Cassirer, Ernst (1874–1945)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD013-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved December 03, 2023, from

5. Myth and the state

Cassirer does not have a political philosophy in the traditional sense. He has a critique of the modern state and a definite view of the relation of philosophy to politics. In his inaugural lecture at Göteborg in 1935, Cassirer recalled Kant’s distinction between a ‘scholastic’ conception of philosophy and a conception of ‘philosophy as related to the world’ (conceptus cosmicus). Cassirer said that he as well as others have been guilty of the former and he aligns himself with the latter. He quotes Schweitzer, his ethical hero, who calls philosophy a ‘watchman’ who slept in the hour of peril, and did not keep watch over us during the rise of totalitarianism. Cassirer holds that philosophy does not and cannot cause the events of political life, nor can it resolve them, but it has a duty to act as our conscience, to inform us of them by the use of its powers of reflection. In The Myth of the State (1946) and other writings of this period, Cassirer attacks Heidegger’s conception of ‘thrownness’ (Geworfenheit) as a conception of the human condition that puts philosophy in a position where it can no longer ‘do its duty’. This goes back to Cassirer’s debate with Heidegger in 1929 at Davos, Switzerland. Quoting Goethe, Cassirer sees human freedom as tied to the human project of spirit (Geist), of the creation of culture. Heidegger sees freedom as requiring a ‘breakthrough’ (Einbruch); freedom is not part of the human condition itself, but is contingent (zufällig) (see Heidegger, M. §5).

Cassirer’s philosophy of mythology is the most original part of his epistemology and phenomenology of knowledge. He shows that myth is not a collection of errors or a world of unchecked emotions but a total way of thinking and symbolizing, which exists at the beginning of human culture and is present as a phase in the development of any subsequent symbolic form. Myth is always present as the expressive moment in any act of cognition. In An Essay on Man, Cassirer claims that his philosophy of culture is an extension of the ancient ideal of self-knowledge and that human culture as a whole is the process of humanity’s ‘self-liberation’. The key to self-knowledge and culture is freedom from the immediacy of the object.

In The Myth of the State, Cassirer is able to apply the force of his entire philosophy of culture towards understanding the logic of modern political myths. They are a revival of the logic of the primordial forms of expressive consciousness. Modern political myths are not natural; they are manufactured products joined to the technology of mass communication. Such myths shape the life of the state and become the substitute for its rational principles. Cassirer sees this not only as true of Nazism, but also as a danger in the modern state itself. He claims that myth is impervious to argument, but that philosophy can warn us of it and allow us to understand it.

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