Ernst Cassirer’s chapter in An Essay on Man, “The Crisis of Man’s Knowledge of Himself,” is focused on exploring a fundamental question: What is man? The first answer he produces is this: Man is, in the classical sense, is a being that is in search of itself (5). He divides human knowledge into four paradigms, four different ways of understanding self-knowledge: Biology, Religion, Mathematics and Philosophy. I am looking at two of these paradigms of understanding, Religion and Science. These two paradigms are traditionally painted as opposites; they are in tension because they seem to provide dissenting views of the world and human nature. The fact that there are four different paradigms indicates that any one of them is insufficient in describing the human experience by itself. Religion and science, then, represent two essential aspects of self-knowledge.
Regarding human nature, mankind is caught between “being and nonbeing,” meaning that he cannot be defined with simply one idea or theory; humans are contradictory and imperious to definitnion. Religion is, Cassirer says, the “only one approach to human nature” (11-12). Perhaps he says this because of religion’s ability to account for man’s complexity– religion, in many cases, dictates how man should live; but it also places man at the center of his universe. It “shows us that there is a double man — the man before and after the fall,” with “the fall” being understood as the traditional idea of sin (12). Like humans, religion is not rational or easy to understand. It is simply an account, a story of mankind’s fall from grace. Its intention is that of instruction: men are supposed to learn from what religion presents, not seek new understandings. Religion is an established account, and is meant to be stagnant.
In the 17th century, science, Cassirer says, enters into the question of human nature. Science extends the fundamental question to an empirical level, in which humans, as well as man’s surroundings, are sought to be understood through logic: “The quest is now for a general theory of man based on empirical observations and on general logical principles” (13). This new way of scientific thinking is far removed from the current religious and metaphysical ideas of that time; while religion relied on a hierarchy of existence, where man is placed at the top, science requires man to be at the same level as the rest of the cosmos, so as to understand him in relation to the world around him (13). As such, the new science necessitated a new cosmology. One view of the cosmos is described by Giordiano Bruno as an infinite universe that allows for the possibility of an infinite intellect, limitless (15). Though he is not a scientist, his idea of an infinite universe is shared by key thinkers such as Spinoza, Leibniz and Galileo. Leibniz’s calculus, for example, unlocked the possibility of knowing the physical universe, while Spinoza takes mathematics a step further, attempting to construct a moral theory through number (16). What seems to be lacking in science is a methodology for discovering new truths. This critique is supported by Diderot, who calls man’s rational and logical methods “highly overrated” (17). Indeed, Diderot foreshadows a stagnation of mathematics caused by the cessation of new ideas. If man is satisfied in his existing rational abilities and views his pre-existing “truths” as ideal ends, then it is impossible for new facts to be generated (17).
Mathematics is by nature speculative, based on theorems that attempt to describe the natural world without making observations of its order. Although it may be described as the language of God, it can only do so much to further scientific thought; in order to understand humans, and in turn, the universe, one must observe material existence as well as the invisible. Thus, Cassirer brings us to biology. Thanks to new gains in the theory of evolution in the 19th century, biology experienced a renewal of empirical evidence. The 19th century also gave rise to the metaphysical interpretation of the facts presented by the empirical methodology. A facet of this metaphysical interpretation is the rejection of a telos of evolution. That is, evolution is a process of changes that occur randomly, with no biological entity being higher or lower than any other (18).
The main difference between science and religion that Cassirer recognizes is the way in which the two paradigms seek to define humans. Religion is, according to him, entirely illogical, much like man himself. It is perhaps the best way of understanding human nature because it mimic’s mankind’s “chimerical being” (12). Religion is also based on pre-existing stories or accounts, and is thus meant to be interpreted and learned from, but not built upon through thinking. In this way, it differs from science. Although scientific thinking is not immune to dogmatic idealism, as Diderot has pointed out, it is more comfortable with expanding itself and adapting to new information. Methodologies allow the constant discovery of new facts, while the interpretation of these facts, which includes metaphysical interpretation, decides what understanding we can draw from them. Both of these paradigms are an incomplete account on their own; and even juxtaposed against one another, science and religion can still be called into question. Cassirer has shown that it is difficult, if not impossible, to reduce mankind to one paradigm of understanding. Questions like “What is man?” are inevitably bottomless, with no clear reachable end. As Cassirer says at the beginning of the chapter, man is defined by his desire to know. The act of searching does not necessarily imply an end goal exists, but the act itself defines what it means to be human.