The Fall of Language: Benjamin and Wittgenstein on Meaning: Alexander Stern, The Fall of Language: Benjamin and Wittgenstein on Meaning, Harvard University Press, 2019, 386pp., $45.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780674980914.

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Walter Benjamin's early 1916 essay 'On Language as Such, and on the Language of Man' articulates a theory of language that has a foundational place in his thinking. The essay was not originally intended for publication. It has its origins in a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem, written when Benjamin was 24 and Scholem just 19. Scholem transformed the study of the Kabbalah from a topic of sporadic commentary into a disciplinary field and became the acknowledged preeminent scholar of Jewish mystical traditions. Benjamin's thinking and impact is more difficult to classify. In his book, Alexander Stern treats the essay as the key to Benjamin's entire philosophy, and uses the essay's theses as a point of connection between Benjamin and other thinkers and traditions. Stern sees connections between Benjamin's essay on language and what he refers to as an 'expressivist' and 'aesthetic' tradition of language, whose characteristics, he argues, are also present in the later works of Wittgenstein. The choice of the term 'aesthetic' to describe this tradition reflects Stern's view that Benjamin and Wittgenstein aim to restore a depth of meaning to the world, one that Stern thinks has been lost through modern, i.e., scientific, disenchantment, and which he traces to the exponents of the German philosophical tradition such as Hamann, Herder, Nietzsche, and Fritz Mauthner. The 'aesthetic' view of language in this loose collection of German philosophers provides an important reference for Stern's general thesis. Although Stern thinks Benjamin and the later Wittgenstein share the aesthetic approach to language associated with this tradition, he contrasts the two thinkers on many points, and in such instances his sympathies are consistently with the position on 'aesthetic meaning' he ascribes to Benjamin.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages6
JournalNotre Dame Philosophical Reviews
Publication statusPublished - 2 Feb 2020

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