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The Davos Dispute: New Aspects The Philosophy of Cassirer in Light of His Dispute with Heidegger

Irit Katsur
PhD student at the Center for German Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

I am grateful to the Center for German Studies of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose support made this project possible. I express special thanks for additional support that I received from the center for a journey to Leipzig, where I had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Thomas Meyer to read Cassirers unpublished lectures, which are in his possession. A special acknowledgment is due to Dr. Meyer, who acquainted me with Cassirers manuscript, helped me read and translate it, and gave me much valuable advice about the secondary literature on this subject. I am also grateful to the Center for Austrian Studies of the Hebrew University for giving me an opportunity to go to Austria and participate several times in German-language courses there. I would also like to thank Prof. Elhanan Yakira for his supervision and Dr. Michael Roubach for helping me with the secondary literature. In addition, I am indebted to Ilia Dvorkin who organized regular philosophical meetings and to Dr. Tatiana Karachentsev and Yoel Regev, who participated in these meetings. Long and intense discussions with them clarified many ideas for me. Finally, I owe much to my beloved friend Alexander Zablotsky for his help in checking and correcting this manuscript.

Contents

Abbreviations.......

3 5

Introduction... 1: Phenomenology versus Neo-Kantianism


1.1 The First Principle of Phenomenology.....

14

1.2 Critique of Husserl.... 18

2: The Davos Dispute: Cassirer versus Heidegger


2.1 Heideggers Critique of Cassirer...... 2.2 Cassirers Critique of Heidegger...... 22 26

3: The Symbolic Philosophy


3.1 The Dilemma of Life and Culture... 3.2 The Concept of Symbol... 3.3 The Phenomenon of Expression...................... 3.4 Symbolic Pregnance: The Meaning. 3.5 The World of Organic Forms.............. 29 35 39 40 43

4: Ethics within the Symbolic Philosophy


4.1 Discussion of the Place of Ethics in Cassirers Philosophy..... 4.2 Why Did Cassirer Have Difficulty Integrating Ethics with Symbolic Forms?...................... 4.3 Basis Phenomena...... 52 56 46

Conclusion................ 60
Bibliography........ 63

Abbreviations
For the most frequently cited texts by Cassirer, the following abbreviations are used: DD

Davos Disputation between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger", in Martin Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics [1929]. Appendices, pp. 171-186. Fourth edition, enlarged. Trans. Richard Taft. Indiana University Press, 1990.

Works by Cassirer MS PSF IIV The Myth of the State. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Vol. I, Language [1923], trans. Ralph Manheim, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953, Vol. II, Mythical Thought, [1925] trans. Ralph Manheim, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953, Vol. III, The Phenomenology of Knowledge, [1929] trans. Ralph Manheim, reprinted: The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965, Vol. IV, The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms (including the text of Cassirers manuscript on Basis Phenomena), ed. J.M. Krois and D.P. Verene, trans. J.M. Krois. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Works on Cassirer CSFH Krois, John Michael. Cassirer: Symbolic Forms and History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Works by Heidegger BT Being and Time [1927]. Trans. from the German Sein und Zeit (seventh edition, Tbingen, Neomarius Verlag) by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. KPM EC Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics [1929]. Fourth edition, enlarged. Trans. Richard Taft. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Ernst Cassirer: The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Part Two: Mythical Thought [Berlin, 1925]. Review in Martin Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics [1929], Appendix II (pp. 181-190). Trans. Peter 3

Warnek. Fifth edition, enlarged. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Works by Husserl I LI Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology [1913]. Trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson. London: Allen & Unwin, 1952. Logical Investigations, Vol. 1. Trans. J.N. Findlay from LU, Vol. 2 [1913]. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

Works by Kant CPR Critique of Pure Reason [1787]. Trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

(For full bibliographical details, see Bibliography, p. 62.)

Introduction
The purpose of this paper is to investigate the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer and to clarify some points in the discussion between him and Martin Heidegger, which took place in Davos in 1929 and subsequently continued in their writings. At the end of the 1920s, Heidegger and Cassirer were the most prominent philosophers in Germany. Heidegger started his philosophical career as a disciple and assistant of Edmund Husserl, who began a new philosophical methodology that was called phenomenology. Heidegger, however, introduced many changes in phenomenological inquiry. In his famous book BT, Heidegger developed a new hermeneutic approach to the question of being that many consider the main achievement of twentieth-century philosophy. Cassirer began his philosophical career as a disciple of the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen. Heidegger and many others viewed him as a representative of the neo-Kantian movement, the philosophical school that competed with phenomenology and was strongly criticized by Heidegger. However, in his threevolume work that was published in the 1920s, Cassirer proposed a new philosophy that deviated from the neo-Kantian position. It was called the philosophy of symbolic forms, and its purpose was to reconcile two major philosophical movements: phenomenology and neo-Kantianism. In March 1929, at the annual meeting of the II. Davosser Hochshulkurse", the two philosophers and many other academics from various parts of Europe presented lectures. 1 The discussion topic was Was ist der Mensch? (What is man?). During the first week of the conference, Cassirer gave three lectures on the philosophy of anthropology, and on March 26 the famous encounter between him and Heidegger took place. In the debate both Heidegger and Cassirer offered their own way of interpreting Kant, based on which they justified their respective philosophical positions. Heidegger maintained that the main goal of philosophy is to find a basis for the philosophical, cultural, and scientific domains of being, and criticized Cassirer and other neo-Kantian philosophers for lacking such a basis. Heidegger claimed that all human values must be bounded within finite existence and cannot presume to go
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The meeting held at the Grand Hotel and Belvedere, Davos-Platz, lasted from Sunday, March 17, to Saturday, April 6, 1929.

beyond it. Cassirer, for his part, charged Heidegger with lacking a transcendent dimension and, hence, being unable to go beyond the given in his existential extrapolation of being. Cassirer argued that without this dimension, Heidegger was unable to explain the objective aspects of human being or, what is more important, the objectivity of ethical values. Having studied in a theological college, Heidegger had a good acquaintance with theological tradition and was influenced by religious outlooks even though he developed a strictly atheist position. 2 Heideggers existential philosophy posited immanent being, within which every realm of human is structured. This philosophy can be viewed as the apex of the secular thought that was initiated by Nietzsche, according to whom all transcendence, not only divine and moral values, but also every determination of objective significance such as scientific laws should be discarded as exhausted and speculative. 3 Heidegger also did away with theological relicts of Self", which he replaced with Dasein, or immanent extension of being. Heidegger thereby weakened the ties with the dualistic Cartesian tradition of mind and body, which had dominated European thought. His ideas indeed appeared revolutionary and provocative and hence attained more support than those of Cassirer, who wanted to preserve meaning, the ideal, and truth i.e., to animate the God who had been killed. Cassirer was, indeed, considered a philosopher of transcendence. He advocated a universality of values and forms both in the domain of knowledge and of ethics. He strongly opposed Heideggers ethical relativism, which resulted from the annihilation of transcendence. The common view is that Cassirer developed a highly rational, ethical philosophy based on universal principles, but lacked the basis of being. This one-sided view is, however, disputable. Cassirer did not try to make existence dependent on transcendence, without roots in the immanence of experience. We shall see that the originality of Cassirers symbolic doctrine lay in integrating the immanence of life with the transcendence of form. I will maintain that both Cassirer and Heidegger broke with the Cartesian dualistic mind-body conception, though Cassirer did not want to eschew the domain of transcendence. According to Cassirer, the sphere of the beyond should be discovered in the very immanence of life, not in

2 3

Cf.: Ernst Cassirer, Geist and Life, in PSF IV (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 200. Cf.: Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche. 2 Bd. Pfullingen: Neske, 1961.

self-consciousness and not in being to death. This something his contemporaries did not properly understand was the task of Cassirers philosophy. Cassirers philosophy, like Heideggers, reveals the ground of being and also contains an irrational aspect that can lead to the undermining of moral values. Hence, despite many evident differences between the two philosophies, Cassirers cannot completely avoid the ethical problems that he discerned in Heideggers thought. Nevertheless, Cassirer by no means wanted to arrive at ethical relativism. His doctrine was related to the old endeavor to preserve transcendence by means of practical philosophy. This endeavor began with Kant, who posited ethics in place of God, was continued by Hermann Cohen, and was also shared by Cassirer, who desired to incorporate ethics in his symbolic philosophy though he did not managed to do it. After the Davos dispute, Heideggers philosophical doctrine received much more support and had greater success in the philosophical community than Cassirers position. Cassirer can be called the last advocate of transcendence. Already at the Davos meeting, the majority of the philosophers followed Heideggers doctrine, which was considered more promising and original than Cassirers. Moreover, after World War II the optimistic nineteenth-century belief in the moral and rational essence of man, shared by Hermann Cohen and Cassirer, nearly collapsed. As a result of the Nazi period, Heideggers view of finite human existence as filled with fear and worry and subordinated by destiny appeared much more realistic than Cassirers claims about the eternity of the good. Hence Heideggers thought strongly influenced the later continental philosophy; especially postwar French philosophy, as well as cultural studies and literary criticism. As a result of this influence, Cassirers ideas were nearly forgotten. The other reason for the neglect of Cassirers ideas is the difficulty of reading his works, a difficulty that has several aspects. One is the incompleteness of Cassirers philosophy. Being in exile since 1933, along with the circumstances of this period, made it hard for Cassirer to complete his philosophy as he intended.4 He planned to produce works dealing with ethics as well as with art that must appear in the next volumes of PSF. He began to develop an ethical and art philosophy of symbolic forms, but he was only able to compose notes about it. As the researchers of Cassirers philosophy, John Michael Krois and Donald Phillip Verene remarked:
See J.M. Krois and D.P. Verene, Introduction, in PSF IV (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).
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These were war years, and the explanation for Cassirers not finishing this project may be the same as the reason he gave later, in the United States, for not producing a work on art the malice or Ungust, of the times. 5 Another difficulty with Cassirer is the complexity of his philosophical task of integrating immanence with transcendence and explaining the manifoldness of human culture. And as Lofts points out, Cassirers main principle, which dominated all his thought, is that the whole always comes before the parts. The parts do not exist prior to the whole, and cannot be understood outside their place and function in the whole. 6 This principle, however, makes it difficult for Cassirer scholars to characterize his ideas clearly and causes the obvious embarrassment in which Cassirer scholarship finds itself when it attempts to define a satisfactory frame of reference for its interpretation of the Cassirerian project. 7 Furthermore, the highly erudite Cassirer tended to stress the unity of his thought with that of other philosophers. His books are filled with ideas of numerous thinkers that Cassirer tried to integrate with his philosophy, and this increases the difficulty of his texts, creates uncertainty about his position, and puts the cogency of his philosophy in question. As a result of all these factors, Cassirers doctrines, compared to Heideggers, were relegated to the sidelines of philosophical development. In my view, the only partial continuation of Cassirers ideas is the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, though he never said this was the case. Levinas developed an ethical theory based on the unperceivable expression of the Other, of the Others transcendence a theory that can be viewed as a kind of extension of Cassirers original, unfinished project. The Davos dispute immediately attracted attention in intellectual circles and became almost legendary in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. It seemed a kind of return of the Socratic living philosophical dialogue, certainly more vivid than books and papers. By the turn of the last century, many scholars agreed that this meeting gave a certain sense of the future of German philosophy. 8 Gordon

Ibid., xxiii. Steve G. Lofts, Introduction, in Ernst Cassirer: A Repetition of Modernity (Foreword by John Michael Krois) (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 19. 7 Ibid. 8 ...bei dem es im gewissen Sinne um die Zukunft der deutschen Philosophie ging ( Raymond Klibansky, Erinnerung an ein Jahrhundert. Gesprche mit Georges Leroux, Frankfurt/M., 2001, 44) in
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characterized this dispute as almost the most frequently cited conversation in the history of modern European thought that conversation was so closely bound with the fate of European culture. 9 Interest in the political aspect of the Heidegger-Cassirer dispute arose after World War II and was impelled by Cassirers last published work, The Myth of the State, that was published in 1946. In it Cassirer inquired into the roots of the new political mythology that had emerged in Germany in 1933. Among other things, he cited Heideggers existential philosophy as one that did enfeeble and slowly undermine the forces that could have resisted the modern political myths. Such philosophy renounces its own fundamental theoretical and ethical ideals. It can be used, then, as a pliable instrument in the hands of the political leaders. 10 Hence, what had been considered a purely philosophical dispute between two thinkers suddenly assumed political-ideological importance. 11 The theoretical argument about the place of temporality in existence appeared to have a practical application. If human existence is structured by temporality and is a finite, limited-toitself Dasein, as Heidegger claimed, no objective values are possible, but only values that are relative to historical situations. Cassirer criticized Heidegger not only for having initially supported a totalitarian regime, but also because the basis for a nonhumanistic worldview was already laid down in the philosophical doctrines he articulated at Davos. In Cassirers view, Heidegger had wrongly characterized human Dasein as passive and incapable of self-impelled independent action and responsibility. However, as we shall see in the last chapter of this paper, a similar claim can be made about Cassirer. Since 1946, the discussion on the possibility of ethics within Cassirers philosophy has not come to an end. Some studies have viewed Cassirer as a liberal humanist whose position is unequivocally opposed to the antihumanistic views of Heidegger 12 that led him to support the National Socialist regime. Other studies

