Hamann and Benjamin on the Concept of Experience

Next month I’ll be giving a paper at the upcoming The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin conference at Goldsmiths, University of London. Here’s the abstract:

In his 1917 essay “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy”, Benjamin wrote: “The great transformation and correction which must be performed upon the concept of experience, oriented so one-sidedly along mathematical-mechanical lines, can be attained only by relating knowledge to language, as was attempted by Hamann during Kant’s lifetime.”1

In this paper I will look at Benjamin’s reading of Johann Georg Hamann, and how Hamannian themes shaped the development of Benjamin’s philosophy – in particular the turn away from philosophical reason (“the unnatural use of abstractions”2) and towards a richer understanding of language and experience.

I will argue that Hamann’s account of the relationship between language and experience (including his reflections on what language is and where it comes from, and his broadening of the concept of experience from one predominantly focused on evidence to one that accommodates religious and aesthetic feelings) anticipates many themes in Benjamin’s philosophy – and that his style and writing strategy may also have exercised an influence over the latter.

Finally I shall close with a philosophical examination of their proposed re-evaluation of the concept of experience, and how this might contribute to contemporary philosophical debate.

  1. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 107-108. []
  2. Hamann: Writings on Philosophy and Language, ed. Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 79. []
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One Comment

  1. Posted December 21, 2012 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    Jonathan,

    I would very interested to read your paper. Would you be able to email me a copy of it, or is there some other way I read it? Thank you.

    Mike McIntyre

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