Nel van den Haak
While Adorno and others maintained that, after the Second World War, poetry and philosophy are impossible, Blumenberg belonged to that group of post-war, German philosophers committed to exploring what would be possible in and with philosophy. Did Blumenberg succeed in this endeavour, and is that why some today find his work inspiring?
This new volume by Felix Heidenreich examines the operation of the work of Blumenberg, focusing on the operation of his metaphorology as political metaphorology. Yet he does not merely inquire into Blumenberg’s metaphorology. Indeed, there is a certain ambiguity in the title Politische Metaphorologie Hans Blumenberg heute. Hans Blumenberg heute is surely a more expansive topic than his metaphorology. What is the book about?
The book is structured as follows. In chapters 1-6 the author approaches metaphorology as philosophy, or more broadly as thought movement, thinking style. Chapter 6, on myth, is transitional, with chapters 7 and 8 being explicitly about political metaphorology. In chapter 9 the relationship of politics, morals, and truth is the central theme, with a focus on the political character of metaphorology. Chapter 10, the closing chapter, returns to the core question: What can we do with or make of Blumenberg’s philosophy and with his metaphorology?
The first chapter elaborates the core question: What is the operation of Blumenberg’s work? Thus it is clear that the book will not be an introduction to Blumenberg’s work (enough manuals are already available) nor an argument for a single thesis. Rather, it is a search for an answer to the question of what we are able to make of Blumenberg. Instead of a doxography, the author prioritizes investigation as a style of thinking. He wants to offer something other than the usual perspective, moving away from the question “What does Blumenberg say?” and towards the questions, “How does Blumenberg operate?” and “Is it possible to continue this operation?” By investigating these questions as paradigms, as examples of a working style and thinking style, the book attempts to contribute to the self-understanding of philosophy, as well.
The second chapter focuses on Die Legitimität der Neuzeit (1965), the book that made Blumenberg famous. Blumenberg examines European intellectual history, arguing that the modern representation of the self-assertion of the human, the representation that the human uses to take his fate into his own hands, is that by which he can and must transform his world. European modernity is thus not opposed to the Christian world, but procreated by it. The author refers to Anselm Haverkamp, who argues that Blumenberg at the end of the 1960s was conceived as left or progressive philosopher not least because of this book. In Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, the concept of rearrangement is important. Blumenberg’s conception of rearrangement suggests that themes and arguments exist in a functional coherence, in which separate elements can be exchanged and altered, but that there is no absolute “point zero,” an originary place from which new interpretations spring. Since every new idea arises from combinations of existing narratives, concepts, and metaphors, intellectual history becomes a series of changes, rearrangements, and bricolages.
In the third chapter the central question is whether there are any constants in innovation dynamics. What connects the contemporary person to the human being of the Middle Ages, to the ancients, or even to primitive times? Classically, philosophical anthropology gives the answers here. For instance, Kant’s question, “What is man?”, establishes a telos of the human being: Man is substantially social, substantially seeking knowledge, substantially gifted with reason. But according to Blumenberg, this essential determination cannot be continued today. As opposed to the essentialism of traditional European philosophy, he asks the question of man in his own, narrative way. The author points to two strategies in this context. First, in Blumenberg’s narrative philosophy, in place of attributions of being come stories and histories; second, there is Blumenberg’s plea for the generation and use of descriptive categories. In stories and descriptions, Blumenberg’s goal is also to produce distance, not a vision of the absoluteness of reality. He aims for an integration of the phenomenological, first-person-perspective on the one hand and natural-anthropological, third-person perspective on the other. In doing so, his descriptions are strongly bound to historical and personal circumstances, so that culture becomes a shield against the absolutism of reality. To describe this project, Blumenberg uses the metaphor of “caves” that are not built of stone, but of histories, texts, theories woven into houses. Thus, in his last major monograph, Höhlenausgänge (1989), the history of European philosophy becomes a series of cave metaphors. Yet, in contrast to Blumenberg’s emphasis on distance, Heidenreich argues that man is a being who alternates between distance and intimacy, and aligns one with the other.
In the fourth chapter the author discusses the relationship between culture and technology in Blumenberg’s anthropological variations. Not only do humans have means to anticipate danger and to prevent it, but animals also have rudimentary forms of technology: they build nests, communicate, and reap the benefits of their labour. Technology does not contrast with the world, but comes from it. The author applies Blumenberg’s concepts to phenomena that Blumenberg himself never described: digitisation, the Internet, development of self-learning machines. What do these technologies mean for people? They affect us by transforming us into data-producers and consumers. So, here, there appears to be a fruitful way to build on Blumenberg’s anthropological approach to technology.
