Magic, and the mastery of non-mastery

When and how is the world most alive to me?  When I am most in tune with it or most at odds with it?  As a fundamentally clumsy individual, I am frequently put in mind of, and awed by, those who show genuine dexterity and competence.  What sometimes rattles round in my head as I drop screws, fumble for tools, lose and break things is Heidegger’s notion of the carpenter and his hammer.  Heidegger alludes to the way that a craftsman and his tool (the Heideggerian world of carpentry is inescapably and unforgivably male) can be so at one with each other that the tool withdraws from visibility – the skilled worker barely knows the hammer is there or separate from him in his work.  ‘Handiness is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself initially a theme for circumspection. What is peculiar to what is initially at hand is that it withdraws, so to speak, in its character of handiness in order to be really handy.’[1]  This example draws attention to a particular state of absorption. It is deliberately based in the world of physical labour which Heidegger felt he knew from his own woodworking and practical knowledge, and thereby is set in deep contrast to the rather unworldly speculations of his philosophical opponent Ernst Cassirer, who one supposes had spent little time contemplating hammers. It also goes fully against his old master Husserl. Heidegger says ‘The less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly it is encountered as that which it is—as equipment. The hammering itself uncovers the specific “manipulability” [Handlichkeit] of the hammer. The kind of Being which equipment possesses—in which it manifests itself in its own right—we call “readiness-to-hand” [Zuhandenheit].’  Whereas Husserl spent a lot of time staring at things, describing objects and representations of them, Heidegger insists you have to pick the hammer up and hit something with it to have the basic intuitive relationship with it.[2]


However, things go wrong even for the best of carpenters.  The tool is misplaced; the hammer breaks; it becomes unhandy.  At that point, the carpenter begins to look around the world and see the complexity of relationships in which he and the hammer were entangled.  Things become more conspicuous in themselves and in their relationships.  The carpenter notices his workshop in a different way when it ceases to be the perfect extension of his activity.

Nursing the toe on which I had dropped a heavy piece of a desk chair I was trying to assemble, I could get behind the notion that unhandiness discloses the world in a sharper way.  But this Heideggerian progression, which as always is never really explicit, has troubled me for a while.

In the first instance, it’s not at all clear to me that we can speak of some sort of primordial perception.  There’s more than a bit of a sense of an idealized, but not terribly reflective, early humanity.[3]

Happisburgh hand axe

In the second instance, there’s something just a bit too easy about that slide from functional invisibility to dysfunctional visibility.  Is it really the case that we can make such a distinction?  Can one not consciously enjoy being in tune with the world?[4] 

And thirdly, what is the goal of all this?  Being and Time, whatever else it is, is an assertion of an individualistic capacity to be authentic, which, in part, comes from an absolute determination to face up to the irreducible certainty of one’s own death.  But it’s not a book about death; it’s a book about the irreducible mine-ness of life and its questions (Jemeinigkeit).  Heidegger’s carpenter is at the centre of the world – his hammer, his workbench, his hut on the hill, his history, his people, his destiny.   

Heidegger’s hut

When at the famous debate between the two philosophers at Davos, Cassirer asked if Heidigger was willing to give up objectivity, he touched on the core of the debate, and specifically the core of the function of our anxiety.  Cassirer sought liberation from anxiety through culture and thought, through the role of symbolic form;[5] Heidegger was driven by anxiety to the rejection of all palliatives; authenticity is found in nothingness and finitude.  Cassirer seemed out of his time already at Davos; he is perhaps even further from our thinking now, and that is unfortunate; it’s good to see a new translation of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. 

