Cassirer was a German philosopher. He became a doctor of philosophy
at University of Marburg in 1899 where he studied with Hermann Cohen
and Paul Natorp. He was initially a neo-Kantian although he later
developed his own philosophy of culture. Today, the late Cassirer
is also considered one of the key thinkers of Semiotics.
a Jew, he had no easy academic career. After long years as Privatdozent
at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin (Cassirer turned
down the offer of a visiting professorship at Harvard which he
and his wife considered obscure and remote), he was elected to
a chair of philosophy at the newly-founded University of Hamburg
in 1919, where he lectured until 1933, when he was forced to leave
Germany because the Nazis came to power.
contrast between Cassirer, a Jew, and the soon to be supporter
of Hitler, Martin Heidegger was quite striking. According to the
Books and Writers website:
Davos in the spring of 1929 [Cassirer] gave lectures before an
invited international audience and had a debate with Martin Heidegger,
a charismatic younger philosopher.... The debate marked the clash
of two worlds of philosophy - the rich humanistic tradition represented
by Cassirer and antihistorical, modern brand of phenomenology.
Heidegger's major work, Sein und Zeit (1927), had just appeared;
ahead lay his decision to join the Nazi Party.
had been warned of Heidegger's rejection of all social conventions,
whereas Cassirer's gentlemanlike behavior was his weapon against
the attacks of the new star in philosophy. Later Heidegger complained
that this 'prevented the problems from being given the necessary
sharpness of formulation'. Cassirer himself said, that the antirational
philosophy 'renounces its own fundamental theoretical and ethical
ideals. It can be used, then, as a pliable instrument in the hands
of political leaders'.
such ideas were so used is evidence of Cassirer's perspicacity.
After his expulsion from Germany he found first refuge as a lecturer
in Oxford 1933–1935; he was then professor at Gothenburg
University 1935–1941. When Cassirer - who considered Sweden
too unsafe by then - tried to go to the United States and specifically
to Harvard, the university turned him down because he had turned
Harvard down thirty years earlier. Thus, he first had to make
do with a visiting professorship at Yale University, New Haven
1941–1943, and finally moved on to Columbia University in
New York, where he lectured from 1943 until his death in 1945.
As he had been naturalized in Sweden, he died on the Columbia
campus a Swedish citizen of German-Jewish descent.
was both a genuine philosopher and historian of philosophy. His
major work, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (3 vols., 1923–1929)
is considered a benchmark for a philosophy of culture. Man, says
Cassirer later in his more popular Essay on Man (1944), is a "symbolic
animal". Whereas animals perceive their world by instincts,
man has created his own universe of symbolic meaning that structures
and shapes his perception of reality - and only thus, for instance,
can conceive of utopias and therefore progress in the form of
human consociation. In this, Cassirer owes much to Kant's transcendental
idealism, which claimed that the actual world cannot be known,
but that the human view on reality is shaped by our means of perceiving