Cassirer’s interrupted project

I am going to quote several pages from Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms that are relevant to my own project. I am going to break it up with comments of my own:

The “revolution in the way of thinking” that Kant undertook within theoretical philosophy was based on the basic idea that the relationship between cognition and its object, which has generally been assumed, required a radical inversion. Instead of starting out from the object as the known and given, it was, rather, necessary to begin with the laws of cognition as what alone, in a primary sense, is truly accessible and certain; instead of determining the most general properties of being, in the sense of ontological metaphysics, we must, through an analysis of reason, ascertain the basic forms of judgment as the condition under which objectivity alone is positable, ascertained, and determined in its manifold branches. According to Kant, only this analysis can disclose the conditions on which all knowledge of being and the pure concept of being depend. However, as the correlate of the synthetic unity of the understanding itself, the object, which the transcendental analytics situates before us in this way, is a pure logically determined object. As a result, it does not designate all objectivity as such, but only that form of objective lawfulness that can be grasped and exhibited by the basic concepts of science, particularly the concepts and basic principles of mathematical physics. Thus, as soon as Kant progresses, in the totality of the three critiques, to develop the true “system of pure reason,” he already proves that this form of objectivity is too narrow. The mathematical natural-scientific being, in its idealistic version and interpretation, does not exhaust all reality, because it is by no means concerned with all the effectiveness and spontaneity of spirit. In the intelligible realm of freedom, whose basic law is developed by the critique of practical reason, in the realm of art and the realm of organic natural forms, as exhibited in the critique of aesthetics and teleological judgment, a new aspect of this reality emerges.

In other words, the technical realm of scientific objectivity is not the only manifestation of reason.

This gradual unfolding of the critical-idealistic concept of reality and the critical-idealistic concept of spirit belongs to the most distinctive features of Kantian thinking and is grounded in a kind of stylistic law of this thinking. The proper, concrete totality of spirit is not designated in a simple formula and given, as it were, ready-made from the beginning; rather, it develops and finds itself only in the continuous advancing progress of critical analysis. The ambit of spiritual being can be designated and determined only as a result of being pursued in this process. It lies in the nature of this process not only that its beginning and end are broken asunder but also that they must apparently conflict with each other; however, the conflict is none other than that between potency and act, between the mere logical “predisposition” of a concept and its complete development and impact. From the standpoint of the latter, the Copernican revolution, with which Kant began, takes on a new and wider sense. It no longer refers only to the logical function of judgment but extends, with equal justification and right, to every tendency and every principle of spiritual configuration.

So Kant’s proto-constructivism, founded on his famous table of categories of truth, is not the last word on reason, but only the starting point for a dialectic unfolding, which expands well beyond the domain of positivism, and (fruitfully) conflicts with it.

The crucial question always remains whether we seek to understand the function by the formation or the formation by the function, which we choose to “ground” the other. This question forms the spiritual bond that connects the most diverse problem domains with one another; it constitutes their inner methodological unity, without ever letting them lapse into a factual one-and-the-sameness. For the basic principle of critical thinking, the principle of the “primacy” of the function over the object, assumes in each special domain a new shape and demands a new and dependent grounding. Alongside the pure function of cognition, there stands the function of linguistic thinking, the function of mythical-religious thinking, and the function of artistic intuition, comprehended in such a way as that it is evident how in all of them a specific configuration, not so much of the world as rather toward the world, toward an objective interconnection of sense and an objective-intuitive whole that can be apprehended as such takes place.


With this, the critique of reason becomes a critique of culture. It seeks to understand and demonstrate how the content of culture, insofar as it is more than a merely individual content, insofar as it is grounded in a general principle of form, presupposes an original act of spirit. Herein the basic thesis of idealism finds its true and complete confirmation. As long as philosophical contemplation takes up the analysis of the pure form of cognition and limits itself to this task, the force of the naïve-realistic view of the world cannot be completely discredited. The object of cognition may in some way be after all determined and formed in and through cognition and its original law; however, beyond this relation, it must, nevertheless, also appear to be present and given as something independent of the basic categories of cognition.

