Life & Culture

Review: Time of the Magicians

David Conway enjoys the profile of a quartet of practitioners of the ‘magic’ of philosophy


Time of the Magicians: 
The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919-1929
By Wolfram Eilenberger
Allen Lane, £25
Reviewed by David Conway

This book is about the lives and thought of four influential philosophers during the “roaring twenties”, united really only by German being their first language. Two of them, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin, were of 100 per cent Jewish ancestry; a third, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was three-quarters Jewish; and the fourth, Martin Heidegger, became a Nazi during the 1930s, but not before his affair with one of his Jewish students, Hannah Arendt.

Of the quartet, the most eminent in the 1920s is the least remembered today. This is Cassirer, an urbane and liberal-minded supporter of the Weimar Republic, who comes across as the most decent — and sane — of the four philosophers. Moreover, his philosophy of symbolic forms is the most accessible of the work of Eilenberger’s four thinkers. According to Cassirer, humankind is distinguished by a symbol-making capacity that has enabled it to confer and find meaning in all manner of cultural endeavours, from myth and religion, through art and literature, to science and philosophy.

Eilenberger recounts a famous debate in 1929 between Cassirer and Heidegger in which the younger and fiercely ambitious Heidegger, recently appointed successor to the Freiburg chair of his former teacher Edmund Husserl, effectively displaced his elder interlocutor as the leading light of German philosophy, a mere two years after Heidegger’s publication of his widely acclaimed Being and Time. Despite later becoming a Nazi, this eminent purveyor of existential phenomenology, along with his own semi-comprehensible evocation of authentic “Being”, has since become one of today’s most influential and widely studied philosophers.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ascendancy, though briefer, was no less meteoric. Shortly before the First World War, he had begun studying philosophy at Cambridge after presenting himself there to Bertrand Russell and impressing him with his grasp of mathematical logic. Upon the outbreak of war, Wittgenstein enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army, spending most of it in the trenches as a stretcher-bearer before ending up in an Italian prisoner of war camp. It was while in the trenches that he completed a short, deeply enigmatic work about the scope and limits of meaningful language. It so impressed Russell and G. E. Moore that, in 1929, they made him a PhD, thereby enabling him to gain a chair at Cambridge where he was able to live most of the rest of his lonely, and troubled life until his death in 1951. Shortly after his appointment, Wittgenstein abandoned his previous philosophic outlook in favour of a more free-wheeling approach that left Russell — by then displaced by his acolyte as the leading luminary among Britain’s philosophers — decidedly unimpressed.

Of Eilenberger’s four philosophers, Walter Benjamin comes across as the most interesting, despite being the least successful. Never able to gain an academic appointment , which he so desperately sought, his dissolute and chaotic life ended tragically in suicide in 1940 while in flight from the Nazis. By then, he had inspired such luminaries as Berthold Brecht and Theodor Adorno. And, after 1945, his writings about capitalist culture, mostly previously unpublished, became a staple part of the Frankfurt School’s literature and is still deeply influential in cultural studies today.

In his very engaging book, Eilenberger vividly conveys not only the work of his four philosophers, but also the period in which it was written.


David Conway is the author of ‘The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Quest of Sophia’.

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