Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) & Susanne Katherina (Knauth) Langer (1895–1985)

There are several reasons to treat together the relationship of Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Katherina (Knauth) Langer to process thought generally, and to Whitehead in particular. It is clear that Cassirer was aware of Whitehead’s work, from the Principia Mathematica on. Whitehead could not have escaped knowing of Cassirer, but Cassirer seems to have played no part in Whitehead’s thinking. Whitehead’s role in Cassirer’s thinking is also minimal. Where the two bodies of thought meet is in Langer’s attempted synthesis of Cassirer, Whitehead and Wittgenstein. We will outline Cassirer’s development as a process philosopher, then bring his thought into philosophical relation with Whitehead’s, showing some significant points of contact and complementarity, and then address Langer’s attempted synthesis of aspects of the two thinker’s work.

1. Brief Vita

Cassirer began dealing with the problems of process and relation from his earliest writings. His first book, Leibniz’ System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen (1902)[1] treated the development of mathematical thought from Descartes to Leibniz as an exposition of the grounds for scientific knowledge. The issues of relation and continuity figure heavily throughout. There was at that time just a hint of the coming groundswell of investigation into the philosophical foundations of mathematics, and some of the ablest minds of that generation were beginning to attend to these problems—Frege, Husserl, Russell, and obviously Whitehead and Cassirer. This initial effort launched Cassirer in the direction of the whole problem of knowledge, with a specific attention to the Modern period. In 1906 and 1907, he published the first two massive volumes of Das Erkenntnisproblem,[2] which aimed to situate the issues he had raised in the Leibniz book both systematically and historically. Whether we would call Cassirer a process philosopher at this stage matters little. The point of view in these major works is that of a critical philosophy of knowledge. Cassirer makes no significant commitments regarding metaphysics in these works, since their aim is exegesis and then synthetic historical criticism. The carefully circumscribed character of these early works, along with Cassirer’s Marburg education under neo-Kantians Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp, have led some interpreters to believe that Cassirer was opposed to speculative metaphysics. This issue has been widely discussed in the interpretive literature, but it is largely settled at this point. Cassirer was not opposed to speculative metaphysics at any point in his career. He was opposed to substance metaphysics, in the sense that it was more limited in its application than it aimed to be. For several generations philosophers have been slow to grasp that there can be any metaphysics other than substance metaphysics. Those who have characterized Cassirer as being opposed to metaphysics have, without fail, identified all metaphysics with substance metaphysics. Once the difference between substance and process metaphysics is clarified, many say either that relational thought is not really metaphysics, or insist that if it truly is metaphysics, then it is doomed regardless of what changes it introduces into the whole project of metaphysical thought. Progress in philosophical thinking is glacial in its rate of movement, and only now are many of those who condemned metaphysics as a whole waking up to its general usefulness. At all events, Cassirer embraces responsible speculative metaphysics in many places, approves of Hegelian dialectical exposition, and Kantian critical appraisals of knowledge.

Cassirer’s first explicit step into process relational philosophy came in 1910 with his Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff.[3] Something of the flavor of this work can be gleaned from the following passage:

Strictly speaking, the experiment never concerns the real case, as it lies before us here and now in all the wealth of its particular determinations, but the experiment concerns rather the ideal case, which we substitute for it […]. This concept [the ideal case] provides for the given time-values a series of space-values, such as proceed according to a fixed rule, that can be grasped once for all. Henceforth we must attempt to advance to the actual process of reality by a progressive consideration of the complex determinations, that were originally excluded […]. As in the arithmetical example, we advance from the simple series, in which the differences between members are constant, to a series of the second, third and fourth order; so we analyze the real into various orders of relations, connected according to law and progressively conditioning each other. The sensuous appearance of simplicity in the phenomenon yields to a strictly conceptual system of superior and subordinate relations. However, as opposed to the mathematical concept, there is a characteristic difference that, while in mathematics the construction reaches a fixed end, in experience it is in principle incapable of completion. But no matter how many “strata” of relations we may superimpose on each other, and however close we may come to all particular circumstances of the real process, nevertheless there is always the possibility that some co-operative factor in the total result has not been calculated, and will only be discovered in the further progress of experimental analysis. Each result established has thus only the relative value of a preliminary determination; and as such only holds what is gained in order to use it as a starting point of new determinations. The uncertainty, that seems to remain, does not affect the relations within the particular series, but only appears where the whole theoretical construction is compared with the actual observations (1910, 254).

A decade later, in The Concept of Nature, Whitehead would work out one way of treating relations as a whole in light of the same problem; all that Cassirer says here, and indeed throughout the work, could have as easily been written by Whitehead. They shared an interest (and primary impetus for thinking) in the way that Descartes’ attempt to mathematize philosophic thought (notably in his synthesis of the algebraic and geometrical aspects of formalization into a system of co-ordinate relations) gave rise to an entirely new style of thinking. There is a difference in style between Cassirer and Whitehead, but not an appreciable difference in viewpoint or conclusions. Of specific importance in the passage above, Cassirer has relocated “necessity” to an internal characteristic of hypothetical series of determinations. One could easily superimpose Whitehead’s criteria of adequacy, logical rigor and applicability to the results of the whole. Experience itself is incurably under-determined and contingent. Reality is a process, while concepts spatialize it and fix it for certain determinate purposes—purposes beyond which the applicability of those concepts is always doubtful and moves by analogy. Cassirer is thus, from the start, a “process philosopher” in the relevant sense, and his critique of substance metaphysics stands alongside similar critiques by other process thinkers.

Cassirer’s ideas concerning mathematics and science naturally lead to broader considerations about culture and history, particularly the issue of symbolization. Having become aware that the symbolic character of mathematical and logical language was crucial to understanding how scientific knowledge comes into existence, Cassirer began to concentrate his efforts upon understanding the process of symbolization itself. Not content with the smaller issue of how natural language relates to formal languages, Cassirer conceived of the entire process of symbolizing as consisting in benign, useful and contingent modes of mediation by which, on one hand, forms of consciousness develop, and on the other hand, through the expression, representation, and significance of these modes of consciousness, a cultural “world” comes into existence. Cassirer was quick to recognize that as our symbols actively create our culture, so our culture in turn acts to alter and develop the forms of consciousness through which humans work.

