"Old Ways of Thinking, Overturned,"
by Julian Baggini

The birth pangs of modern philosophy may be discovered in the lives,
and disruptive claims, of four intellectual titans.

Review of The Time of the Magicians,
by Wolfram Eilenberger

The Wall Street Journal, August 15-16, 2020, C7,9

But the philosophy [i.e. Wittgenstein's] that killed off truth proclaims unlimited tolerance for the 'language games' (i.e., opinions, beliefs and doctrines) that people find useful. The outcome is expressed in the words of Karl Kraus:  'Alles ist wahr und auch das Gegenteil.' 'Everything is true, and also its opposite.'

Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009), "Our Merry Apocalypse," 1997, Is God Happy? Selected Essays [Basic Books, 2013, p.318].

In recent years [Martin Heidegger] has allowed his anti-Semitism to come increasingly to the fore, even in his dealings with his group of devoted Jewish students... The events of the last few weeks have struck at the deepest roots of my existence.

Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), 4 May 1933, after Heidegger, as Rector of Freiberg University, had revoked Husserl's access to the University Library [quoted by Richard Wolen, Heidegger's Children, Princeton University Press, 2001, p.11].

ὅτε ἤμην νήπιος, ἐλάλουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐφρόνουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐλογιζόμην ὡς νήπιος· ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου.

Cum essem parvulus, loquebar ut parvulus, sapiebam ut parvulus, cogitabam ut parvalus; quando factus sum vir, evacuavi quae erant parvuli.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

1 Corinthians 13:11

The review of Wolfram Eilenberger's The Time of the Magicians by Julian Baggini opens a window on how recent philosophy is seen in public discourse. Baggini, although now the academic director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, does not have a standard academic position himself; and we could say he is more of an journalist and popularizer than, strictly speaking, an academic philosopher. However, I take him to be representative of academic opinion. Since he is conspicuously a "secular humanist" and atheist, he does not deviate from a lot of what we might expect from academic philosophers. A philosopher, of course, who dismisses religion cannot properly address the human condition, let alone a lot of recent history. The philosophers discussed by Wolfram Eilenberger also fall into this camp. Yet the period of these "magicians" in the 1920's was also the time of the mature work of Rudolf Otto, whose contribution to philosophy of religion is commonly either misunderstood or seriously misrepresented. That he is ignored again in favor of people like Heidegger and Wittgenstein is all too typical.

Eilenberger highlights four philosophers specifically in the decade of the 1920's. These are Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Walter Benjamin. None of these figures is of enduring or edifying value, let alone such as to qualify as "intellectual titans." Three of them represent negative and even vicious influences. Baggini more or less seems to agree with this judgment, despite the subtitle, except when it comes to Wittgenstein, who Baggini says "is a towering giant whose works have stood the test of time," which is nonsense. Baggini is compelled to admit, however, that "in both the Anglophone world and continental Europe his disciplines are a zealous minority." There are good reasons for that, but Baggini does not consider here why minority status should be the case.

We get a little more about the problem with Heidegger. Since Heidegger's Nazism followed the period convered by Eilenberger's book, he pays little attention to it; but Baggini says, "the line between Heidegger's elitist philosophy and his Nationalism Socialism is clear and chilling enough." However, it is the obscurity, irrationalism, nihilism, violence, and German nationalism of Heidegger's thought that are more of the problem, not his "elitism." This may clue us in about some bias or eccentricity in Baggini's judgment. Indeed, irrationalism and nihilism are also characteristic of Wittgenstein, at least in his later period; and the scientism of the earlier Wittgenstein had no place for the meaning of metaphysics or ethics, i.e. truths of Being and Value. That would be one definition of nihilism. The later Wittgenstein, who might well recognize the discourse of Being and Value in "ordinary language," nevertheless relativizes this, reducing such matters to "language games" with no claim to reference, objectivity, or reality. Nihilism again.

Baggini's skepticism about Eilenberger's thesis, and his "magicians," comes out when he says that it "leaves us wondering whether they were more like fraudulent Wizards of Oz." I would say so, including Wittgenstein. But this is perhaps with the exception of Ernst Cassirer, whose problem, however, is that, as a generally sober and sensible person, he doesn't have any particularly new, let alone revolutionary, ideas. Noting that Cassirer was the only believer in democracy among these philosophers, we nevertheless get Baggini saying that "his boring conservativism implied a 'belief in the equal humanity of all sign-using beings'." The substitution here of "sign-using beings" for the traditional "rational beings" is, shall we say, a bad sign, substituting an idiosyncratic obscurantism whose "conservatism" is not obvious, but whose unappealing nature is.

