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… we perceive virtually many more things than we perceive actually, and that here again the role of our body is to separate from consciousness all of that which we sense to be of no practical interest, all that which does not lend itself to our action. (Bergson, ‘Fantomes de vivants’)
Bergson's conviction that we perceive much more than our consciousness allows us to perceive is central to his understanding of the virtual. This enigmatic part played by the virtual in Bergson's theory of perception receives its compelling quality from the confluence of a philosophical interest in Leibniz's monadology and its theory of petits perceptions, with a parapsychological inquiry into the phenomenon of ‘hyperaesthesia’ or states of extreme perception. The latter are characterised by a high intensity of perception – mainly but not exclusively visual perception – that becomes manifest in pathological contexts where conciousness and the habits of daily life are suspended. Already at Clermont-Ferrand in the 1880s Bergson's teaching of Leibniz allowed him to situate the hyperaesthesia he encountered in his experiments with hypnotism within a broader theory of perception which was at the same time confirmed by his experiments. Leibniz's theory of petits perceptions and the experimental encounter with hyperaesthetic states allowed Bergson to frame the argument – altogether at odds with the Cartesian tradition – that conscious perception is above all the outcome of limitation. The conviction that consciousness entailed limitation led Bergson to pursue a theory of expanded perception, framed temporally in terms of durée in Time and Free Will but thereafter consistently in terms of hyperaesthesia and the virtual.
The relation between hyperaesthesis and the virtual points to a different understanding of Bergson's theory of perception than that which has largely prevailed in interpretations of his work. It can, for example, be distinguished from Deleuze's influential understanding of intuition as method in Bergsonism, a method that impels ‘us to go beyond the state of experience towards the conditions of experience’.
Exodus may seem in principle simpler than messianism. It has often been opposed to messianism. But as is already evident from the work of Jewish medieval commentators, there is no less difficulty with the ideal of exodus than with that of the utopia at the end of the world. Yet there is a difference: apocalypse may be left to the responsibility of God, while, as Moses understood, exodus is the responsibility of heads of state, even if they are prophets.
Arnaldo Momigliano, Pagine Ebraiche
In a typical aside in Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization, Arnaldo Momigliano provocatively links the historiography of the ancient and the recent past. After describing the Stoic philosopher and historian Posidonius' uncovering of ‘mystical postures and bogus oracles among the supporters of the slave king Eunus and the barbarous Mithridates’, he observes ironically that this ancient view lends ‘some support to that candid Italian scholar of unimpeachable erudition, Aurelio Peretti, who, in the year 1942, tried to persuade himself (and if possible his readers) that no man of Indo-Germanic blood could have protested against Rome: only Jews and other Orientals scribbled sibylline oracles against the ruling power’. The historiography of first- and second-century bce Greek supporters of Roman rule is linked to fascist historiography of the early 1940s by identifying the shared assumption that uttering oracles against Roman dominion was the prerogative of slaves, barbarians, Jews and Orientals.
The work of Walter Benjamin has made a fundamental contribution to the re-assessment of allegory during the twentieth century. It not only made a powerful case for the significance of allegory as a radical art practice but also extended its reach from the aesthetic to other realms of experience. However, the precise contours of the concept of allegory are hard to trace because Benjamin lends such broad significance to the allegorical. In so far as he possessed an integrated theory of allegory, it is one made up of the intersection of several discrete lines of inquiry whose precise relations were left deliberately undefined. For Benjamin, allegory is a concept with implications that are at once philosophical, religious, aesthetic, political and historical. In many ways it is emblematic of the internal complexity of Benjamin's work, which is rooted in the attempt to bring together the approaches of philosophy, aesthetics and cultural history. While the manifold senses of allegory are never bound unequivocally together into a general theory, it is clear that they depend upon each other, often in quite astonishing and illuminating ways. It is also evident that allegory is central not only to his understanding of modernism in art and literature, but also to the shifts of religious and political experience that for Benjamin constituted modernity.
There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
The famous sentence from Benjamin's seventh thesis on the philosophy of history describing documents of culture as documents of barbarism appears in the context of a reflection on culture as the plunder of history's victors. Faced with the barbaric documents of culture and their transmission to the present, Benjamin continues, it is the task of historical materialism to “rub history against the grain.” The general references to historicism and historical materialism in the seventh thesis obscure the original significance of the sentence as part of a specific reflection on the limits of cultural history. The same phrase also appears at a crucial point in the 1937 essay on the Marxist cultural historian “Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian.” At this point the sentence, “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” continues: “No cultural history has yet done justice to this fundamental state of affairs and it can hardly hope to do so” (SW III, 267). The burden of Benjamin's critique of previous cultural history rests on its never having done “justice” to the negative or barbaric aspect of culture, an act of reparation for past injustice that he thinks it can “hardly hope” to achieve. Nevertheless, in spite of this stricture, Benjamin's 1937 prognosis for cultural history is not entirely bleak: some small hope remains for what he calls a “dialectical cultural history.” The analysis of the concept of a dialectical cultural history will thus give a concrete illustration of what it might mean to “rub history against its grain.”
The “Apology for Sensibility” that constitutes sections 8–11 of the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798) offers a summary justification for one of the most important innovations of Kant's critical philosophy. Without the invention and justification of Sinnlichkeit or “sensibility” the concept of experience informing the Critique of Pure Reason and the critique of traditional metaphysics based upon it would not have been possible and Kant's philosophy would have remained a footnote to the then prevailing Leibniz-Wolff system of philosophy. Indeed, when his contemporary Eberhard claimed that everything in the critical philosophy had already been said by Leibniz and Wolff, Kant defended the originality of his contribution in terms of the “infinite difference between the theory of sensibility, as a particular mode of intuition” and one that regards sensibility as the “imprecise representation of an intellectual intuition.” Yet the doctrine of sensibility is itself internally complex, drawing together diverse lines and styles of arguments ranging across the disciplines of aesthetics, logic, metaphysics, psychology, politics, and ethics. In order to invent an integrated doctrine of sensibility it was necessary for Kant to find a space for reflection free from the limits imposed by these disciplines. Such a space was opened in the lecture course on anthropology that Kant offered for the first time in 1772–3 and which served as the crucible for the integrated doctrine of sensibility central to the critical philosophy.
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