Sunday, September 11, 2016

Tonsor #5, part 2 -- First Class: Why Ernst Cassirer Matters

Our introduction to intellectual history.
In that initial meeting of History 416, Tonsor tried to whet his students’ appetite for the first text we'd cover -- a doozy of a read -- Ernst Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. I don't know how persuasive he was with most of the undergraduates -- they were not exactly kittens discovering the bowl of cream. I'd wager he spoke over their heads. But he was clear and direct.

“If you are like the thousand or so students who have preceded you in this class, then you will find this first reading difficult. This is a good thing -- you would not learn if it were not difficult.” Tonsor added, sotto voce, “Herr Doktor Professor Cassirer will no doubt cull the less serious scholars from the class.” The sarcasm in the word “scholars” seemed to reverberate as much as the jackhammer had.

It’s true. Cassirer's Enlightenment was even more intimidating than our professor. At home that night I would discover that it was the most difficult book I had yet encountered in my academic career.[1] On second thought that's not true -- it couldn't hold a candle to college calculus. Cassirer was, more precisely, the most difficult author I had yet encountered in the humanities. Importantly, in this first lecture Tonsor used Cassirer to demonstrate one of the things intellectual historians do: They clothe naked ideas in their biographical, historical, social, cultural, and philosophical finery.

Among the highlights from Tonsor's heavy-hitting first lecture:

“In the book you will learn about the original Enlightenment project in the eighteenth century. In the author you will learn about a reconstituted enlightenment project in the twentieth century. The link between book and author will help you understand the continuity and change of Enlightenment ideals over three centuries.” I thought: This is brilliant pedagogy. Tonsor is assigning a book that is unsurpassed in the secondary literature of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, by an author who was himself a primary source in an attempted twentieth-century enlightenment.

Nazi Germany (1933-1945)
"Hear the gravamen of Cassirer's brief. Like many of his contemporaries, he felt the sense of doom, the fracturing of civilization in the modern age. It was evident in two world wars; in the incompatible -isms that proliferated; and in the antihuman philosophies that propagated. British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey captured the spirit of the age: 'The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.' It was in this dark age -- yes, this dark age -- that Cassirer pondered whether the Enlightenment project, chastened and renewed, might not help civilization come through the crisis. The fact that the project did not entirely succeed tells us something important."

Then Tonsor tried to put the romance back in intellectual history. I say “back” because, by the 1980s, intellectual history was passé and took a back seat to social history“It may surprise you to learn that bookish scholars can be heroes. But I tell you that Cassirer was a hero. In an atmosphere of decline and fall – first of Weimar Germany then of the Third Reich – he sought to preserve the best of German civilization: the liberal, humanistic Germany built up by Kant, Goethe, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and other leaders of the Aufklärung. After the catastrophes of World War I and the twenties, he watched the Weimar Republic weaken and become susceptible to the Nazi takeover. Yet he was not passive in the face of the rising irrationality and violence. Writing The Philosophy of the Enlightenment with urgency in the early 1930s, he sought to fortify Weimar’s cultural immune system to resist Nazi ideas and symbols. He and other intellectual leaders did not succeed in stopping Hitler, of course, and Cassirer even took the fall of the Weimar Republic as a personal defeat.[2] Yet his work would assist Germany in its odyssey back to civilization following the world wars. That’s one reason why The Philosophy of the Enlightenment remains an exemplar to this day. You don’t know whether you, too, may someday be called to serve your fellow man in this profoundly important way. In Cassirer you might find a heroic model of intellectual and moral courage.”

“Cassirer wrote about the Enlightenment at the University Hamburg, an unlikely place for a renascence of anything resembling enlightened thought. The poet Heinrich Heine said that Hamburg, a city of merchants, is where poets go to die."

“Although he was a contradiction to his age, Cassirer was an important cultural thinker prior to his death in 1945, and he remains so now. Cassirer came of age when modern philosophers had dug a Grand Canyon between the sciences and humanities. Peering into the vast rift between these two ways of knowing, he conceived the improbable task of building a bridge that would once again link the two rims of this philosophical canyon. We must give Cassirer credit for his audacious attempts to reconcile physical nature with the human spirit, the exact sciences with the arts, the objective with the subjective, reason with passion, analytic philosophy and Continental philosophy. In the fractured modern age, he was a reconciler. To integrate all knowledge was one of the great Enlightenment projects; the goal of all the great humanists. Cassirer, arguably the greatest German humanist of his generation, was uniquely qualified to revive the Enlightenment project. Even if the project ultimately failed, his ambitious effort to unify the sciences and the humanities – to reunite the knowledge and truth on both sides of the epistemological canyon – was a heroic effort to restore the cultural unity of the West.”

