In Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität, Andreas Beinsteiner sets out to reconceive Heidegger’s central term “Being” as mediality. The overarching goal of the book is twofold: giving a coherent interpretation of the meaning of Being throughout Heidegger’s oeuvre, as well as contributing to the foundational thought of media studies. In doing so, Beinsteiner takes a cue from Dieter Mersch, whose concept of “negative mediality” is based on the assumption that what constitutes the mediality of media has yet to be philosophically elucidated. The “manifest justification deficit of the media concept” (Mersch 2015, 19) could be remedied, Beinsteiner argues, with Heidegger’s thinking of Being. Thirty-seven years before Marshall McLuhan famously pronounced that “the medium is the message”, shifting the focus on the elusive role the medium itself plays in the process of mediation, Heidegger had similarly discovered the constitutive withdrawal of Being itself in the unconcealment of beings (205). The role of mediality is thereby expanded beyond that of media in the strict sense. By looking at Heidegger’s philosophy, Beinsteiner suggests that the way we experience digital media, but also art and technology in the broader sense, has to be grasped from how we experience anything at all, in other words, how we come to experience the Being of beings. As he makes clear in later chapters of his book, Beinsteiner is convinced that Heidegger does not just speak to the fundamental mediality of our being in the world, but also to specific modern forms of mediality of technology, such as autonomously operating machines. The aim of the book is of philosophical and media theoretical interest not just because it aims at laying the groundwork for a concept of mediality, based on a close reading of Heidegger’s philosophy up to his later years, but also because this reading promises an integrated account of mediality, comprising its fundamental and specific aspects equally.
In the first two thirds of the book, Beinsteiner develops this idea vis-à-vis central concepts found in Heidegger’s works, such as presence, event and equipment. In Sein und Zeit, the interested involvement which unveils Being as equipment (Zeug), putting me in a pragmatic mode in which I use this equipment without thinking about its significance, is conceived as a paradigmatic case of mediality. It is not just my existence, being oriented around the care of the being that I am, which mediates the concernful handling of equipment. It is also the equipment as concrete artifact that helps to shape my access to the world. Thus, “contrary to the dominant anti-hermeneutical reading of Heidegger in media studies” (33), artifacts play a central role in the constitution of mediality and the mediation of sense. Mediality here is shown to depend on an interplay of our pre-understanding (Vorverständnis) for equipment to even be recognized as such (a requirement that Beinsteiner shows to be based on Heidegger’s understanding of Platonic ideas) as well as the material artifact, in which understanding, purpose and craftsmanship have coagulated into a being which mediates our access to the world in different ways. Here, basic Heideggerian terminology such as availableness (Zuhandenheit) and occurrentness (Vorhandenheit) are coherently interpreted as modes of mediality. While the scope of the meaning of being in Sein und Zeit seems to follow the paradigm of the availability of being-as-equipment, in later writings Heidegger thinks of the meaning of Being as taking on historical proportions: the meaning of Being concerns historicity, instead of the temporality of an individual existence (51). Yet across the Kehre, mediality retains its central significance for how Heidegger thinks Being. Thus, Beinsteiner argues for a continuity and an expansion between Heidegger’s earlier and later writings, instead of a break, based on the interpretation of Being as mediality.
Throughout the book, a consistent vocabulary is developed to capture this continuity. The early Heidegger’s concern with the meaning of finite existence is conceived by Beinsteiner as the “existential-hermeneutical as” (existentialhermeneutisches als). The “as”, that Being appears as is hermeneutically motivated, following the existential structure of existence. In other words, how we grasp Being, e.g. via equipment, language and mood, is a matter of the constitution of Dasein’s being in the world. In later Heidegger, the way Being discloses the world is still a question of the “as” of Being. But to account for the historical dimension of Heidegger’s questioning, Beinsteiner now speaks of Being appearing as “regimes of accessibility” (Zugänglichkeitsregime), which imply an unavoidable reduction of the ambiguity of Being, i.e. mediality. The regime (or paradigm) of accessibility is what pre-selects the way in which Being is perceived (vernommen). Just as the manners of being (Seinsarten) in Sein und Zeit are shown to be forms of mediality, the historical regimes of Being (roughly, physis in Antiquity, creation in Medieval Times and subjective representation beginning in Modernity) turn out to be forms in which Being is collectively understood. Through this synthetical reading of early and later Heidegger, Beinsteiner is able to demonstrate a basic selectivity of mediality, which spans the understanding of individual being, Being as a whole as well as the selectivity of accessibility to Being itself (65).
The latter aspect is especially important as Heidegger’s interest is not just in discussing the multivalence of Being in existential or historical terms, but more fundamentally in showing that the way Being can be grasped, perceived and understood, is irreducible to any one meaning. According to Beinsteiner, Heidegger comes closest to the idea of Being as mediality when discussing Being in terms of immediacy and mediatedness:
“What is first present in all gathers everything isolated together into a single presence and mediates to each thing its appearing. Immediate allpresence is the mediator for everything mediated, that is, for the mediate. The immediate is itself never something mediate; on the other hand, the immediate, strictly speaking, is the mediation, that is, the mediatedness of the mediated, because it renders the mediated possible in its essence.” (Heidegger 2000, 84).
