By Thomas Filbin
In his book, Wolfram Eilenberger has provided an absorbing view of a period in Western intellectual history that was committed to the new.
Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy by Wolfram Eilenberger. Penguin Press, 432 pages, $30.
If you took Philosophy 101 in college and were rather bored with the arcane mumblings of teachers who quoted Plato, Aquinas, and Kant on ideas such as “mind,” “soul,’ or “virtue,” put all that aside when you take up Wolfram Eilenberger’s new book on the origins of twentieth century thought. Philosophy has forgiven you for your understandable disinterest and wants you back.
Time of the Magicians takes place in the ’20s and covers the points of contact and interstices of the lives of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1898-1951), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). All are philosophers of the new moment in western thought, an era when language became the preoccupation of thinkers. This was a necessary restarting point. Centuries of debates that revolved around soul and virtue and mind and body had buckled under their own weight by the twentieth century. Realism and idealism, rationalism and empiricism, religious thought and atheism had absorbed the great minds of previous ages. But perhaps, asserted the spirit of the new age, these problems and others were rooted in the way we spoke of things, rather than in the things themselves. Language, which seems so simple, often bewitches, leading us to think in categories that take us further from reality.
But Eilenberger’s book is not a philosophical tome, rather a story of how this quartet engaged with one another and lived out their own chosen paths. In so doing, he has interwoven their lives into a novel of sorts. The narrative is structured via chapterettes within chapters, and these are given preview headings as enticing as those found in Victorian novels. Chapter II’s subtitle is “Dr. Benjamin flees his father, Lieutenant Wittgenstein commits financial suicide, Privatdozent Heidegger loses his faith, and Monsieur Cassirer works on his enlightenment in the streetcar.” Chapter III is titled “Languages 1919-1920” and begins with “Wittgenstein proves himself in the storm, Heidegger learns the whole truth, Cassirer seeks his form, and Benjamin translates God.”
The novelistic exposition of these primal figures of modern philosophy, at least of the Germanic tradition, humanizes the lives of thinkers whose written work can sometimes be austere, glacial, and even obscure. They had their passions and, except for Cassirer, were haunted by depressions not only personal, but existential. The period after the First World War was marked by their anguish at the destruction of the old Europe of harmonious culture. The spectacle of man’s inhumanity to man ruptured their innocence, traumatized their faith in history. Cassirer was almost of the previous generation, but the others came into their youth just as civilizations were falling apart. Their collective mission became to rebuild the way we thought about the human condition by re-inventing it. They were not bloodless, detached “brains in a vat,” but people filled with passions, fears, and at times an arrogance that came from imagining that the products of their thought could actually change the world.
Time of the Magicians, without grinding us down in detail, gives a snapshot of the creation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus, a treatise written in numbered and sub-numbered propositions about language, meaning, and our bedeviled quest to connect the two. He felt that our misunderstanding language was at the root of all our philosophical troubles. Once we have come to understand the boundaries of words — where meaning must end — philosophy becomes unnecessary. Wittgenstein analogized this argument by comparing philosophy to a ladder which, once it has helped us ascend to enlightenment, can be tossed away. It is valuable as a tool or a means to an end. Wittgenstein is often depicted as a solitary misanthrope, but his was a complex personality, a mix of brilliance, hostility, and kindness shaped by an eccentric temperament that both accepted and rejected his homosexuality. Wittgenstein gave away an immense inheritance so as not to be encumbered by it. He worked at various times as a primary school teacher, self-taught architect, gardener, and hospital orderly when he was not lecturing to students at Cambridge University. He was quite capable of biting the hand that fed him. He once described his doctoral examiner, philosopher G. E. Moore, as someone who “shows you how far a man can go who has absolutely no intelligence whatsoever.”
Heidegger comes off as the most arrogant of the quartet. The only non-Jew among its subjects, he was raised as a Catholic and from the beginning felt a sense of entitlement because of his intellect. He had the air of someone who had been told he was the smartest little boy in third grade and had never got over it. Heidegger’s primary obsession was with the concept of being. He defined the term “dasein,” which referred to human existence in the world, in his most important work, Being and Time. Many students find his writing murky and metaphysical in the worst sense; it was once said that Heidegger is untranslatable — even into German. He accepted Hitler with enthusiasm; he was Nazi party friendly enough to be made Rector of the University of Freiburg. The old southern aphorism notes that “No man is a segregationist after sundown.” Apparently, Heidegger was not enough of a virulent anti-Semite to reject his student Hannah Arendt as a lover.
Walter Benjamin, frustrated in his attempts to secure a tenured university position, partly because he never completed his post-doctoral dissertation, turned to journalism and cultural criticism. In fact, he is better known today for his The Arcades Project, unfinished at the time of his death, but later edited and published in English by Harvard University Press. The volume is the product of a “flaneur extraordinaire,” an imaginative examination of architecture, culture, and the human predicament. Seeing and understanding — rather than merely looking — was Benjamin’s seminal passion. Psychologically, Benjamin was troubled, often depressed and frustratingly incapable of ordinary skills. He admitted, according to Eilenberger, to being “incapable of ‘making a cup of tea’ (for which he naturally blamed his mother).” His first marriage to Dora fell into peril after he fell in love with a Latvian theater director, Asja Lacis, and moved in with her until she evicted him, sending him back to his parents’ house where Dora waited for him with their young son. He struggled thereafter, suffering a breakdown, and Eilenberger notes that he “was a one-man Weimar,” as troubled and conflicted as his country.
Ernst Cassirer was the most stable personality of the four and perhaps the least well known today. His Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is his most prominent work. He was a neo-Kantian and Eilenberger opens his book with the story of a notorious debate between Cassirer and Heidegger over Kant at a conference in Davos, Switzerland in 1929. (As a side note, the annual World Economic Forum conference is now held at Davos, but not to my knowledge any philosophical conventions. Ah, the times we live in; money talks, philosophy walks.) The debate was amicable by all accounts, but it created some inter-familial rivalry that Heidegger never let go of. Cassirer came from a well-to-do assimilated Jewish family who never thought of themselves as un-German until the Nazis came to power. Stripped of his university position, he traveled to England and taught at Oxford, then moved to Sweden, and finally to New York and Columbia. He died in April, 1945 — just weeks before the fall of Germany and the death of Hitler.
Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians is a perceptive examination of the professional and personal trials and successes of four men who, eschewing ordinary occupations, sought to make a life’s work out of understanding and interpreting what we call reality and our ways of speaking about it. He argues that Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Benjamin, and Cassirer were engaged in “…the search for the one language underlying all human speech…. It is the language of God. We cannot say or deduce this in our own language, but it shows itself in certain configurations in the use of language…”.
Taking on a subject as thorny as philosophy, with an emphasis on the lives of the philosophers, calls for crafting a story that, while it must stick to the facts, must be told in style that is informal enough to captivate, but not so simplistic as to lose track of the ideas at stake. Eilenberger succeeds splendidly, and by so doing has cleared away decades of obfuscation to provide an absorbing view of a period in Western intellectual history that was committed to the new.
Thomas Filbin’s reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Boston Sunday Globe, and The Hudson Review.