In the fifth chapter the author points out something more explicitly about Blumenberg’s approach to anthropology and to rhetoric. Anthropological arguments always carry the danger of a certain reductionism. How does Blumenberg face this danger? As already indicated, for Blumenberg, description constants replace essence determinations. And while Blumenberg follows Kant in directing his thinking against a certain pathos of reason, his more powerful contribution is to rehabilitate a justification for rhetoric. Such rehabilitation is necessary because rhetoric has for too long been perceived primarily as an art of seduction. In contract, for Blumenberg, rhetoric is a technique of delay, a substitute for violence. Blumenberg is not so much interested in the rationality of rhetoric as he is in its formalising, delaying, and deflecting effect. In this context, Blumenberg’s understanding of education or Bildung as a kind of distancing or refusal to be impulsive is important. For Blumenberg, political education is not about rhetoric as display or framing, but about rhetoric as a kind of exercise in slowness and thoughtfulness. Nevertheless, rhetoric and metaphor do not always slow down, but can make things more complex, confuse, enthuse, but also oversimplify, leading to questionable cognitive “shortening.”
Criticism of an “essentializing anthropology”, which is based on a given being of man, cannot neglect to hold on to description constants, as already indicated. Chapter 6 starts with Blumenberg’s central thesis of the complexity reduction via narrative by man: Man likes to keep the world off the body and live with the things he experiences by telling himself and others a history. In this view, anthropology is systematically intertwined with myth. The foundational hypothesis here is that man as a narrative, myth-forming, myth-gathering being can never fully outgrow the premodern techniques of world-conquering. From chapter 6 onwards, the book moves towards Blumenberg’s political metaphorology. This chapter, not yet explicit about this, functions as a transition.
In German-language post-war philosophy, myth is a major field of study, and Blumenberg plays a central role in the intense struggle concerning how to understand myth and its function (the origins of this discussion are found in Carl Schmitt, Ernst Cassirer, and Albert Camus). According to Blumenberg, myths organize chaos. The first detailed and explicit presentation of the theme of myth theory can be found in Blumenberg’s contribution to the band on Probleme der Mythenrezeption (1968) under the title “Wirklichkeitsbegriff und Wirkungspotential des Mythos”, on how myth production and myth reception relate to each other. Yet it is Blumenberg’s monograph Arbeit am Mythos (1979) that dogma becomes central, and with it a questioning of the Christian tradition. Unlike Plato, Blumenberg does not pit myth against logos, but instead opposes it to dogma. In particular, he conceives myth as liberal and open in the face of the closedness and authoritarian character of dogma. At the end of the 1960s, this view produced the Blumenberg –Taubes controversy. Whereas Jacob Taubes stressed that the myth can also become anti-liberal, even becoming a means of spreading terror, Blumenberg has no plausible reply. He does write about the Hitler myth, but simply assumes that myth must be ambiguity-tolerant and ambiguous. Nevertheless, even ambiguity can be dangerous, as evidenced by the ideological promiscuity of the national socialist elite. Heidenreich concludes, I think quite rightly, that the outlining the form of thought and presentation of myth does not yet say anything about its content, a point Blumenberg largely missed.
In the seventh chapter, Blumenberg’s investigation of metaphor, as developed in his Paradigmen zu einer Metaphor (1960), takes centre stage. Indeed, Paradigms is Blumenberg’s methodically most important text, and perhaps the one for which he is most famous. Heidenreich argues that with this text Blumenberg opened up an entire field of research within philosophy, its important offshoot emerging, for example, in Ralf Konersmann’s Wörterbuch der philosophischen Metaphern (2007).
What is the core of metaphorology? The author indicates that this question is not easy to answer. The term suggests that it is a scientific treatment of metaphors, so that metaphorology relates to metaphor formation as a kind of reflexive science. But the significance of the project only becomes clear when it is placed in relation to the history of understanding, something that Blumenberg himself never accomplished. When concepts shape our thinking, the historically informed handling of these concepts becomes a requirement of controlled thinking. I think this implicitly shows a focus on the content of metaphors, but that is not yet an answer to the question of what metaphorology is. So, the question arises again: is metaphorology just the history of metaphors (akin to the history of concepts, which includes the history of their content) or a theory of metaphor and its function?