Vorwort in Cassirer-Heidegger: 70 Jahre Davoser Disputation, ed. D. Kaegi and E. Rudolph (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 2002). 9 Peter Eli Gordon, Continental Divide: The Davos Disputation between Cassirer and Heidegger, 1929, Modern Intellectual History (Summer 2003): 1-41,6. 10 MS, 293. 11 Cf.: Enno Rudolph, Freiheit oder Schicksal? Cassirer und Heidegger in Davos, in CassirerHeidegger: 70 Jahre Davoser Disputation, ed. D. Kaegi and E. Rudolph (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 2002). 12 Cf.: Deniz Coskun, it is obvious that what we have called here the Davos debate involved the clash of two different conceptions of philosophy or even eras, i.e., between humanist philosophy and

assert, however, that despite Cassirers proclamations about the importance of ethics, his own philosophy lacks ethics. 13 Some studies have also seen the opposition between Cassirer and Heidegger in a nationalistic context. They suggest that Heideggers critique of Cassirer as lacking a grounding for his theory can be interpreted in terms of the well-known anti-Semitic claim that Jews are cosmopolitans by nature, living in lands that are not their own and having no strong link to the soil. Many studies, however, cast doubt on any ideological opposition between Heidegger and Cassirer and deny that political or anti-Semitic views were connected to this dispute. Gordon and Meyer argue that the Davos dispute had only a philosophical dimension and that linking Heideggers position to his political engagement with National Socialism is not justified. 14 Meyer claims that the relationship between Heidegger and Cassirer was friendly, citing the letter Heidegger wrote to his wife during the Davos conference. In it Heidegger mentioned Cassirer with sympathy and without any allusions to a quarrel between them, noting that Cassirer had spoken of inviting him to give a lecture at the Warburg Library [Cassirer u. andre Prof. die in meinem Vortrag waren, wollen mich im nchsten Herbst fr eine Vorlesung in der Bibliotek Warburg haben,...]. 15 Therefore Meyer maintains there was no political aspect to the Davos dispute, and if history had developed differently the issue would never have arisen. According to this view, the connection between the participants political and philosophical positions was made only after the war. From the perspective of the postwar period, however, the special curiosity about the Davos dispute is understandable. Even today the interest in this topic has not run its course; over the past decade it has even increased. This fact is closely connected to the rising interest in Cassirers whole philosophical project, which was almost forgotten after his death in 1945. Until the

the existentialist, non-humanistic philosophy of the new era. Both traditions were aware of the presence and appeal or force of one another. Cassirer in Davos: An Intermezzo on Magic Mountain (1929). Law and Critique 17 (Springer 2006): 1-26. 13 See below, ch. 4.1. 14 See Peter Eli Gordon, Continental Divide: The Davos Disputation between Cassirer and Heidegger, 1929, Modern Intellectual History (Summer 2003): 1-41. And Thomas Meyer, Am Abgrund wamdernd, ins Unbekannte gestoen. Das Davoser Treffen von Ernst Cassirer und Martin Heidegger hat eine bislang unbekannte Vorgeschichte in Hamburg 1923, Frankfurte Allgemeine Zeitung 44 (2006): 45. 15 Ibid., from Heideggers letter to his wife, Elfride Heidegger, Hambg. 19. Dez. 23.

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1960s, except for the volume devoted to Cassirer in the Library of Living Philosophers series, 16 only a few critical works about him and his encounter with Heidegger were published. Since the 1990s, however, more and more new researches and monographs about Cassirer have appeared, in German as well as English. Why was this sudden upsurge of interest in Cassirer and Davos after more than half a century? The trend began with Kroiss book CSFH, published in 1987. This is the first thorough book about Cassirer to give a systematic, in-depth account of his philosophical project and point to its not insignificant influence on many thinkers of the century, including Heidegger himself and also Merleau-Ponty. Krois noted regretfully that only five monographs on Cassirer had been published in English. Moreover, Cassirers thought has been much neglected in the German-speaking world. Nonetheless, due to the many-faceted nature of Cassirers publications, his work has influenced thinking in many fields, including linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, art history, education, psychology and psychoanalysis, and history. 17 Krois attributed this neglect to the common misunderstanding of Cassirers thought. He also argued against viewing Cassirer as a neo-Kantian philosopher whose main concern was the scientific epistemology or history of philosophy. Krois entirely rejected the claim that Cassirer was not a philosopher in his own right, stressing new motifs in contemporary thought that had their roots in Cassirers work. 18 Kroiss book illuminated complex aspects of Cassirers thought that subsequently, and quickly, attracted the attention of scholars. The next phase of the growing interest in Cassirer came with the publication of PSF IV, which was called The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms. The 1995 English edition of this volume, edited by Krois and Verene, appeared after the publication of the German edition of PSF IV, which contained Cassirers unpublished texts marked Symbolic Forms, Volume IV. 19 This volume is important to understanding the project of the philosophy of symbolic forms, which in some aspects was incomplete. The newly published PSF IV continued to deal with the phenomenology of knowledge, which Cassirer had introduced in the third volume of his work. In the
The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. (The Library of Living Philosophers, No. 6,) ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp (Evanston, IL: The Library of living philosophers, 1949.) 17 CSFH, 4. 18 CSFH, 33-38. 19 See Introduction, PSF IV.
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fourth volume Cassirer developed the concept of the basis phenomena, which elaborated the concept of the original phenomenon of expression from the previous volume. Since then many conferences on Cassirer have been held and many papers on him have been published. The seminar Ernst Cassirer: Symbol, Science and Culture was held in May 1998 in Jerusalem. In September 1999, a seminar on the Davos dispute was held in Heidelberg. 20 Friedmans detailed book on the Davos dispute was published in 2000. 21 More recently, the above-cited article by Gordon and many other articles, books, and doctoral dissertations on Cassirer have been published. The revived interest in Cassirer also may reflect the interest in the German Romantic and humanistic tradition as mainly represented by Goethe. Cassirer was greatly inspired by Goethe and tried to integrate his ideas with his philosophical approach. Other important factors explain the current interest in Cassirer. His philosophy is a philosophy of culture that aims to describe the spiritual development that embodies itself in the richness and multiplicity of cultural forms. As Lofts suggests, this twopoled project of seeking the unity of structure in the variety of forms, and the variety of possibilities in a single structure, accords with todays growing and radical new awareness of the plurality of cultures. 22 The thoroughgoing study of Cassirers philosophy can offer a means of investigating and illuminating this plurality. The interest in Cassirer is also impelled, as Lofts notes, by the growing awareness that postmodern thought has arrived at an impasse. 23 The postmodernism that was influenced by Heidegger, and continued his rejection of the transcendent, seems to be lost in its own labyrinth. 24 Neither postmodernism nor its opponent, the Anglo-American analytical tradition, has any means to explain the rich spectrum of human life, culture, and being; hence the turn to Cassirers old-fashioned project of seeking transcendence within immanent existence. As we shall see, the aim of

See Cassirer-Heidegger: 70 Jahre Davoser Disputation, ed. D. Kaegi and E. Rudolph (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 2002). 21 Michael Friedman, A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (Chicago: Open Court, 2000). This book includes the bibliographies and a description of the philosophical and political background of the three philosophers who took part in the discussion: Carnap (a logical positivist from the Vienna circle), Cassirer, and Heidegger. 22 Steve G. Lofts, Introduction, Ernst Cassirer: A Repetition of Modernity (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 1-5. 23 Ibid. 24 Ibid.
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Cassirers philosophy is to combine immanence with transcendence, life with culture, intuition with form. Although there has been no major continuation of his ideas, it is likely that there yet will be.

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1. Phenomenology versus Neo-Kantianism


1.1 The First Principle of Phenomenology
This investigation begins with the controversy between the constructive method of neo-Kantianism and the intuitive method of phenomenology, which was a preliminary to the Davos dispute. The disagreement between neo-Kantianism and

phenomenological philosophy arose with the question of the possibility of intuition. The debate on this issue between Edmund Husserl and Paul Natorp began after Husserl had published Logical Investigations at the beginning of the last century. Whereas Husserl based his research on intuition as a source of knowledge, Natorp rejected the possibility of intuition. Husserls aim was to create a special method to investigate consciousness, which would differ from the scientific method of inquiry into the world. Husserls method was intended to reveal a new domain of pure consciousness that was not yet known. Psychology, whose aim is also consciousness, uses the scientific method that investigates the contents of consciousness as events in the world, or as facts that occur in the causal framework known as the world. Phenomenology, however, aimed to criticize the method of psychological investigation, which Husserl termed the naturalization of consciousness. According to Husserl, psychology tries to explain all the experiences in consciousness with psychophysical descriptions, reducing all the processes of consciousness to facts that can be explained like any other facts. In contrast to this empirical approach of psychology, Husserls phenomenology attempts to describe the pure experience of consciousness without its involvement in the world. This antinaturalistic, antipsychological tendency was shared by all the thinkers discussed in this paper: Husserl, Natorp, Cassirer, and Heidegger. They all tried to develop a priori method of investigation that was unique to philosophy. Husserl began his investigation of consciousness, very similarly to Descartes, with the principle of freedom from presuppositions [Prinzip der Voraussetzungslosigkeit]. 25 This term assumes that the first level of knowledge should not be conditioned by any primary presupposition. According to this principle,
See Preface to the Second Edition, LI, 263. However, there are many differences between LI, 1901, and I, 1913. In the former, Husserl described the structure of consciousness from the inside, without separating it from the existence of the world. In I, however, he carried out a phenomenological reduction, distinguishing between existence in the world and the existence of consciousness.
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each and every assumption should be rigorously tested in terms of phenomenological knowledge or fulfillment [Erflling]. Husserl explained that, in contrast to verification by induction or deduction as used in science, fulfillment is a kind of clarification [Aufklrung] of the ideal meanings and the relations between them. Whereas theoretical scientific explanations are based on rules and laws that assume the unity of nature, the essence of consciousness cannot be explained in this way and needs clarification. Its [the phenomenological theory of knowledge] aim is not to explain knowledge in the psychological or psychophysical sense as a factual occurrence in objective nature, but to shed light on the Idea of knowledge in its constitutive elements and laws. 26 Clarification is directed at the living experience or Erlebnis 27 of consciousness that is, the self-givenness of the act of consciousness. If, in science, experience is the source of empirical knowledge, Erlebnis is the source of phenomenological knowledge. Husserl defined intuition as pure Erlebnis of consciousness. Hence, the starting point of Husserls philosophy is intuition. According to this principle, phenomenology does not use abstract concepts to explain processes in consciousness but, instead, goes directly to the description of consciousness. Husserl claimed that a new, previously unknown science had thereby emerged. Its purpose was to describe pure consciousness as a complex structure of acts and essences. Husserl maintained that previous philosophers had not succeeded to reveal the realm of phenomenology; even Descartes had only reached the border of this realm but had not entered it. 28 However, Husserls conviction that the principle of phenomenology differs from the Cartesian Ego cogito may be questioned. Indeed, Husserls phenomenological principle that nothing should be taken for granted appears similar in many regards to Descartes principle of evident knowledge. Descartes principle that only the self-awareness of thought is beyond doubt accords with Husserls claim that the only real knowledge is the self-givenness of consciousness. Consciousness is the starting point for both of them.

Preface to the Second Edition, LI, 265. I prefer not to translate this term, since the German word Erlebnis comes from Lebenlife, and indicates identity between an experience and a life process. An English translation as experience loses this. 28 See Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: an Introduction to Phenomenology, trans. Dorion Cairns, (The Hague : Martinus Nijhoff, 1960.)
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At first glance, Husserl aimed to discover the source of evident knowledge. Nevertheless, Husserl did not stop at the epistemological level; he claimed his principle was also an ontological one since intuition reveals not only evident knowledge but also the mode of things existence. As he wrote: every primordial dator [Originr gebende] Intuition is a source of authority [Rechtsquelle] for knowledge, that whatever presents itself in intuition in primordial form (as it were in its bodily reality), [in seiner leibhaften Wirklichkeit] is simply to be accepted as it gives itself out to be, though only within the limits in which it then presents itself. 29 In other words, intuition not only reaches the knowledge of a thing, but also of the way the thing exists. The way in which the thing gives itself to intuition is the way of its actual being in its bodily reality. Thus intuition is the source of knowledge as well as existence, and the ontological principle is unified with the epistemological one. As Levinas wrote in his early work on Husserls notion of intuition: To say that intuition actualized the mere intention which aims at the object is to say that in intuition we relate directly to the object, we reach it. 30 Phenomenology as a science based on unmediated knowledge is opposed to the Kantian distinction between the ways in which a thing appears and the thing in itself. Husserl asserted that the act of intuition gives the thing self as it is: Through acts of immediate intuition we intuit a self. 31 Husserl distinguished between two kinds of intuition: intuition of essence, or seeing of essences [Wesensschau], and intuition that presents objects external to consciousness. The common feature is that both are based on the concrete givenness of the object. The seeing of essences reaches the concrete essence of consciousness in the same way that perception reaches the concrete thing. The way we perceive the evidence of this table, or lamp, is the way we perceive the evidence of the rules of logic, or the essence of red, of man, and so on. Just as the datum of individual or empirical intuition [Anschauung] is an individual object, so the datum of essential intuition is a pure essence. 32 Therefore, intuition discovers two completely different ontological structures: seeing the essence and perceiving the external thing. The first is complete, adequate
I, 24, 92. Emmanuel Levinas, Intuition, The Theory of Intuition in Husserls Phenomenology [1930], trans. Andre Orianne (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 65-97. 31 I, 43, 136. 32 I, 3, 55.
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seeing, and the second is incomplete and representative. Husserl explained that Erlebnis of consciousness is given in the absolute, complete way, but the existence of things in space is given fragmentarily. The phenomenological method discovers Erlebnis of consciousness as an immanent occurrence that is given as temporal flow, where every point is known. Perception of the thing in space, however, is given partially. We perceive only numerous aspects of the thing, but we cannot see the thing in its wholeness in three-dimensional space. The characteristic feature of the thing is that, while it can be perceived by its sides that represent the whole thing, it cannot be reached directly by all its sides in a single act of actual perception. The multiplicity of changing aspects fills perception with the living presence of the thing itself. This is the essential characteristic of all external perception: whereas it is an essential mark of what is given through appearances that no one of these gives the matter in question in an absolute form instead of presenting just one side of it, it is an essential mark of what is immanently given precisely to give an absolute that simply cannot exhibit aspects and vary them perspectively. 33 Therefore, Husserl distinguished two different modes of existence: the existence of consciousness and the existence of the thing in the world. The former is immanent, continuous, complete existence; the latter is uncompleted, discrete, and represented. The two of these modes is perceived directly by intuition. In Husserls view, this essential distinction between two modes of existence led Kant to think that the incomplete character of the things perception indicates the limited manner of perception that is peculiar to human beings. Such perception is unable to provide full, unmediated knowledge of the thing. Hence Kant assumed the possibility of another kind of consciousness, different from mans. According to him, human perception has incomplete character and can know the thing only as it appears to intuition, represented by aspects. Kant wrote that, in contrast to human knowing, God apprehends things in their entire existence. Husserl, however, considered this distinction between human and divine modes of perception as an error. This error was based on the mistaken assumption that the physical thing has to be given to perception in a way similar to how the immanent object is given to consciousness; Kant did not see any difference between the inner and outer modes of existence. According to this assumption, the external thing has to be given in completeness exactly as Erlebnis is

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I, 44, 139-140.

