History, Modernity, and Counterfactuals: Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’

History, Modernity, and Counterfactuals: Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’

Christopher Prendergast (French, University of Cambridge)
Wednesday, September 29 / 4:00 PM
McCune Conference Room, 6020 HSSB

Historical explanation is the explanation of outcomes in terms of causal antecedents. All too often however the causal account becomes indistinguishable from a vindicatory narrative, the tale of outcomes told as a version of winners history, especially rampant in ideologies of modernity and modernization. Counterfactual thinking ‘the sphere of the might-have-been’ is, in suitably rigorous and disciplined a form, a check on that kind of triumphalism.  Benjamin’s Theses of the Philosophy of History offers one valuable way into that space. There are also potential spin-offs here for the discipline of literary history, especially as a counter to recent attempts to re-think literary history on the model of evolutionary biology.

Christopher Prendergast is Professor Emeritus in Modern French Literature, University of Cambridge; Fellow of King’s College Cambridge; Fellow of the British Academy; Honorary Professor, University of Copenhagen.

He is the author of Paris and the Nineteenth Century (1995), Debating World Literature (2004), Napoleon and History Painting: Antoine-Jean Gros’s La Bataille d’Eylau (1997), Spectacles of Realism: Body, Gender, Genre (1995, with Margaret Cohen), The Triangle of Representation (2000), The Order of Mimesis: Balzac, Stendhal, Nerval, Flaubert (1988), and  The Classic: Sainte-Beuve and the Nineteenth-century Culture Wars (2007), among others. He is also the general editor of the recent translation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Penguin Classics).

Sponsored by the UCSB Series in Contemporary Literature, the Department of History, the Department of German, Slavic and Semitic Studies, the Program in Comparative Literature and the IHC.