Hans Blumenberg: Die Nackte Wahrheit

Die nackte Wahrheit Book Cover Die nackte Wahrheit
suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft 2281
Hans Blumenberg. Edited by Rüdiger Zill
Suhrkamp Verlag
2019
Paperback 20,00 €
199

Reviewed by: Sebastian Müngersdorff (University of Antwerp)

On Unbearable Reality and Beautiful Appearances

I.

Ferdinand Hodler’s painting ‘Die Wahrheit’ features a naked woman dispelling six cloaked male figures as if they were dark thoughts. She finds herself standing on an isle of grass while the men – lies? – turn from her and look for shelter in barren lands. In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s depiction of the truth, titled ‘The Truth Coming from the Well with Her Whip to Chastise Mankind’, one sees exactly what the title promises. At least, presuming the beholder knows that truth always comes as a naked, angry woman ready to hysterically chase you down. I would hardly be surprised if the painter kept the words “How could you!” in mind, or, more accurately, “Comment peux-tu!”, when drawing the contours of her screaming mouth. Perhaps he even pictured the face of his wife at the moment he told her the truth about his many models and the adulterous state of affairs.

In other paintings, by Merson, for example, or Lefebvre or Baudry, lady truth brandishes a mirror instead of a whip. In the version of Édouard Debat-Ponsan, two men, one of whom is blindfolded, try to restrain her and her charged mirror, to no avail. Her clothes tear from the male grip while her flaming red hair blows bravely and unhinderedly, her gaze aimed at some point outside the frame: her holy mission? Ultimate victory in the Age of Reason?

Venus, Eve, Leda, the Sirens, Diana, Phryne, nymphs: figurative painting has always gratefully seized upon the offer to depict naked women. Nonetheless, it is not self-evident that Hodler’s ‘The Truth’ belongs to this list of subjects. Why is truth female? Why can she only show herself unveiled? Why is she angry? Why is she victorious? Why is she armed? Why is she white? And why does she have no pubic hair?

At least some of these questions spurred Blumenberg’s collection of small excerpts exploring the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ in Western thought, now published from his archives as Die Nackte Wahrheit by Rüdiger Zill. This book makes quite clear that the depiction of truth as naked is more than a mere representation. There is a longstanding tradition in which truth is deeply intertwined with a pure female nature understood as clarity, innocence, attraction and unapproachability. Such equation of truth with female nudity creates a variety of unuttered associations. Truth, for example, is accessible only to few – something that will play into the democratizing project of Enlightenment. It installs a connection between eros and the pursuit of truth, a desire, a libido sciendi. Prohibition is involved and it gives rise to the problem of whether truth is still truth when she presents herself dressed up. Truth becomes contaminated by male deception. The quest for truth becomes “an expedition to some exotic place”, as Kołakowski terms it in his text on nakedness and truth (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Truth becomes a capture, an ambiguous purpose of curiosity, an ideal of knowledge which is godlike, forever beyond reach yet nonetheless worth chasing, “a passion deserving of death” as Blumenberg calls it (NW 105). Just like in the story of Artemis and Actaeon (NW 104-6), the male gaze automatically becomes indiscrete and inappropriate, and curiosity becomes a kind of unacceptable voyeurism. Just like Actaeon, anyone who looks at the divine must die, an implication of a lethal danger of pursuing truth. It is worth considering that such a passion is rewritten in the expression “vedi Napoli e poi muori”, especially when bearing in mind how often a beautiful city – the word city, like truth, has a female genus in most European languages – is considered in similar female terms: the Jewel of Europe, La sposa del mare, the Pearl of the Orient, la Superba or Elbflorenz. In the case of Paris, it is expressed in terms of this other metaphor for truth: la ville lumière.

That in the European languages “truth appears on the stage as a female act”, Blumenberg writes, gives “truth an erotic-aesthetic trait […] which is not taken for granted by the misogynist” (NW 126). Whether this implies that skeptics must also be misogynists remains unclear. And whether this applies to the skeptic Blumenberg himself is a question that perhaps only a modern Diogenes might dare to ask Blumenberg’s daughter, Bettina.

Be that as it may, in view of the topic it is rather striking that this book devotes only a single page to a female writer, Madame du Châtelet. This one page, however, does not discuss her writing or thought; instead, it addresses an anecdote that tells how Mme du Châtelet shamelessly undressed in front of her servant Longchamp. Blumenberg links this behavior to the project of Enlightenment itself, in which “truth shows herself unembarrassedly in front of those who ought to serve her” (NW 103). In short, rather than her writings and ideas, it is only Madame du Châtelet’s indifference to her own nakedness that becomes a significant expression of the “new methodological ideal of objectivity” (NW 103).

Although Blumenberg does not render it explicitly, the short chapter on Actaeon following this page suggests that the divine nakedness of truth becomes human in the nakedness of Émilie du Châtelet. The hunter Actaeon, servant of the goddess Artemis, watches his mistress undress and consequently he must be punished for seeing her in her nudity. Someone who looks at Medusa, however, instantly dies. In other words, Acteon already signals an alteration in the mythic gaze upon a deity, which in Artemis’ bathing scene changes from tremendum into fascinosum. He doesn’t die immediately, he is punished for his violation. In the anecdote of Madame du Châtelet, then, a succeeding shift occurs. In contrast to Actaeon, the servant Longchamp is not punished, he is not even noticed. Longchamp becomes a subject “of conscious exposure” and is regarded as not being there: “in the witness of nudity an awareness is raised […] of remaining unnoticed in his presence” (NW 103).

This reversal in the relation of nakedness, fascinosum, between mistress and servant, punisher and the one punished, is still far from Nietzsche’s later take, “to think of the naked truth as a frightening and unbearable dimension” (NW 126). Whether a comparison of Nietzsche’s views on the ugly truth and his lashing attitude towards women – note the double inversion of Gérôme’s depiction concerning the appearance of lady truth and the one who is cracking the whip – could add something to the debate about his possible misogyny is merely a suggestion discerned between the lines.

