Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Symbolic Construction of RealityThe Legacy of Ernst Cassirer$

Jeffrey Andrew Barash

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780226036861

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226036892.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM CHICAGO SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.chicago.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of Chicago Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in CHSO for personal use (for details see http://www.chicago.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 21 June 2018

Ernst Cassirer's Theory of Myth: On the Ethico-Political Dimension of His Debate with Martin Heidegger

Ernst Cassirer's Theory of Myth: On the Ethico-Political Dimension of His Debate with Martin Heidegger

Chapter:
(p.114) Seven Ernst Cassirer's Theory of Myth: On the Ethico-Political Dimension of His Debate with Martin Heidegger
Source:
The Symbolic Construction of Reality
Author(s):

Jeffrey Andrew Barash

Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226036892.003.0007

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines Martin Heidegger's criticism on Ernst Cassirer's theory of myth, which it shows highlighted fundamental differences in their respective orientations to Western rationality. It considers Cassirer's later extrapolation of his presuppositions concerning myth and their application to the interpretation of modern political society, and suggests that his The Myth of the State is a response to Heidegger's critique.

Keywords:   Ernst Cassirer, theory of myth, Martin Heidegger, Western rationality, political society, Myth of State

In his last book, The Myth of the State, completed in New York just before his death in 1945, Ernst Cassirer reexamined a central concern of his philosophical investigations of the 1920s: the interpretation of myth and mythical thought. Throughout his work, this topic posed a particular challenge to his overall philosophy of scientific rationality. “Of all things in the world,” as he wrote at the beginning of The Myth of the State, “myth seems to be the most incoherent and inconsistent.”1 This paper investigates the coherence of Cassirer's own attempt to bring order to this “most incoherent and inconsistent” phenomenon. I will deal both with his initial investigation of myth in the 1920s, in the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, entitled Mythical Thought—where his analysis is principally directed toward myth in ancient and in contemporary non-Western cultures—and with The Myth of the State, in which he deals primarily with the role of myth in modern Western politics.

In keeping with my aim to examine not only Cassirer's theory of myth but also and above all the coherence of this theory in the early and late periods of his work, I will step beyond the framework of his own analysis in order to set in relief its underlying presuppositions. For this purpose, I will examine his theory in relation to the criticism directed at it by his most formidable philosophical adversary of the 1920s, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger, it will be remembered, not only engaged in a famous debate with Cassirer at Davos, Switzerland, in 1929—a debate that clearly revealed the differences in their respective philosophical orientations—he also sharply criticized Cassirer's theory of myth in Sein und Zeit, in his review of Cassirer's Mythical Thought, and in his 1928–1929 Freiburg course lectures, Einleitung in die Philosophie.2 In considering Cassirer's interpretation (p.115) of myth in relation to Heidegger's critique, I show that, far from being limited to the theory of myth per se, Heidegger's criticism highlighted fundamental differences in their respective orientations to Western rationality. In so doing, Heidegger's critique permits us to bring into clearer view the underlying presuppositions that governed Cassirer's philosophy of myth in the period of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.

Beyond the clarification of fundamental presuppositions that a comparative analysis of Cassirer's and Heidegger's interpretation affords, another central issue comes into focus. The problem I address is raised by Cassirer's later extrapolation of his presuppositions concerning myth and their application to the interpretation of modern political society. Here, too, Heidegger's philosophy plays an important role for an understanding of Cassirer's thought. Given Heidegger's critical appraisal of Cassirer's theory of myth in the 1920s, it is not surprising to learn that Cassirer takes issue with Heidegger in the final section of The Myth of the State. In what follows, I shall argue that this late work may also be interpreted as providing a response to Heidegger's critique. Cassirer's later analysis of Heidegger is, indeed, all the weightier in view of his assumptions concerning the ethico-political implications of Heidegger's philosophy: As far as Cassirer was concerned, Heidegger's interpretation of myth in the 1920s not only had significant theoretical implications but also held a certain responsibility for the actual propagation of the most ominous expression of political myth in the modern period. And, in The Myth of the State, Cassirer related this responsibility not so much to Heidegger's official support of the Nazi regime during 1933–1934, as to the broad consequences of his philosophical orientation. In light of Cassirer's earlier theory of myth, his treatment of Heidegger's philosophy as the expression of a modern political myth is, as I shall demonstrate below, of particular importance insofar as it sheds light on the coherence of Cassirer's theory of myth as a whole.

Taking as my starting point Cassirer's interpretation of myth in the 1920s and Heidegger's critique of this interpretation, I examine the basis upon which Cassirer can claim to extend his theoretical presuppositions into the field of interpretation of modern political myths in The Myth of the State. In this manner I will place in relief the coherence of Cassirer's overall theory of myth in its application to premodern and modern societies alike, which serves as the basis for his later critique of Heidegger's philosophy.

(p.116) I

Both Cassirer's theory of myth in the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and Heidegger's critique of this theory indicate that the interpretation of myth posed a problem for these two thinkers. This problem, as we shall see, concerned the relation between ancient or non-Western mythological systems and Western scientific rationality, which claims to elucidate these systems; the question was to what extent, indeed, scientific reason, operating on the basis of radically different assumptions from those of myth, could claim to grasp the “true” significance of myth, a significance inaccessible to mythical thought itself? Such a claim presupposes that, far from having no intrinsic connection to mythical thought, rational criteria—in their radical distinction from myth—might be capable of advancing a more “truthful” account of the world than myth itself might provide.

