Cassirer and the Enlightenment

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in December 2010

1900 words / 9 min.
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Cassirer’s work on the Enlightenment is quite unlike many of the other works of science studies I have worked on over the last couple of years.

Please note that this post is from 2010. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Ernst Cassirer
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Cassirer’s work on the Enlightenment is quite unlike many of the other works of science studies I have worked on over the last couple of years. Most strikingly different, I think, is his focus on nearly-pure intellectual history. This focus, especially after reading texts like those of Bruno Latour, appears remarkably devoid of social, political, or economic factors. Partly, of course, this is due to Cassirer writing in 1932, with the attendant stylistic and linguistic differences from works today, but much of the sense of being “old fashioned” comes from the lack of discussion of forces acting on his narrative from outside of the intellectual sphere. From our perspective today, some 75 years after Cassirer, his work seems to lack the historical context which so fascinates us today.

Cassirer’s approach, though, brings forward a different kind of historical verity than can be found through an examination of cafe culture, or gender, or class conflict. His approach highlights a sense of the unity of the Enlightenment, the unifying focus on how we know things. Thus, Cassirer says in his introduction that he will discuss the Enlightenment “in the light of its unity of its conceptual origin and of its underlying principal rather than of the totality of its historical manifestations and results.” This kind of “high-level” historical unity can easily be concealed by more detailed studies of context, materiality, and so on, but it was the kind of unity of thought that self-consciously bound many in the Enlightenment together into a “Republic of Letters,” and its the “myth” of this unity helped shape our understandings of Enlightenment thought for centuries. Failing to engage with the Enlightenment as Cassirer did would be to do a disservice to a fundamental aspect of history, just as much as failing to go beyond his approach alone would also do history a disservice. In a sense, Cassirer approached the Enlightenment in the way those who lived it did, and while the result may have neglected other forces at work in the time period, his intellectual focus on “the universal method of reason” reflected a sense common to the philosophes, at the very least (see pages 7-9).

But even if I can value Cassirer’s high-intellectual approach, and see its utility in approaching and understanding a certain spirit of the times, I think he imposes to great a unity of thought in the period. Not everyone during the Enlightenment–even the literate–were French philosophes. Where, for example, does the Scottish Enlightenment come into play?

That said, Cassirer is not focused specifically on the thought of specific French philosophers, but rather, in some sense, on a kind of zeitgeist of the time. He writes, “The real philosophy of the Enlightenment is not the simply … what its leading thinkers … thought and taught [as] it consists less in certain individual doctrines than in the form and manner of intellectual activity in general” (see Cassirer’s introduction). His “unity” is thus a kind of idealized version of the epoch, not a recounting of its component parts.

Compare this approach with that of Dorinda Outram and Peter Gay. Otram never gives us a single, unified definition of what the Enlightenment means. She distinguished, for example, between different national Enlightenments, where the term came to identify distinctly different things. Gay, who Outram contrasts her on work with, operates much more in the tradition of Cassirer: for him, as for Cassirer, the great thinkers of the Enlightenment were primarily French philosophers: Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, for example. Gay too viewed the Enlightenment as a “unity,” and measures it in “terms of the lives of the great thinkers” (see Outram, p. 3).

Cassirer focused on “rationality” as the defining unity of the Enlightenment. Outram, and other “new” historians, tend to emphasize the social and political contexts of Enlightenment ideas, and include global connections between Europe and the rest of the world—something that never emerges in Cassirer, who is distinctly Euro-centric in his approach and understanding. Even staying within France, historians like Jessica Riskin seek to “show that these sciences [of the Enlightenment] were embedded within the contemporary culture, rather than acting upon it from outside” (Riskin, p. 5). Cassirer approach, in contrast, tends to position the intellectual elites as somehow “outside” the culture upon which they exerted a profound influence.

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As another contrasting example, Outram points out that along with the new ideas of the Enlightenment came an changes in social integration and class distinctions. Recent historical research, breaking away from Cassirer’s approach, has highlighted major societal shifts in the access to ideas, perhaps most especially due to the growth and greater dissemination of print media. Additionally, new social institutions were constructed based on the interchange of these ideas, not just to show off wealth or rank distinct from intellectual pursuits. The growth of scientific societies, public lectures, cafes and even lending libraries illustrates this societal trend, which breaks down some of the separateness of intellectual ideal illustrated by Cassirer’s treatment of the Enlightenment. In short, Cassirer neglects the entirety of the public sphere that Outram considers critical to developing a more nuanced and complex understanding of the epoch.