Like this example, and completely in line with his longstanding interest in the non-conceptual (Unbegrifflichkeit), i.e. metaphoric, narrative, anecdotal and mythic substratum of conceptual thought, Blumenberg delves into the layers of implicit imagery and associations so as to note significant changes in meaning over time. Moreover, he lays bare – an expression which is itself already part of the semantics of the naked truth – inconsistencies in the rational discourse that is built on this metaphoric level and shows how it can be deconstructed and eventually turned against itself. He does so by discussing writers and philosophers such as Adorno, Kafka, Pascal, Fontenelle, Rousseau, Vesalius, Fontane, Schopenhauer, Kant, Kierkegaard and Lichtenberg. The seemingly incoherent order of these names mirrors both Blumenberg’s own avoidance of chronology and his preference of association. Although he refuses an all too systematic approach of the issue, the intrinsic connection of the different chapters is always clear: “How does the metaphor portray the position of the thinker, in which he maneuvered himself because of more or less compelling reasons and under more or less unavoidable conditions” (NW 127)?

Applied to truth, this question brings him to many considerations about the implications of viewing truth as naked: “If truth only is right when naked, then every cover is a disguise and eo ipso wrong” (NW 71). However, when we embrace the conviction that truth is true only when it is naked, we can never undo the threat that “even its nakedness is still costume” (NW 92). Nakedness then turns into “the illusion […] which is created by the gesture of tearing down dresses”, which in turn evokes “the scheme of the onion skin” (NW 97). “When once opened, nothing ever is something final” (NW 102). And at the same time, there is the thought that “truth might be as unbearable to humans as nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 51). In this case, “the cover of truth seems to grant us our ability to live”, a thought which appears in “Rousseau’s pragmatic exploitation of the metaphor of truth in the water well […]: leave her there. The depth of the well protects us from the problem of its nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 57).

In this regard, it is remarkable how rarely Blumenberg refers to the Christian tradition. In “The Epistemology of Striptease”, Leszek Kołakowski, for example, traces “the entire foundations of the theory of nakedness which has been so important in our culture” back to the Judaeo-Christian tradition (Kołakowski 2004, 225). The Book of Genesis indeed tells of an intrinsic connection between the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the shame which immediately manifested itself when the fruit was eaten. A shame “not of their crime, but of their nakedness” (Ibid., 223). Thus, “a double relation has been established: between truth and nakedness on the one hand, and between truth and shame on the other” (Ibid., 225).

Another absence which resounds throughout the book is that of the name Heidegger, which appears not even once. Nonetheless, Die Nackte Wahrheit can be read as an implicit yet fundamental critique of Heidegger’s conception of truth as alètheia. By dissecting the metaphor of truth, Blumenberg’s text offers a perspective which shows that Heidegger still fits perfectly within the dominant Western tradition, a tradition Heidegger himself sought to destruct by thinking beyond the ontological difference and the forgetting of being. Blumenberg, however, implicitly shows that Heidegger and his conception of truth as disclosure or ‘unconcealedness’, still wades through the Western waters that Heidegger himself thought he had traced to their source.

Despite this absence of Christianity and Heidegger, Blumenberg convincingly illustrates how metaphor functions “as a more or less easily fixable crack in the consistency of thought, a stimulant, and as such it refreshes reason; it also is, however, a sedative in other cases, where it covers up the failure of the concept or remedies its lack by a merely different procedure” (NW 127).

At this point, Die Nackte Wahrheit surpasses being just a study of the naked truth and begins to concern the project of metaphorology itself. As Rüdiger Zill notes, “already since the late 1960s, Blumenberg had been thinking about a detailed revision of his metaphorology” (NW 186). Concerning his distanced relation to his initial approach, Blumenberg wrote to his English translator: “The text is not only outdated – after a quarter of a century! – it is also poor” (NW 189).

In Blumenberg’s project of ‘metaphorology’, metaphor is always more than a disguise of truth or a thought expressed in non-conceptual language. “It is essentially aesthetic”, which means “that it is not something like the mere cover of the naked thought, of which one had to constantly think as the true purpose of its interpretation and unlocking that has to be reached in the end. Who constantly thinks beyond its limits, loses what he has without receiving what he cannot possess” (NW 176). In other words, there is no naked truth to be found beyond the metaphor. And more specifically, the power of metaphor is precisely this lack of precision sought by advocates of a clear and distinct conceptual language. Thus, Blumenberg argues, in contrast to the views of many thinkers he discusses, that “history” is not the “course of the self-exposure of the concept” (NW 155). Blumenberg’s associative selection of authors and topics stresses that metaphor, with its ambiguity and openness to many interpretations, is always “far more intelligent than its composer” (NW 176).

II.

The first fifty pages of Die Nackte Wahrheit concern Nietzsche and Freud. The only other pieces that come close to even ten pages are those on Pascal, Kant and the Enlightenment. Thus, of all the names figuring in Blumenberg’s posthumous book, Nietzsche and Freud can be called his main interlocutors.

Nietzsche immediately shows a fundamental reversal of truth as a beautiful naked creature. When he writes that “Truth is ugly. We have art so that we are not ruined by truth” (NW, 14), it is clear that something in the metaphor of truth changes. We are no longer in pursuit of the naked truth – she lies within reach in her unbearable ugliness – and so our interest shifts to the beautiful veils that are produced to conceal her.

“There would be no science, if science would only care about this one naked goddess and about nothing else” (NW, 20). With this thought, both Freud’s concept of sublimation and Blumenberg’s apotropaic function of myth are prefigured: art and culture function as a “human safety device” (NW 15), a protective shield which safeguards us from something insufferable. Or as Nietzsche formulates it: “Every type of culture starts with an amount of things that are veiled” (NW 15).

Blumenberg’s text from 1971 on the relevance of rhetoric and anthropology directly evidences the strong influence of this Nietzschean thought: “Ah, it is impossible to have an effect with the language of truth: rhetoric is required” (NW 31). Nietzsche defends rhetoric as a right to deceive vis-à-vis an unbearable truth. For the sceptic Blumenberg, however, truth cannot be unbearable, because the very possibility of truth itself is bracketed and remains an open question. In his writing on Hannah Arendt and Freud it is “the absolutism of truth” which becomes unbearable, this intimate European conviction “that the truth will triumph” (Blumenberg 2018, 57). Yet, as Blumenberg proclaims, “[n]othing is less certain than that the truth wishes to be loved, can be loved, should be loved” (Blumenberg 2018, 3).

