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).