The Symbolic Animal: An Introduction to Cassirer’s Philosophical Anthropology

Adam Westra

Saturday, Concordia – 16h30 to 17h15

Freud famously declared that a great “humiliation” was inflicted upon humanity’s self-image when modern biological theories “robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world.” Indeed, from Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) onwards, a concerted effort has been made to establish continuities between human nature – both body and mind – and the broader animal realm. While this approach continues to yield tremendous insights in such fields as genetics, medicine, and psychology, it also sharpens the central problem of philosophical anthropology: to articulate the specific nature and worth of humanity.

The German-Jewish philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) addresses this challenge in an original way. Breaking with longstanding philosophical tradition, he defines the human being not as a “rational animal” but as a “symbolic animal.” What distinguishes us from the animal realm, Cassirer avers, is our capacity to produce multiple systems of symbols which mediate our relation to reality, thereby freeing up new spheres in which our thought and action conform to ideal laws and forces. Cassirer deploys his philosophical anthropology as a philosophy of culture, devoted to language, myth, art, and natural science. In his monumental Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-1929), he presents a synthetic overview of culture, analyzing the specificity of each one of these symbolic forms while also bringing out their underlying unity. In the process, Cassirer provides a novel, holistic account of the human being as embedded in a cultural realm generated by the mind’s creative drive to form.

This presentation will introduce the central ideas of Cassirer’s philosophical anthropology and defend its relevance today.