Cassirer on Enlightenment in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences – Part III: Into the Archive

Last week was spring break at my university and, breaking with my usual custom of trying to find a warm climate in which to do research, I decided to stay home and make some headway on the pile of overdue articles and reviews that have been accumulating. I did, however, book one trip to the past (which, I hear, is a different country where they do things differently) and managed to spend several hours in the Dwight Macdonald papers at Yale University. My hope was to try to see if I could find out more about Macdonald’s November 1940 meeting with Theodor Adorno — the focus of a conference paper that I hope, at some point to turn into an article. There turned out to be quite a bit of material that helped to flesh out the antagonisms that were developing within the editorial board of Partisan Review at around the time that Macdonald informed Adorno that he would be willing to publish whatever Adorno could give him. Nothing resulted from the meeting and Adorno, in keeping with the Institute’s policy of keeping a low profile, demurred and headed off to Los Angeles to write Dialectic of Enlightenment. I’d hoped that I might be able to find out who accompanied Macdonald to the meeting (Adorno’s letter to Horkheimer reporting on the meeting mentions that Macdonald was accompanied by an “associate” but does not give his name), but — as it turned out — there were no smoking guns to be found.1

There were a couple of hours left between the close of Manuscripts and Archives (which houses the Macdonald papers) and the departure of the train that would take me back to the land of the bean and the cod. Because Yale libraries have different closing times, I was able to pay a brief visit to the Beinecke, which houses Ernst Cassirer’s papers and, during my time there, I was able to examine the holograph of his article on the Enlightenment for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, a text that I’ve discussed in two earlier posts.2 As I mentioned in the first of those posts, Hampshire College holds the papers for the Encyclopedia itself, including some of the correspondence files with authors. But the likelihood of learning much about Cassirer’s article has been diminished by a lacuna in the files that included correspondence with anyone whose last name begins with C. So, at least until I have some time to spend some time in the lovely Pioneer Valley (is this a great job or what?), the Yale holograph looked like my best chance to learn something more about this odd little text.

As was the case with the Macdonald papers, there were no earth-shattering discoveries here (e.g., no marginalia denouncing Heidegger as a “bootlicking Nazi swine”), but a cursory reading of the scans that I made during my frantic hour or so in the archive did help to narrow down the when the manuscript was written and also contained one surprise about Cassirer’s familiarity with the literature on the Enlightenment.

Regarding the Manuscript

Readers with long memories for arcane facts will recall that my interest in the article stems from the fact that it was completed not only prior to the publication of Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment, but also — as far as I could determine — prior to the summer that he spent in Paris doing research on the Enlightenment in the Bibliothèque Nationale. This means that his article in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences was not a précis of the book that he would publish in 1933 on the Enlightenment, but instead was written prior to immersion in French texts from the period. In the second of my two posts, I argued that the relatively early date of composition was reflected in the contrasting treatment of the philosophes in the two works: in contrast to Philosophy of the Enlightenment, French thinkers are noticeably absent from the Encyclopedia article. The Enlightenment presented in the Encyclopedia is largely an English and German affair and it appears to have taken place chiefly in the 17th and early 18th century. The Enlightenment that appears in the Philosophy of the Enlightenment is a Franco-German venture, though the English and Dutch play significant roles as well.

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

The manuscript in the Beinecke appears to have been Cassirer’s final draft, submitted to the editors for translation, copy-editing, and typesetting and then returned to him when they were finished with it (the volume itself appeared in the fall). There are a few minor corrections in the text itself, presumably made before Cassirer sent the text off, and they — like the rest of the manuscript are written in Cassirer’s clear and legible handwriting (here, clearly, is a world we have lost: my handwriting looks like the scrawls of a child, minus the charm). This appears to be the only copy of the work among the Cassirer papers. We can assume that he reviewed the copyedited version and, perhaps, corrected the final proofs. One hopes that he was compensated for his labors with a copy of the Encyclopedia itself, but this is the only copy of the text that is preserved in his papers. It is not unique in that regard. Box 37 also contains holographs of a number of his more famous articles. It would appear that the copies of his writings that he preserved were the ones that were written in his own hand.

An cursory comparison of the German holograph and the English text indicates that there were some changes made in the text during the editing process. Cassirer’s manuscript provided topic headers for the different sections of the article, a practice that the Encyclopedia adopted in certain of its longer articles, but did not follow here. The introductory section of the text also appears to have been pared down a bit. It is possible that other cuts were made, but — since I have other things that need to be done — I’m not inclined to do the work necessary to find out. But a causal reading didn’t turn up any significant changes: the editors seem to have been satisfied with what they got.

