Walter Benjamin and the Post-Kantian Tradition

Walter Benjamin and the Post-Kantian Tradition

by Phillip Homburg


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Walter Benjamin and the Post-Kantian Tradition engages with Benjamin as a theorist of a historical and philosophical problematic of modernity: a problematic that he finds manifested, in different philosophical guises, within scientific empiricism, neo-Kantianism and German Romanticism. The book takes us through these manifestations systematically and, in doing so, it demonstrates how Benjamin develops a unique form of materialist criticism from within the tension he locates within transcendent neo-Kantianism materialism and the immanent standpoints of scientific materialism and German Romanticism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786603821
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 11/15/2018
Series: Founding Critical Theory Series
Pages: 170
Product dimensions: 6.24(w) x 9.09(h) x 0.72(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Phillip Homburg recently completed his PhD in Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex.

Read an Excerpt


Metaphysical Materialism and Its Critics

This chapter and the two that follow examine the philosophical backdrop against which Benjamin develops his form of materialism. In this chapter, I examine the development of the form of philosophical materialism that will come into contact with Kantian and neo-Kantian philosophy alongside Kant's own engagement with materialist philosophy. I begin by examining materialism in its earliest stages in classical philosophy up to its modern form, the standpoint of metaphysical materialism. What defines philosophical materialism is that it is systematic and speculative in its approach; that is, it makes claims about the nature of reality as a whole. It either implicitly or explicitly makes claims not only about certain specific objects of investigation but also about the nature of reality itself – it contains both ontological and epistemological elements. Therefore, it is possible to say that certain approaches to the world may be materialist – say an evolutionary biologist or even a Marxian economist – but these standpoints are not really what I'm interested in here. (Although they are interesting from the perspective of this book as a whole, I will not get into that at the moment.)

Philosophical materialism represents an alternative to philosophical idealism but not necessarily a refutation of it in total, as I will show. By taking up metaphysical questions, it does not refute the existence of metaphysical or metaempirical phenomena and principles. Nor, is it more overtly scientistic than much of German Idealism. Kant and his neo-Kantian successors strongly defended the principles of the pure mathematical sciences (physics) against what they saw as degraded empiricist forms of science (such as biology and chemistry). So, the conflict between philosophical materialism and idealism occurs on the battleground of science itself, about what precisely constitutes valid knowledge of reality, nature and society. These questions can't be dismissed by polemics against the concept of science. The thinkers I examine in this book, including Benjamin, do not oppose science in the abstract. Rather, they raise questions about method, application and our understanding of how particular scientific approaches define our understanding of reality itself. Put simply, Benjamin, following Kant, upholds an element of irreducibility against the attempt to subsume all of reality into a logical method or scientific worldview. I will now move on to examine the materialist approach to reality.


In his pre-critical text, "Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics," Immanuel Kant lays out the difference between the two types of materialism: "Hylozoism invests everything with life, while materialism, when carefully considered, deprives everything of life." The distinction between hylozoism and mechanical materialism provides a good starting point for an understanding of materialism as a philosophical position because they mark its possible extremes. I begin by contextualising materialism, first, in its mechanistic atomist and, second, in its vitalistic hylozoist form. Following this, I move on to an examination of Kant's treatment of materialism, which helps set the backdrop for the neo-Kantian critique of materialism.

Materialism, in general, can be broken down into two central ontological claims about the nature of the empirical world: first, reality is composed of matter or the interaction of physical forces; and, second, consciousness is not separate from the material world but is formed based on material processes. The essence of materialism's conception of reality is monism: everything, including consciousness, can be reduced to what is material in nature. It should be noted here that materialism does not make a general claim about the specific nature of these processes or give an account of the composition of matter. Therefore, it is possible to conceive of material interactions mechanically or hylozoistically and remain a consistent materialist. I will now examine two extreme examples to demonstrate this possibility beginning with mechanistic materialism.

Mechanistic materialism originates in the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus. Aristotle provides a succinct description of the two founders of atomism:

Leucippus and his associate Democritus say that the full and the empty are the elements, calling the one being and the other non-being – the full and solid being, the empty non-being (that is why they say that what is no more than what is not, because body no more is than void); and they make these the material causes of things.

For the atomist, the object contains its essence within itself in the form of atoms rather than being formed on the basis of a single natural element such as air, fire, water and so on. These atoms form objects by joining together but never produce a single substance. Objects are composed of a variety of different atoms touching each other without every becoming a whole. For Democritus, what exists are the atom and the empty, and change occurs through the movement of atoms within a void.

