The Crisis of German Philosophy

Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians is an international bestseller, translated into more than twenty languages. This is a remarkable achievement for a book discussing the lives of four German-language philosophers in the decade 1919-1929. It is all the more remarkable in that though two of the thinkers are well-known—Heidegger and Wittgenstein—the other two are hardly household names, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin.

The book has a coming-of-age plot and the setting is the doomed Weimar Republic. Eilenberger traces how the philosophers fared from the end of World War I to the emergence of National Socialism, dipping into their love lives, publication travails, and ambitions for academic rank. The four distinctive thinkers were not friends and they seldom (if ever) met. Two of the four, Cassirer and Benjamin were Jews, whilst Heidegger and Wittgenstein were brought up in Catholic families. For the book’s structure, Cassirer represents establishment, Wittgenstein otherworldliness, Benjamin the outsider, and Heidegger ambition.

Time of the Magicians barrels along and every few pages the focus switches from one thinker to another. This method permits vignettes of each theorist from every year of the decade. It cunningly allows the philosophers to “meet,” even though only Cassirer and Heidegger ever did so. The  book begins and ends with a gathering of the philosophical glitterati of the age. The meeting happened at Davos in 1929. The title of the book is a play on The Magic Mountain, an ideas-driven novel by the German writer Thomas Mann, which he set in Davos before the Great War. The highlight of Davos was a debate between the great establishment figure of German philosophy, Cassirer, and the young, intellectual force of nature, Heidegger. Eilenberger presents the back-and-forth of the debate as like the rounds of a boxing match. 

Like lots of highly touted sports events, where the game is a bit of a dud in the end, the big intellectual match-up passed inconclusively, with respect on both sides. Cassirer was a man of enormous learning and intellectual sophistication and held his own ably against the young pretender. It did not really matter, for the energy of the room was all with Heidegger. The debate at Davos marked the passing of the Old Guard. Though the energy Heidegger was channeling wrought ruin on Germany, and the world, his brand of existential phenomenology still shapes European philosophy. Today, almost no one studies Cassirer or his neo-Kantianism, the establishment thinking of the Weimar Republic.

Commanding Genius

Crisis in the offing, you might expect philosophers to be thinking about politics and law, but mostly our four theorists were concerned with language. There is no more legendary figure in modern philosophy than Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus had been penned in the trenches. He joined the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914 and was decorated many times for conspicuous bravery. Born into one of Europe’s richest families, he gave his inheritance worth hundreds of millions in today’s dollars to his siblings, and tried his hand at many vocations: engineer, soldier, architect, primary school teacher, monk, but, in a deeply troubled life, it was philosophy that took.

Although he was Austrian and primarily wrote in German, Wittgenstein set the trajectory of Anglo-American philosophy for most of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein left for the war without having completed his undergraduate studies. He was not simply a brilliant student at Cambridge, he dazzled and enthralled. He asked Lords Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes to put the Tractatus forward to the university as evidence that he qualified for an undergraduate degree. Neither claimed to understand the book but they also had no doubt it was a work of genius. Perhaps a comfort to all who have tried to publish, the Tractatus was rejected by countless presses and it took all of Russell’s prestige to get the book in print. Its publication was a sensation across Europe.

The Tractatus probes the boundaries of intelligible speech and in doing so points to a silence where, Wittgenstein was sure, righteousness and salvation resided. Keynes reports himself that Wittgenstein scolded him for his lack of reverence. In Cambridge, he was nick-named GOD and in Vienna an unlikely reading group was besotted with his thinking. This reading group, called the Vienna Circle, gathered the most hard-nosed and scorched-earth rationalists imaginable around the brilliant Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap. Advocates of logical positivism—a hyper reductive philosophy arguing that the only meaningful propositions are those able to be verified and measured—they found Wittgenstein’s spartan writing electrifying and went over his compressed sentences again and again. The Vienna Circle sought out Wittgenstein to explain his thinking.

Wittgenstein seems to have regarded the book as therapy for the malaise gripping the West—he was, in fact, very taken with the “talking cure” of psychoanalysis—and found the Vienna Circle’s approach to the Tractatus exasperating. Part of the problem was that in the years after the Great War, Wittgenstein’s thinking had moved on, radically. His second classic work would be published posthumously, and it offered something entirely different. Gone was the stripped-down, Bauhaus-style of writing: language, he argued, is best approached as play and a game. “Large parts,” of the Philosophical Investigations (1953), summarizes Eilenberger, “consist of an endless game of question-and-answer between a philosopher and an imaginary, inner child.” The Tractatus reinvented philosophy in the first half of the century, Philosophical Investigations reinvented it afresh in the second. 

An Outsider’s Plight

Apart from Cassirer, an older man who could not serve in the war on account of a skin condition, Time of the Magicians is about young men coming-of-age in the shadow of a cataclysmic war. Russell said that Wittgenstein came back from the war a mystic, but Heidegger and Benjamin were hell bent on trying to get on in the world. The saddest of the stories is Benjamin’s. Hyper-intellectual, hopelessly indecisive, and haunted by depression, Benjamin lived an itinerant life, mostly poor, but recklessly spending what money did come in. His fame started to grow only towards the end of the ‘20s, so he mostly figures in the narrative as a man rejected by lovers and spurned by the academy. However, his brand of postliberalism is now very much in fashion and the 2020s are likely to be kinder to him than the 1920s. He committed suicide in 1940, believing the Nazis were about to capture him.

