You are on page 1of 18

Synthese (2011) 179:135152

DOI 10.1007/s11229-009-9624-7

From philosophy to criticism of myth: Cassirers

concept of myth

Ursula Renz

Received: 8 August 2006 / Accepted: 27 June 2008 / Published online: 14 July 2009
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Abstract This article discusses the question whether or not Cassirers philosophical
critique of technological use of myth in The Myth of the State implies a revision of
his earlier conception and theory of myth as provided by The Philosophy of Sym-
bolic Forms. In the first part, Cassirers early theory of myth is compared with other
approaches of his time. It is claimed that Cassirers early approach to myth has to be
understood in terms of a transcendental philosophical approach. In consequence, myth
is conceived as a form of cultural consciousness which is constituted by specific sym-
bolic processes. In the second part, the theoretical assumptions underlying Cassirers
criticism of myth are discussed and compared with his earlier theory. It is argued that
there is a strong conceptual and theoretical continuity between Cassirers early views
on myth as a symbolic form and his later critique of technological use of myth.

Keywords Hermann Cohen Myth Origin Schelling Lucien Lvy-Bruhl Logic

of pure knowledge Crisis The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms The Myth of the
State Religion Representation Symbolic constitution of meaning

There are two periods in Cassirers life when he showed an intensive interest in myth-
ical thought and the creation of myth. At first, mythical thought and the creation of
myth became important to him in his major project on the philosophy of symbolic
forms.1 Not only is the second volume of the work named after this project, but also
two quite long essays, namely Die Begriffsform im mythischen Denken (The Form of
the Concept in Mythical Thought) and Sprache und Mythos Ein Beitrag zum Problem

1 For the difference between the project of a philosophy of symbolic forms and the volumes which are
named after it, cf. Krois (1988, p. 16).

U. Renz (B)
Department of Culture and Identity, Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark

136 Synthese (2011) 179:135152

der Gtternamen (Language and Myth), are concerned with myth. Later, during the
Second World War, he addressed the issue again. Then, however, the theoretical con-
text was different. Cassirer was no longer primarily interested in the general problem
of culture, but rather in the question of idealistic foundations of politics.2 There, myth
is considered as a spiritual weapon of war and of politics3 ; and the analysis of myth
serves here to understand the possibility and the efficiency of this weapon. The results
of this analysis are presented not only in Cassirers last book The Myth of the State
(Cassirer 1946b), but also in many of the essays which prepare this work, as well as
in his study Axel Hgerstrm (Cassirer 2005).
Comparing these two periods of preoccupation with myth, one could come to the
conclusion that Cassirers general attitude towards myth changed radically. In the
twenties, he often celebrated myth as the matrix of the different cultural forms, from
which they all arise. Not only have all forms of cultural meaning their historical origin
in myth,4 he also held that myth has to be conceived as a necessary condition of all
cultural developments.5 Without the fertile ground of myth, no culture is conceiv-
able, and the theory of myth, according to the underlying methodological assumption
of Cassirers writings of the twenties, has thus an essential function in regard to the
understanding of all cultural forms. It is by means of a transcendental analysis of
mythical thought that the cultural origin of meaning generally is exhibited. In the for-
ties, in contrast, Cassirer displayed a more negative attitude towards mythical thought.
Myth, so he claims in several places, is systematically abused by actual techniques
of politics. The analysis of myth must therefore also provide the theoretical basis for
a philosophical critique of this political use of myth.6 This critique in turn, sheds an
altered light on mythical thought in general. It now appears as a potential danger that
has to be held under control. In the end of The Myth of the State for instance, myth is
compared with monsters surviving in modern culture and awaiting any opportunity to
plunge society into chaos again.7
At this point, the question might arise whether or not this politically motivated
approach to myth is consistent with the theory of myth exposed in the second volume
of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Does Cassirers philosophical critique of the
technical use of myth in fascist politics presuppose a revision of his former conception
of myth? Or does it, contrarily, rather rely on the very same theoretical assumptions
which were already provided by his former analysis of mythical thought?
There is no simple answer to this question. There is evidence for both interpre-
tive hypotheses, for the one presupposing theoretical continuity as well as for the one
assuming conceptual revision. On the one hand, Cassirer is still maintaining some
important theoretical claims in the forties which have been central to his view in the
twenties. So he sticks, for instance, to the idea that myth is some kind of matrix

2 The idea that politics is founded in ideas get most clear in his essays on political myth published in the
Collection on Symbol, Myth, and Culture (Cassirer 1979, pp. 233s, 242s).
3 Cassirer (1979, p. 235).
4 Cassirer (1946a, p. 44).
5 That is an important implication of the metaphor of matrix, cf. Recki (2004, p. 85f).
6 Cassirer (1979, p. 242f, 1946b, p. 277ff)
7 Cassirer (1946b, p. 298).

Synthese (2011) 179:135152 137

or Urschicht of culture that is fundamental to all kinds of cultural activities.8 On

the other hand, new elements appear in his later writings which were not discussed
in the twenties, as for example the idea that mythical thought has, in addition to its
epic aspect, a genuinely dramatic character.9 Moreover, the development of Cassirers
philosophical approach to myth is difficult to interpret, since he himself never com-
ments it in detail. Neither does he justify the mentioned alterations in the light of his
former theory of myth, nor does he defend his later position against his former views.
One can of course take this as a silent consent that he himself did not perceive any
major inconsistencies demanding justification. But this still leaves it to the interpreter
to decide if one can make sense of this development on the basis of a common concep-
tual framework, or if one has to regard it instead as the effect of the particular political
In my paper, I would like to suggest a reading of Cassirers philosophy of myth that
outlines some fundamental continuity without however considering the practical turn
of the forties as a necessary consequence. When developing his idealistic philosophy
of culture in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (hereafter PSF), Cassirer could not
possibly know that he would later use his philosophy of culture to understand how
political ideologies work. Nevertheless, one must not perceive a break between his
philosophy of culture of the twenties and of the forties. Instead, it is important to
understand the critical impact of his early preoccupation with myth. In the first sec-
tion, I will, therefore, consider some of the critical implications of Cassirers theory
of mythical thought presented in the second volume of his PSF, before I show, in the
second section, how to understand the conceptual continuity between Cassirers early
philosophy and his later criticism of myth.
Before I start, however, a preliminary remark has to be made about Cassirers
approach to culture in general. It has often been observed that the PSF operates on dif-
ferent theoretical levels. The PSF first puts forward intriguing hypotheses concerning
the theoretical foundations of semiotics. Secondly, it outlines a historical-philosophical
interpretation of the development of human consciousness in or through culture. Inso-
far the PSF is always focused on the function of culture for human orientation. It
involves, thirdly, always an anthropological dimension. Finally, in regard to its meth-
odology, it pursues a transcendental as well as a phenomenological project.
In the analysis of Cassirers arguments, it is often difficult to distinguish these four
theoretic levels. Moreover, once they are distinguished, it often remains difficult to
determine, how they are related to each other. It is therefore not surprising that many of
the debates in Cassirer research stem from this particular complexity of his philosophy
of culture.
These problems must, of course, also be dealt with in an analysis of Cassirers
philosophy of myth. I think, however, that in regard to myth more than to any other
issue in Cassirer, it is important to understand the complementary character of these
different levels of his culture analysis. One misses the point of Cassirers philosophy
of myth if one reduces it to a mere anthropological theory on mythical thought, nor

