Nathan Tarcov recently pointed out in these pages that much nonsense has been written about the supposed influence of the late Leo Strauss on American foreign policy.11.
“Will the Real Leo Strauss Please Stand Up?” The American Interest (Autumn 2006). This nonsense takes its cue not from Strauss’ own writings, but from the voluminous interpretations of his students—and students of his students—who claim Strauss’ legacy in what has become a secular version of apostolic succession. It is therefore a bit curious that no one seems to have wondered about Strauss’ own teachers. As it happens, Strauss’ doctoral dissertation adviser and an important early influence on him was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century: Ernst Cassirer.
Ernst Cassirer was born on July 28, 1874, into an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Breslau, Germany, whose members combined intellectual and artistic pursuits with commercial and publishing interests. Even as he matured as both a man and a philosopher, he remained largely within the social circle bounded by his extended family and a few intimate colleagues. His major works were published by a cousin’s publishing firm, the Bruno Cassirer Verlag, or by the Warburg Library, where he worked throughout the 1920s with a select group of scholars, most notably Erwin Panofsky, the renowned art historian. The library’s unusual book collection provided Cassirer with much of the raw material for his groundbreaking work on language and mythic thought. Aby Warburg, the owner and creator of the library, was himself the scion of a prominent Jewish merchant banking family.Cassirer’s contemporaries described him as a serene and dignified man with an Olympian detachment that he regularly deployed when dealing with troublesome individuals and anti-Semitic colleagues. Many were literally awestruck by his vast, eclectic knowledge and his transparent honesty. Above all else, Cassirer’s boundless patience and legendary openness to the ideas of others defined him from the very beginning as he entered university in 1892. Two years later, he was introduced to the works of Hermann Cohen, the guiding spirit of the neo-Kantian Marburg School. Cohen’s ideas so fascinated Cassirer that he went to Marburg to study philosophy, receiving his doctorate there in 1899.From 1899 to 1914, Cassirer was primarily preoccupied with the academic problem of knowledge as debated in Kantian academic circles, which generally emphasized the a priori, logical and teleological nature of ideas. Neo-Kantians presumed that a priori judgments provided order to the chaos of empirical data, and that these judgments in turn generated concepts that both obeyed empirical facts and regulated our understanding of the natural world.Between 1914 and 1922, Cassirer enlarged his thinking from an exclusive focus on philosophical issues to the wider study of human history and culture. World War I had jolted Cassirer out of the ivory tower, and set the direction for the first phase of his remarkable oeuvre.Sometime in 1916, Cassirer realized that Germany would lose the war. He had been drafted into the German civil service and, having access to Allied newspaper reports, enjoyed a rare uncensored view of military and international developments. He worried deeply about the danger of Germany losing the better part of its cultural heritage to the nationalist fanatics who ruled the country. From 1916 onward, his overriding purpose was to keep Germany engaged in the European cultural project that originated in the Renaissance—a project whose sine qua non recognized the primacy of individual freedom, the progressive self-liberation of mankind, and the role of reason in preserving that freedom.A Leap
Cassirer’s decisive turn from a standard German neo-Kantian philosopher into a universal philosopher of freedom showed itself most vividly in his two wartime works, Kants Leben und Lehre (“Kant’s Life and Thought”) and Freiheit und Form (“Freedom and Form”), both completed in 1916.22.
These and all of Cassirer’s other major works have been translated into English, with the major titles published by Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania presses. In both books Cassirer emphasized individual freedom and a more cosmopolitan view of history over the blind nationalism engulfing wartime Germany. In Kant’s Life and Thought Cassirer asserted that Kant had inspired a virtual “Copernican revolution” in thinking. Before Kant, he declared, we assumed that “all our knowledge must conform to objects”; afterwards we realized that “objects must conform to our knowledge.” In other words, Kant, the prime mover of the German Enlightenment, radically shifted our focus from looking to the outside world for knowledge that we passively “discovered” to looking into ourselves to uncover how we actively interpret events. According to Cassirer, Kant’s revolution in thinking not only applied to abstract matters such as philosophy, mathematics and science, but also to how we understand ourselves and our history:
Just as full insight into the validity of laws of nature was only attained when we saw that nature as given does not ‘have’ laws, but that the concept of law is what creates and constitutes nature . . . . ‘History’ first truly exists where we as contemplators no longer stand in the series of sheer events, but in a series of actions; the idea of an action includes the idea of freedom.
