1929 DavosDisputationBy Gary R. Brown, Ph.D.
Ernst Cassirer versus Martin HeideggerIs this a Ripple in the History of Philosophy?A Regression to Metaphysics?ALeap Forward to a New Meaning of Man and Being?Or the incompatibilities of two legitimate domains of thought?
The Disagreement That Still FascinatesAside from the many references to the 1929 Davos debate in studies of either Cassirer or Heidegger, and the many standalone articles and dissertations, below are some of the most prominentrecentaccounts:1997:“Davos Disputation Between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger,”inKant and the Problem of Metaphysics,Martin Heidegger.2000:A Parting of Ways:Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger.Michael Friedman.2008:Ernst Cassirer, The Last Philosopher of Culture.Edward Skidelsky.2010:Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos.Peter Gordon.The two positions at Davos may uncover an archetypal tension in philosophical thought.The Cassirer-Heidegger encounter shattered the dominance of neo-Kantianism, and marked a significant bifurcation in modern philosophical thought. It might also indicate the only significant counterthrust against the total appropriation and concealment of human essence by technology.
What was the Occasion?
The Second Annual Meeting of the International Davos ConferenceInternationaleDavoserHochschulkurseWhere: The famous spa, resort, and conference center a mile high in the Swiss Alps.FamousLocationof the mountaintop tuberculosis sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s novel of hermetic transformation and intellectual conflict,Magic Mountain.Present meeting place the World Economic Forum.Purpose: A colloquy of intellectuals from across Europe to promote peace and mutual understanding after the devastation andresidual enmitiesofWWI.Attendees: Over 50Dozentenand Professors.232 Students from 20 countries, many of them veterans of WWI950 inhabitants of the village of DavosSampling of those Present:Erich Maria Remarque, EmmanuelLevinas, Ludwig Binswanger, RudolfCarnapMany others who trained the next two generations of European thinkers.A heavily influenced generation including GillesDeleuzeand Jacques Derrida
The Participants: CassirerPartial List:ErnstCassirer may be best known in the U.S. for:Philosophyof the Enlightenment(1932)Essay on Man(1944)Mythof the State(1945)In Germany before 1929Substance and Function(1910)Complete Edition of Kant’s works (1912, 10 vols.)Kant’s Life and Work (1918)Einstein’s Theory of Relativity(1921)Philosophy of Symbolic FormsVol. I.Language(1923)Vol. II.Mythical Thought(1925)Vol. III.PhenomenologyofKnowledge(1929)The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy(1927)Biographical: From a prominent Jewish family. After WWI, named professor at Univ. of Hamburg and elected rector, the first Jew to attain that rank in Germany:Tall, urbane, elegant. In1929he hadbushy whitehair, but was under the weather and even bedridden for part of the conference.Philosophy: Began as a neo-Kantian, became more Kantian, influenced by Hegel,treated philosophy historically, became a philosopher of culture.
The Participants: HeideggerBest known:Being and Time, a powerful rethinking of the meaning of truth, temporality, being, human being, and human existence.Because of its unusual language and obvious originality, the book made quite a stir but people were uncertain what to make of it.He was first thought to be an existentialist, a term he rejected. His analytic of human being was not in service of an anthropology or an ethics, but in order to gain access to the primordial meaning of being rather than as the being of beings.He wanted to cross the ontological difference between being and beings.For the first time since Aristotle, Heidegger, drawing on Kant, countered the notion of being as eternal and unchanging. This was, he argued, a false understanding of time, a mistaken fixation on presence at the expense of the other modes of standing outside oneself, i.e., past and future. Human essence is time.The being of things objectively present, in contrast, dominates Western ontology and logic, concealing other forms of being. Objective presence (objectivity) is an abstraction founded upon primordial awareness and cannot grasp humanDasein.Born into a poor Catholic family, he was taught by the Jesuits, then switched to philosophy. By 1929, he had published onlyBeing and Time. (projected: 102vols)
Conference AgendaThe Conference hosted morning and afternoon classes and evening events, and lasted three weeks. Cassirer taught4of the many classes offered, Heidegger3.Cassirer, despite his strength in philosophy of science, offered a course onphilosophical anthropology, probably in preparation forhisencounter with Heidegger, whom heassociated with the recent philosophy of life tradition of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Bergson, andDilthey.Heidegger, to Cassirer’s surprise,lecturedon therethinking of Kant’sCritique of Pure Reasonas a grounding of metaphysics, a topic that grew out ofthe winter semestercourseHeideggerhad justgiven and was also to have been the focus of the next uncompleted section ofBeing and Time, the first of his deconstructions.As Cassirer and Heidegger were the two most famous philosophers then in Germany, a major attraction of the conference was this face-to-face (dieseArbeitsgemeinschaft) between the two of them, just as Einstein’s talk had been the major attraction the year before in 1928. Their encounter occurred on Tuesday of the second week.Sometime laterLevinasandBollnowreenacted the debate as a skit in whichLevinas, white powder on his black hair, mocked Cassirer, an act he later regretted and apologized for to Cassirer’s wife.