8 Cassirer (1946a, p. 44, 2005, p. 85 or 1979, pp. 235 or 245).

9 Cassirer (1979, p. 238).

138 Synthese (2011) 179:135152

is it simply a kind of historical-philosophical tale on the rise of religion from myth. It

operates always on more than just one of these four levels. But they can nevertheless be
investigated separately and some can be emphasized more than others. I will consider,
in the following, Cassirers philosophy of myth particularly under the perspective of
its critical implications and therefore mainly focus on the aspect of his transcendental
method and on the historical-philosophical view on the development of culture.

1 The critical implications of Cassirers approach to myth in his philosophy

of symbolic forms

In order to understand Cassirers philosophy of myth, it is necessary to answer three

First: Why, according to Cassirer, is myth, or more general: mythical thought, of any
philosophical concern? This question is particularly relevant because, with the rare
exception of Schelling and, probably, Plato, myth has never been an important issue
in philosophy up to this time. I will therefore address this question by showing how
Cassirer establishes his philosophy of mythology in a double contrast to ethnology
and the tradition of philosophy.
Secondly: How is the cultural origin of myth to be conceived? This is particularly
important since it can be considered as a major claim of the PSF that even myth,
which is often regarded as a primitive or original way of human thinking, is a form
of culture. In my answer, I will focus on Cassirers use of the Schellingian concept of
crisis. Although he does not extensively discuss this concept, it is quite central to his
understanding of myth as well as to his philosophy of culture in general.
Thirdly: What distinguishes myth from the other cultural forms which rise from
it? Here, of course, one can refer to several characteristics. I will, however, restrict
my exposition to two points: I will first discuss the fact that myth is not confronted
with cultural plurality. Secondly, I will compare it to religion which is discriminated
from myth by the idea that religion knows itself as a symbolic form, whereas myth
ignores this. I take these two issues to be decisive in regard to the question whether
myth, though it is not at all primitive, can be considered as some kind of pre-modern
In the following, these questions are addressed one after the other. It will become
clear that Cassirer not only gives a philosophical description of particular elements
of myth, but he moreover suggests a kind of transcendental analysis of myth as a
form of thinking, so that the concept of myth can, at least in principle, be used in a
philosophical criticism of modern thought.

1.1 Why is myth of any philosophical concern?

In the preface to the second volume of the PSF, Cassirer characterizes his approach
to the problem of myth by comparing it, on the one hand, with empirical research
in ethnology or cultural anthropology as well as, on the other hand, with the con-
temptuous attitude towards myth in the philosophical tradition. Though, according to
Cassirer, comparative mythology has provided a huge amount of material, it has totally

Synthese (2011) 179:135152 139

neglected the question of what formal characteristics unite the different phenomena
theoretically. It therefore could not provide a conception of myth as a form of thinking
or of consciousness. A similar lack can be observed within the philosophical tradition.
Bothered with establishing the boundaries between justified and unjustified ways of
seeing the world, philosophy has rarely considered myth as a separate form of cultural
consciousness which was worth being taken seriously. The only exception Cassirer
really allows is Schellingwhom I will bring up later.
In contrast to these tendencies in comparative mythology and in the philosophical
tradition, Cassirer determines the scope of his own philosophy of mythology as fol-
lows: In order to get a philosophical understanding of myth, one must consider myth
as a form of objectivity which, just like science, has its roots in human consciousness.
The basic task of a philosophy of mythology is thus to discover the particular logic of
myth, so that it no longer appears chaotic.
This program is more sophisticated than one might think at first. In particular, atten-
tion has to be paid so as not to miss or to underestimate the critical impact it implies.
There are two reasons why this could happen quite easily. First, one has to be aware of
the methodological background on which the PSF operates. This background is more
complex than often assumed. In the introduction to the second volume for instance,
when Cassirer discusses the general methodological requirements of a philosophical
approach to myth, he not only refers, as it is obvious, to Schelling and Hegel, but also,
though merely implicitly, to the transcendental philosophy of Hermann Cohen. This
becomes most obvious where he draws the following conclusion:
In this respect [that is, in respect of the development of culture, U.R.] the prob-
lems growing out of a philosophy of mythology are immediately related to those
arising from the philosophy and logic of pure cognition.10
Although the phrase logic of pure cognition is not marked as citation, one can read
this statement as an allusion to Hermann Cohens logic. It can at least be assumed that
some of Cassirers contemporaries might have wondered if he was alluding to Cohens
logic, since the German phrase Logik der reinen Erkenntnis corresponds to the title
of Cohens work, usually translated into English as Logic of Pure Knowledge. I will
show later why this background matters. Before, however, I would like to point to the
second reason why the critique implied in Cassirers philosophy of myth can easily
be underestimated.
As I have already mentioned, Cassirer criticizes empirical research on myth because
of its lack of conceptual unity. Consistently with this critique, he himself uses this
research on myth merely as a pool of material. One could however object here that
this is somehow problematic. I cannot go into details here, but it is, indeed, true that
cultural anthropologists like, for instance, Edward Burnett Tylor, James George Frazer
or Lucien Lvy-Bruhl not only described and collected material, but they also pur-
sued particular theoretical interests.11 But even if Cassirer plays down the theoretical

10 Cassirer (1955, p. 26). Unfortunately, the expression logic of pure cognition, in German Logik der rei-
nen Erkenntnis, has not been identified as a citation of the title of Hermann Cohens logic in the Hamburger
Edition of Ernst Cassirers works.
11 Hrl (2005, p. 117f).