Between 1917 and 1921,[4] Cassirer was devising a master plan for the philosophical investigation of the process of symbolization. The plan required a new method, a kind of critical phenomenology. This phenomenology alternated between the observation of human consciousness and the study of cultural forms, especially language and myth. The project needed a few basic hypotheses which were well warranted, but by no means necessitated by a transcendental logic or an absolute standpoint. Principal among these hypotheses was the conviction that culture and consciousness are cumulative processes, each of which influences the other. Second was the idea that the earlier forms of both culture and consciousness were conserved (if altered) in the later stages of each. The third hypothesis was that an adequate method of investigation can in principle excavate the earlier strata of both consciousness and culture; a good method could present defensible approximations of the structure and genesis of both consciousness and culture. The outcome of such a project, if successful, would be a thorough, empirical, phenomenological narrative of the emergence of both consciousness and culture, and the master key to this narrative is the process of symbolization. In light of such a result, science, mathematics and logic would appear as the symbolic modes most appropriate to the creation of what we call “scientific knowledge.”

This was the plan of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, whose successive volumes appeared in 1923, 1925 and 1929.[5] Since Cassirer saw the process of symbolization as the pivotal aspect of this development, it was inevitable that he would come to place science and its formal tools within culture as one among several important historical developments in symbolization. Science was certainly the most important symbolic form in generating instrumental knowledge of nature, but Cassirer could not persuade himself that science has a hegemonic hold on and authority over all the things we call “knowledge.” Instead he recognized that religion, art, and history, among others, had each developed a distinct mode of symbolization which resulted in a kind of knowledge. It appeared to him that if a single cultural universal were to be specified as common to all developments, it was myth. Cassirer was careful not to reduce all forms of knowing to myth, but empirical evidence showed not only that mythic consciousness remains operative in human consciousness even when we have developed into scientific and historical and religious and aesthetic “knowers,” but also that culture itself remains situated upon a basis from which myth is never absent. The close tie between the development of language and the emergence of humanity from mythic consciousness remained the primary focus of Cassirer’s thought until his death in 1945.

In 1933 Cassirer, who was Jewish, was forced to leave Hitler’s Germany. He taught in England for two years and then in Sweden for almost six, emigrating to the United States in 1941. His last major works were written in English—An Essay on Man, which was a one-volume summary of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (with some very important additions), and The Myth of the State.[6] The former of these works shows the influence of Susanne Langer on Cassirer’s conception of the symbol, and through her, perhaps also Whitehead’s influence. For now let us simply note that from a process-relational position on the nature of science, mathematics and logic, Cassirer developed an astonishingly detailed philosophy of culture. Whitehead shows a similar development even if his philosophy of culture is not as detailed or vast in scope.

2. Cassirer and Whitehead

Wilbur Urban, who contributed essays to both of the important Library of Living Philosophers volumes on Whitehead and Cassirer,[7] identifies the issue in attempting to bring their ideas together as follows:

If the ideal form and immanent law of all knowledge is, indeed, to be found in the mathematical-physical sciences, then it would seem the symbolism of metaphysics must also be a symbolism of relations and that a philosophy of events, such as that of Whitehead for instance, would necessarily be the resultant metaphysics. On the other hand, if it is true, as we are told by Cassirer, that science as symbolic form has no exclusive value, but is only one way of constructing reality, and has value only from the standpoint of science, then it would appear that a metaphysics, to be adequate, must be a metaphysics of art and religion also and must have a language and symbolic form which includes these forms also—in which case it could no longer be a symbolism of relations merely, but must be a symbolism of things also.[8]

Here Urban expresses a point of view quite common not only among critics of both Whitehead and Cassirer, but even among their most sympathetic interpreters. The main failure of understanding in Urban’s comment is that he does not grasp “relation” as a concrete metaphysical hypothesis, but sees it only in its logical or mathematical sense. He has not understood that for Cassirer and Whitehead, there are no “things” in science, religion, art, or any other symbolic domain, until the “things” are constituted as the highly mediated outcome of a symbolization process. Nor has Urban appreciated that art, religion, etc., are modes of symbolization, ways of relating to and of having a “world.” He has rightly intuited that a metaphysics of events like Whitehead’s is compatible with Cassirer’s style of philosophizing, but he has not considered that there are “events” in more than the scientific sense of the term. Yet, he rightly recognizes that the tendency of Cassirer, in keeping with Whitehead, to endow science with the highest authority in “knowledge” is puzzling to many in light of their similar claim that science is an embedded and thoroughly mediated form of culture. Urban, like so many other twentieth-century realists, is assuming that science, done rightly, has a privileged ontological path to the way things are, independent of the knowing mind. But the question of mind-independence is a holdover from substance metaphysics, with its assumption that there is some necessary relation between “knowing” and “being” (and that this relation is secured in mathematical or logical relations). Where one assumes only possible relations between reality and knowing, and places necessity strictly within the internal operations of knowing, reality becomes a contingent process. On this point Cassirer and Whitehead agree, and in no way does this restriction reduce the authority of science. The move to treating possibility as the fundamental modal category in metaphysics simply allows us to situate scientific knowing historically and empirically and to account for growth and alterations in our scientific claims.

With this issue understood, it is nevertheless true that Cassirer and Whitehead undertake very different projects from the same basic convictions about process and reality. I see no fundamental disagreement between the two, but I believe that few interpreters have rightly understood their full complementarity. Before explicating to this complementarity in more detail, I must try to root out some common, but false, interpretations of Whitehead.

Interpreters of Whitehead have commonly confused the issue of the development of his ideas—their genesis in his intellectual biography—with the meaning and purpose of his individual works. It is a common assumption that each book presages some further development of the philosophy of organism as a whole, culminating in Process and Reality. While there is great value in studying Whitehead’s development, it has led many readers to overlook the pattern and method common to each of his books. Namely, Whitehead is always careful in his introductions to indicate how his present inquiry fits in the general effort of philosophy itself. That is, he carefully qualifies the project and suggests its limits. Each book is an individual inquiry into some important domain of experience. Each book proceeds along the same basic line: he offers a description of the phenomena under investigation—how they may be seen (not how they must be seen)—and then subjects that description to a systematic analysis. In no instance does he claim that the initial description (what in PR he calls their “genetic account”) is the final or the only way of describing these phenomena. In every case he notes that their more detailed and systematic analysis (what in PR he calls the “co-ordinate account”) is dependent upon and a derivative of the genetic account. In this he follows standard mathematical methods: one must specify the entities and rules before proceeding to their systematic interrelations. There is a great deal of freedom in specifying the entities genetically, but the test that it has been done well is whether interesting systematic relations come to light in the co-ordinate phase of the inquiry. The whole inquiry, both genetic and co-ordinate, is measured against the ways in which it illuminates experience. In answer to the question “Why should we accept this genetic account?” Whitehead holds that it is grounded in experience and attempts with as much accuracy as possible to adhere to the testimony of experience. Adjustments in this genetic account are inevitable in light of our further investigation of the phenomena. In spite of that, we are justified in specifying the phenomena to the best of our ability for the purposes of a more thorough speculative understanding of their interrelations.