Atomism runs into problems when it must account for movement and change. Aristotle explains the atomist's account of change: "For instance, Adiffers from N in shape, AN from NA in arrangement and Z from N in position." For the atomist, change occurs through the physical alteration of the combination of atoms within a void. The substructure of the object is comprised of various combinations of atoms that are eternal and unchanging, but these atoms can be moved and reconfigured externally. As Simplicius writes, quoting Aristotle, Democritus "thinks that [atoms] cling to one another and remain together until some stronger necessity arriving from the environment scatters them apart and separates them." Objects are contingent, but the elements that make up their substructure are eternal. For the atomists, matter is essentially inert or lifeless, and its movement is regulated by purely mechanical laws external to the atoms themselves. If this were not the case, the world of appearance would be completely contingent. Therefore, along with the inertia of matter they posit its subsistence in time and space.

Aristotle is critical of the limits of the atomistic account of knowledge that posits the identity of knowledge and sensation. In Democritus's account, sensation is essentially reduced to touch: "Democritus and most of the natural philosophers ... proceed quite irrationally, for they represent all objects of sense as objects of Touch. Yet, if this is so, it clearly follows that each of the other senses is a mode of Touch; but one can see at a glance that this is impossible." Objects are composed by groups of atoms joined through touch and, equally, enter into the mind by way of touch so that sight becomes a form of touching between the sensing mind and the object, albeit at the atomic level. All knowledge of objects appears based on a limited form of sensation. However, while Democritus stresses the important role of sensation, he is also emphatic in distinguishing sensation from the true knowledge of an object: "In reality we know nothing – for truth is in the depths." Or, equally, "We in reality know nothing firmly but only as it changes in accordance with the condition of the body and of the things which enter it and to the things which resist it." Finally, combining the first and second quotes, Democritus makes a distinction between sense and understanding: "There are two forms of knowledge, one genuine and the other dark. To the dark belong all these: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The genuine separated from this." The genuine is the real knowledge of the material world, while the dark, the conventional, is sensuousness. Even though objects are constituted materially and grasped sensuously, Democritus makes a fundamental distinction between a genuine world of true knowledge and the world of sensuous convention. Or, in other words, he marks a distinction between essence as truth and appearance as mere semblance. Truth, in any meaningful sense, is permanently bracketed from the reality of sensuous appearance because it exists squarely outside of sensation. The subject has access only to sensation which, as Democritus states, is embodied and, as such, contingent and subjective. Democritus is dealing with matter instead of essences or ideas, yet there remains an ontologically separate genuine world behind the conventional world of subjective and contingent appearance.

For Aristotle, atomism can never adequately account for truth: "Democritus, at any rate, says that either there is no truth or to us at least it is not evident. And in general, it is because these thinkers suppose knowledge to be sensation, and this to be a physical alteration, that they say what appears to our senses must be true." Atomism, despite its claim that the atom is permanent, results in a form of scepticism in regard to knowledge: the object as an object of sense – the conventional – is unreliable. Aristotle identifies that a form of epistemological scepticism is central to Democritean atomism. Reality is, then, for Democritus, appearance while the atom is essence. The atom contains no properties within itself and is, therefore, abstract and empty. The material substrate is eternal while the world of appearance is in a state of constant change. The foundation of the mechanistic account of the atom is one of inertia and the persistence of matter. Such a theory runs in opposition to the dynamism and contingency of the world of objects or appearances. Further, the atomistic account of sensation remains incomplete. For Aristotle, "Sensation is surely not the sensation of itself, but there is something beyond the sensation, which must be prior to the sensation; for that which moves is prior in nature to that which is moved." Aristotle claims that the atomist's account provides no cause for movement or sensation other than the mere chance external coincidence between atoms. The purely conventional world of objects is composed of random combination of individual atoms compelled by negative movement within a vacuum. Atomism cannot provide a compelling case for the cause of this movement since atoms themselves provide the substructure of the world. The cause would have to be either the atoms themselves or a force or movement that lies beyond experience and sensation. Such an account contradicts a purely mechanistic form of materialism since it indicates that atoms themselves have a level of agency that goes against the materialist claim that the material substrate of reality – its essence – is inert.

