On theoretical foundations: Theses on Brecht

Introduction to Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on Brecht’

Andrew McGettigan

These four short paragraphs, translated here into English for the first time, were sketched out in Walter Benjamin’s hand on a sheet filed alongside a transcript for his radio talk ‘Bert Brecht’, broadcast on Frankfurter Rundfunk in June 1930.1 In content, they resemble ideas developed in other texts from this period – ‘Destructive Character’, ‘Karl Kraus’ (both 1931) and ‘Experience and Poverty’ (1933), but they go beyond the positive figure of ‘poverty’ developed there as a ‘new barbarism’ or ‘inhumanity’. Here, Benjamin stretches towards ‘theoretical foundations’.

Thought is to be ‘impoverished’ (verarmt), a claim nested within a set of pragmatic concepts – socially realizable, productive completeness, applicability. Struggle against doxa is repositioned as the elimination of the private wealth of opinions, complicating accomplice to the present order. Effective thinking produces upheaval – it is publicity measured by a richness of outcomes, not by means–end rationality.

Brecht’s Versuche introduced his character Herr Keuner, ‘the thinker’. In his radio talk, Benjamin explains:

Now Herr Keuner concentrates his attention on showing that the plethora of problems and theories, theses and worldview, is a fiction. And the fact that they all cancel each other out is neither accidental nor grounded in thought itself; rather it is grounded in the interests of people who have placed the thinkers in their posts.2

The answers offered by current thinking constitute a ‘tidal sludge’, an ‘unfiltered wealth’ benefiting only the few. In ‘Experience and Poverty’, this same wealth, a ‘swamp’, is oppressive. All that is implicated and complicit must be taken away, hence impoverished. For the sake of actualization, the ‘thinker must work with the few applicable ideas that exist, the writer with the few valid formulations that we have’.3

Here is the crux of Benjamin’s counter-concept of ‘quotability’ (Zitierbarkeit). In its opposition to ‘originality’, it is the key to the gnomic formulation: ‘Brecht says: At least once people no longer need to think on their own, they are unable to think on their own anymore.’ An individual who insists on working all by themselves (ganz allein) is, according to Keuner, capable only of constructing ‘cottages’.4

In another Keuner story, ‘The Question of Whether There is a God’, we find:

A man asked Mr. K. whether there is a God. Mr. K. said: ‘I advise you to consider whether, depending on the answer, your behavior would change. If it would not change, then we can drop the question. If it would change, then I can at least be of help to the extent that I can say, you have already decided: you need a God.’5

From here, and from Benjamin’s neo-Kantian origins, we can see the affinity with pragmatism, clearly intimated in the early unpublished essay ‘On the Programme of the Coming Philosophy’ with its stress on productive metaphysics.

If William James asked after the ‘cash value in experiential terms’ of the metaphysics of private beliefs, then the later Benjamin seeks the revolutionary value of ideas: what interrupts the status quo without being false? A double demand. On such reasoning, the concept of history needed impoverishment: its idea of progress had to be eliminated. Whether the ‘messianic’ has applicability today, or has been appropriated as private riches for ornamented standpoints, is another matter entirely.

Andrew McGettigan


1. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934, Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 365–71.
2. Ibid., p. 368.
3. Ibid., p. 370.
4. Bertolt Brecht, Stories of Mr. Keuner, trans. Martin Chalmers, City Lights, San Francisco, 2001, p. 13.
5. Ibid., p. 14.


On theoretical foundations: Theses on Brecht

Walter Benjamin

Some thoughts concerning theoretical foundations. Rather than develop them in systematic sequence, it seems preferable to give them the more convenient
form of theses:


Translated by Andrew McGettigan in collaboration with Sami Khatib

⤓ Click here to download the PDF of this item