Thus, the genetic phase of an inquiry is an initial spatialization of the phenomena, under descriptive principles determined by the purpose of the investigation at hand, the common character of which is to sequence and specify those phenomena, i.e., to limit what we mean in referring to them so that we can discuss them systematically. The sequencing does not have to be historical or chronological, though it can be, as in Religion in the Making and Adventures of Ideas. In every case, however, the aim is to get the phenomena to “stand still,” to provide a conceptualization which controls for their ephemeral and changing character so as to provide us with something we can trust from one thought to the next. With the initial genetic description in place, and the flux controlled, we can move to a co-ordinate analysis. This is a second-order spatialization that allows us to examine and bring to light systematic features that were immanent in the initial genetic specification of the phenomena. The exhibition of these relations presumably enables us to see how our own activity of characterizing phenomena genetically will necessitate certain conclusions about their relations and exclude other conclusions. To alter the necessitated results of a co-ordinate account, one must back up and alter the genetic account, and in so doing attend again to the ways in which experience presents those phenomena we had singled out for an initial description.

The entire undertaking is thoroughly hypothetical. No conclusion about reality in itself is forced upon us by any result in the genetic or co-ordinate accounts, because there is always the option of altering the purpose or scope of our inquiry, or of describing the phenomena genetically using different principles. No ontological knowledge is claimed for any result, i.e. no knowledge of any necessary relation obtaining between the way things are in themselves, our logic, and our knowledge. It is taken for granted that the relationship between experiencing and philosophical understanding is thoroughly contingent, yet there are still pressing reasons to attempt to gain philosophical knowledge. Philosophical knowledge of a subject allows one to recognize important possibilities within the adventure of living which will be overlooked without it, to the great diminishment of life. Human progress, to the extent that it is possible, has always involved the sort of recognition of possible connections that philosophy brings.

Thus, Whitehead’s books are individual inquiries into well-circumscribed aspects of experience, submitted first to a genetic description and then to a co-ordinate analysis, the results of which are limited by the way in which the initial inquiry and its purposes were defined. Thus, when Whitehead confronts the phenomena of religious experience in Religion in the Making, he is not there interested in their implications for modern cosmology. He does not describe these phenomena in RM for the purpose of seeing their relation to cosmology. Rather his stated purpose is “to give a concise analysis of the various factors in human nature which go to form a religion, to exhibit the inevitable transformation of religion with the transformation of knowledge, and more especially to direct attention to the foundation of religion on our apprehension of those permanent elements of reason of which there is a stable order in the world, permanent elements apart from which there could be no changing world” (RM Preface). When similar concepts arise in Process and Reality, it is for a quite different purpose, that of investigating “a phase of philosophic thought which began with Descartes and ended with Hume” (PR xi). In reading the interpretive literature, one gets the impression that Whitehead’s followers simply do not believe him when he states explicitly what he is doing and why, in spite of the fact that he goes on to explain in detail what limits he places upon each inquiry. The inquiry in PR is about the way philosophers thought between Descartes and Hume, a certain turn of thinking, novel in human history, in which the algebraic and geometrical modes of thought came together. PR makes no attempt at a full assessment of philosophic thought prior to Descartes or after Kant. The method (genetic and co-ordinate analysis) is post-Kantian, but not the subject of the inquiry. Thus, Whitehead’s major work attempts to come to terms with the fundamental insights of modern philosophy, not unlike Cassirer’s initial project.

To use Whitehead’s results in another context requires that we analogize, but we would be obliged to re-describe the phenomena in the genetic mode for philosophic thinking since Kant if we wish to use the results, and of course, the results would be correspondingly modified. The analogies are rich and tempting. And there is much in Whitehead’s earlier works, especially on the developments in science, and several explicit discussions of Kant and transcendental idealism, which would aid us in a post-critical framing of the phenomena of post-Kantian philosophical thought, if we wished to undertake the inquiry. Simply to assume that Whitehead’s results in any of his inquiries have automatic application to problems that lie beyond their clearly specified scope is a great mistake. But it is a lamentably common one. To assume that the results of Whitehead’s inquiries include ontological knowledge, necessitated by the order of being and the order of knowing, is to misunderstand Whitehead’s method completely. Philosophical knowledge is not necessary knowledge for Whitehead, although the means by which it is attained will employ necessity internal to the terms of the inquiry itself.

3. The Missing Phenomenologies

Given that each of Whitehead’s works is a self-contained inquiry, one can discern fresh significance in comments that Whitehead often makes near the beginning of his books. Whitehead complains often about how little philosophy can really accomplish, blaming this usually upon “weakness of insight and deficiencies of language” (PR 4). As a result our initial descriptions remain “metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap” (PR 4). The difficulty, he continues “has its seat in the empirical side of philosophy:”

Our datum is the actual world, including ourselves; and this actual world spreads itself for observation in the guise of the topic of our immediate experience. The elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought; and the starting-point for thought is the analytic observation of components of this experience. But we are not conscious of any clear-cut complete analysis of immediate experience, in terms of the various details which comprise its definiteness (PR 4).

But what if someone were to devise a method whereby the primary description of immediate experience could be understood philosophically? I take this task to be the aim of phenomenology. The genetic and co-ordinate descriptions in Whitehead correspond closely to the problem of genesis and structure as encountered by phenomenology. On the side of consciousness itself (in its higher phases), phenomenology attempts to give an account of the structural and genetic features of the givenness of the object to consciousness. In the pure phenomenology of Husserl, we see something of its co-ordinate account, and in his later genetic phenomenology we see its genetic account. On the side of the “world,” we see the phenomenological descriptions of Heidegger, co-ordinately in the ontological structures of Dasein, and genetically in their temporal application to being-in-the-world. If these and other forays into phenomenology do not serve to ground any more adequately the “metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap,” then little progress was made in the twentieth century. But they do, and significant progress has been made. This sort of descriptive phenomenology has gone a long way toward clarifying the leap of which Whitehead speaks, making it more of a step than a leap. It is interesting that in both Husserl and Heidegger, the structural or co-ordinate phase of description is given first, and the genetic meaning is drawn as a consequence. In both cases, a kind of necessity is employed by Husserl and Heidegger to ground the genetic descriptions that follow, and the necessity seems to produce ontological knowledge in proportion to the compelling or inescapable character of the co-ordinate descriptions they provide first. Thus, if there is just one universal mode of givenness of the object to transcendental subjectivity, as in Husserl’s Logical Investigations, then the genetic applications to empirical subjectivity found in Ideas are necessitated. Similarly, for Heidegger, if there really is an inescapable description of the ontological structures of Dasein, then Dasein’s mode of being really is care, necessarily, and so forth.

