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An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer presents an anthropological philosophy that proposes the study of humanity-and our culture-as a whole. Cassirer springboards off the eternal maxim Know Thyself. His intent is to define man through his use of symbols. He does this by illustrating humanity’s most “outstanding characteristic, [their] distinguishing mark [â€¦theirâ€¦] work” (68). By exposing and analyzing myth and religion, language, art, history, and science, Cassirer presents his intent in creating this philosophy of man, which is to purvey “insight into the fundamental structure of these human activities, and [â€¦] at the same time [â€¦] enable us to understand them as an organic whole” (68).
Cassirer commences his study by introducing myth and religion. He does not focus on the subject matter of these myths but rather the “form of mythical imagination and religious thought” (78). He unveils the meaning and technique behind past myths. Cassirer explains through past ethnologists-Malinowski-and psychologists-Freud-that myth is no longer accepted as allegorical and by using John Dewey’s notion, and stripping away the mysticism, he presents it as anthropological. This is because “[p]rimitive man expresses his feelings and emotions not in mere abstract symbols but in a concrete and immediate way” (79). Therefore, the real foundation of myth “is not a substratum of thought but of feeling” (81). This facet of myth gives way to the creation of primitive religion.
It was the initial breakdown of magic that paved the way for religion. Herbert Spencer said that “ancestor worship is to be regarded as the first source and the origin of religion” (84). This shows a sympathetic approach to primitive religion, which does not carry the presupposition that all religion originates from fear. The post-infra-intellectual-midway point between primitive and higher ethics-religions crafted their own ethical and moral interpretations of life, this is represented by Cassirer with the introduction of taboos. These are situations that would be dangerous to do and will have dire consequences, as dictated by religion. The excess of taboos could have made life unbearable for man. However, supra-intellectual-higher ethical-religions relieved humanity of the taboo system.
Language is “metaphorical. Unable to describe things directly, it resorts to indirect modes of description, to ambiguous and equivocal terms” (109). Cassirer commences his analysis of language as a symbol by presenting Democritus’ interjectional theory. This theory states that “human speech originates in certain sounds of a merely emotional character” (114). This could be described as a sort of onomatopoetic origin of language. However, Cassirer quickly dismisses this by saying that if we accept the thesis, then “semantics ceases to be a separate province; it becomes a branch of biology and physiology” (115). This means that language would be a part of the development of the human physiognomy, rather than-what Cassirer proposes, which is-a system of symbols. This system is not a creation of artificial signs, but rather the transformation of the concept of these objects by naming them, so that they may harmonize with the objective world. The usage of these names, their grammar and linguistic is symbolic in nature, ergo so is language. Its goal is therefore to strive for universal concepts, which in its process of denomination, shows that man gathers more knowledge.
Cassirer sees Art as a stepping stone “to some higher end” (137). Wherein the past section of the book individualism was admonished, in the art section it is crucial. Art is “an ideal description of human life” (205). Much like language with its presupposed origins of imitation, art was also considered to be mimesis in its origin which would make spontaneity or originality to be “disturbing rather than a constructive factor” (139). However, in an experiment conducted by Ludwig Ricther, he concludes that “there is no such thing as objective vision [â€¦it isâ€¦] always apprehended according to individual temper (145). This is because a “mere duplicate of reality would always be of very questionable value” (169). Cassirer compares and contrasts Science and Art, as to further explain the value behind the symbolical system of art. While science works in “understanding the reasons of things,” art works in “seeing their forms” (169). Art allows us to live vicariously and perceive the other’s objective with your own subjective perspective-in a sense “alternating our views of reality” (170). Therefore, we can see that Art is another of humanity’s symbolic tools that shape us and serves as a language helping us communicate pure forms.
Cassirer starts his History section by stating that a new idea of history must be created and the past Eleatic ideal must be discarded, the information gathered by our senses is not illusory. In this section Cassirer gives a brief overview of history, its protocols, obstacles, its biggest proponents and their constant endeavor towards objectivity. History cannot be reconstructed in a physical and objective sense, it must be remembered. Therefore, [i]deal reconstruction, not empirical observation, is the first step in historical knowledge” (174). The historian, unlike the physicist, must resort to a “symbolic universe” when asking his questions (175). Cassirer gives an example of this with a story of the discovery of an Egyptian papyrus, which at the beginning “belonged simply to the material world” (175). However, when another was discovered at the same site it was recognized as an important part of history. It was a comedy heretofore unknown and written by Menander, it became a symbol which “gave us new insight into Greek culture-into Greek life and Greek poetry” (175). History needs the historian to collect data and contextualize, only then does it gain meaning as a symbol. History molds the empirical reality into a new shape and gives it “the ideality of recollection” (205).
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