Ernst Cassirer: The Philosopher of the Enlightenment
Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) was a German-Jewish philosopher who is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. He is best known for his monumental work The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, which was first published in German in 1932 and later translated into English in 1951. In this book, Cassirer offers both a comprehensive overview and a critical analysis of the intellectual movement that shaped the modern world: the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was a period of cultural, scientific, and political transformation that spanned from the late 17th to the early 19th century. It was characterized by a rejection of tradition and authority, and a celebration of reason, freedom, and progress. Enlightenment thinkers sought to apply rational methods to all domains of human knowledge and activity, from natural science and mathematics to ethics and politics. They also challenged the established religious and political institutions that they saw as oppressive and irrational.
Cassirer argues that there was a common foundation beneath the diverse strands of thought of the Enlightenment: a new conception of philosophy as an active and creative force that shapes human experience and understanding. He traces the development of this conception from its origins in the works of Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton, to its culmination in the writings of Kant, Hegel, and Fichte. He also examines the contributions of other major figures of the Enlightenment, such as Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Montesquieu, and Lessing.
Cassirer's The Philosophy of the Enlightenment is not only a historical survey, but also a philosophical defense of the Enlightenment ideals against their critics and enemies. Cassirer wrote this book in Germany in 1932, at a time when the Nazi party was rising to power and threatening to destroy the legacy of the Enlightenment. He saw his book as a way of affirming the values of reason, tolerance, and human dignity that he believed were essential for civilization. In a new foreword to the updated edition of the book, Peter Gay writes: \"Cassirer's work remains a trenchant defense against enemies of the Enlightenment in the twenty-first century.\"[^1^]
One of the main themes of Cassirer's book is the role of language and symbolism in the development of human culture and cognition. Cassirer was a leading exponent of the philosophy of symbolic forms, which holds that human beings create and use various systems of signs and symbols to express and interpret their experience of reality. These systems include language, art, religion, science, law, and morality. Cassirer argues that the Enlightenment marked a decisive shift in the history of symbolic forms: from a stage of mythological and religious symbolism, which dominated the pre-modern world, to a stage of scientific and rational symbolism, which characterized the modern world.
Cassirer also explores the social and political implications of the Enlightenment philosophy. He shows how the Enlightenment thinkers advocated for a new conception of human rights, democracy, and cosmopolitanism, based on the principles of natural law, social contract, and universal reason. He also examines the challenges and contradictions that emerged from the Enlightenment project, such as the tension between individualism and collectivism, the problem of skepticism and relativism, and the conflict between reason and emotion. Cassirer acknowledges that the Enlightenment was not a uniform or harmonious movement, but rather a complex and dynamic process that involved many debates and controversies.
Cassirer's The Philosophy of the Enlightenment is widely regarded as one of the most authoritative and comprehensive works on the subject. It is also a testament to Cassirer's own intellectual courage and integrity, as he defended the values of the Enlightenment in the face of totalitarianism and barbarism. As Peter Gay writes: \"Cassirer was not only an interpreter but also an exemplar of Enlightenment.\"[^1^] a474f39169