P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 102
25th April 2005
I. 'Walter Benjamin's Philosophy of the Future' by Kieran Cashell
II. 'Giordano Bruno and the Dream of Humanism' by D.R. Khashaba
III. '2005 Philosophy Video Festival' by Ken Knisely
For this issue of Philosophy Pathways, Kieran Cashell has contributed a fine
essay on Walter Benjamin's philosophy of the future, while D.R. Khashaba writes
movingly about Giordano Bruno's contribution to humanist thought.
Giordano Bruno died at the hands of the Inquisition. Walter Benjamin died
attempting to escape from the Nazis. These two great thinkers are amongst a
mere handful who have arguably attained the status of philosophic martyrs. Yet
on the evidence of the fine essays by Cashell and Khashaba, there is a stronger
bond which unites their contributions to philosophy, which makes the study of
their works of renewed importance in an age where philosophy appears on the
brink of finally capitulating to the march of scientific materialism.
On a lighter note, Ken Knisely of 'No Dogs or Philosophers' announces the 2005
Philosophy Video Festival to be held at the end of this year in New York.
Anyone who is persuaded by Bruno or Benjamin that discursive language is
inadequate to express profound philosophic ideas might like to have a go at
producing a philosophy video.
I. 'WALTER BENJAMIN'S PHILOSOPHY OF THE FUTURE' BY KIERAN CASHELL
Toward a Post-Kantian Theology of Knowledge: Walter Benjamin's Erkenntniskritik
In 1925, with the rejection of his application for lectureship in the
University of Frankfurt, Walter Benjamin's academic career effectively came to
a close. Yet, prior to this period, Benjamin was working out the preliminary
hypotheses to a fascinating philosophical project. This project was predicated
on a theoretical engagement with the Kantian contribution to that cultural
period when Western knowledge matured into the global world-picture known as
However, for several reasons, Benjamin never brought his dream of a future
philosophy grounded in the Kantian epistemic framework beyond a state of
intuitive vision. What remains of this aborted project therefore reads like the
residue of an insight: rhetorical notes, anticipatory thought-fragments, a
morsel of questions destined to remain in a permanently problematic state. So
the commentator seriously interested in amplifying this incomplete project must
endeavour to somehow imagine something that does not yet exist. And this is not
only because Benjamin abandoned the project. He also deliberately cast the
project as a future configuration, as something that does not yet exist,
something that is by its very nature anticipatory. Indeed it has been argued
that Benjaminian discourse is itself, in essence, structurally abeyant - a kind
of form in suspense. Methodologically aporetic, permanently in advance of
itself, Benjaminian philosophy is and must remain 'not-yet.' Taking this
proposition as a regulative idea in the spirit of Kant, this paper attempts to
adequately represent the central role Benjamin allows Kant to play in this
future or 'not-yet' philosophy.
By the time he came to a serious engagement with Kant, Benjamin's research
interests were directed toward a pre-Cartesian inquest into the metaphysical
foundations of language; he was looking for a way to demonstrate that language
cannot be reduced to pragmatic or communicative rationality. These interests
found their outlet in a strange syncretism of mysticism, linguistics and
theology exemplified for him by the Talmudic theology of the name. His esoteric
semiotic theory, derived from the creation narrative of the Book of Genesis,
held that the metaphysical being of things comes to disclosure by being named
in human language. 'The Bible expresses this symbolic fact' he wrote in 1916,
'when it says that God breathes his breath into man: this is at once life and
mind and language' (1996, 67). So Benjamin, at this point conceived of reality,
consciousness and language as sharing a homologous structure. The task of
philosophy is construed, from this perspective, as a project of naming. The act
of naming, for Benjamin, is revelatory; it enables the expressionless,
indistinct, silent being of reality - and reality of Being - to come to their
mutual disclosure. This nexus of ideas explains his seemingly paradoxical
proposition that 'language is in every case not only communication of the
communicable but also, at the same time, a symbol of the noncommunicable'
(1996, 74). That which cannot be communicated can be named. The act of naming
corresponds to the witnessing of an ontological opening that Benjamin
associated with the efflorescence of truth. This aletheiological discourse has
its foundation in the divine act of creation. In naming, 'the word of God',
Benjamin claims, 'shines forth' (1996, 70). This conception of language as
irreducible to its communicative function relates language to the mysterious
and profound which for Benjamin were the central modes of those esoteric yet
rational zones of pure experience where the metaphysical, the religious and the
To Theodor Adorno, friend and younger colleague of Benjamin's, Benjaminian
discourse was characterised by the attempt to 'render accessible by rational
means that range of experience that announces itself in schizophrenia' (Adorno,
in Benjamin: 1994; xvii). Already, in 1932, Adorno had identified Benjamin's
philosophical project as the endeavour to discursively represent the experience
of shock. In his Benjaminian essay, 'The Idea of Natural History,' he associates
this kind of philosophical shock with thaumazein and thus tacitly argues that
this makes the Benjaminian project consistent with the advent of philosophy per
se. Because in Plato's Theaetetus dialogue, Socrates maintains that
philosophical investigation begins with the experience of (what he calls in
Greek) thaumazein - 'wonder' (Theaetetus 155d). Endorsing this provenance,
Heidegger in What is Philosophy? (Was heisst Philosophie) translates thaumazein
as 'to be astonished' (1965, 113). So the origin of philosophia is astonishment.
