“‘Futile! Futile!’ laments the Teacher. ‘Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!”
“I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind!”
We come from the dust, and to dust we return. The Book of Ecclesiastes is a powerful manifesto of the futility of all human strivings – even though the book eventually comes to emphasize that everything is in the hands of God and we should not doubt his plan. Written somewhere around the 3rd century BCE, I have yet to see other examples from the same era where the vanity of existence in the face of death is so clearly articulated. Futility, the key word of the book, comes from the Hebrew word ’hevel’, which literally refers to evanescent vapor, to wind, to man’s transitory breath. It beautifully captures the transient nature of life: Our brief life and our strivings are but a disappearing vapor in the wind.
While the book of Ecclesiastes thus comes to capture much of the modern existential despair, it seems to be somewhat of an outlier. Most ancient thinkers seemed to be quite confident that human life exists for a reason and that there is some inherent human good that our life aims to fulfill. Aristotle, for example, aims in his Nicomachean Ethics to identify the highest human good, the inherent “virtue of a human being“ as a result of which “a human being becomes good.” The background assumption is that the cosmos is intelligible and human beings exist for a purpose, thus the task of the thinker is only to unveil and discoverthe specific human good – whose very existence was self-evident and beyond doubt. As Professor Joshua Hochschild argues, this question about humans’ chief good, called telos by the Greeks and summum bonum in Latin, was “the question about human life asked for most of Western history.” It aims to identify the why of humanity’s existence: To what purpose were human beings created for?
However, through Enlightenment and the rise of the scientific worldview, a new way to understand the human condition started to slowly emerge, culminating, around the turn of the nineteenth century, with the invention of a new phrase: the meaning of life. Mostsources credit Thomas Carlyle with the honor of having coined the phrase in English in his book Sartor Resartus, published between 1833-1834. The book’s tremendous influence is underscored by the enthusiasm with which thinkers from Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Stuart Mill to Herman Melville and Walt Whitman all praised it – and by the contempt Nietzsche had for Carlyle. Two decades after its publication, George Eliot observed that ”there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings.”
Carlyle himself was deeply influenced by German idealists and romantics, from whom he not only borrowed the worldview expressed in Sartor Resartus but also the phrase meaning of life, which is a direct translation from the German ‘der Sinn des Lebens’. This German phrase seems to have been coined, according to Stephen Leach and James Tartaglia, during the final years of the eighteenth century among the Jena romantics, a loose circle of thinkers spending some time in the city and University of Jena during that time, which included Novalis, Schelling as well as Friedrich and August Schlegel. Novalis wrote that ”only an artist can divine the meaning of life” in an unpublished manuscript written around 1797-98, while on the last page of Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde the soul “understands the deep significance of the mysterious hieroglyphs on flowers and stars”, and through them “the holy meaning of life as well as the beautiful language of nature.”
The invention of the new phrase marks a new way of thinking about human life. The romantics were reacting to the increasing rationalization and mechanization of life in modernizing Europe where the self-evident divineness of the human life had become challenged and people in educated circles were losing touch with traditional Christianity. Carlyle, who grew up in strict Scottish Presbyterian Christianity but lost his faith in the university, vividly expresses the effect of the new secular worldview forced upon him: “To me, the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Violation, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.”
In art, in novels and poetry, the romantics hoped to find an authority for “certain human values, capacities, energies, which the development of society towards an industrial civilization was felt to be threatening or destroying”, as Raymond Williams puts it in Culture and Society: 1780-1950(p. 36). The natural laws guiding physical bodies, the vast geological periods before our existence, the juxtaposition of natural against supernatural, and the slow marginalization of the latter, and later in the nineteenth century the evolutionary understanding of the origin of life, all contributed to a new understanding of the position of the human being in the universe. Through the lens of science, life was revealed to be brief, accidental, and lacking any inherent value. Within this new mechanistic worldview it no longer was certain that any inherent meaning to human life existed. How could your life have some meaning when, as Tolstoy observed in his autobiographical Confession, you are just “a temporal, accidental conglomeration of particles. The interrelation, the change of these particles, produces in you that which you call life.“ When the interaction of these particles stops “that which you call life and all your questions will come to an end.“
Meaning of life as a phrase was thus invented to describe what was missing, what urgently needed to be found. It was a reactionary phrase used by thinkers desperately trying to circumvent the inevitable void gaping at the center of the new scientific way of understanding life that they had become exposed to. While the answers of those discussing meaning of life were varied, I see that what unites them is the fact that they pose the question against the backdrop of the possibility that without such an answer, life could be revealed to meaningless.
Of course, this transition from a worldview where everything inevitably exists for a purpose to the explicit challenging of any purpose to human life didn’t happen overnight. There had been thinkers touching upon the topic in previous times from the author of Book of Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare’s Macbeth who proclaims that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” But slowly these ideas started to become more widespread and explicit. Immanuel Kant with his Critique of Teleological Judgment and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with his Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship inspired the Jena romantics in Germany in whose stories the protagonist fell into a brief existential anguish before finding one’s way back to a purposeful world guaranteed by God. Directly influenced by them were then Carlyle, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer who dared to express the potential meaninglessness of human life in even stronger words. And finally Nietzsche, who had read his Schopenhauer and Carlyle, famously proclaimed in Gay Science in 1882 that ‘God is dead.’
Today, the meaning of life is a question that everyone recognizes. Not only visible in classics like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or the existential ponderings of Camus and other philosophers, the meaning of life has come to symbol the emblematic mystery at the heart of life to the degree of becoming a constant reference in popular culture. There is a tension in our relation to the question: On the one hand, we recognize it as a noble question that desperately needs some answer. On the other hand, many have resigned themselves to the probable fact that no answer exists. We cope with the discrepancy of having a question that absolutely needs an answer but seems to have none by turning the whole question into a joke. In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a supercomputer expressly built to compute the answer to the grand question about life and its meaning spits out the famous answer: “forty-two.” The story highlights the ridiculousness of the question itself—we expect a kind of all-clarifying answer we know doesn’t even exist.
The takeaway is that the question of meaning of life in its modern form is not something we have always asked. Instead, it was born in a particular historical juncture. Schlegel, Carlyle, Tolstoy, and other pioneers of the quest for meaning of life were seeking for new foundations that could be used to guarantee the meaningfulness of life, each having experienced a religious crisis through which the self-evidency of purposefulness of human life had been challenged. Schlegel’s Lucinde is essentially an attempt to articulate a new religious understanding founded on love, while Carlyle and Tolstoy were both raised in religious families but came to lose their faith in adulthood when encountering the scientific worldview. Their existential crisis, where they desperately sought after a meaning of life, was thus also a religious crisis.
Many modern philosophers make a distinction between a meaning of life and meaning in life, as I observe in my book A Wonderful Life. While the former asks about the meaning of life as such, and typically requires some externally imposed purpose applying to all human life, the latter is a more psychological question about whether the person in question experiences their own life as meaningful. Many people today seem ready to admit that life as such might not have any purpose or meaning to it or that one’s life doesn’t matter from the point of view of the universe, yet still experience that their own life is meaningful and worth living. They have found meaning in life, without seeking externally guaranteed meaning of life. While the meaning of life was the question troubling many great nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers, it could be that the defining existential question of the twenty-first century becomes the question about meaning in life.
Frank Martela, PhD, researches the philosophy and psychology of meaning in life at Aalto University, Finland. Beyond his academic work, he has written for Scientific American Mind, Philosophy Now, and Harvard Business Review, and just published the book A Wonderful Life – Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence (Harper Design 2020).