This critique of Freud, already present in Rigorism of Truth, is continued in Die Nackte Wahrheit. The notion that psychoanalysis lives from the metaphor of revealing and concealing and connects the intellectual with the sexual can only barely be called a renewing insight. Blumenberg, however, uses this as a step to a subtler point. He reproves Freud’s rigorism because his therapy prioritizes the affirmation of his theory rather than the well-being of his patients. In other words, via Freud, Blumenberg criticizes the longstanding tradition “in which truth is justified at every cost” (NW 38), the same rigorous conviction that resonates in Thoreau’s famous phrase that “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

Read from within the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’, Freud’s quest for truth – a quest strongly intertwined with the centrality of sexuality and the prudery of the society in which he lived – shows that it is not at all clear when something is yet more ‘resistance’, a symptom, a still-clothed kind of nudity, and when exactly someone has encountered the bare piece of the reality they are searching for. “The general premise for resistance as a criterion might be (this): what people gladly accept cannot be the truth” (Blumenberg 2018, 59). In discussing this central concept of resistance as an element of Freud’s “para-theory” (loc. cit.) he comes rather close to Popper’s rejection of Freud’s methodology. In his archive there are two manuscripts with the respective abbreviation TRD and TRD II, in which Blumenberg shows how ‘resistance’ is a kind of parachute that recuperates elements falling from or even objecting to Freud’s main theory (Zill 2014, 141-43). This way, even the critics of his theory can still be fitted within it. Blumenberg points out how Freud’s quest for countering resistance and his rigorist search for truth, his urge to reveal secrecy after secrecy, eventually lead to a “hysteria of revelation for which history has an analogy in hysteria of confession” (NW 47).

III.

Die nackte Wahrheit is certainly not Blumenberg’s first engagement with either Nietzsche or Freud. He had already dealt with both authors extensively and quite similarly in his earlier writings: reading them through the lens of their own imagery in order to criticize them from within the logic of these images and metaphors. In Arbeit am Mythos, for instance, both authors receive ample treatment on several occasions and are the focus of important passages. Freud and Thomas Mann, for example, are bound together in a trenchant and meaningful anecdote: Mann reading his lecture on Freud to Freud himself during his visit to Freud’s villa in Grinzing on Sunday, May 14, 1936. Blumenberg calls this a “great scene of the spirit of the age, which hardly had another scene comparable to it”, and notes that one of the “preconditions” of this “incomparable event” precisely “is the relationship to Nietzsche that both partners shared” (Blumenberg 1985, 516).

Other important passages include Blumenberg’s extensive discussion of Nietzsche’s approach of Prometheus against the light of his aesthetic conception of reality and of Nietzsche’s famous proclamation of the death of God. In the last section, ‘The Titan in His Century’, Blumenberg’s analysis of Freud’s use of Prometheus follows his assessment of Nietzsche’s use of Prometheus, such that Freud and Nietzsche, joined by Kafka, share the final page of Work on Myth. In Die nackte Wahrheit Kafka likewise follows upon Nietzsche and Freud, although it would surely be mere speculation to look for further significance here. Nonetheless, despite his longstanding and rather critical occupation with Nietzsche and Freud, Blumenberg clearly incorporated and continued many aspects of their thought.

Blumenberg’s aesthetic conception of reality, his attention for rhetoric, myth and metaphor and his truth-sceptic attitude can all be directly linked to Nietzsche. Just as rhetoric gains importance when the conviction of “the one clear and whole truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350) is given up, so too does myth return to view when this ideal of truth is abandoned. And here Blumenberg, already in his earlier work, shows himself to be an heir of Nietzsche. As Blumenberg writes in his first text on myth, “Nietzsche’s affinity to myth begins with the rule of truth becoming problematic to him. The poets lie – this saying comes back into favor” (Blumenberg 2001b, 352). Blumenberg’s name can be perfectly interchanged with Nietzsche’s here. The shift towards the aesthetic, and the revaluation of the ancient Platonic reproach of the poets implied in this reference, is a central concern underlying all of Blumenberg’s aesthetic texts from the 1960s, as assembled by Anselm Haverkamp in his Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften. Moreover, Blumenberg‘s two important texts on rhetoric and myth from 1971 both start from the truth-sceptic premise he shares with Nietzsche and which spans his work from the very beginning to this posthumous publication of Die Nackte Wahrheit. And this last publication is probably inconceivable without Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”. Indeed, Blumenberg’s general endeavor is essentially summed up in one of Nietzsche’s most famous sentences: “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins”.

Blumenberg’s approach of die vakante Stelle and his descriptions of Umbesetzung, elaborated in his Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, can be read as a direct translation of Nietzsche’s worn-out coins and his dictum of the “Death of God”. Herewith, Blumenberg translates Nietzsche’s nihilism into a general philosophical endeavor of Entselbstverständlichung, a process marking “the great epochal revolutions of historical life” (Blumenberg 2017, 54). This endeavor, according to Blumenberg, eventually is “the basic process of philosophical thinking: for how could the inherent task of philosophical work be characterized more fittingly than as the persistent opposition of matter-of-factness with which our daily life and thought is interspersed, yes, substantiated into their very cores – much more than we could ever suspect?” (Blumenberg 2017, 54).

Furthermore, Blumenberg’s later, more literary and anecdotal style evokes Nietzsche’s claim that it is possible to present the image of a person with only three anecdotes, just as it should be possible to reduce philosophical systems to three anecdotes. When, for example, it comes to Blumenberg’s highly ironical and critical pieces on Heidegger in Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, he not only takes up Nietzsche’s challenge but even seems to have added something to it: the challenge becomes not only to render an image of the person and a summary of his philosophical thought, but also to get even with him in the same move.

IV.