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given to consciousness. This mistake, Husserl pointed out, stemmed from the common comparison between complete existence in consciousness and representation of the thing in perception. The incompleteness of the spatial thing is considered a result of the defective manner of human perception, which lacks the capacity to know the thing directly in its fullness. Hence Husserl maintained that there were no different modes of being, such as divine and human, but two modes of existence: the thing in the world and Erlebnis of consciousness. Both are given directly in their own living mode of existence.

1.2 Critique of Husserl


The neo-Kantian philosopher Paul Natorp, who followed Kants critical method", made an important critique of Husserl. The Marburg school of neo-Kantianism declared that the direction of its philosophy was back to Kant. The aim was to end all the speculation generated by the influence of Kants thought and to return to his original views. Neo-Kantian philosophers maintained that Kant defined his program as an epistemological one. In other words, his CPR was intended to answer the questions: How is empirical knowledge possible? How is mathematics possible? To answer these, he chose the transcendental or critical method of inquiry, seeking to reveal the a priori structure or conditions of the possibility of experience. This method takes scientific facts as a point of departure for rediscovering the concepts that made these facts possible [Das Faktum der Wissenschaft]. Thus Kant argued that these conditions include two different elements: intuition of time and space through which the material is given, and the of understanding by which the given material turns into the unity of the object. Neo-Kantians argued that this was Kants main position, as he himself indicated. They sought to continue philosophical inquiry from the Kantian transcendental standpoint. This method of investigation presupposes that our experience is constituted by transcendental conditions or concepts and intuition. The conditions or concepts of understanding, however, play a dominant role in the constitution of knowledge. Perception is interpreted as a dualistic process, where the concepts or categories of understanding are spontaneous, creative forces of mind that organize the passive and chaotic givenness of sensory intuition. As Kant put it: the connections of anything manifold can never enter into us through the senses, and cannot be contained, 18

therefore, already in the pure form of sensuous intuition, for it is a spontaneous act of the power of representation. 34 The chaotic manifold cannot be unified by itself and constitute the object, since it has no creative power. But the concepts embody creative capacities of the subject, and can be said to capture the sensory intuition; they unify the chaos presented by intuition into objects. That, at any rate, was how the Marburg school interpreted Kant. According to Kant, the only intuition that is possible for human consciousness is pure intuition of time and space, but it gives only framework and not content. The same impossibility of unmediated knowledge applies to the I. The I thought is the source of all thoughts, and it cannot be apprehended directly by the thought. Following Kant, Natorp maintained that the self-reflection of consciousness is impossible. Consciousness apprehends only the empirical I", something that appears in the world as any other things through the mediation of spatial-temporal intuition. Hence pure consciousness can only be known by the critical method, which Natorp called reconstruction. It cannot be discovered directly without mediation, as Husserl assumed in his main principle of phenomenology. In Kants structure of consciousness, any datum can be reached only through concepts, which make this datum understandable to us. Hence Natorp could not agree with Husserls phenomenology. He claimed that unmediated knowledge of consciousness is impossible since everything that becomes knowledge is already constructed by concepts, and these concepts are intersubjective rules that make objective knowledge possible. In other words, knowledge is mediation, the immediate knowledge of consciousness is impossible. The retrospection of the process of consciousness is also perceived through concepts, and hence becomes objectified as any other things. Natorp maintained, as Luft noted, that Subjectivity is found in the objects it creates, and critical, transcendental philosophy clarifies solely what is involved in constructing these objects. 35 Subjectivity cannot be touched directly as

phenomenology assumes, and the pure subjective consciousness can only be understood by objective knowledge. Hence we are unable to make a pure description of consciousness. The self-reflection of consciousness is mediated by concepts that

CPR, 15. Sebastian Luft, A Hermeneutic Phenomenology of Subjective and Objective Spirit: Husserl, Natorp, and Cassirer, New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy IV (2004): 218.
34 35

19

already modify the purity of the reflection. 36 In addition, Natorp pointed out that if intuition aims to reach the moment of consciousness, it can only be the static moment of here and now. Therefore, Natorp claimed that the phenomenological description is static and cannot reflect the dynamic, continuous flow of consciousness, Erlebnis des Stromes as Husserl called it. 37 Thus Natorp rejected the method of phenomenology, though he did not give up other attempts to investigate the domain of consciousness. He argued that this domain cannot be explored by the pure, descriptive, phenomenological method but rather by the reconstruction method. It is, indeed, a critical method, diverted from objective knowledge and expressions to the subjective structure of consciousness, that makes possible the construction of knowledge. To Natorps and others 38 criticism Husserl responded that the reflection of Erlebnis is not like knowledge in the world that is perceived in the external manner. Hence, the claim that initial Erlebnis is modified by the act of introspection is not justified. However, Erlebnis of consciousness and reflection upon it are the same act; Erlebnis is the flow of consciousness and is given to consciousness in its completeness 39 . Moreover, it is also given as one continuous flow stream of experience and not as a static moment. 40 Nevertheless, as Luft observes, Husserl took Natorps critique seriously and, as a result of it, added the reconstructive method to phenomenology. 41 Hence Luft claimed that the two methods, reconstructive and descriptive, cannot really be separated and one necessarily supplements the other. 42 Cassirer also recognized the deficiency of both the pure neo-Kantian and pure phenomenological approaches, and tried to present in his symbolic philosophy a unification of the two. He used Natorps reconstructive method to rediscover the first principles of knowledge, and he followed Husserls phenomenological method in describing the first principles of knowledge and life 43 . Moreover, according to Cassirers new symbolic concept, not only does the

Ibid., 226. Cf.: ibid., 227. 38 See I, 79, 223-225, Husserls discussion with H.J. Watt. 39 Ibid. 40 I, 34,116. 41 Sebastian Luft, A Hermeneutic Phenomenology of Subjective and Objective Spirit: Husserl, Natorp, and Cassirer, New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy IV (2004): 220233. 42 Ibid., 230. 43 Cassirer used rather the concept of life instead of being, see below.
37

36

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method of intuition supplement the construction-based method, but unmediated and constructed aspects of knowledge are unified in every act of perception. The problem of construction versus intuition is key to understanding the philosophical underpinnings of the Davos dispute and of Cassirers philosophy. Both the philosophy of symbolic forms and Heideggers hermeneutical approach provide their own solution for the debate between Husserl and Natorp.

21

2. The Davos Dispute: Heidegger versus Cassirer


2.1 Heideggers Critique of Cassirer
The starting point of the controversy between Heidegger and Cassirer was the interpretation of Kantian philosophy. The neo-Kantian interpretation was the main target of Heideggers criticism. Heidegger argued that the neo-Kantian philosophers built their philosophical position on a superficial understanding of CPR. The neoKantians interpreted Kantian philosophy as epistemology and not as ontology. They thought this philosophy dealt with the justification of mathematical and empirical knowledge. However, given the successful development of natural science, all domains of knowledge that belonged to philosophy had become fields of empirical, scientific investigation. Therefore, said Heidegger, neo-Kantian philosophy began with the question: what still remains of Philosophy if the totality of beings has been divided up under the sciences? 44 This question could arise only when philosophy identified the question of being with the question of knowledge. Heideggers critique of Cassirer stemmed from his conviction that Cassirer was a neo-Kantian who followed Cohen and Natorp. Cassirer rejected this critique by saying that neither he, nor Cohen and Natorp, were neo-Kantians in this sense. Moreover, Cassirer argued that no essential differences arise between Heidegger and neo-Kantians and that he [had] found a neo-Kantian here in Heidegger. 45 This assertion stemmed from his conception of neo-Kantianism. He said he defined neo-Kantianism not as a dogmatic doctrinal system but rather as a matter of a direction taken in question-posing. The neoKantians direction went back from given facts to the a priori conditions of these facts. At the beginning of BT, Heidegger claimed that the meaning of being is already known to us, as we live within this understanding of being, but it is so close to us that we cannot properly clarify it. He proposed, therefore, the hermeneutical method for discovering how to interpret being. Cassirer identified this method of investigation with that of neo-Kantians, arguing that Heidegger, as a neo-Kantian, also directed his investigation toward the a priori structure of existence.

44 45

DD, 171. Ibid.

22

Heideggers conviction of the neo-Kantian character of Cassirers philosophy was rooted in his previous reading of PSF II, which was devoted to mythical thought. Heidegger wrote a positive review of Cassirers analysis of mythical thought. 46 But already in this review Heidegger claimed that because of the neo-Kantian point of departure, Cassirers explication of the mythical Dasein was lacked a foundation. He asserted that Cassirer had begun his philosophy with a dualistic process of perception and presupposed the dominant role of concepts in the formation of objective reality. Indeed, in this as well as in his first volume, devoted to language, Cassirer used the term form in the sense of the construction of reality. The concept of construction requires material, that is, sense impressions from which objects can be constructed. In his introduction to PSF, Cassirer said he began his philosophy from the Copernican Revolution", that is, from the statement that the unity of form is constituted by the spontaneity of consciousness, since there is no given form. Cassirer declared that he began his philosophy, like Kant, with the creative process of concepts or, in other words, the spontaneous act of mind that organizes the chaos of sensation in the structure of the world. Yet Cassirer considerably extended Kants critique, since in his philosophy constructive acts are not dominated by a single structure as in Kants, but can be employed by the multiplicity of structures by which reality can be constructed. Language, myth, art, and religion embody different forms of culture that are constructed in different manners. However, although Cassirers philosophy is definitely not limited to the theory of knowledge but extends to the critique of culture, according to Heidegger it still remains at a neo-Kantian, critical starting point since it presupposes construction and dualism. Heideggers central disagreement with the neo-Kantians and Cassirer focused on their mistaken understanding of Kants conception of Copernican Revolution. Heidegger claimed they understood it to mean that all actuality", in Kants sense, was a formation of productive consciousness.47 In other words, they considered mans mind to resemble the Demiurges in Platos sense. Concepts of the understanding become the productive powers by which objective reality is constructed. It seems that the concepts actually create the world from the given chaos of sensation", just as, in the Demiurges paradigm, an artist creates forms from raw material according to divine ideas in his mind.
46 47

See EC. Ibid., 185

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The active powers of mind that presume to construct reality in the neo-Kantian model, according to Heidegger, suppress the passive perceptive level or sensory intuition, which is the real ground of being. Therefore, he argued, Cassirer could not find a foundation for the mythical Dasein that he described. As Heidegger put it: beginning with a chaos of sensation that is formed is not only insufficient for the philosophical problem of transcendence but already covers over the original phenomenon of transcendence as the condition for the possibility of any passivity. 48 In contrast to Cassirer, Heidegger argued that the main point of the Copernican Revolution was ontology, the question of being. The concepts had no dominant function in the constitution of reality; they were only servants of the intuition. The constructive interpretation of reality, as proposed by Cassirer, mediated the Dasein, which should be clarified through its givenness to intuition. Since Cassirers starting point was active formation of a passively given chaos of sensations, his project of the phenomenology of mythical consciousness remained without firm foundation. Heidegger concluded: the interpretation of the essence of myth as a possibility of human Dasein remains random and directionless as long as it cannot be grounded in a radical ontology of Dasein in light of the problem of Being in general. 49 Cassirers mistake was that he put active powers before intuition. Consequently he had no access to being, which, according to Heidegger, originates in passive intuition. Heidegger suggested that until Cassirer gave up his ideas about the spontaneous capacity of thinking that dominates receptivity, his point of departure would remain problematic and his interpretation of Kant would be unsatisfactory. Therefore, Heidegger argued in Davos that Cassirers problem was the lack of a starting point. 50 He spoke of forms and values but could not bring them down to earth. It was like the joke, told by Plato, about the philosopher who while observing the heavens fell into the hole. This philosopher observed great things, such as eternity or remote stars, but did not see what was going on under his feet. So Cassirer also aimed to reach the domain of transcendence, but it was suspended in air. Heidegger argued that Cassirer could not discover the domain of transcendence without rooting it in existence. He was left,

EC, 189. Ibid., 187. 50 DD.


