About the Symbol in Cassirer´s: Essay on Man

Term Paper, 2006

15 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 Introduction

2 A clue to the nature of man: The symbol and from animal reactions to human responses

3 Science

4 Conclusion

5 Literature

1 Introduction

Seeing shadows like the prisoners in the cave of Plato’s simile[1], that’s what life of man would be like if he had not the symbol. Without symbols, mans life would be confined within the limits of his biological needs and his practical interests, thus not differentiating himself from other species[2]. In his “Essay on Man”, Ernst Cassirer examines man’s efforts to understand himself and to deal with the problems of his universe through a creation and use of symbols. He analyzes the major symbolic forms of human enterprise: Language, Myth, Art, Religion, History, and Science. He discusses these subjects with the help of great thinkers of all times, making annotations on what, in each moment, these persons thought. He explains the point of view of Philosophers, Biologists, Naturalists, Physicists etc, and interprets them in a very unique way, to make the reader understand his point. He goes from Heraclitus to Kierkegaard and Einstein. This essay is a good synthesis of the ability of man to resolve human problems by the simple use of his mind through symbols.[3]

I have chosen three chapters that caught my attention. I will synthesize what for me is a symbol by looking into chapter II, “A clue to the nature of man: the Symbol” and chapter III, “From animal reactions to human responses”.

Then I will continue to the last chapter, XI “Science” to see the absolute evolution of the symbol through human existence to our times.

Finally I will close this work with my conclusion and own interpretation of “An essay on man” and what it left in me.

2 A clue to the nature of man: The symbol and from animal reactions to human responses

In this second chapter, Cassirer dedicates his attention to the Symbol. The underlying question he asks is different from that of other philosophical or metaphysical theories, he sees this symbolic thought and symbolic behaviour among the most characteristic features of human life, and that the whole progress of human culture is based on this condition. For Cassirer, Man is a part of the animal kingdom, and in no way apart or superior to it. But to Cassirer Man is, in a new dimension of reality. He trespasses the limits of organic life, he evolved a specific concept of the world. The main difference between Man and other organisms is that man not only reacts through reflexes, he uses thought.

“There is an unmistakable difference between organic reactions and human responses. In the first case a direct and immediate answer is given to an outward stimulus; in the second case the answer is delayed. It is interrupted and retarded by a slow and complicated process of thought.”[4]

Man, as all other species has a receptor system, which consists of specialized organs, and an effectors system, also with different organs. Through the communication of these two systems, animals can adapt to their environment. In man we find a third link; Cassirer describes this as the symbolic system.[5] And this new acquisition transforms his whole life. “Hence, instead of defining man as an animal rationale, we should define him as an animal symbollicum. By so doing we can designate his specific difference, and we can understand the new way open to man- the way to civilization.”[6]

Through this Symbols only, is it possible for Man not only to react thoughtful to the environmental changes, but also to answer them in an intelligent way. This means after thinking, maybe also anticipating. Through this ability also the perceived world changes. “This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with other animals, man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality.”[7]

And for this new reality it is not only the objects of the physical world that are important, much more relevant are the imaginative or symbolic objects or thoughts that play a major role. In the contrast to the animal world, also feelings like desires, fears, or hopes play a very important role, but these are not objective perceived things. No, they are subjective constructed symbols.

“No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself.”[8]

In this paragraph I understand Cassirer in a way that it is a wonderful achievement of man to gain this achievement of knowledge, but it is not only to be seen as a positive thing, as in some cases it is not for good. In the last cited paragraph we find that at one point man converses with himself. This is an interesting point, in the sense that it makes a doubt come to light, and this doubt is one of the most potent triggers of all the advances of science today. Where do we come from? What are we? What am I supposed to do? What does this and that mean? etc, are all questions of our self to our selves, and to the rest of the world, and the universe. And these questions arise from the most inner of our being.

Here we can stop and ask, is this a pure ability of Humans?


[1] Cassirer, Essay on Man. P 41

[2] idem. P. 41

[3] Cassirer, Essay on Man, back review.

[4] Cassirer, p. 24

[5] idem. p. 24

[6] idem. p. 26

[7] idem. p. 24

[8] Cassirer, p. 25

Excerpt out of 15 pages


About the Symbol in Cassirer´s: Essay on Man
University of Osnabrück
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Without symbol mankind has lost the identity and therefore the symbolic way of life is so extraordinary interesting in philosophy an specially in "Cassierers-philosophy"
About, Symbol, Cassirer´s, Essay, Philosophie
Quote paper
Clemens Bauer (Author), 2006, About the Symbol in Cassirer´s: Essay on Man, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/110654


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