Format of the EncounterIt was billed asEineArbeitsgemeinscaft, or study group, to keep it informal, but it nonetheless exposed a major rift between two fundamentally different viewpoints, one an evolution of, the other a revolution against, the philosophical tradition. Both thinkers could be regarded in advance of their own era and, perhaps, in some ways, even ours. Cassirer confidently extended the rationalist tradition into new domains of language, myth, art, and religion, while Heidegger, agreeing with Nietzsche, traced the rise of modern nihilism back to the deficiencies of this rationalist tradition and sought to recover its lost abyssal depths.The encounter was brief: 10:00 AM until Noon. Unlike modern political “debates” with pre-formulated questions, this event was unscripted andunmoderated.Each philosopher made a statement then posed questions to the other who responded and raised his own questions. There were only four complete exchanges, but each contained multiple explicit and implicit issuesthat are still being unpacked.Cassirer, olderby 15years, anestablishedauthor, began with the apparent intent of gaining a better understanding of Heidegger’s recent and difficult book. Although they had previous conversations, Heidegger was still relatively unknown philosophically to Cassirer.Heidegger took the opportunity to promulgate his revolutionary stance toward the whole philosophical tradition going back through Aristotle, Plato, and Parmenides, which he saw as fulfilled and exhausted.
More on their DifferencesAlthough the two men wereless than a generation apart, their respective comings of age wereseparated by WWI, which terminated theAge of Enlightenmentwith theAge of Anxiety and Crisis. Cassirer had written hisdissertation on Descartes, his firstbook on Leibniz, and hisPhilosophy of Symbolic Formscelebrated the liberation of mankind from primitive bondage to modern freedom through theprogressive unfoldingof infinite reason. Even the Great War brought a republic to Germany and allowed Cassirer, a Jew, to be appointed professor at the new University of Hamburg and elected rector. Cassirer’s mode of speaking was described aspolite, formal, elegant, and pastoral. His tall Olympian bearing was accentuated by his bushy white hair. He seemed to represent the old, discredited, rational order.Heidegger, by contrast, wassmall, dark, intense, and, as Cassirer’s wife described him, socially uneasy and lookinglike a workman or peasant. Heideggercultivated this rustic impressionby wearing his ski clothes to formal events, bragging In a letter that this was unheard of. He was described as energetic, resolutely serious to the point of rudeness, and standoffish. But heappealed to the younger generation, some of whom skied with him. It was a generationmarked by war, uncertainty, and economic deprivation, and drawn to nature, hiking and camping.No longer enthralled by the promise of reason,they found Heidegger’s reflections on anxiety, authenticity, resoluteness in the face of death, and the questioning of all conventional truths quite to their liking. They were in search of a new world order, and were especially drawn the pathos and assurance Heidegger projected.
