July 19, 2024

Walter Benjamin’s Notes On Various Topics, Part 1

Translated by Rachel Thomas.  Edited  by Carl Raschke.

The following is the first part of a series of translated fragments (or “short prose”) from the writings of Walter Benjamin, beginning around the time of World War I.   Some of these fragments, such as the section on the famous “liar paradox” (or “Cretan paradox”) of Epimenides,  have been translated elsewhere.  Some have never been translated.   They are assembled from the German text published online by Der Spiegel magazine as part of Project Gutenberg. – Ed.

A Bavarian prayer: And let God ask you for what you want to be asked for. Here is not only the ordinary intention of  prayers (adequately expressed in the previous portion of the prayer), but also a second intention, in the form of which is the relation to the first.  God should not understand the prayer in accordance with his prayerful intention so much as with the intention to make that first prayerful intention absolute.  That means, to increase its expression in such a way that the intended correlation (what is reverently requested) falls away, and yet the prayer consists of the first absolute, an intention without correlation before God.

Thus, in the obsessional neurotic, if the action (for example, the arrangement of objects on a table) is to retain its sense, if it refrains from any rational intended correlation of such ordering. The ordering action appears absolutely.  In the case of dogma, it does not depend on the first intention, not on what is meant by the confession, but on the second intention.  Even if the intended correlation of what is meant in the first intention (for example, discontinuation because of subjective disbelief) is removed, the full virtus of dogma, which is not seen in subjective conviction, can nevertheless be upheld. Here, therefore, the second actual intention is directed to such an intentional correlate of the first, by which, however the first intention is weakened and diminished, and is conquered by dint of the mere expression of it.

That second intention is now always in the eminent sense of an absolutely action-oriented, that is, a moral moment directed in the strictest sense toward otherwise indifferent zones of the first intention, and therefore of the highest value for insight into the essence of morality. Also of the highest value for determination of the relation of action to deed and word, which occur only in the above-mentioned first intentions.

All unconditionality of the will leads to evil.  Ambition and voluptuousness are unconditional desires. The natural totality of the will, as the theologians have always observed, must be shattered. The will must fragment into a thousand pieces. The many-sided moments of the will’s manifestations mutually condition each other. The earthly, conditioned will arises. Everything about these moments that demands the (highest) unity of intention is not the object of the will.  It does not require the intention to will. Devotion must be unconditional.

On the Kantian Ethic

One can, in a certain sense, find the indeterminability of indivisible unity, of the individual, which is the subject of ethics, in the Kantian ethic. The doctrine of the “rational beings” as subject(s) of ethics has at least one thing in common with it.  It makes the number of ethical subjects independent of  human bodies, without of course recognizing that this number is the comparative, competitive unit. Whose constituent elements are just the people – and their brethren, (for example, on other stars).

The notion of “inclination,” [Neigung] which Kant considers to be ethically indifferent or anti-ethical, is, by a switch in meaning, to become one of the highest concepts of morality, in which it may be called to take the place of “love”.

The spontaneity of the ego is quite different from the freedom of the individual. The question of freedom of will is often and erroneously related to spontaneity, so that there is also a question of the freedom of the acts of thought, or mere bodily actions. But there is no such thing. Freely, the individual can only be thought in relation to his actions. The question of the spontaneity of the ego  belongs in a completely different (biological??) context.


There is no morality in the cynic because his relationship to the fellow human being is based solely on opposition. The cynic does not violate the morality of his fellow human being, but the moral in them. The motive of his behavior is not moral but a will to power.  The semblance of his moral interest stems from the fact that he recognizes a certain kind of transgression of morality in one’s fellow man as the surest way to gain power over him, which otherwise remains unattainable because of his inferiority.

The cynic actually determines his way of life not by himself but from the endeavor to injure his fellow human beings irremediably through his person. He finds his power pronounced and satisfied in the powerlessness of his fellow man’s shame. He inflicts damage by his way of life, and this way of life is intended for this sole purpose. He knows that shame is an effect that is never directed against what calls him, but against him. The cynic seeks to be strong through the impotence of others, but the impotence of others is not their powerlessness before the cynic, but their powerlessness before themselves. Because they cannot heal the wound of their feelings, which is shame. The cynic only allows the offense and lets the self-reproach, the shame of the one who takes it, suffice.

The cynic survives by living parasitically on the noblest among us, and this parasitism satisfies him only to the extent that the noble suffers.  So many pagan religions, so many natural concepts of guilt.  Life is everywhere guilty, the punishment for which is death.