140 Synthese (2011) 179:135152

conclusions of these ethnologists, it would be wrong to assume that he did not see
them at all. On the contrary, Cassirers implicit criticism should not be underrated.
At first glance, for instance, his approach seems quite close to the main thesis of
Lvy-Bruhls works Les functions mentales dans les socits infrieures (translated
as How Natives Think) and La mentalit primitive (translated as Primitive Mental-
ity), whose examples are quoted at several places in the second volume of Cassirers
Symbolic Forms. In these works, Lvy-Bruhl explicates from the very beginning that
he does not primarily intend to provide a description of myth, but rather defend a
particular conception of mythical thought. He assumes that the seeming lack of logic
which was often observed at the time should not be regarded as incapacity. It is
rather due, so he claims, to the mystic character of thought of the so called prim-
itive peoples.12 It can thus be ascertained that already Lvy-Bruhl is mainly inter-
ested in mythical thought as a whole mental universe, and not primarily in particular
Cassirer, however, goes much further in this direction than Lvy-Bruhl. Particularly
one point has to be stressed here. In contrast to Lvy-Bruhl, he avoids any terminology
that presupposes mythical thought as pre-logical, primitive or archaic. The difference
between Lvy-Bruhls and Cassirers approach is not that the former is interested in
the content of myth, whereas the latter regards its structures. It rather consists in a
different theoretic interpretation of these structures. According to Cassirer, the struc-
tures of mythical thought must not be taken to be the mere expression of some kind of
pre-logical mentality, but they are to be conceived instead as the result of some basic
symbolic process. This however points to one of the most important presuppositions of
Cassirers own methodology. It is one of the fundamental tenets of his transcendental
approach to culture that all cultural forms, myth as well as formal logic, are to be
analyzed in terms of their symbolic constitution.
It is interesting to see at this point that there is a connection between the assumption
that myth is the result of symbolic forming and the allusion to Hermann Cohens Logic
of Pure Knowledge. This can best be shown by a short discussion of Cohens notion
of origin. In Cohens writings, the concept of origin first appears in connection with
epistemological questions and represents Cohens principal requirement that scien-
tific knowledge has to be accounted for in philosophy in terms of its intellectual roots
instead of relying finally on the brute giveness of its objects in sensation. As a his-
torical model for this requirement, he refers to Kants notion of intensive magnitude,
or degree.13 By means of this mathematical concept, so Cohen assumes, a conceptual
element can be found even in sensation. This in turn allows for the epistemological
claim that any reference to sensory giveness can in principle be replaced by a con-
ceptual analysis of the contents of our knowledge. The notion of origin hence does
not denote a historical beginning or a genealogical descent, but it requires instead an
epistemological justification by conceptual reconstruction.14

12 Lvy-Bruehl (1976, p. 39f).

13 Cohen (1984, p. 28).
14 Cohen (1997, p. 81). For an English exposition of Cohens notion of origin, cf. Poma (1997, pp. 9097).

Synthese (2011) 179:135152 141

Now, this principle of origin is not only the basic concept of Cohens logic or
epistemology, but also the general guideline of his cultural philosophy.15 In his ethics
and aesthetics, he requires an analogous justification for ethical concepts and, proba-
bly more surprisingly, for all kinds of aesthetic effects which he subsumes under the
notion of aesthetic feeling. In order to understand this move, its advisable to focus on
the negative side of this requirement, i.e. the demand to avoid any reliance on some
kind of giveness. Cohen demands that ethics and aesthetics have to reject all moral or
aesthetic categories which have their foundation in anthropology or psychology. He
obviously assumes that the presupposition of anthropological or psychological facts
in philosophy of culture is analogous to the assertion of ultimate sensory giveness of
objects in philosophy of science; and the principle of origin in the former thus serves
also in the latter to preclude some kind of brute giveness.16 It is, remarkable, in our
context, that Cohen often calls the assumption of psychological roots of knowledge,
norms or aesthetic feelings mythical. For Cohen hence, any form of psychologism
is, in the last, myth; and the transcendental justification of natural laws, ethical norms,
or aesthetic feelings by conceptual reconstruction amounts thus to no less than the
attempt to eradicate in principle any mythical remnant in philosophy.17
To characterize now Cassirers attitude towards Cohens concept of transcenden-
tal philosophy, one can best say that he extends the anti-psychologistic tendency of
his former teacher exactly into that field where, according to Cohen, the thread of
psychological explanation lurks. For Cohen, thinking about the psychological roots
of knowledge and about myth must both be rejected radically in philosophy. Not so
for Cassirer. If one wants to avoid psychologism, so he implicitly argues against his
former teacher, it is not only justified, but even necessary to think about myth in phi-
losophy. It is remarkable that he commences his argumentation, which is roughly the
subject-matter of the introduction of the second volume of The Philosophy of Sym-
bolic Forms, by comparing the notion of origin with the platonic notion of arche.
He thereby comes quite close to Cohens idea that philosophy has to answer the quest
for the origin of cultural phenomena not by exploring their historical derivations or
psychological causes, but by some kind of transcendental analysis.
There are, however, essential differences between the two approaches. They, first,
disagree in what is considered to be an appropriate object of transcendental philosophy.
Cohen, in opposition to Cassirer, would never have accepted that myth, too, can be
analyzed within a transcendental framework. Secondly, Cassirers cultural philosophy
differs from Cohens in its aim and method. For Cassirer, transcendental analysis of
cultural forms does not confine itself to an epistemological justification of contents
by means of conceptual reconstruction, but it suggests, instead, a phenomenological
description of the different cultural forms, which amounts finally in a philosophical
analysis of the constitution of cultural meaning in general.18

15 For a more detailed discussion on this issue cf. Renz (2002, p. 177f, 2005, Chap. 3).
16 Cohen (1981, p. 10f, 1982, p. 72f).
17 Cohen (1982, p. 120f).
18 For a discussion of the influence of Cohens philosophy in the early twenties cf. also Ferrari (2003,
pp. 139143), for a comparative analysis of their transcendental approach to culture, see Renz (2002).