Rüdiger Zill has wittily but quite perceptively characterized the sort of relation Blumenberg has with Freud: “Just like family members you sometimes hate and sometimes love, who from time to time grate on your nerves but who also occasionally inspire, yet always, however, still belong in the family, authors as well can be ranked among the intellectual family formation” (Zill 2014, 148). Zill’s assessment on this matter is clear: Freud undoubtedly belongs to Blumenberg’s intellectual family. However, the more he reads Freud, the more critical Blumenberg becomes, without Freud ever losing his force of fascination (Zill 2014, 128). Ironically, when Blumenberg received the Sigmund Freud Prize for Academic Prose in 1980, he did not refer to Freud in his acceptance speech. He mentioned Socrates, Diogenes, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as exemplar thinkers who should be admired because they did not allow their thinking to be hindered by any safeguarding method.

There is, however, quite some common ground between Freud and Blumenberg which might be easily overwritten by Blumenberg’s recent critical works on Freud from the archives. When Blumenberg ascribes rationality to aspects of thought, such as metaphor and rhetoric, that have been banished to irrationality by the tradition of philosophy there is a general similarity to Freud’s Traumdeutung and his overall endeavor of psychoanalysis. Indeed, there are at least two specific and critically important points of contact between them: Freud’s idea of sublimation and detours.

In his text on rhetoric, Blumenberg refers to Freud’s analysis of the funeral repast: “Freud saw in the commemorative funeral feast the sons’ agreement to put an end to the killing of the tribal father” (Blumenberg 1987a, 440). It is the Freudian principle of sublimation that is evoked here and Blumenberg is explicit about the importance of this matter: “If history teaches anything at all, it is this, that without this capacity to use substitutes for actions not much would be left of mankind” (loc. cit.). Herewith an important crux of Blumenberg’s thought is laid bare: “The human relation to reality is indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective, and above all ‘metaphorical’” (Ibid., 439). This means that metaphor is not a deficit of rational thought, as it has been understood by Descartes or British empiricism (NW 110-1); nor is it even an aid of theory or merely a way of thinking in its own right; rather, it is a way of coping with reality. This “metaphoric detour by which we look away from the object in question, at another one” (Blumenberg 1987a, 439) immediately ties to the second important overlap between Freud’s and Blumenberg’s work: if Blumenberg acknowledges sublimation as the human capacity to have culture, and if sublimation – the possibility of taking a metaphoric detour – lies at the heart of this capacity, then Blumenberg’s concept of culture should be one of detours.

Blumenberg, in his 1971 text on myth, refers to Freud’s notion of Umwege. In his “Jenseits des Lustprinzips”, Freud classed the drives of self-preservation under the general concept of “detours to death”. As Freud states, “If we can accept it as an experience without exception, that all the living dies because of internal reasons, that it returns to the inorganic, then we can only say: the purpose of all life is death” (Freud 1940, 44). Everything working against this destruction and everything delaying “the achievement of the purpose of death” (Ibid., 45) becomes a “detour to death”. In this Freudian scheme, life itself is “a still more difficult and risky detour” (Blumenberg 1985, 90) and Blumenberg recognizes in these “detours to death”, this “final return home to the original state” (Ibid., 91), the same mythic circle underlying the Oedipus myth, the Odyssey and even Nietzsche’s thought of “the eternal return of the same” (loc. cit.). On the one hand, Blumenberg critically reveals the total myth (Totalmythos) of the circle underlying Freud’s thought; on the other hand, Blumenberg incorporates this notion of detour in his work as a life-spending mechanism opposing omnipotence. As he writes, for example, in his 1971 text on myth, “Essentially, omnipotence refuses somebody to tell a story about its bearer. Topographically represented, stories are always detours” (Blumenberg 2001b, 372).

Die Sorge geht über den Fluss, published in 1987, includes a short chapter titled Umwege, in which Blumenberg again stresses the importance of the possibility of taking detours: “It is only if we are able to take detours that we are able to exist. […I]t is the many detours that give culture its function of humanizing life. [… The] shortest route is barbarism” (Blumenberg 1987b, 137-8). In these descriptions of culture as Umwege, some of its psychoanalytical origin still sounds through: it is by means of culture, by the possibility of taking detours, that we can avoid our own self-destruction. As Blumenberg puts it, “Not to choose the shortest path is already the basic pattern of sublimation” (Blumenberg 1985, 93). Or as Freud states in the penultimate sentence of his letter to Einstein: “whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war” (Freud 1950, 27).

This is the very basis of Blumenberg’s thought. Whether it is his approach to rhetoric and its power of delay, whether it is the apotropaic function of myth and the dynamic of storytelling vis-à-vis the absolutism of reality – man’s metaphoric way of dealing with the world – whether it is Blumenberg’s own elaborate and meandering writing style or his anecdotal and narrative philosophy as an effort to ironically undermine the authority of certain thinkers, whether it is the construction of his archive and the delayed publication of his own works or this metaphoric study of the naked truth aimed against the “Absolutism of Truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350), all of it falls under this “basic pattern of sublimation”, this decision “not to choose the shortest path”. In this specific sense and despite his highly critical piece on Freud in Die nackte Wahrheit, Blumenberg’s thinking remains Freudian at its very core.

V.

