A review of Jean Lassègue’s book, Ernst Cassirer. Du Transcendantal au sémiotique

1The availability of Ernst Cassirer’s work in France, even though his writings received immediate recognition here—unlike those of Norbert Elias, for example—was nonetheless considerably hampered by the dispersion that exile forced upon him. Numerous texts have in fact remained unpublished or untranslated. It is therefore gratifying to observe the undertaking of the critical edition of his complete work, a project that has progressed over the past few years in Germany and France. [2] This has been accompanied by renewed interest in Cassirer, as witnessed by recent studies that delve deeply into all of his work, even his manuscripts and letters.

2Jean Lassègue’s book participates in this current of activity on Cassirer, the first Jewish rector in the German university system, presenting an ambitious original interpretation of all of his thinking. Lassègue, who for many years has directed a seminar on recent work regarding “symbolic forms” [3] in the social sciences, has additionally become greatly interested in computer science. [4]What, then, is likely to bring the German philosopher into contact with a thinker like Turing, apart from a few contingent connections (their shared interest in set theory, or morphogenesis, for example)? Could Cassirer be a neglected figure in theoretical computer science?

3The question is provocative only in appearance. It is now established that there are more “symbolic forms” than those presented in Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (i.e. language, myth, science). But if some commentators emphasize the role of art (a legacy of Goethe’s morphology), [5] if the political question is well known, [6] and the ethical dimension has been reevaluated, [7] few observers explain Cassirer’s interest for technology or ritual. In his view, however, technology is just as fundamental as language—they both constitute paradigms of the instituting power inherent to symbolic form, despite their differences (technology is on the side of will, and comes closest to science through its tendency toward objectivity; language is on the side of desire and remains close to the depths of myth and the situation of interlocution). It is therefore imaginable to associate Turing’s notion of calculability with a philosophy of symbolic forms.

4Lassègue’s work seems to have a traditional style and a conventional structure: the first part describes Cassirer’s epistemological journey, while the second scrutinizes the extension of his analysis to the world of semiotics. The transcendental is no longer understood in a fixed, gnoseological and subjective manner, and opens itself to the rich variety of cultural content. By underlining the scientific dimension, [8] don’t we risk returning to the traditional interpretation that prevailed for so long, that saw Cassirer as a pure neo-Kantian, a mere theoretician of knowledge [connaissance] (as well as an expert on the history of thought [savoir]), contrary to all the recent assessments?

5In fact, Lassègue’s originality lies in demonstrating that there are profoundly epistemological reasons behind the extension of Cassirer’s explorations from the sciences to culture. This explains the long detour of the first two chapters, which Lassègue requires in order to distance himself from the traditional interpretation, according to which the discovery of the Warburg Library in Hamburg was what prompted Cassirer’s break with theoretical philosophy. [9] In reality, this expansion of rationality in order to take on the dimensions of meaning came about through the conjunction of two factors: his faithfulness to the Marburg program (the new fact to be accounted for, by seeking its conditions of possibility, was not that of science but of its historicity—this was also Popper’s and Cavaillès’s problem), and the discovery of the importance of group theory (the work of Felix Klein). The challenge that scientific thought faced at the time was this: since the evolution of the sciences leads to a pluralization of their modes of objectivity (e.g. the diverse forms of geometry), can philosophy draw all the conclusions that result, from the perspective of learning [savoirs] in general, in all its variety? Separating rationality from science, and reincorporating other dimensions into it, does not inexorably lead to relativism. It is simply necessary to account for the real autonomy of this impersonal and public transcendental, explain the mechanism of the dynamics inherent in this “objective spirit,” in its various modes of objectification, without rushing to assess its finality (the magnetic pull of absolute knowledge [savoir absolu] or a recapitulatory consciousness, or even the fundamental primacy of the linguistic form). It is truly a matter of a critical mind, a synonym for stubbornness and caution. This is why fixed categories must give way to dynamic transcategorical operations that can foresee the possible modes of objectification.

