Monday, 29 April 2013

Habermas on Cassirer in the 1920s

I want to underline three particular aspects of Ernst Cassirer’s intellectual life in the 1920s which Habermas draws attention to in the opening lecture in his The Liberating Power of Symbols, in order to reiterate Habermas’ emphasis on the importance of Cassirer’s work of the 1920s – an emphasis which, I feel, remains somewhat understated in the lecture ‘The Liberating Power of Symbols’ itself. These three aspects are: (i) his involvement with the Warburg Library circle, (ii) his novel reception of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s philosophy of language and, (iii) Cassirer’s relation to Heidegger alongside his concern with a humanist, Kantian constitutionalism.

Whilst stressing the independence of Cassirer’s philosophical development, Habermas nonetheless observes how ‘the interest which [Aby] Warburg and Cassirer shared in the symbolic medium of the human mind’s forms of expression was the basis of their intellectual affinity’. Habermas notes that, in 1921, Cassirer was ‘one of the first’ to give a lecture at the Warburg Library based at the University of Hamburg. Habermas then adds that the following description (by T. von Stockhausen) of the present layout of the Warburg Library, ‘which, since 1958, has been housed in Woburn Square in London in an arrangement modelled on the Hamburg original, reads as though inspired by Cassirer’s philosophy of the development of symbolic forms’:

‘The library was to lead from the visual image, as the first stage in man’s awareness, to language and hence to religion, science and philosophy, all of them products of man’s search for orientation, which influence his patterns of behaviour and his actions, the subject matter of history.’ 

As Habermas writes, the library’s very design thus reflects the way in which, for Cassirer, ‘The world of symbolic forms extends from pictorial representation, via verbal expression, to forms of orienting knowledge, which in turn pave the way for practice’. We can see that a progress through the Warburg Library, Image-Word-Orientation-Action, also follows (broadly) the subtitles of the three successive volumes of Cassirer’s The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms Language, then Mythical Thought, then The Phenomenology of Knowledge. A representative report on the recent threat to the Warburg Library emanating from the new management culture of the University of London can be read here

Yet Warburg’s thinking influenced Cassirer’s theory of the process of symbolization in the first place, as Habermas shows when he points to Warburg’s concern with what Habermas calls the ‘force of artistic creation, purged of its demons’ – a concern described in E. H. Gombrich’s intellectual biography of Warburg: ‘More than ever therefore, the Renaissance appears in the Mnemosyne as a precious moment of precarious religious equilibrium in which the sources of heathen passions were tapped but still under control.’ Warburg’s atlas project, Habermas notes, was to be introduced with the following emphasis of Warburg's on the emergence of culture out of a work of distantiation: ‘The conscious creation of distance between oneself and the external world may be called the fundamental act of civilization. Where this gap conditions artistic creativity, this awareness of distance can achieve a lasting social function.’ As Habermas sees, Warburg’s insights are reflected in Cassirer’s ideas that (as Habermas puts it) ‘the fact that sensory contact with the world is reworked into something meaningful through the use of symbols is the defining feature of human existence’, and that ‘the objectifying force of symbolic mediation breaks the animal immediacy of a nature which impacts on the organism from within and without’. Habermas quotes this account of the process of symbolization in Cassirer’s Geist und Leben :

‘Language and art, myth and theoretical knowledge all contribute to […] this process of mental distanciation: they are the major stages on the path which leads from the space of what can be grasped and effected, in which the animal lives and within which it remains confined, to the space of sensory experience and thought, to the horizon of mind.’  

Of course Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms also emerged out of what Habermas calls his ‘innovative reception of Humboldt’s philosophy of language’ – a reception recorded in the 1920s in Cassirer’s 1923 essay ‘The Kantian Element in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Philosophy of Language’. Before considering Humboldt’s rôle in Cassirer’s thought, however, it is helpful to understand how his contact with the Warburg Library circle influenced his theorization of the symbolic function of expression. As Habermas notes, the most obvious result of the stimulus which Cassirer received in the 1920s, ‘if not from Warburg himself, then from the scholarly discussions of religion in the circle gathered around him in his library’, can be found in Cassirer’s ‘important reflections on mythical images and linguistic symbols’. Cassirer’s 1925 treatise on ‘Language and Myth’, which – as Habermas observes – appeared in the series of studies published by the Warburg Library, drew on Hermann Usener's classic (1896) work on the formation of religious concepts, Götternamen.

