Walter Benjamin's Philosophy of the Future
Toward a Post-Kantian Theology of Knowledge:
Walter Benjamin's Erkenntniskritik of Kant
by Kieran Cashell
In 1925, with the rejection of his application for lectureship in the University of Frankfurt, Walter Benjamin's academic career effectively came to a close. Yet, prior to this period, Benjamin was working out the preliminary hypotheses to a fascinating philosophical project. This project was predicated on a theoretical engagement with the Kantian contribution to that cultural period when Western knowledge matured into the global world-picture known as the Enlightenment.
However, for several reasons, Benjamin never brought his dream of a future philosophy grounded in the Kantian epistemic framework beyond a state of intuitive vision. What remains of this aborted project therefore reads like the residue of an insight: rhetorical notes, anticipatory thought-fragments, a morsel of questions destined to remain in a permanently problematic state. So the commentator seriously interested in amplifying this incomplete project must endeavour to somehow imagine something that does not yet exist. And this is not only because Benjamin abandoned the project. He also deliberately cast the project as a future configuration, as something that does not yet exist, something that is by its very nature anticipatory. Indeed it has been argued that Benjaminian discourse is itself, in essence, structurally abeyant a kind of form in suspense. Methodologically aporetic, permanently in advance of itself, Benjaminian philosophy is and must remain 'not-yet.' Taking this proposition as a regulative idea in the spirit of Kant, this paper attempts to adequately represent the central role Benjamin allows Kant to play in this future or 'not-yet' philosophy.
By the time he came to a serious engagement with Kant, Benjamin's research interests were directed toward a pre-Cartesian inquest into the metaphysical foundations of language; he was looking for a way to demonstrate that language cannot be reduced to pragmatic or communicative rationality. These interests found their outlet in a strange syncretism of mysticism, linguistics and theology exemplified for him by the Talmudic theology of the name. His esoteric semiotic theory, derived from the creation narrative of the Book of Genesis, held that the metaphysical being of things comes to disclosure by being named in human language. 'The Bible expresses this symbolic fact' he wrote in 1916, 'when it says that God breathes his breath into man: this is at once life and mind and language' (1996, 67). So Benjamin, at this point conceived of reality, consciousness and language as sharing a homologous structure. The task of philosophy is construed, from this perspective, as a project of naming. The act of naming, for Benjamin, is revelatory; it enables the expressionless, indistinct, silent being of reality and reality of Being to come to their mutual disclosure. This nexus of ideas explains his seemingly paradoxical proposition that 'language is in every case not only communication of the communicable but also, at the same time, a symbol of the noncommunicable' (1996, 74). That which cannot be communicated can be named. The act of naming corresponds to the witnessing of an ontological opening that Benjamin associated with the efflorescence of truth. This aletheiological discourse has its foundation in the divine act of creation. In naming, 'the word of God', Benjamin claims, 'shines forth' (1996, 70). This conception of language as irreducible to its communicative function relates language to the mysterious and profound which for Benjamin were the central modes of those esoteric yet rational zones of pure experience where the metaphysical, the religious and the aesthetic resided.
To Theodor Adorno, friend and younger colleague of Benjamin's, Benjaminian discourse was characterised by the attempt to 'render accessible by rational means that range of experience that announces itself in schizophrenia' (Adorno, in Benjamin: 1994; xvii). Already, in 1932, Adorno had identified Benjamin's philosophical project as the endeavour to discursively represent the experience of shock. In his Benjaminian essay, 'The Idea of Natural History,' he associates this kind of philosophical shock with thaumazein and thus tacitly argues that this makes the Benjaminian project consistent with the advent of philosophy per se. Because in Plato's Theaetetus dialogue, Socrates maintains that philosophical investigation begins with the experience of (what he calls in Greek) thaumazein 'wonder' (Theaetetus 155d). Endorsing this provenance, Heidegger in What is Philosophy? (Was heisst Philosophie) translates thaumazein as 'to be astonished' (1965, 113). So the origin of philosophia is astonishment. With the intention to account philosophically for the experience of shocked astonishment, Benjamin rejects the ideal of clarity postulated by Descartes as the precondition of epistemic certainty for a philosophical ethos of a more primordial origin.
