The magical Language of Power

Words of impact

Author: Walter Benjamin
Category: Philosophy
Issue No: 93

In a letter to the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Benjamin talks about the effect of language. According to him, language must not be used as a means to trigger an action, but language is a manifestation of truth and reality and thus its own form of action. With this ‘name language’ we step out of ideology into reality.

Dear Doctor Buber,

“It is a widespread opinion, indeed the opinion that prevails almost everywhere as a matter of course, that writing can influence the moral world and the actions of man by providing motives for actions. In this sense, then, language is only a means of more or less suggestive preparation of the motives that determine the agent within the soul. It is the characteristic feature of this view that it does not at all consider a relation of language to action in which the first would not be the means of the second.

This relation concerns equally a powerless language and writing, degraded to a mere means, as a poor, weak deed whose source lies not in itself but in some sayable and expressible motives. These motives, in turn, can be talked about, others can be held up against them, and thus (in principle) the deed is placed at the end like the result of an all-round process of calculation. Every action that lies in the expansive tendency of the word-to-word series seems to me terrible and all the more disastrous where this whole relationship of word and deed, as with us, is spreading in ever-increasing measure as a mechanism for the realization of the right absolute.

Scripture in general I can only understand poetically, prophetically, factually, as far as the effect is concerned, but in any case, only magically, that is, un-mean-ably. Every salutary, indeed every not inwardly devastating effect of Scripture is based on its (the word’s, the language’s) mystery. In however many forms language may prove effective, it will do so not through the mediation of content, but through the purest opening up of its dignity and its essence. And if I refrain here from other forms of effectiveness – as poetry and prophecy – it appears to me again and again that the crystalline elimination of the unspeakable in language is the form given to us and the closest form to us to work within language and insofar through it. This elimination of the unspeakable seems to me to coincide precisely with the actually factual, sober way of writing and to indicate the relationship between knowledge and action precisely within linguistic magic. My concept of objective and at the same time highly political style and writing is: to lead to that which is denied to the word; only where this sphere of the wordless opens up in unspeakably pure power can the magic spark between word and moving deed leap over, where the unity of these two is equally real. Only the intense direction of the words into the core of the innermost silence achieves the true effect. I do not believe that the word is anywhere further from the divine than ‘real’ action, so it is not capable of leading into the divine in any other way than through itself and its own purity. Taken as a means, it proliferates.” (GB I, 325-327) [1]

Walter Benjamin, © Painting by Julia Gerberich

Explanations by Ronald Engert:

In this letter to the great Jewish mystic and philosopher Martin Buber, Benjamin (1892-1940) speaks about the relationship between word and deed, or language and action. This letter is already over a hundred years old, but timeless information can be found in it that could be spiritually, culturally and politically relevant in the present day.

This explanation therefore deals with an aspect of language that is of great importance in the theoretical debates of recent decades and even today, and which also preoccupied Benjamin. It is the question of the effectiveness of language.

Benjamin addresses this in his letter to Martin Buber. During this time, Benjamin was intensively concerned with the philosophy of language and here he asks the question of how

“can the magic spark between word and moving deed jump over”? (GB I, 327)

Benjamin uses the motif of the magical here, which will occupy a central place in his language essay [2] a few months later. But before this formulation, which leads to the core of the language problem, Benjamin discusses the misunderstanding that is widespread in relation to language:

“It is a widespread opinion, indeed the opinion that prevails almost everywhere as a matter of course, that writing can influence the moral world and the actions of man by providing motives for actions. In this sense, then, language is only a means of preparing, more or less suggestively, the motives that determine the agent within the soul. It is the characteristic of this view that it does not at all consider a relation of language to action in which the first would not be the means of the second”. (GB I, 325f.)

Language is conceived in this universally prevailing opinion as the servant of morality and action. It is supposed to be a means of providing man with motives for action. It is supposed to suggest these motives and influence the inner being of the agent. Action is seen as the central instance. However, according to Benjamin, this is not the correct use of language. Rather, he is concerned with a different effect, which he describes as magical and immediate. He continues:

“I can only understand writing as poetic, prophetic, factual, as far as the effect is concerned, but in any case only magical, that is, un-means-bar”. (GB I, 326, emphasis by Benjamin).

This is a very clear and direct statement that recurs almost word for word in the language essay:

“The medial, that is the immediacy of all mental communication, is the fundamental problem of the theory of language, and if one wants to call this immediacy magical, the primal problem of language is its magic.” (GS II, 142f., emphasis by Benjamin).

Despite all the clarity of the statement, one wonders what “magic” is supposed to be. What definition of magic does Benjamin use? At the time, Benjamin was reading the book by the mystic Franz Joseph Molitor: “Philosophy of History” about the Kabbalah [3]. “Magic” is the central word for Molitor to designate the sphere of divine reality and effect as well as the effect of language. Benjamin likewise relates magic directly to language. How can language have an immediate, magical effect? The effectiveness of language is achieved

“not by conveying content, but by the purest unlocking of its dignity and essence” (ibid.).

