Sebastian Luft: The Space of Culture: Towards a Neo-Kantian Philosophy of Culture (Cohen, Natorp, and Cassirer)

The Space of Culture: Towards a Neo-Kantian Philosophy of Culture (Cohen, Natorp, and Cassirer) Book Cover The Space of Culture: Towards a Neo-Kantian Philosophy of Culture (Cohen, Natorp, and Cassirer)
Sebastian Luft
Oxford University Press
2015
Hardback £55.00
272

Reviewed by: Tobias Endres (Technical University of Berlin)

For over a decade, Sebastian Luft has contributed to important research on the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer and is currently playing a crucial role in bridging recent Cassirer scholarship beyond the Analytic-Continental-Divide. His new book, based on his earlier habilitation thesis, The Space of Culture is a comprehensive study of the so-called Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism; it follows both historical and systematical intentions with respect to elucidating current philosophical scholars’ views on the ambitions of this school’s general idea of a philosophy of culture and connects this idea to contemporary research. The self-declared center and peak of the book relates to the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, the last and, in Luft’s opinion as well as many others, most important representative of the Marburg School. Luft’s goal, hence, alongside others, should be seen as an important step to push forward the so called “Cassirer-renaissance”, a project that has been taken on by Donald Philipp Verene and his student John Michael Krois in the late seventies and carried out by many[i] as an international and collective endeavour that has not lost momentum since.

Against this background, I will address two main questions in Luft’s book: (1) does it succeed in justifying the validity of the idea of a “space of culture”, and (2) does it succeed in contrasting this idea to Sellars’ idea of a “space of reasons” and hence to show the current relevance of such a philosophy of culture?

The book is divided into six chapters: an introduction, a chapter about Hermann Cohen, one about Paul Natorp, one about Ernst Cassirer, one dedicated to metaphilosophical discussions and a conclusion. The overall split into two parts, the first containing the introduction plus the chapters about Cohen and Natorp presenting the basic position of the Marburg School, the second containing an analysis of Cassirer’s philosophy and its actuality, makes it formally clear that Luft’s overall aim is to defend Cassirer’s transcendental philosophy starting from his teachers’ transformation of Kant’s philosophy into a philosophy of culture. Because of the strong identity of form and content in the conception of Luft’s book and the many, sometimes surprising, and always original side remarks in the discussion, I will comment chapter by chapter and sometimes go into significant detail where it often seems, at first sight, not obviously necessary.

