Ernst Cassirer and Hannah Arendt both considered the question of “human nature” to be a modern aporia. Ernst Cassirer wrote in his An Essay on Man (1945) that ”Man has no ‘nature‘—no simple or homogeneous being. He is a strange mixture of being and nonbeing. His place is between these two opposite poles” (I.2, p. 13). Cassirer knew that “man may be described and defined only in terms of his consciousness” (I.1, p. 5), which led him to define the human being as “a symbolic animal” (II, p. 28), a meaning-making being that constructs meaning through symbolic forms like myth, religion, art, and history, which instantiate universal meaning in a system of sensory signs. Cassirer’s philosophical anthropology can therefore be understood as a semiotic approach to the aporia of human nature.
In The Human Condition (1958), Arendt also famously avoided any “misunderstanding” of her project as describing human nature by stating that “the human condition is not the same as human nature, and the sum total of human activities and capabilities which correspond to the human condition does not constitute anything like human nature” (I.1, pp. 9-10, emphasis mine). Arendt attempted to approach the aporia of human nature by investigating the fundamental conditions (natality, mortality, earth, life, worldiness, and plurality) and activities (labor, work, action) of human existence, and so her philosophical anthropology can thus be understood as a pragmatic approach to the aporia of human nature.
Both Arendt and Cassirer follow Augustine and Kant in conceiving human nature as an aporia. In the Confessions, Augustine described his Self as an immense query (magna quaestio)” (IV.iv.9). Our nature—who we are ultimately—is epistemologically off-limits for Augustine, and as Arendt pointed out in The Human Condition, “…if we have a nature or essence, then surely only a god could know and define it, and the first prerequisite would be that he be able to speak about a ‘who’ as though it were a ‘what’ (I.1, p. 10). Similarly,in the first Critique, Kant limited the epistemological description of the Self by saying, “…we cannot even say that this is a concept, but only that it is a bare consciousness which accompanies all concepts. Through this I or he or it (the thing) which thinks, nothing further is represented than a transcendental subject of the thoughts” (A346/B404). For Kant, any Self that is objectively known, is not a Self; the transcendental subject cannot be turned into an object because it would be akin to jumping over one’s own shadow.
The recent work of Ned Curthoys has made a compelling argument for Arendt’s intellectual engagement with Cassirer. Arendt and Cassirer shared a desire to rethink philosophical anthropology, and both took Kant as their modern starting point. What is especially interesting about the relationship between Arendt and Cassirer is their shared concern for human dignity. Both recognized in the wake of 20th century atrocities that human dignity needed to be thought anew in order to secure it politically, and recognized that this reconsideration would require rethinking philosophical anthropology in a new register.