Why does the angel of history look backwards?
The point of departure of this whole study is Walter Benjamiďs last text Theses on the Philosophy of History in which we find not only the fundamental themes of his work as a whole, but also an expression of shock at international events towards the end of the 1930’s. The reference to the significance of theology for historical materialism, taken up in the first thesis, draws attention to the ability of theology to keep its distance from immediate wordly events and to show how that which is visible is not everything, and that the current governing power is not the only power. It is this that Benjamin takes from the theological tradition when he tries to come to terms with National Socialism and to demonstrate that its power is not the last word of history, but that rather something exists beyond the then virtually omnipresent forces of destruction, and that the attempts to sacrifice this knowledge, so as to make possible the very conformism that it condemns, should not be acceptable. The difference between theology and what Benjamin seeks to salvage from it is centred on his perceiving the possibility of a turning point within this world. He appeals to theology so that he can also overcome one of the decisive reasons leading to Marx's unique theoretical project not being understood with necessary radicalness and thus to its losing, to a great extent, its explanatory power and revolutionary im¬pulse (the positivistic tendency present in the interpretation of social democratic and Stalinist theorists was a negative influence here). The necessity of looking back to the past constitutes the basic theme of the whole study, and it is analysed at the epistemological, ontological and political levels. In conclusion the author emphasises how the view backwards is also necessary because the past shows how all its atrocities, which we think have been overcome, may at any time return in a way which we are unable to imagine.
Filosofický časopis, redakce, Filosofický ústav AV ČR, v.v.i., Jilská 1, 110 00 Praha 1, Czech Republic
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