1/22/21 — This Week’s Reading Review
I’ve been distracted this past week, and my reading has accordingly suffered.
I’ve been slowly — and I mean slowly — working my way through Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy. The book is divided into four parts — indeed, I might as validly say that I’m halfway through the first book rather than barely a 10th of the way through the whole book — and each of those four parts is further divided into roughly two sections. The first section is the more conventionally historical of the two. Kenny introduces us to Ancient Greece or Rome and then walks us linearly through the big names and schools of philosophy before terminating at his chosen endpoint. In this first part, we hear the story of philosophy from the Presocratics to Saint Augustine. After this brief history section, Kenny begins a more systematic, detailed exegesis of the thought of the philosophers he has brought into focus. This content section is vastly more expansive than the context section.
While I was initially perplexed by this structural choice, I can see the rhetorical appeal of it: Kenny admits in the introduction that his ideal readership is philosophy undergraduates, and the readability of the context section is an effective method from drawing in distracted readers (though no longer a student, I am certainly always distracted). There may also be traces of the analytical philosopher’s skepticism towards historicizing philosophy. While he praises Aristotle’s historiographical sketches on philosophy, it’s clear that Kenny himself is skeptical of any teleological or arabesque approaches to the history of philosophy. This is in contrast to the fashions (I mean that without derogatory intent, the analytic avoidance of history is just as much a fashion) of continental philosophy, where the relation between philosophy as such, history, and social theory is always an object of inquiry. While this means is that while A New History of Philosophy is not supremely compelling, it gains clarity from not needing to explain its spontaneous or studied philosophy of the history of philosophy. It also allows the book to work as both a history book and a reference book, which Kenny seems to desire if his neatly divided structure is any indication.
If I wanted to find a 20th-century philosopher as unlike Anthony Kenny as possible, I could do a lot worse than Walter Benjamin. Kenny: Catholic, careful, systematic, skeptical, analytic, guards the boundaries of the discipline. Benjamin: Jewish, experimental, unsystematic (indeed, wary of systematic philosophy and politics), mystical, historically and politically anxious, continental, always blurring the borders between disciplines. The main point in common between Kenny and Benjamin is that they both have last names that could be first names.
This is far from my first experience with Benjamin. His essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is an essential text for me, one that I read regularly and in response to the historical world’s inability to let me relax. It is as mysterious as it is illuminating, as profound as it is profane. It is a miraculous essay that should be read immediately by anyone concerned with history and philosophy. This week, however, I started in on a collection of essays by Benjamin that I’m wholly unfamiliar with: Reflections.
Reflections is the sister text to Illuminations, the collection of Benjamin essays that introduced him to the Anglosphere, primarily assembled by his expatriate friends who feared the writer’s work would be lost without intervention. Like Illuminations, the essays collected in Reflections are assembled not in any strictly logical fashion but according to the tastes of editors who wished to introduce Anglophone readers to different facets of Benjamin’s diverse output. For a more comprehensive, logically-organized collection of Benjamin’s works, readers should look for Marcus Bullock’s and Michael W. Jennings’ four-volume Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin published through Harvard University Press. To the best of my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive English-language collection of Benjamin’s scattered writing.
At any rate, Reflections was published to emphasize Benjamin’s more autobiographical, literary, and journalistic works. These still bear the strong philosophical and theological streaks that run through the essays in Illuminations but reveal Benjamin as a writer who was always looking for new terrain to cover and new sources of insight. The first essay in Reflections, “A Berlin Chronicle,” sees Benjamin flitting between memories of his boyhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in Berlin. It is not just an attempt to record memories but also to theorize about the mnemonic faculty in general. Inspired by Mallarme, Proust, and others, Benjamin takes a simultaneously hyper-subjective and self-critical approach: no sooner does an image flash up in memory than does Benjamin search for the edges of that memory. He attempts to grasp not only the image but the flash itself. To borrow a technological metaphor — Benjamin is, after all, one of the first great media and technology critics — Benjamin longs to understand both the photograph and the camera. It is a challenging essay, and its unpublished, unfiished status compounds its challenges. Despite being inadequately structured, the piece’s looseness allows for moments of insight to burn all the more brightly.
“A Berlin Chronicle” is followed in Reflections by excerpts from “One-Way Street.” However, rather than reading this excerpted version, I’ve decided to read One-Way Street in its entirety. It is a peculiar modernist experiment in criticism and literature that I wish to wrestle with on its own rather than trying to grasp it in bowdlerized form. It is with this book that we will begin next week’s reading review.
Until next week,