In the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, entitled Mythical Thought, Cassirer confronts this problem by taking up an issue that had emerged as a central concern in the contemporary human sciences: that of bridging the gap between the most rudimentary forms of “mythical-magical” belief systems, the “mythical-religious” beliefs of more developed cultures leading to the monotheistic religions, and finally the scientific rationality providing a principal orientation for the modern world-image (Weltbild). By placing analysis at the level of the world-image, from the most rudimentary to the modern, Cassirer was not only concerned with conscious reflection about the world but, first and foremost, with comprehensive configurations of the world as a totality, involving the fundamental assumptions according to which human beings in given periods and cultural contexts make sense of the world. In dealing with the question of all-encompassing world-images, the problem of interpretation necessarily raised the issue of the commensurability of radically different criteria of judgment employed in mythical and modern accounts of the world. For without a principle of commensurability, without an underlying continuity to bridge the gap between different criteria and to relate them to a common standard of judgment, the inescapable conclusion would seem to be that we are condemned to historical or cultural relativism. Without a principle of continuity to link different criteria, no standard of judgment could command validity beyond the horizon of the particular world-image in which it originates. In view of both the radical (p.117) modifications to which cultures and historical periods are subject and the transformations of the norms of judgment founded on them, it would seem that what was held to be “true” during a given epoch or in a given culture (i.e., in myth-making, religiously oriented, or scientific cultures) cannot but become incomprehensible to people living in a later period. And this same incomprehensible quality of truths affirmed in radically different contexts would account for their essential opacity to one another, rendering futile any claim to comprehend what truths affirmed in a radically different context might “really” signify. Deprived of a principle of continuity unifying the fundamental criteria of judgment, no epoch or culture would escape the confines of the limited horizon—however tacit or unacknowledged—of its own particular presuppositions and prejudices. Modes of comprehension radically foreign to a given culture's presuppositions and prejudices would thus tend to be misconstrued or go unnoticed. On what basis, then, did Cassirer establish the commensurability or underlying continuity between the criteria of judgment characteristic of divergent world-images ranging from the most rudimentary forms of “mythical-magical” to “modern-rational” interpretation?

In his book Mythical Thought, the world-images of mythical thinking and of modern scientific rationality are presented as corresponding to two different ways of making the world coherent, neither of which can claim to attain absolute, metaphysical truth.3 As Heidegger noted at the beginning of his review of Mythical Thought,4 Cassirer in no way attempted to denigrate mythical thinking in favor of modern modes of thought, since he attributed to each of these world-images its specific truth. In view of the fact that no world-image can ever provide a definitive metaphysical explanation of the phenomenon we term “world,” each world-image has a frame of reference within which it may legitimately “objectify” the world—that is, constitute the world as its object.

It is this notion of “objectification” underlying each world-image that provides the first indication of how Cassirer conceives of the relation between the rudimentary mythical-magical, the more elaborate mythical and religious, and modern world-images. As Heidegger indicated in his review, Cassirer employed the term “objectification” in a Kantian or, more precisely, neo-Kantian sense, which he redefined in the context of his “phenomenology of symbolic forms.” According to this usage, objectification signifies the constitution of a world in terms of the a priori intuitive and conceptual forms of experience; by means of these forms, (p.118) the Formmotiven or formal constituents of experience—space, time, and number—experience is structured as a coherent unity. Taking this refined neo-Kantian epistemology as his frame of reference, Cassirer established, for any possible subject, a necessary continuity in the pure forms of objectification of the world. The notion of the objectification of the world presupposes that all possible ways of constituting a world-image, mythical as well as modern scientific, are necessarily grounded in similar underlying intuitive and conceptual structures.5 What distinguishes the variety of world-images over the course of the development of human perception and understanding are the modes of symbolic configuration of the world. Hence, for example, space, time, and number provide indispensable elements for the constitution of a world-image, whether mythical or modern; what changes in this constitutive activity, however, are the ways of symbolic configuration of time, space, and number in terms of which the subject, in the meaningful interpretation of its objects, lends them coherence by integrating them into the framework of a specific world-image in a given historical period or cultural context.6 What also changes in this process is the specific way in which symbolic configurations are invested with emotions, with a specific Lebensgefühl or vital feeling, which—above all for magical and mythical world-images—must be recreated if they are at all to be understood.7

In the second chapter of Mythical Thought Cassirer illustrated this concept of the historicity of world-images through an analysis of modifications in the symbolic relation to time. If, in the Kantian sense, time is the condition of possibility of all human experience per se, a distinction nonetheless arises between the different ways in which the mythical and the modern world-images symbolically configure time. If one looks more closely at this key idea in Cassirer's thought, as well as at Heidegger's critique of this idea, Cassirer's presuppositions appear in a clearer light.

