Cassirer and Symbolic Form

"What we call nature... is a poem hidden behind a wonderful secret writing; if we could decipher the puzzle, we should recognize in it the odyssey of the human spirit, which in astonishing delusion flees from itself while seeking itself."
- Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer, a German philosopher active in the early part of this century, follows directly from the Kantian formalist tradition, but steps beyond to a new understanding of the basic structures of human knowledge. Cassirer's work moved away from Kant's pure forms of experience in favor of a symbol-oriented mode of understanding reality. In Cassirer's vision, scientific laws, religion, and laguage are all symbols created by the mind in attempting to produce a world of understanding. His greatest interest involved a search for the form of knowledge- how it can be created out of the chaos of perception humans face daily.

The second volume of his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms defines the task: to seek "the categories of the consciousness of objects in the theoretical, intellectual sphere, and starts from the assumption that such categories must be at work wherever a cosmos, a characteristic and typical world view, takes form out of the chaos of impressions."

These categories consist of symbols, which mediate between perception and understanding. This emphasis on symbol breaks the rigid boundaries of Kant's categories to give the mind a greater role in constructing its own reality. In essence, the mind takes in impressions, processes them, and fits them into certain symbolic referents which enable it to understand its world.

Such a description is reminiscent of Gombrich's later theory of perception, which argues for the blurring of minute details in order to construct a coherent picture of reality. Gombrich takes as an example the intricate decoration of the Alhambra, a magnificent Islamic castle located in Granada, Spain.

An example of the type of decorative detail present in the Alhambra.

It is impossible (as Marr attempts to show mathematically) to focus simultaneously on every aspect of the extremely fine level of decorative detail; the eye must attempt to fit what it is seeing into certain pre-conceived visions. It is "the twilight region between seeing and not seeing which is connected with the visual span of proximal vision." (Gombrich)

Cassirer's emphasis on the importance of symbol reminded me strongly of this passage from Plato's Republic. Although the implication is subtle, Cassirer's evocation of the symbol is almost akin to the way humans perceive Plato's ultimate forms.

Emerging from the cave.

"An implication of what we're saying at the moment, however,' I pointed out, 'is that the capacity for knowledge is present in everyone's mind. If you can imagine an eye that can turn from darkness to brightness only if the body as a whole turns, then our organ of understanding is like that. Its orientation has to be accompanied by turning the mind as a whole away from the world of becoming, until it becomes capable of bearing the sight of real being and reality at its most bright, which we're saying is goodness."

(Socrates, Plato's Republic 518c)

On to Peirce.

The skeptic speaks.

Return to the Architectonic

This page written by Sheri Simmons '99

May 25, 1996