Democritean atomism cannot provide the basis for a convincing materialist conception of reality because it is ultimately sceptical about the reliability of sensation. If sensation is to be the chief criterion of its epistemology, Democritean atomism alone cannot be an appropriate ground since it is not sensation but the atom – a concept that lies completely beyond sensation – that is, the essence of reality. At its heart, atomism posits the necessity of further investigation into the system of nature to reveal its foundation. Classical atomism must continually fall short until it can be assisted by development of the natural sciences, particularly physics. While classical atomism provides the foundation of the causal theory of sensation, this position cannot be fully developed until the scientific revolution precipitated by the scientific discoveries of Galileo and Descartes. It is in Galileo, as Alexandre Koyrè asserts, that "the idea of mathematical physics, or rather the idea of the mathematisation of the physical, was realised for the first time in the history of human thought." With the movement away from the experiential and experimental nature of classical physics towards a mathematical and mechanical model of nature, the systemisation of nature becomes possible. In other words, for modern physics the gulf between sensation or experience and science is not the unbridgeable gulf as it was for Democritus. It is also at this point that the true usefulness of the atom becomes apparent: it is an essentially empty, abstract and individual unit that can be generalised across the whole of material reality. This unit corresponds to materialism's two chief claims: first, that reality can be reduced to the interaction of material forces – atoms; and, second, that consciousness is the result of a material process – sensation.

Atomism makes two other significant claims that will come to represent the foundation for later scientific inquiry into reality: First, that reality is a conventional world of appearances containing a real material substrate; and, second, that the material substrate – the essence – is inert while the world of appearances is dynamic. I examine these claims in further detail when I come to Kant's philosophy in the next section, "Hylozoism and Vitalistic Materialism." I will now move on to hylozoism, the vitalistic counterpart to atomism. Examining hylozoism is necessary in order to come to a full understanding of materialism in both its mechanistic and vitalistic forms. Looking at hylozoism will also provide an opportunity to test whether or not it breaks the materialist criteria given before.


The Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth coins the term hylozoism in his 1678 text, The True Intellectual System of the Universe. The etymology of the term is the Greek hylo ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) meaning matter and zoe ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) meaning life. It should be noted that hylozoism is a term that is retroactively applied to a variety of positions. In his book Panpsychism in the West, David Skrbina argues that this term "carries a negative connotation in modern literature and is frequently used as a vague disparagement of Greek philosophy." While Cudworth uses hylozoism as a pejorative, he treats both hylozoism and atomism equally as the foundational atheistic positions. It is important to note, therefore, that Cudworth is not attacking Greek philosophy as such but its modern representatives Hobbes – on the side of atomism – and Spinoza – on the side of hylozoism. Cudworth's charge of atheism against both hylozoism and atomism is not based on a disparagement of Greek philosophy but on the philosophical grounds that, when driven to their logical extreme, atomism and hylozoism result in the denial of the existence of God. For Cudworth, this occurs because both, either implicitly or explicitly, reject the notion that matter is formed according to a teleological principle.

Cudworth describes nature for the hylozoist as "a piece of very mysterious nonsense, a thing perfectly wise, without any knowledge or consciousness of itself." Cudworth contrasts Democritus's atomism from the hylozoism of Strato of Lampsacus. Unlike Democritus, Strato is not a pre-Socratic. He studied under Aristotle and was inspired by his natural philosophy. He believed that Aristotle's insights into the natural world could be harmonised with the atomistic account of nature. Strato's hylozoism surpasses both the inert atomistic account and the simplistic pantheistic account of nature held by the pre-Socratics. In this light, Cudworth shows the difference between Strato and Democritus: "Democritus's nature was nothing but the fortuitous motion of matter; but Strato's nature was an inward plastic life in the several parts of matter, whereby they could artificially frame themselves to the best advantage, according to their several capabilities, without any conscious or reflexive knowledge."

Hylozoism does not attribute subjectivity to the atom in the same sense as panpsychism, since it does not attribute reflexive or conscious knowledge to matter. However, hylozoism still risks reflecting the artificial or conventional activity of human beings onto the material world. In doing so, it risks becoming a form of anthropomorphism. As such, it violates both the principle of inertia and persistence of matter. These principles form the basis of materialism and the later Kantian conception of the system of nature, as I show later. The risk, from the perspective of the Kantian and materialist standpoint, is that hylozoism implicitly posits an immaterial force or mover behind its organisation of matter that cannot be accounted for from within experience (materialism) or rational scientific inquiry (Kantianism).


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Table of Contents

Preface / 1. Materialism / 2. Neo-Kantianism / 3. The Young Benjamin / 4. Romanticism and Goethe / 5. The Materialist Turn / Bibliography / Index

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