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Blumenberg Reconsidered

The Afterlife of Hans Blumenberg’s Centennial

by guest contributor Bruce J. Krajewski

By Bruce J. Krajewski

In his recent biography of German philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996), The Absolute Reader, Rüdiger Zill reveals Blumenberg’s own Citizen Kane-like “Rosebud,” a stinging youthful memory that caused lifelong bitterness (Verbitterung, 62). Zill circles back repeatedly to Blumenberg’s high school graduation, which could have been a triumphant event for Blumenberg. As the highest achieving student in his class, he would give the ceremonial speech—but it was not to pass. The Nazi headmaster at Blumenberg’s high school, the Katharineum, recoiled at the thought of a “half-Jew” on the assembly hall’s stage for such a special moment (50). Unlike Charlie Kane, Blumenberg chose not to hide the blow’s significance, a bruise unhealed for over 40 years (49).

The indignity the Katharineum’s director forced upon Blumenberg did not stop the latter from producing a tidal wave of publications. Some place his works under the phenomenology umbrella, though late in his career Blumenberg seems to spurn that categorization: “My books are indeed mostly moonlighting and do not emerge from the mainline of philosophy shaped by phenomenology” (31). The works are pertinent to theology, philosophy, intellectual history, science and technology, literary criticism, and a category to which Blumenberg could claim proprietary rights: metaphorology. His mall of metaphorologies includes musings on lions, icebergs, demonology (116-117), shipwrecks, and door bells. In exploring metaphors historically and rhetorically, Blumenberg has corroborated Stanley Rosen’s claim that, if a Robert Venturi-inspired Stone Mountain of Postmodernists existed, Blumenberg’s face would be there (49). In Platonic terms, Blumenberg was a Sophist who passed himself off as a philosopher. In biblical terms, he marked himself and all of us as “companions of the subjunctive” (129).

This summer, Blumenberg hit 100. The occasion has spawned a cascade of texts—biographies, counting Zill’s, previously unpublished writings by Blumenberg, including a dissertation influenced by Martin Heidegger, and a Blumenberg Reader designed to catapult Blumenberg onto Anglophone university syllabi. As more translations become available, the Blumenberg canon will shift, likely lending more weight to Die Lesbarkeit der Welt (The Legibility of the World) and Höhlenausgänge (Cave Entrances/Exits). Notably, Blumenberg programmed his afterlife as carefully as his own death when he took some of his favorite chocolate pralines into his bedroom, closed the door behind him with his wife at home, and three hours later the anticipated discovery took place. Like the James Joyce Blumenberg describes in Work on Myth (80-85), Blumenberg intended for interpreters to spend lifetimes (83) poring over his works, deciphering the mysteries, allusions, reclothings. For it is “for them above all, if not for them alone, that the abundance of connections and allusions was scattered and concealed” (82). As an esotericist, Blumenberg enjoyed games of concealment (Wolff, 39), and rarely spoke freely (38), preferring to express his real views only to confidantes. Thus, he chose unsurprisingly to address matters between 1933 and 1945 “in a typically indirect fashion” (186).

Philosophical esotericism is nothing new. The literature on twentieth-century German thought includes an abundance of material, for example about the “secret Germany” attributed to the Stefan George circle, a group of men drawn to George’s homoerotic and proto-fascist vision of German exceptionalism opposed to contemporary society and governed by a magnetic male kingpin. Most Blumenberg scholars have yet to acknowledge the influence of that “secret Germany” on Blumenberg, who looks at first to be asymptomatic, but shows signs of infection by a Nietzschean-Heidegerrian proleptic variant strain of esotericism that is politically alarming. Embedded in the strain is a programmed variability for the strain’s reception (196-197) to allow interpreters to normalize the infection with appeals ranging from “X was not a party member,” to “X couldn’t have done anything differently under the circumstances without great risk,” to “X appreciates, à la Hans-Georg Gadamer, ‘the political incompetence of philosophy,’” to “Ys can’t know how it was for X in those days.” The relativism that drives these defenses corresponds to the relativism at the heart of fascism (375-377), connected to Nietzsche by Mussolini, with its contemporary manifestation in “alternative facts.”

