At his death in 1945, the influential German philosopher Ernst Cassirer left manuscripts for the fourth and final volume of his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. John Michael Krois and Donald Phillip Verene have edited these writings and translated them into English for the first time, bringing to completion Cassirer's major treatment of the concept of symbolic form.
Ernst Cassirer believed that all the forms of representation that human beings use-language, myth, art, religion, history, science-are symbolic, and the concept of symbolic forms was the basis of his thinking on these subjects. In this volume, which contains one text written in 1928 and another in about 1940, Cassirer presents the metaphysics that is implicit in his epistemology and phenomenology of culture. The earlier text grounds the philosopher's conception of symbolic forms on a notion of human nature that makes a general distinction between Geist (mind) and life. In the later text, he discusses Basis Phenomena, an original concept not mentioned in any of his previous works, and he compares his own viewpoint with those of other modern philosophers, notably Bergson and Heidegger.
Cassirer died in 1945, leaving only drafts and fragments for the final volume of his magnum opus. Much of the text was written in 1928, though some dates from the 1940s. It appeared in German last year and is now translated by the editor of the Cassirer project in Berlin. Here we learn what "symbolic forms" really are and what they mean for our picture of human life. The work is still germane, for it confronts the much-advertised tendency of the human mind to produce a variety of interpretations of everything and confront reality only through linguistic peregrinations. Cassirer thinks none of this cuts us off from reality, which can only be understood through symbolic forms. In an effort at exactitude, the translation sometimes imposes a heavy hand on a Cassirer's subtleties, and readers may be disheartened at the absense of the German alongside the translationessential for a work composed of parts. But the book will not disappoint those who have waited so long for it.Leslie Armour, Univ. of Ottawa