Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy by Wolfram Eilenberger

Like Treslove, the protagonist of Howard Jacobson’s novel The Finkler Question (2010), every few years I take up philosophy. The results are, well, Treslovian: “These attempts at self-education always worked well at first. The subject wasn’t after all difficult. He could follow it easily. But then, at more or less the same moment, he would encounter a concept or a line of reasoning he couldn’t follow no matter how many hours he spent trying to decipher it. A phrase such as ‘the idea derived from evolution that ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis’ for example, not impossibly intricate in itself but somehow resistant to effort, as though it triggered something obdurate and even delinquent in his mind.”

Wolfram Eilenberger’s group biography exploring 1920s metaphysics, Time of the Magicians, was, I am relieved to say, written for the pleasure rather than the punishment of its reader. (His epigraph is from Goethe: “The best that we have from history is the enthusiasm it stimulates.”) The heroes are (fabulously eccentric) human beings, and their ideas are born of human experience. The preface of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)—which served as the Austrian’s Cambridge dissertation—suggests Eilenberger’s challenge: “This book will perhaps be understood only by those who have already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it—or similar thoughts.”

How do you articulate something knowable only to those who already know? Indeed, Wittgenstein would say, you don’t.

Being Human

Eilenberger begins and ends with the March 1929 conference at Davos—the site of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924)—that pitted Martin Heidegger against Ernst Cassirer. The theme: “What is a human being?”

Immanuel Kant’s definition (in Eilenberger’s words, those “who ask themselves questions that they are ultimately unable to answer”) and man’s “horizon of potential perfection” no longer convinced after the First World War. “The horrors of anonymized killing on an industrial scale,” Eilenberger writes, “stripped all credibility from Enlightenment rhetoric about the civilizing progress of humanity, and the power of culture, science, and technology to realize this process.” Cassirer believed the answer lay in the cultural symbols—oral, visual, gestural—by which we make sense of the world. For Heidegger, Cassirer’s critique of culture distracted from life’s great questions and vexations. It was philosophy’s purpose “to keep human beings open to the true abysses of their anxiety and thus, in an authentic sense, to liberate them.” The aim was “authenticity.” (If this sounds familiar, you probably just watched HBO’s manipulative-sex-cult documentary, The Vow.)

Davos bore the hallmarks of most academic conferences—it was pretentious and inconclusive. It nevertheless proves useful for Eilenberger, marking the decade’s end and joining Heidegger and Cassirer in debate. For the rest, Eilenberger’s philosophers took disparate, searching, lonely paths.

Immanuel Kant’s definition of a human being, in the author’s words: those “who ask themselves questions that they are ultimately unable to answer.”

Cassirer saw one’s actions—and their effect on others—and essence as interchangeable. There was, therefore, no distinct inner self. He wished, observes Eilenberger, “to cultivate for ourselves and others forms and abilities that allow us to actively shape our own lives rather than be purely passive companions to them. Self-formation rather than definition by others. Objective grounds rather than internal actuality.” Cassirer and his system were not tortured as his fellow “magicians” were. Among them, he was “the only one whose sexuality never blossomed into an existential problem, and the only one who never suffered a nervous breakdown.” This sane, solid member of Aby Warburg’s circle in Hamburg is, unsurprisingly, the least remembered and read of the four.

A “wild thinker,” Heidegger lamented the powerful incentives for man’s “self-avoidance,” or our unwillingness (as distinct from inability) to seek our true selves. A Nazi, anti-Semite, and adulterer, Heidegger cuts an unsympathetic, profoundly arrogant—but no less fascinating—figure, and in Time of the Magicians reminded me of nothing so much as the worst sort of 60s guru. His fundamentally individualistic conception of human being, “Dasein,” adds piquancy to his affair with Hannah Arendt and generally chaotic personal life. To an older, wiser Arendt, Heidegger “did not have a bad character,” Eilenberger relates. “In fact he had none at all.”

Ernst Cassirer was not tortured as his fellow “magicians” were. This sane, solid member of Aby Warburg’s circle in Hamburg is, unsurprisingly, the least remembered and read of the four.

Wittgenstein slipped his financial and social moorings—he once admitted that “the number of people I can talk to is becoming smaller and smaller”—to become an ill-suited, misanthropic schoolteacher, consumed with “self-hatred and hatred of others.” (He had deemed inhabitants of one neighboring village “not human beings at all, just repellent maggots” and would adopt “the domineering role of know-it-all” in the domineering, know-it-all Bloomsbury Group.) The “truly ethical existence” he espoused and leapt into did not vouchsafe happiness. Wittgenstein was prone to crippling, perhaps hereditary depression—three of his four brothers committed suicide by 1918—separated from others by “an impenetrable pane of glass.” What, then, was the point of leaping? Or, as Eilenberger puts it, “what is the point of seeing this world ‘correctly’ if there is no one anywhere to share it with?”

Where Wittgenstein is altogether unrelatable, Walter Benjamin was nothing if not human. A “one-man Weimar,” he was an editor in chief, critic, antiquarian-book dealer, and failed academic who distinguished the “paying” from the “intellectual” public, and “freedom” from “fate.” “Today,” Eilenberger quips, “he would be a lifestyle consultant or a feng shui adviser.” Faced with conscription, he resorted, successively and successfully, to an all-night coffee binge and weeks of hypnosis to persuade himself that he suffered from severe sciatica. Despite, or possibly because of, his thwarted academic aspirations, Benjamin rejected philosophers as “the most superfluous lackeys of the international bourgeoisie.” Though he would take his life in 1940, he withdrew from the brink in 1926 by locking himself away for three weeks and reading Laurence Sterne’s epic digression, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–67).

There is something courageous and almost reckless about the searing explorations of Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Benjamin. The tragic irony of Time of the Magicians is that such learned interpreters of life’s meaning profited so little themselves.

Max Carter is the head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s New York