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    Wittgenstein, Cassirer, Heidegger, and Benjamin Walk into a Bar

    … or make that Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch. A review of two group biographies: Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians and Benjamin J. B. Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something.

    By Daniel Walden

    March 31, 2022
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    The group biography is an unlikely genre, because who is intensely interested in the particularities of a group of people? Biographies by nature seek to distinguish their subjects from others and to delve into the details of character that make them unique. To write the biography of a group, then, is already an abstraction: there is a common element that the writer must use to justify the plurally focused project. The group biography is about lives, but it is also about ideas that bring those lives together: the idea gives structure to the work. This turns out to be an ancient principle of the genre: Plutarch’s biographies are, after all, Parallel Lives of eminent Greeks and Romans, constructed to describe common faults and common virtues in men who were similarly situated. Plutarch was a philosopher, and his biographies reflect his interest in questions about the ultimate good of human life. It is perfectly appropriate, then, that two excellent group biographies of philosophers have been published in the past two years, both focusing on the ways in which their subjects’ intellectual and personal lives animated one another, and both succeeding in leading the reader not only toward the fascinating lives of their subjects but toward a love for philosophy as a way of living a fully human life.

    Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians, originally published in German, treats four male philosophers during a formative period for each: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin, during the decade between 1919 and 1929. Eilenberger gives us two Catholics and two Jews, two conventional academic successes and two troubled academic outcasts, and very little interaction between them save for the famous 1929 confrontation between Cassirer and Heidegger. Benjamin J. B. Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something, on the other hand, focuses on the friendship and thought of four women – Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch – who did not all think of themselves as philosophers, but whom Lipscomb never fails to treat as such, and who met and became friends at a particular time in a particular place: Oxford University during the Second World War, where women for a time outnumbered men.

    Eilenberger’s men witnessed the breakdown of the conventions of “European civilization” in the First World War and became convinced that new ways of thinking were needed. … The Oxford women, on the other hand, responded to the specific moral horror of the Holocaust and to English philosophical currents …

    Even on the surface, the books make a neat pair. Each covers a group of four, but Eilenberger uses the postwar decade and the general upheaval of both political and intellectual life in Europe as the unifying principle of his drama, whereas Lipscomb begins from his subjects’ common life during a unique period at Oxford and moves from there into the rest of their lives and the intellectual questions that drove them. Both books, however, emphasize their subjects’ drive to break through to something new in philosophy in the aftermath of war. Eilenberger’s men witnessed the breakdown of the conventions of “European civilization” in the First World War and became convinced that new ways of thinking were needed, each taking a markedly different approach to the problem of how to articulate those new forms of thought. The Oxford women, on the other hand, responded to the specific moral horror of the Holocaust and to English philosophical currents that had ceased to regard moral questions as having philosophical content. Lipscomb focuses on this common commitment to moral realism, though he does not neglect their shared formative experiences or their varied approaches to pursuing philosophy.

    Perhaps the most interesting of the four men from a biographic standpoint is Ernst Cassirer because, paradoxically, he is the most forgotten in European and American intellectual life. Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Benjamin are household names to anyone who spends significant time around university humanities departments, but Cassirer is largely forgotten, despite his achievements as a leading Neo-Kantian who remained conversant throughout his life with both the “analytic” and “continental” sides of the emerging divide in philosophy. During the decade covered by Eilenberger, Cassirer’s star seems always to be rising: the decade begins with his election as professor at the University of Hamburg. Cassirer’s grand project, in keeping with his self-conception as an epistemologist, is a comprehensive theory of human culture viewed through the categories of thought that produce culture. Perhaps the most electric moment in Cassirer’s story is his encounter with art historian Aby Warburg, who was similarly interested in the entire scope of human culture and had built up a private research library, the Warburg Library for the Science of Culture, to facilitate this kind of research. Eilenberger’s biography would still be worthwhile even if its only virtue were bringing Cassirer back to the attention of the literate amateur.

