Archive Fervor: Some Thoughts on Blumenberg’s Nachlass

Though Hans Blumenberg is far from being a familiar name even in Germany’s educated households, one cannot fault the “quality” press. Newspapers such as Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit and Frankfurter Rundschau discussed his major publications and continue to review the books edited from the Nachlass. Particularly consistent has been the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which also published many original pieces by Blumenberg, especially in the 1980s. My distinguished local paper is also notable for its weekly humanities page. Though recently cut from two pages, the section entitled  “Geisteswissenschaften” is still required reading for Blumenberg watchers, since it can be relied upon not only to report on congresses and academic articles of note, but also occasionally to publish gems from the archive.

A recent example, however, left me with somewhat mixed feelings.[1] It gives an account of the philosopher’s supposedly last letter, which he addressed to the writer and theologian Uwe Wolff, and which has now been published in Communio, a reputable Catholic journal. As a document, the letter is undoubtedly of great interest. Not only does Blumenberg display his customary erudition – this time, in the form of earned comments on theological questions concerning Mariology and exorcism –, but the letter also contains some poignant personal remarks. Blumenberg was born to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother who converted to her husband’s faith. As a “Mischling”, in Nazi parlance, he was barred from higher education. Only two theological colleges could offer him shelter until they, too, bowed to the regime’s pressure. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that Blumenberg should have retained an affection for the Church untouched by his own subsequent loss of faith. Nor is surprising that Blumenberg, as the article claims, should have felt less than fully at home in reconstructed Germany – although, as I tried to demonstrate in my dissertation, he was also at pains tell others, including the exile Hans Jonas, that Germany had become safe. Later in life, he was troubled by the student movement, in whose excesses he seems to have felt echoes of the mob mentality he had witnessed in his formative years.[2]

Blumenberg’s astonishingly profound knowledge of Christian theology is evident throughout his work. His book St. Matthew Passion (Matthäuspassion, 1988) is no doubt the most concentrated display of this learning. Yet it is also a book that is both sorrowful and uncompromising in its interpretation of Bach’s oratorio as revealing God’s powerlessness and futility. But Blumenberg was far from being a fervent anti-clericalist. This point is proved by the absence of the usual polemical tropes (“priestly guile” etc.) as well as by the letter to Wolff, in which Blumenberg writes of his “love” for the Church and his continued identification with it as his spiritual home. The letter, apparently written a few weeks before Blumenberg’s death in March 1996, should not be read as indicative of some kind of death-bed conversion, either. In fact, Blumenberg’s declaration of love for the Church reprises similar statements made in an earlier letter to an old friend, Alfons Neukirchen, which I quote at length in my dissertation. In this letter, Blumenberg rejects his friend’s anti-clericalism, expressing his admiration for Pope John Paul II and his respect for tradition. While making it clear that he himself no longer believed a word of the Church’s teachings, Blumenberg restates his gratitude for its early support.[3]

My irritation at the FAZ piece thus had less to do with its supposed revelations than with some of the comments accompanying them. I am sure that Jürgen Kaube, the article’s author, has it on good evidence that Blumenberg “died surrounded by Bibles and a Catholic Cathechism”, though I am disturbed by the death-bed scene from a medieval painting that presents itself to my mind’s eye. Somewhat more vexing is Kaube’s suggestion that the letter might serve to correct the image of a philosopher “who to some may have appeared only as a proponent of an enlightenment critical of religion and a defender of modernity against its detractors”. Obviously, I have no reason to suppose Kaube means me personally or even knows of my work, but that is how I portrayed and continue to view Blumenberg, at least in his writings up to and including Work on Myth. (The later work, which, with the exception of Lebenszeit und Weltzeit and Matthäuspassion, my dissertation only skims, is perhaps another matter or places different emphases.) Lest I still be suspected of pique, I would certainly agree that any discussion of Blumenberg’s work that ignores such ambiguities would be flawed. Yet I would also maintain that what is of interest here is not the presence or absence of statements more or less explicitly critical of religion in Blumenberg’s work – in any case, that would hardly have been his style – but the fundamentally atheological nature of a philosophy that was concerned with keeping the absolute (in whatever guise it might present itself) at bay.