20th Century philosophers did get excited about "signs," almost always to no valuable effect -- and in fact to disastrous folly among the followers of Ferdinand de Saussure, whose self-referential autism of "signs" nicely matches the self-referential autism of Wittgenstein's "language games" -- and he is the sort of person who says "phonic substance" instead of just "sound." And it is not surprising that Baggini should say that "Cassirer's star faded quickly, and few now even read him." There may not be all that many who even remember who he was. This was an "intellectual titan"?

Baggini's review, like Eilenberger's book, begins with the historic moment when Cassirer debated Martin Heidegger at Davos, Switzerland, in March 1929 -- on what had been the site of Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain." We would expect this to have been an epic clash between rationalism and irrationalism; but we may end up getting the drift that Cassirer's own rationalism was half-hearted, while Heidegger's irrationalism and nihilism may have been stated in such a form that no one could have understood them. The force with which Heidegger should have been met was lacking, just as Bertrand Russell was not the one to represent philosophy in his discussions with Kurt Gödel, Albert Einstein, and Wolfgang Pauli at the Institute for Advanced Study. Actually, Cassirer, with his background in Kant, might have been better at that than Russell, who had no taste for the metaphysics that interested the others. With Cassirer and Heidegger, Baggini quotes a Swiss newspaper saying:

Rather than seeing two worlds collide, at best we enjoyed the spectacle of a very nice person and a very violent person, who was still trying terribly hard to be nice, delivering monologues.

I am left in no doubt that "charismatic, aggressive" Heidegger was the "violent person," who soon got to see his mental violence fully realized in the Nazi regime. This was Heidegger's "total break with the past," as Baggini puts it.

Just what the "past" was is misrepresented by Eilenberger, with not much dissent from Baggini:

.. the abstraction-fixated, anti-corporeal, consciousness-obsessed modern age of René Descartes and his methodical successors.

Baggini expands this with:

In philosophy, the solitary thinker, empowered by reason, had become master of all he surveyed. Philosophers had forgotten that they were human and instead acted as if they were gods, able to detach themselves from their cultures and even their bodies in order to understand the world as it is. In so doing, the argument runs, they had lost touch not only with reality but with their own being.

This misrepresents the dynamic and the problematic of Cartesian and subsequent thought. All of the 17th and 18th century philosophers were faced with the development of science, which the Rationalists tended to see from the side of mathematics, while the Empiricists tended to see it from the side of experience. Since none of them were actually scientists, there were distortions involved. Central to all of it was the philosophical Problem of Knowledge, which for Descartes as well as for the Empiricists involved understanding how perception could convey veridical knowledge of the world -- a thing of no actual concern to trendy, recent philosophy, which doesn't worry much about the external world, which may not even exist.

This has little to do with the philosopher being the "solitary thinker," except that Descartes was faced with the threat of solipsism and so radical skepticism. Otherwise, there was little solitude in the context of the advancement of science, where everyone (except Newton) talked to everyone else, and all of this was perhaps irrelevant to issues of the foundations of mathematics, which no one really considered until Kant. However, Baggini fails to understand that his "solitary thinker" complaint, of someone detached "from their cultures and even their bodies," remains absolutely true for mathematicians, and can even amount to a personality type, like that of Kurt Gödel, whose less extreme expression is still recognizable in Descartes and Leibniz.

This had nothing to do with whether philosophers were "gods," and one and all would have found the accusations about detachment from "their cultures and even their bodies" puzzling. Subsequent accusations that scientific knowledge is hopelessly subject to cultural or ideological bias might have been understood for what they are: denials of the very reality and objectivity of science -- i.e. part of the relativism and nihilism evident in Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Where Baggini says that Eilenberger's philosophers were trying to achieve "a diagnosis of modern philosophy’s sickness," what we may get instead is a display of the genuine sickness, and sicknesses, of "post-modern" philosophy instead.

