Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ernst Cassirer and the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.

Please compare this essay to "George Santayana's Darkest Hour and the Mysteries of Quantum Mechanics" and "The 'Galatea Scenario' and the Mind/Body Problem."

I was up late last night finishing Ernst Cassirer's book Language and Myth (New York: Harper&Bros., 1946). I wish to discuss some insights found in that work. For present purposes, I shall confine my supplemental sources to Cassirer's Essay on Man (New Haven: Yale, 1944). My copy is the Bantam paperback version of this work. And I shall also make use of S.G. Lofts, Ernst Cassirer: A Repetition of Modernity (New York: SUNY Press, 2000).

I will not refer to Susan K. Langer or the important French thinkers influenced by Cassirer. Cassirer is one of those very impressive Germans. We bow to them, the "Master Thinkers," and genuflect in their direction, because they are always suggestive to us in our own reflections. Admittedly, Cassirer is both pretty clear and still profound in a very heavy, Euro-theorist way. All the years of teaching at Yale must have helped.

I am attaching Cassirer's photo to this essay. Images are often blocked by New Jersey's hackers and, soon, I may be prevented from posting any images to accompany my writings. However, while it is possible to do so, I like to give readers a sense of the humanity of philosophers.

Cassirer's work may be associated with the writings of Gadamer and Ricoeur (who is French, but can hold his own with the Germans), as well as Derrida and numerous theologians. To my knowledge, regrettably, there has been no substantial effort to associate the works of Cassirer with Chomsky's rationalistic linguistics. Aside from the classical Rationalists, Chomsky's work is ripe for comparison with the new philosophy of symbolic forms as well as with recent defenses of a priori reasoning, notably in the work of Christopher Peacocke. Some theological writings making use of R.G. Collingwood's work on history and aesthetics may also be associated with this tradition of reflection on symbolic and interpretive rationality.

Cassirer's dates are 1874 to 1945. He began his intellectual work as a philosopher of science, after completing studies in Marburg, but became a leading member of the Neo-Kantian movement in Germany, impressing even Heidegger and Husserl with his awesome learning. Like Jung, Cassirer's range of scholarly and scientific references is breathtaking. Cassirer remained a Kantian throughout his intellectual life, shifting his focus from a search for the attributes of mind in the form of the "Categories of the Understanding" (Critique of Pure Reason) to language, as the ocean in which we both swim and seek understanding as well as knowledge in our search for fully human lives.

Cassirer was a model of ethical behavior. He resigned his position in Germany with the rise of the Nazis, opposed antisemitism, was always on the side of civil liberties and universal human rights. He is a source for both hermeneutic interpreters and phenomenological thinkers. Think of the difference between understanding (humanities) and knowledge (science), which of these ways of grasping "what is" do you find most useful in the effort to figure out what people are like? Do you agree that we need both to fully understand persons? If so, why?

This is an open book test, folks, use anything you like. In a way, Cassirer's work deals with exactly these questions and tries to answer them.

I was prompted to these reflections by a recent consideration of Daniel Dennett's discussion of the religious impulse in persons, which suffers (I believe) from an overly narrow understanding of mythical and poetic thinking, as well as from a failure to fully appreciate the pervasiveness of imagination in all theorizing and reasoning. Cassirer locates the mythic impulse in humanity within the ambiguity and mystery of language:

All linguistic denotation is essentially ambiguous -- and in this ambiguity, this "paronymia" of words lies the source of all myths. ("Metaphor is Mystery.")

It follows that:

Mythology is inevitable, it is natural, it is an inherent necessity of language, if we recognize in language the outward form and manifestation of thought; it is in fact the dark shadow that language throws upon thought, and which can never disappear till language becomes entirely commesurate with thought, which it never will. Mythology, no doubt, breaks out more fiercely in the early period of the history of human thought, but it never disappears altogether. Depend upon it, there is mythology now as there never was in the time of Homer, only we do not perceive it, because we ourselves live in the very shadow of it, because we all shrink from the full meridian light of truth ... Mythology, in the highest sense, is the power exercised by language on thought in every possible sphere of mental activity.

We need to remind Professor Dennett of Cassirer's point concerning language. The mystery of language and its dual nature as both a precise description and a deep reflection (mirror and door?) of our dreaming and practical natures, as embodied minds, leads to paradoxes of simultaneous descriptiveness and allusiveness, which are contained in words "formed" into sentences. Words, for Cassirer, are the most crystalized "form" (eidos) of the symbol. And symbols are what is found at the bottom of all thought -- including scientific thought -- because they are the sources and bases of languages.

... all mental processes fail to grasp reality itself, and in order to represent it, to hold it at all, they are driven to the use of symbols. But all symbolism harbors a curse of mediacy; [this great thinker, you will notice, speaks of "curses." Symbolism] is bound to obscure what it seeks to reveal. Thus the sound of speech strives to "express" subjective and objective happening, the "inner" and the "outer" world; but what of this it can retain is not the life and individual fullness of existence, but only a dead abbreviation of it. All that "denotation" to which the spoken word lays claim is really nothing more than mere suggestion ...


... knowledge as well as myth, language and art, has been reduced to a kind of fiction -- to a fiction that recommends itself by its usefulness, but [can] not be measured by any strict standard of [external] truth, [unless it is] to melt away into nothingness.

The campus relativists are getting exited at this point. Calm down people. "Hey, that means it's all relative!" Not quite. Cassirer is a Kantian, who discovers objectivity and truth in language and its use, in the power of symbols to convey meaning. Yet it is an internal truth -- internal to language-using animals, meaning us, deploying valid descriptions of a world filtered through the prism of mind and our dreaming-wishing faculties, so that phenomenologists and Freudians, Jungians, structuralists and deconstructionists all pick up Cassirer's batton and run with it in different directions. No we do not lose objectivity as a feature of languages and their use.