Featured Image: William Blake, Newton (1795 – c.1805). Courtesy of Tate.
Most language education programs have adopted the aim to teach culture in addition to language proficiency (hence, departments of “World Languages and Cultures” proliferate while departments of “Foreign Languages” have diminished). The move has been widespread, but has resulted in numerous challenges in implementation.
One of the most common issues is that language educators tend to teach what is generally called “surface” or “shallow” culture (e.g., types of clothing, food, fairytales, music, art—essentially the ‘facts’ of a culture) rather than teaching the “deep” culture of a studied group (e.g., perspectives, values, history, narratives, ideas, beliefs, and background practices that attend the ‘shallow’ practices and cultural products).
The relationship between these two aspects of culture, which have been helpfully differentiated by Luis Fernando Gómez Rodríguez, is dynamic—deep culture can influence surface culture and vice versa. But deep culture presents possibilities for students to gain a richer intercultural understanding and recognition of their own, perhaps underexamined, culture, and possibilities for teachers to learn a new pedagogy (from resources like University of Minnesota CARLA Institute’s bibliography on intercultural education). Many Latin educators face this problem: excited to introduce genuine Roman cultural practice into their classrooms, some teachers focus more on the what and how of Roman culture rather than the why and who. Recreated celebrations of ancient Roman holidays in today’s classrooms lack “deep” culture depth (though they may show an impressive degree of accuracy). Students may still wonder: Why did the Romans conduct their holiday ceremonies in the way they did? Who participated? Who didn’t?
Incorporating contemporary social history into classics, I contend, can help students and teachers access deep culture in the context of Ancient Mediterranean peoples. By thinking about and reflecting on how class, gender, race, ethnicity, and, broadly, identity functioned in the daily lives of the peoples of the classical world, students are able to i) gain a much richer understanding of their own culture—or, more precisely, cultures—and ii) better and more accurately examine Ancient Mediterranean cultural practice and knowledge. Happily, recent social history scholarship in Classical Studies can help our students achieve these aims and enhance their intercultural proficiency (see NCSSFL and ACTFL 2017). For example, I’ve incorporated selections from Andrew Johnston’s The Sons of Remus: Identity in Roman Gaul and Spaininto discussions of Caesar’s campaigns into Gaul in Latin 2, taking seriously the aim to teach outside the perspectives of dominant Roman culture. I not only included Caesar’s ethnocentric accounts of the native Celtic peoples in the De Bello Gallico, but also worked to amplify the local constructions of indigenous identity in future Roman Gallia and Hispania developed by the tribes of those lands.
Johnston’s book analyzes the intricate, complicated cultural narratives of these colonized peoples and what he calls their “creative misappropriations” of Greco-Roman myth to connect themselves to the Roman world while subverting some of its claims at domination. In a particularly memorable example, the Northern Gallic tribe of the Remi (from modern-day Rheims) considered themselves not “grandsons of Romulus” (as Catullus 49.1 contends is the Roman national identity) but rather lost descendants of Remus, the murdered brother of Romulus. Johnston continues: “…[W]hat would seem on the surface to be the most quintessentially ‘imperial’ iconographies, symbols, or cultural forms—[for example] a triumphal arch depicting Romulus and Remus [erected in Rheims]—were actually expressions of robust local identities” (3). Paired with tiered, accessible Latin versions of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico in class, Johnston’s powerful portrayal of a conquered Gallic tribe’s recasting of history provides an opportunity for deep intercultural analysis for my Latin 2 students.
My Latin 1 students have read multiple versions of the Romulus and Remus myth in Latin. I ask them: Why do the Remi see themselves as descendants of Remus? Why would a conquered people take on the history of its conquerors? What would Romans at the imperial center think of this story? What stories do we have at “our” founding? What counts as a “misappropriation” of that story? Building on these questions, I’ve also had success incorporating secondary readings from Erik Jensen’s Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, especially “The Invention of Gaul and Germany,” for discussions on the imperial and local constructions of a “Gallic” identity, pairing this reading with Johnston’s retelling of the Remi origin story.
The 3P Model, a pedagogical framework to deepen engagement with a cultural product in classroom teaching, is a powerful tool for developing this sort of deep cultural analysis in the secondary classroom and for adapting individual classroom activities into more robust opportunities for intercultural learning. It asks that we make explicit the cultural product, practice, and perspective (the 3P’s). I recently applied this framework to teach the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Saturnalia celebrations are a common December tradition in many secondary Latin classrooms and in youth classical organizations around the world. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was regarded as the finest and happiest holiday (optimo dierum, “the best of days”, in Catullus 14.15). Festive recreations often revolve around studying the Roman god Saturn and his typical divine attributes, decorating the Latin classroom leading up to a winter break, learning the customary Saturnalia greeting—“Io! Saturnalia!”—and gift-giving and dressing-up. Some instructors incorporate more of ancient Roman cultural practice; others focus on its possible ties to modern Christian rituals in the lead-up to the Christmas holiday.
Comparatively less focus, however, is paid to Saturnalia’s complicated relationship to the institution of Greco-Roman chattel slavery. The December holiday was associated with a sort of topsy-turvy “role reversal” of masters and enslaved persons, with a number of accounts detailing a banquet provided to slaves by their masters. Enslaved persons may have also been invited to games, gambling, and poetry competitions, activities from which they were generally forbidden. This seasonal qualified freedom is encapsulated in Horace’s memorable description of Saturnalia as the libertas Decembri, “December freedom,” in Satires 2.7.4, an early rich collection of everyday philosophical musings and imagined conversations from Augustan Rome’s preeminent lyric poet. Importantly, this season of ‘good tidings’ was explicitly and brutally temporary; the return to the rigid hierarchy of master-slave returned every year by the end of Saturnalia, as memorably described by the formerly enslaved Epictetus in Discourses 4.1.58.
Horace’s Satires 2.7 contains a powerful speech delivered by Davus, a supposed slave of Horace, who uses the license granted to him on the holiday to challenge Horace’s dominion and supposed freedom. He outlines ways in which Horace is in fact servile to his aesthetic tastes and desire for money and riches:
tu, mihi qui imperitas, aliis servis miser atque
duceris ut nervis alienis mobile lignum.
quisnam igitur liber? sapiens sibi qui imperiosus,
quem neque pauperies neque mors neque vincula terrent,
responsare cupidinibus, contemnere honores
fortis, et in se ipso totus…
You who command me are a subject to other things, and are led around like a puppet movable by others’ strings. Who then is free? The wise man who is in command of himself, whom neither poverty nor death nor chains frighten; courageous in checking his desires and in looking down on honors, and perfect in himself…
(Horace, Satires 2.7.80-85, my translation)
Using the 3P model, I’ve crafted a lesson plan around both the Satires text (another Latin text describing Saturnalia could be used) and a piece of secondary academic literature, in this case, Fanny Dolansky’s “Celebrating the Saturnalia: Religious Ritual and Roman Domestic Life” in A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Dolansky’s piece contains an excellent, thorough, and accessible introduction to the domestic and family dynamics of the Saturnalia festival (familia in the Roman sense included the complex interplay between free and enslaved persons living in the same familial property).
