Time of the Magicians
Wolfram Eilenberger

Time of the Magicians - Book Summary

Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy

Duration: 32:46
Release Date: May 7, 2024
Book Author: Wolfram Eilenberger
Categories: History, Philosophy
Duration: 32:46
Release Date: May 7, 2024
Book Author: Wolfram Eilenberger
Categories: History, Philosophy

In this episode of 20 Minute Books, we dive into "Time of the Magicians" by Wolfram Eilenberger. This fascinating book captures the explosive intellectual environment of the 1920s in Germany, a pivotal decade that brought us the groundbreaking ideas of philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Walter Benjamin. These thinkers challenged and transformed traditional philosophical landscapes, offering new ways to interpret the complexities of reality.

Author Wolfram Eilenberger, a celebrated German philosopher and best-selling author, artfully explores how these figures intertwined with the cultural, political, and social currents of their time, making complex ideas accessible and engaging. Eilenberger's work, which earned him the Bavarian Book Prize, appeals not just to those with an academic interest in philosophy but to anyone intrigued by the profound questions of existence.

This book is a must-read for armchair philosophers, critical thinkers, history buffs captivated by Germany's roaring twenties, and anyone who has pondered the meaning of life. Join us to uncover how these magicians of thought shaped not just their own time, but the very ways we perceive the world today.

Step into the radical decade: The turbulent rise of modern philosophy

In the aftermath of 1919, Germany stood on the brink of a new era. Shattered by warfare and political upheaval following the monarchy's collapse, the nation faced the colossal task of societal reconstruction. During this period of intense transformation, four philosophers emerged, ready to rethink and reshape the landscape of German philosophy which, much like the country itself, lay in disarray due to the war's devastations.

The intellectual battles and personal stories of Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein paint a vivid picture of this transformative time. The narrative not only explores their ground-shaking theories but also delves into their dramatic personal lives — from fiery debates to radical lifestyle changes.

This exploration reveals —

- The surprising connections between Walter Benjamin's ideas and the attitudes of the millennial generation.

- Martin Heidegger's penchant for skiing and how it reflected his philosophical inquiries into human existence and being.

- Ludwig Wittgenstein's radical conclusion that the entire domain of philosophy might ultimately be misdirected and futile.

Through the riveting juxtaposition of their professional achievements against their personal journeys, this narrative invites listeners to understand how these philosophical giants grappled with life’s most profound questions during a time of severe crisis. This account not only offers insight into their thoughts but also shows how their legacies continue to influence contemporary thought.

When philosophy mirrored the chaos: The iconic Davos debate

The 1920s were a whirlwind of innovation and turmoil, shaping an era marked by both groundbreaking technological progress and profound social unrest. Cinemas, radios, and automobiles revolutionized daily life — encapsulating the spirit of advancement. By night, the populace indulged in the escapism offered by jazz-filled underground clubs. Yet, the daylight brought harsh realities back into focus, with Germany grappling under hefty reparations from World War I, igniting widespread poverty within the fledgling Weimar Republic.

Amid this tumultuous backdrop — where political factions clashed vehemently over the country's future direction — two philosophical titans prepared for a confrontation that would perfectly capture the conflicted spirit of their times.

Here’s the pivotal standoff: The Davos debate vividly illustrated the polarized sentiment of the 1920s.

On March 26, 1929, the philosophical elite converged in the opulent ballroom of the Belvédère Hotel in Davos, Switzerland, for the most anticipated intellectual duel of the decade. Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer were set to debate, representing diametrically opposed views not just philosophically, but also in their demeanor and approach.

Cassirer, the seasoned, worldly professor from the University of Hamburg, faced off against a much younger Heidegger, who brought a brash, energetic presence to the debate. Known for his audacious spirits — even showcasing his disdain for convention by attending a pre-debate dinner in ski attire — Heidegger was ready to challenge the status quo.

Their debate centered on profound questions about human nature and the fundamental purposes of philosophy. Cassirer argued that humanity transcended mortal limits through the creation of cultural and artistic symbols, defining humans as creatures of ethics and morality. In stark contrast, Heidegger dismissed such notions as mere illusions, insisting that confronting our mortality and the finitude of existence was central to the human experience.

While Cassirer viewed philosophy as a liberating force that could elevate human consciousness and alleviate existential fears, Heidegger saw it as a tool to expose the bleak truths of human existence. Their irreconcilable perspectives not only underscored their debate but also reflected the broader societal tensions of Germany in the 1920s — a nation caught between hope and despair, progress and collapse.

The Davos debate thus emerged not merely as a clash of philosophical ideas but as a reflection of a decade defined by its stark contradictions and inherent volatility.

