Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture (Summary: Ch 1-3)

By Maximilian Brichta | To Sense | 31 Mar 2021

In the first three chapters of Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture, Skidelski offers a contextualization of Cassirer’s philosophy by outlining the tensions that the Marburg school (which Cassirer was trained) and the prevailing philosophical schools that it was in tension with. Along the way, he highlights, but does not focus acutely on, the political tensions that were tied up with the competing philosophical schools.

            In chapter one, Skidelski traces the intellectual roots of positivism by detailing how science became an increasingly instrumental undertaking, which marked a decisive break from its previously chief task investigating fundamental reality. Mechanical science was, up until this break, the prevailing methodology for modeling and explaining reality. The idea was that mechanistic models of natural phenomena would allow scientists to describe material or mental phenomena beyond the models themselves, offering a “glimpse backstage,” as Skidelski puts it. Positivism sought to expel such metaphysical from science and narrow its purview to the task of pure description of reality through the language of mathematics. Skidelski isolates the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach at primary influence in this transition. Mach was a proponent of phenomenalism – a philosophical orientation that held “Objects are not inferred from sensations; they are constructed out of sensations.” While Mach was animated by a Kantian impulse in this scientific orientation, he dispensed of the metaphysical aspects of the late philosopher continued to keep Kant yoked to naturalism (as the physiologists that influence Mach had been doing). By purging metaphysics from science, the intellectual task was allowed to flourish elsewhere. In Skidelski’s words, “As scientific reason was divested of all metaphysical, ethical, and cultural significance, so the quest for such significance was redirected into non-scientific, nonrational activities. A deontologized rationality gave birth to a de-rationalized ontology.” He argues that such a break marks the “alienation” science because, removed from the intellectual context that gave it meaning (that is, inquiry into the meaning of human existence), it was reduced to “mere mechanism, mere technique.” Cassirer, along with his elders at the Marburg school, sought to revitalize science by reconciling it with culture and saving it from its strictly instrumentalist identity.

            In the following chapter, Skidelski elaborates on the tensions between the Marburg school of philosophy, who were proponents of Neo-Kantianism, and the prevailing positivism. Led by Hermann Cohen, the Marburg school believed that science could and should not be seen as separate from culture. This claim was made on both intellectual and political grounds. Reason, as they had it, was saturated in culture. Far from being a separate entity, science was a particular aspect of culture (what Cassirer later conceptualized as a symbolic form). Furthermore, scientific progress was possible, not through the cold description, but through the accreting of theoretical knowledge. Perhaps most importantly, science is seen as an instance of the “free and active creation of the intellect.” As for politics, the Marburg school believed that the reintegration of science into culture would also foster the “integration of the proletariat into the national community.” This circle of philosophers received much pushback from both sides of the ethnic divide. Some German intellectuals were unhappy with the fact that Cohen, a politically vocal Jew, had misrepresented Kant. Cassirer was also Jewish and his philosophy was not well received by the emerging illiberalism and anti-Semitism of Germany. Some Jews, such as Martin Buber, also found the appropriation of German philosophy by a Jewish philosopher to rationalize and harm the religion.

            As for Cassirer, he stuck closely to the Marburg program of study until Cohen’s death. Once Cassirer found some autonomy from Cohen’s apparently domineering and jealous hold over his intellectual development, he went on to develop is philosophy of symbolic forms. In this development, he held onto much of the Neo-Kantianism of the Marburg school, and even claimed that his work was an extension of Cohen’s (which was not a rhetorically strong move to make in the Davos debate). Perhaps the most notable break from Marburg Neo-Kantianism was that such a philosophical approach should be defined “functionally rather than substantially. It is not about philosophy as a dogmatic doctrinal system, but rather a direction of question posing” (qtd in Skidelski). Still much of his later work was inspired by the Marburg attempt to reconcile science and culture. He primarily, he inherited the “concern for the unity of civilization” strove to “overcome positive alienation of reason, to ‘reveal science as the highest and most characteristic attainment of human culture’.” Acknowledgement of such unity allowed him to hold pluralistic forms of culture together by acknowledging the underlying unity of their symbolic structures. In developing his concept of symbolic forms, he continually had to distance himself from the mathematical dogmatism of Cohen, which brings Skidelski to a discussion of Cassirer’s tension with logical positivism in the post-Cohen era of his intellectual career.


            As Cassirer etched out his philosophy of symbolic forms, a new school of formal logic began to take shape in which philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege began working out a symbolic logic. While both the Marburg school and the symbolic logicians were resistant towards positivism, each school has a unique orientation towards mathematics. The former was concerned about the “application of mathematics to the natural world,” the latter were concerned with shoring up empiricism and pure mathematics. Skidelski argues that symbolic logic is another instance of the “alienation of reason” for it was “no longer a formative, creative power” but reduced to “a pure technique, a means of drawing conclusions from arbitrary premises.” Cassirer, with his bias toward understanding the place of math within culture, not abstracted from it, found the symbolic logicians to be damaging the interdependent relationship between subject and object.

It’s noteworthy to point out that symbolic logic had a left-leaning political bent to it. As Skidelski points out that the symbolic logic of Carnap resonated with his “progressivism, internationalism, and scientism” since he believed that working out the “paradigm of a universal, rational language, [would purge] the confusions and prejudices of historical languages.” Heidegger, who was beginning to make a name for himself and who was decidedly illiberal, was hostile to such intellectual and political attitudes. Skidelski locates Cassirer outside of this emerging tension between “scientistic rationalism and a virulent irrationalism.” Instead, he began working out a “logic of objective knowledge,” or a transcendental logic – “a set of synthetic principles underlying both mathematics and mathematical natural science. In other words, he was working out a technical way to explain the underlying structure of synthesis that undergirded both mathematic and empirical claims. Thus, he went beyond the system of symbolic logic, which he drew on as a technical model, to describe its foundation in Kantian terms. Cassirer find that the system of logic is fundamentally based on constructions of basic relations between concepts. Since symbolic concepts do not have same structure as logically derived categorical ones, they are not confined to a narrowly constricted, but rather open-ended interpretation. Concepts for Cassirer were thus “not simply components of possible propositions but tools for the organization and mastery of experience.”


Skidelsky, Edward. Ernst Cassirer: The last philosopher of culture. Princeton University Press, 2011.

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Maximilian Brichta
Maximilian Brichta

PhD Student in Communication at University of Southern California. Writer/Editor of Coinside and To Sense.

To Sense
To Sense

Graduate students write papers every week that we share with our professors and a small group of colleagues. We're lucky if we get 10 sets of eyes on work that we put hours, sometimes weeks of effort into. To Sense is an outlet where I'll post my past and future Communication and Cultural Studies essays that would otherwise never be read again. For my friends, family, professors, fellow scholars and the generally curious - enjoy. Maximilian Brichta

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