Now, both aspects of Benjaminian discourse, namely, his concern with the metaphysical foundation of language, specifically with the linguistic essence of all knowledge represented by the onto-theology of the name, on the one hand, and the attempt to bear witness philosophically to thaumaturgical astonishment, on the other, are crucial for understanding Benjamin's early engagement with Kant. Both aspects share a concern with what inhabits the shadows of experience, with what cannot be captured adequately by, and what transcends, the categories of conceptual representation, with everything that exceeds the circumscribed closure of knowledge. Taken together, these two intimately related aspects constitute the fundamental basis of Benjamin's exegesis of Kant. Having briefly represented both aspects, we can now turn to properly consider the Benjaminian critique of Kantian epistemology.
Benjamin's exegesis of Kant: Programme for a future philosophy
Analytic efforts to treat Benjamin's ambivalent position vis-a-vis Kant tend inevitably toward the questions raised in his 1917-1918 paper 'On the Program of a Future Philosophy' (Uber das Programm einer kommenden Philosophie), which, in very complex ways, as intimated above, determine his entire philosophical project. For the purposes of this brief analytic, these questions can be reduced to one: Can the Kantian epistemological restrictions embrace a concept of experience more profound than Kant's? With this question, Benjamin inquires into the possibility of opening up, modifying or otherwise adapting the transcendental structures of intuition and understanding such that they could enable the unanticipated, the unforeseen and the unpredictable to effloresce within their closed constellation. But is this possible? Can the Kantian a priori forms of knowledge accommodate Benjamin's unconventional conception of experience?
In the wake of Kant's critique of metaphysics, which eliminates any access to the intelligible realm, and therefore cuts off experience of anything that transcends the human senses, the very possibility of developing a non-naive metaphysics that incorporates the potential for religious experience seems impracticable and even unfeasible. However, Benjamin's problem with Kant is precisely his limitation of possible experience to what the transcendental ideas (space and time) and the categories of the understanding allow through their epistemological gateways. Kant's implicit trust in the capacity of reason to present an adequate representation of the phenomenal world eliminated any reliance on the non-empirically justifiable realm of the numinous: the religious or the metaphysical. Yet for Benjamin any future philosophy
includes religion, as the true experience, in which neither god nor man is object or subject of experience but in which this experience depends on pure knowledge as the quintessence of which alone philosophy can and must think of god. (1980, 163/ 1996, 104)
The possibility of this philosophy is contingent on the urgent critical revision of Kant's epistemological closure.
Now the whole point of the Kantian enterprise was to demonstrate, by critical exposition, that the limits of possible experience are determined by the innate structure of the mind. That is to say, every experience is granted coherence, perspective and duration by certain cognitive capabilities that exist anterior to that experience; these capabilities, according to Kant, are responsible for imposing shape and form on the otherwise confusing flux of undifferentiated sense-impressions. Kant thus argues against Hume that the mind does not passively accept this scattered flux of impressions rather it acts directly on this flux, layering, differentiating and sorting it, forming it into coherent schemata and spatio-temporal relationships. Consciousness achieves this through the forming agency of intuition. Furnishing the transcendental epistemic ground of all possible experience, this synthetic agency constitutes a priori knowledge for Kant; that is, knowledge that exists before any experience and goes on to constitute the condition of possibility of any further particular experience: we cannot but organise the flux of naked experience (the manifold of intuition) into cogent, logical and unified configurations by virtue of the structure of subjectivity.