142 Synthese (2011) 179:135152

To summarize our discussion, we can thus say that the general direction is the same
when Cassirer is undermining the idea of the pre-logical or primitive character of
mythical thought held in ethnology, and when he is transforming the transcendental
philosophy of his former teacher, so that it can be applied to the analysis of myth. In
both cases, he implicitly argues that the culturality of myth is underestimated. Whether
myth is conceived of under the label of primitive thought, or whether it is categori-
cally excluded from the domain of philosophical subject-matters, does not make any
difference in this point.
It is in contrast to this systematic underestimation of myth that Cassirer develops
his own approach which seeks to account for the cultural origin of myth. This, how-
ever, is not a self-sufficient goal. It has, on the contrary, to be understood against the
background of his general criticism of psychologistic or, more generally speaking, nat-
uralistic explanation of the constitution of cultural meaning. If it can be demonstrated
that even the contents of mythical thought are the outcome of a cultural process, so he
seems to assume, one can avoid any naturalism or psychologism in philosophy.

1.2 How can the cultural origin of myth be conceived?

Cassirer starts his analysis of myth by comparing it with science, or precisely, with
the organization of empirical and conceptual thought in science. The major point, he
thereby clarifies, is the following: Although both, science as well as myth, seem to
consist in a pure and simple relation to some sort of objectivity, there is a striking
difference between them. Mythical objectivity, in contrast to the one in science, lacks
any distinction between truth and appearance, or between things or spheres which are
considered to be true, and merely apparent things. The relation of myth to the objective
forms, so he says,
discloses no sign of that decisive crisis with which empirical and conceptual
knowledge begin. Its contents, to be sure, are given in an objective form, as real
contents, but this form of reality is still completely homogeneous and undiffer-
entiated. Here the nuances of significance and value which knowledge creates
in its concept of the object, which enable it to distinguish different spheres of
objects and to draw a line between the world of truth and the world of appearance,
are utterly lacking.19
It is for the first time in his philosophy of mythology that Cassirer makes use of the
Greek word krisis. The way Cassirer uses this word leaves no doubt that he inherits
it from Schellings Philosophy of Mythology. There, Schelling refers to the process
by which mythical ideas of the gods enter into Greek poetic and historical writing.
This process, which is also described as a transition from myth to mythology, takes
place in Homer, Hesiod and particularly in Herodotus. Within this process, the notion
of crisis denotes exactly the moment where by the differentiation of ideas of gods a
kind of emancipation takes place.20 This emancipation consists essentially in an act of

19 Cassirer (1955, p. 35).

20 Schelling (1995, p. 28f).

Synthese (2011) 179:135152 143

articulation. Religious experience which was, before the crisis, dominated by a quality
of dumb urgency is now expressed in poetic, or described in prosaic language. It is
this act of articulation which allows the subject to keep itself in a minimal distance
from the contents that form its mind.
This idea of an emancipation taking place by a transition from dumb urgency to
articulated and symbolized contents of mind is, of course, quite important for Cassirer.
It is possible to describe his general interest in the symbolic character of culture on the
background of this idea. He himself seems to adhere to this notion of emancipation
when, in the end of his Essay on Man, he conceives human culture as the process of
mans progressive self-liberation.21
Yet, when he first adopts Schellings concept of crisis, it is not primarily to focus
on the liberating effect of it, but rather to designate the origin of particular kinds of
cultural meaningfulness. By distinguishing, for instance, between truth and appear-
ance the domain of scientific knowledge is established. This origin, however, denotes
neither merely a historical event nor a psychological process, but it points primarily
to a conceptual precondition of any scientific process: Theoretical conceptualizations
as well as empirical findings are relevant only in the light of this distinction. In this
conceptual sense the crisis which brings the semantic distinction between the true and
the apparent into being is considered to be the origin of science as a particular cultural
form. It marks the point where science differentiates itself from other cultural forms
and constitutes at the same time the semantic field of scientific meaningfulness.
It is however important to be aware that the rise of scientific knowledge is just the
most illuminating example of a crisis. The object of a philosophy of mythology lies
not in that crisis by which scientific knowledge is separated from myth, but in the one
which marks the origin of mythical thought itself. Myth too, so Cassirer claims in
the end of the first part of the book, presupposes a spiritual crisis of this sortit, too,
takes form only when a division occurs in consciousness as a whole and introduces
in mens intuition of the world as a whole a specific differentiation which divides this
whole into diverse strata of meaning.22 It is thus a primordial task of a philosophy of
myth to discover the crisis of mythical thought and to describe how mythical meaning
could arise from it.
Cassirer addresses these issues in discussing what he calls the fundamental oppo-
sition. As the crisis of mythical thought, he identifies the distinction between the
sacred and the profane. Not only is all religious or mythical experience imbued with
the sacred, moreover it even constitutes the character of myth that everything is some-
how qualified by its relation to the sacred.23 The distinction between the sacred and
the profane in regard to myth, and the distinction between truth and appearance in
regard to science have thus exactly the same function: they both define the specific

21 Cassirer (1944, p. 228).

22 Cassirer (1955, p. 70).
23 In his characterization of the sacred, Cassirer follows Rudolf Ottos phenomenology of the sacred which
is referred to twice in this passage Cassirer (1955, pp. 74, 78). In contrast to Ottos, Cassirers theoretic
interest is not primarily phenomenological, but transcendental. In other words: he does not consider the
sacred as the content, but as the constitutive category of mythical thought. Cf. also Richter (2004, p. 215f).

