ERNST CASSIRER AND THE SYMBOLIC APPROACH TO COGNITION
ONE DAY in 1917 as he was mounting a streetcar to ride home, the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer had a grand vision: a comprehensive philosophical treatise on symbolic forms. By the time he had arrived home a few minutes later, the plan for a new multivolume work had already crystallized in his own mind, in approximately the form that it would assume a decade later.
Three years later Cassirer paid a casual visit to the Warburg Library in Hamburg. There he encountered an unsurpassed collection of materials drawn from art, philosophy, astrology, magic, folklore, myth, and literature, which chronicled the thought processes of individuals drawn from diverse cultures. In a "creative flash" reminiscent of his earlier revelation on the streetcar ride, Cassirer realized that this composite of materials could provide indispensable raw materials for his work on the philosophy of symbolic forms. As he commented at the time, "This library is dangerous. I shall either have to avoid it altogether, or imprison myself here for years. The philosophical problems involved are close to my own, but the concrete historical material which Warburg has collected is overwhelming" ( Schilpp, p. 48).