Obverse, edge and reverse of an archaic Babylonian bookkeeping record (ca. 3200-3000 BCE).

Obverse, edge and reverse of an archaic Babylonian bookkeeping record (ca. 3200-3000 BCE).Source: Damerow, P. (2012). The Origins of Writing and Arithmetic. In: The Globalization of Knowledge in History. Berlin: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften. DOI: 10.34663/9783945561232-10 (CC)

What role do abstract concepts play in experience, and how are they established? These are central questions of my project, which investigates the transformation of the concept of abstraction and its roots in premodern science and philosophy. By exploring abstraction as a means of establishing higher-order concepts, the study aims to understand the process of abstraction and abstraction’s claims to universality.

I begin from the work of Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945), whose problem-oriented studies integrated the history of philosophy and science starting from the Renaissance. Cassirer identified a long-term tendency for scientific thought to move from concepts of substance to concepts of function, from a logic of things to a logic of relations, and argued that this resulted in a crucial change in ways of understanding abstraction and concept formation. My project analyzes the historical and more general implications of Cassirer’s thesis and contextualizes it within the tradition of “scientific philosophy.” Despite sharing a similar ethos, Cassirer differed from Logical Empiricism in his emphasis on the pluralism of forms of experience.

Elaborating Cassirer’s approach in terms of a theory of forms, my project contributes to the historical epistemology of abstraction first proposed by Peter Damerow (1939–2011), spanning from ancient conceptions to current developments in AI modelling.

A second aim of the project is to publish an edition of texts by Yehuda Elkana and John M. Krois, who engaged with Cassirer’s work as a revised understanding of the Enlightenment agenda. The two aims of my project are connected by its metatheoretical focus on normative assumptions in historical accounts of experience and knowledge in science and philosophy.