On Ernst Cassirer's an Essay on Man. (Bookmarks)

By Skidelsky, Edward | New Statesman (1996), December 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

On Ernst Cassirer's an Essay on Man. (Bookmarks)


Skidelsky, Edward, New Statesman (1996)


The book that has above all others shaped my life, in a purely practical way, is An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer. Ernst Cassirer is, you see, the philosopher on whom I am writing my PhD, and An Essay on Man is the first book of his I read. Studying Cassirer is a strange pursuit. I recently related my occupation to an eminent British philosopher, whereupon she smiled blankly and changed the subject. Another person I told was a solid public-school type, working in the City. He looked at me with an expression of concentrated pity. "That's very... worthy of you," he said at last, having clearly marked me down as a harmless fool. An American girl told me that I was "kinda kooky". I suppose she was right.

Yet, in the face of the world's indifference, I persevere. My faith is blind, fanatical. I believe that Cassirer was one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, and that his posthumous descent into obscurity is a temporary mishap. Many accidents of history conspired against him. A German Jew, he fled the Nazis in 1933, leaving his antagonist Heidegger to dominate postwar Continental philosophy. But he died too early to put down roots in America, his country of refuge. American philosophy went on to be dominated by the longer-lived logical positivists. Yet there are other, more strictly philosophical reasons for Cassirer's eclipse. Unlike Heidegger and the positivists, he was never a propagandist for either of the "two cultures" that dominate modern intellectual life. According to Cassirer, neither science nor art has exclusive access to the reality of things; they are just different expressions of one and the same fundamental "will to form". Man is the animal symbolicum, the symbolic animal. He does n ot merely live his life, but must give expression to it in symbols. Cassirer was drawn to figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and Goethe, whose creative energies were not confined to any one art or science, but ran freely in many directions. In them, he saw the fulfilment of humanity.

Who would dare to speak such language today? Cassirer's irenic vision belongs to another, more innocent world. Even in his own lifetime, he was increasingly regarded as an anachronism. The 20th century was the century of guns and butter. The human intellect appeared in the guise of the will to power, not the will to form. A gentle, scholarly man, Cassirer could not descend from the happy kingdom of Geist to the sad realities of worldly power. He could not re-enter the cave. The Myth of the State, Cassirer's final attempt to reckon with Nazism, takes a long, circuitous route through Machiavelli, Hegel and Carlyle. Perhaps any more direct approach would have been too painful for him.

My discovery of Cassirer was a complete accident. Browsing in Waterstone's a few years ago, I stumbled on An Essay on Man. I think it must have been the resoundingly sexist title that first caught my attention. The book was a facsimile reprint of the original 1944 edition; its old-fashioned, slightly splodgy typeface betokened a writer long out of fashion. Lam a sucker for arcana, so I bought it. Within its covers, I discovered a veritable lumber room of strange learning. Babylonian astrology, totemism, Pico della Mirandola, Ranke and non-Euclidean geometry all rubbed shoulders. But this was no mere dusty scholarship.

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