Current Projects

My edited volume with Luigi Filieri (University of Pisa) is nearly done!
Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: The Method of Culture

Publisher: Edizioni ETS, Pisa, funded by the Fondazione Silvestro Marcucci

Over the course of the last decade, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in scholarship on Ernst Cassirer. Publications have been dedicated both to specific aspects of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and Cassirer’s philosophy of culture, as well as to encompassing assessments of his work as one of the most significant contributions to the intellectual landscape of the twentieth century. This revival was certainly boosted by the advancement of the Hamburger Ausgabe, in particular the Nachgelassene Werke und Schriften.
Such a renaissance in Cassirer scholarship warrants a careful investigation into the methodologies and systematic significances of his contribution. Our project aims to cast light on how, and to what extent, his approach to identify and criticize the various symbolic functions represents a constitutive method of discovery and criticism of all symbolic forms: from language to myth and knowledge, from religion to art and science. Such cultural forms share a symbolic origin whose constitution Cassirer describes in normative terms. Cultural forms are thus understood as the necessary expressions of the human spirit that result from the function of symbolic formation.
All symbolic forms are cultural forms insofar as they have been structured and determined according to a unique activity that cannot be reduced to its results. Said differently, if symbolic forms constitute human culture, these forms are in turn grounded by the same law of symbolic formation, albeit their constitutive idea is different. It is our contention that Cassirer’s encompassing perspective on culture owes its possibility to a unique and fruitful method that still awaits its concrete formulation (and critique).
With this focus, we also intend to explore the interaction between the symbolic forms, as sensible significations of ideas and values. This perspective brings one particular conundrum to the fore: Philosophy itself (as the reflection on this method) is at the same time immersed in symbolic formation, as any symbolic form is. So, the question is: how can philosophy take up a function of symbolic formation?

Our contributors discuss the theoretical basis and the overall method of Cassirer’s works, which form the cornerstone of his philosophical proposal, and highlight its influence on the contemporary philosophical debate on human culture.


Pierre Keller and Erich Reck: Cassirer’s Dynamic Structuralism and the Copernican Revolution

Fabien Capeilleres: Cassirer’s Edification of a Philosophy of Culture and the “Transcendental Method”

Massimo Ferrari: Transcendental Method and Philosophy of Culture

Tobias Endres: Phenomenological Idealism as Method: The Hidden Completeness of Cassirer’s Matrix of the Symbolic

Steve Lofts: Cassirer’s Auseinandersetzung mit Hegel: Ethical Freedom, Ontological Pluralism, and an Open Cosmopolitanism

Michael Gregory: History, Freedom, and Normativity in Cassirer

Gregory Moss: Autonomizing Culture: the Schellingian Heritage of Cassirer’s Philosophy of Mythology

Olga Knizhnik: History between Art and Science: Cassirer as Historian of Philosophy

Martina Plümacher: Symbolic Imagination

Lydia Patton: Symbolic Forms and the Logic of the Cultural Sciences: Cassirer in Context and his Influence

Valerio Marconi: Cassirer and Cognitive Structuralism


book projects

Langer and Cassirer: Art as a Living Symbol
I plan to bring together various strands in Cassirer and Langer scholarship in a book-length study on the intersubjective dimension of aesthetic symbol formation. Following Cassirer’s aesthetics and Langer’s more concrete elaboration of it, I argue that works of art cannot be fully understood by either (1) exclusively focusing on the object (the artwork itself), or (2) restricting our analysis to the subject of aesthetic production (the artist) or the subjects of aesthetic assessment (the audience). Instead, a work of art should be seen as establishing a peculiar kind of communication between artist and audience. On this interpretation, the artistic object serves as the medium in which certain sentiments of the mind, or what Kant calls ‘a feeling of life,’ expressed by the artist, can be shared by a community that is receptive to these sentiments, and willing to reflect on them. This dynamic between artist, artwork and audience can be best captured by a reconstruction of aesthetic appreciation as a communicative act in which a given object is deciphered as part of the symbolic form of art. On the one hand, it is only through the recipient’s engagement with the object that the latter can be realized as a symbol. On the other hand, it is only through the lens of the symbol—in this case a work of art—that a relation between artist and audience, and hence a specific mode of intersubjectivity can be established.

