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?
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)