Ernst Cassirer 1874-1945
While frequently identified with the neo-Kantian school of modern philosophy, Cassirer wrote on many different subjects, his works ranging from a book about the Enlightenment to an attempt to reconcile Albert Einstein's theory of relativity with the work of Immanuel Kant. With his best-known and most highly regarded work, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms), Cassirer advanced the idea that symbols and myths are the basis of all cultural activity and the foundation of philosophy.
Born into a wealthy and cultured Jewish family in Breslau, Silesia, Cassirer began studying jurisprudence at his family's insistence, only to change his focus to philosophy after attending a course on Kant taught by Georg Simmel. Simmel also introduced Cassirer to the work of Hermann Cohen, a principal figure in the neo-Kantian school of philosophy. Cassirer sought out Cohen and wrote his doctoral dissertation under him at the University of Marburg, where Cassirer was profoundly influenced by the "back-to-Kant" movement and its emphasis on the philosophy of science. From 1919 to 1933 Cassirer taught as a professor at the University of Hamburg. There he had access to the Warburg Library and its vast collection of books on primitive culture and folklore, allowing him to begin research on his magnum opus—The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms—which he labored over for more than a decade. Cassirer's later works reflect the changing political climate in Germany between World War I and World War II. In one of the more famous philosophical confrontations of the twentieth century, Cassirer met Martin Heidegger at an academic conference held in Davos, Switzerland, in 1929; the two clashed when Cassirer voiced doubts about the possibility of human freedom in Heidegger's philosophy. Cassirer further criticized Heidegger in The Myth of the State. When the Nazi party was elected to power in 1933, Cassirer resigned his position at the University of Hamburg and left Europe. In exile Cassirer taught himself English and lectured at Oxford, Yale, and Columbia University, where he was teaching at the time of his death in 1945.
Cassirer's first published works were primarily concerned with the development of modern philosophy and with the works of such philosophers as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, René Descartes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Cassirer demonstrated his interest in the philosophy of science with his first original philosophical work—Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (Substance and Function). Although he is widely regarded as the most distinguished member of the neo-Kantian school of philosophy, Cassirer began to write about ideas outside the neo-Kantian realm after World War I. In his most ambitious and well-known work, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, he contends that human beings understand the world with the help of symbolic forms, which include language, myth, art, religion, and science. Symbols, according to Cassirer, express, represent, and ultimately create their own worlds of meaning. Cassirer believed that his three-volume investigation of language, myth, and the phenomenology of knowledge laid the groundwork for any future philosophy of culture. One of Cassirer's later works—Essay on Man—is an extension of his views on the ways in which individuals use symbols to give form to their perceptual experience. Some critics believe that the rise of the Weimar Republic in Germany spurred Cassirer to rethink and revise some of his earlier ideas. Cassirer's last work, The Myth of the State, is also his most overtly political and argues that human beings often mythologize their political existence rather than embracing a rational basis for the state. Although The Myth of the State represents a departure for Cassirer in terms of subject matter, it confirms that throughout his career, Cassirer viewed symbols and myths as the foundation of all knowledge.
Descartes' Kritik der mathematischen und naturwissen-schaftlichen Erkenntnis (philosophy) 1899
Leibniz' System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen (philosophy) 1902
Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. 3 vols. [The Problem of Knowledge] (philosophy) 1906-1920
Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff: Untersuchungen iiber die Grundfragen der Erkenntniskritik [Substance and Function] (philosophy) 1910
Freiheit und Form: Studien zur deutschen Geistesgeschichte (philosophy) 1916
Kants Leben und Lehre [Kant's Life and Thought] (philosophy) 1918
Idee und Gestalt: Fiinf Aufsdtze (essays) 1921
Zur Kritik der Einsteinschen Relativitdtstheorie [Einstein's Theory of Relativity] (philosophy) 1921
Die Begriffsform im mythischen Denken (philosophy) 1922
Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. 3 vols. [The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms] (philosophy) 1923-1929
Die Philosophie der Greichen von den Anfangen bis Platon (philosophy) 1925
Sprache und Mythos: Ein Beitrag zum Problem der Gitternamen [Language and Myth] (philosophy) 1925
Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance [The Individual and the Cosmos in...
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SOURCE: "Cassirer on Mythological Thinking," in The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp, The Library of Living Philosophers, Inc., 1949, pp. 359-77.
