophy. In this respect von Humboldt 
played an outstanding part and has consequently had a deter- 
mining influence upon Cassirer himself; an entire section being 
given to the discussion of his main principles. For von Hum- 
boldt language is not a product (ergon) but an activity, 
(energeia). The Kantian principle of knowledge as synthesis is 
carried over into the sphere of language, "Sfrache als Schof- 
fung und Entwicklung" the title of a work of Karl Vossler to 
which Cassirer refers with approval, representing this "idealis- 
tic" tendency in the modern philosophy of language. 

Of the relation of this general problem to current tendencies 
in philosophy Cassirer is fully aware, and his own position is 
mainly determined by his reaction to these tendencies. Modern 
empiricism, in its positivistic form, and the Bergsonian philoso- 
phy of organism, both proceed from a purely naturalistic and 
nominalistic theory of language, and to the premises and con- 
clusions of both Cassirer is in complete opposition. There are, 
he tells us, in general only two ways of solving the problem of 
language and reality. The first of these assumes a reality known 
independently of language and its categories, a hypothetical 
pure experience to be discovered by stripping off language. 
The second way proposes an exactly opposite method and pro- 
ceeds upon opposite presuppositions. Instead of attempting to 
get back of the forms of thought and language to a hypothetical 
pure experience, it assumes that experience is never pure in this 
sense and that intuition and expression are inseparable. It there- 
fore proposes, not to deny, but to complete and perfect the 
principles of expression and symbolism. It proceeds upon the 
assumption that the more richly and energetically the human 
spirit builds its languages and symbolisms the nearer it comes, if 
not to some hypothetical original source of its being, certainly to 


its ultimate meaning and reality. This is the idealistic minimum 
in Cassirer's philosophy of language, as indeed it must be, in 
the view of the present writer, in any adequate philosophy of 


Cassirer y s "Idealistic" Theory of Language: Criticism of 
Naturalism in Linguistic Science 


One thing which distinguishes Cassirer's philosophy of 
language from most contributions to this subject is his extensive 
use of the results of linguistic science, an advantage conspicu- 
ously absent in most discussions of the subject. Not only does he 
appeal to these studies in detail for the substantiation of his main 
theses, but he examines the postulates and method of modern 

The assumption underlying the linguistic science of the nine- 
teenth century and most philosophies of language had ac- 
cepted this assumption is that language is but a part of nature. 
As such, it was made by nature for certain natural ends for 
the manipulation of physical objects or for adjustment to the 
physical environment. In other words, linguistic science has 
tended to study language, so to speak, within the bounds of 
naturalistic assumptions alone. Cassirer challenges this stand- 
point, not only from the point of view of "critical" philosophy, 
but from the standpoint of linguistic science itself. An important 
part of his entire approach to problems of language is his 
account of the stages in the development of modern linguistics, 
which not only constitutes one of the most complete pictures of 
that science, but also enables him to disprove many of the as- 
sumptions, regarding matter of fact, all too common in modern 
positivistic philosophy. 

Linguistics, so Cassirer tells us, hoping to attain the same 
certainty and exactness as the natural sciences, moulded itself, 
in the first instance, on their methods and conceptions. But 
gradually the notion of "laws," physical, physiological, and 


even psychological, showed itself untenable. The entire con- 
ception of nature and natural law upon which it was sought to 
build, turned out to be an illusion, a wholly fictitious unity 
including the most disparate elements. Thus, as the naturalistic 
and positivistic scheme of linguistic science has tended to break 
up, there has been also a marked tendency towards the return 
to earlier conceptions of the autonomy of language. The move- 
ment within linguistics as a whole, so it seems to Cassirer, has 
been, methodologically speaking, a movement in a circle. A 
revision of the naturalistic assumptions of the science has taken 
place to such an extent that it is again approaching the stand- 
point from which it started. As under the aegis of the physical 
and biological sciences, it took the step from Geist to Natur y 
so now in a very real sense it is turning again from nature to 
spirit. This is the significance of the opposition of idealism and 
positivism in modern linguistics. 6 


With the return from nature to mind, the problem of mean- 
ing becomes central, and a corollary of the return movement is 
the methodological principle of the primacy of meaning d,er 
Primat des Sinnes, as Cassirer calls it. It may be stated in the 
following way. The sole entrance to the understanding of lan- 
guage is through meaning, for meaning is the sine qua non of 
linguistic fact. Language for modern linguistics is not sound, 
nor again the motor and tactual sensations which make up the 
word psychologically, nor yet the associations called up; it is 
the meaning itself which, although conditioned by these, is not 
identical with any of them. This being the fact, the methodology 
of linguistic study is not that of the natural sciences but rather, 
for language, as for all symbolic forms, the phenomenological. 
The nature of this method, as conceived by Cassirer, will be 
stated more definitely presently; the significant point here is 
that it is interpretation from within, not merely explanation 
from without. 

The significance of this principle of the primacy of meaning 

'PSF., I. 118 flF. 


is far reaching. It means negatively, as we have seen, the denial 
of the adequacy of external approaches to language, whether 
physical, physiological, or even psychological; but it involves 
also, positively, significant changes in methodology. Earlier 
methods proceeded from the elements to the whole from the 
sounds to the words, from words to sentences, and finally to 
the meaning of discourse as a whole. The present tendency is 
the exact opposite. It proceeds from the whole of meaning, as 
Gestalty to the sentences and words as elements the parts be- 
ing understood through the whole. The spirit which lives in 
human discourse works as a totality constituting the sentence 
or proposition, the copula, the word, and the sound. 7 

Of the many important consequences of this methodological 
principle a discussion of the details of which would be neces- 
sary for an adequate account of Cassirer's linguistic studies 
we shall single out one which is important for all that follows, 
namely the nature and modes of linguistic meaning. 

Meaning, as understood by positivistic theories, is reference 
to sensuously observable entities. "Indication" is, therefore, 
the essence of meaning, "in the strict sense." All other mean- 
ings are emotive in character, and the words in this case refer 
to nothing and stand for nothing. For Cassirer indication is 
indeed a primary mode, but equally primary is representation 
or Darstellung.* Without this element there is no linguistic 
meaning. This element or function is an Urfhanomen, present 
in language from its simplest to its highest forms, and it is, as 
we shall see, the development of this mode of meaning from 
copy through analogy, to symbolic representation which con- 
stitutes the thread of Cassirer's treatment, not only of language 
but of the entire range of symbolic forms. 

Closely bound up with this question as to what language is are 
the genetic problems of language, more specifically the prob- 
lem of "animal language." Holding, as he does, that the 
Darstellungsfanktion is the sine qua non of linguistic meaning, 
he denies this function to the phonetic expressions of animals, 

11 ibid., i, n 9 . 

9 Ibid., I, i26ff } III, n6ff. 


even those of the higher apes. His discussion of the results of 
Kohler's investigations are most enlightening, and he concludes 
that recent observations of animal psychology seem to widen 
rather than narrow the gulf between human and animal com- 
munication, and that what is called animal speech "seems to be 
permanently held fast in the pre-linguistic stage." 9 In any 
case, it is the growing conviction of linguistics that the hiatus 
between animal expressions and human speech is widening 
rather than narrowing as investigation proceeds all of which 
leads to the modern speech notion as "a human, non-instinctive 
function." The step to human language is made first when the 
pure meaningful sound achieves supremacy over the affective 
stimulus-born sounds and this achievement has in it the charac- 
ter of a unique level of being. The notion of speech as an 
Urphanomen, in short the autonomy of the speech notion, 
seems to be more and more confirmed by the study of animal 

Cassirer's philosophy of language has been called "idealistic," 
and in the sense that it is opposed to naturalism and positivism 
it is. Language is, indeed, to use an expression of Karl Vossler, 
"embedded in nature," and it is out of this fact that "the illusion 
of its being a piece of nature constantly arises." But Cassirer 
would agree with Vossler that this illusion must be just as 
constantly dispelled if an adequate philosophy of language is 
to be possible. Language is indeed a part of nature and as such 
it was "made" for certain natural ends. But in its development 
it subserves quite other ends. Granted that it was made by 
nature for a natural object, language like our intelligence, and 
all the forms of culture with which it is connected, has de- 
veloped along lines which are independent of natural ends, 
perhaps in opposition to them. Language is not limited to the 
"practical" functions for which it was primarily made, but in 
its development has achieved a freedom which makes it, in the 
words of von Humboldt, "a vehicle for traversing the manifold 
and the highest and deepest of the entire world." 

9 Ibtd.y I, 136 note} III, 127, 



Language and Cognition: The Relation of Intuition 
to Expression 


As opposed to purely naturalistic and positivistic theories of 
language Cassirer's theory is idealistic. But it may be said to 
be idealistic in another sense, in the Kantian sense of "critical 
idealism." This general "critical" position is determinative 
throughout j it underlies his conception of language in Vol. I, 
his conception of language and myth in Vol. II, and his inter- 
pretation of science in Vol. III. It is, however, with the first, 
the general question of the relation of language to cognition, 
that we are now concerned. 

The problem of knowledge presents itself to Cassirer, as to 
all "critical" philosophers, under a double aspect, the psycho- 
logical and the epistemological. In the psychological or natural- 
istic treatment, as in the application of the "scientific" method 
everywhere, the only possible standpoint is to start with the 
"things" or objects, as already constructed, and then ask how 
they acquire meaning and are known. The petitio principii in 
this method is, for Cassirer, obvious. It assumes that the things 
or objects are given and are then known, when actually there 
is an element of construction, perhaps incalculable, in the things 
as given. The epistemological treatment of the subject starts 
from an entirely different, perhaps opposite, standpoint. It 
involves a radical shift from the realm of things to that of 
meaning and value. It must study perception and perceptual 
meaning, not causally, as determined from without, but from 
within, as a constitutive element in cognition. 10 If it is really 
"meaning that transforms sense data into things," it then be- 
comes a problem whether language and linguistic meaning are 
not present in the first processes of such transformation. Cassirer 
holds that language is thus present from the beginning, and 
that in this sense language first created the realm of meaning. 
Otherwise expressed, intuition and expression are, if not identi- 
cal, as according to Croce, at least inseparable. 

1 , in, 68ff. 


In this connection we may note a term constantly used by 
Cassirer, the full significance of which will later become ap- 
parent, namely, the expression Ausdruckserlebnisse. The pri- 
mary experiences (Erlebnisse) are at the same time primary 
forms of expression and constitute the "natural" world picture, 
as well as the picture constructed by myth. These are the origi- 
nal forms of knowledge and in these, according to Cassirer's 
"critical" principles, there are already "theoretical and form 
elements" which contribute their elements to knowledge. 
Science, it is true, tends to transcend, and in a sense "break 
through," these forms of expression} but that very fact creates 
one of the fundamental problems of a philosophy of language 
and of symbolic forms, namely, the Erkenntniswert of these 
A usdruckserlebnisse. 


Intuition is inseparable from expression, but in expression 
there is always an element of re-presentation j die Darstellungs- 
junktion is equally original das symbolische Grundverhaltnis> 
as he calls it. This is described as the bi-polar character of all 
knowledge and is, in Cassirer's terms, an Urphanomen. 
Empiricism, with its doctrine of presentational immediacy, pro- 
ceeds on the assumption that the primary and original form of 
knowledge is one in which we merely h<we y or possess, the sense 
data. Such an hypothetical form of knowledge is, for Cassirer, 
pure myth. Without the element of polarity, and therefore of 
the reference of the presentation to that which is presented, that 
is without some element of representation, the entire notion of 
knowledge collapses. It follows from this that problems of 
knowledge and problems of language are inseparable. 11 

In connection with this fundamental principle two specific 
points in the development of Cassirer's thesis require special 
attention. They are treated by him under the two captions, Z#r 
Pathologie des Symbolbewusstseins and the notion of Symbol- 
ischer Pragnanz^ both of which serve to illuminate the general 

11 This thesis is the underlying" theme of the entire Philosophic der symbolischen 
Formen y but is especially developed in Vol. Ill, Part i. A statement of it is found 
on pp. 1436*. 


Under the former, the pathology of the symbol-conscious- 
ness, he makes use of the phenomena of mental blindness, in its 
verbal form, as studied by both psychologists and linguists. 
When in certain forms of aphasia the word is not recognized or 
cannot be formed, the perceptual meaning of the object itself 
is absent also facts which go far towards confirming the princi- 
ple that language is part of the perceptual process itself. 12 The 
significance of speech for the construction (Aujbau) of the per- 
ceptual world, to employ Cassirer's terms, is obvious. 

The notion of Symbolischer Pragnanz is equally important 
for his general thesis, important not only for his philosophy of 
language, but for his theory of symbolism. By this term is to be 
understood, he tells us, the way in which perception, as sensu- 
ous experience, becomes at the same time the means of appre- 
hension (symbolically) of a non-intuitive meaning and brings 
this meaning to immediate and concrete expression. 13 Thus a 
color phenomenon is, as sense datum, a sensuous experience, but 
it is also a symbol which stands for references and meanings 
which themselves are not objects of sensuous experience. This 
symbolic character is, as we shall see, present, in Cassirer's view, 
on the lowest levels of experience as well as on the highest j it 
extends, in his words, through every level of the world picture. 
In sum, this symbolic function, like the DarsteHungsfanktion y 
of which it is an aspect, is an Urfhanomen. 

The function of language in the Aujbau of the perceptual 
world is further shown by the presence of the universal in the 
perceptual process itself. Everything denoted by language is 
already universalized. Apart from purely formless interjec- 
tions and emotive sounds, all linguistic expressions contain 
implicitly this "form of thought." The universal is not, as com- 
monly held, the product of abstraction and then embodied in 
language 5 it is present in this "first precipitate of language." 

PSF, III, chapter VI. 

11 Of. cit. y Vol. Ill, p. 234. In Cassirer's own words, "Unter 'symbolischer 
Pragnanz' soil also die Art verstanden werden, in der ein Wahrnehmungserlebniss, 
als 'sinnliches* Erlebniss, zugleich einen bestimmten nicht-anschaulichen 'Sinn* in 
sich fasst imd ihn zur unmittlebaren konkreten Darstellung bringt." 


The later processes of abstraction take place upon contents al- 
ready thus universalized. 

In developing this point Cassirer makes use of Lotze's term, 
"first" or primary universal, to distinguish it from the secondary 
or abstract universal. Nouns, verbs, adjectives are all in a 
sense names, and when anything is named this first universal is 
implicit. This first universal is intuitive, of a very different 
nature from the ordinary class concepts of logic, and is, indeed, 
presupposed by them. Perception contains this universal. It is 
true, of course, that it is always a particular color or tone that is 
perceived, always a particular quote and intensity. But this per- 
ception is always accompanied by the fact that every other color 
or tone has an equal right to function as an example of the uni- 
versal. This class concept is, as he further insists, not constructed 
by repressing or eliminating the individual color or tone, but 
rather by the recognition of a common element (in the indi- 
vidual phenomena themselves) already intuited. 14 

This doctrine of the "double universal," as Cassirer calls it, 
is important for his entire philosophy of language. It also fur- 
nishes the basis for his theory of language and logic. His logical 
theory will doubtless receive fuller treatment by other con- 
tributors to this volume, but some comment should be made 
upon it in this connection. 

The point at which logic and the philosophy of language, so 
he tells us, first touch each other is the problem of the forma- 
tion of concepts; the point, indeed, "at which they disclose 
their inseparable character." "All logical analysis of concepts," 
he adds, "seems to lead in the end to a point at which the 
examination of concepts passes into that of words and names. 
From this point of view logic might be defined as the science 
or doctrine of the concept and its meaning." 15 Predication is a 
problem at once linguistic and logical and the real secret of 
predication is found in the doctrine of the double universal. 
Predication, in the logical sense, is but the conceptual expres- 
sions of relations already intuited. These form the basis for the 
more complex syntheses of logical thought, logical concepts 

14 PSF, I, 249*F. Also III, i 35 ff. 
"Ibid., I, 2 44 ff. 


having the function merely of fixing the relations already 
present in experience. The logical concept, so he tells us, does 
nothing else than fix the "gesetzliche Ordnung* already present 
in the phenomena themselves; it states consciously the rule 
which the perception follows unconsciously. 16 

Cassirer seems to maintain a relational, as opposed to a 
subject-predicate logic, and his general thesis of the develop- 
ment from substance to function in the sphere of scientific 
knowledge would seem to indicate this position. It would seem 
also, that with regard to the issue raised by the expression 
"logical analysis of language," he also maintains the right of 
such a relational logic to exercise its critique upon the subject- 
predicate logic, which is the constitutive element in the natural 
world picture as given us by perception. And yet I am not so 
sure. Certainly one of his main positions is that the mathemati- 
cal-logical world picture given us by science is not the only 
symbolic form which has knowledge value, but that such value 
must be accorded also to the natural and mythical pictures of 
the world. In any case, I cannot go into this issue here. It was 
one of my hopes that this ambiguity regarding logic would 
be cleared up in Cassirer's answers to the questions raised by the 
essays in this volume, before the suddenness and untimeliness 
of his death made this expectation futile. 


