Ernst Cassirer

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Ernst Cassirer
Photo by Cassirer

Ernst Alfred Cassirer (born July 28, 1874 in Breslau , † April 13, 1945 in New York ) was a German philosopher .

He researched and taught first in Berlin, from 1919 as a philosophy professor at the University of Hamburg . In 1933, as a Jew, his chair there was withdrawn . In the same year he left National Socialist Germany and went first to Great Britain into exile , a little later to Sweden, where he became a Swedish citizen in 1939 , and finally to the USA in 1941. In exile , he was a visiting professor at Oxford , then owner of a philosophical chair in Gothenburg and later a professor at Yale University and at Columbia University in New York.

Cassirer became known for his main work on cultural philosophy , the philosophy of symbolic forms . He also wrote a number of epistemological and epistemological and philosophy historical writings.


Cassirer was born in Breslau as the son of the Jewish businessman Eduard Cassirer and his wife Eugenie (Jenny) Cassirer . After graduating from the Johannesgymnasium in Breslau , he first studied law from 1892 , and soon afterwards German literature and philosophy at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Berlin . In 1893/94 he heard Friedrich Paulsen in the history of philosophy and Georg Simmel about Kant . When the latter praised Hermann Cohen's work as outstanding in an aside , Cassirer procured his work at short notice and dealt intensively with it. From 1896 he moved to Marburg , where he was accepted into the immediate student group of Cohen and thus joined the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism . In 1899 he did his doctorate under Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp on Descartes ' criticism of mathematical and scientific knowledge.

In 1902 he married his cousin Antonielle (Toni) Bondy (1883–1961), with whom he had three children: Heinrich Walter (1903–1979; professor of philosophy), Georg Eugen (1904–1958; employee and photographer) and Anna Elisabeth ( 1908–1998; violinist and psychologist). His work on Leibniz 's system was award-winning, but was not accepted as a habilitation thesis at several universities. In 1906 Cassirer completed his habilitation with the study The Knowledge Problem in Philosophy and Science of Modern Times in Berlin. For the next thirteen years he was a private lecturer there , working primarily on the foundations of his epistemological work. For the second edition of the habilitation thesis he received the Kuno Fischer Prize of the University of Heidelberg in 1914 .

In 1919 he accepted a call to the newly founded University of Hamburg , where he worked as a professor of philosophy until 1933 and even held the rector's office in 1929/30. This made him one of the first German-Jewish rectors at a university in Germany . From 1923 to 1929 he successively published his main work in three volumes, the philosophy of symbolic forms. In doing so, he created a meaning-theoretical doctrine of the shaping of reality by humans. Its aim is - in addition to and modification of Kantian ideas - to show the different ways of accessing the world such as myth, religion, science, language, etc. through symbols . In addition, Cassirer worked closely with its founder Aby Warburg, who is very well known as an art historian and cultural scientist, at the Warburg library in Hamburg . Some studies were made here, especially on the Renaissance . He gave the opening speech of the new library building, today's Warburg House , on May 1, 1926. His inaugural speech as rector of November 1929 Forms and changes in form of the philosophical concept of truth is a committed commitment to the constitution of the Weimar Republic .

Also in 1929, at a philosophical symposium , the Davos Disputation as part of the II. International University Courses , the second of a total of three encounters between Cassirer and Martin Heidegger took place . The much-noticed debate between the two philosophers revolved around the question How is freedom possible? following the fundamental difference in the Kant interpretation. In contrast to Cassirer's appearance as intermediary bridge builder, Heidegger emphasized the will to dissent in the dispute.

After the seizure of power by the Nazis emigrated Cassirer immediately to England. He had already applied for his dismissal as full professor at Hamburg University in April 1933, when the preparations for the book burning had already begun and after the law on the restoration of the civil service was passed on April 7 , which was particularly directed against German civil servants of Jewish origin. In addition, the National Socialist German Student Union had undertaken the campaign against the un-German spirit against Jewish professors and students at all universities and in the university cities nationwide .

He then taught at Oxford University as a visiting professor. Just two years later he took over a professorship in philosophy at the University of Gothenburg and in 1939 became a Swedish citizen.

In 1941 Cassirer moved to the United States , where he initially taught at Yale University in New Haven , and then from 1944 at Columbia University in New York City. His essay Essay on Man, in which Cassirer expands his cultural-philosophical theory of symbolic forms into an anthropological philosophy and also summarizes his basic ideas for a wider audience, falls in the New Haven era .

Ernst Cassirer died of a heart attack in New York City in April 1945. His grave is located in Westwood ( New Jersey ) on the Cedar Park Bethel Cemeteries in the tombs of the Congregation Habonim. His analysis of the emergence of National Socialism in Vom Mythus des Staates appeared only after his death.

Philosophy - overview

On the one hand, Ernst Cassirer's philosophy is assigned to the scientifically oriented Neo-Kantianism of the Marburg School . Via the category of symbolic forms and themes of the philosophy of language , Cassirer also took up genuine thought currents of the 20th century and formulated an independent cultural philosophy , which is particularly emphasized in the reception. In addition, he developed a philosophical anthropology , which ultimately culminates in a work on the philosophy of the state, co - founded by his own biography , in which he deals with the phenomenon of National Socialism .


In Marburg, Cassirer began working on epistemology from the fall of 1896 . For this purpose, the dissertation on Descartes and the award-winning, but not accepted as a habilitation thesis on the scientific foundations of Leibniz 'system (1902), in which he described the mathematical thinking from Descartes to Leibniz as the basis of scientific knowledge and dealt with the topic, was created dealing with relations and continuity. In the next step, he expanded his question to include knowledge in general and in 1906 and 1907 published the first two volumes of the four-volume history on the more recent development of the problem of knowledge. Cassirer leaned closely on Paul Natorp. Cassirer rejects an a priori (as a constitutive principle) bound to sensuality . Space and time are therefore no longer a priori, but first impressions. Cassirer only recognizes the a priori bound to reason (for example causality) as a regulative principle. The a priori is a prerequisite for every factual judgment, but not fixed like Kant's categories. A priori are logical invariants on which every determination of natural law experience is based. The representatives of the Marburg School thereby give up an essential assumption of Kant, namely the dualism of sensuality and understanding. This leads to a change towards idealism .