But Outram, despite her attempts to add complexity to previous scholarship of the Enlightenment–like that of Cassirer and Gay–nonetheless still gives her book a title in the singular: “The Enlightenment.” So, despite social context, political complexities, and so on, there is nonetheless something unifying about what occurred during this period of time or, at least, something useful about the unitarian view of Cassirer and Gay. Yes, the period was more complex that is indicated by reference merely to a few French intellectuals, but nonetheless, the expressions and ideas of these intellectuals are exactly what historians and intellectuals then and now drew on to form their own ideas. Cassirer captures this in a powerful and influential way.

Anciet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (French, 1743...
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But returning to the limitations of Cassirer, one of the key aspects of the Enlightenment that he neglects is that of the connection–mentioned briefly above–between the intellectual and the public sphere. There is no room in Cassirer for Mary Terrall’s discussions of “sociability,” for example. She consideres sociability to be one of the most fundamental aspects of the Enlightenment (see Terrall, p. 3), but Cassirer neglects it almost entirely, concerned as he is with the thoughts of the eighteenth century. Thus, there is no room in Cassirer for the growth of public lectures, or even for scientific academies—he does not share Terrall’s belief that men of science had to link sociability with “private reading and writing” (see Terrall, p. 4). Terrall thus links the private (or intellectual) with the public, and considers both critical to a full understanding of the Enlightenment.

Many other important historical questions are left out if one relies strictly on Cassirer’s approach. Thus, Outram asks if the French Revolution was a consequence of the Enlightenment? Or if the Enlightenment was a consequence of revolution? The answer is not clear in her work, but nonetheless one can see that revolutions—French, American, or colonial—were clearly associated with, if not caused by, Enlightenment ideas. Cassirer’s vision of the Enlightenment, though, is divorced from such political and social considerations.

Despite devoting a chapter to the topic, Cassirer neglects religion. The focus on rationality and reason, which was identified by Cassirer, also led to the questioning of religious traditions, not just theological positions. Cassirer does bring this up in the realm of ideas, writing: “The lust for knowledge, the libido sciendi, which theological dogmatism had outlawed and branded as intellectual pride, is now called a necessary quality of the soul as such and restored to its original rights” (page 14). But the challenging of “theological dogmatism” did not mean the disappearance of religion, as it continued to be a major factor in society, philosophy, and what would become science. But though Cassirer delves into the religious or theological issues at the same high level as he does philosophical ones, he neglects–again, as he does in other aspects–the more practical ramifications of the Enlightenment’s challenge of religion, and religion’s influence back on eighteenth century ideas and practices.

As Cassirer makes abundantly clear, the Enlightenment focused on rationality and reason: “If we were to look for a general characterization of the age of the Enlightenment,” he writes, “the traditional answer would be that its fundamental feature is obviously a critical and skeptical attitude toward religion” (page 134). Religion, of course, had to adapt this new Enlightenment discourse. Terrall notes that–and Cassirer too discusses–Deism as one way out of the apparent contradiction between religion and rationality, with its total hostility to revelation as truth. Cassirer suggests, though, that Deism was checked, not by the resistance of priest or parishioners, but rather by “radical philosophical skepticism which repelled the attacks of deism and stalled its advance” (page 177). Maybe, but I suspect there were battles of power in the non-ideological realm that played roles as well, along with individual resistance by the masses. Terrall points out that another approach to integrating the ideas of the Enlightenment and religion, one less clearly discussed by Cassirer, was to reject the attempt to make Christianity “reasonable,” and return to a view of religion which emphasized faith, trust in revelation, and personal witness to religious experience (see Terrall on p. 122).

Jürgen Habermas during a discussion in the Mun...
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Beyond the (ideological) battles between religion and reason, the general notion of power–religious, revolutionary or otherwise, except perhaps in the sense of “intellectual power”–is lacking in Cassirer. Terrall notes this when she points out that ideas such as “natural law” and “reason” created new ways to define and legitimate power. And the new idea of “public opinion” (identified by Kant as requiring tight control to avoid disrupting order) and the “public sphere” (developed further by Habermas). New power relations partly resulted from intellectual ideas, but these ideas were not created, developed, and promulgated in a vacuum. Analyzing them as such leaves out too much and changes the fundamental nature of what the Enlightenment was.

From my perspective, and for my interests, Cassirer leaves off entirely too much of the materiality and detail of the Enlightenment. I myself am simply not fascinated by the intellectual back-and-forth of the philosophes without the grounding context of their individual personal feuds, political wrangling, public spectacles, and technological innovations.

I can understand, as I noted above, that understanding and engaging with the intellectualism of the Enlightenment at the level Cassirer approaches it, is important to understanding, at the very least, the historiography of the eighteenth century. His approach is fundamental to approaching and dealing with the Enlightenment as a modern historian–but for me, my true interests remain less idealistic than Cassirer’s. In short, his is an overly intellectual history of ideas, one that provides useful, but limited, insights into some aspects of the Enlightenment.