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Peter Fenves

Joan and Sarepta Harrison Professor of Literature; Professor of German, Comparative Literary Studies, Jewish Studies, and Asian Languages and Cultures

PhD Johns Hopkins University

Peter Fenves, Joan and Sarepta Harrison Professor of Literature, is Professor of German, Comparative Literary Studies, Jewish Studies, and Asian Languages and Cultures.  He is the author of A Peculiar Fate: Metaphysics and World-History in Kant (Cornell University Press, 1991), “Chatter”: Language and History in Kierkegaard (Stanford University Press, 1993), Arresting Language: From Leibniz to Benjamin (Stanford University Press, 2001); Late Kant: Towards Another Law of the Earth (Routledge, 2003), which was translated into German in 2010, with a Spanish translation underway; The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time (Stanford University Press, 2010); and Walter Benjamin entre los filósofos (Palinodia, 2017), which he is currently expanding for its English-language version. 

Professor Fenves is also the editor of Raising the Tone of Philosophy: Late Essays by Kant, Transformative Critique by Derrida (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), the co-editor of “The Spirit of Poesy”: Essays on Jewish and German Literature and Philosophy in Honor of Géza von Molnár (Northwestern University Press, 2000) and Points of Departure:  Samuel Weber Between Spectrality and Reading (Northwestern University Press, 2016).  He is the translator of Werner Hamacher’s Premises: Literature and Philosophy from Kant to Celan (Harvard University Press, 1996), and he provided an extensive introduction for a new English edition of Max Brod’s most successful novel, Tycho Brahe’s Path to God (Northwestern University Press, 2006).

In 2020 the edition of Werner Hamacher’s writings on Friedrich Hölderlin that Professor Fenves prepared along with Julia Ng will appear with Stanford University Press.  Another volume co-edited with Julia Ng will appear in 2021 with Stanford University Press:  Walter Benjamin, Toward the Critique of Violence, which includes new translations of this influential essay along with associated notes and fragments, plus translations of the contemporaneous texts to which Benjamin refers, only one of which has previously been available in English. 

The author of numerous essays and articles on a variety of topics, Professor Fenves’s contributions to the scholarship on German literature (besides those collected in Arresting Language) include “Continuing the Fiction: From Leibniz’ ‘petite fable’ to Kafka’s In der Strafkolonie,” MLN 116 (2001); “Die Scham der Schönheit: einige Bemerkungen zu Stifter,” in Geteilte Aufmerksamkeit”: Zur Frage des Lesens; “Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin,” in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics; “Measure for Measure: Hölderlin and the Place of Philosophy,” in The Solid Letter: New Readings of Friedrich Hölderlin; “‘Workforce Without Possessions: Kafka, ‘Social Justice,” and the Word Religion,” in Freedom and Confinement in Modernity: Kafka’s Cages; “‘When Christianity is Finally Over’: Images of a Messianic Mobility in Heine and Benjamin,” in Messianic Thought Outside Theology.

Among his inquiries into German philosophy (beyond his two books on Kant) are “Marx’s Doctoral Thesis on Two Greek Atomists and the Post-Kantian Interpretations,” The Journal of the History of Ideas 46 (1986); “Image and Chatter: Adorno’s Construction of Kierkegaard,” Diacritics 22 (1992); “The Revelation of Irony: The Young Kierkegaard Listens to the Old Schelling,” in International Kierkegaard Commentary: “The Concept of Irony”; “ “What is Aufklärung (in Pennsylvania)?” in American Babel: Literatures of the United States from Abnaki to Zuni; “Imagining an Inundation of Australians; or Leibniz on the Principles of Grace and Race,” in Race and Modern Philosophy; and “Martin Heidegger,” in Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory; “Absent an Even Finer Feeling: A Commentary on the Opening of Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime.” in The Cambridge Companion to Kant’s “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime”; “Kierkegaard and the Definition of the Demonic,” in Das Dämonische nach Goethe: Schicksale einer Kategorie der Zweideutigkeit nach Goethe; “Renewed Question: Whether a Philosophy of History is Possible,” MLN 129 (2014); “‘Thankless Trouble’—Ethical Contemplation of Nature,” The Yearbook of Comparative Literature 58 (2012); “From Nietzsche’s Philosophy of History to Kant’s—and Back,” History and Theory 54 (2015).