His independent path began with the text Substance Concept and Function Concept (1910). Cassirer shows that the concepts of mathematics and the natural sciences are relations and not things. Accordingly, a thingness is only created with concepts. According to Cassirer, the concepts of the strict sciences are members of a series in which they link the manifold of perception in a certain way and, according to a prescribed “law”, run through an infinite process of the progress of the sciences. For Cassirer, the object of knowledge is a fabric of relations. The “unity of thinking and being” results from the two principles of “convergence of series” and “convergence of experience”. The theory of nature is not a speculation, but a description of the given with the symbolic language of mathematics, in which there is no representation, but only a clear relationship is established as a relation. Empirical science is the analytical dissection and the synthetic connection of sub-systems to a whole. Very well versed in the then current physical discussion, Cassirer stuck to the principle of Kant's critical method even after reassessing the space-time relationship through the theory of relativity (1921) and took similar positions on mathematical intuitionism ( Luitzen Egbertus Jan Brouwer ) and position on the paradoxes of set theory ( Bertrand Russell ).

Culture philosophy


Cassirer rejected distinctions such as between the natural sciences and the humanities with explanation and understanding as scientific principles, as did a philosophy developed as a uniform system analogous to idealism. Instead, based on Hermann von Helmholtz and Heinrich Hertz, he developed the concept of symbolic forms as a way of interpreting people for their experiences.

Differentiation from Kant and Neo-Kantianism

The essential step towards cultural philosophy results from Cassirer's expansion of the concept of knowledge into the guiding concept of experience (based on Paul Natorp). The subject of this cultural philosophy is not just knowledge, but the understanding of the world in general. Cassirer wanted to take into account the fact that there is an "experience" outside of the strict sciences that is expressed in language as well as in myths , religion or art . Also, history , art , science , morality or politics thus have their own worlds of experience .

Cassirer sets himself apart from Kant and Neo-Kantianism in that for him not only concepts (as in Kant), with which the spontaneity of the understanding according to rules gives meaning to the experience, contribute to knowledge. Rather, every form of reference to the world is dependent on symbolization . For Cassirer, humans have always been in a world and need not first build a bridge to it like the Kantian worldless subject. In contrast to Kant, it is not an abstract faculty of knowledge that provides the basis for the relation to the world, but the active orientation in the world:

"Rather, it is not just looking at things that forms the center from which the spiritual organization of reality begins for people."

Symbolic conciseness - symbolization as form

Under Tun understands Cassirer shapes , forms and form . Being only arises from doing. The most elementary form of design is delimitation or perspective . Since every perception only covers a part of reality, every perception is formative. For Cassirer, design always takes place in connection with a sensual content, a core idea that is expressed in Cassirer's formulation of symbolic conciseness :

“Under 'symbolic conciseness' should be understood the way in which a perceptual experience, as a 'sensual' experience, at the same time includes a certain non-visual 'meaning' and brings it to an immediate concrete representation."

The symbolic conciseness can be described procedurally as an immanent structure in the act of perception and a subsequent representation . This is how the shapes develop in seeing and for seeing. The immanent structure of the sensual content is a prerequisite for the world not encountering as an amorphous mass: through compression and detachment , forms, shapes, contrasts are formed, which through fixation achieve an identity (compared to other perceptual contents). However, in order for these to become permanent and to stand out “from the stream of consciousness certain constant basic forms, partly of a conceptual, partly of a purely illustrative nature”, a subsequent representation is required. This means that "instead of the flowing content [...] a self-contained and self-contained form." In this context, not just any sense is added to the perceptual content, but what is perceived is embedded in a whole of meaning because it takes on a form that goes beyond points out:

"Rather, it is the perception itself that, by virtue of its own immanent structure, gains a kind of mental 'articulation' [...] This ideal interweaving, this relatedness of the individual, here and now given perceptual phenomenon, the expression 'conciseness' is intended to denote."

Although every form depends on this human ability, there is historically no “absolute zero” of symbolic conciseness, no state of complete formlessness, because the starting point is the “physiognomic” world perception of mythical consciousness . For mythical consciousness, the world shows itself in mimetic moments of expression, these are affectively effective and, according to their origin, still protrude into the animal world. They offer starting points for any further shaping.

By means of symbols, individual sensual contents are formed into carriers of a general spiritual meaning. The shaping thus takes place at the same time as the sensory perception.

"A 'symbolic' form 'is to be understood as that energy of the spirit through which a spiritual meaning content is linked to a concrete sensual sign and is internally assigned to it."

- Ernst Cassirer

At the same time, the design is accompanied by a meaning: only forms reveal references and structures in the world. Symbolic forms are thus basic forms of understanding that are universally and intersubjectively valid and with which people shape their reality. Culture is the way in which humans create meaning through symbols . So symbols always arise in connection with sensuality, but have a meaning that points beyond them . Based on his great role model Goethe and his passage from Faust I ("It's true with the thought factory / Like a Weber masterpiece / Where one step stirs a thousand threads, [...] / One stroke creates a thousand connections") at Cassirer in various places the formulation:

"Now, in fact, one stroke beats a thousand connections, all of which achieve a more or less powerful and clear resonance in the setting of the symbol."

