PowerPoint - The Dallas Philosophers Forum

1929 Davos Disputation
By Gary R. Brown, Ph.D.
Ernst Cassirer versus Martin Heidegger
Is this a Ripple in the History of Philosophy?
A Regression to Metaphysics?
A Leap Forward to a New Meaning of Man and Being?
Or the incompatibilities of two legitimate domains of thought?
The Disagreement That Still Fascinates
Aside from the many references to the 1929 Davos debate in studies of either Cassirer or
Heidegger, and the many standalone articles and dissertations, below are some of the most
prominent recent accounts:
1997: “Davos Disputation Between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger,” in Kant and the
Problem of Metaphysics, Martin Heidegger.
2000: A Parting of Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Michael Friedman.
2008: Ernst Cassirer, The Last Philosopher of Culture. Edward Skidelsky.
2010: Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Peter Gordon.
The two positions at Davos may uncover an archetypal tension in philosophical thought.
The Cassirer-Heidegger encounter shattered the dominance of neo-Kantianism, and marked
a significant bifurcation in modern philosophical thought. It might also indicate the only
significant counterthrust against the total appropriation and concealment of human essence
by technology.
What was the Occasion?
The Second Annual Meeting of the International Davos Conference
Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurse
Where: The famous spa, resort, and conference center a mile high in the Swiss Alps.
Famous Location of the mountaintop tuberculosis sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s
novel of hermetic transformation and intellectual conflict, Magic Mountain.
Present meeting place the World Economic Forum.
Purpose: A colloquy of intellectuals from across Europe to promote peace and mutual
understanding after the devastation and residual enmities of WWI.
Attendees: Over 50 Dozenten and Professors.
232 Students from 20 countries, many of them veterans of WWI
950 inhabitants of the village of Davos
Sampling of those Present:
Erich Maria Remarque, Emmanuel Levinas, Ludwig Binswanger, Rudolf Carnap
Many others who trained the next two generations of European thinkers.
A heavily influenced generation including Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida
The Participants: Cassirer
Partial List:
Ernst Cassirer may be best known in the U.S. for:
Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932)
Essay on Man (1944)
Myth of the State (1945)
In Germany before 1929
Substance and Function (1910)
Complete Edition of Kant’s works (1912, 10 vols.)
Kant’s Life and Work (1918)
Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (1921)
Philosophy of Symbolic Forms
Vol. I. Language (1923)
Vol. II. Mythical Thought (1925)
Vol. III. Phenomenology of Knowledge (1929)
The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (1927)
From a prominent Jewish family. After WWI, named professor at Univ. of
Hamburg and elected rector, the first Jew to attain that rank in Germany:
Tall, urbane, elegant. In 1929 he had bushy white hair, but was under the
weather and even bedridden for part of the conference.
Began as a neo-Kantian, became more Kantian, influenced by Hegel,
treated philosophy historically, became a philosopher of culture.
The Participants: Heidegger
Best known: Being and Time, a powerful rethinking of the meaning of truth, temporality,
being, human being, and human existence.
Because of its unusual language and obvious originality, the book made quite a
stir but people were uncertain what to make of it.
He was first thought to be an existentialist, a term he rejected. His analytic of
human being was not in service of an anthropology or an ethics, but in order to
gain access to the primordial meaning of being rather than as the being of beings.
He wanted to cross the ontological difference between being and beings.
For the first time since Aristotle, Heidegger, drawing on Kant, countered the
notion of being as eternal and unchanging. This was, he argued, a false
understanding of time, a mistaken fixation on presence at the expense of the other
modes of standing outside oneself, i.e., past and future. Human essence is time.
The being of things objectively present, in contrast, dominates Western ontology
and logic, concealing other forms of being. Objective presence (objectivity) is an
abstraction founded upon primordial awareness and cannot grasp human Dasein.
Born into a poor Catholic family, he was taught by the Jesuits, then switched to
philosophy. By 1929, he had published only Being and Time. (projected: 102 vols)
Conference Agenda
The Conference hosted morning and afternoon classes and evening events, and lasted
three weeks. Cassirer taught 4 of the many classes offered, Heidegger 3.