Cassirer and Heidegger at Davos, 1929

But whereas Heidegger is more recognisable, his aggressive appropriation of the centre of the world into the little mountain hut meant that whereas he spoke the language of care, it’s not clear to me that the object of care was nearly as important as the carer.  Heidegger’s anxiety trumped and triumphed over all.  Whilst Heidegger was writing Being and Time he was also in a relationship with Hannah Arendt; he famously said to her (using Augustine), volo ut sis – I want that you might be.  It’s perhaps telling that his indicative wanting grammatically trumps her subjunctive existence.[6]

Heidegger had not yet done with his carpenter’s eye view.  Much later in life, he returned to the network of entangled relationships that woodworking revealed. He imagines the apprentice working to the instructions of the experienced carpenter:

‘If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood—to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its essence. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintains the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork, any occupation with it will be determined exclusively by business concerns. Every handicraft, all human dealings, are constantly in that danger.’[7]

In this later formulation, Heidegger is closer it seems to me to the Spinozists or new materialists, and this leads to the sorts of language which Hartmut Rosa has started to develop in his expansive new synthesis Resonance, in which he says ‘When we love these things [sc. the people, places, tasks, ideas, objects, and implements that we encounter and with which we interact], there emerges something like a vibrating wire between us and the world;’ and it is along these axes of resonance that our contentedness is to be found.  This is about a kind of ‘right relationship’ and Rosa is pulling together an enormously complex tradition in so doing.[8] 

I want to move on by contrasting early Heidegger and his contemporaries with a different sort of thinking, which is part of Rosa’s inheritance, and that is the rejection of the notion of mastery as a goal.  For it seems to me that what unites three of the four magicians of Wolfram Eilenberger’s recent group biography is a fundamental belief that the aim of a philosophical life is mastery, the final attainment of some sort of language or technique that offers truth.  And this powerful deduction of a necessary development from skill to mastery to truth, the attainment of a techne, is exactly what I find so difficult.

In Heidegger, the notion of a primordial skill in which the world withdraws is replaced by the idea of an anxiety which gives the individual a degree of centrality within the network of increasingly visible (ready-to-hand) relationships.  Although Heidegger and Cassirer ended up in disagreement, Cassirer sought a similarly universal account – and if Heidegger’s centre was his Black Forest hut, Cassirer’s was Warburg’s library.  And the third figure is Wittgenstein, whose commitment to understanding language takes us round from Heidegger’s practical thinking, Cassirer’s historically informed synthesis to the world as it is constructed through the way we speak: ‘To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions). To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique’ (Philosophical Investigations #199). 

The Warburg Library

The odd one out is – as so often – Benjamin.  Benjamin is far less convinced of the efficacy of technique, or rather, for Benjamin, where technique goes wrong is where it entails an instrumentalism which is designed to master the world.[9]  In The Work of Art in its Age of Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin argues that technique is the medium through which humans give shape to the world. He too has a ‘primordial’ and a ‘modern’ version of technique; the first entails ‘the maximum possible use of human beings, [whereas] the latter reduces their use to the minimum. The achievements of the first [technique] […] might be said to culminate in human sacrifice; those of the second, in the remote-controlled aircraft which needs no human crew. The results of the first [technique] […] are valid once and for all (it deals with irreparable lapse or sacrificial death, which holds good for eternity). The results of the second are wholly provisional (it operates by means of experiments and endlessly varied test procedures).’  Benjamin, so prescient, sees different and terrifying extremes of instrumentalism, from the human as experiment to non-human play. The latter, importantly is a distancing from nature and a withdrawal from the world, the endpoint of which is the drone and all its guiltfree murderousness.  The balance for Benjamin is technique as “the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man” (To the Planetarium).