48 49

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instead, with relicts of theological dogmas of the past, shades of God in the words of Nietzsche. Heidegger and many of his young followers saw Cassirer in this light. According to Heidegger, intuition is primary to constructive knowledge, and concepts of understanding serve the intuition. 51 Thus, Heidegger thought reconstruction in the neo-Kantian sense was impossible, since intuition is not constructed. Hermeneutics, he maintained, should replace the critical reconstructive method. Because of their preference for construction, Heidegger argued, neo-Kantians missed the true metaphysical core of Kants philosophy. Although Kant himself wanted to present his philosophy only as a justification of experience, Heidegger claimed that nevertheless, despite Kants own intentions, his philosophy revealed the new domain of metaphysics and ontology. According to Heidegger, the fundamental point of Kantian metaphysic was the distinction he made between the finite and the infinite divine mode of perception. Heidegger based his original interpretation of Kant on this distinction. Whereas Gods knowledge identifies itself with its object, 52 not requiring experience or, therefore, sensory intuition in order to perceive, the finite consciousness bases knowledge on experience, which is given by sensory intuition. Heidegger pointed out that mans finite consciousness defines and discovers the ontology that is unique to mortal beings. The finitude of mans being is the starting point for the revelation of the ground of being. From this point Heidegger developed his interpretation of being, that is, Dasein. Finite being is characterized by its necessarily temporal structure, which Kant described according to a transcendental scheme. This scheme combines temporal intuition with the concepts of the understanding. If the concepts of the understanding were prior to the receptivity of intuition, our perception would be as spontaneous as Gods and could not be based on sensory intuition. Hence finite intuition, unlike infinite divine intuition, has to be receptive: it cannot give the object from out of itself. 53 Since the concepts of the understanding are not characterized by receptivity, they do not determine the structure of finite human being. Heideggers main argument against the neo-Kantians, and in particular Cassirer, was that they neglected the finite mode of mans being and gave preference to construction over intuition, making man into a sort of God. For
KPM, 17-25. Ibid. 53 Ibid.
51 52

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Heidegger, intuition was primary to thinking, since intuition defined the structure of existence for finite being, and discovered the foundation of this kind of being.

2.2 Cassirers Critique of Heidegger


In light of Heideggers critique, it is worth clarifying Cassirers position, which in many regards is not unequivocal. In the Davos dispute, however, Cassirer did not provide a thorough exposition of his philosophy. He argued that Heideggers interpretation of Kant, which limited all domains of human being to temporal being, distorted Kants original intention to reveal the possibility of human freedom in the realm of ethics and to overcome the finitude of temporal existence. Cassirer maintained that man participated in infinity through the medium of form. The infinite form created by finite man overcomes the primordial finitude of man and integrates infinity with his experience. However, Cassirer in Davos did not give a thoroughgoing explanation as to how he unified the realm of transcendence with immanence. In the lectures he presented at Davos, he pointed out that he solved this problem in PSF III. 54 The next chapter of this paper will focus on this issue. During the dispute Cassirer criticized Heideggers weaknesses and the implications of his philosophical arguments concerning relativism for questions of ethics and freedom. Since, according to Heidegger, human values and truths must be grounded in the finitude of human existence, these values are relative, historical, and not universal. But the main point of Cassirers critique was much broader. As discovered in Cassirers unpublished lectures in Davos, he had thoroughly studied Heideggers BT and criticized his philosophical position. Heidegger introduced two key concepts of his philosophy: present-at-hand [Vorhanden] and ready-to-hand [Zuhanden], which are used to describe various attitudes toward things in the world. The ready-to-hand is a tool, and is that with which our every-day dealings proximally dwell. 55 The present-at-hand is an observation of something from a theoretical, detached viewpoint. Cassirer argued that Heideggers philosophy was unable to go beyond the ready-to-hand to the present-at-hand. As Cassirer wrote: We ask: what is a medium by which we could proceed from the domain of the ready-to-

See Heidegger Vorlesungen, Manuskript Davos 1929, handschriftlich. ERNST CASSIRER PAPERS, MSS 98, Box 42, Folder 839. 55 BT, 15, 99.
54

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hand to the present-at-hand, from bare data to real objectivity. 56 The ready-to-hand, according to Cassirer, stays close to itself and cannot be linked to the public world, since it has no bridge to objectivity. Cassirer claimed that Heideggers phenomenology reduced everything to the idea of deficiency and could not give an account of objectivity. Whereas Heidegger maintained that the ready-to-hand is primordial compared to the present-at-hand, Cassirer in his lecture compared this assertion to perceptual disorders. Cassirer adduced examples from the pathology of the perception called Aphasia. 57 Cassirer described the situation where the patient of Aphasia was able to use objects as tools, such as a fork and knife for eating, but unable to recognize the objects by their names. The patient named the tools indirectly by their function. He identified a knife with cutting and a pencil with writing. Cassirer wrote that although the patient used the knife and fork correctly during the meal, after the meal he did not know what to do with them. 58 Likewise, Cassirer claimed that Heidegger could not reach the level of objective knowledge that is constituted by all normal perception just from his ready-in-hand description of the being of entities, which dealt only with their use as tools. Perhaps Cassirers most decisive criticism of Heidegger, wrote Gordon, took aim at the deepest and most troublesome moment of conceptual tension in Heideggers own philosophy, between its claim to objectivephenomenological description (the ontological inquiry into Daseins apparently constitutive existential-structure) and its concession to non-objective hermeneutics (the doctrine that even phenomenological description occurs within local-subjective bounds). 59 In other words, the problem with Heideggers philosophy is that it could not explain objectivity and transcendence, and this is Cassirers most serious criticism of it. I described above some central aspects of the Davos dispute. Many researchers concluded that Cassirers weakness in the controversy was his starting point, since his
Heidegger Vorlesungen, Maniskript Davos 1929, handschriftlich. My trans. (ERNST CASSIRER PAPERS, MSS98, Box 42, Folder 839), p.13. 57 Aphasia is the pathology of speech that is causes by injury to brain. Cassirer dealt with the theory of aphasia in PSF III, pp. 205-233. 58 Heidegger Vorlesungen, Maniskript Davos 1929, handschriftlich. (ERNST CASSIRER PAPERS, MSS98, Box 42, Folder 839), p. 14: Wo eine Benennung versucht wird, da erfolgt sie auf einem Umwege dass Messer zum Schneider, der Bleistift zum Schreiben. <..> der Objekte der Aphasiker Messer und Gabel werden zur Stunde der Mahlzeit richtig gebraucht, aber ausserhalb derselben weiss der Kranke nichts mit ihnen anzufangen. 59 Peter Eli Gordon, Continental Divide: The Davos Disputation between Cassirer and Heidegger, 1929, Modern Intellectual History (Summer 2003): 1-41, 25.
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philosophy, as Heidegger claimed, had no access to the ground of existence. On the other hand, they concluded, Heideggers problematic issue was a finishing point, because he had no access to objectivity and the justification of ethical values. I maintain, however, that Heideggers critique of Cassirer did not achieve its goal because it was based on misunderstanding of Cassirers symbolic-forms project. Heidegger based his arguments only on the first two volumes of PSF, which give an incomplete picture of Cassirers philosophy. At Davos, Heidegger did not mention the third volume and, apparently, had not yet read it. His review of the second volume was written in 1925, before the third volume was published. However, Cassirer provided the essential exposition of his thought only in the third volume, The Phenomenology of Knowledge, which was published in 1929. It reveals Cassirers phenomenological assumptions and the ground [Grundlichkeit] of his philosophy. I will demonstrate that Cassirer was not neo-Kantian in Heideggers sense, and his philosophy did not lack a foundation. The main task of his project was to unite the constructive method of neo-Kantianism with the intuitive method of phenomenology through the philosophy of symbolic forms, and to provide a solution to the problematic aspects of both neo-Kantianism and phenomenology. Compared to other neo-Kantians, Cassirer did not base knowledge primarily on construction. He maintains that construction is neither prior to intuition, nor intuition prior to construction, since both are aspects of a single representation. Cassirer presents the unity of intuition and thinking in the new concept of the symbol.

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Alles Vergngliche Ist nur ein Gleichnis; Das Unzulngliche Hier wirds Ereignis; Das Unbeschreibliche Hier ist es getan;
J.W. Goethe, Faust

3. The Symbolic Philosophy


3.1 The Dilemma of Life and Culture
In the first two volumes of PSF devoted to language and mythical consciousness, Cassirer was close to Natorps reconstructive method. But as we shall see, in the third volume, The Phenomenology of Knowledge, Cassirer incorporated many aspects of Husserls doctrine. 60 Cassirers phenomenology, like Husserls, aimed to come back to the thing itself or to the concreteness of life. Nevertheless, Husserls and Cassirers philosophies deal with different domains of existence since they go in different directions. Husserls point of departure is the inquiry into pure consciousness, and Cassirers the symbolic forms or cultural expressions. At the beginning of PSF I, Cassirer mentioned Natorps critical method as developed in Allgemeine Psychologie nach Kritischer Methode. Cassirer asserted that Natorp, like Husserl, went against the naturalistic tendency in contemporary philosophy. However, Natorp rejected the possibility of the immediate knowledge of consciousness. Following Natorps critique, Cassirer also doubted the

phenomenological project, asking: How can we penetrate to this pure inner world of consciousness, this ultimate concentration of all spiritual life, if in exploring and describing it we must avoid all the concepts and criteria which were created for the exposition of objective reality?61 In other words, the description of pure

60

Despite Cassirers remarks in the introduction to this volume that he uses phenomenology in the

Hegelian rather than the modern usage of the term (PSF III), I, as Luft, see a similarity between Cassirers and Husserls usage of this term. Cf.: Sebastian Luft, A Hermeneutic Phenomenology of Subjective and Objective Spirit: Husserl, Natorp, and Cassirer, in New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy IV (2004): 209: the sense of phenomenology of Cassirer need not be so different from what Cassirer terms the modern usage. Cf. also: Christian Mckel, Symboliche Prgnanz ein phnomenologischer Begriff? in Deutsche Zeitschrift fr Philosophie 40 (1992).
61

PSF I, 53.

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Thus -philosophy cannot turn directly to pure consciousness, but should first turn to the multiplicity of cultural forms in which the spirit of mankind is expressed. Only after investigating the objective side can one try to understand the domain of pure consciousness, which is the origin of any objective cultural achievement. The aim of this method is to investigate the cultural manifestations of spirit that Cassirer called symbolic forms; from there he diverted to the conditions that enable these forms. Pursuing this reconstructive direction, the first volume of PSF investigates language and the second, myth. Cassirer considered both of these to be forms of different symbolic expressions of the spirit. The investigation of the original concepts of knowledge comes after the inquiry into language and myth. Apparently, in order to pursue this critical method, Cassirer needed to regard all cultural forms as constructions of consciousness, which, consequently, stems from active power and not from receptiveness. Therefore, the pure experience that can be given through receptiveness is not possible. That is how many contemporary philosophers, including Heidegger, understood Cassirers philosophy, but they missed the main point. Although Cassirers philosophy began with the critical method, it deviated from the doctrine that Heidegger considered to be the central doctrine of neo-Kantianism. Cassirer did not agree that the origin of knowledge is primary spontaneous action, maintaining instead that the origin of knowledge is symbolic. This matter needs further explanation. One of the major dilemmas of philosophy that Cassirer intended to solve in PSF III, and to which he returned many times in his subsequent works, was the gap between life [Leben] and culture.
63

He thought this dilemma, though very old, was

part of the contemporary dispute between neo-Kantianism and phenomenology. Cassirer used the term life in many different senses and contexts. In his 1942 lecture, he gave the following explanation: Life, reality, being, existence are nothing
62 63

Ibid. See PSF I, 110-114; PSF III, 1-40; PSF IV, 131-136.

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but different terms referring to one and the same fundamental fact. They are to be understood as names of a process. 64 Life, in a broad significance, is a sense and intuition of lifes process; it is unmediated knowledge and perception of existence. In contrast, culture along with spirit and intelligence can be understood in a broad sense as a creative, conceptual, and meaning-giving aspect of mans being. Cassirer thought this dilemma had emerged at the beginning of philosophy together with the separation of philosophy from the world of myth. If the mythical worldview was based on the immediacy of life impressions, philosophy moved away from this to the clearness of concepts. Philosophy begins as the explanation of something, a direct experience, by something else, abstract words. The immediacy of life is understood according to concepts, something very different from life itself, whereas myth did not know the distinction between existence and meaning. But the decisive characteristic of the new thinking was the awareness of the difference between immediacy and symbols, which are the representation of reality. Cassirer pointed out that this distinction could already be found in Plato who had distinguished between sign and idea, between something that appears real but in fact only represents reality, and the reality itself. Hence the concept is the only instrument of philosophy, and philosophy has no means to reach the immediacy of intuition without it. Philosophy knows only one way to investigate reality: by means of concepts. Cassirer wrote: To philosophy, which finds its fulfillment only in the sharpness of the concept and in the clarity of discursive thought, the paradise of mysticism, the paradise of pure immediacy, is closed. 65 Thus Cassirer distinguished between pure immediacy and philosophy, since he denied to philosophy any means to reach the immediacy of life. Philosophy as well as human culture on the whole mediates the pure immediacy of life by theoretical, symbolical, and conceptual knowledge. Philosophy, then, created a gap between life and culture. Religion, like philosophy, aimed to free culture from the mythical world of immediate life. Religion takes the decisive step that is essentially alien to myth: in its use of sensuous images and signs it recognized them as such a means of expression which, though they reveal a determinate meaning, must necessarily remain inadequate
Ernst Cassirer, Language and Art II, in Symbol, Myth and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935-1945, ed. Donald Philip Verene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 194. 65 Ibid., 113.
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to it, which point to this meaning but never wholly exhaust it. 66 Or as Lofts explained it: Religious consciousness thus constitutes itself through the recognition of the opposition between meaning and existence, between the Ur-Bild and the UrSache that is essentially alien to mythical consciousness. 67 Religion deepened the gap between life, or existence, and spirit. Cassirer noted 68 that the medieval mystics revived the opposition between unmediated life and knowledge, which can be viewed as a longing for immediate mythical perception. Mystical thought assumes that culture, the whole world of forms and words, hides the reality from mans eyes. Forms and words in themselves are only means, an illusive veil that covers the immediacy of real being, or God. From Cassirers standpoint, this doctrine represented a kind of reminiscence of the break that occurred in the past between the immediacy of life and the symbol. Mystical thought of this kind gave rise to the distinction between mans and Gods mode of understanding, which was frequently made in medieval theology. Man perceives by means of senses; he does not have Gods intellectual intuition. In contrast to the human discursive mode of thinking, Gods understanding is immediate. He does not need any tools in order to know, because he knows directly. Understanding of this kind became the paradigm of intuitive, unmediated knowledge and influenced Kants position on mans structure of knowledge. Hence Heidegger thought Kants main idea in CPR was the distinction between infinite and finite knowledge. In Heideggers view, the sense-limited structure of human knowledge is the essential mark of mortal being. This was Kants most important discovery, and on this basis Heidegger developed his own ontology. Although, as an atheist, Heidegger did not believe in the divine mode of understanding, he considered the finitude of human knowledge to be the principal feature of being in general, since he thought there was no other kind of knowledge. However, Cassirer saw the distinction between Gods creative type of knowledge and the human, sense-limited type of knowledge as a presupposition of the tradition that was inherited from mystical religious thought. From this point of view, both Heidegger and Kant were influenced by mysticism.