In this lesson plan (found here), I chart the product, practice, and perspectives of Saturnalia through Horace’s Satires 2.7. The ‘product’ in this case is Satires 2.7; the ‘practice’ is the ‘free speech’ or ‘December liberty’ (libertas Decembri) wherein enslaved persons acted out masters’ roles in planned banquets and ceremonies; the ‘perspectives’ are views surrounding the practice as enumerated in masters’ and enslaved persons’ opinions found in Satires 2.7 and Epictetus’s Discourses. I build on this model with potential classroom activities, language support, and scaffolding and connect the lesson with broader conversations surrounding the function of holidays within a slave-owning society.
For example, an important extension of this lesson includes discussion of the similar function of the Christmas holidays in antebellum US South as a form of “social conduction.” In the referenced lesson, I compare Davus’s speech in Horace’s Satires 2.7 with Frederick Douglass’s powerful reflections on the intended social control effected on enslaved people through the celebration of Christmas of New Year’s at the end of the calendar year. He writes:
The days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays; and, accordingly, we were not required to perform any labor, more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased…
From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slave, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection. Were the slaveholders at once to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity. But for these, the slave would be forced up to the wildest desperation; and woe betide the slaveholder, the day he ventures to remove or hinder the operation of those conductors! I warn him that, in such an event, a spirit will go forth in their midst, more to be dreaded than the most appalling earthquake.The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it…
Douglass’s reflections make for a powerful tool of comparison in my classroom. The text helps students consider what first-person reflections of enslaved persons would have been during the “December liberty” and question who the festival was really for. It also provides us an opportunity to have rich conversations about the similarities and differences between the chattel slavery practiced by Ancient Mediterranean peoples and by modern European peoples. As one obvious point of contrast, we discuss the Transatlantic slave trade’s basis in race, absent in antiquity, while acknowledging the brutal features of the ancient system.
Consequently, at the end of the Saturnalia sequence in my courses (in this case, Latin 2), students are well-prepared to demonstrate intermediate intercultural proficiency in their spoken and written reflections on the Roman holiday. In fact, if we take a look at the official wording of the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do statements for the intermediate proficiency, we’ll see that students who have been exposed to the 3P framework are well on their way to demonstrating intermediate intercultural proficiency:
INVESTIGATE In my own and other cultures I can identify and compare the values expressed by the ways people celebrate holidays or festivals.
INTERACT I can adjust the way I dress to make it appropriate for a celebration or event.
In the case of Saturnalia, my students are able to identify and compare the values expressed by Roman celebration of Saturnalia (and Christmas in the antebellum South, besides), and, in fact, have gained a better appreciation for why they ought not to celebrate Saturnalia through the donning of traditional Roman master-slave-freedmen garments or re-enact “slaves’ banquets” and “status inversions.”
Evan Dutmer is an Instructor in Latin, Ancient Mediterranean Cultures, and Ethics at the Culver Academies, a boarding school in Northern Indiana. He holds a PhD in Ancient Philosophy from Northwestern University. He is the recipient of the 2020 Indiana Classical Conference Teacher of the Year (Rising Star) Award.
Featured Image: Depiction of the month of December from the lost Chronography of 354 (which survived in a 17th century Vatican copy; Vatican Library, cod. Barberini lat. 2154). Dice and a hanging oscilla (a ceremonial mask) feature prominently, connecting it with Saturnalia traditions (and showing the durability of the holiday into Late Antiquity). Photograph via tertullian.org.
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.
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.
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.
The German philosopher and intellectual historian Hans Blumenberg (1920–1996) has fallen into the spotlight as of late. Known for influential studies including The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966) and The Genesis of the Copernican World (1975), over a dozen additional volumes of his more experimental writings and unfinished manuscripts have appeared posthumously. In recent years, a number of major conferences and a 2018 documentary have been dedicated to his work, while newly-published editions (his dissertation on the problem of primordiality in medieval ontology) and correspondence (with Carl Schmitt and Jacob Taubes) have appeared in German, with some English translations following. The new essay collection, History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader was published in June 2020 by the Signale imprint for German thought at Cornell University Press. The volume is edited and translated by Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll. Bajohr has also contributed to the Blog’s continuing coverage of Blumenberg scholarship, one highlight of which was a forum from last year on Blumenberg and political myth. Contributing editors Andrew Hines and Jonathon Catlin, who organized that forum, interviewed the editors about this new edition of Blumenberg’s writings.
Jonathon Catlin & Andrew Hines: This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Blumenberg’s birth, which has led to an outpouring of interest in him, prompted by several recent books: Rüdiger Zill’s Der absolute Leser – Hans Blumenberg. Eine intellektuelle Biographie (2020), Jürgen Goldstein’s Hans Blumenberg: Ein philosophisches Portrait (2020), and Kurt Flasch’s Hans Blumenberg. Philosoph in Deutschland. Die Jahre 1945 bis 1966 (2017). I was struck by a review that said contemporary readers steeped in critical theory might be surprised by how traditional Blumenberg’s university environs were, centered as they were on classicism, philology, idealism, and phenomenology, and “not yet enlightened by linguistic analysis.” There were also legacies of the Nazi regime, which had persecuted Blumenberg as someone partly Jewish, but which long remained a taboo subject. We learn in these recent works that he once remarked of continuing to work with former Nazi academics, “I didn’t want to be what I didn’t have to be: the Last Judgment.” Shortly before his death, he wrote, “This country has remained scary to me, although I have rarely left it….In this country nothing that made Hitler possible has vanished into thin air…” Were there any revelations here for you?
Joe Paul Kroll: It’s worth noting how attached to the traditions of the German university Blumenberg was, even if the student revolt, beginning in the 1960s, came to identify those traditions with darker continuities that had not been adequately addressed. Blumenberg tended to see the ugly German rearing his head in the behaviour of the radicals rather than in institutional or personal continuities, and was horrified by left-wing militancy and terrorism in the 1970s, which he found to be wholly destructive and redolent not just of the Nazis, but even of the early modern Landsknechte. As for “former Nazi academics,” he was (often) willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, both personally and, as it were, institutionally. I can only assume that he felt the university system to be a haven and that its politicization was the problem. This does not mean that he found the continuing influence of certain individuals or interactions with them to be unproblematic.
Hannes Bajohr: The wish not to be the world court or the Last Judgment (Weltgericht) also stems from the fact that Blumenberg was only able to survive the Third Reich as unscathed as he did because party members helped him: First, there was Heinrich Dräger, the owner of the Dräger factory where Blumenberg was able to work and to earn a living between 1943 and 1945, and who continually claimed to the authorities that he was indispensable. Second, after Blumenberg was able to get out of the work camp to which he was deported in 1945, again with the help of Dräger, he found refuge with his former driving instructor, also a party member. However, this does not mean that Blumenberg was all-forgiving: He advocated for the ouster of a professor who—having been a strong proponent of eugenics under the Nazis—kept working at the University of Kiel after 1945, but to no avail. That he later reacted with such vitriol to, for instance, the accusations against Heidegger for his Nazi sympathies is certainly due to his antipathy to the New Left of the seventies, as Joe has mentioned. One must not forget that there is also development in Blumenberg’s politics: He started out as a Catholic thinker in the 1940s who turned into a liberal apologist of modernity in the 1960s, and became more conservative again in the later 1970s and 1980s.
