Let me cast my mind back a few weeks to when I was reading The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I persist in thinking that this is a fine and important book, despite the comment my post attracted (which I deleted) from some right-wing troll whose main beef with the book seemed to be that Graeber had written an article saying that the pandemic should be the springboard for a major change in society. Yes, well, I happen to agree with Graeber on that, and I remain unutterably sad and angry at the speed with which our serially incompetent politicians set the new normal as being exactly like the old normal, except worse.
Anyway, that aside, I said at the time that the book was at its best when it was raising doubts and questions and hesitations, and at its worst when it was being every bit as dogmatic as the people it criticised. One of the problems I couldn’t articulate came right at the start of the book, their particular origin story, if you like. They started with European Enlightenment ideas about the origins of society building on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes (“nasty, brutish, and short”) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“noble savage”). These ideas became a fixed view of how society developed that continue to plague theoretical work in anthropology and archaeology to this day.
Now, that last part may well be true, and the legacy of Hobbesian and Rousseauvian thought may be as toxic as they say. But I felt dissatisfied with their characterisation of Hobbes and Rousseau and their contemporaries without quite being able to put my finger on why.
However, I am currently reading Witcraft by Jonathan Rée. This is a big, marvellous, contextualizing history of philosophy in Britain from Bacon to Wittgenstein, and I really wish I had had the book 50 years ago when I was trying to study philosophy, it would have made a lot of sense of a lot of things. I will be writing about the book at greater length at some point, but that may be some months away; I’m only 200 pages into the book and I feel like I’ve barely begun.
The point is that I am currently revisiting a period in philosophy that was at the core of one of the first courses I took: the period from John Locke through George Berkley to David Hume and Adam Smith, essentially the period when British epistemology really took shape. One of the things that Rée makes clear is the historical perspective in this new philosophy that began with Bacon. There is a consistent quest to get to the origin of everything. It is there in Descarte’s cogito ergo sum, the attempt to strip away everything to get to the origin of our being; Locke was building on a similar idea with his tabula rasa, the proposal that our mind is a blank slate until experience starts to give us the wherewithal from which to build ideas.
Reading this, revisiting these ideas, I suddenly realized why I had been discontent with the first chapter of The Dawn of Everything. In anthropological and archaeological terms it may have been a perfectly fair reading, not so much of Hobbes and Rousseau but of the aftermath of their work. But in philosophical terms it was wide of the mark. What they were doing was part of the philosophical movement of the time. The quest for the origin of human identity, marked by the cogito and the tabula rasa, but common to most philosophical writers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, was commonly extended to all aspects of human life. In his Two Treatises on Government, Locke effectively extended the idea of the tabula rasa, the blank starting point upon which everything learned has to be written, to human society. Hobbes was doing the same; his “nasty, brutish and short” characterization of early humanity is like the Cartesian cogito: stripping back all the accretions of modern life in order to identify what, at base, is human society. The images of early human society – hunter-gatherer becoming herder becoming farmer becoming city dweller – that you find in Hume and Smith as well as Hobbes and Rousseau, was a thought experiment. It wasn’t, this is how things started, so much as, this is what you are left with when you strip away what we know as civilization. Just as, for Descartes and for Locke, the mind is empty until it is filled, so society is empty until it is filled.
This is what Hobbes and Rousseau were writing about. They were not laying out a plan for how the evolution of society had to happen, they were presenting a schema for examining what lay under the political nature of their contemporary English and French society. If subsequent anthropologists and archaeologists took this as a plan for how the past actually worked, they were wrong; and if Graeber and Wengrow thought this was what Hobbes and Rousseau thought they were doing, then they were wrong also.
For the few brief, interminable weeks between the last of our A-Level exams and the end of the school year, we were still required to go into school every day. There was nothing for us to do, no lessons, no activities, but we were there. We spent our lunchtimes at the local pub, where the teachers discretely ignored us except to maybe tap a watch when it was time to get back to school. Other than that, I spent most of my time in the school library, reading. That was when I first read The Lord of the Rings. More importantly, because our history teacher had once told us Plato’s allegory of the cave, that was when I decided to read Plato. I read several of the Penguin Classics at that time, starting with the collection of short dialogues gathered as The Last Days of Socrates. It changed my life.
