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Walter Benjamin: The Task of the Philosopher

Between the Scientist and the Artist

Walter Benjamin – I am mixed on how I feel towards him – wrote what he called an “Epistemo-Critical Prologue” for his doctoral thesis on German Trauerspiel: The Origin of German Tragic Drama. His habilitation was refused, no doubt in part due to the wide-sweeping, if obscure considerations of his prologue.

Some passages are worth quoting, if only as a kind of Remembrance. And at most, as a reinitiation of the question, What is the Philosopher? Interesting to me is his Nietzschean-like embrace of the rhetorical style (that is, a materiality) of this genred discourse, and the way that he attempts to place the philosopher, culturally, and epistemologically, between that of Scientist (much on the ascendancy as a figure of authority in our times) and the Artist (much appropriated to the mechanisms of power and expression in a media-age). He writes: 

If it is the task of the philosopher to practice the kind of description of the world of ideas, which automatically includes and absorbs the empirical world, he then occupies an elevated position between that of the scientist and the artist. The latter sketches a restricted image of the world of ideas, which, because it is conceived as a metaphor, is at all times definitive. The scientist arranges the world with a view to its dispersal in the realm of ideas, dividing it from within into concepts. He shares the philosopher’s interest in the elimination of merely the empirical; while the artist shares with the philosopher the task of representation. There has been a tendency to place the philosopher too close to the scientist, and frequently the lesser kind of scientist; as if representation had nothing to do with the task of the philosopher. The concept of philosophical style is free of paradox. It has its postulates. These are as follows: 

  1. The art of the interruption in contrast to the chain of deduction;
  2. The tendency of the essay in contrast to single gesture of the fragment;
  3. The repetition of themes in contrast to shallow universalism;
  4. The fullness of concentrated positivity, in contrast to the negation of the polemic.

The demand for flawless coherence in scientific deduction is not made in order that truth shall be represented in its unity and singularity; and yet this very flawlessness is the only way that the logic of the system is related to the notion of truth. Such systematic completeness has no more in common with truth than any other form of representation which attempts to ascertain the truth in mere cognitions and cognitional patterns…

Interesting as well, despite its Platonic and Kabbalistic shading, is his proceptive comparison of ideas to “constellations”:

 …Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars. This means, in the first place, that they are neither their concepts nor their laws. They do not contribute to the knowledge of phenomena, and in no way can the latter be the criteria with which to judge the existence of ideas. The significance of phenomena for ideas is confined to their conceptual elements. Whereas phenomena determine the scope and content of the concepts with encompass them, by their existence, by what they have in common, and by their differences, their relationship to ideas is the opposite of this inasmuch as the idea, the objective interpretation of phenomena-or rather their elements-determines their relationship to each other. Ideas are timeless constellations, and by virtue of the elements being seen as points in such constellations, phenomena are subdivided and at the same time redeemed; so that those elements which it is the function of the concept to elicit from phenomena are more clearly evident at the extremes. The idea is best explained as the representation of the context within which unique and extreme stands along side its counterpart.

“Epistmo-Critical Prologue”

As the contemporary philosopher positions her/himself within the context of importance, the image of constellation-reader makes up an interesting analogy, for science has done much good at dissolving the constellations of any importance; but we have to ask ourselves, how much are we stillsailors at sea? Within our ship, which has expanded at an incredible rate, we know “how it works” of so very many things. Our machine-interface has expanded from the jib and the mast and the rudder, and extended itself to a very great breadth through all kinds of wonderful instrumentalities. But as the surface area, the border of a sphere increases, evermore so does its volume, and the requirements for internal conceptional interaction would appear to become moredense. The requirement for rigorous invention of a conceptual apparatus for doing, for communicating, on which the meaning of our multifarious interactions rest, is increased. While eyes lay at the horizon of our limits, and our discovery (at the particle, the calculation, the device), what really is on the ascend ency is the integral capture of these limits. It is for this reason that the artist really is, in a hidden way, on the rise (employed by ever means in a media technique of representation). The question arises, how closely should the philosopher sit to scientist, as the sphere of knowledge expands? Culturally, where are her/his talents to reside?  

Is there not a need to invent new constellations?


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