Karsten Harries: The Antinomy of Being

The Antinomy of Being Couverture du livre The Antinomy of Being
Karsten Harries. Preface by: Dermot Moran
De Gruyter
Front matter: 22. Main content: 246

Reviewed by: Richard Colledge (School of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University)

Karsten Harries’ The Antinomy of Being, which is based on his final Yale graduate seminar, is a deeply ambitious study that brings to the table vast scholarship across a range of philosophical, as well as literary, theological, early modern scientific, and art historical sources. Focusing especially on what he presents as a key problematic in the work of Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger, Harries demonstrates the way that this notion of the antinomy of Being is at the heart of the condition of possibility of truth, and thus for any response to the spectre of nihilism. When taken as a whole, his arguments make a compelling case not only for the centrality and irreducibility of this issue across a range of philosophical fields, but also for any rigorous meta-philosophical reflection. This welcome development in Harries’ work is a text that challenges contemporary thought across various fields.

The idea of the antinomy of Being is one that Harries has presented and discussed numerous times in his writings over the last decade and a half in particular, generally as part of a more finely focused argument that opens into this larger underlying set of concerns.[1] However, in this 2019 monograph, Harries provides a fully developed account of what he describes as “the unifying thread of [his] philosophical musings” from over half a century of teaching, even if the term itself appeared in his work only comparatively recently (AB, 1).

“Antinomy” is associated with paradox; aporia; the limits of language; cognitive dissonance; and possibly even the limits of logic. More specifically (especially in a Kantian context), it relates to the clash between two apparently contradictory beliefs, each of which is entirely justifiable. Two of the four famous antinomies in Kant’s first Kritik (relating to space and time, freedom, substance and ultimate necessity) are the subject of explicit attention in this book, as is the way that the same fundamental problematic can be seen as being deeply at play in the work of Martin Heidegger and various other post-Kantian thinkers. The ways that these more specific cases arise in Harries’ text will be surveyed below. However, it is important also to note that Harries’ concern is not to simply paint his topic as an issue in the thought of a particular group of philosophers. To the contrary, his larger and more basic project is to show that the antinomy of Being is an irreducible element in all thought, cutting across all disciplines and genres. Consequently, its denial amounts to the distortion of thought, while coming to terms with it is the only pathway to intellectual (perhaps also existential) authenticity. For ultimately, it is a question of how it is possible to respond to the ever-present threat of nihilism (the topic of his 1962 doctoral dissertation). As he puts it early in his Introduction:

[O]ur thinking inevitably leads us into some version of this antinomy whenever it attempts to comprehend reality in toto, without loss, and that a consequence of that attempt is a loss of reality. All such attempts will fall short of their goal. What science can know and what reality is, are in the end incommensurable. Such incommensurability however, is not something to be grudgingly accepted, but embraced as a necessary condition of living a meaningful life. That is why the Antinomy of Being matters and should concern us. (AB, 2)

What is the nub of Harries’ contention? In a sense, the book is something of a manifesto for hermeneutical realism, and in such a way that places equal weight on both hermeneutics and realism as complementary poles of the antinomy of Being as a whole. On one hand, there is an absolute insistence on the finitude of all understanding (“hermeneutics goes all the way down” as the old adage has it), while on the other hand there is an equally strong insistence on the real as that which is finitely understood. In this way, the twin disasters of nihilism – i.e., idealism (nothing can be known; or there is no real as such) and dogmatism (in its many guises, be it scientism, religious fundamentalism, etc) – are both variations on the theme of denial of the ineluctable antinomy of Being. Both idealism and realism contain kernels of truth, but in canonising one side of the antinomy and marginalising the other, both are ideologies that destroy the balance required to underpin the possibilities of knowing in any genuine sense. On one hand, idealism absolutizes the rift between mind and world so that it is portrayed as an unbridgeable chasm that makes knowledge of the real impossible. On the other hand, in its claim to have captured and represented the real, there is something absurd and self-undermining in rationalistic realism, and in presenting a shrunken parody of the real it too vacates the space for nihilistic conclusions.

In seeking to do justice to both sides of the antinomy, Harries is not afraid to defend what he sees as the key insight of the Kantian antinomies that he links respectively (if unfashionably) to the transcendental and the transcendent dimensions of the real:

[T]he being of things has to be understood in two senses: what we experience are first of all phenomena, appearances, and as such their being is essentially a being for the knowing subject. Science investigates these phenomena. But the things we experience are also things in themselves, and as such they possess a transcendent being that eludes our comprehension. The identification of phenomena, of what science can know, with reality is shown to mire us in contradiction. (AB, 1)

I suggest that Harries’ stance invites comparison with other contemporary forms of hermeneutical realism, such as that developed by Günter Figal.[2] Figal’s approach places the focus on the problem of objectivity: of the thing’s standing over against the subject as irretrievably other, even in its being understood and grasped. As Figal puts it, “[h]ermeneutical experience is the experience of the objective [das Gegenständliche]—of what is there in such a way that one may come into accord with it and that yet never fully comes out in any attempt to reach accord.”[3] Similarly, it is this simultaneous knowability and unknowability of things that Harries highlights in his observation of the antinomy that characterises all understanding of the objective, of that which shows itself – only ever finitely and incompletely – as the real.

In the first chapter of the book, Harries sets out his account predominantly with reference not to Kant, but to Heidegger. These pages provide a condensed summary of some of the major aspects of his previously published readings of Heidegger that gather around this theme. For Harries, the confrontation with the antinomy of Being is at the heart of a key tension in Being and Time, a tension that Heidegger repeatedly returns to for the rest of his life. Even if Heidegger never used the term, Harries asserts that it is directly evoked in his notion of “the ontological difference” (the difference between beings and their Being [Sein]), for to attempt to think this difference Heidegger, he claims, “had to confront the Antinomy of Being” (AB, 15). As Heidegger outlines in §§43-44 of Being and Time, but more directly in his summer 1927 lecture course, there is a formidable problem here. On one hand, without Being, there would be no beings, and so Being is transcendental. Further, there is Being only when truth (and thus Dasein) exists, for without Dasein, there would be no revelation of beings. But on the other hand (and here the antinomy becomes evident), it cannot be said that beings, or nature as such, only are when there is Dasein. Nature does not need to be revealed to Dasein (there need be no event of truth) in order to be what it already is. We do not create beings; they “are given to us,” and our “experience of the reality of the real is thus an experience of beings as transcending Being so understood” (AB, 15). Being “transcend[s] … the Dasein-dependent transcendental Being to which Being and Time sought to lead us” (AB, 14). The antinomy of Being thus arises in this distinction Heidegger implicitly notes “between two senses of Being: the first transcendental sense relative to Dasein and in this sense inescapably historical, the second transcendent sense, gesturing towards the ground or origin of Dasein’s historical being and thus also of Being understood transcendentally” (AB, 15-16).[4]

To be sure, with this Heidegger interpretation Harries intervenes in well-established debates within (especially American) Heidegger scholarship. However, unlike the way much of that debate circles around early Heideggerian thought (and sometimes only Division 1 of Being and Time), Harries is concerned with the way that this same issue continued to play out – albeit in different terms –  in Heidegger’s later works. For example, he makes the interesting (unfortunately undeveloped) suggestion that Heidegger sometimes looks to differentiate these two senses of Being via the introduction of the Hölderlin-inspired spelling “Seyn” or in placing “Sein” under erasure. “Sein and Seyn are the two sides of my antinomy,” he explains: “Being understood as the transcendent ground of experience (Seyn) transcends Being understood transcendentally (Sein)” (AB, 16). However, the attempt to comprehend … the presencing (das Wesen) of Seyn will inevitably “become entangled in some version of the Antinomy of Being. Thus:

Any attempt to conceptually lay hold of that originating ground threatens to transform it into a being, such as God or the thing in itself and must inevitably fail. Here our thinking bumps against the limits of language. Being refuses to be imprisoned in the house of language. And yet this elusive ground is somehow present to us, calls us, if in silence, opening a window to transcendence in our world. (AB, 16)

For Harries, the notion of the Kehre in Heideggerian thought – understood as Heidegger himself presents it, as “a more thoughtful attempt to attend to the matter to be thought” –  is a step made necessary by “the antinomial essence of Being, which denies the thinker a foundation.” Indeed, Harries goes still further in doubling back to Kant: the “Antinomy of Being shows us why we cannot dispense with something like the Kantian understanding of the thing in itself as the ground of phenomena, even as the thing in itself eludes our understanding” (AB, 16-17).

