Walter Benjamin’s Speculative Theory of Knowledge

As symbolic entities, in their essential anticipatory structure, the ideas of the Prologue bear an important resemblance to the symbolic utopian images of Bloch’s philosophy. Both Bloch and Benjamin view traditional metaphysics as a vast, heretofore untapped wealth of utopian semantic potentials, and thus for both thinkers it is the task of reflection to attempt to redeem the latter by making them relevant for the present. In their reliance on the legacy of metaphysics, in their mutual willingness to cede to the realm of ideas an existence independent of phenomenal reality, they have not so much relapsed into a pre-Marxian, idealist position, as they have attempted to accentuate the historical non-identity between subject and object, between the real and the ideal – a fact which differentiates their speculative thinking markedly from idealism in its classical Hegelian form. For Benjamin as well as Bloch, the symbolic character of ideas is representative of a Messianic relation to assist it – though only symbolically – to an immanent condition of perfection or fulfillment. In this connection, Hans Heinz Holz has attempted, with reference to Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” to show in an extremely fruitful way how Benjamin’s theory of ideas might be made serviceable for an enlightened materialist understanding of history. As is well known, in the “Theses” the chief object of Marx’s attack was Feuerbach’s static, inert, contemplative materialism; and it is, in contrast, idealism he credits above all with having developed the “active side” of the dialectic. Holz’s reflections proceed from an analogous conviction:

“The more theory and practice approximate one another, in order finally to combine in a unity, to pass over into each other, the more the idea loses its idealist tinge and becomes an integral moment in the great equivalence of consciousness and being, man and nature, which is attained in the humanization of nature and the naturalization of man. However, because the being-thus of the idea as Ordo already anticipates this solution, i.e., it contains within itself archetypically as it were, utopian existence and thus refers to the later allegorically, one should interpret ideas (as the wish-architecture and wish-landscape of spirit) again and again in terms of their wish-content, their utopian kernel. The idea establishes itself at the border where the real transforms itself into the possible. That this possible contrasts itself to the real as not-being (Nichtsein) (and in no way as nothing [Nichts]) constitutes the ideal character of the idea. Yet, because possible being is latent being of a non-existing thing, the idea is capable of being the objective interpretation of the world: namely, the interpretation of its objective possibilities.”

It is precisely in these terms that the relevance of Benjamin’s theory of knowledge – as well as that of speculative thought in general – should be sought today.

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source: Richard Wolin, “Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption”, Ideas & Theory of Knowledge, 105-106

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