Kant was the first to see the contradiction inherent in the dialectic of truth and representation: we represent reality empirically to ourselves in quasi-objective terms through the forms of human sensibility. Structured by an innate knowledge he called the Transcendental Ideas, what human sensibility lends to experience is represented by what remains constant in every contingent act of experience: Time and Space. These become conditions of possibility for the appearance of objects as such (this is the Kantian 'Copernican Revolution' that the objects of experience conform to the structures of our knowledge, and not vice versa). This means that knowledge of reality is not just passively assimilated but rather that subjectivity contributes to the constitution of the world as it appears. The world is thus nothing but the world that our knowledge enables us to experience. Whatever objective knowledge becomes available to experience is what is capable of being experienced in human terms. However, this entails the corollary proposition that 'Our' (the transcendental subject's) access to objectivity at the same time simultaneously precludes us from ever knowing reality, as it is in-and-for-itself, even if this noumenal or intelligible world is ultimately responsible for the appearances we experience in the first place. We may never know. For this is exactly the kind of metaphysical knowledge that Kant's critical limitation precludes.
Now, given that the Critique of Pure Reason determines the conditions of any possible experience on the basis of the structure of consciousness, Benjamin firmly believes that, given new criteria of a priori knowledge, it logically follows that an unprecedented or open concept of possible experience must necessarily arise. This is precisely the objective Benjamin set for himself in his engagement with Kant. So his task becomes the effort to posit the first propositions of a new non-naive metaphysics, founded on the Kantian aesthetic synthesis of phenomenal reality. This new metaphysics will incorporate the potential for a more profound conception of experience than the diminished Kantian notion of experience:
it is a question of finding, on the basis of Kantian typology, prolegomena to a future metaphysics and, in the process, of envisioning this future metaphysics, this higher experience. (Benjamin: 1980, 160/ 1996, 102)
Kant's Critique of Pure Reason presents an epistemological paradigm according to which the conditions of possible experience are limited to the classical scientific world-picture. His conception of the co-ordination of space and time was entirely homogeneous with Newton's. As Umberto Eco succinctly puts it: 'The first Critique constitutes not so much a theory of everyday knowledge as a theory of scientific knowledge' (Eco: 2000, 69). Within the Kantian epistemological closure a space cannot therefore be admitted for revealed truth or metaphysical knowledge of the Benjaminian kind: the kind of ecstatic disclosure associated with mystical or religious experience. Any recourse to non-sensible perception of the transcendent was exiled from the Kantian reservation. Indeed Benjamin had already claimed in an unpublished preliminary fragment to the Program essay that 'What counts [alone] for [Kant] is the concept of scientific experience' (1996, 94). By the time of the Program proper, Benjamin has extended this argument: 'the conception of the naked, primitive, and self-evident experience, which, for Kant' he claims, 'seemed to be the only experience given' is in fact, he continues, 'temporally limited.'
It was an experience or a view of the world of the lowest order. (1996, 101)
However, the Kantian conception of experience is impoverished, according to Benjamin's critique, only because he shared the epistemological assumptions of Enlightenment thought. The reason for this reduction of experience therefore is that Kant's thinking was conditioned by the theoretical norms of the Enlightenment epistemic closure.
Above and beyond a certain formal similarity which it shared with any sense of experience, this experience, which in a significant sense could be called a world-view, was that of the Enlightenment. (1983-84, 42)
The Enlightenment represents that phase of human cognitive development in the Western world where thought can be said to have reached maturity. Beginning with Descartes' methodological scepticism and continuing with the post-Cartesian quest for certainty, Kant played a major role in the historical process where human cognition gradually emancipated itself from dependence on any supernatural, mythological or metaphysical (i.e., non-rational or non-empirical) transcendent explanations. Thus the Enlightenment period has become associated with the increasing confidence in reason as the final court of appeal of knowledge and belief. Reason, it was gradually emerging, can furnish a completely reliable and consistent understanding of reality and its governing laws, independent of any faith in a transcendent authority or dogmatic metaphysical ordinance. Such authorities, which had hitherto rigidly determined prevailing ideological representations of natural phenomena, were abandoned as mythological residues in the progression of Enlightenment rationality: this is symbolised in the Nietzschean cliche 'the death of God.' Thus the fork of the Enlightenment has two tines rationalisation and demystification: on the one hand there is the inexorable progression toward the consummate autonomy of the explanatory potency of reason (which finds its ultimate form in scientific positivism and global technological industrialisation), and, on the other, the cessation of dependence on supernatural, mythical, religious or metaphysical influence (which finds its ultimate form in global secularisation, existential Angst, atomisation and alienation).
