Over the past four weeks, the JHI BlogForum on Hans Blumenberg and Political Myth has featured reflections on Präfiguration – Arbeit am politischen Mythos(Prefiguration – Work on Political Myth)and other works by Hans Blumenberg,as a posthumous intervention in the conceptual history of political myth. Traditionally, Blumenberg was thought to be a largely apolitical thinker and his writing on myth seemed to focus primarily on issues within literary studies, intellectual history and philosophy. However, with the discovery of Präfiguration (published by Suhrkamp in 2014), a text where myths role in politics is explicitly discussed, Blumenberg’s relevance for political thought has generated a large amount of scholarly activity.
This comes at the very moment when the public at large is much more attuned–it seems–to the mutability and stakes of political myths. How does this intervention help us read the current context? In the lead up to two important symposiums on Blumenberg in Leuven and Berlin and ahead of an article on Blumenberg in the Times Literary Supplement, Professor Angus Nicholls of Queen Mary University of London speaks to JHIBlog contributing Editor Andrew Hines. Professor Nicholls discovered the Präfiguration manuscript and, along with Felix Heidenreich, co-edited the text for publication. From scholarly issues such as the discovery of the Präfiguration text and how the concept of prefiguration relates to Blumenberg’s theory of myth as a whole, to pressing contemporary issues such as the relevance of Blumenberg’s thought for understanding our shifting political landscape and how we might distinguish between good and bad political myths, this not to be missed interview closes our forum and address how Blumenberg’s posthumous intervention to concept of political myth, may help us read our current context.
Angus Nicholls is Professor of Comparative Literature and German and Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London. His work is concerned with the intersections between literary studies and other humanities disciplines such as philosophy, critical theory, anthropology and psychoanalysis, and emerges from the German and Anglophone traditions from the late eighteenth century through to the twentieth century.
Stories, narratives, and myths give meaning to our reality.
Thinkers as diverse as Ernst Cassirer, Paul Ricoeur, Roland Barthes, and Hans
Blumenberg knew that this is just as true in our supposedly modern world as it
was in ancient societies. Today, this function of myth is often fulfilled by
history. We study and retell the past because we believe it gives meaning to the
present and the future. If the story of our collective past can tell us who we
have been, we can rely on this image to make sense of our present community and
give shape to its future. The founding myths or histories of cities are classic
examples of such political storytelling. Looking back at our past, we can even
read specific historical moments as announcing contemporary events. Political
leaders often make use of this possibility, for better or worse, by presenting
the past in such a way that it mythically justifies their powers or decisions. The
German philosopher Hans Blumenberg tried to make sense of this political strategy
through the concept of prefiguration. He
coined this notion in a short text that remained unpublished during his
lifetime but was recently discovered and published from his archives at the German Literary
Archive in Marbach. A political decision
that initially seems arbitrary can appear as legitimate and even necessary when
it is connected to a similar decision or meaningful event from a nation’s
history, Blumenberg claimed. The current decision is then prefigured—and therefore mythically legitimized—by a historical
event of major importance that is not causally connected to the present but
structurally resembles it. Blumenberg gives the example of the decision to
declare war. If there are no strategic reasons for starting a war, the precise
moment of declaring war is ultimately arbitrary. A leader might feel uneasy
about this arbitrariness as it clashes starkly with the importance of his
decision. In order to overcome this arbitrariness, leaders often appeal to
previous, successful wars by choosing the same starting date. Thus connecting
the present to the past, the current declaration of war seems mythically
justified by history. One could easily imagine how similar prefigurative
strategies are still used by politicians today.
Just as such narratives of collective history are
often invoked in political decision-making, personal histories also inform our individual
choices. Prefiguration certainly functions in existential contexts as well. There
is indeed a basic human need to find meaning in choices that are ultimately contingent.
Connecting present events and decisions to episodes in our personal and
political histories can often alleviate this contingency. Making up such
narratives and such historical connections is therefore intrinsic to human
existence, Blumenberg would claim. Usually, we know that these personal stories
as well as political myths are fictional and not entirely realistic. While this
does not make them any less meaningful, this ambiguous relation to reality is
not innocent. However vital stories, narratives, and myths are in giving shape
to our personal and political reality, they also risk dismissing this reality
itself in their pursuit of absolute significance. Especially in politics, the
creation of a fictional reality is fraught with danger. The possibilities of
constructing meaningful narratives from collective histories are indeed not
infinite. At a certain point, stories and myths start misrepresenting or even
abusing history. It is, therefore, important to determine when exactly myth
becomes illusion. Today, in a time that has often been labelled a post-truth era, it is important to be able to distinguish meaningful
stories from plain lies. Neither stories nor lies are strictly concerned with
the truth, but stories give meaning to our world whereas lies ignore the world
altogether. This is an important insight for contemporary politics, in which
stories and narratives play a central role in shaping our political identity,
but where they are also highly susceptible to a complete disregard for truth,
reality, and history.