The First RoundCassirer beganthe encounter quite confidently byasking Heidegger--whom he seemed to regarded as a less experienced younger colleague--why he attacked neo-Kantianism, especially since Cassirer’s own work had expanded beyond his neo-Kantian mentors at Marburg. He even doubted Heidegger’s grasp of the term, and claimed surprise at seeing neo-Kantianism in Heidegger. Cassirer, understandably, had not yet recognized Heidegger’s stature as an original thinker of the first rank, and that he might bepoking a bear.Heidegger, despitecondescensionin the question, gave a measured response. Because the topic is significant, I quote his answer at length:Since about 1850 it is been the case that both the human and the natural sciences have taken possession of the totality of what is knowable, so the question arises: what still remains of philosophy if the totality of beings has been divided up under the sciences? Itremains [for neo-Kantians]just knowledge of science, not of beings. And it is from this perspective that the regression to Kant is then determined. Consequently, Kant was seen as a theoretician of the mathematical-physical theory of knowledge. ..What Heidegger is describing here is precisely the neo-Kantianism of Cassirer’s mentors.For me, what matters is to show that what came to be extracted here as theory of science was nonessential for Kant. Kant did not want to give any sort of theory of natural science, but rather wanted to point out the problematic of metaphysics, which is to say a problem of ontology. What matters to me is to work this core content of the positive element of theCritique of Pure Reasoninto ontology in a positive way.With this, the divide between Cassirer and Heidegger, and their readings of Kant, is manifest.
Neo-Kantian Background of BothHeidegger did notneed to mentionthat the periodbefore 1850 was dominated by Hegel’s idealism. Hegel's predecessor, Kant, had included sensibility asone of two stemsof knowledge.Hegelrejected thisinclusion of sensibilitywiththe claim thatreason wasself-sufficient. After Hegel'sdeath, the cry:"Back to Kant!"arose, butits participants, leading to theneo-Kantian domination of early20th century thought, retainedagainst Kant Hegel'srejection of sensibility. For example,PaulNatorp, one of Cassirer’s neo-Kantian mentors at Marburg, declaredthat theirintention wasnevertorevive orthodox Kantianism but to advance from his position to one more in accord with modern science.. . . psychologist may speak of “sense impressions”. . . but so far as logic is concerned, we can speak only of ‘contents’ and ‘content relations’ that are . . . defined in and through thinking.Hence, the Neo-Kantians appropriated Hegel’s view of the absoluteness of reason andsaw their task as correcting Kant and purifying scientifictheory through epistemology.Although Heidegger was trained in the rival Southwest branch ofneo-Kantianism underWindlebandandRickert,who focusedon psychology, culture, and history (Geisteswissenschaften), rather than natural science (Naturwissenschaften), hedistanced himself fromthis rationalist epistemologyfar more radically thanhad Cassirer.Both Cassirer and Heidegger, however, had gone back directly to Kant and understood him better than the neo-Kantians had. We must understand their differences at Davos by comparing their diverse interpretations of Kant, which have significant consequences.
From Exchange to DisputationSecond Round: Cassirer briefly defended Cohen and his own commitment to mathematical natural science, then proceeded to attack positions Heidegger presented inBeing and Time:Cassirerdenounced Heidegger’s description of human finitude, arguing that symbolic imagination and Kant’sCategorical Imperativeboth provide breakthroughs to the infinite, making possible freedom from the constrictions of concrete life. Heidegger, Cassirer asserts, must provide a similar breakthrough to themundusintelligibilis[intelligibleworld], where appearances fall away and freedom reigns.How, Cassirer asks, can Heidegger’s finite creature have absolute knowledge?Heidegger could not possibly mean to reject the objectivity and universality of truth by making truth depend on humanDasein, as claimed.It would follow that a finite creature can possess no eternal truths, no necessity. Kant uses mathematics as an example that universal necessity exists.Cassirer boldly suggests that if Heidegger would only pose these problems to himself, he will have to give up these claims.The condescension here, based on Cassirer’s complacent acceptance of age-old assumptions, releases Heidegger from his previous restraint.The balance of power in the debate begins to shiftas Heidegger deftly deconstructs the unquestioned polarities of Cassirer’s traditional mode of thought.