In his discussion of mythical and modern interpretations of time, Cassirer placed particular emphasis on what he took to be a key difference between them: whereas the development of modern scientific methodology resulted in a concept of time that became increasingly homogeneous, enabling ever more precise and comprehensive possibilities of quantification, magical as well as mythical and religious thinking comprehend time according to essentially qualitative configurations. In referring to religious belief, Cassirer did not intend to simply assimilate it to myth, even if, in his opinion, religion incorporates certain mythical elements—hence (p.119) his frequent reference to mythical-religious beliefs. In the process of cultural development religion continuously confronts the limits of magical and mythical attempts to account for the world. Cassirer's conception of an essentially qualitative approach to time admits of nuances and thus highlights a striking distinction he makes between mythical and religious beliefs—a distinction that must be kept in mind if one is to correctly evaluate the difference between mythical and modern world-images. To cite a single example, monotheism, which Cassirer situated among what he termed the varieties of mythical-religious thought, corresponds to a qualification of time that distinguishes it from the repetitive, cyclical cosmological time of natural events, which is the form of temporal configuration most characteristic of the more rudimentary types of mythical thinking. Thus, in the Old Testament, the quality of time invoked by the prophets may be distinguished from the repetitive time of natural phenomena in that the prophets orient time toward an essentially unique future. It is this new idea of time that, in contradistinction to that of the natural world, introduced the idea of temporal singularity, punctuated by events that do not repeat themselves but rather constitute a unique temporal sequence characteristic of human historicity. As Cassirer wrote in the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, “for the Prophetic consciousness the whole of cosmic, astronomical time disappears along with nature; in its place arises a new intuition of time which has reference solely to the history of mankind.”8

In this manner, according to Cassirer, we observe great historical diversity in the modes of symbolic configuration of time: there is diversity, first of all, among the forms of qualitative configuration of time by magical and mythical-religious thought; secondly, between all such qualitative representations and the modern scientific world-image for which time becomes a homogeneous quantity.

In each case, however, Cassirer grounded this diversity of symbolic configurations of time in the presupposition that characterizes all of his theoretical work and to which we have already called attention, namely, the assumption of a fundamental unity of human consciousness—harking back to the Kantian and neo-Kantian “consciousness in general”—which, in terms of unchanging fundamental structures (gleichbleibende Grundgestalten) of consciousness, identify a formal unity underlying the diversity of symbolic modes in the temporal constitution of experience.9 If, indeed, mythical and modern thinking might exist contemporaneously (p.120) in different geographical areas as well as in historically different periods, Cassirer's philosophy nonetheless presupposes a formal unity underlying all such manners of objectification. In other words, time, space, and number, conceptual understanding and rational reflection retain a formal identity in spite of all diversity in the symbolic configurations embodying them over the course of human history.

This presupposition is of crucial importance for our analysis of the world-images, above all with regard to the legitimacy of the modern claim to be able to make sense of world-images of the past, such as those configured by mythical and religious thought. If this thought has its own intrinsic truth, as Cassirer asserts that it does, by what right can one claim to clarify it in terms of the rational criteria of the modern world-image, which would seem to be radically foreign to it? It is in answer to this question that the key role of the presupposition concerning the fundamental unity of human consciousness becomes clear. For, even where the elaboration of the symbolic forms of mythical experience—their incorporation in language and ritual—is radically foreign to modern scientific thinking, a grasp of the pure forms that underlie them, as well as of the vital emotions rooted in these forms, is the source of the intelligibility of mythical thinking to modern rational analysis. At the same time, it is this unity in the pure forms of experience that accounts for the historical fate of mythical-religious thinking: it sheds light above all on the impasses that such thinking necessarily faced, since the modes of rationality present even in the most rudimentary forms of human consciousness gradually led to an awareness of the intrinsic limitations of myth as a means of providing a coherent account of the world. For Cassirer then, the historical development of humanity emerges not so much as a simple progression beyond mythical and religious thought by scientific rationality, but rather as a gradual development of conceptual capacities already implicit in the mythical image of the world.

Nowhere does this idea come to light more clearly than in Cassirer's treatment of what he designates as a fundamental form of mythical thought, which, as we will examine below, stood at the center of Heidegger's critique: the ways through which even the most rudimentary types of mythical thought—by means of words such as “mana”—distinguish the extraordinary and the sacred from the everyday (das Alltägliche) and the profane. As Cassirer noted, the depiction of the sacred by notions such as “mana” pervades mythical thought and serves as the basis for all forms of mythical (p.121) conceptions of space, time, or number as distinct qualities. According to mythical interpretations, the sacred inheres in objects and is situated in the world as a quality of things. The immanent movement of mythical thought, as the process by which it encounters its own intrinsic limitations in making the world intelligible, leads to a progressive tendency to separate the sacred from sense objects in the world and to interpret them as originating in an ideal and transcendent source.10 Here it could not be a question of “overcoming” belief in the sacred per se, but rather of transcending the ways in which mythical thinking interpreted it as an immanent, thing-like quality. The gradual metamorphoses of mythical thinking were at the same time of momentous importance for general cultural development. Whereas mythical approaches to the sacred as a thing-like quality do not have any necessary relation to ethical imperatives,11 the progressive idealization of the sacred brought to light its fundamental independence from the sway of concrete things; in the course of this development, the interpretation of the sacred revealed an intrinsic affinity with the idea of autonomous action essential to ethical norms. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine this aspect of Cassirer's thought in any detail, we note here the outlines of Cassirer's general philosophy of history, according to which the more rudimentary magical forms of myth give way to scientific rationality and to the ethically centered religions compatible with rational principles of social existence.