144 Synthese (2011) 179:135152

perspective of mythical respectively of scientific thought. It is in the light of these

distinctions that things are bestowed with mythical or scientific meaning.
It is remarkable, at this point, that both distinctions are by no means neutral. One
has to be aware that the distinction, which, according to Cassirer, constitutes the per-
spective of science, is not the one between truth and falsity, but the one between truth
and appearance. This second distinction is more basic than the one between truth and
falsity. It designates not the contrast between true and false propositions but between
reality and illusion. By calling something illusionary, it is judged not merely as wrong
but also as non-existent, and insofar also as irrelevant to science. A similar peculiarity
can be observed in the way myth distinguishes between the sacred the profane. It not
only considers everything either as sacred or as profane, but the sacred, moreover,
denotes at the same time the very criterion for mythical relevance. As soon as some-
thing draws the attention of mythical thought, it seems to participate in one way or
another with the sacred. Myth therefore never regards the profane as such, but only
insofar as it is related to the sacred.
A second point has to be mentioned here. Cassirer repeatedly maintains that noth-
ing is in itself sacred nor profane. The reason for this assumption is clear: Myth is
not conceived as a tale or as a description which refers to independent beings that are
in themselves sacred, but rather as an activity by which everything is bestowed with
its particular meaning. Sacredness is therefore not, so Cassirer concludes, a specific
property of certain things, but a specific ideal relation to them.24 It is this ideal relation
that also structures place and time in mythical thought. Moreover, mythical crisis is
not a unique event, but rather an ongoing process. That is why it can amount to very
complex systems of analogies, as, for instance, in the case of astrology.
To summarize these considerations, one can say that Cassirer tries to account for
the cultural origin of myth, first, by asserting that mythical thought, just as all other
cultural forms, is constituted by a certain crisis, i.e. the basic distinction between the
sacred and the profane, and, secondly, by emphasizing the ongoing dynamics of this
crisis. Both points together allow him to maintain the idea that the very perspective
of mythical thought as well as the particular semantic distinctions that structure the
semantic field of mythical meaning are all together a product of cultural develop-
ment. Mythical thought hence is already cultural and not at all primitive according to

1.3 What distinguishes myth from the other cultural forms which rise from it?

There is one point in which Cassirers philosophy of mythology agrees with the view
of the ethnologists of his time: Myth is, although not primitive in that sense that it
is either pre-cultural or pre-symbolic, it is nevertheless a pre-modern form of culture
which essentially ignores cultural plurality. In this paragraph, I would like to give a
more detailed analysis of this feature, for it is more complex than one might suppose
at first sight.

24 Cassirer (1955, p. 75).

Synthese (2011) 179:135152 145

In general, myth is distinguished from other forms of culture by its all-encompassing

character. Whereas other symbolic forms such as science or art always constitute
merely a particular part of culture or a particular system of meaning, myth is taken
to represent culture as a whole. This can best be shown by Cassirers assumption that
myth is the common matrix of all culture, from which all other symbolic forms
stem. Or as he says in Language and Myth:
Theoretical, practical and aesthetic consciousness, the world of language and of
morality, the basic forms of the community and the state they are all originally
tied up with mythico-religious conceptions.25
This claim involves two different assumptions, one about the structure of myth, the
other about the development of culture. In order to discuss it, one therefore has to dis-
tinguish carefully between its systematic and its historical-philosophical implications,
though they are certainly interdependent.
Looking at the structure of myth, it is important to notice that myth does not entail
other cultural forms as separate autonomous subsystems. That all concerns of human
consciousness are tied up with mythico-religious conceptions indicates that myth has
not undergone those crises which constitute the scope of particular cultural forms such
as science or art. Mythical thought thus lacks all those semantic oppositions which the
latter are made up of and, hence, ignores for instance the distinctions between truth
and appearance or between beauty and inconspicuousness.
One might object here, that there is a tension between this all-encompassing char-
acter of myth and the result of our analysis of the mythical crisis in the last paragraph.
Is it not contradictory to say that myth is the matrix of all other cultural forms, and to
hold at the same time that it is itself constituted by some kind of crisis? Cassirer does
not discuss this problem explicitly, but I think that he is able to escape inconsistence
here. Two points are to be mentioned. It, first, has to be maintained that it is not incon-
sistent to assume that myth is prior and that it is itself constituted by some crisis. Given
that the rise of crises is an ongoing process, one can claim that the crisis constituting
myth is prior to those crises making up particular cultural forms. Secondly, it has to
be emphasized that Cassirers claim is not that myth lacks all semantic distinctive-
ness, but that it ignores those crises which constitute different kinds of meaning. What
distinguishes myth from other cultural forms is thus not simply that the former does
not have some semantic distinctions which the latter have, but that it is not parceled
out in specific domains of culture. Science, art, or modern politics make up particular
fields of cultural meaning; mythical thought, in contrast, is concerned with the whole
of human consciousness.
Now, this feature of myth has also far-reaching consequences for the problem of
the understanding of foreign cultures, since one could infer that mythical thought has
no conceptual scheme to reflect upon the relation between things which have a totally
different origin. How is it possible, from a mythical perspective, to understand sym-
bols as belonging to another system of meaning or to perceive persons as acting in
accordance with another culture than ones own? Cassirer himself does not discuss

25 Cassirer (1946a, p. 44).

146 Synthese (2011) 179:135152

this question, but given its all-encompassing character, mythical thought necessarily
seems to drift towards some kind of cultural solipsism. This is not a question of mere
chauvinism (which can best be defined as the conviction of the superiority of ones
own culture), nor is this cultural solipsism comparable with the epistemic solipsism we
know from the discussion about the Cartesian ego.26 What I call the cultural solipsism
of mythical thought is rather a problem of semantics than of epistemology. It is based
on the fact that everything in myth is bestowed with meaning in relation to ones own
experience of the sacred.
Let us come now to the problem of cultural development. How can we understand
the rise of modern pluralistic culture and what does it tell about the pre-modernity of
myth? In principle, what brings about the mentioned plurality of symbolic forms is
nothing else than what already constituted myth itself: the event of a new crisis which
brings about new cultural perspectives such as science, art or economy. It is this rise
of new perspectives which make up the historical process of cultural development.
Modern plurality of culture is, in the last, nothing but the result of this process.
A detailed analysis of the systematic structure of Cassirers whole culture philoso-
phy, however, shows that within the development of modern culture different cultural
forms or systems seem to have played different functional roles. For instance, it has
often been mentioned that the scientific perspective represents, for Cassirer, some kind
of terminus ad quem of cultural development. Another important crisis, which is also
assumed to have played an essential role within the whole process of cultural develop-
ment, is the crisis out of which religion grows. This crisis has long been neglected in
the philosophical reception of Cassirer (with the exception of its theological discus-
sion),27 and one can indeed wonder why Cassirer distinguishes religion from myth at
all. Is religion not, similarly to myth, concerned with the sacred? What vindication is
there to draw a distinction here?
Certainly, one cannot categorically distinguish religion from myth. But this is not
what Cassirer would claim. He himself often speaks of the mythical-religious con-
sciousness. He obviously takes religion to stand in some ontological continuity with
myth. There are particularly two points to be emphasized here. First, he not only
assumes that religion grows out of myth, but also that it is driven by the inner forces of
myth. It secondly has to be mentioned that it is not due to any kind of condescending
prejudice that modern religion is discriminated from myth. In some sense, one can
even say that Cassirer himself seems to be more sympathetic to myth than to religion.28
He nevertheless thinks that religion is separated from mythical thought by an impor-
tant insight concerning the character of the image of the gods. Whereas the mythical
attitude towards the image is magic, religion is essentially rooted in the knowledge

