Wittgenstein was a conservative thinker

1920s philosophy"The origin of our attitude towards life"

The last major phase of German-speaking philosophy was almost 100 years ago: the 1920s were not only a time of scientific and cultural revolution, but also of thought. For the last time the world spirit was at home in Germany and Austria. For the last time a tremor went from here through all the academic ivory towers. And perhaps for the last time ever, a theoretical foundation was laid on which the buildings of thought, in which we can of course stay today, have their support. It was a "time of magicians", so the title of Wolfram Eilenberger's new book. The author tries to grasp this epochal time with four central philosophers: Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin.

"I think there are two starting points. One is when you try to understand our situation now, and philosophizing for me is always an attempt to understand your own life situation, you absolutely need these four thinkers as companions in self-orientation . I think they are among the four most important people to talk to today. "

The origin of our present-day attitude to life

Another starting point: Eilenberger would like to use these four thinkers to work out how theory can become the engine of one's own development. And which topics were raised in the 1920s that concern us with the greatest urgency today - in view of a still barely manageable technical and political change.

"That all leads to this decade of the 1920s, which are a kind of origin not only for our theoretical constellation today, but also for our attitude towards life. The way in which we understand ourselves as cultural existences in 2018 has it all, or at least it does very much to do with the ideas that were developed in the 1920s. "

Without the traumatization that the First World War brought with it, the explosion of thought in the 1920s cannot be understood. It is both a decade of crisis and a new beginning. Last but not least, the twenties are a time of radical upheavals and revolutionary discoveries in the natural sciences and technology - just think of the quantum leaps at Heisenberg or Einstein or the Freudian revolution, which is now really taking hold. In art, the avant-garde is experimenting with forms and new media. In philosophy, the Kantian question about the essence of man must be viewed differently: How determined and indeterminate is our knowledge of the world? Does the Absolute have limits?

Common ground, but different answers

It is true that all of the four thinkers presented by Eilenberger come from Neo-Kantianism. So there was a common ground. But their answers are different. In his book, Eilenberger manages to get them talking to one another. He does it very cleverly: He proceeds chronologically, interlacing his biography and work in an illuminating way, blending the various approaches into one another in order to highlight similarities and differences. He reads the essential writings of his four heroes again, sometimes against the grain. It shows the unconditional nature of these thinkers and the constraints in which they found themselves against the background of the consequences of the First World War, inflation and the economic crisis, institutional temptations and private love entanglements. Eilenberger is not only an accomplished researcher, but also a gifted mediator thanks to his writing skills. One notices this, for example, when he outlines the basic characteristics of the thinker.

"Heidegger is a rural, anchored, peasant, folk-thinking, one can say nationally-minded thinker, for whom his own culture and his own language are essential. Cassirer is a bourgeoisie with a Jewish background, who thinks cosmopolitan, universal, from an artist - and a family of scholars comes. Wittgenstein is a child prodigy from a very rich family who then seeks a mystical retreat, almost into spirituality. And Benjamin (...) is the normal precarious existence of a freelance writer, whom we can still find in Berlin today on almost every corner That means there are four different concepts of existence and that is not external for the development of thoughts, but that is a driving factor of what these people think. "

"All four thinkers move on the border between the sayable and the unspeakable"

Even at this point it becomes clear that the differences between these philosophers are serious. But what are the similarities?

"All four believe that there is not much that is meaningful to say about the basic relationship that allows us to be meaningful in existence. That is, all four thinkers move on the borderline of the sayable and the unspeakable, the knowable, the unknowable , and also on the boundary between knowledge and spirituality. That is a very essential center for all four. And the answers that are given are in a certain way identical with Heidegger and Wittgenstein: We can exist on the fundamentals of what makes sense to us For Benjamin they lie in historical relationships that have to be penetrated and made transparent. And for Cassirer they lie in our ability, our self, our culture and our history through signs, through symbols, through symbolic forms meaning to give.