Bifurcation of the fetishizing gaze.
Ilse Bing. 'Self-Portrait in Mirrors'. 1931
Cassirer’s idea that, as Habermas writes, ‘Symbolic form is […] originally generated by a stylizing force, which condenses the dramatic impact of experiences’, made use of Usener’s theory of ‘momentary gods’ to (as Habermas puts it) ‘account for symbolic condensation as a response to the exciting ambivalence of meaning-laden experiences’. It is as if the symbolic transformation of sense experience into meaning is triggered by the very focussing intensity of the nature-traumatized human. ‘Such compressed, highly significant experiences, which are the focus of an isolating attention, can congeal into a mythical image, can be semanticized and thereby spellbound, given fixity by a divine name which makes it possible to recall and control them.’ Habermas quotes Cassirer: ‘only when this splitting off succeeds, when intuition is compressed into a single point and apparently reduced to it, does a mythical or linguistic structure result, only then can the word or the momentary god emerge’.   

Again, in Language and Myth, Cassirer maintains that language and myth are ‘two diverse shoots from the same parent stem, the same impulse of symbolic formulation’, in that language and myth apparently emerge simultaneously from ‘the same basic act of mental processing, of the concentration and intensification of simple sensory intuition’. In a way which perhaps is comparable with Gillian Rose’s underlining (in The Melancholy Science) of the importance for Adorno’s thinking of a Marxist-modernist aesthetic of brüchigkeit or brittleness, Habermas stresses Cassirer’s concomitant emphasis on ‘the broken character of our symbolic relation to the world, a relation which is mediated by words and tools’, and on ‘the indirectness of a self-relation which forces human beings to make a detour via symbolically generated objectifications in order to return to themselves’. For Cassirer, Habermas writes, acts of symbolization are distinguished by the fact that they ‘break open environments shaped by the peculiarities of a particular species’; they do this by ‘transforming fluctuating sense impressions into semantic meanings and fixing them in such a way that the human mind can reproduce the impressions in memory and preserve them’.

Rose cited Adorno’s ‘The Essay as Form’ on how the essay ‘thinks in breaks (in Brüchen) because reality is brittle (brüchig [split, class-divided, antagonistic]) and finds its unity through the breaks, not by smoothing them over’. It can be argued therefore, that in a sense for Adorno as for Cassirer, unified (symbolic, essayistic) expression is consequent upon experiential brokenness. Yet Cassirer’s basic notion of symbolization, as Habermas notes, also posits a symbolic function of conceptualization distinct from that of expression : this separate function of conceptualization too would have to be factored into any convincing comparison of Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms with Adorno’s aesthetics of the riven essay form. Habermas outlines the distinction between expression and conceptualization so as to emphasize how Cassirer’s insights drawn from his involvement with the Warburg Library circle’s study of religion, in fact simply supplemented the thinking that he had launched in his earlier reception of Humboldt’s philosophy of language:

‘Expression transforms forceful sense impressions into meaningful elements, individual mythical images, which are able to stabilize affective responses; concepts articulate a view of the world as a whole. In his analysis of the expressive function, which is unmistakeably [sic] inspired by myth, Cassirer was stimulated by the discussions in Warburg’s circle. But, as regards the linguistic function of world-disclosure, Cassirer had already learned much from Humboldt prior to his arrival in Hamburg. The insights drawn from the study of religion helped to deepen a conception which ultimately derived from Cassirer’s genuine insights in the domain of the philosophy of language.’    

Habermas writes that Cassirer’s ‘original achievement’, his ‘semiotic transformation of Kantian transcendental philosophy’, rested on his being ‘the first to perceive the paradigmatic significance of Humboldt’s philosophy of language’. Cassirer ‘thus prepared the way for my generation, the post-war generation, to take up the “linguitic [sic] turn” in analytical philosophy and integrate it with the native tradition of hermeneutic philosophy’ (Habermas’ speech on Apel, reprinted later in The Liberating Power of Symbols, indeed lists Humboldt among the ‘marginal figures in the philosophy of language’ recovered within Apel’s early work). We can begin to understand the rôle played by Humboldt within Cassirer’s thinking of the symbolic function of conceptualization – his thinking of the way in which symbols, when acting as concepts rather than as mythical images, ‘articulate a view of the world as a whole’ – if we refer to Habermas’ account of Cassirer’s understanding of the symbolizing process as ‘an interplay of contrary tendencies’. ‘The world of symbolic meanings arises on the one hand from the production of a plenitude of meaningful images, and on the other from the logical disclosure of categorially articulated domains of experience.’ Cassirer, we can see from Habermas’ explanation, took from Humboldt’s thinking the principle of linguistic world-disclosure, against traditional nomination theory of language, but he continued to stress the Kantian aspect of this innovative principle of Humboldt’s:

‘He [Cassirer] retains an epistemological standpoint in the sense that he interprets linguistic world-disclosure on the model of the transcendental constitution of objects of possible experience. He assimilates Humboldt’s linguistic articulation of the world to Kant’s constitution of a domain of objects of possible experience. He reduces both to the common denominator of the categorial articulation of a symbolically generated world.’