Stirring the philosophical pot: Heidegger's call to confront the abyss

Martin Heidegger, endowed with a profound conviction of his philosophical mission, emerged from modest beginnings to revolutionize the intellectual world. Asserting that his destiny was intertwined with philosophy, he sought to radically disrupt conventional thinking.

At merely 29 years old, during his inaugural lecture, Heidegger didn't just speak; he provoked. He urged the attendees to ponder the sheer existence of everything around them — "There is something." This statement was designed to bewilder and awe: the fact that there is existence at all was what he deemed a "monstrous truth" that philosophy needed to address.

Here's a pivotal notion: Martin Heidegger aimed to jolt people into a deep existential awareness by giving them a metaphysical scare.

According to Heidegger, true philosophical inquiry required confronting life's most rigorous storms. This wasn't about mere intellectual exercise but a visceral experience of life's enigmas through the very fibers of our being. Authenticity, a key concept in Heidegger's philosophy, demanded that individuals face their mortality head-on, recognizing death as both inevitable and definitive. Only by staring into this "yawning abyss" could one truly embrace the richness of life.

Living his philosophy, Heidegger was a figure of eloquence and charisma, swiftly climbing the academic ladder. His seminal work, "Being and Time," was penned in a mere eleven months, catapulting him to prestigious academic positions and making him a philosophical celebrity in Freiburg. Surrounded by admiring students, Heidegger's ideas resonated especially with the youth of Germany, who were desperately searching for a sense of authenticity in a tumultuous world.

Beyond the lecture halls, Heidegger embraced a life full of vigor and authenticity. He relished physical activities like wood chopping, skiing, and hiking through the Black Forest, activities that kept him grounded and connected to the existential truths he expounded. However, Heidegger also indulged in more controversial pursuits — his secret and long-lasting affair with his student Hannah Arendt, who would later gain fame as a philosopher, underscored the complexities and contradictions of his personal life.

Despite advocating for an existential confrontation with life's hardships, Heidegger himself seemed somewhat insulated from the very catastrophes he described. His philosophical and academic journey, though intellectually challenging, unfolded with a noteworthy ease, leading him to the pinnacle of academic acclaim he had always aspired to achieve.

Ernst Cassirer: A beacon of humanism amid philosophical storms

While Martin Heidegger stirred existential debates, his contemporary and notable rival, Ernst Cassirer, carved a distinct philosophical path through the German academia. Espousing a measured and composed approach, Cassirer drew inspiration from the likes of Goethe and Kant, becoming a paragon of bourgeois stability, much to Heidegger's disdain.

The quiet strength of Cassirer was profoundly illustrated during an unexpected blackout at Berlin’s Humboldt University in January 1919. Amidst the chaos of the Weimar Republic's street fighting, when a stray bullet severed an electrical line during his lecture, Cassirer remained unruffled — he calmly continued his discourse in the enveloping darkness.

But what was the source of Cassirer's remarkable composure? It likely stemmed from his unwavering belief in the inherent goodness and potential of humans.

Here lies the central premise: Ernst Cassirer championed a philosophy rooted in the celebration of human diversity.

Contrary to the enigmatic view of humanity that pervaded much of philosophical thought, Cassirer saw human nature as an open book, accessible through the diverse expressions of culture and intellect. He posited that humans set themselves apart from animals through their unique ability to convert experiences into symbolic forms, such as art, science, and religion, thereby interpreting and molding their reality.

Cassirer did not believe in hierarchies of knowledge; for him, all means of understanding the world held merit, from astrophysics to astrology. His philosophical mission was to reconcile these diverse strands of knowledge into a coherent whole.

Living true to his ideals of diversity and solidarity, Cassirer was not just a prolific thinker but also a man of great empathy and kindness. He often read standing up on his daily streetcar rides, reluctant to take a seat from someone in greater need. His favorite workspace, the Hamburg library of scholar Aby Warburg, reflected his inclusive approach. Warburg’s thematic organization of books resonated with Cassirer’s belief in the interconnectedness of all cultural expressions, a concept that significantly influenced his magnum opus, "Philosophy of Symbolic Forms."

In 1929, Cassirer's commitment to his values earned him the distinction of becoming the first Jewish rector of the University of Hamburg. Despite the rising tide of anti-Semitic sentiment fueled by the National Socialists, Cassirer's optimism in the power of humanism and education remained undeterred.

