What’s it about?

Time of the Magicians (2020) explores one of the greatest periods of German philosophy: the 1920s. In this decade of extraordinary intellectual productivity, thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Walter Benjamin upended traditional philosophical thought completely and left a lasting mark on how we understand the world.

About the author

Wolfram Eilenberger is a German philosopher and best-selling author. He’s made it his mission to analyze our contemporary world through a philosophical lens. He writes on topics from everyday culture to politics to sports. His best-selling book Time of the Magicians won the Bavarian Book Prize.

The Davos debate between Heidegger and Cassirer epitomized the 1920s’ split mindset:

The 1920s were a period marked by extremes. One technological advancement surpassed the next: cinema, radio, and automobiles radically changed urban life throughout the day. In the evenings, individuals indulge in wild excesses in basement bars and jazz clubs.

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Germany’s economy sank under the weight of World War I reparations. In the newly founded Weimar Republic, poverty and despair ruled supreme. Politics was tumultuous as well: communists, fascists, social democrats, and conservatives all struggled to control the fledgling republic, sometimes in the streets.

Many Germans were torn between ecstatic optimism and a dismal lack of opportunities. No one could predict what the future would hold. Amid this uncertainty, two intellectual titans faced off in an epic showdown.

Here’s the main point: The Davos debate between Heidegger and Cassirer epitomized the 1920s’ split mindset.

On March 26, 1929, every prominent figure in contemporary philosophy assembled at the Belvédère Hotel’s ballroom in Davos, Switzerland, to watch the decade’s first public debate.

The two opponents, Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer, could not have been more opposed. Cassirer was older and more cosmopolitan, and as a professor at the University of Hamburg, he’d built a reputation for himself. Martin Heidegger, his opponent, was philosophy’s enfant terrible. He was young, tanned, and athletic, and he had just begun teaching in Freiburg. He ruffled his intellectual elders’ feathers by wearing his ski gear to dinner the night before the debate.

What is the topic of their philosophical debate? Nothing less than humanity’s nature and philosophy’s primary role. According to the humanist Cassirer, man is a culture-forming being who asks questions and finds solutions in morality and ethics. Heidegger shrugged it off, saying that ethics and truth were just man-made illusions to make us feel better about the reality that there was no such thing as eternal existence.

Cassirer believed that humans might rise above their mortality by constructing creative and cultural symbols. Fear and death, not culture, were the foundations of human experience, according to Heidegger.

To be free, humans must recognize their metaphysical insignificance. As a result, philosophy’s mission was to face mankind with the terrible reality of their life. Cassirer was adamantly opposed once more. He believed that the objective of philosophy was to raise and liberate us from our fears.

They couldn’t agree because their worldviews were too dissimilar, and young Heidegger was too stubborn. Their contrasting viewpoints, however, were perfectly suited to the ambiguous climate of Germany in the 1920s.

Martin Heidegger wants to jolt people awake by scaring them with a metaphysical scare:

 “I think I have an inner calling to philosophy,” he asserted once. And, despite his poor beginnings, he swiftly established himself in the field, bringing with him an entirely new way of thinking.

He urged the students to ponder the phrase “There is something” when he presented his first lecture at 29. Wasn’t it incredible that anything existed at all, that humans and the world existed at all? Heidegger emphasized that philosophy’s mission was to unravel this horrific fact.

On the other hand, humanity’s mission was to expose itself to the “storms of life.” Only those willing to face existential adversity could experience the world’s mystery through their bodies.

Only through confronting painful experiences, Heidegger felt, could we find our way to authenticity. This is what he referred to as fully realized human existence. Being aware of our mortality is a precondition for authenticity: we must understand that death is unavoidable and permanent. Only those who look into this vast chasm without fear are free to live their lives to the fullest.

Heidegger lived his entire life adhering to his version of carpe diem. He was a doer, eloquent and captivating, and he rocketed up the academic ladder at breakneck speed. He completed his magnum opus, Being and Time, which earned him coveted professorships in Marburg and Freiburg in just eleven months.

He soon rose to the top of the academic world in Freiburg. He was always surrounded by adoring students who hung on his every word. His metaphysical radicalism had struck a nerve at the time. Young Germans, in particular, were driven by a need, to be honest.

Heidegger himself enjoyed actual living from time to time, taking breaks from writing to cut wood, go skiing, or go on long hikes in his beloved Black Forest and but chasing after adulterous experiences were his favorite sport. He had a secret love affair with his pupil Hannah Arendt, who became a world-famous philosopher herself for years.

