Cassirer and the Warburg Library

At night I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians. This section caught my attention, and did not help my insomnia one bit.

…Cassirer had recently discovered his true thinking space. In his case it was … the library of a private scholar of cultural science who had collected several tens of thousands of rare studies in intellectual and scientific history on his shelves, and organized them in a very idiosyncratic way. This was the library of Abraham (“Aby”) Moritz Warburg, the scion of one of the world’s most influential banking families, which Cassirer first entered in the winter of 1920 and which for the next ten years would be the site of inspiration for his work.

Some backstory from Wikipedia presents Warburg as an Esau figure, but cannier and nerdier: “Warburg grew up in a conservative Jewish home environment. Early on he demonstrated an unstable, unpredictable and volatile temperament. Warburg as a child reacted against the religious rituals which were punctiliously observed in his family, and rejected all career plans envisaged for him. He did not want to be a rabbi, as his grandmother wished, nor a doctor or lawyer. … Aby famously made a deal with his brother Max to forfeit his right, as the eldest son, to take over the family firm, in return for an undertaking on Max’s part to provide him with all the books he ever needed.”

Continuing with the book:

[Cassirer] was in shock: “I can never return to this place, or I will lose myself forever in this labyrinth,” Cassirer murmured after Dr. Fritz Saxl, head librarian of the Warburg collection, led him past the shelves and stacks, elegantly if very eccentrically arranged. The richness of this literature as well as the precious rarity of the volumes acquired from all over the world was one thing. But for Cassirer what was miraculous was the idea of this library itself, and the intellectual objective behind its compilation and organization.

In fact, the volumes were not ordered alphabetically — Warburg organized them instead according to a taxonomy of his own devising, based on what he called “good neighborliness.” This measure was in turn based on a special research program into the true nature of human culture, its distinguishing features, and the dynamics that had determined its development over millennia.

The whole collection was accordingly divided into four sections, each of which corresponded to a fundamental philosophical concept.

These were, and remain:


Warburg, as director of the library, had initially used the rubric “Orientation” to reflect the fact that the world is for us far from self-explanatory. We come into the world largely helpless, without instincts, and also, crucially, without bearings. Our basic need to orient ourselves in thought and action, in our entire relationship with the world, gives rise to what we call culture. This was already the point of departure for Kantian philosophy. Not only was this view expressly shared by Cassirer, but it represents the true foundation of his major work, still in its early stages. Under the rubric of Orientation, Warburg’s library variously included works of superstition, magic, religion, and science — considered central cultural products of our fundamental human need for orientation.

However, the sections labeled “Image,” “Word,” and “Action” according to Warburg’s system implicitly answer the question of the structural forms through which this orientation is achieved: through what Cassirer, in his system, calls “symbols” and “symbolic systems.”

Under “Image,” Warburg included works about “ornaments, prints, or painting.” Under “Word,” spells, prayers, epics, and imaginative literature. Under “Action,” Finally, books that investigated the human body itself as a medium of symbolic formation — treatises on festival and dance culture, on theater and erotica.

For that reason, on his first visit Cassirer had to overcome the uncanny and fantastical feeling that this library had been designed and organized precisely according to the strictures and emphases that had governed his own work since those fateful streetcar journeys of 1917: the arrangement of the Warburg Library corresponded exactly, in terms of both form and content, to his own philosophy of symbolic forms.

As if that weren’t enough, in one sense the library went a step further than the systematic architectural plan that was Cassirer’s work. Rather than proceed in a chronological fashion, according to the development of culture from its cultic beginnings in totem, rite, and myth through to the modern natural sciences in one continuous arc culminating in true knowledge of the world, what prevailed on the shelves of Warburg’s library was the internal organizational principle of “good neighborliness.” It saw works from a tremendous variety of disciplines and eras placed side by side in such a way as to suggest scarcely imaginable connections between them, potential similarities of approach, and lines of influence that seem inconceivable. Consequently, foundational works of chemistry rubbed shoulders with books on alchemy; studies in ancient haruspicy with books about astrology and modern algebra.

Warburg’s collection is founded on the idea of a continuous cultural non-simultaneity of the simultaneous, in which a great variety of approaches from a great variety of sources influence and also contradict one another. At the same time, his taxonomic system is based on the conviction that there is something like an unconscious cultural memory that lurks behind the various epochs and the objects of their scholars’ attention, with significant though subtle effect.

Symbols and people — and this was Warburg’s central idea — constantly educate one another, and the symbols with which we think, speak, curse, and pray, with which we make predictions, inquire, and research — in short, find our orientation in this world — are generally much older and in a sense wiser than we, the creatures who use these symbols only in our own time and appropriate them in line with our own interests. So much could be revealed, if only the innumerable tacit connections and alignments among these symbols could be given a voice.

From his first day in that library, Cassirer’s way of thinking grew closer to the ordering of its vision of culture. In small steps at Arst, but then continuously and with ever greater intensity. On Warburg’s shelves there were no clearly demarcated individual disciplines, areas of study, or even clearly defined realms of culture. It was a space completely free from taboo, and its arrangement encouraged the visitor to embark on a glorious search for ideas as yet unexplored—whether from the future, the present, or the past.

One last bit shows the ancestry of Susanne Langer’s insights. Saxl tells how he introduced Cassirer to the library: “I started in the second room, with the cabinet marked ‘Symbol,’ since I assumed that Cassirer would find it easier to approach the problem there. He immediately gave a start and explained to me that this was the problem that had long preoccupied him, and one on which he was currently working. But he was only familiar with a small part of the literature that we own on the concept of the symbol, and he knew nothing of its visual configuration (the visualization of symbols in gesture and art). [Langer!] Cassirer immediately understood and asked me to spend over an hour showing him how one shelf was lined up next to another, one thought next to another. It was lovely to guide a man of such substance for once.”

My heart is racing.

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