Walter Benjamin and the Idea of Natural History
Eli Friedlander



The Natural in the Human

We are, for sure, but how are we, natural beings? What does it mean that we, humans, belong to living nature? How does nature permeate, and how is it transformed by, human existence? And how far does the rule of natural life extend? In seeking answers to these questions, reflection avails itself of oppositions such as nature and spirit, rationality and animality, body and mind, natural life and history. These oppositions are often the source of simplifications in our conception of the natural in the human.1

Human beings are animals that belong to nature. And we might begin an investigation of what is animal in us by seeking something common to us human and other living beings. Yet this attempt to begin with the common almost inevitably distorts the natural dimension in human existence. The natural would be identified as an independent, self-contained aspect of our being, even if it is not narrowly understood in reductive naturalistic or scientific terms. And since we humans also have features distinguishing us from other creatures, these would be attributed to something over and above that common nature—say, to our reason. We would then seek ways to think how the two come together by asking how reason can assist us with the satisfaction of our natural side or how it can thwart natural inclinations for the sake of higher ends—as though we have something in common with the animal (call it organic, biological life) and then in addition to that a distinguishing characteristic, our rational capacity, which is capable of ordering, assisting, directing, binding, or limiting the animal condition.

We might also take a different approach and start from above, as it were, seeking the specific unity of the human form of life. It would then become clear that there is a qualitative transformation of natural life in human existence. This natural life in us might initially become evident in considering the all too human character of stages of life in childhood or old age. It will be present in the specific character of human desire and sexuality and in what love and death are for human beings. The specific inflection of our perception might not be reducible to a conceptual synthesis of a natural sensuous given, and our human habits wouldn’t be accounted for merely by referring to conventions that build on unchangeable nature. Once we recognize the specificity of the human-natural in those dimensions of our life, it might be easier also to admit that there is nature in what is uniquely human, that is, what hardly has a correlate in other life-forms—say, language, history, art, and culture. A whole range of questions would then open up: What are forms of life in language, or what is the time of the natural historical? Do human creations—for example, works of literature or artistic styles—have a life, and what would it mean to think of the surroundings that “nourish” such a life? How does the register of life inflect collective existence, and is there something like a unique human form of suffering deriving from the very character of that natural life in us?

It is with such questions and with this orientation in mind that the present work turns to the thought of Walter Benjamin. Walter Benjamin’s writings on language, the work of art, the body, fate and character, the social order, love, passion and action, history, and redemption form one of the deepest, most concrete and significant, and, I would add, most urgently pertinent philosophical elaborations of the natural in the human. It is the aim of the present work to show the continuity, rigor, and inner logic of Benjamin’s thought on this fundamental theme.

This book is in one sense, then, pursuing the task I set myself in writing Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait. The earlier book expressed a conviction that Benjamin presents us with a unique configuration of philosophy, of a force that has not been sufficiently brought out in the interpretation of his writings. This conviction has only grown in the years since that first attempt. It was on the right track but still far from expressing the depth and rigor of Benjamin’s thought. Thus it is not so much a change of view that led me to return to Benjamin but rather an intensification and concentration of what I could only view from afar. But there is also a significant difference in my approach here: I propose to address the unity of Benjamin’s thought by pursuing a fundamental theme that runs through his work. The problem of nature in the human constitutes a cross section of Benjamin’s thought, traversing it (meaning all of it) from a certain perspective. Isolating an aspect of Benjamin’s thought allows me not only to bring out the tenacity of his questioning but also to devote attention to many details without losing the unifying momentum. It has also proved fruitful in illuminating anew his better-known works. The fruitfulness of this approach will, I hope, be proved in the novelty of the readings I propose.

The book is divided into five parts, each consisting of several chapters: “Nature in Language,” “Life and Fate,” “Body and Corporeality,” “Primal History,” and “The Image of the Contingent.” The first part of the book is also the most abstract or philosophically fundamental. The chapters revolve around the question of the actualization of natural life in meaning. The idea that guides us is that the purposiveness of natural life has its highest end not in its own sphere but rather in the actualization of its significance. This end of life in meaning is the thread that guides me in reading of “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism,” and “The Task of the Translator,” as well as Benjamin’s few yet important writings on painting and color. The first part of the book will also serve to develop Benjamin’s speculative metaphysics of experience, or what I will also call, after Schelling, his metaphysical empiricism by way of reading the “Epistemo-Critical Foreword” of the Origin of the German Trauerspiel. It is to provide the armature or scaffolding by means of which to conceive of the turn toward the historically concrete that is so characteristic of his later writings.

