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Cassirer and Heidegger

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• Is the world eternal? YES
• Do humans have contra-causal free will (i.e., can humans do otherwise)? NO
• Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? YES
• Do humans have souls? YES
• Are there natural rights? YES
• Is it morally permissible to eat meat? NO
• Is the unexamined life worth living? NO
• Is truth subjectivity? YES
• Is virtue necessary for happiness? YES
• Can a computer have a mind? YES
• Can humans know reality as it is in itself? YES
• Is hell other people? YES
• Can art be created accidentally? NO
• Can we change the past? NO
• Are numbers real? NO
• Is it always better to know the truth? YES

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Here is a review of a recent book describing a 1929 philosophy conference where Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger had a famous exchange, and both Levinas and Carnap were in the audience. The confrontation was fascinating; according to the review —

Gordon begins his book with a broad characterization of Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s philosophical positions. At the core of their debate at Davos (and, it turns out, at the core of their entire philosophical thought) lay, as Gordon puts it, “a fundamental contest between two normative images of humanity,” (p. 6) a contest “between thrownness and spontaneity” (p. 7). Where neo-Kantian Cassirer saw human beings as gifted with a capacity for “spontaneous self-expression” and thus endowed with “a complete freedom” to create worlds of meaning, Heidegger envisaged them to be determined by their “finitude” and thus as living in the midst of conditions they have not created and cannot hope to control.



  1. Rob says:

    And then there’s Schopenhauer’s majestically gloomy fusion of the worst features of both views in which all possible action in the empirical world is nothing more than the fully determined recollection of an act of intelligible freedom, the gradually accumulating cognizance over time, through the evidence of our actions, of our timeless essence.


  2. Huenemann says:

    “…of our timeless essence, which is unsatisfied will,” right?


  3. Rob says:

    This is where I really lose my bearings with Schopenhauer since time seems to be an inherent part of the notion of willing, yet he sometimes characterizes our empirical character as the expression of some primal “act of will”, which he identifies with the intelligible character. I’m still very much a neophyte, trying to work through his text as best I can before consulting any secondary literature. Have you read much Schopenhauer? (His view of Spinoza is interestingly mixed, though I’m in no position to assess their accuracy.)


  4. Huenemann says:

    I think Schopenhauer is often inconsistent. For example, he uses facts about human physiology to try to justify Kant’s fundamental thesis about space and time – forgetting, itseems, that bodily organs themselves are in space and time, and so can’t be the genesis of space and time. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he said contradictory things about the nature of the will. But it might be that he thinks of acts of will as eternal – I’ll need to check the texts again – particularly the noumenal act(s?) of will that result in the phenomenal world


  5. Rob says:

    Oh, I completely agree with you and find his thought riddled with, if not full-blown inconsistencies, at least tensions I can’t reconcile, particularly his weird blend of naturalism and his melange of Platonic-Kantian-Vedic metaphysics. And yet somehow the atmosphere generated by it all, supported by such absorbing linguist command, is fabulously compelling to me. Thank goodness so many artists seem to agree, or I’d seriously worry that I was a completely hopeless crackpot!


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