With the intention to account philosophically for the experience of shocked
astonishment, Benjamin rejects the ideal of clarity postulated by Descartes as
the precondition of epistemic certainty for a philosophical ethos of a more
Now, both aspects of Benjaminian discourse, namely, his concern with the
metaphysical foundation of language, specifically with the linguistic essence
of all knowledge represented by the onto-theology of the name, on the one hand,
and the attempt to bear witness philosophically to thaumaturgical astonishment,
on the other, are crucial for understanding Benjamin's early engagement with
Kant. Both aspects share a concern with what inhabits the shadows of
experience, with what cannot be captured adequately by, and what transcends,
the categories of conceptual representation, with everything that exceeds the
circumscribed closure of knowledge. Taken together, these two intimately
related aspects constitute the fundamental basis of Benjamin's exegesis of
Kant. Having briefly represented both aspects, we can now turn to properly
consider the Benjaminian critique of Kantian epistemology.
Benjamin's exegesis of Kant: Programme for a future philosophy
Analytic efforts to treat Benjamin's ambivalent position vis-a-vis Kant tend
inevitably toward the questions raised in his 1917-1918 paper 'On the Program
of a Future Philosophy' (Uber das Programm einer kommenden Philosophie), which,
in very complex ways, as intimated above, determine his entire philosophical
project. For the purposes of this brief analytic, these questions can be
reduced to one: Can the Kantian epistemological restrictions embrace a concept
of experience more profound than Kant's? With this question, Benjamin inquires
into the possibility of opening up, modifying or otherwise adapting the
transcendental structures of intuition and understanding such that they could
enable the unanticipated, the unforeseen and the unpredictable to effloresce
within their closed constellation. But is this possible? Can the Kantian a
priori forms of knowledge accommodate Benjamin's unconventional conception of
In the wake of Kant's critique of metaphysics, which eliminates any access to
the intelligible realm, and therefore cuts off experience of anything that
transcends the human senses, the very possibility of developing a non-naive
metaphysics that incorporates the potential for religious experience seems
impracticable and even unfeasible. However, Benjamin's problem with Kant is
precisely his limitation of possible experience to what the transcendental
ideas (space and time) and the categories of the understanding allow through
their epistemological gateways. Kant's implicit trust in the capacity of reason
to present an adequate representation of the phenomenal world eliminated any
reliance on the non-empirically justifiable realm of the numinous: the
religious or the metaphysical. Yet for Benjamin any future philosophy
includes religion, as the true experience, in which neither
god nor man is object or subject of experience but in which
this experience depends on pure knowledge as the
quintessence of which alone philosophy can and must think
of god. (1980, 163/ 1996, 104)
The possibility of this philosophy is contingent on the urgent critical
revision of Kant's epistemological closure.
Now the whole point of the Kantian enterprise was to demonstrate, by critical
exposition, that the limits of possible experience are determined by the innate
structure of the mind. That is to say, every experience is granted coherence,
perspective and duration by certain cognitive capabilities that exist anterior
to that experience; these capabilities, according to Kant, are responsible for
imposing shape and form on the otherwise confusing flux of undifferentiated
sense-impressions. Kant thus argues against Hume that the mind does not
passively accept this scattered flux of impressions - rather it acts directly
on this flux, layering, differentiating and sorting it, forming it into
coherent schemata and spatio-temporal relationships. Consciousness achieves
this through the forming agency of intuition. Furnishing the transcendental
epistemic ground of all possible experience, this synthetic agency constitutes
a priori knowledge for Kant; that is, knowledge that exists before any
experience and goes on to constitute the condition of possibility of any
further particular experience: we cannot but organise the flux of naked
experience (the manifold of intuition) into cogent, logical and unified
configurations by virtue of the structure of subjectivity.
