What does it mean to say something is real? It is exactly this question—Was heißt ‘etwas sei wirklich’?—that serves as the epigraph of Realität und Realismus, one of the most recent publications from Hans Blumenberg’s Nachlass. The texts that are collected in this volume do not so much answer this question as they show what it implies and why we keep asking it. They address a pathos of realism that has been operative throughout the history of philosophy, manifesting itself in different conceptions of reality over time, and which ultimately appears to be rooted in the human condition: a fundamental need to distance oneself from and master reality at the same time, both in theory and praxis. In these texts, Blumenberg shows that the human relation to reality is originally not a fixed, immediate and self-evident rapport but something that must be established and maintained, changing over time depending on its functionality, and shining forth in theoretical constructs, cultural expressions and other ‘detours’ through which we have learned to deal with the demands of the real. Consequently, the titular themes of this book do not refer to the metaphysical, ontological or epistemological problems and discussions characteristic of many of today’s ‘realisms’ – whether it is speculative, new, neutral, material, scientific, phenomenological or otherwise qualified. There is no talk of a mind-independent world, of constructivist or correlationist conundrums, and the whole word idealism is conspicuously absent from these texts. As such, Blumenberg approaches the topic of reality and realism from a rather fresh and original perspective, both in a historic and systematic manner.
Realität und Realismus appeared last year on the occasion of Blumenberg’s much celebrated centennial together with a series of other books from and on Blumenberg, most importantly the long awaited publication of Blumenberg’s dissertation (Beiträge zum Problem der Ursprünglichkeit der mittelalterlich-scholastischen Ontologie, originally from 1947), a voluminous Hans Blumenberg Reader with a diverse selection of his finest essays that are almost all translated for the first time into English, and two sweeping intellectual biographies that present Blumenberg in a detailed and delightful way to a broader public. Until now, Realität und Realismus has been somewhat overshadowed by this outburst of celebrations and publications, which is not very surprising since the volume looks prima facie like a rather tentative, technical and fragmented collection of texts. Indeed, this publication does not exactly present a general and accessible entry to Blumenberg’s thought, let alone a very straightforward and comprehensive account of ‘reality and realism’, despite its alluring and fashionable title. Nevertheless, as the editor Nicola Zambon writes in his afterword, Realität und Realismus certainly does not uncover terra incognita either: it expands and explicates a key-aspect of Blumenberg’s writings, which the well-versed reader could already find scattered throughout his published texts, but that is only now for the first time brought into clear view.
Indeed, within Blumenberg’s vast, meandering and increasingly available oeuvre, reality and realism are a central focus of interest, albeit not always from the same perspective or with the same intensity. As we can now very clearly see, the notion of reality is already a prominent motive in Blumenberg’s dissertation, where he takes up the theme of a historically conditioned experience and understanding of reality in a critical discussion with Heidegger’s history of Being. Most notably however, Blumenberg thematised and analysed reality throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s in a series of essays on the ‘concept of reality’ (Wirklichkeitsbegriff) in relation to art, myth, political theory and the lifeworld, some of which have been translated and included in the aforementioned Hans Blumenberg Reader. These and many other of Blumenberg’s ‘smaller’ essays are often considered marginal or premature in comparison to his major studies, but what is clearly explicated at the periphery of his work often leaves significant traces in the centre of his thinking, playing an implicit but no less important role on the operative level of his thematic analyses. The case of reality is no different in this regard. Not only Blumenberg’s famous historical works such as Legitimität der Neuzeit (1966) and Die Genesis der kopernikanischen Welt (1975), but also his metaphorological studies and anthropological explorations in Arbeit am Mythos (1979) and Höhlenausgänge (1989) appear to have been developed against the backdrop of a particular understanding of reality that underpins many of his analyses. Although it will probably remain a matter of dispute whether there ever was one central question or concern for Blumenberg, reality is certainly a very important methodical and thematic leitmotif that accompanied his writings from the very beginning to the end.
The nine longer and shorter texts – all written between 1970 and 1984 – that make up Realität und Realismus can very roughly be divided into two categories: the first half deals with reality from a historical point of view and enters into a discussion with Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Nietzsche and Husserl, among others. These texts contain an explicit and extensive treatment of the four epochal concepts of reality that we already know from Blumenberg’s earlier essays – this time however not in order to thematize socio-cultural phenomena, but to provide these concepts with a theoretical and methodical framework that was largely lacking in other writings. This already makes the volume a very valuable and insightful contribution to Blumenberg’s oeuvre. The second half of the book is more varied and fragmented, but one of the themes that stand out is an anthropological approach to reality and an investigation into the human being as a ‘realist’, most clearly in the longer texts Illusion und Realität and Zur Anthropologie des Realisten, but also in a short text on the reality of the Eigenleib. This second half also contains an intriguing and topical text on the reality of invisible threats (in casu quo: germs, war gas, and radiation), and covers other realism related themes in the domains of aesthetics, rhetoric and theology as well. In this review however, I will focus on Blumenberg’s historical and anthropological approach to reality and realism as it can be traced throughout this volume. Although much more could be discussed, these two perspectives seem to me to strike at the core of his thinking on reality and contain moreover a very interesting and fundamental tension.
Blumenberg’s Historical Approach to Reality
On the very first page of Realität und Realismus, Blumenberg explains that the notion of reality has a very pragmatic meaning for him. He emphatically distances himself from any kind of ontology or philosophy of being and does not wish to speak of reality in a traditional metaphysical manner as a comprehensive theory of everything. Instead, reality refers for Blumenberg to that instance which determines our behaviour, which binds us together and upon which we rely in our everyday speech and action: “Das Wirkliche ist das, worauf man sich beruft” (11). He understands reality as a kind of pregivenness, which we take for granted in our everyday life; a meaningful background which enables and conditions practical orientation, common sense, and theoretical reflection. Rightly so, it has been compared to Kuhn’s paradigms and Foucault’s epistemologies: a concept of reality seems to be a historical horizon of meaning and understanding – at one instance Blumenberg speaks of an “epochalen Horizont von Wirklichkeit” (34) – that determines what is noteworthy and significant and what not; what can be thought and what not, in short: what is real and what not.[i]
Characteristic of this pregivenness is that it is always already conceived in a particular manner—as a concept of reality—but this conception remains at the same time implicit and mute (Stumm) as long as it fulfils its function. A concept of reality is self-evident (Selbstverständlich) to such a high degree that it usually does not reach the threshold of explicit propositional language or thought, it is not even understood as being self-evident. Hence, reality is operative and functional as reality to the extent that it remains unnoticed, unquestioned and inconspicuous. Of course, the question then immediately arises how we are able to thematize reality if it its defining characteristic denies this very possibility. The answer lies in the historicity of our relation to and conception of reality, which cannot always uphold its implicit and self-evident nature but is subject to change. A concept of reality only comes to the fore the very moment it starts to be questioned or criticized:
Nur dadurch, daß das Verständnis von Wirklichkeit selbst Geschichte hat, daß es abgelöst werden kann durch ein neues Verhältnis zur Wirklichkeit und diese Ablösung sich gerade als Kritik am Wirklichkeitsverständnis der Vergangenheit formuliert, nur auf diese indirekte Weise gewinnen wir einen Zugang zur Geschichte des Wirklichkeitsbegriffs (11).
In this quote, we find Blumenberg’s historical approach to reality in a nutshell: different historical epochs are assumed to have different ‘concepts of reality’, because our relation to reality as it is established in a particular and implicit understanding of ourselves and the world changes over time. Concepts of reality replace one another once they become dysfunctional and no longer provide the means for our practical and theoretical orientation. Blumenberg aims to trace this changing understanding and these different conceptions, but he can only do so in an indirect way, since an epoch ‘uses’ its concept of reality to the degree that it does not talk about it. A history of the concept of reality cannot be a conceptual history, Blumenberg argues, but must instead proceed via negativa: it is only when a concept of reality collapses under critical scrutiny and loses its validity – i.e. when a secure and stable sense of self and world is lost in a collective crisis of understanding – that it can be determined and reconstructed in retrospect, distilled from the traces it left in philosophical and scientific writing, literature and other documentations.
Interestingly, Blumenberg argues that these crises manifest themselves primarily in a growing unease about the use of language: the feeling that concepts, categories or claims appear increasingly empty, instable, or insubstantial; the experience that words lose their ‘substrate’ that was always taken for granted as reality and now appear frictionless spinning in the void instead. On a more general level, it is a fear of semblance and pretence, a preoccupation with the illegitimacy of prejudices and idols, and an awareness of the inadequacy and insufficiency of established theories and explanations, which can give rise to another concept of reality. The critical demand to go back to ‘the things themselves’ and not be led astray by the deceiving powers of language or time-honoured ideas is therefore a characteristic realist appeal according to Blumenberg. Plato’s suspicion of sophistry, the medieval adagio res, non verba!, the attempted rejection of all prejudices by the likes of Bacon and Descartes, Husserl’s call to return to the Sachen selbst, and the positivist critique on language are all mentioned in Realität und Realismus as examples of such an appeal. Blumenberg emphasises that these theories and philosophies do not themselves present but reflect a changing conception of reality; they are not the cause, but a consequence of an acute experience of a loss of self-evidence – an experience of unreality – which critique, thought and theory aim to remedy:
‘Kritik’ wetzt sich an dem, was schon nicht mehr selbstverständlich ist. So paradox es klingen mag: nicht Wirklichkeit wird als Wirklichkeit erfahren, sondern Unwirklichkeit als Unwirklichkeit. Das heißt: Realität ist ein implikatives Prädikat, da sie schon kein reales Prädikat mehr ist (39).
The notion of reality as an implicit or ‘implicative’ predicate is not new: one finds it also at the end of Höhlenausgänge or the text Vorbemerkungen zum Wirklichkeitsbegriff, where Blumenberg gives a similar explanation. Yet, the texts in Realität und Realismus provide these rather short and esoteric passages with some clear and substantial context that help us understand better what Blumenberg is after. To say that reality is implicative means that it is always implied in an experience – often an experience of unreality, when something turns out other than it appeared to be – without becoming explicit in this experience itself. It is for this reason Blumenberg calls reality also a ‘contrast concept’ (Kontrastbegriff) and a residue (Residuum): reality is a reticent remainder after the unreal is experienced, exposed and eliminated. Our understanding of reality is historical because the criteria for this elimination process vary, and it is indeterminate because elimination is in theory an infinite process. Thus the only formal description Blumenberg can give of reality is a seeming tautology, and appears to serve him more as a heuristic rule than a definition proper: “Wirklich ist, was nicht unwirklich ist.” Blumenberg explains this cryptic formula as follows:
Diese Formel verweist auf den Umweg über das, was jeweils unter der Schwelle nicht so sehr der Wahrnehmbarkeit als vielmehr der Wahrnehmungswürdigkeit, der Beachtbarkeit, der Einkalkulierbarkeit liegt (39).
Reading these formal and methodical characterisations, one becomes curious as to their practical application: how does Blumenberg deduce and distil a concept of reality as it is characteristic for a specific time and age? What criteria are used to delineate different epochs? What historical sources are consulted to infer and attribute a particular conception of reality to them? Unfortunately, this does not become very clear in Realität und Realismus. Much like in his large historical studies such as Legitimität der Neuzeit, Blumenberg seems to engage in a speculative hermeneutics without much methodical justification, and at times it seems he simply draws on authors and texts that allow him to write his grand historical narratives precisely the way he wants to. More specifically, it is not always clear whether Blumenberg actually reconstructs a concept of reality on the basis of his reading of history, or if he reads the history of thought already through the lens of preconceived concepts of reality. Of course, these two perspectives necessarily complement each other, but because a concept of reality cannot be found in a text but must be inferred from a text as its implicit and conditional horizon of meaning, it remains quite a speculative endeavour. As a result, Blumenberg’s concepts of reality seem to function more often than not as heuristic instruments or tools for thought that allow him to analyse historical tendencies and cultural developments, instead of accurate characterisations of epochal understanding. Nevertheless, what seems to count in the end for Blumenberg is the explanatory and descriptive potential of a concept of reality – its Leistungsfähigkeit – and the four concepts he describes certainly live up to this demand. We will now take a look at each of these concepts themselves.
Blumenberg’s Four Concepts of Reality
The first concept of reality Blumenberg describes belongs to antiquity and is defined as instantaneous evidence (Realität der momentanen Evidenz). What is implied in this concept is that reality presents itself in the very moment of its presence as undoubtedly real, as something that is final (letztgültig) and unsurpassable (unüberbietbar) in its reality. And it is instantaneous insofar as there is no temporal and intersubjective process in which reality is realized: reality is understood as something that can be perceived at once, in one look, by one person. As such, reality is quite literally self-evident: “Wirklichkeit ist etwas unmittelbar und an sich selbst Einleuchtendes, eine unwiderstehlich Zustimmung ernötigende Gegebenheit” (16). Blumenberg speaks repeatedly in this context of an “implicit assertion” (Behauptungsimplikation) of reality, a concept he admittedly borrowed from Alexander Pfänder who coined it as a ‘logical translation’ for the Greek phainesthai, but which Blumenberg understands in more a figurative manner:
Es steckt in diesem Wirklichkeitsbegriff eine Metapher: das Wirkliche stellt sich uns vor mit einer Art von impliziter Behauptung, das Vorgestellte auch wirklich zu sein, nicht von einer anderen Instanz her ins Unrecht gesetzt werden zu können (17).
Of course, this does not mean people knew nothing of deceiving appearances in antiquity, but the point is that it was never questioned that ‘real reality’ would be recognised as such once it presented itself. For Blumenberg, this is the “Kerngedanke” of Greek thought: “Wenn der Schein aufgehoben ist, kommt die Sache selbst zutage” (77). Plato’s cave allegory is taken to be the exemplary expression of this understanding: it presupposes an ‘ontological comparative’ with different ‘levels of reality’ each constituting a māllon on, a surplus of being, which ultimately culminates in a superlative of the ideas that are indeed described as a final and unsurpassable instance.
The second concept of reality comes into play once we entertain the idea of an infinite series of ‘comparatives’, the suspicion that every given reality might always be surpassed by an even higher degree of reality. From this perspective, reality is less and less understood as self-evident; its evidence needs to an increasing extent to be guaranteed by something other than itself. As Blumenberg claims: “Sobald das Sehenlassen nicht mehr das Sichsehenlassen ist, kommt eine dritte Instanz ins Spiel, die zur momentanen Evidenz nicht mehr paßt” (47). The moment reality is taken to be completely dependent on this third instance, when reality can no longer be understood and experienced as a final and definitive reality, instantaneous evidence becomes impossible and the ancient concept of reality gives way to the second concept, which Blumenberg attributes to the Middle Ages: reality as guaranteed reality (garantierte Realität), to which he also refers as the ‘scheme of the third position.’ Not surprisingly, Descartes figures here as paradigmatic thinker: he wants reality to be as it appears to be, but his radical doubt denies him any such straightforward acceptance. Consequently, he needs to revert to an absolute witness, i.e. God, which guarantees the validity of our knowledge and perception of reality (as it is given in clear and distinct ideas), and ensures that we are not living an all-encompassing yet undetectable illusion.
Blumenberg finds a third concept of reality, that of the modern age, in a critique on Descartes by Leibniz. Specificities left aside, this critique comes down to the simple observation that an all-encompassing and undetectable illusion or deception is a meaningless assumption, which, even if it is true, has no consequences whatsoever. Descartes’ need for a divine guarantee is the result of the suggestion that all aspects of reality might be simulated by an evil demon without producing that very reality itself, together with the demand that reality must really be as it appears to be. It is this belief that motivates Descartes’ doubt, but Leibniz considers this to be an excessive and misguided demand. Excessive because Descartes’ genius malignus is in principle an irrefutable hypothesis; misguided because for Leibniz, our sense of reality does not rely on a correspondence of our ideas and appearances to a transcendent ground. Appearances do not appear real because they refer to a ‘real’ reality; instead, reality and illusion only concern the immanent consistency of what is given to us:
Die Einstimmigkeit der Gegebenheiten untereinander, ihr gleichsam horizontaler Konnex, die Konstitution eines lückenlosen, sprungfreien, nicht in Enttäuschung zerbrechendes Prospektes gibt uns jene kategorische Gewißheit, mit eine Realität konfrontiert zu sein (23).
This modern concept of reality implies moreover an essential relation to time, in contrast to the other two concepts: reality is not understood as something that gives itself immediately or is guaranteed forever, but it is realized in a process – constantly adapting to new situations, correcting for irregularities, anticipating novelties or deceptions and taking into account (possibly diverging) contexts of other persons. Hence, Blumenberg often speaks of this modern concept of reality as a provisional and “open context” that is oriented towards the future, regulated by the never realizable and hence ideal limit of one coherent intersubjective totality. Any reader familiar with Husserl will recognize this as a phenomenological description of reality, and this is no coincidence: Leibniz’s change of perspective on reality – from a transcendent implication to an immanent consistency – is explicitly understood by Blumenberg as phenomenology avant la lettre (88); a figure of thought that underlies many modern idealist philosophies, with Husserl’s phenomenological idealism as its most decisive and dogmatic exponent (98).
A fourth concept of reality appears to follow in a dialectical way from the third. The idea of reality as a coherent and consistent context almost naturally invites us to think the opposite: the idea of reality as something that resists this consistency, which does not conform or comply but manifests itself as stubborn, contradictory and unyielding. This is “der Wirklichkeitsbegriff der Ungefügigkeit und Unverfügbarkeit des Widerstreits” (178). Blumenberg likes to illustrate this understanding with a Kafka quote that reoccurs in other writings as well: “Wirkliche Realität ist immer unrealistisch” (175). Unfortuntately, he says little about this concept of reality from a historical perspective in Realität und Realismus, although he does explicitly claim that it is a concept which appeared after the third concept: the notion of a resisting inconsistency makes only sense against the background of a consistent context. The two last concepts thus seem to complement each other, and Blumenberg hints occasionally at the idea that there might be more than one concept of reality at work in the modern age. In contrast with the other three concepts of reality, Blumenberg does not provide us with a paradigmatic philosophy in which this concept is expressed or reflected. This is quite surprising since there has been a long standing tradition of thinking reality in terms of resistance. To name but one significant example: it figures prominently in Scheler’s essay Idealismus-Realismus (1927) and in his lecture Die Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos (1928); two influential texts with which Blumenberg was very familiar but to which he never refers in this context. Much like for Scheler, the notion of a resisting reality does play an important role in Blumenberg’s phenomenological anthropology and his description of the constitution of our consciousness of reality, a topic which is explored at greater length in the second half of Realität und Realismus.
Blumenberg’s Anthropological Approach to Reality and Realism
In the third text of the volume, which deals with the modern concept of reality, we find a surprising and insightful footnote in which Blumenberg seems to question his own historical approach of a series of successive concepts of reality:
Müssen sie [die Wirklichkeitsbegriffe – mv] überhaupt eine Reihe bilden? Ist nicht möglich, daß sich das Wirklichkeitsbewußtsein aufspaltet in zwei Spezies, Konsistenz und Kontrast? Wo bleibt die Epoche zum Wirklichkeitsbegriff IV sonst (79)?
With this remark, Blumenberg seems to suggest that our consciousness of reality might very well have a constant ahistorical structure, conditioned by the two opposing tendencies of consistency and contrast. To what extent this implies a downright contradiction with his historical approach is not immediately clear and Blumenberg does not further elaborate on this, but we see at least a very stark shift of emphasis in the following texts: whereas the concept of reality was first understood as a tacit horizon of meaning and understanding operative in the self- and world-conception of a specific epoch, Blumenberg now enquires into the conditions of the possibility of our experience and awareness of reality in general, and the question is posed where our concept and sense of reality comes from, regardless of its specific historical expression.
These questions are partly addressed in a critical discussion with Husserl’s phenomenology—one of the texts is explicitly dedicated to the Welt- und Wirklichkeitsbegriff der Phänomenologie—but most importantly, they are marked by the anthropological turn that is characteristic of many of Blumenberg’s writings from the 1970’s. The concept of reality is now understood in relation to the human condition, which Blumenberg postulates as a Mängelwesen, a creature of deficiencies. In a nutshell, the argument goes as follows: insofar as the human being lacks adaptive instincts and a specialised physiology, his relation to reality is not regulated in a fixed, immediate and automated manner—he is not naturally equipped with a ‘realism’ (168)—which leaves him particularly vulnerable to threats and uncertainties of the outside world or ‘absolutism of reality’ (127). Reality is thus understood as something over and against which the human being has to maintain and assert itself, an achievement which Blumenberg thematizes throughout his work in many different ways, but most importantly in terms of distance:
Der Mensch, so muß die These lauten, ist ein Wesen, welches nicht zwangsläufig und aus Existenznot jederzeit realistisch sein muß, weil es alle Arten und Grade von Distanz zur Realität ausgebildet hat (168).
Blumenberg describes some of the steps this distancing process must have taken in the development of the human being: from devouring and dragging along (no distance), and touching and pointing (some distance), to symbolising and negating (maximum distance), to name some of them. More generally, this distance is cultivated in all kinds of cultural manifestations, scientific theories, social institutions and technological artefacts, which create the conditions under which the human being can afford to not take reality into account. The actio per distans, as Blumenberg likes to call it, provides a shelter that wards off the burdensome demands of an uncertain and unknown reality, and which frees the human being of a constant need to readapt to his environment. Hence, our relation to reality is in principle and to a very high degree indirect, mediated and circuitous. Blumenberg defines the human being therefore as “ein Wesen, das auch als Nichtrealist existieren kann” (167). Even more, realism is considered to be an exceptional disposition (Ausnahmezustand): the appeal to get real – to act and think realistically, i.e. directly adapted to the demands of reality – always serves as a correction, it refers to a situational discrepancy or mismatch that cannot be ignored but must be dealt with (175).
From this anthropological perspective, reality manifests itself precisely in the case of such an unavoidable discrepancy: real is what resists and interrupts a seamless flow of life. As Blumenberg puts it: “Sie [die Wirklichkeit] ist ihrem Wesen nach Anpassungszwang.” (124) In a similar manner, reality is defined as: “Gegeninstanz” (111), “Versagung von Erfüllung” (113), “Rücksichtslosigkeit gegen Subjektivität” (205), or that “was zum Umweg zwingt.” (130). Occasionally, this conception is couched in more psychanalytic terms: real is anything that interferes with our wishes and desires, which causes shock, trauma and pain. Conversely, an absolute and continuous satisfaction of the pleasure principle would render our sense of reality void: “Würde der Lustanspruch vollkommen erfüllt, gäbe es kein Wirklichkeitsbewußtsein” (155). This is nicely illustrated in a description of how one experiences the reality of one’s own body, der Eigenleib (153-154). Insofar as the human body serves as a medium to get in touch with the world, it becomes less noticeable the more it succeeds in this; like any other medium, it disappears in its functionality and manifests itself only when it malfunctions. The body becomes more real when it gets hurt or sick; when somebody is not at ease or gets anxious, but less real when somebody is healthy and flawlessly immersed in an activity.
This example of the body supports Blumenberg’s claim that our consciousness and experience of reality is constituted in a reciprocal interplay between consistency and contrast, reliability and uncertainty, self-evidence and surprise (133). Exposed to a constant and overwhelming uncertainty, shock and adversary, we would not be able to make sense of reality, but neither would we in the case of an omnipresent reliability and self-evidence.[ii] Our experience of reality is constituted between these two limit situations and a concept of reality organizes this experience: it provides a relatively stable and reliable horizon of meaning that regulates our relation vis-à-vis the world. Hence, the rule which underlies and propels the history of thought on a macro level – ‘real is what is not unreal’ – reappears here as a condition of our consciousness of reality. What follows from this, and what is essential to our consciousness for Blumenberg, is our ability to negate. With reference to Kant, Blumenberg argues that our categories of reality and existence ultimately presuppose those of negation and possibility. We know of reality because we know it can turn out otherwise than it appears to be; because it often opposes our wishes and expectations or obstructs our paths and can correct for this. It is only because we can readjust in case of a misfit between us and the world, only because we can experience unreality, that reality gains relief and becomes – real.
In Beschreibung des Menschen, the posthumous collection of Blumenberg’s anthropological manuscripts, we find the revealing remark that there is an obvious “Exklusionsverhältnis von Anthropologie und Geschichtsphilosophie.”[iii] This tension clearly applies to Blumenberg’s different approaches to reality and realism as well: on the one hand, Blumenberg historicizes reality by his series of epochal concepts of reality that underlie the history of thought and determine what is regarded to be real in a specific time and age, but on the other hand he postulates an ahistorical source for this historical development in the form of a continuous human need to furnish the world with a secure and stable sphere of self-evidence so as to keep the absolutism of reality at bay. What remains particularly ambiguous is the way Blumenberg’s last two historical concepts of reality – reality as the actualization of a consistent context on the one hand and reality as resistance on the other hand – inform this ahistorical anthropology.
More generally, this raises the question to what extent our thought is inherently bound to a concept of reality. Can we somehow transcend the concept of reality that regulates our thinking and understanding characteristic for this time and age? Like any other epistemology which radically historicises the conditions for our knowledge, Blumenberg appears to run into a self-reflexive problem: either his own theory is itself a product of a time-bound concept of reality, which would render its claims about other epochs at least doubtful if not illegitimate, or his theory can in fact transcend the historical horizon that it considers to be conditional for every other theory, thereby creating an exception that seriously affects the scope and potential of the theory itself. Blumenberg’s anthropological explanation seems to side with the latter option, and although his formal and functional account of the history of reality might be a remedy for the problems involved, it lacks in the end methodical justification and clear theoretical support.
That being said, Realität und Realismus is a very rich and interesting volume, containing much more material than we have discussed here. Although many of its topics and themes are treated in other works as well, this book is certainly invaluable for future Blumenberg research, as it clearly shows the extent and significance of Blumenberg’s thinking on reality and realism in the broader context of his oeuvre. In the end, however, it serves more than academic interest: with its many creative insights, surprising associations and keen observations Realität und Realismus is really a valuable read for any realist philosophy in need of some serious inspiration, and for anyone wondering what it implies to ask if something is real.
Bajohr, Hannes. 2017. “History and Metaphor: Hans Blumenberg’s Theory of Language.” PhD diss., Columbia University.
Bajohr, Hannes et al. (Eds.). 2020. History, Metaphor, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1979. Arbeit am Mythos. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2020. Beiträge zum Problem der Ursprünglichkeit der mittelalterlich-scholastischen Ontologie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2006. Beschreibung des Menschen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1975. Genesis der kopernikanischen Welt. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1989. Höhlenausgänge. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1986. Lebenszeit und Weltzeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1966. Legitimität der Neuzeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2018. Phänomenologische Schriften. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2010. Theorie der Lebenswelt. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
[i] Among others, Hannes Bajohr draws this link in his dissertation: Hannes Bajohr, “History and Metaphor: Hans Blumenberg’s Theory of Language” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2017), 71.
[ii] Readers familiar with Blumenberg will recognise this as his description of the lifeworld. Although this concept itself does not frequently occur in Realität und Realismus, it certainly plays a prominent role in the background of Blumenberg’s thinking on reality, both in his historical and anthropological approach. It exceeds the purpose of this review to engage in a discussion on the relation between reality and the lifeworld, but the reader is well-advised to read Realität und Realismus in combination with, among others: Lebenszeit und Weltzeit (in particular its first and last part, Das Lebensweltmißverständnis and Die Urstiftung respectively), Theorie der Lebenswelt (in particular the essay Lebenswelt und Wirklichkeitsbegriff), Beschreibung des Menschen (in particular chapter X: Leib und Wirklichkeitsbewußtsein), and Phänomenologische Schriften (for example the highly illuminative text Rückblick von der Lebenswelt auf die Reduktion).
[iii] Hans Blumenberg, Beschreibung des Menschen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2006), 485.
This book presents an enthusiastic dialogue between two contemporary philosophers, Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman. Neo-materialism and object-oriented ontology face each other as equally inspiring conceptual approaches to the key issues of new realism. One might have thought that DeLanda’s philosophy of dynamic relations and intensities, strongly influenced by Deleuzian concepts, can only be interpreted as a devoted rival of Harman’s philosophy which is very clear, in a partially neo-Aristotelian manner, about the priority of individual-substantial objects. But as the dialogue evolves, we have to realize that things are much more complicated.
So, what binds the interlocutors of this book together? First of all, they needed a common enemy to unite them. Indeed, the enemy has no clear outline – it embraces as different currents and thinkers as social constructivism and Alain Badiou, culturalist pseudo-Marxism and Karen Barad. According to DeLanda and Harman, they can all be brought together under the flag of anti-realism, either because of the denial of a mind-independent cosmos or because of treating human subjectivity as an ontologically outsized (co-)creator of the world. While DeLanda and Harman sometimes present realism as a heretic alternative with respect to mainstream continental trends, they also offer another perspective according to which 20th century continental philosophy can be re-read, at least partially, as a series of realist tendencies. For example, it is claimed that Deleuze is a continental realist, that Husserl’s concept of the object as an invariant form can serve as an inspiration for contemporary realism and that Heidegger’s tool-analysis has also serious realist consequences. Roughly speaking, in continental philosophy, realism is both an excommunicated pseudo-problem and the hidden message of its exciting underground. What is more, Harman does not hesitate to mention the fellow travelers: the speculative realists, Maurizio Ferraris and Markus Gabriel.
Although DeLanda and Harman are careful to emphasize their shared rejection of anti-realism throughout the book, the lines between their respective philosophies are not blurred. Already in the first chapter it is obvious that DeLanda’s neo-materialism cannot easily be reconciled with Harman’s “realism without materialism” which denounces materialism as a reductionist approach, being unable to account for immaterial entities such as fictional characters in novels. From the viewpoint of Harman’s flat ontology, “materialism has often led to premature decisions about what should and should not count as real.” (15) In contrast to this position, DeLanda proposes a material-energetic-informationism that “involves a rejection of entities that transcend the world of patterned matter-energy” (16). This immanentist model gives fiction a less mystifying status by defining it as an emergent property, or, more precisely, as a level of emergence. The first chapter of the book is valuable for several reasons. In particular, it is useful for clarifying the difference between materialism and realism, for being critical of various reductionist approaches (“undermining” / micro-reductionism and “overmining” / macro-reductionism) and for thematizing the dilemma of aprioristic and aposterioristic thinking in philosophy. Furthermore, there is an interesting debate on Aristotelian essences and forms, Harman being sympathetic to these concepts and DeLanda rejecting them on the grounds of his historical-genetic theory of singularities. The critique of Marxism is arguably the worst part of this chapter, especially when DeLanda suggests that Marxists have a “special brand in which a priori schemes of synthesis (the negation of the negation) form the core of their position” (12). It seems almost superfluous to say that this extremely abstract use of the term “Marxism” ignores the rich diversity of classical and contemporary Marxisms, with special regard to those that are highly critical of dialectical categories and the Hegelian legacy of Marx.
The second chapter relies upon Lee Braver’s 2007 book A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism in order to make precise distinctions between realist and anti-realist positions. The key issues are the mind-dependence of the world, truth as correspondence, the possibility of a complete description of the world, the possibility of true and untrue statements, the relationship between knowledge and the knowable, and the claim according to which the human subject has a fixed character. DeLanda and Harman complete Braver’s list with three more problems. The first concerns the question whether the relation of the human subject with the world should be considered a privileged relation for philosophy, the second is whether subjective experience is linguistically structured and the third is about the world as a holistic entity in which everything is inextricably related. One of the most valuable aspects of this chapter is DeLanda’s and Harman’s insistence on defining the concepts of relation and relationism as precisely as possible. While Harman criticizes Whitehead, Latour and Barad for conceptualizing relations without properly taking into consideration the relata that are prior to them, DeLanda emphasizes that we should not accept “intrinsic relations that determine the very identity of what they relate”, but only extrinsic relations (32). The other aspect that deserves special mention is the interlocutors’ agreement with respect to the impossibility of a complete description of the world. According to the conclusions of object-oriented ontology, Harman claims that “things in the world cannot be converted into bundles of accurate descriptions” (44), that is to say, there is always and necessarily a withdrawal of real objects. On the other hand, by relying on insights from the philosophy of chemistry and fuzzy logic, DeLanda focuses upon the problem of emergence, i.e. of new properties that cannot be reduced to the interactions of already existing entities and that can never be exhaustively described.
The third chapter is by far the richest one. DeLanda and Harman carry on with the topic of realism, but this time by focusing more on the main statements of object-oriented ontology and neo-materialism. It is almost impossible to summarize this chapter as it ranges from the concept of possibility, through the critique of reductionisms, to the ontological status of objects. We would like to underline two important aspects: one concerns essences, and the other is about dispositions. With a strong background in Aristotelian-Zubírian ontology, Harman argues that essences are “salvageable” and that otherwise it would not be possible to interpret objects as consistent entities. Whereas DeLanda claims that the concept of essence is illegitimate and unnecessary, the interlocutors seem to make a compromise by concluding that there is haeccity (“thisness”) that makes objects identifiable. In this context, DeLanda rightly insists on the fact that, according to Deleuzian ontology, the virtual is segmented into distinct actual objects as products. There is another extremely exciting debate on dispositions, i.e. on capacities to affect and being affected. Harman refuses to put dispositions into things and comes to the conclusion that dispositions should be treated as new compound entities that result from interactions between objects. DeLanda elaborates his philosophy of tendencies and capacities in details, with a special emphasis on defining the identity of actual objects as a combination of actual properties and virtual dispositions. In short, DeLanda suggests that we should account for the enduring identity of objects “by the mechanisms of emergence behind the historical genesis and day-to-day maintenance of an object’s identity” (88).
The fourth chapter deals with the question of cognition and experience. The interlocutors seem to agree that “epistemology” is a bad term, either because it implies a dualist ontology that privileges the relation between humans and everything else, or because epistemological debates tend to ignore many kinds of “rightness of fit”, e.g. the know-how dimension of experience. Accordingly, this chapter is very critical of various scientist epistemologies (empiricism, mathematic reductionism, etc.). Harman explains his approach to cognition by stressing the point that certain essential aspects of objects are necessarily withheld or withdrawn and that our access to objects is always mediated by processes of translation. In light of this, he presents his view on the difference between real and sensual objects. DeLanda’s concept of cognition resonates with the object-oriented approach only partially: he emphasizes that “we can use the possibility of future novelty, the imperfect record of past traces, the spatial and temporal scale-dependence of the world’s presentations … to spell … out [the withdrawal of objects]” (103). Similarly to Harman, DeLanda’s theory gives importance to the mechanisms of transformation between real objects and our experiental patterns, but with more attention to the biologic origins of embodied cognition and selective attentional processes. The common ground in this chapter is the insight that absolute knowledge is impossible, either because of the fundamental withdrawal of objects, or because of the open-ended character of nature and the untraceable aspects the past.
The last chapter articulates conceptual dilemmas with respect to time, space and philosophy of science. Harman equates “real time” with changes in space and defines sensual time as a relational entity that is derivative of the succession of objects. While he seems to accept the irreversibility of sensual time, on the other hand, he claims: “if we consider time as belonging to the real itself, then I guess I’m not a realist about time” (119). DeLanda is strongly opposed to this non-realist philosophy of sensual time and he emphasizes the irreducibility of real time, i.e. the succession of causes and effects by relying upon insights from the theory of relativity. DeLanda also offers a very useful analysis of the concept of intensity. After a longish debate on Latour, the interlocutors debate on the role of knowledge, semantics, falsification and the definition of truth. Harman summarizes the difference between their respective philosophies as follows: 1. while DeLanda privileges dynamic entities, Harman gives importance to the “inertia” of objects; 2. in contrast to the emphasis on the philosophy of science (especially on the philosophy of chemistry) in DeLanda’s philosophy, Harman’s philosophy seems closer to the arts (and for Harman “the exemplar is aesthetics”); 3. while object-oriented ontology focuses on individual-substantial entities, DeLandian neo-materialism offers a detailed conceptualization of outside factors such as phase-spaces and attractors; 4. while Harman puts emphasis on formal causes, for DeLanda it is more important to clarify the role of final causes. DeLanda completes this list with his critique of the object-oriented concept of fundamental withdrawal and Harman’s denial of real time.
On March 31-April 1, 2017, Marquette University (USA) hosted faculty and graduate students in attendance for the conference “Current Debates In Phenomenology & Overcoming the Continental-Analytic Divide.” The two-day event examined the philosophical inheritance of the Divide and how it impacts work in phenomenology today. Sebastian Luft (Marquette University), and graduate students Jered Janes (MU), Clark Wolf (MU), and Ben Martin (LUC), served as lead organizers. The spring conference grew out of the ongoing inter-university series of seminars and workshops jointly organized by phenomenology research groups at Marquette University and Loyola University Chicago. The event was made possible by through the generous support of The American Friends of Humboldt, the philosophy department of Marquette University, and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD).
The conference included three faculty keynote lectures, six papers presented by graduate students from Marquette University and Loyola University Chicago, and a concluding panel discussion. Papers and lectured varied in their approaches to the main theme of the conference; some addressed the Continental-Analytic Divide directly, while others attempted to occupy a space for philosophical thought beyond the presuppositions of the Divide. James Dodd (The New School) delivered the first keynote lecture, titled “The Promise of an Asubjective Phenomenology.” The lecture offered a close and careful engagement with the thought of Jan Patočka. What philosophical resources does the Czech thinker provide to develop an asubjective phenomenology? Dodd argued that an asubjective phenomenology is not a non-subjective phenomenology. The classical influence of Husserlian phenomenological subjectivity endures in Patočka’s thinking, but is reoriented around the dichotomy of “inwardness/periphery” rather than “subject/object.” Such reorientation invites a rethinking of topics within phenomenology, including embodiment, the role of literature for phenomenology, the constitution of self and others, and the purported self-transparency of consciousness. Dodd tied together the several strands of Patočka’s rethinking into a Patočkian proposal for a revision of Husserl’s principle of all principles and a counterproposal for a “non-objectival” form of clarity available in reflection.
