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Edward Skidelsky on Ernst Cassirer's<em> An Essay on Man</em>

The book that has above all others shaped my life, in a purely practical way, is An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer. Ernst Cassirer is, you see, the philosopher on whom I am writing my PhD, and An Essay on Man is the first book of his I read. Studying Cassirer is a strange pursuit. I recently related my occupation to an eminent British philosopher, whereupon she smiled blankly and changed the subject. Another person I told was a solid public-school type, working in the City. He looked at me with an expression of concentrated pity. "That's very . . . worthy of you," he said at last, having clearly marked me down as a harmless fool. An American girl told me that I was "kinda kooky". I suppose she was right.

Yet, in the face of the world's indifference, I persevere. My faith is blind, fanatical. I believe that Cassirer was one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, and that his posthumous descent into obscurity is a temporary mishap. Many accidents of history conspired against him. A German Jew, he fled the Nazis in 1933, leaving his antagonist Heidegger to dominate postwar Continental philosophy. But he died too early to put down roots in America, his country of refuge. American philosophy went on to be dominated by the longer-lived logical positivists. Yet there are other, more strictly philosophical reasons for Cassirer's eclipse. Unlike Heidegger and the positivists, he was never a propagandist for either of the "two cultures" that dominate modern intellectual life. According to Cassirer, neither science nor art has exclusive access to the reality of things; they are just different expressions of one and the same fundamental "will to form". Man is the animal symbolicum, the symbolic animal. He does not merely live his life, but must give expression to it in symbols. Cassirer was drawn to figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and Goethe, whose creative energies were not confined to any one art or science, but ran freely in many directions. In them, he saw the fulfilment of humanity.

Who would dare to speak such language today? Cassirer's irenic vision belongs to another, more innocent world. Even in his own lifetime, he was increasingly regarded as an anachronism. The 20th century was the century of guns and butter. The human intellect appeared in the guise of the will to power, not the will to form. A gentle, scholarly man, Cassirer could not descend from the happy kingdom of Geist to the sad realities of worldly power. He could not re-enter the cave. The Myth of the State, Cassirer's final attempt to reckon with Nazism, takes a long, circuitous route through Machiavelli, Hegel and Carlyle. Perhaps any more direct approach would have been too painful for him.

My discovery of Cassirer was a complete accident. Browsing in Waterstone's a few years ago, I stumbled on An Essay on Man. I think it must have been the resoundingly sexist title that first caught my attention. The book was a facsimile reprint of the original 1944 edition; its old-fashioned, slightly splodgy typeface betokened a writer long out of fashion. I am a sucker for arcana, so I bought it. Within its covers, I discovered a veritable lumber room of strange learning. Babylonian astrology, totemism, Pico della Mirandola, Ranke and non-Euclidean geometry all rubbed shoulders. But this was no mere dusty scholarship. Everything that Cassirer touched seemed to be enlivened by the same intellectual impulse; every detail, however obscure or technical, was pregnant with the same fundamental idea. I had been educated in the tradition of analytic philosophy, in which everything is broken down into as many parts as possible. Here was something infinitely more interesting than analysis; here was synthesis.

I had another, more personal reason for loving Cassirer. His central idea, the idea of the symbol, had long fascinated me. When I was aged 13, we were given Lord of the Flies to read at school. The novel was wonderful; the interpretation taught in class seemed flat and boring by comparison. "When you think of Lord of the Flies," I wrote in my diary, "you do not think about the wickedness of man or anything like that. The image that comes into your head is that of boys playing in the sand and then painted savages dancing around a fire. That is the art of the book. Lord of the Flies does have a moral, but the moral is a deduction and art is not a deduction, art just is." In the peremptory manner of early adolescence, I had put my finger on the problem to which I was to return again and again over the next ten years. How can an image be a thought? How can something concrete be at the same time something abstract?

Some time later, I began to read the Bible, at first purely as literature. The imagery of the Old Testament intoxicated me. "I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys." "For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool." "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." Here, it seemed, was the same inseparable conjunction of thought and image that I had admired in Lord of the Flies. Yet how was one to make sense of this? I was, at this point, studying the philosophy of language at university. Metaphors, one theory ran, are just a roundabout way of saying something that can be said more straightforwardly in literal prose. Or else, claimed another theory, they are not really saying anything; they are just a meaningless kaleidoscope of imagery. I could neither refute nor accept these theories. If metaphors are saying anything at all, it must be possible to say the same thing in literal prose. But how could any paraphrase possibly do justice to the Old Testament? The problem would not go away.

It was Cassirer who provided me with the solution to this dilemma. At the centre of his philosophy is the idea of "symbolic pregnance". Not only words, but our very perceptions, are pregnant with meaning. My particular perspective on the table in front of me is always pregnant with every other possible perspective. It is only in virtue of this "pregnance" that we live in an objective world at all; otherwise we would be imprisoned within our immediate sensations. The metaphors of the Old Testament are no longer a mystery. They exploit the same "natural symbolism" that is the basis of all perception. It is the separation of thought and imagery, not their conjunction, which is the secondary and artificial operation. Cassirer allows me to assert with confidence what I have always instinctively known to be true. Is there any higher praise for a philosopher?

Edward Skidelsky is one of the NS's lead reviewers

This article first appeared in Who needs 12 when one will do?

2001-12-03