The introduction already sets out everything that Luft wants to show in a systematic respect: first, to demonstrate that a philosophy of culture is a meaningful and “valid project” (p. 1), and second, to show that it has been “carried out most successfully by Ernst Cassirer” (ibid.). Though the emphasis lies on those systematic aspects, they cannot be defended apart from a genealogical approach concerning the Marburg School itself as well as its reception. Following the self-image of this school as seen by its founders Cohen and Natorp, and the expectation they obviously had towards their most promising student Cassirer, there might follow a simple equation that would identify Cassirer right away with Marburg, and hence with Neo-Kantianism. On the contrary, reading Cassirer nowadays and noting the divide between research on Neo-Kantianism on the one hand, and Cassirer scholarship on the other, it seems that “one cannot but conclude that Cassirer is not (or no longer) a Neo-Kantian or a member of the Marburg School” (p. 18). Luft challenges both views that Cassirer simply is a Neo-Kantian or is no longer a Neo-Kantian by pointing out an important desideratum: there exists no study that places Cassirer legitimately within the common core project of Neo-Kantianism, which is the project of a philosophy of culture. The originality of Luft’s study lies exactly in this approach, showing that “the Marburg School can neither be adequately appreciated without Cassirer; nor can Cassirer be fully understood in his intentions, without viewing him as deeply rooted in the Marburg School” (p. 19). Anticipating the result, I, already here, at this early juncture would like to state that Luft succeeds in defending this thesis. Nevertheless, I will focus on some problematic claims within Luft’s line of argumentation that finally should lead to his view. According to Luft, “culture” is the neo-kantian “operative term” (p. 3) of the project of a philosophy of culture that “has reflected on the path from Kant to Hegel and takes the best of both, while having undergone the transition from Kant to German Idealism to Positivism” (ibid.). Though it seems plausible to establish a connection between Positivism and Cohen’s alleged scientism, one would ask how a position, informed by Hegel and the thought of German Idealism, could possibly come up with such a scientistic reading of Kant’s Critique as presented by Cohen? Luft answers twofoldly by (1) reading Kant through the eyes of Sellars and by (2) connecting the methodology of Neo-Kantianism to Kant and to Hegel. Inhabiting a space of culture, hence, for Luft means that by reflecting on the space of reasons, i.e. the project of a Critique of Pure Reason, we become essentially both citizens and rulers of this space. Whilst this idea might be in line with Kantian orthodoxy, one might still object that Sellars hardly stays within this conception of two realms as he is inclined to naturalism and the primacy of the “scientific image of man”.[ii] Against this, the claim that an extension of the space of reasons to a space of culture is motivated by Hegel’s introduction of objective spirit, just without the idea of absolute spirit, is rather adequate, though Cassirer’s metaphysics of the symbolic forms can again give rise to the idea of philosophy as absolute spirit.[iii] Regardless of these details, it is nonetheless correct to connect Hegel’s idea of objective spirit to the method of Neo-Kantianism, to the analytic method taken from Kant’s Prolegomena: to subject culture to critique means to first describe culture as it is and then to regressively analyse the normativity of each cultural form that had been found and thus to extent the space of reasons to a space of culture. With this strategy one should escape the stranglehold of either defining culture a priori (as e.g. philosophy, hence as “high culture”), an objection Luft anticipates from the Cultural Studies that point out the plurality of cultures[iv] (cf. p. 2), or as plainly empirical as suggested by modern anthropology (cf. ibid.), which would lead, at least from a philosophical point of view, to the problem of relativism. So, whilst the transition from an overly static apriorism to a dynamised transcendental philosophy of culture can be achieved with this shift in focus on Kant’s own methodology, Hegel’s stance that “the whole is the truth” should help us to avoid relativism, because Luft sees in it a forerunner to Cassirer’s alleged anti-hierarchical pluralism, “where each form [of culture] has its legitimate position in the general space of culture” (p. 5). But here lies a deep problem of Luft’s reading, both of Hegel and of Cassirer: Firstly, Hegel’s forms of consciousness evolve towards absolute spirit, which eliminates any attempt to reconcile them in a pluralistic manner, where each form of spirit has its own right retrospectively. Then, if I understand Luft correctly, he wants to solve the problem of relativism with the following argument (cf. pp. 13-14):

(P1) Forms of consciousness are forms of symbolic formation.

(P2) Thoses formations are phenomenologically found as facts of culture.

(P3) Each one’s validity is proven by analysing their internal, functional logics.

(P4) The whole is the truth.

(P5) The whole is the forms’ pluralistic coexistence without an absolute standpoint.

(C1) Without an absolute standpoint the internal logics do not compete.

(C2) Pluralism is true.

Thus, according to Luft, Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms should be interpreted as a “complementarism” (p. 14), in which the plurality of cultural descriptions is seen as horizontal, not vertical, complementaristic instead of competitive. Though I will come back later to this crucial point, one can already state here that the complementaristic view comes with two major objections that are both of transcendental nature. First, one might ask how the break between myth and logos would phenomenologically be best described and how at all it is possible if forms of consciousness do not practically rival with each other. Although Luft recognises a disruption between myth and all other symbolic forms, he does not discuss at this point Cassirer’s thought that “in the course of its development every basic cultural form tends to represent itself not as a part but as the whole, laying claim to an absolute and not merely relative validity, not contenting itself with its special sphere, but seeking to imprint its own characteristic stamp on the whole realm of being and the whole life of the spirit.”[v] Secondly, one might ask how the problem of relativism at all could arise, if the symbolic forms of mythical thinking and knowledge are in no competition whatsoever. As this is the crux of Luft’s interpretation of Cassirer, I will drop this point for the moment and show where the book succeeds: by reconstructing the idea of a philosophy of culture as a common project of Cohen, Natorp, and Cassirer.

