Story Behind the Picture: The Davos Disputation

This photograph depicts Ernst Cassirer (left) and Martin Heidegger (right) at the Second Davos Hochschulkurs in Davos, Switzerland in 1929. The debate between Cassirer and Heidegger at this conference—the so-called “Davos Disputation”—is widely seen as a turning point for European philosophy, as well as an important moment in the history of the analytic/continental split.

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) was the most influential and creative member of the Marburg school of neo-Kantianism. Neo-Kantianism was a movement that dominated academic philosophy in Germany starting in the latter half of the 19th century. Their mission was to go “back to Kant.” But this doesn’t mean they uncritically adopted Kant’s doctrines; in the words of Wilhelm Windelband, “To understand Kant means to go beyond him.” Kant’s system had to be updated because of developments in logic, mathematics, and physics, which called into doubt the universality and necessity of the a priori structures of the mind Kant posited. The neo-Kantians also expanded the scope of Kant’s transcendental method to include not only the natural sciences (paradigmatically mathematical physics), but also “human sciences” like history. Cassirer’s early work showed how to update the Kantian project in light of advances in mathematical logic and physics (in particular, Einstein’s relativity theory and the old quantum theory). But his masterwork, the three-volume The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, transformed Kant’s critique of reason into a critique of culture. Through studies of language, myth, and modern science, Cassirer shows that the human being is an animal symbolicum: a creature that makes sense of its experience through the construction of symbols.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) rose to prominence for his masterpiece, Being and Time (1927). In this work Heidegger sets out to answer the question of the “meaning of being”—in short, the question of what it means to say that something is or exists. His attempt to answer this question weaves together elements of phenomenology (the movement founded by Heidegger’s mentor, Edmund Husserl), hermeneutics, and existentialism. To determine what it means to be, Heidegger investigates the entity whose being is an “issue” for it: human beings, who Heidegger refers to as “Dasein” (a play on the German word for existence). In Division I of the book, Heidegger studies Dasein in its everyday mode, navigating a meaningful “world” of tools and social roles. In Division II, he turns to the existentialist themes of authenticity and death. The ultimate claim of the book, which was left incomplete, is that the meaning of being is time.

Around the time of the Davos Disputation, Heidegger published Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. In that work, he argues that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is an attempt to ground metaphysics in the finitude of the human being. This was in sharp contrast to the neo-Kantian interpretation of Kant as an epistemologist. This disagreement set the ground for the debate between Cassirer and Heidegger. Yet the significance of their exchange goes far beyond this rather abstruse dispute over Kant interpretation.

First, the debate was significant for the subsequent trajectory of European philosophy. Those in attendance considered Heidegger the undisputed winner. Cassirer’s supposed defeat was seen as the final nail in the coffin for the neo-Kantian movement. The rather scholastic philosophy of the neo-Kantians was replaced by Heidegger’s existentialism, which spoke more directly to the struggle to find meaning of a generation that lived through the horrors of World War I.

Second, the debate had a broader political significance. Cassirer was an advocate for the short-lived Weimar Republic, the German constitutional republic that lasted from the fall of the imperial system in 1918 to the Nazi rise to power in 1933. The cosmopolitan Cassirer saw the Weimar Republic as a victory for the Enlightenment values of his heroes Kant and Goethe. In contrast, the conservative Heidegger infamously joined the Nazi party, served as the Nazi-appointed rector of the University of Freiburg, and never publicly apologized for his involvement with National Socialism. There is a continuing debate in Heidegger scholarship over whether Heidegger’s philosophy can be divorced from his contemptible political involvement and well-documented anti-semitism. Cassirer’s final, posthumous work The Myth of the State, on the other hand, is a critical analysis of the regression to mythical thinking in twentieth-century politics.

Third, the Nazi rise to power had an enormous impact on the philosophical landscape in Europe. Due to his Jewish heritage, Cassirer was forced to flee Germany. He spent time in the United Kingdom and Sweden before settling in the Untied States, where he died of a heart attack on Columbia’s campus in 1945. The logical empiricist Rudolf Carnap, who was in attendance at Davos, shared a similar fate, emigrating to the United States in 1935. As Michael Friedman argues, at the time of the Davos Disputation the divide between analytic and continental philosophy had not yet opened up. Neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, logical empiricism, and existentialism, despite differences in approach and conclusions, were engaged in productive conversations over a common stock of problems. After Davos, due to the dispersal of competing voices with the onset of World War II, Heidegger’s increasingly idiosyncratic approach to philosophy went virtually unchallenged in Europe. The hostility and incomprehension between analytic and continental philosophers that reigned for much of the twentieth century is typified by Carnap’s attack shortly after Davos on Heidegger’s phrase “the nothing nothings,” which Carnap condemns as a meaningless pseudo-statement. On the other hand, Friedman suggests that a return to Cassirer’s philosophy might constitute a middle path that reconciles the opposing factions of analytic and continental philosophy. It’s significant, then, that there has been a revival of interest in Cassirer and other neo-Kantian thinkers in recent years.

© James Kinkaid

Sources and further reading

Carnap, R. 1959. “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language.” In Logical Positivism, A.J. Ayer (ed.), 60-81. New York: The Free Press.
Cassirer, E. 1946. The Myth of the State. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Cassirer, E. 2021. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 1: Language. S.G. Lofts (trans.). New York: Routledge.
Cassirer, E. 2021. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 2: Mythical Thinking. S.G. Lofts (trans.). New York: Routledge.
Cassirer, E. 2021. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 3: The Phenomenology of Cognition. S.G. Lofts (trans.). New York: Routledge. 
Friedman, M. 2000. A Parting of the Ways. Chicago: Open Court.
Gordon, P. 2010. Continental Divide. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Heidegger, M. 1962. Being and Time. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson (trans.). Oxford: Blackwell.
Heidegger, M. 1997. Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. R. Taft (trans.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. *Includes a transcript of the Davos Disputation*


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