“Das in allem zuvor Gegenwärtige [d.h. die physis, AB] versammelt alles Vereinzelte in die eine Anwesenheit und vermittelt Jeglichem das Erscheinen. Die unmittelbare Allgegenwart ist die Mittlerin für alles Vermittelte und d.h. für das Mittelbare. Das Unmittelbare [die physis] ist selbst nie ein Mittelbares, wohl dagegen ist das Unmittelbare, streng genommen, die Vermittelung, d.h. die Mittelbarkeit des Mittelbaren, weil sie dieses in seinem Wesen ermöglicht.” (cited in Beinsteiner, 76f)
In opening and selecting our access to the world, Being (or mediality) takes on the double role of immediate allpresence and mediation. Being is immediate, insofar as everything we perceive is necessarily a manner of it. Yet Being is mediation, since it is never grasped in itself, but only in a certain way. Being is immediate mediation or mediated immediacy. From this, Beinsteiner concludes that “nothing is immediate, except for mediality” (77), while also conceding that grasping this “accessibility of accessibility” confronts us with a fundamental difficulty in thinking about the unconcealment of Being.
Yet neither for Heidegger nor Beinsteiner does this constitute a purely epistemological issue. One of the challenges in interpreting Heidegger lies exactly in characterizing the meaning of Being itself, and the role of the philosopher in taking up this meaning. Beinsteiner’s approach is to grasp this as a fundamentally ethical question: to be sensitive to the irreducible meaning of Being and to become aware of the historical and philosophical contingency of a specific regime of accessibility is to increase one’s own freedom, whereas to insist on an established form of mediality without even realizing its ontological antecedents is to become less free. While this may be characterized as the individual’s share in the exercise of freedom, equally important for Beinsteiner’s interpretation is the fact the specific regime of mediality precedes individual thinking and understanding. Taking up the idea of thrownness (Geworfenheit), Beinsteiner deems this the “ek-sistential disempowerment” (ek-sistentiale Depotenzierung) of human beings. In other words, the fact that we are always already participating in the modes of Being of a certain regime cannot be overcome by philosophical reflection. The “thinking of Being” will not lead to a supreme position from where all its meanings unfold in a cohesive picture. No matter how many ways of Being’s mediality are grasped, neither any one of them, nor their totality, amounts to a grasping of Being itself.
Instead, Beinsteiner takes Heidegger’s thinking of the event as the paradigmatic case in which the sensitivity for Being’s irreducible and abyssal meaning is articulated. Since his discussion is mostly restricted to the works published in his lifetime, Heidegger’s thinking of the event is considered only cursorily. Yet what matters to Beinsteiner’s approach is that the event is what brings us closest to the contingency of the being we perceive. To understand the event (the happening of Being) as event means refocusing thinking from one’s immediate engagement with ontic things towards that which makes this engagement possible. Grasping the fact that Being happens enables us to realize the openness in which we stand as reasonable (vernünftig or vernehmend) beings. The exercise of freedom, according to this interpretation, is this movement or “stepping back”, as Heidegger calls it in his Beiträge zur Philosophie, which decenters our place in the world and which simultaneously makes thinkable our taking place in the world, which is inseparable from Being, taking on a specific meaning. Beinsteiner connects this exercise of freedom with Heidegger’s terminology of comportment (Verhaltenheit) and releasement (Gelassenheit), the latter taking the place of the former in the writings after the Second World War (145). The two terms express a somewhat different attitude towards abyssal Being, Verhaltenheit insinuates a timidity and hesitation, while Gelassenheit seems to emphasize a receptive and patient attitude. The semantics get plausibly streamlined so that in Beinsteiner’s interpretation, both terms are shown to attempt to think the necessary selectiveness of our access to the world.
In Heidegger’s own writings, the thinking of the event is often, though not always in a clear way, connected to the mediality of language. Language is what lets things be, it enables the meaningful grasping of things. In this sense, Beinsteiner speaks of the “as-like structure” (alshafte Struktur) of language. In speaking and hearing language, something can be thought, perceived or grasped as something. Language is medium of sense as well as mediality, because in using language we are not merely participating in a specific regime of accessibility, but we are shaping and changing its mechanism of selectivity. Thus, a poem might make us see a statue in a completely new way and Descartes, in writing a meditation about the nature of his mind, helps to create and stabilize subjectivity, making possible a new understanding of our being in the world which becomes our representation. These examples are to suggest that the thinking of Being in Heidegger doubtlessly relies on language as a key paradigm of mediality, though it certainly is not exclusively a philosophy of language. In arguing that Heidegger strives to critically examine and question the meaning of a regime of accessibility by broadening the scope (Spielraum) of how we understand the meaning of being (169), Beinsteiner seems to concur with the emphasis on language without clearly separating the mediality of language from Being as mediality. The “politics of reinterpretation” (172) that Heidegger is said to put into motion presumably operates on different levels of mediality.