6We know how Cassirer revitalized the interpretative framework of epistemology on the basis of the distinction between substance and function (a distinction both historical and gnoseological) and how the notion of symbolic form allowed him to break away from the classical oppositions (necessary vs. contingent, a priori vs. empirical, rational vs. irrational). After evoking the challenge of non-Euclidean geometries, which Cassirer took on at a very early stage, Lassègue insists on what the spread of the functional point of view in modern physics owes to the revolution in the sciences of language during the Renaissance. It was actually for esthetic reasons (the feeling for nature, humor) that there was a movement from a logic founded on ontology to a reflection on style. But this involves a whole critique of trivium: grammar is confronted with philology, rhetoric finds itself faced with the pedagogy of the false, logic must go from embedding species within genera to the universality of the law; finally, the geometrization of space, inserting itself into the sterile relationship between logic and ontology, enables a physics based on forces. Reexamining this first semiotic insight, Leibniz extends Descartes’s thinking toward a mathesis universalis: linking general science and universal characteristics means that signs must be considered not only as vehicles of thought, but as participating in its internal development, as though endowed with a long-term nature (i.e. the discovery of new relations) and not just an abbreviative one. Even the category of causality owes its profound transformation to a semiotic factor (i.e. language, which is a vector of anticipation for the idea of a totality of possible experience, which in turn makes this category a necessity). Finally, all of epistemology after Newton can be read through the prism of this “symbolic turn”: “The schematism of images has given way to the symbolism of principles.” [10] In particular, Lassègue presents the capacity of transcendental thinking to extend itself beyond Kantian science with two cases: special relativity and theoretical biology. As a result, profound changes take place in the relation of the empirical to the necessary (the need for a science to develop is dependent on a history) and in that of the particular to the universal (in place of subsumption, Cassirer substitutes pregnance, [11] which concentrates in a single occurrence the exemplarity of multiple cases, by way of its intensity). Lassègue then concludes by drawing up an invaluable list summarizing the five meanings of the term “symbolic,” the most important being the organizing value of concepts acting as principles of objectification (where that value is not considered as a scheme or a concept but as meaning).

7In the second part of Lassègue’s work, the originality of his approach becomes clear. The third chapter attempts to organize and clarify the semiotic question by making two fundamental distinctions (that did not originate with Cassirer). The first disassociates signification, which refers to the internal expansion of the form in its environment (a symbolic form tends to fully occupy an entire order of signification, for example technology in culture), from meaning, which identifies the external relationships of symbolic forms, which may be more or less related (for example technology is, like art, an activity, but which tends toward objectivity, like science)—typically the meaning is established by the contrastive thinking of philosophy (the “site of reciprocal reverberation” of different forms). The second distinction contrasts thought [savoir], which refers to the immediacy of the theoretical relationship to the real (the “realistic” illusion), with knowledge [connaissance], which consists of the capacity to effect an evaluation of the mediating role inherent to signs in the various types of scientific learning. The distinction between scientific learning and understanding does not, therefore, correspond exactly to the one between myth and science: rather, it separates “science without awareness” (whether of myth or of science) from (critical) philosophical theory.