Cassirer, despite his strength in philosophy of science, offered a course on
philosophical anthropology, probably in preparation for his encounter with
Heidegger, whom he associated with the recent philosophy of life tradition of
Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Bergson, and Dilthey.
Heidegger, to Cassirer’s surprise, lectured on the rethinking of Kant’s Critique of
Pure Reason as a grounding of metaphysics, a topic that grew out of the winter
semester course Heidegger had just given and was also to have been the focus of
the next uncompleted section of Being and Time, the first of his deconstructions.
As Cassirer and Heidegger were the two most famous philosophers then in
Germany, a major attraction of the conference was this face-to-face (diese
Arbeitsgemeinschaft) between the two of them, just as Einstein’s talk had been
the major attraction the year before in 1928. Their encounter occurred on
Tuesday of the second week. Sometime later Levinas and Bollnow reenacted the
debate as a skit in which Levinas, white powder on his black hair, mocked Cassirer, an act
he later regretted and apologized for to Cassirer’s wife.
Format of the Encounter
It was billed as Eine Arbeitsgemeinscaft, or study group, to keep it informal, but it
nonetheless exposed a major rift between two fundamentally different viewpoints, one an
evolution of, the other a revolution against, the philosophical tradition. Both thinkers could
be regarded in advance of their own era and, perhaps, in some ways, even ours. Cassirer
confidently extended the rationalist tradition into new domains of language, myth, art, and
religion, while Heidegger, agreeing with Nietzsche, traced the rise of modern nihilism back
to the deficiencies of this rationalist tradition and sought to recover its lost abyssal depths.
The encounter was brief: 10:00 AM until Noon. Unlike modern political “debates” with preformulated questions, this event was unscripted and unmoderated.
Each philosopher made a statement then posed questions to the other who responded and
raised his own questions. There were only four complete exchanges, but each contained
multiple explicit and implicit issues that are still being unpacked.
Cassirer, older by 15 years, an established author, began with the apparent intent of gaining
a better understanding of Heidegger’s recent and difficult book. Although they had previous
conversations, Heidegger was still relatively unknown philosophically to Cassirer.
Heidegger took the opportunity to promulgate his revolutionary stance toward the whole
philosophical tradition going back through Aristotle, Plato, and Parmenides, which he saw as
fulfilled and exhausted.
More on their Differences
Although the two men were less than a generation apart, their respective comings of age
were separated by WWI, which terminated the Age of Enlightenment with the Age of
Anxiety and Crisis. Cassirer had written his dissertation on Descartes, his first book on
Leibniz, and his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms celebrated the liberation of mankind from
primitive bondage to modern freedom through the progressive unfolding of infinite reason.
Even the Great War brought a republic to Germany and allowed Cassirer, a Jew, to be
appointed professor at the new University of Hamburg and elected rector. Cassirer’s mode of
speaking was described as polite, formal, elegant, and pastoral. His tall Olympian bearing
was accentuated by his bushy white hair. He seemed to represent the old, discredited,
rational order.
Heidegger, by contrast, was small, dark, intense, and, as Cassirer’s wife described him,
socially uneasy and looking like a workman or peasant. Heidegger cultivated this rustic
impression by wearing his ski clothes to formal events, bragging In a letter that this was
unheard of. He was described as energetic, resolutely serious to the point of rudeness, and
standoffish. But he appealed to the younger generation, some of whom skied with him. It
was a generation marked by war, uncertainty, and economic deprivation, and drawn to
nature, hiking and camping. No longer enthralled by the promise of reason, they found
Heidegger’s reflections on anxiety, authenticity, resoluteness in the face of death, and the
questioning of all conventional truths quite to their liking. They were in search of a new
world order, and were especially drawn the pathos and assurance Heidegger projected.
The First Round
Cassirer began the encounter quite confidently by asking Heidegger--whom he seemed to
regarded as a less experienced younger colleague--why he attacked neo-Kantianism,
especially since Cassirer’s own work had expanded beyond his neo-Kantian mentors at
Marburg. He even doubted Heidegger’s grasp of the term, and claimed surprise at seeing
neo-Kantianism in Heidegger. Cassirer, understandably, had not yet recognized Heidegger’s
stature as an original thinker of the first rank, and that he might be poking a bear.