The chapter about the philosophy of Hermann Cohen makes it very clear right from the beginning to what extent Luft’s ambitions are of purely systematical character, and to what extent those ambitions need to be historically informed. Luft wants to take the project of a Neo-Kantian philosophy of culture out of its historical context and keep only its best elements that we still today can benefit from. To drop other elements that are of historical importance is especially justified, because Neo-Kantianism was a serious propaganda force during the First World War and could no longer convince the youth of the Weimar Republic to be the standpoint of reason. This disappointment of the youth, hence, is important to understand the demise of Neo-Kantianism. On the other hand, the idea of a philosophy of culture itself, to look at actual culture and judge it by its rational ought “even where it seems there is none” (p. 33), is neither overly idealistic nor historical, but plainly Kantian. Going back to the transcendental method for Luft is “the key to understanding everything else” (p. 28) in the school of Marburg Neo-Kantianism. Cohen then applies Kant’s analytic method from the Prolegomena to Kant’s own writings in order to establish his interpretation of the Kantian corpus. He could do so legitimately, because Kant himself regarded the synthetic and analytic methods as equal. Luft concludes that Cohen was right to choose freely and hereby, besides already using the reconstructive method that became so important for Natorp, anticipated the idea of a Problemgeschichte that one is rather prone to connect to Wilhelm Windelband, Ernst Cassirer, Nikolai Hartmann, Hans-Georg Gadamer or Hans Blumenberg. This observation, though it is evident to place the idea of a Problemgeschichte within the movement of (Baden and Marburg) Neo-Kantianism, demonstrates brilliantly Luft’s ambition to interlink systematical and historical theses to gain new insights: To interpret a classical author, for Cohen, means “an application to one’s own understanding and one’s own time” (p. 43). As a result, Cohen clearly sees that the Critique of Pure Reason is an expression of the Newtonian worldview[vi] which is why he assumes that philosophy, instead of being metaphysics, has to be a theory of existing scientific knowledge. And because scientific knowledge is the most advanced form of knowledge when it comes to objectivity, science has to be seen as “the peak of all cultural activities” (p. 48). Theorizing aesthetics, morality, history, literature and so on, hence, can only be done scientifically. This clearly shows that Cohen was in no way ignorant of other forms of culture than science and in this bad sense scientistic. Rather he, i.e. Cohen, saw philosophy as “the reconstruction of culture in all its directions from out of this constant factor of science” (p. 60). Although throughout Cohen’s writings the idea of a static apriori had shifted to a genetic one, it is still a strict apriori view on all forms of culture that ultimately leads Luft to dismiss Cohen’s project where it aims at applying the same method to all cultural expressions and becomes “an implausible endeavour” (p. 73). Finally, Luft also rightly points out that another essential key to understanding Neo-Kantianism as a common project of a philosophy of culture is the journal LOGOS. Internationale Zeitschrift für Philosophie der Kultur as it existed between 1910 and 1933 (superseded by Zeitschrift für deutsche Kulturphilosophie and since 1994 again LOGOS). With such figures as Heinrich Rickert and Wilhelm Windelband (Baden School), but also Georg Simmel, Benedetto Croce, Ernst Troeltsch, and Edmund Husserl (to name but a few) already contributing to its first volume, it becomes plainly visible that Neo-Kantianism’s “defining moment” (p. 30) was the problem of contemporary modern culture and the problem of science being only one aspect of it. To conclude: Luft’s general findings here are firstly (1) that the reduction of the Marburg School to a theory of scientific experience is, though widely considered as being a truism, a “serious misreading” (p. 29). Secondly (2), beholding Cassirer’s famous phrase that “the critique of reason becomes the critique of culture”[vii] in the introduction to part one of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms as stepping out of the Marburg School and distancing oneself from Cohen and Natorp “is egregiously mistaken” (p. 37). Luft convincingly makes the case for seeing Cassirer’s so often quoted words as a hommage to his teachers. Both these demonstrations are a highly original progress in research on Neo-Kantianism and especially on Cassirer.