[In the following essay, Montagu explains Cassirer's views on mythological thinking, especially as it relates to preliterate societies.]
In Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (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 fundamental 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 perspectives in which they are regarded. Hence the necessity of the analysis of the forms of conceptual construction and of the general function of concepts; for it is obvious that the conception 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...
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SOURCE: "On Cassirer's Theory of Language and Myth," in The Philosophy of Ernst Cassier, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp, The Library of Living Philosophers, Inc., 1949, pp. 381-400.
[In the following essay, Langer explores the relationship between myth and language in Cassirer's work.]
Every philosopher has his tradition. His thought has developed 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, positively 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 cannot help thinking his earliest thoughts, so every scholar has a philosophical mother tongue, which colors his natural Weltanschauung. 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; but he speaks some intellectual...
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SOURCE: "Ernst Cassirer's Contribution to Literary Criticism," in The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp, The Library of Living Philosophers, Inc., 1949, pp. 663-88.
[In the following essay, Reichardt explores the implications of Cassirer's writings for literary criticism.]
In his Essay on Man, Cassirer—in the form of a paradox—defines the historian's aspiration as "objective anthropomorphism." Whereas the process of scientific thought shows a constant effort to eliminate "anthropological" elements, history appears not as a knowledge of external facts or events, but as a form of self-knowledge: man constantly returns to himself attempting to recollect and actualize the whole of his past experience. The historical self, however, aspires to objectivity and is not satisfied with egocentricity. In his discussion of the various methods of historical research Cassirer expresses greatest warmth when speaking of the work of Ranke, who once voiced the desire to extinguish his own self and to make himself the pure mirror of things. This wish, clearly recognized both by Ranke and Cassirer as the deepest problem of the historian, remains at the same time the historian's highest ideal. His feeling of responsibility and his ethical standing will determine the value of his results according to the definition of "objective anthropomorphism." Cassirer reveals Ranke's ethical conception...
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SOURCE: "Myth as Information," in The Hudson Review, Vol. VII, No. 2, Summer, 1954, pp. 228-35.
[In the following essay, Frye discusses the implications of Cassirer's use of the word "myth "for the study of logic and of literature.]
The first volume of the English translation of Ernst Cassirer's Philosophy of Symbolic Forms has just appeared. As the German edition of this volume was published in 1923, the translation is very belated, and by now will chiefly interest students of philosophy who are not sufficiently concerned with Cassirer or acquainted with German to have consulted the original. This is a restricted range of usefulness, not enlarged by the fact that the real contemporary importance of Cassirer's thought is displayed not in this book but in the later Essay on Man, written in English and now available in a pocket edition. The Essay on Man is crisper, more concise, more conclusive in the direction of its arguments, and, as befits its American setting, more evangelical. Cassirer's work as a whole has been pretty thoroughly assimilated since his death in 1945, and the first volume of his magnum opus has now a largely historical importance for anyone who, like the present writer, cannot claim to be a technically competent philosopher.
That historical importance is, of course, very considerable. It is hardly too much to say that the bulk of what is...
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SOURCE: "Ernst Cassirer and the Epistemological Values of Religion," in The Journal of Religion, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, July, 1955, pp. 160-67.
[In the following essay, Arnett discusses Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms, especially as it relates to the study of religion.]
The struggles of religions with the truth—their efforts, their claims, and their contradictions—are such as to baffle and frustrate all but the most persistent students of religions. Various religions have, on occasion, claimed to be, if not the only road, then certainly the high and privileged road to truth, while seekers of the truth in other areas, especially in recent years, have frequently denied that religion is a way to the truth at all. Thus philosophers interested in religion and in truth or knowledge of the truth find themselves confronted with a number of problems: What is the function of religion in regard to knowledge of the truth? Does religion, as the positivists claim, have no epistemological value? Are religious propositions and the religious experience simply expressions of emotion and subjective contortions of the human organism? Is there no existential reality, objective or relational, in the religious experience that is comparable to the so-called "objective" world that science claims to know?
Ernst Cassirer, in his philosophy of symbolic forms, has perhaps provided the religious...
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SOURCE: "Ernst Cassirer and Political Thought," in The Review of Politics, Vol. 29, No. 2, April, 1967, pp. 180-203.
[In the following essay, Schrems discusses the political aspect of Cassirer's work by exploring Cassirer's ideas about culture and freedom.]
