Peter Gordon’s electrifying introduction Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: has sparked some insights. I’ll quote the core passage, with comments and responses:
History has not been kind to Cassirer, but we should ask ourselves if his criticism was so wide of the mark. It was Cassirer, after all, who grasped the philosophical implications of the natural sciences and especially modern mathematics and physics, whereas Heidegger betrayed the superfciality of his thinking on all such matters when he declared that “science does not think.” Today when so many of our contemporary problems confront us with the need to move beyond the unfortunate divide between the natural sciences and the humanities, Cassirer’s philosophy may offer greater promise. All the same, Heidegger may have been right to suggest that the old dogma of transcendental humanism could not be sustained without a covert appeal to metaphysics. Cassirer occasionally reads as if he meant to give up on metaphysics to develop a kind of phenomenology without foundationalism. But most of these gestures are only half- convincing. The urgent point of dispute at Davos remained unsolved: can there be objectivity without metaphysics?
This compulsion to overcome metaphysics has, for me, become problematic. How was this collective decision to reject metaphysics made? Was it even argued, or was it just collectively decided as a fashion?
What tradeoffs have we been making for collectively adopting this stance?
One solution was developed by philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas, who delivered a lecture in Hamburg in 1995 on the dual occasion of the rededication of the Warburg Library and the “ftieth anniversary of Cassirer’s death. Habermas expressed in his lecture great admiration for Cassirer and extoled him as a champion of democracy and Enlightenment at a moment in German history when such champions were all too few. But he also suggested that The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms did not succeed in liberating itself from the conventional paradigm of a “philosophy of consciousness.” For Habermas, the philosophy of consciousness is the name for any philosophical doctrine that describes meaning from the isolated perspective of a transcendental subject who comes to know the world primarily through representations. Over the course of the twentieth century, many philosophers have come to see this paradigm as antiquated and indefensible, chie!y because it relies on a crypto-metaphysical conception of a transcendental subject who stands beyond its own field of operation.
Full disclosure: I believe my own philosophy, despite being antifoundationalist and concerned as much (or more) with immediate, preverbal interpretations and interactions as it is with representations, is, essentially, a “philosophy of consciousness”, but that not only is this not undesirable, I think it is good and important, given the purpose of my thinking, which is the systematic design of conception systems.
It serves as the grounds of meaning but can give no account of its own genesis. Habermas tries to resolve this dilemma without following the path of metaphysical skeptics such as Heidegger and Foucault.
Good! The academic canonization of these two deeply illiberal men has been ruinous. I will even argue that the youthful judges of the Davos debate were, themselves, caught up in the same illiberal mood that plunged Germany and the USSR into totalitarianism, and judged the debate by this same illiberal logic. The world, including its intellectuals were in an illiberal mood, and it was that mood, not reason, that judged the debate.
Instead, he understands objective meaning as the shared creation of an irreducible plurality of subjects who build up the world through intersubjective communication and praxis. This solution helps to secure the objectivity of our language and our moral-political commitments even though it is an objectivity that has dispensed with the need for metaphysical grounds. This ideal of an intersubjectively validated objectivity derives originally from the German idealists, but one can glimpse in Cassirer’s thinking a certain anticipation of Habermas’ solution.
This! We are having exactly this same debate in the world of service design. In fact we were debating it as my company just last week: Is service design (SD) a flavor of human-centered design (HCD), or is HCD a sub-discipline of SD?
My argument is that HCD is evolving from an essentially monocentric discipline focusing on the experiences of isolated individuals to a polycentric discipline, focusing on interactions among multiple actors, each of whom is having an experience. (Services are only one species of polycentric experience, and I think treating services as the overarching category is reductive and unhelpful.)
Much of what I do as a service designer is design philosophies that can support collaboration among interacting collaborators from varying discipline and responsibility levels within organizations. And it is precisely in this space among intellectually diverse people that philosophical (hermeneutical, dialectical) abilities are needed.
Thinking of philosophy not only as a design discipline but as a polycentric design discipline feels explosively fruitful.
The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is an ambivalent work that sits at the boundary between two epochs in the history of philosophy. It points in the direction of a post-metaphysical theory of the symbolic without wholly liberating itself from the older paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness. We can occasionally glimpse its author as he struggles to overcome his own philosophical inheritance, even if its authority remains too strong. This may help to explain the strange feeling of untimeliness that seems to emanate from the pages of this unusual work. Cassirer himself was a man between epochs, a contemporary of Einstein who could effortlessly call to mind lines of poetry from Schiller and Goethe. Though unashamed of his origins, he was indifferent to the claims of nation and tribe; he saw in Judaism only one source for the rational universalism that was the common inheritance of all cultures. A humanist philosopher in an age of extremes, he was in many ways the supreme representative of a world in eclipse.
Although he was fortunate enough to escape the European catastrophe, he did not live long enough to see the new world that would emerge from the ruins. Whether he could have felt at home in this new age of specialization is doubtful. Erudition today is a rare commodity, and it has become just one commodity among others. For good or for ill, philosophers these days no longer have the habit of quoting Goethe. But if we look past these marks of old-world erudition, we may yet find that The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms can come alive with new insights that even its author may never have anticipated. No genuine work of philosophy belongs only to the past.
Of course, I myself feel situated at a moment in history where liberalism is colliding with a collective illiberal mood, so Cassirer is becoming a heroic figure for me.