On Language 1916

Benjamin1910-1922 / ÜS / KG / 1923-1927 /  / 1928-1933 / 1934-1940 / BK / / KZ_TR /  ÜBG / PW /

Benjamin’s Early “Expressionistic” Pan-Philosophy of Language  

On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.

  • “Über Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen” Gesammelte Schriften, vol. II-1, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 1991, pp. 140-157.
  • On Language as Such and on the Language of Man. Selected Writings Volume 1 1913-1926. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England 1997.
  • Kielestä yleensä ja ihmisen kielestä. Messiaanisen sirpaleita. Suomentanut Raija Sironen. Kansan Sivistystyön Liitto. Tutkijaliitto 1989.

All imparting of the spiritual contents is language.

Every expression (Äußerung) of  human spiritual life (Geisteslebens) can be understood as a kind of language, and this understanding (auffassung), in the manner of a true method, everywhere raises new questions.

It is possible to talk about a 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, about a language of technology that is not the specialized language of technicians.

All announcement / imparting (Mitteilung) of the spiritual contents is language, announcement in words being only a particular case of human language and of the justice, poetry, or whatever underlying it or founded on it.

There is no event or thing in either animate or inanimate nature that does not in some way partake of language, for it is in the nature of each one to inform  (mitzuteilen) its spiritual contents.

For to think that we cannot imagine/represent (vorstellen) anything that does not impart (mitteilt) its spiritual essence in its expression (Ausdruck) is entirely meaningful; consciousness is apparently (or really) bound to such imparting to varying degrees, but this cannot alter the fact that we cannot represent a total absence of language in anything.

All that is asserted here is that all Expression (Ausdruck), insofar as it is an imparting (mitteilung) of spiritual contents, is to be classed as language. And expression, by its whole innermost essence, is certainly to be understood only as language. On the other hand, to understand a linguistic essences, it is always necessary to ask of which spiritual essence it is the immediate expression (unmittelbare Ausdruck).

German language, for example, is by no means the expression of everything that we could-theoretically-express through it, but is the immediate expression (unmittelbare Ausdruck) of that which impart (mitteilt) itself in it. This “itself” is a spiritual essence. 

The view that the spiritual essence of a thing consists precisely in it’s language-this view, taken as a hypothesis, is the great abyss into which all linguistic theory threatens to fall, l and to survive suspended precisely over this abyss is its task.

The distinction between a spiritual and the linguistic essence in which it announce 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 spiritual and linguistic essence that constitutes a deep and incomprehensible paradox, the expression of which is found in the ambiguity of the word “logos.”

What does language impart? It imparts the spiritual essence that speaks to it. It is fundamental that this spiritual essence imparts itself in a language and not through a language. Languages, therefore, have no speaker, if this means someone who imparts through these languages.

 The language of this lamp, for example, imparts not the lamp (for the spiritual essence of the lamp, insofar as it is impart-able, is by no means the lamp itself) but the language-lamp, the lamp in imparting, the lamp in expression.

For in language the situation is this:  the linguistic essence of all things is their language.

The language of a spiritual essence is immediately that which is impart-able in it. Whatever is impart-able of a spiritual essence, in this it imparts itself. This means: each language imparts itself.

The Medial [mediale] which is the immediacy [unmittelbarkeit] of all spiritual imparting, is the fundamenal problem of theory of language, and if one chooses to call this immediacy magic, then the  archproblem of language is its magic.

At the same time the phrase, magic of language, points toward something else: toward its infinitude. This is the condition of its immediacy. For precisely because nothing imparts itself through language, that which imparts itself in language cannot be externally limited or measured, and this is why each language is imbued with incommensurable, unique infinitude.

Its linguistic essence, not its verbal contents, designates its limit.


 The linguistic essence of things is their language; this proposition, applied to man, means: the linguistic essence of man is his language. Which means: man imparts his own spiritual essence in his language. However, the language of man speaks in words.

Man therefore imparts his own spiritual essence (insofar as it is impart-able) by naming all other things.

The bourgeois conception of language […] holds that the means of imparting is the word, its object factual, and its addressee a human being. The other conception of language, in contrast, knows no means (Mitteil), no object (Gegenstand), and no addressee of imparting. It means: in the name, the spiritual essence of man imparts itself to God.

The name is that through which, and in which, language itself imparts itself absolutely.

