Samantha Matherne: Cassirer

Cassirer Book Cover Cassirer
The Routledge Philosophers
Samantha Matherne
Paperback GBP £19.99

Reviewed by: Nikolaus Schneider

The Ernst Cassirer renaissance is in full order. Since Massimo Ferrari’s anticipation and prediction that the German philosopher would be lifted from the realms of semi-forgottenness in 1994 different lines of reception have swept through the German-, Italian- and English-speaking world. (cf. Ferrari, 1994) It was only a matter of time until this resurgence would carry over to Anglo-American departments, where, along with a renewed interest in Neo-Kantianism, more and more research on Cassirer is being conducted.[1] The newly translated and edited edition of his three volume magnus opum The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms by Routledge is a case in point here. Accordingly, the present work by Samantha Matherne, assistant professor of philosophy at Harvard University, is perhaps only the logical conclusion to a new wave of Cassirer reception in the English-speaking world, appearing in the renowned The Routledge Philosophers series edited by Brian Leitner. Primarily aimed at undergraduate students, the book will surely complement many syllabi on the German philosopher in the English-speaking academy for years to come, especially as the hitherto existing English introduction to Cassirer, John Michael Krois’ Symbolic Forms and History, is by now 34 years old.

In the contemporary reception Cassirer’s philosophy is explicitly advertised as being able to bridge “gaps not only between the so-called ‘analytic-continental divide’ in philosophy, but also between philosophy and other disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences” (p.2)[2] Indeed, apart from purely historical considerations the primary aim of contemporary research on Cassirer seems to be the development of a transcendental philosophy of culture as the investigation of the conditions of possibility that enable cultural artifacts and their world by means of an analysis of the different modalities of symbolization. (cf. Endres et al., 12f.; Luft 2021, 215) Following the influential studies of Peter Gordon (Gordon, 2010) and Michael Friedmann (Friedmann, 2000) the peculiar position of Cassirer in 20th century (German) philosophy is  recognized and contextualized and with it a philosophy that seemingly does not outright reject modernity’s proliferation of cultural and life-forms in either a rural conservative individual flight to authenticity (Heidegger) or a detached logic-semantical analysis of scientific propositions (Carnap). Hans Sluga, a reviewer of Gordon’s book, however, expressed his doubts about deriving a reconciliation of culture via Cassirer:

Cassirer was no doubt an accomplished philosopher, an influential teacher, and above all a thoroughly decent and admirable human being, but he does not get close in stature to the much more problematic Heidegger, and he certainly also lacks the philosophical radicalism of a Wittgenstein, Foucault, or Derrida and the incisive scientific acumen of a Russell, Quine, or Rawls. Attempts to revive his fortunes are, I am afraid, doomed to failure. (Sluga, 2011)

However, the contemporary reception of Cassirer wagers that the German philosopher has still a lot to offer for present-day problematics. (cf. Gordon 2021, xiv; cf. Luft/ Ferrari 2021, passim)

How the background of this reception and its repercussions along with the different ‘geophilosophical’ context vis-à-vis existing German introductions (Sandkühler/ Pätzold, 2003; Graeser, 1994; Recki, 2004, 2013; Paetzold, 2014) have shaped the task of presenting a summary and overview of Cassirer’s philosophy will form the frame of this review. The author’s aim to “offer an overview of Cassirer’s philosophical system as a whole that can help the reader navigate his corpus” will determine its immanent threshold of success. (p.2) I will provide a summary of its contents before engaging in a more critical reading.

After setting out from a brief biography of Cassirer, the book unfolds via a historical contextualization of Cassirer within the broader movement of Marburg Neo-Kantianism as the general frame of reference and conceptualization Cassirer worked and philosophized within. “For all the shifts and developments in Cassirer’s body of work, his philosophical system remains, throughout, that of a Neo-Kantian.” (p.18) It is transcendental spontaneity that for Matherne is the central motif of Cassirer’s effort for a philosophy of culture and in connection with the methodological impetus of accounting for the conditions of possibilities of cultural facts the decisive trait of his intellectual lineage. Hence this, after setting the general picture of Marburg Neo-Kantianism as being primarily scientifically oriented right, amounts to a transcendental investigation of the conditions of possibility of meaning-creating/ – making in a shared world. In this sense, (Marburg) Neo-Kantianism tout court had always already been on the way to a philosophy of culture, though it is Cassirer’s merit to conduct this investigation in a way that would do justice to the concept of culture. (cf. p. 31f.)

