book cover imageThe Logic of the Cultural Sciences
by Ernst Cassirer, translated by S. G. Lofts.
Yale University Press, [1942] 2000.
Paperback, 190 pages, $22.

Few debates have remained as persistent in our times as the controversy over the respective provinces of the sciences and the humanities. Since the end of the nineteenth century, it seems that nearly every generation has witnessed a passionate rekindling of this issue, from Huxley and Arnold, to Snow and Leavis, to—more recently—Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier. Yet it may be that one of the most intelligent and considered contributions to this debate has remained entirely neglected. This is a book called The Logic of the Cultural Sciences (1942), by the early twentieth century philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945). Following on Cassirer’s most famous work, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923–1929), the Logic attempts to delineate the unique contours of humanistic study in a way that simultaneously preserves the humanities against the narrowing effects of scientific methodology while demonstrating how the sciences and the humanities both take their place in the construction of a complete picture of reality.

According to Cassirer, our intuitive drive to find a unified explanation of material and mental phenomena is evident in the earliest myths about the origins of the cosmos: “In their cosmology and in their ethics, all the great religions have been based upon this theme. They are in agreement, insofar as they attribute to the creator-god a double role and the twofold task of being the founder of the astronomical and ethical order and of saving both from the forces of chaos.” Cassirer goes on to briefly summarize the main assays of ancient and medieval philosophers to retain this unified system of explanation in theoretical form. But it is with Descartes and his concept of a mathesis universalis that modern attempts to unify the study of man with the study of nature begin. From the start, this project consisted of applying the scientific tools of abstraction and objectification to wider and wider spheres of knowledge, until the study of man became subsumed under, or “conquered by,” the “new ideal of universal mathematics.”

No sooner was this project launched, however, than powerful, intractable objections were raised. Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) was one of the first to question this modern synthesis, pointing out that what we understand best is what we ourselves create. To apply the methods of the natural sciences to human culture, then, is to limit ourselves unduly by restricting ourselves to a narrow view of phenomena we might grasp much more fully. Roughly half a century later, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) would push this objection even further. Given the unique complexities of language, art, and history, the relation between their study and the study of nature “cannot even be stated in its proper and full sense, so long as ‘physical’ objects constitute the only theme and the only aim of reflection.” Well before most of the significant scientific discoveries of the modern era, including the work of Darwin, the conflict between science and the humanities assumed the shape it has retained until this day, with the partisans of the natural sciences repeatedly attempting to subsume the study of man under their physicalist worldview, and the partisans of the humanities repeatedly attempting to resist such incursions by alluding to all that is idiosyncratic about human culture.

To extricate ourselves from this ongoing, and largely futile, debate, Cassirer invites us to consider just how fundamental a divergence there is between the study of man and the study of nature. It is a divergence that emerges not in the theoretical elucidations of the various disciplines, but in the nature of perception itself: “perception already contains the germs of that contrast that emerges in explicit form in the opposing methodologies used by the science of nature and the science of culture.” A rather basic reflection upon the nature of perception reveals a sharp distinction between the way we perceive phenomena lying towards what Cassirer calls “the I-pole,” or the “world of persons,” and those lying towards the “object-pole,” or the “world of things.” When we perceive any of the artifacts of culture, we perceive them as the works of persons, as belonging to the realm of expression, and irreducibly distinct from the unintended objects of nature. We do not just understand such artifacts differently; we experience them differently.

To illustrate his point, Cassirer describes what it is like to look at a painting. The paint on the canvas is a physical reality, of course, but what we see there is a form of expression. We do not see the colors as colors; “rather, we see through them something objective, a determined scene, a conversation between two philosophers,” which itself constitutes an expression of the painter. The painting—along with other objects of culture—has three dimensions: “the physical existence, the objectively represented, and the personal expression,” all of which are present in the original experience of the object. “The exclusion of one of these dimensions,” writes Cassirer, “the confinement within a single plane of consideration, always yields only a surface image of culture, and betrays nothing of its genuine depth.” The original perception of the artwork already presents us with a reality inapposite to any of the inquisitive methods directed towards physical reality alone, and thus necessitates the development of a method uniquely suited to the works of expression, the works of persons.

Artwork provides us with a fine illustration of our distinct perception of human things, but it is finally language, the most comprehensive of the “symbolic forms,” which demonstrates this distinction most effectively. From the moment we begin to use language, we find ourselves participating in an “intersubjective world,” a reality beyond ourselves, which nonetheless differs from the world of objects existing in nature. “Instead of relating to the selfsame spatio-temporal cosmos of things, subjects find themselves and join together in a common action.” Language compels perception to distinguish between “I” and “you,” and the capacity to mediate, or “communicate,” between the two assumes the possibility of semantic objectivity; as Cassirer puts it, “the constancy we require for this is not that of properties or laws but rather that of significations.” In the course of such communication, the “I” and the “you” do not simply “share” their understanding with one another, but first come to possess that understanding in the first place. “It is never a question of mere communication, but of dialogue … The thought of one partner is kindled by that of the other, and by virtue of this interaction they construct, through the medium of language, a ‘common world’ of meaning for themselves.” Thus, “all thought must pass the test of language.” It is no surprise, then, that the humanities have always accorded a central place to the study of languages, and that their primary methods have always been hermeneutical rather than experimental. But again, Cassirer wants to emphasize that this methodological orientation emerges from the most primal features of our linguistic experience. We simply do not perceive language the way we perceive any of the objects of nature.