II

At the center of Heidegger's review of Cassirer's Mythical Thought, as in his debate with Cassirer at Davos, stood the Freiburg philosopher's vehement rejection of the presupposition of an underlying formal unity of consciousness, the idea of “consciousness-in-general,” which Cassirer had appropriated from the Kantian and neo-Kantian epistemologies. Thus, in his review, Heidegger explicitly challenged the presupposition according to which “all ‘reality’ should be considered valid insofar as it is a construct of the constitutive acts of consciousness” (alle ‘Wirklichkeit’ als Gebilde des gestaltenden Bewuβtseins gelten soll).12

In this review Heidegger criticized above all the idea that in the forms of pure temporal and spatial intuition and of pure concepts, an unchanging fundamental structure of consciousness underlies the acts of objectification that give rise to all possible world-images. It was the possibility of (p.122) presupposing this uniform model of consciousness that Heidegger questioned, first in Sein und Zeit, and then in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics (on which Cassirer wrote a critical, and seldom-cited review).13 To Heidegger's mind, the Kantian and neo-Kantian model of consciousness was above all incapable of accounting for the fundamental role of time.

Heidegger did not deny the possibility of interpreting time in relation to symbolic forms in Cassirer's sense, according to which temporality may be approached either in an essentially qualitative aspect, as in mythical-religious thinking, or in its quantitative aspect, in harmony with the modern scientific world-image. However, time conceived as a symbolic form hardly exhausts the possibilities of interpretation. On the contrary, for Heidegger it stems from the ordinary or “vulgar” comprehension of time, in other words, from “being in time” (in der Zeit sein).14 And, since Cassirer's analysis focused on the objectification of phenomena in time, it could not discern what was, from Heidegger's perspective, truly fundamental, namely, the temporal finitude of Dasein. Far from denoting intuitive or conceptual forms in terms of the different symbolic configurations, time, interpreted as the temporal finitude of Dasein, configures being-in-the-world. According to Heidegger's well-known argument, it is not consciousness in its formal unity but rather a polarity in the ways of being-in-the-world that ultimately provides the basis for Dasein's possibilities of meaningful interaction. Only in terms of this polarity is it possible to interpret Dasein's capacity to confer meaning, not only on present “objects,” but also on the possibilities of existence in the distant past—“authentically,” where guided by comprehension in light of Dasein's finite being, and “inauthentically,” where Dasein, in its attempts at comprehension, discounts, neglects, or denies the significance of its own finitude in the structuring of meaningful interaction in the world.

This is not the place to examine the implications for the human sciences of the shift in perspective that Heidegger introduced with his ontology of finite Dasein, which is a theme I have dealt with in other writings.15 I will limit myself to three comments that have immediate bearing on the problem of the relation between world-images, as Heidegger dealt with this problem during the period of Sein und Zeit. This term, to which—as I will have occasion to note—Heidegger referred in a brief albeit significant comment in paragraph 11 of Sein und Zeit (1927), played a more prominent role in two writings stemming from approximately the same period, “The Essence of the Ground” (“Vom Wesen des Grundes,” 1929) and The Fundamental (p.123) Concepts of Metaphysics: World—Finitude—Solitude, presented as a course at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau during the academic year 1929–30.

First, it is in terms of its finite temporal existence, grounding its ways of being-in-the-world, that Dasein, for Heidegger, configures a “world-image” (Weltbild). From this perspective, the world-image, far from comprising a totality of external objects constituted by a subject, corresponds to the ways of being of Dasein. And it is in this sense that Heidegger specified that Dasein is, in the “essence of its being,” a “world-imaging” being (Dasein ist im Wesen seines Seins weltbildend).16

Second, if Heidegger challenged Cassirer's methodology—and, by the same token, that predominant in the human sciences—it was not because he doubted the possibility of identifying a principle of coherence linking up the different epochs of history that is capable of laying the groundwork for an interpretation of the past. In the framework of an ontology of finitude, the statement, Dasein ist weltbildend, or Dasein is a world-imaging being, presupposes that the finitude of Dasein is fundamentally constitutive of its temporal and historical modes of configuring a world; it is this finitude of existence that, irrespective of ethnological particularity or historical epoch, provides a basis of intelligibility for the implicit lines of continuity linking the different world-images. Heidegger explained in Sein und Zeit, following a critical reference to Cassirer's Mythical Thought, that the “ordering of world-images” (Ordnung von Weltbildern) requires an explication of the “idea of world as such” (Idee von Welt überhaupt)— that is, insight into the world-configuring structures of Dasein.17 And on the basis of such insight, Heidegger proposed in his review of Cassirer's Mythical Thought that, in the interpretation of myth, the ontology of Dasein elaborated in Sein und Zeit might be substituted for Cassirer's neo-Kantian epistemology. Heidegger wrote in this vein that “the interpretation of the essence of myth as a possibility of human Dasein remains arbitrary and without orientation as long as it is not grounded in a radical ontology of Dasein, comprehended in light of the problem of being.”18

Far more fruitful for the interpretation of the Weltbild than Cassirer's epistemology, are for Heidegger the existentialia underlying the polarity in the modes of Dasein's finite being-in-the-world, such as the Faktizität (facticity) of Geworfenheit (being thrown), Existenz, and Verfallenheit (fallenness). Finite being-in-the-world, which constitutes the implicit lines of continuity that traverse mythical and modern ways of existence, thus (p.124) serves as the hermeneutic principle required to make sense of the mythical world-image as well as, more generally, of the world-images predominant in past historical epochs or foreign cultures. In this respect it is striking that Heidegger in his review, like Cassirer in Mythical Thought, did not draw any fundamental distinction between myth in contemporary non-Western cultures and myth in far distant epochs. Moreover, the presupposition concerning the interpretability of myth, albeit in terms not of a formal unity of consciousness but of finite Dasein, highlights his assumption in this period concerning the lines of geographical and historical continuity—hence a basis for commensurability—running through the most diverse expressions of human existence.

This brings us to our third consideration regarding Heidegger's critique of Cassirer's Mythical Thought. If both Cassirer and Heidegger posited the existence of a hermeneutic principle according to which the modern world-image might legitimately interpret mythical conceptions of the world, Heidegger's attempt to shift the foundation of this principle from the formal unity of consciousness to the finite structures of Dasein had important consequences for his assumptions concerning how these world-images are related. We have noted that, for Cassirer, the claim that mythical systems may legitimately be interpreted in terms of rational criteria presupposed a progressive movement in the development of mythical systems “toward” rational attitudes, which are capable of advancing a more “truthful” account of the world than myth could ever provide. Judging from Heidegger's notion of the historicity of Dasein in Being and Time, however, the “ordering of world-images” to which he refers in this work cannot accept the idea of advance or progression in Cassirer's sense. Nowhere does this come to light more clearly than in Heidegger's criticism of Cassirer in his review of Mythical Thought, particularly with regard to the use of the theme of “mana” as a designation for the mythical relation to the sacred, which I will briefly discuss before turning to the later period of Cassirer's thought.

In his succinct critique of Cassirer's interpretation of “mana” as a fundamental form of the mythical approach to the sacred, Heidegger drew an important conclusion from his rejection of Cassirer's model of consciousness. For this critique also entailed a rejection of Cassirer's idea of a “process” of mythical thought through which—notably in the mythical comprehension of the sacred as “mana”—the rational faculties implicit in the most rudimentary forms of consciousness encounter inherent limits that gradually lead to the overthrow of mythical modes of thought per se. (p.125) Whereas, from Cassirer's perspective, the sacred is gradually displaced in the course of this process, and is no longer centered on objects in the world but directed instead toward a transcendent and ideal source, Heidegger's critique raised doubts about the very significance of such a process. Far more fundamental from Heidegger's perspective was, on the contrary, Dasein's tendency, in the context of both modern and mythical world-images, to interpret its own existence in terms of the world and thus to neglect the finitude of its being, which radically distinguishes it from the world with which it is preoccupied. Taken in this sense, mythical and modern ways of interpreting the world constitute two different expressions of how being is understood, rooted in identical existential structures of Dasein that involve two ways of being thrown (geworfen) into and absorbed (benotnmen) by the world. And, the modern world-image, far from having overcome the essential limitations of the mythical world-image—for example, its comprehension of the sacred as “mana”—simply engages different ontic expressions of the same ontological structures or, as comes to light in Heidegger's review, different articulations of Dasein's “thrownness” that govern the modes by which it is absorbed in the world.19

In the final analysis, the essential difference between Cassirer's and Heidegger's respective orientations regarding the relation of mythical and modern world-images arises from their radically different presuppositions concerning human historicity. Instead of progression in the historical movement of the mythical process, Heidegger focused his analysis on repetition (Wiederholung) of authentic possibilities of existence implicit in the past, revealed through Dasein's capacity for resolute decision in view of its being-toward-death.

Just before his critical allusion to Cassirer's Mythical Thought, Heidegger wrote the following in paragraph 11 of Sein und Zeit: “Since the positive sciences neither ‘can’ nor should wait for the ontological work of philosophy, the advance of research will not be brought about in terms of ‘progress’ (Fortschritt), but as repetition (Wiederholung) and a more transparent ontological purification of what has been ontically discovered.”20 If the broad orientation of Sein und Zeit, and the more specific critique of Cassirer's Mythical Thought, hardly elucidated what exactly such a purification of ontic discoveries might mean for the positive sciences, these works did illustrate just how radically Heidegger questioned the role of the positive sciences and Western rationality as a fundamental source of progress.

(p.126) III

In the final chapter of the Myth of the State, entitled “The Technique of Modern Political Myths,” and completed during the last months of the Second World War, Cassirer noted that contemporary humanity had learned a “lesson that is very humiliating to our human pride,” adding “we have learned that modern man, in spite of his restlessness, and perhaps precisely because of his restlessness, has not really surmounted the condition of savage life.”21

It was this conviction that led Cassirer, in his last book, to apply his theory of myth not only to far distant epochs and non-Western cultures but equally to contemporary Europe itself. At the very end of his Mythical Thought, Cassirer had already asserted that “even after they have been transcended, the productions of myth have by no means lost all meaning and force,” and that even in the modern world religious representations hardly seem able to entirely dispense with the vestiges of myth.22 In keeping with the conviction that modern man had not surmounted the condition of savage life following the experience of Germany in the 1930s and of the Second World War, Cassirer went a good deal further in The Myth of the State. He stated that the role of magic and mythology in primitive society “applies equally well to highly advanced stages of man's political life.”23 Cassirer's affirmation here, however, raises anew the question asked at the outset of our analysis, regarding the principle of interpretation of different historical epochs and cultures and, above all, concerning the commensurability of the criteria of judgment that are applied to them. Is it, indeed, legitimate to apply the term “myth” to world-images as heterogeneous as those of preliterate societies and of modern Western cultures? Or is this term simply an abstraction that obscures at least as much as it reveals? These questions are all the more central to our discussion given the critical appraisal of Heidegger's thought that Cassirer provided in this later work, in highlighting Heidegger's responsibility in fueling “modern political myths.”