In Chapter 2 (“The Antinomy of Truth”), Harries continues his engagement with Heideggerian thought, specifically concerning the paradox of language. Accordingly, language is both the way that beings are revealed and thus (transcendentally) come to be for us, whilst also limiting us to a finite encounter with the real that in itself transcends the limits of linguistic and thus worldly presentation. In other words, as Heidegger emphasised time and again (though it is also an insight voiced throughout philosophical history, from Plato to Wittgenstein and beyond), language both reveals and conceals the real, both revealling and “necessarily cover[ing] up the unique particularity of things” (AB, 25). Harries illustrates this point by opening the chapter with citations from Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s evocative 1902 “Letter of Lord Chandos,” before then showing how Hofmannsthal’s insights were already voiced by figures as diverse as Aquinas, Kant and Nietzsche. After focusing on “the truth of phenomena” through a Kantian lens (in the course of which he illuminatingly quotes Copernicus on his own distinction between appearance and actuality in planetary observation), Harries then provides an extended analysis and critique of Heidegger’s account of truth. In partially sympathising with Tugendhat’s critique of Heidegger’s early notion of truth as alētheia, Harries goes on to maintain that transcendental subjectivity only makes sense in the context of transcendental objectivity. The real is only ever encountered and uncovered perspectivally, but the (infinite) array of possible perspectives (via the contingencies of worlding) points to a transcendent whole that is nonetheless inaccessible in its completeness to the finite subject:

To understand the subject as a subject that transcends all particular points of view is to presuppose that consciousness is tied to perspectives but transcends these perspectives in the awareness that they are just perspectives. The transcendental subject has its foundation in the self-transcending subject. (AB, 45)

In Harries view, in its focus on the finitude of phenomenological access, Heidegger’s early position fails to do justice to this larger context: Heidegger’s fundamental ontology “suggest[s] that the perspectival is prior to the trans-perspectival without inquiring into the meaning of this priority.” Further, it must be recognized that “the perspectival and the transperspectival cannot be divorced,” for human self-transcendence “stands essentially in between the two” (AB, 45). Nonetheless, even given this critique, Harries continues to insist, with Heidegger, on the ineluctability of finitude:

[T]he transcendental philosopher remains tied to a given language and subject to the perspectives it imposes, even as he attempts to take a step beyond them. The absolute of which he dreams must elude him. The pursuit of objectivity cannot escape its ground in the concrete. (AB, 45)

Chapter 3 (“The Architecture of Reason”) is largely devoted to the relationship between Kant and Nietzsche on this question. Focusing especially on the latter’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense,” Harries is in agreement with Nietzsche in his staunch opposition to linguistic realism: words do not simply express the inner essence of the things they re-present. “What we can grant him is that the thing in itself remains quite incomprehensible,” and so “what we are dealing with are always only appearances.” However, Harries also wants to insist on the key distinction between the thing-in-itself and objective appearance as such. After all, if the phenomenon just is the self-giving of the thing as it is – albeit finitely and perspectivally – then this makes sense of the possibility of similar perceptions; and this in turn is what makes shared concept formation possible. Furthermore, he argues, it is only thus that Nietzsche is able to sustain his own “social contract theory of language” (AB, 55). But on the other hand, Nietzsche’s linguistic idealism produces a savage critique of scientific rationalism which, he suggests, fails to see that its concepts are really metaphors, the product of the imagination. Concepts are “the ashes of lived intuition”, and scientific rationalism is therefore nothing other than a chasing after shadows. In leaving behind lived experience, science leaves us with death: a “columbarium of concepts” (AB, 63).

This link between science and loss – of the dangers of intellectualism that imperils the natural human experience of the real – is accentuated in the following chapter (“The Devil as Philosopher”) that presents an intriguing diptych of Fichte and Chamisso. Harries’ engagement with the former – who is his major philosophical interlocutor in this chapter – surveys the train of thought that led Fichte to the nihilism of his absolute idealist conclusions. But he also addresses the sense in which Fichte’s path of thought equivocally led out the other side through his conception of “conscience” by which a disinterested intellectualism is replaced by a spirit of conviction. It is thus that Harries sees Fichtean thought as subject again to “the call of reality, which is submerged whenever the world is seen as the desiccated object of a detached, theoretical understanding” (AB, 77). The hinge of the aforementioned diptych is made possible by Fichte’s historical exile from Jena to Berlin, where he met and befriended the romantic poet Adelbert von Chamisso, author of the cautionary tale of Peter Schlemihl. In Harries’ interpretation, Schlemihl – a character who (Faust-like) bargains with a demonic (Mephistopheles-like) philosopher to trade his shadow for unending wealth – is emblemic of the dark side of Enlightenment reason that would have us lose our natural embodied selves, our cultural and social particularities, our “homeland,” in pursuit of the ashes and emptiness of objectivity, soulless freedom and universal reason. Only disembodied ghosts cast no shadows. As Nietzsche would later suggest, disembodied reason is a form of living death. The rationalistic road by which Fichte would propose the inescapable mirror of consciousness that posits the world through its own volition is yet another form of failing to think through both sides of the antinomy of Being.

This leads Harries the full circle back to Heidegger, in a chapter titled “The Shipwreck of Metaphysics”, but also to a very contemporary application of the Heideggerian problematic. He begins by recalling his diagnosis of the antinomy of Being that emerges from Heidegger’s early thought (two irreducibly opposed senses of Being), and he notes Heidegger’s own admission (in his 1946/47 “Letter on Humanism”) that “[t]he thinking that hazards a few steps in Being and Time has even today not advanced beyond that publication.” Harries has us dwell on this impass with Heidegger. Was the whole incomplete project of Being and Time was therefore a dead-end? For Heidegger, it was not simply a “blind alley” (Sackgasse), but something far more telling: a Holzweg. The path of his thought was a very particular kind of losing of one’s way that is typical of “a genuinely philosophical problem” as Wittgenstein would put it (AB, 86). The Holzweg of Heideggerian thought leads us directly into the to the aporia of Being as such.

Harries goes on in this chapter to provide a very contemporary and “concrete” illustration of how this plays out in our own time with regard to the contortions of scientific materialism. He might have chosen any number of interlocutors in this field, but instead (in another hint of Harries’ intellectual generosity) he selects an interlocutor close at hand: a philosophically-minded colleague from Yale’s computer science department, Drew McDermott. With a nod to the medieval doctrine of “double truth” (condemned at Paris in 1277), Harries notes the way that his colleague is completely committed to the basic proposition that the natural sciences hold the key to all that is, can be, and will be understood, even as he admits that science cannot explain key aspects of our first-person experience of the world, including values we hold to be true. In this, he was inspired by Heidegger’s account of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world (that undermined a materialist “present-at-hand” projection of the world) , even though his commitment to the scientific attitude puts him at loggerheads with Heidegger. Harries sees in McDermott’s apparent cognitive dissonance the very aporia with which Kant and Fichte wrestled, and to which Heidegger’s own work was also to point.

The following chapter (“Limits and Legitimacy of Science”) expands upon this problem of the incompatibility of science with meaning, seen through the lens of the nineteenth century German physicist Heinrich Hertz (in his search for simple comprehensive scientific principles to comprehend the world), the early Wittgenstein (who despite similar aspirations famously concluded that “the sense of the world must lie outside the world”), and Kant (who similarly wanted to entirely affirm the scientific attitude even as he affirmed the truth of dimensions that transcend, and are precluded by, the sciences: freedom, immortality, God).

What begins to emerge in Chapter 7 (“Learning from Laputa”) are twin themes that will come to dominate the later parts of the book: the notion of seeking to escape from the confines of earthly existence through rationality and scientific application, and the theme of being-at-home. Harries’ major inspiration here is Swift’s portrayal of the Laputians in Gulliver’s Travels, who in creating their flying island revel in their (albeit ambiguous) transcendence of standard physical constraints and social bonds. These men of Laputa literally “have their heads in the clouds,” as they exist detached from their earthy home. Indeed, Harries notes the allusions here to Aristophanes’ The Clouds, and he sees both productions as parodies of rationalistic hubris (AB, 119). Here we see the link made to Heidegger’s critique of technology, which not only involves the triumph of curiosity (seen also in the Laputians), but also the flight from grounded human dwelling. Like Peter Schlemihl, with technological enframing, we lose our shadows.

Harries’ upward orientation continues in Chapter 8 as he turns to the cosmological revolution of the sixteenth century. A key figure here is Giordano Bruno, whose execution is understood in the context of an absolute commitment to the sovereignty of rational freedom, and more specifically the implications of his championing of the idea of infinite time and space. In such a universe, conceptions of boundedness, constraint, society, embodiedness, home and homecoming – one might say facticity –  are lost. As Nietzsche pointed out, there is no longer any horizon, no up or down. But Harries similarly points to the earlier tradition of Germanic mysticism (from Walther von der Vogelweide, to Ruysbroeck, to Eckhart and Suso) that made similar gestures toward the power of self-transcendence and freedom of thought to leave the body behind and even challenge the boundary between the human and the Divine. Here the thinking of space through intellectual freedom leads to antinomy. On one hand, space must be limited, since otherwise location would be impossible; but on the other hand, space cannot be limited since there can be nothing outside of space.