In practice, this configures the subject’s capability to confer meaning- and form – making processes freely and spontaneously upon the world. Matherne decisively accounts for this by contextualizing Cassirer’s indebtedness to Cohen’s and Natorp’s intellectualist interpretation of Kant’s theory of cognition – the actual conceptuality of what had been forms of intuition, space and time, in Kant. (cf. p. 39ff.) In other words, all forms of cognition and perception remain relative to the transcendental subject’s employment of a range of categories. On this view, Cassirer’s central philosophical innovation consists in invoking the ‘softer’ notions of form and symbol/ function against ‘law’ – the former two permitting a greater range of phenomena attributable to the ‘world of meaning’. (cf. p. 37.)

Accounting for this in more detail, Matherne sets out to retrace the younger Cassirer’s work on epistemology and a theory of concept-formation, largely neglecting the first published monograph Leibniz’ System in its Scientific Foundations and the first volume of Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Rather, Cassirer’s first central philosophical innovation is said to have first and foremost occurred within the theory of concepts and the adjacent philosophy of mathematics to form conceptual and scientific basic distinctions, which, insisting on the continuity of Cassirer’s thought, remain invariant up to The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and beyond. In this way, Cassirer’s elaboration of the distinction between substance-concept and function-concept in the eponymous book are employed to account for the respective processes of objectification (Ver-gegenständlichung) yielding the symbolic forms and their ranges of perception and cognition. This amounts essentially to the primacy of the category of relation over substance from Kant’s transcendental logic to prevent a notion of concepts as being mere copies of pre-existing objects attained by way of abstraction. (cf. Truwant 2015, 291) A spontaneously conceived function – later to be extended as symbolic form – posits a law of succession and orders a series of representations according to it. (cf. 53ff.)

The remaining chapter presents Cassirer’s consequent views in the philosophy of arithmetic and geometry. Matherne summarizes the attained position under the heading of  ‘logical structuralism’, “according to which mathematics has its basis in functions of relations that belong to logic and mathematical objects are ideal structures generated on the basis of those functions or relations.” (p. 75) Although introducing Cassirer’s first philosophical innovation in this way diminishes the methodological role of the Neo-Kantian’s historiography of philosophy as a history of problems (Problemgeschichte) in relation to the historization of the a priori and its relevance for the establishment of the function-concept, the presented difference between the two respective views is presented clearly and convincingly.

The historical character of functions comes back in Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of natural science’, which is the topic of the ensuing chapter. In dialogue with the natural scientist, it is the transcendental philosopher’s task to account for the conditions of possibility of the facts of science by means of a reconstruction of the corresponding transcendental functions, which remain relative to the overall scientific context of experience (cf. p. 81 In the context of natural science this task amounts to the elaboration of the fundamental concepts employed by the natural scientist and the positions the yielded concepts occupy within their empirical theories. Hence the elaboration of a taxonomy of the scientific statements of measurement, laws and principles as instantiations of a different order of generality. In turn, the philosopher should, according to Cassirer, make out the invariant relations on a purely conceptual level. (cf. p. 98.) In the last instance, these figure as the transcendental categories, that is, the functions continuously employed in all scientific endeavors such as time, space, or number. Although these may be configured differently over history they serve as the functional a priori building blocks of any scientific theory.

Subsequently, the discussion moves on to the philosophy of symbolic forms proper, that is, not just the elaboration of the eponymous trilogy, but also the dispersed articles and texts written between 1920 and 1945. Matherne chooses to frame the philosophy of symbolic form as a philosophy of culture throughout, and, although not outright neglecting its later transformation into a philosophical anthropology, takes her “cue from his early formulations of it in The Philosophy Symbolic Forms and other texts from the 1920s”. (p. 116) While it is conceded that Cassirer’s thought evolved in newer directions at a later stage of his career, the conception of a ‘philosophy of culture’ is by definition a narrower one than that of a philosophical anthropology. And although the reason for this concession is provided for in the continuity of the central status of symbolization as seen in the dictum of the human as animal symbolicum, questions why this should not compel one to conceive of his philosophy of culture as a philosophical anthropology[3] are unanswered. (cf. 116f.) It is perhaps by way of the general relevance of Cassirer for a contemporary philosophy of culture that this conception is motivated. Rather than going the whole way of conceiving of the philosophy of symbolic forms as a philosophical anthropology the more modest task of investigating meaning-making processes fairs equally well with the ascribed position of the German philosopher with regard to the analytic-continental split. Thus, the task of the philosophy of symbolic forms “is ultimately organized around an effort to elucidate the conditions of culture.” (p. 119)

