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The Symbolic Construction of Reality

The Legacy of Ernst Cassirer

In 1933 eminent philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) fled Nazi Germany for the United States. His fame in Europe having already been established through a public debate with Martin Heidegger in 1929, Cassirer would go on to become a noteworthy influence on American culture. His most important early writings focused on the symbol and symbolic interaction, exploring how human cultures—from early myth-based ones to our own modern, scientifically oriented time—have used symbols to mediate the basic forms of experience. Following this work, Cassirer extended his insights to encompass a broad spectrum of philosophical themes: from investigations into Western epistemological and scientific traditions to aesthetics and the philosophy of history to anthropology and political philosophy. Reflecting this diversity in Cassirer’s own work, The Symbolic Construction of Reality collects eleven essays by a wide range of contributors from different fields. Each essay analyzes a different aspect of his legacy, reassessing its significance for our contemporary world and bringing much-needed attention to this seminal thinker.


“These essays focus upon the conflict between myth and enlightenment in the modern political world. This theme, so important in Cassirer’s later writings, has been largely overlooked in favor of purely theoretical readings of his philosophy. This collection corrects this view and shows that Cassirer’s approach to this topic offers a key to his thinking. The essays show that this topic has lost none of its relevance and that the opposition between Cassirer and Heidegger, which appears in a variety of sometimes unexpected constellations in the essays, was more than a matter of theoretical interpretation.”

John Michael Krois, Humboldt University of Berlin

The Symbolic Construction of Reality is an extremely prestigious gathering of minds. The collected essays address two aspects of Cassirer’s central philosophical category, the symbol—first, the theory of the symbol itself in Cassirer’s thinking, and second, the ramifications of this theory, with particular reference to its philosophical implications and its relevance to history and politics. The contributors’ concern with the genesis and intellectual context of Cassirer’s thought makes this volume important to Cassirer experts as well as to those less familiar with his writings, and the high standards of argumentation and presentation on display ensure it will make a significant contribution to Cassirer studies and receive a warm welcome from a whole range of readers across the humanities.”

Paul Bishop, University of Glasgow

"Overall this is a stimulating volume and a significant contribution to the Cassirer renaissance."

Peter E. Gordon | Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"[A] welcome collection of essays on Cassirer."

Times Literary Supplement

Table of Contents



Part One

Foundations: Articulations of the Symbol

1. Symbol and History

Ernst Cassirer’s Critique of the Philosophy of History

Enno Rudolph

2. Ernst Cassirer on Nicholas of Cusa

Between Conjectural Knowledge and Religious Pluralism

Yossef Schwartz

3. History and Philosophy in Ernst Cassirer’s System of Symbolic Forms

Fabien Capeillères

4. Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms

A Foundational Reading

Gabriel Motzkin

Part Two

Themes: Symbolic Forms and Philosophy

5. Cassirer’s Metaphysics

Donald Phillip Verene

6. The Limits of Order

Cassirer and Heidegger on Finitude and Infinity

Michael Roubach

7. Ernst Cassirer’s Theory of Myth

On the Ethico-Political Dimension of His Debate with Martin Heidegger

Jeffrey Andrew Barash

Part Three

Ramifications: Symbol, History, Politics

8. The Myth of the State Revisited

Ernst Cassirer and Modern Political Theory

Joseph Mali

9. Cassirer’s Enlightenment and Its Recent Critics

Is Reason Out of Season?

Fania Oz-Salzberger

10. Practicing “Intertextuality”

Ernst Cassirer and Hermann Cohen on Myth and Monotheism

Almut Shulamit Bruckstein

11. The Hero of Enlightenment

Gideon Freudenthal

List of Contributors


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