Ernst Cassirer's renown is the fame of a philosopher, not of a political theorist. Amongst his voluminous writings only The Myth of the State is regarded as a political treatise and its precise political character is problematic. Nevertheless, the rudiments of a Cassirer political philosophy may be derived from an exposition of his understanding of culture and from an examination of his views of freedom, myth, and the state. Cassirer extolled freedom, and he sought to "combat" myth. His own fulfillment of man's "progressive self-liberation," however, presents difficulties which are the subject matter of this essay.
THE CRISIS OF "SELF-KNOWLEDGE"
In the first chapter of the Essay on Man Cassirer sketched the history of man's knowledge of himself—"the highest aim of philosophical inquiry." The path traces man's gradual approach to freedom, but ends in what Cassirer calls the crisis of our age: the "loss of intellectual center." We have achieved a complete anarchy of thought in which each individual thinker gives his own picture of human nature and of culture. In our "materialization of culture"...
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SOURCE: "Cassirer's Theory of Concept Formation," in The New Scholasticism, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 91-102.
[In the following essay, Lindgren explores the formal logic that undergirds Cassirer's theory on how concepts are formed.]
In English speaking countries we have always been inclined to jump to the conclusion that the feature of Cassirer's thought which catches our notice must be the central and unifying theme of his work. In 1941, when he first came to America, his work was characterized as a philosophy of science and in 1943 it was thought to be a type of language philosophy. The only book-length interpretation of his work [Carl H. Hamburg, Symbol and Reality] considers it as a type of semantic philosophy. The discouragement which follows the discovery that none of these themes adequately organizes his theories into a coherent whole is amply witnessed by the few studies of his work which have appeared since his death in 1945.
Adequate understanding of the meaning of any one of Cassirer's doctrines awaits a grasp of the unity of his thought. This paper is intended to contribute to that understanding by clarifying the precise nature of his method. Both his statement and his demonstration of his central methodological principles will be indicated. It will also be contended that although these principles are stated in many contexts, their demonstration is available...
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SOURCE: "The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer and Fictional Religion," in The Thomist, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, October, 1969, pp. 737-54.
[In the following excerpt, Campbell explores the limitations of Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms when the forms are applied to religion.]
Anyone familiar with the history of philosophy in this century will know that some of the most influential philosophers have been those who have considered that the right knowledge and use of language will solve world problems; in fact, some even believe language to be the only reality, which "creates" the world which we think we see as "given." Even the logical (sometimes called mathematical) positivists may be included in this group, if we consider mathematical symbols as a kind of language: it is their conviction that ordinary language, though very important, is somewhat ambiguous and in need of extended supplementation by the more exact symbols of mathematics. The ontological status of mathematics and the other sciences as well as language has been argued at great length, but an important group of philosophers of this century has decided that such an argument is futile, since the important thing for all such symbols is not their reference to an objective truth (if indeed such exists) but their function. In other words, do they enable us more efficiently and satisfactorily to live our lives? Perhaps the most learned philosopher in...
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SOURCE: "From Language to the Art of Language: Cassirer's Aesthetic," in The Quest for Imagination, edited by 0. B. Hardison, Jr., The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1971, pp. 87-112.
[In the following essay, Eggers compares Cassirer's views on language with those of other aesthetic philosophers.]
Ernst Cassirer's interest in the symbolic form called language arises directly out of his allegiance to the long tradition of idealist philosophy. The history of attitudes toward language which comprises the introductory chapter of his Phenomenology of Linguistic Form (the first volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms) reaches from Plato to Croce, and whatever impedes the gradual revelation of Kantian epistemology in the realm of language analysis gets short shrift. For example, he dismisses the dull mechanics of modern descriptive linguistics as an evasion of that same, fundamental problem of language which empiricism in all its historical shapes could never solve. A psychology of simple associations, whether strictly rationalist or "psychophysical," offers no explanation for language in its creative aspect. For this we need an image of man which frees him to create, a philosophy which grounds a "universal principle of form" in the originality of human action. Such has been the basic tenet of idealism throughout its history:
This desire and...
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SOURCE: "Ernst Cassirer's Psychology: A Unification of Perception and Language," in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Vol. IX, No. 2, April, 1973, pp. 148-51.
[In the following essay, Carini explores the often-neglected implications of Cassirer's language philosophy for the field of modern psychology.]
