Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Reflections on the Occasion of Ernst Cassirer's Birthday

Over the years I have collected several short essays on the great morphologist of the human spirit, Ernst Cassirer (July 28, 1874 – April 13, 1945) by very different thinkers whom I also admire and posted them on my philosophical site.  I hope my posting links to them, accompanied by excerpts, will stimulate interest in Cassirer and the problems he wrestled with.

(I wish to record that the day he died--suddenly collapsing after responding to student Arthur Pap's calling out to him near Columbia University's main gate--Murray Rothbard, who would one day influence my thinking considerably, but then all of nineteen years of age, was probably in class nearby, completing his requirements for his B.A.)

In his review of Cassirer's An Essay on Man, Blanshard sounds a note of disappointment:
It is hard not to think, as one reads a book so wealthy as this in historic and scientific erudition, but at the same time so oddly inconclusive, that Cassirer was rather a distinguished reflective scholar than a great speculative philosopher. The learning is not mobilized in the interest of any theory; the book is not so much an 'essay on man' as a series of essays, all suggestive and enlightening, which converge on—what? It is hard to say. Perhaps there is no end, or harmony of ends, toward which all these activities are moving. But then, on Cassirer’s own showing, no philosophy of man would seem to be practicable; there would only be a theory of art, a theory of religion, and so on. This is in fact what he gives us. And an admirable gift it is, for which I, at least, am thankful. Only it is not what he sets out to give, nor all that the reader hoped to gain.
William Schultz, in his Cassirer and Langer on Myth, commented directly on Blanshard's assessment:
Here is the assumption of a continental philosopher that a system must 'converge' on something or lead to an overall unity of experience, an ideal unity. To some extent, the criticism is correct, for the main arguments are not in An Essay on Man, yet Cassirer’s claims about the need for unity should have alerted Blanshard that they were in his previous books, as Cassirer himself said in the Preface to that work written almost twenty years after the three-volume masterpiece [The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms]. Ironically, both Blanshard and Cassirer share some of the same assumptions about what philosophy should do, but Blanshard did not study Cassirer’s work enough to recognize the revolutionary way in which Cassirer satisfies traditional expectations about what a philosophy is and does.
The other subject of Schultz's study, Susanne Langer, the German-American philosopher whose thought was shaped to a large degree by her early absorption of Cassirer's writings in the original as they were published, contributed an essay his theory of language and myth to the Library of Living Philosophers volume dedicated to him.
. . . myth and language appeared as genuine twin creatures, born of the same phase of human mentality, exhibiting analogous formal traits, despite their obvious diversities of content. Language, on the one hand, seems to have articulated and established mythological concepts, whereas, on the other hand, its own meanings are essentially images functioning mythically. The two modes of thought have grown up together, as conception and expression, respectively, of the primitive human world. . . .
The first dichotomy in the emotive or mythic phase of mentality is not, as for discursive reason, the opposition of 'yes' and 'no,' of 'a' and 'non-a,' or truth and falsity; the basic dichotomy here is between the sacred and the profane. Human beings actually apprehend values and expressions of values before they formulate and entertain facts.
Her preface to his Language and Myth serves as an excellent introduction to his thought: Language, "man’s prime instrument of reason, reflects his mythmaking tendency more than his rationalizing tendency."

Eric Voegelin, the philosopher of consciousness, had the highest regard for Cassirer the intellectual historian, but in his 1946 review of The Myth of the State, thought Cassirer had mishandled his chief topical concern:
In the present book there is no awareness that the myth is an indispensable forming element of social order though, curiously enough, in his earlier work on the philosophy of the myth Cassirer, under the influence of Schelling, had seen this problem quite clearly. The overcoming of the "darkness of myth" by reason is in itself a problematical victory because the new myth which inevitably will take the place of the old one may be highly unpleasant. The Myth of the State is written as if it had never occurred to the author that tampering with a myth, unless one has a better one to put in its place, is a dangerous pastime.
Perhaps.  A good way to inspect that alleged "tampering" short of reading Cassirer's posthumously published 1946 book is to read his never-anthologized 1944 essay, "The Myth of the State," written for Fortune's mainly non-academic audience.  In my prefatory paragraphs I give a brief account of how it came to be written.
What we have learned in the hard school of our modern political life [Cassirer writes] is the fact that human culture is by no means the firmly established thing that we once supposed it to be. Modern civilization is very unstable and fragile. It is not built upon sand; but it is built upon a volcanic soil. For its first origin and basis was not rational, but mythical. Rational thought is only the upper layer on a much older geological stratum that reaches down to a great depth. We must always be prepared for violent concussions that may shake our cultural world and our social order to its very foundations.
In 1945, that is, about a year after Cassirer's essay appeared, we meet with a slightly different use of the volcano metaphor.  Just when Brand Blanshard's review of Cassirer appears, his reflections on his two terms as president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association are also published.  As his terms of office had "coincided almost exactly with the chief period of" World War II, he offered for the consideration of his audience this question: "In the light of the last few years, is not reason best conceived as a film stretched across the mouth of a volcano?" 

Blanshard's answer, elaborated upon in his address, was, of course, resoundingly negative.  But his defense of reason was also limited, even "slender," and not incompatible with Cassirer's ostensibly severer judgment:
All I am concerned to deny is the conclusion often drawn from these researches [into human irrationality], that the mind is so controlled by pulls from within that it is never under the control of the objective pattern of things, or follows the thread of an impersonal logic. The remarks I have offered, slender as they admittedly are, do seem to me to settle that point in principle.
Cassirer was equally concerned to deny that conclusion.  As Professor Schultz wisely noted, Blanshard simply "did not study Cassirer’s work enough" to see how close they were.


  1. Here's a review of Edward Sidelsky's book Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture:

    "The Humanism of Ernst Cassirer"
    by Emily Grosholz
    The Hudson Review
    Winter 2010: Vol. LXII, No. 4

  2. Dave, you and I must have been in touch a hundred times between the time you posted this and today, the day I discovered this comment, so you know that great lateness of my reply is exceeded only by my gratitude. (:^D) I hope this falls into the "better late than never" pile. -- Tony

  3. Hi Tony,
    Your comment does indeed fall into that pile.
    I'm glad the link still works.