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One-Day Workshop

Workshop Theme

Throughout his eclectic and productive career Ernst Cassirer devoted equal attention to the mathematical and natural sciences and to the humanities. Cassirer spent a great deal of his career working out a synthesis able to contain the “two cultures” of the natural and human sciences, exploring among other things the foundational use of forms and symbols in scientific reasoning. Instead of privileging “object perception” over “expressive perception”, which is exemplified in the widespread idea that the natural sciences have a more robust epistemic base than the humanities, Cassirer shows that neither form of perception can be reduced to the other and he underlines the symbolic preformation of all perception. Whereas the philosophical notion of knowledge has often been informed by the “fact of natural science” and, accordingly, has taken the evolution of the natural sciences as its ultimate datum, Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms is oriented towards the more general “fact of culture”. Thus Cassirer’s ambition, throughout his work, was to develop a systematic articulation of how it is possible to achieve objectivity and validity in both the domain of the natural sciences and the cultural, moral and aesthetic sciences. The latter are granted by the ongoing development of externalized symbolic forms, which give access to an ever-growing field of objectivities at the same time as they develop new facets and possibilities of human subjectivity and liberty.

Cassirer’s doctrine of symbolic forms was developed simultaneously with the first attempts to develop a systematic linguistic science of e.g. Roman Jakobson and it prepared the ground for the subsequent evolution of symbolic anthropology, symbolic action theory, sociology of symbolic interaction and related subfields. The importance of Cassirer’s philosophy of science, then as well as today, consists in the move from substantial conceptualizations to concepts of form. Such a Cassirerian criticism represents an important correction to contemporary developments in the sciences. This one-day symposium displays the relevance of Cassirer’s work for contemporary philosophy of science.

Practical Information

The workshop is open to all, but registration is necessary.

For registration please send an email to Sarah Vormsby ( with your name and affiliation.

Conference organiser:

The Humanomics Research Centre.

Conference team:

Esther Oluffa Pedersen, David Budtz Pedersen and Sarah Vormsby.


9.15 - 9.30


9.30 – 10.30

Aud Sissel Hoel, Trondheim University

Rethinking objectivity by addressing the inner connections between imaging and measuring

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This paper takes its point of departure from the migration of images and imaging technologies between the arts and sciences. It investigates the inner connections between images and their traditional “others,” such as concepts, words, and numbers. Instead of inquiring into images as static entities, I focus on what images do, that is, on their operational functioning.

Drawing on Ernst Cassirer’s notion of symbolic function, I seek to develop a notion of images as differential tools that play an integral role in exploration, knowledge, and discovery, no matter whether they are used for artistic or scientific purposes. The main strengths of Cassirer’s approach reside in its dynamic and relational outlook, and, just as important,

in its insistence on the integral and generative role of mediating structures in all aspects of human knowledge and culture. What I hope to show is that, if we adopt the thesis of media playing an integral role in knowledge and being, we are led to develop a differential and pluralist approach. Further, I argue that the differential mode of operation is the inner link between measurement methods, commonly considered as quantitative and calculative, and imaging methods, usually classified as qualitative and observational.

The differential approach reveals new and inner connections between images, words, and numbers by reconfiguring them as operational tools that stand in a “measured” relation to their objects. In conclusion, I argue that the pluralism that results from the proposed approach is not a relativism. The differential approach to mediation recasts the notion of objectivity and paves the way for a positive account of human intervention as a requirement for discovery.

10.45 – 11.45

Jean Lassègue, Professor, EHESS, Paris

Semiotics of the Renaissance according to Cassirer: how philology paved the way to physical sciences

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Cassirer inherited from the Marburg school the problem of the historicity of science: how is science subject to change over time while keeping its universal and necessary value? Cassirer’s answer was that science is a historical development, and that the concepts of universality and necessity are not fixed once and for all, but have to be philosophically determined at each step of the evolution of science. From a philosophical point of view, it is therefore semiotic transformations that require full attention for they are instrumental in the understanding of the historical development of knowledge.

The main momentous change in the history of knowledge is, according to Cassirer, the emergence of modern physical sciences that is construed as the emergence of the functional viewpoint, in opposition to the substantial one. This change cannot be separated from the semiotic transformations that made the emergence of a functional point of view possible for, as Cassirer points out, “Semiotic Renaissance precedes Physic-mathematical Renaissance” (Cassirer Erkenntnissproblem, vol. 1, 111).

