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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Fate, guilt, and messianic interruptions: Ethics of theological critique in Hermann Cohen and Walter Benjamin
by Thiem, Annika Kristina, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2009, 287; 3411051
Abstract (Summary)

Fate, Guilt, and Messianic Interruptions: Ethics of Theological Critique in Hermann Cohen and Walter Benjamin examines both the criticisms and appropriations of theology by these two German-Jewish thinkers to demonstrate the ethical implications of theological concepts for shaping experiences, affects, and actions. As opposed to viewing the contribution of theology to ethics primarily as one of normative precepts, I foreground the influence of theology on our conceptions of life and history, where the normative force of theology is tacit and hence more difficult to criticize and reshape. Cohen and Benjamin criticize the Christian doctrine of original sin and Christian eschatological views of history for their intensification of a primary sense of guilt and doom. As an alternative, these two thinkers draw on Jewish messianism to insist that we embrace and transform life in this world, marked as it is by transience, failures, and suffering. In this dissertation, I seek to demonstrate that theological concepts need not compel dogmatic, moralistic closures, but can enable a critical opening to orient our everyday experience and conduct.

This dissertation begins with two chapters examining Cohen's and Benjamin's critique of theologically stoked moralism and concludes with two chapters considering the critical and ethical force of their appropriations of messianism. Chapter 1 draws on both Cohen and Benjamin to argue that original sin inculcates a fated, moralistic perspective on life, because every failure or misfortune is taken as evidence of this primordial guilty state. Chapter 2 considers Cohen's criticism of the perception of evil as an historical force and reads this together with Benjamin's criticism of eschatological conceptions of history to show how these theological concepts perpetuate a sense of impending threat and moral urgency that narrows the possibilities for critique. Chapter 3 weighs the prospects for rethinking accountability through Cohen's messianic idea of an open futurity and his reading of humaneness in teshuva (repentance, literally "turning"). Finally, Chapter 4 problematizes Cohen's idealizing of ethical progress through Benjamin's interpretation of messianism as transient interruptions that expose injustices of the past and foster political action against continued exploitation in the present.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Butler, Judith
School: University of California, Berkeley
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 71/06, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Ethics, Philosophy, Theology
Keywords: Benjamin, Walter, Cohen, Hermann, Ethics, Messianism, Neo-Kantianism, Theological critique
Publication Number: 3411051
ISBN: 978-1-124-03816-2
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