Walter Benjamin at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1937

In other words, we are back to resonance, but even Benjamin was not immune to the notion of mastery.  We have to look forward to the later twentieth century to find accounts of language which insist on the need to distance ourselves from the world as subordinated to a sort of descriptive tyranny.  One of the most striking expressions comes from Maurice Blanchot, who writes

‘We are tempted to think that the language of the poet is that of the master: when the poet speaks, it is a sovereign speech, the speech of one who has thrown himself into risk, says what has never yet been said, names what he does not understand, does nothing but speak, so that he no longer knows what he says. When Nietzsche asserts: “But art is terribly serious! … We surround ourselves with images that will make you tremble. We have the power to do it! Block your ears: your eyes will see our myths, our curses will reach you!” it is the speech of a poet that is the speech of a master, and perhaps this is inevitable, perhaps the madness that overtakes Nietzsche is there to make masterly language into a language without master, a sovereignty without contract. Thus Holderlin’s song, after the over-violent outburst of the hymns, becomes again, in madness, that of the innocence of the seasons. But to interpret the speech of art and of literature in that way is to betray it. It is to mistake the demand that is within it. It is to seek it not at its source but, drawn into the dialectics of the master and the slave, after it has already become an instrument of power. We must, then, try to grasp again in the literary work the place where language is still a relationship without power, a language of naked relation, foreign to all mastery and all servitude, a language that speaks only to whoever does not speak in order to possess and have power, to know and have, to become master and to master oneself – that is, to a man who is scarcely a man.’ [10]

Blanchot offers a different sort of perception of the world through literature.  The critical recognition of the presence of power and hierarchy even within the way we describe the world and the determined effort to escape it is at odds with Heidegger’s hammer, or his vortex of anxiety that wills a description of the world as is; or Cassirer’s laborious description; or Wittgenstein’s mastery of the game.  It is closer to Benjamin’s play. 

There are consequences to all this.  Rosa extends his theory of resonance across to education:

‘Education in the sense of resonance theory … is aimed not at cultivating either the world or the self, but rather at cultivating relationships to the world. The goal is not refinement of the individualistic or atomistic self, nor disengaged mastery of the world, but rather opening up and establishing axes of resonance. Children are not vessels to be filled, but torches to be lit. Whoever the original source of this insight is – whether Rabelais or Heraclitus is unclear – it is correct.’

In a previous post I argued that the value of the humanities may not be in fixing things, but in unfixing them, freeing them.  In her brilliant account of reading, Sarah Wood writes ‘Reading asks us to reread, to forget our first understanding, to not understand and begin again.’[11] 

Our tool is not the hammer, but the song; our aim is not to order the world but to encourage its continuous reimagination.[12] 

Eilenberger’s calls his four protagonists ‘magicians.’  It is a direct reference to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book which prefigured in so many ways the debate between Cassirer and Heidegger, even to the extent that both feature the mountain town of Davos.  Cassirer, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Benjamin were playing with dangerous magic; and in a few years that magic would lead to an implosion of their world.  Cassirer fled to America, Heidegger promoted the fascist regime, and lived out his life in a degree of disgrace, Wittgenstein worked in hospitals in Britain, and Benjamin took his own life on the French Spanish border in September 26, 1940.  None mastered the world as they thought they might; Benjamin was at least unsurprised.  But we have maybe still not appreciated the damaging roughness of their magic, how disruptive of our resonance with the world it could be.  As I have been thinking through these anxieties over some months now, if I began with Heidegger’s hammer I end with another magician’s renunciation of his staff of mastery and the attendant gift of freedom.

But this rough magic

I here abjure, and when I have required

Some heavenly music, which even now I do,

To work mine end upon their senses that

This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And, deeper than did ever plummet sound,

I’ll drown my book.

[1] M. Heidegger, Being and Time, rev. tr. Stambaugh, SUNY Press 2010: I.3.

[2] See for the relationship between Heidegger and Husserl, R. Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil, Harvard 1994; W. Eilenberger, Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy, London 2020; more detail in P. E. Gordon, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, Harvard 2010, 77-82. The image is taken from H. Read’s Art and Industry: The Principles of Industrial Design, published in 1935.

[3] For a brilliant prose poem on flint knapping, see Rod Mangham, Knife, For a radical rereading of Neanderthal tool making (‘Stone tools were the atoms of Neanderthal life’) see R. Wragg-Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, London 2020.  The illustration is the Happisburgh hand axe, which is the oldest hand axe found in northwest Europe, found in Norfolk and some 500,000 years old. For the archaeology of entanglement see especially I. Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things, Chichester 2012.