    His treatment of the other three is also compelling, if not as novel. The drama of Benjamin’s life in this period consists primarily in his attempts to find legitimacy as an academic and his collapsing marriage to his wife, Dora. His story remains the most tragic of the three: a thinker who repeatedly found in minute analysis of cultural objects a path to sweeping philosophical speculation, he was often so consumed by the details of his projects that he was unable to finish them. The almost reckless novelty of his thought kept him out of the academic world and almost perpetually impoverished, and his personal recklessness strained and then ended his marriage. And of course, as many readers know, in 1940 Benjamin nearly made it to Lisbon, where he would have been free to travel to the United States, but was scheduled to be sent back to Vichy France, where he would almost certainly have been handed over to the Nazis. He took morphine in his hotel room and died.

    Wittgenstein’s life during these years is probably the most philosophically interesting; he was in the midst of repudiating the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that first took European and American philosophy by storm. In doing so he moved away from trying to find a logical form in which language could mean something and instead explored the processes through which language becomes meaningful in communities. Heidegger, meanwhile, made his own retreat into solitude to continue refining his critique of idealism and his argument for a radical return to the question of being – what does it mean to exist and why is there anything at all? The strength of Eilenberger’s treatment of all his subjects is the way in which he stages the development of philosophy in terms of personal encounters and interactions. Nonetheless, his subjects must take center stage, and the divergent character of their thought and their social lives means that their interlocutors are underdeveloped. We see them developing their thought in conversation with others, but we do not see the others fleshed out with anything like the fullness of the four major subjects.

    Precisely where Eilenberger’s treatment is weaker, Lipscomb’s is superb. By selecting a group of remarkable thinkers whose thought developed alongside and out of their long friendships with one another, he showcases for readers the profoundly social character of the philosophical life. Obviously, they are not one another’s sole interlocutors, even in this biography – Anscombe, for example, developed her thought in conversation with Wittgenstein, while Murdoch was profoundly influenced by philosopher Donald MacKinnon and philologist Eduard Fraenkel, and Midgley (who did not publish until age 59) often acknowledged her debts to natural scientists with whom she became friends – but they were sufficiently involved in one another’s lives and concerned with sufficiently similar topics that the intellectual interdependence of good philosophical work emerges as one of the major themes of their story.

    These four women’s access to an intellectual community in which they could develop and test their ideas was itself an anomaly, since Oxford had been virtually depopulated of young able-bodied men during their undergraduate years in the 1940s. The result was an Oxford at which women outnumbered men and consequently the social-intellectual life of those women was, for the first time in Oxford’s history, able to unfold relatively free of structural impediments. All four took part in serious philosophical conversations, and, although only Anscombe and Foot made careers in academic philosophy, all of them made strong contributions to a decades-long conversation about the reality of good and evil.

    Despite being the first of the group to leave academic life, Murdoch was probably the most visible in this conversation due to her extraordinary success as a novelist. Her work is marked by a keen sense of moral realism: her portrayals of wicked people are infused with an edge of satire that shows them as victims of profound self-deceit, and she grasps both the absurdity and the danger that attend erotic attraction. Indeed, much of her education in this seems to have come from experience, since she had an enormous string of love affairs with both men and women. Lipscomb does not ignore this, but he does somewhat neglect the way in which this conventionally immoral pattern of life became a deep well of moral insight, in what Murdoch herself – with perhaps some prompting from Anscombe – might eventually have conceded was the sheer operation of grace.

    Both Eilenberger and Lipscomb wear their love for philosophy on their sleeves, and both books make clear that the philosophical life is not confined to the academy – indeed, is often most fruitfully lived outside it. Lipscomb is more explicit in his emphasis on the local and interpersonal character of philosophical thought, but Eilenberger conveys this as well: his protagonists work during a time when there is no universal set of assumptions, and each makes extraordinary contributions unmistakably inflected with the character of his own life and relationships. The joy that both books take in philosophy is infectious, and the upshot is clear: this is a joy to be shared with the people around us, because philosophizing is a quintessentially human activity. To be human is to be present, to make meaning with others, to develop intellectual and cultural life by living and thinking in the midst of it. To steal briefly from Rabbi Hillel, that is the whole of philosophy: go forth and learn it!

    Contributed By a portrait of Daniel Walden Daniel Walden

    Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theatre, and the Michigan Wolverines.

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