This equivocality might be due to the interpretative decision underlying the whole book, which is to understand Being as mediality. The expression of the “mediality of Being” used above is thus not wholly accurate, as it is not Being itself which mediates our access to the world but mediality in its stead. Beinsteiner speaks of a “forgetting of mediality” (Medialitätsvergessenheit) instead of a Seinsvergessenheit, and a “history of mediality” (Medialitätsgeschichte) instead of a Seinsgeschichte to indicate the shift his interpretation operates. Yet it seems to me that the reconfiguration of the ontological difference between Being/beings (Sein/Seiendes) as Medialität/Seiendes is not fully reflected upon. The notion that all beings refer to mediality has different implications than their referral to Being: beings are of Being, in the sense that Being ontologically comprises what beings are, whether this be in a more general, immediate or truer fashion. One of the momentous assumptions of Sein und Zeit was the idea that what is most proper to beings, their being (or Being) itself, has yet to be fully grasped. There is an intimate connection between Being and beings, which might be compared to the relationship between presence (Anwesenheit) und present things (Anwesendes), bearing in mind that presence for Heidegger is merely one way to understand Being temporally. But there is no such relationship, ontological or otherwise, between mediality and beings. Rather, when we understand the specific form of beings as due to an underlying mediality, this necessarily turns these beings themselves into media of this mediality and thus narrows their ontological meaning. While a being might be considered a unity in many ways (following Aristotles’ famous dictum of being as pollachos legomenon), a being that is the medium of mediality is already designated to present something as something else.
Possibly to avert such difficulties, Beinsteiner does not build his interpretation on the ontological difference of Being and beings, but instead suggests speaking of “a difference between mediality and the phenomenal” (42). While this solves the issue of the missing affinity between mediality and what it discloses, it raises another problem because it seemingly restricts phenomenality to what is made available by mediality, whereas in Heidegger there is a sense in which Being itself, even though it does not manifest itself in an ontic way, has a phenomenal quality as well. An essential aspect of the experience of the event consists in Being, in order to disclose beings, withdrawing itself. This withdrawal of Being, as Beinsteiner shows as well, is not something purely negative, but a concealment which can be experienced as such (198). Instead of a simple absence, concealment draws our attention to the fact that there is concealing. But when Beinsteiner quotes Heidegger in insisting that this concealment is one of the characteristics of artworks (200), an aesthetic or phenomenal quality is evidently involved. If it is thus correct to speak of a phenomenality of concealment, then what conceals itself (i.e. mediality in Beinsteiner’s interpretation) cannot be clearly distinguished from the phenomenal. It seems to me that this aesthetic aspect of withdrawal hinges on the intrinsic affinity between Being and beings, which is abandoned when replacing Being with mediality.
Would the situation have been different if mediality was not understood as replacing Being but instead as the way that Being discloses itself to us, in other words, if it was a matter of the mediality of Being? This would have added another conceptual layer between Being and beings, one in which Being would be grasped as itself in a concrete form. But this would turn Being into an absolute entity, existing beside beings. The strength of Heidegger’s philosophy, and one which is amply expounded in the book, is to resist hypostasizing either Being or beings as absolute, and instead implicating them in what Beinsteiner calls a constant “hermeneutical oscillation” (155ff). With Dieter Mersch, one could say that the question is not how Being is mediated, or how something can appear as something else, but instead how the “as” itself comes to be (Mersch 2015, 20). This in turn means that mediality, the “as itself”, is foundational, in the sense that it enables the appearance of something as something, but that it remains concealed, or rather, that it can only be noticed in the seamless way in which it operates ontic unconcealment.
The last third of the book deals with the specific forms mediality takes on, and the role of media in the usual sense of the word. These issues are tackled by Beinsteiner’s interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology, in which a dominant form of mediality threatens to permanently bar alternative accesses to phenomenality. In this approach, two things seem especially remarkable. Firstly, Beinsteiner forcefully argues for the idea that Heidegger’s thinking of technology is one of artefacts, not an abstract philosopher’s critique of the contemporary world, making an empirical turn against Heidegger unnecessary (237). Secondly, the different forms of “phenomenological artifacts”, comprising not just technological objects but also artworks, are seamlessly integrated into the idea of Being as mediality. Beinsteiner suggests that equipment and the artwork are two paradigmatic artifacts which refer to the maximum concealment (as technological Gestell) and unconcealment (as event) of mediality. In other words, these artifacts exist on a continuum of concealment, as it were, which either question and broaden the regime of accessibility, or by contrast, insist in it, naturalizing the criteria of accessibility to the point where they almost seem without alternative.
This latter stage is reached with technology when the handling of technological objects becomes more and more a manner of maintenance. With fully automated, interoperative machines, the scope of possible meanings diminishes in the face of efficient, planned and unceasing repetition. Beinsteiner emphasizes that this is not meant as a scathing critique, nor as a call to simpler times in which the relationship between techne and physis was less determined, but that it merely follows the logic of increased insistence within a specific regime of accessibility. While the whole argument of the book mostly focuses on Heidegger’s own writing, at this point a sideways glance to other contemporary theories of technology would have been interesting. Gilbert Simondon, in his On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (originally published in 1958) offers for instance a much more positive account of the relationship between man and automated machine, which is not merely one of maintenance but of engineering. More to the point of Heidegger, Simondon also constructs a genealogy of technical objects stretching back as far as animist theories. But in Simondon, increased levels of technological ingenuity are described as enabling more creativity and openness, based on the knowledge of the modes of existence of these technological objects. Thus, the complex inner workings of an automated machine present not merely a closed system to the outside observer, but an intricate set of ideas which have taken on a fixed form that can be amended and emended through playful experimentation. This creativity that is manifest in the complexity of the machine is not found in Heidegger. On the other hand, Heidegger’s philosophy of technology could be construed as a lifelong struggle with the “technological condition” of his own thinking, for instance as an underlying technological bias dating back as far as Sein und Zeit, where the world is disclosed in the form of technical or pragmatic affordances (Hörl 2008, 651f).
