Blumenberg Reconsidered

The Hans Blumenberg Reader: An Interview on History, Metaphors, and Fables (Part II)

by contributing editors Jonathon Catlin and Andrew Hines

This is the second installment of a two-part interview with Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll about their new volume, History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader (2020). Read the first part here.

Jonathon Catlin & Andrew Hines: Blumenberg’s metaphorology intersects in many ways with the Begriffsgeschichte, or conceptual history, pursued by a number of his contemporaries involved in the group Poetik und Hermeneutik, such as Reinhart Koselleck and Hans-Georg Gadamer. In their 2016 book, Falko Schmieder and Ernst Müller criticize the way the recent rediscovery of Blumenberg’s metaphorology has been described as a “new moment for conceptual history,” since some of its leading practitioners—especially Erich Rothacker, the editor of the Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte whose work strongly influenced Blumenberg—had long studied semantic transformations of metaphors (26). Instead they incorporate Blumenberg into the broader field of “historical semantics,” the “overarching paradigm” for the humanities in postwar West Germany that reached its highpoint around 1960, the same year Blumenberg published Paradigms for a Metaphorology in the Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte.

Blumenberg wrote in “Light as a Metaphor for Truth” (1957) that the imminent “revival of philosophical research into the history of concepts [Begriffsgeschichte]” would need to “revise the scope of the term philosophical concept,” namely through metaphorology (Reader, 129). Shortly thereafter, Blumenberg concludes his introduction to Paradigms with the claim that “the relationship of metaphorology to the history of concepts (in the narrower, terminological sense) is defined as an ancillary one” (176). Looking back on Paradigms in his 1979 essay “Prospect for a Theory of Nonconceptuality,” however, he notes that while he and Rothacker once agreed that metaphorology was “a subsidiary methodology for conceptual history,” in the meantime it had become seen as “a narrow special case of nonconceptuality” rather than, as Blumenberg goes on to argue for, a non-conceptual theory of conceptuality itself (240). How would you characterize the relationship between Blumenberg’s metaphorology and conceptual history? Is there an implicit hierarchy, with metaphor “steering the unconscious of the concept” (Schmieder and Müller, 165), or, as Joachim Ritter once suggested, might the two operate as “a kind of philosophical ‘Zweifelderwirtschaft’” (155) working side-by-side, like the rotation of crops?

Hannes Bajohr: When Paradigms was reissued in 1998, two years after Blumenberg’s death, Begriffsgeschichte had entered the phase of its own historicization, and naturally Blumenberg was integrated into that history. This may explain why Blumenberg’s own claim to ancillarity was not met with more skepticism. I think that from the start, he was not really invested in Begriffsgeschichte as the project was conceived by Rothacker, Ritter, and, differently, Koselleck. You can sense this in the polite but distanced comments on the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie in “Observations Drawn from Metaphors” from 1971. Müller and Schmieder are right to see at least the early Blumenberg as belonging to historical semantics, but I think it was only an instrument for his underlying project exploring historical concepts of reality. It was not least Rothacker’s support of the younger Blumenberg that made him relate his metaphorology to Begriffsgeschichte as a collaborative research program; I don’t think Blumenberg ever fully identified with it.

Later, with “Theory of Nonconceptuality,” as Blumenberg shifts towards phenomenological anthropology, the gambit of “nonconceptuality” is no longer that nonconceptual speech allows one to infer reality as it is historically conceived, but that it discloses humans’ world-relation in a more fundamentally genetic way. One should not forget that the object of study shifts between metaphorology and of the theory of nonconceptuality: the former is a semantics in that it is aimed at language, while the “significances” of the latter include all types of expression, even nonverbal ones. In the most recent book edited from his papers, Realität und Realismus (2020), Blumenberg speaks of “expression” as the fundamental prelinguistic form of world-engagement; the world is primarily a “world of expressions” (Ausdruckswelt), not a “world of things” (Dingwelt) (116), and language is a reification of this Ausdruckswelt. This can no longer count as historical semantics in the strict sense.

Florian Fuchs: One aspect to keep in mind here is the institutional frame of each project. When Blumenberg presented the first draft of Paradigms in 1958, as he recalls in Observations, he did so in a newly founded commission for research in the history of concepts that was funded by the German research association DFG and chaired by Hans-Georg Gadamer, as well as co-initiated by Rothacker and soon joined by Ritter. By that point, however, the history of concepts was already a well-established discipline and the commission was thus concerned with its own status and possible future projects. This led, among other things, to Rothacker’s founding of the Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte, in which Blumenberg would publish Paradigms. This uneven setup explains the at times blunt and harsh critique Blumenberg encountered during the 1958 project presentation. The scandal is pre-programmed, so to speak: a newcomer’s work enters the established arena of Begriffsgeschichte and demands not only that historical semantics be extended to “absolute metaphors,” but that the discipline of Begriffsgeschichte also radically question the validity and possibility of its entire undertaking.

The schism between metaphorology and the history of concepts that has been discussed widely ever since is less a product of lacking the right way to negotiate between the two than it is caused by overlooking their original and intentional institutional misalignment. I would go as far as to say that Blumenberg never meant or expected metaphorology to actually become a subdiscipline of Begriffsgeschichte, but rather that he used the latter as an antithesis to contrast his own philosophical practice from the one approved by academia, especially since we later find such collision courses aimed at institutionalized philosophy elsewhere in his work.

Perhaps the most famous is his 1974 paper that effectively ended his participation in the group Poetik and Hermeneutik, in which he criticized his colleagues as present-day instantiations of the laughable fable of a philosopher who falls into a well because his theorizing has made him lose touch with reality (later extended into the 1987 book The Laughter of the Thracian Woman, including a final chapter on said resignation). Certain institutional contexts at times play a large role as the first spark of Blumenberg’s corpora, but I think it is important to separate these aspects from the deeper directions of the works themselves.

“Schwindelerregendes Niveau. Hans Blumenberg.” Photo by Real Fiction, via Der Tagesspiegel.

JC & AH: Blumenberg’s metaphorology seems at times uneasily situated between historical interpretation and critical philosophy. His “Observations Drawn from Metaphors” (1971) centers on the longstanding tension between historicism and logicism: “a philosophy that conceives of itself historically” versus “the Cartesian ideal of clear and distinct concept formation” in which concepts’ logical “function is constituted by their being detached from history” (211). By excavating the extra-normative “anticipatory orientations” underlying conceptuality (222) and exploring the ways in which the life-world creatively supplies “the constant motivational support of all theory” (240), Blumenberg’s writings on metaphor could be seen as an attempt mediate this dualism by, as you write in your introduction, “analyzing philosophy’s own unthought and shifting foundations” (10). To what extent do you see Blumenberg’s metaphorology as an interpretive or hermeneutic project, as opposed to a critical or deconstructive one?

FF: You are right to point out the apparent tension between metaphorology as an extension of the field of hermeneutics versus metaphorology as a systematic endeavor to criticize the unthought of philosophical language. At its core, however, this is no tension at all but Blumenberg’s own thought at work in a way that does not conform with either school or methodology. Blumenberg may focus on the generative and the deconstructive quality of metaphorology for one and the same example. Think of the essay about the light metaphor: he not only shows how the poetic obviousness of the metaphor extended the range of ontological reasoning in antiquity and allowed its amalgamation with early Christianity, but also criticizes how the same metaphor announced a technological switch from natural light sources to artificial ones since early modernity. Blumenberg is principally and always attentive to the tacit knowledge of metaphorical layers of philosophical language. He is a thinker of poetic potentialities before he comes to sort such potentialities into critical or generative lines or narratives, which makes it so difficult to place him within particular schools or departments.