In my view, these are the philosophical issues Blumenberg was struggling with when trying to come to terms with the political myths of totalitarianism in his context of Cold War West Germany. As one of the most important twentieth-century theorists of myth, Blumenberg attached great value to myths, stories, metaphors, and anecdotes. Importantly, he did not consider such narrative elements to be at all irrational. Myth is neither lie nor illusion. On the contrary, it is deeply rational and indeed an ineradicable feature of all thinking. In his most famous book, Work on Myth (1979)he even claimed that “myth itself is a piece of high-carat ‘work of logos’” (p. 12). Given this positive evaluation of myth, Blumenberg could not simply dismiss the mythical elements of Nazi propaganda as irrational and illusory. This might be one of the reasons why he published little on the topic. However, some relevant texts have recently been discovered in Blumenberg’s Nachlass, among which Prefiguration is the most significant. It would be impossible to derive a coherent theory of political myth from these writings, but they do give insight into the specific logic of political myth. Blumenberg may help us understand the perversion of myth into delusion and explain how its positive and meaning-giving function becomes a destructive force.
Blumenberg always maintained that myth appeals to a
human need for significance (Bedeutsamkeit).
As the world is in itself indifferent to human meaning, we need stories that connect
contingent events to make sense of the reality we live in. An absolute reality
without such stories would simply be unbearable. This also holds true for
political realities. Peoples and political identities are not simply given, but
are the product of the stories and myths that are told about them. A world that
is not mediated by such political storytelling is one where individuals are
absolutely indifferent to each other’s existence and where community is
inconceivable. Blumenberg often referred, in this respect, to Hobbes’ state of
nature, in which “man is wolf to man.” A politics without stories about
identities and communities would be impossible, in Blumenberg’s view. However, the
danger of these political myths is that they easily go too far in their quest
for meaning. In order to establish a community, to create a people, to justify
one’s own power, to make an important political decision, etc., politicians
have not simply used narrative strategies but have often been tempted to frame
such myths as absolute stories about world history. Totalitarian political
myths, in particular, interpret every important event in world history as
prefiguring the fate of their nation. Political myths thus generate too much
significance, to the point where they lose touch with reality rather than
giving meaning to it. Political myth creates what Blumenberg called a “counterworld
of realism” (Gegenwelt des Realismus).
For him, this marks the point where myth turns into magic, where stories become
The dangers of politicizing myth are most tangible in the myths of political apocalypse, in which the fate of the world is presented as being in the hands of a single nation or even one political leader. Much has already been written about the redemptive, millenarian, and messianic dimensions of totalitarian politics by theorists such as Eric Voegelin, Norman Cohn, and Jacob Talmon. Unlike these thinkers, Blumenberg’s analysis was not concerned with political myths that promise earthly salvation and secular utopia, but rather with those that prophesy the catastrophic end of the world. Such apocalyptic myths are omnipresent in contemporary politics too. The most obvious example is the Islamic State’sapocalyptic vision, but similar doomsday narratives are presupposed in debates about climate change, motivate doomsday preppers, and return in catastrophist populist rhetoric. Blumenberg himself wrote specifically about Hitler’s apocalyptic delusions at the end of the Second World War. His analysis centers on a claim Hitler allegedly made in his Berlin bunker a few days before his death: “Wir Kapitulieren nicht, niemals. Wir können untergehen. Aber wir werden eine Welt mitnehmen.”(“We will not capitulate, never. We can go down. But we will take a world with us.”). In Hitler’s vision, the end of the Third Reich and his own death would have to mean the end of the world itself. Such a vision would be mythical for Blumenberg—indeed to the point of being magical and delusional—because Hitler created a narrative about world history to give absolute significance to something as contingent as the end of a reign or an individual’s death. By presenting his own fate as cosmic fate, his death acquires absolute meaning. Because he could not deal with the fact that the world would remain indifferent to his downfall, he created a mythical counterworld in which reality itself would go down with him. When the project of myth is pursued in such an absolute sense, it almost automatically leads to apocalyptic myths that no longer attribute significance to an indifferent world but simply give up on this world altogether. This is why Blumenberg claimed in his book Lebenszeit und Weltzeit (1986) that “Hitler had no world.” The myths of political apocalypse thus obliterate myth’s most basic function of giving meaning to the world.