What troubled me most about the article (and of course, from a philosophical standpoint, my irritation is of no consequence anyway) was how it seemed to echo, however unintentionally, the end of Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s yet more irritating novel, Blumenberg. At that book’s conclusion, at which seems to play on that of Goethe’s Faust II, Blumenberg experiences a kind of apotheosis, raised to “another world” by the lion who has accompanied the philosopher throughout. I have already discussed this novel in a previous post and quoted some lines from Birgit Recki’s magisterial review: “The altogether unquestioning acceptance with which the ‘Blumenberg’ of the novel accepts the lion as a message from the absolute, this acquiescence to fate, […] lacks any systematic support in the philosopher’s thought. Perhaps it accords with the author’s theologically and religiously altogether differently grounded desire to see the most principled heretic in twentieth-century philosophy tamed by means of a ‘mascot’.”[4] Although this statement may require qualification with regard to the consistency of Blumenberg’s heresy, at least as far as his personal feelings are concerned, scrutiny of his work will indeed give no support to anyone seeking the comforts of faith or the redemption suggested by Sibylle Lewitscharoff.

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In its connection with Blumenberg, the FAZ is rivaled (if that is the word) only by its Swiss counterpart, the venerable Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The NZZ’s long-standing editor, Martin Meyer, was personally acquainted with Blumenberg. A few months ago, the paper published one of the most exciting pieces from the Nachlass to have emerged in recent years: a relatively short essay in which Blumenberg discusses Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Commentary is provided by Blumenberg’s former assistant, Ahlrich Meyer, who is apparently working on a book to contain the essay’s still unpublished full version. In this, Blumenberg compares Eichmann in Jerusalem to Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism – two books whose power to cause offense, in Blumenberg’s view, was due to their authors’ not altogether disinterested devotion to the “truth”, as they saw it. It is a striking piece, both measured and passionate, and altogether original. But I don’t want to give away too much: I have translated the text into English for New German Critique, where it will be published next year.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, books edited from Blumenberg’s Nachlass continue to appear at the rate of about one a year. 2013 saw the long-awaited (well, by me and two or three others) publication of the correspondence with Jacob Taubes, in a format similar to that of the earlier volume of letters to and from Carl Schmitt. Other books have presented “lost” works in various states of completion: Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit picks up the project inaugurated in Shipwreck with Spectator: Theorie der Lebenswelt reprises themes from Lebenszeit und Weltzeit; Quellen, Ströme, Eisberge seems to be a by-product of Blumenberg’s cataloging of metaphors. There has been a major work on philosophical anthropology, Beschreibung des Menschen, and one of phenomenology, Zu den Sachen und Zurück. Most recently, Präfigurationen has revealed a chapter cut from Work on Myth. There have been several other volumes. Given the commitment of his publisher, Suhrkamp, to expanding his available œuvre and the excellent work done at the Marbach archives to bring more of it to light, it may seem churlish to complain.

Nonetheless, some of the choices made by the editors seem a little puzzling. There is no reason deducible from the work itself why a relatively minor piece such as the somewhat grandly named Geistesgeschichte der Technik should have already been published as a standalone volume while we still wait for Blumenberg’s Habilitationsschrift, Die ontologische Distanz (1950), which is fundamental to his subsequent intellectual development. I can only guess at possible reasons. Whilst the Nachlass is curated by a dedicated and highly knowledgeable archivist, there is no committee to decide on an editorial policy. Given the nature of Blumenberg’s vast body of letters, fragments and notes, a systematic Gesamtausgabe may well be unfeasible. Nor can we assume that Suhrkamp exercise any significant guidance over the process. Individual editions seem to depend on the initiative of the editors, who are dependent on grants – often form third parties – for their research. This, in turn, leads to a need not just to unearth unknown texts, but to provide extensive commentary. This is often extremely valuable, as in the case of Präfigurationen, edited by Angus Nicholls and Felix Heidenreich.