As the Darstellungsfunktion is the sine qua non of linguistic 
meaning, so the nature of that function, of the relation of the 
"word" to the "thing" and the nature of the truth relation in 
general becomes a fundamental problem of a philosophy of 
language. "The function of language," according to Cassirer, 
"is not to copy reality but to symbolize it." 17 

In this connection his "law" of the development of language 
becomes of first importance. The development of language 
proceeds through three stages. They are (a) the mimetic or copy 
stage, (b) the analogical and (c) the symbolic. The characteris- 

T Ibid., I, i 3 2ff 2 33 ff. 


tic of the first stage is that between the word, or verbal sign, 
and the thing to which it refers no real difference is made. The 
word is the thing. This initial stage is, however, broken up as 
soon as transfer of signs takes place. Here the relation is ana- 
logical. This relation in turn gives way to the symbolic. The 
characteristic of this last stage is that, whereas the element of 
representation (Darstellung), which is the sine qua non of 
linguistic meaning, still remains, the relation of similarity 
which conditions this representation becomes more and more 
partial and indefinite. 

As thus briefly stated, this "law" of development is, to be 
sure, a mere schematism; but when it is filled in with the rich 
content at Cassirer's disposal, it becomes one of the most illumi- 
nating conceptions of his entire work. It becomes not only an 
important principle for the understanding of the Aufbw der 
Sprache, but one which also enables him to connect the develop- 
ment of language with other "symbolic forms," such as art, 
science, and religion. ' 

As concerns language itself, Cassirer is enabled, as the result 
of extensive comparative studies, to show the presence of this 
tendency or "law" throughout linguistic phenomena. From this 
wealth of material I choose but one illustration to indicate the 
significance of the principle, namely, the phenomenon of re- 
duplication common in primitive languages. The reduplication 
of sound or syllable appears, at first view, to involve merely 
the copying of the object or happening. Actually, however, it 
marks the beginning of an analogical representation which is a 
step on the way to the symbolic. The representation is, in the 
first instance, imitative and serves to conjure up the thing itself. 
Gradually, however, the Gestalt is detached from the primary 
material and becomes the means of representation of plurality, 
repetition, and finally, in many cases, becomes the form of 
representation or expression of the fundamental intuitions, 
space, time, force, etc. Cassirer develops this theme with many 
illustrations which cannot, of course, be given here. The im- 
portant point is the presence of the representative, as well as 
the indicative function, from the beginning, and also the manner 


in which this representative function develops from representa- 
tion in the sense of imitation to symbolic representation as its 
ultimate form. 18 

It is impossible even to indicate here the manifold applica- 
tions of this principle to the development of the various speech 
forms. More important for his philosophy as a whole is the 
way in which, as he points out, the development of language 
through the three stages makes it possible for speech to become 
the medium for the expression of conceptual thought and of 
pure relations. It is indeed the very Vieldeutigkeit of the verbal 
signs, which appears on the analogical stage of development, 
that constitutes the real virtue of that stage of development. 
It is precisely this that compels the mind to take the decisive step 
from the concrete function of indication (Eezeichnung)^ which 
characterizes the early stage of language, to the general and 
more significant function of "meaning" (Bedeutung). It is at 
this point that language at the same time emerges from the 
sensuous husk in which it first embodied itself. The imitative 
and analogical expressions give place to the purely symbolic, and 
language thus becomes the bearer of a newer and deeper 
spiritual content. 19 

Of special importance in this connection is the application 
of this principle to space-time language, not only for the entire 
philosophy of symbolic forms, but more especially for Cassirer's 
treatment of symbolism in science. All language goes through 
these three stages of development, and space-time words are 
no exception to the rule. Into the details of his exhaustive study 
we cannot, of course, enter. It must suffice to give the results 
as summed up in his own words: "Again it is clear," he tells us, 

that the concepts of space, time and number furnish the actual structural 
elements of objective experience as they build themselves up in language. 
But they can fulfil this task only because, according to their total struc- 
ture, they keep it an ideal medium, precisely because, while they keep 
to the form of sensuous experience, they progressively fill the sensuous 
with ideal content and make it the symbol of the spiritual. 20 

, I f i 43 . 

, 145. 
"7M&.L *oft. 


Thus the space and time of the immediate Ausdruckserlebnisse 
become the ideal space-time of modern physical science which, 
as we shall see, although keeping the forms of sensuous experi- 
ence, become more and more the symbol for non-intuitable 
relations. 21 

The theme of a philosophy of language is, as we have seen, 
the Erkenntniswert der Sprache. To the question thus raised 
Cassirer's critical idealistic philosophy of language seems to me 
to be in the main, the right answer. As opposed to naively 
naturalistic and "realistic" views of language, this conception of 
language seems to me to be alone tenable. Nevertheless there 
also appear to me to be certain difficulties in Cassirer's formula- 
tion of this theory a fundamental ambiguity in his evaluation 
of language which becomes increasingly puzzling as he passes 
from the philosophy of language eo nomme to other aspects of 
the more general philosophy of symbolic forms. 

There seems to be little question of the inseparability of 
intuition and expression embodied in the notion of Ausdrucks- 
erlebnisse, that language is present from the beginning in the 
Aufbau of the perceptual world. There seems to be just as 
little question that language develops from copy to analogy 
and from analogy to symbol; that the function of language is 
not to copy reality but to symbolize it; and that, more and more, 
the symbolization of things gives place to the symbolization of 
relations. The problem then becomes whether, in this dialecti- 
cal movement, as Cassirer calls it, inherent in language, the 
goal of the movement is the abandonment of language with its 
natural "parts of speech" and its subject-predicate logic for a 
symbolism of pure relations and a purely relational logic. Is 
there within language itself an immanental dialectic which 
drives it ever onward beyond itself? Otherwise expressed, are 
the natural categories of language, although useful for practice, 
wholly erroneous when applied to the sphere of theory? 

On this fundamental issue Cassirer's answer seems to me to 
be ambiguous. In many places he appears to suggest that the 

* Ibid., 'Ill, Part III, Chap. V. 


function of thought is to break through the husk of language, 
with its natural categories (of subject and predicate, of substance 
and attribute) to a "purer notation" and to a symbolism of pure 
relations, notably in science. In other places he seems to suggest 
that, although this is the ideal goal of knowledge, natural 
language can never be broken through completely and the cate- 
gories of this language can never be completely transcended. 
Doubtless Cassirer is clear on this point, and my own uncer- 
tainty arises from defects of understanding. In any case, the 
problem here presented is one which faces all modern philoso- 
phies of language, a problem to which, in the opinion of the 
present writer, few have given really satisfactory answers. 

The Philosophy of Language and The Philosophy of Symbolic 
Forms. Principles of Symbolism 


For Cassirer, then, the philosophy of language leads directly 
to a philosophy of symbolism. If, as he maintains, the function 
of language is not to copy reality but to symbolize it, it becomes 
necessary, in order to understand that function, to understand 
also the nature and principles of symbolism. More than this, 
language is for him not the only symbolic form. In art, religion, 
and preeminently in "science" itself, non-linguistic symbols are 
employed and the relation of these symbols to language becomes 
one of the central problems of the philosophy of language, as 
viewed in its more general aspects. 

Cassirer's problem, as we have seen, insofar as it is concerned 
with language, is the study of the Aufbau der Sprache in connec- 
tion with the development of the varied forms of culture, more 
particularly science, art, and religion. The essence of culture is 
precisely this objectification of the "spirit" in various forms and 
structures. In all these, no less than in science in the strict sense 
of the word, theoretical and form elements are to be found. 

The methodology of such a study, even in the case of 
language itself, obviously can not be the scientific method in the 
sense of natural science, as we have already seen in his critique 


of the assumptions and methods of linguistics. It is, for Cassirer, 
the phenomenological method conceived in the broadest sense. 
The place in his studies where the character of this method is 
most clearly formulated is in the Preface to Vol. III. "When," 
he writes, "I speak of the phenomenology of knowledge, I refer 
not to the modern usage, but go back to the fundamental mean- 
ing of phenomenology as finally fixed and systematically de- 
veloped and justified by Hegel." For Hegel, he reminds us, 
phenomenology is "the fundamental presupposition of philo- 
sophical knowledge." In contrast to the scientific method, it 
seeks to understand the various "spiritual forms" from within, 
not from without. It seeks moreover "to embrace the totality 
of spiritual forms and to understand and evaluate them in their 
mutual relations," for "the fundamental presupposition of the 
phenomenological method is that the truth is the whole." With 
this conception of phenomenology, Cassirer tells us, the philoso- 
phy of symbolic forms is in accord, although in the application 
of these principles his procedure naturally varies significantly 
from that of Hegel. 22 


The first requisite of a general theory of symbolism is an 
adequate notion of the symbol and the symbolizing function. 
This notion must, as Cassirer rightly points out, be a broad one, 
if it is to be adequate. "The philosophy of symbols and of sym- 
bolic forms is not, as some suppose, concerned primarily and 
exclusively with scientific and exact concepts, but with all direc- 
tions of the symbolizing function," in its attempt to grasp and 
understand the world. It is necessary to study this function, not 

M PSF., Ill, vi. Cassirer does not, to be sure, deny the valuable services rendered 
by Phenomenology in the narrower sense of Husserl. It has, he tells us, sharpened 
our sense anew for the variety of spiritual "Strukturformen" and shown us the 
way in which the method of their understanding- must differ from the psychological. 
As Husserl's studies have developed it becomes ever clearer that this method is not 
exhausted in the analysis of knowledge, but that its task includes the investigation 
of the different realms of objects, according to what they mean without reference 
to their psychical conditions or the existence of their objects. The extension of this 
general point of view and method from the sphere of logic to ethics and art has, 
he holds, been one of the most fruitful movements of modern thought. (PSF., II, 
1 6 note.) 


only in the realm of scientific concepts but in the non-scientific 
realms of poetry, art, religion, etc., not only on the level of the 
conceptual but on the cognitive levels below the conceptual. 23 

We lose our grasp of the whole, if we confine the symbolizing function 
at the outset to the level of conceptual 'abstract' knowledge. Rather we 
shall have to recognize that this function belongs not only to a single level 
of the theoretical world picture, but that it conditions and carries this 
picture in its totality. 2 * 

How much this warning is needed is apparent when we realize 
that precisely the tendency to narrow the concept of the symbol 
to the logical and mathematical has been a conspicuous tendency 
of recent philosophic thought. 

The symbolic function belongs, then, not to a single level of 
the world picture but holds throughout. It is present on the 
level below conceptual knowledge, in perception itself that is 
the significance of the principle of symbolischer Pragnanz 
but it holds also for the realms of poetry, art, religion, and 
preeminently that of science. The philosophy of symbolic 
forms includes the study of the symbolizing function in all forms 
of the objectification of the human spirit. 

One level of the world picture on which the symbolic func- 
tion is most in evidence is that of myth. The second volume of 
the Philoso'phie der symbolischen Formen is entitled "Das 
mythische Denken," which is in reality a discussion of the prob- 
lem of Sprache und Mythos. In this without question the most 
significant modern study of the myth, the entire problem of the 
nature of myth, of its Erkenntmswert and of its relation to re- 
ligion as symbolic form, is involved. This problem is the subject 
of other papers in this volume, and we shall accordingly confine 
ourselves wholly to its significance in the context of the philoso- 
phy of language. 

The essence of Cassirer's philosophy of myth is that the 
language of the myth represents an original form of the intui- 
tion of reality. In consequence, the individual categories of 
mythical thinking have their own form and structure. Space, 
time, number, classes, all have different meanings in mythical 

*PSF, III, 1 6. 
Vtd., Ill, 57. 


thought from those of science and constitute, in their totality 
and interrelations, a "symbolic form" with its own immanent 
form and significance. Into the details of this analysis we can- 
not, of course, go they are among the most admirable of 
Cassirer's comparative studies. It is sufficient to say that this 
fundamental way of intuiting the world expresses an "organic" 
aspect of reality which escapes the physico-mathematical cate- 
gories of science. Part of this "critical" philosophy, therefore, 
is also the thesis that the myth is to be evaluated, not by norms 
taken from alien spheres, but in terms of its own form 
and structure as an original and primary way of intuiting re- 

The development of myth exhibits stages parallel to the 
stages of language from copy, through analogy, to symbol. 
Here, too, an immanent dialectic drives thought on from copy 
to symbol. 25 It is here that the question of the relation of myth 
to religion is raised by Cassirer and, in the last section, entitled 
"Die Dialectik des mythischen Bewusstseins," is given an 
answer which I believe, is, in principle at least, in the right 
direction. According to this view, originally myth and religion 
(and mythical and religious symbolism) were identical, or at 
least inseparable and interfused. It is clearly impossible, he tells 
us, to make any study of religious symbols without a study of 
their relation to myth. There is no positive religion without 
these elements. The further we follow the content of the re- 
ligious consciousness to its beginnings, the more it is found 
impossible to separate the belief content from mythical lan- 
guage y one has then no longer religion in its actual historical and 
cultural nature but merely a shadow picture and an empty 
abstraction. Nevertheless and this is the important point for 
the philosophy of religion despite this inseparable interweav- 
ing of the content of myth and religion, they are far from being 
identical. Neither the form nor the spirit of the two are the 
same. The peculiar character of the religious form of con- 
sciousness shows itself precisely in a changed attitude towards 
the mythical picture of the world. It cannot do without this 
world, for it is in the mythical consciousness that the immediate 

"PSF, II, 2 9 *ff. 


intuition of the meaningfulness of the world is given. Yet in 
the religious consciousness the myth acquires a new meaning 5 it 
becomes symbolic. Religion completes the process of develop- 
ment which myth as such can not. It makes use of the sensuous 
pictures and signs, but at the same time knows them to be such. 
It always draws the distinction between mere existence and 
meaning. 26 


This critical theory of myth and of its relation to religion 
seems to me the only tenable one, when all the relevant facts 
are taken into consideration. In contrast to positivistic theories 
which identify religion with myth, Cassirer's emphasis upon the 
fundamental difference between the two seems to me to be of 
great importance. Nor does it suffice, as in certain theories very 
common at the present time, to distinguish between pre-scientific 
myth, which is transitory, and permanent myth, which is the 
language of religion. There is all the difference in the world 
between saying that religion is myth, however permanent, and 
saying that the language of myth constitutes the indispensable 
source of religious symbolism 5 and Cassirer has grasped this 
fundamental difference. 

On the other hand, true as this conception in principle is, it 
seems to me that, as formulated by Cassirer, it presents essen- 
tially the same difficulties which are encountered in his philoso- 
phy of language. Indeed the same ambiguity which there 
appeared is present in another form in his philosophy of re- 
ligious symbolism. It concerns what he calls the dialectic of 
the mythical consciousness. Religion does indeed complete the 
process of development which myth as such can not. But what 
is this completion? He does tell us, to be sure, that religion 
makes use of the sensuous pictures and signs, but at the same 
time he seems also to tell us that the ideal completion of the 
process would be the mystical consciousness that negative 
mysticism in which the pictures and symbols are transcended 
and ultimately abandoned. Undoubtedly, as the illustrations he 
gives us of the dialectic, taken from the Hebrew, Persian, and 
Hindu religions, indicate, every positive religion reaches a crisis 

*ibid., n, 294. 


in which it breaks with the mythical and on its higher levels 
seeks a direct approach to the absolute. Christianity also, as he 
tells us, reached this crisis and "has fought this fight." It too 
draws the distinction between existence and meaning. This is 
doubtless true, but it is very doubtful whether any form of 
religion certainly not the Christian religion and theology 
ever abandons existence for meaning. It is true, again, that the 
negative theology of the philosophical mystics, such as Eckhart 
and Tauler, might be said to have completed the dialectical proc- 
ess in this fashion, and Cassirer seems to quote them as repre- 
senting the essence of the dialectic of religion. 27 But it is in the 
positive rather than in the negative mystics that the essence of 
Christian mysticism is to be found 5 and this form of mysticism, 
as Von Hiigel has shown, includes both acceptance and tran- 
scendence of the symbol. In any case and this is really the 
only point I wish to raise here Cassirer's conception of the 
relation of myth to religion, however valuable it may be on the 
main issue, nevertheless is not wholly unambiguous, any more 
than is his philosophy of language as a whole. Is it, or is it not, 
the fate of religion to be dissolved into something else into a 
philosophy which is no longer religious or into a mysticism 
which is no longer theological? 


Of this critical idealistic theory of the religious symbol Paul 
Tillich has said that it stands in the forefront of symbol-theory 
today, 28 and in this he is probably right. But this is but one phase 
of Cassirer's more general theory of symbolism. The symbolic 
function belongs, as we have seen, not to any single level of the 
world picture, but holds throughout. By thus identifying the 
symbolic with the entire range of knowledge, including the 
scientific, the concept of the syrilbol and of symbolic truth has 
been given a tremendous expansion and a new significance. It is, 
indeed, on his view, only in the mathematical-physical sciences 
that the full significance of the .philosophy of symbolic forms is 
seen; for, as he tells us, "no matter how high myth and art may 

" PSF, II, 3o6ff. 

28 For a critical discussion of this problem sec a discussion between Paul Tillich 
and myself in The Journal of Liberal Religion, Vol. II, No. i, (1940). 


carry their constructions, they yet remain permanently rooted 
in the primitive world of Ausdruckserlebnisse." 29 It is only in 
the sphere of physical mathematical science that thought, so to 
speak, breaks through the husk of language, with its natural 
forms, and creates a world of concepts which, because of the 
conscious recognition of their nature as symbols, and of science 
itself as symbolic form, makes it possible to realize the ideal 
immanent in knowledge from the start, namely the correlation 
of phenomena in a systematic whole. It is here that the step from 
substance to function is finally taken. 


The Language of Science: Symbolism as a Scientific Principle 


The third volume of the Philosofhie der symbolischen 
Formen is entitled Phanomenologie der Erkenntnis and the 
third part of this volume bears the title, "Die Bedeutungsfunk- 
tion und der Aufbau der wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis." One 
chapter is entitled "Sprache und Wissenschaft, Dingzeichen 
und Ordnungszeichen" and the theme herein expressed is the 
main theme of this part of our study. 

