I cannot remember when I acquired the four volumes of Ernst Cassirer’s The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. I had been aware of this work for quite some time, probably going back to my first efforts in the middle of the last decade to make sense of semiotic research. My guess is that I made the commitment one day when I was browsing at City Lights Bookstore because all four volumes were there on the shelf. I would also guess that I purchased the books after my research had gotten sucked into the “knowledge management” movement and that I was struck by the fact that the third volume was entitled The Phenomenology of Knowledge.
Since that time (whenever it was), those four volumes have languished on several shelves. Currently they are on my “philosophy shelf,” where as a result of my crude effort to keep things chronologically ordered by the author’s earliest work in my collection, they sit between the two volumes of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West and Martin Heidegger’s early Introduction to Phenomenological Research. Charles Hendel’s Introduction to Cassirer’s first volume cites Cassirer’s approach to phenomenology as critically opposed to the “naturalistic philosophy of culture” embraced by Spengler. In the other direction Heidegger played a clearly significant role in the thinking that went into the Phenomenology of Knowledge volume, a role that was probably enhanced by personal interactions between these two men.
For my part Cassirer returned to my own radar screen while I was reading Alfred Schutz’ paper, “Language, Language Disturbances, and the Texture of Consciousness,” which was basically his reflections on the findings of Kurt Goldstein published in the 1948 book, Language and Language Disturbances, Aphasic Symptom Complexes and their Significance for Medicine and Theory of Language. (I should note, as an aside, that the data from this book would later play a critical role in Roman Jakobson’s 1956 paper, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances.” Jakobson called those disturbances “The Similarity Disorder” and “The Contiguity Disorder” and interpreted them as impairments that prevented the mind from dealing with the rhetorical devices of metaphor and metonymy, respectively.) Schutz’ paper was basically a study of Goldstein’s impact on philosophers who were trying to grapple with the nature of consciousness, and Cassirer was one of the philosophers examined.
As I read the section on Cassirer in Schutz’ paper, I realized that there was considerable resonance with Friederich Hayek’s book The Sensory Order and the role that book had played in the more recent research into consciousness by Gerald Edelman. I was therefore not surprised to discover that Goldstein was one of the sources for Hayek’s book, although he does not appear to be cited by Edelman. What first caught my attention was Schutz’ summarization of Cassirer’s approach as follows:
The world of “perceptions” is not a mere sum total of sense data; it is organized in a threefold way. First, there are phenomena of a central character, calling things and qualities; second, there is the order of these phenomena in spatial coexistence; and third, in their succession in time.
Edelman would later attach his own labels to these three stages:
- Perceptual categorization
- Time-consciousness (actually a term used by Husserl)
He also gave them in a different order in his own gradus to the Parnassum of consciousness, postulating time-consciousness as a precondition for syntax.
Cassirer then proposed a parallel set of three stages through which linguistic behavior develops, described by Schutz as follows:
- It is first mimic expression, imitation of the sensuous perception by sound, so characteristic of the language of the child and primitive man.
- The second level is that of analogical expression. Here the relationship between sound and designated content is not a of material nature, but that of an analogy of formal structure.
- Only the third level is that of symbolic expression proper.
What makes this interesting is that, in The Remembered Present, Edelman never really gets beyond viewing language as “mimic expression,” engaged in the service of “primary consciousness.” Thus, what makes Cassirer particularly interesting (at least to me) is that he explicitly recognized the need to establish a bridge between basic perceptual categorization (what Hayek called our capacity for “sensory order”) and our ability to work with symbolic forms (the theme of all four of his volumes). Neither Hayek nor Edelman explicitly addressed that capacity, and I now feel more than a little sheepish for not having noticed that omission on their parts.
I suppose this revelation has been particularly important to me because that capacity for working with symbolic forms is equally important in the performance of music. Indeed, it may well be that the distinction between “authentic reproduction” and imitation, in the Aristotelian sense of that word, can be attributed entirely (or at least almost entirely) to the intervention of symbolic forms during the act of performance. This intervention probably does not involve a direct appeal to semiotic theories that try to sort everything into signifiers and signifieds. In all likelihood semantic signification never enters into the equation. Nevertheless, music notation is basically a set of symbolic forms without which music cannot be made. I might even advance the radical hypothesis that, even when musicians are playing by ear, their very mindset presumes a context grounded on those symbolic forms (which may be one reason why Keith Richards could never properly get that guitar riff that Chuck Berry insisted he play in that episode in Taylor Hackford’s film, Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll). Now all I need to do is find the right window of time in which I can turn to a more disciplined reading of Cassirer’s texts!