Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer on mediation of the human experience through symbol

Yet there is no remedy against this reversal of the natural order. Man cannot escape from his own achievement. He cannot but adopt the conditions of his own life. No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are the varied threads which weave the symbolic net, the tangled web of human experience. All human progress in thought and experience refines upon and strengthens this net. 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. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium. His situation is the same in the theoretical as in the practical sphere. Even here man does not live in a world of hard facts, or according to his immediate needs and desires. He lives rather in the midst of imaginary emotions, in hopes and fears, in illusions and disillusions, in his fantasies and dreams. »What disturbs and alarms man,« said Epictetus, »are not the things, but his opinions and fancies about the things.«[3]
Ernst Cassirer in An Essay on Man: An introduction to a philosophy of human culture, edited by Maureen Lukay, (Hamburg, Germany: Felix Meiner Verlag, 2006), p. 30. First published (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1944). Cited in part by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public discourse in the age of show business, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 10.

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"Yet there is no remedy against this reversal of the natural order."


[3] [Epictetus, The Encheiridion, or Manual (No. 5), in: The Discourses, as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments, with an Engl. transl. by William Abbot Oldfather, 2 Bde., London/Cambridge, Mass. 1928, Bd. II, S. 479-537: S. 87: »It is not the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgements about these things.«]