This way of employing necessity, which we might call “structural,” belongs to the older traditions in philosophy, those associated with substance metaphysics. The quest for ontological knowledge has not here been abandoned. For that reason, Husserl, Heidegger, and other phenomenologists who handle description in the same way, are not full-fledged process philosophers. These two varieties of phenomenology and their various off-shoots have little to say directly to the projects of process metaphysics. That there is some intuitive connection between them is clear to many people. But a third sort of phenomenology is required for the rapprochement between phenomenology and speculative process metaphysics, and this is the type Cassirer undertook: a phenomenology that treats the development of forms of consciousness in relation to the development of the types of “worlds” that emerge, a philosophical anthropology that adapts phenomenological methods of description to the problem of the development of human nature in both its cultural and cognitive settings. And Cassirer’s method helps us situate the types of necessity that appear in other types of phenomenology, but without claiming any ontological knowledge of its own. That is to say, Cassirer really is a process philosopher.

Thus, Cassirer offers both a genetic description of the forms of consciousness and the forms of culture, along with a co-ordinate analysis of their interrelations in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. The systematic account of the symbolic functions of consciousness as expressive, representational, and purely significatory (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 3) is a co-ordinate analysis of the genetic account of language as an Energie des Geistes in Volume One. What was lacking in both the Husserlian and Heideggerian types of phenomenology was a thoroughly empirical description of how human consciousness comes to symbolize, and what effects this development has upon the processes of knowing and the creation of new forms of consciousness. Both Husserl and Heidegger begin with a fully developed modern symbolic consciousness, and Cassirer cannot ignore this point. But since human beings cannot be thought of as having always possessed the Daseinsperspektive, Cassirer goes further than Husserl or Heidegger to try to situate the origins and development of this modern consciousness. Cassirer’s phenomenology treats other types of consciousness.

Thus, like Heidegger and Husserl, Cassirer attempted to fill in a weakness in philosophy regarding which Whitehead was always complaining, i.e., the descriptive poverty of philosophical language. Whitehead himself had neither the talent nor the turn of mind to carry out close investigations of this type. He was not a phenomenologist. Yet, the quality of insight and patient analysis required of each of those types of phenomenology mentioned is quite different from the others. Husserl could not have done what Heidegger did, and vice-versa, and neither could have done what Cassirer did. Cassirer had the comprehensive knowledge of history, languages, the social sciences, and the history of philosophy to bring his portion of this task to satisfactory completion. He was well aware he did not possess the type of apprehension of primary phenomena that poets have, and so he used poets as guides when such a primary insight was required.[9] The same might be said of Heidegger. Cassirer probably did possess the needed mathematical, logical and scientific understanding to create a system of metaphysics like Whitehead’s, but he did not have the mathematical imagination. On the other side, Whitehead did not have the command of history, languages, or the social sciences to carry out a task like Cassirer’s. Whitehead’s own efforts at a philosophy of culture are, by comparison, fairly elementary.

Nevertheless, the history of philosophy provides a fascinating point of comparison between Cassirer and Whitehead. They operated from several important common sources, notably Descartes, Plato and Kant. Whitehead’s reading of these figures, along with Locke, Hume and Aristotle, was done mainly on his own. His interpretations of them seem sometimes unaccountable, for they are so very different from conventional ones. Yet, Whitehead was a careful and responsible reader of primary texts, and being unburdened by the secondary literature, encountered their thoughts first-hand, and in light of his own vivid mathematical imagination. Cassirer took a different approach. He mastered the thought of every major philosopher and all of the interpretive disputes that grew up around their thinking, and ultimately developed his own sense of the relations, similarities and differences of these philosophers. Despite his extraordinary erudition—Cassirer was probably the most encyclopedic and accomplished student of the history of philosophy in the twentieth century, and even found time to study the natural and social sciences in addition—he did not become a mere antiquarian. Yet though their approaches differed radically, Cassirer and Whitehead reached surprisingly similar conclusions: Descartes’ insights about method were epoch-making, and philosophy took another important step with Kant.

This brings us to a crucial juncture. If what I have said above is correct, one would expect an important and revealing relationship between Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and Whitehead’s metaphysics. I suggest that there is such a relationship: Whitehead’s metaphysics is a co-ordinate analysis of the genetic specification of language as a symbolic form of culture. In other words, Whitehead’s metaphysics, as a system of conceptual relations, can be based upon the genetic phenomenology of language provided by Cassirer. Let us examine this claim in more detail.

Whitehead’s explicit philosophy of symbolism is quite condensed and phenomenologically simplified compared to Cassirer’s, but it offers some important points of contact. Here is an example of Whitehead’s simplification:

Language, written or spoken, is [a deeper type of] symbolism. The mere sound of a word, or its shape on paper, is indifferent. The word is a symbol, and its meaning is constituted by the ideas, images, and emotions, which it raises in the mind of the hearer (S 2).

Here the third sentence glosses Cassirer’s entire project. The second misses something of great importance[10]: the sound and shape of words is anything but indifferent in the genesis of language, but it is true that for a fully developed symbolic consciousness, one capable of grasping things in their “pure significance,” the sound or shape of a word is treated as if it were a matter of indifference. The whole question for Cassirer is: how can consciousness develop in such a way as to be able to accomplish such a feat? From Cassirer’s phenomenological point of view, Whitehead states only the outcome of a long and complex cultural process, an outcome contingently associated with its mythic beginnings. Yet, in Whitehead’s own choice of terms above, we see analogous versions of the very stages of development identified by Cassirer: emotion or expression (Ausdruck), image or representation (Darstellung), and idea or meaning (reine Bedeutung). For earlier stages of mythic consciousness it is not even appropriate to single out individual “words” and suppose that they have individual “meanings,” as Whitehead has done. And yet, there is nothing false in Whitehead’s assertion that these together are the “meaning” of a word, assuming one takes as given the fully developed symbolic consciousness of human beings, which he does.

But Whitehead does not stop with this account. He moves forward immediately into a full recognition that even our perceptions of our world are already symbolizations of it. His genetic account (presentational immediacy) and co-ordinate account (causal efficacy) that follows treats only the relations of two modes of human perception to conception, the process Whitehead calls “symbolic reference.” As a description of the relation between the combined functions of expression and representation, in Cassirer’s sense, and pure significance, it is basically accurate as far as it goes. Thus, Whitehead is presenting a description of what Cassirer calls the “symbolic functions of consciousness,” but is making his distinctions along slightly different lines, and for different purposes. Working out the exact sense in which Whitehead’s ideas about symbolic reference can be mapped onto Cassirer’s symbolic functions of consciousness would be tedious and difficult, but I do not doubt that they are addressing the same basic problem by different methods. On the side of the “world,” as opposed to consciousness, things are a little clearer, mainly because Whitehead purposely leaves out of account the agency of the “world,” referring readers to Santayana’s Scepticism and Animal Faith should they wish to pursue that question (S 28, 32-33). Cassirer, of course, accounts for both the activity and passivity of those who become subjects and of the “world,” showing in detail the emergence of the subject/object duality in the development from expression to representation.

