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Telos 158 (Spring 2012): Hans Blumenberg

Telos 158 (Spring 2012) is now available for purchase in our store.

This special issue of Telos focusing on the work of the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg aims to reinvigorate the critical engagement with his work in the English-speaking world by casting a new light on his thought and its fundamental concerns. The American reception of Blumenberg reached an initial high point in the late 1980s and 1990s with Robert M. Wallace’s remarkable translation of three monumental volumes: The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1983), Work on Myth (1985), and The Genesis of the Copernican World (1987). This reception often (though not exclusively) focused on the questions prompted by Blumenberg’s contributions to the secularization debates surrounding thinkers such as Karl Löwith, Carl Schmitt, and Ernst Kantorowicz. In what can be read as a response to Schmitt’s famous claim that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts,” Blumenberg introduces the notion of reoccupation (Umbesetzung). With it he argues against the continuity of theology as the “answer” to the question of the political in favor of the persistence of questions, including that of the political, that are constantly re-answered in original ways. Hence, the modern state for Blumenberg is not based on secularized theological concepts but on new answers to ongoing questions; modernity thus possesses at least the relative “legitimacy” characteristic of systems and institutions in general. For Blumenberg, the latter are never completely originary or purely (i.e., legitimately) derived but are always the result of the complex system of exigencies that produce each “reoccupation.” The specific quality of the modern age, which differentiates it from all others, is “self-assertion” (Selbstbehauptung), a paradoxical form of self-legitimation according to which historical transfers and traditions are the basis for unprecedented new formations. Such questions of secularization, together with their important implications for a theory of modernity and the conceptualization of history, have been discussed and debated by prominent thinkers like Robert Pippen, Richard Rorty, Martin Jay, and Elizabeth Brient.

With the recent translations of Blumenberg’s seminal early study Paradigms for a Metaphorology and an eclectic, essayistic work from his “late style,” Care Crosses the River, further elements of Blumenberg’s vast intellectual-philosophical project are now available to English readers. This issue of Telos hopes to complement the previous critical attention to secularization and modernity by emphasizing his larger theoretical projects: metaphorology, nonconceptuality, rhetoric, technology, anthropology, and myth. The Blumenberg who becomes visible through these debates is a critical reader of Heidegger, a philosopher who sees his philosophical endeavors in the tradition of Cassirer’s Symbolic Forms, on the one hand, and Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences, on the other.

First published in 1960, Paradigms for a Metaphorology is perhaps the most “systematic” of Blumenberg’s books, while it also outlines one of his central theoretical points, representing a kind of methodological constant throughout his oeuvre: the limits of conceptuality and philosophy’s resulting dependence on various modes of nonconceptuality (absolute metaphor, myth, glosses, anecdotes, etc.) as part of its theoretical lexicon. Several of the essays collected here home in on the role of nonconceptual thinking not only within Blumenberg’s theory but also in his writing itself. This emphasis on the metaphorical and rhetorical dimensions of Blumenberg’s thought, already in full force since the late 1950s, necessarily opens the volume in two directions: toward recent French and American theory, with their emphasis on rhetoric and close reading, and toward conceptual history, which was a key contribution to German theoretical discourse after the Second World War. The essays in this issue address in different ways what Anselm Haverkamp terms the critical “misapprehension” of Blumenberg’s work. Many of the articles emphasize the limited compatibility of Blumenberg’s metaphorological or nonconceptual approach with better known theoretical formations of the postwar era. This question of theoretical compatibility is especially pressing because of the frequent tendency to assimilate Blumenberg’s work to other philosophical trends and movements, such as conceptual history or critical theory. Therefore, this issue aims to further the nascent work of delineating historical constellations of thinkers who defined the postwar West German intellectual landscape. Many of the articles here sketch the interconnections and disconnections between Blumenberg and his West German counterparts, such as Niklas Luhmann, Jacob Taubes, Carl Schmitt, Arnold Gehlen, and Odo Marquard, in which fundamental questions of technology, anthropology, contingency, and skepticism share concentric space with metaphor, rhetoric, and myth. Blumenberg thus emerges as a central figure in a broad project in West Germany to reformulate and develop, besides and beyond Heidegger’s Kehre and the Frankfurt School, the impulses of Neo-Kantianism, philosophical anthropology, and later phenomenology for a new era in thinking, social and political theory.

