The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

July 28, 2013

July 28, 1874

Ernst Cassirer (July 28, 1874 to April 13, 1945) was a philosopher, of the Kantian, Spinozan stripe. He lectured at the University of Hamburg, (1921 to 1933) where Leo Strauss, also to bring some clarity to 20th century philosophy, was one of his students. Up til then his wealthy family could protect him from the economic defects of academic life. He had married a cousin, Toni Bondy, who would later write a biography of her husband. Now they fled the putrid German Nazis. He fortunately had a temporary appointment at Oxford to go to. 

Toni Cassirer says in her biography that he wanted to, from a safe perch in England, write an attack on the Nazis, but that she begged him not to, for fear his writing would endanger the lives of friends and family still in Germany. She wrote this in her 1981 biography, and may have been responding to criticism then current, that her husband had not spoken out loudly enough against the German government. At Oxford, his grandson Peter tells us, Cassirer was not comfortable partly because he was required to lecture in English.  A posting in Sweden was more congenial and he became a Swedish citizen in 1939.  

But the German Nazis were invading closer, and the Cassirers moved to New York via appointments there at top schools. The story is that Harvard would not hire him since he rejected a job offer from that school 3o years earlier. Since I read this in wikipedia though, I cannot mention it with any great confidence.  He had a position teaching philosophy at Columbia University when he dropped dead of a heart attack on the sidewalk outside that school, the day after FDR died. 

Let's look at Cassirer's 1925 work of philosophical investigation, Language and Myth (1925), specifically the chapter titled "Phases of Religious Thought." Cassirer starts by quoting 
Karl Roehl, (who in 1911, published Versuch einer systematischen Grammatick der Shambala-Sprache). 

Roehl, for instance, says in his grammar of the Shambala language [Shambala is a word for the language spoken by the Bantu in one part of the mountains of Tanzania]: “The conception of God as a personal being has been practically lost among the Shamabalas; they speak of God as an impersonal Spirit. The Mulungu lives in the bush, in separate trees, in cliffs, in caves, in wild animals (lions, snakes, cats), in birds, in locusts, etc.

Cassirer, in using this quote, is making a point that the African language here represents a less developed religious apprehension where the mythic and the religious are still mixed up together. Language he argues, at this level, often is more exclamatory, than it is for moderns.

...the Mulungu of the Bantu's is used in this way--as an exclamation which indicates not so much a thing as a certain impression, and which is used to greet anything unusual, wonderful, marvelous, or terrifying.

Let us quote a bit more, of Cassirer, for his take is provocative and original:

[At a certain stage in human development] the power of a god is expressed in the abundance of his epithets; polynomy is a prerequisite for a god of the higher, personal, order. In the Egyptian writings, Isis appears as the thousand-named, the ten-thousand-named, the myrionyma; in the Koran Allah's might finds expression in his "hundred names." In the native American religions too, and especially the Mexican, this wealth of divine names is illustrated.

So it may be said that the concept of the godhead really receives its first concrete development and richness through language. As it emerges into the bright light of speech, it ceases thereby to be a mere outline and shade. But a contrary impulse too, inherent in the nature of language, is awakened anew in this process; for as speech has a tendency to divide, determine and fixate, so it has, no less strongly, a tendency to generalize. So, guided by language, the mythic mind reaches a point where it is no longer contented with the variety , abundance, and concrete fullness of divine attributes and names, but where it seeks to obtain, through the unity of the word, the unity of the God-idea. But even here, man's mind does not rest content; beyond this unity, it strives for a concept of Being that is unlimited by an particular manifestation, and therefore not expressible in any word, not called by any name.

Were I really knowledgeable about Cassirer's thought, I might venture a joke about now, like "back to Mulungu, eh Cassirer?" but I am not, so I won't.  

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