Kant was the first to see the contradiction inherent in the dialectic of truth
and representation: we represent reality empirically to ourselves in
quasi-objective terms through the forms of human sensibility. Structured by an
innate knowledge he called the Transcendental Ideas, what human sensibility
lends to experience is represented by what remains constant in every contingent
act of experience: Time and Space. These become conditions of possibility for
the appearance of objects as such (this is the Kantian 'Copernican Revolution'
- that the objects of experience conform to the structures of our knowledge,
and not vice versa). This means that knowledge of reality is not just passively
assimilated but rather that subjectivity contributes to the constitution of the
world as it appears. The world is thus nothing but the world that our knowledge
enables us to experience. Whatever objective knowledge becomes available to
experience is what is capable of being experienced in human terms. However,
this entails the corollary proposition that 'Our' (the transcendental
subject's) access to objectivity at the same time simultaneously precludes us
from ever knowing reality, as it is in-and-for-itself, even if this noumenal or
intelligible world is ultimately responsible for the appearances we experience
in the first place. We may never know. For this is exactly the kind of
metaphysical knowledge that Kant's critical limitation precludes.
Now, given that the Critique of Pure Reason determines the conditions of any
possible experience on the basis of the structure of consciousness, Benjamin
firmly believes that, given new criteria of a priori knowledge, it logically
follows that an unprecedented or open concept of possible experience must
necessarily arise. This is precisely the objective Benjamin set for himself in
his engagement with Kant. So his task becomes the effort to posit the first
propositions of a new non-naive metaphysics, founded on the Kantian aesthetic
synthesis of phenomenal reality. This new metaphysics will incorporate the
potential for a more profound conception of experience than the diminished
Kantian notion of experience:
it is a question of finding, on the basis of Kantian
typology, prolegomena to a future metaphysics and, in the
process, of envisioning this future metaphysics, this
higher experience. (Benjamin: 1980, 160/ 1996, 102)
Kant's Critique of Pure Reason presents an epistemological paradigm according
to which the conditions of possible experience are limited to the classical
scientific world-picture. His conception of the co-ordination of space and time
was entirely homogeneous with Newton's. As Umberto Eco succinctly puts it: 'The
first Critique constitutes not so much a theory of everyday knowledge as a
theory of scientific knowledge' (Eco: 2000, 69). Within the Kantian
epistemological closure a space cannot therefore be admitted for revealed truth
or metaphysical knowledge of the Benjaminian kind: the kind of ecstatic
disclosure associated with mystical or religious experience. Any recourse to
non-sensible perception of the transcendent was exiled from the Kantian
reservation. Indeed Benjamin had already claimed in an unpublished preliminary
fragment to the Program essay that 'What counts [alone] for [Kant] is the
concept of scientific experience' (1996, 94). By the time of the Program
proper, Benjamin has extended this argument: 'the conception of the naked,
primitive, and self-evident experience, which, for Kant' he claims, 'seemed to
be the only experience given' is in fact, he continues, 'temporally limited.'
It was an experience or a view of the world of the lowest
order. (1996, 101)
However, the Kantian conception of experience is impoverished, according to
Benjamin's critique, only because he shared the epistemological assumptions of
Enlightenment thought. The reason for this reduction of experience therefore is
that Kant's thinking was conditioned by the theoretical norms of the
Enlightenment epistemic closure.
Above and beyond a certain formal similarity which it
shared with any sense of experience, this experience, which
in a significant sense could be called a world-view, was
that of the Enlightenment. (1983-84, 42)
The Enlightenment represents that phase of human cognitive development in the
Western world where thought can be said to have reached maturity. Beginning
with Descartes' methodological scepticism and continuing with the
post-Cartesian quest for certainty, Kant played a major role in the historical
process where human cognition gradually emancipated itself from dependence on
any supernatural, mythological or metaphysical (i.e., non-rational or
non-empirical) transcendent explanations. Thus the Enlightenment period has
become associated with the increasing confidence in reason as the final court
of appeal of knowledge and belief. Reason, it was gradually emerging, can
furnish a completely reliable and consistent understanding of reality and its
governing laws, independent of any faith in a transcendent authority or
dogmatic metaphysical ordinance. Such authorities, which had hitherto rigidly
determined prevailing ideological representations of natural phenomena, were
abandoned as mythological residues in the progression of Enlightenment
rationality: this is symbolised in the Nietzschean cliche 'the death of God.'
