Volume 48, Issue 2, Summer 2018
Freedom and Culture
The Cassirerian and Confucian Account of Symbolic Formation
Through a key passage (Xici 2.2) from the Book of Changes, this paper shows that Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms shares similarities with the canonical account of symbolic formation in the Chinese tradition: the genesis of xiang (象), often translated as image or symbol. xiang became identified with the origins of culture/civilisation itself. In both cases, the world is understood as primordially (phenomenologically) meaningful; the expressiveness of the world requires a human subject to consummate it in a symbol, whilst the symbol in turn gives us access to higher orders of meaning. It is the self-conscious creation of the symbol that then allows for the higher forms of culture. For both the Xici and Cassirer, symbols and the symbolic consciousness that comes with it is the pre-condition for the freedom, ethics and the cultivation of agency. As for both the Xici and Cassirer, it is human agency that creates these symbols, it will be argued that the Xici is making a Cassirerian argument about the (ethical) relationship between human agency, symbols and ethics/freedom.