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Reading Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History”

Lecturer: Gregory Marks

Originally Taught: Summer School 2023

Of all Walter Benjamin’s works, few are as elusive, electrifying, and divisive as his “Theses on the Concept of History” (1940). Written in the final months of Benjamin’s life, before his tragic flight from Vichy France, the theses stand as the final statement of his life’s work and a central text for the later reception of his thought. The twenty short fragments that make up the theses put forward a provocative blend of Marxism and messianism to criticise the traditional categories of the philosophy of history, from its ideological notions of progress and its complicity with the atrocities of empire, to its limited conceptions of historical time and the dampening of political spirits that comes with its abdication to the “inevitable” course of history.

To make sense of Benjamin’s combination of historical materialism and secularised messianism, this course will take up a close reading of his theses, reading each in turn and examining the main themes, images, and concepts as they are introduced. The reading of the theses will be placed in the context of Benjamin’s earlier writings on history, culture, and modernity, to help explicate Benjamin’s last work in the light of his lifelong interests and preoccupations. Benjamin’s major influences will be discussed, from the revolutionary ideas of Lukacs to the messianism of Rosenzweig, and comparisons will be carried out with other major works in the philosophy of history, from Vico and Hegel through to Nietzsche and Marx.

The question of Benjamin’s ongoing relevance will also be broached by placing his writing in conversation with contemporary discussions of historical injustice, climate catastrophe, and political struggle. Where needed, reference will be made to key contemporary commentators on the theses, with the goal of setting Benjamin’s reception in contrast with an attentive reading of his work, to allow the reader to critically assess the significance of the theses on their own terms.

Course structure

Week 1: What is Historical? (Theses I, II, III, IV)

Week 2: To Seize the Truth (Theses V, VI, VII, VIII)

Week 3: Catastrophe and Praxis (Theses IX, X, XI, XII)

Week 4: The Shape of History (Theses XIII, XIV, XV, XVI)

Week 5: The Messianic Remnant (Theses XVII, XVIII, A, B)


  • Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Works, vol. 4, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap, 2003), 389-400.
  • Walter Benjamin, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History,’” in Selected Works, vol. 4, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap, 2003), 401-411.
  • Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso 2016).