As Blumenberg had noted in his Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie, “The metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ belongs to the pride of enlightened reason and its claim to power” (Blumenberg 1960, 54). Hence, it is clear that Die Nackte Wahrheit should be understood as a critique of this enlightened self-consciousness. And yet Blumenberg did not abandon the project of rationality entirely, despite paying profound attention to non-standard philosophical topics such as metaphor and myth. “Myth itself is a piece of high-carat ‘work of logos’”, he points out in Work on Myth (Blumenberg 1985, 12) and Blumenberg himself employs this power of reason to trace the metaphor of the naked truth in thinkers such as Kant, Rousseau and Fontenelle. Herewith, a last characteristic of Blumenberg returns in Die Nackte Wahrheit: the correspondence of form and content. In Work on Myth, for example, Blumenberg offers a theory of how myth is a process of variation and, as he develops the theory, he himself engages in the same process of selection and rewriting. In his fragmentary book Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, in which Blumenberg exposes thinkers such as Heidegger, Freud and Wittgenstein and shows how they seduce their audience with rhetorical tools and attractive imagery; he himself tries to persuade his readers by rhetorically and wittingly affirming his own superiority of thought. The same applies for Die Nackte Wahrheit, where Blumenberg discusses the traces, consequences and changes of the metaphor of the naked truth, as he himself undresses other thinkers. As he emphasizes, the use of metaphor often indicates the “embarrassment of its theoretical situation” (NW 127). In other words, he seeks for the weak spots of thinkers such as Freud and Pascal in order to unmask them. If metaphor is indeed at work in the “front court of concept formation” (Blumenberg, 2001a), then Blumenberg clearly seeks to expose his interlocutors in their changing rooms. At the same time, he precisely questions these implications of thinking about truth in such terms of covering and uncovering. Certainly, Blumenberg does not claim that his disclosures touch upon “the naked truth” or a final word about these writers, yet nonetheless he somehow contributes to this enlightened topos of “tearing down the mask” (NW 134). He still partakes in what Kołakowski calls this “sadistic game” of “intellectual curiosity”, even as he precisely lays bare its rules and tools and does away with the purpose the game has pursued for ages. However, one asks after reading Blumenberg’s book, what use does this vocabulary preserve when the “reality” revealed under this mask is yet another mask, no more or no less reality than the one just dispelled. To make a final appeal to Kołakowski: Blumenberg involves us in a philosophical striptease, in which he exposes, “from a superior (clothed) position”, “another’s shame (nakedness)” (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Only it has become uncertain what happens with a philosophic tradition of revealing when the possibility of truth disappears, nakedness itself becomes yet more costume and the feeling of shame is revaluated. No purpose, no revelations, only detours and descriptions (Umschreibungen). Nonetheless, Blumenberg certainly exemplifies like no other that whenever philosophy thinks there will be a moment that Lady Truth will rise from her well and create clarity, philosophy, just like science, is once more deceived “by a pipe dream […] which its scholars pursue without ever achieving it” (NW 77).

 

Bibliography

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–, “Jenseits des Lustprinzips” in Gesammelte Werke. Band XIII, Hrsg. von Anna Freud e.a. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1940), 3–69.

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Der absolute Leser - Hans Blumenberg. Eine intellektuelle Biographie Book Cover Der absolute Leser - Hans Blumenberg. Eine intellektuelle Biographie
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Politische Metaphorologie: Hans Blumenberg heute Book Cover Politische Metaphorologie: Hans Blumenberg heute
Felix Heidenreich
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Interrogating Modernity: Debates with Hans Blumenberg Book Cover Interrogating Modernity: Debates with Hans Blumenberg
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History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader Book Cover History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader
signale|TRANSFER: German Thought in Translation
Hans Blumenberg. Translated by Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, Joe Paul Kroll
Cornell University Press
2020
Paperback $29.95
624

Rüdiger Zill (Hrsg.): Hans Blumenberg: Die nackte Wahrheit, Suhrkamp, 2019

Hans Blumenberg: Die nackte Wahrheit Book Cover Hans Blumenberg: Die nackte Wahrheit
Rüdiger Zill (Hrsg.)
Suhrkamp Verlag
2019
Paperback 20,00 €
199

Kurt Flasch: Hans Blumenberg, Klostermann, 2019

Hans Blumenberg: Philosoph in Deutschland: Die Jahre 1945 bis 1966 Book Cover Hans Blumenberg: Philosoph in Deutschland: Die Jahre 1945 bis 1966
Klostermann Rote Reihe 115
Kurt Flasch
Klostermann
2019
Paperback 39,80 €
620

Hans Blumenberg: Phänomenologische Schriften – 1981-1988, Suhrkamp, 2018

Phänomenologische Schriften - 1981-1988, Suhrkamp, 2018 Book Cover Phänomenologische Schriften - 1981-1988, Suhrkamp, 2018
Hans Blumenberg. Herausgegeben von Nicola Zambon
Suhrkamp Verlag
2018
Hardback 48,00 €
519

Hans Blumenberg: Théorie de l’inconceptualité

Théorie de l'inconceptualité Book Cover Théorie de l'inconceptualité
Philosophie imaginaire
Hans Blumenberg. Traduit de l’allemand par Marc de Launay
Éditions de l’éclat
2017
Paperback 15,00 €
144

Reviewed by: Sonja Feger (Universität Koblenz · Landau)

Recent years have seen several new translations of books and shorter works by Hans Blumenberg into English and French, and an English edition with Blumenberg’s most important shorter writings is forthcoming[1]. The French translation under review here, published in 2017, is further evidence of this growing interest in Blumenberg’s work.

Blumenberg’s previously unpublished text Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit was first edited in its German original by Anselm Haverkamp in 2007. Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit (Theory of Nonconceptuality) borrows its title—and so does the French translation by Marc de Launay—from a 1975 summer term lecture Blumenberg gave in Münster. This short text is of particular interest, as it relates several themes within Blumenberg’s thinking in a rather condensed way.

The main text (7–108) consists in the edition of those typescripts Blumenberg based his lecture upon (see 128) and is followed by an appendix entitled “Bruchstücke des ‘Ausblicks auf eine Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit’” (Perspective sur une théorie de l’inconceptualité; 109–125)[2]. A translation of the editor’s postface completes the volume (127–131). Théorie de l’inconceptualité most of the time does without headings or subheadings; only an excursion on ‘economy and luxury’ (19–26) and a revised passage on ‘negation’ serving as a transition (89–91) fall under headings. Instead, larger sections are simply divided by page breaks. As the editor remarks, Blumenberg presents his observations giving examples with varying levels of complexity, and often does so without guiding his listeners or readers to a conclusion (des exemples de complexions diverses—souvent sans déboucher sur une conclusion; 131). By refusing to add any new headings or divide Blumenberg’s work into sections, the editor succeeds in carefully preserving and communicating the original character of the typescript, which is between the tone of a lecture and a written text. Because all Blumenberg’s texts stylistically dense they present a challenge to the reader, and this text is no different. If one expects an easy-to-read introduction to his works, one will not find it in this booklet. Nonetheless, the themes discussed are at the heart of Blumenberg’s phenomenological project and are well worth the effort.