8Lassègue then dedicates a very useful fourth chapter to the explanation of the notion of symbolic form. This does not refer to a theoretical framework or a “discourse on” such and such an activity, fact or field of learning; nor to an a priori epistemic framework; nor is it a tool or an apparatus that one is at leisure to use or not. What it refers to is an instituting discourse that creates signification, of a necessary kind; it is “every energy of spirit by which the content of spiritual signification is linked to a concrete and intrinsically appropriate sensuous sign.” [12] In other words, the a priori conditions of possibility of the objects of experience are no longer a matter of abstract categories but of signifying forms that are perceivable within objects. The efficacy of signs can be perceived in the production of meaning by the individuation, competition and distanciation between forms. Each form tends to occupy all the available space, through a kind of confusion between signification and meaning, which inevitably produces a conflict between forms. Meaning is therefore plurivocal, and science is only one mode. Each form has a fundamental symbolic and normative dimension, and only philosophy is capable of “arbitrating” between forms, by distinguishing through its (relative) critical oversight which of their aspects concern signification and which concern meaning. And yet no teleology or base condition creates a reduction in the diversity of forms, contrary to the views of many commentators (such as Blumenberg or Habermas), [13] who overestimate the role of language. Thus the self-revelation of the transcendental subject is not the progression of consciousness toward itself, but the initially collective exploration, partial but indefinite, of semiotic expression planes as they manifest themselves in symbolic forms. For symbolic forms are the effects of transcategorical operations; shaped by norms that focus on the social order above all, their power to engender new realms transforms both the significations and the interpretative frameworks that make them possible. They affect regimes of both activity and learning. [14] The three transcategorical operators (expression, evocation, representation) [15] are matched with three forms of dynamics that symbolic forms are likely to deploy (persistence, diffusion, divorce), which makes it possible to account for the plasticity of categories, to get beyond the idea that activity takes precedence over learning, and to insist upon the public character of these sets.

9The last chapter carefully examines the characteristics of the three transcategorical operators whose traces can be found, to varying degrees, in every symbolic form. First, the idiomatic expression is a primary notion, located in the indistinction of the signifying material, before the division between activity (rite, technology) and learning (myth, science)—with language occupying a median position. Perceiving a form means giving it a value that distinguishes it from a content. Symbolic pregnance refers precisely to the expressive relationship inherent in any perceptual act (whereas intellectualizing theories would try to separate neutral apprehension from the attribution of meaning). Contrary to a “Darwinian” reading, one cannot reduce cultural forms to natural ones, as the mutations of form do not just serve a biological purpose: they are also a response to symbolic values. Science is possessed of its own dynamics, which consists of moving away from that expressiveness (this was the crisis of the break with myth), without ever fully detaching itself from it, whereas in myth, expression is necessarily obscure and emotional. In language, expressive power is counterbalanced by the capacity for reflection (which also endows the symbolic forms with strange bifurcations). Expressive connections, while more concealed, also exist in the sciences (the connection between the Greek language and Aristotelian logic, for example). Finally, in technology, a primary form of activity and a desacralized aspect of ritual, speaking of idiomatic expressions would be more problematic, because the tool is silent, if we cannot consider the work done on the tool itself as what manifests its expression. The technical expression is therefore the conceptual autonomy of the apparatuses that technology deploys independently of the subjects who developed them, in a process that strives to keep itself entirely within the sphere of objectivity.

10Then, while the idiomatic expression participates in the internal coherence of the form, which ensures its permanence and signification, evocation is responsible for its plasticity, which ensures its adaptation (its relationship to meaning). In myth, which cannot be considered as the external projection of desires within humanity, but rather the condensation of an emotion that may change depending on the finality inherent in desire, Cassirer studies evocation as a set of means put into the service of the shift of signification and its opening to meaning. In language, it starts with paronymy and flourishes with metaphor, even though it may be hidden by the inductive and logical evolution of discourse. In science, evocation plays the role of a hidden link between other fields (as in the case between philology and mathematical physics during the Renaissance). Finally, in technology, evocation manifests itself through cases of propagation of a tool, for example, or of advancement (the transition from the magical dimension of writing to the objective definition based on the arbitrariness of the sign).

11Finally, representation focuses on objectivity: science is a paradigmatic example. However, it appears in myth, which interposes explicative principles, such as causality, although in a particularly obscure and inadequate way. In language, the tendency toward objectivity also appears in a confused manner, as demonstrated by the case of numbers, which in the Sotho language are expressed through descriptions of hand movements. In science, objectivity is the very element of thought, but it is gained on the basis of reinstating the “natural” in a non-mythic form (by functional orientation), which is the source of the family ties between science and philosophy. As for technology, it presents a specific dimension of representation, oriented toward activity.

