Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
3Jan/132

Ned Curthoys’ Recovery of Arendt’s Intellectual Dialogue with Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer is an oft-neglected thinker in contemporary continental philosophy. He is typically eclipsed by Martin Heidegger, whom he faced in the now famous disputation at Davos, Switzerland in the spring of 1929, which had such a dramatic effect on continental philosophy that the young Emmanuel Levinas, who attended the debate, felt as if he were "present at the creation and end of the world". In spite of Cassirer's attempt to make his three-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923-1929) more accessible to an English speaking audience through a concise redaction in An Essay on Man (1944), he remains a marginal figure in contemporary philosophy.

However, Ned Curthoys, a researcher at the Australian National University's School of Cultural Inquiry, has recently recovered a latent conversation between Cassirer and Hannah Arendt that casts new light on the impact and significance of his work.

Arendt's vigorous annotations in her copy of Cassirer's An Essay on Man indicate that she was a diligent and consistent reader of Cassirer. Her personal library housed in the Arendt Collection at Bard College contains over a dozen titles by Cassirer. Most Cassirer’s works in Arendt's personal library contain heavy annotations and marginalia, which suggest a critical and substantive engagement with Cassirer's work. Although Arendt's references to Cassirer in her major works are sparse—once in her essay "The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern" in Between Past and Future, and four times in The Human Condition—it is clear that Cassirer had an influence on Arendt's postwar writings. The question is: What was the extent of this influence?

From Arendt's library at Bard College.

Curthoys has recently taken up this question and offers a persuasive argument that Arendt's philosophy of history and her philosophical anthropology were shaped significantly by her reading of Cassirer. Curthoys' early essays on Arendt explored the political significance of narrative in her work and her use of "thought-figures," like Charlie Chaplin, Franz Kafka, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Isak Dinesen, all of whom attempted to subvert the authoritative discourses of their times by means of counter-narratives. Curthoys discerns the marks of a German émigré consciousness in Arendt's postwar writings that suggests an intellectual dialogue with other German émigrés like Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer. He foregrounds Arendt's status as a conscious pariah and engages in a postcolonial reading of her work that highlights her development of a counter-narrative to the Eurocentric metanarratives of her age.

More recently, Curthoys has begun excavating a latent conversation between Arendt and Cassirer. In his essay, "The Pathos and Promise of Counter-History: Hannah Arendt and Ernst Cassirer's German-Jewish Historical Consciousness" (in Power, Judgment, and Political Evil,), Curthoys  explores Arendt's philosophy of history, and argues that she found a "counter-history" in Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer that allowed her to challenge the Eurocentric discourse on history that had rendered her an outsider, a pariah. It is precisely this location outside the dominant identities and political narratives of Europe, Curthoys avers, that served as Arendt's Ansatzpunkt, or starting point,  and allowed her to engage in a recursive investigation of history.

What is most significant in this essay is Curthoys' claim that Arendt's engagement with Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms" was instrumental in the development of her philosophy of history, and his suggestion that it led to her reconsider Cassirer's defense of neo-Kantianism in the Davos debate, a reconsideration that Curthoys sees as the impetus for Arendt's return to Kant in her final years. This engagement was not a wholesale adoption of Cassirer's approach to history, Curthoys argues, but a critical and creative renewal of his thought.

Curthoys has extended this exploration of the connection between Arendt and Cassirer in a subsequent article titled, "Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, and the Twentieth-Century Revival of Philosophical Anthropology." Curthoys argues that Arendt's focus on philosophical anthropology in The Human Condition, Men in Dark Times, The Life of the Mind, and her final lectures on Kant is the result of her ongoing critical engagement with Cassirer's work. At the heart of this article is Curthoys’ assertion that Cassirer's theory of symbolic forms is refracted in Arendt's notion of a common world. Cassirer had argued in his Philosophie der symbolischen Formen that human beings are symbolic animals that express themselves in systems of signs, which mediate reality in networks of meaning. These systems of signs take form in language, myth, religion, art, science, and history. Readers of Patchen Markell's "Arendt's Work: On the Architecture of The Human Condition" will recall his claim that "work" plays a mediating role, which resonates with Cassirer's notion of symbolic forms.