What Whitehead contributes to the analysis of symbolism (and Langer uses) is the distinction between the two perceptual (i.e., pre-conceptual) modes of symbolization, presentational immediacy and causal efficacy, and the notions of abstraction, projection, objectification and most importantly, “form.” Any or all of these insights from Whitehead could be traced through Langer’s work and in some cases shown to have surfaced in Cassirer’s last writings. Here I can pursue only one important idea—the various senses given by each thinker to the idea of “form.”

4. Form in Whitehead, Cassirer and Langer

4.1. Form in Whitehead

I will limit my survey of Whitehead’s account of “form” to Symbolism,given that it had the most influence on Langer’s subsequent account. But first a point about fundamental metaphysical hypotheses must be made. Cassirer had to confront the question “what is the being of language?” or “what is the being of the symbol?” in order to carry out his phenomenology. Obviously it is a question of metaphysics, but one of the bases for his phenomenology. He describes the problem in the author’s introduction of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (Vol. 1, 1923, 90-93). There, as in all other places, he puts forward the suggestion that language should be treated functionally as an active “energy of spirit,” following Wilhelm von Humboldt and also his own metaphysical orientation as articulated in Substance and Function. He realized that a hypothesis was the best he could offer. Cassirer was a functional realist in epistemology, but a fallibilist. When confronted with the same issue of the being of language, Whitehead took the same view (see S 9-10), and he sees also how it implies metaphysical realism, as a hypothesis. Whitehead points out similarly that “every actual thing is something by reason of its activity; whereby its nature consists in its relevance to other things and its individuality consists in its synthesis of other things so far as they are relevant to it” (S 26). Thus, the shared hypothesis of functional activity or energy is a metaphysical starting point for both Cassirer and Whitehead. Cassirer’s concern is not to develop a co-ordinate analysis of this starting point, but to provide a genetic account of one manifestation of this energy, the basis of symbolism.

The point of contact between Whitehead, Cassirer and Langer is the interpretation of form, and all three see it as dynamic, as activity. In opposing themselves to traditional substance metaphysics, Whitehead and Cassirer confront the question of “form” anew. Despite internal debates as to a form’s mode of existence—whether it exists independently (Platonism, scholastic realism), immanently in particulars (Aristotelian naturalism), in concepts only, or in names (nominalism)—the common assumption of all substance metaphysics was that form was changeless and fully actual. If form was dynamic in any sense, it was in its power to change other existences without itself being altered. Process metaphysics, by contrast, treats form as activity instead of actuality. The sort of dynamism attributed to form is that of an internal power to alter itself, to become what it was not already, to be creative. Thus far Whitehead, Cassirer and Langer are in agreement.

To see their differences let us begin with Whitehead. For Whitehead, the most important idea about form is this:

In enquiring about any one individual we must ask how other individuals enter ‘objectively’ into the unity of its own experience. This unity of its own experience is that individual existing formally. We must also enquire how it enters into the ‘formal’ existence of other things; and this entrance is that individual existing objectively, that is to say—existing abstractly, exemplifying only some elements in its formal content (S 27).

Whitehead is not saying that we ever get the complete metaphysical individual in experience—quite the opposite. In experience we get objectifications of everything else that exists as contributors to our experience at that moment. Since experience will not stand still, we have to make an initial spatialization, from which we see that for any individual there is a sense in which the individual just is the way all those relations come together in a unity, its particular “synthesis.” Its past and future are objectified in it at that moment, and this is of course the concept of the actual entity. It is complete insofar as it succeeds in being a unified perspective upon the whole of reality. When we speak of anything else that exists, we speak only of the way these other things exist for the one entity under consideration. Its unity as a perspective upon all else just is its activity, and taken in its completeness as a single event, it is finished, not in virtue of being a Platonic form, but in virtue of having achieved its perspective as a synthetic activity. When we speak of any given being in this way, we speak of its “form.”

The second and derivative spatialization available to us is to speak of the way some of the elements of an actual entity are abstracted from it by other entities which share the same actual world. As such, we no longer consider the actual entity in its unity, but analyze it into its contribution to other entities. This is the same actual entity as it exists for others in its actual world. It is important to note that the synthetic or unitary consideration of the entity must be done first and is presupposed by the later analysis. That is to say, form is presupposed in every objective analysis of anything we can consider metaphysically. The first spatialization is the one that presents metaphysics with its formal beings, and the second (derivative) spatialization presents objects, regardless of whether these are the elements of other beings that were used by our entity in creating its own synthesis, or the contribution of this entity to other existences for their syntheses. We may consider, Whitehead believes, only one such perspective at a time, one actual entity and its actual world. To consider a second entity as if it were as unitary and concrete as the one with which we began is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Thus, when the term “form” is used by Whitehead, it means the first spatialization of experience so as to consider it a perspective upon all reality. “Form” could therefore be defined as a kind of activity, a satisfaction, an achievement, a value-feeling, a creative advance. In this sense form is dynamic for Whitehead, even though it also hearkens back to the traditional idea of actuality as a kind of completeness; yet this completeness is not static except to the extent that our act of considering it has been accomplished by spatializing one portion of a temporal process as though we had access to it completely. Another traditional idea that drops away is the notion that form is metaphysically self-sufficient. Rather, the formal existence of anything actual is indebted to all other existences and the entity could not achieve its unity without their contributions. A third traditional idea that is transformed is the claim that actuality is necessary existence, that whatever is actual cannot be otherwise. In the new metaphysics, the activity of the entity, considered formally, is never fully determined by the contributions of other entities. There is also its self-activity, its self-production, its self-creative aspect. If we knew every single contribution to this entity made by everything else that exists, we still could not deduce its form from that data. Hence, there is now a contingency built into activity and into the idea of form. Form is no longer necessity; it is active achievement. Thus, Whitehead’s idea of form incorporates notions of contingency, creativity and metaphysical freedom.

