Ernst Cassirer

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Ernst Alfred Cassirer
Ernst Cassirer.jpg
Cassirer in about 1935
Born(1874-07-28)July 28, 1874
DiedApril 13, 1945(1945-04-13) (aged 70)
Education University of Marburg
(PhD, 1899)
University of Berlin
(Dr. phil. habil., 1906)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Neo-Kantianism (Marburg School)
Ontic structural realism
Academic advisors Hermann Cohen
Paul Natorp
Main interests
Epistemology, aesthetics
Notable ideas
Philosophy of symbolic forms
Ontic structural realism [1]

Ernst Alfred Cassirer ( /kɑːˈsɪərər,kə-/ ; [2] German: [ˈʔɛɐ̯nst kaˈsiːʁɐ] ; [3] [4] July 28, 1874 – April 13, 1945) was a German philosopher. Trained within the Neo-Kantian Marburg School, he initially followed his mentor Hermann Cohen in attempting to supply an idealistic philosophy of science.

Philosopher person with an extensive knowledge of philosophy

A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy. The term "philosopher" comes from the Ancient Greek, φιλόσοφος (philosophos), meaning "lover of wisdom". The coining of the term has been attributed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras.

Hermann Cohen German philosopher

Hermann Cohen was a German Jewish philosopher, one of the founders of the Marburg school of neo-Kantianism, and he is often held to be "probably the most important Jewish philosopher of the nineteenth century".

Philosophy of science is a sub-field of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. This discipline overlaps with metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, for example, when it explores the relationship between science and truth. Philosophy of science focuses on metaphysical, epistemic and semantic aspects of science. Ethical issues such as bioethics and scientific misconduct are often considered ethics or science studies rather than philosophy of science.


After Cohen's death, Cassirer developed a theory of symbolism and used it to expand phenomenology of knowledge into a more general philosophy of culture. Cassirer was one of the leading 20th-century advocates of philosophical idealism. His most famous work is the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923–1929).

Phenomenology is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. As a philosophical movement it was founded in the early years of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl and was later expanded upon by a circle of his followers at the universities of Göttingen and Munich in Germany. It then spread to France, the United States, and elsewhere, often in contexts far removed from Husserl's early work.

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Philosophy of culture is a branch of philosophy that examines the essence and meaning of culture.


Born in Breslau in Silesia (modern-day southwest Poland), into a Jewish family, Cassirer studied literature and philosophy at the University of Marburg (where he completed his doctoral work in 1899 with a dissertation on René Descartes's analysis of mathematical and natural scientific knowledge entitled Descartes' Kritik der mathematischen und naturwissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis [Descartes' Critique of Mathematical and Scientific Knowledge]) and at the University of Berlin (where he completed his habilitation in 1906 with the dissertation Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit: Erster Band [The Problem of Knowledge in Philosophy and Science in the Modern Age: Volume I]). [5]

Wrocław City in Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland

Wrocław is a city in western Poland and the largest city in the historical region of Silesia. It lies on the banks of the River Oder in the Silesian Lowlands of Central Europe, roughly 350 kilometres (220 mi) from the Baltic Sea to the north and 40 kilometres (25 mi) from the Sudeten Mountains to the south. The population of Wrocław in 2019 was 641,607, making it the fourth-largest city in Poland and the main city of the Wrocław agglomeration.

University of Marburg German university

The Philipps University of Marburg was founded in 1527 by Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse, which makes it one of Germany's oldest universities and the oldest still operating Protestant university in the world. It is now a public university of the state of Hesse, without religious affiliation. The University of Marburg has about 25,000 students and 7,500 employees and is located in Marburg, a town of 72,000 inhabitants, with university buildings dotted in or around the town centre. About 12 per cent of the students are international, the highest percentage in Hesse. It offers an International summer university programme and offers student exchanges through the Erasmus programme.

René Descartes 17th-century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist

René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–1649) of his life in the Dutch Republic after serving for a while in the Dutch States Army of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. One of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age, Descartes is also widely regarded as one of the founders of modern philosophy.