Now, according to Benjamin's critique of Kant (which is a more direct criticism of the dialectic of the Enlightenment), the progressive, idealistic autonomy of Enlightenment thought is marred by a 'religious and historical blindness' which results in this secularised or 'low-level concept of experience' that Kant in part inherited and in part helped to elaborate (1996, 101).
Previously the symbol of the unity of knowledge that we know of as 'experience' had been an exalted one; it had, even though to varying degrees, been close to God and the divine. During the Enlightenment, however, it was increasingly stripped of its proximity to God. (1996, 95)
Yet, according to Benjamin, despite its emphasis on 'disenchantment', the narrative of the Enlightenment fails to ascertain its own clandestine reliance on certain metaphysical presuppositions. And because these presuppositions remain unquestioned they assume the status of foundational myth; therefore, the Enlightenment, according to Benjamin, is as dependent on its own crypto-mythological structure as any previous historical period (if viewed from the perspective of Enlightenment chauvinism).
The most fundamental of these mythical structures, for Benjamin, is the grounding of knowledge in the subject-object relationship. Despite Kant's efforts, he was unable to overcome the metaphysical grounding of knowledge in subject-object dualism; and for Benjamin, a legitimate epistemology must be irreducible to the tacit metaphysical realism of the subject-object schema.
At one point, Benjamin inventories an eclectic list of instances irreducible to explanation in terms of subject-object epistemological dualism. Cultures considered immaturely pre-rational relative to modern, enlightened thought, are known to 'identify themselves with sacred animals and plants and name themselves after them' (1983-84, 44). The insane, Benjamin says, similarly 'identify themselves in part with objects of their perception, which thus are no longer objects, 'placed before' them'; the ill, he claims, have been known to experience their own pain in external things; clairvoyants maintain that they can experience the sensation of another (1980, 161-162/ 1996, 103). This kind of oracular knowledge, the knowledge of the seer and the prophet, was denigrated in the rational ethos of the Aufklarung in favour of the font of knowledge that any 'sane man' could partake of. However, as Benjamin perspicaciously argues, the fundamental subject-object dualism that grounds all Enlightenment and subsequent Modern theory is as non-empirical, non-justifiable, as supernatural and mythological (according to the very criteria of Enlightenment rationality) as any of the instances of mantic knowledge practices above.
It simply cannot be doubted that the notion, sublimated though it may be, of an individual, living ego which receives sensations by means of its senses and forms its ideas on the basis of them, plays a role of the greatest importance in the Kantian concept of knowledge. (1983-84, 44)
Therefore, he claims, the instances above cannot be denigrated relative to the Enlightenment's scientific, pseudo-rational values, as these values are posited on a ground that is as metaphysical as any pre-rational or esoteric thought-systems. In fact, he argues, the very idea of a shared sensible community of innate (or transcendental) knowledge has a clear kinship with mantic or hieratic forms of knowledge. 'Kantian "experience" is metaphysics or mythology' he concludes, 'only a modern and religiously particularly infertile one' (1983-84, 45).
'On the Program of a Future Philosophy' concludes that the more profound conception of experience Benjamin intimates can be admitted into the enclosure of the critical philosophy only when the epistemological picture of the constitution of the 'world' by the transcendental subject has been disenchanted, and the Kantian architectonic corrected by transforming its concept of knowledge by taking account of the linguistic essence of all knowledge. Benjamin predicts that when the mythological image of the object standing over against the subject has been abandoned, a new concept of knowledge will necessarily emerge.
