When it comes to intellectual history, Central Europe in the 1920s presents a paradox. It was an era when revolutionary thought—original and iconoclastic ideas and modes of thinking—was almost the norm. The results of this are all around us today. The 1920s marked the final flourish in a remarkable period of path-breaking activity in German-speaking Europe, which laid many of the foundations for both analytic and continental philosophy, for psychology and sociology and for several branches of legal philosophy and theoretical science.
This creative ferment is partly what people mean 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 drew together the various thinkers who, in hindsight, seem to be bursting out of their historical context rather than sharing it.
Wolfram Eilenberger offers one solution in his new book, Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919–1929. Eilenberger weaves 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 followed by 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 a voyeuristic pleasure in peering into these private lives: peeking at Heidegger’s and Benjamin’s attempts to rationalise their adulterous tendencies and 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.
But entertaining as it is, Eilenberger’s biographical approach does not really cast much light on why the 1920s was 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 these figures were not just brilliant individuals, but products of their time.
Eilenberger does manage to draw parallels between the four philosophers’ ideas, though—no mean feat. This makes his presentation selective and occasionally tendentious, but it also produces some imaginative insights.
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, claims 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 leaves Eilenberger plenty of space to discuss the puzzling Tractatus. He rightly points out 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 does declare that the only valid propositions are those of natural science, since these alone share the same logical structure as empirical reality, and so can capture an existing or possible state of affairs in the world. But as Wittgenstein freely admits, this means that the Tractatus itself is nonsense. Therefore its reader is encouraged to disregard the very claims which establish how to judge claims, to “throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.” Besides, “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 are twofold: to save humanity from pointless conflict by clarifying what can be communicated with certainty; and 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: Heidegger eventually joined the Nazi party and Benjamin flirted with communism.
Like many intellectuals of the time, Heidegger and Benjamin were interested in the consequences of the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the seventeenth 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 present this as an illusory and fallen state, in which the world has 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 argues 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 is 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 insists that language is not a means of communication or rational thought, but an aesthetic medium through which the world is revealed to us. In his work on German baroque theatre, he identifies the arrival of modernity with a tragic distortion in that medium. Rather than a holistic existence in which everything has its proper name and meaning—an existence that, for Benjamin, is intimately connected with the religious temporality of awaiting salvation—the very process of understanding has become arbitrary and reified, so that any given symbol might stand for any given thing.
As Eilenberger details, both Heidegger and Benjamin find some redemption in the idea of decision—a fleeting moment when the superficial autonomy of everyday choices gives way to an all-embracing realisation of purpose and fate. Benjamin identifies 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 is most profound. For Heidegger, only a stark confrontation with death can produce a truly “authentic” decision. (This too has political implications, which Eilenberger avoids: Heidegger sees 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 cut 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. Some of Eilenberger’s remarks, however, suggest that he is still influenced by the view that Cassirer is 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 dominated German academic philosophy from the mid-nineteenth century until around 1910, when it grew unfashionable because of 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, where 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 nineteenth-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, shows that he, too, understands language and meaning as largely constitutive of reality. But, for Cassirer, the modern scientific worldview is not a debasement of the subject’s relationship to the world, but a development of the same faculty that underlies language, myth and culture—that of representing phenomena through symbolic forms. For Cassirer, this is an advance. The logical coherence of theoretical science, and the impersonal detachment from nature it affords, are the supreme examples of how human beings achieve freedom: by understanding the structure of the world they inhabit to ever greater degrees.
But nor is Cassirer dogmatic in his admiration for science. His key principle is that the plurality of representation and understanding allow 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 devise new forms of representation is open ended. The history of science, as of culture, shows that there are always new symbolic forms to be invented, transforming our perception of the world in the process.
It would be unfair to say that 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 would 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, but 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 were conscious of living in an age of immense disruption. 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.
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 invites so many comparisons to our own time. Less noticed is that the 20s were also, like our era, a time of destabilising technological revolution, with the arrival of the telephone and the expansion of radio, 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 from a deeper set of dislocations.
Anxiety over the scientific worldview, and over philosophy’s relationship to science, was an inheritance from the nineteenth century. 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 tried to reconcile science with the humanistic traditions of the intellectual class, gave way. Philosophy became the site of a backlash against both.
Critics of philosophy’s subordination to science did have 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 as the medium that discloses that reality to us (and who thus began to draw the dividing line between continental and Anglo-American philosophy), were heating up a conflict that had been simmering since the Enlightenment. They took inspiration from the eighteenth-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 recognises what many felt: 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 punctuate 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 like the only way to take ownership of such a rapidly changing world.