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Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC089-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2022
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin was an influential German intellectual, whose activity spanned the late years of the German empire and the volatile Weimar period, culminating in a tragic suicide at Portbou while fleeing from Nazi persecution. Born into an assimilated Jewish family in Berlin, Benjamin’s prismatic writings straddle diverse fields, including philosophy, art and literary criticism; however, they also mark significant forays into broadcasting, travel-writing, and translation. Although Benjamin remained relatively unknown to a wider public during his lifetime, his influence can be discerned in Frankfurt School critical theory, as well as in his correspondences with leading cultural figures of the day: from Hugo von Hofmannsthal to Hannah Arendt and Bertolt Brecht. Benjamin’s work has been widely studied since the first posthumous publication of his selected writings by Theodor W. Adorno in 1955, laying the foundations for more comprehensive editions in subsequent decades. Since then, a voluminous secondary literature on Benjamin has appeared, including important works by a diverse range of thinkers from Carl Schmitt, to Paul de Man, and Judith Butler. Today, Benjamin is perhaps best-known for his literary studies on Goethe, Kafka, and Baudelaire, in addition to the seminal essays of his ‘anthropological’ turn, above all his piece on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ (1936). Benjamin’s oeuvre is often seen as falling into two periods: an early theological-metaphysical phase, culminating in his ill-fated Habilitation, Origin of the German Trauerspiel (1925), and a later Marxist-materialist phase, exemplified by his unfinished ur-history of modernity, The Arcades Project (c.1927–40). Indeed, Benjamin’s Habilitation, which was rejected by the University of Frankfurt in 1925, marks the end of his sustained efforts to secure an academic position, and an increase in the production of more occasional writings – many of them produced under considerable material pressures during his years of exile in France, Spain, and Denmark. Moreover, Benjamin’s writings from the mid-1920s onwards often assume startling experimental forms that set them apart from some of his earlier, more pointedly academic production. This is true, for instance, of his philosophical autobiography Berlin Childhood Around 1900 (c.1933–38), or his great work of modernist montage, One-Way Street (1928). However, despite Benjamin’s self-characterization as an author who is ‘always radical’ but ‘never consistent’ (GB 3, 159), the theoretical antitheses that this periodization implies tend to cover over important continuities in his thinking. This concerns, not least, his persistent efforts to recast ‘the relationship of a truth to history’ (C, 135–6), as he puts it in a letter to Ernst Schoen. One way of capturing this dimension of Benjamin’s thought is by considering his objections to the perceived strictures of a narrowly defined concept of experience that Benjamin identifies, in part, with Immanuel Kant. This form of experience (Erlebnis as opposed to Erfahrung) is supposed to entail an unsustainable dualism between subjects and objects of cognition – a relation that, in turn, plays out in a homogeneous, empty flow of time. Accordingly, Benjamin is consistent in his attempts to rescue the ‘integrity of an experience that is ephemeral’ (SW 1, 100), as he puts it in his 1918 essay ‘On the Programme of the Coming Philosophy’. This includes a focus on linguistic, religious, and emphatically historical experiences, which interweave in complicated and productive ways throughout Benjamin’s fragmentary writings.

Citing this article:
Truskolaski, Sebastian. Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940), 2022, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC089-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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