Pause to DefineDasein‘Da’means both ‘here’ and ‘there’, but we need to stress ‘Here’:Da binich= Here I am. It also suggests time:Da und Dort, here and there, can also mean now and then.Seinmeans beingAs a nounDaseinis an everyday German word that means existence or life.DasDaseinerleichtern: make life easier for oneself.As a verb it means “being here.”IstHerr Olsen da?Ja,eristschonda. Is Mr. Olsen here? Yes, he is already here.Heidegger givesDaseina special meaning that relies on paying attention to its structure, i.e.,DaandSein.Daseinis the fundamental structure of human existence, our being (sein), our existing here in space and time (da).For Heidegger, we are not encapsulated in our bodies, but are outside of ourselves in the site of our experience as beings-in-the-world.By referring to human being asDasein, as being-in-the-world, Heidegger bypasses such preconceived concepts as ‘subjectivity,’ ‘self,’ ‘ego,’ ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘consciousness,’ ‘identity,’ etc., and makes possible a new relation to human wholeness.
Heidegger’s CounterattackTo Heidegger, Cassirer’s notion of escape from finitude through symbolic reason was an inauthentic avoidance of mortality. As Skidelsky puts it, for HeideggerTrue freedom is not freedomfromDaseinbut rather ‘becoming free for the finitude ofDasein.’ The task of philosophy is not to console man with thoughts of eternity but to awaken him to his own nothingness.Heidegger indicated that eternityisa false interpretation of the essence oftime. Meta- physical claims about theaiondepend on an inner transcendence within the essence of time that makes possible a horizon with respect to future, present, and past. Implied here is Heidegger’s critique of the static qualityof eternalbeingas positedby theGreeks, his overthrowof the fundamental assumption buttressing over two millennia of Western thought. If being itself is temporal, becoming disappears, and everything dependent onthe vanished polarity mustbe rethought.This will require an other beginning to master the first.Heidegger concedes that being has something infinite about it, but what about man himself? Is he infinite or finite? God, as an infinite being, does not need a Categorical Imperative. Its use confirms man’s finitude. And Truth? Although nature does not depend on man, withoutDasein, or man, there would be no truth ontologically speaking. This does not mean that everyday ontic truths are subjective. It means without man, neither would truth exist.Heidegger then asks Cassirer:What is man’s path to infinity? Is infinity a privative idea [i.e., a mere logical denial offinitness] or a region? And what is philosophy’s relation to anxiety?
Cassirer loses his bearingsMy task tonight is not to give a blow by blow account of the disputation as a whole but todifferentiate the standpoints of the disputantsin order to show how these differences guide and derive from their interpretations of Kant and their understanding of human being.Strangely blindsidedby the question into his own assumption, Cassirer responds that man reaches infinity through form. But something seems awry here since form would seem finite.He then speaks of an immanent infinitude reached by going in all directions, referencing Goethe. But this seems to border on incoherence. Leo Strauss, his grad student, reported that the learned professor andgreat man of culture had suddenlyseemed completelylost.Another student of Cassirer’s, HeinrichPos, interrupted the event to defend Cassirer, saying that the two men spoke a completely different language and that they needed a glossary.Heidegger took over for the flummoxed Cassirer and gave a clear exposition of the main outline ofCassirer’sPhilosophy of Symbolic Forms,then pointed out their differences. Cassirer sought to explain culture without asking who or what man is. Heidegger’s own philosophy focused on who man is but is in no position yet to found culture.What basis did Cassirer have forbeginning with logos? Had he shown that asa valid starting point?Cassirer assumes certain shaping powers, forms, andstructures without elucidating them.Heidegger then launched into a eloquent depiction of his own thoughts on authentic life in the language of living experience, andcriticized Cassirer’s facile use of inherited concepts.
