Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos: An Interview with Simon Truwant
Phenomenology and Existentialism
By Isabel Jacobs
Simon Truwant is a postdoctoral researcher (funded by FWO – Flemish Research Council) at the Husserl Archives, Center for Contemporary Continental Philosophy of the Institute of Philosophy at KU Leuven. He previously edited the companion Interpreting Cassirer: Critical Essays at Cambridge University Press, and has published articles on Cassirer, Kant, Levinas, and Frankfurt.
Isabel Jacobs is a primary editor at the JHIBlog. She spoke to Simon Truwant about his new book, what the Davos debate can tell us about Cassirer and Heidegger’s respective projects, and why their disagreement remains relevant today. Truwant argues that the key topics in Davos (diverging readings of Kant, the human condition, and the task of philosophy) were central to both Cassirer and the early Heidegger. In his book, Truwant wrestles with the possibility of genuine philosophical dialogue and explores the significance of an existential quest for orientation.
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Isabel Jacobs: Today, when hearing Davos, we might imagine how once a year global movers and shakers jet off to the small town in the Swiss Alps. A century ago, Thomas Mann set his novel The Magic Mountain in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos. On 2 April 1929, two major philosophers of the twentieth century, Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger, met for a philosophical dispute that was described by Emmanuel Levinas as ‘witnessing the end of the world.’ First off, could you briefly tell us how you became interested in the Davos debate and what it was all about?
Simon Truwant: The ‘Davos debate’ was a public discussion in 1929 between Cassirer and Heidegger, two of the most prominent European intellectuals at the time, that formed the culmination point of a three-week ‘Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurs’—something like a summer school, we could say. The express intent of the organizers was to reignite intellectual cross-fertilization between French and German philosophers but the irony is that it became famous for the opposite reason. According to eye-witnesses, including Levinas but also local newspapers, Cassirer was no match for the younger Heidegger, who outshone him in a philosophical, sociocultural, and personal way.
Heidegger swayed the audience with his charisma, but he also embodied the Zeitgeist much better than the erudite but reserved Cassirer, who was known to defend the Weimar Republic as well as the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and progress. As a result, for many decades Cassirer was mainly remembered—if at all—as a historian of philosophy rather than a relevant thinker in his own right. And the Davos debate has always been viewed as a historical moment signaling a large shift in twentieth-century thinking but not a profound philosophical interaction.
I first got fascinated by this debate more than a decade ago when writing my master’s thesis at KU Leuven about Kant and Levinas’ claims about the primacy of practical over theoretical philosophy, or ethics over ontology. I stumbled upon an article that connected this philosophical dialogue—in which I was trying to breathe some new life—to one that had actually taken place and that appeared to have a legendary as well as a dramatic status.
I immediately liked everything about it: the discussions about Kant (the first philosopher I was really drawn to) and the human finitude, the mix of a clash of ideas with one of personalities, the forgotten but intriguing figure of Cassirer, the presence of Levinas whose affinities would later shift, but perhaps most of all the generally acknowledged contradiction between the importance of this encounter for philosophy and the failure of an actual philosophical debate. Upon reading the transcripts of the debate, I wasn’t convinced by that last part, and there was so much at stake that the Cassirer-Heidegger dispute seemed like an ideal dissertation topic to me. To be honest, there would come many moments later on when I regretted the size of the project that I had taken on.
IJ: In fact, your book is the first comprehensive philosophical analysis of the debate which builds on and breaks with previous scholarship. For me, it was eye-opening how you work out that, despite substantial disagreements, there are some shared, complementary premises that motivate both Cassirer and Heidegger’s projects. In a few words, how would you describe your approach towards the debate and how does it differ from previous undertakings?
ST: Well, the main novelty of Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos is that it focuses exclusively on the philosophical content of the Davos debate. I decided to bracket all sociocultural but also all historical interpretations of this event. Many commentators have of course offered philosophical analyses of certain topics discussed in Davos, but the few takes that tackled the debate as a whole focused not so much on its inner dynamics but on the meaning that it had taken on later. For instance, Peter Gordon’s Continental Divide (2010), which has been an invaluable resource for me, is ultimately a work in the history of ideas: it details how certain interpretations of the Davos debate developed throughout the twentieth century, and how that process of ramification is characteristic of continental philosophy.
The main thesis of Michael Friedman’s A Parting of the Ways (2001) is also about the further history of philosophy: Friedman argues that Cassirer’s failure to convince the audience at Davos would lead to the split between analytic and continental philosophy. I adopted a Husserlian stance and attempted to ‘go back to Davos itself’ in order to figure out what was at stake for the protagonists themselves.
Within this approach, I could tackle the question whether the Davos debate was not a philosophically rich and coherent conversation after all. This too breaks with most of the existing literature which predominantly accounted for the substantial disagreements between Cassirer and Heidegger. I by no means want to deny or even downplay these disagreements. But I have tried to paint a broader story of mutual philosophical engagement between two great thinkers, within which the full meaning of these quarrels can first come to light.
I was motivated by the fact that the Davos debate was only one moment in a much longer conversation that lasted from 1923 until 1946. During my research, I found out that the key topics in Davos—Kant, the human condition, and the task of philosophy—were related to each other in a way that also propelled this 23-year long conversation and Cassirer and Heidegger’s own philosophies.
IJ: This is so interesting! Even though your book goes into the heart of this debate, you also make an important commentary on the history of ideas: that going back to Davos radically shifts our view on the development of continental philosophy. As you indicate, the different parts of your book reflect three interrelated issues that were crucial for Cassirer and Heidegger’s philosophical Auseinandersetzung. First, the lasting impact of Kant’s philosophy; second, different conceptions of the human being; third, the task of philosophy.
Let’s start with your first point. You argue that both thinkers depart from the same ground while interpreting it in different ways. Where Cassirer incorporates Kant’s project into a universal philosophy of culture—elaborated in his monumental Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-29)—Heidegger argues that Kant’s critical method foreshadows his own phenomenological ontology. Can you elaborate a bit on the role the contested legacy of Kant plays in the Davos debate?
ST: Although I am sure that they were very serious about it themselves, I find the way in which Cassirer and Heidegger try to claim ownership over Kant’s project of transcendental philosophy quite amusing. Already in the independent lectures that each thinker gave in Davos on the days prior to their debate, they deliberately step into the other’s domain: Cassirer, who otherwise rarely discusses the human condition or confronts other contemporary thinkers, criticizes the way Heidegger and Lebensphilosophie emphasize the limitations of human nature.
Heidegger, in turn, provides a highly original interpretation of Kant that challenges the foundations of Neo-Kantianism, the then popular philosophical school to which Cassirer belonged. Yet during the first back-and-forths of the Davos debate, they are so polite to each other that it leads to a situation in which Cassirer labels Heidegger as a Neo-Kantian while Heidegger does not dare to identify Cassirer as such.
As a consequence, the difference between their readings of Kant actually remains very unclear in Davos. Heidegger defends an ‘ontological reading’ of the Critique of Pure Reason that he opposes to the epistemological reading advanced by the Neo-Kantians, but it is not explained what such readings entail. Moreover, Cassirer rejects the epistemological label anyway, and with reason, since his philosophy of symbolic forms offers a broad theory of cultural meaning. Similarly, their famous disagreement about the either spontaneous or receptive nature of the power of transcendental imagination according to Kant’s first Critique is actually barely mentioned in the transcripts of the Davos debate.
Rather than taking this as a cue that Cassirer and Heidegger were talking past each other, I however argue that it shows how their disagreement about Kant’s legacy serves another goal, namely their more fundamental disagreement about the finitude or infinity of human existence. That being said, Kant’s influence persists throughout their thought on the human condition and the task of philosophy, so his role in the background of the Davos debate cannot be overestimated. It is just not where you would expect it.
IJ: Following your analysis of Cassirer and Heidegger’s readings of Kant, you describe their impact on each thinker’s respective worldview. You speak of a kind of “hidden anthropology” in Cassirer’s work. I found it fascinating how you retrace that, while Cassirer repeatedly emphasized the anthropogenic nature of symbolic forms—stating that they are expressions of human culture—he never systematically completed this task. As a consequence, you argue, his conception of the human being, or subjectivity, is not as clear-cut as one might think. What is the task of Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and what does it tell us about human consciousness?
ST: Cassirer abides by Kant’s claim that we cannot have any knowledge of things in themselves. Objectivity, for him, is a product of transcendental or symbolic consciousness, and all that we can examine is the process through which cultural meaning comes to be. Thus, the philosophy of symbolic forms sets out to examine the various ways—mythological, religious, linguistic, scientific, political—in which cultural objects are formed. But the flip side of Cassirer’s premise is that we also cannot have any access to a human subject either: we can only know what it produces. This means that his entire philosophy of culture is grounded on a transcendental subjective principle or mechanism that itself can be neither directly nor fundamentally understood.
In my opinion this is a consistent philosophical position but it leaves some very interesting questions unanswered. For example, how can we, as symbolic animals, switch between an artistic and a political perspective of a certain building, or between a scientific and religious explanation of a sign? We are clearly capable of doing so in our daily lives, and it’s a very relevant question for philosophy of culture, but Cassirer’s ‘functional account of human consciousness’ cannot account for it.
IJ: I agree, there is a kind of blind spot regarding the translation between these different perspectives or ‘ways of worldmaking’ if you want. In which sense is Cassirer’s concept of consciousness comparable to—and fundamentally different from—Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein? And what does Heidegger mean by Dasein’s being-in-the-world in your reading through the lens of Davos?
ST: Their views on the human condition are comparable in so far as both Cassirer and Heidegger take the human being to be a being that is at its core, as in: that is what we are, in search of meaning. Negatively put, no fixed or stable meaning exists, and it is therefore up to us to continuously constitute meaning or to project it into the world. Viewed more positively, both Cassirer and Heidegger have a lot of confidence in our capacity to do so.
This is of course not a view of the human condition that is exclusive to these two thinkers, but it does establish a common ground between them. The main difference, as I take it, is that Cassirer’s central question is how we can bring forth cultural meaning in a variety of ways, while Heidegger’s thought is spurred by the question why we need to do this in the first place. It is these different viewpoints that lead them to emphasize the infinite and finite nature of the human being respectively.
IJ: These different conceptions of human subjectivity seem to be at the core of the Davos debate. It’s convincing how you trace back Cassirer and Heidegger’s thought to one fundamental issue: the existential concern for orientation in the world. Can you tell us a bit more about what you mean by orientation? Where does the term come from and why is it so important for both thinkers?
ST: You can indeed rephrase what I just said in terms of existential orientation: to project cultural or existential meaning is to orient oneself in a human world. Thus, Cassirer and Heidegger consider the defining characteristic of the human being its capacity to establish for itself a meaningful position towards other worldly beings and events on the basis of some intelligible experiences. According to Cassirer, we do this through symbolic imagination, according to Heidegger this is possible thanks to Dasein’s care structure. What makes things really interesting is that both thinkers distinguish an everyday orientation within a world from a reflective orientation towards that world.
I would even say that Cassirer and the early Heidegger’s philosophies gain depth and complexity once they try to explain the interplay between these two modes of orientation. In Cassirer’s case, you have his descriptions of how symbolic consciousness effortlessly orients itself within a mythological, religious, scientific, etc. cultural sphere on the one hand, and how humanity resides in the capacity to navigate between these different domains on the other. Heidegger’s existential analytic first explains how we always already orient ourselves in the world by means of our circumspective, pre-ontological understanding of beings, and then how Dasein can own itself by realizing that its potential cannot coincide with any worldly self-understanding.
For Cassirer the interesting question is how we can balance the dogmatic claims of each cultural domain with the awareness that their worldviews are plural and hence relative. For Heidegger the issue is how, given that we will always be pulled back into the world by ‘the they’ (his philosophical notion for the public opinion, one could say), we can nevertheless aspire to live an owned life. This is, by the way, also where Kant’s influence pops up again. His extraordinary essay ‘What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?’ explains how to navigate ourselves within and between theoretical and practical reason; it was praised by Cassirer and discussed by Heidegger in Being and Time.
IJ: At one point, you describe how you ‘wrestled’ with two very different worldviews while also searching for your own philosophical voice. When reading your book, I could feel this process of oscillating between two poles, on a kind of dialectical path towards your own position. While you convincingly unveil that there is plenty of common ground between Cassirer and Heidegger, you never fully reconcile the tension between the two of them. Can you tell us a bit more about your method? How was it to comparatively work with these two thinkers? And how did this process of ‘wrestling’ change your way of doing philosophy?
ST: To stick with the model of two-tier orientation, the struggle was real because I simultaneously wrestled to find my way within Heidegger’s thought, with its particular terminology, within Cassirer’s writings, deceptively accessible but void of key definitions, and between these thinkers without subsuming the one to the other. But precisely that struggle has been the most formative aspect of this research for me as a philosopher, because—and I only realized this as time passed by—it is the enactment of what I find the most worthwhile subject of philosophy. Let me try to explain that.
Across different research projects, I have always been interested in the possibility of thoughtful and productive conversation between people with radically different viewpoints, and I seek that possibility in shared motivations or struggles that underlie these viewpoints. I first tried this in my earlier research on Kant and Levinas, then in this book on the Davos debate, and it is now the thematic topic of my current research on ‘post-truth.’
I wouldn’t really know how to describe my method, if I even had one, but the key may have been not to want to reconcile the tension between Kant and Levinas, between Cassirer and Heidegger, or between scientific facts and lived experience, but rather to make the genuinely distinct viewpoints that constitute this tension be heard through it, so that they can nevertheless inspire each other. That has been my aspiration, at least.
IJ: In contemporary scholarship, Cassirer and Heidegger seem to occupy almost diametrically opposed positions. While there’s some sort of Cassirer revival—not least because of your important essay collection—Heidegger continues to polarize, especially after the anti-semitism accusations following the publication of his “Black Notebooks” in 2014.
I think that as philosophers and intellectual historians today, we must critically engage with and shape the reception of ambivalent legacies—without falling into the trap of simply ignoring someone who does not fit into our Zeitgeist. At the same time, maybe we need some sort of research ethics for intellectual historians?
That being said, in my view, one of the many achievements of your book is the following. You approach these two very different figures truly philosophically, through close readings and concise reasoning, and without entering prejudiced, ideological battles or coming to an easy conclusion of who “won” the Davos debate. And even more importantly, you make a strong case for productive debate as a crucial motor of philosophy. I sometimes feel that philosophers today tend to avoid all kinds of moral gray zones, controversies, and ambiguities. Maybe you disagree, but I would be interested in your opinion about that. In other words, to loosely quote Part III of your book, what is the task of philosophy today?
ST: It was very important for me to not pick a side in the Davos debate, because I’m personally fascinated by both Cassirer and Heidegger’s ideas and ways of thinking, but also because I am convinced that that would lead to a philosophically less interesting story.
I also was never interested in who won the debate, my focus was on the conversation and whether and when and why it was a productive one. All I further hoped for was that there does not need to be a philosophical loser—and in view of that, that my book will aid the rehabilitation of Cassirer’s thought. But this not-picking-a-side was not easy, because many Heidegger scholars still find Cassirer superficial and boring, while many Cassirer scholars find Heidegger a dangerous thinker, so they just don’t engage with him. I hope my book can also help remedy this a bit, because I think they are two original and complementary thinkers.
More generally, I have very little patience with the hagiographic approach to the history of philosophy, by which I mean attempts to just render a past philosopher’s thought or writings internally consistent, as if that provides us with any useful insights. On the other hand, I think we should be able to continue studying philosophers with questionable ‘lifestyles.’ I understand everyone who decides that, given the amount of interesting thinkers one can devote one’s research time to, they are not going to spend it on a Nazi. But I personally find Heidegger’s early thought very appealing, and there is no denying that it has had an enormous impact on contemporary continental philosophy.
I consider it the task of philosophy to enable dialogue, by which I mean to open up spaces for reconsiderations about the basic presuppositions of our thinking and acting. We can rely on insights from past thinkers for this , but in my view we should thereby always steer towards mutual, more inclusive understanding. In a book like Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos, two historical figures take the foreground, but even then what motivated me was figuring out the conditions of possibility for thoughtful, productive conversation.
IJ: You wonderfully describe the tension between Cassirer and Heidegger’s conception of philosophy as an ethical divide: they fundamentally disagree when it comes to ‘the question how the human being should orient itself in and towards the world’ (220). You argue that Cassirer strives towards self-realization, or what you call Enlightenment, whereas Heidegger understands philosophy as therapy. What do you mean by these two conceptions of philosophy?
ST: This is, in my view, the key to the entire Davos debate and to the entire 23-year long dispute between Cassirer and Heidegger. In the end, Cassirer believes that self-knowledge can lead to progressive self-realization through fuller participation in the formation of culture or humanity. The task of philosophy, specifically philosophy of culture, is to guide this process, to be ‘the caretaker of reason.’ Heidegger, on the other hand, is less optimistic: the existential analytic is therapeutic in the sense that it only aims at self-awareness for the sake of self-acceptance. His idea of the task of philosophy is to help Dasein reconcile itself with its finite nature. Their respective views on the human condition follow from these different philosophical and existential aspirations, and these views in turn inform their interpretations of Kant.
IJ: I would be curious about your new project. What comes after Davos?
ST: I am not entirely done yet with the triadic relationship between Kant, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Cassirer and Heidegger’s well-known interpretations and appropriations of the first Critique are almost exclusively based on readings of its Transcendental Analytic. But my sense is that the Transcendental Dialectic has been just as instructive for either thinker. Cassirer at one point describes the clashes between symbolic forms as ‘antinomies of culture’ and Heidegger hints at a similarity between Dasein’s striving for owned existence and Kant’s notion of transcendental illusion. I could not fit this into the book but it would support my theory of the two modes of orientation, so I would like to pursue this further connection some time.
My main research project at the moment is however on truth pluralism. I examine the diverse ways in which we take things to be true in our everyday lives as well as in public debates. Depending on the context and motivation, we shift between different notions of truth: as factual accuracy, as coherence with a worldview, as pragmatic success, or as lived truth. For example, we can meaningfully and truthfully discuss the problem of criminality on the basis of statistics, ideological vision, feasible policies, and sentiments about a changing society.
In the current so-called ‘post-truth era,’ we however all too often fail to properly distinguish and appropriately invoke these notions of truth, all of which have legitimate uses but all of which can also be abused or their criteria violated to sow confusion and sabotage productive debates. By disentangling these notions and the corresponding forms of untruthfulness (such as fake news, conspiracy theories, irony, populism, or ‘both-sideism’), I hope to develop a new ethics of conversation for the post-truth era.
Featured Image: Book cover of Simon Truwant’s Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos, May 2022. Courtesy: Cambridge University Press.
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