Thus the fork of the Enlightenment has two tines - rationalisation and
demystification: on the one hand there is the inexorable progression toward the
consummate autonomy of the explanatory potency of reason (which finds its
ultimate form in scientific positivism and global technological
industrialisation), and, on the other, the cessation of dependence on
supernatural, mythical, religious or metaphysical influence (which finds its
ultimate form in global secularisation, existential Angst, atomisation and
Now, according to Benjamin's critique of Kant (which is a more direct criticism
of the dialectic of the Enlightenment), the progressive, idealistic autonomy of
Enlightenment thought is marred by a 'religious and historical blindness' which
results in this secularised or 'low-level concept of experience' that Kant in
part inherited and in part helped to elaborate (1996, 101).
Previously the symbol of the unity of knowledge that we
know of as 'experience' had been an exalted one; it had,
even though to varying degrees, been close to God and the
divine. During the Enlightenment, however, it was
increasingly stripped of its proximity to God. (1996, 95)
Yet, according to Benjamin, despite its emphasis on 'disenchantment', the
narrative of the Enlightenment fails to ascertain its own clandestine reliance
on certain metaphysical presuppositions. And because these presuppositions
remain unquestioned they assume the status of foundational myth; therefore, the
Enlightenment, according to Benjamin, is as dependent on its own
crypto-mythological structure as any previous historical period (if viewed from
the perspective of Enlightenment chauvinism).
The most fundamental of these mythical structures, for Benjamin, is the
grounding of knowledge in the subject-object relationship. Despite Kant's
efforts, he was unable to overcome the metaphysical grounding of knowledge in
subject-object dualism; and for Benjamin, a legitimate epistemology must be
irreducible to the tacit metaphysical realism of the subject-object schema.
At one point, Benjamin inventories an eclectic list of instances irreducible to
explanation in terms of subject-object epistemological dualism. Cultures
considered immaturely pre-rational relative to modern, enlightened thought, are
known to 'identify themselves with sacred animals and plants and name themselves
after them' (1983-84, 44). The insane, Benjamin says, similarly 'identify
themselves in part with objects of their perception, which thus are no longer
objects, 'placed before' them'; the ill, he claims, have been known to
experience their own pain in external things; clairvoyants maintain that they
can experience the sensation of another (1980, 161-162/ 1996, 103). This kind
of oracular knowledge, the knowledge of the seer and the prophet, was
denigrated in the rational ethos of the Aufklarung in favour of the font of
knowledge that any 'sane man' could partake of. However, as Benjamin
perspicaciously argues, the fundamental subject-object dualism that grounds all
Enlightenment and subsequent Modern theory is as non-empirical, non-justifiable,
as supernatural and mythological (according to the very criteria of
Enlightenment rationality) as any of the instances of mantic knowledge
It simply cannot be doubted that the notion, sublimated
though it may be, of an individual, living ego which
receives sensations by means of its senses and forms its
ideas on the basis of them, plays a role of the greatest
importance in the Kantian concept of knowledge.
Therefore, he claims, the instances above cannot be denigrated relative to the
Enlightenment's scientific, pseudo-rational values, as these values are posited
on a ground that is as metaphysical as any pre-rational or esoteric
thought-systems. In fact, he argues, the very idea of a shared sensible
community of innate (or transcendental) knowledge has a clear kinship with
mantic or hieratic forms of knowledge. 'Kantian "experience" is metaphysics or
mythology' he concludes, 'only a modern and religiously particularly infertile
one' (1983-84, 45).
'On the Program of a Future Philosophy' concludes that the more profound
conception of experience Benjamin intimates can be admitted into the enclosure
of the critical philosophy only when the epistemological picture of the
constitution of the 'world' by the transcendental subject has been
disenchanted, and the Kantian architectonic corrected by transforming its
concept of knowledge by taking account of the linguistic essence of all
knowledge. Benjamin predicts that when the mythological image of the object
standing over against the subject has been abandoned, a new concept of
knowledge will necessarily emerge.
The task of future epistemology is to find for knowledge
the sphere of total neutrality in regard to the concepts of
both subject and object; in other words, it is to discover
the autonomous, innate sphere of knowledge in which this
concept in no way continues to designate the relation
between two metaphysical entities. (1980, 163/ 1996, 104)
All epistemic oppositions established on the basis of the foundational subject/
object distinction, as Goldmann (1977) has pointed out, remain ineluctably
involved in the mistaken 'metaphysics of the subject' - or 'the ontological
error of the subject', even when 'objectivity' is considered the real goal of
theory, or when the 'objective' is identified tout court with truth.