This ‘precedence’ should be examined in depth for it has at least two meanings: (a) from a historical point of view, precedence means that any change in the physical sciences comes after changes in the semiotic framework; (b) from an epistemological point of view, precedence means that semiotics has a role to play in the making of physical sciences themselves. How can we make sense of these two propositions? And how are they related to one another?

In this talk, I would like to explore the semiotic transformations that occurred during the Renaissance. They primarily deal with conceptual change in the humanities: Renaissance philologists discovered that written texts, whether bearing on matters of faith or on those of the State, not only have a meaning but also have their own historicity and need therefore to be interpreted. As a consequence, the philologists became aware of the role played by the mediation of signs in the elaboration of meaning. The notion of a sign appears therefore at the core of a semiotic revolution in which conceptual and historical viewpoints, far from being opposed, are merged and back up one another. This has deep consequences for the philosophy of symbolic forms Cassirer tries to develop.

11.45 – 13.00


13.15 – 14.00

Frederik Stjernfelt, University of Copenhagen

Symbolic Forms Extended

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Cassirer's central notion of "Symbolic Forms" has not been sufficiently appreciated for its applicability to actual issues in the philosophy of science and the humanities. This paper argues that the Symbolic Form doctrine forms an early and important version of what is presently discussed under the "extended mind" headline: Symbolic Forms are not mental structures primarily, rather they consist of externalized structures, institutions, languages, books, artworks, science, world-views, ideologies, infrastructure, gadgets, repositories, computers, servers, etc. and the practices they facilitate ... without which the human mind would truly be back on the savannah. To Cassirer, every generation must internalize and activate anew (parts of) these external structures - thereby sifting and developing them further. This has the special implication for the humanities that the study of man has no direct access to humanity short circuiting these externalizations (even if vitalisms, existentialisms, extreme versions of neuroscience and evolutionary epistemology might dream of such shortcuts). Rather, the humanities ARE, on this view, the study of humanity through its externalized means of world construction.

14.15 – 15.15

Steen Brock, Aahus University

How can the different sciences inform philosophy?

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Cassirer developed an interesting account of the development of the physical sciences. He also developed a significant account of what he called “The Logic of the cultural Sciences”. He further discussed how both kinds of scientific development, jointly, could inform philosophy. There is however an issue which Cassirer did not pursue as much as say Niels Bohr; namely how the individual sciences can inform one another. Consequently it will be discussed if this, latter, mutual information, should not also enter the picture of how the sciences inform philosophy.

15.30 – 16.30

Esther Oluffa Pedersen, Associate professor, Roskilde University

The Logics of the Cultural Sciences and the Humanities Today

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In the small book “The Logics of the Cultural Sciences” Cassirer in five studies undertakes to distinguish and delimit the cultural sciences in opposition to the natural sciences as well as in opposition to the life philosophy of his days. The aim of this talk is to scrutinise his claims in relation to our contemporary discussions of the humanities. Does Cassirer’s view on the cultural sciences fit with our contemporary discussions of the humanities?

16.45 – 17.45

David Budtz Pedersen, Assisting professor, University of Copenhagen

From cognitive science to digital humanities - Recontextualizing Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms

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In The Logic of the Cultural Sciences (1942), Cassirer launches a project of establishing the foundation and structure of the human sciences. According to Cassirer, symbolic forms – such as myth, language, art and knowledge – constitute the indispensable precondition for the process of cognition. “They are the specific media man has created in order to separate himself from the world through them, and in this very separation bind himself all the closer to it.” In this paper, I show how Cassirer, in his conception of symbolic forms, anticipates the much later development of the “extended mind hypothesis”, originally proposed by Andy Clark and David Chalmers (1998). According to this view, the reach of the mind need not end at the boundaries of the human body. Tools, instruments, technologies and other social and cultural infrastructures can, under certain conditions, count as parts of the cognitive process. Unlike any other creature on the evolutionary ladder, humans strategically surround themselves with multiple layers of cognitive scaffoldings that have continually shaped and expanded the space of human reason. Based on Cassirer’s original formulation, the paper examines how human cognitive scaffoldings include both physical devises (such as books, manuscripts, paintings, images, sculptures) and higher-order symbolic forms (such as rituals, rules, styles, genres, periods, institutions, ideas) each of which can be studied as externalized cultural forms. Finally, the paper argues in favor of using digital technology as a way of tracing symbolic forms across time, fields, communities and geographies. The sheer multiplication of digital (micro)- data has rendered human existence traceable in an entirely different way than before, while at the same time opened new possibilities for integrating different ontologies across disciplinary boundaries.

18.00 – 19.00