Florian Fuchs: A biographical revelation that had a clarifying effect on understanding Blumenberg’s work for me was how consistently and almost systematically he withdrew from almost any kind of collaborative and social interaction, not just in the later years, which had been well known, but almost all along and with little differentiation as to with whom. In the past, scholars have presented these withdrawals as strategic techniques of Blumenberg within the politics of academic projects, that is, as directed against certain groups of colleagues or single interlocutors. But the episodes that Zill lays out one after the other show that Blumenberg’s withdrawal is systematic and rather follows its own inherent private tactics, without ever being meant as part of any actual communication to his contacts. The rigorousness of this behavior then ultimately complicates, or even prohibits the biographicization of his books or projects, instead of warranting cross-reading to detect his alleged positioning of essays or books for or against certain people or institutions.
JC & AH: It is also the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the renowned German publisher Suhrkamp’s series Theorie, which for a time Blumenberg edited with Jürgen Habermas, Dieter Henrich, and Jacob Taubes. We gather that Blumenberg stepped down from this role over conflicts with the publisher’s editor, Siegfried Unseld. Granting Florian’s point about Blumenberg’s independence, what were some of the animating concerns of the intellectual milieu in which Blumenberg wrote many of the essays in this Reader?
JPK: I find it hard to answer that question beyond a general reference to the discussion group Poetik und Hermeneutik, in which Blumenberg was involved only for the first four sessions, and whose animating concern was to find some kind of common ground within the realm of Geisteswissenschaften (humanities) at a time when methodologies seemed to be diverging to the point of mutual incomprehension. One striking thing about the recent biography of Blumenberg by Zill is that it’s very much not a “life and times” kind of book and largely omits intellectual debates that Blumenberg did engage in with his contemporaries, situating him rather in the context of academic politics. This would seem to dovetail with Blumenberg’s self-mythologization as someone writing largely for himself and for posterity, which may not be the whole truth, but certainly derives some plausibility from the sheer volume of writing that was not published in his lifetime but which was clearly conceived as part of the greater Werk. One more point would be that Blumenberg was not part of the so-called “Suhrkamp culture,” of which Habermas is perhaps the emblematic figure. Indeed, Habermas seems to be the most important contemporary whose work Blumenberg seems largely to have ignored.
JC & AH: There is also Blumenberg’s relationship to Husserl and Heidegger, whom he engages in his early essays in the Reader on phenomenological approaches to technology. One trouble is that Blumenberg’s writing style often leaves one guessing just who he is implying in certain arguments. There is a school of thought, including Anselm Haverkamp and Dirk Mende, that has argued that Blumenberg’s writings in the 1960s, particularly Paradigms and some surrounding correspondence, is an implicit engagement with Heidegger, for example on language as a tool, and an attempt to offer “metaphorology” as an alternative to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. In your biographical introduction, however, you suggest a clean break with Heidegger. How does this Reader, as you have created it, allow us to engage with this coded style of writing in which, some would argue, references to particular authors aren’t always made explicit?
HB: Blumenberg came to phenomenology through Catholicism, but it was phenomenology that remained at the basis of his thought. I think the relationship to Heidegger has to be seen in this light. Blumenberg’s teacher Ludwig Landgrebe was a Husserlian who read Heidegger not so much as a rebel of phenomenology but as an innovator of its main program who pointed out some flaws in Husserl’s initial attempt. Already in the 1950s, Blumenberg turned against Heidegger as obscurantist and misguided, and later he would write that the question of the meaning of being is one of the less interesting ones in the history of philosophy. But he held on to what Landgrebe saw as Husserl’s useful reaction to Heidegger’s critique of the notion of epoché, the bracketing of judgments on the existence of what is given to consciousness. Famously, the concept of Being-in-the-world reacts to the all-too distanced, Cartesian attitude that the epoché presupposes. Landgrebe, and with him Blumenberg, points out that Husserl already had a notion of engaged world relation in the flipside of the epoché, which he called the natural attitude and which later he fashioned into the concept of the life-world, the preconceptual sphere of world engagement. One can disagree as to whether the life-world really is a useful equivalent to Being-in-the-world, but for Blumenberg Heidegger had not really gone beyond Husserl in any meaningful way. The interpretation that Heidegger is the main target, at least in my view, misses the mark. Husserl is a much more direct influence, and Heidegger, channeled through this reading as a corrective to Husserl, a secondary character in comparison.
To your second point, it has frequently been remarked that Blumenberg did not like to present his ideas in grand intellectual lineages, and even went to great lengths to obliterate references to his contemporaries. This is not always the case, as the notable exception is the second edition of Legitimacy of the Modern Age, where he answers his critics (this edition is the basis of the English translation, which is why it is so difficult to follow its palimpsestic structure). But on the whole, he makes a point of not engaging with other thinkers by name. Still, I think it may be putting it a little too starkly when saying he “ignored” Habermas, for instance. Rather, he addresses him circuitously, by not naming him directly—for example in “An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric,” where Blumenberg develops an alternative notion of “consensus” (but uses the italicized Latin form, not the German Konsens Habermas employs). And as Brad Tabas has pointed out, Blumenberg often uses historical figures as stand-ins for contemporary ones: Hobbes for Arnold Gehlen and Carl Schmitt, Hegel for the Frankfurt School—even Napoleon for Hitler in Work on Myth. This elusiveness is certainly another self-stylization. He strove, as Jürgen Goldstein called it, for “classicism” in his work, and classicism is not in the business of academic bickering or penning op-eds on current events.
FF: Hannes put it nicely: Blumenberg addresses others “circuitously,” and I would add, he does so almost by default and in the double sense of addressing them both indirectly and laboriously, that is, often covering his own tracks of having done so. From any reader of Blumenberg, that demands heightened caution not to be misled by seemingly clear references, and perhaps our Reader helps a bit here because we marked and referenced some quotations not made explicit in the original German. This practice, in consequence, makes it always more difficult to place Blumenberg within certain lineages of reception than meets the eye. He might refer to one interlocutor just to avoid mentioning another, or worse, in the negative, avoid mentioning Hegel to avoid having to mention Adorno; but in each case, the motivations become comprehensible only in the context of the ongoing larger argument.
That certainly goes for Heidegger, too, but it has always been my sense that Heidegger is rather the model case for this indirect mode of reception and critique, with the main reason being what Hannes just outlined: Phenomenology was always more significant for Blumenberg than Existenzialontologie or Seinsgeschichte. Yet in the intellectual climate right after the war, in which Heidegger and his school could not be avoided, Blumenberg, while still being very much concerned with keeping philosophy intact as a social project, chose to address Heidegger largely by determinate avoidance. For me, his original (and fairly straightforward) gesture here is his critique of a “monologic” jargon in contemporary philosophy in the “Linguistic Reality of Philosophy” (1946/47) essay. Against the overburdening of philosophical language with quotidian equivocations—a clear reference to Heidegger, in my understanding—he demands, despite all valid complications with metaphysics, a return of the Husserlian care for philosophical language in order to achieve a philosophical dialogicity. That is not at all to say that Blumenberg’s critique of philosophical language was designed as an anti-project to Heidegger’s highly idiosyncratic turn away from phenomenology, but it was certainly developed as an alternate program for thinking through the tensions between life-world and self that Husserlian phenomenology had begun to identify.
JC & AH: Blumenberg once said the task of philosophy was “the dismantling of the obvious” [Abbau von Selbstverständlichkeiten]. He likewise wrote in the 1971 essay “An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric”: “I see no other scientific course for an anthropology except, in an analogous manner, to destroy what is supposedly ‘natural’ and convict it of its ‘artificiality’ in the functional system of the elementary human achievement called ‘life’.” (188) The difficulty of Blumenberg’s work can be partly explained by the fact that he hardly belonged to any political or ideological camp, but rather developed a variety of such critical approaches. In a recent reminiscence on Blumenberg, his former student Uwe Wolff thus writes that there was no “Blumenberg School” to speak of, and in a recent review of your Reader, Robert Pippin similarly calls Blumenberg “unclassifiable.” Nevertheless, we wonder whether you see some enduring commitments and concepts across his oeuvre: perhaps the notion of the “absolutism of reality,” or, as he puts it elsewhere, the modern “awareness of reality’s contingency” that catalyzes the justification of the life-world (395).