Benjamin’s early essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” serves to articulate his vision of living nature and its presence in the language of man. In language as such, God, Nature, and Man come together. A higher, created nature is revealed as its expressive power is actualized in man’s language. The essay also sets the stage for thinking how nature is present and expressed in human practices and products, and in particular in works of art. I will initially consider an exemplary case of naming nature in a human artistic practice by interpreting Benjamin’s early forays into the nature of color and painting.

The reciprocal bond between life and art is central to Benjamin’s dissertation on the Romantic concept of art criticism. In an epilogue to the work, Benjamin sets up an opposition between the reflective “enlivening” of the literary work in the Romantics and a wholly different model of the presence of nature in art: Goethe’s understanding of art at its highest as having the task of revealing pure contents, ideals, or archetypes of true nature. Benjamin’s own concept of critique, articulated in the opening pages of his essay “Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” will be presented as the overcoming of the fundamental opposition he sets up between the Romantics and Goethe.

One of the more striking expressions of the life of meaning is found in the famous essay “The Task of the Translator.” There life is attributed, in a “nonmetaphorical sense,” to a literary work. Translation is a vital nexus that actualizes the work’s significance, identifying the work’s life in terms of its inner history. The reflection on this historical life of meaning, distinguished from the understanding of life in terms of soul, sensibility, or the organic, allows Benjamin to introduce the all-important register of afterlife. In the afterlife of the work afforded by its translations, a higher, more than natural life, belonging to language as such can be revealed.

The reflection on the life of a literary work can itself be extended to the question of the life of an artistic form. It is in this context that we are to understand Benjamin’s account of the natural-historical character of such a form as the baroque Trauerspiel, “the metaphysical content of which must appear not merely as something lying within but as something actively working and, like blood, pulsing through the body” (O 17). What is striking in Benjamin’s take on this vital context is the way it is paired with a theory of (the presentation) of ideas. Rather than dissociating the vital movement from ideal eternal contents, Benjamin shows how to think of them as belonging together. As he puts it: “The task of interpreting works of art is to concentrate creaturely life in ideas. To establish the presence of that life” (SW 1:389).

The problem of actualizing nature in meaning must be considered in relation to the fulfillment of human life. This might require that we inquire first of all about the character of unfulfilled life. It is primarily through an investigation of the inner relation between nature in the human and fate, in the second part of this book, that we will clarify Benjamin’s understanding of the guilt of mere, or unfulfilled, life. We will begin this investigation with Benjamin’s essay “Fate and Character” and its elaboration of the duality of the natural guilt and natural innocence of life as they are reflected in tragedy and comedy.

The guilt and innocence of life pertain to the character of life as a whole. We can deepen our understanding of the presence of fate in human existence by considering what most clearly bears on the form of human life as a whole, namely, love. Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities is an investigation of the ways the mythical or primal register of fate is manifest in the vicissitudes of love. The essay also allows us to reflect on a context that is often addressed in thinking of the vitality of existence—namely, the understanding of the creativity of genius as well as the affinity between the work of art and the artist’s own life.

The organization of life in society through law and the violence inherent in it constitute a further dimension of Benjamin’s reflection on the presence of nature in human existence. We read Benjamin’s “Toward the Critique of Violence” so as to bring out the sense in which the violence of the law belongs to the order of fate—how law can be an instrument of fate. Fate is often taken to be a concept of the ancient world, belonging to an age when mythology was, as it were, a “worldview.” The achievement of a written and public body of laws appears to be a victory over this conception of the world in which unwritten laws ruled human existence. Yet for Benjamin, the mythical (which should not be confused with “mythology”) can permeate the space of life. Mythical violence and the law are intertwined—even, or particularly, in the modern state—precisely in order to make fate present in human life through law.

One of the most important and most intuitive aspects of the way we are natural beings is our having a body. Our discussion of life and nature will be extended and reconceived in the third part of this book through Benjamin’s understanding of the body and corporeality. The nature of perception, the sense of space, gesture and movement, behavior, the erotic and sexuality, and character, as well as action, all will be systematically reoriented in relation to our bodily existence. A short account of Benjamin’s “Outline of the Psychophysical Problem” will serve to establish how, while rejecting the dualism of mind and body, Benjamin introduces two aspects of their identity, which can be called, respectively, the “mind-bodily” and the “spiritual-corporeal.” As is the case with every aspect of Benjamin’s thinking, identity is not a given but is to be actualized: It orients our bodily existence toward fulfillment. There will therefore be different yet related “vectors” of fulfillment, depending on whether we think in terms of the mind-bodily or the spiritual-corporeal.