Seen from the perspective that within Cassirer the Marburg method culminates, the philosophy of Paul Natorp is the necessary link between Cohen’s thought and Cassirer’s. Whilst Marburg Neo-Kantianism had its inception and representation to the outside with Cohen, Natorp was considered to be its “minister of the interior” (p. 78) and to represent the unity of the Marburg School. Luft nonetheless diagnoses what at first glance may appear heretic, but in fact is a rather subtle modification of Cohen’s method by Natorp taking up the inverse path to subjectivity in his writings on psychology. The overall achievement of this chapter on Natorp can be seen in Luft redefining, again, the standard view within the reception of Neo-Kantianism: for one thing the notion that Natorp was completely in line with Cohen and for another thing that Natorp was, as famously alleged by Hans-Georg Gadamer, a “method fanatic” (p. 82). To refute those views, it is first of all important to see that Natorp’s work has “a much more humanistic outlook on culture than Cohen’s” (p. 79) with publishing on the history of philosophy, logic, theory of science, pedagogy, psychology, and politics. Luft then demonstrates how Natorp implicitly criticises Cohen twice (cf. p. 81) by (1) underlining that the basic principle of thinking is relating and to deduce from this that the synthetic unity can only be created by a correlation, as well, by (2) not at all interlinking the transcendental method equally to science and to other forms of culture. From here, Natorp does not at all appear as a “method fanatic”, but rather as a methodological pluralist. Hence, by investigating subjectivity, Natorp does not depart from the Marburg method, but broadens it towards the “life of consciousness” (p. 83). As I will not go into further detail here, I will certainly state that Luft’s presentation of the whole of Natorp’s philosophy is illuminating, rich in detail, and with a special emphasis on Natorp’s last, largely unknown because unpublished, phase where he departs from Neo-Kantianism. Here, Natorp develops a general logic that follows three directions: (1) a theoretic, (2) a practic, and (3) a poietic one (cf. p. 107). It is this third direction of poiesis that Luft will connect to Cassirer’s notion of the symbol. But to make the case for Natorp, it seems worthy to me to further investigate his late philosophy and to connect it to the works of Heidegger and Schelling. This certainly goes far beyond the scope of Luft’s project, but he nonetheless shows his readers important desiderata that have not been addressed up until now.

The chapter on Ernst Cassirer exhibits Luft’s rationale right from the beginning: Besides multiple influences, such as Kant and Leibniz, the “bedrock” of Cassirer’s philosophy “remains the Marburg Method” (p. 119) and despite his innovations Cassirer stays within the movement of Neo-Kantianism. This new route in Cassirer scholarship follows a little and a big agenda (cf. p. 120), whereas the idea just expressed would be the little one and the big one, extending beyond, to demonstrate the nowadays importance of a critique of culture. Luft sees himself confronted with two problems concerning Cassirer: (1) His strength of writing a history of problems supposedly is also his weakness, because being “coolly distant from the subject matter” (p. 120) gives the impression of “hiding behind the authors” (ibid.) having “nothing to say on his own” (ibid.). (2) Along with this comes the reproach that current Cassirer scholarship takes the same path of hiding too much behind Cassirer without connecting the dots to contemporary philosophy. This diagnosis is especially true, because up until recently[viii] the conciliatory power of Cassirer’s thinking has not been of much use to bridging the Analytic-Continental-Divide in philosophy. To offer the contrary, to think with Cassirer beyond Marburg, Luft wants to introduce the idea of a symbolic formation of culture by “three unorthodox inroads” (p. 123): Firstly (1) by a symbolic reading of Natorp’s notion of poiesis, secondly (2) by undercutting Hegel by introducing mythical consciousness as a layer below sense-certainty, and thirdly (3) by reading Cassirer through the writings of Goethe. Whilst (2) and (3) can hardly be presented as unorthodox, but rather as commonplaces in contemporary Cassirer scholarship, there lies a true novelty in presenting the idea of the symbol by the late Natorp’s principle of poiesis. One might object that this unorthodoxy is unmotivated, because Arno Schubbach recently[ix] has delivered a comprehensive study on the genesis of the symbolic that is based on a until recently unpublished manuscript of Cassirer dating back to 1917. Against this, I still would defend Luft’s introduction of the symbolic by (1) as groundbreaking, because the late Natorp is, as said before, almost unknown, but still very important to Cassirer as one could derive easily from the fact that the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is dedicated to Natorp and with Cassirer positively commenting on Natorp’s late unpublished lectures. Now, for Natorp the principle of poiesis is life expressing itself in the form of meaning, poiesis is life or being and logos at the same time. And this view is just in line with one of Cassirer’s most central claims, namely the idea of symbolic pregnance, Cassirer’s claim that the given is already always meaningful. The only aspect that Luft misses out on here is an important shift from Cohen via Natorp through to Cassirer: whilst for Cohen reality is completely defined as law and at no point whatsoever measured from perception, but only from thought (cf. p. 52), the ideas of poiesis and symbol can reconcile life and thought and hence connect the symbolic to perception. For Cassirer too, meaning in scientific theories is largely detached from perceptual states, but the given and its symbolic expression throughout the development of different mythical, linguistic and scientific concept formations takes off at expressive perception where meaning and perceptual presence are at the start widely identical.[x] Leaving this aside, Luft then succeeds in pointing out another crucial drift away from Cohen and from Natorp by asking what status the idea of law has for symbolic forms, concluding that Cassirer will not take interest in the lawfulness of e.g. religious studies when it comes to the symbolic form of religion, but in those studies, viz. their results “themselves” (p. 130). Whereas I disagree with Luft that this leads to the conclusion that Cassirer does not search for unity anymore (cf. p. 131) at all – I would rather say that the concept of symbol is the unity of spirit in a functional manner –, the observation is right that Cassirer breaks with the “scientism” of his teachers and “opens the philosophy of culture to its true material” (p. 132), which leaves the philosopher with facta of culture instead of a factum of science. This extention of the Marburg method finally leads Cassirer beyond Cohen and Natorp to both of which a critique of primitive cultures was unthinkable (cf. p. 136).