“No matter how 'elementary' sensual content is, it is never simple, as isolated and detached content, 'there'; but in this very existence he points beyond himself; it forms a concrete unit of 'presence' and 'representation'. "

Aspects of conciseness are:

  • Recognition (recognition)
  • Presentation ( presence of the physical-sensual.)
  • Retention (The experience remains in consciousness for a certain period of time.)
  • Representation (The relation that connects what is represented and what is represented: For Cassirer it is a fundamental achievement of consciousness and takes place as a constant movement between the two.)

He differentiates accordingly between perceptual and meaningfulness: the former gives the perceived an outline and clarity, the latter integrates it into a context. Recognition, presentation and retention are to be assigned to the perceptual conciseness, the meaningful conciseness to the representation.

Functions of symbolic forms

Symbolic forms can be characterized by three functions:

  • Expression : mimetic function, dynamic, lively facial expression (the friendly smile takes away fear)
  • Representation : analogic function, basic structure formation (linguistic designation of facts relate pragmatically to the world and structure it meaningfully)
  • Meaning : purely symbolic and completely detached from the two other functions (abstract, relational theories on a logical-mathematical basis).

Cassirer mostly regards these three functions as equivalent. In some passages he describes an ascending development from expression to meaning. In the reception of Cassirer's work, expression, representation and meaning are often assigned to the three volumes of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms , i.e. the symbolic forms of myth, language and knowledge. Cassirer himself did not make such an assignment. The expression function, the representation function and the meaning function can also be present within one and the same symbol form, for example in language which combines sensual, vivid and conceptual dimensions.

Symbolic forms as their own and not reducible worlds of experience

Symbolic forms. Illustration in the form of a rosette. Cassirer himself has not established a fixed canon of symbolic forms, his lists fluctuate, so in some places he also includes history and ethics, for example.

The worlds of experience of the symbolic forms are essentially determined by human activity. Common historical origin is the myth , as the earliest form of the meaningful world structure. The symbolic forms depict reality from different perspectives. It is essential that they cannot be reduced to one another, i. H. Language cannot be understood through physics, physics cannot be described with the means of law. Nevertheless, Cassirer sought a philosophy that would help people understand in all these different activities. His aim was not to find an abstract generality, for example a human being or a supreme principle, but rather to understand the unity of the concrete multiplicity . Cassirer did not want to design a system of symbolic forms, his programmatic claim was to make " prolegomena to every future cultural philosophy" which helps to understand the sphere of human activity:

“Language, myth, religion, art, science, history are the components, the different sectors of this sphere. A 'philosophy of man' would therefore be a philosophy that gives us an insight into the basic structure of each of these different activities and at the same time enables us to understand them as an organic whole. "


For Cassirer, the human spirit is the unity of the world of consciousness and the symbolic world of form (animals therefore only have one consciousness). The symbolic world of forms results from the combination of meaning and sensuality. According to Cassirer, the spirit does not have the ability to grasp itself, but is dependent on a mediation through a sensual content. Human activity produces works in design, but only on the basis of these can humans relate to their activity.

“[T] he I not only impresses on the objects its own form given to it from the beginning, but it finds, it gains, this form only in the totality of the effects that it exerts on the objects and that it receives back from them. "

Through this “detour” which the mind needs in order to grasp itself, Cassirer avoids the self-referentiality of the mind, as in a pure reflection philosophy. At the same time he overcomes the modern philosophy of the subject when he lets being arise from human activity .

Culture as self-liberation and the free personality

Since an objectification takes place in the form and symbolization , these processes bring people at a distance to their emotions, wishes, and views and thus enable them to relate freely to them. Because these subjective factors are not immediate, according to Cassirer, the individual is not overwhelmed by them. Since every symbolic form brings such an objectification - and thus rationalization - with it, it includes a step in human liberation.

“Taken as a whole, culture could be described as the process of progressive human self-liberation. Language, art, religion and science make up different phases in this process. In all of them man discovers and shows a new power, the power to build his own ' ideal ' world. "

For the individual, the possibility to behave symbolically mediated to himself is what Cassirer describes as a "free personality":

“It [the free personality] is only form in that it gives itself its form, and that is why we must not see it […] merely as a limit, but we have to recognize and recognize it as a real and original force. The general that reveals itself to us in the realm of culture, language, art, religion and philosophy is therefore always both individual and universal. For in this sphere the universal cannot be looked at in any other way than in the deed of individuals, because it can only find its actual realization in its actualization. "

Cassirer saw man's self-liberation as a goal of the educational process. The “free personality” has to appropriate the universal symbolic forms, the “cultural goods”, because only in the individual do they come to life. The cultural philosopher and Cassirer expert Oswald Schwemmer calls this relationship between the universal and the individual the cultural existence of man.

Schwemmer describes the philosophy of symbolic forms as theoretical philosophy with a practical interest . According to Schwemmer, ethical considerations can tie in with Cassirer's idea of ​​the “free personality” if, for example, they emphasize the right to recognition of the creative individuality of other people and cultures. It is not required to learn to understand the specific content and individual convictions, but to recognize them as the result of an independent process of shaping and expression.

Symbolic forms


For Cassirer, mythical thinking and perception is the basic symbolic form from which all others emerge. The mythical world perception is colored primarily by affects and emotions, which is why the myth “primarily perceives not objective, but physiognomic features.” The objects in the world have a (facial) expression , the events address people directly. The world shows itself as a great drama of opposing powers, not as a collection of dead things. Cassirer emphasizes that the emotional quality that belongs to the objects of perception is essential to reality and is also important for cultures beyond mythical consciousness. He points to John Dewey as the only real empiricist, because empirically "things are moving, tragic, beautiful, funny, constant, confused, comfortable, annoying, boring, aloof, comforting, magnificent, frightening"

What gives the mythical world coherence is the unity of feeling, a synthetic conception of life that transcends the boundaries of plants, animals and people and conceives life as an all-embracing process. However, this is neither a theoretical nor a practical worldview, but a sympathetic one. It is carried by a feeling of unity with nature. Death hardly becomes a problem in her, thanks to a trust in the solidarity of all life as an endless occurrence.