26 In some respect, Cassirers philosophy of myth even undermines the idea that human beings really have
the problem the Cartesian I has, for it assumes that the mythical view of nature as animated is historically
and ontogenetically prior to any abstract physicalism. Cf. particularly his later essay on Dingwahrnehmung
und Ausdruckswahrnehmung, Cassirer (1961, pp. 3455), particularly Cassirer (1961, pp. 4351).
27 Cf. particularly Stark (1997, p. 435f) and Richter (2004, p. 186). The difference is also discussed in
Recki (2004), who even holds that Cassirer considers myth and religion as two different symbolic forms.
I would not go so far, as is shown in the main text.
28 This has been emphasised by Rudolph (2004, p. 226f).

Synthese (2011) 179:135152 147

of its representational character. This knowledge in turn changes the very quality of
the object regarded as sacred. In contrast to the mythical magician, the religious man
recognizes the image of the divine as a mere representation, and therefore knows that
it is not the real and present divinity itself.
It is not surprising that this crisis is, according to Cassirer, of major importance
for the rise of modern plurality. It grounds not merely religious consciousness, but it
also brings about the semantic difference between representation and the represented
which in turn is a necessary precondition for the very awareness of cultural diversity.
One might of course criticize Cassirer of idealizing religion, and particularly mono-
theistic religion in this point for, historically regarded, religion presumably tended no
less to magic attitudes than it is assumed for mythical thought. The principle behind
this idealization however is quite plausible: One cannot reflect on the plurality of
the symbolic systems, if one ignores the difference between representation and the
Religion thus plays an essential role in Cassirers historical-philosophical inter-
pretation of the distinction between myth and modern pluralistic culture: It is religion
which marks the threshold where human consciousness, for the first time, reflects on its
own symbolic activity. Besides, the rise of religious consciousness has also important
implications for the foundation of social cohesion. The religious man knows that the
statue he adores is made by his ancestors. As a result, what makes up modern societies
is therefore not merely the common worship of the same gods, but the consciousness
of a common history. There is thus a strong connection between the discovery of the
character of representation and the rise of historical consciousness as well.
To sum up, we can say that there are basically two features which make up the
pre-modern character of myth, first, its all-encompassing character and, secondly, its
ignorance of the difference between the representation and the represented. These
two features, however, have one point in common: Both show myth as a form of cul-
tural consciousness which deceives itself systematically about its own roots. Mythical
thought, on the one hand, has no idea of its structural, as well as its ethnic, particu-
larity. On the other hand, it lacks any awareness of its symbolic foundation. Although
mythical thought is not, according to Cassirer, a pre-symbolic form of thinking, it
provides no knowledge of its own symbolic constitution. We can therefore conclude
that myth is in this sense a pre-modern form of culture that gives no insight into its
own cultural character.

2 Cassirers philosophical criticism of the technique of myth

When comparing Cassirers early philosophy of mythology with his critique of the
technical use of myth in the forties, one has to address two issues: First, it has been
remarked by some interpreters that Cassirer emphasizes in the later texts the role of
rite and of emotion.29 Indeed, in explaining the cultural function of myth, all his later
texts on myth focus on this aspect. It seems as if myth is considered now as a mainly
practical issue that has to do with the social organization of actions, whereas before

29 Cf. Plmacher (2003) and Mckel (2005, p. 352).

148 Synthese (2011) 179:135152

it was mainly regarded as some kind of cognitive root of mans interpretation of the
world. How should we appraise this shift? Does it merely put a new emphasis on the
mentioned elements or does it also imply a theoretical revision? Secondly, there is
also a difference between a theoretical analysis of mythical thought as such and a
critique of its technical use. The later texts on myth, particularly Cassirer (1946b),
are concerned with another problem than the second volume of the PSF and pursue
different philosophical intentions. It is not a theory of mythical thought but a study
on the history of the idea of the state which involves an analysis of the efficiency of
the technical use of myth practiced by the Nazis. One has to discuss therefore how far
Cassirer relies in this study on the concept of myth he developed earlier.
To begin with the first point, I would like to emphasize that the insight into the
practical dimension of myth is by no means new. Already in the PSF Cassirer main-
It has rightly been stressed that rite precedes myth. Rites cannot be explained as
a mere representation of beliefs; on the contrary, the part of myth which belongs
to the world of theoretical representation, which is mere record of accredited nar-
rative, must be understood as a mediate interpretation of the part which resides
immediately in the activity of man and in his feelings and will.30
Both theses are already present here, the idea that myth has its roots in human action
as well as the assumption that it is directly related to the emotional life of man. That
Cassirer shows an increased interest in these two elements does, therefore, not presup-
pose another theory. Moreover, it is quite obvious why in the PSF he focuses rather on
the theoretic than on the emotional and practical aspects of myth. The philosophical
consideration of myth serves here, among other things, to establish a view on culture
which avoids the intellectualism of earlier approaches of transcendental philosophy.
But if Cassirer wants to defend his own approach as a real alternative, he has to pro-
vide another explanation of the origin of human knowledge. From this point of view
it is totally clear why he emphasizes the theoretical or cognitive activity involved in
mythical thought more than its practical function. Finally, it has to be kept in mind
that even in the later texts the necessity of myth is explained with reference to its
theoretic function. Even the uncivilized man, so Cassirer holds in Cassirer (1946b),
cannot live in the world without a constant effort to understand that world.31 Myth
is obviously also needed because man desires to understand the world he lives in as
well as his own rites.
There remains, however, one difference. When Cassirer emphasizes, in the later
texts, the immediate connection between myth and rite or emotion, the direction of
the causal influence seems to be reversed. Myth does not primarily interpret emotion
and action and, hence, react on it, but it also serves to arouse emotions and to prompt
man to certain actions.32 But though this change might appear significant, it is not a
shift in theory. On the contrary, already the conception of the mythical constitution of