At first sight, there is a striking difference between the modern political myths and the premodern expressions of myth as dealt with by Cassirer in his works of the 1920s. In his view, whereas the myths of preliterate peoples arise spontaneously as the “wild products of an exuberant imagination,” modern political myths are “artificial things fabricated by very skillful and cunning artisans.”24 Moreover, in view of the rationalized (p.127) world-image of modern man, these modern mythical fabrications do not draw upon the same kind of comprehension as that found among ancient or preliterate cultures. Modern myths feed on elaborate theoretical orientations—such as Thomas Carlyle's idea of hero worship or Joseph Arthur de Gobineau's speculation on racial inequality—which, Cassirer admits, are ostensibly of a highly sophisticated nature.25

This great heterogeneity of premodern and modern political myths admittedly presents a difficult obstacle for Cassirer's analysis, which he attempts to surmount in terms of a key philosophical assertion. This philosophical assertion, I will argue, finds its firmest support in the ethical and political considerations it entails, in relation to which Cassirer engages his analysis of Heidegger.

Cassirer's theoretical justification for his application of myth to an interpretation of modern politics extends and refines the fundamental presupposition concerning the formal unity of consciousness that provided the epistemological bulwark for his earlier philosophy of symbolic forms. We noted above that Cassirer's model of consciousness presupposes a formal unity of the pure intuitive, conceptual, and rational faculties underlying both primitive and modern forms of thought, which vary through symbolic elaboration in terms of divergent world-images. In The Myth of the State Cassirer emphasized more centrally than before—correlative to the general continuity in the underlying faculties of consciousness—a persistence of the basic human emotions that give rise to myth. For Cassirer these basic emotions have by no means disappeared in the modern world and, in extreme situations, even lead to the recrudescence of magical rites akin to those of the most primitive societies; and it is this continuity underlying human emotional dispositions that forms the basis for Cassirer's conviction concerning the legitimacy of identifying these modern beliefs as essentially “mythical” in character.

It is beyond the framework of the present paper to provide a detailed account of Cassirer's theory of modern political myths in their relation to other forms of mythical world-images. I will limit my analysis to what I take to be Cassirer's essential argument in this respect, namely, that the emotional dispositions that, in extreme situations, give rise to myth, aim in magical and ritual practices to completely subordinate the individual to collective modes of existence. According to Cassirer's analysis, the attempt by totalitarian regimes to completely draw under their control not only public life but also the private sphere by means of uniformly performed (p.128) rituals, magical incantations, and ubiquitous imagery, provides a fruitful illustration of the link between modern political myths and primitive expressions of myth, which likewise subordinate the individual to collective demands. Pursuing a forceful line of analysis, the criterion of commensurability for all forms of mythical world-image that Cassirer establishes is inspired by reflection deeply rooted in a long tradition of Kantian and neo-Kantian ethical and political philosophy. Nowhere does this current of his thought come to the fore more clearly than in his discussion of the modern recrudescence of ritual practices most typical of premodern societies: “The effect of these new rites is obvious. Nothing is more likely to lull asleep all our active forces, our power of judgment and critical discernment, and to take away our feeling of personality and individual responsibility than the steady, uniform, and monotonous performance of the same rites. As a matter of fact in all primitive societies ruled and governed by rites individual responsibility is an unknown thing. What we find here is only a collective responsibility. Not the individuals, but the group is the real ‘moral subject’. The clan, the family, and the whole tribe are responsible for the actions of all the members.”26

In the final analysis, the essential problem posed by the recrudescence of myth is the loss of individual moral judgment and individual freedom. In the Western world, according to Cassirer, the role of reason in the gradual process by which the mythical world-image overcomes its own inherent limitations bears witness to the close connection between the advent of scientific rationality and that of the individual's capacity to freely act in keeping with moral judgment. Indeed, Kant's conviction concerning the intrinsic connection between pure theoretical reason and pure practical reason finds a powerful later justification in Cassirer's theory of myth.

Following this cogent elaboration of his theory of myth, Cassirer's analysis of Heidegger at the very end of The Myth of the State, is nonetheless perplexing. Cassirer states that although Heidegger's theories did not necessarily have a direct bearing on the development of political thought in Germany, they do share responsibility for undermining the forces that “could have resisted the modern political myths.”27 And Heideggeer's responsibility lies precisely in the elaboration of a philosophical orientation that roots all human understanding in the facticity of a particular condition into which Dasein is thrown (geworfen), and thereby leaves no place for universally valid truths, posited by reason, which are essential to (p.129) autonomous ethical action.28 Indeed, Cassirer drew the surprising conclusion that this tendency to deny the autonomy of rational standards and to root Dasein's understanding in the factical conditions into which it is thrown in Heidegger's thought is tantamount to historical determinism: “We have to accept the historical conditions of our existence,” Cassirer wrote, referring to Heidegger's philosophy, “we can try to understand and to interpret them; but we cannot change them.”29

This charge of historical determinism in Heidegger reaches to the heart of the divergence between them that I have been trying to draw out. If Heidegger did indeed sharply criticize the assumption of universal validity (Allgemeingültigkeit) of rational standards in the Kantian sense, this did not entail the kind of historical determinism that Cassirer attributed to Heidegger's orientation. On the contrary, in Being and Time and other contemporary writings of Heidegger, Dasein is presented as capable of freely choosing the mode of existence orienting its historicity; free choice in Heidegger's perspective, however, is conceived of not in terms of autonomous action founded on reason in the Kantian and neo-Kantian sense, but in terms of resolute decision in light of Dasein's finite being-toward-death.