Language acquires its own dignity here; it works in and of itself and stands on the same level with action. It is no longer a means to suggest an action that would produce an effect but is itself directly and immediately effective.

The material action of action is joined by the immaterial action of language.

Language thus becomes a non-physical, spiritual action in itself. This language has power and does not sink into the ideological swamp that uses language as a means and thus degrades it to arbitrariness or misuses it as an instrument of domination.

In this order, action is no more real than language.

Pure language is able to directly trigger impulses for action by conveying clarity and truth. The closer the word is to the unspeakable, the truer it is. It is the antithesis of the “expansive tendency of word upon word” (GB I, 326). The true word is close to silence without being silent, and that is why it is effective.

“This elimination of the unspeakable seems to me to coincide precisely with the actually factual, the sober way of writing and to suggest the relationship between knowledge and action precisely within linguistic magic”. (ibid.)

The task of such a language is not a call or appeal to action, as can be found everywhere in religious and political practice. It is not by indirect means that an effect is to be produced here. It is an immediate, direct effect.

It is a matter of re-entering the language of names from the language of judgement. The language of judgement is the language of moral comparisons and evaluations. Benjamin opposes “every moralising dilettantism” (GS II, 304), i.e. verbal judgements or comparisons. This concerns practically every kind of moralism, i.e. judgement, in verbal acts.

The language of names, on the other hand, depicts reality without judgement or comparison. What is needed is not moralism or pathetic swearing-in to political values and dogmas, as one hears in party congress speeches or in parliamentary debates, but a sober and non-embellishing view of reality, which differs from the affirmative and apologetic programme speeches of bourgeois party politicians, which are ideological in nature qua political intention. Important here is Benjamin’s statement about the “one hundred percent pictorial space” (GS II, 309). This is spiritual seeing.

The pictorial space is the “world of all-sided and integral actuality” (ibid.). This is to lead to a physical action that “can only be produced in that pictorial space in which profane enlightenment makes us at home” (GS II, 310).

In the history of culture, language has increasingly become a means that is misused for ideological purposes. The effect of language is diminishing and can contribute less and less to bindingly determining social reality. Of course, language is still the central means, from the debates in the Bundestag to the talk shows on the TV channels, and it must remain so if one does not want to resort to the level of physical action alone, which is then all too often that of violence.

It is therefore necessary to find the language that pierces the ideological veil and puts people in a position to act. It is necessary to find the language that has power. This language is the language of names. The prerequisite for the revival of this language is a state of higher consciousness, which is known in the mystical traditions and can be and is being subjected to scientific, experimental investigation.[4] This state of expanded consciousness is, for Benjamin, “profane enlightenment”.

In the next Benjamin column in Tattva Viveka 94, the magic of language and the language of names will be described in more detail using his language essay. Image space and profane enlightenment will then be presented in more detail in Tattva Viveka 95.

Editorial note: These explanations are taken from Ronald Engert’s master’s thesis: “Die Mystik der Sprache im Werk Walter Benjamins. Franz Joseph Molitor, the Kabbalah and Jewish Thought”, submitted in June 2022 to the Humboldt University of Berlin in the Department of Cultural Studies (as of 31 July 2022: still under review).

About Author

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) earned a doctorate in philosophy and worked as a literary critic and writer. From 1933 he had to go into exile and from then on led a precarious economic existence. Friends with Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Theodor W. Adorno, Hanna Arendt and others, he is today considered one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century.

This article appeared originally on the German Homepage of Tattva Viveka: Die magische Sprache der Kraft – Tattva Viveka Magazin

[1] Walter Benjamin, Letter to Martin Buber, 17.7.1916, Gesammelte Briefe (GB), vol. I, Frankfurt M. 1995, pp. 325-327.

[2] Walter Benjamin: On the Language of Man and Language in General, in: Gesammelte Schriften (GS), vol. II, Frankfurt M. 1977, pp. 140-157.

[3] Franz Joseph Molitor: Philosophy of History. Oder über die Tradition in dem alten Bunde und ihre Beziehung zur Kirche des neuen Bundes. With special reference to the Kabbalah, Volumes 1-4, Frankfurt am Main and Münster 1827-1853.

[4] Cf. for example the work of the brain researcher Tanja Singer, who works with Buddhist and Christian monks and investigates the expansion of consciousness brought about by meditation at the Max Planck Institute with MRI scans: and Many more researches could be mentioned here, e.g. by Ulrich Ott at the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging (BION) at the University of Giessen ( (accessed 1.5.2022).

This article is available free of charge in full text online.
The complete article was published in Tattva Viveka 93 and is also available for download as an ePaper for 2.00 € (Pdf, 4 pages).

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *