Hans Blumenberg and His Myth Science Arkestra
Hans Blumenberg was one of the most searching, omnivorous scholars and philosophers of the 20th century. His fundamental inquiry was simple and universal: “How do we come to terms with reality?” In attempting to answer this question, his books on myth, metaphor, science, and culture invoke an intimidating breadth of knowledge, plucking obscure quotes from obscure figures in multiple disciplines through the whole history of western civilization. Obscure theologians and astronomers brush up against James Joyce, Plato, Vico, and Goethe.
Blumenberg was one of those rare figures, like Robert Burton or Goethe himself, who was able to read widely across disciplines and time periods while maintaining a detailed sense of the internal conflicts and complexities of each particular domain.
For all of Blumenberg’s brilliance, he kept a low profile. Born in 1920 in Germany, he was prevented from continuing his studies in the 1940s because of his Jewish heritage, and he spent time in a labor camp and briefly in a concentration camp before going into hiding for the remainder of the war. Feeling pressed for time, he adopted a schedule of only sleeping six nights a week to allow more time for his research, and eventually stopped attending conferences altogether by the 1970s. He filled his time, evidently, with more and more reading.
Perhaps because of this vast erudition, Blumenberg’s own commitments can be difficult to pin down precisely. It is rare for him to “take sides” explicitly because he is often preoccupied with showing that the sides are not what we think they are: ancient vs. modern, secular vs. religious, universal vs. particular. So his opinions are often more methodological than final, advocating an expanded horizon rather than a definitive stance toward the world and our selves.
To that end, he is a resolute historicist, forever contextualizing seemingly ahistorical ideas by tracing their linguistic and conceptual roots. He is sympathetic to the contextualizing attitude that puts dogma and received ideas in jeopardy, and impatient with the censorious forces that stall these processes for the benefit of false comfort and security.
Blumenberg’s departure point is what he terms “the absolutism of reality.” In his magnum opus Work on Myth, he defines the moment at which humanity faced absolute reality as the point at which humanity could no longer run away from the threats that it posed:
If we have to seek man’s origin in the category of animals that ‘flee,’ then we can comprehend that before the change of biotope [from jungle to savanna] all signals that set off flight reactions would indeed have the power of fear but would not have to reach the level of a dominating condition of anxiety, as long as mere movement was available as a means of clarifying the situation. But if one imagines that this solution was no longer, or no longer constantly, successful, then from that point onward the situations that enforced flight either had to be dealt with by standing one’s ground or had to be avoided by means of anticipation.
This is the start of humanity’s intellectual project: to formulate a mental picture of the naked, terrifying, incomprehensible world. This project extends over multiple domains—rhetoric, science, philosophy—but its primal form is concrete myth, which weaves tendrils through all further domains, linguistically and conceptually. All of these domains, for Blumenberg, are conditioned by some basic, contingent formulations we have of the world. Blumenberg came to call these formulations “absolute metaphors,” to be historically analyzed through a “metaphorology.”
These evolving metaphors, such as the relation of truth to “nakedness” and “light” and the relation of the cosmos to “eternity” and “God,” exist at a preconceptual level for Blumenberg. Whether this is technically true is less important to me than establishing them as grounds for cultural development rather than as effects of culture.
One of the primal mechanisms of myth is to anthropomorphize aspects of the world so that we can understand it and address it. Thus myth easily begets religion, which prescribes seeming ways of negotiating reality by positing deities that we can use to explain reality to ourselves. It grants us a greater sense of self-determination autonomy by positing some communication with these anthropomorphic spokespeople of reality: some way to negotiate with reality. If we behave in certain ways, the gods (that is, reality) will react in comprehensible ways.
Here there is some similarity with Nietzsche’s genealogical analysis of morality and culture, which is a crucial influence for Blumenberg. Like Nietzsche, Blumenberg is focused on how we tell stories and invent “truths” to make our existence bearable and comprehensible. Like Nietzsche, Blumenberg sees much of the history of humanity as the inevitable failure of one or another “myth” to measure up to the absolutism of reality.