The name, in the realm of language, has as its sole purpose and its incomparably high meaning that it is the innermost essence of language itself. The name is that through which, and in which, language itself imparts itself absolutely.

Name, however, is not only the last utterance of language but also the true call of it. Thus, in name appears the essential law of language, according to which to express oneself and to address everything else amounts to the same thing.

Man alone has a language that is complete both in its universality and in its intensiveness.

Spiritual essence

 Language is then the spiritual essence of things.

There is no such thing as a content of language; as imparting ( (Mitteilung) its imparts its spiritual essence, i.e. something impart-able (Mitteilbarkeit) in itself.

The equation of spiritual and linguistic being is of great metaphysical moment to linguistic theory because it leads to the concept that has again and again, as if of its own accord, elevated itself to the center of linguistic philosophy and constituted its most intimate connection with the philosophy of religion. This is the concept of Revelation.

Within all linguistic formation a conflict is waged between what is expressed and expressible and what is inexpressible and unexpressed.

The most expressed is at the same time the purely spiritual.

The highest spiritual region of religion is (in the concept of revelation) at the same time the only one that does not know the inexpressible.

Only the highest spiritual being, as it appears in religion, rests solely on man and on the language in him, whereas art as a whole, including poetry, rests not on the ultimate essence of the spirit of language but on the spirit of language in things, even in its consummate beauty.

“Language, the mother of reason and revelation, its alpha and omega,” says Hamann.

The languages of things are imperfect, and they are dumb. Things are denied the pure formal principle of language-namely, sound.

The incomparable feature of human language is that its magical community with things is immaterial and purely spiritual, and the symbol of this is sound.


The Bible, in regarding itself as a revelation, must necessarily evolve the fundamental linguistic facts.

Man, who is not created from the word, is invested with the gift of  language and is elevated above nature.

Language is that which creates and that which completes; it is word and name.

God made things knowable in their names. Man, however, names them according to knowledge.

God rested when he left his creative power to itself in man. This creativity, relieved of its divine actuality, became knowledge.

In the word, things were created, and God’s linguistic being is the word.

All human language is only reflection of the word in name. The name is no closer to the word than knowledge is to creation. The infinity of all human language always remains, in essence, limited and analytic, in comparison to the absolutely unlimited and creative infinity of the divine word.

The deepest image of this divine word and the point where human language participates most intimately in the divine infinity of the pure word, the point at which it can become neither finite word nor knowledge, is the human name. The theory of the proper name is the theory of the limit of finite language with respect to infinite language.

Of all beings, man is the only one who names his own kind, as he is the only one whom God did not name.

In a strict sense,  no person ought to correspond to his name (in its etymological meaning), for the proper name is the word of God in human sounds. By it each person is guaranteed his creation by God, and in this sense he is himself creative, as is expressed by mythological wisdom in the notion (which doubtless not infrequently comes true) that a man’s name is his fate.

The human word is the name of things.

There is no room here for the idea that corresponds to the bourgeois view of language: that the word has an arbitrary relation to its object, that it is a sign for things (or knowledge of them) established by some convention.  Language never gives mere signs.

But the rejection of bourgeois linguistic theory in favor of mystical linguistic theory likewise rests on a misunderstanding. For according to mystical theory, the word is simply the essence of the thing. That is incorrect, because the thing in itself has no word, being created from God’s word and known in its name according to a human word.  This knowledge of the thing, however, is not spontaneous creation; it does not eventuate from language in the absolutely unlimited and infinite manner of creation. Rather, the name that man gives to the thing depends on how it imparts itself to him. In the name, the word of God has not remained creative; it has become, in part, receptive, if receptive to language.


Every higher language (with the exception of the word of God) can be considered a translation of all the others. With the previously mentioned relatedness of languages, understood as a relation among media of varying densities, the translatability of languages into one another is given. Translation is the carrying over of one language into another through a continuum of transformations. Translation asses through continua of transformation, not abstract zones of identity and similarity.

The translation of the language of things into that of man is not only translation of the mute into the sonic; it is the translation of the nameless into name. It is therefore the translation of an imperfect language into a more perfect one, and cannot but add something to it namely, knowledge.

The language of things can pass into the language of knowledge and name only through translation– so many translations, so many languages-once man has fallen, that is, from the paradisiacal state that knew only one language.

The fall of the spirit of language: moral prattle

That the language of Paradise must have been perfectly cognizant is something that even the existence of the Tree of Knowledge cannot conceal.