On the other hand, Heidegger was spared mainly the identity-forming disasters he dreamed up in his lectures. On the contrary, he’d quickly achieved his lifelong ambition of academic recognition and reputation.

Ernst Cassirer, a humanist, espoused a variety of philosophies: 

Ernst Cassirer, Heidegger’s most prominent opponent, had likewise created a name for himself in the German university system. However, he pushed for a measured, bourgeois way of life, which Heidegger despised.

Cassirer was a calm guy, following in the footsteps of his intellectual forefathers Goethe and Kant. He retained his excellent even when the power went out during one of his lectures at Berlin’s Humboldt University. That occurred in January 1919, when street fighting was an everyday occurrence in the Weimar Republic’s fledgling democracy. Someone fired through an electrical line near the university during one of the battles. Cassirer remained unfazed, finishing his lesson in the dark.

Where did he learn to be so calm? Maybe it had something to do with his unwavering belief in the goodness of people.

Here’s the main point: Ernst Cassirer, a humanist, advocated for a variety of philosophies.

Unlike many philosophers before and after him, Cassirer didn’t think humanity was all that strange. He felt that the sum of a person’s activities and works revealed who they were. Their ability to convert their experiences into symbols sets them apart from animals. Humans comprehended and shaped the world through creating and practicing art, science, and religion.

Cassirer thought that all forms of understanding the world were of equal value. Whether astrophysics or astrology was used to explain things – the main point was learning from one another. The job of philosophy was to reconcile all the different forms of knowledge.

Cassirer lived his philosophy of human diversity and solidarity. He was highly educated, amiable, and unselfish. He always read standing up during his daily streetcar rides because he didn’t want to take a seat from anyone who needed it.

He also enjoyed working in Aby Warburg’s private Hamburg library. Warburg had arranged the works by thematic relationship rather than alphabetical or chronological order. This arrangement paralleled Cassirer’s thought, which held that all cultural methods were intertwined. In the Warburg Library, he wrote his major opus, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.

Cassirer was chosen the first Jewish director of the University of Hamburg after finishing his book in 1929. Even as anti-Semitic antagonism from National Socialists grew, he remained optimistic that humanism and education would triumph over human conflict.

Given that World War, I had just a few years prior reduced most of Europe to ruins, this confidence was astounding. Many of Cassirer’s contemporaries had lost trust in humanity, including Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a mysterious recluse who experimented with the limitations of human thought:

Wittgenstein was a first-hand witness to World War I. When he returned to his Viennese family after his imprisonment in Italy, he astonished them with an unusual gesture: he signed away all of his possessions to his siblings.

The Wittgensteins were one of Europe’s wealthiest families, and their wealth had opened many possibilities for their offspring, including Ludwig. They’d nurtured his exceptional intellectual abilities and helped him earn a Cambridge degree. Why would Wittgenstein turn down such a fortune?

Wittgenstein’s drastic decision, on the other hand, did not come out of anywhere. The conflict had profoundly scarred him. Academic philosophy began to appear meaningless to him after he had experienced its horrors. So, he began composing a treatise that would finally settle all of philosophy’s fundamental difficulties in the trenches. Following that, he desired to start living a simple life.

Here’s the main point: Ludwig Wittgenstein was a mysterious recluse who experimented with the limitations of human thought.

People were attracted by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-philosophicus, even though no one shared his belief that it had solved philosophy. This was partly because no one except Wittgenstein truly comprehended it. The Tractatus employs a complex mathematical numbering system to number sentences and has such mysterious pictures that it is still used by the academic elite today.

Wittgenstein’s goal was to demonstrate that thinking alone cannot solve the mystery of human existence. The meaning of life is revealed only in the face of death and cannot be decoded by any abstract philosophy. As a result, pondering the meaning of life is pointless. Wittgenstein pragmatically concluded, “Of which one cannot say, thereof one must be silent.” He packed his belongings and moved to a small Austrian village to begin a new life as a modest schoolteacher.

He was misunderstood much more there. The villagers avoided the eccentric city dweller, whom they regarded as unpleasant and hostile. Wittgenstein was as lonely as he had always been. He once complained to his sister that he felt a pane of glass separated him from his fellow humans.