This question of the world also returns in another
piece on Blumenberg I wrote for this January’s issue of the Journal of the History of
Ideas. Discussing the
central role of theodicy in Blumenberg’s thinking about modernity, I tried to
show how myth actually functions as a theodicy, that is, as a justification of
the world and its meaning. Such a mythical justifications seemed particularly
necessary after the end of the Second World War when the legitimacy of the
world itself was challenged by the horrible events that had taken place. Not
just Hitler had given up on the world but many of his victims had too. For how
could they still find meaning, let alone justify a world that had produced the
Holocaust? In Blumenberg’s view, a reality devoid of significance is simply
inconceivable, so it was of vital importance to find new ways to give meaning
to the world through new political myths. The idea of a modest German democracy
might have provided such a myth, but the primary example Blumenberg alluded to is
Zionism, which he considered to be inherently mythical and thus essential for
giving shape to Jewish identity after the Second World War. He even fiercely criticized Hannah Arendt for busting this myth in her analysis of Adolf
Eichmann. In other words, an important lesson we can draw from Blumenberg’s writings
on myth is that the dangerous political myths of our own times as well as those
of the past can only be countered by inventing new myths, telling better
stories, and writing more convincing histories.
Myth, for Hans Blumenberg, fulfills a human need for significance. “It ties acute experiences and important current events into the context of long familiarity and creates prefiguration, but also a decrease in the expectation of freedom, a decrease in what is conceded to candor and ultimate self-knowledge” (Work on Myth, 95-6). Blumenberg (1920-96) rarely engaged twentieth century history or politics directly. His work Präfiguration does both. Its recent publication from his archive promises a new angle onto the work of this major thinker. It has also served as a springboard for reenergizing the study of “political myth” among philosophers, political scientists and historians. In unpacking this fascinating text here, I want to consider the broader stakes behind Blumenberg’s project by highlighting his engagement with Ernst Kantorowicz.
What is political myth? The New School
philosopher Chiara Bottici defines it as “a common narrative by which members of a social group provide significance
to their political experience” (14). Bottici draws on Blumenberg to argue that,
by tending to pigeonhole political myth as something irrational and regressive,
we have neglected its creative potential to service our present needs, missed the
nuances that distinguish it from ideology, and have thereby (ironically) conjured
an almost mythical vision of politics as something exclusively rational. The
concept of political myth, formalized by Gaetano Mosca and later Georges Sorel,
is not new. In TheCrisis
of Parliamentary Democracy(1923), Carl Schmitt uses Sorel and Mosca, via Mussolini, to argue that the interwar
diffusion of theories of myth, not
just myths themselves, was clear proof of a decline in “rational,” parliamentary
politics. In fact, there is an interesting story waiting to be told about how political
myth served as a key conceptual tool for projects to remake American political
science after 1945. On one side, for example, Harold Lasswell developed a tripartite
typology of political myth (doctrine, formula, and folklore) based upon his research
in the Wartime Communications Project (1940-44), which he used to launch
content analysis and the “empirical revolution” of the Chicago School. On the
other, decrying exactly this sort of positivism, was the reorientation of
American political theory to “problems of spiritual disintegration and
regeneration, and of the community-creating political myth” by Eric Voegelin and other émigrés.
Amidst this conversation, Präfiguration considers how “great men history” is deployed through
myth and in turn, how “history is made”. Blumenberg’s protagonist is Hitler.
This individual scale of focus is a departure from his generic, anthropological
discussion of myth elsewhere, as well as from Bottici’s definition of political
myth as a “collective” experience. Präfiguration
sidesteps both the extensive historiography of fascism and Nazism that treats
myth as popular and symbolic, or a “sacralized” political religion, and the extensive
psychohistories of pathology and neuroses. It should be read by historians of
fascism, as well as those more generally interested in how the historical
self-consciousness of myth delimits the agency of their subjects.
