Scholars to Reassess Cassirer's Philosophy

Human beings, contended German philosopher Ernst Cassirer, are essentially characterized by their symbolizing activity, that is, their ability to use concepts to give shape to the natural world.

An international and interdisciplinary array of scholars will discuss that credo and other aspects of Cassirer’s work at a colloquium titled “Philosophy of Culture and Symbolic Forms: New Perspectives on Ernst Cassirer,” being held Friday-Sunday, Oct. 4-6, at Sudler Hall of William L. Harkness Hall, 100 Wall St. The event is open to the public free of charge.

To mark the occasion, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which houses Cassirer’s papers, will present a small exhibition on the philosopher’s life and works Oct. 4-18. The display will include manuscripts, first editions, photographs, memorabilia and correspondence, including letters to Cassirer from Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Cassirer’s mentor Hermann Cohen and the art historian Erwin Panofsky.

In addition to being a philosopher, Ernst Alfred Cassirer 1874-1945 was a writer and educator, who once served as rector of the University of Hamburg. He left that post and Germany when Hitler came to power, and subsequently taught at Oxford University, the University of Goteberg in Sweden, Yale, during the summer of 1941, and Columbia University.

A prominent member of the neo-Kantian movement, Cassirer attempted to draft a comprehensive philosophy of human culture, grounded in the tradition of thought extending from Renaissance humanism to the age of Kant and Goethe, but responding also to the political developments that led to Nazism. His major works include “Substance and Function,” “Philosophy of Symbolic Forms” and “The Philosophy of the Enlightenment.” A 20-volume edition of his unpublished works, based on the Yale manuscripts, began to appear in 1995. A translation of the first of these posthumous works, “The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms,” was released last year by Yale University Press.

Cassirer’s philosophy of culture has particular relevance to current debates within American universities, says Cyrus Hamlin, chair of the German department and one of the conference organizers. “Cassirer’s work,” he notes, “may yet serve as a model for future developments in academic research and education beyond the limits of the traditional curriculum and structure of disciplines as we know them, while his philosophy of culture has a great deal to offer toward clarifying present confusions about the meaning of culture for the present time.”

The scholars who will speak at the colloquium hail from the United States, Germany, Israel, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The conference will consist of seven sessions in Sudler Hall, which will be held 2:30-4 p.m. and 4:30-5:30 p.m. on Friday; 8:30 a.m.-noon, and 3-5:30 p.m. on Saturday; and 8:30-11 a.m., 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. on Sunday. Also highlighting the event will be a luncheon and panel discussion titled “Reminiscences of Ernst Cassirer,” which will include his daughter, Anne Appelbaum, at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, 80 Wall St. Receptions and banquets will also highlight the agenda.

For a complete list of speakers and a detailed conference schedule, call Roberta Hudson at Yale Conference Services, 432-0465, or Professor Hamlin at 432-0465. The Cassirer exhibit will be on view 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday at the Beinecke Library, 121 Wall St. Admission is free.

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