Matherne follows the common distinction between the different forms of culture along the subjective and objective lines. The former is comprised of the different modalities of representation as the triad of expressive, presentative and significative functions, the latter as the continuous progression of objective spirit, that is, culture’s overall context of signification as an “a priori intersubjectively shared structure and activity, which unites human beings […] together.” (p. 120) The different symbolic forms encompass respective “perceptive, intuitive and cognitive” structures and in this way the philosophy of symbolic forms aims to tie an analysis of the transcendental functions of the subject with its objective cultural expressions together (p.125) In contrast to the discussion of the cognitions of mathematics and natural science, the investigation shifts to the broader notion of the various kinds of ‘understanding’ in the human cultural sciences. (p.121) Cassirer posits their specific modality of concept-formation as being aligned with the general model detected in the natural sciences, foreclosing an anticipated discussion of their status as form- or style-concepts. (Form- oder Stilbegriffe)

Matherne then goes on to discuss the methodological requirements to conduct an analysis of the conditions of possibility of culture. The transcendental method is once again evoked, this time in Natorp’s “bi-directional conception”. (p. 124) The correlation of objective and subjective spirit is bifurcated along a reconstructive axis for the subjective side of the equation and constructive axis for its objective side. The latter posits a specific analysis of culture (‘constructive’) and the former accounts for the conditions of possibility of it by reconstructing a corresponding synthesis of transcendental subjectivity. (cf. Freyberg/ Niklas 2019, passim) It would perhaps have been worthwhile to extend and contrast the presented account with the manuscript for a Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms and its thoughts on ‘Basis Phenomena’ for a more rounded account. Matherne’s presentation gives the impression that Cassirer’s seems to privilege the reconstructive side over their correlativity or ‘work-relatedness’ (Werkbezogenheit), though the account remains thus firmly faithful to her overall interpretation of Cassirer. Subsequently the details of symbolization by means of categorial function-concepts, such as cause, time, thing or property, to yield the respective symbolic forms are discussed. (cf. p. 129) These figure as  “the concepts that remain constant across all our spiritual activities because they are the a priori conditions that make all spiritual ‘forming’ possible in the first place.” ( p. 129) Matherne takes up Cassirer’s distinction between a category’s quality – its basic logical impetus of ordering series – and its modality, the particular ‘content’ “indexed to ‘regions of culture’ a[s] context” that orders representations. (p.130) With regard to spirit, Cassirer draws  attention to ongoing discussions concerning the autonomy of the respective symbolic forms vis-à-vis the others (‘irreducibility thesis’) and whether their consecutiveness is to be conceived of teleologically as progress (‘teleology thesis’), although the latter question is answered affirmatively.

After the determination of the general functional context, Cassirer moves on towards the elaboration of the individual symbolic forms. The triad of expressive, presentative and significative symbolization as different functional modalities of representation provide the guidelines for this elaboration, relating the individual to respective realizations of her own freedom as spontaneity. Accordingly, religion and myth are relegated toward the expressive, language, history, and technology toward the presentative and mathematics, the natural sciences, morality and right toward the significative function of consciousness. (cf. p. 152) Philosophy entertains neither a position of a totalized god-like view of their overall cohesion nor does it count as one symbolic form among the others but figures as a toll to reflect on the symbolic forms. The specific functions and ‘worldviews’ of both myth and religion are presented in clear and minute detail before going over to art as the ‘objective’ demonstration of ‘subjective’ presentation – thereby “revealing to us that we are not passive with respect to our affects and emotions.” (p. 166) Objectification is reflected from the objective side of the dichotomy by the symbolic form of language, which, while still remaining bound to intuition and a substance-based view of categories, fosters the recognition of self-consciousness by the liberated understanding of reality it enables. It is interesting that Matherne specifically mentions that language and technology foster both practical and theoretical recognition of freedom and one wonders to what extent that can be said of the other symbolic forms. While this realization would be imaginable for myth, religion and the latter distinction between specific recognitions of this contention in morality and natural science, respectively, is left unaccounted for.

