Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture
by Edward Skidelsky
Princeton University Press
Sitting on the judging panel for this year’s Wingate Literary prize, I noticed several patterns emerging. One was the length of most of the entries; it seems that following the model of the 37 volume Babylonian Talmud, many Jewish authors cannot seem to express themselves in less than 600 pages. Another is their secular bias: while there is a proliferation of American Jewish books on Judaism as religion, UK Jewish writers are more likely to steer clear, preferring the safety of Jewishness as culture, warm families, and an ever decreasing Yiddish vocabulary.
The overwhelming trend however, is of an abundance of books dealing either with Israel or the Holocaust/Second World War era. The focus on these two areas is hardly surprising; they continue to be the foci of Jewish identity for a large numberof Jews. It is, however, disappointing that there is not more focus on other aspects of Jewishness. A Judaism that is rooted in the memory of the Shoah and a connection with Israel holds little promise for survival and renewal, at least for those of us in the diaspora. Is there no space for Jewish philosophy, religion and culture, for a Judaism of ideas rather than a Judaism of survival?
I was therefore drawn towards submissions that had a wider take on Jewishness, even if that take was tangential or concealed. This is certainly the case with Edward Skidelsky’s Ernst Cassirer; The Last Philosopher of Culture. The book hardly views itself as a ‘Jewish book’, rather it is an intellectual biography of a neglected modern philosopher, which explains his work through the lens of the intellectual currents surrounding it. That the subject is Jewish is a minor point, indeed Cassirer himself, coming from the German Jewish liberal assimilationist tradition, would hardly have flagged up his Jewishness as being particularly central. Nevertheless, Cassirer’s work is arguably closely linked to the concerns of many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Jewish intellectuals; the promotion of political Liberalism, a utopian belief in the power of culture, in particular literature, and an attempt to defend rationalism against its ‘mythic and ‘spiritual critics’. The role of Jews in propagating liberal, secular, and internationalist outlooks in 19th century societies has been well documented. Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century documents the evidence, and comments on the Jewish ‘search for a neutral society where neutral actors could share a neutral secular culture.’ The role of the enlightened Jewish intelligentsia was to create societies in which they could be full members; that meant playing down bloodlines and Christianity and playing up national literary canons, liberal media and organisations and the idea of a state that, as much as possible, belonged equally to all its citizens.
Skidelsky takes as his starting point the event for which Cassirer is most famous: his public debate with Heidegger in Davos in 1929. This event has come to symbolise the changing of eras; Cassirer representing the Weimar period and the idealist tradition, Heidegger the representative of the new philosophical irrationalism and the harbinger of the new Germany which, if not yet fascist, was certainly illiberal. Cassirer, then, is on the wrong side of history. An heir to the neo-Kantian ‘Marburg School’ of Hermann Cohen, he represents a school of thought that comes to a standstill at the end of the 1920s. While Heidegger was a leading inspiration for the modern continental philosophy of Sartre, Levinas and Derrida, the rationalist tradition of which Cassirer was part, became ever narrower and more technocratic, leaving no room for his expansive worldview of culture intertwined with the ethical and political.
Skidelsky gives us a glance of what his book might have been; he confesses that he had originally planned to argue that Cassirer was the last thinker to bridge the ‘Two Cultures’ that have become analytic and continental philosophy. Cassirer attempted to reconcile the quasi scientific logic of Wittgenstein with the ‘irrationalism, literary modernism and political of extremism’ of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, seeing that both systems had their own truths and believing that synthesis was both possible and necessary. Boldly, Skidelsky turns away from this move, and offers a critique of his subject; Cassirer’s ideas, he believes, are so of their time, so rooted in 19th-century Germanculture as to be virtually useless to us today. He describes Cassirer’s writing as ultimately not really philosophy as we know it today, being ‘inductive, not deductive in its method’, being so tied to its era that it is ultimately untranslatable.
This view gains weight as Skidelsky explains Cassirer’s key work, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Cassirer views language, science, art and myth not as radically different ways of seeing the world, but as symbols through which reality is experienced. Symbols allow us to transcend distinct phenomena and construct a wider picture.‘If animals are captive to their environment, reacting to it in purely instinctual fashion, man the “symbolic animal”, is able to grasp it as a world, as the object of aspirations, projects and theories. Symbolism thus opens the way “from animal reactions to human responses”’. Cassirer views this process in Hegelian terms, as a series of stages. The first symbolic stage is that of myth: ‘expressing and organising man’s most deeply rooted instincts, his hopes, his fears’. The next stage is religion, ordering and refining these myths, and giving them an ethical character. Finally, the process reaches its zenith, via linguistic development, in natural science, the ultimate form of conceptual organisation. Cassirer’s process, however, is not entirely teleological. He believes that each symbolic stage continues to exist, each symbolic expression retaining its autonomy. This is demonstrated through the metaphor of a tree ‘each branch of which nourishes new branches while continuing to exist in its own right’.
Skidelsky makes two arguments for why this is untenable, one philosophical and one historical. On the philosophical side, Cassirer wants to say that the many branches of the tree, the diversity of symbols, can be resolved into an underlying functional unity, thus avoiding each going its own separate ways. Given however, Cassirer’s insistence on the independence of each symbolic form, how can they be brought into a totality? Historically, Skidelsky suggests that Cassirer’s work relies on a fundamentally optimistic belief in the progressive tendency of history. Given that this approach took a battering following the First World War, how much more so in the aftermath of the Second. On this view, Cassirer in simply a product of his time, despite trying to engage with the new ways of philosophy, he is condemned to be viewed as a representative of a more innocent age.
Even if we accept Skidelsky’s verdict, and write off Cassirer’s philosophy, there is much in this overall thought that seems immensely appealing. On religion, he treads a line that successfully navigates the poles of rising fundamentalism and the ‘new atheism’. Following Hermann Cohen, he sees religion as a transformation of myth into reason and ethics, but allows room for the ritualistic, viewing it as ‘the intermixture of the spiritual with the material’. On culture, Cassirer’s view of a society’s value system sustained by its cultural life may be old fashioned but it will continue to be attractive wherever materialist instrumentalism and the rule of the market are the only guiding values. In terms of politics, following the collapse of Marxism, and the rise of the far right in much of Europe, the liberalism and democratic socialism of Cassirer and Cohen seem utterly necessary. Finally, ‘the two cultures’, of analytic and continental philosophy, lie as firmly apart as ever. Cassirer’s attempt to synthesise them may have been ultimately unsuccessful, but the notion of a discourse that drawsboth on literature and logic, myth and science, is still one that demands to be pursued.
Sadly the book failed to make the Wingate shortlist. Despite Skidelsky’s elegant prose and clarity in explaining complex ideas, the other judges felt that it wouldn’t reach ‘the wider reading public’, one of the key criteria for the prize. The book sits between the two poles of academia and popular non-fiction, trying to have a foothold in both, and despite its brilliance, may be limited in its readership as a result. This is an elegant metaphor for Cassirer, reaching out both ways: to the linguistic formalism of Bertrand Russell and the Vienna School, and to the mythic existentialism of Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and being spurned by both camps. Sitting between two worlds, trying to hold them together is an often impossible, but necessary endeavour. Jews, caught between the sacred and the secular, the stranger and the citizen, understand this all too well. Ernst Cassirer may have failed to do so, but through his attempt he leaves a range of powerful tools with which we can continue the struggle.