Cassirer's “Prototype and Model” of Symbolism: Its Sources and Significance

Science in Context 12 (4):531-547 (1999)
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The ArgumentErnst Cassirer's fundamental conception of symbolism (symbolic pregnance) derives from what may be called a bio-medical model of semiotics, not a linguistic one. He employs both models in his philosophy of symbolic forms, but his notion of the “prototype and model of symbolism” was not derived from linguistics. The sources for his conception of symbolism include the ethnographic and anthropological literature he discovered in Aby Warburg's (1866–1929) Hamburg research library, findings of medical research on aphasia and related conditions, particularly the work of Kurt Goldstein (1878–1965) and the theoretical biology of Jacob von Uexküll (1864–1944). The linguistic model of semiotics regards the bond between the signifier and the signified as purely arbitrary and conventional, but Cassirer traced meaning back to a “natural symbolism” of image-like configurations in bodily feeling and perception. In this way, his doctrine of symbolism assumed a form that undercut the distinction between philosophical Naturalism and Idealism. This helps to explain why in later years Cassirer developed his theory of Basic Phenomena. Cassirer's notion of the “prototype and model of symbolism” illustrates his method of thought, which eschews pure argument in favor of interaction with empirical research.



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References found in this work

Ways of worldmaking.Nelson Goodman - 1978 - Hassocks [Eng.]: Harvester Press.
The philosophy of symbolic forms.Ernst Cassirer - 1953 - New Haven,: Yale University Press.
Principles of Gestalt Psychology.K. Koffka - 1936 - Philosophy 11 (44):502-504.
A Theory of Semiotics.Umberto Eco - 1977 - Philosophy and Rhetoric 10 (3):214-216.

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