Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer

region = Western Philosophy
era = 20th-century philosophy
color = #B0C4DE

image_caption = Ernst Cassirer

name = Ernst Cassirer
birth = July 28, 1874 (Breslau, Germany)
death = April 13, 1945
school_tradition = Phenomenology

Ernst Cassirer (July 28, 1874 – April 13, 1945) was a German Jewish philosopher. Coming out of the Marburg tradition of neo-Kantianism, he developed a philosophy of culture as a theory of symbols founded in a phenomenology of knowledge. His son, Heinz Cassirer, was also a Kantian scholar.


Cassirer was born in Breslau (Wrocław), Silesia, into a Jewish family. He studied literature and philosophy at the University of Berlin. As a Jew, he had no easy academic career. After long years as Privatdozent at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin (Cassirer turned down the offer of a visiting professorship at Harvard which he and his wife considered obscure and remote), he was elected to a chair of philosophy at the newly-founded University of Hamburg in 1919, where he lectured until 1933, and supervised the doctoral thesis of Leo Strauss. Cassirer was forced to leave Germany because the Nazis came to power.

After leaving Germany he found first refuge as a lecturer in Oxford 1933–1935; he was then professor at Gothenburg University 1935–1941. When Cassirer - who considered Sweden too unsafe by then - tried to go to the United States and specifically to Harvard, the university turned him down because he had turned Harvard down thirty years earlier. Thus, he first had to work as a visiting professor at Yale University, New Haven 1941–1943, and only then moving to Columbia University in New York, where he lectured from 1943 until his death in 1945. As he had been naturalized in Sweden, he died on the Columbia campus a Swedish citizen of German-Jewish descent.


Philosophy of Symbolic Forms

Cassirer was both a genuine philosopher and an historian of philosophy. His major work, "Philosophy of Symbolic Forms" (3 vols., 1923–1929) is considered a benchmark for a philosophy of culture. Man, says Cassirer later in his more popular "Essay on Man" (1944), is a "symbolic animal". Whereas animals perceive their world by instincts and direct sensory perception, man has created his own universe of symbolic meaning that structures and shapes his perception of reality - and only thus, for instance, can conceive of utopias and therefore progress in the form of shared human culture. In this, Cassirer owes much to Kant's transcendental idealism, which claimed that the actual world cannot be known, but that the human view on reality is shaped by our means of perceiving it. For Cassirer, the human world is created through symbolic forms of thought which are linguistic, scholarly, scientific, and artistic, sharing and extending through communication, individual understanding, discovery and expression.

The Myth of the State

Cassirer's last major work was "The Myth of the State". The book was published posthumously in 1946 after Cassirer's sudden death. Cassirer argues that the idea of a totalitarian state evolved from ideas advanced by Plato, Dante, Machiavelli, Gobineau, Carlyle and Hegel. He concludes that the Fascist regimes of the 20th century were symbolised by a myth of destiny and the promotion of irrationality.

teachers=Hermann Cohen Paul Natorp
students=Hans Reichenbach Leo Strauss

Partial bibliography

* "Substance and Function" (1910), English translation 1923
* "Kant's Life and Thought" (1918), English translation 1981
* "Philosophy of Symbolic Forms" (1923–29), English translation 1953–1957
* "Language and Myth" (1925), English translation (1946) by Susanne K. Langer
* "Philosophy of the Enlightenment" (1932), English translation 1951
* "The Logic of the Humanities" (1942), English translation 1961
* "An Essay on Man" (written and published in English) (1944)
* "The Myth of the State" (written and published in English) (posthumous) (1946)

See also

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
* Aby Warburg

External links

* [ History of the Cassirer family]
* [ Centre for Intercultural Studies]
* [ Information Philosopher on Ernst Cassirer on Free Will]

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