Knowing and Being

This book provides a great tour of philosophy, primarily German, in the early decades of the 20th century.

Eilenberger, W. (2018). Time of the Magicians. Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger and the Decade that Reinvented Philosophy. New York: Penguin.

Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859), Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (1905), and Freud’s Psychoanalysis (1917) had upset Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) that saw human life as immutable rather than subject to the evolution of life forms, space-time variations, and underlying psychological predilections.

The questions of interests to these four men included:

  • What does it mean to exist?
  • What can be known; what is knowable?
  • What can be influenced, affected?

They encountered much angst in pursuing answers, as well as challenges gaining and retaining positions that paid enough to sustain themselves and families.

Eilenberger covers the period 1919 to 1929.  The four main characters are:

  • Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945): Neo-Kantian pursuing an idealistic philosophy of science.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): Worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language
  • Martin Heidegger (1989-1976): Best known for contributions to phenomenology, hermeneutics, and existentialism.
  • Walter Benjamin (1892-1940): Contributions to aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and historical materialism.

Contemporaries, although a bit older (except for Arendt), include:

  • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900): Philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, and philologist who exerted a profound influence on modern intellectual history.
  • Gottlob Frege (1848-1925): Father of analytic philosophy, concentrating on the philosophy of language, logic, and mathematics.
  • Bertrand Russell (1872-1970): Polymath, philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate.
  • G.E Moore (1983-1958): One of the founders of analytic philosophy with Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gottlob Frege.
  • John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946): Economist who fundamentally changed theory and practice of macroeconomics and economic policies of governments
  • Hannah Arendt (1906-1975): Political theorist with lasting influence on political theory and philosophy; a most important political thinkers of the 20th century

Historical figures who hugely influenced contemporary thought at that time were:

  • Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716): Prominent polymath and one of the most important logicians, mathematicians and natural philosophers of the Enlightenment
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): Comprehensive and systematic works in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics have made Kant one of the most influential figures in modern Western philosophy.
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832): Works include: four novels; epic and lyric poetry; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; and treatises on botany, anatomy, and color.
  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831): Philosopher and the most important figure in German idealism

The struggles of these four men with the questions noted earlier were interesting, but I found it difficult to relate to their angst.  Rather than addressing such universal and perhaps absolute questions, I am more attuned to understanding my experiences and perceptions.  Finally, on page 246 of 365, I encountered this paragraph, with which I highly resonated.

“For the Renaissance, the foundation of all this opening of the self and the world is the ability to give symbolic expression to our own experience. It is this that enables our entirely individual vision of the world to take shape in the form of a work, even if it is only the matter of playing the flute, making a gesture, a drawing, or a calculation.  Having become a sign, and having been placed in the public sphere, a “work” can then be a starting point for others, for successors to open up themselves and the world; this is culture as a continuous process of symbolically guided orientation, or indeed an opening up, even in the form of a whistle, a movement, or a sketch, or a calculation.”

Reading this book caused me to delve into the history of contemporary western philosophy from the 17th century until now.  The number of schools of thought and leaders of these schools is rather amazing.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I find myself sympathetic to the school founded by William James (1842-1910) and Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) at Harvard, and later John Dewey (1859-1952) at Chicago, in the late 19th century.

“Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.”  This sounds a lot like science and engineering to me, which is probably to be expected from a pragmatic American.  Thus, the earlier three questions should be logically and empirically addressed.  If the answers have practical value, then one can accept their truth at least tentatively until better answers are formulated and evaluated.

This book was, obviously, very thought provoking.  It caused me to revisit topics I have not addressed since being an undergraduate more than 50 years ago.  I paid attention to these topics then because they were course requirements.  This time, I was simply fascinated and wanted to know.  Of course, I have only touched the surface of this broad topic, totally biased to Western rather than Eastern thought and not exploring indigenous cultures.  An interesting question is whether philosophizers in all cultures pose the same fundamental questions.

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