Cassirer, Ernst (1874–1945)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD013-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 23, 2019, from

2. Philosophy of symbolic forms

Cassirer published the major work of his philosophy, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: vol. 1, Language; vol. 2, Mythical Thought; vol. 3, The Phenomenology of Knowledge), from 1923 to 1929, but his conception of ‘symbolic form’ goes back to the philosophy of science he formed a decade earlier. Modern scientific thought, Cassirer holds, is based on the ‘functional concept’. As opposed to the Aristotelian theory of concept formation, in which a common substantial element is sought through a comparison of the similarities and differences of a class of particulars, the functional concept is formed by articulating a principle by which a set of particulars can be ordered as a series. This principle of serial arrangement of a group of particulars, unlike a substance, has no reality or meaning independent of the elements it orders, and these elements have meaning only in terms of the positions they each occupy in the series. Cassirer formulated this indissoluble bond between universal and particular of the functional concept as F (a, b, c, …). It suggested to him a model for how the mind forms experience in all spheres of human activity, cognitive and noncognitive.

The historical source for this insight is Kant’s idea of the ‘schema’, a conception of sensuous-intellectual form that is presupposed by all acts of human knowledge. What Kant delineates abstractly as one of the principles of his first Critique, Cassirer finds as a phenomenon within human experience: the symbol. The critique of reason becomes the critique of culture. Each area of human culture has its own way of bringing sensed particulars together in symbolic orders. Each area of culture has its own ‘inner form’ – its own formation of the object, its own causality, its own apprehensions of space, time and number. These various symbolic forms of culture differ from each other in their individual ‘tonality’, and human culture as a whole is ideally a harmony of these forms.

The symbolic forms are frequently thought of as a list, following the chapter titles of Cassirer’s An Essay on Man (1944): myth and religion, language, art, history and science. Cassirer also suggests the possibility of additional symbolic forms, such as economics, morality and technology. In The Phenomenology of Knowledge, the third volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923–9), Cassirer presents three symbolic forms as corresponding to the fundamental functions of the development of consciousness. He makes clear that he is using the term ‘phenomenology’ not in Husserl’s sense but in Hegel’s, that is, as developmental, not descriptive phenomenology. All knowledge and culture originates in the ‘phenomenon of expression’, the Ausdrucksfunktion of consciousness. At the level of ‘expression’, (Ausdruck) the object is ‘felt’ in its immediacy. Consciousness at this level takes the form of myth. Symbol and symbolized occupy the same level of reality. The dancer who dons the mask of the god is the god. The mythic image in its felt immediacy gives way to the logical powers inherent in language; this produces the ‘representational function’ (Darstellungsfunktion). This function builds a world of common-sense objects, of thing-attribute relationships and classes. Symbol and symbolized now are different orders of reality. Symbols refer to things. Beyond this is the purely ‘significative function’ (Bedeutungsfunktion) of scientific and theoretical thought. At this level the power of the symbol to generate ‘symbolic systems’ occurs. Here symbols can refer in fully determinate ways to other orders of symbols. The purest examples of this are mathematics and mathematical logic.

In a fourth volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, left incomplete in manuscript at his death, Cassirer considered ‘the metaphysics of symbolic forms’. He examined how the expressive function of consciousness is the most fundamental manifestation of spirit (Geist) and how spirit is a transformation of life (Leben). Cassirer discusses a number of conceptions of life in modern philosophy and is led to his own doctrine of ‘Basis-phenomena’ (Basisphänomene), the foremost of which, he claims, is life. Life is the ongoing flow of existence that is first formed by the human power of expression, out of which, as described above, arise all forms of human culture.

Citing this article:
Verene, Donald Phillip. Philosophy of symbolic forms. Cassirer, Ernst (1874–1945), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD013-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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