Experience and Inf Inite Task: Knowledge, Language and Messianism in the Philosophy of Walter Benjamin

By Ryder, Robert | German Quarterly, Winter 2019 | Go to article overview

Experience and Inf Inite Task: Knowledge, Language and Messianism in the Philosophy of Walter Benjamin


Ryder, Robert, German Quarterly


Tagliacozzo, Tamara. Experience and Infinite Task: Knowledge, Language and Messianism in the Philosophy of Walter Benjamin. Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. 193 pp. $80 (hardback).

Constellations abound in this much-anticipated English version ofTagliacozzo's Italian book, Esperienza e compito infinito nella filosofia del primo Benjamin (2003). I am referring not only to the Benjaminian notion of constellation, which comes into greater focus in chapter 3, but equally to the way in which Tagliacozzo traces the contemporaneous influences on Benjamin during the formative years of 19121918. In both the introduction and especially the dense first chapter, Tagliacozzo moves fluidly between Benjamin's reception of Kant and Husserl to the early influences of Cohen and Scholem. Tagliacozzo meticulously unfolds the conceptual map of philosophical, mathematical, epistemological, and mystical-kabbalistic paths that crisscross throughout Benjamin's early writings, paving the way for a better understanding of his later work, which she addresses in the final three chapters.

Inseparable from the influence of thought that Tagliacozzo maps out are the accompanying concepts that Benjamin molds in his own fashion. This book is concerned with concepts, which is meant in two senses. In the first, more everyday sense, Tagliacozzo sets as her task the understanding of some key concepts in Benjamin's early writing. A subtitle from chapter 1, for instance, is "The Concept of Identity and the Symbol." Even the title and subtitle of the book call forth at least five distinct "concepts" in Benjamin's work. Tagliacozzo's analyses tend to keep these terms open and fluid, which leads to the second sense of concept alluded to above: concepts in this book take on an almost experiential tone, less determinate than they are continuous, regulating, even infinite.

Tagliacozzo focuses on one concept in particular that has garnered little attention, but which has far-reaching implications for the future of Benjamin studies: the "infinite task." Benjamin is originally attracted to this term from his reading of Kant, and in a letter to Scholem in December 1917 even briefly considers it as the main topic of his dissertation (25). Although Benjamin eventually discards this idea, Tagliacozzo nevertheless finds traces of the infinite task in Benjamin's essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities (1922), the "Epistemo-Critical Preface" to the Origin of the German Mourning Play (1925), and in On the Program of the Coming Philosophy (1917-1918), where it is described explicitly as "the task of searching for the impossible unity of the system of philosophy" (29). Much of the thrust of Tagliacozzo's first chapter follows how Benjamin was reconceptualizing early on the "infinite task" not from the perspective of neo-Kantian epistemology and ethics, but "positively," i.e., as "utiliz[ing] the neo-Kantian structure of the relation between a regulating idea and a series of concepts, to construct a concept of metaphysical experience, not empty, but full (erfüllt) of spiritual and theological-linguistic content" (112). For Tagliacozzo, Benjamin's employment of the infinite task illustrates both his conceptual and philosophical indebtedness to and distinction from Kant, Cohen, and the neo-Kantians, while acting like a keystone for understanding Benjamin's complex notions of experience, dialectical image, and messianic time.

A lot of the groundwork accomplished in the large and at times unwieldy first chapter gets further distilled in the first half of chapter 2. The second chapter is not what its title initially purports to be, on "Messianism and Political Theology." Rather, it turns back to notions of the infinite, idea, symbol, and concept by means of two other related terms: the monad and dialectical image. …

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