When the Angels Played: Monadology and Divine Absconsion in Walter Benjamin

Interpretations of Walter Benjamin have ranged from the last pre-war man of letters to a Hasidic rabbi. There is consensus that from roughly 1916-1920 Benjamin was interested in Jewish and Christian theology and metaphysics and that from about 1925 to his death in 1940 he was vocally Marxist to the near exclusion of metaphysics. This article identifies ambiguities in Benjamin’s early, theistic cosmology, arguing that the inherent instability of Benjamin’s accounts especially of language, judgment and allegory compelled him to discard his early Platonism and embrace a cosmology in which God is abscondite. Just as early atheists took inspiration from Duns Scotus’s speculation that a triangle would still have three angles in a universe in which God does not exist, Benjamin’s vision of a world abandoned by God led him, over the course of the 1920s, into atheistic materialism. When the materialist Benjamin continued, despite himself, to encounter divine traces and teleology in his literary excursions, he concluded that he had to chase God even further from his creation in order for humanity to perceive the latter as it really was. This state of affairs continued until the last year of Benjamin’s life, during which he chose to embrace theology as the hidden spirit lurking within the letter of historical materialism.

“But I Want the Truth!”: The Legacy of Martial Gueroult in São Paulo Philosophy, 1935-2017

Not long after the founding of the University of São Paulo (USP) philosophy department in 1935, Brazilian philosophy students found themselves entranced by “the Method,” a system of logical formalism pioneered by French philosophers Martial Gueroult and Victor Goldschmidt. Its rise was seemingly unstoppable, and by the late 1950s the Method was seen as the only way to write about philosophy at USP. This article examines the rise, fall, and resurgence of the Method at USP through its influence on the lives and oeuvres of three renowned USP philosophers: José Arthur Giannotti, Marilena Chauí, and Paulo Arantes. A dozen other Brazilian and French philosophers are consulted as necessary. Although the initial reception of Gueroultian teaching was euphoric, its problematic aspects soon became apparent. The pessimism of the Method with respect to the possibility of creating philosophy, rather than writing about it, dismayed many. Its insistence upon an arbitrary but unassailable canon disappointed others, while its dismissal of external reality weighed heavy on still other consciences. It also became apparent that Gueroult and Goldschmidt did not enjoy the same unchallenged reputation in France as they did at USP. With the inauguration of the interdisciplinary Marx Seminar of 1958-1964, national concerns and the possibility of Brazilian particularity enjoyed a brief dominance over Gueroultian universalism. During the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, which purged most faculty members in 1968, the USP faculty reoriented itself to admit historical context into its scope. This did not address many of the major problems with the Method, including canonical selection and Gueroult’s declaration of the end of philosophy. Only after the end of the Cold War did some faculty members begin to challenge the Method’s precepts, although the canonical provisions of the Method remain hegemonic at USP today.