[This is by way of an experiment, albeit one I fully expect to fail, or more accurately one I suspect will fizzle out into silence before too long. Whenever I do my roundup of the books I’ve read during the year, I find that books I remember having lots of things to say about at the time I was reading them, end up with some bland remarks in my summary. Ah, if only I had written about them as the year went by. Except, I’ve thought about this many times in the past, and the idea has faded to nothingness if it ever even got started. And anyway, there are plenty of books I read where there really isn’t much to say about them. Look at all the Maigrets I’ve been reading recently, wouldn’t endless blogs eventually stutter into dull repetition over the weeks? So as often as not the idea has died before it ever really got started. But I can’t get rid of the idea completely, it keeps coming back to haunt me. So I’m going to give it a go for one year, if only to prove once and for all that I don’t have the stamina to keep it going for a full year. So let’s see how far I can get …]
I cannot remember when I first heard about the Berlin Airlift. It was almost certainly during my schooldays, because I have a vague memory that I once wrote an essay in class about the airlift. But though it lodged in my mind as a curious and rather dramatic interlude in the story of Cold War relations, I never really knew much in the way of detail about the event. Did it last for just a few weeks, or for a year or more? I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. (in fact it was just short of a full year.)
Which is why I found Checkmate in Berlin so interesting. It is, at the same time, the most detailed and the most straightforward account you could hope to find.
Milton begins with the Yalta Conference in February 1945, which we can safely identify as the starting point for the Cold War. Roosevelt was dying and really wasn’t up to the argy-bargy and excessive drinking that any conference with Stalin involved. Churchill, meanwhile, was drunk most of the time, didn’t bother reading his briefing papers, and was inclined to make promises that caught everyone on his staff completely off-guard. (I couldn’t help noticing how closely this unflattering portrait of Churchill resembled our own dear Churchillian leader.) As for Stalin, he was, as ever, forensic and brutal. He made demands that the others were too weak or too dull-witted to resist; and he made promises that he had no intention of keeping though the others fell on them with relief. George Kennan (one of the stars of Louis Menand’s The Free World, so I was familiar with this part of the story) understood exactly what Stalin was doing and where Soviet foreign policy was heading, but it would be another couple of years before his clear-eyed analysis would be recognised and adopted by the US State Department.
This failure by the West to understand that the Soviet Union was no longer their reliable wartime ally would be a feature of international relations, in Europe and particularly in Berlin, for the next several years. The Russians raced to capture Berlin and large chunks of Germany; the British and Americans hesitated, moved slowly, and worked on the unshakeable principle that they must do nothing to upset their Soviet allies. Despite a binding agreement to split Berlin into three sectors, Russian, British and American (the French sector was carved out of the British and American sectors some time later, though the French were barely acknowledged by the Russians), British and American troops and administrators were prevented from entering the city for several weeks while the Soviets openly looted it, and kidnapped a host of scientists, engineers and their families, many of whom would never see Germany again. When the British and Americans finally reached the parts of the city they were supposed to administer, they found no infrastructure, no machinery, no intact buildings, no medicines, and virtually no food or drinkable water.
The real miracle of Berlin was how quickly and how effectively the military administrations of the Western sectors made the city at least barely liveable. The two men chosen to head up the western sectors seem to have been unusually well-chosen, though you might not think so from their names: Colonel Frank “Howlin’ Mad” Howley for the Americans and Brigadier Robert “Looney” Hinde for the Brits. Initially Hinde was more reluctant to antagonise the Russians than Howley was, though the two eventually formed a good team countering Russian provocations. But in time, of course, Hinde was replaced by somebody totally unsuited to the job, a stiff, by the letter military man with no obvious redeeming features at all, which left the British side slow to react as tensions escalated towards the blockade.