But one may also see certain problems in presenting texts alongside commentary which, by sheer dint of its being appended to the primary text, is likely to be perceived as definitive. It also stands to reason that the emphasis placed on commentary and apparatus makes producing each volume costly and labor-intensive. A different path might be to gather more texts into larger volumes and to leave the labor of commentary to anyone who feels inspired to take it on. There is, of course, little value in producing such a volume as a fully-fledged research project, which is probably why it doesn’t happen: the job would be demanding while offering comparatively little by way of résumé-building glamour. A further problem with the manner in which archival texts are currently released is that they do not always help to complete or even to contribute our understanding of Blumenberg’s intellectual development. This is partly a function of the preponderance of later texts among the publications, which may in turn simply be the result of the growth of Blumenberg’s productivity.

It is certainly not the task of scholars editing archival texts to confirm pre-existing ideas about their author. But there is something at least potentially wearying about the release of texts which stand in no clear relation to one another or to those that Blumenberg chose to publish in his lifetime. The danger is not only of the blurring of the contours of that life’s work, but also of a certain fatigue produced by the proliferation of material with no clear systematic intention or, for that matter, quality control.

As I said, I am being churlish, for ultimately, it is for readers and scholars to decide what they deem worth their attention. Those doing specialized work on Blumenberg will, in any case, wish to consult the archives themselves, though the immensity of Blumenberg’s Nachlass is such that they may end up kicking themselves for all they did not come across (OK, I’m talking about myself again).

My sense of the gaps in the published corpus is, admittedly, determined in part by my own interests and priorities, but is is not entirely arbitrary. I would argue in favor of a return to the writings of Blumenberg’s earlier period, which show his early discussions of phenomenology, the assimilation of philosophical anthropology, his rejection of Kulturkritik, his growing interest in the late-medieval époché. All these developments lead up to the publication of his first major work, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Although this book has already received much attention, its place in the context of Blumenberg’s overall development and that development itself remain underappreciated. Returning to Blumenberg’s earlier writing would also help situate him again in the context of the philosophical and intellectual history of the times, complementing the work currently being done on “Poetik und Hermeneutik”, the influential research group of which Blumenberg was a member. Reappraising Blumenberg as a philosopher involved in the debates of his day would also provide a counterweight to the image of the recluse of the later years, who appeared to cultivate, as Ahlrich Meyer put it, “eine eher literarische Form des Philosophierens”, an emphasis which he sees reinforced by recent editorial decisions.[5]

So, to redress the balance, I would like to see the following texts given priority for publication. Not all of them are (strictly speaking) unpublished, but most are hard to find:

  1. Die ontologische Distanz
  2. Reviews, essays, and journalism, c. 1950-1965
  3. Correspondence with Gadamer, Jonas, Löwith, and Scholem (to name but four)

That’s quite a wish list already, and I’m sure there are many more relevant texts I don’t even know about. Let’s see what the next few Suhrkamp catalogs hold in store.


[1] Jürgen Kaube, “Meine Dämonen hatten schwarze Uniformen. Der letzte Brief des großen Philosophen Hans Blumenberg”. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 18, 2014, p. N3.

[2] Joe Paul Kroll, A Human End to History? Hans Blumenberg, Karl Löwith and Carl Schmitt on Secularization and Modernity, PhD dissertation, Princeton 2010, Ch. I.10.

[3] Ibid, p. 284. The letter is dated November 3, 1987.

[4] Birgit Recki, “‘Blumenberg’ oder Die Chance der Literatur”. In: Merkur 66:4 (2012), pp. 322-328, p. 328.

[5] Ahlrich Meyer, “Hans Blumenberg oder: Die Kunst, sich herauszuhalten”. In: Thomas Jung and Stefan Müller-Doohm (eds.), Fliegende Fische. Eine Soziologie des Intellektuellen in 20 Porträts (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2009), pp. 337-362, p. 358.

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Guest Post: Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project by Jack Mayer

Over the past 14 years a great deal has been written about Irena Sendler, a  Polish woman who smuggled over 2500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and secured them in hiding places throughout Poland until the war’s end.  Jack Mayer’s book, Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project examines the story as well as the processes that brought the incident to life.

A Polish social worker living in Warsaw, Irena Sendler  joined the Zagota underground and obtained papers that allowed her to enter the Warsaw ghetto as an expert in infectious diseases. There Sendler tried to do what she could to help the half million Jews who were trapped in the ghetto without the bare essentials for survival.

