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  • Kritik der symbolischen Formen I: Symbolische Form und Funktion by Raji C. Steineck
  • Thora Ilin Bayer (bio)
Kritik der symbolischen Formen I: Symbolische Form und Funktion (Critique of symbolic forms I: Symbolic forms and function). By Raji C. Steineck. Philosophie Interkulturell, Band 3. Stuttgart–Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 2014. Pp. 148. Paper €38. isbn 978-3-7728-2673-3.

For any reader with knowledge of the works of Ernst Cassirer, the question that will come to mind on approaching Raji C. Steineck’s Kritik der symbolischen Formen I: Symbolische Form und Funktion is: Why Japan? Cassirer’s great range of writings on the history of thought, culture, and symbol involves no sustained attention to Japanese culture. Cassirer also never addresses problems of East-West philosophy, nor did he, unlike some other German thinkers in the twentieth century, engage in correspondence with Japanese thinkers. In the first volume of Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, Cassirer does make reference in several places to the Japanese language based on Johann Joseph Hoffmann’s Japanische Sprachlehre (Leiden: Brill, 1877), along with references to a great many other languages.

Considered from the other direction today, Cassirer’s works are of interest to Japanese readers. For example, after Donald Phillip Verene published Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935–1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979)—the first volume of writings from Cassirer’s Nachlass (housed in Yale University’s Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)—the first translation of it was into Japanese, which appeared in 1985.

With this context considered, the purpose of Steineck’s study is the systematic presentation of Cassirer’s philosophical themes considered at various points from Japanese perspectives and sources. As he makes clear for the reader at the beginning of his work, Steineck expressly acknowledges that symbolic forms as articulated in Japanese culture exhibit significant differences from the European background of Cassirer’s analysis. But he also asserts that this difference is to be considered as a way to probe the dimensions and correctness of Cassirer’s theory and that these are an advantage to this study, not a disadvantage (pp. 7–8). [End Page 1357]

Professor Steineck proceeds in his chapters to exposit what a symbolic form is for Cassirer and the sense in which, as Cassirer maintains, the philosophy of symbolic forms extends the Kantian critique to a critique of culture. He takes up the question of the relationship of form to function in connection with Cassirer’s discussion of ergon and energeia, as well as the architectonic of the “system” of symbolic forms, how the symbolic forms Cassirer distinguishes interrelate. Steineck then proceeds to draw out the criticism of the realism and relativism that lie within Cassirer’s position of idealism as governed by his concept of symbol.

The work concludes with a summary presented in the form of a list of the general methodological principles upon which the philosophy of symbolic forms rests. Such a list is not to be found elsewhere in the critical literature on Cassirer and will be useful to the reader. Following this are some remarks concerning “Korrekturen gegenüber Cassirer.” These remarks offer a final, critical perspective on how we are to regard the philosophy of symbolic forms. Questions are raised, for example, concerning the normativity of the symbolic forms, the status of philosophy in relation to the symbolic forms (the sense in which philosophy itself is not a symbolic form), the sense in which myth, language, and science are fundamental symbolic forms, and the role of the Basisphänomene in Cassirer’s phenomenology of knowledge (pp. 131–134).

Periodically, throughout the text, the author brings forth examples of Japanese symbolic form in connection with Cassirer’s claims. For the reader who is not learned in Japanese thought and culture, these juxtapositions bring two senses of the world together that are not necessarily at odds with each other but are illuminating. There is, of course, nothing privileged about testing Cassirer’s philosophy of culture in terms of productions of Japanese culture. One might bring forth symbols and forms from many other cultures to test the universal applicability of Cassirer’s theory.

To take one example...


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