If it wasn’t obvious from Blumenberg’s attraction to Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, the new biographies offer ample evidence of his esotericism. In Der Schreibtisch des Philosophen, a quasi-hagiography by one of Blumenberg’s former pupils, Uwe Wolff calls Blumenberg a “secret-monger” (Geheimniskrämer, 29), a mystery man who “loved indirect communication.” It seems natural to Wolff that Blumenberg devoted himself to studying the controversial writer who initially welcomed the National Socialists, Ernst Jünger, “master of cryptography,” according to Blumenberg. Indeed, Wolff seems unacquainted with the misogynistic and death-dealing Jünger in Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, the Jünger who writes, “I plunge my gaze into the eyes of passing women, fleeting and penetrating as a pistol shot, and rejoice when they are forced to smile” (Vol. I, 38).

Blumenberg’s enthusiasm for Jünger started early. Zill reports that shortly after some of his high school classmates went off to military service in 1942, Blumenberg purchased for them, and for a beloved teacher (Wilhelm Krüger), copies of Jünger’s war diary published as Gardens and Streets (65)—and he maintained a life-long, if eventually qualified, admiration for Jünger. After 1949, Blumenberg dampened his enthusiasm for Jünger. Blumenberg criticizes Jünger’s “bad taste” (108) and his tendency to attribute “false significance” to trivia (87), an overzealous pursuit of hidden meanings and essences  (44-46; Der Mann vom Mond, 42).

Normally, a scholar would ask, “What specifically was it that Blumenberg admired in Jünger?” But we are not in a normal realm. Direct, satisfying answers are often purposefully unavailable. We are in the world of master cryptographers, secret-mongers, priests, mystery men, who, like Leo Strauss, understand that all important things, if recorded at all, are communicated between the lines (24-30), as subtexts, implicitly rather than exoterically, in the dark rather than in daylight, and always to a select audience. In the words of Daniel Morat, Jünger opted after the war for a secret communication among a chosen few, advising Heidegger that “a dialogue concealed from the lemurs is still the best approach” (674). That realm of coded discourse calls for reading between the lines, which Zill recognizes early on when he throws in the towel searching for the truth about Blumenberg in favor of episodes of “significance.” Zill turns to Goethe for justification: “A fact of our lives is valuable, not so far as it is true, but so far as it is significant” (Zill, 28).

Blumenberg has made any biographer’s task Byzantine. Even during his stint as what would now be called a public philosopher, as a newspaper columnist in the early 1950s, he often hid his identity. Axel Colly is cited as the columns’ author. Zill decrypts the mystery: Axel is the name of Blumenberg’s Collie killed in an air raid. That decryption is child’s play compared to other mysteries Zill meets. Unfolding the rococo origami that is esoteric discourse requires patience. It should be easy to find out how Blumenberg felt about the three-year period after Axel was killed (1942-45). However, the Jesuitical Blumenberg was not one ready to give answers; he refused to take questions in lectures (Wolff, 41).

Zill’s solution is to participate in esotericism himself. Wartime Blumenberg can be explained, he decides, only through reading between the lines of a two-stage anecdote about other people from a post-war fragment by Blumenberg (21-26), the first part of which deals with two politicians, the second with Ludwig Wittgenstein. The two parts are meant to be juxtaposed, the latter as the “answer” to the question: How did Blumenberg feel about his wartime status as a “half-Jew,” as a “man in limbo” (Man in der Schwebe; Zill, 90)?

In the absence of typical explanatory evidence, Zill ventriloquizes on Blumenberg’s behalf. He uses a “subtext” in Blumenberg’s presentation of former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s “life secret” (Lebensgeheimnis, 91). Part one of the anecdote concerns a 1980 meeting between Giscard d’Estaing and Schmidt in which Schmidt confesses to d’Estaing his fear during the National Socialist period that Schmidt’s Jewish background would be exposed. Schmidt and his father, who was Jewish, forged identity papers during the war to cloak Helmut’s background. Zill: “Surprisingly, Blumenberg does not blame Giscard d’Estaing for d’Estaing’s insensitive reaction, but Schmidt for his confession. The confession of fear is inadmissible as such, because it puts the person addressed in a position in which he cannot react appropriately” (91).