On the basis of this extensive groundwork, in Chapters 9 and 10 Harries turns, respectively, to other Kantian antinomies: concerning freedom and time. With reference also to Fichte, he sets out the terms of Kant’s antinomy of freedom: that on one hand there are two kinds of causality in the world (via laws of nature, and via the law of freedom, since otherwise it would be impossible to account for spontaneous events that are not reducible to natural cause and effect), while on the other hand freedom is clearly precluded by the necessary laws of nature (since otherwise the flow of events would lose their regularity). He follows this line of thought into Kant’s Critique of Judgment, in which freedom is defended “from a practical point of view” in terms of the experience of persons (AB, 159). But again, Harries is keen to show the perennial nature of this problem, returning to the Paris Condemnations to show that these same irresolvable issues are at play both in terms of the understanding of God’s freedom (Divine voluntarism vs rationalism) and human freedom (in the context of knowledge and sin).

The richly textured chapter on Kant’s antinomy of time (that draws in also Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle, Rilke and Heidegger), takes a series of perspectives on the theme. On one hand, time must be bounded (and the world must have a beginning), since otherwise there could be no foothold in time within which events could occur. But on the other hand, it makes no ordinary sense to conceive of an event outside of time, so time must be infinite. As Harries points out concerning the latter, Kant is thinking here of the idea of time as a complete and infinite whole, an incomprehensible “noumenal substrate.” Here the notion of the sublime in the third Kritik is helpful. Sublime nature, for example, cannot be phenomenonally comprehended as a whole, but it can be thought, and here reason comes to the fore even as imagination and understanding are outstripped. This power of reason to think the infinite, points to the human capacity to transcend its finitude in a certain sense at least that nonetheless conflicts with the ongoing finitude of understanding. The noumenal is thinkable, but not understandable.

It is perhaps something of a shortcoming of the book that Harries doesn’t do the detailed work of relating the structure of the Kantian antinomies in general to his proposal about the antinomy of Being as such. However, the main outlines can be inferred. The logic would seem to be that the “thesis” and “antithesis” sides of Kant’s antinomies speak to the two senses of Being that Harries delineates: the transcendental and the transcendent (or the phenomenological and the noumenal). If, for Kant, transcendental idealism was the means by which these two were held in tension, Harries would seem to be suggesting that we need a robust sense of the Holzwege that both joins and separates what Heidegger wrote of as Realität and des realen: worldly reality and the inaccessible real.[5]

The final chapters of the book (Chapter 11 on “The Rediscovery of the Earth”, and Chapter 12 on “Astronoetics”) focus on this notion of the tension between human finitude and our attractedness to the heavens, to the infinite. We live with a double truth here: we are at home in our local domestic communities even as we are aware that we dwell on a planet that is spinning through space at extraordinary speed. Some of us long to realise the ubiquitous human desire to transcend our earthly dwelling place (as seen in ancient theories and myths, from Thales, to Vitruvius, to Icarus, to Babel, to modern hot air balloons and space flight), and the recent innovation of literal astronautical transcendence of the earth’s atmosphere has given us a taste of what this might mean. In our own times, there is talk of humanity becoming a space-travelling, multi-planetary species. However, Harries insists that we remain mortals, and (for the foreseeable future) creatures of the earth. The brave new world of space flight remains parasitic on the rich and nurturing resources of our home planet. He goes on to reminds us of the long tradition of Christian suspicion of pagan hubris (Augustine vs Aristotle): yes, we are made in God’s image, but human curiosity is also at the root of the fall.

These many themes are continued into the chapter on Astronoetics. The key question here concerns the human relationship to our origin: our earthly home. Are there limits to human self-manipulation and our manipulation of the earth? In order to think through such questions, aeronautics needs to be complemented by what Hans Blumenberg termed astronoetics: the act of thinking or dreaming our way imaginatively through space while remaining “safely ensconced at home.” (AB, 189). This is eventually a matter of thinking deeply about what is at stake in human ambition. Harries presents Jean-François Lyotard and the artist Frank Stella as representatives of the alternative he terms “postmodern levity.” This approach is uninterested in what they characterise as the modern (philosophical and artistic) nostalgic longing for a “lost centre or plenitude,” instead freely revelling in immanence and innovation. If modern art, in its “unhappy consciousness” is “never quite at home in the world,” the post-modern is characterised by a resolute this-worldliness (AB, 204). If modernity looks to evoke that which is finally unpresentable, artists like Frank Stella strive to create works of art that simply satisfy, are fully present, and eschew any ambition to point beyond themselves to obscured dimensions of truth or reality. Needless to say, such an approach is the antithesis of Harries’ account of the incomprehensible presence of the real in things as ordinary and precious as the experience of other human beings and the beauty of nature (see AB, 209).

It cannot be said that Harries’ Conclusion (titled “The Snake’s Promise”) succeeds in pulling together the various threads of his rich and ambitious book. But then again, for a book that deals with the the irreducible antinomy of Being, this seems apt. There are no neat resolutions to be had here. Perhaps this is already intimated in the re-encapsulation of the meaning of the antinomy of Being with which the chapter begins: that “reality will finally elude the reach of our reason, that all attempts to comprehend it will inevitably replace reality with more or less inadequate human constructions.” (AB, 216) In musising further on Heidegger’s critique of technology, Harries shows himself to be largely on the same page as Heidegger, though he is slightly sceptical about a simplistic nostalgic call to return to a pre-industrial golden age. Science and technology have profoundly changed our context, and there is no lineal return.

However, what the final pages do provide is a concluding and scathing critique of the distortions and banishments of the real by science, by art, in education and in popular culture. Science “seeks to understand reality in order to master it” (AB, 233), but in this never-ending quest, it reduces the real through perspectivalism and objectification, alienating us from it. Second, “aestheticizing art” obscures the real insofar as in simply looking to entertain it asks nothing of us. In both cases, the real lies inaccessible and largely forgotten behind the image. In fact, neither the artist, nor the scientist, are second Gods (as per the snake’s promise in the garden), for the work of both is parasitic on the underlying reality that make them possible. Third, and worse still, is the aestheticization of thinking itself: “the transformation of humanistic scholarship into an often very ingenious intellectual game.” (AB, 233) Fourth, and worst of all, is the attempt to aestheticize reality, especially by technological means, for in this way, reality is counterfeited; the real becomes the surreal.

Where does Harries’ extraordinary book leave us? Perhaps most of all with a plea to respect the real, by making a space for its unexpected appearings, to await its uncontrolled showings, and to resist the temptation (driven by our own anxieties) to partialize or even falsify it. I can do no better than to end with Harries’ own appeal:

[E]very attempt to [manipulate reality] … makes us deaf to its claims, denies us access to its transcendence in which all meaning finally has its ground, a ground that by its very essence will not be mastered. To open windows to that reality we must find the strength to abandon the hope to take charge of reality, the hope to be in this sense like God. Only such strength will allow us to be genuinely open to the claims persons and things place on us, will let us understand that we do not belong to ourselves, that we cannot invent or imagine what will give our lives measure and direction, but have to receive and discover it. (AB, 233-34)

[1] See Karsten Harries, “The Antinomy of Being and the End of Philosophy,” in Division III of Heidegger’s Being and Time: The Unanswered Question of Being, ed. Lee Braver (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 133-47; Harries, “The Antinomy of Being: Heidegger’s Critique of Humanism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism, ed. Steven Crowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 178-198; and Harries, Wahrheit: Die Architektur der Welt (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2012). For a thoughtful engagement with the last of these, see Steven Crowell, “Amphibian Dreams: Karsten Harries and the Phenomenology of ‘Human’ Reason,” in Husserl, Kant and Transcendental Phenomenology, ed. Iulian Apostolescu and Claudia Serban (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2020), 479-504.

[2] For more on this, see my “Thomism and Contemporary Phenomenological Realism: Toward a Renewed Engagement,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 95, no. 3 (2021): 411–432 (esp. 417ff).

[3] Günter Figal. Objectivity: The Hermeneutical and Philosophy. trans. Theodore George (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 2.

[4] For a not dissimilar reading of the dynamics at play in this area of early Heideggerian thought, and of how this plays out in his later thought, see my “The Incomprehensible ‘Unworlded World’: Nature and Abyss in Heideggerian Thought,” forthcoming in The Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology.

