Ernst Cassirer Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Cassirer created an innovative and modified form of Kantian philosophy. He published a number of works on the history of philosophy that demonstrated the relevance of philosophy to scientific and humanistic knowledge.

Early Life

Ernst Cassirer was born in Breslau, a region called Silesia in Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), to a large middle-class Jewish family. His extended family was engaged in both publishing and commercial enterprises, with the result that Cassirer enjoyed financial independence throughout his life. He entered the German university system in 1892 and, over the next seven years, attended universities in Berlin, Leipzig, Heidelberg, and Marburg. At first, Cassirer lacked a clear direction for his intellectual pursuits; he sampled a number of subjects. In 1894, however, he took a course from Georg Simmel that set the direction for his future career. Simmel taught that conflicts between the individual and society are inevitable and unavoidable: Tension results from the conflict between the individual’s desire for freedom and society’s need to limit the individual through institutions, laws, and other encumbrances. Cassirer retained and refined these lessons throughout much of his productive life. While studying with Simmel, Cassirer found that his teacher admired the philosophical works of Hermann Cohen. Because of his high regard for Simmel, Cassirer went to the University of Marburg in 1896 to study under Cohen.

The philosophy department at Marburg was strongly influenced by the thought of Immanuel Kant. Indeed, neo-Kantian philosophy prevailed in many institutions of higher learning in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although Cohen focused much of his philosophical work on the objects of natural science, he believed that it is thought which provides the natural world with a coherent reality. Influenced by his teacher, Cassirer wrote a dissertation on René Descartes and his critique of mathematics and natural science. Completed in 1899, this early work of Cassirer revealed two key assumptions that were to inform his mature philosophy: first, that historical studies of philosophical problems provided insight into the problems of knowledge; and second, that reality is not static but must be reconstructed in order to be understood.

Life’s Work

Cassirer returned from Marburg with his doctoral degree in hand and began a prolific half century during which he would produce 125 published works. Unencumbered by financial necessity, Cassirer pursued his studies of Descartes, science, and the problems of knowledge. In 1902, he married; he and his wife Toni eventually had three children. In 1903, the Cassirers moved to Berlin; as a result of anti-Semitism, however, Cassirer did not gain a teaching position until 1906, when he became an instructor at the University of Berlin. In the next twelve years, in fact, no European university offered him a professorship, despite his already significant achievements. It is ironic that during this time his contribution to philosophy was recognized by Harvard University, which offered him a two-year visiting professorship.

Cassirer’s first major philosophical work was Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (1910; Substance and Function, 1923). In this work, he analyzed the development of concepts of chemistry in terms of the rational approach of science. Given a world of material substances, he argued, it is possible through logical thought to discover the theoretical framework that controls physical entities. In 1914, as Cassirer prepared himself for a study of Kant, he was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Although the war captured the imagination of a number of German Jews, Cassirer did not respond to this great surge of German nationalism. Rejected from military service for medical reasons, he was drafted to teach in a high school for the duration of the war. Thus, as it turned out, he was able to continue his study of Kant’s philosophy. Kants Lebun und Lehre (1918; Kant’s Life and Thought, 1981) marked a major turn in Cassirer’s intellectual development. In his reinterpretation of Kant, Cassirer moved away from earlier concerns with science and the logical formulation of knowledge toward a larger vision of the humanities.

After the war, the Weimar Republic of Germany established several new universities. One of these, the University of Hamburg, offered Cassirer a professorship. Eventually, anti-Semitism reached Hamburg as well, but for a time Cassirer...

(The entire section is 1879 words.)