The German philosopher and intellectual historian Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) was the most distinguished member of the Neo-Kantian school of philosophy.
Ernst Cassirer was born in Breslau, Silesia, on July 28, 1874, the son of a wealthy and cultured Jewish tradesman. He was educated at the universities of Berlin, Leipzig, and Heidelberg. His varied interests finally focused on philosophy after hearing Georg Simmel's lectures on Kant. This led him to Marburg, where Hermann Cohen, the leading Neo-Kantian of the period, lectured. Cassirer set himself to master both Kant's voluminous writings and Cohen's interpretations; though he went well beyond both, they formed the essential foundation for his subsequent work.
In spite of early and brilliant publications Cassier was blocked by anti-Semitic prejudice from a professorship in Germany. By the time he was 30, he had finished the first two volumes of a monumental work tracing the history of epistemology. This won him wide recognition and finally acceptance at the University of Berlin, but only as a lecturer.
In 1910 Cassirer published his first systematic work, Substance and Function, a profound essay on the nature of concepts and generalization. Still he was passed over for professorial appointments. In 1914 Harvard University invited him, but the outbreak of World War I prevented his acceptance. When the war ended, however, the new University of Hamburg offered him a professorship. He taught there from 1919 to 1930 and served as rector from 1930 to 1933. At Hamburg the superb Warburg Library enabled him to begin his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-1929). Warburg had gathered a unique treasure of books on primitive cultures and studies of imagery, magic, folklore, and mythology. With these source materials Cassirer began to fashion a systematic comparison of the fundamentally different kinds of "symbolic forms" through which men interpret their experience. Although a continuation of Kant's analysis of human powers of synthesis, Cassirer's work took into account types of thinking which Kant had ignored as irrational. Cassirer thus subjected mythical thinking to detailed analysis and undertook to revise the Kantian accounts of scientific, moral, and esthetic thinking. The principles and methods used to structure these different areas of experience, Cassirer argued, must be seen as flexible and developing.
With the electoral triumph of the Nazi party in 1933, Cassirer immediately resigned his position in disgust and went to Oxford University. After 3 months of intensive study he learned to speak English. He lectured at Oxford until 1935, when the University of Göteborg in Sweden offered him a personal chair. Becoming a Swedish citizen, he once again learned a new language and later wrote a book on Swedish philosophy.
In the summer of 1941 Cassirer came to the United States as a guest professor at Yale University. In these years of exile he wrote continuously—books on physics, on political philosophy, on the history of ideas, and finally An Essay on Man (1944), a systematic study written in English. At the time of his death Cassirer was a visitor at Columbia University and was preoccupied with plans for further applications of his central discovery: the functions played by symbolic forms. He left a rich legacy which has not yet been fully assimilated and exploited.
Further Reading on Ernst Cassirer
An inquiry into Cassirer's work should begin with Paul Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (1949). It contains biographical essays, descriptive and critical essays on his philosophy, and an exhaustive bibliography of his works. Carl H. Hamburg, Symbol and Reality (1956), is a study of Cassirer's central conception.
Additional Biography Sources
Itzkoff, Seymour W., Ernst Cassirer: philosopher of culture, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Lipton, David R., Ernst Cassirer: the dilemma of a liberal intellectual in Germany, 1914-1933, Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1978.