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The Appearance of the Ideal of Philosophical Questioning in the Work of Art
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The Appearance of the Ideal of Philosophical Questioning in the Work of Art

Benjamin’s concept of criticism has been understood primarily in relation to his work on the Baroque with its central notion of allegory, or with respect to his dissertation on Romanticism, with its account of the infinitization of reflection. Both are surely important, but what has been lacking is the classical moment in Benjamin’s thinking identified with his appropriation of Goethe’s writings. In what follows I will read out of Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities what I think of as a logic of the Ideal, and touch in a few moments towards the end of my paper upon his analysis of elements and themes of the novel. The title of my paper is a close quote from the beginning of the third part of Benjamin’s essay in which he articulates the relationship between philosophy’s questioning and the work of art by way of the following figure:

Let us suppose that one makes the acquaintance of a person who is handsome and attractive but impenetrable, because he carries a secret with him. It would be reprehensible to want to pry. Still, it would surely be permissible to inquire whether he has any siblings and whether their nature could not perhaps explain somewhat the enigmatic character of the stranger. In just this way critique seeks to discover siblings of the work of art. And all genuine works have their siblings in the realm of philosophy. (SWI 333)1 [End Page 103]

The beautiful, the handsome person of Benjamin’s parable, leaves one with a sense of impenetrability. This mystery is a moment internal to the experience of the beautiful itself. The proper response to the mystery is not to embrace it. Rather one must take into account the kinship of works of art to the formulations of philosophy.2 The figure Benjamin proposes would suggest that there is a philosophical articulation of the secret harbored in the work of art. But, it turns out that philosophy needs the work of art, just as much as the work of art needs philosophy.

Indeed, Benjamin immediately goes on to argue that questioning, which is philosophy’s method of investigation, cannot yield the ultimate truth it seeks. Were the systematic unity of philosophy to be given as an answer to an ultimate question, it would immediately raise a further question about the relation of that very answer to what it was supposed to systematically unify.3 This regressive argument should be understood as part of Benjamin’s repeated insistence, in different writings and on different occasions, on drawing a distinction between truth and knowledge. Out of the intentional structure of questioning we can get only knowledge. Questioning conditions the mode of the answer’s appearance and thus cannot serve to relate us to the unconditioned. Yet merely quoting Benjamin’s characterization of truth as intentionless and contrasting it with questioning as an intentional state hardly helps us achieve any insight into its nature.

Somewhat more helpful is the following formulation: “The concept of this non-existent question, which asks for the unity of philosophy, is characterized as the ideal of the problem.” (SWI 334) I take it that by speaking of the “non-existent question” (rather than saying, for instance, as Wittgenstein would in the Tractatus, that ‘the’ question does not exist), Benjamin wishes to suggest not only that truth must have something unquestionable to it, but also that there is a virtual formulation that would answer to that non-existent question (were it to exist). It is virtual in having to be constructed, but not in and through philosophy: “Even if, however, the system is in no sense attainable though inquiry,” Benjamin writes “there are nevertheless constructions which, without being questions, have the deepest affinity with the ideal of the problem. These are works of art.” (SWI 334) There is in the work of art, as Benjamin puts it, the virtual possibility of articulating the work’s content so that it is recognized as taking part in the ideal of philosophy’s questioning. Virtually, one might say, truth and beauty are...