- Intensive Infinity:Walter Benjamin's Reception of Leibniz and its Sources
References to Leibniz's monad appear at crucial points in Walter Benjamin's writings, from his early "metaphysical" work to his late "materialist" theses on history.1 In each case, Benjamin appeals to the monad as the unique and total expression of his main philosophical point. He writes to Florens Christian Rang in 1923 that Leibniz's monad "in its totality [. . .] seems to me to embrace the summa of a theory of ideas."2 Almost two decades later, in the theses "On the Concept of History," he emphasizes that "[t]he historical materialist approaches a historical object only where it confronts him as a monad."3 The persistence and gravity of these references make it important to look deeper into the meaning and sources of the monad in Benjamin's work. The topic warrants especially careful interpretation because Benjamin's monad confronts us as a cipher. Benjamin invokes it, with little argumentation, as the privileged expression for numerous [End Page 589] philosophical ideas: it is at once the summa of a theory of ideas, the salvation of induction,4 and the object of materialist historiography.
If it seems paradoxical that Benjamin invokes rationalist metaphysics in order to "redeem the phenomena," or that Leibniz—the thinker of pre-established harmony—is called upon as an ally in rupturing the continuum of universal history, this perplexity is scarcely abated when Benjamin's interpretation is traced back to its supposed source in Leibniz. Indeed, Benjamin seems to have read little of Leibniz's work. He refers to Leibniz as the philosopher of the Monadology, and he appeals to the Discourse on Metaphysics in the "Epistemo-Critical Prologue" of his Origin of German Tragic Drama (OT 47-48). This suggests at least basic familiarity with two major texts of Leibniz. In the Verzeichnis der gelesenen Schriften, however, not a single text by Leibniz is cited.5 A search through the reconstruction of Benjamin's library, recently published by Antiquariat Herbert Blank, also yields no results.6 Leibniz may have been in the atmosphere of German philosophy departments during Benjamin's student years, but there is no record that he ever attended a course on Leibniz, or even on early modern philosophy.7 [End Page 590]
The puzzle of Benjamin's Leibniz could simply stop here, with the answer that this is just another indication of his magpie's relationship to the history of philosophy. This is exactly what George Steiner says, for instance, in his introduction to the English translation of the Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels:
Benjamin was not, in any technical sense, a philosopher. Like other lyric thinkers, he chose from philosophy those metaphors, dramas of argument and intimations of systematic totality—whether Platonic, Leibnizian or Crocean—which best served, or rather which most suggestively dignified and complicated his own purpose.8
This understanding of Benjamin's monad as a "metaphor" and of Benjamin himself as a "lyric thinker" tells more about the critical failure to respond to the difficulties of his thought than about Benjamin's work itself. Benjamin does not assume the anaemic position that meaning must be immediately and universally intelligible. But he does not thereby withdraw from philosophy into the merely aesthetic or hybrid domain of the "lyric thinker." Indeed, Benjamin's monadology demands philosophical interpretation. But in order to understand its place in his work, we cannot simply compare Leibniz's philosophical arguments with Benjamin's texts. Such interpretive idealism would ignore both the distortions of his reading, as well as the historical mediations through which he encountered Leibniz.
As I show in this essay, Benjamin was engaged with two extremes of Leibniz reception in early twentieth-century Germany. On the one hand, he was immersed in the mathematical-theological orientation of Hermann Cohen, who interpreted Leibniz's infinitesimal calculus as the generation of objective knowledge from intensive functions. On the other hand, Benjamin read a single secondary source on Leibniz by Heinz Heimsoeth. Heimsoeth saw Leibniz as the heir to a medieval German tradition of Christian mysticism, and he interpreted the monad as the microcosm of the infinite spirit within finite individuals...