Walter Benjamin on Monadology

Philosophical history, the science of the origin, is the form which, in the remotest extremes and the apparent excesses of the process of development, reveals the configuration of the idea—the sum total of all possible meaningful juxtapositions of such opposites. The representation of an Idea can under no circumstances be considered successful unless the whole range of possible extremes it contains has been virtually explored. Virtually, because that which is comprehended in the idea of origin still has history, in the sense of content, but not in the sense of a set of occurrences which have befallen it. Its history is inward in character and is not to be understood as something boundless, but as something related to essential being, and it can therefore be described as the past and subsequent history of this being. The past and the subsequent history of such essences is—as a token of their having been redeemed or gathered into the world of ideas—not pure history, but natural history. The life of the works and forms which need such protection in order to unfold clearly and unclouded by human life is a natural life. Once this redeemed state of being in the idea is established, then the presence of the inauthentic—that is to say natural-historical—past and subsequent history is virtual. It is no longer pragmatically real, but, as natural history, is to be inferred from the state of completion and rest, from the essence. The tendency of all philosophical conceptualization is thus redefined in the old sense: to establish the becoming of phenomena in their being. For in the science of philosophy the concept of being is not satisfied by the phenomenon until it has absorbed all its history. In such investigations the historical perspective can be extended, into the past or the future, without being subject to any limits of principle. This gives the idea its total scope. And its structure is a monadological one, imposed by totality in contrast to its own inalienable isolation. The idea is a monad. The being that enters into it, with its past and subsequent history, brings—concealed in its own form—if indistinct abbreviation of the rest of the world of ideas, just as, according to Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics (1686), every single monad contains, in an indistinct way, all the others. The idea is a monad—the pre-established representation of phenomena resides within it, as in their objective interpretation. The higher the order of the ideas, the more perfect the representation contained within them. And so the real world could well constitute a task, in the sense that it would be a question of penetrating so deeply into everything real as to reveal thereby an objective interpretation of the world. In the light of such a task of penetration it is not surprising that the philosopher of the Monadology was also the founder of infinitesimal calculus. The idea is a monad—that means briefly: every idea contains the image of the world. The purpose of the representation of the idea is nothing less than an abbreviated outline of this image of the world.

SOURCE: Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama, translated by John Osborne (London : NLB, 1977), Epistemo-Critical Prologue, pp. 47- 48.

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