In the autumn of 1922, as Germany was convulsed by food shortages and soaring inflation, the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote a letter to his wife about the intricate choreography required to secure the most basic needs. “Mother asks if they should send potatoes even before 1 Oct; I answered yes and sent the money at the same time,” he explained. “What should I do when the potatoes arrive?”
At a time of crisis, the threats to existence can be so immediate that most people become understandably preoccupied with urgent matters of survival. But even as Heidegger was worried about the potatoes, he believed that a crisis could also offer a radical break from the dispensation that produced it, a moment of genuine openness, a chance to rethink everything anew.
As Wolfram Eilenberger writes in “Time of the Magicians,” his vibrant group portrait of four philosophers during a turbulent decade, Heidegger welcomed danger and suffering as a social condition that forced people to confront their mortality — at least, that was the idea. His wife wanted to ensure that the demands of reality didn’t intrude too much on his work, so she planned and supervised the construction of a cabin in the Black Forest, financing it with her inheritance. There, Martin could live like a sturdy peasant, taking in the mountain air and spending days on his woodwork before contemplating an existence that was grounded in groundlessness.
Heidegger finally had what Eilenberger calls “a hut of one’s own.” The irreverence is funny, but it amounts to more than just a joke; everything in “Time of the Magicians” — ideas, narrative and phrasing (translated from the German into seamless English by Shaun Whiteside) — has been fused into a readable, resonant whole.
Eilenberger’s book begins in 1919 and ends in 1929, elegantly tracing the life and work of four figures who transformed philosophy in ways that were disparate and not infrequently at odds. Heidegger, who served as an army meteorologist during World War I and therefore avoided active combat, spent the decade immersing himself in thoughts of the abyss while fine-tuning his philosophy career, publishing “Being and Time” in 1927. Walter Benjamin dithered away his early opportunities for an academic sinecure and turned toward journalism and criticism; ever the envious genius, he wanted to start a magazine whose main mission was the “demolition of Heidegger.” (Like so many of Benjamin’s projects, nothing ever came of it.) Ludwig Wittgenstein, heir to one of the wealthiest families in Europe, had written what would become his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” as a prisoner of war in Italy, deploying rigorous logic to arrive at the limits of language, and then summarily abandoned his fortune to serve as a primary schoolteacher for several years in the Austrian countryside.
Ernst Cassirer, the most settled and least eccentric of the bunch, painstakingly built a reputation for lucid explication and formidable erudition, not for charisma or audacity. “Cassirer’s only truly radical trait was his will to equilibrium,” Eilenberger writes. To his younger detractors, the white-haired Cassirer was the establishment personified. A photograph in the book has him wearing a ruff.
But Cassirer was responding to the same crisis that animated the other three of Eilenberger’s magicians — a sense that the old ways of philosophizing had failed to keep up with the reality of lived experience. The dominant Kantian approach was born during the era of Newtonian physics, which was displaced in 1905 by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Freud had unsettled any assumptions about the transparency of human consciousness. An Enlightenment faith in progress was laid to waste by the mechanized carnage of World War I. Eilenberger quotes Max Scheler, another German philosopher, who put it this way: “Ours is the first period when man has become completely and totally problematical to himself, when he no longer knows what he is, but at the same time knows that he knows nothing.”
Language was implicated in this plight, and the responses among the figures in this book were varied and often strange. Heidegger insisted on a vocabulary of Dasein (“being there”) and Sein-zum-Tode (“being-toward-death”), neologisms that weren’t tainted by the old ways of thinking. Wittgenstein drew a distinction between meaningful propositions and those that only seemed meaningful, famously ending the “Tractatus” with an aphorism: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” A chaotic, euphoric Benjamin (wonderfully described in this book as a “one-man Weimar”) thought that “overnaming” led to “melancholy,” and that language was better suited for “the revelation of being.”
Cassirer’s understanding of language was capacious, incorporating not only German and English but also myth, religion, technology and art. Different languages offered different ways of seeing the world. His pluralistic outlook seemed to provide him with an escape valve. As he wrote to his wife, “I can express everything I need without difficulty.”
As the most stolid figure in Eilenberger’s book, Cassirer is also, somewhat perversely, the most enigmatic. Compared with the others’ sexual adventuring (Benjamin, Heidegger) or sexual anguish (Wittgenstein), Cassirer’s love life was uneventful and untroubled, leading Eilenberger to suggest that the Cassirers’ resolutely bourgeois marriage “acquired a distinctively political edge as a rejection of confused adventures, revolutions or civil wars.” As it happened, Cassirer was the only one of the four to speak up publicly for the embattled Weimar Republic. He was also the only democrat.
In 1929, a debate between Cassirer and Heidegger amid the snowy peaks of Davos clarified the stakes: Reject your distracting anxiety, per Cassirer, and embrace the liberation offered by culture; or reject your distracting culture, per Heidegger, and embrace the liberation offered by your anxiety. But the reality for attendees was more mundane. One journalist described a self-congratulatory atmosphere where the audience “enjoyed the spectacle of a very nice person and a very violent person, who was still trying terribly hard to be nice, delivering monologues.”
Eilenberger is a terrific storyteller, unearthing vivid details that show how the philosophies of these men weren’t the arid products of abstract speculation but vitally connected to their temperaments and experiences. Yet he also points out that as much as they were wrestling with life-and-death philosophical questions, the bigger crisis was still to come.
By May 1933, Heidegger would be a member of the Nazi Party, and Cassirer, an assimilated Jew, would leave Germany forever, eventually settling in the United States. Cassirer’s unwavering decency made him a stalwart defender of Weimar’s democratic ideals, but it had also kept him imperturbable and optimistic until it was almost too late.
“When we first heard of the political myths we found them so absurd and incongruous, so fantastic and ludicrous that we could hardly be prevailed upon to take them seriously,” Cassirer would later write, before his death in 1945. “By now it has become clear to all of us that this was a great mistake.”
The post How Wittgenstein and Other Thinkers Dealt With a Decade of Crisis appeared first on New York Times.