Some of the ambivalences in Heidegger’s view of the role of technology are conveyed by Beinsteiner’s concepts of the hermeneutics of the user and designer, respectively. Technological objects always entertain a complex relationship to their surrounding sense. They are not abstract functions, but first of all projected ideas. In their objective form, they are subject to the sense the user, as a hermeneutical creature makes, of them, just as their design is not merely the application of a form on matter, but an Entwurf and Zuwurf in which the possibility of unexpected discovery appears (246). In this sense, there is a Simondonian quality to Heidegger’s technological thinking. Outside the realm of subservience, technological artifacts may thus gain relevance in the play with accessibility.
In the last chapter, Beinsteiner draws some consequences from the fact that humans are constitutively related to media strictly speaking and to mediality broadly speaking. This exteriority, which is tied back to the basic condition of ek-sistence, is distinguished from concepts in which technology is understood as the extension of an interiority, like Ernst Kapps’s thesis of technology as organ projection. The argument Beinsteiner makes is that Heidegger does not think technology as an anthropological feature: technology will never determine what humans are, or vice versa, as it is just one part of a broader regime of accessibility which is always open to variability through language (283). This variability of language is also at play when Heidegger’s writing process is deemed a “media-philosophical strategy” (289) which mediates the volatile movement of thinking and the crystallization of thought in letters.
It is not just in this work-biographical self-attribution (Wege, nicht Werke is the epigram of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe) that Beinsteiner follows Heidegger. Throughout the book, it becomes clear that the defense of the coherence of the thesis of Being as mediality coincides with the defense of Heidegger’s philosophy itself. But in arguing for Heidegger’s continuous effort to hold open and question existing regimes of accessibility, the mediality elucidated by the interpretation appears much more uniform than Heidegger’s own term of Being, which, as Dasein or event, signifies quite different forms of mediality. It would have been thinkable, for instance, to distinguish mediality as disclosedness and as unconcealment, relative to the ontological framework in which mediality operates. I also disagree with Beinsteiner’s negative assessment of “critical Heidegger studies”, which historicize Heideggerian terminology, thus going against Heidegger’s own semantic intentions (173). On the next page, Beinsteiner warns that, for it not to seem dogmatic and authoritative, one has to follow closely Heidegger’s own “expanding reinterpretation” of metaphysical concepts to liberate and transform thinking (174). Thus, while Heidegger is granted maximum semantic freedom, reading him seems to require abstaining from calling his semantics into question. From this hermeneutical attitude also follows that the historicity of Being, i.e. mediality, remains elusive. In other words, the regime of accessibility is always already in place and we may increase our freedom by thinking its very mediality, but this remains an exercise of reason, not a media archaeology. Yet it would have been possible to grasp Heidegger’s thinking of mediality, especially as it relates to media in the strict sense, in a more empirical way, that is by consulting the invention and distribution of machines. Likewise, paradigm changes in artworks, for instance from figural to more abstract paintings, emphasizing the creative act rather than reproducing ontic features, might have played a role in describing the artwork as an event showing us the limits of our selectivity of accessibility. But the fact that Beinsteiner chose to follow Heidegger closely instead results in a very consistent interpretation, one which is able to convincingly incorporate ideas and terminology from early to late Heidegger.
Thus, the book succeeds in what it set out to do: providing a coherent interpretation of “Being” as mediality, which is shown to be of central importance for concrete media such as artworks, equipment and interoperative machines. Through this careful and thorough reading, Beinsteiner also exposes the limits of a mediality according to Heidegger, thereby laying out premises for media ontologies to come.
Heidegger, Martin. 2000. Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry. Translated by Keith Hoeller. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
Hörl, Erich. 2008. “Die offene Maschine. Heidegger, Günther und Simondon über die technologische Bedingung.” MLN 123(3): 632-655.
Mersch, Dieter. 2015. “Wozu Medienphilosophie? Eine programmatische Einleitung.” Internationales Jahrbuch für Medienphilosophie 1(1): 13-48.
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).
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.
It is a commonplace to say that digital media and communication technology have thoroughly transformed the world we live in. This is obvious to all of us. The impact of the digital revolution, however, is so immense that philosophy, in spite of a multitude of books and articles, has only started to get a grip on it, as far as that is possible at all. Although one might expect a large number of contributions of the hermeneutic tradition to the philosophical reflections on digital media, since these are mainly information and communication technologies, philosophical hermeneutics has remained relatively silent with regard to the new media.
Alberto Romele’s monograph Digital Hermeneutics is therefore a more than welcome intervention in the philosophical reflections on the new media. Romele has written a rich book that discusses many aspects of this complicated field of research. His book does not only develop a hermeneutic approach to digital media, it also shows the mutual influence of hermeneutic interpretation theory and the new media technology.