As with most of Blumenberg’s eclectic texts,
there is a central point of gravity around which Präfiguration orbits: Anton Graff’s much-reproduced portrait of
Frederick II. Hitler moved it to his bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery, his
final artistic possession. In a scene reminiscent of the film Downfall (2004),
a desperate Hitler unleashes a torrent of abuse, but not at his aides—at the
painting of Frederick, “summoning the king to help him.” What to make of this
One could treat this moment, recorded in
Goebbels’ diary, as nothing more than psychosis. But Blumenberg finds it
illustrative of how political myth had functioned as a “decision-making aid”
for Hitler, but could no longer support him. At first, styling himself as “prefigured”
in Frederick, Hitler seemed “miraculous, not only miracle-believing.” His commands
and expectations were imbued with a sense of magical power, eluding
justification or charges of arbitrariness because they supposedly followed a
pattern of historical repetition: the footsteps trodden by Napoleon and
Frederick. Hitler’s attraction to these mythical figures and his outburst at
their betrayal offers a “lesson in the exploitation of a form of thinking.” In Blumenberg’s
major Work on Myth, myth is an
existential salve to the primordial terror of the unknown. Here, beneath the Reich Chancellery, it frees Hitler
from the “confusion, perplexity” of war, enabling terrible destruction.
For Blumenberg, Hitler’s mythical thinking is less
a case of irrational dissimulation than a desperate, almost practical, belief
in a magical plane of miracles foretold and history repeated. This is quite
interesting. First, because it leads us to ponder how Hitler’s “choice” of
prefiguration—Napoleon, until Operation Barbarossa unravels, then Frederick the
Great, during the defense of Germany—shapes his actions in ways that elude the
typical decision-making calculus of rational actors. In this sense, Blumenberg
signals historians away from “realism” to thinking about how an “alternative
world” [gegenwelt] frames choices made in the conduct of the war.
Second, it suggests new methodological challenges if the historian is to access
the “alternative” decision-making world of a subject who elects to act upon the
myths they deploy.
Blumenberg generously left many doors open for
other scholars to follow. His spotlight on the mythical “background” against
which some of Hitler’s wartime actions can be understood will be fascinating
for new readers. Another open door in Präfiguration
is how the appeal to myth lays the seeds for a future myth that will
retrospectively sanction it. Hitler, musing on Frederick from his bunker, declares,
“It must be our ambition to set an example also in our time that later
generations can invoke us in similar crises and burdens, just as we would today
have to invoke the heroes in history with the past.” The apocalyptic fixation
on posterity in the neoclassical architecture of Speer is now well studied. But
Blumenberg points to how Hitler also considered his own cameo in the pages of future
Carlyles. Hitler’s desire that “later generations can invoke us in similar
crises and burdens” suggests that we may have considerably underestimated the
role of myths, and not just monuments, that were prepared for a future after
the rubble of 1945 was removed.
In 1927, Ernst Kantorowicz published his
surprise bestseller Frederick
II. It was a pioneering
study of royal ceremony and bureaucracy. But patterned with romantic and
authoritarian motifs, as well as prophetic passages like “The Frederick Myth,”
it offered an appealing symbolic repertoire for Nazism and sat on the
bookshelves of Goebbels, Himmler, Göring, Speer and Hitler. Ten years later, ruing
its publication, Kantorowicz reflected on the unstable quality of political
myth. Historiography had begun to enter onto the stage of history for the wrong
Today the historian is quite frequently aware that the rites, chants and customs of the Middle Ages he unearthed, along with medieval ideologies, are becoming a reality again and reaching over into the actual life of states. (236)
Blumenberg appears conscious of this predicament: the affordance of embracing
myth as more than a collection of symbols in order to study it, and the
uncontrollable, potentially dangerous attraction this embrace could carry over into
political life. Could this sort of tension explain why he chose not to publish Präfiguration? Kantorowicz makes no
appearance in the Work on Myth but he
is Blumenberg’s primary interlocutor in Präfiguration,
where Blumenberg traces the practice of reception history (Wirkungsgeschichte,
usually associated with Hans-Georg Gadamer), back to Stefan George’s circle and
singles out the studies of Kantorowicz. Reception history, Blumenberg writes, “embraces
myth precisely as something that cannot be made.” Thus, one “must already have
the work of myth behind one in order to able to apply oneself to work on myth”
(Work on Myth, 266). Blumenberg suggests
Kantorowicz offers a model for this by pictorializing myth-bearers [Mythenträger]. Moreover, he notes that Kantorowicz and the George circle were engaged
in a “renewal of the mythical mode of thinking,” much as Blumenberg was then
doing, decades later.