The second path to introduce Cassirer’s philosophy of the symbolic through mythical consciousness is the most disputable, because Luft, here, evades entering scholarly literature too deeply, where in my point of view it is required. I will give some examples in the following. Luft beholds myth as being the lowest “rung” of symbolic forms and justifies this with reference to Cassirer’s allusion to Hegel (cf. p. 142) while seeing a “temporal order” (p. 143) at work here. This does not only go against Luft’s own intention to show that there is no hierarchical order whatsoever between symbolic forms, but also conflicts with the observation that especially from a genetic point of view myth and language are rather inseperable. Cassirer states this himself[xi] and scholars, such as Enno Rudolph[xii], even have tried to defend a primacy of language. Despite these difficulties, Luft claims that the primacy of myth is one of few “systematic claims about which Cassirer is unambiguous” (p. 176). Given such controversial interpretations, one might rather expect a deeper discussion within the field of myth. Then, another notion that has troubled me is the qualification of mythical space as a “transcendental illusion” (p. 142), an assumption that comes by great surprise, because one of Cassirer’s essential claims concerning the mythical world view is that it comes with absolutely no contradistinction between reality and illusion whatsoever. Perhaps, from the viewpoint of science, one could retroactively qualify myth as a transcendental illusion, but particularly the reference to Kant’s dialectic did not become clear to me. One last remark is concerning Luft’s classification of myth as “purely impressional” (p. 142) and its comparision to Husserl’s “pure passivity” (ibid.). It is true that Cassirer points out that reality in myth is perceived and experienced as purely overwhelming initially. But an essential part of any symbolic form is its productive character, its “spiritual energy” that leads to a transformation of any sensuous impression to symbolic expression. Luft’s view, hence, that religion is the first expressive force in myth through rites and customs seems problematic. Instead, I would rather propose to characterise early forms of mythical life in comparison to the middle voice in ancient Greek, a mode that is set between being purely active or purely passive. Life in myth, by extension, would rather be a process in which humans are both agents and those affected. This set aside, I want to emphasize that the presentation of Cassirer’s philosophy by the three mentioned inroads is a success. The only disadvantage in my point of view is the deliberate suspension from scholarly literature, e.g. when introducing the concept of myth, for the sake of pushing through the basic rationale and discussing obvious problems not until chapter four (cf. p. 124).

A first conclusion about Luft’s study can be drawn now by introducing the chapter about the metaphilosophical discussions that essentially deal with problems Cassirer has left for his readers. My thesis is that the strength of The Space of Culture is at the same time its weakness. Luft suggests that he has no exegetic interest, but wants to make a case for a theory of culture and “go beyond Cassirer, where neccessary” (p. 187). The problem with that is that Luft gives his readers the impression of having presented a “neutral” version of Cassirer’s philosophy, which is not the case. Against this, I want to insist that a stronger position could be developed by deriving the systematical points from a more careful interpretation, also and especially in order to show their current relevance.

