Time Of The Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger And The Decade That Reinvented Philosophy

Besides the fact they were all important philosophers, the magician connection is missing. I don’t mean that I wanted some sort of connection of party tricks, only that it’s a little disappointing that this title clearly seems picked just because it sounded cool, rather than because it relates to some extended metaphor or thread which snakes through the book.

But it’s a good book. Enjoyable for academic and for more dilettantish readers of philosophy.

While it made me want to dig up my copy of Being and Time (which I read in college, but almost certainly failed to understand), I wish that the other philosophers, particularly Cassirer, had had their philosophical positions explicated in as much detail as Heidegger’s. But then again, Heidegger continues to loom large, even now, so perhaps it’s only fair.

Especially knowing how the story ended, I found myself deeply wishing that poor Walter Benjamin had ever gotten an academic posting and what could have been if he had ever gotten some semblance of stability in his life. C’est la via.

Reading Some ‘Phaedo’ To My Child

Some, but not all.

I mean, I read it all, but my little one was not so enthralled by this one. But this one is more complex. Crito, which we read together, is shorter and really just has two characters (Socrates and Crito). Phaedo features an interesting conceit, but possibly a confusing one for young readers. Phaedo and Echecrates speak in traditional dialogue format, but most of the dialogue is Phaedo reciting what he heard on the day that Socrates died, which was mostly a dialogue within a dialogue between Socrates, Simmias, and Cebes (Crito was also there, but mostly just cried at the end)

A reminder that beyond his philosophical genius, Plato was no mean writer, it also has a surprisingly moving account of Socrates drinking the poison and dying.

The dialogue draws upon themes in other works, including his theory of knowledge as recollection (originally posited in Meno, I think, but I’m really not sure) and a light dusting of his theory of forms. But it’s all in service of Socrates explaining to his admirers, don’t cry for me, Athens. Because, the soul is immortal and the best part of him will be going to a much better place. Or maybe be reincarnated. That’s suggested early on, but the old man’s final moments imply that the soul goes to place of pure, happy contemplation.

‘From The Ruins Of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia’ By Pankaj Mishra

This book had been happily sitting in my ‘one day to acquire and read list’ with not much hope of moving on to a less passive state when The Washington Post took it upon themselves to review his follow up publication, which caused me to bestir myself and pester my local library to lend me a copy of the earlier book.

My father would greatly enjoy reading about the first figure Mishra biographs, Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, which is mostly fictious name (a Shi’a Muslim from Persia, he adopted ‘Al-Afghai’ to imply he was from mostly Sunni Afghanistan), classic sort of roving intellectual who traveled to many of the cultural capitals of the nineteenth century (Calcutta, Alexandria, London, Paris, Istanbul, and Moscow) as a sort professional public intellectual, sometimes making a living by giving informal lectures or classes to young, educated Muslims, sometimes as journalist, and always seeming to espouse a sort of pan-Islamic movement that was simultaneously slightly secular, while also being fundamentalist.

Liang Qichao was also new to me, though Mishra rather muddled him up with other figures, so that my sense of his importance was similarly muddled. Poor Tagore… the first non-white person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. If the author didn’t really know what to do with him, why include him? The point seems to be, he was important because he’s kind of famous, but maybe his ideas went nowhere (so how did he remake Asia, in that case?).

Japan is posited as a simply fascinating intellectual center in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and I finished the book wishing that Mishra would write that book for us.

A Short History Of Greek Philosophy

Heraclitus was called ‘the Obscure’ by contemporaries and taught specifically for elite thinkers, not the masses. Philosophy as a mystery cult?

I also found a reference that, led me back to the book about Aristotle as a Platonist…

…but in its main ideas Aristotle’s philosophy is Plato’s philosophy. The one clothed in poetry; the other in formulae; the one had the more entrancing vision, the other a clearer and more exact apprehension; but there is no essential divergence.

What else? It’s an excellent primer, but, to be frank, I’m not sure I needed one. He does a nice, short survey, starting with the Milesians and going through to Epicurians, Stoics, and Academics/Skeptics. Those last three are better known for their popularity in Latin philosophy and Marshall is oddly disdainful of them. It’ almost like he felt compelled to wrest them from the Romans, but still felt things should have ended with Aristotle.


‘Theory’ (in the context of the humanities) and ‘critical theory’ (and especially ‘critical race theory’) find themselves frequently despised. Well, Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism falls squarely into that camp.

Though short, if you do not like those categories, you won’t like, even if it won’t take you long to read.

I am always trying to be a ‘good’ white man and especially to be a good, white father to an non-white appearing daughter and I try to welcome challenges to my understandings (and, yes, prejudices).