All of this is not to suggest that we cordon
off politics from myth because they are historically suspect partners. It is
only to point to how others before have reflected on political myth’s capacity
to overflow its historical bounds into “the actual life of states.” My favorite
Blumenberg text is Paradigms
for a Metaphorology
(1960), his first, and in many ways clearest. If Metaphorology sounds
like an instruction manual, it is actually a provisional “groundwork.” To reach
the deep level of intellectual history which Blumenberg calls “non-conceptuality,”
he argues we must adopt a conjectural account that is capable of arriving at a
“pre-systematic” object. In one interesting passage, he reflects on the close relationship
of metaphor to myth: it is evolving, transitory, and capable of inhabiting a “twilight
zone” that is somewhere between mythos and logos (77-80). I think this tentative,
twilight zone analogy works best for positioning the study of political myth à
la Blumenberg: a place that, as in Hitler’s warped bunker mentality, lurches
between the pragmatic and the irrational in ways that will continue to elide
Alex Langstaff is a PhD candidate in modern European history at NYU.
While Hans Blumenberg’s work on political myth, which has recently come to prominence due, in part, to the publication of Präfiguration, arises in the twentieth century, some of its key ideas have their roots in ancient Greece. It could be argued that Hans Blumenberg’s work on political myth offers a tool that we can use to pinpoint the unjustifiable assumptions and invalid views that uphold the seductive promises of various ideological programs. In this—in its capacity to show to us the mythical and, therefore, precarious foundations of the seemingly most certain political agendas we pursue – Blumenberg’s thinking about myth is akin to Plato’s. It is true that Blumenberg’s thinking on myth takes a critical stance against the overt opposition between myth and rationality (or between muthosand logos) in the Platonic dialogues. But this article will set aside such criticism and will focus, instead, on the points of contact between Blumenberg’s and Plato’s ideas.
In his engagement with Plato, Blumenberg offers reflections on the prefigurative power of the so-called “Ideas” or “Forms.” However, Plato’s and Blumenberg’s thought runs parallel when Plato, in the Statesman, and Blumenberg, in thePräfiguration, address the political power of myth and the formative role that paradigms play in our thinking and in our lives. In Plato’s Statesman, the interlocutors agree that the appropriate paradigm (paradeigma) for rule is weaving and that the best statesman, in some sense, is a weaver (280e). The dialogue ends with this model of political life, but it begins by entertaining an idea that the best ruler is most akin to a shepherd. It is during the discussion of this image—of statesmanship as shepherding of the human herd—that Plato appropriates, for his own purposes, “a great myth” (268d) about the reversal of the sun precipitated by the divine judgment in the strife between Atreus and Thyestes. The mythical story is steeped in violence, cannibalism, and struggle for power. It stands as a palimpsest to Plato’s own mythical story, which also includes a reversal. In Plato’s myth, the course of the rotation of the world changes from time to time and, as a consequence, violent change befalls both animals and humans. The time of destitute and struggle ushers with it the “age of Zeus” during which humans are left to manage their own affairs. The “age of Cronus” is the golden age, which knows neither poverty, nor suffering, but which is free from politics as well as any semblance of economy.
On its surface, life under Cronus is a paradisiac wonderland. We might want to think that our advances in technology, in medicine, in means of communication, and in methods of managing wealth could, at some point, provide for a life that would resemble a halcyon existence under Cronus. However, here Blumenberg’s critical assessment of the delusional power of myth makes an incision into any such hopes of an all-too-peaceful and comfortable future. Perhaps, Plato’s “age of Cronus” is, at once, an image of and a warning against our own proclivity to give up participation in political thought in exchange for economic safety? Reality, such as it is at bottom for human beings, both in Blumenberg’s and in Plato’s accounts, is daunting and harsh. Plato, in the Statesman, portrays an image that is an obverse, albeit delusional, side of burdensome reality. It is an image of life that is perfectly ordered by an omnipotent being where humans do nothing, but enjoy their blessed time. For Blumenberg, we seek to shelter ourselves from “absoluteness” of stark reality and, thus, we readily exchange our political responsibility for mythical political ideas. In other words, between the burden of reality and ourselves we—all too eagerly—place the veil of unarguable (because delusional) myth.