Auguste Comte (1798-1857)
Tonsor next said he hoped we'd find ourselves “arguing” with Cassirer during the entire course, from the first class to the last. “Ernst Cassirer was part of the revolt against Auguste Comte and the array of positivist ideas that were so influential in nineteenth-century Europe.[3] Positivism confines itself to the data of the senses and of experience. If you are an atheist, you are probably a positivist. Cassirer argued that the stakes of the anti-positivist revolt to Western civilization were high: If positivism went unchecked, if there were no anti-positivist revolt, then man would eventually regard himself merely as a material being. His free will, his moral agency, his spiritual life – all would suffer. This is an internal argument that each of you must also settle. And you thought that intellectual history would be dry!”

The lecture took a personal turn when Tonsor told the class he read Goethe every day. Indeed, it was his regular reading of Goethe that helped him understand Cassirer. For Cassirer was also devoted to Goethe and read him religiously.

"Each morning, as I dress," Tonsor seemed moved to reveal, "I read a passage from Goethe. It is from the book, Mit Goethe durch das Jahr, and I am much struck by his writing and his wisdom. It is odd, this relationship with a man so long dead. Yes, he has become very familiar to me."[4]

Permit me to use this thought to push the fast forward button three decades, to 2016, as I write these reflections on my years in Ann Arbor. It has been a delight to discover a resurgence of interest in Ernst Cassirer. Young scholars have recently written several excellent books that argue for his centrality to twentieth-century intellectual history. Stephen Tonsor was one of only a handful of intellectual historians who stressed Cassirer's importance back in the 1980s.

Among these young scholars is Edward Skidelsky whose important 2008 book on Ernst Cassirer reminded me of Tonsor's first lecture in History 416. Like Tonsor, Skidelsky discusses how Goethe was resurrected at the end of World War II as the lost hero of a former Germany, an enlightened, liberal, humanistic Germany. It was no accident that Weimar was chosen to be the home of the first German Republic following World War I – it was Goethe’s home as well and thus highly symbolic of the promise of German humanism. Also after World War II, the historian Friedrich Meinecke proposed public readings of Goethe as a form of national reeducation after the Nazi years. German intellectual leaders like Cassirer looked to Goethe to recall Germany to the ideals of the Enlightenment and to its humanistic promise.[5]

A passage Skidelsky quotes by Cassirer’s wife, Toni Cassirer, is particularly apt:
The Greatest
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

“His interpretation of history; his feeling for nature; his ongoing endeavor to broaden his outlook, to extend his knowledge to almost all fields so as to strengthen his judgment and guard it against all one-sidedness, to free it from the influence of parochial experience, to distance it from the events of the day – all this derived from Goethe. His firm faith in the value of human personality, his longing for form and harmony, his abhorrence of violent destruction – both of his own ego and of the surrounding world – his loathing of ideological, political, and religious slogans – in short, everything that constituted the essence of his being, came from Goethe. I learned to understand Goethe through Ernst and Ernst through Goethe.”[6]

Could this quotation about a scholar's immersion in Goethe get at something in the core of the professor standing before us?

Exactly one minute before class was to end, Tonsor wrapped up. Cassirer, he intoned in his peroration, was one of the giants of twentieth-century intellectual history. Of Jewish parentage, his early grounding in the liberal arts prepared him for graduate study in history, literature, and philosophy, which he would skillfully integrate throughout his career. Many of his best works, including The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), were written in Weimar Germany, at the University of Hamburg, where he also supervised young Leo Strauss’s doctoral dissertation – another seminal thinker in the intellectual community I was learning about. Cassirer's warning against dismissing Enlightenment thought, on the eve of the Nazi takeover, made the book as poignant as it was significant. Because he was Jewish, he was part of the diaspora out of Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933. “Central and eastern Europe,” concluded Tonsor, “never recovered from the diaspora and attendant loss to culture.”

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945)

[1] To provide context to Tonsor's lecture on Cassirer in History 416, I am most indebted to and grateful for the background information and insights provided by Edward Skidelsky, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
[2] Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 212-13.
[3] Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 1.
[4] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, February 15, 1986, p. 3; in GW's possession courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[5] Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 76.
[6] Toni Cassirer, Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer (Hildesheim, Germany: Gerstenberg, 1981), p. 87; trans. and quoted by Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 240.

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