Another important question arises in this connection: Are metaphors ornaments or are they more fundamental? The view that metaphors should be understood not as an appendage but as a foundation of human language, is usually traced back to Nietzsche’s text Über Lüge und Wahrheit im aussermoralischen Sinne (1896). This is a central question about metaphor, but is it addressed by metaphorology? Blumenberg refers to Nietzsche, but offers no extended discussion, nor is Heidenreich clear on this point.
Heidenreich does point out that Blumenberg’s metaphorological texts have been compared to topos research. A classic objection to topos research is its associative character. One jumps among text types, eras, and reception contexts, to compare similar usage modes. But this purely associative linking counters Blumenberg’s approach, which looks to a structuring background narrative, as in Licht als Metapher der Wahrheit (1957). The decisive distinction between a metaphor-collecting topos-research and a metaphorological study is the presence in the latter of an historical thesis, which organizes the material. The concept of “Leitfossile” (leading fossils) is significant here. It means that metaphorology must assume significant cases in any given period, without which it would become a collection of bare materials.
The detection of analogies itself leads to thinking in analogies, for Blumenberg. Thus, the question arises: do people constitute metaphors or do metaphors constitute people? For Blumenberg, the study of metaphor shows that texts know more than their writers, since reality speaks through them. According to Heidenreich, this observation means that people do not have ideas, but ideas have people. But this leads to a methodological difficulty concerning the capacity of metaphorology to oversee the context of its research objects. This question about the relationship of metaphors and people, which appears in various places, seems to be a blind spot in the book, since the author never makes it thematic nor takes any real position on it.
Chapter 8 raises the key issue: what is political metaphorology? In Blumenberg, the word combination of political metaphorology does not occur. Heidenreich wants to investigate how metaphors themselves become political, and hence to understand how metaphors exercise power. His concern is not so much about metaphors within the history of ideas as it is about intellectual martial art, which keeps out questionable ideas. But it seems to me that one need not choose between the polemical function of metaphors, and metaphors as guiding fossils. Again, as far as I am concerned, the author does not offer a lucid treatment of this ambiguity in the functions of metaphor.
The author points out that the dimension of power in Blumenberg’s metaphorology remains implicit, but the next chapter considers political, military, and violent metaphors in the work of Blumenberg and of his pupils. It has long been acknowledged that such metaphors can lead from the point of view of theoretical knowledge. But, then, why is this discussion of violent metaphor necessary? Do these metaphors have depth, or do they serve as merely collective concepts? The same question can be asked about the author’s digressions about Brexit and about the French yellow jackets. Heidenreich even says that metaphors can at once be deadly and guiding. But the point of this observation eludes me. Perhaps we are once again asking whether metaphors form us or whether we form metaphors, but the discussion here does not gain any clarity on that question.
Though they do not resolve this crucial question, the author mentions several valuable features of Blumenberg’s approach. First, Blumenberg’s work clarifies the great relevance of cultural contexts and historical connotations to understanding metaphor: as a phenomenologist, Blumenberg knows that we always “see more than we see.” Second, Blumenberg’s approach makes it possible to consider the mixing of metaphors and myths. Indeed, metaphors can be understood as “micro-myths” insofar as they already have a narrative structure and are in many cases woven into larger narrative, which may even have its own mythical connections. Third, we learn something from Blumenberg about the dynamics of realignment.
The author then elaborates on the metaphorology of “the ship of state” and the question of the democratic “captain,” following Blumenberg’s Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer (1979). Here he refers in passing to Blumenberg’s analyses of the nautical metaphors that unfold in a Bundestag debate. The discussion of this example shows mainly how difficult a good political metaphor can be to unpack.
The author raises another methodically decisive question in this context: do these metaphors guide political relationships ornamentally, or do they have a real, channeling effect? How exactly should the relationship between expression and the expressed be understood here? Metaphors are plastic, so even the limited image of the state ship branches into a variety of theories and themes. Do metaphors really form our thought and action, or do we form metaphors as ornaments to our pre-existing ideologies and decisions? Could it be that metaphors are not deep guide fossils but rather a kind of surface foam?
The author tends somewhat towards the surface foam view. He holds, in a stronger way than Blumenberg himself, that one must assume the incoherence of human metaphor use. Blumenberg imagines that leading metaphors fundamentally pre-structure our view of the world, of which we ourselves are parts. In this view, metaphors are incoherent in the sense that they do not push our thinking through a single compelling channel, but rather through a complex network as in Venice, with side arms, dead-ends, main and side canals. Modernisation also contributes to this pluralisation, since in the absence of an absolute metaphor, there is rather a horizon of meanings, that terminate in one another. Our use of metaphors, including those that form political communication, is a bricolage.