Yet unlike Nietzsche, Blumenberg does not envision some point at which we can be free of those stories. Even total historical awareness will not produce the emancipation from reality and culture that Nietzsche seeks. Nietzsche’s dream of a tiny elite of autonomous, emancipated “higher men” is fundamentally solipsistic, no matter how sophisticated Nietzsche’s treatment of it is, which is why Nietzsche frequently seems simultaneously acute and naïve. In the words of Angus Nicholls:
For Blumenberg, a naïve unity between humanity and nature was never possible; rather, collective reflection and deliberation must suffice for a species that has at least partially separated itself from the instinctive and natural.
This is not a solution so much as a challenge. Blumenberg is not teleological: the construction of an end for humanity contradicts the contingent nature of our relation to reality. The very absence of such an end is what makes human dignity possible, or else we become only a means to that end:
If there were an immanent final goal of history, then those who believe they know it and claim to promote its attainment would be legitimized in using all the others who do not know it and cannot promote it as mere means. Infinite progress does make each present relative to its future, but at the same time it renders every absolute claim untenable. The idea of progress corresponds more than anything else to the only regulative principle that can make history humanly bearable, which is that all dealings must be so constituted that through them people do not become mere means.
And so Blumenberg embraces figures like Socrates, Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and above all Copernicus, who all attempted to expand the reach of humanity’s intellect and capacities without prescribing a conclusive direction and end for these capacities. He is less patient with the Stoics and the Gnostics, whom he portrays as running away from the ever-pressing issue of dealing with reality.
In the modern day, he is greatly sympathetic to the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl’s unyielding inquiry into the problems of the human and natural sciences; in contrast, he criticizes Heidegger for positing an illusionary refuge of “authenticity” held up as a favorable contrast to the present day. Blumenberg, steeped in the past, was uncommonly sensitive to the lure of false nostalgia, a grass-is-greener sentiment for imagining the good times of past without bothering to examine the prejudices and historical conditioning that underlie such nostalgia.
Heidegger promises the world with his dream of authenticity, but such promises are bound to be unfulfilled. The Greeks were not the untroubled creatures of authenticity any more than Marx’s imaginary proletariat are. The myth of the untroubled person perfectly integrated with the world is … a myth. We chase such rainbows because we seek better accommodation with the unaccommodating world, but as we are thinkers and are not omnipotent, perfect accommodation is not realizable. Humans are, in Blumenberg’s words, “creatures of deficiency.”
One unavoidable issue, then, is the legitimacy of a given framework for interpreting the world, since such frameworks must always be lacking. This problem formed the basis of his first masterwork, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, the first of a number of large tomes that he would produce from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Here, Blumenberg took issue with a loose thesis, promulgated most famously by Karl Löwith, that rational, scientific modernity was a bastardized conception of religion. In effect, the “secular” world had taken the structures and belief systems of organized religion (i.e., Christianity) and created a “faith” in the authority of reason and science. Blumenberg disagreed, depicting secular modernity as a creature that filled in gaps created by Christianity’s existing failures.
Blumenberg describes the rise of modernity as the “second overcoming of Gnosticism.” What does that mean? The Gnostic temptation is one that the Church always had to fight against: it is an abandonment of reality to retreat inward, seeing the world as evil and godless, the “real” revealed world of God being something separate and inner. Gnosticism, in Blumenberg’s view, was a constant threat to the Church, as it eliminates their authority. (Why trust anyone in this false world if you think you have access to the real world?)
Augustine posed the first solution to this Gnostic problem, making humanity responsible for all the evil in the world. Blumenberg’s point is that this solution failed. The Church’s inability to sustain Augustine’s vision of a City of God in this world, as shown by the disappointment of millennial prophecies and the ensuing Crusades, damaged the authority of the Church’s account of reality, and Gnosticism reasserted itself both within and outside the Church. A renegotiation between humanity and reality was required.