The author struck me to the heart of the unseen biases within myself. I was most impacted by an off-handed line criticizing Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, a book that I adored, for failing to recognize how beauty can be terribly, damagingly racialized. It is so easy to see ‘my’ truth (a white, heterosexual, college-educated, middle class, man in America) as being everyone’s reality. Like Kant, I am constantly being awakened from my dogmatic slumber. It’s not always fun, but it is important.

Beyond that, it is about the Asian, female body. The body as clothed in exotic dresses, jewelry, headwear. The body stamped by prejudices (the assumption of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that unaccompanied Asian woman coming to America must be sex workers). The body as skin and flesh (naked, like sashimi; or, compared to porcelain). The body appropriated by white females.

Aristotle And Other Platonists

An interesting work, though perhaps not more interesting than just going back and pulling some Plato and Aristotle off the shelves. Despite the author’s explicit claim that this is not a book about Neoplatonism… it kinda feels like a book about Neoplatonism. At the very least, a key argument for why we should not view Aristotle as being so much in conflict with his erstwhile teacher, Plato, is that, well, a lot of ancient and late ancient philosopher who wrote after Aristotle, viewed Aristotle as being part of Platonism. Especially the Neoplatonists. And no, calling them ‘harmonists’ (those who believe that Aristotle is, in some ultimate sense, in harmony with Plato, as opposed to the antiharmonists [no hyphen]) does not help and, in fact, that term needs to not become a ‘thing’ and should not be used in that context ever again, because it’s cloying.

His best argument for this actually came very early in the book and was the bit that my mind kept coming back to: he referenced a philosopher named Pierre Hadot (who I had never heard of before) who (he says) proposed that the philosophers of the ancient world and their schools should be viewed primarily as positing a way of life and only secondarily as positing philosophical doctrine. Under this rubric, it does become easier (for me, at least), to see the author’s point.

But Gerson rarely seems to speak for himself. Every time I think that he is offering his own interpretation, I read that sentence more carefully and see that he’s actually paraphrasing what he believes Porphyry or Plotinus or Simplicius or Iamblichus has said. But basically, the thesis is that Aristotle’s ontologies (and epistemology, especially and his and Plato’s are deeply informed by their onologies) are not so different from Plato’s after all.

To briefly give one example, Gerson both recognizes (yet also avoids, in many ways) what is usually taught as the basic and most important distinction between the teacher and his student: Plato’s theory of forms. Plato believed in their reality and Aristotle did not (though yeoman’s work is done to suggest that Aristotle’s theory of the intellect (I am being vague here, because there are several kinds of intellect and much back and forth over what in the name of all that is holy it all means and if you’d like to learn more, I recommend learning Medieval Latin, because a lot mainly, but not exclusively British monks spent several centuries arguing about this and you’re welcome to read it all, I’m sure) could be considered as being compatible with the forms). Plato, through the mouthpiece of Socrates, argues for knowledge as recollection Aristotle makes statements that support that epistemology. Since Plato’s theory knowledge as recollection emerges from the forms and Aristotle can be seen to accept Plato’s theory of knowledge, therefore he implicitly accepts, at least in part, the forms, if not in a so explicitly realist fashion.

My first impression after reading this is that I should brush up on my Plato and Aristotle. More so, Aristotle. I’ve been reading a bit of Plato recently (though no amount of references to it by Neoplatonic philosophers will convince me to read the Timeaus again), but have a copy of Aristotle’s Categories that I started but never finished.

The Reactionary Mind

Early in the book, in the second chapter, he quotes from the slightly unorthodox conservative, Andrew Sulivan, from his book, The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom, and the Future of the Right:

All conservatism begins with loss.

(Of course, I tend to think of Sullivan as rather a wannabe Hitchens, but lacking that better writer’s adventurous spirit and mordant wit. Of course they both did quit national magazines on account of feelings of ostracization stemming from more liberal colleagues disapproval of some of their positions.)

As a rhetorical tool, Corey Robin’s best move is to quickly go after Edmund Burke and place him squarely in the lineage of modern conservatism. ‘The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power,’ he writes. Burke, by virtue of his commitment to keeping Westminster in narrow, elite hands, even as he believed in gifting a degree of economic security, falls under that rubric, the author argues. There is much more on Burke, early on, which makes me want to read more of Burke because I have an instinct to want to defend him (perhaps on account of my own elitism). But I cannot deny the efficiency of placing Burke in a lineage that leads directly to Trump, because otherwise, that esteemed eighteenth century thinker is the there to be pointed to, as an example of noble, intellectual conservative thought, implying that the current crudeness is an aberration. Robin seems to point at Burke’s thought and say, to quote Joseph Conrad, ‘And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth.’