There is no given world, the object is constructed, and its
inseparability with the subject even goes as far as their
identity... Objectivity does not exist. There is only the
structuration of the object by the subject. (Goldmann:
But once counterfeit skepticism had cleared a space for the clare et distincte
presentation to consciousness, from there, it became a matter of merely drawing
out logical conclusions in order to arrive at the full-blown metaphysical
dualism of subject and object. Descartes' supple manoeuvre from ego cogito to
the ontological dualism of res cogitans (substance corresponding to the subject
of thought: mind) and res extensa (substance corresponding to the object of
thought: body) seems a logically necessary step. Building on this relation,
Kant defines a pure (delimited) relation between consciousness as underlying
subiectum (the Cartesian cogito: I think...) and the transcendental object qua
possible phenomenon. This inaugurates the seemingly ineradicable epoch of
subject/ object metaphysical dualism. The latter implies that reality is
composed of two kinds of substance (thinking things and non-thinking, extended
things) and presupposes that the 'subject' is known indubitably, that is, with
intuitive obviousness or epistemic certainty.
Although defending a concept of the essence of truth, Benjamin refuses to think
truth in terms of the classical thesis of the agreement of discourse with what
is the case in fact. What this entails, in sum, is a rejection of the dominant
correspondence theory of truth i.e., the logical and epistemological standard
of the adaequatio intellectus et rei. Truth, for Benjamin is commensurate with
the horizonal possibility of the as-yet impossible experience. (This conception
of the essence of truth derives from the ancient origin of philosophy in shocked
astonishment). This implies thinking through the paradox that truth must always
and already precede any hypostatisation of (the epistemological categories)
'subject' and 'object.' Thinking the riddle of truth involves rather the
epistemic attempt to understand as not founded on the picture of the Ob-ject as
standing over against the self-present ego cogito.
This programme of disenchantment can only be 'performed' through the nexus
where religion, language and philosophy intersect (1980, 167/ 1996, 108).
Therefore it is possible to retrieve (cancel and preserve) the Kantian system,
according to Benjamin, once it is recognised that mathematical methods are not
relevant to philosophical investigation. This is because the medium of
philosophy is not mathematical but linguistic. And for the Benjaminian
conception of language this entails the concomitant demand that philosophy be
understood as the effort to say what cannot be said, that is, philosophy as
language is determined by the asymptotic attempt to bring the uncommunicable to
communication through the theological discourse of the name. When the linguistic
essence of knowledge is thus recognised, Benjamin argues, then an epistemology
not antipathetic to the metaphysical can be planned; the Kantian enclosure can
be expanded to accommodate the capacity for religious experience.
In conclusion, Benjamin's post-Kantian theology of knowledge can be seen as an
attempt to place the capacity for shocked astonishment back on the agenda of
philosophy. But room for a retrieval of philosophy in the thaumaturgical (the
arche) can only open when epistemology has been disabused of the subject-object
schema and the reduction of experience to the vacuity of that represented by the
physical sciences and their mathematical protocol. In uncritically accepting
such a basic concept of experience, Kant misses the opportunity to realise the
unprecedented potential of his own Critique.
To recall, 'critique' derives from krinein, which suggests the setting out of
limits, or delimitation, 'in the sense of an exhibition of the inner
construction' (Heidegger: 1967, 120). Avoiding associations with
'fault-finding,' 'disapproval,' the discrimination of the 'good' from the 'bad'
'critique' will signify an investigative exploration of immanent structure; it
will mean that which makes possible the movement across or out. 'Critique' will
mean, therefore, a double explication, an internal investigation that alone
makes possible the movement of trans-ascendance.
A simple analogy will amplify the subtle, yet crucial difference as well as
simultaneously disclosing the affinity between the Kantian understanding of
philosophy and Benjamin's ethos of critique. The microscope is an instrument
that, through adjusting a series of lenses, sharpens what is otherwise
indistinct, dusky, fringed at the edges. Philosophy for Kant is like this.
Focusing on what is indeterminate, philosophy will enhance its latent clarity.
However, the microscope can be understood otherwise. An instrument that,
through adjusting the distance between lens and slide, the microscope uncovers
an abundant and turbulent universe nested within the prosaic and
inconsequential, the banal and uninteresting. This figuratively characterises
Benjamin's approach to the task of philosophy. For him, the critique delimits.
It thus provides the means for an intensive, intensional focus on a
particularised cell of quotidian reality. Under the aspect of critique
therefore as under an intense, indeed speculative, focus concepts expand in
detail and multiply in complexity. And as the puzzlement of the world
increases, we begin to wonder.
