Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 28, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neo-kantianism/v-1
5. The Marburg School: Cassirer
Like Cohen and Natorp, Cassirer, who was Cohen’s principal disciple, made a name for himself initially in the history of philosophy. After his doctoral thesis under Cohen on Leibniz’ System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen (Leibniz’s System in its Scientific Foundations) (1902), he enjoyed immediate success with the first two volumes of his four-volume Geschichte des Erkenntnisproblems (History of the Problem of Knowledge) (1906–20). In it he demonstrated in particular the emergence of a new definition of knowledge during the Renaissance which reached its climax in the philosophy of Kant. Thus Cassirer attempted to make plausible Cohen’s claim concerning the harmony of his basic ideas with the historical development of scientific and philosophical thought.
Cassirer also turned his attention to the theory of the exact sciences, publishing his Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (The Concept of Substance and the Concept of Function) (1910) at the same time as Natorp’s investigation Die Logischen Grundlagen der exakten Wissenschaften. Here, Cassirer makes it plain that any attempt to represent the whole of knowledge ends in certain ultimate form-concepts which express the various possible ways in which contents can be related to one another. In this respect, what we call the object of knowledge is dissolved in a network of relations. What applies to the concept of the object in general is also relevant for the concept of the objects with which the individual sciences operate. They too do not represent an absolute beyond the logical forms of knowledge, but that which is to be expressed through them is nothing but a functional relation within these forms. In concrete terms, Cassirer sees in the serial ordering which manifests itself in the relations of space and time, of size and number and of dynamic interaction and interrelationship of events, the moment in the process of knowledge which determines its real empirical content. The logical determination of the object of knowledge thus leads ultimately to an original relation which can be understood in various ways: as a relation of form and matter, of the universal and particular, and of being or normative validity. What is important is that this relation between reciprocally determining elements remains irreducible. Taken as a whole, what distinguishes Cassirer’s concept of knowledge is the insight that concepts are intellectual constructs which cannot be understood as an imitation of the objective given but as ‘symbols for relations and functional connections within the real’.
A third major theme in Cassirer’s philosophical work is the philosophy of culture. His Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms) (1923–9) is relevant in this respect. Cassirer understands by the term ‘knowledge’ not only that mathematical-scientific form of knowledge which remained paradigmatic for the Marburg School, but rather ‘any intellectual activity in which we construct a world for ourselves with a characteristic form, order and particular character’ (1956: 208). The concept of symbolic form implies on the one hand a formal function, for it is essential that ‘an intellectual meaning is attached to a concrete sensory sign and internally allocated to this sign’ (1956: 175). On the other hand, Cassirer also marks out in this manner as characteristic areas of such formation, such concrete areas of culture as language, myth, art and science. Although the symbolic activity linked to signs is that activity which runs through all productive achievements of consciousness as a unifying theme, further differentiations with regard to the basic functions of the symbolic form will result. Here Cassirer distinguishes between the function of expression, the function of presentation and the function of meaning. The almost physical function of expression is particularly relevant in the case of myth, the distancing presentation function is the preserve of language, and the function of meaning is found in particular in the world of science. The systematic implications of Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms are further developed in his final works, An Essay on Man (1944) and The Myth of the State (1946), produced after his emigration to America.
Like the later works of Natorp, the works of Cassirer’s middle and later periods raise the question of whether they should really belong to the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism. This is a subject of lively debate even today. It is certainly the case that Cassirer’s middle and late works transformed Cohen’s approach, which revolved around the problem of knowledge and science. Similarly, it cannot be maintained that Cassirer in his later development actually abandoned his Neo-Kantian beginnings, for even in his conception of a philosophy of symbolic forms he retains the typical emphasis upon the generative-theoretical approach characteristic of the Marburg School.
Ollig, Hans-Ludwig. The Marburg School: Cassirer. Neo-Kantianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neo-kantianism/v-1/sections/the-marburg-school-cassirer.
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