Cassirer, Ernst (1874–1945)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD013-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved February 24, 2024, from

4. Logic of the cultural sciences

In the period of his teaching in Sweden, just prior to his coming to the USA, in the summer of 1941, Cassirer turned his attention to a theory of concept formation for the Kulturwissenschaften, the humanities or cultural sciences. The philosophy of science that Cassirer formulated at the beginning of his career was based on a theory of the functional concept (as described in sec. 2, above); Cassirer now addressed the question of how to understand the specific difference between the ‘science of nature’ and the ‘science of culture’.

He regards the Naturwissenschaften and the Kulturwissenschaften as two fundamentally different ways in which we construct knowledge of an object. The cultural object is constructed in terms of an intersection of physical, psychic and historical elements. A painting, statue or written text are all physical artifacts that express a psychic meaning, but to fully understand this meaning they must be historically situated in terms of place and time. In grasping their meaning we cannot be concerned simply with their content; we must combine these three elements into a new whole. The meaning of any cultural object depends upon grasping these three elements of it in their correlation, the sense in which these elements achieve a mutual penetration.

This correlation of physical, psychic and historical elements is achieved through concepts of form and style that are developed and employed in specific ways in each particular science of culture. Cassirer says concepts of form and style do not, as do the functional concepts of natural science, aim at establishing universal laws, from which individual phenomena can be deductively determined. Cassirer also insists that form and style concepts are not to be reduced simply to historical classifications. His two primary examples of the use of form and style concepts are Heinrich Wöfflin’s Fundamental Concepts of Art History and Jacob Burckhardt’s Culture of the Renaissance.

Wöfflin’s famous distinction in art history, of the ‘painterly’ and the ‘linear’ styles, are concepts that can be applied across historical periods. Each can be justified aesthetically, and, within each of the two styles, according to Wöfflin, we are able to distinguish the perfect from the imperfect, the mediocre from the excellent. The two styles reflect a difference in orientation to the object. These are concepts by means of which we can make aesthetic judgments, but the particular art objects assessed approximate or recede from the standard they set. Unlike the functional concept in natural science, the particular is not given a determinate place in a series of variables. The particular is not precisely subsumed under the universal; individual instances are not deductively derived from a law of their series.

Cassirer clarifies his theory of cultural concepts most sharply in contrasting the scientific concept of gold with the Burckhardtian concept of ‘Renaissance man’. In natural science, the properties of an element (which are discovered by empirical observation and experimentation) are functions of an ‘atomic weight’, linked to the ‘atomic number’ of the element. Gold, considered as an example of a specific metal, can be subsumed under the concept ‘gold’ if, and only if, it has the particular property that distinguishes it from other such elements, in a system of elements. We can call something gold only if it has a certain quantitatively determined weight, a certain electrical conductivity, coefficient of expansion and so forth. It can thus be precisely placed within a total system of metals.

Cassirer says that in cultural concepts, a particular is classified by a universal, but it is never subsumed by the universal in the way that it is in the employment of scientific concepts. Burckhardt shows that it is possible to form a concept of ‘Renaissance man’, as distinct from ‘medieval man’, by enumerating the characteristics that distinguish the former from the latter. The Renaissance man is ‘this’, rather than ‘other’, worldly. He is attached to his senses, rather than inwardly, to the state of his soul; he advocates individualism and so forth. No single historical figure, Cassirer says, could be found to completely match the characteristics of this concept of human being. We may, however, characterize Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo Bruni, Marsilio Ficino, Niccolò Machiavelli, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Cesare Borgia as standing in a particular, ideal connection to each other. Their unity is not a unity of being; no definite property can be found in which they all agree. Their unity is a unity of direction; they all belong together because they all approximate the ideal. They all share in a common task, share a common spirit.

Finally, Cassirer holds that the difference we can articulate in cognitive terms, between the functional concepts of natural science and the style and form concepts of cultural science, rests on a difference in the perception, or intuition, of the object, that we can articulate by the phenomenological analysis he has established in his philosophy of symbolic forms. The cultural concept is rooted in the expressive form of consciousness that we find in the images of mythical thought. The functional concept derives from the representational form of consciousness that we achieve through the referential and discursive power of language (as described in sec. 2, above). The philosophy of culture is constructed on the results of these two types of concept formation, and has as its guiding ideal to show their reciprocal development and harmony as manifest in the various symbolic forms.

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