At first Sendler brought food and medicine into the ghetto but she quickly realized that she could be of more assistance if she concentrated on bringing Jews OUT of the ghetto. Over the course of the years 1940-1943 Sendler and her Zagota comrades smuggled over 2500 children out of the ghetto. Sendler sedated the youngest children and smuggled them out in toolboxes and bags while the older children were led out through the sewers that ran under Warsaw. Sendler found hiding places for some children in convents, orphanages and with sympathetic Polish families and obtained false papers for other children so that they could be passed off as Christians. Sendler recorded the names and hiding places of each child and stuffed the papers into glass jars. The jars were buried in Sendler’s yard as she hoped that, someday, the children would be identified and reunited with their community.

After the war Sendler was one of the first Righteous Among the Nations honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Her story, however, was quickly forgotten and she lived in Warsaw, unrecognized by the  Communist Polish government which didn’t want to discuss Poland’s pre-war Jewish community.

In 1999 a group of  schoolgirls from Uniontown, Kansas were assigned to research the Holocaust. They heard a rumor about Sendler and decided to build their assignment around Sendler’s wartime activities. Mayer’s book begins to veer from the better-known accounts of the Irena Sendler Project at this point. Whereas other written information has always focused on Sendler’s activities, Mayer focused his account on the creation and execution of the project itself.

The students, Elizabeth Cambers, Jessica Shelton, Megan Stewart and Sabrina Coons were students in a small, poor, rural school. Their high school social studies teacher, Norman Conrad, assigned them to research an aspect of the Holocaust. The girls’ initial research was sparked by a one-line reference to Sendler on a website.  For many months the girls were unable to find additional data as, in 1999 there was almost no available information available about Sendler’s activities. But surprisingly, when the girls tried to write to Sendler, she answered — in the year 2000 the 90-something  Sendler was still alive, living in Warsaw and enthralled with the girls’ work. She wrote ““To my dear and beloved girls very close to my heart. I am curious if you are an exception or more young people in your country are interested in the Holocaust. I think that your work is unique and worth disseminating.”

The students wrote up their history project and then developed it into a play called “Life in a Jar.” The play was performed throughout North America and, ultimately, in Poland. Educational visionary Lowell Milken helped the girls travel to Poland where they visited Sendler and met some of the children that she had saved. Milken was so taken by the project that he initiated a Center with Norman Conrad, the social studies teacher who had originally inspired the girls to embark on their research. Today the Lowell Milken Center highlights the stories of “unsung heroes” worldwide as they are researched and presented by American schoolchildren.

Mayer’s book goes beyond the basics of Sendler’s activities and the research that identified her and her wartime activities. He focuses on the understanding and respect that Sendler modeled as well as on the tenaciousness of the students. These girls had no personal interest in the incident but were able to overcome all obstacles to expose a story that has touched thousands of people throughout the world and inspired others to create similar research projects.

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Hans Blumenberg: No Matter When?

In 1986, Hans Blumenberg published Lebenszeit und Weltzeit (“Life-time and World-time”; see also the previous post on “The Datum”). Sandwiched between a two-part critique of Husserl’s concept of Lebenswelt, the book contains an investigation of the interrelatedness and ultimately the divergence of the individual’s lifespan and the perception of cosmic time. Lebenszeit und Weltzeit complements and, in a sense, continues The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Whereas that book had sought to refute the notion that modern consciousness was derived from a religious substance enduring in a secularized guise and presented an alternative account of intellectual developments around the year 1500, Blumenberg now returns to the persistence of apocalyptic patterns of thought.

Blumenberg examines the development of astronomy in Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, in the course of which scientific progress came to appear as an endeavor spanning several generations. Science, in expanding the horizons of time and space into infinity, had produced an awareness of the divergence of the human lifespan from the immensity of cosmic time, and in doing so of the open-endedness of scientific and theoretical progress. Whereas Descartes had been guided by the vision of a morale definitive to be formulated, if not in his own lifetime, then in the foreseeable future, such hopes had been dashed in the further course of philosophy. This realization seems to have occurred at some delay, giving rise to the various perceptions of a crisis of philosophy around the turn of the century and during the inter-war period. The main point of reference here is Husserl’s 1935 lecture, Die Krisis des europäischen Menschentums und die Philosophie, which Blumenberg reads as the expression of a threat perceived by Husserl to his life’s work, phenomenology, under attack from historicism, psychologism, positivism, etc.