Blame for what? Blumenberg charges Schmidt with a “shamelessness that comes with age” (Alterschamlosigkeit). Schmidt should have handled the confession as Ludwig Wittgenstein did, as described in the memoir by Fania Pascal, marked “The Confession” (34-39). This is part two of the anecdote. It’s the summer of 1937. Wittgenstein had just returned to Cambridge from Norway and was making the rounds to fess up to selected people like Pascal that “most people who knew [Wittgenstein] took him to be three-quarters Aryan and one-quarter Jewish. In fact the proportion was the reverse” (35). What seems admirable to Blumenberg is that “[Wittgenstein] did not ask for an emotional response” (36). What laudatory trait did Wittgenstein possess that was wanting in Schmidt? “Scruples,” Blumenberg writes (26). That’s the oblique answer Zill offers for how Blumenberg felt about his wartime status as a “half-Jew.”

Like Blumenberg, Wittgenstein was raised Catholic. Like Blumenberg, Wittgenstein preferred secrecy. Pascal: “He was the most elusive of men, shrouding his comings and goings in mystery” (22).  Like Wittgenstein, Blumenberg curated an environment of what Eve Sedgwick calls “homosocial desire” —certainly akin to both the “male supremacy” inculcated by the Catholic church and the “conservative revolution” associated with Heidegger and Jünger that was characterized by, among other things, a “masculine, fraternal spirit” (Morat, 665). Wolff paints a picture of university life with Blumenberg that did not have pretty women (hübsche Studentinnen, 22) in the lecture hall’s front rows as Blumenberg read from Goethe’s Ganymed. Male scholars attended the lectures to hear the “manly thinker” (männlicher Denker, 23), though manliness was not a characteristic attributed to Blumenberg at the all-boys high school, the Katharineum, which employed Blumenberg’s favorite teacher, Wilhelm Krüger, about whom Blumenberg raved “with words of erotic attraction” (Zill, 45).

In general, that homosocial environment does not keep Blumenberg’s acolytes up at night, any more than Blumenberg’s talk of “good Nazis” (Zill, 47), or the esotericism. In Zill’s extensive biography, we also learn that Blumenberg’s library contained few works by women. A 1942 booklist by Blumenberg mentions only two by women, Karin Michaëlis and Gertrude von le Fort, neither of whom would have been able to enter the Katharineum until 1950, the first year of co-ed classes there. The all-boys Katharineum has its university-level counterpart years later in the boys club Blumenberg co-founded known as the Poetik und Hermeneutik research group.

No one should overlook the context for the Katharineum-based evidence. “In respect of its attitudes and policies towards women, National Socialism was the most repressive and reactionary of all modern political movements” (132), writes Tim Mason. Women were discouraged from intellectual pursuits generally, especially at the university level. As Jill Stephenson remarks, government policies directed women toward “womanly” pursuits, following a belief that a woman’s nature “was unsuited to academic study” (70).

After the war, Germany did not remain isolated from feminist activism. Still, the new biographies do not reveal a late-feminist Blumenberg. Blumenberg could have included women’s scholarship on the metaphor of “the naked truth” in Western thought. A reviewer comments: “[I]t is rather striking that [Blumenberg’s] book devotes only a single page to a female writer, Madame du Châtelet. This one page, however, does not discuss her writing or thought.”     In a rare engagement with a woman’s work, Blumenberg isn’t kindfor example, this caustic nugget about Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: “This theorist of politics, who in 1964 thanks her interviewer Gaus for not addressing her as a philosopher, because she considers herself a political scientist . . . is completely insensitive to the political” (46-47).