For Cassirer, myth is the original phenomenon of all human culture. In it the fleeting of the experience is captured for the first time through shaping and solidification, the feeling becomes a work. This creates a world of its own, to which man can relate from now on and which confronts the directly experienced world. In addition, there is a possibility of distinguishing between the individual I and the collective we, because the myth offers a yardstick by which the behavior and what is said of the individual can be measured. Both moments of objectification (i.e. the myth confronts the human being as an objectified feeling) leads to the fact that the myth robs the immediacy of the emotional experience of power. At the same time, however, it makes itself superfluous. This is what Cassirer calls the “dialectic of mythical consciousness”. Objectification thus shows itself for Cassirer as the essential moment of cultural development.


The grammar underlying mythical thinking can be called identity thinking: image and thing coincide. The rite is the dancer of God. There is no foreground or background in this world. All things interlock and interact. Even the word does not just designate, it affects the world in magical formulas.

This changes with the transition to religion. If the factor determining the myth was identity, in religion it is difference. Through the creation of differences, the experiences objectify and confront the human being in a reified form. As a result, he is no longer directly at their mercy, but can relate to them. For Cassirer, this possibility of behaving towards something objectified is the basis for the development of a personality , because from now on man can give himself a form. The free personality "is only form because it gives itself a form [...]"

For Cassirer, the process of objectification is not a reflexive-theoretical process, but is rooted in human practice . Three forms of action drive the process of exposure:

  • Tool : The tool steps between the will and the goal of the action and thereby objectifies both, this is a prerequisite for a subsequent linguistic objectification.
  • Language : The word no longer works, from now on it denotes.
  • Fine arts : The plastic representation of the gods, the visibility of the body allows people to experience an awareness of their physical individuality. Through narrative structures, poetry offers the possibility of experiencing oneself as the subject of history.

The detachment of religion from myth does not take place automatically, but depends on these three mediations. What is highlighted through practical world references only becomes a spiritual form of thought through fixation as a symbol. This connects the transitions characteristic of religion from immediacy to reference, from expression to representation, from the divine to the (personal, opposing) God, from the present to the beyond, from action to showing. If the mythical consciousness saw man as part of an all-embracing community, he is now a partner of God. With this personality relationship, recognition, duty, responsibility and service become important. (For Cassirer, Christianity, with its sacramentalism, remains tied to mythical thinking, while Judaism, through its propheticism, can be seen as the historical expression of the personal-ethical form of religion.)

Similar to the “dialectic of myth”, there is also an “antinomy of religious feeling” in religion, because on the one hand ethical religion demands a universality of feeling and solidarity with the whole, on the other hand, through objectification and differentiation, an awareness of one's own results Individuality and - above all - finiteness. The moral interrelationship between individuality and universality leads, according to Cassirer, in religion to making a claim to the individual, that he should turn to the good as a self-determined personality .


Cassirer sees an essential connection between language and myth. In mythical identity thinking, word and effect coincide, because man transfers the social effect of the word known to him from living together to the natural environment. The word then becomes a magical formula that is supposed to affect nature. Only when the effect does not materialize does a new relationship between language and reality appear for thinking: the magical function becomes a semantic one. Only then, in early Greek philosophy, can language be elevated to the status of logos and the claim made to it that cosmic truth belongs to it. Above all, Cassirer sees Heraclitus on the threshold of the transition from natural to linguistic philosophy.

This claim crumbles with the sophists who put man as the center of the universe. The saying of Protagoras shows this: “Man is the measure of all things.” With this, however, the word's claim to truth is lost and it is only perceived in its practical function as a tool. The teaching corresponding to this tool is rhetoric , in which disputes about truth and correctness become null and void. Ideas should no longer be conveyed, but people should be induced to act through pathos and persuasion.

Cassirer points out that two structural elements of language can be identified: the emotional aspect linked to action and the propositional statement. However, he rejects theories that describe the emergence of language as an evolutionary development from the affective exclamation to the name, because they disregard the completely different quality of exclamation and word that the word is universal as a symbol and not always action-related. However, there cannot be a seamless transition between these two qualities, as they are essentially different.

With regard to the structure and grammar of language, Cassirer rejects two extreme positions. He neither believes that every language is completely individual, nor does he consider it possible to define a universal system of parts of speech for all historically grown languages. For him, language is more functionally determined, which is why there is no absolute measure of the richness of a language, but each one is adapted to the specific living conditions of its speakers. He considers efforts to develop a language that better fulfills this function to be nonsensical, because there is no non-linguistic world reference from which one can then develop the language tool accordingly. Perception is always dependent on a structure that is also thanks to the constant support of language.

The internal references of language made it possible for it to develop as a world of its own, according to the laws and possibilities of its internal structure. In doing so, it tends to follow a development that leads from the concrete to the abstract.


For Cassirer, art is work on form. Whether it follows the demand to imitate nature or expresses inwardness , it always takes place in a medium. This medium, in which the shaping takes place, is inextricably linked with art:

“For the great painter, composer or poet, however, colors and lines, rhythms and words are not just part of his technical instruments; rather, they are indispensable components of the creative process itself. "

The immediate surrender to an emotion is no art for Cassirer, because it takes place without a medium and thus without a creative process of shaping (it would be mere sentimentality ). Art is therefore never purely expressive, but the necessary form shows it as a symbolic activity: Therefore, it claims to open up reality objectively . Their theming of nature is of course different from that of natural science. While science describes reality in abbreviation, art intensifies reality, i. H. science is looking for a unified principle in order to be able to describe a large number of observations with it, while art tries to discover the world in all its diversity and diversity. Cassirer emphasizes that the selection process in which the artist chooses a certain object is a process of objectification, because it gives a certain perspective permanence and shows the world in a special light. Art does not show a truth of empirical relationships, but a "truth of pure forms." The rationality of art is a rationality of form:

“Science gives us order in thinking; morality gives us order in action; art gives us order in the perception of visible, tangible and audible phenomena. "

Since art offers people the opportunity to emphasize and fix their feelings in the work of art, it helps to objectify the emotions. This means that people are no longer directly at their mercy. Shaping and the liberating quality of art form the yardstick by which art can be measured:

"Not the degree of contagion, but the degree of intensification and illumination is the measure of the excellence of art."