Mendelssohn’s Anthropology as a Philosophy of Culture

My central point is that Mendelssohn’s version of a rational anthropology concentrates on the symbolic capacity of humankind. Whether in art, metaphysics, moral theory, or culture and politics (the major focus of Enlightenment philosophy), what matters most for Mendelssohn is that human beings find meaningful ways of interaction that not only entertain the “whole human being”—a common battle cry of the Late Enlightenment—but are also reflective of their cultural heritage and social existence.
Mendelssohn is such a fruitful figure to consider because of his unique position as the first German Jewish intellectual, bringing together the most salient strands of Early Modern Rationalism with an acute awareness of cultural identity and difference. Hence, on the one hand Mendelssohn strives to justify the universal vocation of humankind, reflecting on his heritage in German Rationalism (chapter 1, see outline). On the other hand, Mendelssohn is open to influences from other sides, as his early defense of Spinoza already makes clear. As such, it is no wonder that other philosophers outside the philosophical mainstream like Herder, Schiller, and Cassirer adopted some of Mendelssohn’s main ideas, particularly his regard for the importance of the sensitive dimension of human thought and understanding (chapter 2), the resulting, peculiar unity of reason and sensibility in our symbolic universe of intersubjective exchange (chapters 2 and 3), and the stress on the interdependence of understanding and belonging (to a specific tradition) in the process of self-formation (chapter 3). It may be true that Mendelssohn never broke with his philosophical roots—and was hence also seen as a conservative traditionalist by philosophers like Jacobi and Hamann—but his subversive potential is still to be reckoned with (chapter 4).

Papers in progress

Music as Interplay. On the connection of work and audience in Langer’s theory of music

Despite of the underlying cognitivism in her aesthetics, Susanne Langer never claims that exposure to music makes us more knowledgeable about our emotional life. What she advocates, rather, is that acquaintance with music offers the cognitive benefit of an intuitive grasp of the “form of feeling”. This intuitive grasp, as it were, is not readily translatable into concepts (hence our intellectual disappointment), but stays firmly within the limits of genuinely aesthetic experience. This is due to an implicit, but fundamental notion of Langer’s aesthetics: immediacy, stressing both the unity of form and content, as well as of experience and meaning in a work of art. In this paper, I attempt to disentangle this complex issue by clarifying the function of “transformation” and “contemplation”, which together form the effect of immediacy in art.
First, the work of art brings formal features and content close together. Thus, the symbol as it is – the material existence of it – is as important as what it gives rise to in the beholder (may this be an “emotion” or some other impression). The artwork does not become superfluous after it effected an aesthetic emotion in us, but remains at the center of consideration. It is rather that we permanently return to it, and constantly find something ‘new’, something previously unfelt ‘in’ it. Artistic symbols reach this effect through a transformation of formal elements into meaning. Second, such a work only has significance if it is taken up in a particular way. Simply speaking, it is fairly easy to miss the point of music by just not listening. It is only through a complete, but lucid immersion into the art symbol – which Langer calls contemplation – that can bring about an aesthetic experience.

Being in Time. History as an expression and interpretation of human culture

For: Interpreting Cassirer, ed. by Simon Truwant, CUP

This paper discusses the role of history (as the unfolding of events over time), historiography (the critical reconstruction of historical events in a narrative), and historicity (the awareness of our position within history, and the temporal marker on all human creations and values) in Cassirer’s philosophy. His Philosophy of Symbolic Forms reflects on all three aspects in that it employs a critical, historically sensitive reconstruction of the various forms of objectification of human spirit in culture. In contrast to “objectively teleological” approaches á la Leibniz or Hegel, Cassirer does not assume an inherent teleology that is merely reflected in the respective culture, but interprets history as a dynamic and progressive movement of the self-liberation of spirit that must be expressed and manifested by cultural means. In other words: if there is a direction in history, this direction cannot be just found, but must be created by the agents themselves. Hence, the role of the historian is not only to recall forgone events, but to actively engage with our cultural past as a means to elucidate our current standing, and inform our future development.
Cassirer himself engages in this creative reconstruction in his accounts of the history of science (e.g. Problem of Knowledge in Modern Philosophy and Science, 1902 passim); he develops a philosophical-historical method of such explanations in Form and Function (1910) and the introductions to Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-29); and finally applies this to his account of a philosophy of culture (e.g. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), The Logic of the Cultural Sciences (1942), and An Essay on Man (1944)). This paper will show that, in all these areas, Cassirer’s own approach pays justice to his fundamental assumption that writing history is a two-sided process that requires the careful but creative historian on the one hand, and the agent in history on the other hand. On this view, the reconstruction of past intentions, plans, and acts elucidates the basic communal and intersubjective structure of symbol formation, thus transcending the limits of the historian’s time.

An Exercise in Humanity. Abbt and Mendelssohn on Baumgarten’s notion of ‘aesthetic training’ and its relation to the vocation of man

Volume on Baumgarten, ed. by Colin McQuillan

In section III of the first part of the Aesthetica, Baumgarten considers the importance of “aesthetic training” (exercitatio), which supports and enhances our natural capacities to realize beauty. It is interesting how this ‘training’ reflects in Mendelssohn’s later considerations on habit in his aesthetic writings (mainly On Sentiments and Rhapsody, 1755-1771), but also in his essay On Evidence, which won the prize of the Academy in 1763. There, it plays a much more important role, in that it trains all human capacities to develop a sense of the true, good, and beautiful, respectively. Thomas Abbt also wrote an essay for this competition, and discussed his views with Mendelssohn in their letters. As I will argue, it is Baumgarten’s influence that helped Mendelssohn a) to view habit in a rationalist perspective in contradistinction to Hume, and b) to connect aesthetic creation and perception to the vocation of man. As he argues, again in close discussion with Abbt in his Oracle Concerning the Human Vocation (1764), the human vocation is the full realization of all capacities – this ‘gain in reality’, however, can only be called a perfection if said gain is harmonious, and encompasses both the higher and lower faculties. In my paper, I will first show how this requirement is reflected in the Aesthetica, discuss Abbt’s respective skepticism, and Mendelssohn’s attempt at a satisfying reply.


