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An essay on man by ernst cassirer

Yale University Press, 1944. From The Philosophical Review, Vol. In an essay posted elsewhere on this site, Cassirer scholar Donald Verene addresses Blanshard's criticism. One cannot read it without feeling afresh how deep a loss the philosophic community sustained in his recent death.

He was a mind of extraordinary range, equally at home, to all appearances, in the ancient literatures and in modern science, in history and in mathematics. He wrote extensively in both German and English. Yet, as those who knew him will recall, he carried his learning lightly, and there was little suggestion about him of the Teutonic scholar; what impressed one rather was a singular simplicity, frankness and charm.

Technically speaking, he had been for many years and in various countries a refugee. But no one thought of him as such. His cosmopolitanism, his gracious-ness, and his rare gift for language made him quickly at home in any land. It is in a sense a summary of his general philosophy. Some twenty years ago he published a massive work in three volumes on The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which has never been translated.

Thinking it not very likely that it ever would be, he wrote this book to present to English readers, with new illustrations and reflections, the main drift of the earlier argument. The central contention is that if we would understand the nature of man, we must study, not his supposed metaphysical essence, but his functions or activities, what he does.

And the most distinctive thing about his activities is that they are symbolic. He does not, like the animal, live in the immediate; he can look before and after; he can set up remote ends, ideal satisfactions, and pursue them persistently and variously.

  • On this tremendous task Cassirer launches bravely out;
  • On this tremendous task Cassirer launches bravely out;
  • Some twenty years ago he published a massive work in three volumes on The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which has never been translated;
  • Sobre el papel del lenguaje en todo lo que el hombre hace y deshace de este mundo.

To know what he is, therefore, one must inspect these symbolic activities closely, bring to light their ends, and if possible discover some single end that gives direction to them all and brings them into harmony. In the first part of his book Cassirer lays this down as his avowed purpose. But then the plot thickens. These symbolic activities embrace all the more important activities of man, and if they are to be duly scrutinized, one must offer something of a phenomenology and philosophy of myth, religion, language, art, literature, history, and science.

On this tremendous task Cassirer launches bravely out. It would be impossible for so rich a mind to range over so vast a region without saying much that is illuminating, and this he does. Does this suggest a feast marked more by richness than by order? If so, one shares the impression gained by the present writer.

An Essay on Man

As he reads on, he feels a gradually growing uneasiness. Each successive chapter is good, but the picture of man that was to emerge from the harmonization does not seem to be coming nearer.

Perhaps the synthesis was to be reserved to the end. Even there I did not find what I looked for. The only thing offered as common to the various symbolic activities was a tension between conservative and progressive impulses—a tame conclusion, after all, to so much labor and learning.

It is not often that great breadth of learning and great gifts of speculative synthesis go together.

An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture

Their combination is not impossible; Aristotle, Hegel, and Lotze, for example, achieved it magnificently. Great learning requires much rapid registry of facts and a mind attentive to detail. Speculative depth requires much abstraction from detail, much leisurely rumination, the persistent, patient exploration of numberless wandering paths.

It is hard not to think, as one reads a book so wealthy as this in historic and scientific erudition, but at the same time so oddly inconclusive, that Cassirer was rather a distinguished reflective scholar than a great speculative philosopher. Perhaps there is no end, or harmony of ends, toward which all these activities are moving. This is in fact what he gives us. And an admirable gift it is, for which I, at least, am thankful.

Only it is not what he sets out to give, nor all that the reader hoped to gain.