Romele’s approach is in line with the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Especially the notion of distanciation is used to highlight how new media are both object of research and actor in the networks in which they are embedded. But also Romele’s style is reminiscent of Ricoeur: he develops his ideas in discussion with many other theorists, showing ever new insights into the complicated relations between information and interpretation, internet and society, imagination and mediation, humans and technology. Also in line with Ricoeur’s style, the conclusions of the different parts of the book are more like new chapters than integrating summaries. This makes the book as a whole a dense and rich composition of many lines of thought, starting with an Overture, followed by two large parts, while ending with a grand Finale. The book has a large scope: after the introduction of its approach in the Overture, Part 1 offers an epistemological and methodological account of the digital, Part 2 is about an ontology of the digital, while the Finale discusses several ethical end political consequences.
Romele rightly argues that a hermeneutic approach of new media cannot be a matter of simply applying existing points of view of the hermeneutic tradition to the digital. The hermeneutic tradition itself needs to be taken up and renewed. In the Overture he starts with a ‘confession’ (2) that he began the project of this book with the intention to deconstruct the hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur. In Gadamer’s philosophy Romele recognizes a focus on unity, with theological roots, that, notwithstanding all the emphasis on dialogue, is a monologue of “the sole truth of the Event.” (1) In Ricoeur’s work, Romele finds what he calls an “idealism of matter”, a tendency to focus exclusively on language as the main or even only mediator of meaning. The same concentration on unity and ontology can also be found in Heidegger’s philosophy of technology that takes all technological phenomena together from the single perspective of Gestell. Instead, a hermeneutic-phenomenological philosophy of technology should not only be fixated on a general ontology but embrace the ontic plurality of many technical devices, projects and phenomena. Romele therefore makes a plea for a “minor and pragmatic hermeneutics” (1) that highlights the multi-linear and multi-medial character of interpretation, including digital and non-linguistic interpretation; a hermeneutics that embraces ideas of post-phenomenology, empirical philosophy and actor-network-theory. Interpretation does not only take place in language, but also in other media, matter and machines. It is also a matter of images, websites, cell phones and algorithms.
Of course, this approach is not a break with the hermeneutic tradition, it is a renewal. Just as post-phenomenology takes up several aspects of Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein in Sein und Zeit, Romele’s digital hermeneutics follows his ontological turn in hermeneutics that regards every relation between Dasein and world as an interpretation. Thus, instead of deconstructing hermeneutics, Romele picks up Ricoeur’s concept of distanciation (11) and uses it to reveal how, on the one hand, we are connected with the world through all kinds of digital and technical-material relations, while, on the other hand, the digital devices and networks can become object of scientific research and philosophical reflection as well. In this way Romele also transforms Ricoeur’s idea of distanciation, giving it a material deepening beyond the merely linguistic understanding by Ricoeur.
In this respect, he also uses a distinction made by Don Ihde (1998) between a ‘special’ and a ‘general’ hermeneutics. Special hermeneutics refers to the specific kind of technologies that offer a representation of the world, while general hermeneutics alludes to the fact that all technologies are hermeneutic in the sense that they selectively frame and mould the human-world relations in which they function. A philosophical hermeneutics of the digital needs to take into account the active interpretative performances of technical tools and procedures that are at work in all our engagements with it. Digital hermeneutics is a hermeneutics of the digital in both meanings of the subjective and objective genitive.
Epistemology of the Digital
Under the somewhat confusing heading “The Virtual Never Ended” Romele examines epistemological and methodological issues, disputing several lines of thought that tend to minimize the distance between the virtual and the real. In the first reflections on the internet and digital media, now a few decades ago, many theorists emphasized the difference between the virtual and the real. The virtual was a ‘second world’ in which we could easily experiment with what was not possible or harder to accomplish in the real world. Later, this perspective changed in its opposite: many researchers now maintain that no distinction can be made anymore between the virtual and the real. Romele uses the notion of distanciation to criticize both points of view. The virtual is like the glasses or contact lenses that we can see, but also through which we can see and that change the way we see, although they seem to be completely transparent.
In the first chapter Romele takes a position against those who believe that “the virtual invaded the real.” In particular, he discusses the “semantic theory of information”, formulated by Luciano Floridi. Floridi (2005) defines information as “data + meaning + truth” (27). This is a very objectivist view that includes meaning and truth as internal ingredients of information. Floridi even gives a Hegelian-style formula to express this belief: “what is real is informational, and what is informational is real.” (35) Based on this view, Floridi also develops the more practical view that in everyday life the real and the virtual are blurred, mixing ‘life’ and ‘online’ in an Onlife Manifesto (35). This leads to all kinds of problems and contradictions: thruth-values as supervening on semantic information; the difference between factual and instructional information, and more.