What History as a Process of Self-Liberation Means: Langer’s Interpretation of Cassirer’s Philosophy of History

Submitted, BJHP, Special Issue “Historical Thought in German Neo-Kantianism”

Abstract: Susanne K. Langer develops her theory of symbolic expression through art and of the nature of the human mind via a historically sensitive reflection on their development within various cultures, oriented by Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. I argue that Langer establishes symbolic formation in a Kantian vein as a dynamic function of self-formation that rests on both individual and communal aspects. Symbolic Formation incorporates and counteracts our human condition as beings who instantiate themselves within constant change and ambiguity through symbols out of which we build meaningful traditions and common bonds (such as the city, the state, or a religious community). However, these symbols must be understood dynamically, in that they themselves and their resulting complexes of tradition are never entirely stable. This paper focuses on Langer’s implicit theory of a dialectics between change and stability that she discusses in the last part of Mind (vol. III), as well as in shorter essays from the same time. Langer’s distinction between culture and civilization should serve as the stepping stone for a more encompassing and critical theory of culture formation as an interplay of stability and change as a basic condition for an encompassing philosophy of symbolic forms.

Encapsulating worlds: Mendelssohn, Goethe, and Moritz reflect on the monadic structure of art 

For Leibniz volume, ed. by Audrey Borowski

Leibnizian metaphysics had a considerable impact on the development of aesthetics in Germany, in particular between 1735 and 1750, in particular on such central concepts as the autonomy of both artwork and aesthetic experience, genius, and the intelligibility of aesthetic pleasure. In this paper, I discuss Carl Philipp Moritz’ essay “Von der bildenden Nachahmung des Schönen” (1788) as a bridge between Mendelssohn’s earlier, more rationally informed aesthetics to Goethe’s later, dynamic understanding of both art and nature. This should highlight the respective weight that different aspects of Leibniz’ monadology exercised on German artists and aestheticians.

The Leibnizian theory of perception as modes of understanding is of major interest for early German Aesthetics, developed by Wolff, Baumgarten, and Meier. The confused, but clear perceptions enabled rational explanations of pleasure in art, which could now be understood as an indistinct impression of perfection. Artistic creations that evoke such perception mimic divine creation on a smaller scale. Mendelssohn and others even speculated that the sheer number, vivacity, and speed of confused perceptions could help us to turn elaborate rational calculations and explanations into habit, and thereby establish a shortcut from a rational understanding of the good to its secure realization. This should even explain our morbid pleasure in battle fields, beheadings, and other instances quite unflattering for human perfectibility.

Much of earlier ‘rationalist’ aesthetics, however, was taken to be ‘outdated’ with the emerging Storm and Stress on the side of literature, which, as seen in Herder’s work, praises intense emotional engagement over rational perfection, and by Kant’s ‘all-crushing’ criticism, that included a novel understanding of aesthetic pleasure and artistic creation, centered around the non-emotional concepts of disinterestedness and universalizabilty. However, to assume that later developments took place independently of rationalist assumptions is too simplistic, as a consideration of Moritz’ fascinating paper proves. The idea taken from Mendelssohn’s Main Principles (1757) that “every beautiful whole in art can and should be an image [Abbild] of the highest beauty of the totality of nature.” (JA 33, 61) is here taken to its extremes. In a similar way that the individual monad offers a singular perspective on the whole, an artwork contains in it the whole world, and is perfect in itself. Ultimately, it is now only through art that we can adequately reflect on the whole of nature.

As Goethe’s oeuvre shows, being cognizant of these aspects does not necessitate a return to rationalist aesthetics, but allows for a reconsideration of the unity of work through an understanding of the radical originality of the genius or artist: art becomes the embodiment of human spirit as it sees nature (not reflecting merely nature itself). Thus, Goethe’s Leibnizianism differs tremendously from previous ones, in that he laid the stress of his understanding on the dynamic principles hidden in between the different modes of perception. In the same manner as nature is not the sum total of all external objects, but as the sum total of their dynamic relations to each other and to human understanding and sensibility, Goethe’s aesthetics is equally dynamic. His works reflect his understanding of these natural principles, may it be the reiterated reflections (wiederholte Spiegelungen) that bind various fields of imagery to one idea without being reductive, or in the principle of metamorphosis, that utilizes the idea that constant change upholds a single form.

What I do for fun:

Faustian Ambitions. In: Jennifer Frey, Sacred and Profane Love. Podcast May 2019

ANTropology, or, what we can learn from ants and a fiction called Diotima

Invited blog-entry for (“Philosophical Phridays”, September 22, 2017)

Aesthetics for Birds
I was so delighted when I got invited to contribute a 100 word entry for