[5] See, e.g., Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), 255 [SZ: 212]; Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 217 [GA20: 298].

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Reviewed by: Alexandre Couture-Mingheras (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne – Université de Bonn)

La force d’Alexander Schnell tient à ce qu’il est l’un des rares philosophes de notre temps à défendre l’idéalisme transcendantal, idéalisme dont on sait qu’il constitue pour Husserl l’essence même de la phénoménologie, en le rapportant d’une part à l’idéalisme allemand et plus particulièrement à la Bildslehre de Fichte, dont il est l’un des plus éminents spécialistes, et d’autre part au « réalisme » dominant aujourd’hui et plus particulièrement au réalisme spéculatif de Quentin Meillassoux. La défense du projet husserlien se fera donc dans ce nouvel ouvrage, ambitieux et de haute facture, sous deux angles.

Tout d’abord, une auto-fondation de la phénoménologie à la fois sujet et objet de la démarche de légitimation, de sorte que l’on pourrait parler d’un « discours de la méthode » à condition que le methodos soit son propre telos (sans quoi, à raison, il faut avec l’auteur en rejeter l’expression) : il s’agit là de la perspective indiquée par le sous-titre de l’ouvrage, à savoir des fondements, dont le pluriel lui-même indique qu’il ne saurait s’agir d’un simple retour à l’unique fundamentum inconcussum de la subjectivité absolue, et de fait la réflexion sur l’anonymat du sens se faisant, dans l’horizon heideggérien de l’herméneutique, invitera à un dépassement de la structuration purement égologique de la phénoménologique. Ensuite, et c’est le sens de « l’idéalisme spéculatif », cette auto-réflexion méthodologique – étant entendu que la méthode encore une fois ne s’applique pas de l’extérieur à un objet mais est le Tout même de la phénoménologie comme la réduction transcendantale en est l’Alpha et l’Omega, l’objet de la phénoménologie en en étant le Sujet -, doit être elle-même ontologiquement fondée, la réflexivité fondementielle du projet étant sise en l’autoréflexivité de l’Être. La spécularité de l’essai de « phénoménologie de la phénoménologie » transcendantale dont l’auteur reprend à Fink le projet, jamais conduit à terme, se trouve donc associé à une pensée de la spécularité ontologique, la réflexion sur ce qui est reposant sur l’essence -flexive de l’être : pas de retour sur soi – ce qu’est la philosophie en son essence -, sans être spéculaire, ou, pour le dire autrement, pas de fondation disciplinaire sans spécularité réelle, pas de réflexion sur le phénomène sans réflexivité de la phénoménalité.

Le projet, qui a ici un caractère inaugural – appelant à une reprise et collaboration, dans la droite ligne de la réflexion husserlienne -, et qui pose les jalons de l’idéalisme spéculatif en ramassant sous forme « systématisée » (ou plutôt « méthodologique ») ce qui avait été exposé dans les ouvrages précédents de l’auteur, est assurément original. Au-delà même du dialogue fécond qu’il instaure avec le passé et notre temps, il surmonte l’opposition entre le phénoménologique et le spéculatif : c’est d’ailleurs la force de l’essai que de montrer – il s’agit là du fil rouge à mon sens qui en traverse les sections -, que le dehors historique de la phénoménologique, le spéculatif, est en réalité non tant un dehors qu’un dedans non surmonté qui en constitue la vérité insigne. S’annonce en filigrane l’ouverture de la phénoménologie à son Autre comme à ce qui lui est le plus intérieur, le Métaphysique comme « interior intimo » de la phénoménologie, ce dont témoigne le dernier chapitre sur « le sens de la réalité », réel qui n’est ni dedans ni dehors, comme une torsion spéculaire où l’extase est l’envers de l’enstase, ce que l’auteur exprime en termes d’« endo-exogénéité de l’être ». Cette originalité est d’autant plus saisissante lorsqu’on confronte le projet de l’auteur à l’orientation majoritairement réaliste aujourd’hui de la phénoménologie : au réalisme qui prend pour fil directeur l’objet prédonné s’oppose l’idéalisme qui passe de l’objet à la réflexion sur la phénoménalité du phénomène, en une réflexion sur la possibilité de la phénoménologie qui appelle l’interrogation sur la possibilité même de la phénoménalité, en un transcendantalisme spéculatif qui se démarque, A. Schnell y insiste, du transcendantalisme kantien qui concerne les conditions de possibilité non de l’être mais de la seule connaissance. Encore cet idéalisme se donne-t-il moins pour l’opposant du réalisme que pour son fondement puisque la question posée d’entrée de jeu est celle de la conciliation entre d’un côté la reconduction à la subjectivité transcendantale (l’idéalisme) et de l’autre la fondation d’un concept fort d’être ou de réalité capable de rendre compte de la transcendance du monde (le réalisme), que si on ne saurait faire l’économie du sujet – contre cet appel généralisé au XXème siècle à la « mort du sujet » (et de « l’auteur ») -, on ne saurait pas plus résorber l’absoluité de la transcendance en l’intentionnalité d’une visée. On comprend que l’agent de liaison, ou de sursomption de l’opposition, sera établi par la redéfinition spéculative de l’idéalisme transcendantal, et que le spéculatif sera la clé permettant de sortir du conflit entre l’approche essentiellement gnoséologique de Husserl avec son projet de légitimation de la connaissance et l’ontologie phénoménologique de Heidegger où l’horizon du sens et du comprendre est irréductible au schème de la constitution transcendantale.

Est en jeu, cela est évident dès l’introduction, l’avenir même de la phénoménologie, qui se trouve forclos par une double attitude, de soumission à l’empiricité d’un objet pré-donné – c’est là le positivisme au double sens de ce qui sert la science mais aussi de ce qui est de l’ordre du « trouvé-d’avance » -, et de subordination historiographique de la philosophie à son passé. Le transcendantal, c’est précisément cet arrachement de la pensée au règne du fait déjà tout fait au profit d’une pensée pensante. Si la philosophie consiste à retourner à l’originaire, alors la phénoménologie en assume-t-elle la vocation, elle qui, « science des premiers commencements », ne cesse de recommencer pour interroger l’origine du sens et de l’être ou de ce que Husserl appelait « l’Énigme du Monde », c’est-à-dire non un problème mais une aporie qui exige que l’on se place à sa hauteur : le retour aux « choses mêmes » n’est pas de l’ordre d’un retour aux « faits » – en une dangereuse mythologie du Fait qui semble sous-tendre aujourd’hui bien des « ontologies » plates ou feuilletées orphelines de leur Sujet -, mais, suspendant l’en-soi à titre de préjugé, il consiste à faire de l’a priori de la corrélation entre ce qui se donne et son appréhension subjective son thème propre comme l’écrit Husserl dans un passage célèbre de la Krisis (§ 48). En effet, interroger l’être c’est questionner le sens d’être, ce en quoi la corrélation est a priori, originaire, irréductible qu’elle est au rapport entre deux termes hétérogènes. La corrélativité constitue la structure interne de la phénoménalité, ce que met au jour l’épochè phénoménologique, laquelle opère le passage de l’objet à la conscience d’objet. La corrélation désigne la structure sujet-objet inhérente à tout étant apparaissant, faisant tomber l’évidence apparente de la chose, la naturalité précisément d’une perception dont le propre est de s’effacer devant son objet. En d’autres termes, il s’agit de réfléchir la perception, de conduire la vision, obnubilée par la chose vue, à se saisir en un voir du voir : bref, le spéculatif est bien l’essence du phénoménologique, et l’enjeu de l’ouvrage est d’en décliner le thème en trois sections – qu’il est bien sûr impossible de « résumer » : il s’agit, encore une fois, d’un methodos et non de micro-thèses dont on pourrait transposer le contenu de façon ramassée -, la première exposant des considérations méthodologiques, la deuxième établissant un dialogue « historico-systématique » avec l’idéalisme allemand et l’empirisme anglo-saxon (humien), la troisième enfin, affrontant l’idéalisme spéculatif au réalisme spéculatif de Q. Meillassoux.