Politically, Cassirer supported the liberal German Democratic Party (DDP). [6] After working for many years as a Privatdozent at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, Cassirer was elected in 1919 to the philosophy chair at the newly founded University of Hamburg, where he lectured until 1933, supervising amongst others the doctoral theses of Joachim Ritter and Leo Strauss. Because he was Jewish, he left Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933.

German Democratic Party former German political party on the left wing of the political spectrum

The German Democratic Party was founded in November 1918 by leaders of the former Progressive People's Party, left-wing members of the National Liberal Party and a new group calling themselves the Democrats.

Privatdozent or Privatdozentin, abbreviated PD, P.D. or Priv.-Doz., is an academic title conferred at some European universities, especially in German-speaking countries, to someone who holds certain formal qualifications that denote an ability and permission to teach a designated subject at university level. To be granted the title Priv.-Doz. by the University the person has to fulfill the criteria set by the University which usually require excellence in research, teaching, and further education. In its current usage, the title indicates that the holder has the permission to teach and examine students independently without having a chair.

Humboldt University of Berlin university in Germany

Humboldt University of Berlin is a university in the central borough of Mitte in Berlin, Germany. It was established by Frederick William III on the initiative of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Ernst Daniel Schleiermacher as the University of Berlin in 1809, and opened in 1810, making it the oldest of Berlin's four universities. From 1810 until its closure in 1945, it was named Friedrich Wilhelm University. During the Cold War the university found itself in East Berlin and was de facto split in two when the Free University of Berlin opened in West Berlin. The university received its current name in honour of Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1949.

After leaving Germany he taught for a couple of years at the University of Oxford, before becoming a professor at Gothenburg University. When Cassirer considered Sweden too unsafe, he applied for a post at Harvard University, but was rejected because thirty years earlier he had rejected a job offer from them.[ citation needed ] In 1941 he became a visiting professor at Yale University, then moved to Columbia University in New York City, where he lectured from 1943 until his death in 1945.

University of Oxford Collegiate research university in Oxford, England

The University of Oxford is a collegiate research university in Oxford, England. There is evidence of teaching as early as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world's second-oldest university in continuous operation after the University of Bologna. It grew rapidly from 1167 when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. After disputes between students and Oxford townsfolk in 1209, some academics fled north-east to Cambridge where they established what became the University of Cambridge. The two 'ancient universities' are frequently jointly called 'Oxbridge'. The history and influence of the University of Oxford has made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Harvard University Private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with about 6,700 undergraduate students and about 13,100 postgraduate students. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning. Its history, influence, wealth, and academic reputation have made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world. It is cited as the world's top university by many publishers.

Cassirer died of a heart attack in April 1945 in New York City. His grave is located in Westwood, New Jersey, on the Cedar Park Beth-El Cemeteries in the graves of the Congregation Habonim. His son, Heinz Cassirer, was also a Kantian scholar.

Westwood, New Jersey Borough in New Jersey

Westwood is a borough in Bergen County, New Jersey, United States. As of the 2010 United States Census, the borough's population was 10,908, reflecting a decline of 91 (-0.8%) from the 10,999 counted in the 2000 Census, which had in turn increased by 553 (+5.3%) from the 10,446 counted in the 1990 Census. Westwood is part of the New York metropolitan area. Many of its residents regularly commute to New York City for work and leisure, many using public transportation.

Heinrich (Heinz) Walter Cassirer was a Kantian philosopher, son of a famous German philosopher, Ernst Cassirer. Being Jews, the Cassirer family fled the Nazis in the 1930s. Heinz went to University of Glasgow working with Professor H. J. Paton, who persuaded him to write a book on Kant's third Critique, the Critique of Judgment. Following Paton, he moved to Oxford, lecturing at Corpus Christi College.


