Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Metaphysics and the Origin of Culture

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Metaphysics and the Origin of Culture

Article excerpt

IN A FRAGMENT, "The Concept of the Symbol: Metaphysics of the Symbolic," left among Ernst Cassirer's unpublished papers, Cassirer claims: "there is no 'being' of any kind except by virtue of some particular energy ('nature,' for example, only by virtue of artistic, religious, or scientific energy) and without our taking this relation into account, the concept of 'being' would be completely empty for us." (1) The apprehension of what is, for Cassirer, requires the human power to form experience through the symbol. Man is the animal symbolieum who lives and thinks within the circle of human culture. Human being and being as such require the symbolic forms of culture in order for us to have knowledge of them. Cassirer states: "Under a 'symbolic form' should be understood each energy of spirit [Energie des Geistes] through which a spiritual content or meaning is connected with a concrete sensory sign and is internally adapted to this sign." (2)

Myth and religion, language, art, history, and science, as well as other areas of culture, are ways of forming through symbols the energy of Geist. (3) There is not, for Cassirer, a literal interpretation of the world and a symbolic one. All of human experience is symbolic. All perception of the object is symbolically charged; there is no sensory grasp of the object that does not at the same moment stand in relation to an intellectual or spiritual structure. Cassirer calls this immediate bond between the sensory and the non-sensory, "symbolic pregnance." He states, "By symbolic pregnance [symbolische Pragnanz] we mean the way in which a perception as a sensory experience contains at the same time a certain nonintuitive meaning which it immediately and concretely represents." (4)

Cassirer offers a phenomenological thought experiment as a demonstration of the fact that the being of any object and its nature depend upon the manner in which it is apprehended. He asks the reader to consider a Linienzug, a graph-like line drawing. We may first grasp the line in terms of its physiognomic character, its dynamic rise and fall. It may glide along in part and then appear to be broken off and jagged. We may move from our apprehension of these perceptions and feeling-characteristics of the line to grasping it as a mathematical structure, a geometrical figure. We may see it as a schema representing a universal geometrical law. We may further leave this mathematical sense of the line drawing behind and grasp it as a mythical symbol representing the division between the providences of the sacred and the profane in the world and as perhaps having a magical power. We may also gain more distance from its immediacy and regard it as an aesthetic ornament having artistic significance. Cassirer states: "Here again the experience of spatial form is completed only through its relation to a total horizon which it reveals to us--through a certain atmosphere in which it not merely 'is,' but in which, as it were, it lives and breathes." (5)

Cassirer sees culture as the ultimate fulfillment of what he calls the "basis phenomenon" of the work (Werk). This phenomenon is not that of work in the sense of labor (Arbeit) but in the sense of something made, factum. A work is the product of human accomplishment, as, for example, an art work. The work is the key to self-knowledge, not in the sense of pure introspection or psychological self-awareness but in the Socratic sense of contemplation of the nature of the human. Cassirer holds that "self-knowledge is the highest aim of philosophical inquiry." (6) Cassirer regards Socrates as the discoverer of self-knowledge as the product of contemplation. He says that Socrates' new and unique call for self-knowledge means: "know your work and know 'yourself' in your work; know what you do, so you can do what you know." (7) The symbolic forms that constitute human culture are the energies of spirit writ large. The human being is defined through the work of culture, and in this work we encounter ourselves as beings who transform the immediacy of sensory experience into structures of meaning. …

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