Benjamin was an outsider because it was clear to all that he was a draft dodger. In an age of universal sacrifice, those who had not served were looked down upon and the doors of the universities remained resolutely closed to him. He was forced to pick up newspaper work as a literary critic and translator. He kept writing all the time, but his substantive pieces were rejected by publishers as incomprehensible. There is now a cult around these writings.

As the decade went on, Benjamin hit upon a magazine-style of writing and towards the end of the ’20s his efforts started to pay off, in fame and money. By 1929, he was highly esteemed and penning his hefty Arcades Project. Ultimately, a critical assessment of consumer capitalism, the book is a meditation on the shopping arcades of Paris. He viewed the iron, glass, and mirrors encasing and reflecting the goods for sale a display of falsehood. This theme of commercial vanity purposefully clashed with his earliest work on language as a display of objective truth, God’s truth, in fact. He was now running in leftist circles and he first read portions of Arcades aloud vacationing with Adorno and Horkheimer. These readings are venerated as the founding event of the Frankfurt School, a school of thinking that is critical of capitalism and Marxism that has dominated much leftist thinking since World War II.

If, today, Wittgenstein has ceded ground to David Hume as the engine of Anglo-American philosophy, and Heidegger’s legacy is firmly in French philosophical hands, Time of the Magicians reminds us of the range and intensity of the German intellectual tradition lost in World War II.

Benjamin is not easy to categorize, however. When he committed suicide, he was travelling with barely any possessions—unsurprisingly—but inside his suitcase was a manuscript on the philosophy of history which reads to some as an evisceration of Marxism. When Adorno published the collected correspondence of Benjamin, he chose to omit a letter written in 1930 to Carl Schmitt. There, Benjamin thanks Schmitt for his pronounced influence upon his thinking. Schmitt has been dubbed by many the Crown Jurist of the Third Reich. A connecting thread is their shared postliberalism, and of the four philosophers starring in Time of the Magicians, Benjamin likely offers the sternest test of classical liberalism. 

The Mystery of Being

Eilenberger does not like Heidegger. He relays Hannah Arendt’s quip that Heidegger did not have a bad character, just none at all. Eilenberger argues that Heidegger used people towards a “sacred end,” the best material conditions for the development of his thinking. He hints that Heidegger wrangled a cushy assignment away from the trenches and in a most reprehensible way: manning a meteorological unit for the timing of gas attacks. He is completely fair, however, in describing Being and Time, published in 1927, as a rocket, the product of “one of the great bursts of creativity in the history of philosophy.”

He notes that Heidegger introduced fresh language into philosophy: Dasein, environment, being-in-the-world, each-one-ness, concern, equipment. Rejecting the stock vocabulary of individual, self, person, or subject, Heidegger coined Dasein (being there) to convey a sense of human experience where consciousness and objects do not link so much as emerge together from an ever-elusive opening of reality. Language itself is birthed in this opening. Language cannot offer insight into God, as Benjamin thought, therefore, because language is utterly historical and particular to the concrete experience of Dasein

Eilenberger consistently offers an individualist reading of Dasein: “Heidegger’s appeal to authenticity and hence to self-discovery is thus based on a pervasive asociality of Dasein.” This is hotly contested, however. The Russian conservative theorist Alexsandr Dugin takes Dasein to be an ethnos, persons enveloped by reality opening as a civilization. It is the latter interpretation that best explains language and how Heidegger ends up cautioning students: “Let not theoretical principles and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your Being. The Führer himself and he alone is the German reality and its law today and in the future” (emphasis in the original). 

The Reality of Myth

Cassirer contrasts markedly with the others. A learned man, he was quite at peace domestically and professionally. At the time, establishment philosophy in Germany was devoted to Germany’s greatest philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Cassirer’s neo-Kantianism was hitched to the positivism of Comte. With Kant, Cassirer celebrates persons “as creative shapers of our own access to the world” and, like Comte, adopted a progressive philosophy of history.

His master-work was the three volume, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-29). Sponsored by the Warburg Library—the massive, eclectic, private collection of one of Europe’s wealthiest men, Abraham Warburg—Cassirer argued that myths, with their rituals and taboos, are the original symbolic forms, but the mind attains “its true and complete inwardness,” its liberty and dignity, by abstracting higher, scientific forms, shaping the laws of scientific rationality. Language itself is a product of the abstraction: “language never denotes simply objects, things as such, but always conceptions arising from the autonomous activity of the mind.”

Invited to deliver a public address on the value of the Weimar Constitution on its tenth anniversary, Cassirer invoked the humanism of Leibniz, Kant, and Goethe. How nice it would have been if the mild world of Cassirer had endured. For all his intelligence, in Eilenberger’s telling, it was his wife, Toni, who saw clearly that her husband’s time in Germany was over. Ultimately landing in the States, Cassirer finished his career at Columbia. In a review of Cassirer’s work, Eric Voegelin acknowledges the erudition, but is also blunt that Cassirer’s confidence in the progress of inwardness blinded many to the potency of myth inside the modern mind. 

Time of the Magicians is intellectual history written with a gentle hand. It even includes photographs that offer a good sense of the characters and times. The book’s principle of selection is a bit enigmatic. Profiles of Schmitt, Strauss, Arendt, and Voegelin—all came of age in the same German decade and remain influential—might better convey thinking in a time of crisis. If, today, Wittgenstein has ceded ground to David Hume as the engine of Anglo-American philosophy, and Heidegger’s legacy is firmly in French philosophical hands, Time of the Magicians reminds us of the range and intensity of the German intellectual tradition lost in World War II.