"Language and science" has, indeed, become one of the cen- 
tral problems of modern philosophy of science, as the problem 
of symbolism has become a burning issue in scientific method- 
ology. All that the scientist contributes to the fact is, according 
to Poincare, the language in which it is enunciated. But, if the 
relation of perception to language is such as Cassirer conceives 
it, that "all" is a very great deal indeed; for there is no "fact," 
in the sense of "critical" philosophy, until it is expressed, and 
the primary, if not the only, form of expression is language. 
Science, so Cassirer maintains in the introduction to Das 
mythische Denken, differs from the other stages of spiritual 
life not in the fact that it gives us the truth itself without any 
mediation through signs and symbols, but rather that science 
recognizes that the symbols which it uses are symbols and 
realizes this fact in a way in which the others do not. 80 This 


"realization" constitutes the recognition of symbolism as a 
scientific principle and the statement of this principle involv- 
ing both the nature of the symbol and its relation to reality 
becomes the central problem of "science as symbolic form." 

It is in contrast with the copy or model theory of scientific 
concepts which characterized nineteenth century physics, that 
the symbolic character of these concepts is developed. If the 
function of language in general is not to copy but to symbolize 
reality, this is a fortiori true of scientific language. Cassirer cites 
a wealth of illustrations from modern physical science to sub- 
stantiate this thesis, but it is in connection with the theory of 
light that this fundamental change from copy to symbol is per- 
haps clearest, and Cassirer gives an excellent picture of this 

The corpuscular theory of Newton, according to which light 
consists in very small particles, proved untenable and gave way 
to the undulatory theory of Huygens, based upon an analogy 
taken from perceptible phenomena and giving rise to the con- 
struct of the ether as the substance which has these waves. 
Contradictions arose, however, in the predicates of this hypo- 
thetical ether which could not be eliminated. Physics was led 
even more deeply into paradoxes, and all ad hoc hypotheses 
invented to solve the difficulties served only to lead more deeply 
into the morass. Finally there came the electrodynamic theory 
of the field. The characteristic here is that the reality which is 
designated as the "field" is no longer a complex of physical 
"things" but an expression for a system of relations. But the 
important thing for us is that the notion of the intuitible is com- 
pletely abandoned and therefore the entire notion of the scien- 
tific concept is changed. 81 This change, which we may take as 
an outstanding illustration of the movement from "schematism" 
to symbol in physics, illustrates also a fundamental change in 
the modern symbolic consciousness of science. The symbol sym- 
bolizes not things (substances) but relations (functions). 


This symbolic theory of scientific concepts is, according to 
Cassirer, "the accepted theory in physical science today" and 

* Ibid.. IIL 


he is, doubtless, on the whole justified in calling it such. He is 
doubtless right also in saying that science recognizes the fact that 
the concepts which it uses are symbols in a way in which other 
symbolic forms do not. Certainly it represents in principle the 
standpoint of such physicists as Jeans and Eddington, to say 
nothing of the continental physicists he cites. For Jeans the pic- 
tures are the fables with which we deck our mathematical equa- 
tions j for Eddington they are dummies in our mathematical 
equations. Symbolism as a scientific principle means, then, in 
the words of Cassirer, that 

physics has finally abandoned the reality of description and representa- 
tion in order to enter upon a realm of greater abstraction. The schema- 
tism of pictures has given place to a symbolism of principles. Physics 
is concerned no longer with the actual itself, but with its structure and 
formal principles. The tendency to unification has conquered the tend- 
ency to intuitive representation. The synthesis which is possible through 
pure concepts of law and relation has shown itself more valuable than 
the apprehension in terms of objects or things. Order and relation have, 
then, become the basal concepts of physics. 32 

To say that physical science, in the later stages of its develop- 
ment, is no longer concerned with the actual, but solely with 
formal principles and structure, is seemingly to enunciate a 
paradox of the most astounding sort. This view, however, 
Cassirer is careful to point out, does not in the least signify 
that science has abandoned sense experience. Science, he tells us, 
"starts with observable objects and is not content until it de- 
duces from its concepts or theories objects and events which 
can also be observed. Without this connection with sense, how- 
ever indirect and remote, there is no verification. 

The meaning of the principle must be ultimately empirically and intui- 
tively fulfilled, but this fulfilment (Erjullung) is never possible directly, 
but only insofar as from the supposition of its validity other propositions 
are derived by means of an hypothetical deduction. None of these 
propositions, none of the individual stages in this logical process, need 
be capable of a direct sensory interpretation. Only as a logical totality 

*, Ill, 545. 


can the series of deductions be referred to observation and be proved 
and justified by it. 33 

"Only as logical totality" this is the significant point. Since 
none of the individual propositions requires reference to sensu- 
ous intuition, there is a gradual shift of the locus of verification 
from the intuitible to the meaningful. "Objectivity" in modern 
physics is not a problem of representation (Darstellung) but 
it is a problem of meaning alone ("ein reines Bedeutungsprob- 

In this last statement we have not only the heart of Cassirer's 
philosophy of science, but of the entire philosophy of symbolic 
forms, of which the scientific form is but a part. For the study 
of modern science shows us, what the philosophy of symbolic 
forms has continually emphasized, that all spiritual life and all 
spiritual development consist in nothing else than in such in- 
tellectual metamorphoses and in this passage from repre- 
sentation to the . creation of meaningful structures. Scientific 
knowledge repeats, in a different dimension to be sure, the 
same process which characterizes language and myth, a fact 
which, as we shall see, raises again, in an acute form, the funda- 
mental problem of the knowledge value of all the symbolic 

In that in physical science the concept of substance has given 
place to that of function and the concepts of physics are found 
to symbolize not things but relations, mathematics, as the 
science of relations far excellence, becomes for Cassirer central 
in his entire treatment of science as symbolic form. His philoso- 
phy of mathematics, like his theory of logic, is a topic which 
belongs to other contributors, but some comment seems neces- 
sary in the present context. Here only one problem can be 
raised. It concerns the question of what we may call the "lan- 
guage of mathematics" and mathematics as symbolic form. 

The main problem, of course, is that of the function of mathe- 
matical symbols in modern physical science; but this involves 

"Ibid., Ill, 538. 

84 /Ml., in, 552. 


also the problem of the philosophical basis of pure mathematics. 
Starting with the definition of mathematics as the science of 
numbers, and with the definition of numbers as symbols con- 
structed for the ordering activities of the understanding, there 
is created the problem of the truth value of these symbols 

Are they mere signs to which no objective meaning is to be assigned or 
have they a fandamentum in re? And if the latter is the case where 
are we to seek this basis? Is it given, ready-made, in the "intuition;" or 
must it, apart from and independently of the intuitively given, gain and 
secure its validity in the independent activities of the understanding, in 
pure spontaneity of thought? With these questions we find ourselves in 
the very center of the methodological struggle which is presently raging 
about the meaning and content of the fundamental mathematical con- 
cepts. , . . What does this question mean for our own fundamental prob- 
lem of symbolical thinking? 35 

The solution of this problem involves the entire dispute 
between the intuitive and the formal or symbolic theories in 
modern mathematics, and Cassirer's analysis of modern mathe- 
matical theory is one of the most important, as it is one of the 
most enlightening, phases of his work. So far as the basal prob- 
lem is concerned, his answer is that the above disjunction is 
neither unequivocal nor complete. Mathematics, he holds, has 
objective significance, but that significance does not lie in any 
immediate correlation with the intuited world of "nature," but 
rather in the fact that, by constructing this world according to 
its own formal principles, it is enabled thereby to understand its 
laws. I have neither the space nor the competence to develop his 
solution of this problem in detail it is but an application of the 
principle that the function of "language," in any form, is not to 
copy reality but to symbolize it rather shall I note his com- 
ment on the opposition of realistic and idealistic theory in 
mathematics. A true and valid conception of the symbolic in the 
mathematical field, as in other fields, does not, he tells us, 
consort well with the traditional dualism of idealism and 
realism, subject and object, but rather transcends them. "The 
symbolic belongs neither ... to the sphere of the immanent nor 

*lbid., ill, 414. 


to that of the transcendent; its value consists precisely in the 
fact that it enables us to transcend these oppositions. It is not 
the one nor the other, but 'the one in the other' and c the other 
in the one'." 36 

It is, however, as we have seen, in the transition from the 
schematism of pictures to the symbolism of principles that the 
role of mathematics has become increasingly significant in 
modern science. Order has thereby become the "absoluter 
Grundbegrif" of modern physics. For modern physical science 
the world presents itself no longer as a collection of entities, 
but as an order of happenings or events. Cassirer quotes with 
apparent approval a statement of Weyl in this connection. 

Neither intuitive space nor intuitive time, but only a four-dimensional 
continuum in the abstract mathematical sense, may serve as the medium 
in which physics constructs the external world. If color consisted 
"actually" of ether- vibrations as for Huyghens, it appears now only as 
mathematical functional processes of a periodic character, whereby four 
independent variables occur in the functions as representatives of the 
spatio-temporal medium referring to co-ordinates. What remains, then, 
finally is a symbolic construction in precisely the sense in which Hilbert 
carried such construction through in the field of mathematics. 87 

Thus do the intuited space and time of the immediate Ausdrucks- 
erlebnisse become the ideal space-time which, as Cassirer said, 
while keeping the form of sensuous experience, progressively 
fills that form with non-sensuous ideal content and makes the 
sensuous form a symbol of the ideal. 


In such fashion, then, does science, as symbolic form, find its 
place in Cassirer's. more general idealistic philosophy of lan- 
guage and of symbolic forms. This symbolic theory of scientific 
concepts is, I suppose, not only the "accepted theory today" but 
one to which, as I believe, we are forced by the developments of 
modern scientific methodology. Nevertheless, as formulated by 

98 ibid., m, 44 4 f. 

$T ?F, III, 546. The quotation from Weyl is taken from his Philosophic der 
Mathematik und Naturwissenschaft, found in Handbuch der Philosophic, 80. 


Cassirer, it presents certain difficulties not wholly unrelated to 
those found in other parts of his general philosophy. 

The primary difficulty arises out of an ambiguity in Cassirer's 
conception of science. The basal science, on his view, is the 
mathematical-physical, for here the essential law of all knowl- 
edge manifests itself completely j and it is for this type of science 
that his theory of scientific symbolism is developed. But there 
are other sciences ("so-called," at least), biology, psychology, 
etc., to say nothing of the Geisteswissenschaften, which, so to 
speak, employ other languages and exhibit very different sym- 
bolic form. Are they science or are they not? It is possible to 
hold, with many scientists, that they are really not science 
that the universe is exhaustively analyzable into terms of pure 
mathematics, and only insofar as this analysis is carried out do 
we have science, properly speaking. This is a possible view, but 
it is very questionable whether the concepts of the mathematical 
sciences are most suitable for the biologist and psychologist, to 
say nothing of history and the other Geisteswissenschaften. 
Living organisms and conscious minds are, to be sure, a part of 
nature, but the concepts of nature developed in mathematical 
physics are scarcely such as to express adequately their nature 
as living and conscious. On the other hand, we may say that 
these are really science j and if that is the case the essential 
law of all knowledge does not manifest itself completely in the 
mathematical-physical sphere j nor is the concept of symbol 
developed in this sphere adequate to all forms of scientific sym- 
bolism. We are forced to a concept of "double symbolism" in 
science, such as I have developed in Language and Reality 

It may be said, of course, that the issue here is largely verbal 
and concerns merely the question of the "definition" of science. 
But I do not believe that this is all there is to this problem. It 
concerns the much more fundamental question of whether the 
ideal of knowledge is really realized in the mathematical-physi- 
cal form, whether, in short, there are not other aspects of reality 
the adequate expression of which requires a different kind of 
symbolism. Of the fact itself, of this "double symbolism," there 
is no doubt j the only question is whether we call this symbolic 

38 Language and Reality, 5235. 


form, other than that in the mathematical sciences, science or not. 
It is not, of course, my intention to argue these points here I 
have done so in another context but merely to suggest an im- 
portant point at which Cassirer's philosophy of science leaves 
important questions unanswered. 

Closely connected with this problem is one no less funda- 
mental, and one which involves an ambiguity no less disturbing 
than the preceding. It concerns the relation of the scientific, 
more specifically the mathematical symbol, to ordinary lan- 

The ideal of science seems to be to pass from a language of 
things to a language of pure relations, a language which by an 
immanental necessity tends to become the language of mathe- 
matics. Science breaks through the husk of ordinary language, 
with its connotations, into a world of "pure notation." It be- 
comes wholly ^pronomlnaly to use Karl Vossler's expression. The 
question, then, arises as to the relation of this mathematical 
symbolism to natural language. I am not sure as to Cassirer's 
position at this point 5 here also he seems to be ambiguous. 
According to him, the relation of mathematical symbols to 
"natural" language seems to parallel the relation of religion to 
myth. As the religious consciousness cannot abandon completely 
the mythical picture of the world, although it surpasses and 
transcends it, so the scientific and mathematical language never 
quite abandons the speech forms from which it developed. 
All "rigorous science," Cassirer tells us, demands that thought 
shall "free itself from the compulsion of the word;" 39 but this 
is never completely possible. The issue, as I see it, is not 
whether it is possible, but whether it is desirable. A mathe- 
matical equation, until it is interpreted, "says nothing," and I 
cannot see how it can be interpreted except in terms of "natural" 
language which involves inevitably those "pre-scientific" cate- 
gories, of substance and attribute, which, according to this 
theory of science, it is the ideal of science to transcend. 

I find, then, in Cassirer an ambiguity which I also find 
present in many modern physicists. On the one hand, we find 
them speaking of electrons, etc., as the symbols "with which 

*PSF, III, 382. 


we deck our mathematical equations }" the assumption being 
that the equations, the mathematical relations, express the non- 
symbolic aspects of reality. On the other hand, these same 
mathematical signs, which make up the equations, are them- 
selves characterized as symbols with the result that we are 
left uncertain as to what is symbol and what reality. My own 
view which I do not, of course, wish to argue here is that 
mathematical symbols are merely "pronominal," they merely 
manipulate, and, until they are translated into non-mathemati- 
cal terms, "say nothing." I should be disposed to say with 
Brouwer that mathematics is "weit mehr ein Thun denn tine 
Lehre" Yet, whatever pure mathematics may be, mathematical 
physics is not a mere Thun> (activity or manipulation), but 
also a Lehre or theory a theory of the nature of reality, a 
theory which, as I believe, can be stated only in terms of natural 
language and of the categories which naturally belong to such 
language. In other words, physical theory must ultimately pre- 
suppose a metaphysics which cannot be merely a symbolism of 
relations but must be a symbolism of things. 

The questions here raised, important as they are, do not, 
however, affect, I think, the general critical-idealistic philoso- 
phy of science. The essence of that interpretation of science, 
as it is for all those who thus conceive it, is that science is one 
symbolic form among other symbolic forms. Science, Cassirer 
would say with Weyl, I think, concedes to idealism that its 
objective world is not given, but only propounded like a prob- 
lem to be solved, and that it can only be constructed by symbols. 
He would also say with Eddington, I think, that the explora- 
tion of the external world by science leads not to concrete 
reality, but to a world of symbols beneath which these methods 
are not adapted to penetrating. In saying these things, if he 
says them, he would also say, by implication, that there are other 
symbolic forms which are more adapted if not to penetrate 
into concrete reality (Cassirer would probably not wish to use 
this expression), certainly more adapted to expressing concrete 
reality. But there is a further implication of this theory of 
science which he could scarcely avoid, namely, that science, so 
understood, presupposes a metaphysics. Not only is art as 


symbolic form une metaphysique figuree, to use Bergson's 
terms, but science is also. The ideal of modern science, as con- 
ceived by Cassirer, is expressed in the postulate that nothing 
shall be admitted to science which is not resolvable into the 
sensible and the measurable. But this postulate presupposes 
that there is a metaphysical sphere not thus resolvable. If so, 
the question arises whether, corresponding to this sphere, there 
is not a language of metaphysics and a metaphysical symbolism. 


The Language of Metaphysics and The Nature of 
Philosophical Discourse 

One of the chief problems which face any one who realizes 
the issues raised by the problem of the relation of language to 
thought and knowledge is that of the language of philosophy. 
The philosophy of symbolic forms is philosophy and not 
science} although, of course, the results of scientific investiga- 
tion find their place in the phenomenology of these forms. 
What, then, is the character of philosophical language? 

That there is such a thing as philosophical discourse, as con- 
trasted with scientific, is recognized by Cassirer in his acceptance 
of the Hegelian principle that the phenomenological method 
is the presupposition of philosophy and in the application of 
this method to the philosophy of symbolic forms. It is recog- 
nized also that philosophical discourse involves a radical shift 
from the sphere of things (that of science) to the sphere of 
meanings (and values). The traditional view, of course, is that 
this discourse is identical with that of metaphysics that the 
language of philosophy and that of metaphysics are one. This 
view has, however, been challenged in the modern world, not 
only by positivism but by certain interpretations of the Kantian 
"critical" philosophy. Cassirer's position is one continuous 
critique of positivism in all spheres of the human spirit} it is 
not so clear what his position is regarding Kant and meta- 
physics. In any case, it seems obvious that a philosophy of 


symbolic forms, to be in any sense complete, must include a 
study of the language and the form which we call metaphysical. 