Cassirer pauses to make an epistemological point, then moves on to his ultimate interests (dictated by the logic of his discourse) in religion and art. I will leave his views of art for another day. First, epistemology:

Our epistemology will not have any real foundation until philology and mythology have revealed the processes of involuntary and unconscious conception. The chasms between specific perception and general concepts is far greater than our academic notions, and a language that does our thinking for us, leads us to suppose.

Think of all that is left out, for example, from legal language. What happens to a mind, even a good one, habituated to such a linguistic "mold" for apprehending reality? What will such a mind fail to appreciate? What will such a mind not perceive?

Legal scholar and philosopher of law, James B. White, has devoted his work to the examination of legal language and thought. Professor White's writings are fascinating on the ways that legal and political issues are shaped, often decisively, by the unconscious structures and forms of legal language which alters the mind by means of an unexamined rhetoric of rules. See James B. White, The Legal Imagination (Boston: Little & Brown, 1973).

Professor Cassirer discovers at the deepest center of language both an ethical drive and a religious presence, "the shadow of God" in the power of "naming." Symbolizing is always a gesturing at something transcendent. Thus, it is inevitable that:

Every impression that man receives, every wish that stirs in him, every hope that lures him, every danger that threatens him can affect him religiously. Just let spontaneous feeling invest the object before him, or his own personal condition, or some display of power that surprises him, with an air of holiness, and the momentary god has been experienced and created. ...

Notice where this takes him:

Reason and Understanding, Wealth, Chance, Climax, Wine, Feasting, OR THE BODY OF THE BELOVED. ... Whatever comes to us suddenly like a sending from heaven, whatever rejoices or grieves or oppresses us, seems to the religious consciousness like a divine being. As far back as we can trace the Greeks, they subsume such experiences under the generic term of [eidos? catharsis? or ecstasy?].

For Cassirer, every genuine judgment -- based on conceptualizing -- is "synthetic," in a Kantian sense, because it is a uniting of parts into a whole. Thus, human language-use and thought is inherently religious as well as moral ("words dignify reality") because it is suggestive of the metaphysical tasks assigned to all of us, including escaping the individual ego into the social, moving from particular to universal, as material bodies reaching for their spiritual essences. (See "Why I am not an ethical relativist.")

This fecund and creative core of language in the primal "naming power" -- the divine, if you like -- is a feminine principle. Cassirer's knowledge of anthropology is awesome. God or the divine, if you wish to express it metaphorically, is first feminine and prior to the masculine divinity in human linguistic history. Fans of the Matrix films should note that this would make the Oracle earlier than the Architect of the Matrix. Think about whether it makes more sense to associate the feminine as opposed to the masculine principle with "giving birth" to consciousness or language, civilization flows from religious "representation." A number of scholars now suggest that literature as well as religion may be women's inventions -- these "discourses" may amount to the same activity or art. (Harold Bloom, Marina Warner, Elaine Pagels.)

The first creation of the word must have been inspired by some idea of a living, personal being, the "Startler," and "Flight Producer"; in countless applications of the supposed abstract word, this being still appears ... The same process must be assumed for the making of all feminized abstractions. The feminine adjective only became an abstraction after it had denoted a female personage, and in primitive times this could not have been conceived as anything but a goddess.

The power to name, which is true dominion over creation -- the source of all thinking and consciousness -- may be traced to the feminine principle, which is later given mythic expression and demoted from the divine to our old friend Eve, running around in the buff in that famous garden. Human intelligence and imagination both come from the feminine side of the human mind, which would not surprise me. Women, wow. Now what do you say when they tell you to take out the garbage? "Yes, mam."

Those men who are not too depressed by all of this, may wish to check out Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), especially chapters 4 and 5, also the writings of the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, especially She Who Is. (See my short story "Faust in Manhattan.") Do not consult The Da Vinci Code.

Finally, we live in the age of psychobabblers and people who are, "like, really scientific," and hence, way above "mere" philosophy. Much worse are persons whose intellectual lives are confined to subjects likely to be found on the bar exam. Some of these persons enjoy inserting errors in my writings. I wonder why?

Much of this important scholarship is lost on anxious education and psychology majors as well as law students in search of "studies" concerning what "four out of five dentists" tell us about life or what Oprah Winfrey thinks is the meaning of it all. Meanwhile, George Steiner -- in a Cassirer-inspired moment -- reminds us, sadly and wearily, of what it means to be human and what we are called upon to do as intellectuals in a jaded age:

I sense that we shall not come home to the facts of our unhousedness, of our eviction from a central humanity [Adam and Eve in that garden again] in the face of the tidal provocations of political barbarism and technocratic servitude, if we do not redefine, if we do not re-experience, the life of meaning in the text, in music, in art. We must come to recognize, and the stress is on re-cognition, a meaningfulness which is that of a FREEDOM of giving and of reception beyond the constraints of immanence. [sic.]

Finally, I can really appreciate these words after struggling against spyware, viruses and hackers this morning:

To argue this, to make it even worth serious disagreement, I must look insistently at the relations between language and the boundaries of language on the one hand, and the nature of aesthetic statement and [religious] experience on the other. I must, even if only provisionally, consider the intimate complementarities between an authentic act of reading, an authentic motion of answerability to music and art, and the rights to human privacy [do not interfere with a person creating his or her work!] to the wholly personal hospitality we owe our own death -- rights and an indebtedness now under pressure of narcotic devaluation in a culture of the secondary.

Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989), pp. 49-50.

Norman Mailer is right, "the shits are killing us." Cassirer and Steiner's works are reminders of what is still possible in intellectual life, if only we will listen so as to be.

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