Ernst Cassirer:
"An Essay on Man" (1944)

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The first chapter summarizes Cassirer's view of the contemporary crisis of humanity. Extrovert view (that deals with the external world and in particular with the origin of the external world) and introvert view (that deals with the origin of the human race) coexist in the human mind. The beginning of Greek philosophy is only concerned with the physical universe, but Socrates begins introvert philosophy, and does so by shifting philosophy from a monologue to a dialogue. "Man is that creature that is constantly in search of himself". Stoicism is about self-questioning, as in the case of "To Himself", the book written by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism found a balance between being in harmony with nature and being independent from nature. Christianity could not accept the "independence" as a positive aspect because that "independence" was precisely the original sin. Both the Stoic and the Christian are tempted by the independence, but for the Stoics that independence was reason to be proud of being human, for the Christians that independence is reason to be ashamed of being human. Science introduced a method to understand humanity nature based on empirical observation and logical principles. The human world is part of the natural world, and obeys the same general rules. Ancient philosophers and religions believed in a hierarchical universe with humanity at the top, but science proved otherwise. Giordano Bruno understood that this new conception of the universe "liberated" humanity from its prison, opening up an infinite number of possibilities. The physical universe is intelligible, and understanding the physical universe becomes the human mission. After the scientific revolution, we no longer possess a clear idea of humanity because science, philosophy and theology have become separate fields of inquiry. The wealth of facts revealed by science is not being organized in a way to shine light on the essence of human culture.

The second chapter advances his theory to solve that crisis: human culture is symbolic in nature, and that's because the human mind is a symbolic system. The transition from the physical world to the symbolic world literally placed humanity into a different dimension of reality: the human mind lives in a symbolic universe. The human mind cannot see reality as it is: the human mind sees symbols everywhere. Homo Sapiens is not the rational animal but the symbolic animal. Other animals can understand "sign" but not on "symbol". A sign is an operator, a symbol is a designator. Symbols are universal, in that they don't depend on a particular medium: if you understand language, you understand it whether it is spoken or written. Symbols are variable: we can express the same meaning in different words and even in different languages. Animals live in an "organic" space, the space of action, in which many animals are better than humans. Some animals live in a "perceptual" space but only humans live in an "abstract" space. Cassirer credits the Babylonians with the discovery of symbolic algebra and credits that discovery with changing their thinking so that they could see the universe not as astrologists but as cosmologists, i.e. scientists. Cassirer thinks that this symbolic revolution happened because the Babylonians originated from the collision and merge of two people, the Akkadians and the Sumerians, who spoke completely different languages: in order to communicate, they had to use higher abstractions. Descartes' great discovery was not "cogito ergo sum" but analytical geometry, that encouraged him to think in abstract terms. When you think in abstract terms, the future becomes an "ideal" and the dream of going beyond the limits of a finite existence. The evolutionary paradox is that thinking in symbols is slower than simply acting, and therefore makes no sense in the struggle for survival.

The chapter on "Language" was written before Chomsky's linguistic revolution. Cassirer emphasizes that language and myth are closely related. In his "Contributions to the Science of Mythology" (1897) Max Muller, the German who presided over the compilation of the 50-volume set of English translations of the "Sacred Books of the East" (1879-1910), thought that myth was an accidental by-product of language (the gods of the Rig-Veda, for example, are simply forces of nature). Language is always metaphorical and myth is simply an exaggeration, a sort of disease, of linguistic metaphors. Muller thought that Mythology belonged to Psychology.

Plato thought that language originated in imitations of sounds but Cassirer prefers Democritus, who thought that language originated in sounds that are purely emotional, and therefore turned Semantics into a branch of Biology.

Cassirer advocates a science that is holistic, noticing that Maxwell's electromagnetic theory is based on the field instead of the particle and that the "modern synthesis" of Biology is statistical in nature and that Gestalt Psychology has achieved results by abandoning the atomistic study of the brain. Speech is a unity that cannot be split into components. Somehow Cassirer likes structuralism, notably Saussure (when he separated langue and parole) and Nikolai Trubetzkoy (who searched for universal phonological laws and introduced the notion of the "phoneme" before Roman Jakobson popularized it) and thinks that they prove how Phonetics and Sematics should be studied together, not as separate sciences. Based on the work of Sapir and others, Cassirer rejects John Stuart Mill's idea that a language's grammar is just an exercise in logic: there is no correspondence between grammatical and logical forms. And he points out the limitations of the program enunciated in Carnap's "Logical Syntax of Language".

Cassirer thinks that science is simply the continuation of language: science does consciously what language does unconsciously. Science is just methodic language.

In concluding, human culture is a process of self-liberation from the physical world: the human mind literally creates a world of its own, a world of symbols.

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