Le premier temps est consacré au concept même de méthode en phénoménologie et à ce qui fait la spécificité de l’attitude transcendantale, laquelle engage les notions de science eidétique (contre la « cécité spirituelle » des empiristes selon Husserl), d’expérience transcendantale (contre le transcendantal abstrait – apagogique – de Kant), de sens (contre l’être « en-soi ») et enfin de corrélation, en vue d’une rapproche renouvelée du problème de la compréhension, dans l’effort de conciliation de l’approche herméneutique chez Heidegger et de la légitimation transcendantale de la connaissance chez Husserl : l’idéalisme spéculatif met en jeu ce « comprendre transcendantal » irréductible à la face subjective et psychologique d’un savoir dont la connaissance objective et scientifique serait l’autre face, comme ce « sens se faisant » de l’ordre de l’entre-deux, inassignable à une instance, subjective ou objective, entre l’activité de l’esprit (il faut un interprétant) et un champ prédonné de compréhension (qui oriente l’interprétation, la soustrayant à tout arbitraire). Autrement dit, la description qui était définitoire de la phénoménologie se trouve dépassée par la construction : le spéculatif, c’est déjà ce « comprendre », cette monstration du sens – occulté dans l’attitude naturelle -, une « donation génétisée ». Spéculer, ce n’est pas spéculer dans le vide, mais ce n’est pas non plus, tel est l’enjeu de cette section, rapporter une construction à un étant qui lui préexisterait.

La deuxième section vise à rapporter la phénoménologie comme idéalisme spéculatif à l’idéalisme postkantien, passant de l’approche strictement méthodologique à une approche historique dont l’objectif est clair : justifier l’idéalisme spéculatif en inscrivant le projet de fondation de la phénoménologie dans l’horizon de l’idéalisme allemand, permettant ici encore de dépasser le caractère descriptif de la phénoménologie – le « principe des principes » qu’est l’intuition et qui est eo ipso légitimante pour Husserl -, au regard de la Wissenschaftslehre – et de l’image – de Fichte où il s’agit bien de construire le fait et ses conditions de possibilité de façon génétique, non à partir de faits (pure description) mais à partir d’un acte de construction (ici de la Tathandlung) par quoi la construction (ou spécularité) coïncide avec l’intuitivité de ce qu’elle construit et donne à voir. Comme le dit A. Schnell, l’intuitivité est ici un voir de la genèse. Cette interrogation sur les fondements spéculatifs de l’unité de la phénoménologie – conditionnement mutuel, possibilisation, construction génétique, redoublement possibilisant, autant de concepts analysés par l’auteur -, se double d’une confrontation subséquente de la phénoménologie à l’empirisme humien sous l’angle de la thématique de la Lebenswelt. Si le mérite de Hume est en effet d’engendrer le monde, montrant que ce qui paraît aller de soi n’a rien d’assuré, que les vérités objectives sont des formations de vie – une subjectivité voilée -, bref de retourner au monde de la vie comme sol de notre rapport au monde et a priori subjectif au fondement de l’a priori objectif de la science, il s’agit en revanche pour Husserl, on le sait, de concilier cette « fiction » du monde à son projet de légitimation de l’objectivité de la connaissance en intégrant le débat de la validité menée par le néo-kantisme de l’école de Baden dans la problématique de l’être. Contre l’objectivisme, l’auteur étudie la formation transcendantale du sens en prenant en compte le concept de vérité exposé dans la Sixième recherche logique et la thèse heideggérienne de la vérité comme existential. L’idéalisme spéculatif se trouve ici approfondi, permettant de sortir de la perspective purement gnoséologique en vue d’un « rendre compréhensible transcendantal » – mis en avant surtout par la Krisis -, et la mise en avant du plan anonyme, pré-égotique, de la Sinnbildung. Autrement dit, de la seconde section ressortent l’irréductibilité de la phénoménologie à la description et intuition, le rôle fondamental joué par les modes de conscience « non-présentants » (la fameuse phantasia) et enfin le primat du plan du procès du sens sur la constitution égologique (le spéculaire), idée d’un auto-anéantissement du moi conduisant à une « Sinnbildung anonyme » pré-égotique (ou « subjectivité anonyme ») – ici évoquée seulement mais dont on peut imaginer la fécondité à la rapporter par exemple au champ transcendantal sans ego (Sartre) ou au plan d’immanence de conscience absolue et impersonnelle (Deleuze), c’est-à-dire à ce dont Jean Hyppolite avait avancé l’idée en 1959, à savoir la possibilité de dériver le « Je » transcendantal – le « Je » comme pôle qui accompagne toutes mes représentations -, d’un champ antérieur au partage entre Moi et non-Moi, pré-subjectif et pré-objectif, et ce contre l’égocentrisme de la donation transcendantale.

Mais c’est à l’aune de la confrontation au réalisme spéculatif dans la troisième section que l’on saisit l’un des motifs au principe de l’essai : sauver la phénoménologie contre l’attaque menée par Q. Meillassoux contre ce qu’il a appelé dans Après la finitude le « corrélationisme ». Si on comprend mal la référence au « Nouveau Réalisme » de Markus Gabriel dans la mesure où il s’agit d’un réalisme sans Réalité – « tout existe, sauf le Tout » -, qui ouvrant l’ontologie aux sens de l’être et aux laissés-pour-compte de l’ontologie traditionnelle comme les licornes se détourne de son principe et abolit l’idée de « réalité du réel » et de nature fondamentale de ce qui est, au nom d’un pluralisme ontologique et épistémologique si radical qu’il en perd tout sens – l’ouverture de l’être aux fictions reposant sur l’idée de fiction de réalité -, en revanche la discussion menée avec le réalisme spéculatif permet, par contraste, de légitimer le projet de fondation de l’idéalisme spéculatif phénoménologique. Au-delà de la critique de l’argument de l’ancestralité qui fait fond sur une confusion selon l’auteur entre l’empirique et le transcendantal – l’expérience possible ne doit pas être confondue avec la possibilité empirique, si bien qu’il n’est de sens à inscrire la survenue du sujet (transcendantal) dans la ligne temporelle objective -, c’est bien à mon sens la façon dont l’absolu se trouve revisité à l’aune de l’idéalisme allemand qui ressort de l’analyse : d’un absolu qui n’est plus pensé comme absolu objectif mais comme réel subjectif et pré-égotique contre l’ontologisation de l’irraison et l’absolutisation de la contingence de la corrélation. La réflexivité de l’être – sa « corrélativité » -, le procès du sens comme structure transcendantale tendant à l’auto-explicitation réflexive du réel, d’un être se réfléchissant comme sens sans en passer tout d’abord par la figure de l’ego, tel est au final ce qui justifie ontologiquement le projet de fondation de l’idéalisme spéculatif, l’auteur répondant au défi lancé par Q. Meillassoux qui invitait la phénoménologie à s’élever aux hauteurs spéculatives de l’idéalisme kantien et postkantien. Pari tenu.

Que serait un en-soi qui serait pensé non comme chose mais comme sujet, en-soi comme Soi ? Si l’on se plaît depuis Wittgenstein à parler d’un « mythe de l’intériorité », la démarche radicale d’immanentisation chez Husserl consistait au contraire, tirant le fil cartésien, à interroger ladite « réalité du réel » et à rebours de l’attitude naturelle à mettre au jour ce qu’on pourrait appeler un « mythe de l’extériorité », révélant le dehors du dedans au sens du génitif subjectif. La phénoménologie procédait à une libération spectaculaire (mais n’est-ce pas le sens même de l’amour du Vrai, de la Philalethia en son sens originaire, i.e. initiatique ?) : libération de la conscience à l’égard du monde, renvoyé à son insuffisance ontologique et au caractère immanent de sa transcendance, libération de la conscience à l’égard d’elle-même dans son auto-appréhension limitante comme « moi psychophysique » – si l’épochè est l’acte inaugural de la philosophie c’est bien en tant que nul ne saurait se mettre en quête de Vérité qui reste prisonnier du sens de son identité -, et libération contre la philosophie moderne à l’égard de Dieu en tant qu’absolument Autre. Il ne faudra plus chercher le fondement ailleurs qu’en soi-même, quitte à ce que cet en-soi soit le lieu de révélation de la Vie divine, que l’égologie soit un théocentrisme, que l’ego soit porté par ce qui, plus haut, est ego transsubjectif, en un solipsisme transcendantal au fondement de l’intersubjectivité, intra au principe de l’inter. C’est là une direction qui me paraît passionnante, en une pensée de l’intériorité transcendantale et « cosmique », comme l’appelait Ravaisson, dont une confrontation cette fois-ci avec la Métaphysique du Veda, le Vedanta, permettrait de renouveler l’approche. Au-delà du cercle strictement phénoménologique ainsi tracé – avec son style parfois sibyllin et elliptique -, la phénoménologie eût pu s’ouvrir à un public plus large, dans le renouvellement urgent de la question originaire de la Vérité de Soi et de celle du Monde dont l’identité ouvre le rationnel à son autre en un rationalisme élargi. Mais c’est là ce dont le positivisme encore latent – mais Husserl était aussi fils de son temps – de la Strenge Wissenschaft, ce qu’engage la thématique de la validité, de laquelle participe l’essai de fondation de la phénoménologie, nous détourne. Certes Husserl concluait ses Méditations cartésiennes par un passage aussi beau qu’exigent : « L’oracle de Delphes gnôthi seauton acquiert alors une signification nouvelle. La science positive devient science en perdant le monde. Il faut commencer par perdre le monde avec l’épochè pour le reconquérir dans l’auto-réflexion universelle. Noli foras ire, dit Augustin, in te redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas ». Ce serait toutefois emprunter une voie différente, celle d’un philosophique roulant sur l’écume des catégories de l’entendement occidental et nourri par l’océan du philosophal : la « porte du dedans », ainsi que l’appelait Rûmî, conduirait alors à un immanentisme radical, intériorité qui n’est plus celle d’un « moi » mais d’un « nous » qui n’est Nous que d’être Un, et dont la réalisation, sans doute, nécessiterait de déchirer le voile des phénomènes – l’image dudit « réel » – de faire de la phénoménologie le tremplin vers son auto-dépassement.