30 Cassirer (1955, p. 38f).

31 Cassirer (1946b, p. 14).
32 Cassirer (1979, p. 237).

Synthese (2011) 179:135152 149

the self developed in the PSF implies that myth has an impact on human emotion. We
can thus conclude that Cassirers emphasis on the practical role of myth in the forties,
although he does thereby weight some elements of myth more than in the PSF, does
not rely on a different conception of mythical thought.
Let us now turn to the second point. Cassirers last book as well as the essays lead-
ing up to it, do not primarily provide an analysis of mythical thought as such, but they
are rather concerned with its technical use. Hence, where they explicitly make critical
remarks, they are not directed against mythical thought in general, nor against any
mythical element surviving in modern culture, but against that kind of myth which
was made according to plan. The political myths, so he claims at the end of Cassirer
do not grow up freely; they are not wild fruits of an exuberant imagination. They
are artificial things fabricated by very skilful and cunning artisans. It has been
reserved for the twentieth century, our own great technical age, to develop a new
technique of myth. Henceforth myths can be manufactured in the same sense
and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon as machine
guns or airplanes.33
The danger of myth consists thus not in myth itself, but in its manipulative and mil-
itant use by the Nazis. Cassirer regards such political myths as weapons34 and he
also maintains that the planned fabrication of them has to be regarded as a mental
One can now of course put into question the underlying historical judgement of
this diagnosis. Cassirer might well have overestimated the role of ideology and rhet-
oric in the Third Reich, and probably simple materialistic motivations played a more
substantial role for the German support of the Nazis.36 One need not, however, share
Cassirers historical judgement in order to regard it as an interesting theoretical expla-
nation of how some types of ideologies work. In this respect, we can compare it with
the case of Max Webers theory of the Protestant roots of capitalism. Just as the latter,
who seeks to give an idealist explanation for a historical development, the Myth of
the State, too, is an attempt of an idealist interpretation of history. Considered as a
precise explanation of particular historical changes, both accounts might fail, but as
exemplary analyses of how ideas affect social and political processes, they keep their
theoretic impact.
It remains to explain how myths are produced artificially and why and how the tech-
nical use of myth works. As to the artificial fabrication of myths, Cassirer discusses
it through the example of Nazism. In particular, he mentions the following elements:
First, the Nazis used language in a way in which its magic function prevailed over
the semantic representation. Many new words were coined, though not in order to

33 Cassirer (1946b, p. 282). Cf. also Cassirer (1979, p. 235).

34 This metaphor is already used in Cassirer (1979, p. 237).
35 Cassirer (1946b, p. 282).
36 I cannot discuss this question here, but see also the recent debate between Gtz Aly (2005a,b) and
Hans-Ulrich Wehler (2005).

150 Synthese (2011) 179:135152

designate new things, but to create an intensified emotional atmosphere.37 Secondly,

they introduced new rites which disciplined individual responsibility and transformed
the private into the political.38 Thirdly, they established, with the leader, a political
figure who exercises power not as representative of the sovereign or the people, but
who was supposed to be endowed with magical and prophetic forces.39
The interesting point in Cassirers view on the technical use of myth does not, how-
ever, consist in his analysis of the way the Nazis established new myths. Its theoretic
impact lies rather in providing an explanation for why the technology of myth can
work at all.
Let us remember here the results of paragraph (a) and (b) of the first section. In the
PSF, Cassirer emphasized particularly one point: He attached a lot of importance to
the idea that myth is already symbolic and, hence, a cultural form of perceiving the
world. Mythical thought is pre-modern, but not primitive; it is no more natural than
any other form of culture. It can be called naive, insofar as it is ignorant of its own
cultural roots, but notwithstanding this naivety it is the result of symbolic processes
and not a mere effect of natural drives. Finally, it is characteristic of all symbols that
they can exist independently from the subject who originally produced them as well
as from the context in which they are normally used. This is also true in the case myth-
ical symbolization. Myths as well as particular elements of myths can be employed
in social, historical and political contexts outside their original scope. It is thus just
the cultural character of myth, i.e. its symbolic constitution, that facilitates the use of
mythical items in order to generate artificial myths.
This, however, explains merely the possibility of the fabrication of artificial myth,
but not its manipulative efficiency. We have not yet accounted for the fact that so many
people, even intellectuals, are influenced in their beliefs by artificial myth. I think
however that even this phenomenon can be understood by the conception of myth as
developed in the PSF. We have seen in paragraph (c) of the first section that mythical
thought is in some sense blind towards its own cultural character. It not only lacks the
conceptual scheme to conceive its own ethnic particularity, but it also has no knowl-
edge of the difference between the representation and the represented and, hence,
ignores its own symbolic constitution.
These two traits, however, are by no means accidental peculiarities, but they make
up, on the contrary, essential feature of mythical thought. They are not merely contin-
gent effects, but belong, in some sense, necessarily to myth. It seems as if as long as
human beings are plunged into mythical thought, they are not aware of the mythical
character of their own thinking. This tendency of hiding its own cultural character, so
one can assume, makes mythical thought a powerful tool in politics. The danger of
myth in spiritual warfare is not restricted to the impact it has on emotion and on the
social organization of life, but myth, moreover, serves as the ideological basis for any
argumentation. Where used in political argumentation, myth seduces people to take it

37 Cassirer (1946b, p. 282f).

38 Cassirer (1946b, p. 284f).
39 Cassirer (1946b, p. 288).

Synthese (2011) 179:135152 151

as the only real world. Once, therefore, a political myth is established and believed, it
guides man in his action as well as his perception of the world.
All this leads to the conclusion that there is a strong conceptual continuity between
Cassirers earlier theory of myth and his later critique of the technical fabrication
and the political use of myth. Spontaneous and artificial myth can be distinguished in
regard to their origin, and one can also assume that, where myth is used in politics,
it always involves targeted manipulation. But there is no principal difference in how
spontaneous and artificial myth controls human thought. On the contrary, in order to
understand how a technological use of myth works, one has to take into account several
aspects of myth that Cassirer already emphasized in the twenties, as for instance the
fact that myth, though it is already a product of human symbolization, systematically
hides its symbolic constitution. Although, hence, the analysis of myth was used in the
PSF to exhibit the cultural origin of meaning, a precise understanding of the very con-
ception of mythical thought developed there can also serve to explain the possibility
of artificial fabrication of myth as well as its efficiency in politics.