Eva Geulen’s “Passion in Prose” discusses Blumenberg as a philosopher and writer in the skeptical tradition. The philosophical position and the form of its presentation specifically relate to each other under the auspices of skepticism. The emphasis on the style of writing and argumentation is intrinsically skeptical in its mistrust of both the impositions of the reality to be grasped by philosophy and the concepts through which philosophy tries to achieve its goal. As for the guild of West German philosophers, Geulen juxtaposes Blumenberg in this respect with Odo Marquard, but whereas Marquard begins with philosophical skepticism in order to end in social and political affirmation, Blumenberg starts out with a limited confidence in the sources of his readings from philosophy and literature and detects in them the potential for absolute questions. This point is argued in particular with regard to Blumenberg’s deepest engagement with theology in his book on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Paul Fleming’s “On the Edge of Contingency” explores the theoretical underpinnings of Blumenberg’s increasing emphasis on storytelling—myth, anecdotes, glosses, examples and their elucidation—as a central mode of his late philosophy. Following Blumenberg’s own expansion of metaphorology into a theory of nonconceptuality in Shipwreck with Spectator, Fleming focuses on how nonconceptuality relates less to concept formation and more to the “beginnings” of theory in the lifeworld. Adapting Husserl’s notion of the lifeworld from The Crisis of European Sciences, Blumenberg explores the indissoluble remnants and elements of non-theory that necessarily persist within theoretical discourse. Taking up Blumenberg’s conjugation of the philosophical reception of the Thales anecdote in The Laughter of the Thracian Maid, Fleming elaborates how Blumenberg employs this “primal story of theory” as a mode of resistance to theory in the nonconceptual sense that some things ineluctably resist theorization, most notably the lifeworld itself.

Anselm Haverkamp’s “The Scandal of Metaphorology” differentiates Blumenberg’s work of the 1950s and 60s from postwar philosophies of rupture and incommensurability, as well as from the various and more widespread philosophies of continuity and continuation. The strategy of picking up where one’s predecessors left off (Anknüpfung) characterizes a wide spectrum of postwar German thought, from conceptual history and Gadamerian hermeneutics to the critical and systems theories of Habermas and Luhmann. Blumenberg’s metaphorology, to the contrary, reflects the failure of the philosophical ambition to succeed on its own terms and thus represents a “scandal” with respect to standard assumptions of conceptual continuity and philosophical business as usual. Blumenberg was uniquely sensitive to the postwar situation of philosophy after Husserl, Cassirer, and Heidegger. His philosophy, argues Haverkamp, never presented itself sub specie aeternitatis but instead sifts through the sediments of the history of philosophy in order to recognize the persistence of ambivalences within the basic terms of the tradition and thus to refit philosophy with “contingency consciousness.”

Dirk Mende’s essay understands Blumenberg’s metaphorological approach as productive of a “history of technicization” implicitly opposed to Heidegger’s “history of Being.” Mende aims to supplement the deliberate implicitness of Blumenberg’s “paradigmatic” approach in order to produce a systematic version of metaphorology that is more clearly differentiable from other apparently compatible philosophical programs, such as conceptual history. Rather than supplement the analysis of the history of philosophical concepts, metaphorical analysis represents a fundamental challenge to both conceptual history and the philosophical concept as such. Following Blumenberg’s own metaphors, Mende reads metaphor and concept as indissolubly linked, whereby metaphor is the “pre- and sub-philosophical field” out of which conceptualizations emerge and which persists in the limitations and exclusions of philosophical language. This process, in Mende’s reading, is not limited to the history of the philosophical concept, but is the precondition of science and research more generally. “Technicization” represents not only the precondition of progress but is a process “with consequences.” This logic of consequence, however, does not assume that the process is entirely automatic or even foreseeable, even in retrospect. “Consequence” implies a degree of irreversibility, coupled with the implicit possibility of unintended consequences.

Rüdiger Campe’s essay focuses on the single yet prominent term “contingency” in Blumenberg. The contingent event is identified with the creational act performed by the Judeo-Christian God. As such, it marks an era of cosmology that is no longer characterized by Aristotelian physis but the contingency of a creatio ex nihilo. Taking its departure from this observation, the essay proposes to understand contingency as a key term in West German philosophy and theory after the war. Blumenberg’s creational—and hence technical—understanding of contingency is juxtaposed with the idea of “double contingency” that Luhmann borrowed from Talcott Parsons. In the social context, contingency is a notion of groundless beginning as much as it is in Blumenberg’s cosmological contingency. But it is different in highlighting the idea of (mutual) dependence rather than creation. A philosophically rich concept of contingency is mapped out through comparison between Luhmann and Blumenberg.