Hans Blumenberg: Realität und Realismus

Realität und Realismus Couverture du livre Realität und Realismus
Hans Blumenberg. Edited by Nicola Zambon
Hardback 30,00 €

Reviewed by: Martijn Visser (Radboud University Nijmegen)


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.

Concluding Remarks

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.

Hans Blumenberg: History, Metaphors, Fables

History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader Couverture du livre History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader
signale|TRANSFER: German Thought in Translation
Hans Blumenberg. Edited and translated by Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll.
Cornell University Press
Paperback $29.95

Reviewed by: Marina Marren (PhD. Department of Philosophy, University of Nevada, Reno)

The Aesthetic Dimension of Life and the Freedom of Thought: A Hans Blumenberg Reader Review

The Cornell University Press edition of the History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader is a first of its kind volume, masterfully edited and translated by Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll. Continuing to widen the Hans Blumenberg (1920 – 1996) readership in the English-speaking world, the wide-ranging collection includes Blumenberg’s “most important philosophical essays, many of which provide explicit discussions of what in the large tomes often remain only tacit presuppositions and often act as précis for them, as well as selections of his nonacademic writings” (5). The editors organize Blumenberg’s writings thematically, beginning in Part I with Blumenberg’s accounts of the historical significance of secularization and his assessment of the concept of the real. Part II encompasses select writings on language and rhetoric including Blumenberg’s seminal and groundbreaking conceptualization of metaphoricity (e.g., Introduction to Paradigms for a Metaphorology 1960 and Observations Drawn from Metaphors 1971). Unique in his thinking about the metaphorical process, Blumenberg is a contemporary of Ricoeur, whose own analyses of metaphor begin to appear in the mid-seventies in French (e.g., La Métaphore vive 1975). Moving from Blumenberg’s examination of new modes of poetic, rhetorical, and metaphoric thinking and writing (what Blumenberg refers to as “nonconceptuality”), Part III of the book offers several key compositions on the meaning of technology and nature. The volume closes with Part IV that contains Blumenberg’s literary varia and more whimsical pieces that reflect Blumenberg’s interest in playfulness and riddles as entryways to a revivified philosophical reflection that breaks free from canonical meaning and form.

There are “two criteria” that the editors of the Reader cite as determining their “selection: the centrality of the texts for Blumenberg’s oeuvre as such—the core canon, as contestable as this notion is—and their illustrative value for the genres, topics, or types of question he was engaged in but for which no such canon has yet crystallized” (20). The editors situate their selections in the historical background of Blumenberg’s intellectual development, which they discuss in the Introduction. There Bajohr, Fuchs, and Kroll remind us that Blumenberg’s father worked extensively on the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and that Blumenberg’s 1950 Habilitation thesis, Ontological Distance, an Inquiry into the Crisis of Edmund Husserl‘s Phenomenology, examined Husser’s ideas at length. Being half-Jewish (Blumenberg’s mother was Jewish) just as Husserl, Blumenberg suffered during the reign of the National Socialists in Germany. This background makes Blumenberg’s criticism of Carl Schmitt’s take on law, politics, and exceptional power (The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, originally published in 1966) all the more poignant.

Blumenberg’s own understanding of the task of thinking – and especially philosophical thinking – arrives early on, in one of the opening selections in Part I, entitled World Pictures and World Models (1961), where Blumenberg writes, “countless definitions that have been given for philosophy’s achievements in its history have a basic formula at their core: philosophy is the emerging consciousness of humans about themselves” (42). However, this externalizing power of philosophical reflection, which takes us out of our cultural and historical belonging in order to allow us to examine both, according to Blumenberg, results if not in utter alienation, then at least in a loosening of national and political convictions. Paradoxically, the pluralism of cultures and views, and the resultant inability “to adopt one of these worlds obviously and unquestionably as our own” (42), makes us all the more malleable when it comes to political manipulation. On Blumenberg’s view, “beneath the competing world pictures, interests stemming from rather less rarefied spheres interpose themselves imperceptibly. World pictures are becoming pretexts under which interests are advanced. This type of substitution is implied when one speaks of world pictures as ideologies” (50). Blumenberg contrasts the world picture with a more theoretical and scientific construction such as a “world model” (43), and which he defines as an “embodiment of reality through which and in which humans recognize themselves, orient their judgments and the goals of their actions” (43). The possibility of a successful substitution of a world picture for an ideology makes Blumenberg’s critique of the sort of political theory that Schmitt proposes all the more salient. For Blumenberg, “Whoever campaigns for the state as a “higher reality” and whoever identifies himself with the state thinks it as a subject of crises—and is easily inclined to think it into crises” (84), and as we know already from Plato’s Republic, which both Blumenberg and Schmitt studied at length, a tyrant, who identifies with and as the state is “always stirring up war” (567a).

However, the observation that Blumenberg fails to make is that his own take on the meaning of the Republic makes this dialogue out to be, precisely, the kind of tool of ideological manipulation against which he warns us to start, i.e., in his remarks on the world picture. Blumenberg reads the dialogue literally, which is clear from his own gloss on the supposed function of the Kallipolis. He writes, “Plato had derived his Republic from the three-tiered structure of the human soul; at the center of the work stood the theory of ideas, and the famous cave allegory illustrated the necessity of binding the state to the knowledge of absolute reality” (87). Blumenberg directly attributes to Plato those images and ideas that are a part of the city in speech that is a construct and a product of the dialogical exchanges between the interlocutors. Any product of the discussions among the dialogical characters cannot be directly identified with what Plato may have thought or believed. If Plato wanted us to think that a surface and literal reading was the correct one, he would have written in the first person, and straightforwardly recommended his ideas as being correct and true. Instead, Plato writes dialogues and there is not a single dialogue of Plato’s where we have him address us in the first person. Blumenberg’s claim about Plato’s alleged prescription of the “necessity of binding the state to the knowledge of absolute reality” (87) allows Blumenberg to set Plato up as a subject of Machiavelli’s discontent and attacks, but it makes Plato’s thought out to be much too simplistic and brings it in the vicinity of ideology. Another problematic set of connections that Blumenberg makes has to do with his swift excursus through the history of ideas – from Aristotle to Husserl. Blumenberg’s take on this tradition in The Concept of Reality and the Theory of the State chapter is set in the epistemological key. In other words, Blumenberg omits the ontological register. This omission allows him to establish a clean and clear-cut, but mistaken view of the conceptual continuities between ancient philosophy, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and then also late 19th Century German thought. Blumenberg thinks that

Aristotle’s dictum that, in a way, the soul is everything, was the maximally reduced formula that was still prevalent in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. To this formula corresponds the expectation that experience is, in principle, finite and can be reduced to a catalog of distinct Gestalten, each of which communicates its reality in the instantaneous self-evidence of a confirmed ought-to-be. The Platonic theory of ideas and the notion of anamnesis [recollection] are merely consistent interpretations of the basic fact that such instantaneous self-evidence, such confirmation in propria persona [Leibhaftigkeit], might exist.  Even Husserl tried to rediscover this self-evidence in his phenomenology by choosing the metaphor of an experience in propria persona for the original impression. (122)

Blumenberg misses the fact that, for Aristotle, psyche ta onta pos esti panta (Peri Psyche 431b20) – the “soul somehow is all beings” – is a hard ontological claim. In Aristotle, the soul is not a totality of knowledge in terms of a faculty of the mind, but in terms of the very reality and being of things. This oversight skews Blumenberg’s interpretation in the direction of an epistemic clarity, rather than in the direction of thinking about a nascent possibility. In other words, Blumenberg thinks of the soul as something that both undergirds and grants access to the always already existing and knowable noetic reality. Given Blumenberg’s direct attribution to Plato of the “Theory of Ideas,” he then establishes a simple continuity between the reality and the world-forming status of the “Ideas”; the epistemic status of the soul in Aristotle; the hypostatization of divine and noetic reality in the human world (the Middle Ages and Renaissance); and lastly, Husserl’s philosophy. The last, being an epistemologist, misunderstands Aristotle in his own right. Husserl treats psychology as phenomenology, i.e., as a mode akin to Wesensschau. It is Heidegger, who in a sense, offers a corrective to Husserl’s program and sounds out the ontological significances of the Greek language and, in particular, of Aristotle’s thought. Blumenberg’s interest in establishing philosophical continuities that inform the history of the Western world from antiquity to the modern era is a leitmotif of The Concept of Reality and the Theory of State (1968/69), which along with the Preliminary Remarks on the Concept of Reality (1974) concludes Part I.