Heidegger, despite condescension in the question, gave a measured response. Because the
topic is significant, I quote his answer at length:
Since about 1850 it is been the case that both the human and the natural sciences have taken possession of the
totality of what is knowable, so the question arises: what still remains of philosophy if the totality of beings has
been divided up under the sciences? It remains [for neo-Kantians] just knowledge of science, not of beings. And
it is from this perspective that the regression to Kant is then determined. Consequently, Kant was seen as a
theoretician of the mathematical-physical theory of knowledge. . .
What Heidegger is describing here is precisely the neo-Kantianism of Cassirer’s mentors.
For me, what matters is to show that what came to be extracted here as theory of science was nonessential for
Kant. Kant did not want to give any sort of theory of natural science, but rather wanted to point out the
problematic of metaphysics, which is to say a problem of ontology. What matters to me is to work this core
content of the positive element of the Critique of Pure Reason into ontology in a positive way.
With this, the divide between Cassirer and Heidegger, and their readings of Kant, is manifest.
Neo-Kantian Background of Both
Heidegger did not need to mention that the period before 1850 was dominated by Hegel’s
idealism. Hegel's predecessor, Kant, had included sensibility as one of two stems of
knowledge. Hegel rejected this inclusion of sensibility with the claim that reason was selfsufficient. After Hegel's death, the cry: "Back to Kant!" arose, but its participants, leading
to the neo-Kantian domination of early 20th century thought, retained against Kant Hegel's
rejection of sensibility. For example, Paul Natorp, one of Cassirer’s neo-Kantian mentors at
Marburg, declared that their intention was never
to revive orthodox Kantianism but to advance from his position to one more in accord with modern science.
. . . psychologist may speak of “sense impressions”. . . but so far as logic is concerned, we can speak only of
‘contents’ and ‘content relations’ that are . . . defined in and through thinking.
Hence, the Neo-Kantians appropriated Hegel’s view of the absoluteness of reason and saw
their task as correcting Kant and purifying scientific theory through epistemology.
Although Heidegger was trained in the rival Southwest branch of neo-Kantianism under
Windleband and Rickert, who focused on psychology, culture, and history
(Geisteswissenschaften), rather than natural science (Naturwissenschaften), he distanced
himself from this rationalist epistemology far more radically than had Cassirer.
Both Cassirer and Heidegger, however, had gone back directly to Kant and understood him
better than the neo-Kantians had. We must understand their differences at Davos by
comparing their diverse interpretations of Kant, which have significant consequences.
From Exchange to Disputation
Second Round: Cassirer briefly defended Cohen and his own commitment to mathematical
natural science, then proceeded to attack positions Heidegger presented in Being and Time:
Cassirer denounced Heidegger’s description of human finitude, arguing that symbolic
imagination and Kant’s Categorical Imperative both provide breakthroughs to the
infinite, making possible freedom from the constrictions of concrete life. Heidegger,
Cassirer asserts, must provide a similar breakthrough to the mundus intelligibilis
[intelligible world], where appearances fall away and freedom reigns.
How, Cassirer asks, can Heidegger’s finite creature have absolute knowledge?
Heidegger could not possibly mean to reject the objectivity and universality of truth by
making truth depend on human Dasein, as claimed. It would follow that a finite
creature can possess no eternal truths, no necessity. Kant uses mathematics as an
example that universal necessity exists.
Cassirer boldly suggests that if Heidegger would only pose these problems to himself,
he will have to give up these claims.
The condescension here, based on Cassirer’s complacent acceptance of age-old
assumptions, releases Heidegger from his previous restraint. The balance of power in the
debate begins to shift as Heidegger deftly deconstructs the unquestioned polarities of
Cassirer’s traditional mode of thought.
Pause to Define Dasein
‘Da’ means both ‘here’ and ‘there’, but we need to stress ‘Here’: Da bin ich = Here I am. It
also suggests time: Da und Dort, here and there, can also mean now and then.