With our consideration of the essay “On the Mimetic Faculty,” we extend our discussion of corporeality and embodied existence so that it bears on and relates back to Benjamin’s account of language. While still concerned with how human language can be conceived of as realizing creaturely nature, the essay also enunciates the involvement of human corporeality in meaning. Mimetic behavior brings out the role of the body in language and at the same time opens to what Benjamin calls “the body of language.” The language of the body and the body of language come together in the understanding that the production of signs that make meaning visible and audible involves a mimetic identification. We do not operate with arbitrary dead signs that we then pair with objects and concepts. The production of signs must be conceived of as essential to the possibility of the recognition of significance. We do not breath life into them; they are permeated with the life we partake in.

Our analysis of body and corporeality, as well as the mimetic faculty, leads us to inquire about the place of such concepts as action, gesture, behavior, activity, and habit in Benjamin. Each should be given a distinct analysis under what I will call Benjamin’s account of action. The character of the practical, of human intelligent activity, is often articulated in terms of the concepts of intention, of purpose or end, as well as the choice of means to further this or that end. Benjamin’s concept of action needs to be distinguished from the account that makes purpose the ultimate determinative ground of action. We will show the different forms in which the means-end structure is avoided in Benjamin’s thought, leading to an understanding of action not in relation to the representation of a purpose but to what Benjamin calls the “image.” It is in the analysis of the way that an action deploys its image and unfolds in consuming it that we will extend the understanding of corporeality to the “innervation” of the collective.

In the fourth part of the book, I bring together many of the themes developed in previous parts to bear on the question of historical life. It is centered on reading the theoretical parts of the Passagenwerk that erect what Benjamin calls the “thin philosophical scaffolding” of the construction with the most historically concrete material content. The primary focus in this part is on convolutes K and N. This part of the book differs from the others in a further respect: it seeks to position systematically Benjamin’s thought in relation to figures central to its articulation, namely, Goethe, Bergson, and to some extent Marx.

One of the interesting indications of the reformulation of the relation between the natural and the historical is Benjamin’s appropriation of Goethe’s method of investigation of nature. In his own concept of origin, already developed in the Trauerspiel book, as well as in the Arcades Project,” Benjamin sees himself in effect as extracting the concept of “ur-phenomenon” from the “pagan context of nature” and bringing it into the “Jewish contexts of history.” Certainly the attempt to think of the human form of life in analogy with the metamorphosis of plants raises difficult questions. In particular, does this translation of the principles of investigation of nature to the context of history distinguish history from nature? Or does it show that there is in the historical a dimension of the natural?

Even though the register of life and nature is omnipresent in Benjamin’s writing, we also find a very distinct attempt to separate himself from so-called vitalist philosophy. Benjamin’s relation to Bergson is, I will argue, a special case. I will follow indications that Benjamin seeks to translate Bergson’s conception of memory into his own account of history as remembrance. Bergson’s theory of the pure memory of the individual enables Benjamin to characterize the historical, involuntary memory of humanity. The mediating figure that will allow us to form a bridge between Benjamin and Bergson’s vitalism, and to whom Benjamin relates explicitly at crucial junctures of the Arcades Project, is Proust.

What vitalism might lack most is an understanding of the dialectical relation of technology and nature in the production of life. Instead of setting technology and nature against each other, what is at issue in Benjamin is the possibility of incorporating technology into the natural life of human beings, of conceiving how technology opens nature anew. For Benjamin the question is always what forms of nature are revealed in the new technology: “Technology is always revealing nature from a new perspective” (A 392 [K2a,1]). Our consideration of technology and its transformation will serve to bring out how an investigation of the culture, of the superstructure, expresses the economic base. It will provide indications of the tendencies in relation to which the class struggle may be organized. Our case study of this complex relation between nature and technology will be Benjamin’s account of the transformation of the very idea of art in the emergence of the technology of photography and film.

With our consideration of “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” the exposés of the Arcades Project, we reach the most concrete part of our investigation of Benjamin’s thought. It is one thing to interpret Benjamin’s theory of the ordering of the contingent, factual, and transitory material for the presentation of ideas, but it is a totally different thing to make clear how in the Arcades Project he presents the configuration of the historical in concreto.

