It is hard not to think, as one reads a book so wealthy as this in historic and scientific erudition, but at the same time so oddly inconclusive, that Cassirer was rather a distinguished reflective scholar than a great speculative philosopher. The learning is not mobilized in the interest of any theory; the book is not so much an ‘essay on man’ as a series of essays, all suggestive and enlightening, which converge on—what? It is hard to say. Perhaps there is no end, or harmony of ends, toward which all these activities are moving. But then, on Cassirer’s own showing, no philosophy of man would seem to be practicable; there would only be a theory of art, a theory of religion, and so on. This is in fact what he gives us. And an admirable gift it is, for which I, at least, am thankful. Only it is not what he sets out to give, nor all that the reader hoped to gain.
William Schultz commented on Blanshard’s assessment:
Here is the assumption of a continental philosopher that a system must ‘converge’ on something or lead to an overall unity of experience, an ideal unity. To some extent, the criticism is correct, for the main arguments are not in An Essay on Man, yet Cassirer’s claims about the need for unity should have alerted Blanshard that they were in his previous books, as Cassirer himself said in the Preface to that work written almost twenty years after the three-volume masterpiece [The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms]. Ironically, both Blanshard and Cassirer share some of the same assumptions about what philosophy should do, but Blanshard did not study Cassirer’s work enough to recognize the revolutionary way in which Cassirer satisfies traditional expectations about what a philosophy is and does. (Cassirer and Langer on Myth, Routledge, 2000, 51)
The other subject of Schultz’s study was Susanne Langer, whose thought was shaped largely by her absorption of Cassirer’s writings in the original German as they were published. She contributed an essay on his theory of language and myth to the Library of Living Philosophers volume dedicated to him.
. . . myth and language appeared as genuine twin creatures, born of the same phase of human mentality, exhibiting analogous formal traits, despite their obvious diversities of content. Language, on the one hand, seems to have articulated and established mythological concepts, whereas, on the other hand, its own meanings are essentially images functioning mythically. The two modes of thought have grown up together, as conception and expression, respectively, of the primitive human world. . . .
The first dichotomy in the emotive or mythic phase of mentality is not, as for discursive reason, the opposition of ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ of ‘a’ and ‘non-a,’ or truth and falsity; the basic dichotomy here is between the sacred and the profane. Human beings actually apprehend values and expressions of values before they formulate and entertain facts.
Langer’s preface to his Language and Myth serves as an excellent introduction to Cassirer’s thought: language, “man’s prime instrument of reason, reflects his mythmaking tendency more than his rationalizing tendency.”
Eric Voegelin, the philosopher of consciousness, had great regard for Cassirer the intellectual historian, but in his 1946 review of The Myth of the State, thought Cassirer had mishandled his chief topical concern:
In the present book there is no awareness that the myth is an indispensable forming element of social order though, curiously enough, in his earlier work on the philosophy of the myth Cassirer, under the influence of Schelling, had seen this problem quite clearly. The overcoming of the “darkness of myth” by reason is in itself a problematical victory because the new myth which inevitably will take the place of the old one may be highly unpleasant. The Myth of the State is written as if it had never occurred to the author that tampering with a myth, unless one has a better one to put in its place, is a dangerous pastime.
Perhaps. A good way to inspect that alleged “tampering” short of reading Cassirer’s posthumously published 1946 book is to read his shorter (and never-anthologized) 1944 essay, “The Myth of the State,” written for Fortune’s non-academic audience. In my preface to it I gave a brief account of how it came to be written. Cassirer wrote:
What we have learned in the hard school of our modern political life is the fact that human culture is by no means the firmly established thing that we once supposed it to be. Modern civilization is very unstable and fragile. It is not built upon sand; but it is built upon a volcanic soil. For its first origin and basis was not rational, but mythical. Rational thought is only the upper layer on a much older geological stratum that reaches down to a great depth. We must always be prepared for violent concussions that may shake our cultural world and our social order to its very foundations.
Interestingly, about a year after Cassirer’s essay appeared, Blanshard himself used the volcano metaphor. His reflections on his two terms as president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association were published just as his review of Cassirer appeared. As his terms of office “coincided almost exactly with the chief period of” World War II, Blanshard asked his audience this question: “In the light of the last few years, is not reason best conceived as a film stretched across the mouth of a volcano?”
Blanshard’s answer, was, of course, resoundingly in the negative. But his defense of reason was also limited, even “slender,” and not incompatible with Cassirer’s ostensibly severer judgment:
All I am concerned to deny is the conclusion often drawn from these researches [into human irrationality], that the mind is so controlled by pulls from within that it is never under the control of the objective pattern of things, or follows the thread of an impersonal logic. The remarks I have offered, slender as they admittedly are, do seem to me to settle that point in principle.
Cassirer was equally concerned to deny that conclusion. As Professor Schultz suggested, perhaps Blanshard “did not study Cassirer’s work enough” to see how concordant they were in thought.
* Cassirer collapsed and died near Columbia University’s main gate after turning around in reaction to Arthur Pap‘s calling to him. (Cassirer had been Pap’s supervisor at Yale.) Murray Rothbard, then nineteen years old, was probably on campus that Friday the 13th of April 1945, the day after President Franklin Roosevelt suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage.