How do we understand each other? The Contemporary Relevance of Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s Historic Disputation at Davos

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By contributing editor Andrew Hines

How do human beings understand each other? This question has both a linguistic and a political dimension. Last month, as world leaders gathered at the Swiss town of Davos for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, key faces were absent. Both Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron sent their excuses.It is a dark, but increasingly common irony that a geopolitical event designed to promote collaborative problem solving is disrupted by a dramatic lack of understanding in the domestic politics of major western nations.

This lack of political understanding seems to be about the clash of viewpoints or worldviews. A clash, for example, like the wildly different views on a Mexican border wall that fuelled the US government shutdown and kept Trump from his Davos visit. The question of understanding, in this political sense, seems to be fundamentally different from the question of understanding in a linguistic sense. In linguistics, we often think of understanding in terms of semantics, or how we convey meaning to each other through language (viii). While there is a clear difference between conveying meaning with words and disagreeing with someone, so much political rhetoric of the moment is continually framed as ‘subjective’ and ‘irrational’. This appeal to subjectivity and rationality suggests more basic issues typically associated with semantics. As it is increasingly associated with contemporary political rhetoric, a re-assessment of the link between political and linguistic understanding is needed.

Often associated with sociolinguistics or perhaps critical theory, the idea of a basic connection between language and politics has a particularly poignant moment in the history of ideas. Almost ninety years ago in March 1929, another event designed to promote international collaboration was held in Davos, Switzerland, the second annual meeting of the Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurse (International Davos Conference). Attended by influential twentieth century academics such as Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice de Gandillac, Joachim Ritter and Rudolf Carnap, it is perhaps most famous for its debate between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger on the question “what is the human being?” The debate is at times portrayed as a titanic clash of worldviews or as an epochal shift. As one of Heidegger’s students said of Davos, ‘from here and now a new epoch of world-history begins’ (2).

Ernst Cassirer (left) and Martin Heidegger (right) in March 1929 at the second annual meeting of the Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurse (International Davos Conference)

To understand this ‘epochal shift’, the debate is often framed by the conceptual presuppositions with which Cassirer and Heidegger begin their philosophical questioning. Heidegger asserts that his philosophy is concerned with the terminus a quo(from where) of a philosophical question, and that Cassirer’s is concerned with the terminus ad quem (to where) of a philosophical question (202 – 203). This characterisation has stuck. Many commentators, including Peter Gordon in his intellectual history of Davos, have used this framing, and while more nuanced than a simple binary opposition, Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s position have come to be associated with objectivity and subjectivity respectively. While very helpful in understanding much of the debate, there is an often-overlooked section in Cassirer’s closing reply that frames his theme in a different manner. Here, Cassirer marvels that, despite the fact that each of us speak in our own subjective language, we still manage to negotiate a common linguistic understanding through language (205). It is here that an implicit link between linguistic and political understanding emerges.

In keeping broadly within the theme, “what is the human being”, a question arose in the debate relating to human finitude. Cassirer and Heidegger clashed over how the human imagination, which aids cognition in concept generation, was related to finitude. Here the traditional division of objectivity and subjectivity is useful. In keeping with the key thesis of his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923), Cassirer asserted there must be some objective symbolic forms, like language, art, and myth that functioned as ‘synthesising activities of human reason’ (319). Heidegger rejected the idea that something like language, art or myth could be objective and instead, asserted that all the concepts we produce with our human activities are radically conditioned by our finitude (197). In keeping with the thesis of Being and Time (1929), Heidegger asserted that any attempt at objective description misses the real question, which, for Heidegger, is the conditions of our finite existence that allow for such a question in the first place. As the reader may know, for Heidegger, this was the question of Being (31). Cassirer agreed that Being was the fundamental question of metaphysics, but in his final reply to Heidegger, he wondered how it is that, despite, our radically subjective, finite experience, we still manage to communicate. In response to Heidegger Cassirer says,

each of us speaks his own language, and it is unthinkable that the language of one of us is carried over into the language of the other. And yet, we understand ourselves through the medium of language. Hence there is something like thelanguage. And hence there is something like a unity which is higher than the infinitude of the various ways of speaking. Therein lies what is for me the decisive point. And it is for that reason that I start from the Objectivity of the symbolic form, because here the inconceivable has been done (205).

While it is obvious that Cassirer’s response is framed, first by the objective, terminus ad quem (to where) of a philosophical question, there is a second framing in this response that is overlooked.

The question implicit in Cassirer’s reply is “how do we understand each other?” This second framing wonders at the inconceivable fact that we understand each other despite it being unthinkable that we could overcome our subjective experiences of finitude. Looking at the ‘inconceivable’ fact of communication between radically subjective languages, puts linguistic understanding on a political footing.

In the year before he died, while living in exile in the United States, Cassirer continued work on this question in An Essay on Man (1944). In it, Cassirer radically interprets lines 368c -369b of Plato’s Republic. Here, Socrates and his interlocutors are attempting to understand the nature of justice. In the end, they decide that, to understand justice in the individual, it needs to be understood on the level of a just republic. Cassirer reads Plato as suggesting that “philosophy cannot give us a satisfactory theory of man until it has developed a theory of the state” (63). For Cassirer, this also connected linguistic understanding and political understanding. From an anthropological perspective, before human beings had discovered the state as a form of social organisation, language was one of the key attempts to organise feelings, desires, and thoughts on a communal level. Therefore, for Cassirer, the historical evolution of language is closely connected with the development of the state (64). Here in this late essay, whether intentional or not, Cassirer is echoing his implicit question from Davos.

Whether we agree with Cassirer’s characterisation of historical evolution or his appeal to objectivity, his awareness of the social and political aspects that shape linguistic meaning are a reminder that neither a subjective finite experience of language nor an objective unifying symbolic form of ‘The Language’ accounts for the muddle that is understanding each other. Today, this is relevant because we often feel a common understanding is under threat and have a tendency to frame the crisis as a battle between a quasi-objective rational debate and subjective popular rage. However, I fear it is unhelpful to demonise populist rhetoric as purely subjective and irrational. It is certainly worrying but it is still communication however much we may object to it. The liberal academic may not ‘understand’ populist rage in the political sense, but he or she certainly does linguistically. How else would such umbrage be taken to the content of that rhetoric? Therefore, the 1929 Davos disputation poses several timely questions for us.

Philosophically and politically, it suggests a need to revisit an interlinking of a theory of language with a theory of the state. Linguistically, it prompts us to ask, just what does it mean when communication doesn’t seem to work, and understanding is a struggle to achieve. Part of what is so inconceivable about language is the fact that understanding is accomplished even when we don’t follow the rules and seem bound by our own radically subjective languages. Perhaps this is the political and linguistic mystery we must turn to in this time of crisis. What does it mean to understand ourselves, and the state, when the rules we thought we knew, don’t quite tell the whole story. The way that Cassirer frames the question is so brilliant because it allows for multiple answers and continual re-evaluations. Cassirer’s answer may have been objectivity, but at Davos, we see a glimpse of the mysterious fact that understanding persists despite our radically subjective experiences and use of language.

One comment

  1. Interesting note, but I wonder why its author does not consider a third alternative. That language is both relative and objective at once. That is, understanding is possible within a linguistic community, or, in Cassirer’s terms, a given symbolic form. It does not imply mutual understandig to be universal or transhistorical. I think this is Cassirer’s proposition. I guess author has an answer to it, but I would like to know it.


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