Hans Blumenberg. Picture © The Hans Blumenberg Foundation.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an introduction to Hans Blumenberg, ‘the invisible philosopher of Münster’, who penned the famous words: “the absolutism of reality.” We will start with a short presentation, followed by the introduction to his book: “Paradigms for a Metaphorology’, published in 1960 for the German edition and in 2010 by Cornell University Press for the English with a translation by Robert Savage. Stay tunned, more to come!
I-Foreword, by David Auerbach
From the article,’Hans Blumenberg and His Myth Science Arkestra; Philosophical Anthropology and Absolute Metaphors’: ‘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.
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 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. Metaphor is necessary to ground abstract concepts in reality. Blumenberg is often described as a philosophical anthropologist, but I also think of him as a pragmatist.
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. 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.”
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
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’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.’ (Full text in source section)
II-Text, English Translation
by Robert Savage
‘Introduction to Paradigms for a Metaphorology’
Let us try for a moment to imagine that modern philosophy had proceeded according to the methodological program set out for it by Descartes and had arrived at that definitive conclusion that Descartes himself believed to be eminently attainable. This “end state” of philosophy, which historical experience permits us to entertain only as a hypothesis, would be defined according to the criteria set out in the four rules of the Cartesian ‘Discours de la Méthode’, in particular by the clarity and distinctness that the first rule requires of all matters apprehended in judgments. To this ideal of full objectification1 would correspond the perfection of a terminology designed to capture the presence and precision of the matter at hand in well-defined concepts. In its terminal state, philosophical language would be purely and strictly “conceptual”: everything can be de- fined, therefore everything must be defined; there is no longer any- thing logically “provisional,” just as there is no longer any morale provisoire [provisional morality]. From this vantage point, all forms and elements of figurative speech, in the broadest sense of the term, prove to have been makeshifts destined to be superseded by logic. Their function was exhausted in their transitional significance; in them, the human mind rushed ahead of its responsible, step-by-step fulfillment; they were an expression of the same précipitation re- garding which Descartes, likewise in the first rule, states that it ought carefully to be avoided.
Having arrived at its final conceptual state, however, philosophy would also have to relinquish any justifiable interest in researching the history of its concepts. Seen from the ideal of its definitive terminology, the value of a history of concepts can only be a critical and destructive one, a role it ceases to perform upon reaching its goal: that of demolishing the diverse and opaque burden of tradition, summarized by Descartes under the second of his fundamental critical concepts, prévention (corresponding to Francis Bacon’s “idols”). History is here nothing other than precipitancy (précipitation) and anticipation (prévention), a failing of that actual presence whose methodical recuperation renders historicity null and void. That the logic of the first rule eviscerates history was first recognized by Giambattista Vico, who set against it the idea of a “logic of fantasy.” Vico proceeded from the assumption that the clarity and distinctness called for by Descartes were reserved solely for the creator in his relationship of insight to his work: ‘verum ipsum factum’ [what is true is precisely what is made]. What remains for us mortals? Not the “clarity” of the given but solely that of what- ever we have made for ourselves: the world of our images and arti- facts, our conjectures and projections—in short, the universe of our “imagination” in the new, productive sense of the term unknown to antiquity.
In the context of the task of a “logic of fantasy” there falls also, indeed in an exemplary fashion, a discussion of “transferred” speech or metaphor, a subject previously confined to the chapters on figures in handbooks of rhetoric. The traditional classification of metaphor among the ornaments of public speech is hardly fortui- tous for antiquity, the logos was fundamentally adequate to the totality of what exists. Cosmos and logos were correlates. Metaphor is here deemed incapable of enriching the capacity of expressive means; it contributes only to the effect of a statement, the “punchiness” with which it gets through to its political and forensic addressees. The perfect congruence of cosmos and logos rules out the possibility that figurative language could achieve anything for which common speech (kúrion ónoma) could not furnish an equivalent. In principle, the orator and poet can say nothing that could not just as well be presented in a theoretical, conceptual way; only how they say it is specific to them, not what is said.
The possibility and potency of persuasive speech had been one of the elemental experiences of life in the polis—so elemental, in fact, that Plato could present the decisive phase of his mythic cosmogony in the “Timaeus” as the rhetorical act by which Necessity (Ananke) was swayed. It is difficult for us today to overestimate the importance of rhetoric, an importance that explains just how crucial it was that philosophy interpret persuasive force as a “quality” of truth itself, and oratory, with all its “tools of the trade,” as nothing but the fitting implementation and amplification of that quality. The battles fought over the functional classification of rhetoric, the contestation of the Sophistic claim of autonomy for the technique of persuasion—these were fundamental processes in the ancient history of philosophy that we have barely even begun to investigate.
The Platonic subordination of rhetoric, sealed by the church fathers, definitively transformed the objects traditionally assigned to rhetoric into the merely technical armaments of “persuasive means,” even if these were now to be found stockpiled in the armory of truth itself. Whether the rhetorical artifice of translatio [metaphor] could do anything more than arouse “pleasure” in the truth to be communicated remained un- discussed. Of course, the fact that this question was not asked and could not be asked does not mean that metaphors had not in fact always already yielded such a surplus of expressive achievement.