Blumenberg had already addressed such themes in his early work, notably his Habilitationsschrift (professorial dissertation), Die ontologische Distanz (1950). As in the later book, Blumenberg here discusses Husserl’s concept of an Urstiftung, an original foundation of transcendental subjectivity, which he interprets as a desperate attempt to place philosophy on solid ground by retreating from the problem of history. But this early work still participated in a discourse that, in a manner typical of the intellectual climate of the early post-war years in Germany, framed the crisis modern science in the cultural-critical terms of nihilism or irreligion. These concepts are gone in the later book where the same crisis is identified, but is now related the divergence of Lebenszeit und Weltzeit, indeed, as its culmination.

As Franz Josef Wetz* has pointed out, Blumenberg’s point of departure in both these works is Husserl’s concept of Lebenswelt, which Blumenberg reframed as an opposite to his own “absolutism of reality”. In this definition, Lebenswelt appears as a realm of Selbstverständlichkeit, a world that is accepted, unquestioningly, as given. To Blumenberg, however, this represents only a theoretical construct: we are always outside the Lebenswelt and indeed moving further from it, a distance of which the divergence between Lebenszeit and Weltzeit serves as an indicator. Science – particularly astronomy – had brought man to the painful realization that his place in the cosmos was not a privileged one, and that his own lifetime, or that of any particular generation, was unlikely to be that in which history was decided.

The consequence, as Blumenberg describes it, had been (frequently violent) efforts to make the two timescales congruent, for instance in revivals of apocalyptic expectations. The prospect of infinite tasks, such as the infinite project of philosophy, is, it would seem, as hard to tolerate for the human mind as is the natural limitation placed on any human experience of infinity by death. The reaction to the horror of infinity, the individual’s perception of his own mortality and the shortness of his lifespan measured against infinity, was an impulse to force the convergence of Lebenszeit und Weltzeit. The Enlightenment attempt to place man in charge of history was only one such attempt. (And not, implicitly, the result of a secularized eschatology – this represents a further step in Blumenberg’s refutation of the Secularization Thesis.)

Phenomenology, in Husserl’s formulation, had failed to address the consequences of this divergence – or rather, it had done so by taking refuge in the past, in the supposed Urstiftung, the consoling idea that philosophy had once possessed an understanding of the world which, although long since closed off, could serve as a model. In the words of Rilke’s Ninth Duino Elegy, which Blumenberg quotes: “But to have been / this once, completely, even if only once: / to have been one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.” An “absolute past” is evoked to compensate, according to Blumenberg, for the impossibility of an “absolute future”. The problem of existence is avoided by making essence the rightful object of phenomenological contemplation.

One conclusion to draw from this phenomenological retreat from existence and history (understandable enough, as Blumenberg does not fail to note, in the context of Husserl’s last years) would be that the crucial point is that something should exist or have existed, not when. It is this question which the essay translated below takes as its point of departure.

There is, however, also a biographical context in which this essay and the whole of Lebenszeit und Weltzeit may be considered. It is tempting to read the disjunction of Lebenszeit and Weltzeit as an explanation of the ferocious productivity of Blumenberg’s later years, even against his protestation (in a letter to Odo Marquard) that this “antinomy […] is not my problem”. Yet Odo Marquard was not to be dissuaded, asserting that Blumenberg’s obsession with completing his work went back to the years he had ‘lost’ to war and persecution. In order to compensate for this loss, Blumenberg had resolved to sleep only six nights out of seven,† and inflicted upon himself a punishing work schedule to which, in turn, he increasingly sacrificed his public presence and, ultimately, his friendships.

Blumenberg thus appears as a philosopher who, as an awareness of his own mortality encroached upon him, became increasingly obsessed with completing the potentially infinite task of his life’s work. Yet the following essay also raises another interesting question: When can a philosopher be understood? Does a century more or less make a difference?

Postscript, August 2014: Only now have I discovered that this essay has already long been translated into English, by David Adams: “Does it Matter When? On Time Indifference.” In: Philosophy and Literature 22:1 (1998). My own translation is in no way to be understood as a criticism of Adams’s efforts, but is purely the result of poor research.