Cassirer's enduring hope and faith in human potential marked a stark contrast to many of his contemporaries, like Ludwig Wittgenstein, who had become disillusioned with humanity after the horrors of World War I. Cassirer's legacy, therefore, stands as a testament to the resilience of humanist philosophy in tumultuous times, advocating education and understanding as the keys to overcoming societal divides and conflicts.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The philosophical outcast on a quest for existential truths

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a figure who returned from the horrors of World War I profoundly changed, stunned his affluent Viennese family by renouncing his inheritance. His rejection of the comfortable life that his family’s wealth could provide was symbolic of a deeper philosophical realignment following his traumatic wartime experiences. While the Wittgensteins had used their substantial resources to nurture and develop Ludwig’s intellectual prowess, the stark realities of war had rendered these material comforts meaningless to him.

After enduring the trenches and the philosophical crises they engendered, Wittgenstein was driven to create a philosophical masterwork that aimed to resolve all crucial philosophical questions. This period of intense reflection culminated in his seminal work, the "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus." Through this treatise, he hoped to strip away the excesses of academic philosophy and return to a simpler, more meaningful existence.

Here lies the crux of Wittgenstein's philosophy: Ludwig Wittgenstein was an enigmatic loner who pushed the boundaries of what it meant to think and to know.

Despite doubts from his peers, who were often baffled by the "Tractatus" with its unique mathematical structure and cryptic propositions, Wittgenstein believed he had fundamentally solved the quandaries of philosophy. However, the essence of his argument was that true understanding of human existence could not be attained through mere intellectual speculation. For Wittgenstein, the profoundest truths about life manifested only in life's most perilous moments and could not be adequately expressed through conventional theoretical frameworks.

His famous dictum, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," encapsulated his resignation to the ineffable nature of life’s most important questions. Following this philosophical breakthrough, Wittgenstein chose to abandon the academic world and sought the simplicity of rural life as a schoolteacher in a remote Austrian village.

Yet, Wittgenstein's transition to rural life did not bring the connection he yearned for; his new neighbors viewed him as an oddity, an aloof intellectual mismatched with village life. He described this profound loneliness as being separated from others by an invisible "pane of glass."

This metaphor not only illustrated his personal isolation but also mirrored his philosophical views. Wittgenstein saw the human condition as akin to a fly trapped in a bottle—capable of seeing and approaching freedom but never quite able to grasp it due to unseen barriers. Despite his hopes that the "Tractatus" would enlighten humanity, he harbored deep skepticism about our collective capacity to truly comprehend or transcend our existential limits.

Walter Benjamin: A Bohemian mind capturing the spirit of an era

While the 1920s heralded economic prosperity for many, Walter Benjamin found himself navigating a precarious existence, much like the modern millennial freelancer. Despite coming from a well-off Berlin family, Benjamin's philosophical pursuits were not looked upon favorably by his father, who consequently was quite frugal with financial support. This forced Benjamin to eke out a living as a freelance journalist—a career that, while intellectually stimulating, did little to stabilize his financial or mental health.

Herein lies a profound insight: Walter Benjamin was a master at discerning the spirit of his time, a true Bohemian observer.

Unlike his more economically secured contemporaries, Benjamin's lifestyle was one of near-constant financial desperation. Whatever earnings he scraped together quickly vanished on indulgences like Berlin's nightlife or his ever-growing personal library. Despite—or perhaps because of—his financial struggles, Benjamin developed a unique philosophical approach centered not on action or high theory, but on meticulous observation.

Benjamin posited that true knowledge could be accessed through the act of observation itself. Consider the experience of viewing an artwork. According to Benjamin, this interaction is transformative both for the observer and the observed. The artwork assumes new meanings through the viewer's contemplation, while simultaneously enriching the viewer's understanding with every encounter. This reciprocal relationship, Benjamin argued, was the key to attaining profound insights.

His theoretical explorations were deeply influenced by his personal relationships, particularly with Latvian actress and staunch communist Asja Lacis. Their meeting, which turned a planned working holiday on Capri into a romantic exploration, significantly shaped his intellectual trajectory. Lacis introduced Benjamin to radical political thought, which in turn sharpened his critique of capitalist society and redirected his scholarly focus towards the mundane artifacts of everyday life.

Benjamin's talent lay in his ability to encapsulate the essence of an era through the lens of ordinary objects and phenomena. His magnum opus, the "Passages," exemplifies this skill, where he interprets Paris’s opulent arcades as reflections of the capitalistic zeitgeist. However, despite the brilliance of his insights, Benjamin struggled to gain a foothold in the academic community of his time. His writing, rich with idiosyncrasies, blurred the lines between art and academia, confounding traditional scholars.