What the various modes of human expression have in common—from language and art, to myth and religion—is that they are ways in which human beings actively create their own identities. Expression is not a “passive experience,” but a generative activity; through it, we do not merely come to know ourselves, but make ourselves: “all cultural forms are active forms of expression … They are not simple events that take place in us and happen to us but are, as it were, specific energies, and through the deployment of these energies the world of culture, the world of language, of art, and of religion, is constructed for us.” Through an approach to knowledge having absolutely no parallel in scientific methodology, man comes to understand himself insofar as he is able to produce the cultural expressions of his identity: “He continues to create, for he knows that it is only in his creations that he can discover and take possession of his self.”

Precisely because the works of culture are the fruits of formative efforts, the study of forms becomes a central concern of the humanities. Every cultural form is a manifestation of some ideal toward which a people hopes to strive; hence, culture is inherently teleological. To inquire about these forms is necessarily to ask questions about their essence: “it consists in determining the ‘what’ of each individual form of culture, the ‘essence’ of language, religion, and art. What ‘is’ and what does each of them mean, and what function do they fulfill?” Such questions of “being” contrast sharply with the questions of “becoming” asked by the sciences, and entirely resist any reduction to the latter. By posing such questions, by brazenly asking what essential properties run through the enormous variety of cultural forms, the humanities demonstrate a clear orientation toward stating the “permanent things” about human life.

Stated differently, the gap between questions of being and questions of becoming is the gap betweenthe concept of form and the concept of causality—that is, between the central concept of the humanities and the central concept of the natural sciences. Again, there is simply no translation of the one kind of knowledge into the other without its radical deformation: “Structure is not understood, but rather it is destroyed if the attempt is made to analyze it into a mere aggregate.” Cassirer recounts the attempts made by some to perform this translation, by propounding physicalist accounts of cultural forms, and points out how drastically they have fallen short of any sufficient explanation. In the case of language, for instance, he shows that naturalistic accounts about the origin and development of language have all failed because they purport to explain the emergence of language from a series of causes, each one “adding” something to linguistic structure, whereas the basic structure of language is evident in its very earliest appearances: “each linguistic phenomenon, however primitive, already contains the whole of language within itself, because it encloses the function of ‘signification’ and ‘intention’ within itself.” Only by having a grasp of language’s form—only by first understanding it as “signification” and “intention”—can one begin to inquire about its genesis. As Cassirer puts it, “all historical knowledge refers to a certain knowledge of ‘form’ and ‘essence’ that grounds it.”

Beginning from the nature of perception, then, and the different ways we experience culture and the natural world, Cassirer teases out the conceptual incompatibility between the study of man and the methods of science. He affirms the objections against Descartes mathesis universalis, demonstrating how the attempt to subsume cultural studies under a scientific worldview will always render an extremely distorted picture of man and the world he creates.

But while keen to protect the proper boundaries between the humanities and science, Cassirer is equally intent to satisfy that ancient imperative to join the study of man and the study of nature in one unified vision. For Cassirer, the right way to construct that vision is to recognize the central role that form, or wholeness, plays in the study of nature. His contention that causal histories can only be fruitfully construed once we have an understanding of the forms involved in that history obviously has applicability beyond the cultural realm to the phenomena of nature. The great barrier between the sciences and the humanities remains the exclusion of questions of being from the former; once that is admitted, the study of man and the study of nature can both be seen as the effort to state what things are, differing only on account of the differences in those things. In an epoch when the sciences are repeatedly demanding that the humanities answer to their methodological rigor, Cassirer has the audacity to suggest that it is the sciences which must answer to the greater conceptual breadth of the humanities; that the way to unite the two modes of study is not through subjecting the study of man to exclusively causal explanations, but by opening up the study of nature tothe consideration of formal properties.

To the humanities themselves, Cassirer offers the confidence that results from grounding them in a properly human version of objectivity. But what is perhaps most valuable in Cassirer’s defense of the humanities is his reminder that the study of man is always a fundamentally creative act. Human identity is not simply something out in the world to be observed, like rocks and horses, but something waiting to be constructed. To acknowledge this fact is not to fall back into subjectivism or relativism or any of the other postmodern pathologies which have done so much to ruin the humanities. It is simply to acknowledge that man is an inherently teleological creature whose identity can never be grasped apart from his ideals, or, put differently, whose essence always involves his potential. Through his expressive cultural forms, he discovers, discloses, and shapes the person he is, by becoming the person he conceives. The humanities finally find their justification in this teleological conception of man, and proceed in their unique inquiries steeled by the assurance that man only comes to understand himself once he has begun to make himself. 

Mark A. Signorelli is a poet and essayist. More of his work can be found at his personal website: