- Walter Benjamin's and Gershom Scholem's Reading Group Around Hermann Cohen's Kants Theorie der Erfahrung in 1918:An Introduction
The documents that follow represent the most complete record to date of Walter Benjamin's and Gershom Scholem's joint study of Hermann Cohen's Kants Theorie der Erfahrung in the summer of 1918. Composed by Scholem, they consist in reflections on science, history, mathematics, and (neo-)Kantian concepts of system and critique, many of which originate terminologically and thematically from Benjamin's own writing and thinking at the time. Containing in nuce the preliminary stages of Benjamin's attempt to transition from a theory of knowledge and language to a systematic political theory, they attest to the shared appreciation of Kantian philosophy and similar inclination towards a "mathematical theory of truth"1 qua theory of history that brought the friends together in the first place. They provide the quintessential outline of how mathematics, ethics, and Kant intersected for the two friends in a way that would continue to shape their respective itineraries far beyond their early work.
Benjamin was twenty-three when he first made the acquaintance of the seventeen-year-old Scholem in Berlin in July 1915, some days after Scholem participated in a discussion hosted by the Freie Studentenschaft [End Page 433] in which he criticized the Nietzschean denunciation of history that Kurt Hiller had advanced in an earlier lecture. During their very first conversations they discussed, contra Hiller, the concept of history as an ineluctable process of life, which then led them to speak of the solutions that the Zionist, Socialist, and anarchist movements defining their milieu presented for the antinomy between the event and history.2 They also discussed Kantian epistemology and the theory of mathematics, with particular consideration of contemporaneous developments in the philosophy and history of science: in his diary, Scholem outlines a conversation he had with Benjamin on July 24th about Kant, "synthetic judgments and mathematics," during which "much of interest was said" with reference to the mathematician and philosopher of science, Henri Poincaré.3 By this time, Benjamin had spent several years studying under neo-Kantian philosophers including Ernst Cassirer and Benno Erdmann in Berlin and Heinrich Rickert in Freiburg. Scholem, for his part, had been reading Kant in his introductory philosophy courses in Berlin that semester, though he was primarily a student of mathematics and history; his diaries from the period are interspersed with remarks in which he relates what he found interesting in the lectures he heard on Kant to the mathematics and the concept of science at the center of his studies. It seems, in fact, that Benjamin befriended Scholem for his knowledge of contemporaneous mathematics, especially the mathematics whose development had raised the question of whether or not Kant's view that the structure of space can be known a priori, and be considered a formal condition of our possible experience, can still hold true given the discovery of other consistent structures of space—the so-called non-Euclidean geometries. Moreover, Scholem's command of mathematical reasoning was fortuitously complemented by a similar interest in investigating the concept of historical time, which was expressed in terms of the possibility of Zionism in particular and political movements at large. As their exchanges over the following years attest, their exploration of issues pertaining to Zionism and Judaism was philosophically and meta-mathematically inflected from the outset and led them to reflect [End Page 434] on concepts that, in their view, resonated at the intersection of their interests: language, history, and experience.
By late 1917, Benjamin had moved to Bern to commence his doctoral studies with Richard Herbertz. Scholem was studying mathematics and philosophy at the University of Jena, where he participated in the seminars of Gottlob Frege—who, it seems, betrayed none of his anti-Semitic tendencies in this context. The correspondence between Benjamin and Scholem during this period reveals a remarkable intensification of their personal as well as intellectual relationship. In a series of letters written to Benjamin in September,4 Scholem outlines a rudimentary objection to Kant's critique of metaphysical thinking as presented in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, arguing that...