HB: A useful distinction that Blumenberg hints at but does not develop in the introduction to Paradigms is that between metaphorology as unearthing the conceptually unsayable that “resist[s] being converted back into authenticity and logicality” and metaphorology as “a critical reflection charged with unmasking and counteracting the inauthenticity of figurative speech” (173–4). Paradigms, with its hermeneutical investigation of “absolute metaphors,” focuses much more on the former. But the critical function is built in from the start. I agree with Florian that Blumenberg often does both at the same time, but I think he develops the critical function more strongly in his later work. In “Observations Drawn from Metaphors,” for instance, one finds a section on the “background metaphorics of cultural critique” that dissects the suggestive and deceptive pull of a certain rhetoric; it seems to me that “the necessity of a metaphorology of cultural critique” he mentions could be developed as a form of ideology critique and would yield a potential parallel to some of Adorno’s concerns around the same time (238).

JC & AH: In essays such as “Prospect for a Theory of Nonconceptuality” (1979), Blumenberg defends metaphors as elements of rational thought. Against Berkeley’s quip that “the philosopher should abstain from metaphor” (239), he asserts the “validity of Wittgenstein’s 1929 dictum, ‘A good simile refreshes the intellect’” (243). Philosophy has often dismissed metaphor as mere rhetoric: following the Cartesian “teleology of logicization” (174), he writes, “all forms and elements of figurative speech…prove to have been makeshifts destined to be superseded by logic” (171). As early as “Light as a Metaphor for Truth” (1957), Blumenberg criticized this view, arguing that the “notion the philosophical logos has ‘overcome’ prephilosophical mythos has narrowed our view of the scope of philosophical terminology” (130). To what extent did Blumenberg succeed in redeeming metaphors for philosophy?

HB: In Germany at least, Blumenberg’s eye for background metaphorics was hugely influential, not only in philosophy and the history of science, but also in literary studies and art history. Internationally, Paul Fleming recently pointed out that Blumenberg suffered a “missed encounter” with the rediscovery of the epistemic potential of rhetoric in the eighties. Had Blumenberg been translated together with Derrida, Ricœur, and Lyotard, he might have been part of that moment and been read alongside them as well as Paul de Man. In fact, Fleming points out, Paradigms precedes Derrida’s “White Mythology” by eleven years and de Man’s “Rhetoric of Temporality” by nine. There is an attempt to retroactively include Blumenberg in that canon. However, I wonder whether this omission is not also a good thing, for seeing Blumenberg only as a para-poststructuralist proto-Derrida would mean missing out on a lot of his uniqueness.

JC & AH: In your introduction, you write that according to Berlin’s famous distinction, Blumenberg is a “fox,” knowing many things. As you have all done such a superb job with translation, those who haven’t read him in the original German may be unaware that his writing style can easily elude the reader. It is often dense, multi-layered, and at times even archaic. How did you go about the task of translation to provide us with such lucid, succinct prose?

Joe Paul Kroll: That’s a very generous leading question… Sometimes when translating, there is a temptation to edit the original, to amplify or to “interpret” it in a more active sense. Speaking for myself and looking at Hannes’ and Florian’s translations, I think we largely resisted that temptation, though there are cases where we had to make an executive decision. Overall, however, perhaps some measure of simplification is inevitable; for instance, there is a danger of lapsing into pastiche when trying to render something archaic-sounding in another language; and then there’s the fear that anything downright incomprehensible will end up being blamed on the translator. Personally, I was struck by how many of the ambiguities and peculiarities of Blumenberg’s prose you can just pretend to ignore if you’re trying to follow the argument; the big surprise comes when you try to unpack a sentence or phrase and come across the many little barbs that make you wonder why he had to phrase it quite so counterintuitively.

HB: One way to look at it is that Blumenberg’s style—about which Joe Koerner has written so insightfully—is central to his work if one applies his own insights about rhetoricity and nonconceptuality to himself: one implication of metaphorology is that there is an expressive surplus not only in the images but also in the syntax of language, indeed in the circuity of language in general. Not getting to the point in an immediate fashion becomes part of what Blumenberg in his late phase called “pensiveness,” celebrating the Umweg (detour) that defines philosophical thinking. However, this is a translation from German to English, and as such incapable of preserving some linguistic images, let alone syntactical constructions. When it comes down to it, the closest translation is worth little if the result is incomprehensible. To give an example of one such “executive decision” Joe mentioned: the very first sentence of the very first text of the Reader—“The Linguistic Reality of Philosophy” (1946/47)—runs almost over a whole column in the original German. As much as its talk of the “recalcitrance” of philosophical language comes to the fore in the text itself here, as Jürgen Goldstein has suggested, I decided to split up the sentence. There are limits to what you can ask the reader to put up with.