To begin with, it is difficult to judge what exactly the book is about. Here is my proposal: one might say that the text as a whole bundles varieties of human ways to deal with reality. More specifically, in Théorie de l’inconceptualité, Blumenberg primary focus is upon the epistemic operations humans are capable of. Specifically, he is interested in one particular way for humans to engage with reality, namely in the act of theorizing—or, to put it in phenomenological terms, the act of distancing oneself from one’s object of consideration by adopting a theoretical attitude.

Théorie de l’inconceptualité may be regarded as a text about ‘theory’ in a twofold or two-layered way. First, Blumenberg addresses various epistemic operations humans are capable of, focusing on the role of conceptual thinking (or its lack) in cognition. In his attempt to describe the structure of conceptual thinking and to ascribe to it the role it plays in cognition, Blumenberg scrutinizes the various forms the act of theorizing can take.. Secondly, Théorie de l’inconceptualité is itself a theoretical work. This does not so much amount to opposing theoretical and practical philosophy to one another, for Blumenberg himself does use practical examples (though in a broad sense) as much as he draws from epistemological observations and concepts. Rather, Blumenberg considers the ability to take on a theoretical attitude as something we do and perform; for him, it is a distinguished, an essentially human one. In short, Blumenberg addresses theory as one of the human ways to engage with reality from a precisely theoretical point of view. In other words, theory is taken both as a method and as the object in question; that is, theory itself becomes the very object of Blumenberg’s theoretical interest. In this sense, the above-mentioned two-layered approach to be found in the text emerges with Blumenberg playing on the reduplication of theory.

As a first step in this review, I want to discuss Blumenberg’s proposal for a notion of conceptual thinking. Secondly, I will link conceptual thinking to the theoretical attitude humans can assume. Then, I will turn to consider Blumenberg’s attempts to delimit conceptual thinking and nonconceptuality and his anthropological observations. By way of conclusion, I will touch upon the connection between the anthropological and the epistemological dimension found in Théorie de l’inconceptualité. It goes without saying that I cannot consider every aspect the text touches upon. Other topics within the wide range of Blumenberg’s observations such as aesthetics, the concept of the lifeworld, happiness, metaphors, the epistemic operation of negation or the anthropological function of prevention must remain largely uncommented upon here.

Conceptual thinking

Contrary to what the title of the book suggests, the text does not start out by shedding light on what is to be understood by the term of ‘nonconceptuality’. Rather, Blumenberg’s text first lays its focus on conceptual thinking. However, rather than aiming at a (precise) definition of either of the two, Théorie de l’inconceptualité raises the question of how those two different ways of dealing with reality might refer to each other and, moreover, refer to theory in general. The reader expecting to be given a precise definition of at least one of the two terms will be deceived.

The fact that the text lacks a precise definition of conceptual thinking does not mean that Blumenberg does without spelling out crucial aspects he ascribes to conceptual thinking. For him, two features are to be found at the core of conceptual thinking: first, conceptual thinking has something to do with the phenomenon of absence (Le concept a un certain rapport avec l’absence de son objet; 7). For example, imagine the groceries you have run out of, which are therefore absent, and which you (mentally) represent when writing a shopping list. For Blumenberg, what one does in this case is use conceptual thinking in order to re‑present that which is not tangibly accessible (le concept seul demeure, qui, de son côté, représente toute l’échelle de ce qui est sensoriellement accessible; 7).

Blumenberg’s own example of the representation of an absent object in conceptual thinking, however, is more specific than my example of a shopping list. It consists in referring to a primal scene of anthropogenesis, namely the construction of a trap. A trap layer has to adjust his construction in shape and size to the animal he hopes to catch eventually. For example, setting a trap adequate for catching a mammoth requires nothing more than calling into presence that very mammoth which is absent the moment the trap is being set. Having a concept of a mammoth thus means to determine it as the expected prey, that is, to determine the trap in shape and size. In Blumenberg’s view, what the trap layer accomplishes is a conceptualization of an absent object. Or, to put it in phenomenological terms: laying a trap involves knowing an eidos and acting upon that knowledge. What Blumenberg’s example emphasizes, however, is that being able to use concepts is an achievement in (human) evolutionary history, implicitly assuming a historical constitution of transcendental (inter‑) subjectivity.

The second aspect Blumenberg locates within the realm of conceptual thinking is closely linked to the above-mentioned phenomenon of absence and concerns the phenomenon of distance (see 7; 10). Laying a trap directs one’s actions towards objects or events not immediately given but distanced in space and time: a mammoth shall not be caught right now and here but perhaps tomorrow and over there. In this regard, concepts are like tools humans use to act over a distance, they are the means of an actio per distans (12). For Blumenberg, the trap is the first triumph of conceptual thinking (Dans cette mesure, le piège est le premier triomphe du concept; 12).

Theory

According to Blumenberg, conceptual thinking such as the representation of a prey when setting a trap can count among reason’s products or performances (un produit de la raison; 7). As reason encompasses conceptual thinking and, therefore, also the above-mentioned actio per distans, it follows for Blumenberg that reason is the epitome of those epistemic operations that put in a performance over a distance, both spatial and temporal (On pourrait dire que la raison serait le condensé de pareilles réalisations à distance; 8). Yet the reverse, that reason only exists when something is conceptualized, does not hold (Mais cela n’autorise pas le renversement qui voudrait que la raison n’existe que lorsqu’elle parvient […] au concept; 7). Thus, it can be emphasized that, for Blumenberg, acting over a distance by means of conceptual thinking is only a first step within humans’ process of becoming a creature capable of theorizing. For what exceeds conceptual thinking insofar as it encompasses it, in Blumenberg’s view, is a theoretical attitude as such.

Blumenberg makes this idea more accessible drawing from an anthropogenic assumption: man, for Blumenberg, is the being that straightens up, transcends the short range of perception, and transgresses the horizon of its senses (L’homme, l’être qui se met debout et quitte le domaine de la proche perception, franchit l’horizon de ses sens; 8). Man raises his gaze and directs it to the horizon, that is, he is no longer only concerned with objects given to him within the realm of immediate and actual tactility, but also with potentially tangible objects (again, such as mammoths caught in a trap).

In Blumenberg’s view, this movement of transgression finds itself repeated. Man not only transgresses the horizon of his senses in order to master objects given to him in a (both temporally and spatially) mediated way. The above-mentioned anthropogenic moment lies in a two-step rotation of the head man accomplishes. First, he directs his gaze from the ground towards the horizon, which amounts to mastering mediately given objects over a certain distance. In this way, both building a trap and focusing on the horizon amount to an actio per distans. Second, man turns his head another ninety degrees to look at the sky (Ce qui veut dire que le regard n’est pas fixé sur l’horizon, spatial et temporal, pour attendre ce qui va arriver et pour agir sur ce qui surgit, mais que le regard, ayant accompli un mouvement à quatre-vingt-dix degrés pour quitter la direction du sol et parvenir à l’horizontal, va encore une fois accomplir une rotation à quatre-vingt-dix degrés et viser la voûte étoilée; 14). As laid out in The Laughter of the Thracian Woman, Blumenberg considers Thales of Miletus to be the “putative first philosopher” (see Laughter, Preface). It is exactly his gaze at the sky that turns him into the first contemplator caeli in a philosophical sense. Instead of anticipating prey and, therefore, being directed toward a potentially tangible object, the stars in the sky are perceptible and yet (at least for the run of several centuries) intangible. The skies represent that which encompasses the totality of all possible objects of perception, and thus represent the idea of totality. In this sense, the sky Thales of Miletus turns his gaze to represents the ultimate object of a theoretical attitude; this is why Thales is described as the proto-philosopher (le proto-philosophe et astronome Thalès de Milet; 16). For Blumenberg, it is a theoretical attitude that ultimately envisages the totality of the world (la théorie pure, son aspiration à la totalité du monde; 16). This is what Blumenberg must have had in mind when he suggests that reason’s intentions exceed the performances of conceptual thinking and relate to the idea of totality (Il se pourrait que la performance d’un concept soit simplement partielle par rapport aux intentions de la raison qui semble toujours avoir en quelque manière affaire à la totalité; 7).

Starting from the concepts that correspond to empirical objects, Blumenberg proceeds by broadening the scope of his scrutiny insofar as he takes into account something by which conceptual thinking in the narrower sense is exceeded. That is, the subject not only perceives singular objects entirely detached from one another and is amazed by the sky as a cosmic whole, but also takes into account the—potential—relations between objects. To put it in phenomenological terms, one could say that it is the horizontality of noemata according to which the perceiving and reflecting subject progresses in her intentional process of intuition. The less an empirical object plays a role in the act of conceptualization (or theorizing), the more intellectual performances—such as the act of idealization—gain importance in the process of thinking. The attempt to establish a meaningful relation among particular noemata leads to a reflection on the totality encompassing them—or again in phenomenological terms: to a reflection on the horizon of all horizons. That being said, it is clear that Blumenberg shares the fundamental insight with phenomenology that there is, apart from a naïve attitude, an observing, theorizing mode of consciousness.

Nonconceptuality

Yet, the question as to which role is to be ascribed to nonconceptuality within the realm of theoretical performances is still unanswered. Once it has been shown that the use of concepts does not remain limited to representations of empirical objects (such as foods or a prey) but is also in some way involved in intellectual acts of greater abstraction, Blumenberg shifts the focus to the very boundary between conceptual and nonconceptual thinking, both of which for him are encompassed by a theoretical attitude. In conceiving of conceptual thinking as an epistemic operation that above all establishes a correspondence between intuition and understanding, Blumenberg clearly draws from a Kantian point of view. In that sense, it is not at all surprising that Blumenberg addresses nonconceptual thinking, too, in Kantian terms.

What Blumenberg does is to relate limit concepts (Grenzbegriffe) and ideas (see 41–42) to his conception of nonconceptuality. This refers to his conviction that the mode of conceptual concretization achieved in the representation of empirical objects is unlike the way abstract ideas are represented. Of course, this does not mean abstract ideas (such as the concept of world or the idea of freedom) cannot be addressed or dealt with by human reason at all. Instead, for Blumenberg, human reason has to approach abstract ideas in a different way, namely by drawing from nonconceptuality. As it follows for him, nonconceptuality must not be taken or undertaken as a mere auxiliary discipline to philosophy (une simple discipline auxiliaire de la philosophie; 56). Instead, it must be acknowledged that the preliminary endeavors to a notion of conceptual thinking do not achieve their aims (le travail dans le champ préalable du concept ne parvient pas à son but; 56) and that conceptual thinking is subject to the condition of—at least possibly—eventually being rendered concrete by the intuition of empirical objects. As Blumenberg sees it, nonconceptuality comes into play the very moment it turns out that this condition cannot be fulfilled, i.e. in the attempt to represent ideas. (Here, it seems to me to be helpful to quote both the German original text and its French translation. For what in German reads “im Zusammenhang mit der Angewiesenheit des Begriffs auf Anschauung und der Verfehlung dieser Bedingung bei der Idee” is rendered into French as follows: dans le contexte de l’articulation du concept sur l’intuition et […] de l’échec de cette articulation quand il s’agit de l’idee; 56). In other words, nonconceptual thought for Blumenberg is the means to operate in the concretization of abstract ideas. In my reading of Théorie de l’inconceptualité, limit concepts (Grenzbegriffe) and ideas (just as metaphors, incidentally) for Blumenberg represent the threshold of conceptual and nonconceptual thinking. The wide range of theoretical performances must exceed the purely conceptual.

However, Blumenberg merely indicates what a theory of nonconceptuality would have to undertake and leaves it open to his readers (or listeners) to follow down the indicated path. According to him, a theory of nonconceptuality is about reconstructing in a broad sense those horizons from which the theoretical attitude and conceptual thinking are derived (Une théorie de l’inconceptualité aurait à reconstruire les horizons, en un sens très large, dont ont procédé la prise de position et la formation conceptuelle théoriques; 112).