The task of future epistemology is to find for knowledge the sphere of total neutrality in regard to the concepts of both subject and object; in other words, it is to discover the autonomous, innate sphere of knowledge in which this concept in no way continues to designate the relation between two metaphysical entities. (1980, 163/ 1996, 104)
All epistemic oppositions established on the basis of the foundational subject/ object distinction, as Goldmann (1977) has pointed out, remain ineluctably involved in the mistaken 'metaphysics of the subject' or 'the ontological error of the subject', even when 'objectivity' is considered the real goal of theory, or when the 'objective' is identified tout court with truth.
There is no given world, the object is constructed, and its inseparability with the subject even goes as far as their identity... Objectivity does not exist. There is only the structuration of the object by the subject. (Goldmann: 1977, 30)
But once counterfeit skepticism had cleared a space for the clare et distincte presentation to consciousness, from there, it became a matter of merely drawing out logical conclusions in order to arrive at the full-blown metaphysical dualism of subject and object. Descartes' supple manoeuvre from ego cogito to the ontological dualism of res cogitans (substance corresponding to the subject of thought: mind) and res extensa (substance corresponding to the object of thought: body) seems a logically necessary step. Building on this relation, Kant defines a pure (delimited) relation between consciousness as underlying subiectum (the Cartesian cogito: I think...) and the transcendental object qua possible phenomenon. This inaugurates the seemingly ineradicable epoch of subject/ object metaphysical dualism. The latter implies that reality is composed of two kinds of substance (thinking things and non-thinking, extended things) and presupposes that the 'subject' is known indubitably, that is, with intuitive obviousness or epistemic certainty.
Although defending a concept of the essence of truth, Benjamin refuses to think truth in terms of the classical thesis of the agreement of discourse with what is the case in fact. What this entails, in sum, is a rejection of the dominant correspondence theory of truth i.e., the logical and epistemological standard of the adaequatio intellectus et rei. Truth, for Benjamin is commensurate with the horizonal possibility of the as-yet impossible experience. (This conception of the essence of truth derives from the ancient origin of philosophy in shocked astonishment). This implies thinking through the paradox that truth must always and already precede any hypostatisation of (the epistemological categories) 'subject' and 'object.' Thinking the riddle of truth involves rather the epistemic attempt to understand as not founded on the picture of the Ob-ject as standing over against the self-present ego cogito.
This programme of disenchantment can only be 'performed' through the nexus where religion, language and philosophy intersect (1980, 167/ 1996, 108). Therefore it is possible to retrieve (cancel and preserve) the Kantian system, according to Benjamin, once it is recognised that mathematical methods are not relevant to philosophical investigation. This is because the medium of philosophy is not mathematical but linguistic. And for the Benjaminian conception of language this entails the concomitant demand that philosophy be understood as the effort to say what cannot be said, that is, philosophy as language is determined by the asymptotic attempt to bring the uncommunicable to communication through the theological discourse of the name. When the linguistic essence of knowledge is thus recognised, Benjamin argues, then an epistemology not antipathetic to the metaphysical can be planned; the Kantian enclosure can be expanded to accommodate the capacity for religious experience.
In conclusion, Benjamin's post-Kantian theology of knowledge can be seen as an attempt to place the capacity for shocked astonishment back on the agenda of philosophy. But room for a retrieval of philosophy in the thaumaturgical (the arche) can only open when epistemology has been disabused of the subject-object schema and the reduction of experience to the vacuity of that represented by the physical sciences and their mathematical protocol. In uncritically accepting such a basic concept of experience, Kant misses the opportunity to realise the unprecedented potential of his own Critique.
To recall, 'critique' derives from krinein, which suggests the setting out of limits, or delimitation, 'in the sense of an exhibition of the inner construction' (Heidegger: 1967, 120). Avoiding associations with 'fault-finding,' 'disapproval,' the discrimination of the 'good' from the 'bad' 'critique' will signify an investigative exploration of immanent structure; it will mean that which makes possible the movement across or out. 'Critique' will mean, therefore, a double explication, an internal investigation that alone makes possible the movement of trans-ascendance.