The pane of glass is also a good metaphor for Wittgenstein’s philosophy. He felt that no matter how hard the human mind tried, it would always fall short of its inherent constraints. A human, according to Wittgenstein, was like a fly trapped in a jar, unable to find her way out into the open. And, as much as he desired for his Tractatus to open people’s eyes, he questioned that humans were capable of actual knowledge in the first place.

Walter Benjamin, a bohemian, was a keen observer of the times.

Many people consider Walter Benjamin to be an academic rockstar today. His existence as a freelancer in the 1920s, however, was far from glamorous. Benjamin, unlike Wittgenstein, had the financial means and connections to acquire significant fame during his lifetime.

He was always broke and on the edge of having a psychological breakdown. Sounds a little like a millennial creative’s fragile existence? In the 1920s, it was already a harsh reality for Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin was born into an affluent, bourgeois Berlin family, but his father was critical of his son’s philosophical ambitions and withheld financial assistance. To make ends meet, Benjamin worked as a freelance journalist.

What is the most important message? Walter Benjamin, a bohemian, was a keen observer of the times.

Benjamin was also a scrooge when it came to money. He swiftly spent any money he made as a journalist, whether on Berlin nightlife, Parisian brothels, or his enormous private collection.

He spent the remainder of his time pondering how humanity may get proper knowledge. He devised an unorthodox strategy: he believed that the only way to know the truth was to observe it rather than think about it or act on it.

Assume you’re looking at a piece of art. This act of observation, according to Benjamin, changes both you, the observer, and the work of art. It has meaning because of your thoughts. On the other hand, the artwork is imbued with your associations, which stimulates your imagination even more with each new viewing. Ideas are constantly exchanged with the observable world in this way. And it is only via this interaction that we will be able to get a deep understanding.

Benjamin’s most meaningful conversation may have taken place with Latvian actress Asja Lacis. On the Italian island of Capri, the two met. Benjamin had intended to use the time off for work, but it rapidly transformed into a romantic holiday. Lacis was a devout communist who enthralled Benjamin with her political zeal. Benjamin evolved from a sensitive observer of art to a subtle critic of capitalism under the influence of his lover. He began to devote his time to describing seemingly insignificant ordinary events.

Benjamin had a unique talent for describing different things and happenings to capture the essence of a period. His unfinished book Passages, in which he diagnoses Paris’s opulent new shopping arcades as an embodiment of modernity’s materialistic ethos, is the clearest example of this.

Unfortunately, Benjamin’s new approach did not allow him to establish himself in the academic environment of his time. His writing style was far more distinctive than sober theory, and he was closer to being art than lucid theory.

As a result, Benjamin wandered about Europe as a professional bohemian with no fixed address or financial security.

Humans, according to all four philosophers, are linguistic beings.

As disparate as they were, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Cassirer, and Benjamin all agreed on one thing: language is the fascinating human attribute of all. It was an instrument with which humans shape and mold the world, not just a means of communication. And they all set out to investigate it further.

According to Ernst Cassirer, language was one of the primary symbolic expressions through which humans gain access to the world and themselves. He felt that language shapes the essence of a person’s personality. A tiny child’s character and personality are developed when she speaks her first words. In addition to German, English, and French, Cassirer was fluent in Sanskrit and Chinese.

Heidegger, too, was looking for new ways to express himself. If his philosophy motivated humans to have new existential experiences, he believed he required new words to describe them. His lectures were replete with his mystical vocabularies, such as presence-at-hand and worldhood. His neologisms all served the same purpose: to give mankind an entirely new perspective on life.

Pessimistic About course, Wittgenstein remained suspicious of philosophical language’s potential. He noticed an uncomfortable flaw in it: language could only describe the universe of facts. But the natural sciences, not philosophy, were in charge of that. If you wanted to talk about metaphysics and the meaning of life, you had to go beyond the boundaries of what you could say. The task of philosophy was thus to demonstrate the absurdity of language.

All four thinkers were interested in the relationship between philosophy and science. Germany had long believed in the Enlightenment philosophy, which saw human reason as the cure for all personal and social ills. However, the atrocities of the war had cast doubt on this viewpoint. People began to distrust the human mind’s ability to always make the wisest, most sensible decisions. So, what was the point of philosophy in the first place?

Modern science was viewed with skepticism by Heidegger, Benjamin, and Wittgenstein.

