Language & Myth – A tribute to Ernst Cassirer

2015-06-21 - Theory

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945),  a predecessor of the Vienna Circle and pioneer in modern linguistics and cultural philosophy, says any linguistic construct is mythological in its essence.

[…] all symbolism harbors the curse of mediacy; it is bound to obscure what it seeks to reveal. […] Consequently all schemata which science evolves in order to classify, organize, and summarize the phenomena of the treal world turn out to be nothing but arbitrary schemes – airy fabrics of the mind, which express not the nature of things, but the nature of mind. So knowledge, as well as myth, language, and art, has been reduced to a kind of fiction – to a fiction that recommends itself by its usefulness, but must not be measured by any strict standard of truth, if it is not to melt away into nothingness (p. 7f).

[A]ll the intellectual labor whereby the mind forms general concepts out of specific impressions is directed toward breaking the isolation of the datum, wresting it from the “here and now” of its actual occurrence, relating it to other things and gatehring it and them into inclusive order, into the unity of a “system”. The logical form of conception, from the standpoint of theoretical knowledge, is nothing but a preparation for the logical form of judgement; all judgement however aims at overcoming the illusion of singularity which adheres to every particular content of consciousness. The apparently singular fact becomes known, understood and conceptually grasped only in so far as it is “subsumed” under a general idea, recognized as a “case” of a law or as a member of a manifold or a series. In this sense any genuine judgement is synthetic; for what it intends and strives for is just the synthesis of parts into a whole, this weaving the particulars into a system. This synthesis cannot be achieved immediately and at a single stroke; it has to be worked out step by step, by a progressive activity relating separate notions or sense impressions with each other, and then gathering up the resultant wholes into greater complexes, until finally the unity of all these separate complexes yields the coherent picture of the totality of things. The will to this totality is the vivifying principle of our theoretical and empirical conception. This principle, therefore, is necessarily “discursive”; that is to say, it starts with a particular case, but instead of dwelling upon it, and resting content in sheer contemplation of the particular, it lets the mind merele start from this instance to run the whole gamut of Being in the special directions determined by the empirical concept. By this process of running through a realm of experience, i.e., of discoursive thinking, the particular receives its fixed intellectual “meaning” and definite character. It has different appearances according to the ever-broadening contexts in which it is taken; The place it holds in the totality of Being, or rather the place which the progressive march of thought assigns to it, determines its content and its theoretical significance (p. 25f).

All theoretical cognition takes its departure from a world already preformed by language; […] (p. 28).

The aim of theoretical thinking, as we have seen, is primarily to deliver the contents of sensory or intuitive experience from the isolation in which they originally occur. It causes these concepts to transcend their narrow limits, combines them with others, compares them, and concatenates them in a definite order, in an all-inclusive context. It proceeds “discursively”, in that it treats the immediate content only as a point of departure, from which it can run the whole gamut of impressions in various directions, until these impressions are fitted together into one unified conception, one closed system. In this systeme teher are no more isolated points; all its members are reciprocally related, refer to one another , illumine and explain each other. Thus every separate event is ensnared, as it were, by invisible threats of thought, that bind it to the whole. The theoretical significance it receives lies in the fact that it is stamped with the character of this totality (p. 32).

 Source: Cassirer, Ernst (1946/1953). Language and Myth. New York: Dover Publications.

› tags: epistemology / linguistics / philosophy /

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