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Hans Blumenberg-Myth and Metaphorics

Illustration by Matias del Carmine


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is chapter VII from Hans Blumenberg’s ‘Paradigms for a Metaphorology’, from page 77 to 80. English Translation by Robert Savage from the original 1960 German Edition. Cornell University Press, 2010.


If we attempt now to elaborate and set out a typology of metaphor histories with the help of paradigms, this does not imply that the thematic goal and ideal of the metaphorology we have in mind would consist in such a typology. In carrying out this task, we should recall that metaphorology—as a subbranch of conceptual history, and like the latter itself considered as a whole—must always be an auxiliary discipline to philosophy as it seeks to understand itself from its history and to bring that history to living presence. Our typology of metaphor histories must accordingly endeavor to distinguish and work through particular aspects—new aspects, perhaps—of philosophy’s historical self-understanding. In the process, it is above all the transitions that will allow the specificity of each metaphor and its expressive forms to appear in sharper focus. One such phenomenon of ‘transition’ arises from the relationship between myth and metaphorics.

From this perspective, the ‘myths’ of Plato by no means prove to be homogeneous means of expression; we can see also that the schema that pos- its a dualism of mythos and logos, or a transition from one to the other, fails to grasp their functional differences in an adequate fashion. The allegorical exegesis of myth, as practiced first by the Sophists and then, above all, by the Stoics, took mythos to be a ‘preliminary form’ of logos, grasping it as an essentially convertible utterance. This schema has its correlate in an interpretation of myth that still holds sway today. Myth is regarded as a ‘prelogical’ phenomenon and assigned to a primitive form of mental ‘development’ that has been superseded and supplanted by more exact forms of understanding. But what has emerged from our reflections under the heading of ‘absolute metaphor’ has, in its indissoluble alogicality, given us reason to believe that such Cartesianism ‘avant la lettre’ (before hand) brings an inappropriate norm to the historical findings. In myth, too, questions are kept alive that refuse to yield to theoretical answers without thereby becoming obsolete.


The difference between myth and ‘absolute metaphor’ would here be a purely genetic one: myth bears the sanction of its primordial, unfathomable origin, its divine or inspirative ordination, whereas metaphor can present itself as a figment of the imagination, needing only to disclose a possibility of understanding in order for it to establish its credentials.


The Platonic Socrates qualifies the myth of the judgment of the dead in the “Gorgias” by asserting that what Callicles will regard as a “fable” (muthos), he himself holds to be an “actual account” (logos). This myth arises in the dialogue from a deep sense of discomfort concerning the need to find an answer to the question of final justice. Socrates has tried, using all the argumentative means at his disposal, to cling to the idea of a justice immanent to history. All too often, the Athenian polis has condemned its finest men and so committed what appears to be a gross injustice; but Socrates dares to claim that here a crucial dereliction of duty has come back to haunt the statesman, his failure to improve the citizens under his rule to such an extent that they would no longer be capable of unjustly condemning so excellent a statesman as himself—just as the Sophists, when cheated by their students of their fees, were confronted with proof of the hollowness of their own moral teachings. Yet had not Socrates earlier been unable to respond to Callicles’ prophetic suggestion that he might one day be unjustly tried and found guilty by the polis (486AB)? The philosopher may well stand up for the truth, but the truth does not stand up for him: it would therefore not be at all surprising should he one day be forced to lay down his life for it (521D). It should not be forgotten that, for both the author and the reader of the “Gorgias,” this aporia had already been realized in the death of Socrates. That is reflected in the conversational situation: the last judgment myth arises as the ‘final word’ from an unshakable postulate, a deep-seated confidence that the skillfulness of the Sophists and the haplessness of the philosophers before the court of the polis cannot represent the final allocation of roles but will be reversed before a higher tribunal. The myth stands ready to assure us of this; but what confidence would it merit were it not grounded in the need of one who was prepared to die for the truth? Mythos is not logos, nor does Socrates ignore the differences between the two; we would be in a position to disparage myth, he says, if only we could find what we are looking for, the better and more truthful discourse for which we would gladly relinquish it (527A). The thinker’s situation in relation to myth coincides here with his situation in relation to ‘absolute metaphor’: it fails to satisfy his requirements, yet for want of an alternative it will have to do.


The myth of the cave from book VII of the “Republic” is situated in another region of the ‘twilight zone’ between mythos and logos. The cave as the setting of a primordial event is grounded in the mythic tradition and authorized by that tradition. For Plato himself, the exodus from subterranean darkness ‘into the light’ is the elemental process of human history. This can already be seen in the Prometheus myth of the “Protagoras” (321C), where the transition from earth to light is connected with the gift of “wisdom in the arts together with fire,” hence an endowment that goes beyond the form of existence ‘foreseen’ for mankind. In the cosmological myth of the “Phaedo,” too (108 sqq.), man ‘naturally’ finds him- self plunged in cavernous gloom, languishing in a dreary confinement from which only the transcendent gift of mathematical and astronomical speculation can re- lease him. The formal ground plan of the cave myth, upon which an escape route of human self fulfillment, indeed self-transcendence, has been overlaid, is thus rooted in a primeval mythic vision while at the same time having the function of an ab- solute metaphor. But the ‘interior design’ of the cave, the properties with which it has been fitted out, shows that very different specific tasks can be transferred to this instrument: the myth functions as a model. Such a model can even inform the exposition of what, at first glance, may appear to be completely unrelated ideas. Plato’s portrayal of his antihero in the “Sophist” betrays clear links to the cave scenario: he is the one who, having taken refuge in the concealing darkness of the nonexistent, now imitates the existent in images devoid of being, the machinator of the shadow- play apparatus, the conjurer seeking to beguile his audience with mere semblance. The cave first ‘explains’ the possibility of a phenomenon like the Sophist. What we have called ‘background metaphorics’, the implied use of a metaphor, is here once more in evidence. It was not until Neoplatonism that this myth was fully taken as an ‘absolute metaphor’, in part drawing on Empedocles and Plato, in part on the nymph grotto in Homer, which had advanced to cosmic significance in Homeric allegoresis, as Porphyry’s treatise “De antro nympharum” [On the Cave of the Nymphs] demonstrates. Now the cosmos is a ‘cave’, cut off from a realm of sheer transcendence that can no longer be reached by paideutic means. The absolute metaphor had been materialized in the ‘architecture’ of cultic lore. The church fathers and Gnostics reappropriated it as the site of the soteriological event, which breaks in upon creation as a ‘light in the cave’. In each case, the cave metaphor expresses and explicates a particular feeling about the world.


A different quality again comes to expression in the myth of the demiurge in the “Timaeus.” Here everything pivots on the explanatory function (as Plotinus al- ready noted, Enn. IV 8, 4), an ad-hoc construction dressed up in the stylistic garb of myth. Individual qualities of the demiurge, his ‘goodness’ for example, serve only as premises from which the required theoretical propositions, such as the complete- ness of the transposition of the ideal cosmos into the real cosmos, may be derived. In essence, the myth is here nothing more than the model for the exposition of a cosmogonic ‘hypothesis’. No specific differences can be adduced when one com- pares this fictitious myth with the cosmological model outlined by Descartes in the “Principia” (III, 43 sqq.). In both cases, the dynamic model is called on to explain the static condition of the universe; what matters is that the universe might have arisen in this way, so that Descartes—in contradistinction to Plato—can even insist that it did not arise in this way, something he need not have written simply to keep the Inquisition at bay. Stoic exegesis first transformed the “Timaeus” into the hallowed Ur-Myth(foundational myth) that it stylistically purports to be, while the patristic technique of inversion claimed the myth’s descent from the story of Genesis. That left Augustine with the problem, given added urgency by Gnosticism, of squaring the biblical account of creation through the divine mouth with demiurgic creation through the divine hand. These were two distinct metaphors of origin: whereas the word of command neither explains nor seeks to explain anything, disdaining rationality and compelling submission, the step-by-step constructive labor of the demiurge seeks to explain everything, to dispel the mystery of what exists by granting in- sight into its becoming. One sees how for centuries heterogeneous elements were distorted and constrained into a false compatibility for the sake of the ‘summation’ of the traditional authorities. Examining such heterogeneities with an eye to the founding metaphors helps bring out their shades of difference.


Hans Blumenberg. Picture Hans Blumenberg Society
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Hans Blumenberg-Myth and Metaphorics

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