In articulating immanent a priori or formal conditions with the guarantee of
posterior application, Benjaminian discourse conforms to the Kantian
philosophic ethos of critique. However, while observing the Kantian ethos,
Benjamin also wants to open up its epistemic closure. He tries to render its
structure receptive to a profound concept of experience (that would include the
capacity for the experience of shocked astonishment and thus include the
experience of the numinous, the religious epiphany, intimations of metaphysical
or transcendent reality, aesthetic feelings etc.), to an experience that cannot
stricto sensu be reduced to its present formal conditions of possible
knowledge, to an experience that cannot be contained by the transcendental
aesthetic. The paradox is that, after Kant, this can only be achieved through
the very delimitation, sorting and separation ethos of the Kantian Kritik.
Benjamin's strategy here can be seen as an attempt to make the Kantian system
defeasible. It is as if he were trying to write a mutatis mutandis clause into
the structure of the Kantian formalist programme such that its own structures,
the structures responsible for closing it off to certain experiential data, can
be overridden by a future expansion of evidence. In this way, Benjamin hopes to
retain a discursive relation to the non-discursive so as not to close off the
possibility of the as-yet impossible, unforeseen, unprecedented experience, the
experience of shocked astonishment.
Adorno, T W (1984). 'The Idea of Natural-History,' Telos, 60, 111-125.
- (1988). 'Introduction to Benjamin's Schriften' (trans. R Hullot-Kenton), G
Smith (ed). On Walter Benjamin - Critical Essays and Reflections. Cambridge
Mass.: MIT Press, 2-16.
Benjamin, Walter (1994). The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910-1940
(trans. M R Jacobson and E M Jackobson). G. Scholem and T W Adorno (eds).
Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
- (1980). Gesammelte Schriften III. R Tiedemann and H Schweppenhauser (eds),
prepared with the co-operation of T W Adorno and G Scholem. Frankfurt am Main:
- (1983-84). 'Program of the Coming Philosophy' (trans. M Ritter). The
Philosophical Forum. Vol XV, nos. 1-2, 41-45.
- (1996). Selected Writings Volume 1 1913-1926 (trans. R. Livingstone and
others), M. Bullough and M W Jennings (eds). Cambridge, Mass. and London: the
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Eco, Umberto (2000). Kant and the Platypus. London: Vintage.
Goldmann, Lucien (1977). Lukacs and Heidegger: Towards a New Philosophy (trans.
W Q Boelhower). London: Routledge.
Heidegger, Martin (1965). 'What is Philosophy?' H W Johnstone, Jr (ed). What is
Philosophy? Penn. State University, New York: Macmillan, 107-116.
- (1967). What is a Thing? (trans. W B Barton Jr and V Deutsch). Chicago: Henry
Plato (1952). The Dialogues of Plato (trans. B Jowett). R M Hutchins (ed).
London: Encyclopaedia Britannica.
(c) Kieran Cashell 2005
II. 'GIORDANO BRUNO AND THE DREAM OF HUMANISM' BY D.R. KHASHABA
It is not my intention to give an exposition of Bruno's thought. That is a task
that I willingly leave to those who are better equipped to perform it. Giordano
Bruno (1548-1600) was a lover of myth, allegory, and symbol, and knew fully
well the power of those magical wands to reveal and illumine where discursive
thought hid and obscured. In this short note I treat of Bruno himself as an
emblem of the mystic paths that lead to the inner reality of our being.
Bruno was the epitome of his age, an age of intellectual and spiritual ferment,
an age when science and mysticism walked hand in hand, an age which saw the
birth of humanism. He is a true paradigm of the whole human being that our
contemporary fractured and fragmented humanity stands badly in need of - a
fractured and fragmented humanity where religion is indissolubly wedded to
dogmatism and superstition and where rationality is blindly bound to soulless
Yet Bruno has not yet received the attention that his profundity and
originality make his rightful due; the reason being that he is in the
unenviable position of his thought being opposed simultaneously to religious
dogmatism and scientistic materialism Ð the two dominant trends that polarize
modern culture and condemn it to one-sidedness and insularity.
This is compounded by the difficulties of Bruno's style of writing. Giorgio de
Santillana, who gives a balanced and sympathetic outline of Bruno's thought in
The Age of Adventure (1956), writes, 'He is not one of those minds which shed a
pure and equable light to reveal a new landscape of ideas; with the fire of his
temperament there went a good deal of smoke' (p.244).