In the entire three volumes there is only one point at which 
the problem of metaphysics is presented at all the section in 
Vol. Ill, entitled "Intuitive and Symbolic Knowledge in Mod- 
ern Metaphysic." It is a critique of Bergson's position in which 
metaphysics is defined as the science which seeks to dispense 
with symbols "the most radical denial," as Cassirer rightly 
says, "of the right of all symbol formation which has ever 
appeared in the history of metaphysics." 40 

Cassirer's criticism of Bergson at this point is, I believe, fully 
justified. Quite rightly he points out that this sharp contrast, 
between the way of metaphysical intuition and the way of 
science and knowledge, shows Bergson to be the son of a 
naturalistic epoch in which all activity of the intellect is re- 
duced to the purely vital or biological. Quite rightly also he 
points out the impossibility of a purely intuitive metaphysics 5 
for it would not be any kind of knowledge, even metaphysical, 
unless it gave us some description of the "vital force," and 
this too requires theoretical or form elements 5 in other words, 
metaphysical knowledge must be symbolic form also. 

This criticism of a purely intuitive metaphysics seems to 
imply both the right to a metaphysical language and also to sym- 
bolic construction in metaphysics. We look, therefore, for a 
further development of the language of metaphysics and of 
symbolism as a metaphysical principle; but little light is thrown 
upon either the nature of metaphysics or the character of its 
language and symbolism. Just as we feel that we are about to 
put our hands on the key to the solution of the problem, Cas- 
sirer remarks, "Aber wir brechen an diesem Punkte ab." (Ill, 
4.8) All that can be asked, he continues, is a journey round the 
world, the globus intellectualis. It would seem, then, that the 
philosophy of symbolic forms is intended to be just such a 
journey neither penetration into the essence of "reality" nor 
an ultimate interpretation of its meaning. It is apparently 

40 PSF, III, 42ff, esp. 43 and 44. 


merely a phenomenology, not a metaphysics that is offered us. 

Nevertheless, it seems doubtful whether a philosophy of lan- 
guage and of symbolic forms can stop at this point. Even in a 
journey around the globus intellectualis the traveller will in- 
evitably come upon a region in which men talk a language which 
is neither that of science, as understood by Cassirer, nor of myth 
and poetry a language and symbolic form which can only be 
called metaphysical. That there is such a language can, I think, 
scarcely be denied. If the various symbolic forms, art, religion, 
science, all, in their several ways, constitute une metcrphysique 
figuree, then there must be, it would seem, a language of meta- 
physics in which these symbolic forms are expanded and inter- 
preted. As metaphysical "postulation" is necessary to round 
out our world of experience, so metaphysical language is neces- 
sary to make these other languages intelligible. Elsewhere I 
have myself attempted a study of this unique language and of 
the nature of the symbolic structure called metaphysics. 41 I 
have, of course, no intention of going into that here, but desire 
merely to suggest that this is one of the gaps in Cassirer's 
thought which I am unable to fill, and that precisely here the 
fundamental ambiguity in his evaluation of language is in evi- 

It would doubtless be an impertinence should I venture to 
indicate what, had Cassirer carried out this task, his conception 
of the language of metaphysics and of metaphysics as symbolic 
form would have been. It may be permitted, however, to sug- 
gest the point at which, in attempting to understand Cassirer, 
I have found myself thrown into confusion and uncertainty. If 
the ideal form and immanental law of all knowledge is, indeed, 
to be found in the mathematical-physical sciences, then it would 
seem that the symbolism of metaphysics must also be a sym- 
bolism of relations and that a philosophy of events, such as 
that of Whitehead for instance, would necessarily be the re- 
sultant metaphysics. On the other hand, if it is true, as we are 
told by Cassirer, that science as symbolic form has no exclusive 
value, but is only one way of constructing reality, and has value 
only from the standpoint of science, then it would appear that 

41 Language and Reality, Chap. XIII. 


a metaphysics, to be adequate, must be a metaphysics of art 
and religion also and must have a language and symbolic form 
which includes these forms also in which case it could no 
longer be a symbolism of relations merely, but must be a 
symbolism of things also. 

But all this may be beside the point. It may be, after all, 
that it is merely a phenomenology and not a metaphysics with 
which Cassirer presents us. The question always remains, I 
suppose, whether, as in the case of Kant, the critical transcen- 
dental method is the denial of metaphysics or itself a meta- 
physics. This is, I believe, an ambiguity inherent in the Kantian 
position and one shared by the philosophy of symbolic forms 
itself. If so, this ambiguity must take its place beside the 
other forms of ambiguity which have presented themselves at 
various stages of the development of this philosophy. The key 
to the understanding of knowledge, Cassirer tells us, is the 
Kantian principle that we must have our eyes, not on the 
results, but on the processes of knowledge. 42 That may be an 
important key to understanding, but it is scarcely sufficient 
for evaluation; it may reveal to us the meaning of the process, 
but can scarcely determine the truth of its result. This brings 
us to the problem of meaning and truth in Cassirer's philosophy. 


Language and Reality. The Problem of Meaning and Truth 


How much the present writer has learned from his journey 
in Cassirer's company around the globus intellectualis, is, I 
hope, fully clear from the sympathetic presentation of the main 
points of his philosophy of symbolic forms. But that I have 
still much to learn is clear also from the fact that I have been 
forced to confess my perplexity at certain crucial points. What 
has puzzled me has already been suggested by the indication 
of certain ambiguities present in his philosophy of language eo 
nomine, and which have grown in significance as we have passed 
on to the wider implications of his philosophy. 

4 *PSF, III, 7ff, esp. 8. 


The critical position which Cassirer maintains throughoir 
plicitly denies exclusive value to any one of the fundair 
symbolic forms. Modern science has come to recognize, he 
that its concepts or symbols are constructions for a spe 
pose, namely, "to deduce, as from models, what will 
in the external world." As such "they correspond to tl 
point of science and have no ultimate meaning out 
standpoint." Art and religion are equally symbc 
equally ways of representing the world. "None of th 
Cassirer tells us, is a "direct reproduction of realist 
facts." All share in the common character of beit 
of expression of one spiritual principle. All have 
they all also have truth? 

To none of these forms, therefore, does Cass" 
ing or significance. The question is whether 
includes the truth- value of knowledge. I may 
this point also Cassirer seems to me to give ar 
It is true that he seems to conceive them aL 
edge and truth. Even to the mythical for 
value. From the standpoint of the proble 
maintains "relative truth" can be no lor 
significantly enough, he puts the wor 
marks. 43 As for all "critical" philosopi 
theory, the myth expresses aspects of 
matical-physical language cannot expr 
art and religion, which make use o* 
bolically, are a fortiori forms of trut 
aspect of his thought. It is in science 
law of knowledge finds its supra" 
higher symbolic form with a tr 
quotation marks. We cannot esc 
as symbolic form, is not only t 
that shall supersede all other 
further suspicion that, when " 
the other forms, it is with a 
the present writer at least, s* 

"ibid., n, 19. 


splendid structure which Cassirer has erected in these three 

"> tendencies strive for supremacy in Cassirer's thought, 

d they do in all forms of philosophy which draw their 

spiration from the ideals of knowledge of a scientific 

; deals upon which Kant himself seemed at least to set 

<natur. On the one hand, there is the narrow conception 

'hich it seems difficult to avoid in this age of science. 

xssages in Cassirer's works this seems to be the truth 

wcellence y as it was for Kant in one of his philo- 

-. On the assumption that the basal conception and 

knowledge are completely shown in the methods 

' seems inevitable. On the other hand, another 

strives for recognition in Cassirer's thought, as 

n the thought of any one who is as conversant 

readth and depth of human culture a concep- 

words of John Dewey, is "broader and more 

;n which Kant also put his imprimatur in 

>sophical moods. It is the dilemma under- 

Ulemmas into which the modern mind has 

that Cassirer had a solution for this 

>nly my own failure to bring the many 

gument into a significant whole which 

it. None the less, I fail to see it, and 

ask for more light. There is, indeed, 

at which, if I understand it aright, 

-er tells us, contains in itself an 

'drives it on unmercifully further 

any boundary hitherto reached." 

notion, adaequatio intellectus et 

merely with calling in question 

world picture, but seizes upon 

f ." The outcome of this inner 

e notion of truth to that of 

to a realm of pure meaning 

d new difficulties, it never- 


theless results in the subordination of the notion of truth to that 
of meaning" 44 a subordination which, as we have seen, is as 
much a feature of the development of modern physical science 
as of any other symbolic form 5 for objectivity in modern physics 
is not a problem of representation (f>arstellung)^ but of mean- 
ing alone (ein reines Bedeutwngsproblem). 

This subordination of truth to meaning is obviously suscep- 
tible of two interpretations. On the one hand, it may be so 
interpreted as to express a widespread tendency in modern 
philosophy one shared by positivism and instrumentalism 
alike namely, to insist upon the existence of realms of mean- 
ing or significance (such as those of art and metaphysics) in 
which notions of truth and falsity are irrelevant and into which, 
as it has been said, "truth has no right to enter." On the other 
hand, it may be so interpreted as to express the notion that, 
in the development of thought which has resulted in the sub- 
ordination of truth to meaning, truth has a right to enter because 
the meaningful is already true, for truth and meaning ulti- 
mately coincide. The sum total of meaningful discourse is the 

This is my own solution of the problem, as developed in 
Language and Reality. I hope it is Cassirer's also, for then it 
would not only be true that I have learned immensely from his 
philosophy of symbolic forms, but also that from this learning 
I have not drawn consequences which would be disavowed by 
Cassirer himself. I hope it is his solution also, for the reason 
that from this solution of the problem would follow, I think, 
the answers to the other problems which I have felt constrained 
to raise in the course of these discussions. 




44 PSF, III, 6ff.j also 3*8ff. 

James Gutmann 



ASSIRER'S Humanism is not a segment or portion o 
his philosophy j it is an aspect of all his writing and teach- 
ing. It permeates his thought in his historical studies and also 
in his theoretical and systematic works. As a student of the 
history of ideas, Cassirer concentrated his interest and attention 
on those great figures and ages of intellectual history in which 
the humanistic interest was especially prominent. His studies 
of Plato and Platonism in ancient thought and in later times, 
of the philosophy of the Renaissance in its ethical and cosmo- 
logical speculations, and of the age of the Enlightenment are 
some of the evidences of his interest in the traditions of human- 
ism. His work as an editor of Leibniz and Kant, his biography 
of Kant and his studies of Descartes, Kepler, Leibniz, and 
others, reflect a prevailing sense of philosophy's relation to other 
cultural interests. Even his most technical contributions to 
linguistics and to epistemological and mathematical theory re- 
veal his pervasive humanistic concern. The relation of these 
specialized studies to his great systematic work is signally illus- 
trated in his essay on Language and Myth, which was written 
at the very time when he was formulating the Philosofhie der 
symbolischen Formen. And the significance of Cassirer's human- 
ism in his conception of symbolic forms is definitively expressed 
in the synoptic version of his system, his Essay on Man. 

The philosophy of symbolic forms starts from the presupposition that, 
if there is any definition of the nature or "essence" of man, this defini- 
tion can only be understood as a functional one, not a substantial one. 
We cannot define man by any inherent principle which constitutes his 
metaphysical essence nor can we define him by any inborn faculty or 
instinct that may be ascertained by empirical observation. Man's out- 



standing characteristic, his distinguishing mark, is not his metaphysical 
or physical nature but his work. It is this work, it is the system of 
human activities, which defines and determines the circle of "humanity." 
Language, myth, religion, art, science, history are the constituents, the 
various sectors of this circle. 1 

The present paper will not, of course, attempt to review 
Cassirer's achievements as a humanist in all the ranges of his 
work. However, while stressing his contribution to the humani- 
ties, it will consider his literary and artistic interests in relation 
to that "philosophical anthropology" which is, after all, the 
equivalent in Greek dress of wisdom-loving humanism. The 
designation of "philosophical anthropology" was chosen by 
Cassirer himself, following in Kant's footsteps, to describe the 
content of the seminar in which he was engaged at the time of 
his death. Cassirer's use of Kant's terms in this seminar as in 
his Essay on Man showed at one and the same time his reverence 
for Kant and the independence with which he unlike some of 
the neo-Kantians employed the Kantian legacy. 

Though Cassirer's modification of Kant raised difficulties 
both in his historical work and in his systematic writing, this 
paper, while considering some of them below, is particularly 
designed to show how other elements, borrowed and original, 
contributed to Cassirer's humanism. After considering some of 
these elements, notably the influence of German Romanticism, 
a brief review of Cassirer's own summary of the history of 
Western humanism will lead back naturally to certain aspects 
of his Kantianism, not only in its relevance to his position as 
a humanist historian, but also to the relation of his views on his- 
tory to his other humanistic interests. That his humanism is one 
of the constant factors in the wide range of his interests and in all 
his contributions to philosophy is the thesis of this paper. Cas- 
sirer is a follower of Kant, but is surely not to be interpreted as 
a neo-Kantian in any limited sense. He stands in many tradi- 
tions, among them, neither last nor least, in the great tradition 
of philosophic humanism. 

1 Essay on Man y 67-68. 



It is significant that Cassirer came to philosophy as a student 
of literature and linguistics. Though his publications include 
numerous technical studies not only of mathematics but of 
physics and psychology, his initial interest in languages and 
literature remained a major preoccupation. His studies of 
German culture, Freiheit und Form> as well as some of the 
essays which compose his subsequent Idee und Gestalt anticipate 
in nuce doctrines concerning myth and language which he de- 
veloped in his later writings. Goethe and Schiller, Herder, 
Kleist and Holderlin, Lessing and Rousseau are figures to 
whom he returned again and again, not only to use them to 
illuminate the work of other more technical philosophers, but 
for their own sake. He wrote on Goethe and Plato or on Goethe 
and Kant y but he is as much interested in Goethe's Pandora 
and Faust as in Goethe's views on natural science or in Goethe 
and mathematical physics. He discussed Lessing and Mendels- 
sohn or Schiller and Shaftesbury with as much emphasis on 
the more literary as on the more technically philosophical 
writer. His study of Holderlin foreshadowed the exhaustive 
analysis of mythopoeic imagination in which he later developed 
the insights of modern romanticism and particularly of Schel- 
ling's philosophy of mythology and revelation. 

Though following Helmholtz, Otto Liebmann, and Cas- 
sirer's own teacher, Hermann Cohen, "back to Kant," and 
though adhering to Kantian principles, Cassirer repeatedly 
proved his indebtedness to some of the insights of certain post- 
Kantian writers, notably Humboldt and Schelling. Rejecting 
the metaphysical absolutism which prevailed in Fichte, in 
Schelling's emphasis on the Infinite, and especially in Hegel, 
and though critical of the psychological approach made by 
Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, he found in Romanticism's aware- 
ness of the significance of myth, of poetic imagery and cultural 
continuity, elements worthy of being added to the stern and 
rigorous discipline of Kantianism. Never forgetting Kant's in- 
sistence that all philosophy must regard the dualism between 


being and becoming as a logical rather than a metaphysical 
dualism and that it must accept the findings of science as its 
data, he nevertheless concerned himself with the processes of 
change, of becoming, which Romanticism emphasizes. Differing 
from Kant and agreeing with Humboldt that speculation re- 
garding the genesis and essence of language is not the business 
of the philosopher, he carried forward the study of linguistics 
for which Jacob Grimm had laid the foundations. Conceiving 
man not as homo sapiens nor as homo jaber but as animal 
symbolicum, he concerned himself with symbolic forms in all 
aspects of man's experience. 

To what extent this fusion of neo-Kantianism with interests 
and problems largely foreign to Kant's thought generated diffi- 
culties for Cassirer need not be questioned now. But any under- 
standing of man as animal symbolicum requires at least a brief 
consideration of Cassirer's use of mythopoeic data. Cassirer 
traced the relation of myth to speculative thought from Plato 
and neo-Platonism to such modern writers as Giambattista Vico, 
Holderlin and Schelling. Though the attitudes of these and 
other related thinkers differ with regard to the precise signifi- 
cance of mythical elements in human nature and culture, they 
agree in conceiving mythic apprehension as more than meta- 
phorical or allegorical. None of them sees the symbolic func- 
tion of myth precisely as Cassirer himself came to view it; but 
Schelling approaches this view more closely than the others. 
Moreover, Cassirer construed Schelling's Philosophic der 
Mythologie as being, in part, an elaboration and development 
of an early intuition of Holderlin's. "Mythopoeic imagery," 
he wrote, "is no mere ornament which we incidentally add to 
our portrait of reality, but it is one of the necessary organs 
for the apprehension of reality itself. In it we find the world 
and life first truly revealed and made significant." 2 

As this statement, quoted from Cassirer's essay on "Holderlin 
and German Idealism," suggests, he acknowledged this early 
anticipation of his conception of mythopoeic imagination as a 
necessary organ of apprehension which he developed especially 
in the second volume of the Philosophie der symbolischen 

* Idee und Gestalt, 121. 


Formen. In spite of Cassirer's diagnosis of Holderlin's intel- 
lectual limitations, his appreciation of Holderlin's artistic in- 
sights reveals a fundamental sympathy. If he denies Holderlin 
a position of great importance in the history of philosophy, he 
credits him with a high degree of poetic inspiration. It is sig- 
nificant, moreover, that, though he bases his own estimate of 
Holderlin's artistic greatness on the poet's concern with mythic 
imagery, he also finds this the source of his chief philosophic 
deficiency. He seems to be convinced that Holderlin's absorption 
in mythology actually interfered with his attaining an adequate 
total conception of human nature and human history. Holder- 
lin happily reacted against those eighteenth century thinkers 
who treated myth only in a derogatory sense j but Cassirer 
finds his attainments in philosophy negligible despite Holder- 
lin's "lifelong earnest wrestling with philosophic problems, 
since he was never a systematic thinker." It remained for Schel- 
ling, who recognized myth as a product of man's collective 
imagination, not only to see myth as a great and indestructible 
force basic to all culture, but also to formulate the first sys- 
tematic philosophy of mythology. 

