This essay was originally published by Areo magazine on 4th November 2020.
When it comes to intellectual history, Central Europe in the decade of the 1920s presents a paradox. It was an era when revolutionary thought – original and iconoclastic ideas and modes of thinking – was not in fact revolutionary, but almost the norm. And the results are all around us today. The 1920s were the final flourish in a remarkable period of path-breaking activity in German-speaking Europe, one that laid many of the foundations for both analytic and continental philosophy, for psychology and sociology, and for several branches of legal philosophy and of theoretical science.
This creative ferment is partly what people grasp at when they refer to the “spirit” of the ’20s, especially in Germany’s Weimar Republic. But this doesn’t help us understand where that spirit came from, or how it draws together the various thinkers who, in hindsight, seem to be bursting out of their historical context rather than sharing it.
Wolfram Eilenberger attempts one solution to that problem in his new book, Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919-1929. He manages to weave together the ideas of four philosophers – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer – by showing how they emerged from those thinkers’ personal lives. We get colourful accounts of money troubles, love affairs, career struggles and mental breakdowns, each giving way to a discussion of the philosophical material. In this way, the personal and intellectual journeys of the four protagonists are linked in an expanding web of experiences and ideas.
This is a satisfying format. There’s just no denying the voyeuristic pleasure of peering into these characters’ private lives, whether it be Heidegger’s and Benjamin’s attempts to rationalise their adulterous tendencies, or the series of car crashes that was Wittgenstein’s social life. Besides, it’s always useful to be reminded that, with the exception of the genuinely upstanding Cassirer, these great thinkers were frequently selfish, delusional, hypocritical and insecure. Just like the rest of us then.
But entertaining as it is, Eilenberger’s biographical approach does not really cast much light on that riddle of the age: why was this such a propitious time for magicians? If anything, his portraits play into the romantic myth of the intellectual window-breaker as a congenital outsider and unusual genius – an ideal that was in no small part erected by this very generation. This is a shame because, as I’ll try to show later, these figures become still more engaging when considered not just as brilliant individuals, but also as products of their time.
First, it’s worth looking at how Eilenberger manages to draw parallels between the four philosophers’ ideas, for that is no mean feat. Inevitably this challenge makes his presentation selective and occasionally tendentious, but it also produces some imaginative insights.
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At first sight, Wittgenstein seems an awkward fit for this book, seeing as he did not produce any philosophy during the decade in question. His famous early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, claimed to have solved the problems of philosophy “on all essential points.” So we are left with the (admittedly fascinating) account of how he signed away his vast inheritance, trained as a primary school teacher, and moved through a series of remote Austrian towns becoming increasingly isolated and depressed.
But this does leave Eilenberger plenty of space to discuss the puzzling Tractatus. He points out, rightly, that Wittgenstein’s mission to establish once and for all what can meaningfully be said – that is, what kinds of statements actually make sense – was far more than an attempt to rid philosophy of metaphysical hokum (even if that was how his logical-empiricist fans in Cambridge and the Vienna Circle wanted to read the work).
Wittgenstein did declare that the only valid propositions were those of natural science, since these alone shared the same logical structure as empirical reality, and so could capture an existing or possible “state of affairs” in the world. But as Wittgenstein freely admitted, this meant the Tractatus itself was nonsense. Therefore its reader was encouraged to disregard the very claims which had established how to judge claims, to “throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.” Besides, it remained the case that “even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”
According to Eilenberger, who belongs to the “existentialist Wittgenstein” school, the Tractatus’ real goals were twofold. First, to save humanity from pointless conflict by clarifying what could be communicated with certainty. And second, to emphasise the degree to which our lives will always be plagued by ambiguity – by that which can only be “shown,” not said – and hence by decisions that must be taken on the basis of faith.
This reading allows Eilenberger to place Wittgenstein in dialogue with Heidegger and Benjamin. The latter both styled themselves as abrasive outsiders: Heidegger as the Black Forest peasant seeking to subvert academic philosophy from within, Benjamin as the struggling journalist and flaneur who, thanks to his erratic behaviour and idiosyncratic methods, never found an academic post. By the end of the ’20s, they had gravitated towards the political extremes, with Heidegger eventually joining the Nazi party and Benjamin flirting with Communism.