In my view, what might be seen as the lack of clear-cut distinctness in Bruno's
thought should be appreciated as a merit rather than denigrated as a defect. The
fecund nebulosity of his thought poses a wholesome challenge and offers a
corrective to the shallowness and insipidity of our thoughtless religiosity and
our insightless scientism at once. Plato found that the profoundest
philosophical insights are essentially ineffable and can only be expressed in
myth and allegory. Our learned scholars mutilate Plato's best insights when
they exert themselves to force his thought into well-defined theories and fixed
doctrines. In the myth of Actaeon in Bruno's Heroici Furori (Heroic Exaltations)
we have a profounder and more truthful insight into the living substance of
Platonism expressed symbolically and allegorically.
Giordano Bruno was a living incarnation of the pristine ideal of humanism Ð
which, alas!, through various metamorphoses, has been drained of its true
essence by being splintered into the diverse, mutually contradictory
present-day 'humanisms' that reflect the fragmentation of modern humanity.
Today Secular Humanism murders the soul of humanism while its antithesis,
Christian Humanism, drags the mind back into the stranglehold of unquestioning
dogmatism and superstition. It is this split that lends credence to the
spurious opposition of faith and reason which is nowadays regarded as an
irreconcilable Either-Or, while the reconciliation is ready to hand if only we
are willing to go back to the wholeness of the perennial philosophy of which
Bruno's philosophy Ð as much as Plato's or Plotinus's or Spinoza's Ð is an
original, creative expression.
Bruno's humanism is evident equally in his siding with Erasmus in his defence
of free will and in his opposition to Martin Luther's 'pecca fortiter'. Bruno
would certainly have supported Pelagius against Augustine.
In his exchanges with the Inquisition during his long drawn-out trial, he did
not hedge, dissemble, or prevaricate. While hoping to vindicate his position as
consistent with faith in the divinity (goodness and intelligence) of ultimate
Reality, he was not intimidated by the imminent threat of death into redacting
his views to conform to accepted doctrine. He was trying to make the
Inquisition appreciate that his position was rational and religiously sound,
not to convince them that he conformed to established doctrine. This was as
honest as Socrates' attempt to make his judges understand that he believed in
God according to his lights. Throughout the proceedings, he sought to vindicate
himself without compromising his integrity. But when it came to the brunt, he
refused to submit. He chose to die rather than be false to his inner light.
Bruno's insistence that the views he expounded were meant 'strictly on the
philosophical plane' implies that the doctrines formulated by the Church were
no more than a 'popular' version that did no harm when taken as such but that
should not preclude a profounder philosophical understanding.
De Santillana writes, 'One cannot but respect the scrupulousness of the
Inquisition, which took eight years to make up its mind that the doctrine,
however acceptable its religious content, could not be reconciled with dogma'
(op. cit., p.250). But then, that is just the point. Bruno had no desire to
disturb the belief of simple folk in dogma which gave them comfort. But he
would not allow such dogma to block philosophical probing for a profounder
understanding. The Inquisition could not accept such a live-and-let-live
policy. Can we? Unless at least the more intelligent members of society
understand and acknowledge unequivocally that such dogma is no more than myth
and must in no way be taken as literal truth and that intelligent persons are
not only allowed to, but are required to, criticize and disclose the error of
such dogma and introduce new formulations making for a better understanding -
unless the intelligent sector of society openly and firmly adopt that attitude,
then such dogma will be an instrument of bondage and a means of exploitation and
extortion. We hardly need any explication or illustration of the truth of this.
Our world is boiling and seething with the collision of opposed creeds and
Yet, we cannot simply shove aside all myth and live in a world governed by cold
calculations of expediency and utility, a world void of ultimate principles and
absolute values. We need the symbolism, the inspirational whisperings of myth
and allegory, of poetry and fiction, to keep us alive to the reality of the
inner fount of our true being and true worth, and we need the free untrammelled
speculative activity of intelligence without which those life-giving myths turn
into fossilized and fossilizing superstitions. That is why we need the spirit
and the message of Giordano Bruno to help us retrieve our lost human integrity.
In the dialogue de l'Infinito Universo e Mondi (of the Infinity of the Universe
and of the Worlds) we read of 'the earth, our divine mother who has borne us and
nourished us and at last will take us back into her bosom.' Would we not be less
likely to pollute and damage our environment if we could think in those terms?
The ignorance, prejudice, and hatred that Bruno had to confront in his lifetime
are still hounding his memory. It seems that there are many quarters where it is
felt that Bruno's call for humans to look for truth and reality within their own
souls still threatens empires of dogmatic creeds and fossilized doctrines. As
evidence of this, I will here review briefly an article, 'The Folly of Giordano
Bruno', by Professor W. Pogge of Ohio State University,
(http://www.setileague.org/editor/brunoalt.htm), which sadly shows little
interest in and no understanding of Bruno's seminal ideas and enlightening
approach, but concentrates instead on denigrating the man and absolving the
Church of blame! That Pogge is an Astronomer may perhaps explain the curious
slant of his article but it cannot excuse the vituperative ire with which he
handles his subject - as if Professor Pogge were convinced that Bruno deserved
to be burned for failing to make much of a contribution to Astronomy!