Sein means being
As a noun Dasein is an everyday German word that means existence or life.
Das Dasein erleichtern: make life easier for oneself.
As a verb it means “being here.”
Ist Herr Olsen da? Ja, er ist schon da. Is Mr. Olsen here? Yes, he is already here.
Heidegger gives Dasein a special meaning that relies on paying attention to its structure,
i.e., Da and Sein. Dasein is the fundamental structure of human existence, our being (sein),
our existing here in space and time (da).
For Heidegger, we are not encapsulated in our bodies, but are outside of ourselves in the
site of our experience as beings-in-the-world.
By referring to human being as Dasein, as being-in-the-world, Heidegger bypasses such
preconceived concepts as ‘subjectivity,’ ‘self,’ ‘ego,’ ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘consciousness,’ ‘identity,’
etc., and makes possible a new relation to human wholeness.
Heidegger’s Counterattack
To Heidegger, Cassirer’s notion of escape from finitude through symbolic reason was an
inauthentic avoidance of mortality. As Skidelsky puts it, for Heidegger
True freedom is not freedom from Dasein but rather ‘becoming free for the finitude of Dasein.’ The task of
philosophy is not to console man with thoughts of eternity but to awaken him to his own nothingness.
Heidegger indicated that eternity is a false interpretation of the essence of time. Metaphysical claims about the aion depend on an inner transcendence within the essence of time
that makes possible a horizon with respect to future, present, and past. Implied here is
Heidegger’s critique of the static quality of eternal being as posited by the Greeks, his
overthrow of the fundamental assumption buttressing over two millennia of Western
thought. If being itself is temporal, becoming disappears, and everything dependent on the
vanished polarity must be rethought. This will require an other beginning to master the first.
Heidegger concedes that being has something infinite about it, but what about man himself?
Is he infinite or finite? God, as an infinite being, does not need a Categorical Imperative. Its
use confirms man’s finitude. And Truth? Although nature does not depend on man, without
Dasein, or man, there would be no truth ontologically speaking. This does not mean that
everyday ontic truths are subjective. It means without man, neither would truth exist.
Heidegger then asks Cassirer: What is man’s path to infinity? Is infinity a privative idea [i.e., a
mere logical denial of finitness] or a region? And what is philosophy’s relation to anxiety?
Cassirer loses his bearings
My task tonight is not to give a blow by blow account of the disputation as a whole but to
differentiate the standpoints of the disputants in order to show how these differences guide
and derive from their interpretations of Kant and their understanding of human being.
Strangely blindsided by the question into his own assumption, Cassirer responds that man
reaches infinity through form. But something seems awry here since form would seem finite.
He then speaks of an immanent infinitude reached by going in all directions, referencing
Goethe. But this seems to border on incoherence. Leo Strauss, his grad student, reported
that the learned professor and great man of culture had suddenly seemed completely lost.
Another student of Cassirer’s, Heinrich Pos, interrupted the event to defend Cassirer, saying
that the two men spoke a completely different language and that they needed a glossary.
Heidegger took over for the flummoxed Cassirer and gave a clear exposition of the main
outline of Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, then pointed out their differences.
Cassirer sought to explain culture without asking who or what man is. Heidegger’s own
philosophy focused on who man is but is in no position yet to found culture. What basis did
Cassirer have for beginning with logos? Had he shown that as a valid starting point? Cassirer
assumes certain shaping powers, forms, and structures without elucidating them.
Heidegger then launched into a eloquent depiction of his own thoughts on authentic life in
the language of living experience, and criticized Cassirer’s facile use of inherited concepts.
But What Does This Mean to Us?
I would like to pull back from the fray and elucidate what I see as the most significant
underlying issue that all the other treatments I have seen of the debate overlook. We have
to go below the surface and compare the respective readings of Kant from Cassirer’s
Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and from early lectures of Heidegger that are now available.