The "cures" for modernity from the cited philosophers, Baggini says, "differed dramatically." So with Wittgenstein:

For Wittgenstein, the problem was language. As he would say in his posthumous “Philosophical Investigations” (1953): “Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” If so, the modern era was one endless, long-haul vacation from common linguistic sense. Apparently deep mysteries about the nature of meaning, freedom and the reality of the material world arose solely because philosophers had forgotten that words such as “meaning” and “freedom” make sense only when used in everyday life. “Everything that gives meaning to life, and the world in which we live,” Mr. Eilenberger writes, paraphrasing Wittgenstein’s views, “already lies within the boundaries of what can be directly said.”

A couple of problems are evident here. In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein had given up, not only his scientism, but any scientific realism at all. Thus, the "language" and results of science, let alone the higher mathematics used by science, are certainly not things that "make sense only when used in everyday life." Science and mathematics are not "everyday life" in any sense. At the same time, the Philosophical Investigations is not part of "everyday life" either; and Wittgenstein's entire philosophy suffers from the paradox that it is not part of "ordinary language" or "everyday life." He had a similar problem in the Tractatus, and there he honestly admitted that the claims of his philosophy made the claims of his own philosophy meaningless. The "later" Wittgenstein is in no better shape, but he has meanwhile lost the perspicacity or perhaps honesty of the earlier. Instead, the oracular manner of the Tractatus is replaced, or supplemented, by the sort of furious and dogmatic assertions evident in his famous confrontaton with Karl Popper.

Meanwhile, Wittgenstein's perennial urge to create "boundaries of what can be directly said," continued to prohibit "language" addressing the truths of Being and Value, about which all human beings tend to become concerned at some point in their lives. That's what religion is all about. Yet Baggini says that modern philosophers "had lost touch not only with reality but with their own being." This is, unfortunately, something from which Wittgenstein seems to suffer himself. Subsequent Wittgensteinians realized that natural religion would fall within "ordinary language," but there is no hint of that in Wittgenstein, except for his obscure remarks about the "mystical" in the Tractatus -- and his prohibitions on the "boundaries" of language would, in any case, prevent philosophers from talking about it.

Thus, "words such as 'meaning' and 'freedom' make sense only when used in everyday life," but talking about them requires a stepping-back, or detachment, that Wittgenstein doesn't want to allow. Instead, Wittgenstein's own definition of "meaning," as the usage of particular language games, relativizes meaning and detaches it from any extra-linguistic, i.e. objective, reality. This is in itself the nihilism and the "sickness," not of modernity, but of "post-modern" philosophy. Baggini says that Wittgenstein "placed questions of language and meaning at the center of philosophy." This is, in a sense, absurd, since Wittgenstein prohibited philosophy from talking about them in any meaningful ad rem sense; but what he did allow was to render "ordinary language" self-referential and autistic, whereby "meaning" becomes meaningless. And, on top of it, "To understand human existence, you need to understand language," but Wittgenstein didn't understand language -- if the function of language is to refer, to be true or false, and to be about the world, instead of being just about itself. "Human existence" becomes a "language game," which has no significance beyond the sort of football game that is supposed to have inspired Wittgenstein's thesis.

In those terms, Baggini's critique of the other three philosophers applies just as well to Wittgenstein, despite Baggini's claim that the latter has "stood the test of time."

For Heidegger -- “a kind of conceptual wrecking ball”-- this core credo meant that we had to throw out all “the ubiquitous but fundamentally false concepts” that had led us down philosophy’s blind alley.

How the Nazi Party was better than modernity's "blind alley" remains a challenge to all Heidegger apologists.

Whereas Wittgenstein thought it was enough to return words such as subject, object, reality and value to their pre-philosophical innocence, Heidegger believed that we needed a new vocabulary of neologisms and redefinitions. Among them was Dasein (being-in-the-world), Jemeinigkeit (each-one-ness) and Sorge (concern). For Wittgenstein, such a lexicon would undoubtedly lead, as Mr. Eilenberger puts it, to more “predictable nonsense and false problems generated by language.”

Unfortunately, there was no "pre-philosophical innocence" for "words such as subject, object, reality and value," which either only exist as philosophical vocabulary, or whose pre-philosophical usage would involve claims, about Being and Value, that Wittgenstein really prohibits us from discussing.

