Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School
by Emily Levine

Reviewed by Carston Johannsen


Published by University of Chicago Press, 2013   |   464 pages pages

Berlin, Frankfurt, Freiburg, Marburg, Munich, Vienna. All have had their praises sung as cultural and intellectual centers of the twentieth-century German-speaking world. Hamburg—has not. Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) was at Freiburg; Theodor Adorno (1903 – 1969) was in Frankfurt; everyone was in Berlin or Munich at one time or another. Hamburg, however, lacked a university until 1919. The Johanneum, its greatest Gymnasium (college preparatory school), did not offer Greek. Certainly, there had been Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856). But that nineteenth-century poet’s connections to the Hanseatic city were nepotistic and material; he needed work and income, and his rich uncle and publisher were headquartered there. He lived his poetic life in Paris. Hamburg, Heine mused, was ruled not by MacBeth, but “Banko.” Indeed, through the final decades of the nineteenth century, Hamburg was viewed as little more than a commercial city of trade and banking. It was, in short, a city of philistines. So it was, until, during the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, a small coterie of intellectual and cultural figures succeeded into transforming Hamburg, however briefly, into one of the cultural capitals of Europe. Emily Levine’s Dreamland of Humanists is an intellectual history of this important, and underappreciated, place and time.

This transformation began with Aby Warburg (1866 – 1929). Warburg was the Hamburg born, eccentric scion of a wealthy Jewish banking family. As a young man, Warburg rebelled against the inherited responsibilities of eldest sons in banking – attending university, an apprenticeship in banking at a rival financial institution, a return to the family banking fold – choosing instead to study art history. His family wealth made possible grand tours and exotic purchases for his personal library. He travelled widely, published occasionally, and gave sporadic lectures, never holding a formal academic position yet gradually achieving the status of eminent if unchaired art historian. It was his life’s work to transform Hamburg into a center of culture and learning. Despite a nervous condition that drove him to sanatoriums on a number of occasions, he established the Warburg Library – consisting of, originally, his florid book collection – and, with a handful of wealthy Hamburgers, founded the University of Hamburg, to which he drew two top talents: Ernst Cassirer and Erwin Panofsky.

In his own work, Warburg devoted his considerable intellectual and material resources to puzzling out the uneasy and unstable relationships between symbolic representation, meaning, and the “visceral experience of life.” What rules governed the dynamic between so-called primary experience and its representation in art? What is the “fate” of symbols when their contexts fade over time? What is left of an experience after its meanings are articulated and fixed in a text or a painting? What is, he inquired, the “afterlife of antiquity” (Nachleben der Antike)? The Nachleben concept serves also as a central irony of Dreamland of Humanists. Who, after all, talks of “symbols” these days? Why study the intellectuals of the past? What “presence” is left in the books of the histories of lost ideas?

Ernst Cassirer (1874 – 1945), one of Warburg’s star recruits, was a Jewish philosopher and intellectual historian who investigated the ways – both rational and otherwise – in which we comprehend the world. In philosophical language, this is a question of epistemology. Traditionally, aesthetic experience had been widely disregarded as misleading (Plato), irrational, or wholly subordinate to reason; Cassirer granted it a status equivalent to other forms of human knowing. In his philosophy of symbolic forms, “aesthetic expression could constitute a valid articulation of the world.” More specifically, working from Warburg’s library, Cassirer challenged the dominant philosophical influence of Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) and Hermann Cohen, the preeminent neo-Kantian of his era. Kant and Cohen were Idealists who argued that thought determines our experience of the world. Cassirer developed his own philosophy in opposition to them, arguing that they failed to recognize the possibility of a plurality of experiences as sources of truth. Inspired by German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s (1646 – 1716) pluralism, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) efforts to “elevate personal subjectivity from banal human expression to sacred experience,” Cassirer added a spiritual dimension to neo-Kantian critique. He sought a more inclusive notion of human experience, distilled in the symbol or myth, in his studies, and in doing so opened new possibilities in the interpretation of aesthetic experience.

