Symbol and Reality

Por • 21 abr, 2018 • Sección: Filosofía


Carl H. Hamburg

Studies in the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer

Twice during the last fifteen years did scholars, of many callings and countries, collaborate and, by Festschrift and commemorative volume, express their appreciation of the work of ERNST CASSIRER. Since the turn of the century, in many languages and more than a hundred books, essays and articles, the thought of this great among contemporary philosophers has ranged from compendious historical investigations into the “problem of knowledge”, interpretations of culture-periods, philosophers, scientists, poets to penetrating analyses of mathematics, physics, chemistry, psychology, history, linguistics and mythology. Yet, while Cassirer achieved early fame with well-documented presentations of other men’s ideas, his own philosophy was not developed before the poblication of his Philosophie der Symbolischen Formen, the latest volume of which appeared in 1929, at a time when in Germany phenomenology and the “Lebens-philosophischen” precursors of existentialism had all but eclipsed the classicism of Cassirer’s theme and style. His philosophy proper could, therefore, neither receive the attention which a German intelligentsia gave to lesser intellectual events in the anxious pre-Hitler days; nor could an English-language audience, lacking a complete translation of his principal work, satisfy the interest in his thought which some of his (translated) books had already provoked.

We thus face the not unfamiliar paradox that a lively interest in his philosophy goes hand in hand with just as lively an uncertainty as to what this philosophy is about. To be sure, prior to the complete publication of his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in English 1, it will neither be possible to give to Cassirer’s thought the attention which it deserves, nor to assign to it the importance 8 Symbol and Reality which it may possess. In the meantime, and to encourage such an enterprise, there may be some value in examining the basic orientation of his work more closely than has so far been done.

Since Cassirer’s ideas on scientific concept-formation, language, myth, history, etc., are by now available in such translated works as Substance and Function 2, Essay on Man 3, Myth ot the State 4, Language and Myth 5, Rousseau Kant, Goethe 6, and The Problem ot Knowledge 7, I have not confined myself in the following pages to the selective treatment of anyone of these particular aspects or applications of his philosophy. Instead, I have attempted to examine, in the symbolic-form concept, the core-idea upon whose proper understanding hinges whatever evaluation will in the end be made of Cassirer’s contribution to philosophy.

In focussing upon the symbolic-form concept, the unpleasant alternatives had to be faced of either keeping the discussion on a level of such generality that its relevance for specific contexts would remain obscure, or missing the dominant theme by giving too detailed an account of the many realms of its application. Attempting to avoid either extreme, it is my hope that references to historical, scientific, mythological and linguistic SUbject-matter have been sufficient at least for the purpose of appreciating its bearing upon the significance of the symbolic-form concept. This could not have been done, however, without touching upon issues of which a more thorough treatment, while desirable, was necessarily beyond the competency of one inquirer. Only summary attention was therefore given to many topics which had to be of secondary importance for a study whose primary purpose was not to achieve definitive correctness with respect to the rich cargo of subject-matter considered by Cassirer, but rather to focus on the “Symbol-concept” for which all these topics are offered as providing so many different types of exemplification.

The exposition and discussion of the symbol-concept (Ch. III, IV) is flanked by four chapters; two historical ones (Ch. I, II) looking back to traditional philosophy; and two terminal ones, (Ch. VI, VII) taking issue with more recent types of sign-analysis. Cassirer himself has been wary of the fashion of interpreting ideas in isolation from their problem-contexts. Yet, while he wa’S masterful in clarifying the thoughts of other thinkers in their historical interconnections, his own thought, aside from Introduction 9 rather frequent references to Kant, is presented to us without the benefit of having its features contrasted with both traditional and contemporary schools of thought. I have, accordingly, started out by way of an historical approach. In the first chapter, I have examined a number of familiar figures in the history of philosophy for the purposes of: a) indicating their characteristically different evaluations of the “symbolisms” of word and number for knowledge of the “real”; and, b) clarifying, by an analysis of how this tradition looks if viewed from the vantagepoint of a philosophy of symbolic forms, the shift in perspective typical for both Cassirer’s approach and method of dealing with some of the pervasive problems of this tradition. Kant’s philosophy has been considered with some attention, since it is within its epistemological provisions that Cassirer’s own work has developed.

Finally, I have sought to contrast the implications of a theory of symbolic forms for semantics and pragmatics with the type of sign-analysis currently carried on under the title of “semiotic”.

My expository, critical and historical approaches at best may help to make intelligible both meaning and import of Cassirer’s general thesis. At worst, they may have touched upon more issues than could have been illuminated within my given space and means. But while these pages will be of different value to different readers, it is my hope that they may assist those who, already familiar with some of Cassirer’s writings, will find that this presentation has made more amenable for clarifying discussion his symbol (symbolic form-) concept, upon whose proper understanding must depend any adequate evaluation of Cassirer’s contribution to philosophy.

Symbol and reality – Monoskop…/Hamburg_Carl_Symbol_and_Reality_Studies_in_the_philoso…

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