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Ernst Cassirer

CASSIRER, ERNST (1874–1945), philosopher. Son of a well-to-do merchant from Breslau, Cassirer received his doctorate at the University of Marburg as a student of Hermann *Cohen with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. In 1906 he started his teaching career at the University of Berlin and received a full professorship at the newly founded University of Hamburg in 1919, of which he was rector from 1929 to 1930. In 1933 he went to Oxford, England, where he taught from 1933 to 1935, then to the University of Goteborg, Sweden, until 1941, and finally he left for America. He lectured first at Yale University (1941–44), and later at Columbia University until his death. Cassirers first major work was Leibniz' System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen (1902), supplemented by a valuable edition of Leibniz' selected works (1904–1915). In 1906–07 he published the first two volumes of Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, one of the most learned historical studies of the problem of knowledge, a work which ultimately traced that problem from Nicolaus of Cusa to the end of the 19th century (vol. 3, 1920; vol. 4 published in an English translation from manuscript as The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science, and History since Hegel (1950; published in Germany, 1957). In his later publications, Cassirer founded his own theory of the history of ideas. The goal of his new genetic method was what he called "unity" ("Einheit"). The genetic method involved regarding each work as the response to a situation and each response as a logical sequence to a preceding one. He wrote a number of important studies working with the genetic method. These are Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance (1927), Das Problem Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1932), Die platonische Renaissance in England und die Schule von Cambridge (1932), Die Philosophie der Aufklaerung (1932), Descartes (1939), and The Myth of the State (1946).

Cassirer's starting point was and remained the neo-Kantianism of Hermann Cohen. But, as Cohen admitted, he soon transformed the general philosophical position held by the Marburg School. In his Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (1910), he showed why in mathematics, physics, and chemistry the traditional concept of "substance" had to be replaced by the concept of "function". Instead of seeking in vain to present a faithful copy of given existing things, the critical exploration of nature should seek merely to unveil precise functional relations between given phenomena on the basis of verifiable scientific hypotheses. In his chief work, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (3 vols., 1923–29) and in his Essay on Man (1944) Cassirer develops, on the basis of an overwhelmingly rich store of detailed material, the thesis that language, mythology, and science do not present different realms of real objects but rather vitally different symbolic expressions for understanding the world in which man lives, thinks, and feels. The center of the Philosophie der symbolischen Formen was a new "critique of culture" in place of the classical enlightenment "critique of reason." He also wrote Freiheit und Form (1916), Kants Leben und Lehre (1918), Idee und Gestalt (1921), Zur Einsteinschen Relativitätstheorie (1921), and Determinismus und Interdeterminismus in der modernen Physik (1936). From 1919 until its closure in 1942 by the Nazis Cassirer was a member of the board of trustees of the Lehranstalt fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums and a member of the academic board of the *Akademie fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums.


P.A. Schilpp (ed.), Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (1949). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J.M. Krois, Cassirer. Symbolic Forms and History (1987); O. Schwemmer, Ernst Cassirer. Ein Philosoph der europäischen Moderne (1997); M. Friedman, A Parting of the Ways. Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (2000); M. Ferrari, Ernst Cassirer. Von der Marburger Schule zur Kulturphilosophie (2003); T. Meyer, Ernst Cassirer. Eine Biographie (2005).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.