Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy

Penguin. Aug. 2020. 432p. ISBN 9780525559665. $30. PHIL
In the decade 1919–29, four young philosophers would struggle to chart new ways out of the intellectual tailspin brought on by World War I and its aftermath. German journalist philosopher Eilenberger’s 2018 Bavarian Book Prize–winning book astutely weaves the personal struggles, careers, loves, and philosophical products of four thinkers who profoundly shaped 20th-century philosophy: Ludwig Wittgenstein, the ascetic of Austria whose first book spawned a philosophical movement based on a fundamental misunderstanding of it; Walter Benjamin, the spendthrift radical critic, unable to keep his word or finish a project; Ernest Cassirer, carrying on traditional philosophical pursuits in language and symbolic forms; and this book’s grown-up in the room, only to be upstaged by the young Martin Heidegger, willing to use others in his chase of academic status. Eilenberger’s concise and clear explanations of some of the century’s most confounding philosophical texts are illuminating. His research astutely draws on primary texts and the best secondary literature.
VERDICT This book is a tapestry of contrasts and conjunctions; both colorful and elegant, juxtaposing smooth and rough in a narrative structure that surprises, explains, and compels readers ever forward. Highly recommended.
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