Benjamin’s Truth

The first two chapters argue that Benjamin’s first philosophy is a philosophy of experience rather than knowledge. Indeed, this basic shift in thinking that he announces in his ‘Program’ provides a unifying thread through his later works, where the goal becomes to scrutinize various forms of experience in terms of their value, continuity with one another, and their material conditions of possibility. But this juxtaposition of experience and knowledge might leave a misleading impression of Benjamin’s philosophical posture: taken in isolation, experience might appear as an infinite, open-ended process, with no goal, no ideal and no standard of differentiation. And yet as multifarious and open-ended as Benjamin’s thinking on experience might be, it remains guided by a tendency towards critical discernment, which underlies his various articulations of themes such as mimesis, translation, criticism and memory, and it is this tendency in Benjamin’s thought that saves his philosophy from relativism, subjectivism or historicism. The challenge, however, is to articulate this capacity for discernment without falling back into the framework of epistemology or cognition from which Benjamin sought to contrast his approach.

It is at precisely this point that we have to complement his philosophy of experience with an examination of an equally pervasive and even more elusive concept that underlies his first philosophy, namely truth.1 While we might ordinarily think of truth as a property of acts of knowledge, Benjamin takes pains to emphasize the need for a new way of thinking about what is true and what makes something true, as well as what stands in opposition to truth. He articulates this demand already in the Program: “Error can no longer be explained in terms of erring, truth no longer in terms of the correct understanding.”2 The notion of truth content remains crucial throughout his later thinking, featuring prominently in the Prologue to On the Origin of German Tragic Drama as well as his Arcades Project. Indeed, it is striking how much this late, materialist work literally recycles terms and even whole passages of text from the early phase of Benjamin’s thinking. If we were looking for a guiding thread through Benjamin’s thought, one which brings his early first philosophy into dialogue with his final work, then his notion of truth would provide the perfect complement to that of experience.

The concept of truth seems even harder to pin down than that of experience. This elusiveness comes not from any great discontinuity in Benjamin’s thinking. Indeed, a striking continuity across different decades in his thinking will grow clear. Nor does it stem from any fundamental lack of definition in his employment of the term. This elusiveness comes rather from the particular philosophical discipline that I articulated in earlier chapters as dialectical and constellational in nature. The notion of truth arises at various junctures and in various contexts in his work: as a limit concept to epistemology; as a moral problem in his investigation of lying; as a property of artworks that emerges through critique; as a temporal or historical relation; and as a metaphysical property of being. In each of these frameworks, definition of truth within the given framework is not lacking, but a full, rich philosophical notion of truth only becomes clear by holding each of these local insights beside the others so that they illuminate one another. For the sake of bringing some coherence to this remarkably elusive concept, this chapter will elaborate the following theses:

  • • The truth is not a property of acts of knowledge. We cannot know the truth.
  • • Truth is an intentionless state of being.
  • • The truth is not timeless: it is a temporal and ephemeral occurrence.
  • • Truth is a moral/political problem: it stands in opposition not just to lies, but to ‘objective mendacity.’
  • • Truth is a property of ‘circumstances’—the temporary relation of things to a perfect state.3

Based on my rendering of Benjamin’s philosophical method, a pattern is apparent in these theses on truth: the first three are negative definitions, in that they challenge a conventional context or dichotomy in which we would place the notion of truth. Put briefly, Benjamin thinks of truth as an occurrence, a temporal event where the object undergoes a transformation because of a deep sense of immersion, a transformation where it does not adapt itself to the concepts that we use to understand it, but one where it changes these very concepts. In a socially critical context, truth results when sedimented layers of ‘objective’ lies get peeled away to reveal what Benjamin calls an intentionless state of being.

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