Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Ernst Cassirer's Writings

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Ernst Cassirer's Writings

Article excerpt

Whoever ventures to write about Ernst Cassirer in the English-speaking world easily slips into a defensive tone and posture. That is not due to psychological reasons of some kind but rather springs from factors in the history of ideas. After all, the German-Jewish philosopher who died in exile in New York in 1945 is not someone who prima facie was centrally involved in the great "turns" of the past century, either directly or as a result of the reception of his thought. For that reason, it is only consistent in a sense if Cassirer in our time seems generally only to surface in footnotes within the annals of the history of science, pragmatism, the philosophy of language, and debates on epistemology and metaphysics. In view of this state of his eclipse, as it were, to remind scholars that Cassirer indeed played a decisive role in the areas mentioned, as well as in many further developments and differentiations in the philosophy of the twentieth century, may seem more like a justificatory plea for dealing with his work rather a well-founded thesis.

At the same time, an assessment of Cassirer has taken hold that constructs him as a thinker who wrote a kind of "broadband" history of ideas: through his prism, almost all protagonists were purportedly reduced to predecessors of Kant; in very generally conceived papers by Cassirer, they then became transcendental philosophers. And that is only the most minor of criticisms: in the course of changing methods and the accompanying debates, Cassirer has disappeared from the radar. The work of Michel Foucault, J. G. A. Pocock, and Quentin Skinner, and numerous approaches of analytical authors, consider arguments as bound up with time and context and their structures. In marked contrast, Cassirer is not even regarded as "old-fashioned," but rather he has simply slipped from perception.

Moreover, this assessment does not seem to be altered one iota by the fact that Cassirer has a good name as a historian of the "problem of knowledge and episteme," the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, most especially in this journal, with which he was closely associated virtually from its inception. On the contrary: we find that as a rule, praise for his work in the history of ideas is counterposed by the judgment that Cassirer was not clear enough in articulating his basic systematic concern, because ostensibly he repeatedly lost his way wandering in reflections on various positions in the history of philosophy. We see here a clear structure that, perhaps with the exception of his Italian reception, needs to be looked at more carefully. This is because Cassirer's firm insistence on the necessity of a critical confrontation with the philosophical tradition and mathematical/naturalscientific knowledge since the Renaissance forms the core of his systematic thought. At the same time, manifest in this confrontation with the tradition was his affiliation with a culture of thinking that today seems to us to smack all too easily of the milieu of the educated bourgeoisie, and too little of originality or independence. But only if we take these two characteristics of Cassirer's work seriously can we form an adequate approach to his philosophy, one that does not operate defensively right from the start.

Now we have a number of more recent significant publications that enable us to see the independence of his style of thought and his philosophical statements for what they really are, namely one of the important achievements in the philosophy of the twentieth century. With the completion of the 26-volume Hamburg edition edited by Birgit Recki, which contains the studies prepared for publication during Cassirer's lifetime, it has become possible for the first time to have a clear picture of the breadth and precision of Cassirer's work. We owe this monumental feat of scholarship to Recki's editorial team, as well as the Hamburg publishing house Felix Meiner and the Zeit Foundation. The Felix Meiner Verlag has also brought out an important edition of Cassirer's scientific correspondence, an edition John Michael Krois was able to complete before his death in 2010. …

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