* Franz Josef Wetz, Hans Blumenberg zur Einführung. 2nd ed. Hamburg: Junius, 2004, pp. 132-151.

† Odo Marquard, “Entlastung vom Absoluten.” In Die Kunst des Überlebens. Nachdenken über Hans Blumenberg, edited by Franz Josef Wetz and Hermann Timm. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998, p. 27.

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Hans Blumenberg: No Matter When? On Temporal Indifference

Does it make any difference to a significant work of ‘pure’ thought, for instance in mathematics or philosophy, when it appears and thereby is given at least a chance of making an impact? This ‘when’ is by no means inconsequential if it is taken to include, from the outset, the question of actual impact. It depends on circumstances inseparable from the date of publication. But there, too, accessibility – for instance the mere fact of publication under any imprint or masthead – is not identical with potential impact. For content itself does not make the ‘message’.

If each work of such rank is considered an ‘effect’ of other, earlier works – sometimes of unequal rank –, something may be said about the order of derivation within a ‘sequence’, but nothing about the distance between the elements of this sequence and thus nothing about the dating of the whole or of an individual part. The factual existence of a work, at whatever time, would then be just one – not yet sufficient – condition for the ‘appearance’ – or at the least the emergence – of one or more further works. This holds true even if and when a work relates, in part or as a whole, critically or descriptively, to another work, and the ‘independence’ of its position notwithstanding is dependent on the other simply ‘being there’. The contingency of dates and periods has little to do with any ‘logical consequence’ of interrelation and succession.

There is a ‘pattern’ for all the temporal contingencies of mankind’s ‘great works’, which may be invoked, without suspicion of secularization, in order to satisfy oneself of the indifference of ‘appearance’ – used here in the elusive double meaning of epiphany: the ‘son of man’ and the canonical texts bearing tidings of him. Judged against the claim which the double event of life and scripture has made for itself, and in relation to biblical chronology, refined over centuries, this is a case of belatedness both inexcusable and inevitable. Was the logos of St. John the Evangelist within its rights to let four thousand years pass after the fall and the expulsion from paradise before deigning to appear in the flesh and uttering the words necessary for the reattainment of salvation, as well as enduring the attendant pains? In a smaller meter, He allowed another thirty years to lapse after the nativity at Bethlehem before beginning, in word and deed, what for the sake of mankind could surely not be begun and completed soon enough. Time was of the essence, for the world was on the brink, the old enemy waiting to make his move.

When the first fervent expectations of salvation had cooled off, it was left to Christianity’s early apologists to address objections made on the grounds of the somewhat belated divine intervention in the sorry history of mankind. This task clearly exceeded their abilities. Based on the principium rationis insufficientis for time and space, the all-resolving answer to the charge of “Why so late?” could only have been “No matter when!” But this answer would have been theologically inadmissible. Yet the dogmatic trick, which defuses the problem rather than solving it, implies the unspoken indifference of every date in time with regard to all others: the article “he descended into hell”, an imprecise translation of descensus ad inferos. The descent into Hades of the Servant of God not only fills the comfortless waiting period [between death and resurrection], but also draws those whom the salvation wrought by the Passion would otherwise have excluded for having been ‘born too soon’ into the triumph of the victory over death.

The lord of the underworld, captor of the just who predeceased the advent of salvation, is not simply the all-too-familiar ‘Devil’, the tempter, but also ‘Death’ as the demon who had gained access to the world following the expulsion from paradise and under whose reign ‘evil’ had become the consequence of life’s fatality. That the reign of this deceiver and delayer is abrogated by the overcomer of death is precisely what is ‘timeless’ about this episode of salvation, which places lives past and present on an equal footing. There can be no mention of ‘those yet to come’, for in this scheme there is only ‘that which is yet to come’, never ‘those’, if the generation alive is assumed to be the last. The insertion of the descensus thus provides the ‘no matter when’, without which the contingency of the advent of salvation would be unbearable.

That the theological dignity of this ‘case’ is not matched by other historical events does not detract from its status as an example of the problem of temporal contingency. The paltry fruits of autonomous thought in the form of philosophy and those of its theories set loose upon the world may yet require the great ‘events’ wherever they may come from – be it from Erlangen or Frankfurt, from Zurich or Giessen. Anything deserving to be called an ‘event’ would share in the ‘distinction’ of being indifferent to the when of its appearance.

We know exactly when Socrates, in his dungeon, drank the cup of hemlock prescribed to him by the state. But what the death of Socrates, in the literary form Plato gave it, has ‘meant’ throughout the history of human thought makes its dating as inconsequential as our ignorance of the date of Prometheus’s shackling to the Caucasus. From the objection that one had really lived and the other was an invention of myth, it is but a short step to say that Socrates, too, had been a mere invention of Plato’s. Had only Xenophon’s Socrates survived, his name may not even have been mentioned in the logician’s examples. He himself placed his afterlife in the hands of the happy coincidence of a philosophical poet by not writing a line and not even taking care to provide authentic logia. “No matter when” is true, in a singular sense, of the Platonic Socrates.

I do not wish to skirt the experimentum crucis for the thesis of temporal indifference. Does it also apply to the Critique of Pure Reason? My answer is: not only equally, but exceptionally so.

It means nothing that Kant’s work appeared in 1781. Firstly with regard to its immediate consequences, since it found few readers as perceptive and thorough as the Berlin physician Markus Herz or Jacob Sigismund Beck of Halle. Much of its oft-cited ‘great impact’ can be classified under the heading of ‘fertile misunderstandings’, of which one might say that any other work would as likely have been their occasion. As far as the touching formula, according to which the first Critique had been the Hauptwerk of the German Enlightenment, is concerned, it means little given that it also marked said Enlightenment’s end – not the effect that a Hauptwerk should have on any ‘enlightenment’. Since Kant, after all, had another two decades of reception to witness and took a regulative intervention in it by means of the second edition, his puzzlement indicates that he himself did not believe to have seized of the opportune moment.

Turning from the scandalous cursoriness of the ‘significant readers’ towards the other side of time, the ‘prehistory’ [Vorzeit] of the Critique of Pure Reason, the scope of possible dates seems to extend back the full century to Newton’s Principia of 1687. Without Newton’s physics, in particular its founding assumptions of absolute space and absolute time, the first step towards the transcendent idealization of the forms of the external and the internal sense is unthinkable. This insight, however, can already be found in the late thought of Leibniz, in his argument with the Newtonian Samuel Clarke, to which Kant’s attention had been forcefully drawn by Lambert’s letter of October 13, 1770: “I won’t complain if people want to regard time and space as mere pictures and appearances.” After all, “constant appearance” was “to us truth”.*

Here we already find Hume’s skeptical conception of the principle of causality and simultaneously that of psychic identity. Leibniz’s objection to absolute space-time was that concepts of reason could not be applied to it; and the extension of this objection is that contradictory claims can be made and proved with regard to space-time: the antinomies of the dialectic of reason in nuce. Since Newton, astronomy’s concept of reality could be generalized to apply to the world and the soul. Lambert, in the aforementioned letter to Kant, puts it thus: “In Metaphysics, where the problem of appearances is so essential, the method of the astronomer will surely be the safest.” And that is precisely what is contained in Kant’s ‘extension’ of the dialectic to psychology and consequently the ‘application’ of the concept of appearance to internal experience.

The date on which Kant’s first Critique appeared had nothing to do with the significance ascribed to it: to represent the crowning glory of German or even European Enlightenment. The thesis ‘no matter when’ pertains to historical ascriptions of function to singular works of human thought. Did the Critique arrive too late for the Enlightenment? Or too early for its next iteration, against romanticism and Hegelianism, from which, with Schopenhauer’s unintended assistance, Neo-Kantianism was to emerge, which questioned the supposedly complete natural sciences with regard to the conditions of its possibility at the very moment they were drawing new problems and theorems from this ‘completion’?

