Continental Philosophy

Critical Theorists

Who was Walter Benjamin?

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) is highly regarded for the ways in which he combined Jewish religious insights with Marxism. He died from taking morphine pills in Pourtbou on the French-Spanish border, while traveling with a group of intellectuals escaping from the Nazis. Different theories have been advanced about his death: that he committed suicide to avoid torture by the Gestapo for himself and his colleagues, or that Stalinists killed him. Benjamin was Hannah Arendt’s (1906–1975) first husband’s cousin. Before he died he gave Arendt the manuscript to his The Concept of History (1939), which she gave to Theodore Adorno (1903–1969), who had it published in the United States.

In his major work The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), he combined Jewish mysticism with Marxism. Benjamin thought that logic was limited as a philosophical tool because in modern times the philosophical is best accessed through literature and music. He was studied mainly for his theories in musicology, until his work was recognized to be highly relevant for postmodernism in the late-twentieth century.


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