Whether or not this estimate of Holderlin be accepted is less 
important, at least in the present context, than the circumstance 
that Cassirer's judgment is based on his insistence concerning 
the lack of system in Holderlin's thought. It is not entirely clear 
whether he believes such a lack of system to be due to tempera- 
mental limitations or to the inadequacy of a humanism which 
fails to recognize the importance of non-literary and non- 
artistic elements as expressions of human nature. Be that as it 
may, it is evidence of the primary importance which Cassirer 
attached to systematic construction in philosophy. 


However much Cassirer differed from Alexander Pope, the 
title of whose poem he used for his Essay on Man y he agreed 
with him that "the proper study of mankind is man." To be 
sure, Cassirer included in such a study many elements which 
would have seemed irrelevant not only to Pope but to the 
philosophers of his day who discussed human nature. Indeed, 


the history of the interpretation of human nature from the time 
when the Greeks inscribed "Know Thyself" on the Temple 
of Apollo would show striking contrasts not only with regard 
to the content and scope of such knowledge but also with 
respect to the methods of pursuing it. The anthropological phi- 
losophy which Kant fathered seems often to have been neglected 
by philosophers who claimed to be Kantians. It itself has under- 
gone significant changes. Yet every example of it which is 
worthy of its founder combines the ethical imperative char- 
acteristic of Kant with the scepticism that underlies his Critiques 
but which is, like all genuine scepticism, the "counterpart of 
resolute humanism.'* 

"The starting point of all anthropological philosophy," writes 
Bernard Groethuysen in his essay "Towards an Anthropological 

or all philosophy of man, is the ancient maxim, c Know Thyself.' But 
what is it that man wishes to know about himself? What are the 
questions which he puts to himself? 'Know Thyself* is the command. 
. . . [But this] means not simply try to define yourself by concepts, . . . 
but become conscious of yourself, live in the consciousness of yourself, 
understand yourself, come to experience yourself, be present to yourself, 
live in the awareness of your present, come to yourself. 4 

As Socrates interpreted the Delphic injunction, it meant not 
merely that the unexamined life was no life for man, but that 
self-knowledge by its very nature could not be achieved in 
isolation, that it involved a co-operative venture and that the 
individual, to be truly known, must be known not only in all 
his social relations but, indeed, required the assistance of others 
to achieve this very knowledge. In Socrates, "philosophy, 
which had hitherto been conceived as an intellectual monologue, 
is transformed into a dialogue. Only by way of dialogical or 
dialectic thought can we approach the knowledge of human 
nature." 5 Socrates finds his teachers among those who dwell in 
the city and is content to interrogate an unschooled slave boy, 
if only the latter can add to his knowledge of the nature of 

8 Essay on Man, i . 

4 Philosophy and History ^ ed. by Klibansky and Paton, 77, 
5 Essay on Man, 5. 


man. It is surely in this sense that "his philosophy, if he pos- 
sesses a philosophy," is strictly anthropological. 

Doubtless one of the aspects of Renaissance culture which 
has drawn scholars like Cassirer again and again to study its art 
and thought is the reaffirmation, involved in its cultural rebirth, 
of the validity of natural human aspiration. Contrasted with 
the other-worldliness of mediaevalism, the recognition that 
human nature is indeed natural led to the conviction that human 
appetites and aspirations can yield all manner of excellence. 
The plasticity of man's endowments not only suggested the 
ideal of the uomo universale but an increased interest in variety 
and differentiation as such. Though this central awareness of the 
Renaissance has been remarked by many students, and though 
Cassirer himself gave attention to its manifestation by many 
contrasting types, his study of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola 
expressed this aspect of Renaissance humanism with singular 
persuasiveness: What Pico 

sets up as the distinctive privilege of man is the almost unlimited 
fower of self -trans formation at his disposal. Man is that being to whom 
no particular form has been prescribed and assigned. He possesses the 
power of entering into any form whatever. What is novel in this idea 
lies not in its content, but rather in the value Pico places on this content. 
. . . With Pico this inner unrest of man, impelling him on from one 
goal to another, and forcing him to pass from one form to another, no 
longer appears as a mere stigma upon human nature, as a mere blot 
and weakness. Pico admires this multiplicity and multiformity, and 
he sees in it a mark of human greatness. 6 

Clearly, for man to know himself, in this sense, is to recognize 
the rich and varied potentialities of his nature. 

That there were limitations upon even the inclusive ideal 
of Renaissance humanism is evident in the comparatively small 
place which was allowed to natural science by humanists such 
as Erasmus and Vives. But in this respect, as in many others, 
Cassirer views the Renaissance as an age in which distinctive and 
original developments in the relation of science to other learning 
took place. 

*In the Jwrnal of th* History of WMS, III, no. 3, 331, 



In his monograph, "Naturalistische und humanistische Be- 
griindung der Kulturphilosophie" (published in 1939) as well 
as in his Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften (1942), Cassirer 
traces in detail the complicated relationship of the naturalistic 
and humanistic factors in philosophy from the Renaissance to 
the twentieth century. In both of these essays Cassirer uses his 
humanism to clarify problems of the philosophy of culture. This 
field of study, he repeatedly points out, is perhaps the most 
problematic and disputed realm in the whole domain of phi- 
losophy. Not only are clear and recognized solutions lacking 
in this novel philosophic discipline, but there is even a lack 
of agreement as to the questions which may reasonably be 
asked. Unlike logic, physics, and ethics, which remained the 
three main branches of philosophy from antiquity down to the 
time of Kant, these newer questions lack a secure tradition and 
development. According to Cassirer's interpretation, Kant is 
here, as in so many other domains, the dividing line between 
fundamentally different views of the relation of nature and 
human nature, or, to change the metaphor, the bridge from 
classical humanism to distinctively modern conceptions of man 
and culture. 

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Cassirer 
notes, a new preoccupation became increasingly evident among 
philosophers, though it could find no definite place in the 
traditional systems. Cultivated by philosophical humanists, the 
discipline which was later to be called by Dilthey the "nattir- 
liche System der Geisteswissenschajten" could not be assimilated 
to traditional philosophy, because it appeared to conflict with 
the natural and mathematical sciences, to which the mightiest 
and most productive forces, over which the modern spirit 
reigned, were applied. To the new scientific philosophers there 
seemed to be no place for a genuinely respectable philosophy 
apart from mathematics and the mathematical sciences, which 
constituted the ideal of knowledge. If the realities of humanism 
were to become accessible to philosophic reason, this would 
have to be accomplished by making them accessible to the 


same mathematical apprehension which had grasped the physi- 
cal universe. The alternative was to leave the humanistic enter- 
prise in mystic darkness, subject to theological traditions. 
Spinoza's attempt to establish a systematic unity between ethics 
and geometry was based upon the conviction that human nature 
could no longer be regarded as an enclave in an all-inclusive 
natural order. Man and human achievements must henceforth 
be viewed and described as though they were a matter of lines, 
surfaces, or corporeal bodies. Spinoza's doctrine of a unified 
nature reached its climax in his demand for a monistic view not 
merely as a metaphysic but as a strict method of interpreting 
nature. A sound philosophy will dispense with teleology and 
banish the notion of purpose from nature} for, if we seek the 
genesis of this notion, it is evident that it is merely an anthropo- 
morphic misunderstanding and falsification, whereas only an 
application of mathematical law can yield the truth. 

Spinoza's monistic methodology conditioned subsequent 
thought, and precisely this demand for unity became the de- 
cisively important motive in the revival of Spinozism at the 
end of the eighteenth century. Schelling linked his thought to 
Spinoza's at this point and expressly declared that his "Phi- 
losophy of Identity" was designed to complete what Spinoza 
had posited in his first, daring outline. But in spite of this 
assurance of complete agreement and consonance with Spinoza, 
Schelling could not take up the problem at the same point 
where Spinoza had left it. For even if he teaches that there is 
an absolute identity between nature and spirit, the concept of 
nature, one of the supposedly identical factors in the equation, 
has changed fundamentally for him. When Schelling speaks of 
nature, he reiterates that he is not thinking of a being which 
merely has extension and motion. He does not apprehend it 
as a concept of geometric relationships and mechanical laws but 
as a Whole having living forms and powers. The system of 
nature of mathematical physics is for him a mere abstraction, 
a shadow world. From this initial stage of being, philosophic 
thought ascends to the actual world of spirit to the world of 
history and human culture. From theoretic knowledge of the 
laws of space and time, matter and force, the path of philosophy 


ascends through the realm of moral consciousness to the highest 
stage, the stage of aesthetic awareness. 

That which we call nature is a poem which lies concealed in a secret, 
wondrous form. Yet, if the riddle could be revealed, we would recog- 
nize in it the Odyssey of the spirit, which, wondrously deceived, seeks 
itself while fleeing from itself, for through the sensuous world meaning 
can be discerned only as if through words, just as the land of imagina- 
tion towards which we aim may be discerned as if through half-trans- 
parent mists. 7 

Cassirer quotes these lines of Schelling's in his "Naturalis- 
tische und humanistische Begrundung der Kulturphilosophie" in 
an historic summary which we are following in synoptic form. 
He goes on to point out how Romanticism developed this view 
of Schelling's. In so doing he also indicated his own relation- 
ship to the Romantic movement. For Cassirer holds that the 
strength as well as the weakness of Romanticism are to be found 
in its attempt to explain by a single principle and to view in a 
single focus all conscious phenomena from the first dreamlike 
dawn of mythical consciousness, through fable and poesy up to 
the loftiest pronouncements of thought in language, science, 
and philosophy. The land of imagination, of which Schelling 
speaks, and the realm of strict logical knowledge constantly 
interpenetrate in romantic theory j they are never separated, 
but interlock with one another. Romanticism's greatest achieve- 
ments, according to Cassirer, were derived from this imagina- 
tive power and intuition. Not only was nature seen in a new 
light, but, so viewed, it included all forms of the spirit. Here 
for the first time seemed to be revealed the most genuine and 
profoundest sources of myth and religion, of language and 
literature, of morality and law. For Romanticism the origin 
of all things of the spirit, which is clear and mysterious at one 
and the same time, is to be found in the Volksgeist. This is a 
kind of humanistic naturalism, even though it speaks the lan- 
guage of a spiritual metaphysics. 

The weakness and danger of this position for a humanistic 
philosophy become clearly apparent when the veil is lifted 

f Schelling, System des transzendentalen Idealismus (Sdmmtliche Werke, III, 


which Romanticism had thrown over nature and history. This 
takes place whenever philosophy is no longer satisfied with 
delving by intuition into the ultimate depths of life but instead 
seeks to examine its view of life scientifically. This change of 
attitude, which occurred, for instance, in the second half of the 
nineteenth century, is, at least in part, responsible for the 
crisis in man's knowledge of himself which Cassirer pointed out 
in the first chapter of the Essay on Man. It was most clearly 
apparent in the circle of French thinkers who based their 
teaching on Comte's Cours de Philosophic positive. Comte's 
positivism not only gave them a method but also formulated 
the questions which they attempted to answer. But they were 
affected by the status of the science which they confronted 
even more than by the general philosophic presuppositions of 
positivism. For the teachings of classical physics provided them 
with their view of the world and, for them, seemed to possess 
finality. The principle of causality was axiomatic. Even criti- 
cally-minded thinkers trained in Kantian philosophy did not dare 
to disturb the form in which the principle of causality was 
accepted. For example, Otto Liebmann, in his essay on Die 
Klimax der Theorien, proceeds on the basis of a strict deter- 
minism, which is presumed to apply in the same way to the 
several realms of thought, investigation and knowledge, with- 
out distinction or the slightest difference between the moral and 
the physical worlds. 

As Cassirer points out, no cultural philosopher of science 
would dare, today, to introduce the principle of universal de- 
terminism in the form in which Liebmann used it. For if he 
did, he would be confronted at once by all the weighty ques- 
tions and doubts involved in the development of modern 
theoretical physics, even though as Cassirer adds he does 
not believe that these doubts imply that the concept of causal- 
ity, as such, is endangered. The French positivists, who first 
faced the problems which the assumption of an axiom of uni- 
versal determinism posed for the Kulturwissenschaften and for 
the foundation of the Geisteswissenschaften, were neither 
mathematicians nor physicists, even if they took physics as their 
model. It was not the world view of Newton and Laplace 


but of Darwin and Spencer which characterized their outlook. 
Here too, as for Schelling and the romanticist philosophy of 
nature, culture and nature are united, insofar as both are 
subject to a common law, the basic law of evolution. But the 
direction of this unification has altered; for the difference which 
seems to divide human culture and physical nature is, according 
to positivism, no longer to be bridged by a spiritualization of 
nature, as in the way of Romanticism, but by interpreting cul- 
ture materialistically. Not metaphysics nor theology, but physics 
and chemistry, zoology and botany, anatomy and physiology 
must, it is argued, take the lead, if a true science of culture is to 
be achieved. 

Sainte-Beuve and Taine, too, interpreted cultural phenomena 
in terms of forces 

not like the supra-personal unities and totalities of romantic theories, 
which belonged to a supersensuous world, but as the same ones which 
build and rule the material world. . . . Thus viewed, science is neither 
to justify nor to condemn but to investigate and explain. Cultural science 
must proceed like botany which studies the orange tree and the laurel, 
the pine and the birch with equal interest. 8 

If we designate one group of facts as physical and another as 
spiritual or moral, some sort of difference of content may then 
be exposed. But this circumstance is utterly irrelevant to our 
knowing them. For knowledge is never concerned with indi- 
vidual facts as such but with their inter-connections. 

Cassirer considers three divergent attempts to establish a 
principle for interpreting these inter-connections based upon 
three distinct systems of postulates. In addition to French pos- 
itivism he reviews the theories of Oswald Spengler and also 
the Hegelian philosophy of history. Spengler regarded his own 
views as a great advance on positivism, which he held to be 
narrowly naturalistic. According to him a culture is brought to 
birth in a way which natural science cannot comprehend, but 
which the philosopher should grasp by dramatizing (dichteri) 
history. Thus Spengler conceived the epic-drama of The De- 

8 "Naturalistische und humanistische Begriindung der Kulturphilosophie," 1 1 j 
cf. Bibliography of Cassirer's Writings: 1939:3; also Zur Logik der Kulturwissen- 
schaften, 8;ff. 


dine of the West y in which individual man, in his being and his 
activity, is mystically linked to the fate of civilizations whose rise 
and decline he can in no way control. This view Cassirer con- 
trasts with Hegel's claim that his philosophy of history is a 
philosophy of freedom. But he rejects these as well as posi- 
tivism. All three, he declares, are unsatisfactory as attempts to 
clarify history and culture, because they hold inadequate con- 
ceptions of human nature and man's activities. 


The preceding summary describes contrasting attitudes to- 
ward traditions of humanism before and after Kant. It indi- 
cates the extent to which his philosophical anthropology was the 
dividing line, in Cassirer's judgment, between the classical and 
Renaissance conceptions which retained their authority down 
to the eighteenth century, and more modern ones which have 
been associated especially with changes in natural science. Cas- 
sirer's historical account, which we have followed, serves also 
to define his own position, or, at least, to place him in the 
great tradition. In his humanism he has been a follower not 
only of Kant but of Herder and Holderlin, of Goethe and 
Humboldt. Diverging from the positions of other post-Kantians, 
he has found sustenance in Schelling's philosophy of mythology, 
although rejecting his transcendental idealism. 

By his distinctive interpretation of Kant, Cassirer long ago 
established the basis for his own doctrine of man. In so doing 
he illustrated not only Kant's but his own humanism. The post- 
humously published essay on "Kant and Rousseau" once again 
made clear how fundamentally Cassirer's humanism is based 
on Kant's view of human nature developed in his philosophical 
anthropology. The emphasis on this aspect of Kant's work was 
already evident in his Kants Leben und Lehre. "The man who 
introduced anthropology as a branch of study in German uni- 
versities and who lectured on it regularly for decades" 9 was 
himself, according to Cassirer, much more of a humanist than 
scholars have generally recognized. 

Herder, who during the 'sixties was Kant's pupil in Konigsberg, has 
* Kants Leben und Lehre, 25. 


drawn for us a living and characteristic picture of his philosophical teach- 
ing at that time. From it we see that this teaching was by no means 
restricted to abstract problems, to questions of logic and metaphysics. 
It extended just as much to the fundamental questions of natural science, 
to psychology and anthropology, and it made full use of contemporary 
literature. 10 To be sure, this interest was essentially restricted to Kant's 
pre-critical period. 11 

In just that period of his life in which he was most under 
the influence of Rousseau from whom he "learned to respect 
human nature" 12 Cassirer notes that Kant was "a stylist and a 
psychological essayist, and in this respect he established a new 
standard for the German philosophical literature of the 
eighteenth century." 13 And he remarks "that Rousseau not 
only influenced the content and systematic development of 
Kant's foundation of ethics, but that he also formed its lan- 
guage and style." 14 It may not be irrelevant in this connection 
to suggest that Cassirer's own "language and style" reflected 
his study of the great figures of German literature in somewhat 
the way that Kant was influenced by Rousseau. In any case 
there need be no question that Cassirer can claim a place 
among the relatively small group of philosophers who were 
also men of letters and the very small group of German 
philosophers who attained such distinction. 

