Two worlds. Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger in Davos

The small town of Davos in Switzerland is a place more than well-known, not at least as for its many sanatoriums where the richesse of Old Europe cured its diseases. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner arrived in the mountains to recover from a mental breakdown, Aby Warburg hoped to find relief from his chronic illness, Thomas Mann and his wife joined one of the many clinics to cure tuberculosis the illness per se of the worm-eaten late nineteenth century. Even the well-known author and inventor of more dangerous landscapes and lives, the writer Robert Louis Stevenson chose the small and hidden place of the Alpine landscape to finish his book „Treasure Island“ in calmness. But no one else as Thomas Mann was able to draw a closer picture of the distinctive atmosphere, the morbid climate and the culmination of illness and search for health, using the figure of the young and not unambitious Hans Castorp to found Davos immortal reputation in his novel „The Magic Mountain“. It is the young graduate Castorp, who  visits his cousin, curing his tuberculosis, just to discover his own illness, to fall in love with a mysterious Russian lady and to meet a defender of the project Enlightenment and his counterpart a nihilistic and defrocked Jesuit. In the two positions all the debates and discussions of the interwar period return for the last time, before Old Europe will disappear forever. But the decline has already arrived in Davos, tuberculosis began to vanish in the decades after 1850, good for the patients but bad for Davos main business. The international skiing elite preferred St. Moritz or went to the French Alps and Davos was in urgent need to search for alternate attracting concepts and possibilities. Therefore, the town leaders decided to start an annual academic meeting. They planned to invite well-known scholars and students to debate contemporary problems and to discuss the topics of the age, while at the same time, this venue should attract the remaining and hopefully new arriving patients and guests. None else than the most unconventional mathematician and physicist Albert Einstein opened the first annual meeting in 1928. Probably the audience was more impressed by playing the violin at the gathering than excited about his lecture on relativity, which remained a big question mark. But the context of the German „Bildungsbürgertum“, it could have been much worse and there was even music. The second venue one year later put „philosophy“ in the focus, the third one “ social sciences“ and the fourth and final one was concerned with „education“. But in the common memory, bad luck for Einstein’s musical talent, the second one, the gathering on „philosophy“ remained present in the collective mind. And in the philosophical world of today, the minds still debate heated and engaged about this particular meeting, where the thinking of cultural history and the history of ideas changed dramatically.

Two minds and men met, who couldn’t differ more. the one was the Jew, shy but friendly, Ernst Cassirer and the other one was the German Martin Heidegger, robust and with woolen socks. The one represented the academic sphere, a tradition where Goethe was the mastermind. It is said by Toni Cassirer, Ernst’s wife, that he read for a period of more than fifty years, Goethe on every single day. While Martin Heidegger dreamed of a revolution, of destruction and the change of a mindset, Cassirer warned intensely of the new political myths entering the political and cultural sphere of the young, German democracy. The central question of this historical gathering was: „What is it to be a human being?“ The question was not new at all, but the two philosophers transformed the question into two juxtaposed poles. And it is indeed, a late debate about the Kantian tradition of thought . And the Kantian questions about „what truths are possible“ became a debate at Davos, where Cassirer put it to Heidegger “How are … judgments that are not simply finite in their content, but that are necessarily universal” possible? “How does this finite creature come to a determination of objects that as such are not bound to finitude?” The sphere where those questions were asked were not of Alpine idyll and the Prussian state Kant had hoped for, was diminished in the bloody fields of the First World War. In opposite it was the former Maths teacher Oswald  Spengler, who developed in his two-volume strong book „The Decline of the West“ a phantasy of banalities and willful interpretation of history to prove delusion and decline. Indeed, he was very successful and not only Maths teacher but noble spinsters and ghoulish priests praised his book. But not only the devastation of the war has changed the hearts and minds but a new topic was to be found among the intellectuals if the time, its name was evolutionary biology but more often and more successful it was used as ordinary racism. Under this threat, Cassirer’s philosophical conceptualizations was dedicated to documenting the unfolding a certain attitude across all epochs and changes of history and domains of thoughtmyth, religion, philosophy, art, poetry, mathematics where his main points of interest. His quite lapidary answer to the question “what is man” was this: man is “capable of form.”  The political myth as a dangerous sphere of political thought since Cesare Borgia, he wanted to overcome via “ culture“ as part of his conceptualization of symbolism too.Whereas Heidegger saw man as the “lieutenant of the nothing.” Shortly after the Davos gathering Heidegger wrote „“We are so finite that we cannot even bring ourselves originally before the nothing through our own decision and will…. Our most proper and deepest finitude refuses to yield to our freedom.“ In his reading of Kant, Heidegger does not yet abandon Kant fully, but claimed that it was his reading of Kant, which shows what Kant truly wanted to say. Whereas Cassirer tried to show that Kant’s thinking and writing clashed with Heidegger’s readings and interpretation. And it is the certain momentum where Heidegger leaves the cultural and philosophical tradition, where he leaves the argument and goes for violence: In order to wring from what the words say, what it is they want to say, every interpretation must necessarily use violence.” He finishes his lecture with the announcement that it will be violence,  and violence alone, which destroys the Western hemisphere and its cultural values. Obviously a world, where maths teacher are the betters authors and philosopher’s become head of a university, because violence leaves all the dreams behind. But in the end, everything was destroyed, Ernst Cassirer left Germany soon for England, Sweden and the US, Heidegger became one of the many men and women who played with violence till the violence played back, Davos is no longer a cultural sphere but one of the many Alpine holiday resorts. But till today, some people still remember Emmanuel Lévinas, who dressed up as Ernst Cassirer, with white dyed hair, wandered through the streets of Davos, screaming: „Culture, Culture, Culture.“. This might be a long missing chapter in the well-known book of the adventurous Don Quijote and his companion Sancho Pansa.

 

 

 

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