For Heidenreich, the toolbox of Blumenberg’s political metaphor, unlike its pure framing analysis, provides an historically grounded analysis of primary philosophical leading metaphors. Against this background, the author indicates what he believes an integrative political metaphorology should look like. He makes a attempt at systematization, guided by a maxims of political metaphorology:
- Analyse the entire network of image fields! Metaphors are semantic compactions, or nets of concepts that refer to one other. For instance, consider the field of architectural metaphors such as buildings and houses, foundations, pillars or struts, and so on. Each metaphor in the network is constituted as a member of a metaphor family, the members of which, in Wittgenstein’s sense, bear a certain family resemblance to one another.
- Familiarize yourself with important matters! A broadening of the metaphorological programme concerns the exposure of technical historical and social contexts. For example, light can become a metaphor for truth because people see in light but not in the dark. When Blumenberg analyses the ‘Licht als Metapher der Wahrheit’, this analysis gains depth by examining the history of the luminous agent at the same time.
- Ignore media boundaries! This is not Blumenberg’s, though today it is trivial. It is precisely the manifestations of metaphor in the mass media that have the greatest political effect.
- Specify the character of the metaphor’s leadership! The most difficult step in political metaphorology is to show that there is not only strategic use of ornamental metaphors, but also a leading function in metaphor itself. Yet, according to Heidenreich, even Blumenberg often fails to show this.
In the end, the author also stresses that a political metaphor in the continuation of Blumenberg’s work has a deconstructive character: Metaphorology is hardly focused on the question of whether metaphor is “correct”, but will only make explicit what connotations and implications are built in; the metaphors of people in the struggle for the appropriate expression must be understood analytically.
Chapter 9 focuses on the relationship between politics, morality, and truth, based on Hannah Arendt’s writing on the Eichmann trial. The question of truth here is focused on the truth of the existence of evil, while Arendt emphasizes the banality of evil. Though it takes effort to see what relevance this has to metaphorology, the link seems to be that political metaphorology must be guided in terms of power and democracy, and therefore also in terms of good and evil. Blumenberg blames Hannah Arendt for creating the myth of everyday – and thus innocent – evil, by portraying Eichmann as a stupid pawn. I will not go into the discussion between Blumenberg and Arendt about Eichmann, because recent research on Eichmann has shed new light on her assessment of the man and his crimes.
What is important is how we value myth-making. According to Blumenberg, collective myths can have a function. The unsustainability of their imagination does not have to be presented to the weak. As a means of defensive self-confidence, community-forming myths can be legitimate. Myths and truth thus become pharmaka, substances whose use presupposes a context-related clarity. But how can myth distinguish between right and wrong? When is a political myth useful for self-defence and when does it become hegemonic? Blumenberg lacks an answer to these questions, according to Heidenreich, for principled reasons. These questions depend on common sense and practical experience that is indicated in traditional philosophy with the concept of phronesis or prudentia. Because these are eminently practical questions, there is no rule that can be used to answer them. So, Heidenreich argues, there is no moral philosophy in Blumenberg, or at least nothing that solves these practical questions. But if that’s right, does this disqualify Blumenberg’s metaphorology from being political?
Chapter 10 turns to a key question in Blumenberg’s thinking: Where can philosophy still be practiced? As Heidenreich portrays it, Blumenberg gets rid of hard dividing lines of classical philosophy: the image of rhetoric as the enemy of philosophy disappears, myth is no longer directly opposed to reason. Blumenberg is taken as a representative of a soft, empathetic, deconstructive philosophy that allows authors, theories, and perspectives to manifest their metaphorical, time-bound and literary assumptions. But what does Blumenberg have to say about the mission of academic philosophy? Does philosophy disappear into scholarly writing, argument and insight into essayistic commentary?
For Blumenberg himself, it was internal philosophical doubt that makes a certain representation of the profession questionable. He is also clear in his rejection of the usefulness or applicability of philosophy. Heidenreich agrees that the current culture puts research projects under heavy time pressure, a problem already stressed by Blumenberg. Blumenberg opposed the instrumentalization of philosophy by industry, its economization. But since for him, theory was already form of praxis, he also saw little interest in the left-wing thinkers’ demand for the coherence of theory and revolutionary political praxis. The idea that theory could produce solutions to social problems, must have struck him as naïve.
