(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ernst Cassirer 1874-1945

German philosopher.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.