JPK: One might also translate Abbau—as Derrida did when he encountered the term in Heidegger—as deconstruction. To do so would, however, be somewhat tendentious. There is no triumphant calling out of the naked emperor in Blumenberg, and no suggestion that the layers of meaning concepts accrue over time are in some way “inauthentic.” The Entselbstverständlichung to which he refers is something almost incidental to the development of thought and language and in that sense connects with the Lebenswelt, that notional realm of the self-evident which seems always to be receding from view. If one were to classify Blumenberg as anything, it might be as an observer of such processes rather than their agent.
As for the “absolutism of reality,” Odo Marquard—whom I like to think of as the Diogenes Laertius among Blumenberg’s biographers—placed that term at the center of his interpretation and reports that Blumenberg, when asked if he agreed, replied: “I am dissatisfied only with the fact that it is possible so quickly to notice that everything more or less comes down to that idea.” (Hannes recently translated the text in question.) Make of that what you will. I don’t think it’s an unhelpful interpretation as such, though it may mislead unwary readers into thinking that Blumenberg was some kind of therapeutic philosopher, and it would certainly be counterproductive to try and force all of Blumenberg’s concerns into such a narrow framework.
HB: If I can take up a thread from the previous question, I would say one enduring commitment is indeed the notion of the life-world. First, in what Blumenberg referred to as “historical phenomenology,” he describes historical life-worlds (or more precisely, the historical horizons of the life-world). He calls “concepts of reality” the conditioning structure of what, in an epoch, can appear as real; the contingency of reality as a fundamental structure of human world-relation historicizes the real. I would say that this also feeds into his metaphorology—one way of reading it is as the attempt to infer, through language, these reality concepts. So, for instance, the metaphor of truth as light must understand reality as immediately evident, as opposed to truth as something to be won in struggle, which conceives of reality as evasive. One can read this as an echo of the Heideggerian history of being, but I believe that if anything the reference to Heidegger is purely negative; Blumenberg was, after all, deeply hostile to ontology, and he repeatedly separated his notion of reality from that of being.
The life-world also plays a role in his “phenomenological anthropology,” which tries to make up for Husserl’s “forgetfulness of the body” (not unlike Merleau-Ponty did). It explains what in Husserl must remain unexplained—the beginning of consciousness—by adding an evolutionary perspective: human consciousness emerges from the becoming-human of the first hominids, and this in turn means interpreting the life-world as the threshold of humanization—it is always already behind us. This plays a role in Description of the Human but also in Work on Myth. Here, the Husserlian commitment is equally evident, and it would be hard to argue that this anthropology reacts in any way to Heidegger; Husserl, not Heidegger, remains the central point of reference.
Nevertheless, it is worth keeping in mind that Blumenberg’s work is made up of different phases, as the Reader shows. The concern with phenomenological anthropology—correcting Husserl by employing the German tradition of philosophical anthropology connected to names like Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Arnold Gehlen—and to which Marquard’s quip refers, is a rather late development, beginning with “An Anthropological Approach.” But you find little about anthropology in the work of the 1960s, especially if you look at the texts dealing with secularization, reality, and history. The “absolutism of reality” may certainly be a useful, if reductive, title for the work of the 1970s, but the 1960s are much more characterized by an interest in modeling the self-understanding of historical epochs through differing “concepts of reality.” The 1980s, on the other hand, show some stark shifts—in style toward more literary forms, and in concern staying with anthropology but not so much describing it theoretically, but rather investigating its effects through analyzing genres like fables and anecdotes.
FF: I agree with Joe and Hannes, and would like to add the case of metaphorology, perhaps counterintuitively, as a Blumenbergian commitment than as a concept. In fact, metaphorology the concept and the method more or less failed, especially with respect to its original installment vis-à-vis, or better, side by side with the history of concepts. I know of no other “metaphorologist,” and, strictly speaking, even Blumenberg may not be one, after all. Metaphorology the commitment succeeded, however, and was successful, albeit under different labels: Blumenberg coins the term very early in the essay on the light metaphor (possibly as an indirect result of his earlier notion of a “metakinetics” of historicity from his 1950 habilitation, if one follows Anselm Haverkamp), and attempts to install it as a method with the “Paradigms,” but then only has it return a decade later in the context of his anthropology and narrative philosophy from the “Observations” onwards. During this long arc, it develops from the identification of an overlooked problem in the history of philosophy, to a programmatic initiation of a large research project, to an implicit and later explicit but always idiosyncratic method of his own reading and writing, up to its later modulations into essays about “nonconceptuality” with regard to anthropology and “nonunderstanding” with regard to fables. From this perspective, there’s a consistent and traceable commitment to metaphorology, perhaps conceived as attention to the orienting function of language for the thinking of realities.
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.
Rüdiger Zill is a philosopher and program manager at the Einstein Forum, Potsdam. He works on intellectual history, theory and history of emotions, and aesthetics. His most recent publications include Der absolute Leser. Hans Blumenberg: Eine intellektuelle Biographie (Suhrkamp, 2020), Poetik und Hermeneutik im Rückblick. Interviews mit Beteiligten(co-edited with Petra Boden, Fink, 2016) and Metapherngeschichten. Perspektiven einer Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit (co-edited with Matthias Kroß, Parerga, 2011).
Contributing editor Jonas Knatz interviewed him about his work on Hans Blumenberg.
Jonas Knatz: In 2017,Paul Fleming noted that “a Blumenberg renaissance is taking place in the United States.” (119) And there is ample evidence that this trend has not come to a halt yet: Last year, the Journal of the History of Ideas devoted a special issue to the 50th anniversary of The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, this blog organized a forum on Hans Blumenberg and political myth, and a new translation of Blumenberg’s central writings was just published with Cornell University Press. This trend in North American academia mirrors the renewed interest in Blumenberg’s philosophy in Germany which, spurred by this year’s centennial of the philosopher’s birth in Lübeck, saw the publication of numerous new books and articles. What motivated your own work on Blumenberg and how would you explain this increased attention to his philosophy in both Germany and the US?
Rüdiger Zill: My own interest in Blumenberg’s work was sparked by my dissertation on models and metaphors. My idea was to bring thinkers from different countries who try to explain the power of metaphors into conversation with one another and thereby to transgress national and cultural barriers: German thinkers were very late in their reception of English and French theorists (Anselm Haverkamp’s edited volume Theorie der Metapher from 1983 was a milestone in this regard), and the English speaking world was (and still is) not very familiar with German approaches either. Just one recent, surprising example: even a philosopher like Charles Taylor, someone very familiar with the German philosophy of language, completely ignores Blumenberg in his book The Language Animal (2016), despite the proximity between his central idea of significance (translated as “Bedeutsamkeit” in the German edition) and Blumenberg’s concept of rhetoric in general and his theory of the absolute metaphor in particular.