Some passages from Kant's writings which Cassirer quotes 
in his essay on "Kant and Rousseau" suggest not only the 
centrality of the humanistic and anthropological interest in 
Kant's ethical doctrine but throw further light on Cassirer's 
own thought. Even the conviction that the proper study for 
mankind is man, is reenforced by the argument which Kant uses 
for placing Rousseau's work alongside Newton's: 

Newton was the first to discern order and regularity in combination 
with great simplicity, where before him men had encountered disorder 

10 See Herder's Brief e zur Beforderung der Humanitat, 79th letter. 

11 Rousseau Kant Goethe , 86. 

12 Kant's Fragment*, ed. Hartenstein y vol. VIII, 624. Quoted in Rousseau Kant 
Goethe ', i j cf. also Kants Leben und Lehre, 238$, and Zur Loglk der Kulturwis- 
senschaften y 1135. 

11 Rousseau Kant Goethe, 6. 
"Ibid., 32. 


and unrelated diversity. . . . Rousseau was the first to discover, beneath 
the varying forms human nature assumes, the deeply concealed essence 
of man. . . . After Newton and Rousseau, the ways of God are justified 
and Pope's thesis is henceforth true. 1 * 

Kant indicated the relation of his philosophical anthropology to 
ethics in announcing his lectures for 1765-1766: 

I shall set forth the method by which we must study man man not 
only in the varying forms in which his accidental circumstances have 
molded him, in the distorted form in which even philosophers have 
almost always misconstrued him, but what is enduring in human 
nature, and the proper place of man in creation. 18 

Or, again: 

If there is any science man really needs it is the one I teach, of how 
to occupy properly that place in creation that is assigned to man, and 
how to learn from it what one must be in order to be a man. . . . This 
teaching will lead him back again to the human level, and however 
small or deficient he may regard himself, he will suit his assigned sta- 
tion, because he will be just what he should be. 17 

If these quotations from Kant suggest the extent to which 
the influence of Rousseau led him to accept the thesis of Pope's 
Essay on Man y they also indicate how greatly Cassirer J s con- 
ception of man and his Essay derive from this Kantian back- 
ground. Cassirer writes: 

For Kant man's 'assigned station' is not located in nature alone; for 
he must raise himself above it, above all merely vegetative or animal 
life. But it is just as far from lying somewhere outside nature, in some- 
thing absolutely other-wordly or transcendent. Man should seek the real 
law of his being and his conduct neither below nor above himself; he 
should derive it from himself, and should fashion himself in accordance 
with the determination of his own free will. For this he requires life 
in society as well as an inner freedom from social standards and an 
independent judgment of conventional social values. 18 

* Kant's Fragwente, ed. Hartenstein, vol. VIII, 630, Quoted in Rousseau Kant 
Goethe , 18. 

hnmanuel Kants Werke, ed. Cassirer a.o., vol. II, 326. Quoted in Rousseau 
Kant Goethe, 21. 

" Kant's Fragment*, ed. Hartenstein, vol. VIII, 624. Quoted in Rousseau Kant 
Goethe, 23. 

M Rousseau Kant Goethe, 23. 


Kant's doctrine is, of course, based on a dualism between the 
world of nature and the realm of freedom, between the world 
of the senses and an intelligible order. Among those who learned 
much from Kant there were many who did not follow him 
along this path in the development of a more adequate concep- 
tion of human nature and of humanism. Herder and Goethe 
discerned what they considered essential in human culture 
not in a mode of being but rather in humanistic achievement. 
Only man among all the creatures of nature is capable of such 
achievement. What man accomplishes according to this view is 

objectification, self-recognition based upon the development of theoretical, 
aesthetic and ethical forms. . . . But all form requires a definite measure 
and is bound to it in its pure embodiments. Life in itself, as mere 
experience flowing freely along, cannot bring forth significant forms; it 
must apprehend and, in a sense, comprehend itself in order to participate 
in such forms. 19 

The philosophical development of Herder's and Goethe's 
perceptions was not advanced by the metaphysical systems of 
the post-Kantians, though Fichte, Schelling and Hegel re- 
peatedly returned to these problems and sought to deal with 
them in their works. But it was, according to Cassirer, Wilhelm 
von Humboldt who made particularly significant contributions 
to a humanistic philosophy. 

Humboldt's work at first appears much less systematic than Fichte's, 
Schelling's and Hegel's. As he proceeds on his way he seems more and 
more to lose himself ... in questions of detail regarding his researches. 
But a genuinely philosophic spirit pervades all this, and he never loses 
sight of the inclusive purpose which his investigation is to serve. 20 

It has been conventional to treat the humanistic ideal set 
forth by Kant in terms of his ethics as though this constituted its 
entire importance. But Cassirer insists that this is a misreading 
of the history of ideas. According to his view the humanism of 
the eighteenth century which molded Kant's thought and con- 
tinued its influence in Herder and Goethe, in Schiller and 
Humboldt, has other significance too often neglected. To be 
sure, they are convinced that humanistic ideals yield a distinc- 

19 "Naturalistische und humanistische Begrundungr der Kulturphilosophie," 17. 
. 18-10. 


tive morality and a distinctive order of socio-political life. But 
their vision is not directed exclusively to this goal} it extends 
to all creative effort, no matter in what realm of life. 

It appears to be the fundamental fact about all truly human existence 
that man is not merely a creature that absorbs the plenitude of external 
impressions, but that he controls this plenitude by imposing definite 
forms upon it which, in the last analysis, derive from the thinking, feel- 
ing, willing subject himself. 21 

Cassirer's own theory of symbolic forms may well be viewed 
as a development of these insights and of the humanism on 
which they were based. This is particularly evident in his Essay 
on Man. For though the Essay, as he points out, is "more an 
explanation and illustration than a demonstration" of the 
theory of symbolic forms and though students will always turn 
to the Philoso'phie der symbolischen Formen for the systematic 
formulation of Cassirer's doctrine, the briefer work sets forth 
most clearly his thesis that myth and religion, language and art, 
science and history "are, after all, only one subject . . . different 
roads leading to a common center." 22 By concentrating upon 
Man as this common center and thus emphasizing philosophical 
anthropology as the keystone of his philosophy of symbolic 
forms, Cassirer brings religion, art, and history into even clearer 
perspective than in the Philoso'phie der symbolischen Formen, 
where language, myth, and science were the foci of the suc- 
cessive volumes. 

Viewing man as animal symbolicum, Cassirer seeks to under- 
stand human nature by exploring culture in terms of the specific 
character and structure of the various symbolic forms. Having 
denied that man can be defined by reference to an hypostatized 
metaphysical essence, he seeks to understand man in terms of 
his culture. But this understanding, in turn, is rooted in the 
rich soil of humanism: 

A philosophy of culture begins with the assumption that the world 
of human culture is not a mere aggregate of loose and detached facts. 
It seeks to understand these facts as a system, as an organic whole. For 
an empirical or historical view it would seem to be enough to collect 
the data of human culture. Here we are interested in the breadth of 

81 Ibid., 1 6. 

* Ibid.) Essay on Man, viii. 


human life. We are engrossed in a study of the particular phenomena in 
their richness and variety; we enjoy the polychromy and the polyphony 
of man's nature. But a philosophical analysis sets itself a different task. 
Its starting point and its working hypothesis are embodied in the 
conviction that the varied and seemingly dispersed rays may be gathered 
together and brought into a common focus. The facts here are reduced 
to forms, and these forms themselves are supposed to possess an inner 
unity. . . . Here we are under no obligation to prove the substantial 
unity of man. Man is no longer considered as a simple substance which 
exists in itself and is to be known by itself. His unity is conceived as a 
functional unity. 23 

The common focus of all cultural forms is man and man, 
in turn, must be conceived in terms of his functional unity in 
the development of these forms. 

It may at times appear that when Cassirer uses the concept 
of symbolic forms to explain man's nature in functional terms 
the forms lack content. Contrariwise the specific illustrations 
which he employs are often familiar and, indeed, conventional, 
though he presents them with great originality and artistry. 
The interconnections between human nature and culture are 
constantly stressed; but Cassirer time and again appears to 
assume a unity and to argue for a systematic formulation which 
does not accord with his own practice. Indeed, the Essay on Man 
lacks systematic unity and is notable, rather, for the rich variety 
of the content, for the revealing insights into the researches of 
contemporary psychology and empirical anthropology and es- 
pecially for the fruitful harvest of Cassirer's lifelong interest 
in literature and the arts. 

If Cassirer's Kantianism seems at times to obtrude, as we 
have indeed seen above, this is perhaps the inevitable outcome 
of the neo-Kantian method of combining systematic and histori- 
cal investigation which Dr. Edgar Wind pointed out in an 
admirable essay on Cassirer's thought, which he published in 
1925. "No matter how successful the interbreeding of historical 
and systematic methods may prove as a means of explaining 
the development of science," wrote Dr. Wind, 

* Ibtd., 222. 


... by defending this union in general, the philosopher, who is supposed 
to face all problems, would seem deliberately to disregard one of them 
the conflict between systematic and historical thinking as such. He 
must be prepared to hear the usual objections: If all standpoints are 
merely stages in an infinite development, how about your own stand- 
point? If you treat thinking as an historical matter, how about the 
historical limitations of your own thinking? 24 

It may well be that Cassirer had questions such as these in 
mind when he wrote certain passages concerning history in the 
Essay on Man. He continued to affirm the necessity of the 
historian writing in terms of his personal experience; indeed he 
finally made it the sine qua non of genuine historical writing. 

If the historian succeeded in effacing his personal life he would not 
thereby achieve a higher objectivity. He would on the contrary de- 
prive himself of the very instrument of all historical thought. If I 
put out the light of my own personal experience I cannot see and 
I cannot judge of the experience of others. 25 

It was indeed by emphasizing the humanistic significance of 
history and the anthropological elements in historical knowledge 
that Cassirer solved, to his own satisfaction, the problem of 
historical objectivity and answered the question of the relation- 
ship of his work as an historian to his work as a systematic 

If we bear in mind this character of historical knowledge, it is 
easy to distinguish historical objectivity from that form of objectivity 
which is the aim of natural science. A great scientist, Max Planck, 
described the whole process of scientific thought as a constant effort 
to eliminate all "anthropological" elements. We must forget man in 
order to study nature and to discover and formulate the laws of nature. 
In the development of scientific thought the anthropomorphic element 
is progressively forced into the background until it entirely disappears 
in the ideal structure of physics. History proceeds in a quite different 
way. It can live and breathe only in the human world. Like language 
or art, history is fundamentally anthropomorphic. To efface its human 
aspects would be to destroy its specific character and nature. But the 
anthropomorphism of historical thought is no limitation of or impedi- 
ment to its objective truth. History is not knowledge of external facts 

"Journal of Philosophy, vol. XXII, no. 18, 4.7 yfi. 
* Essay on Man, 187. 


or events; it is a form of self-knowledge. In order to know myself I 
cannot endeavor to go beyond myself, to leap, as it were, over my own 
shadow. I must choose the opposite approach. In history man con- 
stantly returns to himself; he attempts to recollect and actualize the 
whole of his past experience. 28 

And yet the ideality of history is not the same as the ideality of 
art. Art gives us an ideal description of human life by a sort of 
alchemistic process; it turns our empirical life into the dynamic of pure 
forms. History does not proceed in this way. It does not go beyond 
the empirical reality of things and events but molds this reality into a 
new shape, giving it the ideality of recollection. Life in the light of 
history remains a great realistic drama, with all its tensions and con- 
flicts, its greatness and misery, its hopes and illusions, its display of 
energies and passions. This drama, however, is not only felt; it is intuited. 
Seeing this spectacle in the mirror of history while we are still living 
in our empirical world of emotions and passions, we become aware 
of an inner sense of clarity and calmness of the lucidity and serenity 
of pure contemplation. 27 

Thus as an historian and as a humanist Cassirer once again 
raised the standard of self-knowledge, reaffirmed the doctrine 
that the unexamined life is no life for man, that the proper study 
of mankind is man, and asserted that man is best known and 
studied in his creative life. That Ernst Cassirer himself thus 
achieved calmness and serenity, even during the crises of the 
last decade, is evidence that his philosophy was, in the most 
significant sense, a philosophy of life. We may well salute 
Cassirer, the humanist, by utilizing a tribute which he himself 
offered to the humanism of the Cambridge Platonists: It stands 
to his undisputed credit that he did not allow the torch which 
he held in his hand to be extinguished, that in spite of every 
obstacle and in opposition to all dogmatism he preserved the 
flame of a genuinely perennial philosophical tradition and 
passed it on in its purity to future ages. 28 




28 Ibid., 191. 
27 Ibid., 205-206. 

1 Cf. Die Platonische Renaissance in England und die Schule von Cambridge, 

David Sidney 





1. The Crisis in Modern Philosophical Anthropology: 

The Metaphysical versus the Historical and Posi- 
tivistic Approaches 467 

2. Plato's Metaphysical Theory of Man and Culture. . 470 

3. Stoicism on the Rationality of Man and the Concept 

of Humanitas 478 

4. Kant and the Anthropocentric Critique of Human 

Culture 484 

5. Wilhelm Dilthey's Neo-Kantian Critique of His- 

torical Reason 488 

6. Jose Ortega y Gasset and Historical Vitalism 490 

7. Cassirer's Cultural Definition of Man: Man as Ani- 

mal Symbolicum 492 

8. Ernst Cassirer and the Concept of Cultural Reality 496 

9. Cassirer's Critique of Kant 498 

10. Cassirer on Symbolism, Language and Cultural 

Thought 502 

u. Cassirer on the Evolution of Cultural Symbolism. . 506 

12. Cassirer on the Unitary Psychological Functions of 

Symbolic Forms 512 

13. Cassirer and the Problem of the Unitary Function 

of Myth 515 

14. Cassirer, Levy-Bruhl and Malinowski on the Con- 

cept of Myth 517 

15. Cassirer on the Role of Myth in the History of 

Human Culture 527 

1 6. The Humanism and Rationalism of Cassirer 535 

17. Cassirer on the Problem of Cultural Unity 541 





The Crisis in Modern Philosophical Anthropology: The Meta- 
physical Versus the Historical and Positives tic Approaches 

T N HIS study of Wilhelm Dilthey, H. A. Hodges makes the 
** following statement: 

Modern philosophy is philosophy in crisis. Its history is one long tale 
of challenges, emergencies, and attempted fresh starts. As time goes on, 
it becomes increasingly evident that the crisis affects not this or that 
philosophical doctrine or principle, but philosophy itself, which is now 
challenged to show reason why it should continue to exist. Dilthey 
is one of those who have helped to bring the issue to a head, and of 
this he himself is fully aware. He speaks of himself as in search of a 
new way of philosophizing, and calls for a radical reassessment of 
the tradition. He draws his inspiration, as usual, from two sources: from 
Kant and from the Anglo-French empiricists, and his starting-point 
lies in what these have in common. They are united in an attack 
upon what had been the very heart of the philosophical tradition, upon 
metaphysics, the science of being and of first principles. 2 

Ernst Cassirer, whose philosophical position is essentially 
similar to that of Dilthey, is acutely aware of the critical position 
of modern philosophical thought and significantly begins his 
Essay on Man with a chapter entitled: "The Crisis in Man's 
Knowledge of Himself." There he writes: 

1 The research involved in the writing- of this paper is part of a larger 
project on theoretical anthropology, which is being conducted by the writer 
under the liberal auspices of the Viking Fund Inc. of New York City. 

*H. A. Hodges, Wilkelm Dilthey: An Introduction (New York, i944)> 88. 



Owing to this development our modern theory of man lost its intellectual 
center. We acquired instead a complete anarchy of thought. Even in 
the former times to be sure there was a great discrepancy of opinions 
and theories relating to this problem. But there remained at least a 
general orientation, a frame of reference, to which all individual 
differences might be referred. Metaphysics, theology, mathematics, and 
biology successively assumed the guidance for thought on the problem 
of man and determined the line of investigation. The real crisis of 
this problem manifested itself when such a central power capable of 
directing all individual efforts ceased to exist. The paramount im- 
portance of the problem was still felt in all the different branches of 
knowledge and inquiry. But an established authority to which one 
might appeal no longer existed. Theologians, scientists, politicians, so- 
ciologists, biologists, psychologists, ethnologists, economists all approached 
the problem from their own viewpoints. To combine or unify all these 
particular aspects and perspectives was impossible. And even within 
the special fields there was no generally accepted scientific principle. The 
personal factor became more and more prevalent, and the temperament 
of the individual writer tended to play a decisive role. . . . That this 
antagonism of ideas is not merely a grave theoretical problem but an 
imminent threat to the whole extent of our ethical and cultural life 
admits of no doubt. 2 * 

According to Cassirer, it would appear, the intellectual crisis 
of our times is a direct consequence of the fact that we have no 
"central power" or "established authority" capable of integrat- 
ing all the sciences and the humanities in a single, unified, 
cultural perspective. He does not stop to consider the special 
characteristics of classical thought which rendered it a coherent or 
integrated whole. He indiscriminately lumps together "meta- 
physics, theology, mathematics and biology" as having at one 
time or another "assumed the guidance for thought on the 
problem of man." But what was it that made it possible for 
these disciplines to assume the guidance for thought, and why is 
this no longer possible in the present crisis? 