Cassirer went on to proclaim that a liberated humanity was indeed the ultimate purpose of history.If Kant was Cassirer’s chief mentor and guiding spirit, Goethe was a close second. Along with Kant, the poet had been a cultural icon to Germans since the late 18th century. Goethe’s literary works provided Cassirer with an illuminating principle to complement his belief in the primacy of reason. Cassirer devoted nearly a third of Freedom and Form to a discussion of the poet’s meaning for German culture. In a pivotal passage Cassirer quotes Goethe: “We want to observe, measure . . . and test nature as we choose, yet it is only our measures and weights, since Man is the Measure of all things.” These few words summarized Cassirer’s views of both Goethe and Kant, and articulated the key assumption motivating Cassirer’s philosophy of man and human culture. From now on, human activity would provide the empirical data for the larger story of human self-liberation.In the next phase of his intellectual development, from 1923 to 1927, Cassirer tried to fuse the whole gamut of his intellectual ambitions with his liberal politics in order to achieve an all-encompassing spiritual synthesis—a critique of human culture, which he called Die Philosophie der Symbolischen Formen (“The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms”). He sought to balance a specific view of humanity’s progressive enlightenment with a logical, a priori analysis of consciousness at whose center existed a brilliant and original insight into symbolic-cultural forms such as language and myth. His formulation of a universal law of human development was presented in the first two volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, the first subtitled “Language” and the second “Mythical Thought”, both written between 1923 and 1925.Cassirer made two fundamental assumptions regarding the constitution of each symbol and each symbolic form. First, he believed that “every particular belongs from the outset to a definite complex and in itself expresses the rule of this complex. It is the totality of these rules that constitute the true unity of consciousness, as a unity of time, space, objective synthesis, etc.” Second, the unity of consciousness, with its correlation between the particular and the complex, culminates in a critique only when that critique “seeks to understand and to show how every content of culture, in so far as it is more than a mere isolated content, in so far as it is grounded in a universal principle of form, presupposes an original act of the human spirit.”The concept of a “symbol” was the crossroads of the philosophy of symbolic forms because it converted Kant’s critique of human knowledge into Cassirer’s critique of culture. The symbol represented the variety of cultural forms, such as language, myth, art, religion and science. The symbol also reflected the categories of space, which, as the most pervasive of “symbol relations”, constituted the schemata underlying the various symbolic (cultural) forms. Most importantly, Cassirer believed that the symbol concept was the essential condition of the possibility of all true human knowledge of experience, because it unified ideas with empirical facts.Cassirer argued that the development of humanity from primitive to modern times conformed to well-defined stages: mimetic, analogical and symbolic. He based his insights on the empirical data gathered in the works of linguists and anthropologists. Language and mythical thought passed through these three stages in developing to its specific mature form. Broadly speaking, he argued, people made choices to “copy”, “represent” and finally give “significance” to the events surrounding them by starting from the physical world and progressing to the world of symbol creation. First they “mimed” the things around them in terms of signs and sounds, then they produced linguistic or mythic “analogues” to those external things and, finally, they “captured” the actions in a symbolic re-creation of the set of events. Miming might take the form of creating words and sounds for each particular activity. For example, Cassirer pointed out that in the Ewe language there were 33 phonetic images for the verb “to walk.” North American Indians would use analogies to link a sound with a verb that described an event that may or may not have happened or that might happen. Finally, there are the famous cave paintings showing prehistoric hunts and their rituals, symbolic re-creations of an entire process.The key point was that in each case and at every stage, people, both individually and collectively, made conscious decisions to portray events and things in a certain way. Making those choices showed that they were freely creating their language, their myths, and ultimately their understanding of their world.In Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance (“The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy”), published in 1927, Cassirer sought to apply the thesis presented in the first two volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms to what he took to be the pivotal historical case, when at least a part of humanity first entered the symbolic stage of development. He thus studied a single common human project—the Renaissance—as the best way to explain the diverse activities of theologians, artists and scientists during the 15th and 16th centuries within a unitary philosophical framework.Cassirer based his analysis on Jakob Burckhardt’s vision of the Renaissance as an era when all attention was focused on the problem of the individual and his relation to the universe. He began with two assumptions. First, he accepted Nicolas of Cusa’s claim that “in man as a microcosm all lines of the macrocosm run together.” And second, he adopted Pico’s vision of man as an Unbound Prometheus who hadno definite place, no form proper only to you . . . so that you may have as your own whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may choose, according to your wish and your judgment. . . . You alone are bound by no limit, unless it be prescribed by your own will.