While Ernst Cassirer's three volume philosophy of symbolic forms is clearly a philosophy, there is also a psychology presented there that Cassirer assumed would be the forerunner of any modern psychology. But Cassirer's optimism on that score was not borne out, for that psychology has been completely bypassed. And yet, Cassirer was so astute on scientific matters that Margenau, the Yale physicist, in his Preface to Cassirer's Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics, concludes that, except for minor details, Cassirer's 1935 views may still be taken as the last word on that issue. The psychology that Cassirer espoused had the novel feature of unifying perception and language; it should prove worthwhile then to examine the psychology that Cassirer outlined in the 1920s.
The psychology that Cassirer provided was related to Gestalt psychology, but there are features in it which also differ from what the Gestaltists presented, and these characteristics have been lost to American psychology. He proposed that even our percepts of things are a way of formulating...
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SOURCE: "Some Metaphysical Problems of Cassirer's Symbolic Forms," in Man and World, Vol. 6, No. 3, September, 1973, pp. 304-21.
[In the following essay, Rosenstein explores Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms, placing it within the context of works by other philosophers, particularly Immanuel Kant and G.W.F Hegel.]
If Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms were to be classified in traditional terminology, it could perhaps best be called a critical, functionally-monistic, objectively-relativistic, cultural idealism. The meaning of such a nomenclature as well as its essential inadequacies can only be exposed, however, through an analysis of the structure and purpose of the concept of symbolic forms upon which Cassirer bases his philosophy. It will be seen that these forms are a function of the human spirit, since they form the constitutive pre-conditions of all experience, knowledge, and activity.
What kind of function are these forms? Cassirer claims both that (in his early work) it is a way of seeing (it "may be said of any symbolic form … that in each of these is a particular way of seeing, and carries within itself its particular source of light… it is not a question of what we see in a certain perspective, but the perspective itself") and that (in his later work) it is a way of acting and becoming, of expressing and existing. Thus, his philosophy must...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Ernst Cassirer: The Dilemma of a Liberal Intellectual in Germany, 1914-1933, University of Toronto Press, 1978, pp. 3-16.
[In the following excerpt, Lipton provides an overview of the evolution of Cassirer's philosophical thinking against the backdrop of German politics from 1914 to 1933.]
Ernst Cassirer was born to Jewish parents on 28 July 1874 in Breslau. His was an extended family from the upper middle class with commercial and publishing interests. He lived in Germany until May 1933, when he left his homeland because of the Nazi regime's anti-Semitic policies. Even though for a large part of his life Cassirer confined most of his social and intellectual activities to his family circle and a few select colleagues, the course of his life and work were clearly influenced by the events of the period from 1871 to 1933.
The most striking characteristic of Cassirer's life and work was his commitment to preserving the spiritual autonomy of the individual. Throughout his philosophical career Cassirer never doubted that humanity in general and man in particular were free. This fundamental belief was at once the beginning and the end of his intellectual endeavours. Cassirer's desire to affirm the fact of human freedom as completely and convincingly as possible reflected his deep-seated liberalism and its ethical ideal. In the tradition of Kantian ethics, he believed...
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SOURCE: "Thinking Cassirer," in Criticism, Vol. XXV, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 181-95.
[In the following essay, Adams reexamines Cassirer's thought in light of recent trends in philosophy, especially the widespread acceptance of Martin Heidegger's philosophy.]
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, when Ernst Cassirer was a doctoral candidate at Marburg preparing his study of Descartes and Leibniz, there was a movement led by his teachers, the Marburg philosophers Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp, which had as its rallying cry "Back to Kant." One was not simply to return to Kant to accept all he said, but to start from Kant again. Cassirer's thought was formed in this atmosphere, and it proved to be a liberation for him. More recently it has been regarded as a limitation everywhere present in his work. Contemporary phenomenologists have particularly regarded it as so. Cassirer is not any longer in the high style of contemporary literary theory. Ricoeur mentions his theory of the symbol only to declare it too broad for his use, though Foucault, it is said, has shown some liking for him. Even in the earlier days of twentieth-century American theory he was never quite in, in spite of his lurking in Susanne Langer's various books, Wilbur M. Urban's Language and Reality, some of Philip Wheelwright, Frye's notion of the symbol, Eliseo Vivas' appropriation of him to justify certain...
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SOURCE: "Ernst Cassirer: Political Myths and Primitive Realities," in Four Theories of Myth in Twentieth-Century History: Cassirer, Eliade, Levi-Strauss, and Malinowski, The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1987, pp. 13-41.