Both history and technology remain tied to the presentative functions of consciousness and spirit, the former by revealing reality’s distinctively human texture by means of the objective presentation of the past, the latter as the realization of the will’s striving for power toward the free configuration of the world. (cf. p.175f; p.178f.) Lastly, it is, on the side of theoretical reason, mathematics and natural science, that exemplify the significative functions of spirit. Following Cassirer’s views on the philosophy of mathematics, it is the fact that these symbolic forms are devoid of any relation to intuition or perception as to the yielded concepts and ‘things’ that elevates them towards the highest ranks of culture as most grasped realizations of transcendental freedom. It is precisely because these forms remain purely self-referential as expressions of freedom that “spirit truly discovers itself”. (Cassirer in Matherne, p. 184.)

The elaboration of the theoretical accomplishments of subjectivity is followed by their practical counterpart and the question over their position within the overall cohesion of the philosophy of symbolic forms. Recounting Cassirer’s refutation of emotive cognitivism in Axel Högerstrom Matherne insists on the employment of the transcendental method in the realms of morality and right. “ Cassirer endorses a critical approach [to practical philosophy] in which he analyzes morality and right in terms of ‘functions’ that serve as conditions of the possibility of the ‘facts’ of the ‘world of willing and action’. (p. 193, my amendments, N.S.) This deployment of the transcendental method is thereby connected to the demand of a regulative principle, the categorical imperative its claim to a universal, objectifiable moral principle. “Thus, a universal principle is one that enables us to most closely approximate the idea of ‘unity of willing’” thereby conferring objectivity on the ethical progress of consciousness via Sittlichkeit.(p. 194) Right, on the other hand, functions as a symbolic form in the overall context of Cassirer’s philosophy as self-binding to juridical lawfulness. Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of right’ posits a version of natural right that fosters the practical recognition of freedom by means of the postulation of and adherence to collective autonomy via laws. (cf. p. 214) Lastly, the teleological underpinnings of Cassirer’s progressivist understanding of theoretical and practical consciousness are posited as contingent. This is demonstrated in Cassirer’s analysis of National-Socialism in his The Myth of the State. Fascism re-introduced myth in modern consciousness via the symbolic form of technology and the ideas of hero worship, race and the dominance of the state. It is these late analyses that prompted Cassirer to also revise his conception of philosophy late in his career. Against the merely scholastic concept of philosophy, he brought forward its ‘cosmopolitan’ counterpart. Culture’s contingent accomplishments are not to be taken for granted but are to be achieved and upheld by means of struggle. To assign the task of this struggle had been the last innovation of Cassirerean philosophy.

The last chapter aims to reconstruct Cassirer’s influence on the development of not only philosophy but also (art) history, social science, ethnology, and Critical Theory. The presentation is focused on direct engagements with and influences of Cassirer on figures and movements. Accordingly, one learns about, for instance, the German philosopher’s influence on such diverse figures as Langer, Goodmann, Merleau-Ponty, Panofsky, Blumenberg, Habermas Cassirer’s possible inspiration to contemporary positions in the philosophy of science, such as logical structuralism and ontic scientific realism are addressed. (cf. p. 249f.)

It is puzzling, though, that, given the general narrative of Cassirer, an explicit contextualization of Cassirer within and relation to ‘philosophy of culture’ and its major movements and figures is lacking. This is even more relevant as, despite presenting the philosophy of symbolic forms as a philosophy of culture, Cassirer’s specific concept of culture remains unaccounted for. It appears that, following his Neo-Kantian heritage, the latter can only ever be the constructed empirical totality of culture at a given moment in history. Accordingly, one wonders whether the philosophy of symbolic forms is not prone to becoming ‘sociologized’: an investigation of the constituents and subsequent diversity of culture that would, by means of the quid iuris, be retied to an investigation of the correlative conception of subjective spirit. In the German context, this could be understood along the lines of Luhmann’s project of a ‘system theoretical’ approach to culture and society and its ‘autopoietic’, subjective sources.