Of course, the Russians were single-minded in their approach to Berlin. They wanted to squeeze the West out of the city, take over Germany, and protect the Soviet Union with a cordon sanitaire of Soviet-friendly puppet states. Indeed before the war had even ended they had flown in Walter Ulbricht with a team dedicated to securing a smooth transition to communist rule. The trouble is, they bodged it. They knew that an overtly communist rule would be unpopular (the officially sanctioned rape and looting that Russian troops had perpetrated on first entering the city had seen to that) so they helped to establish a centrist Social Democrat party, but then on the eve of city-wide elections, they used bribery, intimidation and straightforward threats to arrange a merger of the Social Democrats with the German Communist Party. But they had misjudged the mood of the city and in the subsequent elections the new Socialist Unity Party was soundly defeated. Only the Russians didn’t admit defeat, they installed their own people in the city government regardless of the election results, they refused to allow the popular Ernst Reuter to be installed as mayor, and they created their own police force under the leadership of a former Nazi thug.
Even so, there were powerful voices in both Washington and London who wanted to continue to appease the Soviets. But the defection of a Soviet diplomat in Canada, and the subsequent discovery of the atom spies, helped to change attitudes. Meanwhile in Berlin Howley in particular had been convinced that the Soviets had to be stopped, and he proved adept at winning the propaganda war. Eventually, the Russians fell back on coercion. In June 1948 they closed all the land routes to Berlin, and shut off supplies of food and fuel. While Howley in Berlin called for an airlift of supplies, the new British administrator in Berlin, General Herbert, predicted the western allies would be defeated by October, and the government in Washington was similarly pessimistic. But the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, declared that “under no circumstances will we leave Berlin.” And after that it was impossible for the Americans to withdraw unilaterally. The problem with an airlift was that it would require a minimum of 4,500 tons of food a day to keep the city alive, which worked out at 1,800 flights a day. How the logistics of all this were worked out and maintained, even through the weeks of freezing fog in that impossibly cold autumn when flights were often impossible, is an absolutely gripping story.
I have read and enjoyed other stuff by Giles Milton. He is a good storyteller, and marshals the fact well so it is always clear what happened and why. But I suspect this could be his best to date.
I recommend, wholeheartedly, Louis Menand’s new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. I am reading it very slowly because, (a), it is massive, and (b), it is so stuffed with facts and information that I need time to take it all in. Nevertheless, every day when I pick it up, it is with immense pleasure, and with the certainty that I will add to my knowledge.
Even so, there are a couple of points worth making. Not necessarily negative points, but things that might bear on your understanding and appreciation of the book.
For a start, the subtitle is misleading. Cold War is used here almost exclusively as a chronological identifier. The book covers the years from 1945 to the end of the 1960s, so roughly the first half of the period known as the Cold War. It deals with art and ideas that emerged during those years, but it does not deal with the way those arts and ideas engaged with the Cold War, or were shaped by the Cold War. Anyone recalling Who Paid the Piper? by Frances Stoner Saunders, for example, which looked at how the CIA used the arts as a weapon in their secret war against the Soviet Union, will find little if anything on that subject here (Encounter does not appear in the index). The Korean War is barely mentioned, though the Vietnam War which sparked a huge artistic response at the end of the 1960s does fare somewhat better (it would have been unforgiveable if it had not). But in general this is about what art was going on at the time of the early Cold War, but not how or why it was occurring in those circumstances. Over the first 300-or-so pages of the book the Second World War plays a far more influential part in shaping the subject of the book than the Cold War does.
The second point is that the book is largely focussed on American art. This is not unexpected (post-war American art is a massive enough subject for anyone) and he does nod towards what was going on in the rest of the world. There are chapters on Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Levi-Strauss, for instance, but these are almost lost amid the flurry of chapters on George Kennan, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Allen Ginsburg, and so on. The non-Americans who figure most prominently in this study are those who came to America as refugees during the war, or whose greatest success was achieved in or cemented in America. Those intellectual and artistic areas that were not so prominent in America get less attention. For instance philosophy in the post-war world remained a largely European endeavour, and the leading American exponents (Willard van Orman Quine) largely worked in a European model. So, despite the fact that Menand’s previous best book was on the American Pragmatists (Peirce, James, Dewey), here he makes no mention of the topic other than the chapter on Sartre.