[4] Seamus Heaney begins his poem Clearances with this beautiful account of the enjoyment of skill learnt from his mother, related then to the production of poetry:

She taught me what her uncle once taught her:

How easily the biggest coal block split

If you got the grain and hammer angled right.

The sound of that relaxed alluring blow,

Its co-opted and obliterated echo,

Taught me to hit, taught me to loosen,

Taught me between the hammer and the block

To face the music. Teach me now to listen,

To strike it rich behind the linear black.

[5] He quotes lines from Schiller’s Das Ideal und das Leben:

But free from the ravages of time …

Would’st thou freely soar on her wings on high,

Throw off earthly dread.

Flee from narrow, stifling life

Into the realm of the ideal.

[6] The original phrase is in Augustine’s eighth sermon on the first letter of John.  Augustine’s point is that one should love an enemy for their potential to be turned by God: You love not in him what he is, but what you wish him to be, non enim amas in illo quod est; sed quod vis ut sis.  Heidegger in a letter to Arendt on 27 December 1927 turned this into volo ut sis. And it’s easy enough to be charitable and translate as ‘I want that you be who you are’ but that’s absolutely not what Augustine meant, and certainly Arendt did not read the passage that way in her dissertation, where she wrestles with this passage (H. Arendt, Love and St. Augustine, Edited and with an Interpretive Essay by Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark, Chicago 1996).  She clearly recognised that Augustine was arguing for a love that was grounded in some level of self-denial: “It also means that for the neighbor as well love is merely a call to isolation, a summons into God’s presence. The lover turns the beloved into his equal. He loves this equality in the other whether or not the beloved understands it. In self-denying love I deny the other person as well as myself, but I do not forget him … This denial corresponds to “willing that you may be” and “carrying off to God.” I deny the other person so as to break through to his real being, just as in searching for myself, I deny myself’ (95-6).  At the end of the dissertation, things are a lot more complicated, because Arendt recognises that this whole process of loving one’s fellow person all too easily gets turned into a love for an individual and that threatens the basis of communal life; and moreover the indirectness inherent in loving someone only for their relationship to God ‘breaks up social relations by turning them into provisional ones’ (111-12).  See also R. Coyne Heidegger’s Confessions The Remains of Saint Augustine in Being and Time and Beyond, Chicago 2015, 67 for Heidegger’s not entirely convincing reading of Augustine in The phenomenology of religious life, with which Arendt is engaging.   Arendt just about rescues Augustine by the end (though she underplays the fact that Augustine was simultaneously in Letter 93 to Vincentius justifying coercion against the Donatist heretics as part of the same principle of ‘tough love’), but I can’t help but think that she knew that Heidegger’s volo ut sis was a bad reading of Augustine and a poor basis for a relationship. (This note is indebted to Lyndsey Stonebridge’s 2021 David Ceserani Holocaust Memorial Lecture).

[7] M. Heidegger, What is Called Thinking? Quoted at

[8] H. Rosa, Resonance: A Sociology of our Relationship to the World, London 2019.

[9] J. Sieber, Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Technique, Anthropology and Materialism: A Journal of Social Research 2019.4. My title is taken from M. Taussig, Mastery of Non-Mastery om the Age of Meltdown, Chicago 2020, which discusses Benjamin.

[10] M. Blanchot, The Book to Come, Stanford 2003, 33. For a powerful reading of the inherent violence in language see Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements, Durham-London 2018.

[11] S. Wood, Without Mastery: Reading and Other Forces, Edinburgh 2014.

[12] In Theories of German Fascism, Benjamin argues that technique “gave shape to the apocalyptic face of nature and reduced nature to silence – even though this [technique] […] had the power to give nature its voice” (SW 2, 319).


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