Starting with the Metaphorologie, I began to familiarize myself with Blumenberg’s other books, and when I discovered his unpublished papers in the Marbach archives in 2008, it was clear to me that they provided us with an extraordinary opportunity to observe a thinker at work. These papers include not only a huge bulk of unpublished manuscripts (some of which have been edited and published in the meantime) but also the instruments of Blumenberg’s thinking, a minute self-documentation which provides information not only about the books he read (including the exact date and sometimes his rating), but also about which part of his manuscripts he worked on what day. There is also, of course, his Zettelkasten (card box) with quotes and remarks. In short, the archive provides a glimpse into Blumenberg’s machinery of thinking. I became fascinated by the idea that he not only constitutes an important subject in the history of science, but could also be turned into its object: his papers open up important insights into the fabrication of ideas. So, I combined the perspective from within (his theory) with the view from outside (his modus operandi).
The more I got to know about his work and its driving forces, the more I got the feeling that a number of misinterpretations shape our understanding of his philosophy. But only in 2016, when I happened to be part of the crew of Christoph Rüter’s documentary Hans Blumenberg – Der unsichtbare Philosoph, did I begin thinking about adding a biographical dimension to my work on his philosophy.
Blumenberg was not really a big name during his own life-time. Of course he was known and extremely respected by his colleagues, which is exemplified by how his fellow members in the research group “Poetik und Hermeneutik” initially paid court to him. His lectures in Münster were extremely popular and drew a broad audience that also included his colleagues and a philosophically interested public, and he was known for his essays in the newspapers Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine. But he was far from being a preeminent figure. His books sold well but were rarely read: too many pages in his very ornate style. Actually, only the later books that were smaller, like Shipwreck with Spectator, Care Crosses the River and Matthäuspassion, won over a wider readership.
Only after his death did he become an object of growing fascination, a process spurred on by a host of posthumous publications: compilations of his shorter essays as well as impressive studies on general topics like Description of Man. Now everybody could see what the well-informed circles in Münster had known already: the breadth of his work’s scope. And this process is far from being finished, we still are witnessing the rise of a new continent of ideas.
And this is why his reception in the United States is in its infancy. Some of his most important works were already translated during his lifetime, such as the Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1983), The Genesis of the Copernican World (1987) and Work on Myth (1985)—but these books constitute huge thresholds for readers. The smaller books, which are easier to approach, were initially not translated; Paradigms of Metaphorology (orig. 1960) made its way into the English-speaking world as late as 2010. But at least partly, Blumenberg himself is to blame for this as well. In the 1980s, he turned down a plan by his translator Robert Wallace to publish an English volume with articles on metaphorology and rhetoric. Blumenberg rejected this idea because he felt that his older texts like Paradigms were insufficient, and that an English translation should start with a reformulated version of his metaphorology. This reformulation happened exclusively in German and remains unfortunately incomplete: in 1979, Blumenberg published Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer (Shipwreck with Spectator, translated by MIT Press only in 1996), followed by Die Lesbarkeit der Welt(The Legibility of the World, still untranslated). Therefore, I am not sure that Blumenberg’s work enjoys a renaissance in the United States today: for the most part, it seems to be more of a first encounter.
But there are obstacles to the continuation of this trend. On the Anglophone book market and in the North American discussion about European philosophy, Blumenberg’s oeuvre resists easy integration. He was far away from the new French philosophers, and even from German thinkers who are well discussed on the other side of the Atlantic, such as the Frankfurt School. This is why he is approached via other thinkers like Hannah Arendt or Carl Schmitt, household names in American cultural theory that, however, were far less important for Blumenberg’s own intellectual life than we are made to think. And when it comes to philosophy proper: there is no way to bridge his philosophical writings and analytical philosophy; even in Germany Blumenberg’s texts are more often found in literary and cultural studies or among theologians than in philosophy departments.
JK: You specifically chose to write an intellectual biography of Blumenberg—a genre which, as you write in your prologue, poses the methodological challenge of determining the link between text and context. The resulting work, titled The Absolute Reader, is split into three parts, of which the first offers a description of Blumenberg’s life while the third traces the process of his philosophical development. Why did you choose to pursue a clear separation between Blumenberg’s private and his philosophical life? And why did you decide to approach his philosophy in the form of an intellectual biography?
RZ: Of course, there is no clear cut between private life and philosophical development. Even in the first part—where I am dealing with his biography in the narrow sense—I had to include theoretical anchors, sketches of representative texts. Conversely, there are also links to Blumenberg’s political and social situation in the third part, because his ideas respond at least in certain respects to their non-theoretical context. One of the central texts I interpret in part III is Blumenberg’s 1949 talk “Philosophy Facing the Questions of our Time” (“Philosophie vor den Fragen der Zeit”), and of course he is not referring to quantum theory here but to political and moral challenges. These sketches are junctions, connecting points.
Still, some people think this separation is artificial. Jörg Später, for example, the author of an exceptional and very successful biography of Siegfried Kracauer, wrote that reading my book felt like first watching a film without the soundtrack, then listening to the soundtrack on its own, and afterwards reading the script. And of course, if you want to understand Blumenberg and his work, you have to eventually combine these strands.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that there are some good reasons for using this “tripartite” structure. If you ask what determines the development of a theoretical corpus, you always encounter different forces of influence. Certainly, in the case of philosophy, personal experience plays into it, for it is not physics or any other highly abstract science: it is nurtured by the “questions of the time,” political, social, historical or even very personal circumstances. Being a student in the second half of the 1940s in Germany meant dealing with the recent past. But then experiences and questions are one thing, and intellectual instruments to answering these questions are quite another. What kind of theory is at hand to deal with these questions? What is within the horizon of a 25-year-old student who grew up in a basically National Socialist surrounding, influenced by the then-prevalent ideas, but who also had to suffer prosecution and even hide for some time? What are the philosophical tools he encountered up to this point? These intellectual instruments have their own history and their own logic. So, personal and historical experience is one thread of determination, the theoretical options of response is another. Biography and history of ideas are connected but should not be conflated. There is always the pitfall of writing a caricature of intellectual history: it is rarely missed to mention that Blumenberg, the author of a book titled Cave Exits, had to hide at the end of WW II in a secret room. But what does this really explain?
Apart from following these two threads, I wrote a shorter second part on Blumenberg’s art of thinking and writing, his actual method of producing texts, the kind of philosophy in action that you can study in his papers. And I think it is important to realize that Blumenberg was a playful mind; he experimented a lot with his texts, not only producing articles and books from the material that was originally collected in the card boxes, but also formulating and reformulating certain ideas, arranging and rearranging piles of text. And again: this, too, developed its own logic, not to be explained as the result of a prefabricated plan.
What I wanted to show is that we can only understand a corpus of philosophical texts as the result of these three interacting lines, which nevertheless are governed by respective internal logics that have to be sketched out separately. But I have to confess: this approach to Blumenberg’s work was not a given when I started the project but in itself became the result of a longer experimental engagement with Blumenberg.
JK: Already in its mere form, an intellectual biography of Blumenberg challenges the prevalent public image of the German philosopher as a recluse writer—a myth that your book tries to dispel by showing Blumenberg’s long-standing attempts to become a public intellectual as well as his active role in shaping Germany’s post-WWII educational landscape. You argue that Blumenberg’s withdrawal from public life, which starkly shaped his public image, occurred only at a very late stage in his life. What motivated his exit from the public sphere?