I had already been applying to universities to study history, but when I got to the New University of Ulster I found that I was able to take one or two modules in a different subject. So, with Plato still fresh in my mind, I took Introductory Philosophy. This turned out to be a brisk canter through epistemology from Descartes, via Locke and Russell, to Wittgenstein and analytical philosophy. Even before the end of the module I’d applied to change my major to philosophy. Not possible, I’d already done too much history, but I could do a joint degree in philosophy and history.
This was the early 70s, the emphasis, certainly at NUU and at Warwick where I did a postgrad year, was heavily on Anglo-Saxon philosophy, notably empiricism and particularly linguistic philosophy from the later Wittgenstein. I did some courses on ethics, which I found interesting but oddly unsatisfying, and formal logic which I enjoyed but having never been a mathematician the closer the two disciplines converged the more I was out of my depth. But my real interest, and the dominant line of thought at both universities, was around the old questions: what is real, what is true, how do we know there’s a world out there, what do we mean by …
All of this was enduringly fascinating, and almost entirely anglophone: I read Ayer and Russell and Austen and Peirce and Quine and Kuhn and Popper, with brief asides to Frege and Carnap, but most of all I read Wittgenstein. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus blew me away, and then I discovered Philosophical Investigations which came to dominate my thinking in ways I never anticipated. What was then rather airily dismissed as “Continental Philosophy” practically never crossed my horizon. Kant’s Prolegomena came into one of my ethics classes, and I did a course on the Critique of Pure Reason (the margins in my copy of the book are filled with tiny pencil scribbles pointing out how wrong Kant was), but other than that, nothing. Once or twice, in the university library or bookstore, I would glance at one or other of the great tomes of continental philosophy, Being and Time or Being and Nothingness, but invariably gave up within a page or two. I did not then, and do not now, have a great deal of patience for metaphysics, and those books struck me as unreadable nonsense.
The one bit of continental philosophy we were aware of was the Vienna Circle, though we knew of them en masse rather than individually. It was years later before I discovered, for example, that Carnap was a member of the Circle, and that Gödel was associated with them. What the Vienna Circle actually thought we encountered almost entirely through A.J. Ayer, not the most reliable of sources. And though they regarded their own work as logical empiricism (which would have made their work a pretty good fit for my own interests), they were termed, largely thanks to Ayer, I suspect, logical positivists. Let’s face it, simple positivism is a fairly easy position to undermine, particularly when you’ve encountered Popper’s falsifiability.
My tutor at Warwick was Susan Haack, even then a very big name in logic, and at one point I produced an essay for her which she regarded as so good she was going to footnote it in her next book. (Did she do so? I’ve no idea, I never saw that book.) Unfortunately the external examiner wasn’t of like mind (for reasons I’ve long suspected might be partly political) so I missed out on the MA by a whisker, and at that point left philosophy behind me. Or I thought I did, at least I stopped keeping up with the subject. But at this time I was already into science fiction, and I wrote what would have been my first piece for a fanzine about Samuel R. Delany’s Triton. It wasn’t used, but in the next issue of the fanzine the editor included a note which rather dismissively said that he’d received a review of Triton which said it was all about philosophy. I don’t think that’s actually what I said, but the piece has long since vanished so I can’t be sure. But the editor’s response made me think, for the first time, that philosophy and reviewing weren’t actually all that far apart. So when I did seriously start writing reviews a year or so later, I found my years of study had a use after all.
If I thought I had left philosophy behind, it would also be true to say that philosophy hadn’t actually left me behind. I kept encountering bits of philosophy all over the place, often in reviews or essays in the TLS or LRB, and I also kept recognising echoes of the philosophy I had learned peeping out of the things I wrote. But I wasn’t actually reading philosophy.
Except that a few years ago I came across a book called The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. Nowadays, we’d probably call it a group biography, but at the time it was presented as a cultural history; I’m not sure there is any difference between the terms. Menand told the interconnected stories of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey, in effect, though it is not spelled out as such, telling the story of American pragmatic philosophy. It is a wonderful, fascinating book and to an extent reawakened my interest in pragmatism; though to be honest I’d never been that convinced by the pragmatics, and was more interested in the book as a history of ideas.
