Cassirer was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Breslau, Poland. Visits to his grandfather as a teenager awakened his interest in reading and intelligent conversation. After graduating from the Gymnasium with highest honors, he enrolled at the University of Berlin and began studying Kantian thought under the Jewish social philosopher, Georg Simmel. Simmel’s concern about the relation of the rational individual to the whole of society influenced Cassirer’s lifelong commitment to the preservation of the individual’s spiritual autonomy. It was also Simmel who directed Cassirer to Hermann Cohen, the first Jew to hold a full professorship in Germany (at the University of Marburg), and who during the latter third of the nineteenth century helped initiate a Kantian-inspired Idealist reaction against the wave of mysticism that had swept over German culture earlier in the century. After allaying suspicions that he was among the converted Jews despised by Cohen, Cassirer impressed the latter with his grasp of philosophical issues and became his lifelong colleague and friend.
Having completed a dissertation on Leibniz to qualify for his doctorate, Cassirer returned to Berlin, married, fathered a child, and was soon at work on a history of epistemology. The success of the latter encouraged him to follow Cohen’s advice to pursue an academic career, first, with a recommendation from Wilhelm Dilthey, as a Privatdocent at the University of Berlin, then as a professor and rector (the first Jew ever) at the University of Hamburg, and finally, after Hitler’s rise to power made it impossible for him as a Jew to continue working in Germany, at a variety of universities in England, Sweden, and the United States. His subsequent writings on the relation of mythology and religious consciousness show broad familiarity with all the world’s religions, but it was especially to the prophetic books of the Jewish Old Testament that he looked for examples of the individual moral responsibility that he associated with the origin of religion.
Unlike other German scholars who, to save their necks and careers in times of anti-Semitic persecution, severed ties with their Jewish origin, Cassirer never abandoned his Jewish identity. Although he considered most religious creeds and rituals all too divisive, he remained, according to the testimony of those who knew him best, a deeply religious man morally motivated by the sympathy of the Whole which, in his view, constituted the heart of any genuine religion.
Cassirer on Religion. Like language, art, science and other areas of human culture, religion is a symbolic way human consciousness has of expressing its experience of reality. Religious consciousness, however, is inextricably interwoven with mythic consciousness. Underlying both is a substratum, not of thought, but of a certain cognitive feeling. At the primitive level of mythic consciousness, it consists of what might be called a sympathy of the Whole, or the feeling of the indestructible unity of life (hence the fear of death as one of the original constitutive factors of myth and religion). It is not that primitive man lacks the ability to appreciate empirically the differences of things, but all such differences are obliterated by a stronger feeling: the deep conviction of a fundamental and indelible solidarity of life that bridges over the multiplicity and variety of single forms. As a result, the symbol and that to which it refers are experienced in mythic consciousness as being one and the same (e.g., the dancer assuming the nature of the god whose mask he wears).
Although still influenced by the mythic sympathy of the Whole, religious consciousness gives scope to a new feeling of individuality. Unlike mythic consciousness, which altogether lacked the category of the ideal, religious consciousness now separates the ideal from the real (e.g., "time" from particular days or seasons), thereby recognizing sensuous images as pointing beyond themselves to a meaning which they never exhaust, to "something other and transcendent." Every religion has its own way of breaking loose from its mythical foundations, thereby revealing its historical, spiritual, and moral particularity (e.g., the pure inwardness of prophetic Judaism’s spiritual/ethical relation between the I and the Thou). But overall, there is a dynamic evolution in human consciousness from the mythic awareness of impersonal natural forces to religious recognition of functional gods and, ultimately, to the mystical experience of the nameless Self that is Pure Being.
- An Essay on Man. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956. .
- Language and Myth. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1946. .
- The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Vol. 2: Mythic Thought. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1955. .
- The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. 3-37. . "Ernst Cassirer: His Life and Work." In Schilpp,
- Ernst Cassirer: Philosophy of Culture. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
- Ernst Cassirer: The Dilemma of a Liberal Intellectual in Germany 1914-33. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.
- The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1958. 845-53. , ed.
- "Ernst Cassirer." In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 3. edited by Mircea, Eliade. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1987. 107-9. .
- The Sense of Religious Wonder: Epistemological Variations. Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 2002. 40-41.
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