Another similarity that runs through Blumenberg’s and Plato’s thought has to do with the absolutizing or homogenizing power of political mythology. Blumenberg is concerned with the mystical faith in the ability of myth to blind us to the fact that reality has to be assessed on its own terms. The prefiguring power of mythical political ideas compels Napoleon, for example, to resort to the rhetoric of victorious destiny that awaits him in Egypt, just as great conquest was in store in Egypt for Alexander. On the other hand, Napoleon’s failure in Russia, then, becomes Hitler’s point of departure for his purported success in Stalingrad. This latter, as Blumenberg understands it, indicates the reversibility of the mythological prefiguring. To put it otherwise, if a state of affairs acquires a mythico-political significance, it takes on a prefiguring function, which either promises an exact repetition or a perfect reversal of the past. Here, the prefiguring power of myth traverses times and amalgamates peoples – the Russians are to Hitler what the Egyptians are to Napoleon and, prior to that, to Alexander the Great. Although Blumenberg reflects on acts of war and Plato’s Cronus myth promises its absence, there is a striking similarity between the two accounts, which turns on the matter of mythical homogenization of times and peoples.
Cronus provides for such a carefree life that humans are, practically, undifferentiated from animals and all are ruled, as if a single herd. Moreover, there are no seasons under Cronus, but one single, continuously fertile summer. Melissa S. Lane compares the shepherding in the Statesmanmyth to the images of shepherding in the Iliad and the Republic. She inquires:
do shepherds fatten their sheep merely in order to eat them … or is Socrates right to believe in a genuine art of shepherding guided solely by the best interests of the herd? The Statesman’s general account of ruling sustains Socrates’ view that true rulers will have the true interests of the ruled in mind. But this view of ruling cannot be satisfactorily modelled in terms of shepherding. That widely accepted model of rule will be shown to lack both the internal differentiation as an art, and the special (and internal) applicability to humans (45).
Lane focuses on the requirement of “internal differentiation” or on the need to establish the parameters by which we can distinguish between the peculiarities of herding and ruling as well as between ruling Greeks as opposed to Persians, for instance. Her attentiveness to the amalgamation of difference leads Lane to suggest that the rule of Cronus looks like tyrannical rule. Mitchell H. Miller offers the same conceptual view of Cronus’s rule. Miller supports this interpretation with ample historical detail when he compares Cronean time to the period during which Athens is governed by Pisistratus (43–44). Drawing a tacit analogy between the historical Athens and the change of hands that power undergoes in the Stranger’s myth, Miller concludes that “by its own inner dynamic Pisistratus’ tyranny was doomed to give way to the very ‘power of the people’—dēmocratia—which it suppressed” (43–44). Similarly, the myth exhibits an internal necessity according to which the “Golden Age” ceases and is succeeded by the reign of Zeus.
Interestingly, the mythical tyranny of Cronus, which only looks like a lifetime of abundance, but is in actuality a story about the perils of our desire for a completely carefree life—this mythical tyranny—finds its counterpart in the tyranny of historical political myths. On Blumenberg’s analysis, just as on Plato’s, beneath the shimmering surface of glorious and even super-human life, with which political myth beckons, there writhes a most inhuman tyranny. This is the kernel of the failure of the myths’ prefiguring power—not its inability to concoct an image of life and even to transfer it unto reality, but the consequences of such a transfer.
However, the failures are telling. They shine a light on the ways in which our thinking goes astray when we attempt to generate best practices or best forms of government, in this case, by tracing the existing conditions to their supposed—mythical—beginnings and projecting them to the point of their envisioned end. All models built on the grounds of examination of limit-cases or, perhaps, simply all models, are more or less mythical approximations of an extrapolated and imagined state of life. The power of myth, as Blumenberg and Plato tell us, discloses the mythical foundation of the projections that make up the forms of political arrangements, which we impose on ourselves. The myth exposes, also, the elements that are shaped in various ways by the chosen forms of government. These elements—our passions, the needs of finite nature, and the imaginative capacities, which supersede (but do not oppose) the limits of mortal life—are the very things to which we can trace back the constitution of the fabricated images. The reason why it is helpful to see through the images of order, political or otherwise, to which we are accustomed is because questioning their purchase on reality, we attain the distance necessary for rejuvenating the play between the commonplace life and the life of myth.
Marina Marren is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo. She wrote her dissertation on tyranny. Marren currently researches at the intersection of German philosophy and ancient Greek thought. Her forthcoming article ‘Plato and Aristophanes on (Want of) Moral Education: Shame and Eros in Plato’s Gorgias and Aristophanes’ Clouds’ is being published by Ramus: Critical Studies in Greek and Roman Literature.