But What Does This Mean to Us?I would like topull back from the frayand elucidate what I see as the most significantunderlying issuethat all the other treatments I have seen of the debate overlook. We have to go below the surface and compare the respective readings of Kant from Cassirer’sPhilosophy of Symbolic Formsand from early lectures of Heidegger that are now available.Michael Friedman argues that Heidegger’s fundamental ontologyand his reopening of the question of being, his claim of human finitude, the revelatory power of death and nothingness, and his attempt to identify propositional truth as dependent upon prior levels of non-rational cognition went counter to the positivism of logical analysis and analytical philosophy.He thereby createda bifurcation in Western thoughtthat was solidified by the separation of Europe by WWII so thatAnalytical thinking in England and AmericarejectedEuropean Continental thinkingled by Heidegger, and vice versa. Wittgenstein, members of theVienna Circle, Cassirer, and others fled West, while Heidegger joined the Nazis and heavilyinfluenced thesubsequent Continentaltradition, including existentialism, ethics, hermeneutics, theology, Classics, literary theory,andpsychoanalysis.At stake in the disputation is nothing less that the understandingof what constitutes human being. Is human being a conscious animal, or something deeper? Is consciousness foundational or founded? Is being static or temporal? Is truth timeless or historical? Is it enough to be rational or should we also be authentically human?How shall we Live?
So, Which is It Fundamentally?At stakein our understanding of the issues in the disputationis nothing lessthan what constitutes human being, how we understand our relation to the world, and how we should register importance in our lives. This issues depend upon how we see these basic terms. Are thingsAs Cassirer assumes?As Heidegger claims?Is being eternal and unchanging? Or is being temporal and epochal?Is truth objective and universal? Or is truth perspectival, historical,Daseindependent?Is freedom transcendence from world? Or is freedom authentically being-in-the-world?Do we spontaneously create our worlds? Or do we find ourselves within already existing worlds?Are we primarily thinking beings? Or does care for our own being underlie all disclosure?Do we find liberation through timeless symbol systems? Or do we find liberation by anticipating our mortality?Must we take these differences simply as matters of opinion?Or can we elucidate the meaning of these alternatives by considering the ways Cassirer and Heidegger interpret Kant?
Different Takes on Shared BackgroundKant’s resolution of a problem inherited from DescartesDescartes:I can deny everything, even that I am awake and not dreaming, even that I have a body, but I cannot deny that I am thinking:Cogito ergo sum.I am a thinking substance and differ from the extended substances around me.How can I be sure that things are as I see them? Would God deceive me?Kant:The scandal of philosophy is doubt about the existence of the external world.1772 letter to MarkusHerz: “What is the ground of the relationship between what is called in us representation and the object?”This is the central problem ofThe Critique of Pure Reason.Solution:Deduction of the Pure concepts of the Understanding (A84-130):a priori grounds for the possibility of experienceSynthesis of Apprehension of the Intuition (manifold in space and time)Synthesis of Reproduction of the Imagination (recognition, memory)Synthesis of Recognition through spontaneous conceptualization (consciousness)Kant refers to these processes as spontaneous.And they have both a priori and a posteriori functions (doubling).Misunderstood:The idealist (mis)reading of Kant’ssubjectivity as an encapsulated Cartesianconsciousnessbegan immediately withReinhold and was accepted byFichte, Hegel, and theneo-Kantians, becoming the traditional view, even at 20thcentury: Ex.: B. F.Strawson: “Nothing is given us except perceptions. But your perceptions are not given to me nor mine to you (1966).” Hence,Strawsondeclares that Kant is a transcendental solipsist.Everything depends on how we read Kant’s statement “Space and time are within us” (A373)
Partial Agreement on ExternalityInPhilosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. III, 50, Cassirer writes “For [Kant]the meaning of subjectivity has undergone a corresponding transformation. . .[it] no longer pertained to the to the individual and empirically accidental. . . It had become the source and origin of all true universality. . . [H]e eliminates the antithesis between subject and object by disclosing their necessary relationin building and constituting the object of experience[bold mine].”Cassirer modeled each of his three volumes of his Symbolic Forms on a structural analogy of Kant’s three-fold deduction, understood a posteriori & as stages of historical development.This isan advance over traditional Kant scholarship, But Cassirerunderstands the externality of subjectivity as a conscious creationby a pre-existing subject who synthetizes a culturally based object.Heidegger, focuses instead on thedeep structure of Kant’s argument. Thethree stages of synthesis: intuition, imagination, and concept, are prior conditions of the possibility of consciousness, hence precognitive.The a priori“within us” of space and timemeans not only thatsubjectivity encompasses the externality of empirical experience, but thatworld is part ofDasein. This means that as we become conscious of things, we find ourselves simultaneously in the world with them, a world occupied already by other beings. Therefore,we do not form the world of our choice spontaneously out of logos, but first understand ourselves through the world into which we find ourselves thrown. This prior being-in is the foundation of all possible propositions. We live ontologically in relation to truth and falsity prior to any ontic sense of truth.