Which brings me to what prompted these thoughts: pop music. This is a response to youth culture, and he makes the telling point that for such a culture to flourish there had to be space for it. Teenagers were effectively created when official efforts were made to encourage people to stay in school longer. This created a space between elementary education and work, and the United States was far more successful at creating that space. He’s got the statistics to back this up: in 1955, 84% of Americans between 14 and 17 were in school; in 1957, just 9% of British seventeen-year-olds were still in school. Youth culture started in America, created its first stars in America: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and so on. Then he asks a very telling question: in that case, why were the most popular entertainers in the world in the 1960s British?
I had an instant answer to that question, and Menand did not. But then, I’m not aware of any Americans who would have come up with the same answer. The obvious answer, to me, was class.
(As an aside, many years ago I was on a convention panel with Kim Stanley Robinson and some others, I was the only Brit. During the panel, Stan and I got into a discussion on class, and I realised very quickly that we were talking an entirely different language. For Stan, and for every other American on the panel, class was inextricably related to, and indeed defined by, wealth. The more money you have, the higher your class; the less money you have, the lower your class. And that is just not the way it works in Britain; here class is a far more complex thing. For several years, the Beatles were the highest paid entertainers in the world, but that did not make them upper class. Indeed, being working class was emphatically a part of their self-image, their creativity (I suspect neither “Strawberry Fields Forever” nor “She’s Leaving Home” could have been written out of anything other than working class sensibility), and their reception.)
We are twenty-odd pages into Menand’s discussion of the Beatles before he uses the word class, and this is only to note that Ringo’s drollness — Q: What do you think of Beethoven? Ringo: Great. Especially his poems. — can be traced to his working-class Liverpool upbringing. (As Menand says, cuttingly but accurately, “If Elvis Presley had had a month to think about it, he couldn’t have come up with that line.”) Which actually rather misses the point. By this stage, Menand has already made great play of the fact that John Lennon, like Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ray Davies and a host of others had gone to art college, as if the British pop scene emerged as a result of this rather arty, middle-class milieu. But the British art school of the 1950s and 1960s had virtually no academic requirements for entry, so it became a haven for those who were too creative or rebellious to want to go into the jobs market, but were “not academically gifted”, which at the time was often a euphemism for “working class”. Every single one of these art school pop stars saw music as an interval before they had to get a proper job. The music emerged not from the art school, but from the dread of following their fathers into another dead-end job. The space that Menand talks about, the space in which youth culture flourished, had given people a desire for something better, but the British class system permitted no route to achieve that desire. So the reason why British pop music dominated the world in the 1960s, why the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks and the Who and the Hollies and the Move and the Yardbirds and the Animals and all the rest emerged there and then, was because of class.
That Menand gets this wrong is not a criticism of the book. Rather it is a sign that what is going on here is far larger, far more complex, than even this huge book can accommodate. And there is much else of great value here.
I am not intending to add more to this post with each new chapter I encounter, but this is worth saying if only because it contradicts something I wrongly implied above.
The very next chapter takes us into the heady realms of philosophy, and directly addresses the connection between the Cold War and the development of ideas. The focus of this chapter is Isaiah Berlin (not generally a philosopher who is highly thought of these days). There is a passing reference to logical positivism (though not, so far at least, logical atomism or any of the subsequent linguistic philosophy, despite J.L. Austin being namechecked), but the main focus is on Berlin’s critique of Marxism, which, as presented here, seems to tie in remarkably closely to the critique of Soviet policy as propounded by Berlin’s friend, George Kennan (see Chapter One). I suspect that the central point of this chapter will revolve around Berlin’s famous distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to”, though Menand has not so far included that formulation. He has actually spent rather more time talking about Berlin’s time in America during the war, and his encounter with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Which raises another point: each chapter has one or two central figures around which the story is woven. These central figures, at least so far, are all men. Women appear as followers, wives, or muses. Of course he might confound me by next including a chapter on science that revolves around Rosalind Franklin … but no, I don’t think so.
If this chapter runs true to form I expect to see Karl Popper making an appearance, but if so it will be for The Open Society and its Enemies rather than for The Logic of Scientific Discovery and falsifiability. We might even see Bertrand Russell, but I can’t imagine how Ludwig Wittgenstein might fit into this account.
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 …