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An Essay on Man

An Essay on Man

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Published by Kevin Goodman
A summary and critical analysis of Ernst Cassirer's An Essay on Man.

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A summary and critical analysis of Ernst Cassirer's An Essay on Man.

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Published by: Kevin Goodman on Oct 27, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Reflections on Ernst Cassirers
 An Essay on Man
Kevin Goodman
Skidmore College
eflections on Ernst Cassirers
 An Essay on Man
Kevin Goodman
1 |Page 
An Essay on Man, by Ernst Cassirer, presents a philosophy of culture through an examination of the various modes of human knowledge, which for Cassirer, defines culture. Cassirer begins hisdefense by stating that we are in a ³crisis´ in our knowledge of ourselves. The question of cultureis the question of who we are. For Cassirer this problem requires a structuralist approach as wecannot merely contemplate the nature of our existence but must contextualize it. The problem,however, is that each individual has their own way of seeing the world as do the variousdisciplines. Truth is multifaceted and the various modes of human knowledge seemcontradictory. Religion yields a different truth than science but so too does the particular sciencefrom other sciences, Cassirer claims there is little unity²human knowledge has becomefragmented. Therefore, it is Cassirer¶s quest to find the common thread, or as he says, ³a clue of Ariadne to lead us out of this labyrinth.´For Cassirer to solve this problem he must find a common reducible phenomenon that isfoundational to all aspects of human knowledge. The primal mechanism of our self-awareness,he proposes, is symbolic thought. Cassirer¶s proposition is that symbolic thinking has led to allknowledge, to language, myth, religion, art, and science. Accordingly, man no longer lives ³in amerely physical universe,´ says Cassirer, ³man lives in a symbolic universe.´ Therefore, theuniverse is a condition to man¶s experience within it as he can only relate and reason accordingto his own experience. Cassirer makes a point of telling us the distinction between a symbol anda mere ³sign,´ as a sign represents something physical. Cassirer¶s symbol is an ideal ³form´rather than an indicative or imitative form. Cassirer¶s symbolic thinking is a subjective universe,a world shaped by experience rather than a world as it is, apart from man. Accordingly, manseeks to know the universe in order to interpret himself. Here is where man becomes reflective
eflections on Ernst Cassirers
 An Essay on Man
Kevin Goodman
and rises above nature, becoming something other than animal, a difference that gravelyconcerns Cassirer.The problem of man is in part the difference that sets him apart from the other animals,from the rest of nature. Animals might possess the ability to interpret signs but they fail a trulysymbolic thought process. Cassirer offers the concepts of space and time as evolutionary leaps insymbolic thinking. If animals possess a rudimentary capacity for symbolic thought it is man¶sconception of space and time that really separates him and makes possible the advanced forms of culture and knowledge. What concerns Cassirer is not actual space and time butconceptualizations of space and time. A point that I disagree with is his insistence that primitiveman has an instinct for space, but is unable to conceptualize it. Cassirer uses ethnographicaccounts of contemporary tribes to illustrate his point. The reason I disagree with this particular  point is that Alaskan native whalers traditionally carried sticks with them from which they carvethe contours of the shoreline, which serves as a rudimentary map. From this point of view, I seethe possibility that primitive others may possess a different modality rather than lack a symbolicconception of space. This difference, however, does not falsify Cassirer¶s theory for an earlier human state of existence. Regardless of origins, symbolic space is a tool for making sense of theenvironment; it is the premise of geometry, geography, astronomy and the mathematicalsciences. Cassirer quotes Kant who says that space is our ³outer experience´ while time is our ³inner experience.´ Conceptual time gives us memory. As we move into the topic of memory,Cassirer once again becomes concerned with human differences that are apart from the animalworld. Cassirer suggests that human memory is more than the recollection of prior stimuli, but aconceptual reconstruction of the past, and again we see the symbolic process at work. Symbolic

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