Transitions, Thresholds, Traditions. Hans Blumenberg and Historical Thought

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By Daniel Weidner

This is a companion piece to Daniel Weidner’s recent article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, ‘The History of Dogma and the Story of Modernity: The Modern Age as the “Second Overcoming of Gnosticism”.

Like identical twins, philosophy and history seem to be tied together in an uneasy way. On one hand, philosophy still tries to a large extent to engage with the history of philosophy. There are not many other branches of knowledge that would continually refer back to their own “classics”. On the other hand, quite a few of these classics authors did not hold history in high esteem. Aristotle, as is well known, preferred even drama to history because the latter simply concerns issues that are contingent. The marriage between history and philosophy quite often results in monsters in the form of Hegelian philosophies of history: great narratives that are still among the main targets of critical thought, probably because they are all too easy to debunk.

If we head for a more difficult task, or simply want to get deeper in the conundrum, we might turn to the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg. Blumenberg’s work mostly comprises voluminous books which trace, with utmost erudition, a certain idea or motif – the idea of myth, the metaphor of ‘reading’ the world, the motif of the exit from the cave – from antiquity to the present. Once, when accused of being a historicist, Blumenberg stated that he would accept this title with pride. Occasionally, he described his undertaking as a “phenomenology of history” – not an easy task since phenomenology, here understood in the Husserlian sense, belongs to those philosophical disciplines that are not particularly friendly with history. Precisely these frictions, however, seemsto have allowed Blumenberg to be particularly conscious about the problem of a history of philosophy as distinct from a philosophy of history and to develop creative approaches and detours.

One of these approaches seem to be very simple but proves most efficient. What if we do not focus on the very question what is history as a whole? or the ‘essence’ of history’s major epochs, but more modestly on the minor changes and transitions? Even though we might not know what antiquity is, we could be able to describe what happens when it comes to an end. Blumenberg argued in a review article from 1958 that this is where the more interesting historical research ends up:

“If Hellenism and late antiquity, ‘the autumn of the middle ages’ and the dawn of the modern ages have become attractive recently, the big question of what ‘history’ is stands silently in the background. What is an ‘epoch’? What is the structure of ‘epochal change’? How is the incongruence of testimonies and events to be understood and methodologically handled? These are the very detailed questions that seem to be necessary to discuss and transform the problem of History from its daunting massiveness into something graspable.”[1]

What we observe in these transitions is neither continuity nor clear-cut rupture, rather something in-between, a certain overlapping where some issues, questions, and concepts are still in place but begin to change their meaning or – as Blumenberg tries to figure it – where answers might be found even if the questions to which they once belonged are no longer relevant. It is not an univocal change, but rather a threshold situation in which it is possible to look into both directions, to understand the new from the perspective of the old and vice versa. Later, in his magisterial book on The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Blumenberg set up a sort of differential test analyzing the two metaphysical conceptions of Nicolas Cusanus and Giordano Bruno. Despite the fact that the two ideas are very similar and the authors even, at times, make identical statements, Blumenberg argues that on closer inspection they point in different directions: one to a medieval horizon of thought and the other towards a modern understanding of the world.

It is not by chance that this epochal threshold concerns the emergence of what Blumenberg calls “the Modern Age” (“die Neuzeit”, literally “the New Age”). Another fruitful approach to the question of history is to ask more specifically about the history of this Modern age. For this history is different from previous ones because the modern age understands itself as a new beginning that breaks with its past. Does this claim not contradict the very project of a history of this claim? That is at least the suspicion in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, where Blumenberg vigorously and broadly criticizes the so called theories of ‘secularization.’ Those theories argued that essential modern ideas and attitudes are nothing but transformed Christian heritage, e.g. when Max Weber claims that the capitalist work ethos emerged out of the Puritan search of salvation, or when Karl Löwith describes the modern philosophies of history as a mere continuation of Christian theologies of salvation. If that were true, Blumenberg argues, the self-declared aim of modernity to be autonomous or to be the beginning of something truly new would be an illusion.

Both approaches – the discussion of the epochal threshold and the discussion of the genealogy of modernity – do not only put forward interesting perspectives on the problem of history, they also relate to bodies of knowledge other than those usually discussed in relation to history and theory. In relation to late antiquity, Blumenberg refers to Hans Jonas and Rudolf Bultmann, among others, who developed complex models for how Paganism, Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism interact and interfere. These researchers are anything but positivists, rather they are certainly major contributors to the hermeneutic discussion of the 1950s and beyond. Their history is a history of ideas more than a history of facts: it belongs the history of dogma and the history of religion. This is a very important but oddly overlooked field, for historical theology was among the most admired disciplines of the German university but has rarely been taken into account in more general discussions of the history of knowledge. Later, in Work on Myth, Blumenberg would have interesting things to say about dogma that he described as a form of knowledge that aims less at answering questions than excluding and eliminating them. This opens up paths for a more comprehensive approach that would be aware of the different historicity of different forms of knowledge, as myth, metaphor, concept, or dogma. Arguably, every tradition would consist of the complex interplay and overlap of these different forms of knowledge and expression.

In the Legitimacy, Blumenberg refers to the history of dogma to develop not only his own idea of historical change, but also his own account of early Christianity. This in turn also allows him to re-narrate the history of the modern age. Ironically, this work not only refutes the erroneous genealogies that claim modernity to be the secularization of Christianity but replaces it by a – no less complex, nor less far-reaching – story about modernity being the second overcoming of Gnosticism.  It was, according to Blumenberg, not the Christian eschatology that brought about modern philosophy of history, as Löwith did argue. Rather, Christian eschatology collapsed in the early phase of Christianity when the expected second coming of Christ was delayed, a breakdown that motivated the formation of Christian Dogma. This dogma than entailed the Gnostic assault on it, an assault that in turn was only overcome by the reevaluation of the world, worldly knowledge, and curiosity that Blumenberg claims to be characteristic of the modern age. As Löwith himself remarked in his review of the Legitimacy, we as readers might ask in the end: “why all this effort of precise distinction, broad historical erudition, and polemical invective against the scheme of Secularization if the critique of this illegitimate category in the end is so close with what it criticizes?”[2]

The discussion on secularization was a very German one, thus Blumenberg’s work, though translated early, was not broadly received internationally. Nor did his defense of the Modern Age fit well into the discussion on Postmodernism. Even today, the growing discussion on Secularism and Secularization seems to rest on premises so different from Blumenberg’s that it is all but easy to connect him to it. Still, his thinking allows us to complicate and also criticize the genealogies of modernity that are being discussed–from Jean Luc Nancy’s “deconstruction of Christianity” via Charles Taylor’s story of the emergence of a secular age to Jan Assman’s recent engagement with the “axial Age”. Moreover, Blumenberg’s meticulous histories of problems highlight that it does make a difference to reflect on what we actually do when we historicize properly and try to represent the subtleties of historical change. The history of philosophy – and maybe also the philosophy of history – might be richer if we were less concerned with the great answers or grand narratives than with the right questions that allow us to work out the transitions, thresholds, and traditions mentioned.


[1] Hans Blumenberg: Epochenschwelle und Rezeption, in: Philosophische Rundschau 6 (1958), 94-120, here 94-95.

[2] Karl Löwith: Review of Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in: Philosophische Rundschau 15/3 (1968), 195-201, here 200.

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