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"Theses on the Philosophy of History"

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Walter BenjaminEdit

Theses on the Philosophy of History [1940]Edit

In this array of 20 vignettes, Benjamin puts forth a critique of "historicism" and proffers the alternative of historical materialism. Historicism, in Benjamin's estimation, is "telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary" (263). Historicism believes that it can tell history "the way it really was" (255), producing an additive account of history that "musters data to full the homogenous, empty time" (262). Historicism cannot locate barbarism in the cultural treasure (the suffering at the base of the victor's spoils). It's relationship to the past is one that does not jointly conceive of the present, and it permits Social Democracy (Fascists) to keep the workers oppressed in the name of freeing their "liberated grandchildren" rather than enabling them to realize they have more common with their "enslaved ancestors" (260).

Historical materialism, in contrast, "grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the 'time of the now' which is shot through with chips of Messianic time" (263).

Particular to this essay is Benjamin's invoking of "The Angel of History" (Thesis IX). This angel faces the past, witnessing not a chain of events (as we do) but rather "one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet" (257). The storm of "progress" bears down on the angel, forcing him into the future although he would rather "stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed" (257).

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