Cassirer was brought up on the poetry of Goethe and the anthropology of Herder, Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, and Humboldt. He shared the romantic opposition to eighteenth-century rationalism for degrading our “sensuous, emotional life to the level of a biological residue, a passive stuff to be overcome.” These thinkers defined the essence of humanity not as reason but rather our capacity for self-expression, manifest in not only science and mathematics, but also language, religion, art, and myth. The ways in which we articulate and organize the world are irreducibly plural. Cassirer learned from them that our relationship with the world is not dominated exclusively by the demand for “objective knowledge,” but must also answer to the human thirst for meaning, how we shape the world into patterns, our various activities of symbolic formation. “The critique of reason becomes, in Cassirer’s famous declaration, the critique of culture.” He did not, however, share the Romantics’ disdain for science. Rather, “Cassirer’s ultimate purpose was to reveal science as an expression of the same symbolic capacity underlying language, art, and myth, thereby acquitting it of the common charge of coldness and inhumanity. His philosophy is an attempt to exploit the ambiguous energies of German romanticism on behalf of enlightenment.”
more from Emily Grosholz at The Hudson Review here.