Curthoys' investigation and recovery of the intellectual conversation between Arendt and Cassirer is compelling, but more needs to be done to make this influence explicit. Curthoys' new book The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer's and Hannah Arendt's Hidden Conversation (Forthcoming in September 2013, Berghahn Books) promises to offer more evidence for Arendt's creative development of Cassirer's thought. Curthoys' research opens up a new line of inquiry into the wider connections between Arendt and the German-Jewish intellectual tradition and offers further confirmation of her fidelity to Jewish thought in general.

-John Douglas Macready (University of Dallas)

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7May/120

Speaking Through the Words of Others

“It is perfectly true that ‘all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them,’ in the words of Isak Dinesen, who not only was one of the great storytellers of our time but also—and she was nearly unique in this respect—knew what she was doing.”

-Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics, p. 262

“‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them’ –Isak Dinesen” (The Human Condition, 175 [one of two mottos for Chapter 5: Action])

Arie Amaya-Akkermans has recently and beautifully used this space to reflect on the importance of Dinesen for Arendt, specifically in the way the latter relies on Dinesen for a notion of the praxis of storytelling that is central to Arendt’s conception of politics and of the life of the mind. In calling attention to these two moments where Arendt leans on Dinesen’s claim about life, loss and narrative, I hope to shed a different light on what it means (for Arendt) to quote another, and thus to reflect on the very praxis of this “quote of the week.” I want to reflect for a moment on the different ways in which Dinesen’s formula informs these two pieces, to what effects, and with what ends in mind. In this way, I suspect, we might discover something about why—in reading and writing for this initiative of the Center—we are engaging in something different from two other practices which this resembles, namely, academic commentary and “ordinary” blogging. Along the way, perhaps, we might learn together something that will provide further resonance to what Amaya-Akkermans has provided us.

In thinking about these two quotations of the same sentence, and how they might function differently—even before thinking about the broader context of the two pieces in which the sentence appears, and the argumentative goals thereof and so on—two things come to light. In the first instance, Arendt stresses that what she is quoting is true—perfectly true, even—and then goes on to tell us not only whose words they are, but also what is remarkable about that person (in the context of trying to think through the supposed opposition between truth and politics, an opposition complicated by the fact of Diensen as someone who speaks truth (“perfect truth” even) while engaging in a practice that is never free of the political. In the second, Arendt simply lets Dinesen speak for her by placing the latter’s words as an independent expression of what most needs to be said in what has to be concerned one of the most important moments in her whole body of work: the chapter in Human Condition where she makes a case for action as the true life of the human being, possible only in our spontaneous appearance to one another in our plurality.

These two gestures to Dinesen, diverging in intent and even as they respond to exactly the same content, point toward something I highlighted when I recently had the privilege to share some thoughts  (on the practical and productive importance of rhetoric as the art of seeing what can be persuasive) with the Hannah Arendt Center in March: the importance of fabrication. What is crucial here is that while the one who would “think what we are doing” must always be insatiable in the search for what is, they must also be sensitive and crafty in articulating what they have found in their search: it is not enough to know how to discover truths—be they factual, rational, scientific, or moral; one must also share these with the others. And this requires storytelling, which (as Dinesen knew and lived) entails “knowing what one is doing” in the sense to which Arendt refers in her first quotation.

I take it that what we are trying to do here is very much like what Arendt was trying to do in addressing Dinesen. We want, that is, to engage with our own moment, with the world as it discloses itself to us here and now, but we also recognize that the only way in which that is possible is through a self-constituting practice of speaking aloud to those who might share the world in which we aim to live. We must fabricate, together with the others, the world that appears to, in us and through us.

Arendt sees, and shows us in the feature of her work as an exercise, that such joined creation, of humans in our plurality, best begins when the solitary thinker addresses the others by means of a shared other. That is, thinking does not begin or proceed in isolation, with the sage who withdraws into a cave, or climbs to a highest peak, or (say) retreats into the Black Forest. Rather, we think, as we act, in concert. Quotations serve a beautiful symbol of this fact, but also as a clever means by which to solicit the participation of the others who are needed for our own projects (of thinking, and of world-creation) to have any chance of succeeding.

Why “quote of the week,” then? I am sure that there are more reasons than one. But one, profoundly Arendtian, reason is that we are already halfway home to thinking and acting in Arendtian mode when we understand ourselves as truly beginning to speak only when we speak (in and through, with and against) the words of another, who—as far as we can tell—has told the truth, has fulfilled the demand: legein ta eonta.

-Michael Weinman

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.