4.2. Form in Cassirer

Cassirer’s understanding of form is crucial to his philosophy and yet very difficult to grasp. The idea pervades his writings, and so we cannot limit our discussion to any one single work. Moreover, there remains considerable disagreement among Cassirer scholars as to what he precisely means by “form.” Finally, the issue is complicated by the fact that there are two German words for “form”—Form and Gestalt. Gestalt generally refers to a physical form experienced perceptually, but Form is in general more important philosophically for Cassirer.[11]

Yet, with these caveats, let us make an attempt. Harry Schlochower identifies four overlapping senses of the term “form” in Cassirer’s writing: as (1) material embodiment; (2) organized construction; (3) imaginative reconstruction and transcendence; and (4) as Law, or as the unifying functional principle among different phenomena.[12]

The first two and the fourth senses correspond closely to Whitehead’s use of the term in Symbolism, and might with some effort be brought into full harmony with his view by noting that Whitehead was speaking only of form as an idea generated by a kind of symbolic consciousness doing metaphysics at the level of pure significance, employing the reine Bedeutungsfunktion. One would also expect that it to be possible to uncover both a representational and an expressive level of symbolic activity presupposed in Whitehead’s idea of form, since the kind of consciousness that does metaphysics develops from a kind of consciousness in which the representational and expressive functions remain operative. To begin such an investigation, we might ask, “what does metaphysics express in terms of the emotional constitution of the metaphysician?” or “what does it represent in terms of subject-object relations?” This is not the place to undertake such an investigation, but the point is that we would have to recognize these questions in order to situate Whitehead’s metaphysics in terms of Cassirer’s phenomenology. But Whitehead’s concept of form itself really is a notion that can only be grasped by persons whose conscious functioning already operates at the highest symbolic level (and indeed, it is a difficult idea even for persons with good mathematical minds). Given the question, “what would a fully developed symbolic consciousness say about form, if it wished to consider the idea according to its pure significance?” one answer might be Whitehead’s notion given above. It is a co-ordinate view of form I would expect Cassirer to embrace, or at least to recognize as congenial to the ideas about pure significance he articulates in Part III of Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 3. The fourth sense of form above seems to suggest something quite close to Whitehead’s sense of form, and if we think of the fourth as depending upon the third, we come even closer to rapprochement. It is clear that all four senses are active, and that they suggest the internal dynamic that we associate with organic relations.

Yet Cassirer’s project is not to provide us with a speculative metaphysics as seen from the standpoint of pure significance, it is the genetic specification of symbolic development that leads up to such projects and makes them meaningful and valuable. He restricts his discussion of form to a description of the modes of inner dynamism of the symbol, the energy of spirit that creates myth, language, art, religion, history, and of course, science, at different stages of human culture. In this regard, the questions are what has form done, what does it do, and what can it do in creating the symbol?

In answering this question, according to Donald Phillip Verene, Cassirer took three senses of form from Kant:

In the schematism of the first Critique Cassirer finds the idea of a sensuous-intellectual form. In the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment he finds the idea of individual concrete form and in the Critique of Teleological Judgment he finds the idea of organic form, the idea of an inner life of a thing which is organized in terms of Zweckmässigkeit.[13]

The first two senses correspond respectively to “objectification” and “form” in Whitehead’s senses. The third sense is the most interesting, however, since this is a way of describing the energy of spirit that is the activity of the symbol (i.e. its “form”). The category of purposiveness is invoked here. Purposive activity is possible within a contingent conception of reality so long as the purpose is not thought to pre-exist as a fixed end. Where the end is fixed as a pre-existing telos, the development of entities toward it becomes a necessary march towards the elimination of their defective potentiality. That is a feature of the older deterministic metaphysics. Where the end does not already exist, except as one among many genuine possibilities, the end is created by the self-activity of entities (at least to the extent that it ever becomes actual, which is to say that entities do not create the possibility of such an end, they only actualize it to some degree). This energy or self-activity is what Cassirer means by “form.”

Drawing upon Wilhelm von Humboldt, Cassirer argues that this “energy” as manifest in “language, regarded in its real nature, is an enduring thing, and at every moment a transitory one, in itself no product [Werk] (Ergon), but a task [Thätigkeit] (Energeia). Its true definition can therefore only be a genetic one.”[14] Form is therefore the internal dynamic energy that simultaneously, from a basis of life, creates both consciousness and culture by symbolizing. It is a sort of self-organizing, overflowing of beings altering themselves in co-operation with other active beings, both living and non-living.

4.3. Form in Langer

We must now bring Langer into the story. Langer was enamored of logic from her earliest schooling, and since Whitehead and Russell were the reigning philosophers of logic during her youth, Langer knew about their work and was fascinated by it from the very beginning. She came to know Whitehead personally when he arrived at Harvard in 1925, at the time she was writing her doctoral thesis (at Radcliffe). Langer had been at the University of Vienna between 1921 and 1923 (born to German parents, she had the language already), and learned of Cassirer’s work while there. She seems to have met Cassirer for the first time in the winter of 1942, and Cassirer was apparently very impressed with her.[15] Both Whitehead’s and Cassirer’s ideas were operative in Langer’s earliest writings, and it appears from what she says in her first book, The Practice of Philosophy,[16] that by 1930 she had already decided what ideas she would take from each, and where she thought each missed the mark. From Cassirer, the most important works are the three volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, especially the second volume on myth. Langer was more deeply influenced by Whitehead’s book Symbolism than by any other of his books. While many Whitehead scholars, including the present writer, regard the treatment of language in Whitehead’s later works as being subtler and more valuable, we will leave this aside, for it was the Symbolism book that affected Langer’s thought and attempted synthesis.

Langer believed that Whitehead’s ideas about symbolism were not sufficiently empirical, too speculative, and too influenced by idealism. In defense of Whitehead, one can argue that his approach was empirical, in the style of William James’ radical empiricism. Furthermore, Whitehead was a metaphysical realist. Langer seems to have believed that the flights of abstraction Whitehead permitted himself in the co-ordinate phase of his method contained claims of ontological knowledge, instead of being deductions from the hypothetically designated phenomena described in the genetic phase of his inquiries. Thus, Langer believed she needed to “naturalize” Whitehead’s ideas. This was particularly true with regard to the effort to give a biological account of symbolizing activities of both human and non-human animals. However, Whitehead’s philosophy of symbol and conception of form is already entirely naturalistic, and needs no correction in that regard. Yet, Langer does add much to Whitehead’s ideas about symbol and form: she presents a greater range of symbolic activity, allowing us to adjust and enrich the genetic description of symbolic activity.

Similarly, Langer was convinced that Cassirer had never provided an adequate definition of the symbol (and, by implication, form), which would contribute a scientific realist’s perspective to prevailing debates. Like Whitehead, Cassirer was a scientific realist, but he did not think science could gain verification of what it took to be real through a mere conceptual reduction of language to logic or mathematics. To her credit, Langer agreed on this point, which is one reason she really is a process philosopher and it made hers an important voice against that type of reductionism in a generation that had accepted it wholesale. But this did not assuage her doubts about Cassirer’s tendency to locate and judge scientific claims solely within a culture’s mode of symbolism. And of course Langer was correct to recognize the significant influence of both Kant and Hegel in Cassirer’s thinking, particularly with regard to the energies of Geist. This led Langer to believe that, as empirical as Cassirer was, he needed to be naturalized further still. Although I think this is incorrect, it matters very little because Langer’s project still supplements Cassirer’s in many important ways. The way to sum up the relation between the two projects would be to say that if Cassirer succeeded in giving a diachronic account of the emergence of symbolic consciousness with his phenomenology, Langer succeeded in providing a synchronic account of the same processes by attending to the ways that various species symbolize their worlds insofar as we can find these species existing in our own time. These two accounts meet in their discussions especially of myth, art and rite within the domain of human symbolization.