PSF II, 239. Steve G. Lofts, Ernst Cassirer: A Repetition of Modernity (Foreword by John Michael Krois) (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 132. 68 PSF I, 112.
66 67

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Cassirer emphasized that the conflict between intuitive and conceptual knowledge, which arose in mystical thought, was renewed and reinforced by Romanticism and had become the main problem of philosophy over the past 150 years. Although Cassirer believed this problem should be solved, apparently he was not sure how it could be done completely. He asked: How can we do justice to the Goethean demand for the recognition of primary phenomena and to the Cartesian-Kantian demand for reflection in knowledge and philosophy? How can we uphold that form of certainty and immediateness", which Goethe attributes to primary phenomena and at the same time grant the no less unassailable right of thought", which wants to bring everything before its bench for investigation and accreditation? Is there still some sort of synthesis possible here? 69 Cassirer suggested that this contradiction gave rise to the opposition between the unmediated knowledge of phenomenology and the mediated knowledge of neoKantianism, as well as between Romanticism and positivism, irrationalism and rationalism, and between mysticism and physicalism. 70 He continued: This conflict, this antinomy, has been set forth again and again, and has left an indelible mark in particular on the present-day philosophical combatants. The intellect is hated, denigrated, and rejected in the name of another deeper, more original substance that might be called soul, life, or whatever. 71 This dilemma is reflected in all the volumes of PSF. Cassirer began PSF I with an introduction to this conflict: The cleavage between these two antitheses [concept and intuition] it would seem cannot be bridged by any effort of mediating thought which itself remains entirely on one side of the antithesis: the farther we advance in the direction of the symbolic, the merely figurative, the farther we go from the primal source of pure intuition 72 (emphasis added). The phrase it would seem emphasizes Cassirers ambiguous attitude toward this issue. I argue that one of his main purposes in PSF was to show that symbols do not necessarily oppose immediacy, that symbolic functions are already found at the primordial level of perception. At first Cassirer aimed to resolve the conflict, though he always hesitated or perhaps had a kind of unease about denying the old philosophical conception. He asked:

On Basis Phenomena, in PSF IV, 136. See ibid. 71 Ibid. 72 PSF I, 112.
69 70

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Would it not be an offense against this immediacy, a totally unjustified intellectualization of intuition and perception, if we sought to extend the hegemony of the symbol over them?... To question or efface this dividing line between the immediacy of perception or intuition and the mediacy of logicaldiscursive thinking would be to disregard one of the securest insights of epistemology to abandon a truly classical distinction, growing out of a centuriesold tradition. 73 He pointed to the assumed opposition between symbol and intuition, an opposition that he himself doubted. In his view there was a synthesis between primary phenomena of intuition and thought, and this synthesis emerged in the new concept of the symbol. Thus the opposition between symbol and intuition should be resolved, and the conflict between the arguments for constructive knowledge and for intuition should be reconciled. It was a quite revolutionary idea, one that Cassirer scholars have not fully noticed and discussed. For example, Luft claimed that Cassirer was on Natorps side and did not think Cassirer had provided a new resolution of this debate. 74 We shall see that Cassirers project was to bring together life and spirit, unmediated and mediated knowledge, neo-Kantianism and phenomenology, rationalism and irrationalism. His philosophy of symbolic forms aimed to show that conceptual symbolic knowledge is not opposed to the immediacy of life. This purpose of Cassirers philosophy was not properly understood by Heidegger and his followers at Davos, and they continued to consider him a neo-Kantian philosopher. However, Cassirer created an original theory that reconciled the neo-Kantian school with phenomenology, and in some respects he was close to Heideggers hermeneutics despite their many differences. Cassirer began to revise a long tradition of the opposition between symbolic and intuitive knowledge. In PSF III Cassirer developed a phenomenological approach, and despite his above-cited antiphenomenological arguments, he described the immediacy of life as an Erlebnis of the original phenomenon of expression. Afterward, in his unfinished fourth volume of PSF, he continued to develop his unique

PSF III, 47. See Sebastian Luft, A Hermeneutic Phenomenology of Subjective and Objective Spirit: Husserl, Natorp, and Cassirer, New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy IV (2004): 233-247.
73 74

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phenomenological-symbolic approach but introduced many significant changes in his initial position.

3.2 The Concept of Symbol


To put an end to the antagonism between intuition and thought, Cassirer introduced a new meaning for the symbol. In the commonly accepted view, a symbol as a sign represents (or stands for) something else; it is a material object that is used to represent something different from itself. Heidegger defined the symbol in this way. He even widened the gap between symbol and being. At the beginning of BT, he distinguished between phenomenon and appearance. He defined a phenomenon as something that shows itself by itself, or makes itself seen 75 . It can also show itself in the wrong way, that is, as something other than itself. In any case, a phenomenon is something that shows itself, in a correct or a deceptive manner, and it is completely different from appearance. Appearance, Heidegger wrote, is something that does not show itself; 76 it can be known only through the mediation of something else. Symbols as well as indications and signs have the same mediating function as appearance; they do not show themselves. The phrase: the world is only appearance means that we do not know the real world; we know only something different from it, which points to it. Here, then, Heidegger made a strict distinction between symbol, which is a mere appearance or mediation, and phenomenon, which shows itself. According to this definition, phenomenology, in contrast to symbolic perception, is a question about something that shows itself as it is in itself. The ontology or science of being can only be phenomenology, since only phenomenology can clarify being, present being as it shows itself, and open a path to being. In contrast to phenomenology, no theory that deals with symbols and appearances has any access to being, since medium cannot discover being. Therefore, according to Heideggers definition, symbol means mediation; it differs from reality. To say that perception of reality is symbolic is the same as saying that perception cannot reach reality or true being, since it can only apprehend symbols that represent reality. Thus, when Cassirer claimed that the symbolic function is fundamental to perception, many researches have understood that as a neo-Kantian he presumed that there is no access to immediate reality, since reality is mediated by

75 76

BT, 7, 51-55. Ibid.

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symbol. But this interpretation stems from the identification of symbol with mediation. According to Cassirer, however, the symbol is not a mere medium. Although symbols are indeed useful in scientific theories where they have a function of representation and signification, Cassirer claimed that symbols are not a prerogative of scientific thinking and significations. Cassirer asserted that the function of the symbol is to unify mediation and immediacy. According to Cassirer, the symbol is not something different from reality; rather, it integrates certain aspects of reality. The very structure of reality is symbolic; it includes something that necessarily goes beyond or transcends its material limits. Reality includes both concreteness and transcendence. Cassirer identified the concept of symbol with every kind of phenomenon in which sensory content is unified with meaning. This primordial phenomenon is also called the phenomenon [Urphnomen] of expression [Ausdruck]. Cassirer affirmed that sense data embody meaning, or fill themselves with meaning. Cassirer like Hegel played on the German word Sinn", which means sense and meaning", Bedeutung.
77

The double meaning of the

word Sinn points to the original unity of sense data and meaning. Only theoretical philosophical thought distinguished between these two components; they are unified in the phenomenon of expression, which is the first Erlebnis and the origin of perception. Hence Cassirer maintained that the symbol was a necessary structure of reality. Primordial reality is not given as something completely defined; it is, rather, symbolic. It does not know any distinction between an image and a thing or between a mark and what is marked. The symbolic structure of life points beyond its content; it points to something that gives meaning and life to strictly material content. This symbolic structure is the expressive moment of life. Cassirer developed his concept of the symbol from his analysis of mythical thought that reveals the primordial level of perception. His inquiry into mythical consciousness and language brought Cassirer to conclude that the symbol had not always been understood as a medium, and in the mythical world no strict distinction existed between symbol and reality. In myth, the symbol does not have a mediating function; it is not something that substitutes for reality. Thus it is a mistake, said

77

PSF III, 108: Sinnerflling des Sinnlichen sich darstellt.

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Cassirer, to restrict the symbolic function to the theoretical framework, in which the symbol represents abstract contents. 78

If it is the symbolic concept which actually opens up the realm of theoretical and exact science, it would seem to be confined to this realm and unable to pass beyond it. The analysis of language and myth has granted us an insight into fundamental forms of symbolic apprehension and formation, which by no means coincide with the form of conceptual abstract thinking but possess and preserve an entirely different character. 79 Mythical thought does not distinguish between thing and image, sign and what is signified, dream and reality. Cassirer wrote: Where we see mere representation, myth, insofar as it has not yet deviated from its fundamental and original form, sees real identity. The image does not represent the thing; it is the thing. 80 In mythical consciousness the role of the symbol is not representative but real. The word or image do not represent something different from themselves; they are not only appearance but also the exposition of reality. The symbol is identified with the thing that it represents. This identification is evident from the examples of magic spells and witchcraft, which were widespread in the mythical world. To harm someone, adepts of magic cults would destroy his image since they assumed that the image and the actual person were interconnected. 81 Another example is language magic, which presupposes a connection between real persons and their names. Adepts of these cults regarded a persons name as his inner essence.82 Therefore, the unity between symbol and the immediacy of life, which appears strange from the theoretical viewpoint, is very natural in the mythical worldview, which is closer to the concreteness of original natural perception. Cassirers concept of symbol is close to the concept of scheme, which, in Kants CPR, is responsible for the power of imagination. The function of the symbol as the function of scheme is to unify sensory content with categories of understanding. Therefore Cassirer remarked: for me as well [as for Heidegger] the productive power of imagination appears in fact to have a central meaning for Kant. From there I

See PSF III, 107-118. Ibid. 80 PSF II, 38.


78 79 81 82

See ibid., 27-60. Cf.: Moshe Idel, Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

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was led through my work on the symbolic. 83 Cassirer considered the unity between categories and intuition to be primary to distinction. Since the symbol presents the unity of receptive and spontaneous aspects, to speak of the priority of one of the components over the other does not make sense. Herein lies the main disagreement between Cassirer and Heidegger. As already mentioned, Heidegger argued that intuition is primary to knowledge and that the concepts of understanding serve intuition. Heidegger criticized Cassirers position on the constructive character of knowledge. Cassirer, for his part, clearly rejected Heideggers position on the priority of intuition. He also did not accept Heideggers theological assumption that the human being is characterized by a finitude of receptivity. But he also did not agree that construction or concepts of understanding are prior to intuition. Heidegger and others, however, misunderstood Cassirers concept of the symbol, which constitutes the core of his philosophy. Cassirer did not give priority to the concepts of understanding as set forth in Kants scheme. In his new concept of the symbol, the sensory and conceptual aspects were unified. The receptive or intuitive aspect together with the conceptual or constructive aspect represent, in their unity, the very ground of knowledge and being. According to the phenomenology of knowledge, the symbolic function lies at the first level of perception, which includes the sensory and meaningful aspects. This first level is not constructed by the spontaneous power of mind but rather is given together with this power. Thus, the original phenomenon of perception is not constructed but given. Cassirer pointed to the receptive character of the original phenomenon, remarking: For all experience and expression are at first a mere passivity, a beingacted-upon rather than an acting and this receptivity stands in evident contrast to that kind of spontaneity in which all self-consciousness as such is grounded. 84 The spontaneous power that is able to construct objective knowledge emerges from the symbolic function of the phenomenon of perception. This power, however, does not appear at the first level but with the further development of perception, in the functions of representation and signification. 85 Only at these next levels does the differentiation between various cultural forms and science emerge. The primordial level of perception, however, lacks construction and accordingly self-consciousness,
DD, 172. PSF III, 75. 85 PSF III, 105-205.
83 84

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that is the spontaneous act of consciousness. This primordial level is the ground of Cassirers philosophy, which Heidegger did not appreciate when he claimed Cassirers philosophy had no ground. 86 This is the reason for Cassirers difficulty in incorporating ethics in his philosophy of symbolic forms. That problem will be discussed in the last chapter.

3.3 The Phenomenon of Expression


Cassirer defines the primordial level of perception, which includes symbolic functions, as the original phenomenon of expression. Life expresses itself and is perceived at this primal level as an expression that points beyond itself. The pure phenomenon of expression is experienced as pure, immediate Erlebnis of life. It cannot be analyzed and described by concepts, since concepts belong to certain spheres of meaning whereas, as Cassirer asserted, [the purely expressive function] precedes differentiation into the various spheres of meaning, it precedes the divergence of myth and theory, of logical reflection and aesthetic intuition. Its certainty and its truth are, in a manner of speaking, premythical, pre-logical and pre-aesthetic; 87 To explain this, it helps to consider other expressions, such as facial expression, for example. Facial expression is not the collection of features that together create the unity of expression. It does, however, display unity that goes beyond the material limits of a face. A sad or happy expression does not exist in the face in the way that the nose or eyes exist; instead the whole face conveys the specific expression. A face is not a representation of sadness, rather a facial expression embodies sadness. Moreover, a facial expression points beyond the given content of a face; it reveals the owner of the face. The perception of the other is not theoretical and discursive; it is the direct apprehension of the others facial expression, gestures, bodily movements, and so on. To better clarify the phenomenon of expression, which is prior to any kind of knowledge, Cassirer turned to the Gestalt psychology and specifically the experiments of Kurt Koffka and B.W. Kohler. He noted that, from their research on

86 87

See EC. PSF III, 81.

