Georgi Gerdjikov

Deutsch: Symbolische Formen

English: Symbolic Forms

Français: Formes symboliques

Italiano: Forme simboliche

Русский: Символические формы

Origin of the term

The term “symbol” has a long history, but the first who speaks of the spheres of culture as based on “symbolic forms” is the prominent representative of the Marburg Neo-Kantian school, Ernst Cassirer. In his three-volume work The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms [Philosophie der symbolischen formen, 1923, 1925, 1929] and in his later Essay on Man (1944) Cassirer describes human culture as comprised of systems of symbols – languages, mythologies, religions, arts, law, sciences – by which we both interpret the world around us and creatively interact with it.  


Western philosophy is strongly influenced by Kant’s conclusion that our access to the world is mediated by the constitution of human reason that operates in different manners in the sphere scientific knowledge and in the sphere of human interactions. In the 19th and 20th centuries some of the Neo-Kantians tried to update this understanding by combining it with Hegel’s conclusion that the constitution of reason has not been given once and for all but is historically changing. Ernst Cassirer goes further than that: according him the link between man and the world is a complex and constantly evolving constellation of symbolic forms which our reason creates in order to get oriented in its environment but through which it also creatively influences that environment – “gives form to being” („оформя битието“ (Касирер [4]: 223)). Since through communication man makes the symbols he has created meaningful to others too, this aspect of his nature is the basis of the existence of a shared and shareable culture (Касирер [3], especially 49-52, 63-64 и 366-369).

Such a view could explain why the spheres of the humanities one cannot find mathematically expressible principles as one can in natural sciences – the various spheres of culture are autonomous and cannot be reduced to a single one. They express different aspects of human experience of reality and obey different internal rules. Nevertheless, they remain interdependent and are mutually complementary (Matherne [15]: 142-3). Here Cassirer apparently follows philosophers such as Hegel, for whom the spiritual spheres form a united whole but also Bergson, according to whom temporal processes have aspects that cannot be describe with mathematical precision (because they are not comprised of separate individual components) but can be felt in human experience (Бергсон [2]). Such a distinction between the different aspects of reality, revealed respectively by our experience and by natural scientific methods was also drawn by Husserl and phenomenology. What is specific with Cassirer is that he views the realms of culture that do not belong to the natural scientific realm as autonomous not only from the latter but from each other too. That would explain better why there are a number of methods with the humanities and social sciences – methods that are sometimes overlapping but, by and large, irreducible to one and the same thing.

All symbolic forms, according to Cassirer, evolve gradually, beginning in prehistory on the basis of immediate bodily givens and needs (Касирер [3]). Here Cassirer again is in accord with Bergson as well as with the philosophical anthropology of thinkers such as Scheler – for these authors our more complex capacities emerge to assist the basic ones, but subsequently get detached from them and create new possibilities for creative activity (in the beginning sensibility serves the purpose of survival, reason complements instincts (Бергсон [2], Шелер [6])). This view can be traced back to Aristotle but in the 19th and the 20th centuries it was updated in accordance with the evolutionary theory.

Cassirer takes language as an exemplary symbolic form that can allow us to understand how other spheres of culture are also webs of symbols with interconnected meanings (Касирер [4]). That relates him to the “linguistic turn” characteristic of all philosophy of the first half of the 20th century. Language is the common medium for different individuals that allows them to have a shared understanding of concrete realities; they join it through communication and subsequently can creatively extend it. According to Cassirer, the same could be said of any other sphere of human creative and cognitive activity. He also blurs the lines between creative work and cognition, because in creating symbolic forms, we at the same time interpret reality and influence it. A similar understanding can be found in Heidegger’s view that man is “being-in-the world” rather than an outside observer of the world as well as in Paul Ricoeur’s The Living Metaphor, where the metaphors that have been created by us are ascribed a transformative role with respect to reality (Рикьор [5]).


Cassirer’s influence remains limited. On the European continent his figure was overshadowed by that of the younger Heidegger who interpreted Kant in a very different way; whereas the English-speaking world came to be dominated by analytic philosophy based on thinkers such as Heidegger’s philosophical opponent, Rudolf Carnap (Friedman [12]). An exception was Susanne Langer (1895 – 1985), who went on to become a philosophy professor in the USA. Langer continued the project of a philosophy of symbolic forms and describes in much greater detail than Cassirer certain cultural spheres, especially in the field of aesthetics and mostly of music (Langer [8], Innis [14]: 79-93). In addition, she links Cassirer’s project to the approaches of other theoreticians who have discovered the importance of the symbolic such as Freud, Dewey, Russell, Carnap, Piaget, Koeller (Langer [7]: 21, 40-1); in other words, she was one of the first authors who noticed the linguistic turn. But Langer also tries to combine the philosophy of symbolic forms with the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (Innis [14]: 4-5, 97-8, 153) – an extraordinarily ambitious task that reminds of some of the experiments of contemporary ontology (Петров [10]).

Probably the most influential use of the concept of symbolic form was the one by the art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892 – 1968), according to whom the Renaissance perspective is not so much a way of a realistic depiction of the world as yet another symbolic form: it represents objects in a different manner than that of the human eye (the eye is spherical whereas it is applied on a flat surface), which requires certain training of vision in order to learn to work with it. (Panofsky [9], Neher [16]).

Since the beginning of the 21st century there has been a revival of interest in Cassirer and the philosophy of symbolic forms, especially among thinkers who try to find a way to overcome the Continental-Analytic divide (Friedman [12], Gordon [13], Barash [11], Matherne [15]).



  1. Бергсон, А., 1994, Интуиция и интелект, София: Лик.
  2. Бергсон, А., 2004, Опит върху непосредствените данни на съзнанието, София: Одри.
  3. Касирер, Е., 1996, Есе за човека, София: Христо Ботев.
  4. Касирер, Е., 1998, Философия на символните форми. Част 1: Езикът, Плевен: Евразия.
  5. Рикьор, П., 1994, Живата метафора, София: Лик.
  6. Шелер, М., 1991, Мястото на човека в Космоса, Плевен: Евразия.
  7. Langer, S., 1952, Philosophy in a New Key, New York:  New American Library.
  8. Langer, S., 1953, Feeling and Form, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  9. Panofsky, E., 1991, Perspective as Symbolic Form, New York: Zone Books.


  1. Петров, В., 2015, Процесуално философски приключения на приложната онтология, София: Фондация „Човешка библиотека“.
  2. Barash, J., 2012, “Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, and the Legacy of Davos,” History and Theory, 51: 436-450.
  3. Friedman, M., 2000, A Parting of the Ways, Chicago: Open Court.
  4. Gordon, P., 2010, Continental Divide, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  5. Innis, E., Susanne Langer in Focus, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  6. Matherne, S., 2021, Cassirer, London and New York: Routledge.
  7. Neher, A., 2005, “How Perspective Could Be a Symbolic Form,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63: 359–373.

How to Cite:

Gerjikov, Georgi (2021) Symbolic Forms, in Thesaurus. Sofia University Dictionary of Philosophy. Online edition. Sofia: St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2021, ISSN 2815-2832.