Not quite a quarter-century after his death, interest in the work and thought of Hans Blumenberg (1920–1996) is enjoying an unprecedented renaissance. In recent years, the famously reclusive philosopher has been the subject of a novel (newly translated into English), a documentary film, numerousessaysandthinkpieces, not to mention a steady surge of academic studies. These years have also marked an important boom in translations of his work and new publications from his Nachlass—including the momentous discovery and publication of the essays included in Präfiguration: Arbeit am politischen Mythos(2014).
The attention is timely. Although Blumenberg has been consistently hailed as one of the most important philosophers of Germany’s post-war generation, his sprawling body of work did not fit easily into the debates that had dominated mainstream philosophical discourse in his lifetime, and the fiercely literary style of his writing—which regularly drew from an encyclopaedic array of obscure details, anecdotes and examples — made him difficult to categorize. At best, scholarly interest in Blumenberg tended to focus on his role as Carl Schmitt’s interlocutor in the so-called “secularization debates” of the 1970s.
The current renaissance in Blumenberg studies, however, draws much-needed attention to the philosophy of myth that he had developed over the course of his career. This comes at a time when we are made increasingly aware of the yawning gap between contemporary political developments and the rational visions that had dominated much of twentieth-century political theory. Blumenberg’s work, once considered apolitical, has now become newly relevant in a political moment rocked by the power of grand narratives, symbols and metaphors, and the figurative dimensions of the background assumptions propping up our world views.
Blumenberg’s philosophy of myth and its political consequences cannot be understood without appreciating that it constituted a response to a larger, specifically German tradition of theorizing about myth.
Myth is a curious concept in the history of philosophy and political thought, one that appears to have taken on an outsized significance for what it actually is. Ordinarily, we are accustomed to a fairly specific meaning of myth, as a kind of traditional literary genre of tales about supernatural figures or events. But from the Enlightenment onward, this genre also came to double as a philosophical concept, often as a catch-all category for the opposite of critical reason, a foil for philosophy, or irrationality at large.
Briefly, we can say this turn came about as Enlightenment thinkers like Pierre Bayle and Bernard de Fontenelle began writing polemically about the classical mythology of Greco-Roman antiquity, unveiling the absurd content of these stories as part of a broader program of championing critical reason against the forces of superstition and tradition (107–19). From their efforts emerged a different conception of myth: conceived not merely as a literary genre of traditional tales, but also as a distinctively superstitious, non-critical mode of reasoning that might have once led the unenlightened peoples of antiquity to generate and to propagate such grotesque stories.In the early years of the Enlightenment, myth stood for mere nonsense, something to be dismissed. In the German tradition, however, myth was consistently linked to ideas and phenomena of great political consequence, and demanded to be taken seriously. Indeed, it is safe to say it represents one of the most fraught concepts in the history of German thought.
The first significant inflection point in the conceptualization of myth in the German tradition is the Romantic movement of the eighteenth century. In stark contrast to the dismissive stance that Enlightenment thinkers took toward myth, the German Romantics valorised it.
A close-knit circle of authors—centred around Friedrich Schelling, the Schlegel brothers, the poet Hölderin, and Friedrich Schiller—took an intense interest in the political and philosophical significance of myth. They conceived of myth as continuous with the achievements of critical reason, and a resource that could be used to restore to modern politics and culture a lost creative disposition toward the world. Crucially, they imagined that myth could be reinvented for the modern age: new stories had to be created, and a mythical mode of being had to be rediscovered.
There were a number of consequences to this development. First, myth became a category of theoretical interest—one with constructive potential even in the modern age. Blumenberg is in many ways an heir of the German Romantic project, insofar as he recovers the paradigm that myth can somehow aid rather than obstruct our philosophical and cultural activities.
But whereas the Romantic longing for a “new mythology” was motivated by an acutely held conviction that we lived in a modern landscape that had been emptied of myth, Blumenberg did not share this sense of crisis. He felt that myths had never gone away, though they may manifest in new forms. He did, however, have something of a response to the Romantics’ call for the modern reinvention of myth. Blumenberg believed that we have been “working” on our myths all along, constantly reinventing our inherited stories to serve new needs. The insight that myths are the products of such processes of creative reinvention is a cornerstone of Blumenberg’s work, as is the implication that humans have a surprising degree of agency in reshaping the dominant narratives of their culture.