Erwin Panofsky (1892 – 1968), the other major Jewish intellectual brought by Warburg to the new university, applied Cassirer’s (philosophical) epistemological analysis to iconology – the interpretive method developed by Warburg for the investigation of the cultural, social and historical contexts of symbols within the visual arts. Iconology, Panofsky argued, reveals “the true meaning of a work of art [that] lies behind its formal properties.” From his post-WWII position in the United States at the Advanced Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, Panofsky exerted a vast influence over the growth and direction of the discipline of art history in North America.

In telling the story of Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and of the rise of Hamburg to a prominent place in the twentieth century history of ideas, Levine provides ample background on the historical circumstances that aligned to make their revolution possible. Indeed, before Warburg’s interventions, the necessary conditions were in already in place that made possible Hamburg’s cultural renaissance. As a German capital of both international banking and finance and maritime trade, Hamburg brimmed with foreigners and foreign capital. Although it may have been, in the years before Warburg, a cultural backwater, it was nevertheless a cosmopolitan backwater. Indeed, it was precisely its peripheral status that made it possible for the Jewish scholar Cassirer to serve its young university as rector in the 1920s and early 30s, a period during which the circumstances for Jewish scholars across Europe were rapidly deteriorating.

The heart of Hamburg’s intellectual renaissance was the Warburg library. The organization of the library’s collections is fascinating in its own right, particularly as an emblem of the architecture of the intellect. Warburg began the collection, so the story goes, by abdicating his banking duties to his brothers – so long as they would buy him books. Over the following decades his brothers’ support would be crucial to his acquisition of thousands of manuscripts, and, later, the endowment of a library building sufficient to store and organize them. By the time of his death, Warburg had amassed a collection of some 80,000 volumes. The library’s reading room was constructed in the unusual shape of an ellipse, an oval with “doubled focal points,” central to the history of ideas due to the astronomer Johannes Kepler’s (1571 – 1630) discovery that the planets trace out ellipses as they orbit the sun. Kepler was an intellectual hero of both Warburg’s and Cassirer’s, and the two interrelated focal points of the ellipse were analogous, in Warburg’s thinking, to the connection of the soul and the mind.

The Warburg library has faced grave existential threats over the years. It was almost lost to the Nazis after their seizure of power. Through a series of complicated legal maneuvers (including proving it legally belonged to the New York branch of the Warburg family) the library was packed up and shipped to London in 1933. In 1944, it was legally bound as a special unit to the University of London. The library, known officially as the Warburg Institute, was recently threatened with closure over untenable rises in costs charged by the university for its administration (today it has over 350,000 items). It took a November 2015 court decision to force the University to provide the necessary funding to maintain the library and keep it in its current London location. The ruling hinged upon a single sheet of wartime paper, a November 1944 trust deed signed by an American major belonging to the Warburg family and the University.

The decline of the Hamburg school can be traced to a debate that occurred at Davos in 1929 between Cassirer and the Heidegger. The debate is regarded as pivotal among intellectual historians. Two years after the publication of his Being and Time, Heidegger – who proclaimed his intent to destroy the Western metaphysical tradition – was the reigning dean of German philosophy. Cassirer, who had sought to expand Idealism to incorporate symbols and the irrational, seemed at the time part of a dying humanist tradition that held humanity still had the power and spiritual resources to grapple with life. The influence of Heidegger, a critic of Enlightenment optimism who insisted humanity lacked direct control over its fate, had only just begun to be felt. Within four years, the Nazis were ascendant, and the institutional basis of the Hamburg school disappeared. Warburg died just six months after Davos, and Cassirer and Panofsky fled Germany. Heidegger, meanwhile, joined the Nazi party, and within a decade, Europe was at war. In the decades that followed the influence of the Hamburg School of Warburg, Cassirer and Panofsky dwindled, and Hamburg was again reduced to a footnote in the cultural history of German intellectual life.

With Dreamland of Humanists Levine has contributed a major volume to the project of reestablishing the intellectual significance of Warburg, Cassirer, and Panofsky for twentieth century humanist thought, and the cultural transformation of the city that sustained them.

Carston Johannsen is a PhD candidate working on turn of the century Viennese Romanticism at Washington University in St. Louis.

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