Michael Friedman argues that Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and his reopening of the
question of being, his claim of human finitude, the revelatory power of death and
nothingness, and his attempt to identify propositional truth as dependent upon prior
levels of non-rational cognition went counter to the positivism of logical analysis and
analytical philosophy. He thereby created a bifurcation in Western thought that was
solidified by the separation of Europe by WWII so that Analytical thinking in England and
America rejected European Continental thinking led by Heidegger, and vice versa.
Wittgenstein, members of the Vienna Circle, Cassirer, and others fled West, while
Heidegger joined the Nazis and heavily influenced the subsequent Continental tradition,
including existentialism, ethics, hermeneutics, theology, Classics, literary theory, and
At stake in the disputation is nothing less that the understanding of what constitutes
human being. Is human being a conscious animal, or something deeper? Is consciousness
foundational or founded? Is being static or temporal? Is truth timeless or historical? Is it
enough to be rational or should we also be authentically human? How shall we Live?
So, Which is It Fundamentally?
At stake in our understanding of the issues in the disputation is nothing less than what
constitutes human being, how we understand our relation to the world, and how we should
register importance in our lives. This issues depend upon how we see these basic terms. Are
As Cassirer assumes?
Is being eternal and unchanging?
Is truth objective and universal?
Is freedom transcendence from world?
Do we spontaneously create our worlds?
Are we primarily thinking beings?
Do we find liberation through timeless symbol systems?
As Heidegger claims?
Or is being temporal and epochal?
Or is truth perspectival, historical, Dasein dependent?
Or is freedom authentically being-in-the-world?
Or do we find ourselves within already existing worlds?
Or does care for our own being underlie all disclosure?
Or do we find liberation by anticipating our mortality?
Must we take these differences simply as matters of opinion?
Or can we elucidate the meaning of these alternatives by considering the ways
Cassirer and Heidegger interpret Kant?
Different Takes on Shared Background
Kant’s resolution of a problem inherited from Descartes
Descartes: I can deny everything, even that I am awake and not dreaming, even that I have
body, but I cannot deny that I am thinking: Cogito ergo sum.
I am a thinking substance and differ from the extended substances around me.
How can I be sure that things are as I see them? Would God deceive me?
The scandal of philosophy is doubt about the existence of the external world.
1772 letter to Markus Herz: “What is the ground of the relationship between what
called in us representation and the object?”
This is the central problem of The Critique of Pure Reason.
Solution: Deduction of the Pure concepts of the Understanding (A84-130):
a priori grounds for the possibility of experience
Synthesis of Apprehension of the Intuition (manifold in space and time)
Synthesis of Reproduction of the Imagination (recognition, memory)
Synthesis of Recognition through spontaneous conceptualization (consciousness)
Kant refers to these processes as spontaneous.
And they have both a priori and a posteriori functions (doubling).
Misunderstood: The idealist (mis)reading of Kant’s subjectivity as an encapsulated Cartesian
consciousness began immediately with Reinhold and was accepted by Fichte, Hegel, and the
neo-Kantians, becoming the traditional view, even at 20th century: Ex.: B. F. Strawson:
“Nothing is given us except perceptions. But your perceptions are not given to me nor mine
to you (1966).” Hence, Strawson declares that Kant is a transcendental solipsist.
Everything depends on how we read Kant’s statement “Space and time are within us” (A373)
Partial Agreement on Externality
In Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. III, 50, Cassirer writes “For [Kant] the meaning of
subjectivity has undergone a corresponding transformation. . .[it] no longer pertained to
the to the individual and empirically accidental. . . It had become the source and origin of all
true universality. . . [H]e eliminates the antithesis between subject and object by disclosing
their necessary relation in building and constituting the object of experience [bold mine].”
Cassirer modeled each of his three volumes of his Symbolic Forms on a structural analogy of
Kant’s three-fold deduction, understood a posteriori & as stages of historical development.
This is an advance over traditional Kant scholarship, But Cassirer understands the
externality of subjectivity as a conscious creation by a pre-existing subject who synthetizes
a culturally based object.