Donald Phillip Verene, who published some of Cassirer's papers kept at Yale University, gave this overview of his ideas:

"Cassirer as a thinker became an embodiment of Kantian principles, but also of much more, of an overall movement of spirit stretching from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, and on to Herder’s conception of history, Goethe’s poetry, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s study of the Kavi language, Schelling’s Philosophie Der Mythologie, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and Vischer’s conception of the aesthetic symbol, among many others. Cassirer’s own position is born through a mastery of the whole development of this world of the humanistic understanding, which included the rise of the scientific world view a mastery evident both in his historical works and in his systematic philosophy." [7]


History of science

Cassirer's first major published writings were a history of modern thought from the Renaissance to Kant. In accordance with his Marburg neo-Kantianism he concentrated upon epistemology. His reading of the scientific revolution, in books such as The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (1927), as a "Platonic" application of mathematics to nature, influenced historians such as E. A. Burtt, E. J. Dijksterhuis, and Alexandre Koyré.

Philosophy of science

In Substance and Function (1910), he writes about late nineteenth-century developments in physics including relativity theory and the foundations of mathematics. In Einstein's Theory of Relativity (1921) he defended the claim that modern physics supports a neo-Kantian conception of knowledge. He also wrote a book about Quantum mechanics called Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics (1936).

Philosophy of symbolic forms

At Hamburg Cassirer discovered the Library of the Cultural Sciences founded by Aby Warburg. Warburg was an art historian who was particularly interested in ritual and myth as sources of surviving forms of emotional expression. In Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923–29) Cassirer argues that man (as he put it in his more popular 1944 book Essay on Man) is a "symbolic animal". Whereas animals perceive their world by instincts and direct sensory perception, humans create a universe of symbolic meanings. Cassirer is particularly interested in natural language and myth. He argues that science and mathematics developed from natural language, and religion and art from myth.

The Cassirer–Heidegger debate

In 1929 Cassirer took part in a historically significant encounter with Martin Heidegger in Davos. Cassirer argues that while Kant's Critique of Pure Reason emphasizes human temporality and finitude, he also sought to situate human cognition within a broader conception of humanity. Cassirer challenges Heidegger's relativism by invoking the universal validity of truths discovered by the exact and moral sciences.

Philosophy of the Enlightenment

Cassirer believed that reason's self-realization leads to human liberation. Mazlish (2000)[ citation needed ], however, notes that Cassirer in his The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932) focuses exclusively on ideas, ignoring the political and social context in which they were produced.

The Logic of the Cultural Sciences

In The Logic of the Cultural Sciences (1942) Cassirer argues that objective and universal validity can be achieved not only in the sciences, but also in practical, cultural, moral, and aesthetic phenomena. Although inter-subjective objective validity in the natural sciences derives from universal laws of nature, Cassirer asserts that an analogous type of inter-subjective objective validity takes place in the cultural sciences.

The Myth of the State

Cassirer's last work, The Myth of the State (1946), was published posthumously; at one level it is an attempt to understand the intellectual origins of Nazi Germany. Cassirer sees Nazi Germany as a society in which the dangerous power of myth is not checked or subdued by superior forces. The book discusses the opposition of logos and mythos in Greek thought, Plato's Republic, the medieval theory of the state, Machiavelli, Thomas Carlyle's writings on hero worship, the racial theories of Arthur de Gobineau, and Hegel. Cassirer claimed that in 20th-century politics there was a return, with the passive acquiescence of Martin Heidegger, to the irrationality of myth, and in particular to a belief that there is such a thing as destiny. Of this passive acquiescence, Cassirer says that in departing from Husserl's belief in an objective, logical basis for philosophy, Heidegger attenuated the ability of philosophy to oppose the resurgence of myth in German politics of the 1930s.

Partial bibliography

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  1. "Structural Realism": entry by James Ladyman in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. "Cassirer". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary .
  3. "Duden | Ernst | Rechtschreibung, Bedeutung, Definition". Duden (in German). Retrieved 20 October 2018. Ẹrnst
  4. "Duden | Cassirer | Rechtschreibung, Bedeutung, Definition". Duden (in German). Retrieved 20 October 2018. Cassirer
  5. A second volume appeared in 1907, a third one in 1920, and a fourth one in 1957.
  6. Jones, Larry Eugene (2001). Crossing Boundaries: The Exclusion and Inclusion of Minorities in Germany and the United States. Berghahn Books. p. 125.
  7. Cassirer, Ernst (1979). Verene, Donald Phillip (ed.). Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935-1945 . New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. pp.  6–7. ISBN   0-300-02666-8.

Further reading