Here Cassirer’s passion for individual freedom merged with the idea that man is the measure of all things. To drive the point home, Cassirer proceeded to describe the works of Leonardo and Alberti in terms that endowed artists and scientists with god-like powers: God may have been responsible for the first creation—of heaven and earth—but creative thinkers possessed the power of a “second” creation: “The creative power of the artist is as certain as that of theoretical and scientific thought. Science is a second creation made with the understanding; painting is a second creation made with the imagination.”A Descent
After 1927, Cassirer returned to his pre-1914 interest in epistemological problems and focused primarily on an analysis of human consciousness. He took a special interest in the epistemology of science, as his mind apparently followed the human odyssey chronologically from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. His effort was expressed primarily in two works: the third and last volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, subtitled “The Phenomenology of Knowledge” (1929), and The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932).Superficially, the third volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms seemed to complement his two earlier works. But it doesn’t really. In the first two volumes Cassirer usually cited factual evidence to support his arguments; in this one he spent a good deal of time arguing with other philosophers, particularly Heidegger, Bergson and Husserl. To make sense of what was going on in Cassirer’s mind, we must understand what was happening in Germany.Weimar Germany was reeling. Its center of gravity had collapsed from the impact of economic depression, and the political extremisms of Left and Right were paralyzing the political system. The atmosphere in the universities was very oppressive. As the rector of the University of Hamburg from November 1929 to November 1930, Cassirer was directly exposed to the fanatical nationalism and anti-republicanism that was spreading throughout the country. As the first Jewish rector of a university in Germany, he stood on the front line of the academy’s defense against pro-Nazi students and professors.In this context, Cassirer’s constant reaffirmation of the primacy and autonomy of reason, and his cosmopolitan view of history, assumed a distinct political dimension. Defending reason against a blind nationalism again became Cassirer’s main task, as it had once before, during World War I. Cassirer, it must be said, never engaged in real politics. The university was his world, and so it was his battleground, as well. He knew in detail what was happening in and out of the Reichstag, but for him this was a world apart. Cassirer was most alive and most combative not just on a university campus, but also within his own mind. That is why, unmistakably, the third volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms evinces such a clear change of tone and direction for Cassirer. The intellectual confidence and optimism that permeated his works from 1919 to 1927 had disappeared. In their place, he injected a new preoccupation with the “phenomenology” of symbolic forms. Cassirer seemed now to retreat from the data of humanity, and to take up the more abstract preoccupations so dear to the German philosophical tradition.For Cassirer now, each symbolic form—whether language, myth, religion, art or science—was not to be analyzed in terms of its “empirical” aspects but its “pure content.” He explained his shift of interest from the empirical to the “ideal” or “pure” aspect of philosophy as a means of focusing on what is “in” each symbolic form:The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in general inquires not into the empirical source or consciousness but into its pure content. Instead of pursuing its temporal, generating causes, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is oriented solely toward what ‘is in it’—toward apprehending and describing its structural forms. Language, myth and theoretical knowledge are all taken as fundamental forms of the objective spirit, whose being it must be possible to disclose and understand purely as such independently of the question of its becoming.
Cassirer’s revised line of philosophical argument reflected the new tenor of academic discourse in Germany. He spent a good deal of time wrestling with the philosophical implications of Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927). (Indeed, Cassirer and Heidegger had a very public exchange of views in Davos, Switzerland, in 1929, but that is another story.) The unfortunate effect of all this on Cassirer’s work was that, while he rejected the “temporality which Heidegger discloses as the ultimate foundation of existentiality”, Cassirer had accepted the new terms of philosophical debate that required philosophers to re-examine the “phenomenological” and temporal conditioning of their own ideas.Withal, Cassirer never abandoned his devotion to freedom and his philosophical concentration on its origins and nature. In Die Philosophie der Aufklärung (“The Philosophy of the Enlightenment”) Cassirer once more quoted Kant to describe enlightenment as “man’s exodus from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another person.” His point: History and politics are about humanity’s progressive enlightenment, not its enslavement.Cassirer’s passion for liberty was daring. To hold such views during the hurtling death spiral of the Weimar Republic, when the country’s stability was buckling under the pressure of civil unrest, unbridled inflation and finally economic collapse, represented an act of immense faith and intellectual courage. By 1932, even as the end of German democracy was in sight, Cassirer again invoked Kant’s motto “Dare to be Free” and emphatically declared: “The age which venerated reason and science as man’s highest faculty cannot and must not be lost even for us.”Exile