Here we will discuss only Langer’s early conception of “form,” but I see no important change in her sense or use of that term throughout her career. Langer began her career with considerations of logical form,[17] and the issue of form was always a central feature of her thinking. In the discussions of form in her first book, we find both the traditional use of the term, logical form in Russell’s sense, along with a clear recognition that this sense of form was insufficient for the purposes of knowledge. Knowledge depends upon intuition and insight, and this relies on a kind of perceptual power:

This power which is called insight or intuition, is based upon our perception of patterns, which some enlightened psychologists have recognized as the principle of “Gestalt” and which is “form” in a really general sense. It is the process of generalizing an apprehended configuration, be it verbal, visual, or even emotional; finding for it possible meanings in our further experience.[18]

And, again in the Practice of Philosophy, she writes:

we recognize a conceived form where it is expressed in nature; where we cannot recognize any form, we cannot clearly identify things and events. But this process of recognizing a thing as a possible form with a definite experiential content rests on further principles than integration of reflexes or cumulative association—it involves a new primitive notion, which the Germans have called “Gestalt.”[19]

Langer is not taking this idea of form as Gestalt from either Cassirer or Whitehead. Cassirer was well aware of the emerging idea of Gestalt in the social sciences, but it is not his central idea of form. Langer is thinking of perceptual Gestalt as a more general phenomenon, a dynamic process on the basis of which we can further specify more rigid, clear, abstract and adequate systems of “form.” These various formal systems do not have to be consistent with one another, she says, and none of them presents us with the complete “thing” as it exists in nature or in itself. Langer explicitly denies that efforts directed at creating more and more adequate abstract forms or systems of forms can ever yield ontological knowledge. For her, there is no such beast as the form of a thing or the final truth about it. Thus, the initial picture of form in Langer is one of an on-going, natural activity of perceptive beings working upon the Gestalten they “recognize” in experience, and upon the basis of this “insight” (and she says explicitly this is not restricted to human perception), building up a world of meanings from the already formed (in the sense of Gestalt) content of such experience. She denies that content can be separated wholly from the form in which it is presented and she denies that there is any such thing as “pure experience.” All experience is symbolized in the act of perceiving.

Whitehead has nothing in his philosophy that really corresponds to this notion of form as Gestalt, but his sense of form explained above is quite close to Langer’s notion of abstract form. Yet, Whitehead launches into metaphysical territory with which Langer is ill at ease, because he is willing to treat form as if it were the appropriate term for the complete object. Whitehead actually agrees with Langer that there is no one form of any real object in nature, but the demands of metaphysics are such that we hypothesize the entity in its unity, its synthesis, its completeness, even though direct experience of it as such by some other entity is impossible in principle. No entity has complete experience of another entity, for that would make them identical. Yet, it does not follow from this that there is no self-existent perspective which is complete, not just hypothetically but in reality. We simply do not know that. But in metaphysics, we are obliged to speak of the complete aspect of an entity, its “form,” as a starting point, even though no subsequent development of such an idea can produce actual experience of the form, thus understood. Langer balks at this. Why must we have such a hypothesis? She wants to build up an account of form from the perceptual evidence and not to lose sight of these origins in her metaphysics, to keep the Gestalt sense of form always in play. I understand and appreciate her caution, but it is unnecessary, in my view. It is perfectly possible to keep always in view the postulate that sets limits upon an entire inquiry and to qualify one’s conclusions accordingly. Such is Whitehead’s ontological principle in PR. If this is correct, Langer sets about to do something which she takes to be a corrective of Whiteheadian metaphysics but is in fact a supplement to it.

With respect to Cassirer the story is more complicated. The difference between Langer’s use of form as Gestalt and Cassirer’s sense of it comes down to a difference between empirical investigation of the sort undertaken by Gestalt psychologists and biologists, and the demands of phenomenology, such as I have described earlier. Langer is not undertaking a phenomenology of symbols or form, but rather a philosophical interpretation of the results of empirical research, scientific, anthropological, biological, psychological, and even cultural. Langer’s generalizations are governed by the degree of warrant provided by empirical evidence. That evidence is of course highly mediated by the methods through which it was gathered, and science is but one of the symbolic forms of culture by which such phenomena may be appropriated. Langer was more than happy to gather evidence from many sciences—the hard, soft and social sciences—but she insisted that philosophy be as rigorous as science in its disciplined approach to such evidence. But of course, it is common to all three of our figures that philosophy should be rigorous and disciplined, and all three of them took science as the exemplar. Yet there is a tremendous difference among metaphysics disciplined by mathematical form (as in Whitehead), phenomenology disciplined by the forms of critical Erkenntnistheorie (as in Cassirer), and naturalism disciplined by the physical, biological and social sciences (as in Langer).

The result, for Langer, is that her philosophical conception of form carries a far greater debt to the notion of the perceptual Gestalt than either Cassirer’s or Whitehead’s. Her task is to show the dynamic relation between form in the sense of Gestalt and logical form, and in this domain she accomplished a great deal, especially in demonstrating that the emotional aspects of experience evince form as surely as do the perceptual and conceptual, and not merely for humans but also for animals. For our purposes, the primary outcome of Langer’s efforts is that she contributes a needed aspect to the genetic description of the symbol, in terms of form, which is almost entirely consistent with Cassirer’s phenomenology. Together these two provide a fuller genetic account than Whitehead could give for his co-ordinate analysis of symbolic reference. I think in all three cases we see the basic conviction that form is dynamic, a kind of energy available for the creation of meaning. In all three cases we see that to be is to be self-active, and nothing real lacks form in this sense. I have referred to Langer’s “attempted” synthesis throughout because I think that she saw it as a synthesis, but I do not agree. Still, Langer’s contribution to process philosophy is enormous in providing an operational conception of form as Gestalt and showing its connections to logical form. In metaphysics Langer wanted to be a careful naturalist, but she was certainly a process thinker.