There you see four answers to a question that share a diagnosis: You can have premonitions about the basic relationship of what it means to be in the world, you can have knowledge of belief, but philosophy cannot justify and judge."

Martin Heidegger's desk in the philosopher's mountain hut in Todtnauberg in the Black Forest (Baden-Wuerttemberg). (dpa / picture alliance / Rolf Haid)
Ernst Cassirer, who is clearly overshadowed by Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Benjamin in today's reception, surprisingly plays an important role at Eilenberger - almost as a role model for today's thinking:

"There is a scandal at the bottom of this book, and it consists in the fact that the three most important philosophers of the 20th century from Germany were not democrats. Wittgenstein was not; Heidegger was not; Benjamin too had an extremely ambivalent relationship to parliamentary democracy .

The only one who absolutely committed himself to the Weimar Republic and the idea of ​​democracy and human rights was actually Cassirer. And that is no coincidence, because it was a mixture that was actually the rule among German scholars in the 1920s. And Cassirer is the one who stays in shape in the storm of these crises and the storm of arguments, and actually never drifts into extreme positions.

The philosophers Martin Heidegger (l), Ludwig Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin (imago / United Archives International / picture alliance / dpa / Wittgenstein Archive Cambridg / Heinzelmann)

In this respect he is a silent hero of the book. But the other three can also show us something for our time and convey something. "

Cassirer is also the focus of Eilenberger's central chapter, to which the title "The Magician's Time" already refers: In 1929 a congress took place in Davos' Grand Hotel & Belvédère, at which the undisputed pioneer of Neo-Kantianism focused on the new shooting star of the philosophical World should meet, namely Martin Heidegger. Five years earlier, Thomas Mann had almost anticipated this meeting in the "Zauberberg": In his Zeitroman, Settembrini and Naphta, two very different thinkers, met in Davos - they embodied enlightenment and irrationalism, reason and extremism. Now reality followed suit.

"It is a disputation between Cassirer and Heidegger, the two most influential philosophers in the German-speaking world at the time, who represent very different worldviews, very different ways in which culture should develop. Heidegger wanted a folkish, earthy, fearful and risk-taking, also willing to make sacrifice Serve the concept of existence to the young-thinking guard.

While Cassirer said we have to go back to Kant, Goethe, to the values ​​of the Enlightenment. That is, a disputation between two people who were habitually totally different: You can say Heidegger was the hut, Cassirer was the hotel, Heidegger was the origin and the storm, and Cassirer was calm and wise, but it is also Ideas that were represented there, which today, in 2018, determine our discourse about where this country and this culture are headed. Do we want a direction towards a völkisch anchored, isolated, perhaps also self-sacrificing existence? Or do we want to uphold the values ​​of the universal, culture and cosmopolitanism? That means reading this disputation also means understanding our situation. And when you read it, you think that might be a discussion going on today. And it would be just as important today as it was then. "

Smart but gratifyingly unacademic study

This is exactly what makes Wolfram Eilenberger's clever, but gratifyingly unacademic study relevant today: In fact, the questions and discourses that arose in the 1920s lead directly to the present, and today's social conflicts are similar to those of the period of upheaval at that time. "The Magician's Time" ends in 1929. Of course, we know how history went on, how easily some ideas could be docked with the new balance of power, how quickly irrationalism and anti-democracy led to the collapse of humanistic agreements. German-speaking philosophy has not recovered from the break in civilization in the Third Reich to this day. This is also to be remembered when turning to contemporary debates.

"I think what these four people show us is what it can mean to take your own questions seriously and see them as the basis of your own development. And that is the book I wanted to write: that you show what power that philosophy can have for one's own life, even today. "

Eilenberger, Wolfram: "The Magician's Time. The Great Decade of Philosophy 1919-1929".
Velcro cotta. Stuttgart 2018. 432 pages. 25 euros.