Like many intellectuals at this time, Heidegger and Benjamin were interested in the consequences of the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the 17th century, the revolutions of Galileo and Descartes, which had produced the characteristic dualism of modernity: the separation of the autonomous, thinking subject from a scientific reality governed by natural laws. Both presented this as an illusory and fallen state, in which the world had been stripped of authentic human purpose and significance.
Granted, Heidegger did not think such fine things were available to most of humanity anyway. As he argued in his masterpiece Being and Time, people tend to seek distraction in mundane tasks, social conventions and gossip. But it did bother him that philosophers had forgotten about “the question of the meaning of Being.” To ask this question was to realise that, before we come to do science or anything else, we are always already “thrown” into an existence we have neither chosen nor designed, and which we can only access through the meanings made available by language and by the looming horizon of our own mortality.
Likewise, Benjamin insisted language was not a means of communication or rational thought, but an aesthetic medium through which the world was revealed to us. In his work on German baroque theatre, he identified the arrival of modernity with a tragic distortion in that medium. Rather than a holistic existence in which in which everything had its proper name and meaning – an existence that, for Benjamin, was intimately connected with the religious temporality of awaiting salvation – the very process of understanding had become arbitrary and reified, so that any given symbol might as well stand for any given thing.
As Eilenberger details, both Heidegger and Benjamin found some redemption in the idea of decision – a fleeting moment when the superficial autonomy of everyday choices gave way to an all-embracing realisation of purpose and fate. Benjamin identified such potential in love and, on a collective and political level, in the “profane illuminations” of the metropolis, where the alienation of the modern subject was most profound. For Heidegger, only a stark confrontation with death could produce a truly “authentic” decision. (This too had political implications, which Eilenberger avoids: Heidegger saw the “possibilities” glimpsed in these moments as handed down by tradition to each generation, leaving the door open to a reactionary idea of authenticity as something a community discovers in its past).
If Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Benjamin were outsiders and “conceptual wrecking balls,” Ernst Cassirer cuts a very different figure. His inclusion in this book is the latest sign of an extraordinary revival in his reputation over the past fifteen years or so. That said, some of Eilenberger’s remarks suggest Cassirer has not entirely shaken off the earlier judgment, that he was merely “an intellectual bureaucrat,” “a thoroughly decent man and thinker, but not a great one.”
Cassirer was the last major figure in the Neo-Kantian tradition, which had dominated German academic philosophy from the mid-19th century until around 1910. At this point, it grew unfashionable for its associations with scientific positivism and naïve notions of rationality and progress (not to mention the presence of prominent Jewish scholars like Cassirer within its ranks). The coup de grâce was delivered by Heidegger himself at the famous 1929 “Davos debate” with Cassirer, the event which opens and closes Eilenberger’s book. Here contemporaries portrayed Cassirer as an embodiment of “the old thinking” that was being swept away.
That judgment was not entirely accurate. It’s true that Cassirer was an intellectual in the mould of 19th century Central European liberalism, committed to human progress and individual freedom, devoted to science, culture and the achievements of German classicism. Not incidentally, he was the only one of our four thinkers to wholeheartedly defend Germany’s Weimar democracy. But he was also an imaginative, versatile and unbelievably prolific philosopher.
Cassirer’s three-volume project of the 1920s, The Theory of Symbolic Forms, showed that he, too, understood language and meaning as largely constitutive of reality. But for Cassirer, the modern scientific worldview was not a debasement of the subject’s relationship to the world, but a development of the same faculty which underlay language, myth and culture – that of representing phenomena through symbolic forms. It was, moreover, an advance. The logical coherence of theoretical science, and the impersonal detachment from nature it afforded, was the supreme example of how human beings achieved freedom: by understanding the structure of the world they inhabited to ever greater degrees.
But nor was Cassirer dogmatic in his admiration for science. His key principle was the plurality of representation and understanding, allowing the same phenomenon to be grasped in different ways. The scientist and artist are capable of different insights. More to the point, the creative process through which human minds devised new forms of representation was open ended. The very history of science, as of culture, showed that there were always new symbolic forms to be invented, transforming our perception of the world in the process.