This is why I picked up Cassirer. I knew he was a Neo-Kantian, and that his philosophy of symbol was intended to transcend logic and incorporate symbols of religion, art and other cultural forms. On that basis I suspected he would open up Kant’s table of categories, and find other principles of truth construction. Scientific objectivism is one key aspect of truth but it is neither adequate to account for all understanding, nor does it provide a grounding for reduction, unless we are simply uninterested in making the whole of experience “hang together” as a totality.

If, however, we begin not with the general concept of the world but rather from the general concept of culture, then the question immediately assumes a different shape. For the content of the concept of culture cannot be detached from the basic forms and tendencies of spiritual productivity: “being” is graspable here nowhere else than in “activity”.

In other words, it is only pragmatically (as opposed to ontologically) comprehensible. I’ve never thought of pragmatism as something opposed to ontology, or as a methodological alternative to ontology, but this morning I am seeing it that way. I think mine is a pragmatist metaphysics, interested less in what transcends us, than in how a finite being (like each of us) interacts with being understood as transcending its finitude, and how such interactions are experienced. It is metaphysical because it concerns itself with transcendent being, but it chooses to not fruitlessly speculate on what is “behind the veil” but instead the properties of interactions that take place across the veil-line, especially the ones that surprise the anticipations, expectations and norms that comprise mundane existence.

Only insofar as there is a specific tendency of aesthetic fantasy and intuition is there a domain of aesthetic objects, and the same is valid for all of those other spiritual energies by virtue of which the form and outline of a specific domain of objects takes shape for us. Even religious consciousness, convinced as it is of the “reality”, the truth, of its object, transforms this reality into the lowest level, to the level of purely mythological thinking, into a simple tangible existence. At higher levels of contemplation, it is more or less clearly aware that it “has” its object only in that it relates to it in an absolutely distinctive way.

There it is again: “Higher levels of contemplation” (or at least folks who end up seeing religion from Cassirer’s standpoint) evolve from ontological to pragmatic metaphysics. We stop asking, “Does God exist?”, or even asking the better question “in what manner does God exist?”, and instead asking “how do I, a finite being, interact with being who I understand to be finite?” and “given this understanding, what are the practical implications for how I interact with fellow finite beings, who, after all, are finite parts of God’s infinitude and are the contact points — the very veil-line — between my finitude and God’s infinitude?”

The ultimate guarantee of this very objectivity is contained in a type of self-comportment, in the tendency that spirit gives to an intended objective. Philosophical thinking confronts all of these tendencies — not just with the intention to pursue each one of them separately or to survey them as a whole but also with the presupposition that it must be possible to refer them to a uniform focal point, to an ideal center. When regarded critically, however, this center can never be located in a given being, but only in a common task. Thus, with all their inner diversity, the different products of spiritual culture — language, scientific cognition, myth, art, and religion — become members of one large problem nexus: they become manifold approaches, all of which are oriented toward one goal: to transform the passive world of mere impressions, in which spirit at first seems imprisoned, into a world of pure spiritual expression.

In the margin of this last sentence, I wrote “interpression”, and though I still have not found my way into Whitehead (which is one of my unrealized ambitions!) I feel certain this coinage is Whiteheadian.

For just as the modern philosophy of language had established the concept of the inner form of language to secure the proper starting point for a philosophical consideration of language, so too it can be said that an analogous “inner form” of religion, myth, art, and scientific cognition is to be presupposed and sought. And this form would signify not simply the sum or subsequent combination of the individual appearances of these domains but also the conditioning law of their construction.

And this is why I’ve switched from reading Langer to reading Cassirer. Discursive versus presentational logic originated with Cassirer, or maybe with the Warburg Library.

Of course, in the end, there is no other way to assure ourselves of these laws than to demonstrate them in the appearances and “abstract” them from these appearances; however, at the same time, this very abstraction shows the laws to be a necessary and constitutive moment of the consistent content of the individuals.

I think there is another way. We can experiment with these forms in designerly ways. So I am pretty delighted that he did not consider this option, because this is exactly where I want to attempt to make a contribution.