The Date of its Composition

I was able to shed some light on my chief concern — the date of the composition of the manuscript — even before looking at the manuscript. Cassirer kept the envelope that was used to return the manuscript to him and that envelope was preserved by the archivists who processed his papers after his death. The envelope, which was sent from the Encyclopedia‘s office in Fayerweather Hall at Columbia University, was postmarked “July 3, 1931” and mailed to Cassirer at the “Chalet Palü” in the Alpine resort of Pontresina, Switzerland, where it would appear the Cassirers were — as they said in a more leisurely age — “summering.”3


Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

While the envelope tells us when the editors returned Cassirer’s manuscript to him, it still leaves us in the dark as to when he sent it off to them.  It seems reasonable, though, to conjecture that — since it would have to have been translated into English prior to copy-editing — it is unlikely that Cassirer could have sent it off to New York any later than May or June of 1931. Of course, there’s nothing to rule out his having submitted the article considerably earlier than this;  my main interest here is to clarify what was the latest possible date that he could have written the article.   So, even we assume the latest possible submission of the article (and the quickest possible processing of it) this much is certain: Cassirer could only have written the article prior to beginning his work in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Bibliographical Matters

There was one significant surprise in Cassirer’s text: he was responsible for the bibliography that appears in the printed edition. I’d assumed that it must have been prepared by the editors since it contains a book that I found it unlikely he would have known: John Grier Hibben’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1910).

Hibben’s book has intrigued me for some time: it was the first book on the period published in English to include the term “the Enlightenment” in its title and, more generally, the first book in English to treat “the Enlightenment” as something worthy of serious study. Up until that point, English commentators had, for the most part, been content to make unpleasant noises about something called “the Illumination.”

Hibben was a member of the philosophy faculty at Princeton at the time that he wrote the book (he later succeeded Woodrow Wilson as President of the university). He had spent some time studying in Germany and his book was Hegelian in its approach. (So, in a sense was Cassirer’s, though it wore its Hegelianism somewhat less conspicuously). Since it seemed unlikely that Cassirer would have been familiar with an English language study of the Enlightenment by a not particularly famous American philosopher, I assumed that the bibliography for his article was cobbled together by the editors of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, perhaps with some input from Cassirer regarding German sources. That supposition was reinforced by the presence of a number of other English texts in the bibliography.4 But it is clear from the holograph that it was Cassirer who compiled the bibliography, which means that the author of Die Philosophie der Aufklärung was acquainted with The Philosophy of the Enlightenment.

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

While it would have been hard for Cassirer not to be aware of the similarity between the title for the book he went on to write and the title of the book Hibben had already written, we should be cautious about making too much of this. For, while Cassirer initially signed a contract to deliver a book entitled Die Philosophie der Aufklärung, once he began work on it, he began to have second thoughts. As Gerald Harung notes in his helpful introduction to the 1998 reprint of the German text, Cassirer informed the philosopher Fritz Medicus (the editor of the series in which the book would appear) that the proposed title did not quite match up with what he found himself writing, which “was concerned not so much with the evolution of individual philosophical systems as with the general movement of ideas.” As an alternative, he proposed that the book appear as Ideengeschichte der Aufklärungszeit [History of Ideas of the Age of Enlightenment]. But he left the decision about the title up to the publisher Paul Siebeck who, in the interest of maintaining consistency in the titles of books in the series, opted to remain with the contracted title.5


  1. For a general discussion of the relationship of members of the Institute for Social Research with the “New York Intellectuals,” see Thomas Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). 
  2. The manuscript can be found in the Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706.  For my earlier posts discussing the text and its origins, see Part 1 and Part 2.
  3. Something called the Chalet Palü still exists in Pontresina.  The one Kant scholar I know who is also a skier informs me that the chalet was likely named after Piz Palü, a 12,800 foot Alpione peak in the Bernina Range, between Switzerland and Italy.  The Wikipedia informs me that the name “Palü” derives from the Latin palus, or “swamp”, which means that the mountain takes its name from the Alpe Palü, a high pasture 4 km to its east (and, I suppose, yet another place to “research”). My informant also notes that the town of Pontresina (or Puntraschigna, depending on who is occupying the territory at the moment) is “(allegedly) a corruption of Pons Sarasina, referring to the Saracen invasion of the tenth century). Some people know a lot of stuff. It’s good to know them.
  4. In addition to Hibben, the bibliography contains a number of other English texts, including W. E. H. Lecky’s two-volume History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Nationalism in Europe (1910), Kingsley Martin, French Liberal Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1929), Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1902).
  5. Ernst Cassirer, Die Philosophie der Aufklärung, Philosophische Bibliothek ; Bd. 513 (Hamburg: F. Meiner Verlag, 1998) x*.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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1 Response to Cassirer on Enlightenment in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences – Part III: Into the Archive

  1. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Week of March 16 | JHIBlog

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