[In the following essay, Strenski contends that Cassirer's work on myth was an attempt to alert intellectuals to the dangers of irrationalism in Weimar Germany.]
WHY DID CASSIRER CARE ABOUT MYTH?
Most people have never given more than passing thought to myth. Thus it is strange when in the course of the history of thought we find great outpourings of learned writing on this subject, and on the second-order subject of the philosophy or theoretical study of myth. Now we have a doubly knotted problem: why did a second group of people care about the way the first group had cared about myth in the first place? To collect and edit myths is strange-enough behaviour. How much more unusual to study the literature of myths in a theoretical way.
Ernst Cassirer, who at two distinct times in his life was a philosopher of myth, is one of those unusual persons. I want to elucidate his theory of myth and at the same time try to understand why he took on such a challenging and specialised subject. I am especially drawn to Cassirer because his theory of myth stands as one of the most ambitious and erudite examples of that enterprise. Moreover, by the time he published...
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The 'Principle of Concrescence' and 'das Lebensgeftihl'
Cassirer's reading of anthropological literature led him at first to the conclusion, shared by many in his time, that the thinking of primitive man was flatly irrational. This was evidenced by the anarchy of myths, totemic associations and other manifestations of mythical thinking. For one thing, it seemed that anything could happen in myths—any relationships could be posited between elements in a mythical story: 'Whereas scientific cognition can combine elements only by differentiating them in the same basic critical act, myth seems to roll everything it touches into unity without distinction. Or, in particular connection with the notion of class membership, such as in totemism, Cassirer says, 'In mythical thinking, any similarity of sensuous manifestation suffices to group the entities n which it appears into a single mythical "genus". Any characteristic … is as good as another.…'
Thus, if anything could happen in myths, how could one make a case for their logical integrity? How could myth reveal any sort of a priori whatsoever? Even if one claimed that myth revealed a unique mode of rationality, one would still need to show what this was. Myths seemed unlikely to be able to do so, since all they showed Cassirer was anarchy.
Yet Cassirer was unwilling to admit that other men could be incorrigibly and consistently...
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All this may be well and good, but it still does not explain just how das Lebensgefühl spoke to the problem of the coherence of mythical thinking. What precisely did the feeling of the unity of life have to do with whether and why a story made sense for traditional folk? How did the feeling of the unity of life perform as any sort of prototype of a Kantian unity? What can Cassirer possibly mean when he tells us that the world of myth 'becomes intelligible only if behind it we can feel the dynamic life feeling from which it originally grew'?
To understand this, one needs to appreciate that Cassirer held a variety of faculty psychological beliefs, treating the 'emotions' and the 'intellect' as if they were subtle internal organs of some sort. Unlike physical organs, which secrete hormones and other physical substances, these subtle organs 'secrete' their own distinctive products—the intellect generates thoughts, the emotions generate feelings, and so on. Thus, for Cassirer to attribute an element of culture to the 'emotions' is virtually for him to say that such an element cannot be judged by rational standards. If mythical thought originates in the emotions, it cannot come from the intellect. It must thus be irrational, a mode of pseudo-thought.
Put differently, when Cassirer attributes a belief to emotional, he is making at least two strong claims: (1) the belief is false; (2) it is held without good...
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Allers, Rudolf. "The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer." The New Scholasticism XXV, No. 2 (April 1951): 184-92.
Overview of the importance of Cassirer's work.
Carini, Louis. "Ernst Cassirer's Psychology II: The Nature of Thinking." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Science IX, No. 3 (July 1973): 266-69.
Observes that Cassirer proposes a view of thinking that is inferential, suggesting an ability to simultaneously conceive what is possible and what is actual.
Goodman, Nelson. "Words, Works, Worlds." In Ways of Worldmaking, pp. 1-22. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978.
A discussion of the way in which the variety and function of symbols creates a multiplicity of worlds in Cassirer's philosophy.
Hamburg, Carl H. Symbol and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1956, 172 p.
Explains and elaborates upon Cassirer's philosophy, focusing on his concept of symbolic forms and how that concept relates to the work of other twentieth-century philosophers.
Heidegger, Martin. A review of Ernst Cassirer's Mythical Thought, in his The Piety of Thinking, translated by James G. Hart and John C. Maraldo, pp. 32-45. Indiana University Press, 1976.
Review, which originally appeared...
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