A second, perhaps inadvertent consequence of German Romanticism was that it helped establish a dichotomy between myth and reason, enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, that ended up setting the terms of all subsequent discourse on myth in philosophy and political thought. A large part of Blumenberg’s legacy can be understood as an innovative effort to dismantle that dichotomy. For Blumenberg, both myth and critical reason were distinct ways of addressing the same basic human need to impart meaning onto reality. By questioning whether myth and rationality were ever so mutually opposed, Blumenberg pointed to the ways in which their seemingly separate spheres were in fact interconnected and complementary.
If Romanticism marks the beginning of German theoretical interest in myth, the rise of Nazism corresponds to a very different kind of watershed. Explicit appeals to national mythological traditions were a characteristic feature of fascist ideology and propaganda, from the evocation of classical Roman legends in Mussolini’s speeches to the use of runic signs in Nazi iconography. Commentators at the time took it for granted that if modernity could generate its own myths, they would look a lot like fascist propaganda, with its stories about the destinies of chosen races, or kingdoms that will last a thousand years.
For much of the twentieth century, Nazism supplied the paradigmatic example of modern myth. In turn, it became a vivid case study in the deadly repercussions of leavings myths to rear their heads and thrive unchecked in the public sphere. By the time Blumenberg—himself persecuted during the war as a “half-Jew”—was able to commence his academic career, the dominant position on myth in the post-war intellectual scene was one of unambiguous condemnation.
Extending the legacy of early anthropology and psychanalysis, which had prominently associated myth with primitive culture and the unconscious minds of adolescents, Blumenberg’s contemporaries took myth to be a distinctly vicious form of cultural regression that ought to have no place in modern, mature societies. Their call for every resource of critical reason to be deployed against the traces of myth in contemporary politics is familiar to us today: for instance, through Habermas’ vision of a society that leaves behind its myths for increasingly rational forms of communication (44, 52-3).
Blumenberg’s refusal to condemn myths in the same vein meant that he spent much of his philosophical career thinking against the grain of his time. He did not share the belief, so commonplace in the twentieth-century liberal tradition, that myth ought to be eradicated from modern society, or that it was even possible to do so. He resisted the contemporary temptation to reduce the possibilities of myth to fascism—a resistance was all the more remarkable given how much he had suffered under the Nazi regime. He famously claimed to sleep only six nights a week to make up for the time that had been taken away from him during the war.
The political ramifications of Blumenberg’s philosophy are still being worked out. At least in part, the lack of attention paid to his work by political theorists over the decades can be credited to his refusal of any easy identification between myth and fascism. During a time when the very idea would have seemed impossible, he stubbornly embraced the potential of myth to be a positive force in modern society.
When we read Blumenberg’s writings on myth, however, as part of the broader theoretical tradition he had inherited, it is easy to see that their political salience was built into the project from the beginning. By self-consciously positioning himself in dialogue with the long history of German theorizing about myth, Blumenberg was able to take a far-sighted view of myth’s possibilities that could not be boiled down to the most pressing political issue of the day. This expansive vision, in turn, made him the most captivating thinker of the last century to take up the mantle of the philosophy of myth.
Today, perhaps, we are better positioned to appreciate our need for a more nuanced account of the place of myth in contemporary life. Blumenberg’s legacy serves as an unusually prescient guide in navigating this challenge.
First, he offers us a theory of myth that is grounded in the idea of narrative meaning. Myth, for Blumenberg, is not a convenient foil for philosophy, or a synonym for the irrational. The real significance of myths, rather, lies in the narrative patterns, metaphors and symbols at their core. Such figurative content, Blumenberg helps remind us, is what lights up our world views and political imagination with meaning.
Second, Blumenberg takes apart the traditional opposition between myth and enlightenment, laying bare the extent to which they are intertwined. In so doing, he helps us see that we do not give up on a politics of reason when we extend recognition to the role that myths and other imaginative frameworks play in shaping our lives.
Finally, by rejecting the notion that myth is necessarily monolithic, Blumenberg urges us to embrace our own creative capacity to reshape the stories and metaphors in our culture. It is only by being at “work” on the myths of our own world that we can begin to rewrite the narratives that dominate it.
Tae-Yeoun Keum is the Christopher Tower Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, and from Fall 2020 will be Assistant Professor in Political Theory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2017, she received the American Political Science Association’s Leo Strauss Award for the best dissertation in political philosophy. Her first book, Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought, is forthcoming with Harvard University Press.