Benjamin as Philosopher: Asystematic Argumentations

by Shaun Terry

(note: I may use non-gendered “they,” “them,” “their,” “theirs,” and/or “themselves” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)


We have talked about how Benjamin is not a systematic thinker—that he does not present us with a clear, coherent philosophy. In some sense, I think that this might be fairly obvious. However, I think that there are themes that cohere. If we take Benjamin to be an anti-rationalist, then it makes some sense to me that he would not be averted to irrationalities in the forms of inconsistencies and contradictions. He tends to appear inimical to moralization and he seems to view humanity as having lost, through over-rationalization, something human—something beyond the rational. Perhaps, in Benjamin, what we see is that rationality has two opposites: emotionality and embodiment. The opposite of the thought is the emotion; the opposite of the mind is the body. It seems that Benjamin feels that humanity has lost a good deal due to devaluations of both the emotional and the embodied.

If we suppose that religion is often intended to explain the inexplicable, then perhaps Benjamin’s invocations of theological statements makes sense. After all, if Benjamin is an anti-rationalist, then he might want to foreground that of which we cannot make sense. In “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man,” Benjamin conceives of a universal language such that all of humanity shares something that is indescribable. The inexplicable appears when Benjamin refers to “essences” and “myths,” in addition to his tendency to argue in theological terms. In his The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin finds Lutheranism problematic for its internalization (138). Benjamin’s claim seems to be that the discipline and internalization, as in the emphasis on “grace through faith,” replace ritual and embodied practices that align Christians’ minds and bodies in order to achieve better outcomes. So, Benjamin here appears to be taking issue with the privileging of the mind over the body.

Going back to Benjamin’s theological argumentation, perhaps the God that Benjamin speaks of is not necessarily some God that resides in some other place, but God can be thought of as something sacred in humanity itself. What is this something sacred, then? While describing the role of mourning, what appears in Benjamin is a righting of the world (and perhaps a reclamation of that sacred portion of humanity) in the form of emotional response to the brutal banality of the rationalized world (139). And here, the emotional and the embodied seem to form a link. Benjamin seems to take the position that we should be out in the world, experiencing it ( The Origin of German Tragic Drama 141-2, “On Language as Such”). Because we do not do that well, nature responds to humanity with “sadness” and “mourning” (“On Language as Such”).

When Benjamin describes the Fall as having to do with language, it appears that the “language of man” is a language that fails to be able to fully capture the human experience (“On Language as Such”). Human language is that language that fails to fully capture the emotional aspects of humanity, and that leads to rationalism. Over-rationalization leads to sadness and suffering, which leads to moralization, which leads to suffering.

In Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, he sees human suffering as related to human tendencies to moralize. In the myth appears the superhero whose special abilities should allow them to overcome the moral complications that humans encounter. Their failures are meant to teach us lessons, but no human should be able to overcome life’s moral complications because we are limited by human capacities. This seems to be why hope and suffering are tied together in Elpis. Moralization leads us into an impossible situation, causing us guilt and sadness. This helps to explain Benjamin’s last line: “Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope.” We all are hopeless because rationalism has led to the loss of emotionality and embodied practices that are important to our welfare.

Benjamin’s contradictions, mysticism, and theological arguments appear as statements in themselves: it seems that Benjamin aims to normalize non-rationalistic argumentation. While Benjamin might not be recognizable as a modern, Western philosopher, I would argue that Benjamin has a philosophy.

Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard of Harvard University Press. 1997.

Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: NLB. 1977.