Cassirer, Ernst (1874–1945)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD013-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved April 01, 2023, from

3. Historical studies

Cassirer did not approve of ‘hurling one’s ideas into empty space’ without showing their relation to the historical development of philosophy. Not only does he ground his original ideas in their historical sources and in the fields he discusses, he is the author of a large corpus of work in intellectual history. He wrote books and essays on Leibniz, Descartes, Kant and Rousseau, and edited a three-volume edition of Leibniz’s philosophical works as well as one of the standard editions of Kant’s works. Cassirer published essays on figures in humanist thought such as Hölderlin, Kleist, Humboldt, Schiller, Shaftesbury, Pico della Mirandola, Thomas Mann and Schweitzer. In the philosophy and history of science he wrote on Galileo, Newton, Einstein’s relativity and Bohr’s indeterminacy principle. Cassirer’s systematic interpretation of the history of philosophy is centred on two series of works: his four-volume history, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit (The Problem of Knowledge in Philosophy and Science in the Modern Age) (1906, 1907, 1920) and his trilogy, Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance (The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy) (1927), Die Platonische Renaissance in England und die Schule von Cambridge (The Platonic Renaissance in England) (1932a) and Die Philosophie der Aufklärung (The Philosophy of the Enlightenment) (1932b). Cassirer began his study of the problem of knowledge intending to show how this problem develops in the simultaneous rise of modern philosophy and modern science, beginning with Nicholas of Cusa and culminating in Kant. Later he continued the theme in the post-Kantian systems through in Hegel, and much later, when in Sweden, he considered the shape of the contemporary sciences.

His trilogy of studies goes over some of the same ground as his earlier work, but in a more agile way and to a different purpose. He begins with Nicholas of Cusa, but his aim is to show how the Renaissance can be understood as a whole in terms of the problem of the individual and the cosmos. He then shows how the ideas of the Renaissance were transmitted via the Cambridge Platonists to culminate in the Enlightenment. Cassirer wishes to present a ‘phenomenology of philosophic spirit’. This is not a progression of problems of pure thought, but the generation of a philosophical point of view on the individual, the world and society, in which the problems of knowledge are tied to the whole of human activity (see Platonism, Renaissance; Renaissance philosophy).

It is not possible to understand the basis of Cassirer’s philosophy without an awareness of his debt to Goethe (see Goethe, J.W. von §3). Goethe’s understanding of organic form is important for Cassirer’s conception of the symbol, and his cosmopolitanism influences Cassirer’s conception of culture. Goethe is the source of Cassirer’s grasp of human creation as a process of self-liberation, a sentiment Cassirer extends to the whole of culture. He wrote on various aspects of Goethe’s thought, but he was influenced more by Goethe’s spirit and sense of life than by his interest in particular questions of interpretation.

Citing this article:
Verene, Donald Phillip. Historical studies. Cassirer, Ernst (1874–1945), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD013-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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