College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

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philosophy, Immanuel Kant, Walter Benjamin, history, Friedrich Schlegel


This dissertation presents a materialist inheritance of the idealist theory of universal history that descends from Immanuel Kant through Early German Romanticism to Walter Benjamin. I show that the division between the idealist and the materialist interpretations of universal history results from their methodologically distinct treatments of the problem of historical violence. Where idealism explains the conceptual coherence of historical processes in a specifically teleological unity (no matter how critically modified), materialist theories of universal history reject such a teleological model of conceptual necessity as historical unity not in order to disregard the issue of history’s coherence, but to articulate it absent any justification of historical violence. As a result, I argue that even a materialist theorization of historical processes cannot sacrifice an account of historical universality, without which the social critique of historical violence falls into incoherence. For both Kant and Benjamin, that locus of historical universality remains the idea of happiness. As a result, the task of philosophy of history must include the determination of what relations, if any, attend between history and the idea of it, namely, the idea of happiness.