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newborns, they concluded that the infant recognizes the familiar face and reacts differently to different expressions, before he knows anything about the world. 88 Erlebnis of the original phenomenon of expression is the unmediated source of life and perception. It discovers life as it is, as pure expression. It is the origin of life as well as the ground [Grund] of symbolic forms. Therefore, Cassirer not only investigated objective cultural formations, as evident from only the first two volumes of PSF; he also offered a description of pure Erlebnis, the original phenomenon of life. Cassirer, like Husserl and Heidegger, aimed to reveal the ground of being and knowledge. Hence all of them are philosophers of Grundlichkeit. Each found his own way to the original source of life: Husserl calls it original givenness [Originr gebende]; Heidegger, Dasein, or Being-here; and Cassirer, rphenomenon, the original phenomenon of expression.

3.4 Symbolic Pregnance: The Meaning


The concept of the symbol reveals that the origin of perception and life is given together with the structure, that is, with the framework of meaning, or it can be called form. This original structure is the source of knowledge, from which the function of representation emerges. Thus every perception perceives form; only within the form can something be given. This view of Cassirer was misunderstood and was interpreted in neo-Kantian fashion, such that the conceptual moment is prior to the immediacy of life and every perception mediates something that can be given directly. But this interpretation is superficial. Cassirers position on the origin of perception and life is not epistemological but, rather, an ontological claim: the fact that every perception is given in a form indicates that nothing can exist in isolation, in discrete manner, without any meaningful formation. Everything exists and is perceived only in the context of meaning. This is the way of perception and this is the way life expresses itself. The very moment of reality is structured. From this standpoint, Cassirers philosophy is an entirely rational worldview since it claims that nothing exists without meaning, or structure. But what kind of structure is it? Cassirer criticized sensualistic empirical philosophers who claimed that sense data alone is the basis of human perception. 89 According to Cassirer, every primordial experience of life is already
88 89

Ibid., 58-67. See PSF III, 22-35.

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structured and carries meaning within itself. The moment of meaning is a symbolic moment that points beyond the given; it brings the transcendent dimension to the bare concreteness of life. This moment, Cassirer argued, was absent in Heideggers hermeneutic philosophy, which was unable to go beyond immanent existence. To clarify his claim that without meaning the perception of the objective is impossible, Cassirer turned to pathological theories.90 Using examples from pathology he pointed to the difference between the symbolic unity of normal perception and the discursive character of defective perception. He was referring to a kind of defectiveness that is not caused by local damage to the organs of perception but concerns the inability to perceive the whole, to identify the meaning. Such defectiveness is called agnosia or aphasia, both of which are kinds of a single pathological phenomenon that comprises a number of disturbances whose common characteristic is a grave impairment of the perceptual knowledge of objects. 91 A patient with this syndrome can recognize an object only when he perceives some parts of it, which are known to him, and through which he tries to guess about the whole thing. For example, a patient can touch the object and recognize different qualities of it, but not the object itself. The collection of qualities does not unite in his perception into a single object. Cassirer suggested that such a patient lacks the symbolic function of perception, which is essential for objective knowledge. For example, one patient could recognize different colors but not the objects: where he is dependent on optical data alone, he gains no knowledge of objects and of what they objectively are and signify. 92 It is only through the symbolic function, Cassirer asserted, that we can make a distinction between true perceptual pregnance and merely discursive knowledge of objects, based on pointers. 93 By these examples Cassirer showed that without the symbolic function of perception, all our perceptions function similarly to cases of agnosia or aphasia. He claimed that only in symbolic perception we have a unity of view by virtue of which the diverse aspects appear as different perspectives of an object which in them is intuitively intended as. 94 Cassirer defined the moment of transcendence in the given content as symbolic pregnance [symbolische Prgnance]. This was a phenomenon in which a
PSF III, 205-279. Ibid., 233. 92 Ibid. 93 Ibid., 240. 94 Ibid.
90 91

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perception as a sensory experience contains at the same time a certain nonintuitive meaning which it immediately and concretely represents. 95 Although meaning and sensory intuition are not two different things but two aspects of a single perception, Cassirer allowed some degree of flexibility in the relation between these aspects. Therefore, he called sensory content and meaning independent variables [unabhngig variable]. This modality of meanings points to a certain ambiguity in Cassirers thought. It is not clear how two aspects that are not separate can exist in different combinations between each other. Is this not the presupposed dualistic structure that Cassirer intended to avoid? In any case, the phenomenon of symbolic pregnance leads from the first level of expressive perception to the next representative level. Symbolic pregnance points to different models that can be applied to a given context. This is a key to understanding the development of different cultural forms and modes of perception, on which Cassirers cultural philosophy focused. Note that Cassirers notion of meaning harbors an irrational interpretation, since he has changed the traditional meaning of meaning to the new expressive bodymeaning. There is no meaning, according to Cassirer, that contains only a pure, conceptual, theoretical essence. Every meaning includes a sensory component. Cassirer linked meaning to bodily expression. As Krois explained, [Expressive meaning] characterized the first stages of perception and bodily awareness. Cassirer argued at length that perception is originally expressive expressiveness is more primitive than the epistemological notion of sensation. Hence, the feeling of the body, our basic self-awareness, is an understanding of meaning. 96 It was from this point of departure, Krois maintained, that Merleau-Ponty developed his phenomenology of perception. 97

95 96

Ibid., 202. CSFH, 57. 97 Ibid., 58: In his examination of the body-subject in The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice MerleauPonty refers again and again to Cassirers analysis of meaning in the Phenomenology of Knowledge and particularly to the key idea of symbolic pregnance. Cassirers thesis that the relationship between the body and sensitive nature (soul) constitutes the prototype of all symbolic relations, that is, that the expressive meaning perceived in the world has its original seat in the body, is Merleau-Pontys starting point in his phenomenology.

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3.5 The World of Organic Forms


The pure phenomenon of expression correlates directly with the organic mythical worldview. Therefore, the description of myth is very important for Cassirer since it reveals not only the primitive stage that was reached many centuries ago but also the unmediated experience of perception. Mythical thought is discussed in PSF II, which presents an organic and hierarchical worldview that is incomprehensible from the scientific standpoint but reflects the original stage of perception. Myth embodies the concreteness of life before the categorization of theoretical consciousness. Consequently, myth discovers the ground for all the further formations of spirit such as religion and science, both of which originated from the phenomenon of expression. In myth, the relation between the part and the whole is very unusual from the standpoint of theoretical consciousness. The whole is not composed of the parts, but every part represents the whole. The whole does not have parts and does not break down into them; the part is immediately the whole and functions as such. 98 This description applies as well to the expressive moment of perception. Perception perceives only one sensory aspect of the thing, and this sensory aspect expresses the whole. Thus our perception of life is based on organic forms. We perceive a thing through perceiving its inner unity, its organic structure. Cassirer explained that the pure phenomenon of expression makes itself known to be inwardly animated. 99 The primordial moment of perception does not perceive things; it discovers physiognomic and organic characteristics of life. It can be said that life is primarily perceived and experienced as filled with living beings. In his meditations about the organic structure of expression, Cassirer mentioned the works of the Italian philosopher Tito Vignoli, 100 who arrived at the radical conclusion that perception is a personification. Vignoli pointed to striking similarities between animals and mans acts of perception: Apprehension is the act, both in animals and in man, by which the spontaneous and immediate animation of things and of phenomena is accomplished. It is therefore necessary to pause and consider this act, since it is, even in man, the

PSF II, 49-50. PSF III, 92. 100 Tito Vignoli, Mito e Scienza [1879]. Eng. trans., Myth and Science (New York, 1882). International Scientific Series, Vol. 38, trans. Kegan Paul, 3rd ed. (London: Trench, 1885). http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17802.
98 99

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source and foundation of the origin of myth, and in it we shall find the causes, elements, and action by which such a genesis is effected. 101

101

Ibid., 116.

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Animals, children, and savage, according to Vignoli, perceive everything as similar to their own structure. Since every emotion, event, or physical object is perceived as a living organism, we can observe in myth the personifications of natural phenomena and emotions. Only by progressing in theoretical understanding does a child, as well as a mythical man, learn to make a distinction between living beings and inanimate objects. Although Cassirer took Vignolis ideas about the nature of perception into account, he was far from Vignolis positivistic and Darwinist naturalistic position. According to Cassirer, Vignolis error was that he did not realize that mythical consciousness cannot be called consciousness, if consciousness means selfconsciousness. Mythical and expressive perception lacks the determination of I. The awareness of I appears at the later stages of development, those of representation and signification. As noted earlier, the primordial level of perception is receptive and lacks the spontaneous act of I. Cassirer wrote: receptivity stands in evident contrast to that kind of spontaneity in which all self-consciousness as such is grounded. In the same sense it is true that the world of expression does not from the start include a determinate, clear developed consciousness of the I. 102 From here arises a serious problem. We have demonstrated that the phenomenon of expression is the ground of culture and life, but can it also be the ground of ethics? Cassirer revealed this phenomenon as the purely receptive immediate experience of life, which is prior to self-consciousness. The question, then, is: how does this guarantee the possibility of ethics? Certainly a possible answer is that ethics emerges from the later stages of development. It does not appear at the stage of pure expression but at the subsequent stages, when the symbolic functions of representation and signification are introduced. But, as mentioned in the introduction to this paper, Cassirer criticized Heidegger in MS 103 because his Existenzialphilosophie claims that human existence has only a passive and unchangeable character, which leads to ethical indifference. Thus, the question is how Cassirer could justify the receptive character of his own foundation of existence. The other question concerns the possibility of bringing the domain of practical philosophy into theoretical philosophy. How could Cassirer, who dealt with the epistemological and phenomenological dimension, also extend it to ethics? The main
102 103

PSF III, 75. MS, 293.

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tension of the ethical problem is: if, in Davos, Cassirer defended the universality of moral values versus the ethical relativism of Heideggers Dasein, and argued that through the symbolic forms he had demonstrated the universality of these values, why did he not develop an extensive moral philosophy? The next and final chapter is devoted to this issue.

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4. Ethics within the Symbolic Philosophy


4.1 Discussion of the Place of Ethics in Cassirers Philosophy
The place of ethics in Cassirers philosophy was extensively discussed in the postwar philosophical literature. This discussion began with Leo Strausss review of MS, in which Strauss claimed Cassirer had no right to criticize Heideggers ethical position while he himself had not developed a philosophy whose center is moral philosophy. 104 Strauss also asserted that Cassirer not only lacked an ethical core in his philosophy but completely eschewed ethics: Cassirer had transformed Cohens system into a new system of philosophy in which ethics had completely disappeared. It had been silently dropped: he had not faced the problem. Heidegger had faced the problem. He had declared that ethics is impossible. 105 With this claim Strauss sought to refute not only the validity of Cassirers ethical philosophy but also Cassirers pretension to follow the philosophy of Herman Cohen. 106 In CSFH, published in 1987, Krois rejected Strausss view of Cassirer and claimed Cassirer had developed a philosophy with ethics at its core. Krois defined ethics as a symbolic form like language, myth, and knowledge. He pointed out that this form, as other symbolic forms, had passed through different stages of development until it became independent of other forms. Ethics came from myth and religion. In the mythical worldview, ethics is still not possible since there is no place for individual responsibility for actions. Mythical consciousness did not know the concept of the individual agent who can act independently of the world according to his own will. According to Cassirer, the mythical world had a hierarchical organic structure in which the existence of individuality, separate from all the other parts of this world, was impossible. In this world the difference between I and not I was not clear. Man did not distinguish between his thoughts and outer events. Every action of hero in myth was explained by circumstances or destiny. As there was no individual sin, bloodshed was explained in terms of an inherited curse. Cassirer maintained that the emergence of the awareness of personality was connected to the cult of sacrifice. The perception of personality as a principle different
Leo Strauss, Review of The Myth of the State by Ernst Cassirer, Social Research 14 (1947): 125128. 105 Leo Strauss, An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism, in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 28. 106 See DD, 172. Cassirer said: I do not conceive of my own development as a defection from Cohen.
104

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from the world resulted from the long process of development from primitive cults to monotheistic religion. The cult of sacrifice led to the appearance of the first clear distinction between the inner domain of man and the outer world. Cassirer suggests that the central function of sacrifice is the limitation of mans desires. Sacrifice defines the world as something completely alien to man. Through the sacrifice, the awareness of the gap between I and the other emerged. When performing sacrificial rituals, man learned to recognize the will of others (i.e., the gods) and to limit his desire according to it. Cassirer asserted: ...every sacrifice implies a negative factor: a limitation of sensory desire, a renunciation which the I imposes on itself. 107 In sacrifice, trying to make contact with gods and to secure their assistance, man perceived himself and his will as different from them and their will; he began to identify himself with his own will. The growing independence of the gods is the condition for mans discovery in himself of a fixed centre, a unity of will, over against the dispersal and diversity of his sensory drives. 108 The crucial point in the development of a personality that is independent of the world is the identification of a person with its action. Hence personality emerged coterminously with the emergence of ethics: they mutually condition each other. Cassirers view of the emergence of ethics was influenced by the philosophy of his teacher Hermann Cohen, who linked the individual I responsible for his sins with the transcendent God of monotheism. 109 However, in contrast to Cohen, Cassirer pointed out that the idea of mans responsibility already appeared in myth before the development of monotheism. He referred to Aeschyluss Oresteia, in which Orestes is judged for killing his mother. 110 Cassirer also mentioned the Egyptian Book of the Dead, where a dead person is judged by the god, Osiris, for his own deeds and punished or rewarded accordingly. In the Book of Gates [part of the Book of the Dead] the dead man appears before Osiris to confess his sins and justify himself. 111 Thus the emergence of the individual was bound up with the gradual separation of religion from the world of myth. Monotheistic religion regarded man as a free agent who is able to act in a wrong or a right way. Hence myth and religion are the symbolic forms that condition the possibility of ethical symbolic form. In his book
PSF II, 221. Ibid., 223. 109 See Herman Cohen, Religion of Reason: out of the Sources of Judaism [1918], trans. Simon Kaplan (New York: F. Ungar, 1972). 110 See CSFH, 144-148. 111 See PSF II, 167.
107 108