As Spencer Hawkins puts it, for all his implicit sensitivity to the political, “[Blumenberg’s] work is silent about the state of the world under late capitalism,” as well as “the taint of Nazism in post-war German philosophy” (138). On those topics, Blumenberg is ill served by Wolff, Zill, and others who do not wonder what Hawkins has wondered, to heed that Blumenbergian call to “scruples,” to question the linkage between capitalism and fascism, to worry about Blumenberg’s enthusiasm for controversial figures (Ernst Jünger, Hans Carossa, and Carl Schmitt) for whom Wolff invokes repeatedly the dubious “inner emigration” trope.

While Blumenberg certainly suffered from the rise and rule of National Socialism, we have no evidence from the new biographies that he did anything to resist or to oppose it. Manfred Papst calls Blumenberg’s silence “irritating.” He did not discourage chums from serving in the German military, nor encourage anyone to flee as fascism took hold. Indeed, we have evidence of the opposite of silence, such as happy references to Mein Kampf in the ventriloquized speech to his graduating class at the Katharineum (Zill, 58), and a letter of gratitude to Heinrich Dräger (Zill, 110-112), party member and factory head who profited from the Nazi war, a factory where Blumenberg worked briefly. Dräger covered for Blumenberg, declaring Blumenberg “an essential worker” to block the Nazis from sending Blumenberg to a work camp sooner, but the protection ended. Apparently that episode did not leave Blumenberg puzzled about whether that made him, or Dräger, a Schreibtischtäter, a “desk killer.” German companies that profited from the Nazis continue to deal with the fallout, but a similar level of accountability has yet to touch Blumenberg. Puzzling as well is Blumenberg’s confession that, like Jünger, Blumenberg did not see post-war Germany as an improvement from the Nazis. Zill quotes a fearful Blumenberg (from a 1996 letter to Wolff): “This country has remained scary to me, although I have rarely left it. Nothing has vanished in this country that made Hitler possible” (360).   

What did Blumenberg do to change what made Hitler possible? Decades after the National Socialist period, Blumenberg found himself amidst a political protest, a student revolt in 1973. The mature Blumenberg’s response? According to Zill, it consisted of annoyance with the students, a concern for his own careerism as he sought calmer waters at other universities in Germany, and eventual withdrawal (302-308), out of which grew the myth of “the invisible philosopher,” the erudite professor up all night transferring intellectual electricity on to notecards, leaving the house only when necessary, and declining invitations to speak at Yale. It’s the period after 1973 that Franz Josef Wetz has in mind with the comment, “When Blumenberg was still alive, one might have thought that he was already dead; and after he’s dead, you’d think he was still alive.” Blumenberg lives on in those who speak about him. Thus, we are culpable for that afterlife.


Bruce J. Krajewski is a writer, translator, and editor based in Texas. He is currently working on an English translation of one of Salomo Friedlaender’s books on Kant.

Featured Image: Still from the film trailer for Hans Blumenberg – Der unsichtbare Philosoph (2018) by Christoph Rüter (Real Fiction Filmverleih).

3 replies on “The Afterlife of Hans Blumenberg’s Centennial”

What’s the news here? Blumenberg was not a lefty, did not quite feel comfortable telling other Germans he was Jewish, and more or less as misogynist as the average man of his generation. Is anyone surprised? Does it touch at all on what makes him worth reading?

The posting didn’t meet your expectation of addressing the question of what makes Blumenberg worth reading. Indeed the posting was not about worth but about hermeneutics — how reading Blumenberg at face value, head on, looking for things like the worth of what’s happening before your eyes — produces exactly the problem the posting posits. That is, Blumenberg’s modus operandi is esoteric, meaning business as usual, reading as usual, scholarship as usual misses the esotericism, leaving crucial parts of what’s happening unread, unquestioned. An esotericist conceals, so if you, the reader, have decided not to play the game of hide and seek, what’s being concealed remains undetected. We have some influential readers of Blumenberg who do not imagine subtending discourses are in play in his writings, or who report “indirect communication” without considering its consequences.

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