In “Working Over Philosophy” Kirk Wetters underscores Blumenberg’s braking effect with respect to the sheer continuation of preexisting philosophical and theoretical traditions. Wetters sees Blumenberg’s metaphorology as a meta-reflection that produces interference within the modes through which philosophical and theoretical works traditionally produce their operative and authoritative effects. A major impetus of Blumenberg’s method is the anti-authoritarian de-classicization of traditions that, virtually by definition, are instrumentalized and homogenized as soon they are made into the vehicles for “claims” (Behauptungen) and theoretical “self-assertions” (Selbstbehauptungen). Wetters argues that, beyond Blumenberg’s own claims, the specificity of his work depends on deeply embedded nuances and details of the argumentation that are not easily detachable from their immediate context. Narration emerges as the key source of the power of both myth and philosophy. For Wetters, narrative choices reflect the relation to power, and philosophy becomes inseparable from myth whenever it attempts to narrate its own story or history. Blumenberg is extraordinarily sensitive to the effects not only of others’ implicit narratives and motives but also of his own. Wetters thus hypothesizes that this sensitivity may explain and justify the increasingly literary style of Blumenberg’s works.

Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink’s contribution creates a constellation between Blumenberg, Taubes, and Schmitt concerning the question and force of myth. Focusing on the fourth meeting of the Poetics and Hermeneutics group, which addressed myth under the rubric of “Terror and Play,” Kopp-Oberstebrink isolates Taubes’s response to Blumenberg, in which the theologian questions the philosopher’s distinction between myth and theology. With Taubes, Kopp-Oberstebrink argues that unlike the “reoccupations” that define Blumenberg’s notion of modernity and the movement of history in general, his elaboration of myth in terms of “core and variation” precludes genuine innovation and thus suggests both continuity and historical progress, where aesthetic “play” dispels the “terror” of the absolutism of reality. Kopp-Oberstebrink then introduces Schmitt (who was in contact with both Taubes and Blumenberg at the time), and especially his Hamlet or Hecuba, in order to make the case that the intrusion of historical time and its horrors in the third act of Hamlet is equally an irruption of terror into (aesthetic) play and thus into continuity and progress. (Telos Press recently published an English translation of Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba and dedicated issue number 153 to it in Winter 2010.)

Brad Tabas outlines Blumenberg’s political anthropology in light of his engagement with the thought of Schmitt, Gehlen, and Helmuth Plessner. One of the mediators for this dialogue, Tabas argues, is Thomas Hobbes, who often functions as Blumenberg’s cipher for responding to Gehlen and Schmitt, both of whom agree with Hobbes that humans are essentially dangerous and construct their political theories accordingly. Blumenberg, especially in his posthumous anthropological treatise Description of Man (2006), leaves this determination of man open and thus defines the primal relation between humans as neither hostile nor friendly, but always open to differentiation. His fundamental political stance, therefore, is “prevention” or “preemption” (Prävention), that is, anticipating, planning, observing, and perhaps even avoiding relations to others. In focusing on Blumenberg’s increasing interest in anthropology in his late works, Tabas shows how political anthropology provides an alternate to political theology (which Blumenberg famously described as merely metaphorical theology) and, therefore, that the central disagreement between Blumenberg and Schmitt may have been less theological and more anthropological in nature.

In “Kyklophorology” Helmut Müller-Sievers discusses Blumenberg’s work from the point of view of technology. Blumenberg is deeply influenced by but also increasingly opposed to Heidegger’s Kehre and the prominent role that techné and technology play in it. In the tradition of Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle, motion is identified as the decisive physical notion in philosophy. This observation holds true, according to Müller-Sievers, at the more methodological levels, since metaphors relate to motion (meta-phorein), as does Blumenberg’s term for historical dynamics, metakinetics. Moreover, Müller-Sievers demonstrates that Blumenberg’s predominant interest in the history of cosmology rests on the ongoing debate over the nature of cyclical motion since Aristotle, its formal perfection and its dependence on a primary mover. The forced nature of rotational movement in the propeller is finally, as highlighted by Blumenberg, an originally technical phenomenon. This technicality is shared by physical rotation and metaphor.

The issue concludes with a presentation of new archival material from a 1971 meeting between Herbert Marcuse and Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan.

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