But to go back to that idea of loss… Buckley stands athwart history and shouts stop because something is being taken away from him. Race certainly being part of it, as desegregation and civil rights took a certain dominion from white men. While not his purpose, he gives a beautifully succinct explanation for why the Civil War could be about slavery (it was) even though most white men in the South did not own slaves. Under slavery, every white man was an aristocrat. With emancipation, man white men became merely poor and wanted their aristocratic privilege back.

Always though, he rows ceaselessly back to Burke. He take a trip earlier to visit Hobbes (the conservative as counterrevolutionary), but Burke is always there. He is what Thomas Jefferson is to me, I think: an admired figure who he knows is also dangerous and deeply unadmirable. To paraphrase a movie, he just can’t quit him.

He enjoys long, discursive, excerpt heavy footnotes… especially about Burke. I think he understands that Burke is figure at the beginning who no one (including, arguably, me) can accept as truly being part of the lineage of Trump. And he can’t let that (or him) go. Burke, you might say, is living rent-free in his head.

He’s now living in mine, too. I’ll have to find my copy of his selected writings and revisit. Especially his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity which sounds like a fascinating (and, yes, deeply conservative) defense of the rich and their capital against the needs of working people, disguised as an economic treatise.

The takedown of Rand (intertwined, somewhat inexplicably, with Nietzsche) was delicious. The author was incredulous as to how a writer of such ridiculous prose and philosopher of such shallow depths (who seems not to have read much philosophy) could be have become so… influential. In the end, I don’t think we know. I blame Paul Ryan.

Similarly, his critique of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s frankly rank hypocrisy (hint: he only adopted his textual originalism when it was useful to buttressing his decision, rather than always letting his originalism lead him to the decision) was nice to hear, because paeans to his supposedly principled legal stance have always rankled. Like so many leading 20th century (and now, 21st century) conservatives, his politics and philosophy were rooted in a culture of victimhood.

So, did this book, as a blurb attests, predict Trump? There is a chapter on Trump, clearly written post-election. But it feels understandably tacked on. Yes, he appealed to the sense of aggrievement, of victimhood, that is chronicled throughout as a key factor in conservatism. But Trump himself is so vacuous (he makes Ayn Rand look like Hannah Arendt) that the chapter is jarring. He’s a cipher, but in no way a thinker who added anything to the conservative movement beyond, perhaps, a little daylight (which has not proved to be as a good disinfectant as one might like).

Jefferson On Hume

Every one knows that judicious manner and charms of style have rendered Hume’s history [of England] the manual of every student. I remember well the enthusiasm with which I devoured it when young, and the length of time, the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it had instilled in my mind… It is this book which has undermined the free principles of the English government, has persuaded readers of all classes that these were usurpations on the legitimate and salutary rights of the crown and have spread universal toryism over the land.

Letter to Colonel William Duane, August 12, 1810

I Want To Be At That Party

My all time favorite fictional party is the one at Holly Golightly’s apartment in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s (I read the book, indeed, it is the only Capote novel that I have, as yet, read, but the movie made a more startling and powerful impression on me).

My new second favorite might be the one in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum or, On the Nature of the Gods. Intelligent men having deeply thought-out conversations on ideas passionately held. It’s like one of Plato’s dialogues, but not everyone gets railroaded by Socrates, which, let’s be honest, would probably not be that fun to experience. Just ask Gorgias.

The Anxiety Of Influence

This book has been on my list for years, but was almost impossible to find, but there it was at Solid State Books. Even more amazing, after I bought it, they replaced with another copy on the shelves!

For a critic famous for his defense of the traditional canon, the pre-post-colonial canon, as it were, The Anxiety of Influence is a brilliantly, desperately sincere text of postmodern play.

Is Romanticism after all only the waning out of the Enlightenment, and its prophetic poetry only an illusory therapy, not so much a saving fiction as an unconscious lie against the difficult human effort of holding the middle ground between instinctual existence and all morality?

I was caught by the quote because the question of Enlightenment and its successor, Romanticism seems to keep coming up, though this answer seems inadequate in terms of history, if not literature.

If here were a poet, his bête noire (or perhaps, I should say daemon) would be Milton (he wants it to be Dante, but it’s Milton). While he praises and respects poets like Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, his idea of poetry was forged between Milton and Keats. In the end, the whole book is about how the sublime is achieved by the great poets. While we can talk about the sublime today, he means it in a sense in which we rarely speak of it – the way Burke spoke about it.

I do not know if I ever will (my to be read stack is quite high), but the highest praise I can give this book is that I want to read it again. Not right away, but when I am older, to sit down in a comfy chair and read this dense, slim labor of love one more time.