A form of natural guilt [is] about sexuality, enjoyment and the creation of life

Another is that of money, about  the mere possibility of existing

Other types of natural guilt?

To be Jewish.  Not life, but only the acting man can be guilty. (Ethical [sittliche] guilt. – Is this expression allowed?)

Concerning Cretans

The Cretan paradox can be easily resolved in its classical Greek form. If Epimenides says that all Cretans are liars, and if he is himself one, it by no means follows that Epimenides, in his first assertion, may have said an untruth. For neither is it the case that when the liar opens his mouth he distances himself from the truth, nor that, if he does so, he expresses the diametric opposite of the truth.  Rather, there remains a contradiction.

It cannot therefore be inferred from the two premises that all Cretans speak the truth, whereby the conclusion is drawn that Epimenides, with his first assertion, also said it, which could establish the original first premise and thus proceed in infinitum.  On the contrary, a truly fruitful problem can be exposed on the basis of the old fallacy. In order to develop this argument, those considerations which in the previous case necessitate the solution must be frustrated, and to this end we must contend as follows.  Epimenides says that every time they open their mouths, all Cretans speak the opposite of what is true. Epimenides is a Cretan. From these premises, in fact, that chain of contradictions, happily averted above, would unfold in conclusions and inferences. At the same time, however, it is clear that the syllogistic form is not originally adapted to this problem. Rather, the whole dilemma in the form of a simple inference is to be unfurled from a judgment. And that judgment, in its most formulaic, reduced form, should be: “Without exception, every one of my judgments stipulates the opposite of the truth.” It would then in fact imply this one as well. Without exception, each of my judgments predicates the diametric opposite of the truth.  So also the above first.  Thus with the return to the starting point the circle must begin anew.

This “fallacy” is intralogically indissoluble.

First of all, there are three things to note:

Should this judgment be the only one of its kind from the source of inmitigated contradictory conclusions?

Does it constitute that inextricable chain of contradiction in the logical domain – that is, apart from the ontological sphere- to be somehow nonsensical or absurd.?  On the contrary, one might transmit the efficacy of that Cartesian spirit of deception from the sphere of perception into the realm of logic, and it could not develop its deception better than by making the judgment in question its own. So this judgment is not absolutely absurd.

Is it immediately clear that that judgment leads to its contradictory conclusions only in the very spirit of that which governs it, while it can be judged by anyone else on the subject of which each of its judgments predicates the contrary opposite of the truth, without leading to contradictory conclusions. Predicating truth can be judged without leading to contradictory conclusions.

To summarize: that judgment seems to be logically unassailable, unless there is a logical instance that could nullify the legitimacy of itself and the implications that flow from it. For the contrary proposition to exert this force would require that judgment be a contradiction in every sense. However, this is not the case, as shown in (2) above. On the other hand, there is still a demand to invalidate the validity of that judgment. Both in the ontological and in the logical field. But while it can only become an ontological subject of discussion in which its subject should be accorded an ontologically distinguished position, as in the case of the Cartesian spirit of deception, a logical refutation must in all circumstances, because of the contradictions to which this proposition leads, be warranted.

The logical incontestability of this statement – for it must be admitted that the conclusions are solid – must therefore prove to be a sham.  Otherwise, the entire logic collapses. And here, if anything, there proves to be a genuine deception. Such a deception, insofar as the modern conception of mere “appearance” [Schein]  applies to it, arises out of the accidental or necessary correspondence of knowledge with truth, but one which cannot be dissolved in the truth, but only annihilated by it. In a word, appearance from an autonomous principle of appearance [Schein aus einem selbstständigen Prinzip des Scheins], in fact, from a principle of deception, that is, the lie. This illusion, as the Cretan problem proves, is of such tremendous metaphysical intensity that it can extend its roots to the depths of formal logic. Thus, objectively speaking, it is not merely an antithesis of reality, but, since it is found in a sphere beyond it, i.e., in formal logic, it is also an antithesis of truth.

And how could it be destroyed? Within the logic, as I have said, this is not possible, but only possible in metaphysics. And here, however, the solution would have to be connected with the “I-form” of the judgment, which, as has been shown above, is constitutive of it. Its logical appearance is constituted in its subjectivity. Here we see the necessity of setting subjectivity not merely as an a-logical agency in diametric opposition to objectivity and universality, but more precisely as the diametric opposite of the objectivity of validity and the objectivity of the tendency of validity to come apart (Zergeltungstendenz). Subjectivity, the metaphysical thesis for the dissolution of that logical appearance [Schein], is not alogical, but anti-logical.  This proposition must justify metaphysics.

Cf. Rüstow, The Liar, 1910.

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