“I believe I have discovered the art of using language as a vehicle to traverse the heights, the depths, and the diversity of the whole world […].” (Wilhelm von Humboldt, Briefe an Friedrich August Wolf, 1990, p. 250; translated from the German)This statement by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1804 provided the basis for the vigor with which Ernst Cassirer conceptualized his “philosophy of symbolic forms” (Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.Volume 1, 1953, p. 70). This philosophy views language, myth, and modern science as energeia, as active forces rather than completed acts. Whether it is the divine names used by the indigenous Zuni people of New Mexico to define space or the continuum of real numbers, for Cassirer, sign formations have a twofold meaning: they determine the outside world and shape humanity’s inner world. Implicit in this neo-Kantian philosophy is a critique of our ideas of the absolute. Friedrich Albert Lange’s History of Materialism (German original 1866) prepared the way for this critique by finding that the ancient pre-Socratic philosophers used concepts and principles to criticize diffuse notions of the gods. Cassirer modifies this critique into a paradigm that asks to what extent the principles expressed in semiosis create obstacles or opportunities for the self-understanding of the human species.
Vilém Flusser’s theorizing adopts neo-Kantianism’s relational thinking, according to which people, signs, and the environment reciprocally define each other – that is, nature, subject, and psyche are not substances, but rather the effects of processes. Where do these processes lead? One can calculate them and thus pour movement into rigid forms. But one can also conceive them in dialogical terms, which is to say that the ambivalence of the process conceals a utopian side that can be strengthened. To take advantage of this, one must decide to acknowledge the other’s, one’s counterpart’s, freedom. This is my understanding of Flusser’s statement that “[m]y salvation was Kant, my ‘catharsis’ in every crisis. This is not the place to sing praise to his crystalline dignity. I read Cassirer, Cohen, Hartmann, the entire Marburg school [of neo-Kantianism].” (“In Search of Meaning,” in: Writings, 2002, p. 201).
Original article by Nils Röller