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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, April 9, 2011


I've recently finished reading the fourth volume of Ernst Cassirer's PHILOSOPHY OF SYMBOLIC FORMS. Though I finished the first three volumes some years back, I put off volume number four because I'd received the impression that Four wasn't much more than a summing-up of the other three books, which centered, respectively, on the three forms Cassirer terms, "language, myth, and theoretical knowledge."

The reviews were essentially true: there isn't a lot in Volume Four that I hadn't encountered in other Cassirer works. Since my primary interests are literary, I've often felt the lack of a "Poetics" from the post-Kantian philosopher. Perhaps such a poetics might have dealt with some of the problematic areas of Cassirer's inspiration Immanuel Kant-- such as the fact that Kant, for all of his insight into the affects of literature, had few vital insights into the mythico-religious narratives of humankind, with which literature shares common cultural ground.

However, as always Cassirer offers some tantalizing hints:

"Kant showed us that this basic feature of [man's] pure observation [in contrast to the mere "attentiveness" of other animals] as it is found within the world of aesthetic objects where it does emerge in its highest power and sublimation. It is in no way limited to this sphere, but rather proves to be distinctive of and decisive for every form of 'seeing' and 'picturing,' for every creation and grasping of worlds of form and of values in this world. The turn to form, as it is found not only in art, but in language, myth, or theoretical knowledge as well, is always a kind of retuning that the subject undergoes in itself, in the totality of its sensitivity to and attitudes toward life."-- METAPHYSICS, p. 45.

As Cassirer sees it, this power of "observation" allows man to comprehend "a world of objects not just according to how they effect him and what they accomplish for his vital interests but according to what they are and mean in themselves." The word "observation" almost puts me in mind of some positivistic historian of science, the sort who would validate humankind's powers of observation only in terms of *techne,* in terms of what one observes about the physical universe and how it can be used to further one's own properity, what Cassirer, following Kant, calls the "vital interests."

However, as the quote above illustrates, humankind's ability of observation go beyond merely establishing the utilitarian boundaries as to what aspects of the world can be made to work in man's favor. If this were all there was to "observation," to "theoretical knowledge," then humankind's observational skills would just be a more articulated version of any animal's ability to work with its surrounding environment to achieve the ends of survival.

Thus it is no coincidence that in the quote above Cassirer yokes "the worlds of form and of values." Admittedly, just as we lack a Cassirer poetics, we also lack a phenomenology that would show us precisely how these spheres interact. But the study of the symbolic processes underlying them remains the most plausible key to that interaction, and remains Cassirer's key insight for modern culture.

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