Other group biographies began to turn up, usually presenting the history of ideas as the story of the people who were central to the development and propagation of those ideas. The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow about the congeries of scientists and industrialists in the late-18th century Midlands is one of the best of the type; Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries about the Frankfurt School is one of the densest and, in the end I think, least satisfying. It was after reading Grand Hotel Abyss that I said there really ought to be a group biography of the Vienna Circle. No sooner said than done: I spent part of my holiday reading exactly that book, The Murder of Professor Schlick by David Edmonds. And, as is the way of these things, you wait for one book and two come along at the same time, because also on holiday I read Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919-1929 by Wolfram Eilenberger. Time of the Magicians isn’t about the Vienna Circle, though its members do appear, but it tells the story of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin, which means that it overlaps with both The Murder of Professor Schlick and Grand Hotel Abyss.
I want to say here and now, in case it doesn’t become crystal clear later on, that these two books are already set fair to be my top two books of the year.
Let’s get the murder out of the way first. In June 1936, Moritz Schlick, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, was shot and killed by a deranged former student. The right wing press in Austria defended the student on the grounds that Schlick, though not Jewish himself, had been promulgating Jewish ideas. And when, a couple of years later, Germany annexed Austria, the student walked free. Meanwhile, the other philosophers who had belonged to the Vienna Circle, that Schlick had headed since the end of the First World War, all had to find ways of fleeing the country. They ended up scattered in Britain, across America, and in Australia, so the cohesive unity that had been the Vienna Circle was broken. That is the fervid political atmosphere against which the story of the Vienna Circle is played out.
But the intellectual atmosphere of the time was no less fervid. The Circle had formed in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, largely at the instigation of Otto Neurath, and they met every week for the next decade and a half, to discuss philosophical issues of the day and also to try to ensure that the madness of war that had killed many thousands and torn their country apart would not recur. In philosophical terms, they saw the enemy as metaphysics, and they wanted to advocate a rational, scientific, empirical approach that would institute a rational, scientific, empirical society in which war would be unthinkable. There was, in short, a very political issue underlying their abstract philosophical musings. Particularly as the empiricism they advocated was associated with Jews (Einstein for one), while the dominant philosophical approach in Germany, from Hegel to Husserl to Heidegger, concentrated on phenomenology and metaphysics. I don’t think, until Schlick was murdered, that the Vienna Circle had any appreciation of the political overtones of their thinking (well, Neurath did, but I’m not sure about the others), but they were increasingly at odds with the intellectual climate of their time and place.
Then, in 1922, Wittgenstein published the Tractatus, and set the Vienna Circle ablaze. Here was the book that said everything they believed in. Or at least, so they thought. Nobody at university told me that the Vienna Circle was inspired by Wittgenstein; it would have spoiled the dominant narrative, that they were on the wrong side of philosophical history, and Wittgenstein was the one who done them in. Actually, the interpretation of the Tractatus that I was taught was pretty damn close to the Vienna Circle’s interpretation. Unfortunately, that wasn’t Wittgenstein’s own interpretation. They (and we) saw Wittgenstein as an anti-metaphysician: metaphysics cannot be expressed in the language of logic, so it is not worth saying. But Wittgenstein saw himself as paving the way for metaphysics: it is worth saying precisely because it cannot be expressed in the language of logic. (I derive this interpretation from both The Murder of Professor Schlick and Time of the Magicians, so I assume this is now the standard reading of the Tractatus, but that wasn’t what I was taught, so it came as something of a shock to discover this position being clearly laid out in both these books.)
I wish I had had one or both of these books when I was studying philosophy. It is not just that complex arguments are laid out clearly and effectively (I even feel like I’m starting to grasp something of what Heidegger was on about), it is that the cultural context makes sense of the way a lot of these arguments developed. For example, I realise that much of what I was taught, many of the approaches to problems that I adopted as my own, were lifted straight from the Vienna Circle, including many of the same mistakes needless to say. And yet the overall tone of what I was taught was that the Vienna Circle was wrong. And where we were taught stuff that came straight from the Circle – Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, for instance, which became one of the touchstones I returned to again and again – there was no reference to the fact that this came from the Circle.