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Krois noted that Cassirer had discussed the conditions for ethics and how these conditions had developed. Krois asserted: Moral action depends upon the agents standards or criteria of moral judgment and personal sense of self. 112 However, this is not enough to prove that morality is necessarily integrated with human existence. Even if Cassirer described the essential phases that produced morality, this did not make morality the core of his symbolic philosophy. On the contrary, Cassirers philosophy showed that morality depends on myth and religion and could not have emerged at the early stages of human civilization. From this standpoint, morality is linked to a certain epoch and is not essentially integrated with human being. Krois, however, remarked that What Strauss did not realize, and what is still unrecognized today, is that Cassirers thought had taken that very [moral] turn. Following the publication of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, the center of his work becomes moral philosophy. 113 Krois claimed he had discovered that during the exile years, 1933-1945, Cassirer had developed an original ethical theory at the core of the philosophy of symbolic forms. This claim, however, appears strange because symbolic philosophy deals with theoretical areas of philosophy that are not applied to the practical philosophy of ethics. Nevertheless, Krois maintained that Cassirer had succeeded to integrate theory [Denken/Erkenntnis] with practice/action [Tun/Handel]. From their junction, ethical philosophy emerged. 114 Krois noted that for Cassirer, practice is not distinct from knowledge; they remain in correlation. The link between them is made by language; Krois called this the linguistic turn of Cassirers philosophy. 115 In fact, Cassirer already spoke of the phenomenon of language at the Davos meeting. Although he defined the language form as a bridge between one individual and another, 116 in his Davos lectures he did not clarify this issue. Krois explained that for Cassirer language has two functions: a representative, descriptive one and a performative one, which is presented in the act of promising.
117

Because of this double function, language

became a medium between the theoretical and practical aspects of existence and ethics were integrated with the philosophy of symbolic forms. In language, meaning and expressions can be used in the act of promising, which presupposes ethical
CSPH, 151. CSFH, 152. 114 Ibid., 142-172 115 Ibid.,156. 116 DD, 183. 117 CSFH, 156.
112 113

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relations between persons. As Krois noted, the act of promising and then keeping ones word bears directly on a persons humanity and personality in an ethical sense. For Cassirer, the ability to enter into agreement with others, the ability to promise and to recognize the ensuing legality of this promise, is constitutive for man, a necessary precondition for the humanitas ipsa.118 According to Krois, Cassirer discovered the immanent ethical structure of human perception through the reconstruction of language. The linguistic form of expression is united with the original phenomenon of expression, which is the root of practical as well as theoretical activities. Further reconstruction of this form could reveal the primordial prelinguistic level, where the perception of the other is given directly in the expression. Krois wrote: Even prelinguistic understanding of others is based upon the understanding of (expressive) meaning. In Cassirers reconstruction of the development of consciousness of the ego, he shows that understanding of the other is present from the beginning. Language permits giving this feeling of generality a conceptual form; it permits conceiving actions in a way that transcends immediate expediency. 119 As noted in the previous chapter, an evident example of expression is facial expression. Perception of a face is an action that points immediately beyond the physical content of what is perceived. Perception of a face discovers expression, which is expressed by the other. Therefore, Cassirer not only demonstrated how ethics developed, but also that ethics is integrated with mans being. This mode of thought reemerged in Levinass ethical philosophy. 120 Levinas maintained that ethical relations originated in face-to-face meetings with ones fellow man, whom he called the Other. He differentiated between the perception of the object and the discovery of the Other. The face of the Other, claimed Levinas, discloses an eternity that cannot be limited to the perception of the physical content of the face; the face of the Other points beyond its content. Here Levinas is close to the thought of Cassirer, though for Cassirer every perception has a transcendent feature, not only the face of the other person. 121

118 119

Ibid., 157. Ibid., 167. 120 See Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979). 121 This issue needs special investigation.

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Thus, Krois viewed the perception of the other as an essential moment of perception and the ground of ethics in the philosophy of symbolic forms. However, an accomplished, extensive ethical philosophy did not emerge in Cassirers works. As Krois noted, Cassirers ethical doctrine is scattered in essays, lectures, his book about Swedish philosopher Axel Hgerstrm, and other texts that went unpublished during his life. Krois made an effort to reconstruct Cassirers ethical doctrine, but apparently it was insufficient as Kroiss arguments did not convince other scholars. Since that time, many scholars have continued the discussion of ethics in Cassirers philosophy. In a article on this issue, 122 Recki argued that Cassirer had difficulty including ethics in his philosophy of symbolic forms. Although Cassirer indeed considered morality a symbolic form that was applicable to action [Handlung], 123 the place for practical symbolic forms was already occupied by other symbolic forms. Reckis claim indeed pointed to the problematic moment in Cassirers philosophy. According to Cassirer, all cultural forms originate from the symbolic pregnance that consists of spontaneity and intuition. It was the spontaneity of thinking that made possible the creative process and the development of cultural forms. Thus, the spontaneity of consciousness is already the act of consciousness. Moral responsibility, however, also presupposes spontaneity of action. Hence, Recki posited that Cassirers philosophy should contain two different spontaneities: practical spontaneity, which enables freedom of action, or ethics and theoretical-cultural spontaneity, through which the variety of cultural forms and art has developed. Recki argued that Cassirer failed to distinguish between these two spontaneities; he did not clarify the difference between them. The reason for this ambiguity is that Cassirer presumed there was only one kind of human freedom or spontaneity, while never speaking about two different acts of spontaneity. Thus, Recki considered that Cassirer used this practical human spontaneity as the theoretical-cultural spontaneity. Hence, she concluded that the central place for ethics is already occupied. 124 As a result, Cassirer could not create a moral philosophy at the core of his philosophy of symbolic forms. Here it is necessary to refer to Kant.
122

Brigit Recki, Kultur ohne Moral? Warum Ernst Cassirer trotz der Einsicht in den Primat des Praktischen keine Ethik schreiben konnte [1997], in Kultur als Praxis: Eine Einfhrung in Ernst Cassirers Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (Akademie Verlag, Deutsche Zeitschrift fr Philosophie, Sonderband, 6, 2003), 151-171. 123 Ibid., 164. 124 Ibid., 167: Die zentrale Stelle der Moralphilosophie ist damit bereits besetzt.

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According to Kant, the spontaneous act of understanding presupposes the I consciousness or I thinking that accompanies all human activity. In CPR, the I thinking is the center of the epistemological subject, who constitutes knowledge. But knowledge is not the outcome of the free creativity of I. The I does not construct objects at will, but according to special categories. An individual, however, acts according to the autonomy of his will. Therefore, the subject of knowledge differs from the subject of action. Only an individual can be responsible for his intentions and actions; the subject of knowledge is not responsible for nature. Thus, on the one hand, there is no overlapping sphere between I as a subject of knowledge and I as a subject of action. On the other hand, Recki pointed out that Kant made a strong analogy between two kinds of spontaneity. 125 I thinking is also the action of I. Certainly Cassirer was well aware of that analogy. Therefore, he did not distinguish between these two kinds of spontaneity, and he seems not to have seen any problem with this so-called unclearness [Unschrfe]. He did not think there were two separate Is", but the same I that thinks and acts; the practical and the epistemological selves belong to one and the same subject. The same I is the center of spontaneity of thinking and of autonomy of will. Cassirer viewed the spontaneous power that enables knowledge as the same creative power that applies to the practical domain. Since practice and theory, acting and thinking are two aspects of the same spontaneity, despite their evident difference they should not be separated. This also is the answer to the critical question presented at the end of the last chapter: how can the domain of knowledge be applied to the domain of ethics? Are ethics and knowledge not different domains of human life? For Cassirer, they definitely are not different. The connection between practice and knowledge was one of the main beliefs of Socrates and is one of the everlasting goals of philosophy. 126 Thus ethics presupposes not only practical but also theoretical activity. This position of Cassirer explains perfectly why he defended the concept of construction in contrast to Heideggers preference of intuition. Although, as demonstrated in the previous chapter, Cassirer viewed receptivity as the origin of perception, he constantly criticized Heidegger for the receptive character of his Dasein. For Cassirer, preserving the moral nature of man meant that spontaneity must
125 126

Ibid., 169. Cf.: Thomas Meyer, Einige berlegungen zur Ethik Ernst Cassirers, Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook VII (2008): 93-111.

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not be subordinated to sensory intuition. Thus he criticized Heidegger 127 for putting intuition before construction and calling spontaneity of thinking only a servant of the intuition. 128 Cassirer maintained that receptivity denies spontaneous powers in the domain of knowledge and consequently in the domain of practice. Receptivity subordinates mans thinking as well as actions to destiny and makes ethics impossible. This clarifies the phrase from MS that was partly quoted in the introduction:

But the new [Heideggers] philosophy did enfeeble and slowly undermine the forces that could have resisted the modern political myths. a theory that sees in the Geworfenheit [the being-thrown] of man one of his principle characters have given up all hopes of an active share in the construction and reconstruction of mans cultural life. Such philosophy renounces its own fundamental theoretical and ethical ideals. It can be used, then, as a pliable instrument in the hands of the political leaders. 129

4.2 Why Did Cassirer Have Difficulty Integrating Ethics with Symbolic Forms?
I maintain that there is also another key reason for Cassirers difficulty in developing an ethical philosophy: namely, his phenomenological position denies the possibility of morality. The necessary condition for the possibility of morality is the existence of a moral agent who acts according to his will and is responsible for his actions. This assumption, however, is inconsistent with the receptive and nonsubjective character of the phenomenon of expression. As I have argued, although the subject of knowledge and the subject of action have different functions, they still refer to the same self. In this structure the subject of action is the other aspect of the subject of knowledge. If one is absent, the other is also absent. Therefore, it is possible to assume the existence of a moral agent only in the presence of the subject of knowledge, of the I-center from which the acts of spontaneity emerge. Without this center, no free action is possible.

Ernst Cassirer, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics: Remarks on Martin Heideggers Interpretation of Kant, in Kant: Disputed Questions, ed. and trans. Molte S. Gram (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967), 131- 157. 128 See Martin Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics [1929], 4th ed., enlarged, trans. Richard Taft (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). 129 MS, 293.

127

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The conception of the subject is related to Cartesian dualism. Descartes distinguished between the mental domain, which is usually called subjectivity, and the bodily world, the domain of material things. The first exists as self-consciousness; the second exists outside consciousness. According to this worldview, self-consciousness is separate from the world and identified with the thinking process, which is characterized by its act of reflection. This means any spontaneous, meaning-giving activity can exist only as self-consciousness. In contrast, world and body lack any spontaneity and do not carry meaning within themselves. The Cartesian distinction has determined the development of European thought and has become widely accepted in philosophical as well as everyday language. Despite the attempts of many thinkers to reject this distinction, the mind-body problem remains prevalent. In his philosophical investigations and innovations, Kant followed the path of Cartesian tradition. According to Kant, the original act that unifies sensory intuition with my representation is the act of I think", the spontaneous act of consciousness. Representation is the integration of intuition with my thought and can only be mine, that is, belongs to my consciousness. Kant emphasizes that the I think should accompany all my representations: all the manifold of intuition has therefore a necessary relation to the I think in the same subject in which that manifold of intuition is found. 130 The result of this conception is that anything that is represented to me and can be meaningful to me is part of my consciousness. Husserl also remained in this tradition. He shared the paradigm of meaning as part of consciousness. In Husserls phenomenology, the act that gives meaning is the Erlebnis of consciousness. The center of the meaning-giving act is I", which unifies all the acts as acts of one consciousness. Compared to Kant and Husserl, both Cassirer and Heidegger broke with the division between world and consciousness. Heidegger created a new philosophical language with the concepts of Dasein and Being-in-the-world, which replaced the old Cartesian language and revealed the structure of Being without using the concept of consciousness. 131 At first glance, Cassirer remained within the framework of philosophical tradition since he used traditional language. However, when using philosophical concepts such as consciousness, subjectivity, symbol, and so on, he altered their meaning.
130 131

CPR, 150. Cf.: DD, 180.

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Cassirer aimed to dissolve the Cartesian opposition between the outer world and the inner domain of consciousness through the phenomenon of expression. As he asserted: In expression there is no cleavage between the mere sensuous existence of a phenomenon and a spiritual-psychic meaning which it mediately divulges. It is essentially an utterance yet an utterance which remains entirely within itself. Here there is neither kernel nor shell; there is no first and second, no one and other. 132 He also stated: For the question of the nature of the relationship between body and soul is raised for us by the phenomenon, which shows us the two never separate but always in their mutual relation. 133 According to Cassirer, then, in expression the distinction between inner consciousness and external life disappears. Consciousness is no longer identified with pure thinking activity. Husserls distinction between the inner experience of consciousness and the outer perception of things has no place in Cassirers philosophy. In Cassirers view, perception is not directed from the inside outward, but is an immediate experience of expression. The symbolic function of the phenomenon of expression is that it integrates sensory intuition with meaning. Cassirer extended the term meaning to encompass expressive meaning, in which sensory intuition is unified with thought. There is no such thing as meaning without body. For Cassirer, expressive meaning is not a function of the I think. The identification between consciousness and thinking, or any meaningful activity, does not exist in his philosophy. Meaning is not a prerogative of mental activity; it is expressed by life and not by pure consciousness, since no pure consciousness exists. Instead of a process that is associated with consciousness, Cassirer spoke of spiritual powers that are expressed by symbolic forms. Spiritual powers are self-creative powers of life and not functions of mind. To know what this consciousness-spirit-life is, one needs to investigate how it expresses itself in the multiplicity of forms; that is, one turns to the philosophy of culture. The experience of the phenomenon of expression reveals the immediacy of life and not the inner structure of consciousness. Therefore, Cassirer began his investigation of Being with symbolic forms and not with a description of consciousness, as Husserl did. Thus Cassirer denied the accessibility of subjectivity or of pure consciousness. This was not because of the neo-Kantian assumption that immediate knowledge is impossible, but because no consciousness exists in isolation
132 133

PSF III, 93. Ibid., 97.

