University of Sussex
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Walter Benjamin and 'materialism'

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posted on 2023-06-09, 03:18 authored by Phillip Homburg
This thesis examines the emergence of Walter Benjamin’s materialism, within his early thought, from within the context of post-Kantian philosophy. The original contribution made by this thesis is that it differentiates Benjamin’s materialism from both Romanticism and neo-Kantianism, on the one side, and empiricism, on the other. In contrast to those who identify Benjamin as a practitioner of a Romantic form of immanence, a neo-Kantian or a mystical empiricist, I place Benjamin’s materialism within the context of the conflict between an empiricist form of materialism and post-Kantian idealism. This thesis is divided into four chapters. In the first chapter, I examine the history of materialism and its critical reception in the Kantian idealist tradition. The second chapter examines of the development of Karl Marx’s materialism. I show that Marx’s conception of reality fundamentally challenges traditional conceptions of idealism and materialism. In the third chapter, I show that Benjamin’s critique of neo-Kantianism necessarily points towards a concept of knowledge that can encompass the particularity of experience qua sense experience within itself, something that is closed off in the neo-Kantian attempt to secure the objective validity of knowledge. The final chapter focuses on Benjamin’s attempt to locate an expanded concept of experience. I look at several instances of how this concept manifests itself in the poem, life and language. I develop a materialist account of the idea that runs counter to the neo-Kantian one. Finally, I conclude by showing the limits of the Romantic concept of immanence for Benjamin. Throughout this thesis, I examine how Benjamin breaks out of both the neo- Kantian and Romantic strands of post-Kantian idealism. I also pay close attention to Benjamin’s critique of empiricism. This thesis demonstrates that Benjamin’s materialism emerges out of a serious engagement with that tradition, yet it remains irreducible to a form of neo-Kantianism, Romanticism, or empiricism.


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