Otherwise, the task of a metaphorology would be doomed from the outset, for we will see, curiously enough, that the reflective “discovery” of the authentic potency of metaphorics devalues the metaphors produced in the light of that discovery as objects of a historical metaphorology. Our analysis must be concerned with detecting the logical “perplexity” for which metaphor steps in and an aporia of this kind is most conspicuously evident precisely where it is not “admitted” by theory in the first place.
These historical remarks on the “concealment” of metaphor lead us to the fundamental question of the conditions under which metaphors can claim legitimacy in philosophical language. Metaphors can first of all be leftover elements, rudiments on the path from mythos to logos; as such, they indicate the Cartesian provisionality of the historical situation in which philosophy finds itself at any given time, measured against the regulative ideality of the pure logos. Metaphorology would here be a critical reflection charged with un- masking and counteracting the inauthenticity of figurative speech.
But metaphors can also—hypothetically, for the time being—be foundational elements of philosophical language, “translations” that resist being converted back into authenticity and logicality. If it could be shown that such translations, which would have to be called “absolute metaphors,” exist, then one of the essential tasks of conceptual history (in the thus expanded sense) would be to as- certain and analyze their conceptually irredeemable expressive function. Furthermore, the evidence of absolute metaphors would make the rudimentary metaphors mentioned above appear in a different light, since the Cartesian teleology of logicization in the context of which they were identified as “leftover elements” in the first place would already have foundered on the existence of absolute translations. Here the presumed equivalence of figurative and “inauthentic” speech proves questionable; Vico had already declared metaphorical language to be no less “proper” than the language commonly held to be such, only lapsing into the Cartesian schema in reserving the language of fantasy for an earlier historical epoch. Evidence of absolute metaphors would force us to reconsider the relationship between logos and the imagination.
The realm of the imagination could no longer be regarded solely as the substrate for transformations into conceptuality—on the assumption that each element could be processed and converted in turn, so to speak, until the supply of images was used up—but as a catalytic sphere from which the universe of concepts continually renews itself, without thereby converting and exhausting this founding reserve.
Readers familiar with Kant will at this point recall §59 of the ‘Critique of the Power of Judgment’, where the procedure of “the transportation of the reflection” is thematized under the heading “symbol,” even if the expression “metaphor” does not appear in this context. Kant proceeds from his basic insight that the reality of concepts can be secured only through intuitions. With empirical concepts, this occurs through examples; with pure concepts of under- standing, through schemata; with concepts of reason (“ideas”), to which no sensible intuition can ever adequately correspond, it occurs through the provision of a representation that has only the “form of the reflection” in common with the intended referent. Kant has his reasons for not wanting to concede the expression “symbol” to “recent logicians”; we no longer have them, or rather we are only too pleased to be rid of this overfreighted term. Kant gives the name “characterization” to thetic expressions that function as mere “means of reproduction,” whereas his “symbols” correspond fairly exactly to metaphors, as the term will continue to be used here. This is clearly shown in Kant’s paradigms, among which we re-encounter Quintilian’s ‘pratum ridet’ (The meadows laugh). Our “absolute metaphor” appears here as “the transportation of the reflection on one object of intuition to another, quite different concept, to which perhaps no intuition can ever directly correspond.”
Metaphor is clearly characterized as a model invested with a pragmatic function, from which a “rule of the reflection” can be gleaned that may then “be applied” in the use of the idea of reason; it is thus “a principle not of the theoretical determination of what an object is in itself, but the practical determination of what the idea of it ought to be for us and for the purposive use of it.” In this sense, “all our cognition of God is merely symbolic” (in the Kantian terminology), an argument in- tended to skirt the twin perils of anthropomorphism and deism. Or to take another of Kant’s examples: the metaphor of the machine, when applied to the state, signifies that “between a despotic state and a hand mill there is, of course, no similarity, but there is one between the rule for reflecting on both and their causality.” Immediately following this example there appears the sentence that provided the initial stimulus for the present study: “This business has as yet been little discussed, much as it deserves a deeper investigation.”
To be sure, the task of a metaphorological paradigmatics can only be to lay the groundwork for that “deeper investigation.” It endeavors to stake out the terrain within which absolute metaphors may be supposed to lie and to test criteria by which they may be ascertained. That these metaphors are called “absolute” means only that they prove resistant to terminological claims and cannot be dis- solved into conceptuality, not that one metaphor could not be re- placed or represented by another, or corrected through a more precise one. Even absolute metaphors therefore have a history. They have a history in a more radical sense than concepts, for the historical transformation of a metaphor brings to light the metakinetics of the historical horizons of meaning and ways of seeing within which concepts undergo their modifications. Through this implicative connection, the relationship of metaphorology to the history of concepts (in the narrower, terminological sense) is defined as an ancillary one: metaphorology seeks to burrow down to the sub- structure of thought, the underground, the nutrient solution of systematic crystallizations, but it also aims to show with what “cour- age” the mind preempts itself in its images and how its history is projected in the courage of its conjectures.
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