The answer, it seems, is the one that Hodges suggests, 
namely, that classical thought, whatever its divergencies, agreed 
upon metaphysics or ontology as the foundation for its episte- 
mology, morality, politics, and religion. By postulating a general 

* tt An Essay on Man, 2 if. Hereafter to be referred to as EM. 


plan of reality they found it possible to conceive all natural 
and cultural phenomena in relation to this master plan. The 
various sciences, and especially the human studies, were referred 
back to this center of orientation which served both as a 
logical starting point and as a criterion of validity. Thus, al- 
though the theologian, the biologist, or the mathematician 
might conceive this basic reality in different forms, once a given 
pattern of thought was accepted, it could serve as a norm and 
principle of integration for the culture as a whole. Modern 
thought, on the other hand, following Locke, Hume, Kant, and 
Comte, has denied the possibility of universal, ontological 
knowledge and consequently provided a favorable environment 
for the growth of the chaotic pluralism and mutual unintelligi- 
bility of the natural and social sciences which all the responsible 
thinkers of our time deplore so greatly. Not the least significant 
factor in the breakdown of the classical, metaphysical tradition 
has been the historicism and relativism of the neo-Kantian ap- 
proach which swept away the last metaphysical presuppositions 
of the Kantian system by substituting the free or undetermined, 
creative, symbolic expressions of the life-process for the fixed 
structure of a comparatively abiding nature. 

It should be noted, however, that the basic conflict in modern 
thought is one between diverse metaphysical approaches on the 
one hand, and anti-metaphysical tendencies on the other. Classi- 
cal ontological thought attempted to view the phenomena of 
nature and life sub specie aeternitatis, whereas modern ontologi- 
cal thought tends to view cosmic reality sub specie temforis. It 
should not be an impossible task to reconcile these opposite 
points of view, provided there is agreement on the possibility 
and necessity of a comprehensive, ontological theory based on 
verifiable scientific knowledge, which takes account of the ele- 
ment of structure as well as of process in the explanation of 
natural and cultural phenomena. 3 But between the classical 
tradition of the possibility of "substantial" knowledge of reality 
and the "critical" idealistic position that ontological knowledge 

8 See W. H. Sheldon's Process and Polarity (New York, 1 944) and America's 
Progressive Philosophy (New Haven, 1942) for significant analyses of this 


is impossible, there can be no logical reconciliation. We must 
choose decisively between these two contrary positions, if we 
are to resolve the philosophical crisis of our times. To deplore 
the intellectual crisis on the one hand, and yet to hold on to the 
very same anti-metaphysical approach which helped bring it 
about, as the neo-Kantians and positivists tend to do, is an ir- 
rational and hopeless procedure which only serves to make the 
confusion worse. 

By way of indicating more precisely the nature of the conflict 
between classical, ontological thought and modern positivism 
and neo-Kantian idealism, an attempt will be made in the fol- 
lowing analysis to present a brief survey of some aspects of the 
history of anthropological thought from the Greeks to modern 
times, referring in the process to Cassirer's interpretation of the 
history of the ideas involved. In relation to this background we 
shall be able to appreciate critically the significance of Cassirer's 
contribution towards a systematic philosophy of culture. Special 
consideration will be given to the problem of the relation of 
Cassirer's philosophical anthropology to that of modern and 
contemporary ethnology. 

Plato's Metaphysical Theory of Man and Culture 

Modern ethnology has shown that all historical societies have 
had cultures 4 or traditional ways of behavior and thought in 
conformity with which they have patterned their lives. And so 
valuable have these diverse ways of living appeared to the 
members of early human society that they have tended to ascribe 
a divine origin to their accepted traditions and have encouraged 
their children to conform to their folkways and mores as matters 
of faith which were above question. With the growth of ex- 
perience and the development of critical thought, first indi- 
viduals and then groups began to question some elements of 
the traditional thoughtways and practices and thereby provided 
a stimulus for cultural change and development. 

4 For a critical analysis of the ethnological literature dealing with the concept 
of culture, see D. Bidney, "On the Concept of Culture and Some Cultural Fallacies" 
in American Anthropologist 46:30-44, (1944). 


The critical approach to traditional cultural expressions has 
varied in different societies and so has the tempo of cultural 
change. Frequently the reformers have claimed the authority 
of some new divine revelation and have then proceeded to 
institute reforms and establish new institutions to supplant the 

What is significant in the case of historical Greek society is 
that the appeal against tradition was made in the name of human 
reason and logic rather than in the name of the gods. It was, 
therefore, a revolutionary event in the history of human culture 
when men like the Sophists, Socrates, and Plato began to ques- 
tion the accepted traditions and to assert boldly that "an un- 
examined life is not worth living." From the point of view of 
the conventional good citizens of the Athenian state, Socrates 
was indeed an "atheistic" radical, who well merited the cup of 
hemlock which the civilized Greeks invited him to drink for 
their benefit. But the amazing thing in the case of Greek society 
was that this critical, questioning attitude of mind, which 
Socrates shared with the Sophists of his day, was not entirely 
suppressed and was even encouraged. Self-knowledge was 
recognized by the Greek oracles as the highest form of wisdom. 

However, self-knowledge, as Socrates and later Plato demon- 
strated, was not easy of attainment. It was not something to be 
acquired by mental introspection, since the kind of self-knowl- 
edge they were seeking was a reflective, rational analysis of the 
universal nature of man. To know onself in this objective sense, 
Plato showed, meant to have a rational knowledge of the rela- 
tion of man to the whole of nature. Plato's Republic is based 
upon the thesis that the prerequisite for a scientific knowledge 
of man is a knowledge of mathematics and of the unchanging 
mathematical forms manifested in nature as a whole. The Idea 
of the Good, he held, was the principle of integration in the 
cosmos as a whole and could therefore be known and intuited 
only through a prior knowledge of physics and astronomy. 5 
Only metaphysical, theoretical, or dialectical knowledge of this 

B See F. S. C. Northrop's essay, "The Mathematical Background and Content 
of Greek Philosophy" in Philosophical Essays for Alfred North Whitehead (New 
York, 1936), 1-40. 


kind could provide a solid foundation upon which to build the 
organization of man's social and cultural life. In short, genuine 
self-knowledge involved an ontological and theoretical analysis 
of nature as a whole. 

The basic presupposition of Platonic (as well as of Aris- 
totelian) philosophical anthropology is that culture, understood 
both as a system of education (paedeia) and socio-political or- 
ganization (politeia), is to be based upon a scientific knowledge 
of nature. The Sophists had contrasted the uniformities of nature 
with the diversities of social culture and were inclined to re- 
gard the latter as a more or less arbitrary convention (nomos) 
superimposed by the rulers upon their people. Plato, by con- 
trast, attempted to harmonize nature and culture, and held that 
man attained his true good and proper measure of perfection 
through insight into the abiding forms of being revealed 
through a study of mathematical science and dialectical synthe- 

Cassirer claims that "To the Sophists 'man' meant the indi- 
vidual man. The so-called 'universal' man the man of the 
philosophers was to them a mere fiction." 6 

Whether or not the sophists intended to apply the Protag- 
orean maxim that "man is the measure of all things" to indi- 
vidual men only and not to universal man, the fact remains 
that, as Plato interpreted it? the maxim led logically to indi- 
vidualistic relativism. The notion, he argued, that man is a 
measure of all things begs the very question it is supposed to 
answer, for the problem is whether it is possible to have a 
universal measure of human values. To say that man is the 
universal measure still leaves open the question how one is to 
determine the universal nature of man. This question according 
to Plato, could not be answered without a mathematical and 
dialectical knowledge of nature as a whole. The Platonic 
Socrates, in agreement with the Sophists, was certainly 
interested in "humanizing" philosophy in the sense of being 
concerned with a critical analysis of the conditions of civilized 
life. But he insisted, as against the sophists, that a genuine hu- 

* In The Myth of tJie State, 57. Hereafter to be referred to as MS. 
T See Plato's Theaetetus) cf. Brand Blanshard's "Current Strictures of Reason" 
in the Philosophical Review Iv '.67 0-7 3, (1946). 


manistic education must be one based upon a rational or scien- 
tific philosophy of nature. I find it difficult, therefore, to accept 
Cassirer's statement to the effect that 

From then on man was no longer regarded as a mere part of the 
universe; he became its center. Man, said Protagoras, is the measure of 
all things. This tenet holds, in a sense, both for the sophists and 
for Socrates. To "humanize" philosophy, to turn cosmogony and ontol- 
ogy into anthropology, was their common goal. . . . He [Socrates] is 
not primarily interested in the unity of Being nor in the systematic unity 
of thought. What he is asking for is the unity of the will. 8 

Although it is true that Socrates was primarily interested in 
the study of man, I find no basis for the statement that he meant 
to turn cosmogony and ontology into anthropology. Cassirer, it 
would seem, is reading a bit of Kant into the Platonic Socrates 
at this point. 

Plato's perspective was "Copernican" and "heliocentric" in 
the sense that he derived his knowledge of the good for man 
from an objective knowledge of nature as a whole. It is signifi- 
cant that in the Republic Plato conceived the relation of the 
Idea of the Good to the intelligible world of ideas as similar 
to that of the sun in the physical world. 9 Cassirer himself notes 
that Plato's "categorical imperative" was a "demand for order 
and measure" and that "the triad of Logos, Nomos, Taxis 
Reason, Lawfulness, Order is the first principle both of the 
physical and the ethical world." 10 

Plato would acquire a knowledge of man not only through a 
subjective analysis of the individual, but also and primarily 
through an objective investigation of the natural cosmos and 
the political cosmos. From the study of nature and of mathe- 
matical science, he held, one derived an objective, impersonal 
criterion of the true good and the just social order for man, so 
that man the microcosm might order his life in accordance with 
the principles of justice and proportion which prevail in the 
macrocosm. 11 Furthermore, from the study of the prevailing or 

'MS, 56, 57. 

9 Republic , vi 1508-1 o. 

10 MS., 65. 

11 See A. N. Whitehead's paper, "Mathematics and the Good" in The Philosophy 
/ Alfred North Whitehead, edited by P. A. Schilpp (The Library of Living 


historical political orders (Plato did not distinguish the state 
from society) one may infer the psychological forces which 
these institutions embody and the type of personality and char- 
acter which is objectively exemplified in any given society or 
state. Such a survey alone, however, will not tell us what is the 
true or ideal type of human nature or what type of personality 
ought to be realized. 

The significance of Plato's analysis in the Republic for 
modern anthropological thought lies in the fact that here we 
have presented for the first time the thesis that the social cul- 
ure of a given society is integrated about a given personality 
type, so that the individual who participates in a given cultural 
configuration and set of institutions takes on the social character 
which is exemplified in that society taken as a whole. Culturally, 
therefore, the individual is to be understood through the state 
or society of which he is a member, since the political order 
reflects the educational ideals. This, however, does not mean 
that the individual has no universal nature apart from the state. 
Man's ontological nature is not a socio-cultural product but 
rather provides the basis for any form of social order one 
chooses to institute. If, on the one hand, the culturally acquired 
personality of the individual is to be understood through the 
social conditioning which he has undergone from childhood on- 
wards, it must also be kept in mind that the ontological nature 
of the individual is logically prior to any given social order. 

Cassirer's interpretation of Plato on this point is rather am- 
biguous and gives one the impression that he is reading a little of 
Comtean sociology into Plato's thought. Thus he writes: 

We cannot find an adequate definition of man so long as we con- 
fine ourselves within the limits of man's individual life. Human nature 
does not reveal itself in this narrow compass. What is written in 
"small characters" in the individual soul, and is therefore almost 
illegible, becomes clear and understandable only if we read it in the 
larger letters of man's political and social life. This principle is the 
starting point of Plato's Republic. From now on the whole problem 

Philosophers, Evanston and Chicago, 1941)5 also F. H. Anderson's The Argu- 
ment of Plato (London, 1934), especially ch. 6 on "Microcosm and Social 


of man was changed: politics was declared to be the clue to psychology. 12 
Again in the Essay on Man he writes: 

Man is to be studied not in his individual life but in his political and 
social life. Human nature, according to Plato, is like a difficult text, 
the meaning of which has to be deciphered by philosophy. But in our 
personal experiences this text is written in such small characters that 
it becomes illegible. The first labor of philosophy must be to enlarge 
these characters. Philosophy cannot give us a satisfactory theory of man 
until it has developed a theory of the state. The nature of man is 
written in capital letters in the nature of the state. Here the hidden 
meaning of the text suddenly emerges, and what seemed obscure and 
confused becomes clear and legible. . . . 

In modern philosophy Comte was one of the first to approach this 
problem and to formulate it in a clear and systematic way. It is some- 
thing of a paradox that in this respect we must regard the positivism of 
Comte as a modern parallel to the Platonic theory of man. Comte was of 
course never a Platonist. He could not accept the logical and metaphysical 
presuppositions upon which Plato's theory of ideas is based. Yet, on 
the other hand, he was strongly opposed to the views of the French 
ideologists. In his hierarchy of human knowledge two new sciences, the 
science of social ethics and that of social dynamics, occupy the highest 
rank. From this sociological viewpoint Comte attacks the psychologism of 
his age. One of the fundamental maxims of his philosophy is that our 
method of studying man must, indeed, be subjective, but that it can- 
not be individual. For the subject we wish to know is not the individual 
consciousness but the universal subject. If we refer to this subject by 
the term "humanity" then we must affirm that humanity is not to be 
explained by man, but man by humanity. 13 

Cassirer has here interpreted "the hidden meaning of the 
text" of Plato's Republic, as if the latter would define the nature 
of man through society and its culture. But Plato explicitly 
distinguishes the ontological nature of man and the psychologi- 
cal functions through which it is expressed from the temporal 
character of the political state through which it is exemplified 
and molded. The social order is the analogue of the individual 
soulj and there can be no justice in the state unless it is or- 

"MS. 6if. 

13 An Essay on Man, 6$l. 


ganized on principles of justice similar to those which obtain in 
the soul of the individual. As Cassirer has put it: 

Justice is not on the same level with other virtues of man. It is 
not, like courage and temperance, a special quality or property. It is 
a general principle of order, regularity, unity, and lawfulness. Within 
the individual life this lawfulness appears in the harmony of all the 
different powers of the human soul; within the state it appears in the 
"geometrical proportion" between the different classes, according to 
which each part of the social body receives its due and cooperates 
in maintaining the general order. With this conception Plato becomes 
the founder and the first defender of the Idea of the Legal State. 14 

And again Cassirer states: 

The Platonic state gives to everyone and to all the social classes their 
allotted work in the common work; but their rights and duties are 
widely different. That follows not only from the character of Plato's 
ethics, but, first and foremost, from the character of his psychology. 
Plato's metaphysical psychology is based upon his division of the human 
soul. The character of man is determined by the proportion between 
these three elements. . . . 

The different classes into which the Platonic state is divided have as 
many different souls they represent different types of human charac- 
ters. These types are fixed and unchangeable. Every attempt to change 
them, i.e., to efface or diminish the difference between the rulers, the 
guardians, and the ordinary men, would be disastrous. It would mean a 
revolt against the unchangeable laws of human nature to which 
the social order has to conform. 15 

Here we see that Cassirer explicitly admits that the social 
order of the Platonic state follows from the character of "Plato's 
metaphysical psychology" and from " the unchangeable laws 
of human nature." If this be the case, it is most difficult to ac- 
cept Cassirer's interpretation that for Plato "politics was de- 
clared to be the clue to psychology" and that "philosophy can- 
not give us a satisfactory theory of man until it has developed a 
theory of the state." On the contrary, Plato's theory of the 
state with its rigid class differences depends on his meta-psycho- 
logical theory of the natural divisions or functions of the soul. 

14 MS. 69. 


Cassirer, it would seem, is confusing, as Plato himself never did, 
the cultural priority of the state or society to the individual on 
the one hand, and the ontological priority of the individual to 
his society on the other. 

According to Plato, an empirical, comparative survey of 
actual states or societies would not tell us anything of the nature 
of the ideal state. For the latter one would require a knowledge 
of "first principles" which are not derived from empirical ob- 
servation. For Plato, the ideal and the actual remained for- 
ever distinct and unidentical. That is why Plato, the Utopian 
idealist, was also theoretically a revolutionary reformer and 
never accepted the civitas terrena or status quo of his times. Cas- 
sirer has recognized the significance of this aspect of Plato's 
thought and points out: "It is one of the first principles of 
Plato's theory of knowledge to insist upon the radical distinction 
between empirical and ideal truth. . . . The difference between 
these two types, between doxa and episteme is ineffaceable. Facts 
are variable and accidental} truth is necessary and immutable." 16 

This Platonic distinction between the logical ideal and the fac- 
tual or positive social situation is the direct antithesis of the Com- 
tean approach which postulated that an empirical study of "social 
facts" would automatically reveal the nature of a scientific social 
order and the inevitable laws of social evolution. To say, there- 
fore, that "we must regard the positivism of Comte as a modern 
parallel to the Platonic theory of man," is essentially mislead- 

Plato's metaphysical approach implies that it is possible to en- 
visage a universal and eternal order of nature as well as a ra- 
tional, social and cultural order which is to conform to it. Plato 
views culture sub specie aeternitatis as an ideal, rational order 
capable of transcending the temporal and local limitations of 
given historical institutions. In practice, however, this meta- 
physical and rational ideal is extraordinarily difficult to conceive 
let alone realize and the cultural historian has little diffi- 
culty in demonstrating the limitations of his theory and general 
mental perspective. His conception of science, which divorced 
the theoretical from the practical approach, as well as his rigid 

16 MS. 69. 


class differences reflect much of the socio-cultural conditions 
of his time and place. Similarly Aristotle's acceptance of slavery 
as something rooted in the nature of things, 17 and the general 
tendency of Greek intellectuals to divide the human race into 
Greeks and barbarians 18 demonstrate the all-too-human cultural 
limitations of even the most sincere philosophical idealists. This, 
however, does not invalidate the intellectual vision of a uni- 
versally valid cultural norm which may be progressively con- 
ceived and achieved in time. The cultural limitations of a great 
thinker may be detected by others of a later generation coming 
from diverse cultural backgrounds and to that extent eliminated 
from their own thinking. If there is danger in not taking time 
seriously enough, there is even more danger in taking it too 

Stoicism on the Rationality of Man and the Concept 
of Humanitas 

The Stoics, while building upon the general metaphysical 
views of Plato and Aristotle, added two new concepts which 
were destined to have great influence on the subsequent history 
of anthropological thought and political action, namely, the con- 
cept of the intrinsic, universal rationality of man and the concept 
of humanity (humanitas). 

