Walter Benjamin: What are the Connections Between Language and Theology?

Walter Benjamin’s ideas on language are deeply bound up with theology. He posits an ideal divine language, which we have strayed from and should return to.

Aug 27, 2023By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration

walter benjamin language theology


There is a philosophy of language that exists in a mostly anglophone, mostly twentieth-century tradition. This is the philosophy of language that involves Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his part-analytic, part-mystical, part-psychological writings. In this tradition, the philosophy of language that crops up in Walter Benjamin’s works, most explicitly in his essay “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man,” is a rare sight.


Walter Benjamin’s essay moves in characteristic twists and reversals – with a vocabulary all of its own – to a thesis that is counter-intuitive and complicated, and which is often situated in a semiotic or structuralist tradition. The division between this tradition and the anglophone, analytic one is far from absolute, but it serves to cut Benjamin’s essay off from its nearest targets and companions. The essay on language, despite its difficulty and ambivalences, aims directly at many of the questions that populate Wittgenstein’s work, from inexpressibility and mysticism to syntax and forms of life.


Mental and Linguistic Being in the Philosophy of Walter Benjamin

photo of Walter Benjamin
Photograph of Walter Benjamin, 1920s.


Benjamin’s conception of language is expansive. The essay begins with the declaration that “Every expression of human mental life can be understood as a kind of language.” Benjamin finds language in everything, including plenty of activities without a verbal component; anything communicative or expressive counts. He speaks of “the language of music and of sculpture, about a language of justice that has nothing directly to do with those in which German or English legal judgments are couched;” he speaks of a “language of things,” and of technology. The primary subject of the essay, however, remains the language of words, and particularly of names.


For Benjamin, language is the expression of mental being, in the sense of some private conceptual content of the mind. However, since Benjamin strongly opposes any suggestion that there are things strictly and necessarily outside of language, what the contents of mental being look like remains unclear. Benjamin wants, indeed needs, to preserve some idea of mental being which is non-identical with what he calls “linguistic being,” but such a distinction sits uneasily beside the assertion that it is impossible to even imagine a total absence of language in anything. Thus, we arrive at an impasse of Benjamin’s making: because “The view that the mental essence of a thing consists precisely in its language” is “the great abyss into which all linguistic theory threatens to fall,” we have to posit a distinction that doesn’t rely on imagining strictly non-linguistic mental things.

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ludwig wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose philosophy of language defined the thought of the latter twentieth century, via The Paris Review.


Benjamin writes:


“The distinction between the mental entity and the linguistic entity in which it communicates is the first stage of any study of linguistic theory, and this distinction seems so unquestionable that it is, rather, the frequently asserted identity between mental and linguistic being that constitutes a deep and incomprehensible paradox.”
(Benjamin, On Language as Such and On the Language of Man, 1928)


The paradox, Benjamin thinks, can be dissolved, but only after a series of substantial detours. The first of these concerns a crucial distinction between communication in and communication through language. The “abyss” that we must avoid (that is, assuming the identity of mental and linguistic being) involves the idea that mental being is communicated through language. By “through” Benjamin designates an instrumental use of language, the mere transmission of information or instruction; this is the intentional content of speech, but if we think of language as working only in this way, we fail to see the full expressive scope of linguistic being, and what distinguishes it from the contents of the mind.


Divine Language and Naming

tower babel bruegel
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel, 1563, via Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.


Benjamin is clear that there is language in everything, and that we are justified in using the word “language” to refer to all kinds of non-verbal expression and communication. Thus, animals and objects have a language: the language of things. The language of man is just one of these, hence the essay’s title.


Since Benjamin gives us such a broad definition of language, the specialness of verbal, human communication cannot reside solely in its existence as language. Nonetheless, Benjamin thinks that human language is special: not special in the sense that it is an unusual natural phenomenon, but in the sense that it is divine, God-given, and godlike. Roughly speaking, the relationship of human language to the language of things is that of the word of God to human language.


angelus novus klee
Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, 1920, via the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.


It is crucial, Benjamin thinks, that we stress the ubiquity of language in order to identify what is actually characteristic about the language of man. Plenty of things communicate, but only humans name things. Thus, the language of man is distinguished as the only naming language.


