It is an honor and a great pleasure to introduce and welcome a new and most distinguished journal into the contemporary renaissance of interest in Ernst Cassirer’s thought.

In the past two decades many new works on Cassirer have appeared and many important international conferences have been held. This period has also been marked by the initiation and continuing publication of Cassirer’s Nachlaß and the reissuing of his published works in new critical editions. The groundwork has been laid by an older generation of scholars that can become the basis for future work by a younger generation.

Cassirer saw philosophy as an ongoing exchange between generations and among diverse yet congenial minds. In opening remarks that he wrote on the morning of the day of his death, in April 1945, for a lecture he planned to present to the Philosophy Club at Columbia University, on the Concept of Group and the Theory of Perception, he said: «I found it always very instructive and stimulating not only to read the books of contemporary philosophers but also to learn something about the intellectual motives that had induced them to study certain problems and to accept certain theories».

The corpus of Cassirer’s work spans the natural sciences and the human sciences like the Colossus of Rhodes. It is a rich source that is only now being realized for problems in contemporary thought. Cassirer’s conception of the symbol is a master key with which we can unlock each area of human culture and discover how each area exists through the common medium of the symbol. The idea of symbolic form offers us a basis from which to confront the fragmentation of culture that carries over into the problem of the fragmentation of the personality of the modern individual. We find in Cassirer a reaffirmation of the search for truth that has been abandoned by those who have in various ways engaged in the “hermeneutics of suspicion” as a substitute for this ancient search.

In his fourth volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Cassirer reasserts, through his basis phenomenon of work (Werk), the importance of self-knowledge as central to philosophy. He says: «Know your work and know “yourself” in your work; know what you do, so you can do what you know». He says, further: «The recognition of this purely formal value of truth “itself in itself” is what distinguishes the “philosopher” from the “Sophist”, the “dialectician” from the “rhetorician” and “eristic”».

Cassirer’s insistence on the centrality of truth for philosophy and thought in general is normative. His good thinking raises morale in an age prone to dissolve philosophical narratives into claims driven by gender, race, or class. Cassirer shows us how culture is distinctively human work that can be comprehended as a positive human achievement. Geist need not be regarded as an alienation from Leben. Geist can be grasped as a transformation of Leben, that takes up the natural movement of Leben as a process of self-development and self-formation. The distance from the immediate, achieved by the power of the symbol, allows the human being the freedom of self-determination.

Philosophy, in Cassirer’s hands, provides not simply critical reflection on the forms of culture; it provides the forms of culture with a vision of the whole. Contemporary philosophy, with its fragmentation into schools and their senses of specialization, offers little general vision. Cassirer shows that philosophy need not take this course, that philosophy is the one power of human thought that can by its very nature act against the partial and the reductionistic.

This positive and holistic sense of philosophy is not achieved by Cassirer through opposition of his position to other positions, but by a functional sense of the unity of truth – by finding what in other contemporary positions can be brought together and moved beyond their divisions in a synthetic and pluralistic, not eclectic manner. Philosophy for Cassirer is a distinctively human activity, not just another science or form of criticism. Cassirer presents to the contemporary world a spirit of thinking of which we are much in need. Without this spirit philosophy cannot be an agile and engaging part of human culture.

On leaving Yale University, before going to Columbia, Cassirer gave what he called a “brief report” to his friends at Yale. It is quoted by Charles Hendel in his memoir of Cassirer in the Library of Living Philosophers volume on his work. It captures in a complete fashion Cassirer’s spirit in philosophy. He says: «As a rule philosophers seem not to be very fond of such a close cooperation. They are apt to disagree in their views, in their interests, in their very definition of what philosophy is and means. And the task that had to be solved here was so much the more doubtful and risky since three different generations were expected to have a share in a common work. To the struggle between philosophers there was added the struggle between the generations. In many of our modern systems of education we are told that it is hopeless to reconcile the views of men belonging to different generations. We are told that there is a deep and insurmountable gap between the generations; that every new generation must feel in its own way, think its own thoughts and speak its own language. I regard this as a misleading and dangerous dogma – and as a dogma that throughout my life I found constantly contradicted by my own personal experience».

The spirit of these remarks should be the starting-point for entering Cassirer’s philosophy and from which contemporary philosophy can learn. Regardless of what particular aspects of his thought may be taken up as sources to be developed for contemporary problems, it is his sense of what it is to philosophize that is and should be decisive for us.