The mathematical Messiah: Benjamin and Scholem in the Summer of 1916

Peter Fenves


In the summer of 1916, Benjamin proposes a “difficult remark” as the basis for a messianic theory of history: years can be counted but not numbered. In order to help him develop this theory, Benjamin invites Scholem, a student of mathematics, to participate in lengthy discussions. Scholem responds by proposing his own “mathematical theory of truth”, in which the messiah is both mystic and mathematician. Benjamin’s criticisms of an early essay by Heidegger indicate the general outlines of his thwarted theory: when years can be countered, they can only be arbitrarily numbered; when they can be properly numbered, there are no longer any years to count. The impasse Benjamin encountered in developing his “difficult remark” into a theory of history was nevertheless productive: it shaped his theory of language, and it provided the impetus for his analysis of dramatic form.

Keywords: Messianism, mathematics, theory of history, theory of language.

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ISSNe 2447-6803 (eletrônico)

ISSN 0102-0269 (impresso)

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