We then arrive at one of the most unusual sections of the essay. That Benjamin so often uses the language of the mystical and magical in describing language is no accident; the language of man is an ultimately religious affair. “To whom,” Benjamin asks, “does the lamp communicate itself? The mountain? The fox? But here the answer is: to man.” (On Language as Such, 1928) The language of things communicates itself to man, in order for man to name them. Somewhat counterintuitively, what follows from this is that the same answer cannot be given to the question, “To whom does man communicate himself?” Instead, man communicates himself – by naming – to God. The privileged status of human language is conferred by God, whose gift to man is the ability to name things.


An ambiguity hovers around the intentionality of things revealing themselves to humans in order to be named. The assertion seems both at times to carry a sense of prestige in being communicated to in particular (in a way that, say, the fox does not perhaps communicate to the mountain) and at others to imply a merely passive communication.


Benjamin argues that since naming can’t communicate the mental being of man to other humans, it must be that in the very act of naming man’s mental being communicates itself to God. Later in the essay, it becomes clear that this is part of a larger communicative chain, in which the non-verbal residue of the word of God, residing in natural things, is what communicates itself to humans in the selection of names.


God’s Judgement and Man’s Fall From Eden

masaccio garden eden
Masaccio, The Expulsion From The Garden of Eden, 1424 via the Web Gallery of Art.


The gift of language, conferred to man by God, is – Benjamin claims – presently in a fallen state. Language begins in its divine, Edenic form, in which there exists total knowledge of things, and with the fall from paradise, becomes fractured and distorted. With the expulsion from Eden comes the multiplicity of language, and therefore the imperfection of knowledge.


The fragmentation of language, as rendered in the story of the Tower of Babel, is not an arbitrary punishment for human disobedience. Rather, the cause of linguistic fragmentation and multiplicity is directly identified with the cause of man’s expulsion from paradise. With the knowledge of good and evil comes judgment, which for Benjamin represents the total corruption of language. Benjamin describes judgment as a kind of magic, explicitly opposed to the magic of naming, which is language’s highest vocation.


west expulsion paradis
Benjamin West, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, 1791 via the National Gallery of Art.


Naming constitutes the divine perfection of language insofar as the name communicates – in Benjamin’s estimation – nothing but itself, while judgment quite oppositely is always a communication of something beyond itself; judgment always points elsewhere. The multiplicity of language, the instrumental use of language, and the arbitrariness of signification are all, Benjamin says, symptoms of the fall, and of the emergence of judgment. In a highly idiosyncratic move, Benjamin asserts that words – in their divine capacity – are inherent in their referents, non-arbitrarily bound to their bearers, but are ‘mere signs’ as they presently stand.


For Benjamin there is a historical trajectory, conducted partly through the process of translation, towards the eventual (re-)perfection of language. The importance of translation to this process is articulated in another of Benjamin’s essays: “The Translator’s Task.” This latter essay establishes a set of guiding principles for translation, such that it dissolves distinctions between languages and produces a hybrid language. Translation between languages instantiates the divine task of naming, which is itself a kind of translation from the language of things. Benjamin gives translation a characteristic blend of theological and Marxist inflections; the synthesis of language reaches towards the end of history, but this end is unmistakably a religious paradise.


Walter Benjamin on Language, Dialectics, and God

marx portrait
Portrait of Karl Marx by John Jabez Edwin Mayal, c. 1875, via Wikimedia Commons.


At the end of the essay, Benjamin describes the progress of language towards its telos (end goal): a purified, divine clarity, free from the distortions of the fall from Eden. The description of this progress is unmistakably dialectical, the “ultimate clarity [of] the word of God” is constituted by the very movement that tends towards it, but this dialectical framework does not render the language of divinity impotent.


Despite Fredric Jameson’s attempt to subordinate the theological features of Benjamin’s work to its historical-materialist concerns, Benjamin remains an unmistakably religious thinker. The essay on language makes little sense if the distinctions it makes between languages and directions of communication are ignored, and those distinctions, in turn, make little sense without the intervention of God, and without the ideal of prelapsarian divine language. Contra Jameson’s suggestion, it seems that the revolution is one of Benjamin’s metaphors for God and not the other way around.

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By Moses May-HobbsBA Art History w/ Philosophy ConcentrationMoses May-Hobbs is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His writing focuses on aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and film criticism. He is currently working as a contributing writer and editor, while writing in his spare time on the philosophy of language, perception, and affect.