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It would be unfair to say Eilenberger gives us no sense of how these ideas relate to the context in which they were formed; his biographical vignettes do offer vivid glimpses of life in 1920s Europe. But that context is largely personal, and rarely social, cultural or intellectual. As a result, the most striking parallel of all – the determination of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Benjamin to upend the premises of the philosophical discipline, and that of Cassirer to protect them – can only be explained in terms of personality. This is misleading.
A time-traveller visiting Central Europe in the years after 1918 could not help but notice that all things intellectual were in a state of profound flux. Not only was Neo-Kantianism succumbing to a generation of students obsessed with metaphysics, existence and (in the strict sense) nihilism. Every certainty was being forcefully undermined: the superiority of European culture in Oswald Spengler’s bestselling Decline of the West (1918); the purpose and progress of history in Ernst Troeltsch’s “Crisis of Historicism” (1922); the Protestant worldview in Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans (1919); and the structure of nature itself in Albert Einstein’s article “On the Present Crisis in Theoretical Physics” (1922).
In these years, even the concept of revolution was undergoing a revolution, as seen in the influence of unorthodox Marxist works like György Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness (1923). And this is to say nothing of what our time-traveller would discover in the arts. Dada, a movement dedicated to the destruction of bourgeois norms and sensibilities, had broken out in Zurich in 1917 and quickly spread to Berlin. Here it infused the works of brilliant but scandalous artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix.
German intellectuals, in other words, were conscious of living in an age of immense disruption. More particularly, they saw themselves as responding to world defined by rupture; or to borrow a term from Heidegger and Benjamin, by “caesura” – a decisive and irreversible break from the past.
It’s not difficult to imagine where that impression came from. This generation experienced the cataclysm of the First World War, an unprecedented bloodbath that discredited assumptions of progress even as it toppled ancient regimes (though among Eilenberger’s quartet, only Wittgenstein served on the front lines). In its wake came the febrile economic and political atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, which has invited so many comparisons to our own time. Less noticed is that the ’20s were also, like our era, a time of destabilising technological revolution, witnessing the arrival of radio, the expansion of the telephone, cinema and aviation, and a bevy of new capitalist practices extending from factory to billboard.
Nonetheless, in philosophy and culture, we should not imagine that an awareness of rupture emerged suddenly in 1918, or even in 1914. The war is best seen as an explosive catalyst which propelled and distorted changes already underway. The problems that occupied Eilenberger’s four philosophers, and the intellectual currents that drove them, stem for a deeper set of dislocations.
Anxiety over the scientific worldview, and over philosophy’s relationship to science, was an inheritance from the 19thcentury. In Neo-Kantianism, Germany had produced a philosophy at ease with the advances of modern science. But paradoxically, this grew to be a problem when it became clear how momentous those advances really were. Increasingly science was not just producing strange new ways of seeing the world, but through technology and industry, reshaping it. Ultimately the Neo-Kantian holding pattern, which had tried to reconcile science with the humanistic traditions of the intellectual class, gave way. Philosophy became the site of a backlash against both.
But critics of philosophy’s subordination to science had their own predecessors to call on, not least with respect to the problem of language. Those who, like Heidegger and Benjamin, saw language not as a potential tool for representing empirical reality, but the medium which disclosed that reality to us (and who thus began to draw the dividing line between continental and Anglo-American philosophy), were sharpening a conflict that had simmered since the Enlightenment. They took inspiration from the 18th century mystic and scourge of scientific rationality, Johann Georg Hamann.
Meanwhile, the 1890s saw widespread recognition of the three figures most responsible for the post-war generation’s ideal of the radical outsider: Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx. That generation would also be taught by the great pioneers of sociology in Germany, Max Weber and Georg Simmel, whose work recognised what many could feel around them: that modern society was impersonal, fragmented and beset by irresolvable conflicts of value.
In light of all this, it’s not surprising that the concept of rupture appears on several levels in Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Benjamin. They presented their works as breaks in and with the philosophical tradition. They reinterpreted history in terms of rupture, going back and seeking the junctures when pathologies had appeared and possibilities had been foreclosed. They emphasised the leaps of faith and moments of decision that punctuated the course of life.
Even the personal qualities that attract Eilenberger to these individuals – their eccentric behaviour, their search for authenticity – were not theirs alone. They were part of a generational desire to break with the old bourgeois ways, which no doubt seemed the only way to take ownership of such a rapidly changing world.