Unfortunately, that was exactly what happened in Germany. In February 1933, at the height of his intellectual prowess, Cassirer and many other “non-Aryan” professors were summarily dismissed from their posts by the new Nazi government. In March, Cassirer began the exile that ultimately brought him to the United States in 1941. He arrived in the United States a changed man. After fleeing Germany he had spent eight years moving between Italy, England and Sweden. He arrived in America on one of the last passenger ships to leave Sweden, a trip that afforded him the psychological space he needed to rethink his views. Cassirer was shaken to the core when his fellow Germans deliberately chose to give up their freedom to a leader dedicated to eradicating human freedom everywhere. He expressed his dismay as he had earlier expressed his optimism and his joy—in his books.Cassirer wrote two books in English in the United States. In 1944 he published a unique primer on human history and culture called An Essay on Man. In 1945 he left an unfinished manuscript posthumously published as The Myth of the State. In these two books Cassirer began to come to grips with the dark side of the mythical mode of human thought he had once analyzed so brilliantly.Cassirer’s Essay on Man reaffirms his faith in humanity’s capacity for self-liberation, but it makes explicit, too, his somber reflection on the deep conflicts between the different powers of man. Cassirer articulated the main themes that had dominated his thought after World War I:Human culture taken as a whole may be described as the process of man’s progressive self-liberation. Language, art, religion, science are various phases in this process. In all these man discovers and proves a new power—the power to build up a world of his own, an ‘ideal’ world. Philosophy cannot give up its search for a fundamental unity of this ideal world.
But then he immediately added: “It does not overlook the tensions and frictions, the strong contrasts and deep conflicts between the various powers of man.” Indeed, Cassirer now saw that the study of every symbolic form, including art and even science, presents a dilemma: “The highest, indeed the only, task of all these forms is to unite men. But none of them can bring about this unity without at the same time dividing and separating men.”Yet Cassirer was determined to see a light at the end of a dark tunnel, and it was the same one he saw in 1916: “spontaneity and productivity is the very center of all human activities.” It is man’s highest power, he wrote in the Essay, “that enables him to use language, myth, art and religion to create his own—symbolic—universe.” Even the conflicts Cassirer had come to terms with do not ultimately signify “discord or disharmony”, let alone meaninglessness. On the contrary, he asserts, still following Kant, each conflict “opens a new horizon and shows us a new aspect of humanity. The dissonant is in harmony with itself.”An Essay on Man is, as noted, a kind of primer, albeit a magisterial one. Cassirer’s final work, The Myth of the State, was his only foray into a philosophy of politics, and a politics bloodied by madness and war. In all of Cassirer’s earlier works, where the stuff of his data is human history and nature in its great diversity, it is striking in retrospect how little he dwelled on conflict. In the first two volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms Cassirer discusses with meticulous care languages, religious beliefs and perceptions of time and space. But in the index to the first two volumes there is no entry for conflict, for violence or for war. By 1945, these were topics Cassirer could no longer push away.Cassirer had seen in his philosopher’s imagination a progression of human development, a self-realization of human freedom through history. He had charted the movement from the mimetic to the analogic to the symbolic and assumed that, while development might be uneven across the kaleidoscope of human cultures, it moved in one direction only: forward, with reason, toward freedom. Having witnessed the madness of Nazism, its mass rituals and its death cult, Cassirer now knew better. He realized that mythic consciousness, the analogical stage of man’s cognitive development suffused with magic, was not dead and buried, permanently transcended by reason, after all.Cassirer had described the mythical consciousness in the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms as having certain key characteristics. One was that of emotional consanguinity:The world of myth is a dramatic world, a world of actions, of forces, of conflicting powers. In every phenomenon of nature it sees the collision of these powers. Mythical perception is always impregnated with these emotional qualities. Whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere—an atmosphere of joy or grief or anguish, of excitement, of exultation or depression.
A second characteristic was that of metamorphosis. The mythic world is a unitary world where all is one, without borders or distinctions. “Its view of life”, wrote Cassirer,is sympathetic, not analytic. If there is any characteristic and outstanding feature of the mythical world, any law by which it is governed—it is the law of metamorphosis. . . . By a sudden metamorphosis, everything may be turned into everything else.
