Edmund Husserl and Ernst Cassirer belong to two seemingly incompatible strains of philosophy. The former is the founder of phenomenology, the latter one of the most prominent scholars of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism. What principally distinguishes these philosophical traditions from one another are their respective methods. The methodological tenet of Husserl’s phenomenology lies in the principle according to which an immediate, intuitive experience of any kind of phenomena is and must be possible, in order to find an answer to the problem of knowledge foundation. Elaborating on a (Neo-)Kantian motif, Cassirer instead presumes the fundamentally mediated character of human cognition, distinguishing the different, incommensurable ways that meaning is given to experience, which he calls “symbolic forms”.
In spite of these differences, one can notice in both authors an interesting convergence towards similar problems related to the philosophy of culture. Four common research questions lie at the heart of Husserl’s and Cassirer’s philosophical approaches to culture. First, both investigate the general problem of the ‘making’ of cultural sense. Husserl speaks of “constitution of spiritual (geistige) predicates,” whereby Cassirer focuses on the notion of “symbolic function,” considering different possibilities of categorial construction within culture. Second, there is the problem of the interplay between perception and cognition as conditions for our access to cultural objects and world: How is an object with its cultural properties given in experience? Is there a primacy of the cultural attitude of the natural man in contrast to the theoretical attitude of the philosopher and scientist? Third, since culture is nothing without a plurality of subjects who give sense to the world, both authors thematize the encounter of the other both as a transcendental condition of cultural experience as well as a part of that experience. The question is then to specify the structure of intersubjective experience, less in terms of immediate givenness (empathy) and more as result of a complex cognitive operation, called understanding (Verstehen). For, culturally experiencing the other does not only mean perceiving the other’s body as distinct from a material thing but also understanding its motivated behavior in and towards the world, which is in the first place a cultural world both in its familiarity and strangeness (cf. the opposition of Heimwelt and Fremdwelt). Fourth, Husserl and Cassirer more or less implicitly raise the question concerning the nature of the cultural subject, being at the same time the one who constitutes cultural sense as well as the one who experiences itself and the others against the background of a pre-given, pre-constituted cultural world.