On the basis of this remark, it might seem at first glance that Cassirer's cursory interpretation of Heidegger in The Myth of the State presents an imprecise account of Heidegger's philosophy. However, Cassirer's interpretation becomes considerably clearer if one recalls the basis of Heidegger's earlier critique of Cassirer in his review of the latter's Mythical Thought. In that review Heidegger had challenged Cassirer's reliance on Kantian epistemology, while advancing the claim that a true understanding of myth must be rooted in the ontological interpretation of Dasein, which entails an analysis of Dasein's existential structures, and in particular, of the facticity of being thrown (Geworfenheit). If Heidegger's analysis does in some way imply the “impossibility of changing historical conditions” it does not suggest, as one might wrongly construe from Cassirer's all too brief statement, that human beings cannot change any of the conditions of their historical existence, but rather that—as was shown in the first part of this paper—human historicity for Heidegger does not admit of “progress” beyond the mythical world-image in any fundamental ontological sense. For Cassirer, however, only such progress beyond the group constraints imposed by the mythical world-image can lead to freedom in any meaningful sense of the term.

(p.130) Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the fact that Cassirer, in The Myth of the State, throws back at Heidegger the latter's own earlier affirmation that only an analysis of the existential structures of Dasein, and particularly of “being thrown” (Geworfenheit), could provide fundamental insight into myth. In claiming in this later work that a philosophy that roots human understanding primarily in the facticity of “being thrown” can only result in historical determinism, Cassirer was stipulating by implication that Heidegger's existential philosophy, far from providing the key to understanding myth, had itself come to glorify the very loss of freedom that is the primary danger inherent in the mythical world-image Heidegger himself had purported to explain.

Of course, as Cassirer himself acknowledged during the Davos debate, his disagreement with Heidegger did not ultimately admit of any resolution on the basis of purely logical premises. In the final analysis, the divergence between them rested on presuppositions grounded in a decision concerning the very meaning of philosophy itself or, as Cassirer summed it up, citing a particularly appropriate aphorism of Fichte: “What philosophy one chooses, depends on what kind of a person (Mensch) one is.”30

Notes

(1.) Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 37.

(2.) Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1972), 51–52, idem, “Das mythische Denken” (1928), appendix to Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, Gesamtausgabe, 3 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1991), 265, idem, Einleitung in die Philosophie, Gesamtausgabe, 27 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1996), 358–362.

(3.) Ernst Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, vol. 2, Das mythische Denken (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994), 78f; in the English-language edition, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. 2, Mythical Thought, trans. by Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), 60f.

(4.) Martin Heidegger, “E. Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 2. Teil: Das mythische Denken” (1928), in Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, 255.

(5.) Ernst Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. vol. 1, Die Sprache (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1953), 22; the English-language edition is Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. 1, Language, trans. by Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 89. In this context Cassirer writes: “In the symbolic function of consciousness—as it operates in language, in art, in myth—certain unchanging fundamental forms (gleichbleibende Grundgestalten), some of a conceptual and some of a purely sensory nature, disengage themselves from the stream of consciousness; the flux (p.131) of contents is replaced by a self-contained and enduring unity of form.” See also Cassirer, “Das mythische Denken,” 78f (Manheim trans., 60f).

(6.) Cassirer, “Das mythische Denken,” 22–35; Cassirer, Die Sprache, 3–41 (Manheim trans., 73–105). For Cassirer it is precisely this symbolic representation that in the history of Western thought accounts, for example, for the distinction between Euclidean and Einsteinian interpretations of mathematics. Cf. Ernst Cassirer, Zur Einstein'scben Relativitätstheorie: Erkenntnistheoretische Betrachtungen (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1921), 101.

(7.) Cassirer, Das mythische Denken, 89 (Manheim trans., 69).

(8.) Cassirer, Das mythische Denken, 147 (Manheim trans., 120).

(9.) Cassirer, Die Sprache, 22 (Manheim ed., 89).

(10.) Cassirer, Das mythische Denken, 100–103 (Manheim trans., 79–82).

(11.) Ibid., 100 (Manheim trans., 79f).

(12.) Heidegger, “Das mythische Denken,” 265. In his 1928–1929 Freiburg course lectures Einleitung in die Pbilosopbie, Heidegger, referring both to Cassirer's Das mythische Denken and to his own review of this work published a few months earlier, criticized what he took to be the inadequacy of Cassirer's interpretation of myth as the expression of a determinate “attitude of consciousness” (Betvuβtseinshaltung) for understanding the truth of myth (Wahrheit des Mythos). He stipulated that in this regard Cassirer's “specifically Kantian standpoint had prevented him from seeing this problem.” Heidegger, Einleitung in die Philosophie, 362.

(13.) Ernst Cassirer, “Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik,” Kant-Studien 36 (1931): 1–26.

(14.) Heidegger, “Das mythische Denken,” 259.

(15.) Jeffrey Andrew Barash, Martin Heidegger and the Problem of Historical Meaning, 2nd ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003), and idem, Heidegger et son siècle: Temps de l'Etre, temps de l'histoire (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995).

(16.) Martin Heidegger, “Vom Wesen des Grundes,” Wegmarken (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1967), 55, idem, Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, Gesamtausgabe, 29–30 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1983), 261f.

(17.) Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 51–52.

(18.) Heidegger, “Das mythische Denken,” 265.

(19.) Ibid., 267–269.

(20.) Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 51.

(21.) Cassirer, Myth of the State, 285–286.