12Lassègue’s book clearly emphasizes how Cassirer, by moving from the transcendental to the semiotic, redefined rationality by distinguishing it from science, while abandoning two key notions of Kantian epistemology: schematism and the difference between determinant and reflective judgments. Lassègue also insists on the political dimension of Cassirer’s work: by taking up the German definition of culture, Cassirer shows that the reciprocal limitation of forms is the avenue to a universal that does not negate diversity. However, we would have liked to see a more explicit acknowledgment of the recent work on the esthetic origins of form, [16] or indeed a comparison with earlier studies of symbolism itself. [17] Similarly, we would like to have a better understanding of what divides Cassirer and Simondon, particularly in the case of technology, or to compare Cassirer’s arguments with other theories of semiosis (Peirce, structuralism). [18] But these are minor quibbles alongside the richness and clarity of a relatively short work, given the corpus in question.

13To conclude, we can add that there are many indications in this overview of the continuations to Cassirer’s thinking that Lassègue develops in his own work. The notion of the symbolic economy allows him to imagine a culturalist program that is coherent and compatible with evolutionism. His insistence on the practical nature of symbolic forms, however, shatters the illusory universality of Neo-Darwinian schemas by interposing a history, which takes into consideration the “threshold effects” attributable to the symbolic and to its own normative efficacy, which a linear causality could not fully explain: this is why this history pleads for a more flexible articulation between explanation and comprehension. Finally, it strives to bring the practical and fictional dimensions of interactions together, “as the ritualization of behaviors goes hand in hand with the formation of semiotic schemas.” [19] The list of these new categories, without necessarily being disorganized, must be left open (and the question of the interaction between the categories as well). Consequently, this does not mean surreptitiously reintroducing invariants, since “the features inherent in cultural interactions in general, given that they are mediated by a symbolic form, can be approached as capacities for differentiation and not as instantiations of a type.” [20] This phenomenological journey of the construction of forms in their variety allows us to note some features: transdomaniality (a symbolic form is never confined to one domain in particular, even one as important as mathematics; it crosses over into aesthetics, for example), transmissibility (symbolic forms are ritualized, practical undertakings, inherited from the past and possessed of a certain inertial force), the third term (the distant or absent source around which the interaction revolves: totemic figures, ancestors, institutions in general), primordial opacity (in a model of interaction that does not presuppose a preliminary individuation of the agents, the institution of values is not contractual but inscrutable, as it is always mediated), and normative self-evaluation (the values that the interaction puts in place are likely to be challenged by individuals, more or less explicitly).


