Conceptions of cultural studies in Cassirer's theory of symbolic forms

"Ernst Cassirer was a noted philosopher of culture and the sciences at Hamburg until 1933, and he was granted a LL.D. by the law faculty of the University of Glasgow – hence it is appropriate for the University of Glasgow to be the site of this project. Cassirer’s most creative period in Germany occurred after he discovered the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, and this epoch is best documented by the correspondence and other documents housed today in the archive of the Warburg Institute, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. However, the correspondence of Cassirer in the Archives is unknown but to a few scholars, yet a substantial part of this correspondence with, for example, Aby Warburg, reflects Cassirer’s interest in the morphological theory of symbolism developed by Goethe. Cassirer wrote numerous texts (some published, some currently unpublished) on Goethe, yet there has been no systematic investigation of the extent to which his theory of symbolism relies on his reception of Goethe, nor of the extent to which he and his correspondents were, in their cultural theory, explicitly engaging such thinkers as Nietzsche, Pannwitz, and Klages. In this project, the theoretical, historical, and archival aspects of this problem are brought together using the methodology described below.


The project brings together several approaches, cutting across traditional disciplinary boundaries: German studies, philosophy, intellectual history, and the history of art. This interdisciplinarity, like the intercultural dimension that Cassirer’s commitment to Goethe’s vision of Weltliteratur inevitably entails, brings with it a considerable methodological challenge. Nevertheless, the staff involved in this project have considerable expertise in the field addressed by its aim and objectives. Professor Roger Stephenson has worked, and published, extensively in the area of Goethe studies, particularly his theory of culture; Professor John Krois is closely involved with the preparation at the Humboldt University in Berlin of the publication of Cassirer’s Nachlaß; Professor Paul Bishop has undertaken archival research in Germany and Switzerland on Nietzsche, Pannwitz, and Klages, and published extensively on all three, as well as on Goethe.

The research question/problem

The main question addressed by our interdisciplinary research is the conception of cultural studies in the writings of Ernst Cassirer, his correspondence, and his work on Weimar classicism. Today’s “cultural studies” almost totally disregard the “Kulturwissenschaft” of Cassirer and Warburg, and this project can be regarded as an effort to make good on this major oversight. The focus is threefold: theoretical, historical, and archival. First, to what extent are new approaches to the problem of “cultural studies”, particularly intercultural relations, related to and comparable with the theory of symbolism developed by Ernst Cassirer and Aby Warburg, and how can they be supplemented or redirected? Second, to what extent was Cassirer’s theory of symbolism dependent on his reception of Goethe’s conception of the symbol? Research has only just begun on Cassirer (and Warburg) in relationship to Goethe, and the whole notion and origin of “Ausdruckssymbole” (a conception applicable to images and texts), as they were understood in the “Warburg School”, remains to be clarified. If, as we think, Goethe's conception of symbolism (and his emphasis on morphology) were seminal for the Warburg school, then study of their place in the Warburg school can offer a way to rethink contemporary thinking about culture. Third, the Warburg Institute Archive contains numerous letters between Cassirer and the founder of the Institute (Aby Warburg) and some of its subsequent Directors (Fritz Saxl, Gertrud Bing), as well as such other cultural theorists as Erwin Panofsky and Edgar Wind. The creation of an electronic resource for scholarly purposes enables both this project team and future researchers to investigate this resource in relation to the theoretical and historical problems stated above.

The objectives of the project are therefore as follows:

(a) to investigate the intellectual background of Ernst Cassirer’s theory of culture with reference to Weimar classicism and subsequent German cultural theorists
(b) to establish a basis for a morphological comparison between Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms and Weimar classicism
(c) to investigate the documentary evidence for the development and influence of Cassirer’s theory on the basis of the Warburg Institute’s archive. The is will result in the development of an on-line database with transcriptions of some 800 letters (nearly all of these are in German), with English translations where appropriate and linked explanatory notes and providing a fully searchable interface for both German and English texts. Scans (of limited quality) will be included for illustrative purposes. It is planned to have the database available for public use by May 2006" (from project web site; please see for more details).

Principal investigator
Professor Roger Stephenson
Principal project staff
Professor Roger Stephenson; Professor Paul Bishop
Start date
Tuesday, October 1, 2002
Completion date
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Source material
"The correspondence is drawn principally from the Warburg Institute Archive, where scanned images were created of letters by Ernst Cassirer, Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl (February-May 2003). These images will be included, in low-quality, as illustrations in the database - they are not intended as surrogates for the original letters, which should be obtained from the Institute directly. The transcriptions and other data have been generated from the images. Permission to include additional letters has been given by Yale University Press (in respect of letters of Cassirer held at Yale) and by the Chief Executive of Oxford University Press, in respect of letters relating to the 1936 Cassirer Festschrift held at OUP. The correspondence consists of letters, cards or notes - both typed and manuscript, in a variety of formats. Some of the manuscript correspondence poses particular problems of transcription".

Each category is subdivided by author, then date in ascending order.

Bishop, Paul and R.H. Stephenson. Friedrich Nietzsche and Weimar Classicism. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, [2005].

Edited books:
Bishop, Paul, R.H. Stephenson, eds. Cultural Studies and the Symbolic. Leeds: Northern Universities Press, 2003.

Chapters in edited books:
Bishop, Paul. "Analysis or Synthesis? A Cassirerian Problem in the Work of Freud and Jung." In Cultural Studies and the Symbolic, edited by Paul Bishop and R.H. Stephenson, 42-65. Leeds: Northern Universities Press, 2003.

Bishop, Paul. "Speaking of Symbols: Affinities between Cassirer’s and Jung’s Theories of Language." In Symbolic Forms and Cultural Studies: Ernst Cassirer's Theory of Culture, edited by Cyrus Hamlin and John Michael Krois, 127-157. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2004.

Stephenson, R.H. "The Proper Object of Cultural Study: Ernst Cassirer and the Aesthetic Theory of Weimar Classicism." In Cultural Studies and the Symbolic, edited by Paul Bishop and R.H. Stephenson, 82-114. Leeds: Northern Universities Press, 2003.

Stephenson R.H. "'Eine zarte Differenz': Cassirer on Goethe on the Symbol." In Symbolic Forms and Cultural Studies: Ernst Cassirer's Theory of Culture, edited by Cyrus Hamlin and John Michael Krois, 67-92. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2004.

Journal articles:
Bishop, Paul. "Language, Myth, Aesthetics: On the Relationship of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms to Analytical Psychology." Harvest: Journal for Jungian Studies 50, no. 2 (2004): 149-80.

Stephenson, R.H. "What's Wrong with Cultural Studies? A Modest Proposal." Minnesota Review 58/60 (2003): 195-206.

Conference papers:
Whitaker, Graham. "A Moment in Time: From the Digital Record of a Migrating Library." Paper presented at WESS European Conference, Paris, 22-26 March 2004. [Publication forthcoming]

Encyclopaedia articles:
Stephenson, R.H., Paul Bishop, Stefanie Hoelscher: "Cassirer, Ernst. (1874-1945)". The Literary Encyclopedia and Literary Dictionary, edited by Robert Clarke et al. [first published 21 July 2004; accessed 13 September 2005]

Magazine/newspaper articles:
Whitaker, Graham. "Raymond Klibansky" [obituary notice]. The Times, 30 August 2005, [Register], p. 44.