Meanwhile, the proper objection to Heidegger's neologisms and jargon, echoing what Popper called the obscurantist "high tide of prophecy" in Hegel and Marx, is not that it led to "predictable nonsense and false problems," but that it led to totalitarianism, racism, war, and genocide. Yet Hitler got all that done without being a philosopher, which I take to mean that he was using his own "language game" in his own "ordinary language." Wittgenstein's possible sort of objection to this, that it is "misusing language," would actually match Heidegger's own critique, where he wanted to reinvent language by reaching back to the Pre-Socratics. The focus on language by both of them was a way of legitimizing oracular pronouncements and ignoring both ad rem argumentation and any issue of veridical claims. Both Wittgenstain and Heidegger end up with systems that are self-referential and autistic.

By switching the focus from metaphysics to language, these philosophers appear to have brought philosophy down to earth. But the results still seem more like divine truths than anything truly mortal.

Baggini has got the point there. Philosophy is not brought "down to earth," but it is left off in a linguistic world of its own, presented indeed as "divine truths." It is just that Baggini hasn't noticed how well this applies to Wittgenstein as well as Heidegger.

All four, says Mr. Eilenberger, were engaged in “the search for the one language underlying all human speech.” For all their talk of philosophical revolution, there is something deeply old-fashioned in their shared desire to find the pure, perfect form of language, even if it was in this world rather than in a nonmaterial realm.

But it is in "a nonmaterial realm" where we will always get language that does not refer and where objectivity and truth are dismissed.

To his credit, Wittgenstein rejected the idea that there was a flawless, logically rigorous language separate from ordinary speech.

Not true. Not at all. Wittgenstein's own language, whether in the Tractatus or the Philosophical Investigations (etc.) is "flawless, logically rigorous language." The early Wittgenstein had to finally admit that it was not the Tractatus, but science, that really had that status; but the later Wittgenstein forgot all that, and only his own language rises above the relativism and autism of quotitian "language games." He sees reality as it is, floating above ordinary language, unlike anyone else.

Cassirer, the most sober of the four, was also skeptical that there is one, deep structure shared by all languages, believing that there might be several, each mutually incompatible with the others. For Cassirer, language was rooted in and intertwined with culture. You couldn’t study it as something detached and abstract. Nor could philosophers pretend that it could solve their problems alone. He was an advocate of “interdisciplinarity” long before it became a buzzword.

This may be revealing about Cassirer. He falls to the relativism of the others. "Mutually incompatible" would imply different "truths," contradicting basic postuates both of science and rational philosophy. And relativizing language "to culture," if Cassirer does that, opens the door to the worse of "Post-Modern" nihilism. “Interdisciplinarity” now means cultural relativism and the denial of the objectivity of science and reason. I can see Cassirer in his day blindly stumbling into this, but Julian Baggini has no excuse.

Such a “philosophy of culture” was too conservative for Heidegger and Walter Benjamin, who were both more interested in overthrowing conventional culture than in acknowledging their dependence on it. If we are creatures of culture, as Cassirer believed, all the more reason, Heidegger and Benjamin felt, for each of us to cast that culture off and become true individuals.

"True individuals" is not a status anyone should see coming out of cultural relativism, which subordinates individuals to their own idiosyncratic "culture" (where clitorectomy is just "their culture"), or with Heidegger and Benjamin, the tendency of whose thought will be totaliatarian. After all, both of them see cultural, political, or economic change as something resulting from external conditions, either Heidegger's Being or the Marxist material conditions of history for Walter Benjamin.

Hence both Heidegger and Benjamin advocated what was to become the defining value of the last century: authenticity. It could only be produced by “the gaze into the abyss” -- death. This fearless call to assert the individual will is ironically continuous with modern philosophy’s emphasis on the Cartesian ego as the autonomous locus of being. In Heidegger’s hands, however, a calm, dispassionate ideal becomes more heroic, romantic and rebellious. It was also seductive. “Piercing through superficialities,” Mr. Eilenberger writes, “shrugging off conventions, battling falsities, advancing recklessly toward the core of the matter, enabling authenticity to break through everywhere -- these and similar terms became commonplace in the years after 1919.”

But this turns out to all be a fraud. We don't get to Benjamin in this passage, but what is "heroic, romantic and rebellious" is to hop on the bandwagon evident in the Dasein of history -- i.e. the Brown Shirts beating up people outside Heidegger's window. Existentialist "authenticity" is either a self-referential "hell is other people" individualism, or it lapses into the mass psychosis that was not only evident in Heidegger's Nazi Germany, but now can be found among the "activists" at any American University, especially as they are spilling out onto the street to loot and burn local businesses in "protest" to something a cop was doing. The rioters living off their student loans, or their parents' money, certainly think of their Fascist rampages as "heroic, romantic and rebellious."

