‘Premises: Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan’ by Werner Hamacher

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“Poetry does not impose, it exposes itself,” wrote Paul Celan. Werner Hamacher’s investigations into crucial texts of philosophical and literary modernity show that Celan’s apothegm is also valid for the structure of understanding and for language in general. In Premises Hamacher demonstrates that the promise of a subject position is not only unavoidable—and thus operates as a structural imperative—but is also unattainable and therefore by necessity open to possibilities other than that defined as “position,” to redefinitions and unexpected transformations of the merely thetical act.

Proceeding along the lines of both philosophical argument and critical reading, Hamacher presents the fullest account of the vast disruption in the theories and ethics of positional and propositional acts—a disruption first exposed by Kant’s analysis of the minimal requirements for linguistic and practical action. Focusing on the double trait of every premise—that it is promised but never attained—Hamacher analyzes nine decisive themes, topics, and texts of modernity: the hermeneutic circle in Schleiermacher and Heidegger, the structure of ethical commands in Kant, Nietzsche’s genealogy of moral terms and his exploration of the aporias of singularity, the irony of reading in de Man, the parabasis of positing acts in Fichte and Schlegel, Kleist’s disruption of narrative representation, the gesture of naming in Benjamin and Kafka, and the incisive caesura that Paul Celan inserts into temporal and linguistic reversals. There is no book that so fully brings the issues of both critical philosophy and critical literature into reach.


Werner Hamacher (1948–2017) was a German literary critic and theorist influenced by deconstruction. Hamacher studied philosophy, comparative literature and religious studies at the Free University of Berlin and the École Normale Supérieure (Paris), where he met and came to know Jacques Derrida. From 1998 to 2013 he was a Professor in the University of Frankfurt’s Institute for General and Comparative Literature (Institut für Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft), and since 2003 he was on the faculty of the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.

He was previously Professor of German and the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and taught for a number of years at New York University. He was the author of Pleroma—Dialectics and Hermeneutics in Hegel and Premises: Essays on Philosophy from Kant to Celan and the editor of the series Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, published by Stanford University Press. He translated a selection of essays by Paul de Man into German.