Twenty years later, Cassirer was shocked to see the key elements of mythical consciousness at work in 20th-century fascist ideology. How could anyone witness the 1935 Nazi rally in Nuremberg and not see it? How could anyone listen to Hitler’s anti-Semitic rants and not hear it? In The Myth of the State, Cassirer thus confessed thatin politics we are always living on volcanic soil. . . . For myth has not been really vanquished and subjugated. . . . The description of the role of magic and mythology in primitive society applies equally well to highly advanced stages of man’s political life. In desperate situations men will always have recourse to desperate means—and our present day political myths have been such desperate means.
To all this Cassirer added wearily, almost as an afterthought, “human culture is by no means the firmly established thing that we supposed it to be.”Cassirer’s understanding of ideology in terms of his earlier analysis of language and myth has had a significant impact on subsequent scholarship, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not; sometimes direct, sometimes passed through Cassirer’s translators and followers, including Suzanne K. Langer’s influential writings in the 1960s and early 1970s.33.
Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (two volumes) (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967 and 1972). Consider, for example, how the anthropologist Clifford Geertz described ideology: Science names the structure of situations in such a way that the attitude toward them is one of disinterestedness. Its style is restrained, sparse, resolutely analytic. . . . But ideology names the structure of situations in such a way that the attitude toward them is one of commitment. Its style is ornate, vivid, deliberately suggestive: By objectifying moral sentiment through the same devices that science shuns, it seeks to motivate action.4
And listen to Michael Walzer speak of the nature of political metaphors: Politics is an art of unification; from many, it makes one. And symbolic activity is perhaps our most important means of bringing things together, both intellectually and emotionally. . . . In a sense, the union of men can only be symbolized; it has no palpable shape or substance. The state is invisible; it must be personified before it can be seen, symbolized before it can be loved, imagined before it can be conceived.5
If one cannot detect Cassirer’s insights into myth in these passages, and what he saw toward the end of his life in the nature of political ideologies, then one cannot read. It is ironic that Cassirer’s influence has been so lasting in an area he only thought about late in life, and not because he wanted to, but because events had forced it on him. So it goes. Cassirer’s personal odyssey from a well-established academic in Weimar Germany to an itinerant expatriate in the United States might have left a smaller man bitter and disillusioned. But this “Olympian” was not for turning. Even in 1944 Cassirer remained convinced that human culture would always be the engine of man’s self-enlightenment. Nevertheless, his flight and the ravages of the war compelled him to recognize that while philosophy could not give up its search for a fundamental unity in an ideal world, philosophers could not afford to overlook the brutal conflicts and realities of a world at war.For all we know, the ordeal of writing The Myth of the State, in which Cassirer had to face a darkness so thick that it must have upset him deeply, helped to kill him. What we do know is that on June 1, 1945, a student named Murray Case delivered a touching eulogy at the memorial service held for Cassirer at Columbia University. Case described how much Cassirer was adored by his students, but also a certain sadness that clung to him, at least as he had lived on American soil during this horrible war. Case quoted Cassirer: “In our life, in the life of a modern Jew, there is no room left for any joy or complacency. All this is gone forever. No Jew whatsoever can and will ever overcome the terrible ordeal of these last years.” Case seemed to suggest that Cassirer died of a broken heart.Yet one still gets the feeling that Cassirer never lost hope, even in the darkest times. There is a lesson in all this, perhaps, for us. Since 9/11, America has been challenged to use its collective reason with moral courage. We have been confronted by an ideology that seems to fit well Cassirer’s understanding of mythic consciousness, and we are challenged in difficult if not yet desperate times not to respond in kind.In this and other things we, too, should have hope. Americans are children of the Enlightenment, but they are pragmatists as well. America’s strength comes from its optimism and openness, traits Cassirer hailed and loved. He would have understood the enthusiasm of some to solve our problems by exporting that optimism and openness, in the form of American market dynamism and democracy, to others. But he would have recognized that the Promethean vision of transforming every other culture, whether they want to be transformed or not, is a bridge too far. Our practical challenge is to maintain a mental equilibrium through which we can balance the demands of a U.S. foreign policy based on a belief in American exceptionalism and an attitude flexible enough to respect the integrity of other cultures. Cassirer might have counseled us with his own version of Kant’s categorical imperative: Treat every man, and every culture, as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. ?
“Will the Real Leo Strauss Please Stand Up?” The American Interest (Autumn 2006).
These and all of Cassirer’s other major works have been translated into English, with the major titles published by Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania presses.
Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (two volumes) (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967 and 1972).
Geertz, “Ideology as a Cultural System”, Ideology and Its Discontents, David Apter, ed. (Free Press, 1968), p. 71.
Walzer, “On the Role of Symbolism in Political Thought”, Political Science Quarterly (June 1967), p. 195.