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  • Introduction to the Special Issue
  • Julia Ng (bio) and Rochelle Tobias (bio)

The friendship between Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem has long been a subject of scholarly interest, but in recent years critical attention has turned to the influence of the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen on Benjamin's and Scholem's approach to religion, history, epistemology, and ethics. As a founder of the Marburg school of neo-Kantianism, Cohen represented one of the major trends in German thought at the turn of the twentieth century. He sought to replace transcendental subjectivity with an objectivity formulated strictly in terms of the "fact of science." Cohen also represented a rational Jewish theology defined by Enlightenment secularization and cosmopolitanism. Benjamin and Scholem encountered Cohen in the final period of his life, when his thought faced challenges from many quarters, including phenomenology and various strains of Jewish mysticism. Yet for both, Cohen served as the touchstone for many of their discussions during their early years and remained a point of reference for their subsequent writing.

In fact, it was the shared interest in neo-Kantianism that brought the two friends together in the first place. Both sought to work out a philosophy of Judaism based on a "mathematical theory of truth," to borrow Scholem's phrase. In August 1916 the two met to discuss history and the "shape" of time as developed in Cohen's philosophy. Following this conversation, they corresponded on language, messianism, mathematics, and the Kantian theory of knowledge. Finally in 1918 they spent the summer studying Kant alongside Cohen's monograph Kants Theorie der Erfahrung. [End Page 427]

The Modern Language Notes is proud to publish two sets of notes by Scholem from 1918, which document the progress he and Benjamin made in their study of Kant's critical philosophy and Cohen's interpretation. The notes have never been published before. The first set entitled "Über Kant" attests to the friends' interest in mathematics and the questions it raises about the notion of space in the Critique of Pure Reason and Cohen's discussion of it in Kants Theorie der Erfahrung. The second set entitled "Gegen die metaphysische Erörterung des Raumes" continues with this theme, albeit with emphasis on Cohen's response to Kant's exposition of space in the "Transcendental Aesthetic" in the first Critique. Thanks to Julia Ng's transcription and translation of the notes, as well as her annotations, scholars can now assess the influence of Cohen and mathematical thought on Benjamin's concept of history and Scholem's studies of the Kabbalah.

The articles included in the issue make a powerful case for the importance of Cohen for Benjamin's reflections on poetry, language, history, and fate and Scholem's efforts to conceive, and represent, infinity. In her article "Kant's Theory of Experience at the End of the War: Scholem and Benjamin read Cohen," Julia Ng provides a critical commentary to the two sets of notes written by Scholem published in this issue. Drawing on contemporaneous fragmentary remarks by Benjamin on the neo-Kantian concept of science, Ng argues that in the months leading up to the end of the Great War, Scholem and Benjamin devote much of their time to studying Cohen's Kants Theorie der Erfahrung in an effort to work out a response to one central problem: the invented ground of the neo-Kantian concept of experience. In the milieu of the epochal transition from the historical completion of German Idealism to the birth of the influential new school of phenomenology, Scholem and Benjamin position themselves in a contest between the constructibility of being and the fundamental heterogeneity of the material of reality. Taking a cue from Scholem's mathematical studies, they attempt to formally revise the concepts of infinity, intuition, and concept at work in Cohen's interpretation of Kant's metaphysical exposition of space. As a result, Ng suggests, Scholem and Benjamin arrive at an articulation of the relation between "mathematics and language, i.e., mathematics and thinking" that enables them in turn to bring the theory of experience into relation with its own invented ground.

Werner Hamacher's essay "Intensive Languages" articulates a practical demand for experience that...


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