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9 December 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 10:02am

The four thinkers who reinvented philosophy

Between the wars, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin sought to transform the world by giving it their total attention – a lesson that still resonates 100 years on. 

By Lyndsey Stonebridge

In 1936, writing from exile in Paris, the German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin looked back at the storms of the recent past with clear-eyed despair. Everything had happened so quickly that it was difficult to register what, in fact, had happened. A new kind of warfare, hideously inhuman technology, an economic catastrophe, and shocking levels of political impunity had knocked the world sideways. “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body,” Benjamin wrote.

Today another generation stares anxiously at the clouds under the same open sky; tiny, fragile and, as the past few months have emphasised, terribly vulnerable. We have perhaps never needed the thinkers of the early part of the 20th century more than at any other time since it ended. Barely 20 years ago it seemed as though we had mastered modernity. Apparently we’d learned to enjoy and profit from the postmodern, free-market world; the quicksands of moral, political or philosophical uncertainty were no longer to be feared. Now, nobody is quite so sure.

It is small wonder that Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians, first published in German two years ago and now translated into English, has been received with such enthusiasm. It is an intellectual lifebuoy thrown from the past to the present. One might call the book an event, were it not that Eilenberger wants us not only to learn from modern philosophy but, as importantly, to be cautious about some of the grander claims of those philosophers who prided themselves on staring into the abyss.

[See also: Unmasking Graham Greene]

Time of the Magicians takes us back to the interim between 1919 and 1929, a decade that began with the peace and ended with its disastrous consequences, the stock market crash, and Europe’s final swing towards fascism. In these ten years, four European men – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin – thought intently, obsessively and sometimes dangerously about how to answer the oldest questions of philosophy. What is a human being? How should I live? And, possibly most importantly, how, in such conditions, can I even ask these questions?

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A socially tortured, war-torn, ascetic rich boy (Wittgenstein), a narcissist who got his suits cut especially so he could approximate his own rugged mountain-man dream (Heidegger), a randy middle class klutz, equally hopeless at love and life (Benjamin), and an older man, his hair already bright white, also Jewish, deeply committed to the past, already fearful of the future (Cassirer). None of these brilliant men fitted comfortably within the philosophical schools and institutions of the moment. None of them really wanted to, despite their (many) vanities. All four wanted to shake things up, but not simply for the sake of show. Each believed that only a fearless rethinking of certainties, a piercing of convention and superficialities, and a puncturing of lies and falsehoods, could push philosophy, and humanity, into a position from which to see the world as it really is.

The magic that these notoriously difficult thinkers pulled off is deceptively simple. Each, in their own way, stripped back philosophy in order to make the world sparkle again. They argued that there are no absolute grounds for being, knowing or living that can be reasoned into the light with the old tools of philosophy: the real magic, they claimed, is there in front of us.

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For Wittgenstein, born in Vienna in 1889, it lay in the pristine logic of what language shows, and not in what we assume it to be telling us. Cassirer, born in 1874 in what was then Silesia, similarly rediscovered the mysteries of human life in the rich historical interplay of symbols and speech. Heidegger, born in south-west Germany in 1889, was a darker kind of wizard, and urged that we leap into the nothingness that stares us in the face. We must, he argued, grasp the project of being in the world (Dasein – “being there”), alone and unsupported by old metaphysical certainties, anxiously but authentically. Benjamin, born in Berlin in 1892, was less persuaded by authenticity. He was enchanted by the redeeming wonders of the everyday, those moments that could seize life back for us, if only fleetingly, in a glance; a shop window, a word.

All knew of one another, even though (with the exception of Cassirer and Heidegger, for a short time) none were friends. One of Eilenberger’s gifts is to put his thinkers into the imaginary conversations we might wish they had had. “Imagine, by way of experiment, two young men strolling together through the city,” he writes, “suddenly one says to the other”:

“How strange that anything exists [“dass es überhaupt etwas gibt”]! How miraculous: There! And there! Do you see it, too?”

And the other man nods and says: “Yes, I see it. It also shows itself to me. And you know, I always think: It is not how the world is that is mystical, but that it is.”

The first young man is Heidegger, the second Wittgenstein. The latter would have been quietly content that both were on the same page; the former, who liked nothing better than to walk and talk, would have seized the occasion to say much more.

All four thinkers shout up at us from their own dark days: just look, really look, at what’s there in front of you, they say. Read, observe, describe, follow your mind, be fearless, critical, creative, wondrous and above all don’t be fooled by easy habits, commonplace clichés, orthodoxies, ideologies, cults, or obscurantist nonsense.


We have lost sight of how empowering these insights are. By the later part of the 20th century, the works of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Benjamin had all found their places on the pine shelves of independent bookshops. Students of philosophy, deconstruction and critical theory, respectively, knew where to look to find their men.

New cults grew; orthodoxies, and prolixity, sometimes followed. I cannot have been the only apprentice critical theorist from this period to have had Heidegger regularly Daseinsplained to her in a smoky pub. Only Cassirer remained in the back-room of contemporary thought. These thinkers were exciting, but the presentation of their thought and the urgency of their inventiveness became obscure even as their ideas became mainstream.

The historical and political conditions that their work was responding to were also overlooked. There is a bathos built into the narrative of The Time of the Magicians in that we all know what happened next –  and what happened was catastrophic. As Eilenberger informs us in his book’s crisp epilogue, in May 1933 Cassirer was forced out of his teaching post by Hitler’s anti-Semitic Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service and went into exile. In the same month Heidegger, now a signed-up member of the National Socialist Party, gave his infamous Rector’s Address at Freiburg University, supporting Hitler and the vigorous “self-assertion” of the distinctly German university. Seven years later, Walter Benjamin took his own life in Portbou, having dragged his tiny, fragile body over the Pyrenees to be told that the border rules had changed and he’d have to return to occupied France. Only Wittgenstein truly survived to ask the question: “Philosophy: what else?”