The key historical development that preoccupied Blumenberg was the Copernican revolution, through which the Earth ceased to be the unmoving center of the cosmos and became one moving part in a larger mechanism. Not that Copernicus made a sudden change to a previously static worldview, but he provided the catalyst that enabled existing frictions in the Western, Christian worldview to burgeon and open cracks in which secularism and science could evolve.
Copernicus produced a greater universe for humanity to explore and subject to conjecture and theory. With the Earth on the same level as the stars and planets, the rest of the cosmos no longer existed as an alternate domain closer to Heaven and Hell than to Earth. Copernicus wrought massive destabilization to the metaphors provided by the cosmologies of Ptolemy, Aristotle, Augustine, and many others that had preceded him. For Blumenberg, this is evident already in the thought of the Renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno, writing in Copernicus’s wake, who boldly points the way to the advances in secular, scientific authority and autonomy to come.
The Copernican revolution served as the perfect exemplar of Blumenberg’s metaphorology. It demonstrated how a change in physical conceptions of reality impacted our abstract, ideological conceptions of reality. The absolutism of reality is its non-negotiability, the fact that the world, our reality, does not explain itself to us. We must explain it to ourselves—conceptually, religiously, scientifically—through a fundamental use of metaphor in inexact relation to reality.
Metaphor is necessary to ground abstract concepts in reality. When we deal in abstractions, we must concretize them in some way simply to make them intelligible to us in one form or another: hence the “naked” truth, heavenly “light,” etc. Any non-physical concept, be it God, Heaven, truth, or the transcendental unity of apperception, falls back toward physical metaphors. Because of this link to larger cultural forces and ideas, Blumenberg’s treatment of abstract theoretical issues through concrete metaphors becomes a more convincing history of ideas than a purely rationalistic, theoretical account. Drawing influence from Ernst Cassirer’s post-Kantian theory of pre-rational “symbolic forms,” Blumenberg draws out the contingent factors that influence philosophy, literature, and science.
Blumenberg is often described as a philosophical anthropologist, but I also think of him as a pragmatist. The extent to which certain formulations of absolute metaphors “work” or fail to work is what conditions their evolution. Here Blumenberg’s thought parallels that of Charles Sanders Peirce and Wilfrid Sellars, who both developed paradigms of experiential and functional testing of our theoretical and conceptual entities against reality.
Nuanced, complex positions invariably prove less popular than dogmatic, extreme ones, which is why logical positivism and radical deconstruction were so much bigger hits than Blumenberg’s work. Blumenberg’s work serves as a corrective to both the rationalistic and the anti-rationalistic extremes. The ahistorical absolutism promised by Descartes (Descartes gets a lot of undeserved flak, but here he does deserve some of the blame) that repeatedly generates Day-Zero pseudoscientific theories has not been helpful. An understanding of the historically contingent apparatus of science is needed not to delegitimize science, but to help legitimize it against the prejudices that constantly dog its inexact conceptions and lead to its abuse.
As Blumenberg portrays it, the legitimacy of the modern world requires a distanced, historicized perspective to avoid falling into a dangerous myopia. The rhetorical groundwork of science is still built on such absolute metaphors, reoccupying terms that have evolved since the beginning of civilization. The history of racial "science,” the many spurious pronouncements of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology (rape as a reproductive strategy being only one of the more offensive ones), and, more innocuously, the failure of Chomskyan linguistics all owe something to the ignorant application of seemingly "scientific" reasoning in anthropological and sociological contexts.
This critique itself is nothing new, but the analysis of these failures has yielded more heat than light (to use two absolute metaphors): rants about scientism, secular humanism, and the cultural relativity of truth have yielded little gain, as cultural studies maven Michael Berube has himself recently said in The Left at War. The more focused work of Thomas Kuhn, W.V.O. Quine, and Michael Polanyi has been far more enlightening, but identifies phenomena such as “paradigm shifts” without being able to explain their processes satisfactorily.
Blumenberg’s historical work is the most involved attempt to trace the relation of myth and science—to excavate the shifting conditions of our understanding—that I know of. It points the way forward. The way is more complex than we think.