One problem that presents itself in interpreting Blumenberg is that he left few programmatic texts in that set out his intentions. Yet Blumenberg clearly has a narrative style intended to allow one to consider objects from different perspectives, to explore detours and side roads, and to slow down and to express doubts. He allows for impressions to be processed in freedom without immediately reaching a judgment. Blumenberg is therefore very much in a phenomenological tradition. But according to Heidenreich, this narrative style is not dialogical, so the reader is left wondering how any statement could be contradicted or corrected. Perhaps narrative and dialogical philosophy could indeed develop further together, without contradiction, but for further answers about Blumenberg’s philosophy, a lot of research is needed.
But could Blumenberg’s ideas nevertheless help us understand the leading metaphors of the present day? According to Heidenreich, the great potential of Blumenberg’s approach lies in the careful deconstructive effect of a consistent survey of unselected background metaphors and narrative structures, and the apparent plasticity of meanings within that structure. Analysis should focus not only on dramatic metaphors, such as “struggle” but also on less conspicuous metaphors. With Blumenberg, we can initiate the questioning of those images, which in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s words “hold us captive.” Metaphorology is thus at once a cultural techniques and a reflective approach to meaning that may ultimately be more than a deconstructive act.
Although the book contains much of interest, its investigation of the main question, about the politics of Blumenberg’s metaphorology, makes no real reference to Blumenberg’s own conception of politics. The author writes as if Blumenberg approached politics as a necessary evil, about which philosophy does not have to make much of a fuss. And to be sure, we rarely find an explicit discussion of the political in Blumenberg. It does arise, however, in his discussions of political theology, in which he questions traditional views on human nature. Similarly, in his posthumous book Beschreibung des Menschen (2007) (Description of the Human), he treats the state not so much as representing the citizens, but as prevailing over them. That’s a little different than seeing the politics as a necessary evil. Perhaps Blumenberg does politicize philosophy, just in a very different way than Heidenreich would like.
A few other criticisms I made in passing can also be made more explicit. First, no clear definition of metaphor is offered. Since metaphorology is a reflection on metaphors, this makes it a little difficult to grasp what the book is reflecting on. More importantly, in Heidenreich’s argument, metaphor and metaphorology are often mixed, which leads to ambiguities, particularly when he asks about the political operation of metaphor. In many places in the book, he wants to draw on the politically operational nature of metaphors as understood by Blumenberg. But a politically operative metaphor need not depend on politically-operational metaphorology, nor would a non-politically-operational metaphor detract from a politically-operational metaphorology. By the end of the book, the author seems to agree with Blumenberg’s broad understanding of the political dimensions of metaphor, as thinking routines. But since this emerges only at the end of the book, much of the earlier discussion remains ambiguous.
Another criticism is that the author is not always sharp about which point he wants to make, especially when he asks whether we form metaphors or whether metaphors form us. This question is regularly run together with the question of whether a metaphor is a superficial ornament or a guiding or channeling idea, e.g.
The methodically decisive question now is: do these metaphors guide purely ornamental world and political relationships or do they actually have a channeling effect? How exactly should the relationship between expression and the expressed be understood here? …… Do metaphors really channel or do we form metaphors? (90)
We see that the author shifts to the second question, without the first question being answered. But whether a metaphor is ornamental or channelling, does not seem to bear on whether man determines it.
If humans are creators of language, they can produce both superficial metaphors and channeling ideas. But perhaps the author has a different view, and he believes that a metaphor can be a guiding idea, only if man is guided, and not creative himself. The author could have offered a clearer argument by drawing on the extensive French philosophical discourse on this subject (e.g. the work of Lacan, Kristeva, and Ricoeur).
Ultimately, it could be the case that Heidenreich fails to find unity in Blumenberg’s work simply because it is not there. Blumenberg hardly mentions metaphorology in his later work, perhaps because Gadamer in Wahrheid und Methode (1960) has sharply worked out this theme. Blumenberg moved on to myth and incomprehensibility, themes that mark a deepening of his phenomenology. The connection with the earlier work is increasingly loose and unclear, and it becomes increasingly difficult to see the political significance in his later work. Nevertheless, despite these concerns, with Politische Metaphorology: Hans Blumenberg Heute, Heidenreich has produced a rich book that provides a welcome, fresh look at Blumenberg’s work.