Luft sees the most neuralgic point of Cassirer’s transcendental philosophy of culture in the “question as to an ethics” (p. 187). But to understand and to answer this point with and beyond Cassirer, it is mandatory to give an interpretation of quantity and order of the symbolic forms. Luft’s answer to this will be a position he calls “complementarism”, an attempt which I in the following will prove to be inapplicable to Cassirer’s thought. A first assumption of serious consequences is that Luft, approaching the question of a system of symbolic forms, makes an either-or decision: either the symbolic forms are fixed and completely presented throughout Cassirer’s works or he has presented an open, incomplete system, which would demand further interpretation. One would have to answer why the three volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms only deal with language, myth, and knowledge and why other symbolic forms, such as technology, art, law, history and so on, are only mentioned peripherally or summarized within Cassirer’s anthropological work An Essay on Man. But Luft, as so many other interpreters, misses out on the possibility of a third way: Cassirer’s magnum opus essentially investigates the functionality of the symbolic that is driven by a dialectics from perception via intuition through to pure thinking. The considered symbolic forms can be seen as ideal-typical instantiations of the three underlying symbolic functions of (1) expression, (2) presentation[xiii], and (3) pure meaning. That would leave us with a completeness of symbolic functions and at the same time the possibility of an open system of symbolic forms. Further symbolic forms, then, would feed on an amalgam and a difference in balance of their underlying symbolic functions.[xiv] But this is, for the moment, not incompatible with Luft’s idea of a “dynamization” (p. 192) of the symbolic forms that regards human civilization in need of constantly creating new symbols in order to express whatever (mental) life itself comes up with. Luft’s view that there simply is no need to determine all possible symbolic forms a priori and that new forms are always possible in principle is systematically and exegetical well-founded. Luft, for this reason, rightly establishes the idea that symbolic forms are “overlapping, intertwined, and interrelated” (p. 196), and in the end only “separate by abstraction” (ibid.).

A central problem now arises by Luft’s answering the question of a possible teleology towards knowledge resp. science. Cassirer clearly states that every single symbolic form has an inward tendency to set its underpinning world view absolute. At the same time, Cassirer suggests that this tendency is only relatively justified, because due to the internal logics of each symbolic form one form cannot be measured by the standards of another. The standards of the natural sciences simply do not apply to understanding the rational core of e.g. myth or religion. On the other hand, one needs to look scientifically (in the sense of the humanities) at the relation of the sciences and other symbolic forms to understand their rationality and their difference (if one would not just want to live a life of a mythical or religious world view). Cassirer supposedly has steered at this point into the quagmire of either defending the superior standpoint of the sciences and hence threatening his idea that every symbolic form has its own right and importance in human mental life, or defending an “initially implausible” relativism[xv] of symbolic forms that would hold that the sciences cannot explain the world better to us than e.g. mythology. This dilemma is further fuelled by Cassirer’s idea that spiritual life follows the telos that all forms of symbolic expression start with the sensuously given, but progress towards its complete liberation and enter the realm of pure thinking. This idea, and this is also important for Luft’s reading, is also connected to Cassirer’s ethico-political stance, as he regards the process of civilization as a “progressive self-liberation” where humans build up “an »ideal« world”[xvi]. Bringing those thoughts together in a coherent way is a topos in Cassirer scholarship long-since and one wonders why Luft sees his standpoint only challenged by Michael Friedman, who indeed is troubled with the compatibility of Cassirer’s “teleology without a concrete telos” and a “relativity of symbolic forms without relativism”. “Complementarism”, thus, should solve this conflict, but what is complementarism? If I understand Luft correctly, it simply is the view that (1) there is neither a true conflict between symbolic forms nor (2) is scientific thinking, philosophically speaking, the highest standpoint to judge and contemplate the symbolic cosmos. Against (1) I have already argued in the beginning of my review: from a transcendental point of view it is not comprehensible how we could at all arrive at the questions formulated here, if symbolic forms would not practically contradict themselves. Luft tries to solve this problem by distiguishing between a view from within the symbolic forms and a view from without (cf. pp. 166-168 & 178), but this strategy already presupposes the philosophical standpoint and does not take into consideradtion the genealogical dimension of Cassirer’s presentation of the symbolic. Luft argues for (2), and this is unparalleled in Cassirer scholarship, by pointing to putative textual evidence that the stage of science eventually will “be overcome by the power of the symbolic itself” (p. 205). Luft wants to show that from the philosopher’s point of view there is a “beyond science” (ibid.) in religion, art, and other dimensions of the symbolic. Complementarism then eventually means that each standpoint is by virtue of its own claim to universality “per se critical of others” (p. 210), hence a form of critique, and that Friedman simply is “conflating” (p. 204) different types of universal validity. The biggest problem with this view is that Luft’s neglect to develop his interpretation as equally exegetical as systematical backfires here: There is no textual evidence whatsoever that possibly would point in the direction that the stage of science will be overcome by the symbolic itself. To prove the hypothesis that science is not an endpoint in Cassirer’s system, Luft quotes Willi Moog’s proposition that is part of one of two reports of a lecture that Casssirer gave in 1927 under the title Das Symbolproblem und seine Stellung im System der Philosophie, which are followed by a discussion between Walther Schmied-Kowarzik and Alois Schardt.[xvii] In the closing remarks, Cassirer clearly states that opposing the symbolic and the rational might be justified from a historical point of view, but could not go more against his intention of finding a unity for the Problemgeschichte of philosophical thinking by the concept of the symbol.[xviii] The “revenge-assumption” (cf. pp. 205 & 235), hence, is an interpretation of Willi Moog that is not in line at all with Cassirer’s thinking. I therefore want to reason that complementarism is neither systematically nor exegetically a coherent position to settle the case between teleology and relativism.