[See also: “The English believe their elites are a treacherous class”: James Hawes on his short history of England]

That we know what happened next is why Eilenberger’s patient and expert philosophical explanations are both so valuable and timely. The book begins and ends with a meeting between Heidegger and Cassirer at a philosopher’s conference in Davos, Switzerland, in March 1929. Their debate was far from straightforwardly academic. Cassirer, tired and uncomfortable, was nursing a cold. He explained that he was challenging the foundations of philosophical thought to reveal what was truly important: the symbolic systems by which we give meaning to ourselves as humans, collectively and together. Heidegger – fresh off the slopes, blowing the snow off his moustache – countered that this common humanity, culture, civilisation, was another lure, an inauthentic distraction from the true role of philosophy. Its proper function was to confront us with the abyss: only then could an authentic new human being emerge. His audience was spellbound. The die was cast, and not only for modern philosophy.

“None of these thinkers ever wrote about ethics in the conventional sense, or even tried to do so,” Eilenberger writes in one of his many poignant understatements. “They had their reasons.” Indeed. One of those reasons was that, save Cassirer, all were uncommonly self-absorbed. Another was that, for all they urged that we see what is in front us, none was particularly good at seeing what was happening in the world.


Much of the philosophical action in this period emanated from Philipps University in the small town of Marburg, just north of Frankfurt. Marburg was where Cassirer had studied, where Heidegger got his first professorship, and where in the autumn of 1924 he bewitched his undergraduates with his seminal lectures on Plato’s Sophist. In the audience of lecture room 11 was the student he would sleep with before the end of the semester, the young political philosopher

Hannah Arendt (the major thinker in this book sometimes referred to by her first name). In May that year, the Nazi völkisch in Marburg had gained three times more votes than the national average in the Reichstag elections.

It was an early shot across the bows, but not entirely out of keeping with the town’s recent history. In 1920, members of the university student militia, the Studenkorps, had massacred 15 leftists in the countryside. They were acquitted. You only needed to peer through the high windows of lecture theatre 11 to see that something bad was going on.

Walk to the university today along Barfüsstrasse, up to the steps where Heidegger would have leapt, probably two steps at time, to his lectures and you can see the house where the Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyon, was hidden in 1946. Local activists have daubed the gates and walls with informative graffiti. They have learnt Cassirer’s lessons about keeping humanity present with signs and symbols. The ground may yet again be moving beneath our feet, but nowadays it is harder to plead historical or political innocence.

In 1951, an older and wiser Arendt picked up Benjamin’s point about the torrents and explosions of the early 20th century in her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The two had become friends in Berlin and Paris. That first conflagration, she explained, seemed “to have touched off a chain reaction in which we have been caught ever since and which nobody seems to be able to stop”. It was as though the world had got on to a treadmill and couldn’t work out how to get off. Total war, fascism, statelessness, industrial-scale genocide and the “corpse factories” followed. The magicians had fatally underestimated what they were up against.


Arendt promises to feature in Eilenberger’s next book, another quartet, this time to include, alongside Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil and, intriguingly, the darling of libertarian conservatives, the American Ayn Rand.

It is tempting to see three of these women as filling in the historical and moral blind spots of their predecessors. Arendt took on Heidegger’s lessons about being, but in place of his deathly heroics of authenticity, developed a theory of human plurality which affirmed love and the promise of politics. Beauvoir supplied existentialism with the ethics of ambiguity – necessary, she argued, to the project of becoming in a complex world. Her contemporary, the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, found the injustices of the modern world intolerable and responded with a new and uncompromising ethics of Christian grace. It will be fascinating to read what Eilenberger thinks Rand brings to this table.

[See also: The White Gods]

I would have chosen another writer in Rand’s place: the lamentably under-read Austrian poet, novelist and librettist Ingeborg Bachmann, the daughter of a Nazi father and the lover of the poet and Holocaust survivor, Paul Celan (and briefly, too, of Henry Kissinger). Bachmann wrote her PhD thesis against Heidegger. Suspicious of his latent obscurantism, she was one of a postwar generation of experimental German-language writers who were committed to rooting out fascism from literature, culture and language itself. She was a Wittgenstein scholar and believed, with him, that we could counter the “bewitchment of our understanding by language” only by a patient and meticulous attention to language itself.

I found myself thinking a lot about Bachmann’s writing when reading The Time of the Magicians, and not just because of the creative link she makes between two of the book’s protagonists. Each novel in her unfinished cycle, Todesarten (“Ways of Dying”), features a woman’s death that is some way mysteriously connected to a charismatic man – a writer, a thinker, a father, a lover. The stories make explicit a truth that is implicit in Eilenberger’s account of brilliant men boldly attempting to square up to the modern world. There is a blindness, a narcissism, that is not just a matter of philosophical missteps or theoretical wrong turns, but which belongs to the historical violence of patriarchy.

Perhaps this is the most obvious thing in front of us, which no amount of clear critical thinking has yet properly tackled. After all, throughout history the tiny fragile human bodies are rarely white European men. It just so happened that it was their world that also got knocked off course in the early 20th century. Some might say that we’ve been paying for it ever since.

Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought 1919-1929
Wolfram Eilenberger, translated by Shaun Whiteside
Allen Lane, 432pp, £25

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special