In the course of its history, philosophy has remained more or less cognizant of the task of such an analysis and critique of the particular cultural forms; however, in most cases, it has taken up only part of this task and addressed it, to be sure, more in its negative than in its positive intention. The endeavor that went into this critique was often less about the presentation and grounding of the positive achievements of each individual form than it was about the defense of wrong claims. Since the days of the Greek Sophists, there has been a skeptical critique of language and a skeptical critique of myths and cognition. This essentially negative attitude becomes understandable if we consider that in fact every basic form of spirit, in that it appears and develops, is a unique endeavor to give itself not just in part but as a whole and consequently to claim for itself not a merely relative validity but rather an absolute validity. Not contenting itself with its special precinct, it seeks, rather, to imprint the distinctive stamp, with which it conducts itself, on the whole of being and spiritual life. The conflicts of culture and the antinomies of the concept of culture ensue from this striving for the unconditioned, which is inherent in every single tendency.

Cassirer was seen as excessively conciliatory, an accusation, I am proud to say, which has often be leveled at me. I think this kind of “excessive” liberalism is a consequence of genuine belief, a fully-internalized faith, in pluralism, one that is so serious it has come to understand and accept the importance of reductionism in normal thought, while refusing to accept it in oneself (or at least, not to tolerate it, once discovered).

Science originates in a form of contemplation that, before it could get going and assert itself, was everywhere compelled to establish those first combinations and separations of thinking that had found their earliest expression and sedimentation in language and in general linguistic concepts. However, in that it makes use of language as material and as a foundation, science at the same time necessarily proceeded beyond language. A new “logos,” which is guided and governed by a principle other than that of linguistic thinking, now emerges and forms itself ever-more clearly and independently. And measured by it, the formations of language now appear as restraints and limits that must gradually be overcome by the force and particular nature of the new principle. The critique of language and the linguistic thought-form becomes an integrated component of the advancement of scientific and philosophical thinking. And this typical course of development is repeated in the other domains. The individual-spiritual tendencies do not move peacefully side by side, seeking to complement one another; rather, each becomes what it is only by demonstrating its own peculiar force against the others and in a struggle with them.

Thus, agonism is a permanent condition of pluralism.

Reading Time of the Magicians, especially where Heidegger kicked Cassirer’s ass in public debate, I cannot help wondering, first, why we treat debates as decisive at all, especially when the debate is judged by students and fresh graduates with no life experience (such as the young Levinas, who ridiculed Cassirer’s performance at the time, and whose life was ruined by the ideology the wise and clever Heidegger chose to advocate!) — and finally, whether Heidegger’s path into the future wasn’t a wrong turn, based less on philosophical discernment, than on the illiberal taste of the Zeitgeist. Perhaps we should retrace our steps and see where Cassirer’s path might have led us.

2 thoughts on “Cassirer’s interrupted project

  1. “In other words, it is only pragmatically (as opposed to ontologically) comprehensible. I’ve never thought of pragmatism as something opposed to ontology, or as a methodological alternative to ontology, but this morning I am seeing it that way. I think mine is a pragmatist metaphysics, interested less in what transcends us, than in how a finite being interacts with being understood as transcending its finitude, snd experiences such interactions. It is metaphysical because it concerns itself with transcendent being, but it chooses to not fruitlessly speculate on what is “behind the veil” but instead the properties of interactions that take place across the veil-line, especially the ones that surprise the anticipations, expectations and norms that comprise mundane existence.”

    This is music to my ears! It reminds me of this passage by Rorty:
    “For members of the literary culture, redemption is to be achieved by getting in touch with the present limits of the human imagination. That is why a literary culture is always in search of novelty, always hoping to spot what Shelley called “the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present,”6 rather than trying to escape from the temporal to the eternal. It is a premise of this culture that though the imagination has present limits, these limits are capable of being extended forever. The imagination endlessly consumes its own artifacts. It is an ever-living, ever-expanding, fire. It is as subject to time and chance as are the ?ies and the worms, but although it endures and preserves the memory of its past, it will continue to transcend its previous limits. Though the fear of belatedness is ever present within the literary culture, this very fear makes for a more intense blaze. The sort of person I am calling a “literary intellectual” thinks that a life that is not lived close to the present limits of the human imagination is not worth living.”
    Philosophy as a Transitional Genre

    Take away the focus on literary imagination and leave it open to all imagination and the two perspectives sound pretty close to me.

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