Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC089-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

5. History

The theory of history is the topic of Benjamin’s last work, ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’ (On the Concept of History) (1940). Just as his aesthetics break with representationalism of orthodox Marxism, so his notion of history turns away from its characteristic faith in progress. The course of history becomes radically disrupted: that is to say, history is understood as being in a permanent state of emergency, where identities emerge only through isolated and contingent acts of struggle. The ‘meaning’ of history ceases to be theoretically recoverable, and yields only to redemptive recollection. From this perspective, the task of the historian is to cite those struggles for freedom which, by example or analogy, cast light on the conflicts of the present.

Benjamin represents this view as Messianism and thus as a form of theology. It should be noted, however, that the basic model applies also to common-law notions of legal precedent; this important work is not confined to religious realms, but, as with all of Benjamin’s writings, has wide and continuing secular relevance.

Citing this article:
Roberts, Julian. History. Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC089-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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