Part II, which is entitled Metaphors, Rhetoric, Nonconceptuality, showcases Blumenberg’s interest in rethinking the traditional notion of concept-based philosophy through the lens of poetry, rhetoric, and the power of metaphor. It opens with a chapter on Light as a Metaphor for Truth: At the Preliminary Stage of Philosophical Concept Formation (1957). In this essay, Blumenberg takes the Schellingian idea of mutually belonging, but opposing tendencies or states, i.e., light and darkness, as being at the heart and at the beginning of the all. Following Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Blumenberg claims that “despite an abundance of gods of nature, Greek religion did not have a deity of light” (129). The intimation is that this designation is saved for the monotheistic god and especially of a Christian religion. However, this is an oversight, because the ancient Greeks not only had Apollo Phanaios or Apollo of Light, but also in the Orphic cosmogonies we have an androgynous god, Phanes – a deity of light. In any case, Blumenberg’s consequent analysis of the way in which light, as a metaphor, operates in the history of Western thought is fascinating. For example, turning to modern thought, Blumenberg sees that

in the idea of “method,” which originates with Bacon and Descartes, “light” is thought of as being at man’s disposal. Phenomena no longer stand in the light; rather, they are subjected to the lights of an examination from a particular perspective. The result then depends on the angle from which light falls on the object and the angle from which it is seen. It is the conditionality of perspective and the awareness of it, even the free selection of it, that now defines the concept of “seeing.” (156)

This is Blumenberg’s conclusion, i.e., that with the onset of modern thought we experience a reversal in the dynamic of revelation. Heretofore, things revealed and presented themselves to human beings, but now we engage in the kind of experimental and scientific examination whereby human beings control the revealing potency of light and use this power at will. The next step, as Blumenberg sees it, is the pervasive and subjugating power of technology, which speeds up our work, extends our work-day well into the night, and depends – largely – on “artificial light” (156). Technology subjugates us and permeates our lives through and through. Blumenberg wonders whether we can find an opposing power to counterbalance this advance of technicization. He sees this opposing force in metaphors. According to Blumenberg, they can loosen the hold of technocracy on our thinking and on our lives. The Reader offers Blumenberg’s ideas on this theme in the chapter entitled, Introduction to Paradigms for a Metaphorology (1960).

Blumenberg seeks to uncover the “the conditions under which metaphors can claim legitimacy in philosophical language” (173). In the first place, he wants us to note that “Metaphors can first of all be leftover elements, rudiments on the path from mythos to logos; as such, they indicate the Cartesian provisionality of the historical situation in which philosophy finds itself at any given time” (173). In other words, just as Descartes’ Discourse on Method offers provisional Maxims of Morality, likewise Blumenberg wants metaphors to fulfill a similar function. Metaphors would serve as a temporary measure of thought or as a passage from the already by-gone to the not-yet established way of philosophizing and living. It is questionable whether Descartes means for us to take his Maxims of Morality – of which the thinker famous for his discoveries in geometry and algebra tells us there are “three or four” (Discourse on Method Part 3) – as provisional. An alternative reading of Descartes, which does not undermine Blumenberg’s comparison, is that morality and its maxims are always only provisional; subject to re-examination and re-valuation depending on the place and time we find ourselves in. Descartes’ insistence that we continuously seek to rejuvenate our ethical outlook and relations agrees with Blumenberg’s interest in finding a surreptitious element that would allow us to undermine, undo, and then recast outmoded ways of thought. “Metaphorology,” he writes, “would here be a critical reflection charged with unmasking and counteracting the inauthenticity of figurative speech. But metaphors can also—hypothetically, for the time being—be foundational elements of philosophical language, ‘translations’ that resist being converted back into authenticity and logicality” (173). It is this “resistance” to the structure of accepted, logically-sound language and presentation that attracts Blumenberg to the metaphorical process.

Blumenberg probes and pivots our understanding of the philosophical value of poetic, metaphoric, and rhetorical expression in the consequent selection that the Reader offers, which is entitled An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric (1971).  Blumenberg’s claim about rhetoric is that its “modern difficulties with reality consist, in good part, in the fact that this reality no longer has value as something to appeal to, because it is in its turn a product of artificial processes” (202). There is a need, in other words, to get to the underlying truth-structure of reality, which moves past the artificiality of social engineering, the technocratic state, or simply the sedimentation of interpretive layers that dictate what reality is supposed to be for us. However, this need in the guise of an imperative (and here Blumenberg again recalls Husserl and his “Zur Sache und zu den Sachen!” 202) and issued as “an exhortatory cry” (202) itself becomes rhetorical. The latter is a technology in its own right, i.e., that of language, of shaping opinions, and influencing emotions. In this estimation, Blumenberg comes close to a Derridean position, which offers us both the elemental and complex nexuses of the world, including the world of nature, in terms of the techniques, expressions, and formations that can only be reached because of and by means of language. Thus, both for Derrida and for Blumenberg (at least on this presentation in An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric), as central as the logos is, it must be displaced to give way to a possibility of re-interpreting our relation to our thinking and to our world. This insight, along with his thinking about metaphors, allows Blumenberg to proceed to a discussion of “nonconceptuality.” This discussion, which concludes the selections in Part II of the Reader is preceded by two other pieces: Observations Drawn from Metaphors (1971) and Prospect for a Theory of Nonconceptuality (1979).

In the very last essay in Part II, which is an excerpt from the 1975 Theory of Nonconceptuality, Blumenberg outlines his program.  Prior to giving us this outline, he entertains the meaning and pitfalls of theoretical reflection in the context of ancient Greek theoria. Blumenberg’s take on theoria, which equates it with motionless and stilling contemplation of eternal reality written in the starry sky, misses the important sense that the Greeks themselves attributed to theorein (at least prior to the arrival of Pythagorean thought). This term, theorein—to  contemplate or to spectate—includes spectatorship of various religious,  theatrical, and athletic events. As such, it is much more immersive and emotionally engaged than the purified, rarified sense of theorein, which comes into play after Pythagorean beliefs and practices take hold. The self-possessed, reserved, and calm theoretic practice (although we have allusions to it made by various characters in Plato’s dialogues, e.g., Timaeus, Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus, and Phaedo) is not a good representation of the originary meaning of theorein. Nonetheless, Blumenberg takes the meaning of theoria, which  is already purified of its sensual alloys, to be representative of the Greek understanding of this practice. He writes, “for the Greeks, contemplating the sky meant not only contemplating a special and divine object of the highest dignity, but the paradigmatic case of what theory ought to be, what is at stake for it. The ideal of theory is the contemplation of the sky as an object that cannot be handled” (260). Blumenberg then takes this sense of theory as what has been handed down through the history of Western thought and what must be counteracted by a new engagement with the non-conceptual, emotional, sensible, sensitive, and intuitive dimension of life. It is this latter recommendation that we must heed in order to follow Blumenberg’s intimations on the point of nonceptual philosophizing.

To state the key moments of his program briefly, 1) “The turn away from intuition is wholly at the service of a return to intuition. This is, of course, not the recurrence of the same, the return to the starting point, and certainly not anything at all to do with romanticism” (262). This interest in re-inscribing thinking by retracing the intuitive dimension – a retracing, which is not a simple repetition, but a deepening of our reckoning with it – is the first postulate. Then comes a key aesthetic and emotional attunement 2) “Pleasure [which] requires the return to full sensibility [Sinnlichkeit]” (262). This call to pleasure hearkens us back to the Greek beginnings of contemplation as both a mental and an emotional immersion in and an attunement to the world – the kind of activity that pleasure properly completes (e.g., Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, esp. Bk. X). And finally, a medium or passage that must go between the noetic and the aesthetic, for Blumenberg just as for Riceouer, is 3) “Metaphor [which] is also an aesthetic medium precisely because it is both native to the original sphere of concepts and because it is continually liable and has to vouch for the deficiency of concepts and the limits of what they can achieve” (262). This, then, is the basic outline of Blumenberg’s program in the excerpt from Theory of Nonconceptuality with which Part II of the Reader ends.