As an alternative, Romele sketches a hermeneutic approach of information, describing it as part of contextual communication. He draws on several other authors, as well as on etymological research that shows that the pre-modern meaning of information was ‘giving a (substantial) form to matter’ (24). For those who are well educated in hermeneutics, his criticism is not very surprising: information can only manifest its meaning in contexts, it is in need of interpretation, and therefore the meaning can never be entirely fixed. The conclusions of this chapter, however, show the importance of the material aspects in Romele’s approach:
“…the hermeneutics of information (and, more broadly, digital hermeneutics) is a material hermeneutics for three reasons: (1) because it starts from an analysis which is internal and not extrinsic to the object in question; (2) because it deals with the varieties of contexts of production and reception of meaning; (3) because it is interested in the matter (the techniques and technologies) through which digital traces are transformed into data, and data into information.” (38)
The introduction to the second chapter discusses several topics, among them the growing awareness that the real and the virtual are not two separated worlds, but are thoroughly intertwined. In terms of the title: the real invaded the virtual. This involves, besides many other issues, problems with privacy; but in this part of the book Romele directs our intention mainly to digital sociology, asking the epistemological question how society can be studied with digital methods. Several examples of data visualization, Big Data and computational sociology are discussed, while Romele underscores the view that digital methods do not give a transparent window on the world or on ourselves. There always remains “an inexhaustible gap between the self and its digital representations.” (50) So again, the virtual and the real do not coincide. In the second section Romele chooses an unexpected opponent: Bruno Latour.
One might expect, Romele rightly suggests, that Latour would show how digital representation and research methods do not simply represent the world as it is, how digital technology needs its own material structure of cables, electricity, hardware, etc., and how the internet can be seen as a dense network of actants. To the surprise of both author and readers, this is not what Latour writes about the digital. Romele shows how Latour usually combines an emphasis on matter and on networks, but with regard to the digital he seems to forget its material shapes and almost entirely focusses on how digital networks offer us a view on real networks:
“It is as if Latour’s attention to the matter of the spirit applies to everything except to digital technologies and methodologies because they allow social reality to be seen as Latour wants to see it. For him, the digital has a double function. From an ontological point of view, it is a model and a paradigm for seeing the society as an actor-network. From an epistemological perspective, it offers a new resource to study society ‘in action.’” (53)
Latour seems to try to erase the difference between map and territory: “…digital traceability has transformed reality in a global laboratory in which entities and events can be followed step by step.” (54) However, arguing that the real and the virtual never coincide, Romele reads Latour against Latour, showing how Latour’s interest in uncovering networks in the real world conceals the matter of the digital as a web of constructing actants. In other words, with regard to the digital Latour seems to behave like the ‘modern’ scientist that he elsewhere claims we have never been:
“In his We Have Never Been Modern (1993), Latour denoted with the word ‘modern’ two orders of practices: the ‘translation,’ consisting of creating hybrids, and the ‘puriﬁcation,’ which continuously hides these same hybridizations. Are we not facing such a process right here? Are we not, on the one hand, creating hybrid entities of (social) nature and (digital) culture (digital traces and the methods for their analysis as ‘presentiﬁcation’ of social reality) and, on the other hand, concealing the very process of creation of these entities?” (58)
After this criticism Romele mentions several ideas and methods that are better candidates to be incorporated in a methodology of digital hermeneutics. Big Data do not simply show massive facts, but, with a reference to Rob Kitchin (2014), could better be called “capta (from the Latin capere, ‘to take’), because they are extracted through observations, computations, experiments, and recordings that have nothing immediate in themselves.” (60)
How can we develop methods that make use of the giant new possibilities of massive digital information, while remaining aware of its perspective and constructive elements? Romele refers to the work of the digital sociologist Noortje Marres (2017), perhaps “the most Latourian in this ﬁeld, more Latourian than Latour himself,” (61) who indicates the impossibility to establish a clear boundary between digital methods and their objects. In her digital sociology she has decided to accept the fluidity of the distinction between methods and objects, and to investigate this unsolidified distinction. Marres’ sociology includes “the continuous effort to trace the boundaries between medium, methods, and social reality.” (62) Sociology therefore needs to combine digital and classical methods, while placing the constructive effects of digital settings in the centre of scientific analysis. Marres calls this “issue mapping.” (63)
This is where hermeneutics meets post-phenomenology. This last current of thought (Romele mainly refers to Don Ihde and Peter-Paul Verbeek) investigates how technologies are co-constitutive in the mediation between humans and the world. It offers another perspective on the same insights of actor-network-theory: “…while actor-network theory is attentive above all to the plurality of relations, postphenomenology, which usually considers only one relation at a time, addresses somewhat the different types of relations and the different types of actors involved in these relations.” (65) Digital hermeneutics thus includes the use of digital methods as well as reflections on these methods and the many ways they participate in shaping their objects. Further investigations in this field of research will probably lead to very complex analyses of many different sorts of multidimensional and flexible networks. Romele has developed a promising epistemological vantage point for this kind of research. I would have liked to read a bit more about advanced elaborations on it, but these lie beyond the scope of this book.