5. Conclusion

We have traced some of the general facts about the relations among Whitehead, Cassirer and Langer, but under the severe limitation of examining only the concept of form, and even this only in a fairly cursory way. The conception of “symbol” is both a richer and more complex path through the same forest, and the ideas of abstraction and projection are equally tempting. I have examined Langer’s notion of the symbol in relation to Whitehead’s philosophy elsewhere,[20] but the ultimate justification of any such scholarly study must derive from what is genuinely learned about the subjects under discussion by means of the analysis. In the present case, the point is that process thinkers not only do but should think of form in terms of dynamic, internal self-alteration, as an energy of self-creation and self-production, of the creation of value, and as the ground of freedom and possibility. Further, I think we can learn to recognize that a variety of methods has been brought to bear on the overall project of process philosophy, and we should especially learn both to understand Whitehead’s method better, and to use it. But also we should grasp what sorts of phenomenology have been tried and how these relate to process philosophy. Cassirer’s approach is a key to bridging the distance between Whiteheadian process thought and Heideggerian and Husserlian phenomenology.[21]


[1] Cassirer, Leibniz’ System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen (Marburg, Elwert, 1902). This book incorporated his inaugural thesis, Descartes’ Kritik der mathematischen und naturwissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis (University of Marburg, 1899).

[2] Cassirer, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, Vols. 1 and 2 (Berlin, Bruno Cassirer, 1906, 1907). The third volume appeared in 1920 and the fourth volume was published posthumously, the English translation being released in 1950, before the original German was published. Thus, one could say without hesitation that this was a life-long project. Volumes 1-3 have not been translated into English.

[3] Cassirer, Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff: Untersuchungen über die Grundfragen der Erkenntniskritik (Berlin, Bruno Cassirer, 1910). The English translation of this work, coupled with Cassirer’s Zur Einstein’schen Relativitätstheorie: Erkenntnistheoretische Betrachtungen (Berlin, Bruno Cassirer, 1921) was done by W.C. and M.C Swabey under the title Substance and Function and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (Chicago, Open Court, 1923). While it is a good translation, the title is misleading. It is incredibly important that readers be aware that Cassirer aims not to discuss “substance” and “function” as such, but rather the concepts of them, and not simply Einstein’s theory, but Einsteinian theory.

[4] It should be noted that the First World War was in part responsible for the broadening of Cassirer’s philosophic interests. Being a person of conscience he could not easily justify to himself retaining so narrow a focus upon the problem of knowledge when the entire world was coming apart at the seams. We may note that the same war had a profound effect upon Whitehead’s interests as well.

[5] Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 3 Vols. (Berlin, Bruno Cassirer, 1923, 1925, 1929), translated by Ralph Manheim (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1953, 1955, 1957). A fourth volume was begun in 1928, in manuscript form. Some scholars hold that this fourth volume was completed and became Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften: Fünf Studien (Göteborg, Wettergen and Kerber, 1942), translated by Clarence Smith Howe (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1961). A newer translation by S.G. Lofts also appeared from Yale Press in 2000. Other scholars hold that the fourth volume was not completed and the 1928 manuscript is best grouped with a 1940 manuscript on similar subjects, and that together these form what was accomplished toward the fourth volume. The latter has been published as The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 4: The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms, edited by John Michael Krois and Donald Phillip Verene, translated by J.M. Krois (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1996).

[6] Cassirer, An Essay on Man (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1944); The Myth of the State (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1946). Cassirer knew English his entire adult life (along with numerous other languages) and was required to read and translate English newspapers by the German government during the First World War (he was drafted into the Civil Service). But his facility with writing philosophy in English was not developed until he emigrated.

[7] See Paul Arthur Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (LaSalle IL, Open Court Press, 1951 [1941]); and The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (LaSalle IL, Open Court Press, 1958 [1949]).

[8] Wilbur Urban, “Cassirer’s Philosophy of Language,” in The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, 437-38. It is interesting that Urban was also referred to by Langer as setting her problem up in the preface to the first edition of Philosophy in a New Key.

[9] Langer also initially made this oversight (e.g Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 4, 132).

[10] See the Preface to the 2nd edition of Philosophy in a New Key, where Langer makes it clear that she had earlier conflated “signs” with “signals,” and has been led to correct this by adopting the usage of Charles W. Morris in subsequent works. This will be discussed further later.

[11] To provide a sense of how tricky the relationship between Form and Gestalt is, I offer only one example. In the “Vorwort” to his collection of essays entitled Idee und Gestalt (Berlin, Bruno Cassirer, 1921), in explaining why he has published these essays on Gœthe, Schiller, Hölderlin, and Kleist together, Cassirer writes: “Wenn ich sie [the essays] hier nochmals zusammenfasse, so geschiet es, um das gemeinsame Thema, auf das sie sich bei aller inhaltlichen Verschienheit beziehen, schärfer heraustreten zu lassen. In ihnen allen handelt es sich darum, Verknüpfungen und Vermittlungen aufzuzeigen, die von der Welt der philosophischen Ideen zur Welt der dichterischen Gestaltung hinüberführen. In solchen Vermittlungen und Übergängen offenbaren auf die Ideen selbst erst ihren vollen Gehalt: es zeigt sich, dass die wahrhaft schöpferischen philosophischen Gedanken, neben ihrem rein abstrakten, begrifflich fassbaren Inhalt ein eigentümliches konkret-geistiges Leben, eine Kraft der Gestaltung und Formgebung in sich schliessen.”

[12] Harry Schlochower, “Ernst Cassirer’s Functional Approach to Art and Literature,” in The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, 644.

[13] Donald Phillip Verene, “Cassirer’s Symbolic Form,” in Il cannocchiale, 1, 2 (1991), 297.

[14] Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language: The Diversity of Human Language-Structure and Its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind, translated by Peter Heath (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988), 49. I have altered Heath’s translation of the word Thätigkeit, which he had rendered “activity.” It is best for our purposes to reserve the English “activity” for the German Activität.

[15] See Toni Cassirer, Aus meinem Leben mit Ernst Cassirer (New York, privately published, 1950), 292.

[16] Susanne Langer, The Practice of Philosophy (New York, Henry Holt, 1930), especially 108, 178.

[17] See Langer, 1926, “Form and Content,” Journal of Philosophy, 23, 435-38.

[18] Langer, The Practice of Philosophy, 166.

[19] Langer, The Practice of Philosophy, 132.

[20] See my “Susanne Langer on Symbols and Analogy: A Case of Misplaced Concreteness?” Process Studies 26, 1-2 (1997), 86-106.

[21] Equally important in this regard is Bergson’s phenomenology. For a further treatment of this topic, see my “Influence as Confluence: Bergson and Whitehead,” Process Studies, in the special focus section on “Bergson and Whitehead” 28, 3-4 (Fall/Winter 1999), 267; 301-38; 339-45.

Author Information

Randall E. Auxier
Southern Illinois, University, Carbondale

How to Cite this Article

Auxier, Randall E., “Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) & Susanne Katherina (Knauth) Langer (1895–1985)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.