Wolfram Eilenberger’s new book offers us a group portrait of four brilliant young philosophers in the aftermath of the first world war. His awesome foursome is made up of Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Cassirer and – the only one who actually saw military action – Ludwig Wittgenstein. They make a pretty bizarre team: they were all conceptual innovators, but they innovated in different directions, and ended up with hardly anything in common apart from the fact that their mother tongue was German. If they had all ever met over Kaffee und Kuchen – which they certainly did not – they would probably have disagreed about everything. According to Eilenberger, however, they were united by the “spirit of the age”, which led them to “break away from the old frameworks (family, religion, nation, capitalism)”, and construct a new model of existence commensurate with “the experience of war”. They struck lucky, it would seem, and Eilenberger hails them as the “magicians” who made the 1920s into “philosophy’s great decade”.
Regardless of what may have happened in their lifetimes, Eilenberger’s magicians have since drifted far apart. Wittgenstein and Heidegger are now world-famous as patrons of two philosophical tribes – the sober linguistic analysts and the wild deconstructive existentialists – who are barely on speaking terms; Benjamin, the mystical Marxist, has a following but a cultish one; and as for poor old Cassirer, he seems to have no followers at all.
The neglect is undeserved. Cassirer was, as Eilenberger shows, a bold and original thinker, though perhaps too urbane for his own good. His work was rooted in Immanuel Kant’s notion that the world as we experience it is shaped by the forms of human thought and sensibility; he called on philosophers to get out a bit more and explore the world “in all directions”, paying heed to art, images and myths as well as abstract arguments. In 1919 Cassirer settled into a comfortable life as professor of philosophy at the newly founded University of Hamburg, and soon won recognition as a prominent defender of German democracy.
The Weimar republic celebrated its ninth anniversary in August 1928, and Cassirer marked the occasion with a public lecture to a distinguished audience in the Hamburg Rathaus. His theme was twofold: while the constitution of the new German republic could take its place in the liberal descent from Magna Carta and the American and French revolutions, it was also the offspring of the German intellectual tradition of Leibniz, Kant and Goethe. The address was delivered with grace and aplomb, and Cassirer’s peroration was greeted with effusive applause.
The following February, however, the University of Munich hosted a rally for the nationalist Kampfbund of German youth. Swastikas were everywhere, and there was a raucous ovation when Hitler and his entourage entered the hall. The Viennese philosopher Othmar Spann then delivered a speech on the “cultural crisis of the present”, arguing that German philosophy was being traduced by a tight-knit group of “foreigners”, notably Cassirer. To outward appearances Cassirer was of course as German as could be, not only by birth but also by education, culture and vocation. But appearances can be deceptive, and Spann – abetted by a handshake and a bow from Hitler – considered it his duty to reveal that Cassirer was not a German but a Jew.
Cassirer seems to have been unperturbed: he could not believe that a civilised country would fall for the lies of populist clowns. A month later, in March 1929, he went to the Swiss ski resort of Davos for a two-week seminar on Kant, which he was to lead in collaboration with the leader of a new generation of philosophy professors, Martin Heidegger. Cassirer spent much of the fortnight nursing a cold, while Heidegger slalomed the slopes with consummate skill; but they got on well enough, and rounded off proceedings with a debate. Cassirer took the opportunity to praise Kant as a philosopher of infinity for whom humanity is constantly striving for an enlightenment it will never quite achieve, whereas Heidegger presented Kant as bearing witness, in spite of himself, to an “abyss” beneath the burnished throne of reason. The confrontation was a little stiff – “two spoken monologues” as one observer put it – but it was also courteous, even cordial: a genuine meeting of minds as well as a serious difference of opinion.
The entrails of the Davos debate have been picked over many times, usually with portentous hindsight: within four years Cassirer would find refuge in England, while Heidegger became a paid-up Nazi. But Eilenberger prefers to stick to the golden 20s when, as he sees it, Cassirer and Heidegger, together with Benjamin and Wittgenstein, were essentially dancing to the same philosophical tune.
It’s not a likely story, but Eilenberger tells it with free-wheeling gusto. He begins by claiming that his four philosophers all set themselves the same “fundamental question”, namely “what does language do to us?” In apparent agreement with Wittgenstein, who is said to have believed that meaning “floated inexplicably for ever in the air, as a lasting miracle of creation”, they set off in search of “the one language underlying all human speech” – “a unifying, primal language that lies behind all languages and all meaning”.
Eilenberger appeals to what he calls “the spirit of the 1920s”, which according to him involved bewilderment at the elusiveness of time, anxiety about the dehumanising effects of science, and amazement at “the birth of an age of global communication”. He must be aware, however, that there is scarcely a decade in the last 500 years that could not be described in the same way. He is therefore reduced to tying his magicians together by means of biographical chatter. He cuts rapidly from one life to another, never shying away from sexual speculation, and summarises his results in breezy chapter headings: “Heidegger is spoiling for a fight, Cassirer is beside himself, Benjamin dances with Goethe, and Wittgenstein looks for a human being”, for instance, or “Benjamin mourns, Heidegger begets, Cassirer becomes a star, and Wittgenstein a child”. The word “meanwhile” is worked so hard that it dies of exhaustion half way through.
Eilenberger is a benign presence in Germany, where he has founded a popular philosophical magazine and published generalist books, as well as promoting “philosophy for all” on social media, radio and TV. But philosophical popularisation is a double-edged trade: it may fire us up to read the great books, but equally it can lead simply to gratitude that a populariser has ventured into the dark interior so that we don’t have to bother.
Wittgenstein and Heidegger are patrons of two tribes – sober linguistic analysts and wild deconstructive existentialists
One thing that Eilenberger fails to note is that most philosophers would rather die in a ditch than take dictation from “the spirit of the age”. They tend to spend many of their waking hours writing a sentence, pacing, deleting, sighing and rewriting in the hope of coming up at last with a paragraph that will escape the gravitational pull of received ideas. (“It’s damned hard,” as Wittgenstein put it, “to write things that make blank sheets better!”) Philosophy depends, in short, on creative labour rather than insouciant magicianship. But when it comes off it issues in well-wrought works which, if we give them a chance, can open our minds to new worlds.
Advance publicity tells us that Time of the Magicians is a prizewinning bestseller in Germany, and that it is being translated into 24 languages. Now this really does sound like magic – the kind of success that Cassirer, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Benjamin could not have hoped for in their wildest dreams.
• Jonathan Ree’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English is published by Penguin. Time of the Magicians translated by Shaun Whiteside, is published by Allen Lane (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.