In this way Romele sketches not only a material and technological turn in hermeneutics, but also a hermeneutical turn in the philosophy of technology. Digital hermeneutics is an actualization of Ricoeur’s “long route” of hermeneutics, “making existence, preconceptions, and speciﬁc worldviews emerge from an internal analysis of the methods and the objects themselves.” (74) This approach includes negotiations about the methods and terminologies that the researcher has to link his own work to, in order to keep a dialogue going. On the one hand Romele seems to join theories of information, trying to give a hermeneutic twist to them. On the other hand he suggests another terminology, developing the notion of “digital trace” as a “hermeneutic alternative to the concept of semantic information” of Floridi and others (75). Although information and communication are still relevant features of the digital, Romele writes: “I believe that today recording, registration, and keeping track represent the most appropriate paradigm for understanding the digital and its consequences.” (72) Again, he follows Ricoeur in this respect, for whom the trace was “the matrix of a difficult but possible epistemology.” (77). Tracking or following traces is a general notion for a style of research in many different practices, like medicine, hunting and art history. “A hermeneutic of the trace would therefore be much wider (both in depth and width) than the classic hermeneutics of texts, documents, or monuments.” (78)
Ontology of the Digital
The second part of this book is dedicated to the ontology of the digital. Its aim is a new ontological turn in hermeneutics, now within the context of digital hermeneutics, by investigating to what extent digital machines are able to interpret. This is a farewell to the anthropocentrism that has accompanied modern hermeneutics for centuries. In the third chapter Romele goes step-by-step from Kantian imagination to Emagination – this term is also the title of part II.
The Kantian transcendental scheme or Einbildungskraft is the famous faculty of the first Critique that brings sense data and understanding together: the transcendental construction of objects in the mind. In the third Critique Kant adds a reflective imagination that is less dependent on the twelve categories of understanding. In the twentieth century this imagination as faculty of human consciousness was replaced by Simondon and Ricoeur in a, respectively, practical-technical and a semiotic-historical imagination. Romele refers several times to Simondon, but mainly elaborates on Ricoeur. In Ricoeur’s narrative theory productive imagination is externalized in language: “The synthesis between receptivity and spontaneity happens outside, in linguistic expressions such as symbols, signs, metaphors, and narrations.” (87) Imagination is not a creatio ex nihilo, but is a recombination of already existing elements, a process of distanciation and re-appropriation, which takes place in language. Ricoeur has articulated this process with the help of the Aristotelian notions mimesis and mythos. The re-arrangement of elements of a series of events in the structures of a story takes the place of the Kantian imagination that combines sense data and the categories of the understanding. This emplotment is performed in several levels of mimesis: prefiguration, configuration and refiguration.
In a move that is analogous to his argument in the first part, Romele now transposes productive imagination from language to machines. Digital imagination, or emagination, however, is more than an extension of human imagination from language to machines: the machines work by themselves. “Digital technologies, I would say, imitate with increasing ﬁdelity the way human productive imagination actually works.” (100) They are “imaginative machines” that work by mimesis and mythos.
With regard to mimesis, Romele refers to, among others, Don Ihde, who has distinguished several ways in which technology mediates between humans and the world. All these mediations are transparent, in the sense that, after a while, we hardly notice them anymore:
“(1) embodied relations, whose speciﬁcity lies in the high transparency of the technological artefact after a period of adaptation (for instance, glasses); (2) hermeneutic relations, which give a representation of the world that interprets the world, and that must in its turn be interpreted (for example, thermometers and maps); (3) alterity relations, in which the relation with the world is temporarily suspended, and the technology itself assumes the role of interlocutor/competitor (for instance, computer games); and (4) background relations, when a technology creates the conditions of our own relation with the world (for example, heating and lighting systems).” (100-101)
Digital technologies can perform all these mediations. In doing so, they interpret, represent and reproduce the world for us. But however transparent they may seem, we still need to be aware of the distanciation that is at work here: digital representations do not coincide with reality.
With regard to mythos, digital software is able to perform productive imagination. The emplotment is created by databases and algorithms, analogous to the Kantian sense data and categories – and perhaps also to series of events combined in narrative structures. This last comparison is suggested but not specified by Romele. A few pages further, this analogy is relativized, when he mentions differences between narrative imagination and Big Data analytics. The latter is abstracted from its context of production and, moreover: “…data mining and machine learning are based neither on narrative emplotment nor on the research of causes […], but on the correlation of heterogeneous data.” (108) Nevertheless, digital technologies work autonomously and can guide our perceptions and actions. They are “…not only interfaces to our imagination and the world but are one of the ways (probably the main one today) in which productive imagination externalizes and realizes itself in the world.” (103)
Moreover, digital machines are increasingly performing faster and on a larger scale than humans. Big Data and the newest algorithms work more and more autonomously, and with a productive imagination that surpasses human sensibility and understanding. According to Romele, at the end of the last century productive imagination could still be said to be “lower” than human imagination. In the social web of the last two decades there is rather a correspondence between the two. But today, now that databases have become data streams and because of the development of machine learning algorithms,
“the relation between human and digital imagination is going to be inversed, since the latter is overpassing the possibilities of the former. Or at least, even without wanting to confront them, it seems fair to say that digital imagination is taking an autonomous path which has concrete consequences on our decisions.” (91)
Given the fact that the analogy between narrative and digital imagination is, in my view at least, less convincing than other parts of the book, it makes sense to suggest that the latter is different from human imagination, but that it also, at least in several respects, outperforms human productive imagination.