Aesthetic freedom does not mean stoic apathia and the absence of feelings and passions, but merely that the compulsive and emotional aspects of feelings are overcome.

For Cassirer, beauty is not part of things “in themselves”, nor is it a pure intellectual function. Cassirer argues that it should be understood as a mode of recording. The sensation of beauty is not an affect, it does not consist of passive impressions, but requires an active inner dynamic:

“Only through constructive acts can we discover the beauty of natural things. The sense of beauty is the receptivity for the dynamic life of forms, and this life can only be grasped by a corresponding dynamic process in ourselves. "

Art as a symbolic form is an “independent universe of discourse”. For Cassirer, this is indicated by the many controversies between the various theories of art, between realism , romanticism , classicism , etc. The various arts, i.e. poetry, painting, music, speak different “languages”, which can be combined with one another, but not translated into one another. Here Cassirer's concept contradicts Adorno's theory . This connection to the medium and the concrete form show how form and content cannot be separated in art. The symbolism of art is thus immanent.


After speculative metaphysics as the explanation of the world had been knocked off its pedestal by Kant and Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud had robbed people of the illusions of teleological meaning, for Cassirer philosophical anthropology assumed the function of conveying a concept of the world for orientation; for by mere introspection of the philosophy of spirit one only gets a fragmentary picture of man. The essence of man one could rather only in compliance with the conditions of its culture determine.

While the philosophy of culture is dedicated to the internal structure of the symbolic forms, it is the task of anthropology to provide a definition of the human being, which separates him from the animal. Cassirer follows on from the work of the biologist Jakob Johann von Uexküll . This had characterized animal life by a "memory network" which processes the sensory data and an "active network" which reacts to information perceived from outside. For Uexküll, the memory network and the active network form a closed "functional circle", i. H. every relevant perception is immediately followed by a reaction. This does not apply to humans: “In humans, the 'functional circle' is not only quantitatively expanded; it has also changed qualitatively. ”Between perception and reaction, the symbol appears as an essential reference to reality. This can be illustrated by the language: Animals also utter sounds to evoke reactions from their fellow species, for example warning calls in the event of danger, but these always evoke an immediate reaction (flight). In humans, on the other hand, language has developed as a symbolic form to such an extent that propositional statements are possible in it that are not linked to a subsequent action. This is how the symbol, as an element connected between the memory network and the active network, makes human freedom possible: "All phenomena that are usually referred to as conditioned reflexes are not only far removed from the peculiarity of symbolic thinking, they are even contrary to it."

Another difference lies in the fact that animal signals are always tied to special situations (a warning call can only be understood and produced in the situation of an approaching enemy) (but there are also animal fraudsters who, by means of a warning call and the consequences of its escape, are sent to a " Delicious "want to approach"), while the symbol has universality: It can be transferred to different things and situations and thus also has an existence outside of concrete reality. With this, people can use the symbols to design not only a factual but also an ideal worldview that is purely based on thought . Thus, in addition to the living-world space, humans have also developed the idea of ​​an abstract mathematical space in which models are created that symbolize nothing other than relations. The same applies to the awareness of time, which enables people to see the future. Through art man can recognize his own aspect of reality without explaining it.

Man is not just an organic being, but someone who always asks for meaning and meaning. The relationship between body and soul always stands in this area of ​​tension . Humans determine themselves and their meaning through the active formation of symbolic forms, each of which is associated with a meaning of its own. As a bearer of meaning, the human becomes a symbol himself, is therefore an animal symbolicum . With this formulation, Cassirer is based on the traditional definition of man as animal rational and at the same time expands it, since he not only sees in man the being gifted with reason, but also considers the non-rationally rational moments of culture to be essential for the determination of man: "The concept of reason is highly unsuitable for grasping the forms of culture in their fullness and diversity." According to Cassirer's cultural-philosophical considerations, all different symbolic forms represent rationalizations - precisely because of their shaping and objectification. (Mathematical-physical science also requires yes of symbolization.) This proves the ability to form as an anthropological determination of man:

“The simplest and most concise definition that a philosophically oriented 'anthropology' could give for man would therefore perhaps be the determination that he is 'capable of form'. [...] His characteristic position on the world as well as his position on objects is determined here. "

State and social philosophy

Cassirer's last, only posthumously published work, Vom Mythus des Staates (first in English, The Myth of the State , 1946) is, on the one hand, a consistent further development of the perspective from culture via anthropology to society . On the other hand, it deals with the confrontation with fascism, to which Cassirer had to give way due to an early emigration .

Cassirer saw the mythization of politics as the cause of National Socialism: Similar to the way in psychology, pathological conditions (such as brain damage) lead to a restriction of the ability to form symbolic forms and thus to a restricted processing of reality, social crises cause an uncertainty of reason and consequently one increased human recourse to religion and myth. A lack of explanation of the world leads to the (re-) revival of legends and rites , prejudices of any kind gain in persuasiveness. Affects and aggression arise against the supposed causes, which are used by mystical explanators of the world. National Socialism, too, was overwhelmed by political myths . Cassirer saw the germs for this already in the nationalism of romanticism and in the ideas of the absolute in German idealism , especially in Hegel , who approved of both the idea of ​​hero worship and war as a continuation of politics by other means. For him, the writings of Heidegger and Spengler undermined the forces that could have resisted the political myths of his time. Spengler's “Astrology of History” and Heidegger's theory of thrownness promoted a new fatalism that had given up all hopes of an active part in building up cultural life and renounced its own theoretical and ethical ideals. Cassirer did not comment directly on Heidegger's personal role under National Socialism. For Cassirer, overcoming the threat posed by political myths was only possible through the rational use of active freedom . At the end of his last book on the state and fascism in 1945, he urged philosophy to "think beyond and against its time." The demonic power of myth, which everyone had underestimated, could not be overcome with rational arguments , however, one should carefully study the methods and techniques of political myths. “We should,” concluded Cassirer, “look our opponent in the face in order to know how to fight him.”