Habermas stresses how, by relying on ‘the common denominator of the categorial articulation of a symbolically generated world’, Cassirer’s reception of Humboldt’s philosophy of language in fact ‘underestimated the scope of these innovations’, or the scope of Humboldt’s own semiotic transformation of Kantian transcendental philosophy. For Cassirer reduced Humboldt’s thought here to a Kantian theory of objectification, as he sustained his own cherished theory of linguistic conceptualization and then made symbols of his conceptual objects:

‘Relying on an analogy with categorial synthesis, which first endows the manifold of sense impressions with the unity of the objective experience of things, he also understands the function of linguistic form in terms of “objectification”. In so doing, he exploits the ambivalence of the expression “objectification”; for we also use this term to describe the process of externalization which characterizes the sensuous, symbolic embodiment of an intellectual content: “What Kant describes as the activity of judgement is only made possible in the concrete life of the mind by the mediating intervention of language, as Humboldt makes clear. Objectification in thought must pass via objectification in the sounds of language.” This interpretation is the direct descendant of the theory of concepts which Cassirer had already developed by 1910.’

Yet crucially, as Habermas also underlines, Cassirer did see that Humboldt’s use of Kant in fact in a way took him beyond Kantian epistemology. Humboldt, Habermas summarizes, takes from Kant the notion of the transcendental production of a categorially structured world of objects of possible experience, in order to explain the meaning-conferring function of language’. In this way Humboldt ‘describes the productivity of language as a world-projecting spontaneity’. In Geist und Leben, Cassirer conveys this idea of what Habermas calls language’s ‘conceptual articulation of a world of possible states of affairs’: ‘Languages are […] not in fact means of representing a truth which is already known, but rather means of discovering what was previously unknown.’ Habermas underscores the revolutionary implications of Humboldt’s positing of language’s projective capacity and meaning-conferring function in this way:

‘The spontaneous process of world constitution is thus transferred from the transcendental subject to a natural language employed by empirical subjects; the constitution of a domain of objects is similarly transformed into the grammatical pre-structuring of a linguistically articulated world. […] Whatever the members of a linguistic community may encounter in the world is accessible only via the linguistic forms of a possible shared understanding concerning such experiences.’ 

For Cassirer, Habermas writes, this meant that ‘Symbolic form overcomes the opposition of subject and object’. For by ‘transforming the world-constituting activity of the knowing subject into the world-disclosing function of the trans-subjective form of language’, Humboldt’s use of Kant’s notion of the transcendental exploded ‘the architectonic of the philosophy of consciousness as a whole’. Habermas quotes from Geist und Leben: ‘Thus the basic opposition which dominates the entire systematics of Kant’s thought seems inadequate […] when it comes to defining the specificity of the domain of language as a product of the mind.’

To be continued.   


  1. Robert - On another subject entirely, thanks for your perceptive comments about my photos of City pedestrians shown on Spitalfields Life. I see you have written an academic critique of Iain Sinclair. I, too, greatly admire his writing, and recently re-read 'Lights Out For The Territory': it's as fresh and invigorating as ever. Nicholas Sack,

  2. Thanks, Nicholas. On a more 1920s German tip, I am just now wondering if you know Sasha Stone's photographs of Berlin, I suppose they were from the '20s. I know them from Siegfried Kracauer's book 'The Mass Ornament' - it just occurs to me that they have a sense of regimentation and 'eerie' (though I don't particularly like that word) formality that is rather like your City photos on Spits Life. I have just found a good Stone gallery at:

  3. Thanks for the link, Robert - Sasha Stone is new to me and I see exactly what you mean. He obviously took great care in waiting for the right arrangement of passers-by; the effect of an elevated vantage point or the rear view of figures is slightly sinister - techniques later often used by Hitchcock. Note the man and woman in an alley, separated by a Freudian bollard. Or the pair of women walking, seen from the back, approached by two stern figures, while seated men on the right stare intently at the camera - and a disembodied foot enters the frame on the left. Very interesting pictures. Nicholas Sack.

    1. Perhaps the pictures are uniquely German in their specific form of urban noir, urban darkness - the combination of claustrophobia and aggression just filtering through from beneath the surface. I'm thinking here in particular of the photograph with the cars on the Kurfuerstendamm. Pure war. Car as berserker. I'm reminded of a part-German relative of mine who spent much time in Germany but whose German wasn't all that, and who used to say 'Curse Blast and Damn' instead of 'Kurfuerstendamm'. Very different from the Elysian Fields of central Paris or London's sedate old Mall.

  4. Yes, you are right on the button: "Car as berserker" - love it! There is a sense of dark foreboding in these pictures; something deeply sinister is about to happen. Even the lone cyclist caught in traffic is going to turn left and get crushed under the wheels of a truck. And look at the crowd of people, photographed from the rear across the road, apparently converging on a street merchant. At first, I assumed they were gawping at the aftermath of a ghastly accident - that cyclist, perhaps, decapitated. "Curse, blast and damn"! There is a pent-up violence simmering under the surface of even inanimate things. What terrible atrocities will that sports hall witness? Nicholas Sack.