Part III, entitled Nature, Technology, and Aesthetics, begins with Blumenberg’s The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem  (1951), and proceeds historically to show how a distinction between nature and being insinuates itself in philosophical reflection. Blumenberg then traces out a further divide between nature and divinity in Christian thought. A short section on enjoyment in this essay is reminiscent of Hegel’s analyses in the Phenomenology of Spirit (VI. B. II. b. § 581 – Spirit, Culture, Truth of Enlightenment). In Hegel, this section on the totalizing function of “utility” leads to a situation in which “heaven is transplanted to earth below” (§ 581), which are the last words of the section that precedes Hegel’s discussion of “Absolute Freedom and Terror” – a discussion that is informed by Hegel’s reflections on the French Revolution. Blumenberg’s analyses, too, lead up to a revolution, but of a different kind, i.e., to the revolutionazing, but also totalizing, and not altogether salubrious power of technology.

In part 7. Of The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem, entitled “The ‘Second Nature’ of the Machine World as a Consequence of the Technical Will,” Blumenberg speculates about the way in which the displacing effect of technology or the “technical ‘out-of-itself’” (302) can be understood as “second nature” (302) for us. Blumenberg frames his reflections on this possibility in terms of Heidegger’s thinking and poses them in the form of a question. He asks:

does the concept of a “second nature” really carry the implications of the modern age’s understanding of nature to their conclusion, to the end of all its possible consequences? Is the claim to “unconditioned production,” as Heidegger has called the technical will, enacted in the “second nature” of a perfected machine-world? Or does such unconditionality imply that it will suffer nothing else alongside it—which is to say that not only has “second nature” provided the potency for the nullification of the first nature but that the former’s essence also pushes toward the latter’s realization? Man’s experience of this ultimate stage of possible technical fulfillment is only just beginning. (302)

This prescient formulation and the possible danger it expresses is all the more worth exploring in our world – today – permeated, navigated, run, and shaped by a heretofore unseen proliferation of virtual communication and technology. Blumenberg, having offered for us this portentous problem, then goes on to lay out its roots in the relationship between nature, divinity, and creative power – both divine and human, the latter of which is largely a power to imitate. These reflections appear in the essay that follows in the Reader next and which is entitled Imitation of Nature: Toward a Prehistory of the Idea of the Creative Being (1957).

In the immediately following essay, entitled Phenomenological Aspects on Life-World and Technization (1963), Blumenberg traces out the transformation of the intuition of life into a totalization of world-horizon and the consequent objectification of the life-world. This transformation sets the stage for the thoroughgoing displacement of nature by the “second nature.” The displacement that Blumbenberg outlined in The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem. Concretely, Blumenberg explains that “the intentionality of consciousness is fulfilled in the most comprehensive horizon of horizons—in the ‘world’ as the regulative pole-idea of all possible experience, the system that keeps all possibilities of experience in a final harmony, and in which alone what is given to experience can prove itself to be real” (356). This unification and fulfilment of intentionality as and in the world prepares the stage for the transformation of the world into an object. This happens because of the identification that takes place between the world-totality “in which alone what is given to experience can prove itself to be real” (356) and the fact that, for Husserl, according the Blumenberg, it is “in the ‘world’ as the horizon of all horizons [that] objecthood is likewise isolated and stressed” (356). Not only that, but also “’Nature,’ [which] is essential for our topic—is the result of such emphasis. It is thus not equiprimordial to world but a derivative, already constricted objective horizon. Nature, so much can already be seen, cannot be the counterconcept to technology, for already in the concept of nature itself we find a deformation—an emphasis—of the original world-structure” (356). Since the latter is object-skewed, also nature is not free from objectification and is already prepared for being worked over and substituted with or nullified through the “second nature,” i.e., through the all-encompassing technological transformation. However, Blumenberg does not assign to Husserl the blame for this transformation, instead Blumenberg’s “Husserl is only concerned with making visible in exemplary fashion how disastrous in the broadest sense human action can be where it no longer knows what it is doing, and with exposing what one might call active ignorance as the root of all those disoriented activities that have produced human helplessness in the technical world” (367). The counterpoint and a saving force to this onslaught of “active ignorance” and in the face of a thoroughgoing technicization, has to do with our reorientation toward the intuitive, sensible, and aesthetic dimension of life.

The remaining essays in Part III, as well as Blumenberg’s engagement with various literary and philosophical figures and thinkers such as Socrates, Valéry, Kafka, Freud, Faulkner, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Aesop (among others) point the way to this aesthetic reorientation. For example, in Socrates and the Object Ambigu: Paul Valéry’s Discussion of the Ontology of the Aesthetic Object and Its Tradition, Blumenberg engages with Valéry’s Eupalinos or the Architect and the accounts of noetic construction and the role of necessity in the Timaeus; Aristotle’s unmoved mover; as well as reflections on beauty and finitude from the point of view of the Phaedrus. Blumenberg concludes that “the Socrates of Valéry’s dialogue does not arrive at an aesthetic attitude toward the objet ambigu because he insists on the question, definition, and classification of the object—thereby deciding to become a philosopher. The aesthetic attitude,” Blumenberg continues as he contrasts it to the Socrates of Valéry, “lets the indeterminacy stand, it achieves the pleasure specific to it by relinquishing theoretical curiosity, which in the end demands and must demand univocity in the determination of its objects. The aesthetic attitude,” in the final analysis, “accomplishes less because it tolerates more and lets the object be strong on its own rather than letting it be absorbed by the questions posed to it in its objectivation” (434). The attitude for which Blumenberg argues, then, is a kind of intuitive, aesthetic, deeply pleasurable – and having offered a reconstruction of theoria, I can also say – an originary contemplative attitude that immerses us into the world and thereby allows the world to show itself to us anew.

The closing set of selections in Part IV of the Reader offers Blumenberg’s analyses of philosophically significant literature, which I see as a kind of propaedeutic to the aesthetic, metaphoric, nonconceptual, but originarily theoretical thinking and being in the world. Thus, in The Concept of Reality and the Possibility of the Novel (1964) essay, Blumenberg examines the relationship between truth, poetry, nature, and imitation in its literary and historical unfolding. This multi-disciplinary and cross-historical examination is characteristic of Blumenberg’s style of analysis. He moves through Plato, Aristotle, Scholasticism, the Renaissance, and on to the emergence of the concept of the absurd. In the final analysis, Blumenberg claims about the novel that it does not need to take on the guise of the absurd or be guided by it as a concept (502). The sphere of possibilities that the novel encompasses and iterates surpasses the straightforward mimetic schema where culture seeks to imitate nature. Because of this, the novel does not run aground once this schema shatters against the absurdity of life where nature has become infused with culture through and through; subtended in the conceptual delimitation of its object within a world-horizon; or displaced by means of technological dissolution of the natural being of the world. These latter eventualities call for a break-through and an overcoming by means of the absurd, but the novel circumvents this need, because the novel serves as “the extension of the sphere of the humanly [and not naturally] possible” (502). What does this mean concretely in terms of the philosophical mode of reflection and thought? Blumenberg’s answer is forthcoming in the essay entitled Pensiveness (1980), which is both a prelude to the more whimsical selections in this Reader and also offers Blumenberg’s estimation of the task and value of philosophy. Blumenberg first lets us know that “pensiveness is … a respite from the banal results that thought provides for us as soon as we ask about life and death, meaning and meaninglessness, being and nothingness” (517). In this formulation, pensiveness evokes both Descartes’ resolve to waver and to be of a wandering, instead of a weak mind (Discourse on Method Part 3) and also Heidegger’s call to authentic openness in anticipatory resoluteness or Entschlossenheit (Being and Time Sect. 54). Blumenberg goes on to offer us his “conclusion—since I must present one because of my profession—is that philosophy has something to preserve, if not revive, from its life-world origin in pensiveness” (517). This is both lyrical and evocative, as well as a methodologically rigorous a conclusion.

Although the Reader does not end here, I would like to close my review with the following quotation that expresses both a recommendation and a challenge that Blumenberg issues to us. “Philosophy must not be bound, therefore, to particular expectations about the nature of its product. The connection back to the life-world would be destroyed if philosophy’s right to question were limited through the normalization of answers, or even through the obligation of disciplining the questions by beginning with the question of their answerability” (517).

Alphonso Lingis: Irrevocable: A Philosophy of Mortality, University of Chicago Press, 2018

Irrevocable: A Philosophy of Mortality Couverture du livre Irrevocable: A Philosophy of Mortality
Alphonso Lingis
University of Chicago Press
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