Reception and effect

As mentioned at the beginning, Cassirer was mainly perceived as a Neo-Kantian because of his Marburg references, his Kant edition and the many works on the history of philosophy. For a long time there was hardly any real reception of his work. Maurice Merleau-Ponty made explicit reference to Cassirer in his famous phenomenology of perception . Eric Weil's early works on the philosophy of the Renaissance are still entirely under the influence of Cassirer. In anthropology, the cultural theorist Clifford Geertz took up the philosophy of symbolic forms again. Susanne K. Langer pursued similar approaches in philosophy as Cassirer with her investigations on the symbolic in the life processes of the organic and Nelson Goodman , who considered the meaning of the symbolism of art, science and language as ways of creating the world from an analytical point of view.

It is all the more astonishing that a large number of biographies and monographs on various aspects of the philosophy of symbolic forms have appeared since the late 1980s. In addition, his publications are being reissued in Hamburg. It seems that Cassirer's work overcame the interruption and hindrance of its impact by National Socialism and that the perspective of philosophical cultural anthropology on the basis of symbolic forms has something to say to people of today. One of the reasons could be that Cassirer was one of the few philosophers of the 20th century who tried to take account of the developments in analytical philosophy , the philosophy of language , as well as the traditional philosophy of consciousness .

His work “Substance Concept and Function Concept”, published in 1910, exerted an extraordinary influence on the development of Talcott Parsons' system functionalism and Niklas Luhmann's functional systems theory . It is only against this background that the work of these two sociologists can be understood at all. Cassirer based himself on the mathematical concept of function in the form y = f (x), i.e. This means that a value y can be assigned to each variable x. "The logic of the generic concept, which, as we have seen, stands under the point of view and the dominance of the substance concept, is now opposed to the logic of the mathematical concept of function ." Thus, in place of features that determine the substance or essence, Entanglement of elements ”. In doing so, Cassirer initially only asserted the concept of function against the concept of substance for logic, which was previously suggested by Émile Durkheim for the analysis of societies: Another society also requires a different point of view and knowledge, which has far-reaching consequences for methodology the social sciences.

In May 1999, the University of Hamburg organized an academic commemoration for Ernst Cassirer. The Festschrift then appeared with the speeches. In the following years the basis for further Cassirer research was created with a complete edition and an edition of the legacy writings.



The complete edition of Cassirer's works (Sigle ECW) is available in 25 volumes, edited by Birgit Recki , plus a register volume and a full-text CD-ROM, Felix Meiner Verlag . It contains all monographs, essays and articles.

  • Philosophy of symbolic forms. Meiner, 2010 (study edition)
  1. The language. ISBN 978-3-7873-1953-4
  2. Mythical thinking. ISBN 978-3-7873-1954-1
  3. Phenomenology of knowledge. ISBN 978-3-7873-1955-8

Estate edition

In addition to the preparatory work and fair copies for his publications, Cassirer's estate also contains a large number of texts, lecture drafts and lecture manuscripts, lectures and notes that were not printed during his lifetime. These manuscripts not only reflect all of Cassirer's creative periods and thus complement those published during his lifetime, but also offer new insights into his research work. The preliminary work gathered in volume 1 for a fourth volume on the philosophy of symbolic forms z. B., or the book Aims and Paths of Reality Knowledge, published as Volume 2 , which did not find a publisher in 1937, offer decisive insights into the further development of Cassirer's thought during the time of exile. Cassirer's previously unpublished writings have therefore been published by Meiner-Verlag in Hamburg since 1995 in a historical-critical edition under the series title Ernst Cassirer, Nachgelassene Manuskripte und Texte (Sigle ECN, series publishers: Klaus Christian Köhnke , John Michael Krois , Oswald Schwemmer ). The status and plan of the edition is currently as follows:


  • "... my inner belonging to Judaism." EC explains Paul Tillich his complex German-Jewish identity, May 19, 1944, in Munich Contributions to Jewish History and Culture . Ed. Chair of Jewish History and Culture, Michael Brenner . H. 2, 2013, pp. 53–66 (with subsequent commentary by Friedrich Wilhelm Graf ). Without ISSN. Access