Heidegger, focuses instead on the deep structure of Kant’s argument. The three stages of
synthesis: intuition, imagination, and concept, are prior conditions of the possibility of
consciousness, hence precognitive. The a priori “within us” of space and time means not
only that subjectivity encompasses the externality of empirical experience, but that world
is part of Dasein. This means that as we become conscious of things, we find ourselves
simultaneously in the world with them, a world occupied already by other beings.
Therefore, we do not form the world of our choice spontaneously out of logos, but first
understand ourselves through the world into which we find ourselves thrown. This prior
being-in is the foundation of all possible propositions. We live ontologically in relation to
truth and falsity prior to any ontic sense of truth.
Cassirer and Heidegger: Different Stances
Cassirer’s Cartesian-Hegelian-neo-Kantian rationalism found its ultimate confirmation, Cassirer believed, in Quantum Theory. He argued
this in his book Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics (1936), where the necessity of speaking of both particles and waves
means that a single symbol system is inadequate to describe physical reality, and presumably even more so full reality, which will require
all the functions of the spirit working together.
Cassirer’s dream is the complete liberation of the human spirit from the primitive participation mystique to the total objectivity of the
Theory of Everything. But this dream is an abstraction of consciousness. It is a view from nowhere by nobody, a divine snapshot from
outside of existence. Yet this view is still implicitly dominant in the twenty-first century.
This is the historically evolved destiny of Aristotle’s identification of human being with the rationality attached to an animal zoon
logikon. This total deracination of human consciousness, produced through a collusion of post-Platonic philosophy, Christianity, and
modern technology is manifested here as the Western form of nihilism already diagnosed by Nietzsche. But this emptying out of human
being and meaning has unlocked simultaneously a powerful increase in control over the material environment. The paradox is that the
very capabilities that have enabled this achievement are ultimately negated by the last step of objectivity, which means the destined
erasure of the last trace of the subject.
Arising out of the ashes of a destroyed Europe, taking seriously Nietzsche’s, Kierkegaard’s, and Bergson’s diagnosis of the West’s mistaken
honoring of reason over life, but going further than Nietzsche’s reversal of Platonism, which preserves the false polarities, Heidegger
reopens the question of being, left unchallenged by Christian thought where Aristotle had left it to reappear in Hegel. Being and Time was
the first stage in a lifelong effort by Heidegger to initiate another beginning of Western thought, a beginning that would interweave itself
with the greatness of the first beginning in order to master it properly for the first time without losing sight of the abyssal nature of
Davos fascinates because of its potentiality to split Western philosophical history into two movements. On a less grand scale, it marked
the end of the dominance of neo-Kantianism. The split between Anglo-American positivism and Continental post-humanism, which
Michael Friedman laid at Heidegger’s door, is a small affair compared to the serious rethinking of the nature of being and truth that
would integrate these opposites represented by Cassirer and Heidegger.
Cassirer’ stance is that of a conscious envisioning, a kind of third-party scientific voyeurism, an all-seeing eye that cannot see itself.
Heidegger ,rejecting the identification of human being with pure consciousness, begins with the pre-conscious awareness of being and
explores human being from within being itself as the temporality of existence.
By the Fourth Exchange Cassirer Recovered
Cassirer lamented that according to Heidegger, the bridges between them had been
He claimed that after Kant’s so-called Copernican revolution, a unified sense of being
was no longer possible. Since each discipline was its own symbolic world, each required
its own notion of being as it took shape between subjectivity and its intentional object.
Heidegger countered that human Dasein, being-here, was prior to both subject and object as
well as all conscious disciplines, and that there was no counterpart in Cassirer’s work to
describe this precognitive sphere of primordial experience, which Cassirer thought primitive.
Peter Gordon, in his 2013 Book, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, reported that
the debate split along archetypal lines that could not be resolved.
There may be a parallel here to Socrates’ exhorting Athenians to care more for the
health of their soul than their wealth in the world around them.
Heidegger stresses recovering the proper relation to being to escape the nihilism of
Cassirer focused not on the soul but on the rational development of the disciplines. If we
regard both modes of human exploration and development important, then there is much
still to ponder in the implicit gulf between Cassirer and Heidegger. Since both of them might
be somewhat beyond us, we may have to stretch a bit before we can attempt a synthesis.

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