History and Theory 49 (3):361-383 (2010)

Abstract
Many authors, both scholarly and otherwise, have asked what might have happened had Walter Benjamin survived his 1940 attempt to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. This essay examines several implicitly or explicitly “counterfactual” thought experiments regarding Benjamin’s “survival,” including Hannah Arendt’s influential “Walter Benjamin: 1892–1940,” and asks why our attachment to Benjamin’s story has prompted so much counterfactual inquiry. It also explores the larger question of why few intellectual historians ask explicitly counterfactual questions in their work. While counterfactuals have proven invaluable for scholars in diplomatic, military, and economic history, those writing about the history of ideas often seem less concerned with chains of events and contingency than some of their colleagues are—or they attend to contingency in a selective fashion. Thus this essay attends to the ambivalence about the category of contingency that runs through much work in intellectual history. Returning to the case of Walter Benjamin, this essay explores his own tendency to pose “what if?” questions, and then concludes with an attempt to ask a serious counterfactual question about his story. The effort to ask this question reveals one methodological advantage of counterfactual inquiry: the effort to ask such questions often serves as an excellent guide to the prejudices and interests of the historian asking them. By engaging in counterfactual thought experiments, intellectual historians could restore an awareness of sheer contingency to the stories we tell about the major texts and debates of intellectual history
Keywords narrative  counterfactuals  Hannah Arendt  backshadowing  “What if?”  Walter Benjamin
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1111/j.1468-2303.2010.00549.x
Options
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

PhilArchive copy


Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy     Papers currently archived: 58,981
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

No references found.

Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

No citations found.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Analytics

Added to PP index
2013-11-03

Total views
48 ( #213,585 of 2,427,504 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
5 ( #147,271 of 2,427,504 )

How can I increase my downloads?

Downloads

My notes