RZ: Blumenberg’s public life follows the movement of a hyperbola, with the years in Gießen und Bochum in the 1960s marking its climax. What motivated his exit, his withdrawal from the public sphere is difficult to say—we can only guess and follow some hints he left behind. Blumenberg was already 45 when he published his first proper book, Die kopernikanische Wende, in 1965, basically a compilation of older articles he had previously published in the journal Studium generale. Up to this point, he was fighting with the complexity of the material, at least if we choose to believe what he says in some letters to his colleagues. But he was convinced that he had a lot more to say and that he was running out of time, lifetime. And indeed, from this point onward, he published a number of big books.
This perceived shortage of lifetime was accompanied by a feeling of suffering failures. He was disappointed by the results of interdisciplinarity, in particular within the research group “Poetik und Hermeneutik,” and by his unsuccessful attempts to take part in the process of German universities. He felt rejected by his colleagues in the philosophy department in Münster, obstructed by the academic administration, and harassed by the student movement, which in part reminded him of the Nazis in Lübeck. So he increasingly yearned for reclusion and, in the end, hardly left his house. After his retirement, he was eager, as he said, “to bring in the harvest,” which in his case meant to arrange his papers, sometimes to rewrite parts of the manuscripts, and to prepare them for future publication by somebody else. That there would be someone doing this, this he was convinced of.
JK: Judging from your biography, Blumenberg seems to have had a very complicated and ambivalent relationship with Germany and particularly its National Socialist past. In 1939, he was removed from the position as a valedictorian because of his Jewish mother. At the same time, the valedictorian speech, which he had already drafted and which was subsequently given by one of his classmates, constituted an attempt to philosophically reconcile humanism and National Socialism. In addition, on May 8, 1945, the day of German surrender, Blumenberg read Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, only days after the British invasion of Hamburg allowed him to leave his hideout and months after he was coerced into forced labor. In 1996, he wrote to Uwe Wolff, a former student of his, that Germany had never stopped being “uncanny” for him because “nothing has evaporated that made Hitler possible.” But here again, he refrained from openly criticizing philosophers that had been implicated in National Socialism, such as Carl Schmitt or Erich Rothacker. Instead, when he attacked them for their support of National Socialism, he disguised his critique as a debate about secularization in the, as Falko Schmieder has argued, “political Nirvana of late Medieval gnosis and its second overcoming.” In his review of your biography, Micha Brumlik suggests that Blumenberg’s philosophy can partly be understood as a “work of suppression,” written by someone who has been heavily traumatized by his persecution under National Socialism. How would you characterize Blumenberg’s thought about National Socialism and its afterlife in the Federal Republic?
RZ: Here again, Blumenberg’s “thought” was changing over time. The uncanniness he mentioned in the letter to Uwe Wolff and in other letters as well is a feeling of his later years. When he tried to convince Hans Jonas to accept a professorship at Kiel University in 1955, which for Jonas would have meant to re-migrate from the US to the country which had sent his mother to Auschwitz, Blumenberg was convinced that “the political development of the Federal Republic, the successful overcoming of the ideological remainders of the horrible past” would allow for a new judgement on whether or not “people of your and my personal and familial fate” could gain “a positive sense of life” in Germany. And his own judgement was affirmative.
I don’t think his point of view in the secularization debate was a critique of National Socialism in disguise. He certainly knew about Carl Schmitt’s past, but he refused to be the “Last Judgment,” and with Erich Rothacker he felt some kind of friendship and even admiration as we can see from the obituary he wrote for him in 1966. Hermann Lübbe reported that Blumenberg was not interested in the personal past of his contemporaries but in their present-day behavior. If they had believed in Hitler before 1945, he did not waste any words about it, but he was extremely alert if somebody remained a Nazi after.
I try to use the concept of “resonance” in my book, in the sense that past and presence resonate with each other. “Resonance” is different from “reaction” or even “echo,” it isn’t something that simply responds to a past experience (let alone a psychological effect of a former cause), but a new experience that chooses some older experience (from a number of possibilities) because it fits the present one. As soon as Blumenberg felt rejected by his colleagues and other people, he began to reevaluate his past. And so the past experience explains, substantiates, empowers the present one. It is a process of going back and forth.
JK: In his obituary of Blumenberg, Odo Marquard wrote that the former’s philosophy follows a leitmotif: the attempt of the weak yet creative human subject to gain distance from the burdensome and reckless absoluteness of the real. This assessment has been very influential for Blumenberg’s reception and has featured prominently in introductory texts to his philosophy. Your book cautions against such a systematic reading and, by contrast, argues that his philosophical oeuvre has to be understood as the outcome of an evolving, experimental and restless thought process that followed an immanent movement and responded to external developments. It was also characterized by shifts. Most importantly perhaps, over the course of the 1970s, Blumenberg shifted from an early focus on the history of science, technology and metaphors, to anthropological topics. What was the immanent logic behind this shift in attention and how did it correspond to external events?
RZ: I would say that the turning point occurred in 1970, when Blumenberg left Bochum for Münster. In 1971, he published his first explicit article on anthropology, An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric, in an Italian journal. Of course, he read books on anthropology much earlier, including Arnold Gehlen’s Der Mensch, which he studied already in the 1940s. He was interested in anthropology and even gave talks on it throughout the 1950s. But still, when Gadamer invited him in 1968 to contribute an article to his encyclopedia on Neue Anthropologie, Blumenberg refused to do so, arguing that he felt not yet prepared. His main work on anthropology took shape in the second half of the 1970s, the results of which were edited and published by Manfred Sommer in the 2006 book Beschreibung des Menschen.
Some scholars argue that Blumenberg’s work has been saturated with anthropology from its inception. The question eventually comes down to our definition of anthropology, and German “Anthropologie” is different from English “anthropology.” If anthropology means human self-description and self-interpretation, in particular the historical search for self-assertion (Selbstbehauptung), then of course all of Blumenberg’s approaches from the early beginning onward are part of anthropology. But if anthropology is a theory that seeks to explain the conditio humana through its biological constitution and in particular with reference to its evolutionary beginnings, a theory that investigates the human struggle for self-preservation (Selbsterhaltung) and inquiries into the difference between humans and animals, anthropology becomes central for Blumenberg’s philosophy only after 1970. (By the way: this second definition dominated German “Anthropologie” for a long time.)
At the beginning of his career, Blumenberg was interested in the history of science and technology, the practical ways of dealing with the world, and in particular the intellectual and mental predispositions that were necessary for certain inventions and developments. Similar to Max Weber’s search for the religious roots of capitalism, Blumenberg was interested in the philosophical and cultural premises that made human self-assertion possible. Here, the shift from the Middle Ages to Modernity was decisive for Blumenberg, as it was in this moment that science became independent from world-views and gained its own momentum. After that, progress became exclusively the result of inner-scientific developments. After publishing The Legitimacy of the Modern Age and Genesis of the Copernican World, he probably had the impression that there was nothing left to be explained in this decisive period. For all further developments, he had to change his profession. The histories of contemporary physics or astronomy are not explicable with reference to their philosophical foundation, but require attention to extremely intricate inner-scientific problems, and he was certainly not trained for that. In addition, the history of modern technology began to be dominated by Marxist approaches. Although he made very sophisticated contributions to the discussion about their materialist claims, he probably no longer wanted to deal with something that he felt uncomfortable with.
So he started with a “deeper” layer of the human condition, something which seems to be beyond historical development. At the same time, he also started with the reformulation of his metaphorology as a theory of non-conceptuality, a reevaluation of rhetoric that traces the mechanisms of significance (Bedeutsamkeit), free of its practical applicability and exploitability.