Our reading of the exposés must present as clearly and concretely as possible what Benjamin calls the “primal history” of the nineteenth century. This is tantamount to showing the presence of myth and how it is confronted in the emergence into the freedom of history. The primal or mythical, as is already evident, is not confined to the character of early human societies or primitive forms of human existence. The force of Benjamin’s view of primal history lies in the understanding that the mythical is ever present, always to be overcome in the emergence into historical existence.

The resistance to treating Benjamin’s corpus of writings as philosophy is both surprising and understandable. It is surprising if we reflect on the terms that come into play in his work: truth, world, nature, language, judgment, name, categories, orders, identity, existence, degrees of being, intention, extensive and intensive universality, creation, revelation, redemption, religion and metaphysics, reflection, critique, idea and ideal, form and content, pure content, archetype, symbolic knowledge, material content and truth content, beauty, character, consciousness, spirit, body, corporeality, pleasure and pain, eros and sexuality, action, habit, means and ends, history, dialectic, materialism, fate, law, force and violence, justice, image, time, memory, color, imagination, fantasy, education, tragedy and comedy, experience, commodity, and capitalism. But it is also understandable that there is some resistance to calling Benjamin a philosopher—perhaps because he wrote essays on Kafka, Brecht, Karl Kraus, Proust, and Baudelaire, but more likely because he wrote on toys, food, children’s books, Mickey Mouse, and Charlie Chaplin as well as writing radio plays for children and an endless number of reviews of books published in newspapers and journals during the twenties and thirties, and of course because of the incomplete project, which contains a mass of material on fashion and collecting, on idleness and prostitution, on the streets of Paris and world exhibitions. Or maybe it is all just too much. How can a person write with depth and rigor on so many matters? Wouldn’t this, by itself, be proof that he is merely skimming the surface of things? Some would go so far as to say that Benjamin’s writing not only lacks the consistency of a weighty philosophical treatise but tries to make inconsistency and contradiction into a virtue.

Given such an orientation toward Benjamin’s writing, the philosophical unity I aim to present would appear to be a speculative reconstruction of what can at most be called a “Benjaminian” philosophy, which, in fact, was never elaborated in that way in the corpus of his writings. No doubt my sense of the unity of Benjamin’s thought is informed by other work I have done, primarily on Wittgenstein and Schelling. Yet here I rarely stray from Benjamin’s texts. I do not take myself to be “filling in the blanks,” as it were, with ideas of my own. Every insight, every advance of understanding, is the result of a close and patient reading of Benjamin. I think of the chapters of this book as a series of commentaries: commentary need not forego new insight, and I hope that what follows is a transformation, even a radical revision, of received views of Benjamin. I will deny only that such insights are the result of inventive readings.

My method can be further explained by considering another familiar problem in writing on Benjamin: call it the temptation to quote. Benjamin methodically uses quotations “without quotation marks.” For us the problem might very well be how to avoid quoting. Quoting that parades as explanation can only lead to repeating formulas rather than reaching any deeper understanding. We need to overcome the tendency to hold to Benjamin’s words and formulations as though they constitute an explanatory ground level that merely needs to be mentioned to gain assent. Consider Benjamin’s references to the passing character of the dialectical image. We can take it as needing no more explanation when someone says that he has spotted a rare bird that flew over the field and disappeared. But is there anything clear in just repeating that an image of history fleets by never to be seen again? Or should we just affirm, without further ado, that Benjamin seeks to explode the temporal continuum, as though it is clear at all what that could mean? We surely have various pictures in mind when hearing such things, but these are mostly obstacles to understanding and can only lead to wide-eyed fascination, to using Benjamin’s words as incantations and remaining with the frisson of the enigmatic. This is why, while not foregoing quotation, I will generally try to translate Benjamin’s often highly concentrated language in the most analytical and precise way of which I am capable.


1. I use the expression “nature in the human” in order to distinguish this dimension both from a discussion of human nature as well as from the idea of a natural condition of humanity (say, in the way it would appear in accounts of the state of nature). This locution is used in Benjamin’s “Fate and Character” as he brings out the relation of fate and character to life: “Both concern the natural man—or, better, the nature in man [die Natur im Menschen]” (SW 1:204). In the same essay Benjamin also speaks of the “the life in man” and “the natural life in man,” which are not “the life of man.”