Whether one concurs with Matherne’s way of framing Cassirer and his philosophy as being ‘organically’ culturally oriented or not, it is unquestionable that she is an informed and avid reader of the German philosopher. Via the transcendental method, Matherne is able to provide a coherent narrative of Cassirer’s philosophy. The book neatly ties the multi-faceted aspects of the oeuvre together in a rigorous and convincing manner and presents them in a remarkably cohesive way. Indeed, another title for it could have been: Cassirer: A Study on the Unity of his System. It is beyond doubt that the new reception of Cassirer has found a corresponding introduction to its subject.


Endres, Tobias/ Favuzzi, Pellegrino/ Klattenhoff, Timo. 2016. “Cassirer, globalized.” In Philosophie der Kultur- und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen, edited by Endres, Tobias/ Favuzzi, Pellegrino/ Klattenhoff, Timo, Philosophie im Kontext von Gesellschaft und Wissenschaften, vol. 78, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition, 9 – 22.

Ferrari, Massimo. 1994. “La ≫Cassirer-Renaissance≪ in Europa“,  Studi Kantiani 7: 111–139.

Friedmann, Michael. 2000. A Parting of the Ways. Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Chicago/ La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Freyberg, Sascha, Niklas, Stefan. 2019. “Rekonstruktive Synthesis. Zur Methodik der Kulturphilosophie bei Ernst Cassirer und John Dewey.” In Ernst Cassirer in seinen systematischen Beziehungen. Zur kritisch-kommunikativen Bedeutung seiner Kulturphilosophie. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie Sonderbände Vol. 40, edited by Breyer, Thiemo and Niklas, Stefan, 47-68, Berlin/ Boston: De Gruyter.

Graser, Andreas. 1994. Ernst Cassirer. München: Beck.

Gordon, Peter. 2010. Continental Divide. Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Cambridge, MA/ London: Harvard University Press.

Gordon, Peter. 2021. “Foreword.” In Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume 3: Phenomenology of Cognition. Trans. by Steve G. Lofts. viii-xv. Oxon/ New York: Routledge.

Luft, Sebastian. 2021. “Cassirer’s Place in Today’s Philosophical Landscape. ‘Synthetic Philosophy,’ Transcendental Idealism, Cultural Pluralism.” In Interpreting Cassirer. Critical Essays, edited by Simon Truwant. Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 214-236.

Luft, Sebastian/ Ferrari Massimo. 2021. “Cassirer’s Children”, Special Topics Issue, Journal of Transcendental Philosophy 2(1):1-5.

Paetzold, Heinz. 2002. Ernst Cassirer zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius.

Recki, Birgit. 2004. Kultur als Praxis: eine Einführung in Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Recki, Birgit. 2013. Cassirer. Stuttgart: Reclam.

Sandkühler, Hans Jörg and Detlev Pätzold (Ed.). 2003. Kultur und Symbol. Ein Handbuch zur Philosophie Ernst Cassirer. Stuttgart/ Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler.

Schwemmer, Oswald. 1997. Ernst Cassirer. Ein Philosoph der europäischen Moderne. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Sluga, Hans. 2011. “Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos.” Review of Continental Divide, by Peter Gordon. Accessed November 1, 2021.

Truwant, Simon. 2015. “The Concept of ‘Function’ in Cassirer’s Historical, Systematic, and Ethical Writings.“ In The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer: A Novel Assessment, edited by  Friedman, J. Tyler and Luft, Sebastian, 289-312, Berlin: De Gruyter.

[1] See cf. Endres et al, “Cassirer, globalized”, in: Philosophie der Kultur – und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen. Endres/ Favuzzi/ Klattenhoff (Eds.), pp. 9 -22. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition, 2016, for an overview of recent research conducted on Cassirer.

[2] Where in text citations refer to page numbers only the addressed book is Matherne, Cassirer. Routledge, 2021.

[3] For cf. Schwemmer 1997, it is precisely the case that Cassirer’s philosophy of culture is always already a philosophical anthropology  – “because that which defines the human being – spirit – consists in the configuration and usage of cultural symbolisms. (Ibid., p. 3145, my translation, N.S.)

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