Part 1: On Walter Benjamin’s Doctrine of the Similar

19 04 2010

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin in the library in Paris

I recently found an English translation of Lehre vom ÄhnlichenDoctrine of the Similar, a small text (maybe it is better to think of it as a fragment) Walter Benjamin wrote in 1933. This text has a certain significance to me. To cut a long story short: I wrote my master thesis about it and failed completely. This is the text that showed me clearly the limits of my mind. Until here and not further. However, reading the text in the English version gave me a new perspective of the text. It might be my limited understanding of the English language but I have the impression that the English text does not have the depth of the German original.

What makes the German original so difficult to comprehend is the incredible variety of possible ways to read and to understand the text. Let me give you an example: The word Ähnlichkeit (the similar) is linked by its etymology to the word Ahnen, which – read as a noun – means ancestors. And of course, Doctrine of the Similar has a historical dimension: the history of the mimetic faculty. So it is actually possible to read Ähnlichkeiten (besides its “normal” meaning) in this way. But there is another way of reading the word, because ahnen – read as a verb – means to sense something. So this word is about a certain mode of perception, and of course: Doctrine of the Similar is a text about the human ability of perceiving the similar. This labyrinthine character of this text is what drives you easily crazy.

So I am actually quite thankful to write about this text now in English and not in German and to discuss the English text primarily, as this takes away a lot of weight.

What I want to do with this post is to explore Doctrine of the Similar once again. Why? Because it is an important text. This text is part of Walter Benjamin’s amazing philosophy of language. (And this philosophy of language is certainly the foundation on which Benjamin’s body of work is based on.) I very much believe that Benjamin’s philosophy of language is of significance today, because we do understand language in a very wrong way: as a tool that helps us expressing our thoughts. This primitive (and fatal) idea of language is what Benjamin attacks. And this is what I am going to explore in this series of thoughts dedicated to the Doctrine of the Similar.