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Cassirer, Ernst (1874-1945
"Religion claims to be in possession of an absolute truth; but its history is a history of errors and heresies. It gives us the promise and prospect of a transcendent world -- far beyond the limits of our human experience -- and it remains human, all too human."

-- Ernst Cassirer

Ernst 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.

As 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.

The 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:

At 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.

Cassirer 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'.

That 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.

Cassirer 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 it.

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