His essays and articles on contemporary critical thought include his introduction to Jean-Luc Nancy’s Experience of Freedom, which was also published as “From Empiricism to the Experience of Freedom,” Paragraph 16 (1993); “Marx, Mourning, Messianicity,” in Violence, Identity, and Self-Determination; “Derrida and History: Some Questions Derrida Pursues in his Early Writings,” in Jacques Derrida and the Humanities: A Critical Reader; “Postmodern Theories of Alterity and Identity,” in in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy; “Jean-Luc Nancy,” also in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy; “Technica Speciosa: Some Notes on the Ambivalence of Technics in Kant and Weber,” in Experimenting: Essays with Samuel Weber; “The Courage of the Critic: Avital Ronell and the Idea of Emergence,” in Reading Ronell; “Toward another Teichology,” in Babel: für Werner Hamacher; “Zur Idee eines Hyper-Kommentars:  Jacques Derrida befragt Le Livre des questions,” in Nachträglich, grundlegend. Der Kommentar als Denkform der jüdischen Moderne von Hermann Cohen bis Jacques Derrida; an analysis of a portion of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies in The Yearbook of Comparative Literature 62 (forthcoming); and “Democracias, según Benjamin y Derrida,” in Derrida: el arte de leer (forthcoming). 

Professor Fenves has written extensively on Walter Benjamin beyond his recent book, including “Testing Right—Lying in View of Justice,” Cardoza Law Review 13 (December, 1991); “The Genesis of Judgment: Spatiality, Analogy, and Metaphor in Benjamin’s ‘On Language as Such and on Human Language,’” in Walter Benjamin: Theoretical Questions; “Die Unterlassung der Übersetzung,” in Übersetzen: Walter Benjamin; “Of Philosophical Style—From Leibniz to Benjamin,” boundary 2 30 (spring, 2003); “Is There an Answer to the Aestheticizing of the Political?” in Actualities of Aura and Walter Benjamin and Art; “Über das Programm der kommenden Philosophie,” in Benjamin-Handbuch; “Um Worte Verlegen: Zur Benjamins gegenhistorischen Lektüre Hölderlins,” in Walter Benjamin und die romantische Moderne; and “A Concept in Combat with Itself: Benjamin, Hölderlin, and ‘Temporal Plasticity,’” PMLA 124 (January 2009); “Benjamin’s Early Reception in the United States:  A Report,” in Benjamin-Studien 3; “Entanglement—Of Benjamin with Heidegger,” in Sparks Will Fly:  Heidegger and Benjamin; “Kant in Benjamins Wahlverwandtschaften-Essay,” in Benjamins Wahlverwandtschaften.  Zur Kritik einer programmatischen Interpretation; “Completion Instead of Revelation: Toward the ‘Theological-Political Fragment,’” in Benjamin and Theology; “Toward Messianic Nature—from Cohen to Benjamin,” Paradigmi: Rivista di critica filosofica 35 (2017); “Benjamin, Studying, China,” Positions (2018); “Benjamin Tells a Story….” <>; and “Intervention, Encroachment:  Benjamin on Violence and Expiation,” Critical Times (forthcoming).

Professor Fenves’ essays on the relation between modern science and modern thought include his aforementioned introduction to Max Brod’s novel about the struggle between Tyche Brahe and Johannes Kepler; “Benjamin, Einstein, Nietzsche: Some Remarks on The Republic of the Living,” Philosophy Today 60 (2016); “The Problem of Popularization in Benjamin, Schrödinger, and Heidegger circa 1935,” in The Germanic Review 91 (2016); “Aura und Irrtum:  Das Problem der Popularisierung von Benjamin bis Heidegger,” in Benjamin und Wissenschaftstheorie (2017); and “‘Einstein’s Brain’ in Three Parts,” The Yearbook of Comparative Literature 62 (forthcoming).

Professor Fenves received his BA from Wesleyan University, studied at the Freie Universität Berlin from 1986-88, and received PhD from the Johns Hopkins University in 1989. He has also taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Harvard University, and Beijing-Normal University.