Ernst Cassirer's Metaphysics and the Investigation of History

By Bertland, Alexander | CLIO, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Ernst Cassirer's Metaphysics and the Investigation of History


Bertland, Alexander, CLIO


Many philosophers are praised for compelling us to reevaluate different thinkers in the history of ideas. True originality, however, is found in those few thinkers who fundamentally rethink the purpose of historical investigation. I wish to suggest that such a profound rethinking lies within Ernst Cassirer's writings on the history of ideas. It is true that Cassirer often used the history of ideas in an ordinary way. He periodically advanced the argument of his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms by criticizing and correcting past theoreticians. Cassirer also wrote a number of treatises on the history of ideas that appear to be scholarly but do not strike the reader as being overtly philosophical. Recently, a number of authors have suggested a link between Cassirer's history and his ethical theory.(1) Nevertheless, these authors have not fully approached the problem of how history relates to Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms.(2)

Cassirer has two objectives for his historical investigations and particularly for his work The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. By comparing his histories to the recently published fourth volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, one can see that Cassirer traced the development of Enlightenment thought in light of his own metaphysics. In fact, the work can be read as an argument that, although the thinkers of the Enlightenment did not express it clearly, they actually were motivated by a hidden desire to depict the metaphysical dialectic of spirit and life. In this sense, Cassirer engages in the traditional philosophical project of reinterpreting the past according to contemporary philosophical concerns.

However, Cassirer has a deeper objective which depends on a new understanding of philosophy's appropriation of history. One of the fundamental insights of Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms is that thought cannot be understood as a purely static entity. Philosophy is tempted to understand thought and symbolization in a purely structural and conceptual framework, but this approach ignores the dynamic nature of the mind. To avoid this, philosophy must understand itself, its dilemmas, and the nature of thought as dynamic and not simply static.

History, then, proves to be vital for the advancement of philosophy. Cassirer defines the task of history as the search for the dynamic unity that animates a period. This means that the task of history is to understand the course of events as a movement that generates from a particular nexus. Philosophy can use history by scrutinizing this motion to then witness the unity, uncovered by history, in its universal aspect. In this manner, philosophy can understand itself as a dynamic enterprise.

In light of this assertion, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment should not be read simply as a clarification and correction of past theories. Rather, by tracing the Enlightenment's dynamic encounter with the dialectic of spirit and life, history reveals a dynamic unity from which philosophy comes to understand the dialectic as a moving and dynamic entity. Cassirer himself never explained how the movement of the Enlightenment could be seen from its universal aspect. Nevertheless, one can see how this work presents itself as a vital part of his metaphysical project. To justify this reading, it is important to start with an examination of Cassirer's account of the symbolic forms.

The basic assertion driving Cassirer's philosophy is that consciousness symbolizes the world through many unique and irreducible symbolic forms such as. myth, language, science, and art. Generally speaking, this claim simply states that there are many different ways of seeing and organizing the world.(3) In order for Cassirer to justify this assertion philosophically, he has to show that each symbolic form has its own essential unity. The important question is: what is the nature of these unities?

The traditional dualism between subject and object suggests two possible definitions of unity. …

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