  • [1]
    Jean Lassègue, Ernst Cassirer: Du Transcendantal au sémiotique (Paris: Vrin, 2016).
  • [2]
    Work on the German critical edition, under the direction of Birgit Recki (for Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg) started in 1997 and ended in 2007; work on his Nachlass was completed in 2017. Work on the French edition, edited by Fabien Capeillères and Heinz Wismann (Éditions du Cerf), began earlier (1991) but remains unfinished.
  • [3]
    Jean Lassègue is a researcher with the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS); he is currently working at the Institut Marcel Mauss of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (École des hautes études en sciences sociales, aka EHESS). Among his publications: “Une réinterprétation de la notion de forme symbolique dans un scénario récent d’émergence de la culture,” in Revue de Métaphysique et Morale (April 2007): p. 221-237.
  • [4]
    Jean Lassègue, Turing (Paris: Éditions Les Belles Lettres, 1998, reprinted 2003).
  • [5]
    Marion Lauschke, Ästhetik im Zeichen des Menschen: Die ästhetische Vorgeschichte der Symbolphilosophie Ernst Cassirers und die symbolische Form der Kunst (Hamburg: Meiner, 2007); Fabien Capeillères, “Postface,” Ernst Cassirer, Écrits sur l’art (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1995).
  • [6]
    Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946). Joël Gaubert emphasizes the importance of the work in La Science politique d’Ernst Cassirer: Pour une refondation symbolique de la raison pratique contre le mythe politique contemporain (Paris: Éditions Kimé, 1998) (Gaubert speaks of a “project of the ontosemiological transcendental reconstruction of practical reason,” page 87). See also Fabien Capeillères, “Cassirer, Penseur Politique: The Myth of the State contre Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts,” in Cahiers de Philosophie politique et juridique 24 (1994): p. 175-204.
  • [7]
    Beyond the discussion with Heidegger at the Davos Conference in 1929. See Birgit Recki, Kultur als Praxis: Eine Einführung in Ernst Cassirers Philosophie des Symbolischen Formen (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2004). See also Carole Maigné’s comments in Ernst Cassirer (Paris: Belin, 2013), chapter 6, and Murielle van Vliet, La Forme selon Ernst Cassirer: De la morphologie au structuralisme (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2013), (on the esthetic origins of ethics).
  • [8]
    Lassègue’s book is published as part of Editions Vrin “Mathésis” collection, dedicated to the philosophy of the formal sciences.
  • [9]
    Massimo Ferrari, Ernst Cassirer: Dalla scuola di Marburgo alla filosofia della cultura, chapter 8 (Florence: Leo Olschki, 1996).
  • [10]
    Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: vol. 3, The Phenomenology of Knowledge, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven / London: Yale University Press, 1957), p. 467.
  • [11]
    Translator’s note: The English translation of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms translates “symbolischer Pregnanz” as “symbolic pregnance.” Philippe Lacour feels that “prevalence” would be a more suitable translation.
  • [12]
    Cassirer, “The Concept of Symbolic Form in the Construction of the Human Sciences,” in The Warburg Years (1919-1933): Essays on Language, Art, Myth, and Technology, trans. Steve G Lofts and Antonio Calcagno (New Haven / London: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 76.
  • [13]
    See also Michael Friedman, A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer and Heidegger (Chicago / La Salle: Open Court, 2000).
  • [14]
    On this point, Lassègue diverges from John Michael Krois’s excessively theoretical interpretation: the meaning of the notion of basic phenomena, which Cassirer used at the end of his life, is in his view to take precedence over the distinction between activity and learning.
  • [15]
    Lassègue retains one of Cassirer’s last tripartitions, inspired by Bühler, so as to best maintain the specific meaning of “signification” (in contrast to “meaning”).
  • [16]
    Ernst Cassirer et l’art comme forme symbolique, ed. Muriel van Vliet (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010); Muriel van Vliet, La Forme selon Ernst Cassirer: De la morphologie au structuralisme, part 1 (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2013); Carole Maigné, Ernst Cassirer (Paris: Belin, 2013).
  • [17]
    Nathalie Janz, Globus Symbolicus: Ernst Cassirer, un épistémologue de la troisième voie? (Paris: Kimé, 2000).
  • [18]
    See for example Xavier Verley, Sur le symbolisme: Cassirer, Whitehead et Ruyer (Louvain-la-Neuve BE: Chromatika, 2013), and Massimo Ferrari, “Ernst Cassirer e il pragmatismo americano,” in Simbolo e Cultura: ottant’anni dopo la Filosofia delle forme simboliche, ed. Fabrizio Lomonaco (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2012).
  • [19]
    Lassègue, Victor Rosenthal, and Yves-Marie Visetti, “Économie symbolique et phylogénèse du langage,” in L’Homme 192 (2009): p. 67-100.
  • [20]
    Lassègue, “Formes symboliques et émergence de valeurs: pour une cognition culturalisée,” in Revue d’Intelligence Artificielle, 19.l-2 (2005): p. 45-55.