Further information

  • Jean-Chrysostome Kapumba Akenda : Diversity and Objectivity of Cultural Forms. On the philosophy of science in cultural studies from Ernst Cassirer , Münster, LIT-Verlag, 1998, ISBN 3-8258-3590-1
  • Norbert Andersch: 1929–2009. 80 years ago. On the pathology of symbolic awareness. Ernst Cassirer's unredeemed contribution to a radical reform of psychopathology. In: Bernd Holdorff , Ekkehard Kumbier (Hrsg.): Series of publications by the German Society for the History of Neurology. Volume 16, Würzburg 2010, pp. 109-124
  • Nobert Andersch: Symbolic form and mental illness. Arguments for a "New Psychopathology". Clinical and Philosophical Considerations . Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2014 ISBN 978-3-8260-5304-7
  • Tobias Bevc: Cultural genesis as a dialectic of myth and reason. Ernst Cassirer and the Critical Theory . Würzburg 2005 ISBN 3-8260-2964-X
  • Michael Bösch: The network of culture. The concept of system in Ernst Cassirer's cultural philosophy . Würzburg 2004 ISBN 3-8260-2757-4
  • Horst Bredekamp , Claudia Wedepohl: Warburg , Cassirer and Einstein in conversation : Kepler as the key to modernity . Wagenbach, Berlin 2015 ISBN 978-3-8031-5188-9
  • Toni Cassirer: My life with Ernst Cassirer. Preliminary. Peter Cassirer. With illustrations, index of persons and subjects and list of scripts. Felix Meiner, Hamburg 2004 ISBN 3-7873-1625-6 [first 1950, ad T .: From my life with Ernst Cassirer ]
  • Tobias Endres, Pellegrino Favuzzi, Timo Klattenhoff (eds.): Philosophy of culture and forms of knowledge. Reread Ernst Cassirer . Peter Lang, Berlin 2016 ISBN 978-3-631-66489-6
  • Massimo Ferrari: Ernst Cassirer. Stations in a philosophical biography. From the Marburg School to the Philosophy of Culture. Translated by Marion Lauschke. Meiner, Hamburg 2003 ISBN 3-7873-1636-1 .
  • Michael Friedman : Carnap, Cassirer, Heidegger. Shared ways . Fischer TB, Frankfurt 2004, ISBN 3-596-16006-5 .
  • Gerald Hartung : The measure of man. Aporias in philosophical anthropology and their dissolution in Ernst Cassirer's cultural philosophy . Velbrück Wissenschaft, Weilerswist 2003, ISBN 3-934730-72-8 .
  • Andreas Jürgens: humanism and cultural criticism. Ernst Cassirer's work in American exile . Wilhelm Fink, Paderborn 2012, ISBN 978-3-7705-5367-9 .
  • Dominic Kaegi, Enno Rudolph (eds.): Cassirer - Heidegger: 70 years of the Davos disputation. Meiner, Hamburg 2002, ISBN 3-7873-1581-0 .
  • Guido Kreis: Cassirer and the forms of the mind . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 2010, ISBN 978-3-518-29551-9 .
  • John Michael Krois : Cassirer. Symbolic Forms and History. Yale University Press, New Haven 1987, ISBN 978-0-300-03746-3 .
  • Christine Magerski : "The power of the symbolic. From Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms to Bourdieu's sociology of symbolic forms". Journal for Sociology, Issue 2, 2005, 112–127. [1]
  • Thomas Meyer: Ernst Cassirer. 2nd edition, Ellert & Richter, Hamburg 2007 ISBN 978-3-8319-0217-0 .
  • Oliver Müller: German is European . In: Die Zeit , No. 2, 2007
  • Sebastian Musch: Humanistic Faith, Freedom and Magic - On the role of the Pico della Mirandola in the history of ideas at Ernst Kassierer. Journal of Religious and Intellectual History , 66, 3–4, 2014, 233–242
  • Barbara Naumann: Philosophy and Poetics of the Symbol. Cassirer and Goethe. Fink, Munich 1998 ISBN 978-3-7705-3297-1
  • Viola Nordsieck: Forms of Reality and Experience. Henri Bergson, Ernst Cassirer and Alfred North Whitehead. Karl Alber Verlag, Munich / Freiburg i. B. 2015. ISBN 978-3-495-48735-8 .
  • Heinz Paetzold : Ernst Cassirer. From Marburg to New York, a philosophical biography . Scientific book society WBG, Darmstadt 1995 ISBN 3-534-11816-2
  • Roman Parkhomenko: Cassirer's Political Philosophy. Between general cultural theory and totalitarianism debate. Universitätsverlag Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe 2007 ISBN 978-3-86644-186-6 (Dissertation, KIT Karlsruhe, Faculty for Humanities and Social Sciences, July 15, 2005, Speaker: Hans-Peter Schütt , full text PDF, 1.9 MB)
  • Martina Sauer: Perceiving meaning before every linguistic or intellectual formulation? Question to Ernst Cassirer . In: Art History . December 2008 ( urn : nbn: de: 0009-23-23387 ).
  • Martina Sauer: Responsibility. About charging with meaning in art and language. On the consequences of the cultural anthropological approaches of Cassirer, Warburg and Böhme . In: Kathrin Oxen, Dietrich Sübers Hgg .: Messages - for the renewal of Protestant preaching culture . Leipzig 2013, pp. 15–33 [Church on the move, 5]
  • Martina Sauer: Aesthetics versus art history? Ernst Cassirer as mediator in an open controversy about the relevance of art for life . in: Thiemo Breyer, Stefan Niklas Ed .: Ernst Cassirer in systematic relationships. On the critical and communicative significance of his cultural philosophy , Berlin 2018. German magazine for philosophy, special volume 4, pp. 239–260
  • Oswald Schwemmer : Ernst Cassirer. A philosopher of European modernism . Akademie Verlag, Berlin 1997 ISBN 3-05-003105-0
  • Paul A. Schilpp (Ed.): The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer . Open Court Publishing Company, LaSalle, Illinois 1958 (Library of Living Philosophers, 6)
  • Jean Seidengart (ed.): Ernst Cassirer, de Marbourg à New York: l'itinéraire philosophique (Actes du colloque de Nanterre, October 12-14, 1988). Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris 1990 ISBN 2-204-04018-5
  • Markus Tomberg : Studies on the meaning of the term symbol. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Schelling, Cassirer, Mead, Ricoeur . Würzburg 2001 ISBN 3-8260-1991-1
  • Wolfgang Vögele (Ed.): “The opposites do not exclude each other, but refer to each other.” Ernst Cassirer's symbol theory and the question of pluralism and difference. Loccum 1999 ISBN 3-8172-3098-2
  • Susanne Wittek: “From now on I have to see the tape as loosened.” Ernst Cassirer's Hamburg years 1919-1933. (Scientist in Hamburg, 3) Wallstein, Göttingen 2019 ISBN 978-3-8353-3537-0
  • Sebastian Wogenstein: Horizons of Modernity. Tragedy and Judaism from Cohen to Lévinas. Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg 2011 ISBN 978-3-8253-5851-8
  • Richard von Kymmel: The concept of the 'symbol' in Ernst Cassirer's philosophy , Diss.Bonn 1953