The knowledge to which the snake seduces, the knowledge of good and evil, is nameless. It is vain in the deepest sense, and this very knowledge is itself the only evil known to the paradisiacal state. Knowledge of good and evil abandons the name; it is a knowledge from without, the uncreative imitation of the creative word. The name steps outside itself in this knowledge: the Fall marks the birth of the human word, that in which name no longer lives intact and that which has stepped out of name-Ianguage, the language of knowledge, from what we may call its own immanent magic, in order to become, as it were from without, expressly magic. The word must impart something (other than itself). That really is the fall of the spirit of language.

The knowledge of things resides in the name, whereas that of good and evil is, in the profound sense in which Kierkegaard uses the term, “prattle (Geschwätz)” and knows only a purification and elevation, to which the talkative man, the sinner, was therefore subjected: judgment of course, for the judging word, knowledge of good and evil is immediate. Its magic is different from that of name, but it is nonetheless magic. 

  1. In stepping outside the pure language of name, man makes language a means…and therefore also…a mere sign
  2. As restitution for the immediacy of name…a new immediacy now arises: the magic of judgment, which no longer rests blissfully in itself.
  3. The origin of abstraction…is to be sought in the Fall.

For good and evil, being unnamable and nameless, stand outside the language of names, which man leaves behind precisely in the abyss opened by this question.

This immediacy in the imparting  of abstraction took on the character of judging when, in the Fall, man abandoned immediacy in the imparting  of the concrete-that is, name-and fell into the abyss of the mediateness of all imparting  of the word as means, of the hollow word, into the abyss of chatter. For the question of good and evil in the world was prattle after the Creation. The Tree of Knowledge stood in the garden of God not in virtue of any enlightenment it might have provided concerning good and evil but as emblem of judgment over the questioner. This immense irony marks the mythic origin of law.


It is a metaphysical truth that all nature would begin to lament if it were endowed with language (though’ “to endow with language“ is more than “to make able to speak”).

Nature would lament language itself. 

Speechlessness: that is the great sorrow of nature (and, for the sake of her redemption, the life and language of man-not only, as is supposed, of the poet – are in nature).

Lament is the most undifferentiated, impotent expression of language. It contains scarcely more than the sensuous breath; and even where there is only a rustling of plants, there is always a lament. Because she is mute, nature mourns.

The inversion of this proposition leads even further into the essence of nature; the sadness of nature makes her mute. In all mourning there is the deepest inclination to speechlessness, and this is infinitely more than the inability or unwilIingness to communicate. What is sad feels itself thoroughly known by the unknowable. To be named-even when the namer is godlike and blissful-perhaps always remains an intimation of mourning. But how much more mournful to be named not from the one blessed paradisiacal language of names, but from the hundred languages of man, in which name has already withered, yet which, according to God’s pronouncement, have knowledge of things.

Things have no proper names except in God.

In the language of men, however, they are overnamed.

Overnaming as the linguistic essence of the sorrowful points to another remarkable circumstance of language: the overdetermination that obtains in the tragic relation between the languages of human speakers.

Nameless, nonacoustic languages, languages issuing from material; at this point we should recall the material community of things in their impating. Moreover, the imparting of things must certainly have a communal character, such that it comprehends the world in general as an undivided whole.

For an understanding of artistic forms, one should attempt to grasp them all as languages and to seek their connection with natural languages. An example that is appropriate because it is derived from the acoustic sphere is the kinship between song and the language of birds.

The language of art can be understood only in deepest relation to the theory of signs (Zeichen). Without the latter any linguistic philosophy remains entirely fragmentary, because the relation between language and sign (of which that between human language and writing affords only a very particular example) is original and fundamental.

For language is in every case not only imparting of the impart-able but also, at the same time, symbol of the non-impart-able.

Purified concept of language

The language of an entity is the medium in which its spiritual being imparts itself. The uninterrupted flow of this imparting runs through the whole of nature, from the lowest form of existence to man, and from man to God.

Man imparts himself to God through the names he gives to nature and (in proper names) to his own kind; and to nature he gives a name according to the imparting he receives from her, for the whole of nature, too, is imbued with a nameless, mute language, the residue of the creative word of God, which has preserved itself in man as the cognizing name and above man as the judgment suspended over him.

All higher language is translation from the lower, until in ultimate clarity the word of God unfolds, which is the unity of this movement of language