Verene and Cassirer: On New Beginnings

By Krois, John Michael | CLIO, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Verene and Cassirer: On New Beginnings


Krois, John Michael, CLIO


Ernst Cassirer's philosophy is one of Donald Phillip Verene's abiding research interests, but his contribution to Cassirer scholarship should not be isolated from his other work. In Vico's Science of Imagination(1) Verene mentions the philosophers and works that have most influenced his thought: Kant's Critique of Judgment, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, as well as Cassirer's Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.(2) Kant, Vico, and Hegel were also important figures for Cassirer in the development of his philosophy. Verene's work on these figures, and on Vico in particular, needs to be taken into consideration in any attempt to characterize Verene's view of Cassirer, especially those points on which Verene is critical of Cassirer's philosophy. Not mentioned but belonging to the list of Verene's research interests is James Joyce.(3) Joyce's name helps show why these thinkers form a community of thought. All are concerned with two closely related topics: imagination and hotory. My concern here is very limited, to examine one aspect of the role that Ernst Cassirer's thought plays in Verene's project of examining history philosophically: how Cassirer develops the problem of beginnings in history, particularly in relationship to Verene's reading of Vico. This will require me to first sketch Verene's conception of Cassirer's place in this constellation of thinkers.

Verene on Cassirer and History

In his article "Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer: The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms,"(4) Donald Verene showed Hegel's fundamental importance for the general systematic organization and method of Cassirer's philosophy. In contrast to the narrow interpretation according to which Cassirer is a Kantian who simply broadened the "critique of knowledge" into the "critique of culture," Verene explained how Cassirer was led by Hegel's conception of "phenomenology," even though he rejected the Hegelian "system" with its panlogism, which according to Cassirer, constituted a form of "reductionism" forcing all reality into the single form of logic. Yet Hegel's Phenomenology provides the methodological model for The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Verene himself follows Cassirer in regarding Hegel's Phenomenology as a living guide for philosophy while counting the encyclopedic "system" as what is dead in Hegel.

In Hegel's Recollection, Verene's study of the Phenomenology of Spirit, he treats that work as an end in itself, not as a stepping stone to Hegel's Wissenschaft der Logik. Verene's presentation of Hegel's dialectic--what he calls the Phenomenology's "method of in-itself"(5)--shows that the unity of the whole cannot really be encompassed in the "self-differentiated unity" of the An- und Fursichsein. Here I want to call attention to the difference between Verene's and others' recent criticisms of Hegel's dialectic with which it bears a family resemblance. Adorno in particular reduces Hegelianism to a Negative Dialektik.(6) For Adorno, dialectical thinking exhausts itself in negation. Adorno's and Horkheimer's philosophy of history in their Dialektik der Aufklarung(7) depicts history, to use Kant's words, as a "moral terrorism" in which things always become ever worse, "a nightmare from which you will never awake" as it is described once in Ulysses. In Adorno's and Horkheimer's dismal portrayal, history is a Verfallsgeschichte in which instrumental thought becomes ever more prominent. Even philosophy's attempt to grasp the whole is a sign of latent totalitarianism; hence, as Adorno succinctly put it, "the whole is the false."(8) Adorno's theory of art in his Asthetische Theorie(9) depicts imagination as essentially a form of negation, the only way left to stave off the decay, or, more accurately, our unconsciousness of it, leaving only the truth of Kafka's or Beckett's visions.

In Verene's reconstruction of Hegel's dialectic in Hegel's Recollection, however, the Hegelian Concept does not give way to negativity alone, but to metaphor. …

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