Samples from Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten housed at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach. Photograph via Heise Online.

JC & AH: The Reader bridges a remarkably wide range of topics, periods, and genres in Blumenberg’s career—well beyond those mentioned in the title. In particular, while Blumenberg is best known for his systematic works on the history of ideas, his late works indicate a shift, you write, “from the all-encompassing groundwork to the anecdotal observation” and a “turn toward a more narrative philosophy,” with his famous Zettelkasten—a system of over thirty thousand index cards compiled over fifty years—forming the basis for numerous books you describe as “results of the erudite synthesis of miscellanea” (21). As translators, do you feel Blumenberg’s non-academic writing is any good? More generally, how do you think his theoretical positions inform his rather narrative and historical style of writing?

FF: In my experience, much of the hesitation about reading Blumenberg, particularly in the English-speaking academic world, stems from the fact that he appears as an overly academic, almost hermetic writer, or merely as a historian. I think this is a distorted, even false appearance, which was caused by the dominance of the heavyweight history of ideas books translated into English in the 1980s. Yet, as especially the last two decades of reception have accentuated, and as our Reader also demonstrates, Blumenberg worked his entire fifty-year career equally as a literary critic, essayist, philosophical anthropologist, metaphorologist, historian, philosopher of technology, satirist, storyteller, etc. By including an equally paradigmatic and representative mix of topics, genres, and phases of work, we wanted to counter existing categorizations of Blumenberg and invite readers from all backgrounds and interests to find their own new paths into his work.

HB: Blumenberg’s range of styles is constitutive of his work. It is not so much that he wrote content-based essays and then apart from those more literary pieces. Rather, there is a performative element in these texts that enacts conceptual insights; they more often show something rather than say it, as Wittgenstein would have it. Blumenberg in this respect stands in a line with writer-philosophers like Benjamin or Kracauer, for whom the stylized, literary piece often contains elements of the unsaid in the usage of language—fitting for someone writing about the limits of concepts. For example, Blumenberg’s interest in the expressive surplus of fables is reflected in his writing a selection of fables and attributing them to Aesop. One special case may be the last text of the Reader, “Advancing into Eternal Silence” (1993) about the arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen. The essay discusses the media shift that happens with the invention of radio and the effects of the notion of entropy on the world-conception of modernity. But it is also Blumenberg’s own advance into silence; shortly thereafter, he stopped publishing altogether. On the one hand, these texts may invite broader interest from a different set of scholars, such as from literary studies. On the other hand, they continue the work Blumenberg begins in his more conceptually-driven writings. We found it important not to exclude one to the detriment of the other: Blumenberg’s writing is not an island, but an archipelago.

JPK: There are (at least) two sides to Blumenberg’s non-academic writing: his newspaper work of the 1950s and that of the 1980s. In the former, we see a much clearer distinction between his scholarly persona on the one hand and the cultural commentator on the other. Whereas Blumenberg’s Feuilletons of the 1950 are often quite opinionated and engage head-on with the public discourse of his day in a way that might have been thought of as un-scholarly, those of the 1980s are congruent with his “late style”—at least insofar as he cared to make it public in his lifetime—that is, oblique and allusive. The long literary essays on Faulkner, Waugh, etc. are something of a separate case. But is it any good? From a translator’s perspective, I would say there is a bit more freedom to play with Blumenberg’s voice and prose style where conceptual rigor is not the primary concern. But I don’t think that Blumenberg’s non-academic writing can ever offer a shortcut to understanding his thought as a whole. While interesting in its own right, I think it needs to be read alongside his scholarly work if Blumenberg’s intellectual preoccupations are to be understood.