The image of the tortured intellectual struggling for authenticity is reinforced by the fact that Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Benjamin all had nervous breakdowns. For each, too, sexuality “blossomed into an existential problem,” according to Mr. Eilenberger. But their personalities were formed before their philosophies, and it seems more likely that their despair drove them to their theories rather than the other way around.

This seems more perceptive than many of Baggini's comments. Heidegger's treatment of the people assoiciated with him, from Edmund Husserl to Hannah Arendt and beyond, may betray an absence of moral judgment that is perfectly consistent with his enthusiasm for the Nazis and the "moral equivalence" argument he tried to make, between the Nazis and the Allies, after the war. So whether Heidegger had a nervous breakdown is not the most revealing thing about his personality. His lack of personal or moral empathy or sympathy with others might be more like the point. The violence of the Nazis might project his own infantile need to lash out at the world.

With Wittgenstein, the difficulty we see, trying to get along with other people, may bespeak the status of his own self as a kind of prison, from which his philosophy, which denied "private language," was a way of trying, unsuccessfully, to get out of. His philosophy and his life were themselves a "private language." And he never got out of that prison. Perhaps those attracted to his thought are similarly trapped. Sartre, shamefully caught peering through a keyhole at a copulating couple, seems to have more awareness of other persons.

The unattractiveness of each of these characters, except for Cassirer, is hardly a good advertisement for the virtues of authentic being. In my experience, the self-consciously authentic tend to be the most phony.

But I don't think that "authenticity" or "authentic being" was really the issue. There were demons involved, and an "authentic" self might truly be, not "phony," but the most demonic. At least Wittgenstein's demons did not match up with the horrors of the Third Reich.

Benjamin comes across as perpetually self-deceived and a deceiver of others. His ideals made him think of joining the Communist Party even while he wrote that “to be a Communist in a state where the proletariat rules means completely giving up your private independence” -- and he was palpably not prepared to do that.

I have not dealt with Benjamin up to this point because Baggini has little to say about him either. Indeed, if Benjamin avoided becoming a Communist because he understood how it abolishes individual existence (following Hegel), this is an insight to his credit. But then, it would not be to his credit to fail to make the connection between the principles of Marxism and the inevitable abolition of individuality. If he was "not prepared to do that," why not? Was he, in Baggini's terms, "self-deceived and a deceiver of others" about the implications of his thought? And his thought, as a Frankfurt School Marxist, was one of evil consequences indeed. In trying to retrieve Marxism from its manifest failures of theory, prediction, and practice, the Frankfurt Marxists produced a web of mystification that has saddled subsequent culture with "Critical Race Theory" and other dishonest disguises for the Communism that Benjamin himself could not personally tolerate. None of that would be to the credit of any philosopher.

As for Heidegger, his former lover Hannah Arendt captured him devastatingly when she said it was not that he had a bad character but rather that he had no character at all.

This is clever, but the traditional meaning of "bad character" will do just fine for Heidegger; and we are instead left to wonder about Arendt, who reconciled with Heidegger after the War and may have been instrumental in whitewashing the degree of his involvement with the Nazis. If Heidegger had "no character," in some ways Arendt seems to have matched it by coming to a place of "no judgment" about him, which allowed an association without all the awkward questions that might arise.

More troubling is that this bracing vision of authenticity is anything but democratic. As Mr. Eilenberger notes, Cassirer was the only democrat among them. Whereas his boring conservatism implied a “belief in the equal humanity of all sign-using beings,” Heidegger’s call was for “the elitist courage of authenticity.” All but Cassirer positively wallowed in their sense of superiority. Benjamin and Heidegger both displayed, in Mr. Eilenberger’s words, “the same aggressive arrogance,... the same exaggerated ruthlessness, the same will to annihilate others.” Benjamin, for all his communist inclinations, founded a journal called Angelus Novus with the unashamed ambition of avoiding hoi polloi readers.

Again, I don't see the issue as "authenticity," but instead the authoritarian and totalitarian implications of Heidegger and Benjamin's philosophy and political preferences. A "will to annihilate others" is all too chilling an expression given the mass murder commited by Fascists and Communists. Nor is there anything surprising that "communist inclinations" should mean elitism for Lenin's "vanguard of the revolution." Communists have slaughtered more "workers" than Pinkerton strike-breakers ever did, not by many degrees of magnitude. Marxists have always been, and still are, contemptuous of "bourgeois" democracy.