The second keynote lecture, titled “Realism and the Ontological Question,” was delivered by Paul Livingston (University of New Mexico). Livingston took up a selection of arguments from his book The Logic of Being: Realism, Truth, and Time (2017). His primary aim in the lecture was to treat ontological questions, drawn from Heideggerian discourse, in a manner compatible with a realist ontology. Livingston took up a Lacanian meditation on formalization, and its limits, as the basis for proposing a kind of meta-formal realism. Livingston’s meta-formalism proposed a realist stance premised on “the experience of formalization whereby it problematically captures and decomposes its own limits.” He distinguished meta-formal realism from empirical realism, metaphysical realism, and correspondence realism. On the contrary, he argued, the meta-formal realist position treats questions about the basic sense and meaning of our formalization of the real, rather than dealing with entities, or domains of entities. Livingston situated his discussion with a historical reflection on different orientations of realist thought. The concepts of coherence and consistency came to the fore as disjunctive indicators of post-Cantorian orientations of realism. Either the orientation is complete without being consistent, the “paradoxico-critical” orientation (ex. Derrida, Late Wittgenstein). Or the orientation is consistent without being complete, the “generic” orientation (ex. Badiou, Gödel). Livingston developed the historical reflection into an appraisal of the meaning of being and truth in Heidegger’s philosophy and presented truth as a phenomenon arising out of the paradoxical structure of the ontological difference. The lecture concluded with a realist interpretation of the temporality of Dasein in Heidegger’s Being and Time, taking up the structures of ecstasis, reflexivity, and auto-affectivity as purely formal structures without underlying dependence on a constituting agency or subject. The realist interpretation mobilizes the paradoxical structure of the ontological difference to open up the possibilities of the experience of time both as time of the individual Dasein and time as “world” or “public” time.
The third keynote, titled “Culture as Second Nature,” was delivered by Sebastian Luft (Marquette University). The lecture took as its point of departure the interpretation of the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer offered by Clarence Smith Howe, translator of an English edition of Cassirer’s The Logic of the Humanities (1961) [Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften (1942)]. In Howe’s introduction, he interprets Cassirer’s philosophy as a kind of naturalism, albeit a “culturalistic” naturalism. The interpretive claim, so argued Luft, seems to be at odds with more conventional interpretations of Cassirer as first and foremost a philosopher of culture. However, Howe’s claim is adopted by Luft as an opportunity to set up a confrontation between Cassirer’s symbolic idealism, in which the experience of nature is culturally mediated, and John McDowell’s version of naturalism, which arises out of his rejection of “bald” or “naive” naturalism. After reviewing the basic commitments of Cassirer and McDowell with respect to the experience of nature, Luft introduced Howe’s notion of “idealistic naturalism” (or culturalistic naturalism) as a mediating link between the naturalism of Cassirer and McDowell. In a concluding comparison of the two thinkers, Luft argued that Cassirer’s position was preferable to McDowell’s insofar as the former thinker allows “cultural intelligence” to have a wider purchase than mere ratiocination. That is, our human nature finds expression in cultural refuges — such as art and language — that are bound up with, but not reducible to, the rationality of McDowell’s space of reason.
The graduate student papers were presented in the mornings and afternoons, over the course of the two-day conference. Pete Burgess (Marquette University) explored different accounts of mental causation in “Are Acts and States Incompatible?: Mapping Versus Explaining Consciousness.” Justin Nordin (Loyola University Chicago) addressed the topic of moral normativity in “A Levinasian Approach to Moral Obligation.” Amelia Rhys (LUC) used philosophical resources in the work of Michel Foucault to treat a topical issue in bioethics in “The Contribution of Foucault’s Analysis of the Clinical Gaze to a Trans-Affirming Bioethics.” Daniel Adsett (MU) engaged Donald Davidson’s triangulation argument with respect to norms for speech and communication in “Coherence, Totality, and the Rational Subject.” Kyoungnam Park (LUC) provided a phenomenology of sensation and intuition in “Duration and Sense Impressions.” Gregory Trotter (MU) marked the intersection of phenomenology and psychoanalysis in “Fantasy and Freedom in Sartre and Psychoanalysis.”
The conference concluded with a brief presentation, given by Sebastian Luft, on funding opportunities available for academics interested in study in Germany, as well as a panel discussion. The panel discussion, titled “The Analytic-Continental Divide Today,” scheduled to include Andrew Cutrofello (Loyola University Chicago), James Dodd (The New School), Hanne Jacobs (Loyola University Chicago — absent), Paul Livingston (University of New Mexico), and Sebastian Luft (Marquette University), took up again the central theme of the conference in light of the discussion of the present and previous day. The panel participants were given an opportunity to present brief opening remarks before the discussion was opened to the general audience. Among the topics discussed: what is the nature of the Continental-Analytic divide? Is it a historical, political, sociological, etc., phenomenon? What strategies can be used to overcome the divide? What professional interests are invested in preserving the divide? What can we learn from an antinomarian reading of the divide? What is the future of philosophy beyond the divide? Can we project ourselves beyond the divide, or are we beyond the divide already?
Reviewed by: Michael Gutierrez (Loyola University Chicago), PhD student in philosophy and co-organizer of the phenomenology research group at Loyola.