Ernst Cassirer and the Critical Science of Germany, 1899–1919

Ernst Cassirer and the Critical Science of Germany, 1899–1919

By Gregory B. Moynahan

Key Issues in Modern Sociology

Reconstructing the relationship between science and politics in Imperial Germany, this book covers the early work of the philosopher and historian Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) and discusses his relation to the Marburg School of philosophy.

PDF, 300 Pages


July 2013

£20.00, $32.00

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About This Book

Recovering a lost world of the politics of science in Imperial Germany, Gregory B. Moynahan revisits the work of the philosopher and historian Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) and explores his relations with the Marburg School of Hermann Cohen. “Ernst Cassirer and the Critical Science of Germany, 1899–1919” covers the epochal transformations of the natural sciences at the turn of the century, and reveals Cassirer’s view of an emergent mode of understanding based purely on relational structure which, he perceived, could be applied fruitfully to the social sciences and humanities, or human sciences, “Geisteswissenschaften.”

Moynahan relates that the result was a permanently fluid but rule-based definition of the permutation of objects and subjects, as well as knowledge and reality, within different fields of knowledge. Cassirer’s project placed the development of the sciences, “Wissenschaften,” within a wide historical and ethical ambit, and sought to establish a new definition of experience, society and modernity; this project, Cassirer argued, was pivotal to the future of Germany. On this basis, Moynahan posits that Cassirer’s early work furthered the foundation of a distinctly Central European argument for democracy, liberalism and civil rights. [NP] Moynahan defends Cassirer’s critique as formative in the origins of twentieth-century social sciences, philosophy of science and law, and he argues for its direct relevance to a generation of scholars before the Second World War (including Elias, Kelsen and Panofsky), as well as after (such as Blumenberg, Foucault and Luhmann). The only text in English to focus on the first half of the polymath Cassirer’s career, this work illuminates one of the most important – and in English, least-studied – reform movements in Imperial Germany.


“The increasing interest in Cassirer makes this masterful work necessary reading. By putting Cassirer in the context of the project of the Marburg school and his relation to Leibniz, Moynahan brings out the depth and consistency in Cassirer’s political and social thought, as well as its relation to his technically demanding early philosophy. It will change the way social theorists draw on Cassirer.” —John Levi Martin, Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago

“Moynahan’s study offers deeply researched new insights on Cassirer’s philosophical development. Moynahan shows that Cassirer must be understood from the beginning of his career as an independent mind who combined deep-rootedness in Marburg neo-Kantianism with the ability to theorize and reformulate innovations in the natural sciences at the beginning of the twentieth century. Cassirer’s philosophical writings up to the end of his life were defined by the same combination. By taking careful account of Cassirer’s early work, Moynahan’s work rehabilitates Cassirer as one of most import philosophers of the last 100 years.” —Thomas Meyer, LMU Munich, and author of “Ernst Cassirer: Eine Biographie”

“Gregory Moynahan has written an important book on a thinker whose voice we need to bring back into the conversation of critical theory. It is in Ernst Cassirer’s early works and connection with the challenging philosophy of his teacher Hermann Cohen, Moynahan demonstrates, that his relevance for contemporary debate is particularly evident. This erudite and well-argued text at once illuminates the pre–World War One reform project of the Marburg school and suggests its continued significance in Cassirer’s work.” —Drucilla Cornell, Professor of Political Science, Comparative Literature, and Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University

“The last decade has witnessed a second renaissance in the scholarship on the philosopher Ernst Cassirer. With its unusual emphasis on the often-misunderstood early phase of Cassirer’s development, Gregory Moynahan’s book is an original and stimulating contribution to the recent literature.” —Peter E. Gordon, Professor of History, Harvard University, and author of “Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos”

Author Information

Gregory B. Moynahan is associate professor of history and co-director of the Science, Technology and Society Program at Bard College, New York, USA. 


Key Issues in Modern Sociology

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments; List of Abbreviations; Introduction: “Reading a Mute History”: Ernst Cassirer, the Marburg School and the Crises of Modern Germany; PART I: THE MARBURG SCHOOL AND THE POLITICS OF SCIENCE IN GERMANY: Chapter One: The Twentieth-Century Conflict of the Faculties: The Marburg School and the Reform of the Sciences; Chapter Two: Cassirer and the Marburg School in the Administrative and Political Context of the “Kaiserreich”; Chapter Three: “The Supreme Principles of Knowledge”: Cassirer’s Transformation of the Tenets of Cohen’s “Infinitesimal Method” (1882) and “System of Philosophy” (1902–1912); PART II: CRITICAL SCIENCE AND MODERNITY: Chapter Four: Leibniz and the Foundation of Critical Science: “Leibniz’s System in its Scientific Foundations” (1902); Chapter Five: Science and History in Cassirer’s “Substance and Function” (1910); PART III: LIBERAL DEMOCRACY AND LAW: Chapter Six: Liberalism and the Conflict of Forms: “The Knowledge Problem” (1906–1940) and “Freedom and Form” (1916); Chapter Seven: Law as Science and the “Coming-into-Being” of Natural Right in Cohen, Cassirer and Kelsen Conclusion Critical Science, the Future of Humanity and the Riddle of “An Essay on Man” (1944); Index


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