RZ: It is difficult to say anything about Blumenberg’s general reception of non-German philosophy. Of course, he had a wide horizon, but in certain respects his readings were limited. He definitely was not much interested in Anglo-Saxon analytical philosophy, contrary to colleagues such as Dieter Henrich or Jürgen Habermas. But he knew Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and even included it in his list of recommendations for Suhrkamp’s then-new series “Theorie,” to which he was a scientific advisor (alongside Habermas, Henrich, and Jacob Taubes). When it comes to French philosophy, he certainly read Sartre as a young man and also knew Merleau-Ponty’s writings. But he was not familiar with the “new French theory,” except for some rather occasional reading of Foucault. He mentioned Foucault’s postface of Flaubert’s Les Tentations de saint Antoine in his Die Lesbarkeit der Welt (p. 305–309). And he also read the first volume of The History of Sexuality but was upset about it; he even called it a “poor and ridiculous piece of very little content” (“dieses inhaltsarme und läppische Machwerk”). I did not find any evidence that he had read Les Mot et les choses. So we can only guess what he would have said. I think there is one big difference between Blumenberg and Foucault (or even Kuhn): while Foucault emphasizes rupture, Blumenberg was interested in transitions. He always asked for the epochal threshold and what drove people to change their world views. But of course, a closer comparison between these three authors would be interesting. A very early attempt to do that was made by the late historian Heinz Dieter Kittsteiner in his book Naturabsicht und Unsichtbare Hand (1980).
JK: In some aspects, Blumenberg’s philosophy in its attention to the ‘non-conceptual’ resembles Theodor W. Adorno’s Critical Theory. He also attentively read Adorno and, as you point out in the book, devoted one of his few lectures about contemporary philosophers to the Negative Dialectics despite being associated with different philosophical circles in Germany. How would you describe Blumenberg’s relationship to the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt?
RZ: In general, there was no relationship to the Institute for Social Research as such, or to people associated with the project of Critical Theory, apart from very few exceptions. For example, he met Siegfried Kracauer at the colloquia of the “Poetik und Hermeneutik” group and subsequently corresponded with him, among other things about the notion of history. There was some basic agreement, but unfortunately Kracauer died very soon after this correspondence began. Blumenberg’s relationship with Adorno is on first glance entirely critical (Christian Voller called it “communication refused”). Whenever Blumenberg mentioned or quoted Adorno, he either dismissed him or made fun of him. In a posthumously published fragment (»Die Suggestion des beinahe Selbstgekonnten«), for example, he ridiculed Adorno’s style: “Nobody got Adorno, but, after a few pages, everybody understood how it is done. Mannerisms grant success to the extent that they turn into parody—and this then looks like a successful reception.” (p. 89) 
But in his only letter to Adorno, Blumenberg concedes that he discovered “amazing parallels” between their respective thinking. And indeed, both re-evaluated rhetoric and were extremely suspicious towards the concept of identity in general and definitions in particular. Take for example a line from “An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric,” where Blumenberg writes: “Predicates are ‘institutions’; a concrete thing is comprehended by being analyzed into the relationships by which it belongs to these institutions. When it has been absorbed in judgments, it has disappeared as something concrete. But to comprehend something as something is radically different from the procedure of comprehending something by means of something else.” (p. 189). This line emphasizes that human self-reference is metaphorical, but it also resembles very much Adorno’s dictum that “the incommensurable is cut away.” Another interesting question is: Did Blumenberg read the Dialectics of Enlightenment, and is his Work on Myth a hidden response? There is no clear evidence for this, no trace of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s book in the reading lists or in any other text of Blumenberg’s, except for one file card in his Zettelkasten that contains a quote from the Dialectics. But this could be something he had found quoted in a text by a third author. But again: This is something which is worth investigating. Sebastian Tränkle wrote his dissertation on the relation between Adorno and Blumenberg, I think it will be published at the end of the year.
Another question is Blumenberg’s relation to Habermas, whom Blumenberg of course knew. He definitely read articles by Habermas but paid very little attention to the latter’s books. Ferdinand Fellmann, one of Blumenberg’s assistants since his early years in Gießen, was the first to compare Habermas and Blumenberg at the end of his book Gelebte Philosophie in Deutschland (1983).
JK: You explicitly state in your book that an intellectual biography can hardly address questions about the topicality of Blumenberg’s philosophy. But do you think Blumenberg should be read at the moment—and if so, where should we start?
RZ: Of course, it would not be of any interest to write the biography of a philosopher whose work is outdated or boring or overestimated. To the contrary: Blumenberg’s oeuvre is so rich that the question of where to start necessarily has more than one answer. It all depends on your interests: metaphorology, theory of myth, history of science or anthropology, to mention only the currently liveliest debates connected to Blumenberg’s work. Felix Heidenreich just published the book Politische Metaphorologie. Hans Blumenberg heute, in which he explicitly asks whether it is possible to use Blumenberg’s ideas as tools for our own questions. His main example is metaphorology, which is probably the field where Blumenberg’s name is most prominent, and which is closely linked to the theory of myth. Is it possible to understand contemporary political myths with Blumenberg? I think this question merits attention.
I also believe that it is still worth reassessing Blumenberg as an intellectual historian. We have to read the Legitimacy and the Genesis again. I personally think that it is less fruitful to work with the anthropological approaches of his later years, at least if they are understood as anthropology in the narrow sense. The evidence Blumenberg relied on was, even in his days, fairly outdated. It is a kind of “speculative anthropology” that is supposed to produce significance (Bedeutsamkeit) for the present situation, but without the detailed historical investigations that characterized his earlier books. It is less informative as far as the genesis of the human being is concerned. But I have to admit that most of Blumenberg’s readers would not agree with me in this respect. They consider the anthropology his most interesting intellectual legacy.
Apart from that, you can read Blumenberg for his literary qualities and start with his smaller essays. There, you will find a lot of unexpected observations, for example on the question of immortality, on boredom or on visibility.
But whatever part of his philosophy (and there are many more to be discovered) you prefer, there is a general characteristic in Blumenberg’s work: it is “narrative philosophy.” I think this is a very productive concept, although he himself used it only occasionally. Sometimes he used “concepts in (hi)stories” (Begriffe in Geschichten). In agreement with traditional Begriffsgeschichte, he stresses the importance of the historical context—that we cannot just define concepts as we like (be it in science or politics), but that we have to understand them as result of their genealogy and their respective milieu. This is completely different, for example, from the theory of metaphor proposed by Lakoff and Johnson.
But narrative philosophy reaches further still: although Blumenberg was aware of the fact that we can no longer produce universally shared and binding world views, he nevertheless knew of the importance of pragmatic narratives to interpret the world, narratives that help us to cope with the world beyond (but not contrary to) practical transformations via technology and science. Modern philosophy very often tries to reduce our relationship to reality to particular moral or cognitive questions and looks for answers in a way that mirrors the natural sciences. But there is always something left unexplained, and this is what Blumenberg was after. This is why Richard Rorty, who knew but a small portion of Blumenberg’s early books, saw him as an ally: even if they are in part speculative, we need narratives, alternative narratives to deal with the world. But unlike Rorty, Blumenberg knew that this is something we can only develop in reflection on the history of our own thinking.
 [German original: „Keiner hat Adorno verstanden, aber alle haben nach wenigen Seiten kapiert, wie man es macht. Manierismen liefern Erfolg im Maße ihres Aufreizens zur Parodie—und das sieht dann aus wie die gelungene Rezeption.“]
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).
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 topicsBlumenberg 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).