Hans Blumenberg is professor of philosophy at the University ofMünster. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age is included in the series Studies in Contemporary. which launched the Lowith-Blumenberg debate over the nature of secularization and the legitimacy of the modern age. ‘ The widespread discussion the book. Blumenberg. Hans. The legitimacy of the modern age. (Sruclies in contemporary German social thoughtl. Translation of. Die Legitimitlit der Nemeit. 2nd rev. ed.

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PhilosophyHistory of philosophy. We are, they say, trapped in a hhe scheme which distorts the way things really are. All our ways of talking, acting and hoping are infected by these concepts. We cannot expect things to get any better until we rid ourselves of them and adopt a new form of intellectual life, one which helps to encourage the nodern of new forms of social life.

On this view, we are just not with it if our highest social hopes are, for example, that Somozas and Castros will be replaced by Allendes, that larger numbers of people will mkdern longer, more leisured lives, and that we shall eventually get solar power and nuclear disarmament. When people who take this line are asked what alternative concepts they would recommend, they usually reply that the question is premature.

Against Belatedness

Self-criticism must come first. We need to deconstruct the metaphysics of presence, or to become aware of the repressive character of the most benevolent-looking of contemporary institutions, or to see the distortions induced by innocuous-seeming linguistic expressions.

tye Time enough to think of some new metaphysics or og or language when we have gotten rid of the old. Here are the new concepts you need. Chains that easy to break cannot count as bondage. So people who use such notions cannot tell us what is false about our consciousness lebitimacy spelling out what undistorted consciousness looks like. They have to gesture in the direction of a place where such consciousness exists or existed. Others gesture in the direction of a monastery in Ladakh, or a commune in Oregon.

But mostly the gesture is towards the past. Nietzsche, at his worst, gestured towards some narcissistic and inarticulate hunks of Bronze Age beefcake. Carlyle gestured towards some contented peasants working the lands of a kindly medieval abbot. Lots of us occasionally gesture in the direction of the lost world in which our parents or our grandparents told us they grew up. Heidegger, the great master of nostalgia, kept gesturing towards those pre-Socratics whose one-liners left most room for retranslation or, as he put it, the most open space for Being.

It is to the credit of such post-Heideggerian philosophers as Derrida and Foucault that they avoid this insistence on the belatedness of the modern age. What we want, on this view, is acknowledgment of discontinuity and open-endedness and contingency, rather than either nostalgia or exuberance. Given this state of intellectual play, about the last thing one would expect to come down the pike is a great sweeping history of the course of European thought, built on the Hegel-Heidegger scale, which has Mofern Bacon as one of its heroes, speaks well of the Enlightenment of all periodsand suggests that the future lies of all directions ahead.

It has been a long time since anybody with pretensions to historical depth has agreed with Macaulay about Bacon. The Enlightenment has been a favourite target ever since Adorno blamed it for Los Angeles. Thf belief that things might well get better and better the more technological mastery we acquire has almost vanished, even from the popular press. He gives us good old-fashioned Geistesgeschichtebut without the teleology and purported inevitability characteristic of the genre, and condemned by liberals such as Popper and Berlin.

Badly-educated English-speaking philosophers like myself the kind who read long books in German only if they absolutely have to, non sine ira et studio owe a great deal to Robert Wallace. He has translated eight hundred pages of very tough German as lucidly as literalness permits. Those of us who agree with Nietzsche and Heidegger that the philosophical tradition is pretty well played out, with Carlyle and Foucault that the arts and the sciences have not been unmixed blessings, and with Marxists that we should not believe what the lying capitalist press tells us about the modern world, but whose highest hopes are still those of Mill, now have a champion.


The Legitimacy of the Modern Age – Hans Blumenberg – Google Books

Or, if not exactly a champion, at least somebody whose upbeat history we can cite against those who revel in belatedness, and against those who fear that telling big sweeping geistesgeschichtlich stories will reinforce our bad old totalising urges. The German mode of gearing up to think about something — starting with the Greeks and working down through, for example, Cicero, Galileo and Schelling before saying anything off your own bat — is easily parodied.

But it is an explicit and conscientious way of doing something that we all do, usually tacitly and carelessly. We all carry some potted intellectual history around with us, to be spooned out as needed.

Such stories determine our sense of what is living and what is dead in the past, and thus of when the crucial steps forward, or the crucial mistakes or ruptures, occurred. Most intellectuals still think that the most decisive step of all came in the 17th and 18th centuries, when we got out from under prejudice, superstition and the belief in God.