Web links

Wikisource: Ernst Cassirer  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Cassirer: Hermann Cohen and the Renaissance of the Kantian Philosophy. In: Jüdisch-Liberale Zeitung. No. 11, April 25, 1924, 1st Supplement, pp. 5-6 (ECW 24, pp. 646-647); as well as: Hermann Cohen, 1842–1918. In: Social Research. 10, 1943, pp. 222-223 (ECW 24, pp. 163-164); Dimitry Gawronsky: Ernst Cassirer: Life and Work. in: Paul Arthur Schilpp (Ed.): Ernst Cassirer. Kohlhammer, Mainz 1966 (orig. English 1949), pp. 5–7.
  2. ^ Sigrid Bauschinger: The Cassirers. Entrepreneurs, art dealers, philosophers. CHBeck, Munich 2015; P. 448. ISBN 978-3-406-67714-4 .
  3. ^ Massimo Ferrari: Ernst Cassirer. Stations in a philosophical biography: from the Marburg School to cultural philosophy. Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2003, p. 15
  4. Ernst Cassirer: Philosophy of symbolic forms. Volume II, p. 187.
  5. ^ Oswald Schwemmer: Ernst Cassirer. A philosopher of European modernism. Berlin 1997, p. 30.
  6. ^ A b Ernst Cassirer: Philosophy of symbolic forms , Volume III, Darmstadt 1982, p. 235.
  7. Ernst Cassirer: Philosophy of symbolic forms. Volume I, p. 22.
  8. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people. Hamburg 2007, p. 123.
  9. ^ Oswald Schwemmer: Ernst Cassirer. A philosopher of European modernism. Berlin 1997, p. 50 f.
  10. Cassirer, Ernst (1983): "The concept of symbolic form in the structure of the humanities (1923)". In: Essence and Effect of the Concept of Symbols. 7th, unchanged. Edition Darmstadt: Wiss. Buchges. Pp. 169-200: pp. 175ff.
  11. Ernst Cassirer: Philosophy of symbolic forms. Volume I, p. 45. See also Ernst Cassirer, Oswald Schwemmer (ed.), John Michael Krois (ed.): Post-processed manuscripts and texts. Volume 1: On the metaphysics of symbolic forms. Hamburg 1995, p. 6.
  12. Ernst Cassirer: Philosophy of symbolic forms. Volume III, Darmstadt 1982, p. 149.
  13. ^ Oswald Schwemmer: Ernst Cassirer. A philosopher of European modernism. Berlin, 1997, p. 89 ff.
  14. ^ Oswald Schwemmer: Ernst Cassirer. A philosopher of European modernism. Berlin 1997, p. 61.
  15. Quoted from Oswald Schwemmer: Ernst Cassirer. A philosopher of European modernism. Berlin 1997, p. 10.
  16. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 110.
  17. ^ Oswald Schwemmer: Ernst Cassirer. A philosopher of European modernism. Berlin 1997, p. 37.
  18. Ernst Cassirer: Philosophy of symbolic forms. Volume II, Darmstadt 1977, p. 239.
  19. ^ Oswald Schwemmer: Ernst Cassirer. A philosopher of European modernism. Berlin 1997, p. 129.
  20. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people. Hamburg 2007, p. 345.
  21. Quoted from Oswald Schwemmer: Ernst Cassirer. A philosopher of European modernism. Berlin 1997, p. 145.
  22. ^ Oswald Schwemmer: Ernst Cassirer. A philosopher of European modernism. Berlin 1997, p. 150 f.
  23. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 124.
  24. Quoted from: Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 125; from: John Dewey: Experience and Nature . Open Court Publishing, Chicago 1925, p. 96.
  25. Ernst Cassirer: Philosophy of Symbolic Forms . Volume II, title of the fourth section, p. 281 ff.
  26. ^ Ernst Cassirer: Knowledge, Concept, Culture . Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg, 1993, p. 249.
  27. ^ Ernst Cassirer: Symbol, Technology, Language. Articles from the years 1927–1933 . Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 1985, pp. 39–91.
  28. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 151.
  29. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 175.
  30. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 180 ff.
  31. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 208.
  32. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 218.
  33. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 252.
  34. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 257.
  35. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 228.
  36. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 232.
  37. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 49.
  38. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 58.
  39. Ernst Cassirer: Experiment about people . Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 2007, p. 51.
  40. Ernst Cassirer: Postponed manuscripts and texts. Volume 1: On the metaphysics of symbolic forms. Edited by Oswald Schwemmer and John Michael Krois, Hamburg 1995, p. 44.
  41. Ernst Cassirer: From the myth of the state . Zurich, p. 381.
  42. Ernst Cassirer: From the myth of the state . Zurich, p. 383 f.
  43. Ernst Cassirer: From the myth of the state . Zurich, p. 388.
  44. Ernst Cassirer: Substance Concept and Function Concept: Investigations into the basic questions of the critique of knowledge . 7th edition, Hamburg, p. 27.
  45. Ernst Cassirer: Substance Concept and Function Concept: Investigations into the basic questions of the critique of knowledge . 7th edition, Hamburg, p. 31.
  46. In memory of Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945); Speeches at the academic commemoration on May 11, 1999 . Verlag Dölling and Galitz, Hamburg 1999, ISBN 3-933374-58-8 .
  47. Table of Contents
  48. Ernst Cassirer Papers. Collection . Beincke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Archives at Yale University, New Haven 2001 hdl : 10079 / fa / beinecke.cassirer
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on February 5, 2006 .