Ultimately, Benjamin's life was that of a wandering intellectual, a perpetual outsider to the stability of academia, living out his days as a bohemian without a permanent home or financial security. His legacy, however, as a perceptive observer of modernity, remains influential, showcasing a unique ability to discern profound truths from the fabric of everyday life.

Unraveling the essence of humanity through language: A philosophical consensus

Amid their diverse intellectual pursuits and distinctive philosophical trajectories, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer, and Walter Benjamin shared a fundamental belief in the transformative power of language. To these thinkers, language was far more than a mere tool for communication—it was the very medium through which human reality and consciousness were molded and understood.

Ernst Cassirer saw language as a pivotal symbolic form, an essential conduit through which humans access the world and shape their identities. He postulated that the act of a child speaking her first words is not just a developmental milestone but the very moment of the individual's spiritual and personal formation. Cassirer's linguistic proficiency spanned several languages, including Sanskrit and Chinese, reflecting his deep commitment to understanding language's multifaceted nature.

Here is a profound insight: All four philosophers recognized humans fundamentally as beings of language. Walter Benjamin lived and breathed language, immersing himself in French literature and often resorting to translating Charles Baudelaire's poetry to navigate financial straits. For Benjamin, language reached its highest form in poetry, where words strive to capture the elusive essence of things—a goal he believed philosophers should emulate.

Martin Heidegger sought to reshape philosophical discourse itself through language. Believing that traditional vocabulary was inadequate for expressing new existential realities, Heidegger introduced an array of neologisms such as "presence-at-hand" and "worldhood" in his lectures. These terms were designed to forge a new understanding of human existence, enabling a deeper experiential grasp of reality.

Meanwhile, Ludwig Wittgenstein maintained a more skeptical stance on the capacity of philosophical language. He argued that language could proficiently describe factual realities—the domain of natural sciences—but fell short when addressing metaphysical concepts or the meaning of life. According to Wittgenstein, philosophy's true task was to delineate the limits of language, revealing its inadequacies in capturing the full spectrum of human experience.

This collective inquiry into the role of language occurred against a backdrop of disillusionment with Enlightenment ideals, which had promised that reason and rationality could cure societal and personal woes. The devastating impacts of World War I had shattered these beliefs, prompting a reevaluation of the human capacity for rational decision-making. In this context, these philosophers pondered the purpose of philosophy itself: If not to champion reason, then what role should philosophy play in the post-war world?

Thus, language became a central theme in their work, a shared thread that connected their efforts to redefine philosophy's role in a drastically changed world.

Philosophical skepticism in an era of scientific triumph

The rapid advancements in natural sciences during the early 20th century, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Darwin’s theory of evolution, presented formidable challenges to traditional philosophical perspectives. For philosophers like Heidegger, Benjamin, and Wittgenstein, these developments weren't merely academic curiosities—they threatened to render philosophical inquiry obsolete.

Martin Heidegger expressed a profound disenchantment with the modern scientific approach, which he perceived as distancing humanity from authentic existence, or Dasein, as he termed it. He argued that science, with its emphasis on abstraction and theory, entraps individuals in a superficial engagement with the world, hindering genuine understanding of human existence.

Here’s the critical insight: Heidegger, Benjamin, and Wittgenstein each harbored significant skepticism toward modern science.

Walter Benjamin viewed natural science with skepticism as well. His apprehensions were rooted in the belief that science attempts to expedite knowledge acquisition at the cost of deeper understanding. For Benjamin, true knowledge was akin to revelation—something that emerged only through patient observation and reflection on the world. He feared that the scientific quest for progress muffled the myriad voices of the world, severing the innate connection between humans and their environments. His detailed, almost poetic descriptions of everyday objects were, in part, a personal rebellion against the disenchantment brought about by scientific rationalization.

Ludwig Wittgenstein also maintained a critical stance toward natural science. Despite having declared philosophical pursuits largely superfluous, he did not place his faith in scientific methodologies either. When approached by the logical empiricists—a group of Viennese philosophers keen on eradicating metaphysical elements from philosophy—to lead their movement, Wittgenstein politely declined. His architectural venture, the designing of a minimalist, almost fortress-like residence for his sister in Vienna, reflects his philosophy: a structure representing clarity and protection, yet opaque to those outside, mirroring the enigmatic nature of his philosophical outlook.

In stark contrast stood Ernst Cassirer, who embraced natural science as a vehicle for transcending human limitations and expanding the realm of human creativity. To Cassirer, science was not just a body of knowledge but a testament to human ingenuity, capable of feats like aviation, which defied gravity and expanded the boundaries of human capability.