In their psychology, the Stoics, unlike Plato, denied any 
irrational functions of the soul and regarded reason as the es- 
sential function of mind a position which was later to find ex- 
pression in the Cartesian notion of mind as res cogitans. They 
regarded the emotions or passions as diseases which disturbed 

17 Cf. Aristotle's Politics, 

18 Cf. Plato's Statesman, 262, Jowett translation. As Plato puts it: "The error 
was just as if some one who wanted to divide the human races, were to divide them, 
after the fashion which prevails in this part of the world} here they cut off the 
Hellenes as one species, and all the other species of mankind, which are innumer- 
able, and have no ties of common language they include under the single name 
of "barbarians" and because they have the one name they are supposed to be of 
one species also." 

19 For a comparative analysis of Stoic psychology see D. Bidney, The Psychology 
and Ethics of Spinoza (New Haven, 1940), especially ch. i. 


the apathy or calm of the rational activity of the soul. Hence 
they counselled that a man should limit and restrain his desires 
to those things within his power and should give the consent 
of his will to the dictates of reason only. 

The significant feature of Stoic psychology in this connection 
is its adherence to the Platonic view of the essential dualism of 
body and soul. In social practice this meant that the freedom and 
autonomy of the rational soul could be maintained even while 
the body was in slavery to the state. The Stoics were concerned 
with the spiritual or moral freedom of the individual, his 
freedom from passions, but not especially with political free- 
dom. Like the early Christians, they were content to render 
unto Caesar the things that were Caesar's as a matter of social 
tradition as well as expediency; in fact, Caesar himself, in the 
person of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was one of the chief 
apostles of this ethical creed. The spirit of Stoic political phi- 
losophy was one of acceptance of prevailing social conditions, 
since it was held that the wise man could maintain his intellec- 
tual freedom and moral integrity under any political conditions. 
If necessary, he could, like Seneca, commit suicide, in case he 
did not wish to compromise himself. Thus, although denying 
the Greek, aristocratic notion that some peoples were slaves 
by nature and insisting upon the intellectual and moral equality 
of all men, the Stoics did nevertheless tolerate physical slavery 
and political despotism. According to Seneca, 

It is a mistake to imagine that slavery pervades a man's whole being; 
the better part of him is exempt from it: the body indeed is subjected 
and in the power of a master, but the mind is independent, and indeed 
is so free and wild, that it cannot be restrained even by this prison of 
the body, wherein it is confined. 20 

In view of the alleged moral and political disparity of body 
and mind, I find it difficult to understand the ground for Cas- 
sirer's emphasis upon the "coalescence of political and phil- 
osophic thought" 21 as characteristic of the Stoics. Stoicism, like 
Christianity, was originally and essentially a spiritual and moral 

20 As quoted by Cassirer, MS. t 103. The reference is to Seneca's De 
in, 20, tr. A. Stewart (London, 1900) p. 69. 
"M.5., 102. 


doctrine and as such was historically compatible with any politi- 
cal form of organization whatsover. To say that men like Cicero, 
Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius "admitted no cleft between the 
individual and political sphere" 22 simply is not in agreement 
with the historical facts. It is true, as later history shows, that 
the concept of the intellectual and moral equality of all men 
was a principle which could be utilized for social and political 
reform - y but the fact remains that the Stoics themselves, in com- 
mon with other philosophical schools, suffered from the cultural 
limitations of the Roman Empire and did not so envisage their 
teaching at this time. The Stoic doctrine of living in harmony 
with nature, far from being a revolutionary summons or an in- 
centive to the formulation of Utopian theories of the state, 
merely served at the time as a rationalization for accepting the 
status quo. 

The concept of humanity (humanitai) in particular was 
original with the Stoics and represented an ideal alien to Greek 
philosophical thought which had not gone beyond the ideal 
of Greek unity. As Wilhelm Wundt has pointed out, the con- 
cept of humanity has a dual significance and refers to a purely 
logical concept as well as to a moral ideal. 23 Logically, hu- 
manitas refers to the unity of mankind as a whole. As a moral 
ideal, it is a value-attribute and refers "to the complete develop- 
ment of the ethical characteristics which differentiate man from 
the animal and to their expression in the intercourse of indi- 
viduals and of peoples." 24 The concept of humanity in this lat- 
ter, moral sense is not to be found among the virtues discussed 
in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. According to Cassirer, 

The ideal of humanitas was first formed in Rome; and it was 
especially the aristocratic circle of the younger Scipio that gave it its 
firm place in Roman culture. Humanitas was no vague concept. It had 
a definite meaning and it became a formative power in private and 
public life in Rome. It meant not only a moral but also an esthetic ideal; 
it was the demand for a certain type of life that had to prove its 
influence in the whole of man's life, in his moral conduct as well as in 


28 Wilhelm Wundt, Elements of Folk Psychology (London and New York, 
1916), ch. iv on "The Development of Humanity," 470-523. 
"Ibid., 47*. 


his language, his literary style, and his taste. Through later writers such 
as Cicero and Seneca this ideal of humanitas became firmly established 
in Roman philosophy and Latin literature. 25 

Humanitas y as a moral-aesthetic ideal or way of life, passed 
over into medieval and modern European culture and became 
firmly established in the educational system as the study of 
"the humanities." 

The concept of the moral and metaphysical equality of all 
men is logically connected with the Stoic notion of humanitas, 
since the idea of the community of reason in all men implies 
the notion of a community of mankind. The intellect is regarded 
as the universal bond of agreement between men which makes 
it possible for all men as rational beings to live in harmony 
with one another as well as with nature. Thus Marcus Aurelius 
writes in his Meditations: 

If our intellectual part is common, the reason also, in respect of 
which we are rational beings, is common; if this is so, common also is 
the reason which commands us what to do and what not to do; if this 
is so, there is a common law also; if this is so, we are fellow-citizens; 
if this is so, we are members of some political community; if this is so, 
the world is in a manner a state. For of what other common political 
community will any one say that the whole human race are members? 26 

It is no exaggeration to say, therefore, that the ideal of 
humanitas, in combining individualism and universalism, pre- 
pared the way for the concept of a world culture, world history, 
and a world state. 27 As an ethical ideal it made the individual 
conscious of the personal as well as of the universal character of 
his rights and duties. In modern philosophical thought the ideal 
of humanitas has received its classic expression in Kant's categori- 
cal imperative as the injunction "So to act as to treat humanity, 
whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every 
case as an end withal, never as means only." 28 

w MS., 102. 

28 In The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, ed. by W. J. Gates (New York, 
1940), p. 509, bk. 4, section 4. 

* See Wundt, loc. cit. 

* Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Ethics, tr. T. K. Abbott 
(London, 1923), 56. 


In terms of political theory, the concept of humanitas may be 
combined either with an organic notion of society and the state 
or with an atomistic, individualistic theory. In Marcus Aurelius 
we find the Aristotelian notion that man is by nature a social or 
political animal and that the individual cannot exercise his 
proper function apart from society. 29 On the other hand, the 
seventeenth and eighteenth century political thinkers, such as 
Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, utilized 
the Stoic ideal of humanitas in conjunction with an individual- 
istic theory, which regarded the state as an institution organized 
to serve the common interests of its component citizens. As 
Spinoza puts it: 

Nothing, therefore, can agree better with the nature of any individual 
than other individuals of the same kind, and so there is nothing more 
profitable to man for the preservation of his being and the enjoyment of 
a rational life than a man who is guided by reason. . . . Above all 
things it is profitable to men to unite in communities and to unite them- 
selves to one another by bonds which make all of them as one man 
(de omnibus unum efficiani) and absolutely it is profitable for them to 
do whatever may tend to strengthen their friendships. 80 

Thus in answer to the question raised by Cassirer as to "What 
gave to the old Stoic ideas their freshness and novelty, their 
unprecedented strength, their importance for the formation of 
the modern mind and the modern world?" 31 it may be said: 
The Stoic concept of humanitas was combined with the atomic 
individualism of Renaissance science, Platonic idealism and 
Protestant theology to produce a revolutionary social mentality 
capable of questioning established authorities and institutions. 
Cassirer seems to assume that Stoicism alone was the primary 
political influence in the rise of the modern world and therefore 
replies somewhat enigmatically that 

What matters here is not so much the content of the Stoic theory 

29 Meditations, bk. 8, section 34. 

80 Spinoza, Ethics, part iv, Appendix, sections ix, xii. The phrase "de omnibus 
unum" is reminiscent of the American motto "e pluribus unum." It is significant 
that we find humanitas listed among- the intellectual affects in Spinoza's Ethics 
(part 3, def. 43), where it is defined as "the desire of doing- those things which 
please men and omitting those which displease them." 

81 MS., j 68. 


as the function that this theory had to fulfil in the ethical and political 
conflicts of the modern world. In order to understand this function we 
must go back to the new conditions created by the Renaissance and the 
Reformation. All the great and undeniable progress made by the 
Renaissance 'and the Reformation were counterbalanced by a severe and 
irreparable loss. The unity and the inner harmony of medieval culture 
had been dissolved. ... If there was to be a really universal system of 
ethics or religion, it had to be based upon such principles as could be 
admitted by every nation, every creed, and every sect. And Stoicism 
alone seemed to be equal to this task. It became the foundation of a 
"natural" religion and a system of natural laws. Stoic philosophy could 
not help man to solve the metaphysical riddles of the universe. But it 
contained a greater and more important promise: the promise to restore 
man to his ethical dignity. This dignity, it asserted, cannot be lost; for 
it does not depend on a dogmatic creed or on any outward revelation. 
1^ rests exclusively on the moral will on the worth that man attributes 
to himself. 32 

Cassirer, it appears, separates the transcendental "function" 
which Stoicism "had to fulfil" from its actual, scientific content. 
He points out that the Stoic principle of the "autarky" or 
autonomy of human reason was the source of modern rational- 
ism and "became the cornerstone of all systems of natural 
right." 33 Cassirer also attributes to the Stoics the Kantian thesis 
that man asserts his moral dignity by an act of moral will and 
that this dignity cannot be lost irrespective of the nature of one's 
beliefs. He omits entirely in his Myth of the State any reference 
to Galilean and Newtonian science or to the Utopian idealism 
which had its source in Plato. 84 The concept of natural rights is 
indeed related in part to the notion of natural law postulated by 
the Stoics, but it seems an exaggeration to base the modern 
theory of natural rights upon Stoic rationalism exclusively. A 
close analysis of the available literature of the period will 
demonstrate how the concept of natural rights was re-inter- 

*MS. i6 9 f. 

88 MS. 172. 

84 See F. S. C. Northrop's The Meeting of East and West (New York, 1946), 
especially ch. 3. Northrop provides a thorough analysis of the natural science 
background of eighteenth century American thought, but goes to the opposite 
extreme of Cassirer in neglecting Stoic influence. 


preted in terms of the individualism and mechanistic science de- 
rived from distinctively Renaissance sources. 35 

Kant and the Anthrofocentric Critique of Human Culture 

Cassirer, in a passage quoted earlier, has pointed out that, in 
regarding man as the measure of all things, the Sophists turned 
cosmogony and ontology into anthropology. This, it would ap- 
pear, is especially true of Kant. For Kant, above all, made man's 
transcendental ego the measure of all things. This reversal of 
the classic, objective metaphysical approach he himself regarded 
as parallel to the Copernican revolution in astronomy; in fact, 
however, he accomplished the exact contrary by his anthropo- 
centric approach. 86 

It is most significant, as Cassirer observes, that Kant was 
"the man who introduced anthropology as a branch of study in 
German universities and who lectured on it regularly for 
decades." 37 In the introduction to his Anthrofologie in prag- 
matischer Hinsicht Kant informs us: 

In my occupation with pure philosophy, which originally I had 
voluntarily taken upon myself, but which was later on officially en- 
trusted to me as an academic lectureship, I have, throughout some thirty 
years, given two lecture courses whose purpose it was to transmit a 
knowledge of this world, namely, (in the winter semesters) anthropology 
and (in the summer semesters) physical geography. 38 

It should be noted, however, that by anthropology Kant 
meant something different from the study of human culture or 
comparative anatomy of peoples. For him, the term comprised 

35 See D. Bidney, The Psychology and Ethics of Spinoza for an example of this 
fusing of ideas. 

86 See E. Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (New York, 1940), 245. 
According to Gilson, "The sun that Kant set at the centre of the world was man 
himself, so that his revolution was the reverse of the Copernican and led to an 
anthropoccntrism a good deal more radical, though radical in another fashion, 
than any of which the Middle Age is accused." 

87 Rousseau Kant Goethe ', 25. 

88 Immanuel Kant, Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (Zweyte verbes- 
serte Auflage, Konigsberg, 1800), Vorrede, xiii-xiv. 


empirical ethics (folkways), introspective psychology and 
"physiology." Empirical ethics, as distinct from rational ethics, 
was called "practical anthropology." 39 As Kant puts it: 

Eine Lehre von der Kenntnis des Menschen systematisch abgefasst 
(Anthropologie) kann es entweder in physiologischer oder in tyragma- 
tischer Hinsicht seyn. Die physiologische Menschenkenntnis geht auf die 
Erforschung dessen, was die Natur aus dem Menschen macht, die 
pragmatische auf das, was er, als freyhandelndes Wesen, aus sich selber 
macht, oder machen kann und soil. 40 

From this it appears that, for Kant, anthropology, as a Men- 
schenkenntnis or study of man, comprised two major ap- 
proaches, namely, the physiological and the pragmatic. Under 
physiology he included all those human phenomena which may 
be attributed directly to nature, such as anatomy, psychology, 
and the relation of man to his geographical environment 
(ecology). Under the pragmatic approach he included all hu- 
man phenomena which may be attributed to human culture, 
namely, those of empirical social ethics (the folkways and 
mores of Sumner), which he termed pratical anthropology, 
and rational, normative ethics, which prescribed the conditions 
of rational, civilized life. Kant's Critiques were in effect critical, 
anthropological treatises which investigated the a priori con- 
ditions of natural science and ethics as given cultural disciplines, 
although Kant himself did not clearly recognize this point as 
regards his Critique of Pure Reason. 

Kant, as is well known, accepted the validity of Newtonian 
science and sought for the conditions in the human understand- 
ing which made mathematics and natural science in general pos- 
sible and intelligible. His "answer" to Hume was that theo- 
retical or pure reason was limited by its a priori categorial 
structure to the cognition and organization of phenomena. Thus 
Kant, in fundamental agreement with Hume, denied the possi- 
bility of an ontological knowledge of nature and more than 
any one else was responsible for the antithesis of science and 
metaphysics. He did not, however, entirely exclude the notion 

99 Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Ethics, ed. 
by T. K. Abbott (London, 1923), 2. 
* Anthropologie y iv. 


of a metaphysical or noumenal reality, but maintained that 
"things-in-themselves" were not the object of scientific knowl- 
edge. In effect this meant that the classic assumption of Greek, 
medieval, and Renaissance philosophy of an empirically vali- 
dated ontology was denied. Instead Kant affirmed that "The 
understanding does not derive its laws (a priori} from, but 
prescribes them to, nature." 41 This meant, in sum, that Kant 
reduced natural philosophy or theoretical science to anthro- 

Just as Kant began his critique of scientific knowledge by 
accepting the fact of mathematical science, so he began his ethics 
and his Anthropologie by accepting the fact of civilization. Un- 
like Rousseau, Kant did not begin with "the natural man" in 
order to arrive at an evaluation of human culture, but, beginning 
with "civilized man" and accepting the reality and validity of 
historical cultural achievements, 42 he proceeded to outline the 
necessary postulates which would enable man to attain ideal 
moral perfection and a rational state of society. According to 

This beginning is indicated because in the concept of man civilization 
constitutes no secondary or accidental characteristic but marks man's 
essential nature, his specific character. He who would study animals 
must start with them in their wild state; but he who would know man 
must observe him in his creative power and his creative achievement, 
that is, in his civilization, 48 

Rousseau's type of approach involves a dualism or antithesis 
of nature and culture, and implies the possibility of a knowledge 
of man which is pre-cultural logically, if not historically. Kant, 
on the other hand, does not oppose nature to culture, but begin- 
ning with the phenomena of culture or civilization as historically 
given, investigates analytically the formal, logical conditions 

41 Prolegomena To Any Future Metaphysics, tr. and ed. by Paul Cams 
(Chicago, 1929), #36, p. 82. Metaphysics, in Kant's use of the term, refers 
to the a priori logical and epistemological conditions of experience, and hence 
to a priori synthetic propositions. This use of the term is to be differentiated 
from the ontological or substantial meaning as used originally by Aristotle. 

tt Kant, as quoted by Cassirer in Rousseau Kant Goethe, 22. 

48 Ibid., 22. 


which would render human cultural experience intelligible as 
well as rational. This explains why, in the last analysis, Rous- 
seau was essentially a cultural revolutionary or reformer, 
whereas Kant remained a thinker who did not set out to c