Anthropology

It is important to bear in mind that Blumenberg does not seek a definite notion of each of the epistemic operations in question for their own sake. As the use of both conceptual and nonconceptual thinking can be counted among the whole of epistemic performances human beings are capable of, they are part of the description of essentially human traits. That is, as Blumenberg aims at locating his observations within a larger, anthropological framework.. As he says, an anthropological theory of conceptual thinking is an urgent desideratum (Une théorie anthropologique du concept est un réquisit urgent; 9).

In order to frame Blumenberg’s endeavor in Théorie de l’inconceptualité, it is helpful to come back once more to the aforementioned primal hunting scene. Blumenberg does not give a clear answer to the question of why he is using a primal scene to illustrate the performances of conceptual thinking, or to that of which epistemic status this example is supposed to hold. All he does is to underline his assumption that the image of the construction of a trap may be nothing but the best way to depict the capacities of conceptual thinking (Sans doute peut-on montrer le plus clairement ce dont un concept est capable lorsque l’on songe à la fabrication d’un piège; 8). That is, the author himself leaves it an open question as to which epistemic status must eventually be ascribed to the example he is using. However, Blumenberg makes clear that he aims to explain how the capacities of conceptual and nonconceptual thinking have become possible by taking a view that is both anthropological and genetic at the same time (J’essaie de comprendre cela du point de vue anthropologique, générique; 8). The construction of a trap may, therefore, be taken as an attempt to locate reason’s performances or capacities within an anthropological, and more specifically, within an anthropogenic framework. It is thus no coincidence that Blumenberg’s example is the laying of a trap some ten thousand years ago and not a shopping list.

What Blumenberg does is draw a line connecting the anthropogenic observations of man having straightened up and having accomplished twice a ninety-degree-rotation of the head to the transcendental question as to how theory—and with it philosophy— became possible. Théorie de l’inconceptualité offers a contribution to the discussion of the status of conceptual thinking from an epistemological point of view—and, beyond that, points to the discussion of reason’s capacities in a whole. It is thus part of transcendental philosophy since it is an approach to the conditions of the possibility of theory. Blumenberg’s view on the distinction between the empirical and the transcendental in Théorie de l’inconceptualité is quite complex: he raises a question of transcendental philosophy in aiming to lay bare the conditions of the possibility of theory; these conditions can only be explained by reference to empirical assumptions about human prehistory.

In other words, Blumenberg considers both conceptual and nonconceptual thinking to offer a crucial contribution to the project of describing man (like the title of another posthumously edited work lays out, namely Beschreibung des Menschen/Description de l’homme). As he says, one has to consider the anthropological preconditions as the source of the performances of conceptual thinking, which in turn are part of reason’s intending totality (des présupposés anthropologiques […] la source d’où procède également l’efficace du concept qui n’est, en effet, que partiellement liée à l’intention de la raison visant la totalité; 122). Pointing to the intention of describing (and, in parts, explaining) characteristic performances of reason such as conceptual and nonconceptual thinking amounts to counting Théorie de l’inconceptualité among Blumenberg’s numerous approaches to an anthropological philosophy. It is here that Blumenberg’s endeavor exceeds the demands of a phenomenological discipline as Blumenberg gives phenomenology an anthropological orientation. What he undertakes is not a phenomenology of pure consciousness but rather a phenomenologically motivated description of an anthropogenic dimension that presumably has brought about man’s ability to theorize and to philosophize at all.

Conclusion

Blumenberg’s text offers a complex interplay between the fields of anthropological description and of transcendental philosophy. As Blumenberg draws attention to the question of how conceptual thinking as a part of the whole of reason’s capacities might have become possible, it is especially the anthropogenic dimension that links the two. In conclusion, one could say that Théorie de l’inconceptualité can be read in a threefold way. It is, first, an anthropological text, for it focuses on performances of human reason. Since the main interest of the text lies in reasoning and in all the various forms reason may take, the text may, secondly, be regarded as pursuing a project in epistemology. What then provides a link between the anthropological and the epistemological dimensions is, thirdly, the extension of genetic phenomenology into the anthropogenic view Blumenberg puts forward.

At this point, one might return to the style in which the text is presented. Although the title may seem to promise a fully developed theory of nonconceptuality, the text itself maintains a tentative and exploratory character. The reader is offered examples and illustrations taken from diverse texts of philosophy and literature and thus is offered nothing more—and, one has to add, nothing less—than enriching descriptions of the performances of human reason. All of these descriptions are strongly influenced by the phenomenological tradition. Théorie de l’inconceptualité should be counted among Blumenberg’s attempts to contribute to a phenomenologically influenced anthropology.[3]

Selected Bibliography

Blumenberg, Hans. 2011. Description de l’homme. Translated by Denis Trierweiler. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf.

Blumenberg, Hans. 2015. The laughter of the Thracian woman: A protohistory of theory. Translated by Steven Rendall. New York: Bloomsbury (quoted as: Laughter).

Blumenberg, Hans. 2017. Concepts en histoires. Translated by Marc de Launay. Paris: Édition de l’Éclat.

Blumenberg, Hans. 2018. Lions. Translated by Kári Driscoll. Calcutta, London, New York: Seagull Books.

Blumenberg, Hans. 2018. Rigorism of Truth: Moses the Egyptian and other Writings on Freud and Arendt. Edited by Ahlrich Meyer. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Bajohr, Hannes, Fuchs, Florian, and Joe Paul Kroll (eds.). 2018 (in press). The Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.


[1] Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll (eds.). 2018 (in press). The Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Other recent translations of Blumenberg’s work include among others: Blumenberg, Hans. 2017. Concepts en histoires. Translated by Marc de Launay. Paris: Édition de l’Éclat; ibid. 2018. Lions. Translated by Kári Driscoll. Calcutta, London, New York: Seagull Books; ibid. 2018. Rigorism of Truth: Moses the Egyptian and other Writings on Freud and Arendt. Edited by Ahlrich Meyer. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

[2] Unless stated otherwise, all page references refer to Théorie de l’inconceptualité.

[3] I want to thank Tobias Keiling for numerous helpful comments.

Hans Blumenberg: Lions, University of Chicago Press, 2018

Lions Book Cover Lions
The German List
Hans Blumenberg. Translated by Kári Driscoll
University of Chicago Press
2018
Cloth $27.50
104