The concluding chapter deals with a summary of the previous chapters and a prospect on the philosophical works of Martin Heidegger and Wilfrid Sellars in contrast to Cassirer’s. Just like his interpretative main rival Michael Friedman, Luft focusses on Davos and the famous debate between Heidegger and Cassirer. Surprisingly, Luft states that “nothing new” (p. 236) can be said about this topic, which might please Friedman but can also leave the reader baffled. Certainly Friedman wrote one of the most important works on the Davos debate, but I would like to indicate another desideratum that has not been investigated properly yet: Luft correctly works out that Heidegger’s reproach of a missing terminus a quo in Cassirer’s philosophy is unfounded (cf. p. 237), because cultural life is created by finite individuals, by exactly what Heidegger calls “Dasein”. But Cassirer actually has more to say about it throughout his anthropological phase, which culminates in An Essay on Man. Now, a true blind spot in Cassirer scholarship is that this anthropological phase already had started when Cassirer and Heidegger met and that the general topic of the Davos University Conferences was nothing less than anthropology. I thus suggest that a lot more can be said about Davos if the question of anthropology would be investigated deeper in this context.

The very last remarks finally deal with the connection between Sellars and Cassirer. Luft argues that “the space of culture is a wider concept that nevertheless integrates Sellars’s idea of the space of reason” (p. 240). As much as I agree with this thesis as somewhat disappointing is Luft’s concession that a proper comparison between their philosophies, particularly when it comes to the notion of myth, “cannot be the task here” (ibid.). Nonetheless, Luft hints precisely at the most challenging problem here: what kind of justification in the sense of the Kantian quid iuris could one give that is not linguistic or non-conceptual? For those who have studied Sellars and his follower John McDowell intensely, it should be obvious that the answer has to be given by a philosophical account of perception –something Cassirer has to say a lot about. Further investigations about those relations are hence demanded.[xix]

In closing, I want to go back to the initial two questions that I had addressed to Luft’s book: does it succeed in justifiying the idea of a philosophy of culture and showing its contemporary relevance? It has become quite clear above that Luft’s main ambition, to prove the homogeneity of a philosophy of culture within Marburg Neo-Kantianism, had been achieved unprecedentedly. Especially showing successfully that Cassirer never stepped out of the Neo-Kantian movement, but rather accomplished a common project is a true advance in Cassirer scholarship. The question for its current relevance should not alone be measured by connecting it to currently fashionable authors like Sellars alone. Surely, one could have expected a deeper comparison just by following the allusive title of the book. On the other hand, Luft has left his readers an enormous amount of worthy desiderata that would give rise to further studies on the path Luft has opened. The Space of Culture certainly is the right direction the “Cassirer renaissance” has to go to successfully revive the project of a transcendental philosophy of culture.


[i] Cf. Endres, T., Favuzzi, P., Klattenhoff, T. (2016). Cassirer, globalized. Über Sinn und Zweck eines Neulesens. In: Endres, T., Favuzzi, P., Klattenhoff, T., ed., Philosophie der Kultur- und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen, Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, pp. 10-13.

[ii] Cf. Sellars, W. (1963). Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man. London: Routledge, pp. 32-37.

