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Great learning requires much rapid registry of facts and a mind attentive to detail.
But then, on Cassirers own showing, no philosophy of man would seem to be practicable; there would only be a theory of art, a theory of religion, and so on. And an admirable gift it is, for which I, at least, am thankful.
An ' Essay on man' is an original synthesis of contemporary knowledge, a unique interpretation of the intellectual crisis of our time, and a brilliant vindication of manís ability to resolve human problems by the courageous use of his mind.
It is hard not to think, as one reads a book so wealthy as this in historic and scientific erudition, but at the same time so oddly inconclusive, that Cassirer was rather a distinguished reflective scholar than a great speculative philosopher.
The learning is not mobilized in the interest of any theory; the book is not so much an essay on man as a series of essays, all suggestive and enlightening, which converge onwhat? Perhaps there is no end, or harmony of ends, toward which all these activities are moving.
I own that in my eagerness to see how it all came out, I peeked like a bad detective-story reader; there is a chapter called summary and conclusion, and I leaped forward to that. The only thing offered as common to the various symbolic activities was a tension between conservative and progressive impulsesa tame conclusion, after all, to so much labor and learning.
It is not often that great breadth of learning and great gifts of speculative synthesis go together.In the first part of his book Cassirer lays this down as his avowed purpose. These symbolic activities embrace all the more important activities of man, and if they are to be duly scrutinized, one must offer something of a phenomenology and philosophy of myth, religion, language, art, literature, history, and science.On this tremendous task Cassirer launches bravely out. One cannot read it without feeling afresh how deep a loss the philosophic community sustained in his recent death.He was a mind of extraordinary range, equally at home, to all appearances, in the ancient literatures and in modern science, in history and in mathematics. He had taught at Berlin, Hamburg (where he was rector of the university), Gothenburg, Oxford, Yale, and Columbia.With the authors prospectus in the back of his mind, the reader moves along expectantly, assured that so competent a guide will draw the threads together and show how all these activities converge upon some end that will illuminate and harmonize them.As he reads on, he feels a gradually growing uneasiness.The centerpiece of Cassirer's thought is his theory of symbolic forms.He construed representation, the ground of symbolic form, to be essentially symbolic, fusing perceptual materials with conceptual meanings.Their combination is not impossible; Aristotle, Hegel, and Lotze, for example, achieved it magnificently.But the two things sometimes get in each others way.