Cassirer and Goldstein on abstraction and the autonomy of biology

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This paper examines the mutual influence between Ernst Cassirer and his cousin, the neurologist Kurt Goldstein. For both Cassirer and Goldstein, views on the nature of human cognition were fundamental to their understanding of scientific knowledge, and these were informed both by philosophical theorising and empirical research on pathologies of the nervous system. Following Cassirer, and in agreement with the physicalism of the Vienna Circle, Goldstein held that the physical sciences had progressed by arriving at abstract, mathematical representations to take the place of qualitative characterisations of observable reality. In tension with physicalism, Goldstein was not sanguine about the fruitfulness of the abstractive approach in biology. He proposed that biology must adhere to its own sui generis methods of observation and experimentation in order to obtain knowledge of the “natures” of living organisms. I argue that there is a parallel with Cassirer’s assertion of the differences between physical and cultural sciences, underwritten by the deployment of varying symbolic functions. I also propose that the neurological writings of Goldstein are an important backdrop to Cassirer’s positive evaluation of abstract thought, in contrast to the pessimism regarding a worldview dominated by scientific abstractions, expressed by philosophers such as Bergson, Whitehead and Husserl.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)471-503
JournalHOPOS: The Journal of The International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science
Issue number2
Early online date14 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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