Time of the Magicians Book Summary - Time of the Magicians Book explained in key points
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Time of the Magicians summary

Wolfram Eilenberger

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

4.4 (172 ratings)
25 mins

Brief summary

Time of the Magicians by Wolfram Eilenberger is a narrative of four philosophers - Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer, and Ludwig Wittgenstein - whose ideas shaped the 20th century.

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    Time of the Magicians
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    The Davos dispute between Heidegger and Cassirer exemplified the polarized mood of the 1920s.

    The 1920s were an age of extremes. During the day, one technical innovation overtook the next: cinema, radio, and cars completely transformed urban life. And at night, people let themselves go in wild excesses at basement pubs and jazz clubs.

    But it wasn’t all fun and games. In Germany, the economy groaned under reparation payments for World War I. Poverty and misery reigned in the freshly formed Weimar Republic. Politics, too, was turbulent: communists, fascists, social democrats, and conservatives all fought for power over the young republic – sometimes even in the streets.

    Many Germans oscillated between a euphoric belief in progress and a desperate lack of prospects. No one really knew what the future would bring. And amid this uncertainty, two intellectual giants met for a legendary standoff.

    Here’s the key message: The Davos dispute between Heidegger and Cassirer exemplified the polarized mood of the 1920s.

    It was March 26, 1929, when every important name in contemporary philosophy gathered in the ballroom of the Belvédère Hotel in Davos, Switzerland, to watch the public debate of the decade.

    Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer, the two opponents, couldn’t have been more opposite. Cassirer was older and cosmopolitan, and he’d made a name for himself as a professor at the University of Hamburg. His challenger, Martin Heidegger, was the enfant terrible of philosophy. He was young, tanned, and sporty, and had only recently started teaching in Freiburg. The night before the debate, he ruffled the feathers of his philosophical elders by wearing his ski gear to dinner.

    The subject of their philosophical showdown? Nothing less than the nature of humanity and the fundamental role of philosophy. The humanist Cassirer asserted that man was a culture-forming being who asks questions and finds answers in morals and ethics. Heidegger waved it off: ethics and truth were nothing more than man-made illusions to console us over the fact that there was no eternal life.

    Cassirer was convinced that by creating artistic and cultural symbols, humans could lift themselves above their own mortality. Heidegger shook his head at this: not culture, but fear and death were the basis of human experience.

    Humans have to confront their metaphysical insignificance in order to become free. Accordingly, the task of philosophy was to confront humans with the harsh truth of his existence. Once again, Cassirer strongly disagreed. He thought that the purpose of philosophy was to free us from our fears to uplift and liberate us.

    The two simply couldn’t agree – their worldviews were too different and young Heidegger too stubborn. But their opposing views fit perfectly into the ambivalent atmosphere of 1920s Germany.

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    What is Time of the Magicians 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.

    Best quote from Time of the Magicians

    If Davos had not happened, future historians would have had to invent it.

    —Wolfram Eilenberger
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    Who should read Time of the Magicians?

    • Armchair philosophers and critical thinkers
    • History buffs interested in Germany’s roaring twenties
    • Anyone who’s ever wondered about the meaning of life

    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.

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