Since then we have been becoming freer and freer thanks to og developing natural sciences, the proliferation of new artistic forms, increasingly democratic political institutions, and similar aids to self-confidence, necessary for life in a Godless universe. It sees with one eye of faith and the other of reason. Hence its vision is necessarily dim in comparison with either Greek or Biblical thinking. Whatever else these people disagree about, they unite in despising the hopes of contemporary liberals.

This section is filled with arch and allusive replies to critics of the first edition of the book — replies which Wallace does his best to elucidate in footnotes, but which are often pretty confusing.

Still, the drift is clear: These answers consisted in variations og the claim that the point of our lives lies in our contribution to an infinite task — the acquisition of Baconian knowledge-as-power, the satisfaction of theoretical curiosity — which lies before the species as a whole. He thinks that the Middle Ages reached a predestined crisis when the notion of Divine Omnipotence was thought through by Ockham to its bitter end. Ockham urged mocern there was no reason knowable to man why God actualised this possible world rather than another.

This left us no alternative but Baconian pragmatism: Let us find out how they can be made to work for us. The search for a set of instruments for man that would be usable in any possible world provides the criterion for the elementary exertions of the modern age; the mathematising and the materialising of nature. His attempt leggitimacy legitimate the modern age is an attempt to defend all the things which Heidegger despised about the 20th century: The Enlightenment was, indeed, wrong to see itself as the discovery of the blumeenberg, ahistorical framework of human existence — as the first occasion on which humans had seen themselves as of they truly were.

It is an indication of courage, not of weakness or of self-deception. The legitimacy of our modern consciousness is simply that it is the best way we have so far found to give sense to our lives. This is to say that it beats the only other two ways we know bout — the ancient attempt to find philosophical foundations, and the medieval attempt to find theological ones.

Blumenberg wants to make a virtue of what the Romantics rightly diagnosed as a necessity for those who think of empirical science as the paradigmatic human activity: It has not always meant that our curiosity about how things work is an essential and laudable part of us. Our modern concept of happiness has to do as Heidegger rightly says with mastery rather than with contemplation or participation.


The recovery of paradise was not supposed to yield a transparent and familiar reality but only a tamed and obedient one. This claim detaches happiness from the pursuit of knowledge, and puts Christian faith in the vacancy left by the sceptical dissolution of the possibility of a contemplative life.

From then on, the burden of proof was on those who like St Thomas Aquinas thought that Aristotle was not wholly wrong, and that curiosity might not be simply a vice the excitation of an unruly member, the inquiring eye as homologue of the pushy penis. Blumenberg takes very seriously indeed the episcopal condemnation of St Thomas for having cast doubt on divine omnipotence, interpreting it as an indictment for curiositas. He sees the medieval period as driven to insist on that omnipotence by the break which it had made with ancient thought.

But this rejection leaves theoretical curiosity without excuse. Blumenberg traces the further development of this excuse in discussions of among others Galileo, Descartes, Voltaire, Hume and Kant. The epochal turning is an imperceptible frontier, bound to no crucial date or event.

Hans Blumenberg: The Legitimacy of the Modern Age

Here the discussion becomes much more detailed and exegetical than in earlier portions of the book, and I shall not try to summarise it. He gave it an answer that went to the root of the formation of the age that had come to an end. There is not a stale sentence in it. Everything has been thought out anew. This makes it a slow book to read, for one constantly has to chew over novel interpretations of familiar texts. Although the scholarship is overwhelming and, ,odern all scholarship, disputable and likely eventually to be correctedone never feels that a fact or a text has been dragged in so that the author can show off.

On the contrary, there is a moral earnestness about the book which is extremely impressive. It took considerable courage to try to do this: It should not be thought, however, that Blumenberg wants to revive Enlightenment scientism.

Thus the picture of its own origins and possibility in history that the epoch of rationality made for itself remained peculiarly irrational. If the modern legitimacg was not the monologue beginning at point zero, of the absolute subject — as it pictures itself — but rather the system of efforts to answer in a new context questions that were posed to man in the Middle Blumenbedg, then this would entail new standards for interpreting what does in fact function as an answer to a question but does not represent itself as such an answer Now will you please give me the questions to my answers!

Here Blumenberg seems to be saying that, just as the history of science represents Aristotle as talking about inertia even though lbumenberg did not believe there was such a thing, so we must read the ancients and the modegn by our own lights.

It is enough that we should find a story which treats our predecessors neither as heroes nor as fools, but simply as fellow inquirers who agd the advantages of hind sight.

But the latter book waited only six years to be translated into English. He thus helps us see that the demand to unmask blumenbegr, to make all things new, to start from nowhere, to levitimacy new true consciousness for old false consciousness, is itself an echo of the Enlightenment.

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