Cassirer and Heidegger: Different StancesCassirer’s Cartesian-Hegelian-neo-Kantian rationalism found itsultimate confirmation, Cassirer believed, in Quantum Theory. He argued this in his bookDeterminism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics(1936), where the necessity of speaking of both particles and waves means that a single symbol system is inadequate to describe physical reality, and presumably even more so full reality, which will require all the functions of the spirit working together.Cassirer’s dream is the completeliberation of the human spiritfrom the primitive participation mystique to the total objectivity of the Theory of Everything.But this dream is an abstraction of consciousness. It is a view from nowhere by nobody, a divine snapshot from outside of existence. Yet this view is still implicitly dominant in the twenty-first century.This is the historically evolveddestiny of Aristotle’s identification of human being with the rationality attached to an animalzoonlogikon. Thistotal deracination of human consciousness, produced through a collusion of post-Platonic philosophy, Christianity, and modern technology is manifested here as the Western form of nihilismalready diagnosed by Nietzsche. But this emptying out of human being and meaning has unlocked simultaneously a powerful increase in control over the material environment.The paradox is that the very capabilities that have enabled this achievement are ultimately negated by the last step of objectivity, which meansthe destined erasure of the last trace of the subject.Arising out of the ashes of a destroyed Europe, taking seriously Nietzsche’s, Kierkegaard’s, and Bergson’s diagnosis of the West’s mistaken honoring of reason over life, but going further than Nietzsche’s reversal of Platonism, which preserves the false polarities, Heidegger reopens the question of being, left unchallenged by Christian thought where Aristotle had left it to reappear in Hegel.Being and Timewas the first stage in a lifelong effort by Heideggerto initiate another beginning of Western thought, a beginning that would interweave itself with the greatness of the first beginning in order to master it properly for the first timewithout losing sight of the abyssal nature of being.Davos fascinates because of itspotentiality to split Western philosophical history into two movements. On a less grand scale, it marked the end of the dominance of neo-Kantianism. The split between Anglo-American positivism and Continental post-humanism, which Michael Friedman laid at Heidegger’s door, is a small affair compared tothe serious rethinking of the nature of being and truth that would integrate these opposites represented by Cassirer and Heidegger.Cassirer’ stance is that of a conscious envisioning, a kind of third-party scientific voyeurism, an all-seeing eye that cannot see itself.Heidegger,rejecting the identification of human being with pure consciousness, begins with the pre-conscious awareness of being and explores human being from within being itself as the temporality of existence.
By the Fourth Exchange Cassirer RecoveredCassirer lamented that according to Heidegger, the bridges between them had been destroyed.He claimed that after Kant’s so-called Copernican revolution, a unified sense of being was no longer possible. Since each discipline was its own symbolic world, each required its own notion of being as it took shape between subjectivity and its intentional object.Heidegger countered that humanDasein, being-here, was prior to both subject and object as well as all conscious disciplines, and that there was no counterpart in Cassirer’s work to describe this precognitive sphere of primordial experience, which Cassirer thought primitive.Peter Gordon, in his 2013 Book,Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, reported that the debate split along archetypal lines that could not be resolved.There may be a parallel here to Socrates’ exhorting Athenians to care more for the health of their soul than their wealth in the world around them.Heidegger stresses recovering the proper relation to being to escape the nihilism of technology.Cassirer focused not on the soul but on the rational development of the disciplines. If we regard both modes of human exploration and development important, then there is much still to ponder in the implicit gulf between Cassirer and Heidegger. Since both of them might be somewhat beyond us, we may have to stretcha bit beforewe can attempt a synthesis.