Amidst these profound philosophical deliberations on science, the Weimar Republic was wrestling with its own existential questions about democracy and governance in post-war Germany. While the philosophers debated the role of reason and science, the nation stood at a crossroads, pondering the practical implications of these ideas on its newly democratic structure. As the republic grappled with its political identity, the thoughts of these philosophers offered deep, albeit abstract, insights into the challenges of modernity.

Diverging philosophical paths in the political turmoil of Weimar Germany

In 1928, as the Weimar Republic staggered under the weight of political instability, economic hardship, and widespread disillusionment with democracy, Germany's leading philosophers engaged passionately with the political climate of their time, each advocating distinctly different perspectives.

Ernst Cassirer, during the troubled era, offered a staunch defense of democratic values. In a poignant speech marking the anniversary of the Weimar Constitution, Cassirer invoked the legacy of Immanuel Kant to champion the principles of democracy, arguing that Kant, the epitome of German philosophers, would have endorsed the republic's democratic ideals. Cassirer's bold stance as a constitutional patriot, particularly as a Jewish intellectual when anti-Semitism was escalating, marked a significant yet perilous assertion of his political beliefs. Unfortunately, just five years later, the rise of the Nazis compelled him to flee Germany.

The focal point of contention: Philosophical stances on German politics varied immensely during this period.

Martin Heidegger, contrasting sharply with Cassirer, harbored a deep skepticism about democracy, viewing it as an impediment to individual authenticity and existential discovery. Heidegger's philosophy extolled the virtues of solitary existence, much like his secluded hut in the Black Forest, which he believed epitomized the strength and independence of the human spirit against adversity. His philosophical musings flirted dangerously close to advocating for extreme isolationism, and he later controversially aligned himself with the Nazi Party, briefly assuming the role of rector at Freiburg University under Hitler's regime.

Walter Benjamin, meanwhile, dabbled with the idea of communism, reflecting his critical stance towards capitalist structures. However, as a dedicated observer more than an activist, and also being Jewish, he soon found himself fleeing the Nazi threat, ultimately leading to his tragic suicide in 1940 amidst fears of capture by the advancing German troops.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who generally steered clear of political engagements, remained focused on abstract philosophical and mathematical inquiries, such as the concept of infinity. His lack of interest in politics did not spare him from its reach; the annexation of Austria by Hitler's regime prompted Wittgenstein to leave for Cambridge, where he continued his academic pursuits in relative political detachment.

These philosophers, each grappling in their way with the political chaos of their time, left an indelible mark on philosophical discourse. While their immediate influence on the political events of their era might have been limited, their ideas significantly reshaped philosophical thought post-Enlightenment, offering new directions that continue to influence contemporary thinking.

Revisiting the philosophical titans of the 1920s

The 1920s were a pivotal era that not only reshaped the societal and cultural landscapes but also witnessed a profound transformation in philosophical thought. Four exceptional thinkers — Ernst Cassirer, Walter Benjamin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Martin Heidegger — stood at the forefront of this intellectual renaissance.

Here's what binds their diverse explorations: All four philosophers ventured into uncharted territories to redefine the existing philosophical paradigms. Whether through the refined cultural lens of Cassirer, the contemplative insight of Benjamin, the analytical precision of Wittgenstein, or the existential provocations of Heidegger, each contributed uniquely to our understanding of life's intricate questions.

Ernst Cassirer championed the enrichment of life through culture and humanism, believing that humans manifest their true essence via cultural expressions. Martin Heidegger, on the other hand, sought to jolt humanity into recognizing the profound depths of existence, advocating for an immersive experience of life's raw realities.

Ludwig Wittgenstein approached philosophy with rigorous scrutiny, dissecting and distilling it into fundamental issues of language and meaning. His view positioned philosophical inquiry as ultimately a pursuit to clarify thought through language. Meanwhile, Walter Benjamin introduced the notion of revelation through deep, patient contemplation, suggesting that true understanding comes from a resonant dialogue with the world around us.

Together, these luminaries not only wrestled with the philosophical challenges of their time but also laid foundational stones that continue to influence contemporary thought. As we navigate our present complexities, the intellectual legacies of Cassirer, Benjamin, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger provide us with critical tools and perspectives, reminding us of the enduring power of philosophical inquiry in understanding and shaping the human condition.

Time of the Magicians Quotes by Wolfram Eilenberger

Similar Books

Beyond Good and Evil
The Dying Citizen
On Being and Becoming
How to Live a Good Life
ed. Massimo Pigliucci, Skye C. Cleary and Daniel A. Kaufman
How to Be a Stoic
The Art of Rhetoric