Their arrogance reflected a worldview in which their disgust for ordinary people was barely concealed. Again there are echoes of the old philosophy they professed to reject, evocations of Plato’s philosopher-kings ruling over those fit only for lesser tasks. Wittgenstein’s misanthropy is hardly redeemed by his almost equal self-loathing. As a schoolteacher in rural Austria, he saw the people around him as “three-quarters human, but one-quarter animal.”

Of course, Plato hardly qualfies as the "sickness" of modernity that the philosophial "magicians" are supposedly rejecting. Actual modern political philosophy, embodied in liberal democracies and republics like the United States, with natural rights, limited government, division of powers, check and balances, and the rest, is the sort of thing for which "Progressive" thought has had no patience at any time in the 20th century; and it is unlikely that Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, or Walter Benjamin knew or cared the slightest thing about it. Au courant political philosophy, in a group that is all German, is naturally going to follow from Hegel and Marx, not from Locke and Jefferson.

Wittgenstein's "misanthropy" reflects his alienation from other persons, otherwise noted, and probably has less to do with his politics than with all of his difficulty relating at a human level. One wonders whether his return to academia after failing as a school teacher was mainly a matter of his personality.

The ghost at Mr. Eilenberger’s feast is the knowledge that most readers will have of Heidegger’s enthusiastic membership in the Nazi Party. Surprisingly, the author mentions this fact only in a short epilogue detailing what happened to the four philosophers in the years following the decade he surveys. Should the reader care to look, however, the line between Heidegger’s elitist philosophy and his National Socialism is clear and chilling enough.

This an important reflection and admission. It is much to the credit of Baggini not to have been taken in by Heidegger apologetics. Indeed, the existence of that apologetic, like the rehabilitation of Heidegger after the War, should itself be a proper subject of investigation.

Mr. Eilenberger’s tale is not so much about the birth of modern, 20th-century philosophy as about its birth pangs, which give few clues about what was to follow. Cassirer’s star faded quickly, and few now even read him. Benjamin remains loved and admired but is too idiosyncratic to have set the direction of the philosophy to come. Heidegger’s legacy is more enduring, but even his admirers accept that it is also deeply problematic. Wittgenstein is a towering giant whose works have stood the test of time, but in both the Anglophone world and continental Europe his disciples are a zealous minority.

One aspect of 20th century philosophy apparently overlooked by Eilenberger's book is the positivist and analytic tradition. Wittgenstein was part of that; and although he eventually headed off in his own direction, "linguistic analysis" became an analytic preoccuption and Wittgenstein retained the rejection of metaphysics and rational ethics generally characteristic of all the related schools. The Vienna Circle may have been more a phenomenon of the 1930's than the 20's, but it embraced Wittgenstein's Tractatus as a foundational text, uncontradicted until the posthumous revelation of Wittgenstein's changed ideas.

Walter Benjamin can only be "loved and admired" in the shadow of the continuing folly of academic enthusiasm for Karl Marx and totalitarian politics. How vicious this all is is evident at almost all American universities, where violating the civil rights of students and faculty is now a kind of civic religion, recently spilling out in a terrifying flood into general American politics. Since the cost of a college education has now ballooned to absurd dimensions, while the benefits in life of such an education are increasingly less and less obvious, with schools going to "remote learning" because of the Corona Virus (while charging almost the same tuition), the intolerance and fascism of university culture may be the last straw.

In one of Wittgenstein’s more modest moments, he remarked: “I can collect my thoughts a little and although they are not worth collecting they are better than mere distraction.” In his entertaining book, Mr. Eilenberger shows that his magicians’ thoughts are still worth collecting, even if, with hindsight, we can see that some performed too many intellectual conjuring tricks.

It is a lot worse than that. It was almost entirely a fraud, with some of the most appalling consequences that can be laid at the feet of anyone in the history of philosophy. Even Ernst Cassirer, with what might seem like a befuddled conservative alarm at someone like Heidegger, is not himself free of the evils evident in the others. No one has sound principles, and all contributed to the sterile, or sometimes horrifying, shambles that was the fruit of 20th century philosophy.


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