[iii] Cf. Kreis, G. (2010). Cassirer und die Formen des Geistes. Berlin: Suhrkamp, p. 475.

[iv] Luft makes the witty observation that even philosophy itself nowadays is split into “sub-disciplines” (p. 10) in the sense of sub-cultures.

[v] Cassirer, E. (1955). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume One: Language. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 81.

[vi] The current relevance of this thesis has once more been shown by Capeillères, F. (2004). Kant philosophe newtonien. Paris: Cerf.

[vii] Cassirer, E. (1955). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume One: Language. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 80.

[viii] Cf. among others the forthcoming publication Breyer, T./Niklas, S. (eds.) (2018). Ernst Cassirer in systematischen Beziehungen. Zur kritisch-kommunikativen Bedeutung seiner Kulturphilosophie. Berlin: DeGruyter.

[ix] Cf. Schubbach, A. (2016). Die Genese des Symbolischen. Zu den Anfängen von Ernst Cassirers Symbolphilosophie. Hamburg: Meiner.

[x] Cf. Cassirer, E. (1957). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Three: The Phenomenology of Knowledge. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 73.

[xi] Cf. Cassirer, E. (2006). An Essay on Man. An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture. Hamburg: Meiner, p. 126.

[xii] Cf. http://savoirs.ens.fr/expose.php?id=1021.

[xiii] Here I follow Stephen Lofts proposition of a new translation of “Darstellung” that has become pivotal recently in the anglophone Cassirer scholarship. Nonetheless I want to suggest that this translation comes with difficulties that did not arise with the old translation “representation”. An intermediate translation could be “depiction”. Luft implicitly uses this translation when writing: „the curve represents the mathematical law; it depicts it“ (p. 178).

[xiv] I will argue for this in detail in Endres, T. (2019). Phenomenological Idealism as Method and the Completeness of Cassirer’s Matrix of Symbolic Functions together with its Layers. In: Polok, A./Filieri, L. (eds.): The Method of Culture. Pisa, in preparation.

[xv] Cf. Sellars, W. (1948-49). “Review: Language and Myth. Ernst Cassirer”. In: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 9, p. 326.

[xvi] Cassirer, E. (2006). An Essay on Man. Hamburg: Meiner, p. 244.

[xvii] This discussion is unfortunately not included in Lofts’/Calgano’s translation of The Problem of the Symbol and Its Place in the System of Philosophy from 2013.

[xviii] Though Moog’s name is not explicitely statet, I read Cassirer’s final remarks as a critique of Moog’s “revenge-assumption”, but leave the final judgement to the readers by just reciting the original text (Cassirer’s words): “Das eine möchte ich jedenfalls hervorheben, daß alle Begrenzungen und Einengungen, wie sie hier im Lauf der Diskussion vorgeschlagen worden sind, nicht geeignet scheinen, das Ganze der Anwendungen des Symbolbegriffs, wie sie sich in den verschiedensten Gebieten des Geistes und der systematischen Philosophie durchgesetzt haben, wirklich zu umspannen. Wenn wir das »Symbolische« dem »Rationalen« entgegensetzen, wenn wir es als Ausdruck dessen nehmen, was der strengen Erkenntnis nicht faßbar und zugänglich ist, so mag dies vom Standpunkt des geschichtlichen Ursprungs des Begriffs gerechtfertigt erscheinen […]. Aber wer es auf diese seine Grund- und Urbedeutung beschränken wollte – der müßte große und weite Gebiete seiner heutigen Anwendung, und zwar die wichtigsten und fruchtbarsten, von ihm abscheiden.” Cf. Cassirer, E. (2004). Aufsätze und kleine Schriften (1927–1931). Hamburg: Meiner, pp. 280-281.

[xix] Meanwhile, Luft has continued investigating this route and hence did not just compare Cassirer’s and John McDowell’s positions, but was also able to establish a link between the philosophies of Cassirer and John Dewey. Cf. Luft, S. (2018). Mind als Geist in der Welt der Kultur. Kulturphilosophie, „Naturalistische” Transzendentalphilosophie und die Frage nach dem Raum der Kultur. In: Breyer, T./Niklas, S. (eds.): Ernst Cassirer in systematischen Beziehungen. Zur kritisch-kommunikativen Bedeutung seiner Kulturphilosophie, Berlin: DeGruyter, pp. 129-149.

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