(22.) Cassirer, Das mythische Denken, 291, 296 (Manheim trans., 243, 247–248).

(23.) Cassirer, Myth of the State, 279.

(24.) Ibid., 282.

(25.) Ibid., 281.

(26.) Ibid., 284–85.

(27.) Ibid., 293.

(28.) This critique of Heidegger's philosophy in view of his attempt to ground rational faculties in the temporalizing modes of Dasein, already came to the fore in Cassirer's comments at the Davos debate and in his review of Heidegger's Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. In this review, he criticized Heidegger's interpretation of Kant as being (p.132) unable to account for the Kantian moral philosophy based upon the idea of free action in accordance with universally valid rational standards. For this reason, Cassirer accused Heidegger of proposing, not an ontology in the true sense of the word, but rather a relativistic anthropology. Cassirer, “Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik.” I have dealt with this theme in greater detail in Heidegger and the Problem of Historical Meaning, 236–242.

(29.) Cassirer, Myth of the State, 293.

(30.) Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger, “Davoser Vorträge” in Heidegger, to Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, appendix, 292.

Notes:

(1.) Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 37.

(2.) Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1972), 51–52, idem, “Das mythische Denken” (1928), appendix to Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, Gesamtausgabe, 3 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1991), 265, idem, Einleitung in die Philosophie, Gesamtausgabe, 27 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1996), 358–362.

(3.) Ernst Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, vol. 2, Das mythische Denken (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994), 78f; in the English-language edition, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. 2, Mythical Thought, trans. by Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), 60f.

(4.) Martin Heidegger, “E. Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 2. Teil: Das mythische Denken” (1928), in Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, 255.

(5.) Ernst Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. vol. 1, Die Sprache (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1953), 22; the English-language edition is Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. 1, Language, trans. by Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 89. In this context Cassirer writes: “In the symbolic function of consciousness—as it operates in language, in art, in myth—certain unchanging fundamental forms (gleichbleibende Grundgestalten), some of a conceptual and some of a purely sensory nature, disengage themselves from the stream of consciousness; the flux (p.131) of contents is replaced by a self-contained and enduring unity of form.” See also Cassirer, “Das mythische Denken,” 78f (Manheim trans., 60f).

(6.) Cassirer, “Das mythische Denken,” 22–35; Cassirer, Die Sprache, 3–41 (Manheim trans., 73–105). For Cassirer it is precisely this symbolic representation that in the history of Western thought accounts, for example, for the distinction between Euclidean and Einsteinian interpretations of mathematics. Cf. Ernst Cassirer, Zur Einstein'scben Relativitätstheorie: Erkenntnistheoretische Betrachtungen (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1921), 101.

(7.) Cassirer, Das mythische Denken, 89 (Manheim trans., 69).

(8.) Cassirer, Das mythische Denken, 147 (Manheim trans., 120).

(9.) Cassirer, Die Sprache, 22 (Manheim ed., 89).

(10.) Cassirer, Das mythische Denken, 100–103 (Manheim trans., 79–82).

(11.) Ibid., 100 (Manheim trans., 79f).

(12.) Heidegger, “Das mythische Denken,” 265. In his 1928–1929 Freiburg course lectures Einleitung in die Pbilosopbie, Heidegger, referring both to Cassirer's Das mythische Denken and to his own review of this work published a few months earlier, criticized what he took to be the inadequacy of Cassirer's interpretation of myth as the expression of a determinate “attitude of consciousness” (Betvuβtseinshaltung) for understanding the truth of myth (Wahrheit des Mythos). He stipulated that in this regard Cassirer's “specifically Kantian standpoint had prevented him from seeing this problem.” Heidegger, Einleitung in die Philosophie, 362.

(13.) Ernst Cassirer, “Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik,” Kant-Studien 36 (1931): 1–26.

(14.) Heidegger, “Das mythische Denken,” 259.

(15.) Jeffrey Andrew Barash, Martin Heidegger and the Problem of Historical Meaning, 2nd ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003), and idem, Heidegger et son siècle: Temps de l'Etre, temps de l'histoire (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995).

(16.) Martin Heidegger, “Vom Wesen des Grundes,” Wegmarken (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1967), 55, idem, Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, Gesamtausgabe, 29–30 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1983), 261f.

(17.) Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 51–52.

(18.) Heidegger, “Das mythische Denken,” 265.

(19.) Ibid., 267–269.

(20.) Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 51.

(21.) Cassirer, Myth of the State, 285–286.

(22.) Cassirer, Das mythische Denken, 291, 296 (Manheim trans., 243, 247–248).

(23.) Cassirer, Myth of the State, 279.

(24.) Ibid., 282.

(25.) Ibid., 281.

(26.) Ibid., 284–85.

(27.) Ibid., 293.

(28.) This critique of Heidegger's philosophy in view of his attempt to ground rational faculties in the temporalizing modes of Dasein, already came to the fore in Cassirer's comments at the Davos debate and in his review of Heidegger's Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. In this review, he criticized Heidegger's interpretation of Kant as being (p.132) unable to account for the Kantian moral philosophy based upon the idea of free action in accordance with universally valid rational standards. For this reason, Cassirer accused Heidegger of proposing, not an ontology in the true sense of the word, but rather a relativistic anthropology. Cassirer, “Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik.” I have dealt with this theme in greater detail in Heidegger and the Problem of Historical Meaning, 236–242.

(29.) Cassirer, Myth of the State, 293.

(30.) Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger, “Davoser Vorträge” in Heidegger, to Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, appendix, 292.