JC & AH: In a review of your volume, Bruce Krajewski writes: “In ‘The Concept of Reality and the Theory of the State’ (1968/69), Blumenberg foresees, by looking back on the 1930s and ’40s, that our political future would depend on competing notions of reality, with the state’s politicians insisting during times of emergency, like a pandemic, that theirs is a ‘higher reality’—‘the real real,’ symptomatically also the name of a luxury consignment brand. This struggle for reality plays out in everyday life, by Blumenberg’s reckoning, when we attribute to the political party worthy of our allegiance the virtue of political truth missing in any competing party.” This attentiveness to the political nature of what counts as “reality” is reflective of the recent trend to make Blumenberg into something of a political thinker, although he hasn’t traditionally been viewed as one. The Reader does an excellent job of showing the social, if not explicitly political implications of Blumenberg’s thought, but we wondered why it doesn’t include any of the newly discovered political texts. Without a systematic look at his political thought, how seriously can we take his ideas about subjects like the state, for example?

HB: It is true, Blumenberg has so long been deemed an unpolitical writer that many have jumped at the recently published texts that do indeed touch upon politics—Präfiguration: Arbeit am politischen Mythos discusses the political implications of myth by looking at basic anthropological structures of significance, while Rigorism of Truth: “Moses the Egyptian” and Other Writings on Freud and Arendt chides Hannah Arendt not so much for writing her book on Eichmann but for her timing in doing so. As an editorial rule, we limited ourselves to translating standalone essays, which is why we decided against taking bits from existing books; we hope they may be rendered into English at a later date. Indeed, Rigorism of Truth already appeared in (Joe’s excellent) translation in 2018.

The most immediately political text in the Reader, however, is the essay Krajewski refers to and which has not been republished in German since it first appeared in 1969 in a Swiss journal. “The Concept of Reality and the Theory of the State” is a curious, underappreciated text. In it, Blumenberg uses his “historical phenomenology”—the analysis how reality has been understood in different epochs—for perhaps not “doing” political theory in any traditional manner, but for a critique of certain types of political realism, the first of which is Carl Schmitt’s. Against Schmitt’s notion of the primacy of the political and the necessity of a strong state, Blumenberg suggests that politics is a historically contingent rather than an anthropologically self-evident enterprise, and that the state, like other structures of meaning that have shifted historically, is about to lose its status as the master episteme of the present under the pressure of a globally integrated economy as well as the increasing technification of society.

What is more, the essay offers a radical critique of the realist account of politics by suggesting that politics is a historically limited constellation. Against this, Blumenberg pits the rhetoricization of politics, the mere simulation of decisiveness through language. The gist of his argument—which makes it applicable to any realism broadly conceived as the gesture towards the exigencies imposed by reality—is that reality itself has a history. There is no perennial standard of the real, so any politics that declares as much can be deconstructed by dismantling this claim through historicization. This amounts to a political anti-absolutism, opposing any one position that makes totalizing assertions; later, this will return in the guise of the “polytheism” of his theory of myth, in which the “division of power” that appears in myth is pitted against the “monotheism” of political theology in the vein of Schmitt. Blumenberg offers a stimulating and novel approach to politics as a historical phenomenon to which I know no parallel.

Hannes Bajohr is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Media Studies Department at the University of Basel. He received his doctorate with a dissertation on Hans Blumenberg’s theory of language from Columbia University, New York, in 2017.

Florian Fuchs is a Postdoc and Associate Researcher in the German Department at Princeton University. In 2017, he received his Ph.D. from Yale University with a dissertation on the rise of short narrative forms and civic storytelling from the 18th to the 20th century.

Joe Paul Kroll received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 2010 with a dissertation on the secularization debate between Hans Blumenberg, Karl Löwith, and Carl Schmitt. Following a stint in the publishing business, he now works as a freelance translator and occasional writer.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Andrew Hines is Lecturer in World Philosophies at SOAS University of London and the Thyssen Research Fellow at the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations at Queen Mary University of London. His first book is Metaphor in European Philosophy after Nietzsche: An Intellectual History (2020).

Featured Image: Book spine design of Suhrkamp’s Blumenberg collection in the series suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft. Photograph courtesy of denkkerker / Instagram.

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