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(2012) Ernst Cassirer on form and technology, New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Failures of convergence

Dennis M. Weiss

pp. 233-257

Ernst Cassirer opens his 1944 An Essay of Man arguing that while self-knowledge is the highest aim of philosophical enquiry, today man's knowledge of himself is in crisis. Cassirer points out that no former age was ever in such a favourable position with regard to the sources of our knowledge of human nature. As he notes: "Psychology, ethnology, anthropology, and history have amassed an astoundingly rich and constantly increasing body of facts. Our technical instruments for observation and experimentation have been immensely improved, and our analyses have become sharper and more penetrating.'1 And yet, Cassirer argues, we have no method for the mastery and organization of this material. We have a mass of disconnected and disintegrated data which seem to lack all conceptual unity. The anarchy of thought, Cassirer notes, leaves us without a frame of reference or general orientation and our wealth of knowledge threatens to become little more than a mass of disconnected and disintegrated data. This, Cassirer notes, is a danger, a theoretical as well as a practical problem. As he writes: "That this antagonism of ideas is not merely a grave theoretical problem but an imminent threat to the whole extent of our ethical and cultural life admits of no doubt.'2 And on this point he cites Max Scheler who notes that "in no other period of human knowledge has man ever become more problematic to himself than in our own days'.3 Cassirer's later work, including An Essay on Man, The Myth of the State and many of the essays collected in Symbol, Myth, and Culture, is particularly imbued with an awareness of "menacing danger',4 as he refers to it in the essay "The Concept of Philosophy as a Philosophical Problem', and the slow disintegration and the sudden collapse of social and political life in the last decades,5 as he puts it in the essay "Judaism and the Modern Political Myths', written in 1944, the same year as the publication of An Essay on Man. Cassirer worries that modern philosophical thought has become increasingly pessimistic and fatalistic and that philosophy has abrogated its ethical responsibility to speak to these theoretical as well as practical crises.

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Full citation:

Weiss, D. M. (2012)., Failures of convergence, in A. Sissel Hoel & I. Folkvord (eds.), Ernst Cassirer on form and technology, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 233-257.

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