Sunday, September 06, 2009

Gordon, Peter E. Reviews of Two Books on Ernst Cassirer. NDPR (September 2009).

  • Skidelsky, Edward. Ernst Cassirer: the Last Philosopher of Culture. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008.
  • Barash, Jeffrey Andrew, ed. The Symbolic Construction of Reality: the Legacy of Ernst Cassirer. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008.
The rebirth of interest in the philosophical legacy of Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) has taken many scholars by surprise. Cassirer suffered the great misfortune to emerge as a stalwart champion of humanism and Enlightenment rationality at the very moment such ideals were falling into eclipse, not only in Germany but arguably across Western Europe as well. His three-volume systematic treatise, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, was published in successive parts during the 1920s and completed in 1929, the final year of democratic crisis. In the same year he engaged in his famous exchange with Martin Heidegger at Davos, Switzerland, a confrontation that for many participants appeared to signal (in the words of Emmanuel Lévinas, then studying at Freiburg) "the creation and the end of the world." By 1933 Cassirer had resigned from his professorship at Hamburg and together with his wife Toni fled into exile. Heidegger, meanwhile, joined the Nazi party and assumed the Freiburg rectorship. For the next decade, Cassirer and his wife led a precarious existence. They moved from Vienna to Oxford to Uppsala, Sweden, and finally made the transatlantic crossing to the United States, where Cassirer taught (mostly at Yale) until his death in 1945. He had only a handful of disciples in Germany and even fewer in the English-speaking world. The 1942 manifesto by Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, is perhaps the earliest specimen of Cassirer's influence in the United States. Many years later, Nelson Goodman would name Cassirer as a major inspiration for his 1978 Ways of Worldmaking, portions of which Goodman first delivered at the University of Hamburg for the centennial of Cassirer's birth. But Cassirer was never a philosopher to arouse great enthusiasm. Even in his own day respectful colleagues such as Karl Jaspers were likely to confide to peers that "Cassirer bores me." Some of Cassirer's most successful students, such as the political philosopher Leo Strauss or the theorist of metaphor and modernity Hans Blumenberg, utterly revised much of what Cassirer hoped to achieve. Rudolf Carnap (who was also in the audience during the disputation at Davos) characterized Cassirer as "rather pastoral." Isaiah Berlin judged him "serenely innocent," and Adorno (never one to mince words) called him "totally gaga" (Skidelsky 125). As Edward Skidelsky observes in the introductory remarks to his new study of the philosopher's career, Cassirer's "thought remains, when all is said and done, a stranger to our age" (7). How then to explain the renaissance of Cassirer-scholarship in Germany and North America? . . . Read the whole review here:

No comments:

Post a Comment