Aly, G. (2005a). Hitlers Vlkerstaat: Raub, Rassenkrieg und nationaler Sozialismus. Frankfurt: Fischer.
Aly, G. (2005b). Wie die Nazis ihr Volk kauften, Die Zeit 15/2005.
Cassirer, E. (1944). An Essay on Man. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Cassirer, E. (1946a). Language and Myth (S. Langer, Trans.). New York: Dover.
Cassirer, E. (1946b). The Myth of the State. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Cassirer, E. (1953). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 1: Language (R. Manheim, Trans.). New
Haven: Yale University Press.
Cassirer, E. (1955). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 2: Mythical thought (R. Manheim, Trans.).
New Haven: Yale University Press.
Cassirer, E. (1956). Wesen und Wirkung des Symbolbegriffs. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesells-
Cassirer, E. (1957). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 3: The Phenomenology of Knowledge
(R. Manheim, Trans.). New Haven: Yale University Press.
Cassirer, E. (1961). Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften. Fnf Studien. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche
Cassirer, E. (1979). Symbol, myth and culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Cassirer, E. (2001). Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, Vol. 1: Die Sprache, Vol. 11 of Gesammelte
Werke. Hamburg: Felix Meiner. (Originally published 1923).
Cassirer, E. (2002a). Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, Vol. 2: Das mythische Denken, Vol. 12 of
Gesammelte Werke. Hamburg: Felix Meiner. (Originally published 1925).
Cassirer E. (2002b). Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, Vol. 3: Phnomenologie der Erkenntnis,
Vol. 13 of Gesammelte Werke. Hamburg: Felix Meiner. (Originally published 1929).
Cassirer, E. (2005). Axel Hgerstrm. Eine Studie zur schwedischen Philosophie der Gegenwart, Vol. 21
of Gesammelte Werke. Hamburg: Felix Meiner. (Originally published 1939).
Cohen, H. (1981). Ethik des reinen Willens, Vol. 7 of Werke (5th ed.). Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag.
Cohen, H. (1982). sthetik des reinen Gefhls, Vol. 8 and 9 of Werke (3rd ed.). Hildesheim/New
York: Georg Olms Verlag.
Cohen, H. (1984). Das Prinzip der Infinitesimal-Methode und seine Geschichte, Vol. 5/I of Werke (4th
ed.). Hildesheim/Zrich/New York: Georg Olms Verlag.
Cohen, H. (1997). Logik der reinen Erkenntnis, Vol. 6 of Werke (4th ed.). Hildesheim/New York: Georg
Olms Verlag.
Ferrari, M. (2003). Stationen einer philosophischen Biographie, Cassirer-Forschungen 11 (M. Lauschke,
Trans.). Hamburg: Felix Meiner.

152 Synthese (2011) 179:135152

Hrl, E. (2005). Die heiligen Kanle. ber die archaische Illusion der Kommunikation. Zrich/
Berlin: Diaphanes.
Krois, J. M. (1988). Problematik, Eigenart und Aktualitt der Cassirerschen Philosophie der symbolischen
Formen. In H.-J. Braun, H. Holzhey, & E. W. Orth (Eds.), ber Ernst Cassirers Philosophie der
symbolischen Formen (pp. 1544). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Lvy-Bruehl, L. L. M. (1976). La Mentalit primitive. Paris: Retz-C.E.P.L. (Originally published 1922).
Mckel, C. (2005). Das Urphnomen des Lebens, Vol. 12 of Cassirer-Forschungen. Hamburg: Felix
Otto, R. (1979). ber das Irrationale in der Idee des Gttlichen und sein Verhltnis zum Rationa-
len. Mnchen: Beck.
Plmacher, M. (2003). Der Mythos Symbolsystem und Modus des Denkens. In H.J. Sandkhler &
D. Ptzold (Eds.), Ein Handbuch zur Philosophie Ernst Cassirers (pp. 175190). Stuttgart/
Weimar: Metzler.
Poma, A. (1997). The Critical Philosophy of Hermann Cohen (J. Denton, Trans.). Albany: State
University of New York Press.
Recki, B. (2004). Kultur als Praxis. Eine Einfhrung in Ernst Cassirers Philosophie der symbolischen
Formen, Sonderband der Deutschen Zeitschrift fr Philosophie 6. Berlin: Akademie.
Renz, U. (2002). Die Rationalitt der Kultur.Zur Kulturphilosophie und ihrer transzendentalen Begrndung
bei Cohen, Natorp und Cassirer, Vol. 8 of Cassirer-Forschungen. Hamburg: Felix Meiner.
Renz, U. (2005). Critical Idealism and the Concept of Culture. Philosophy of Culture in Hermann Cohen
and Ernst Cassirer. In R. Munk (Ed.), Hermann Cohens critical idealism. Dordrecht: Springer.
Richter, C. (2004). Die Religion in der Sprache der Kultur. Religion in Philosophie und Theologie
7. Tbingen: Mohr Siebeck.
Rudolph, E. (2004). Von der Heteronomie der religisen zur Autonomie der sthetischen Existenz. Kunst
und Religion bei Ernst Cassirer. In P.-U. Merz-Benz & U. Renz (Eds.), Ethik oder sthetik?
Zur Aktualitt der neukantianischen Kulturphilosophie. (pp. 225236). Wrzburg: Knighausen &
Schelling, F. W. J. v. (1995). Ausgewhlte Schriften. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Stark, T. (1997). Symbol, Bedeutung, Transzendenz Der Religionsbegriff in der Kulturphilosophie Ernst
Cassirers. Wrzburg: Echter.
Wehler, H.-U. (2005). Engstirniger Materialismus. Der Historiker Hans-Ulrich Wehler kritisiert Gtz
Alys Darstellung von Hitlers Volksstaat. Der Spiegel 14/2005.