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from its objectification in spiritual forms. Cassirer did not agree that Husserlian phenomenology describes the living experience of consciousness, because he did not accept the dualistic tradition in general. He did, however, accept phenomenology as a science that describes the experience of life-spirit processes. Luft claimed that Cassirer denies any direct access to subjectivity he remains bound to the neo-Kantian dogma of the inaccessibility of subjectivity. 134 I maintain instead that Cassirer did not accept access to subjectivity because he denied that subjectivity, or consciousness, exists without objectivity. For him What is experienced in every simple phenomenon of expression is an indissoluble correlation, a thoroughly concrete synthesis of the physical and the psychic. 135 Cassirer saw the solution of the soul-body problem in a return to the primary phenomenon of expression. 136 There is no pure mental subjective activity; instead the experience of expression includes both subjective and objective modes. Therefore, to obtain access to spirit, one needs access to its expression the objective formation of spirit. Hence, whereas Luft asserted that because experience can only be symbolic any analysis of subjectivity can only be indirect as well", 137 I clarify that because experience discovers the symbolic character of life, we can approach the immediate experience of life through the whole expression of life. Thus I disagree with Lufts conclusion that Cassirers account only deals with the structures that are needed to clarify the functioning of cognition, not subjectivity itself, that is, the concrete dynamic life of the subject. The dynamic vivacity of the subject remains untouched. 138 Luft denied Cassirer access to the living, dynamic experience of subjectivity. This claim of Luft resembles Heideggers criticism that Cassirers philosophy lacks a foundation. Cassirers philosophy, however, did apprehend concrete, dynamic life the primordial expressive character of life in its various forms. Luft, however, also made an important, accurate observation that the omission of subjectivity made it systematically impossible for Cassirer to draft an ethics. Where there can be no access to subjectivity, any talk of moral agency, ought, volition, and
134

Sebastian Luft, A Natorp, and Cassirer, (2004): 240. 135 PSF III, 94. 136 Ibid. 137 Sebastian Luft, A Natorp, and Cassirer, (2004): 240. 138 Ibid.

Hermeneutic Phenomenology of Subjective and Objective Spirit: Husserl, New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy IV

Hermeneutic Phenomenology of Subjective and Objective Spirit: Husserl, New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy IV

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personal responsibility is meaningless. 139 This remains the main problem of Cassirer, who presumed to include ethical philosophy in the philosophy of symbolic forms. On the one hand, he united meaningful and bodily aspects; on the other, he needed an agent who was independent of the receptiveness of body. The phenomenological principle of Cassirers philosophy does not accord with his ethical intention. This was the main reason, I assume, that Cassirer did not suggest further elaboration of the promising phenomenological-ontological ideas he introduced in The Phenomenology of Knowledge. He hesitated about the possibility of integrating ethical philosophy with his phenomenology. That is apparently why Cassirer did not provide a thorough explanation of his phenomenology during the Davos dispute. Thus Krois and Verene, in mentioning the Davos meeting in the introduction to the fourth volume, again raised the question about the ground of Cassirers symbolic forms. They wrote: Perhaps the strongest critical point persistently raised in relation to Cassirers thought is: How are his symbolic forms, which are forms of culture, metaphysically or ontologically grounded? 140 Thus Krois and Verene at least partially accepted Heideggers claim that Cassirers philosophy has no firm starting point. They asserted that Cassirers conception of symbolic forms in PSF I-III is strongly epistemological orientated and is non- or even antimetaphysical. 141 I claim, however, that Cassirer already discovered a ground for a new ontology and metaphysics in the third volume. There, however, he did not ground ethics, even though he claimed this was the main goal of philosophy; he did so only in the fourth volume. Krois and Verene wrote: As to the grounds of the various symbolic formsthe unpublished texts of the fourth volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms remained Cassirers fullest answer. I add, however, that in PSF IV Cassirer rather provided the ground for ethics that was lacking in the previous volumes.

4.3 Basis Phenomena (Primary phenomenon) 142


The issue of ethics led Cassirer to introduce changes in his philosophy. During the 1930s, he began to develop new ideas about ethics. In the unfinished text On Basis Phenomena, he started to work on an ethical basis for symbolical philosophy, and he
139 140

Ibid., 246. J.M. Krois and D.P. Verene, Introduction, in PSF IV (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), xxiv. 141 Cf.: ibid. 142 See PSF IV, 127.

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demonstrated how ethics is related to the Basis phenomena. These phenomena are composed of three aspects, each of which Cassirer named the primary phenomenon [Urphaenomen]. Cassirer modified the impersonal, lacking-I-center original phenomenon of expression from The Phenomenology of Knowledge into the primary, whose first aspect is I. This is the important difference between the third and the fourth volume of PSF. Cassirer took the concept of the primary phenomenon [rphenomen] from Goethes Maxims. This phenomenon is the rotating movement of the monad about itself, knowing neither pause nor rest. 143 This primary phenomenon has three aspects, for which Cassirer gave only preliminary explanations because he was not yet sure how and according to which philosophical approach this phenomenon should be defined. The first aspect is the phenomenon of I [Ich-Phnomen], which is also the monad and life itself. Thus Cassirer proposed several options. He suggested that the Iphenomenon could be described in a biological and vitalistic way (Bergsons intuition..),psychologically (as the phenomenon of self-consciousnessas it was originally intended by Descartes), or in the transcendental sense. For the present we will ignore all these differences. We take the monas 144 in the sense that Goethe gave to it. 145 Here Cassirers explanations were not sufficiently elaborate. What is evident, however, is that Cassirer again approached the Cartesian position on selfconsciousness that he had earlier rejected. However, Cassirer clearly was not prepared to make a complete identification between I-consciousness and thinking activity. He pointed to Cartesian self-consciousness but also associated the I-phenomenon with life, which includes physical and biological features. Cassirers intention to return even partially to the I-consciousness paradigm in Descartes sense means that he decided to develop ethics at the phenomenological level and searched for a way to resolve the difficulties of this task. The second aspect of the basis phenomena is the phenomenon of action [Wirkens-Phnomen]. It is here that awareness emerges of the interconnection between the monad and the other; the monad cannot remain limited to itself. Cassirer
Maxims 391-393, from Maximen und Reflexionen, Schriften der Goethe-Gesellschaft, cited in PSF IV, 127. 144 Sometimes Cassirer uses the Greek term monas instead of monad. 145 PSF IV, 138.
143

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aimed to reveal the structure of consciousness, where perception or as he also called it, consciousness of reality comes together with consciousness of interaction, action, and influence, from which ethical relation arises. This influencing and acting is a second essential, constitutive aspect in all our consciousness of reality. [There is] no consciousness of reality without this original, nondeductible consciousness of action. 146 Theoretical and practical knowledge appeared together, and their appearances were interrelated. Thus Cassirer discovered the ground where perception and action cannot emerge without each other. If in PSF III Cassirer revealed the symbolic ground of knowledge, where sensory intuition is unified with meaning, in On Basis Phenomena he showed the common root of knowledge and praxis. Compared to the receptive character of the phenomenon of expression, here action is an essential characteristic of the basis phenomena. Ethics arose from the I-action. The third aspect is the phenomenon of work [Werk-Phnomen], it is the movement of action that has found expression in a work. 147 Work, as compared to action, is something objective. It is only with the third aspect, then, that Cassirer came close to the concept of expression, from which cultural forms and human development originated. By producing things, man became aware of objects. The perception of the other as You is prior to the awareness of the self and essential for the perception of objectivity. For Cassirer this is a principal point. First of all, the monad encounters another animated reality that is acting and reacting, that has his own will. This other will puts a limit on the monads will, and only by means of this restriction is ones own individual self created and defined. Acting and reacting are constitutive aspects of perception, whereas theoretical and practical actions depend on each other. For Cassirer the interconnection between the practical, epistemological, and ontological features created a foundation on which he intended to build his renewed philosophical project. In any case, Cassirer described this ground by using a direct phenomenological approach, and without the reconstructive method that he used in PSF I-II. Nevertheless, we cannot regard the text of On Basis Phenomena as the finished version of Cassirers philosophy. Given that the fourth volume is a fragmentary work that was not published in his lifetime, it is not possible to redact his philosophy from
146 147

Ibid., 139. Ibid., 141.

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all the texts that were included in it. These texts are only working papers, drafts. If Cassirer had been sure about them, he would have continued to work on them and publish them. Since he did not do so, we can regard these texts only as his unfinished attempts to renew his philosophy and give it an ethical foundation. These texts do, however, offer various possibilities of interpretation and extension of his thoughts and ideas. In this investigation I have confined myself to a brief discussion of the text of On Basis Phenomena, which is valuable for my previous arguments about ethics in Cassirers philosophy. A more thorough discussion and research of this text requires a special investigation.

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Conclusion
The point of departure for this investigation was the debate between Husserls phenomenology and neo-Kantianism, which dominated the philosophical discourse of the first decades of the twentieth century but subsequently was almost forgotten. This debate centered on the question of the origin of knowledge; specifically, whether knowledge originated from intuition or from construction. My investigation then turned to the Davos dispute between Cassirer and Heidegger. I presented this dispute as a kind of continuation of the older debate between neo-Kantianism and phenomenology, in light of which many aspects of the Davos dispute become understandable. These include Heideggers charge that Cassirer was a neo-Kantian philosopher who employed a critical reconstructive method of investigation and therefore could not accept intuition as the basis for human being. The next part of my research offered a systematic exposition of Cassirers philosophy, whose center is the concept of symbol. This new symbolic philosophy proposed to solve the problem of Heideggers hermeneutics and to reconcile neoKantianism and phenomenology. From this symbolic perspective, Cassirers philosophy differs from neo-Kantianism in Heideggers sense. Cassirer did not base his theory of knowledge exclusively on construction; nor did he deny that intuition is the basis for epistemology and ontology. For Cassirer the controversy between intuition and construction was the outcome of a very old conflict between life and culture, or, in other words, between the immediacy of given life and culture as an artificial construction of knowledge. Cassirer aimed to resolve this traditional conflict by proposing the new concept of the symbol, according to which the symbol is not a medium that can be employed only as a representation of reality. Instead, reality discloses itself to be primary symbolic. Cassirer defined the symbol as a function that integrates immanence and transcendence within itself. The symbol manifests transcendence, which is given in immanence. Life is symbolic and is given as symbolic at the primordial level of perception. Cassirer characterized the immediate givenness of life in perception with the term phenomenon of expression. Expression has a symbolic character where sensory 61

content extends beyond its limits and discovers more than it contains. For Cassirer, expression is living experience [Erlebnis] where the distinction between consciousness and world, meaning and sense, subject and object disappears. Expression reveals the organic form of life. This organic form is manifested already in the mythological consciousness, in which life is given as filled with expressive physiognomic features. Cassirer tried to describe and analyze the mythical world thoroughly. Reconstructing this world was of great importance to him because through myth he also discovered the immediate level of perception. The last part of my investigation deals with the problem of ethics. The Phenomenology of Knowledge presents an organic picture of life in which there is no place for the free subject of action. At the same time, Cassirer maintains that the possibility of ethics depends on the possibility of the existence of the agent of action; hence he had difficulty developing an ethical philosophy within his phenomenology. For Cassirer, however, the need for practical philosophy was critical since he rejected any separation between ethics and knowledge. His main critique of Heidegger is that Heideggers philosophy denies universal ethical values. Yet, if Cassirer himself had not developed an extensive moral philosophy, did he have any right to criticize Heidegger? In order to answer this question, I reviewed the postwar German and English philosophical literature on the problem of ethics in Cassirers philosophy, analyzing different approaches and arguments concerning this problem. The monistic, organic structure of the life excludes the possibility of free action of the self. The possibility of the concept of the individual as different from the wholeness of lifes circumstances depends on the concept of the subject as different from the world. Thus, I maintain that the inconsistency between the phenomenology of ethics and moral intentions caused Cassirer to modify some of his positions. Cassirer attempted to solve the problem of ethics in his text On Basis Phenomena, which was posthumously published in PSF IV. In this text he introduced the concept of the primary phenomenon as a basis for theoretical as well as practical knowledge. The first moment of the primary phenomenon is the I aspect from which both perception and action emerge. However, the development of the concept of the primary phenomenon remained incomplete and the reconstruction of it requires separate research. 62

I have demonstrated that Cassirer conceived a project of philosophy that should comprise a rich spectrum of aspects of human existence and culture combining various philosophical motifs. This task was not easy and not always successful. The integration of several motifs in a single philosophy sometimes appears to be vacillation between different approaches; in some parts of his books Cassirer seems to tend to one side, and in other parts to the other. Thus, the impression is that his thought fluctuated between neo-Kantianism and phenomenology, between a holistic, impersonal worldview and a humanistic one. But the true reason for these apparent fluctuations is Cassirers aim to resolve the oppositions between these worldviews. I have shown that these oppositions are interconnected. The conflict between construction and intuition was resolved by the symbol, in which construction is organically integrated with intuition. The symbolic solution, in turn, comes into conflict with the possibility of ethics. Ethical conflict, indeed, points to the dilemma of many European philosophers of the previous centuries. Generally speaking, some strove for a monistic explanation of being and hence lost responsibility and ethics, which presuppose the separation between the wholeness of being and the subjective domain. Others, who included individual responsibility, were obliged to accept dualism. Cassirer did not follow any of these directions; instead he strove to resolve the contradiction between them by integrating the practical side within his symbolic philosophy. Although he did not complete this effort, his project is promising and could be continued. Notwithstanding that Cassirer did not solve all the inner problems of his philosophy, his philosophy revealed inner contradictions that had accompanied philosophical development for centuries, and pointed to various ways to reconcile these. Therefore, the elaboration of Cassirers philosophical methods and ideas could be very useful for contemporary humanistic studies and for further cultural and philosophical progress.

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