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The Men Who Reinvented Philosophy for Turbulent Times

The first step was to twist free from the modern bourgeois worldview, or for that matter, from any framework or ideology that risked distorting the experience of reality. “Back to the facts!” became Heidegger’s battle cry, Eilenberger writes. This was a very appealing invitation for many students, including a young Hannah Arendt, who became one of his intellectual “shock troops” in the 1920s. Heidegger offered his audiences the opportunity to reclaim the question of Being (the German Sein) for themselves, to pose the question about what things are, about what reality really is, in a novel way that corresponded to their lived experience.

Heidegger understood his unmoored students. He contended that being human (Dasein) was a state of constant anxiety in the face of our own insignificance. Eilenberger, explaining Heidegger’s position, writes, “Insight into our fundamental groundlessness … is made possible by the knowledge of mortality … but we cannot find our own salvation … as something promised or revealed to us, we can acquire it only with an open and hence also fearful gaze into the abyss of our own finitude.”

Heidegger spoke directly to war-weary individuals who were all too familiar with their own mortality and were looking, desperately, for a philosophy to think it through. Eilenberger rightly observes that Heidegger never faced mortal danger, but this didn’t keep him from developing a charismatic philosophy fitted precisely to those who did. One of Eilenberger’s achievements is to explain Heidegger’s efforts to position himself as the hero and sorcerer of post-World War I Germany and therefore foreshadow his full-throated support of the Nazi regime as it came to power.

Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin shared at least one philosophical position: their mutual dislike of Heidegger. Cassirer and Heidegger were bound for conflict, and not only because Heidegger was an anti-Semite and Cassirer a Jew. Cassirer, the most intellectually traditional (and psychologically stable) of the “magicians,” sought to extend Kant’s project of enlightenment, grounded in rationality and the freedom it enabled, but also a broader humanism based on the advancement of science. By 1929, at their famous debate at Davos, he was fully eclipsed by Heidegger, who held that these philosophical goals were misguided from the start. Cassirer and his family fled Germany in 1933, the year that Heidegger delivered “The Self Assertion of the German University.” Cassirer would never again belong to such a university.

Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher, essayist and cultural critic, spent the better part of his professional life planning for what he described to his friend Bertolt Brecht as “the demolition of Heidegger.” “Time of the Magicians” explains how most of Benjamin’s plans, including this one, never came to fruition. Like Heidegger, Benjamin was a cult figure, but he lacked an organized following, at least in part because his philosophy, in Eilenberger’s words, was “about simply everything.” Benjamin summoned Romanticism, Jewish mysticism, Surrealism and Marxism in an effort to reveal a new world (specifically the burgeoning urban landscape of modern Europe) that defies comprehensive explanation.

And what of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most illusive and therefore most interesting of the philosophical wizards? I was first acquainted with his work in the course on philosophical logic in which the professor informed me that philosophy taught a student how to think. When I read the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” which Wittgenstein completed as a German soldier in World War I, I concluded that it established the foundation for rigorous and indisputable claims to knowledge. It seemed to me that philosophy, in Wittgenstein’s hands, was something like an exact science, which established a system of propositions that perfectly represented the world. I was not alone in this gross misreading. At a crucial moment in “Time of the Magicians,” Eilenberger explains that an entire school of philosophy known as logical positivism was born of this exact misunderstanding of Wittgenstein.

The 526 numbered statements of the “Tractatus” are not the rigid elements of a formal system but rather the rungs of a very long ladder that a reader can climb in order to see the “world rightly,” perhaps for the first time. The book is an invitation to philosophize, an activity of seeing the world a little more clearly by clarifying the language and thoughts that we use to describe it.

Wittgenstein’s intent is to show what can be meaningfully expressed, but also, more important, to gesture at what lies beyond our ability to express. And a great deal lies beyond. One is left, in Wittgenstein’s words, to “wonder at the existence of the world,” which is precisely the opposite of explaining it fully. Philosophy is the activity of climbing a ladder, and once you reach the top, the ladder disappears.

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