Professor Pogge chooses as motto for his article the following words of Paul
Valery: 'The folly of mistaking paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for proof,
a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an
oracle, is inborn in us.' This is revealing. Those who seek understanding
outside their own minds, whether in the evidence of the senses or in the
dictates of extraneous authority do not have eyes for the inner realities of
the soul. It is no wonder that Professor Pogge finds Bruno's writings are 'of
only academic interest to us today'. Eternal realities and perennial insights
that can only spring from the founts of the creative mind and can only be
conveyed in myth and symbol cannot be beheld by those who do not have eyes for
Professor Pogge is keen on 'correcting' the 'popular accounts' which say that
Bruno was condemned for his Copernicanism and portray him 'as a martyr to free
thought'. He affirms that 'we do not actually know the exact grounds of his
conviction on charges of heresy.' Further on he suggests that 'the Church's
complaint with Bruno was theological not astronomical.' In other words, he was
condemned because he held views different from those held by the Church and
considered it his duty to stand by what he saw as the truth. If that doesn't
make one 'a martyr to free thought', what does?
Pogge goes to great lengths to argue that Bruno's work 'had little to do with
astronomy'; that he was not condemned for his Copernicanism; that the Church
did not express an official opinion on Copernicanism until after Bruno's death.
Which is all beside the point!
Pogge's principal objection to Bruno is directed to his Pantheism, which Pogge
construes as opposing 'the Church's emphasis on spiritualism with an
unapologetic and all-encompassing materialism.' Pogge thus equates Pantheism
with Materialism! I only wish it were so: we could then perhaps hope that
materialists would see the spiritual reality underlying and upholding all
The bulk of the rest of Pogge's article is devoted to maintaining that Bruno's
'peregrinations around Europe... had less to do with his being hounded by the
Inquisition as it did with his rather difficult personality.' He exerts himself
to blacken Bruno's character and concludes: 'In many ways, Bruno thrust himself
into the flames that rose into the winter skies of the Campo di Fiori on the
17th day of February in 1600.' I cannot help sensing in the tone of this
sentence a touch of malicious glee.
(This article first appeared in the Giordano Bruno site Ð
http://www.giordanobruno.info Ð in February 2005)
(c) D.R. Khashaba 2005
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III. '2005 PHILOSOPHY VIDEO FESTIVAL' BY KEN KNISELY
Annual Effort Begins To Find The Best Philosophy Video From High School and
The 2005 Philosophy Video Festival will be held this December in the City of
New York at the Eastern Meeting of the American Philosophical Association. The
festival features contests to find the most profound philosophical videos
produced by high school and college students this year. A new category for
graduate philosophy students has also been added for this year's festival.
This year's theme is 'The Ethics of Consumption.' Entries for the high school
and college divisions must be between one second and four minutes in length,
and be philosophical in nature. Entries must be received by December 3rd, 2005,
and will be judged by a panel of philosophers and media producers.
As part of the 2005 Philosophy Video Festival, a new category has been
established: the Wittgenstein Prize, or 'Witty', which will be awarded to the
best philosophical video produced by a graduate student that comments on an
edition of the philosophy television series No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed.
The best philosophical video created by graduate student producers will be
included in the series, which is nationally broadcast across the United States
and locally in a number of media markets and college campuses.
'We want to inspire tomorrow's professional philosophers to enrich their
imaginations with the power of video,' said Ken Knisely, executive producer of
NDOPA. 'Video is a new and still developing philosophical medium which we
believe holds the promise of transforming the ways we think.'
'Video won't simply replace print, of course. But unless it authentically
embraces new technologies of signal, it's hard to imagine how philosophy will
be able to survive and flourish.'
Entries for all of the contests will be accepted from June 1 to December 3,
2005. The winners will be formally announced at the APA Eastern Division
Meeting the last week of December.
The winner of the 2005 Witty will receive a prize of $500.00. Cash prizes
will be also awarded to the top videos in the high school and college divisions.
Rules and details will be on the web starting April 16, 2005, at
For more information, e-mail: PhilVidFest@nodogs.org
The 2005 Philosophy Video Festival is sponsored by the American Philosophical
Association's Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy, by the North
American High School Philosophers Association (NAHSPA), and by Milk Bottle
(c) Ken Knisely 2005
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