In Habermas’ presentation in ‘The Liberating Power of Symbols’, the conflict in the 1920s between Cassirer and Heidegger is related to the former’s concern with a humanist, normative (Kantian) constitutionalism. This concern of Cassirer’s is reflected in his upholding of (German-)Jewish ‘ethical ideals’ and civility, in the face of the emergence of fascist political myth.
Fundamental to Habermas’ account of Cassirer is his emphasis on Cassirer’s understanding that it is (in Habermas’ words) ‘the dynamic of symbolization which drives the process of civilization forward’. ‘In the symbolic constitution of human existence and in the symbolic mediation of our life activity the path towards a humane conduct of life is already anticipated.’ This stress on Cassirer’s insights into the entwinement of symbolization and civilization or humanization, underwrites Habermas’ presentation of the Cassirer-Heidegger opposition as an opposition between German-Jewish civility and Heidegger’s (mythic) thinking of (mythically) autonomized, fated praxis – ‘between the decent, cultured spirit of a cosmopolitan humanism, and that fatal rhetoric set on throwing man back onto the “hardness of his fate”’. This proto-Nazi hardness refers to a praxis without fundamental or transcendental norms, such as the norms which, in Cassirer’s thinking, derived from the (post-)Kantian transcendental analysis of language; Habermas suggests that it was Cassirer’s unwillingness to run with and generalize Humboldt’s revolutionary use of Kant’s notion of the transcendental, or ‘transform the heuristic priority which the transcendental analysis of language and of the linguistically constituted lifeworld does in fact enjoy in his researches into a systematic priority’ of his theory of symbolization, which lay behind the limitation of the 1929 Davos disputation to a superficially culturo-philosophical rather than fully philosophical-political debate.
‘The question of the evaluation of symbolic forms remained open, and the normative foundations remained entirely unclear. This may be the systematic reason why the controversy in Davos did not touch on the real crux of the dispute. The conflict between Cassirer and Heidegger, which extended into the political domain, was not played out. The opposition between the decent, cultured spirit of a cosmopolitan humanism, and that fatal rhetoric set on throwing man back onto the “hardness of his fate”, was reflected only in a contrast of gestures and mentalities.’
A foregrounding of the transcendental conception of language derived from Humboldt’s innovations, or of the linguistic ‘normative foundations’ of (the construction of) symbolic forms would, Habermas suggests, have enabled Cassirer to develop the civilizing impetus or content within his theory of symbolization; ‘the emancipatory power of symbolic shaping’.
‘With this step Cassirer could have overcome his epistemologically constricted vision, and resolved the conflict between the perspectivism of equiprimordial worlds [symbols acting as concepts], on the one hand, and the emancipatory power of symbolic shaping [symbols acting as images], on the other, which dogs his philosophy of symbolic forms.’
Habermas observes that Heidegger himself, by the stage of Davos, had not yet achieved a non-nominalist pragmatics of language in his own thinking: ‘it is worth noting that Cassirer, on the basis of his reception of Humboldt, had already long since achieved the turn towards a pragmatics of language which still lay in the future for Heidegger’. Yet ironically, it was Heidegger at Davos who pointed to Cassirer’s lack of an emphasis on the transcendental aspect or normative foundations of his philosophy of symbolic forms – precisely the emphasis which could have stood up to Heidegger’s praxis without norms. For Heidegger a ‘terminus a quo’ – what Habermas calls the ‘fundamental dimension’ – remains unprobed by Cassirer:
‘One could say that for Cassirer the terminus ad quem is the whole of a philosophy of culture in the sense of an elucidation of the wholeness of the forms of the shaping consciousness. For Cassirer the terminus a quo is utterly problematical […] Cassirer’s point is to emphasize the various forms of the shaping in order, with a view to these shapings, subsequently to point out a certain dimension of the shaping powers themselves.’
As Habermas underlines later in The Liberating Power of Symbols, it would be left to Apel subsequently to turn a transcendental view of language against Heidegger’s upholding of autonomized linguistic praxis: Apel insists, Habermas saw, on ‘a transcendental-hermeneutic conception of language, which was directed against the autonomization of the world-disclosing function of language in Heidegger’s history of Being’. For Apel, as Habermas reiterates, ‘Innerworldly “praxis” is only “mediated” by the disclosing “poiesis” of linguistic world-constitution.’
Yet as Habermas also shows, it is Cassirer’s political pronouncements of the 1920s which evince the normative aspect of his philosophy, and illustrate his repeated appeal to ‘Kant’s theory of law’. ‘When Cassirer took a stand on matters of public concern he made no attempt to conceal his fundamental normative convictions.’ Habermas quotes from Cassirer’s 1928 Constitution Day speech, to demonstrate how it (as Habermas puts it) ‘sketched with bold strokes the origins of human rights and democracy in the tradition of rational law’: ‘the idea of a republican constitution is in no sense a stranger, let alone an alien intruder, in the overall context of the history of German thought and culture’. Instead, Cassirer maintained,
republicanism ‘grew out of this very ground, and was nourished by its most authentic forces, the forces of Idealist philosophy’. Weimar
|Jankel Adler. 'Woman with Hat'. 1940|
Habermas observes how Cassirer’s support of the normative political process of
constitutionalism was followed by an analysis of the collapse of this constitutionalism, which occurred along with the fatal threat to ‘normatively significant cultural processes’ (Habermas’ words) such as civilizing symbolization. In one of his last essays, the 1944 ‘Judaism and the Modern Political Myths’, Cassirer upheld German-Jewish humanist, normative ‘ethical ideals’ against the bad foundationalism represented by what Habermas calls the ‘fake primordiality of political myths’. Weimar
‘We [modern Jews] had to represent all those ethical ideals that had been brought into being by Judaism and found their way into general human culture, into the life of all civilized nations. […] If Judaism has contributed to breaking the power of the modern political myths, it has done its duty, having once more fulfilled its historical and religious mission.’
Cassirer saw how Nazi political myth enlisted the support of technological products of the scientific enlightenment, perceiving the political practice of the Nazis to be – as Habermas writes – ‘an ominous fusion of myth and technology: fascist mobilization succeeds by employing modern techniques of mass communication in the service of the revival of mythical forms of thought’. Moreover, Cassirer, as Habermas interestingly suggests, could therefore argue for the value of the monotheistic myth of Judaism precisely because Judaism historically fed into a humanizing (German-Jewish) religious enlightenment, rather than into a dehumanizing scientific enlightenment:
‘It is worth noting that Cassirer trusts religious far more than scientific enlightenment as a counter-force to the violence of political myths – he relies on the confinement of myth within its own proper sphere, which was long ago achieved by monotheism.’