An Essay on Man




Ernst Cassirer (1874--1945) was a Jewish German intellectual historian and philosopher, the originator of the \'\'philosophy of symbolic forms.\'\' After a distinguished teaching career in Germany, he fled the Nazis, first to Oxford, then Goteborg, then finally Yale, which gives an annual series of lectures in philosophy in his honor; he died as a visiting professor at Columbia. Having read and admired his historical works, particularly The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, I was curious about his own doctrines. The summary of them included in his semi-historical book The Myth of the State left me quite confused: reading it gave me no sense of what a symbolic form was, except that it had something to do with what Kant called forms of apperception (no surprise: Cassirer was a neo-Kantian). Similarly, on that basis I couldn\'t have told you what Cassirer thought a myth was, though it had something to do with emotions whose \'\'motor-expressions\'\' were rituals.
Now, I don\'t think I\'m a stupid man, or a bad reader. In the line of professional duty I\'ve read a great deal on subjects which are fairly tricky conceptually, like mathematical logic and quantum field theory and learning theory, and it at least felt like I understood them. And I\'m not normally blocked by dense prose, either. Nonetheless, what I got from those passages was a diffused feeling of frustrated incomprehension: there was something there, and I just wasn\'t getting it. (I may add that, pursuing my hobby of psychoceramics, I\'ve read a great deal of dense prose where there really isn\'t anything to be grasped, and the difference is palpable.) Such befuddlement is, of course, the reason why introductory books are written, so I started looking around for an introduction to Cassirer. Lo: the man wrote one himself, An Essay on Man. The preface tells us it was intended for those who hadn\'t German enough to tackle the three volumes of his The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, supposedly even for those who aren\'t scholars. Having read it, matters are a bit clearer, but not much.

The start is good. There is, Cassirer declares, a \'\'crisis in man\'s knowledge of himself.\'\' I dare say it takes a philosopher, perhaps even a German philosopher, to deem the absence of an adequate and generally accepted philosophical anthropology a \'\'crisis,\'\' but this dramatization is harmless, and Cassirer has a real point.

No former age was ever in such a favorable position with regard to the sources of our knowledge of human nature. Psychology, ethnology, anthropology, and history have amassed an astonishingly rich and constantly increasing body of facts. Our technical instruments for observation and experimentation have been immensely improved, and our analyses have become sharper and more penetrating. We appear, nevertheless, not yet to have found a method for the mastery and organization of this material.... Unless we succeed in finding a clue of Ariadne to lead us out of this labyrinth, we can have no real insight into the general character of human culture; we shall remain lost in a mass of disconnected and disintegrated data which seem to lack all conceptual unity. [End of ch. 1]
Slightly more Englishly: it\'d help if we had a big picture about what people are like, and why they are that way. What Cassirer set out to do was to master the actual facts of the relevant particular sciences (in which, very soundly, he included biology, logic, mathematics and physics, in addition to those in the quotation above), and to produce a synthesis, a body of general doctrine about human beings and human culture in light of which the discoveries of the sciences, and the existence of the sciences, would make sense. It was an ambitious and worthwhile undertaking, though Cassirer was engagingly modest about it: note that his subtitle says a philosophy of culture, not the. There is also a pleasing whiff of the Enlightenment about the project (and, of course, the title).
\'\'Symbolic form\'\' is still maddeningly vague, but my impression is that it is almost, but not quite, a \'\'universe of discourse\'\' in the sense of logic. Tentatively, I\'d suggest it be defined as \'\'a subject matter plus patterns of employing symbols to deal with it.\'\' I can sort of see how this might