A simple analogy will amplify the subtle, yet crucial difference as well as simultaneously disclosing the affinity between the Kantian understanding of philosophy and Benjamin's ethos of critique. The microscope is an instrument that, through adjusting a series of lenses, sharpens what is otherwise indistinct, dusky, fringed at the edges. Philosophy for Kant is like this. Focusing on what is indeterminate, philosophy will enhance its latent clarity.
However, the microscope can be understood otherwise. An instrument that, through adjusting the distance between lens and slide, the microscope uncovers an abundant and turbulent universe nested within the prosaic and inconsequential, the banal and uninteresting. This figuratively characterises Benjamin's approach to the task of philosophy. For him, the critique delimits. It thus provides the means for an intensive, intensional focus on a particularised cell of quotidian reality. Under the aspect of critique therefore as under an intense, indeed speculative, focus concepts expand in detail and multiply in complexity. And as the puzzlement of the world increases, we begin to wonder.
In articulating immanent a priori or formal conditions with the guarantee of posterior application, Benjaminian discourse conforms to the Kantian philosophic ethos of critique. However, while observing the Kantian ethos, Benjamin also wants to open up its epistemic closure. He tries to render its structure receptive to a profound concept of experience (that would include the capacity for the experience of shocked astonishment and thus include the experience of the numinous, the religious epiphany, intimations of metaphysical or transcendent reality, aesthetic feelings etc.), to an experience that cannot stricto sensu be reduced to its present formal conditions of possible knowledge, to an experience that cannot be contained by the transcendental aesthetic. The paradox is that, after Kant, this can only be achieved through the very delimitation, sorting and separation ethos of the Kantian Kritik. Benjamin's strategy here can be seen as an attempt to make the Kantian system defeasible. It is as if he were trying to write a mutatis mutandis clause into the structure of the Kantian formalist programme such that its own structures, the structures responsible for closing it off to certain experiential data, can be overridden by a future expansion of evidence. In this way, Benjamin hopes to retain a discursive relation to the non-discursive so as not to close off the possibility of the as-yet impossible, unforeseen, unprecedented experience, the experience of shocked astonishment.
Adorno, T W (1984). 'The Idea of Natural-History,' Telos, 60, 111-125.
---- (1988). 'Introduction to Benjamin's Schriften' (trans. R Hullot-Kenton), G Smith (ed). On Walter Benjamin Critical Essays and Reflections. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2-16.
Benjamin, Walter (1994). The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910-1940 (trans. M R Jacobson and E M Jackobson). G. Scholem and T W Adorno (eds). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
---- (1980). Gesammelte Schriften III. R Tiedemann and H Schweppenhauser (eds), prepared with the co-operation of T W Adorno and G Scholem. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
---- (1983-84). 'Program of the Coming Philosophy' (trans. M Ritter). The Philosophical Forum. Vol XV, nos. 1-2, 41-45.
---- (1996). Selected Writings Volume 1 1913-1926 (trans. R. Livingstone and others), M. Bullough and M W Jennings (eds). Cambridge, Mass. and London: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Eco, Umberto (2000). Kant and the Platypus. London: Vintage.
Goldmann, Lucien (1977). Lukacs and Heidegger: Towards a New Philosophy (trans. W Q Boelhower). London: Routledge.
Heidegger, Martin (1965). 'What is Philosophy?' H W Johnstone, Jr (ed). What is Philosophy? Penn. State University, New York: Macmillan, 107-116.
---- (1967). What is a Thing? (trans. W B Barton Jr and V Deutsch). Chicago: Henry Regnery.
Plato (1952). The Dialogues of Plato (trans. B Jowett). R M Hutchins (ed). London: Encyclopaedia Britannica.
© Kieran Cashell 2005