Young German intellectuals’ worldviews were shattered by more than simply the war. Recent natural science theories have also begun to shed new light on old philosophical issues. For others, the advancement of Einstein’s theory of relativity, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Darwin’s theory of evolution, which began in 1905, raised the question of whether philosophy had become obsolete entirely.

Heidegger, who was self-assured, was unfazed by such reflections. He went so far as to criticize modernity’s solely theoretical approach to the world. Science, in his opinion, imprisons humans in a state of superficial self-avoidance and denies them access to pure Dasein, as he refers to human existence.

Poetry-fan Natural science was also a source of great skepticism for Benjamin. He saw it as an attempt to compel knowledge by taking shortcuts. Formal learning, he believed, came from revelation rather than investigation. Only those who listened and contemplated the world around them calmly would hear it reveal its truths. According to Benjamin, natural science’s progress myth had muffled the world’s voice and isolated humans from their surroundings. As a result, his detailed, descriptive illustrations of familiar objects can be regarded as a secret protest against the world’s disillusionment. Nothing would have been worse for Benjamin than falling into the trap of dry arguments and linear logic.

Skeptical Wittgenstein was impossible to please in every way, and natural science was no exception. Although he had considered philosophy to be unnecessary, he had little faith in science. He graciously declined the intellectual leader of the logical empiricists, a group of Viennese philosophers who had declared war on metaphysical speculation. Instead, he pursued a career in architecture, creating a home for his affluent sister. The Wittgenstein house on Vienna’s Kundmanngasse is a basic, cube-shaped structure with small windows and iron walls that keep prying eyes out. This weird mansion has remained a great representation of Wittgenstein’s philosophy’s unsolvable enigma to this day.

What about Cassirer, for example? He was always the upbeat one. Unlike his skeptic colleagues, he saw natural science as a means of transcending human limitations and expanding our self-creation capabilities. After all, science had already made the seemingly impossible possible, such as when mankind defied gravity by constructing planes.

However, most inhabitants of the Weimar Republic were preoccupied with issues other than science. Germany was to embrace true democracy for the first time since 1918. This was a contentious issue among the populace. On the other hand, what did the great philosophers have to say about Germany’s political future?

Philosophical perspectives on German politics were highly diverse.

The nascent Weimar Republic was in serious jeopardy in 1928. One chancellor after another had resigned. The inhabitants were afflicted by hunger and unemployment. Furthermore, many Germans resented democracy, seeing it as an “un-German” import from their adversaries during the war.

Ernst Cassirer gave a speech commemorating the Weimar Constitution’s 100th anniversary in the middle of this stressful atmosphere. He used the philosophical tradition of his hero, Immanuel Kant, as a cure to German disillusionment with democracy. He expertly demonstrated why Kant, possibly the most German of all German philosophers, would have backed a democratic republic.

Cassirer was daring to come out as a constitutional patriot as a Jewish man when anti-Semitism was on the rise. Only five years later, he was forced to emigrate due to the Nazi occupation.

Heidegger’s political beliefs were opposed to Cassirer’s. A solitary democratic community, he believed, would only obstruct an individual’s quest for purpose and our sense of authenticity. As a result, Heidegger was a firm believer in radical seclusion. He likes to make analogies between a fully complete human person and his Black Forest hut. The hut stood alone and exposed to the roaring elements at 1,200 meters above sea level, yet it remained unbreakable. Heidegger was convinced that existence’s natural grandeur would only be revealed in the face of risk and misfortune.

Was this merely a harmless fantasy of a romantic in the Black Forest? Was it a philosophical call for a new world war? We may never know for sure. However, we know that Heidegger later joined the Nazi Party and served as the director of Freiburg University under Hitler.

Benjamin dabbled with joining the Communist Party on the other extreme of the political spectrum. But he was too used to his job as an observer from the outside to participate actively in politics. Benjamin, like Cassirer, was a devout Jew who fled Germany for exile in France. He retired once more as German troops seized France. He committed suicide in 1940, fearing being deported by the Nazis.

While his peers were debating German politics, Wittgenstein preferred to focus on the mathematical concept of infinite. He had little faith in people, to begin with, so he avoided daily politics. When Hitler annexed Austria, he, too, packed his belongings and returned to Cambridge to teach.

Heidegger, Cassirer, Wittgenstein, and Benjamin, as brilliant as they were, we’re unable to alter the path of history. Nonetheless, after the Enlightenment, they re-calibrated the philosophical compass, which continues to lead us now.