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Review of Time of the Magicians
November 12, 2021
by William P. Meyers

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

Time of the Magicians by Wolfram Eilenberger, English translation by Shaun Whiteside, Penguin Books, New York, copyright 2020. 418 page paperback..

I picked up Time of the Magicians in a local bookstore because I have a long-standing interest in the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and you seldom see his name mentioned on the cover of a book. Much less outside the philosophy section of a university bookstore. Walter Benjamin was a name I did not recognize. Martin Heidegger I recognized as someone I had read a bit of and was not impressed by. Ernst Cassirer sounded familiar, but I could not dredge up what he might have contributed to philosophy.

The book is more about the lives of the men, more an intertwined set of mini-biographies, than about their philosophies. Face up to the fact: philosophy tends to be boring, even to those with an interest in philosophy, because it is an academic profession where volume (number of words published) is more valued than any connection to reality. Lives of philosophers are more relatable and readable. But some general whiffs of their philosophies are presented as the author follows their careers. And they are careers: retuning philosophy to get paying academic positions seems to be more important to all four of these figures than any idealistic pursuit of truth.

But who knew that Ludwig Wittgenstein, after renouncing his fortune and taking up the role of an elementary school teacher, grew so frustrated he beat a child student with a book until the book fell apart? That Hannah Arendt, later known as an anti-fascist and anti-communist ideologue, was the lover of Heidegger [then married with children], who himself would go on to join the Nazis? Walter Benjamin, on the other hand, comes across as a minor intellect with no backbone whatsoever. That raises the question: why was he even included with the three Giants? My only guess is he is a favorite of Eilenberger's, who sought to elevate him by putting him in the company of the others.

The drama, if you can call it that, ends with a debate on philosophy between Heidegger and Cassirer at a conference in Davos in 1929. Perhaps the debate was a watershed event of that era, but now it sounds not so much like dark ages philosophers debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, as a debate over whether emotion and feelings trump the study of symbolism, or vice-versa. 1929 sounds ominous to most modern readers even to this day, as the year the Great Depression began. All four of these philosophers were German or Austrian. As the economy fell apart, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party came to power. Just as they were defeated, crushed by the industrial machinery of war, the first Atomic Weapons were used in war crimes against Japan, issuing in a new era of existential fear that has never truly lifted.

Perhaps those more familiar with the writings of Cassirer and Heidegger will find the parts of the book about them more enlightening than I did. This introduction to them did not make me want to read their writings. They sound like philosophical dead ends to me.

It has been over a century since Wittgenstein wrote his famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Its value, and that of his later works, have largely been absorbed into modern philosophy, but not into the larger culture. Time of the Magicians helps put his writing into both a personality and a historical context. He was, despite claims otherwise, human.

I have not met many Martin Heidegger fans, though I know he was once popular, and was part of the popular schools known as phenomenology and existentialism. From this book one gets the sense that Heidegger did not so much love nature, as he loved the romantic view of himself out in nature, away from other human beings.

I believe philosophy has its virtues in our exceedingly complex world, where culture shovels so much nonsense into our heads at such an early age. One must be critical if one is not to be conned. There are illusions in the world, and that may lead people, including philosophers, to conclude that everything is illusion, and so nothing matters. Long ago I examined that ultimate cynical viewpoint, to emerge convinced the universe is real and what we do does matter. So a factual view of the world, including the sciences but also a knowledge of business, government, history, etc., is more useful than many of the ancient religious and philosophical debates. Of the modern academic philosophers I find Patricia S. Churchland to be the most interesting. But I think, at the undergraduate college level, society is well served by survey courses in philosophy, ancient and modern.

Time of the Magicians would make a wonderful addition to undergraduate study, if only it inspired a few people to do the hard work of reading Wittgenstein. Based on the book, I would be more likely to read Cassirer at this point than Heidegger, because I find human use of symbols more interesting, if not particularly philosophically revealing, than existential posturing. Then again, I am an old man now. I thought differently when I was young.

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