At least I knew about the Vienna Circle. Because I did no Continental Philosophy, I knew nothing of the other great development in philosophy that was going on at exactly the same time as the Vienna Circle was meeting. This other strand came to a head at Davos in 1929. Davos was famous for hosting philosophical conferences, before it became famous for hosting economic conferences, and the highlight of the 1929 conference was a debate between Cassirer and Heidegger in which Heidegger, at least by his own reckoning, trounced Cassirer. Now Cassirer is probably not one of the names to conjure with in the history of philosophy, he was rather a bland, middle class suburbanite really. He did some interesting work, particularly in the area of myth, but he was never the sort to set the world on fire. But earlier in 1929 he had made an impassioned speech in defence of democracy. Heidegger, on the other hand, was everything Cassirer was not: a fire raiser, magnetic, idiosyncratic, and decidedly not a democrat. He was also not a particularly nice man, happy to betray his own mentors in order to secure his own advancement, and he joined the Nazi Party not out of necessity to preserve his own position, but out of conviction. This, and the fact that he had been briefly Hannah Arendt’s lover, was all I really knew of Heidegger before I read Time of the Magicians; well, that and the fact that he wrote some of the most turgid and impenetrable prose known to humankind. The debate between Cassirer and Heidegger, therefore, became in retrospect a battle for the soul of German philosophy, one in which the metaphysics of Nazism emerged victorious.
In the decade covered by Eilenberger’s book, both Cassirer and Heidegger were part of the German academic establishment, professors at universities. Neither Wittgenstein nor Benjamin was a full-time academic (not for want of trying on Benjamin’s part). Neither was at Davos, neither took any part in these soul-stirring debates, but both were refining their thinking in ways that would shape the intellectual world that was emerging. Wittgenstein didn’t even have a PhD at this point. He had studied under Bertrand Russell at Cambridge before the First World War (Edmonds implies that ever after Russell had a sort of philosophical inferiority complex because of Wittgenstein, which is believable and not believable at the same time). When the war began, Wittgenstein had returned home to fight in the Austrian army, and began to write the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus while a prisoner of war. Because he believed that the Tractatus was the absolute last word in philosophy (if nothing else, he was an arrogant sod; no wonder when he returned to Cambridge in 1929 that John Maynard Keynes wrote: “Well, God has arrived”) he saw no point in continuing to do philosophy and got a job as a teacher in a small rural school. He wasn’t very good at it, and ended up moving from school to school several times over the next few years. Then he worked briefly as an architect to help design a new house for his sister (he was a multimillionaire who had given away all his money, but the family still tended to look after him). Meanwhile, his book had been published to a weird mixture of acclaim and bemusement. He was persuaded to meet several members of the Vienna Circle and was frustrated by the fact that, by his lights, they were dramatically misinterpreting what he wrote. But this prompted him to start rethinking his ideas (the Blue and Brown Books would start to be written around this time, preparing the way for the Philosophical Investigations that would be published posthumously), and at the end of the decade he allowed himself to be tempted back to Cambridge. Here Russell and his fellows connived to give Wittgenstein a PhD, so he could be awarded a grant and a permanent position; the thesis was the Tractatus, the oral exam was conducted by Russell and G.E. Moore, and it ended with Wittgenstein telling them, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”
Meanwhile, Benjamin was scrabbling a living writing reviews, begging for loans, chasing all sorts of academic positions and then screwing up every opportunity he was given. Though as the decade ended the Frankfurt School was getting started, and Benjamin would at last find a sort of intellectual home if not an actual home. One of the fascinating things about Eilenberger’s book is the structure: he takes us roughly year-by-year through the 1920s, and in each chapter deals in turn with his four principals. But this allows him to do a lot of comparing and contrasting with often surprising results. He traces out a mass of complex interconnections between the ideas of the four philosophers, the similarity in their approach to metaphysics taken by Heidegger and Wittgenstein, the way Benjamin’s thinking intersects with Wittgenstein’s, and so on. For what is essentially a popular book, there is a lot of complex work going on so that ideas keep arising and shifting and showing themselves in unexpected lights. Between the two of them, these books lay out a vivid map of philosophical thought between the two world wars, a time when philosophy was at its most austere and challenging, and yet they keep everything crystal clear. These are two books that will, I suspect, shape my own thinking for some time to come.
And now, surely, it is time for a book about the Cambridge School of Philosophy …