This last observation, one of the most important ideas of this book, is not only fascinating, but also deeply worrying, as becomes clear in the example of algorithmic governmental profiling. The third chapter ends with the larger question how human freedom can be understood in this understanding of productive imagination and in relation to the digital. Romele pleas for a relatively modest view of our freedom: “Human beings are essentially hetero-determinate, and what we call ‘freedom’ is a long and difﬁcult detour through our technological, but also bodily, cultural, and social exteriorities.” (109) Nonetheless, the newest digital technologies may have enormous consequences on our subjective sense of freedom.
In chapter 4 Romele goes further in “frustrating” our human self-esteem. He states that human imagination is not as creative and ingenious as we often think. All innovation is a recombination and further developing of what already existed. Romele combines the Kantian distinction between determining imagination in the first Critique and free reflective imagination in the third Critique with Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between the engineer and the bricoleur. The engineer looks for the right materials and can develop a large number of tools and concepts, whereas the bricoleur only uses the material at hand. According to this distinction, the bricoleur is productive and the engineer is creative. Romele criticizes the idea that human imagination works like creative engineering, following Derrida’s deconstruction of the distinction: the engineer is a myth. Thus, we have never been engineers, as the title of this chapter says (124).
In addition, Romele stresses the increasing role of Artificial Intelligence in influencing our aesthetic judgments (machines recommending us what to watch and what to listen to), as well as aesthetic production in some areas. All this means “…that digital machines are also teaching us to be modest when it comes to us pretending to be engineers.” (132)
In the conclusion of this chapter, Romele compares several phases of the relation between hermeneutics and nature with phases of digital hermeneutics. These phases are a “level zero” (nature cannot be interpreted), “level one” (nature as object or our projections) and “level two” (nature has interpretative capacities). Comparably, for a long time hermeneutics made a strong distinction between humans and non-humans, which can be called “level zero”. At “level one” interpretation “…is a result of the articulation between human and non-human intentionalities.” (138) “Level two” still mainly has to come. The question here is whether we can “…attribute to digital technologies, or at least to an emerging part of them, an autonomous interpretational agency.” (139)
A part of the answer to this last question is given on the first page of the Finale. Among the many distinctions Romele has made in his book, is a list of different degrees and kinds of interpretation. Several levels of complexity can be distinguished. The more complex the level of interpretation is, the less it can be attributed to digital technologies. Classification in already established orders can be done more efficiently by machines, whereas digital technologies cannot (yet) beat human pattern-recognition abilities (143).
Ethics and Politics of the Digital
The plea for symmetry between humans and digital machines does not make Romele blind for the political consequences it may have. He argues for a critical posthumanism that needs to address differences between humans and machines, “… while remaining within the limits of a principle of symmetry.” (144) This critical posthumanism has to investigate “…the kind of interference between human and non-human (in this case, digital) claims for meaning when the object of interpretation and eventual understanding is human subjectivity.” (145) In recent years this interference has been growing because of the collection, analysis and trade of user and consumer data. Romele speaks of a “general ‘algorithmization’ and ‘Big Datafication’” that has created a superstructure with a central role in our digital economy, culture and society (148).
What worries Romele is the indifference he finds in many people, “the most important affection in the present digital age.” (145) He tries to understand this indifference with Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus. Habitus is a “supra- or infra-cultural entity that frames our intention without us even being conscious of such hetero-determination.” (149) It shapes our behaviour, postures, wishes, etc., and makes us part of a specific social and economic class. The digital, Romele writes, “must be considered as a sort of habitus generator.” (146, 151) At the end of his book he formulates the following important question:
“The question I want to ask at this point is how it is possible to make subjects able to deal with the digital habitus in order to carve out room for manoeuvring or allowing a margin of freedom before the power and the conﬁguring force exercised on them by and through the sociotechnical systems.” (153)
His answer makes use of three notions that are articulated by Michel Foucault. The first is the Panopticon: surveillance is an increasing problem of social media. The second notion is confession. Foucault states that Western self-understanding and expression have adopted a form of confession that gives rise to problematic power relations. The way to deal with these power relations may lie in a third notion: parrhesia, speaking freely, in a way that interrupts the usual codes. The problem is, however, that algorithmic digital technology seems to have anesthetized our free speech or to have made it irrelevant. What can speaking freely help us, if the algorithms of insurance companies or the police have already profiled us as suspicious? Romele suggests that only socio-economic and institutional initiatives can constitute contexts and situations that make parrhesia possible. The justice we would need to look for, he concludes,
“…would consist of creating sociotechnical conditions for an ethos of distanciation from one’s own digital habitus. In other words, it would mean to contribute to framing a sociodigital environment in which people can become sensitive to the insensibility and indifference of the digital.” (158)
Digital Hermeneutics is a rich and dense book that offers many views on the rapidly developing digital structures of our world. It discusses several important questions that philosophy needs to address today. At the same time it is a very good effort to re-invent hermeneutics in a contemporary setting, incorporating post-phenomenology and other philosophies of technology. In short, this is a must-read for everyone who is interested in hermeneutic philosophy and the digital.
Don Ihde. Don. 1998, Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Floridi, Luciano. 2005. “Is Semantic Information Meaningful Data?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 70 (2): 351–370.
Kitchin, Rob. 2014. The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences. London: Sage.
Marres, Noortje. 2017. Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Sociological Research. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Ricoeur, Paul. 1991. From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.