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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, February 1, 2014


The above pun on a famous Shakespeare line might make more sense if one has heard that the name of the German philosopher is apparently pronounced the same as "Caesar."

My latest reading from Skidelsky's book-- which still earns high ratings from me despite my disagreements with it-- concerns Cassirer's debt to Goethe, who is to this day often regarded as the quintessential German literary figure of the period.  Skidelsky, as I mentioned here, advanced a view of Cassirer as a German-Jewish intellectual whose primary aim was to find a means of reconciling the traditions of his Jewish minority culture with the culture of the numerically superior German Gentiles.  (Note that I do not say "Christians," since there's ample evidence to indicate that the factions of fascism were not particularly observant of the dominant German religion.)

Skidelsky's research reveals that Cassirer's initial academic focus was literary, and only later became related to philosophy and its search for validity against the intellectual dominance of scientific inquiry, a.k.a. "Naturwissenschaften."  And of all Cassirer's favored literary stars, none shone more brightly than German romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had the ability-- along with fellow travelers like Herder, Humboldt and Schlegel-- to effect a "transformation of the Kantian heritage," redeeming the role of the "sensuous, emotional life" which Kant at best marginalized.

In Cassirer's 1916 FREEDOM AND FORM-- again, one I've not read-- Cassirer defends Goethe's attempt to formulate "an intuitive theory of nature," reacting against the materialistic empiricism of the burgeoning natural sciences.  Goethe sought to articulate a sense that human feelings were not mere epiphenomena to the physical world, that they were in their own way just as "objective" as physical matter.  Goethe did not succeed in convincing the scientists of his time, though arguably the later concept of *intersubjectivity* might throw a light on Goethe's ambitions.  Skidelsky, though, argues that the divide between the objectivity professed by the purveyors of physical-science theory and the objectivity proposed by Goethe is almost impossible to surmount.

Cassirer, he shows, did formulate a defensible rationale, even before he had fully developed his "philosophy of symbolic forms."  Cassirer did so through his articulation of the multivalence of the symbol:

The concept of the symbol is both broad enough to unite the various cultural forms and flexible enough to do justice to their individuality.  It thus replaces, in Cassirer's more mature thought, Kant's more rigid notion of "a priori" form.  In schematic terms, one can see the philosophy of symbolic forms as an attempt to encompass Kantian epistemology within a broader Goethean anthropology.

Skidelsky finds this project problematic, though, because it relativizes the truth-finding claims of science and religion:

The problem goes to the heart of the philosophy of symbolic forms.  The attempt to mediate between the various branches of culture threatens to rob them of their seriousness, to transform them into a play of symbols.

Having read and reread Cassirer's expatiations on symbolic forms, I do not agree that they reduce the complex subjects of myth, religion, art, or science into mere "play."  On the contrary, the very reason that these conceptual spheres even have coherent form is because countless intellectuals have put a great deal of work into honing all their complexities, work which Cassirer reports and evaluates.  By his emphasis upon truth-telling Skidelsky seems to be making common cause with Bertrand Russell's readings of symbolic logic, noted here.

I won't address the obvious problems inherent in this alleged "search for truth." But I will point out that Skidelsky, in attempting to invalidate Cassirer's idol Goethe, relies on questionable evidence.  The author claims that Goethe was only a liberal in his literary works, and that his true measure was the "political illiberalism" he practiced in real life-- though Skidelsky does not prove this assertion, except for citing a couple of lines about Goethe's admiration for powerful political figures.  Following this dubious characterization, Skidelsky draws upon the verdict of art historian Edgar Wind, who was critical of Goethe's "capacity to treat every interpretation of reality symbolically."  This is supposedly a marker of the inability of Goethe, and of Cassirer, to come to terms with reality.  Finally, Skidelsky draws upon, not a real-life account of someone who knew Goethe, but Thomas Mann's 1939 novella LOTTE IN WEIMAR.  This Mann work takes the viewpoint of Charlotte Kestner, Goethe's real-life mistress, to indict Goethe as "an aloof, inhuman figure" who barely remembers his tryst with Charlotte.

And yet, even supposing that Mann's portrait of the Goethe-Kestner relationship was as "true" as anyone, even a biographer, could reproduce it-- what does this prove about Goethe's particular outlook?  Are there ways in which individuals can ignore other individuals by seeing them as mere "symbols?"  Certainly, but there are thousands of other ways in which people can downgrade or ignore other people without seeing them as "symbols."  Thus Skidelsky's criterion for "reality testing" is rendered entirely suspect, and may compromise other aspects of his evaluative endeavor.

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