There was a lot of work to do liberating Kant from this entanglement in his alleged renaissance – and this liberation, as far as the partialization of Newtonian physics was concerned, came at least a quarter-century too late. It would have been possible at any time, against Kant’s being put to the service of the exact sciences’ question of possibility in Liebmann’s “Kant und die Epigonen” (1874), indeed as early as Helmholtz’s speech on the centenary of the “Theory of the Heavens” (1855). But it took not a lot of work, just one 35-page essay, to put an overdue end to the cavalier attitude of the Neo-Kantians: In 1924, the second volume of Erich Rothacker’s Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte included Julius Ebbinghaus’s terse contribution, “Kantinterpretation und Kantkritik”. Suddenly it was plain for all too see, and for the remaining Neo-Kantians in particular, that they had not been reading Kant properly. A thorough re-reading began, bringing about remarkable refinements in the understanding of Kant. Yet the essay’s author had to admit, forty years later, that he himself had at the time been laboring under certain oversimplifications and had since deepened his knowledge. This laconic individual made amends in 1966, by revising 14 out of 35 pages.

Anyone interested in a serious study of Kant will learn more from a comparison of the two versions than from a collection of monographs – but will also learn to doubt whether this epochal coup de main of 1924 would have taken a comparable form without those simplifications. Perspicacity’s retractions only bring into focus what lesser fastidiousness already accomplished. Nonetheless: At any point between 1924 and 1966 could emendations have been made, which in any case had already been half a century overdue. This certainly was in no plausible sense a product of the first German post-inflation year, as the desire for overarching meaning would have it: as the bursting of a philosophical currency bubble that had made something else possible: In 1923, Kant’s “Opus postumum” was bought from a private collector in Hamburg by the publishers of the Academy Edition. This was something that could not have happened at any time, and the consequences of which are still with us. Yet with regard to the published edition of the “Opus postumum”, which appeared in 1936/38, it is once again possible to assert the “no matter when”. It is an aberrant boulder in the cataract of these years. Only a World War later did the Sisyphuses start rolling it about.

Neo-Kantianism’s end at the hands of Ebbinghaus falls into the year of the death of Paul Natorp, the last native – if not loyal to the death – representative of the “Marburg School”. That this was also the 200th anniversary of Kant’s birth must, however, be treated as an external circumstance: as a mere occasion on which something could be said or printed anywhere. What is more significant is that Husserl took the opportunity of his obligatory commemorative address to set down the most successful of his coinages – without using it publicly: the term ‘Lebenswelt’. It, too, is an element of the departure from Neo-Kantianism, from an affinity to Natorp. This term was to announce that, in order to understand the emergence of the theoretical worldview [Weltanschauung], the point of departure should not be the ‘fact of science’, but the natural view of the world [Weltansicht]. And therein lay the persistence of “positivism” – the great ‘circumvention’ of Kant in the Viennese style – over the institutionalized misunderstanding that was Neo-Kantianism.

All this before Heidegger took up his pen and altered the scene by further ‘lowering’ its mean level. He sealed this in 1929 with a book: Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, which would not have been possible under the academic sway of Neo-Kantianism – but which was not necessary as a book about Kant, either. All that remained was something external: to have written on Kant – no small matter. What Heidegger substantiated was ultimately the Zeitcharakter des Selbst, the thesis from Being and Time about the ecstatic temporality of Dasein as care [Sorge].

In 1797 – Kant was still alive – Lichtenberg wrote in his notebook: “It is possible that many facets of the Kantian philosophy may never be completely understood by anyone and that each will believe the other understands it better than he and will consequently be satisfied with a vague insight into it or even sometimes believe it is his own incapacity that is preventing him from seeing it as clearly as others do.”† Granted that the note’s second half completely fails to appreciate the state of affairs within the profession: nobody ever believes the other to have understood better than he. But the basic idea that perhaps nobody could ever understand Kant in all aspects is of a pleasing lucidity with regard to the contingencies in the understanding of the great work. If and how it is ever understood is just as contingent as how, when and that it should be written and appear at all.

If there is anything to the idea that the external circumstance of the bicentenary of Kant’s birth should have occasioned the first precise understanding of his Hauptwerk – or merely the conclusion that all previous comments had been inadequate – this also implies the futility of this work’s having spent a century and a half on tables and in hands. Why so needlessly early? Why so scandalously late?

* Immanuel Kant, Correspondence, translated and edited by Arnulf Zweig. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 117.

† Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, translated by R.J. Hollingdale. New York: NYRB Classics, 2000, p. 215.

Original title: “Gleichgültig wann? Über Zeitindifferenz”. In Hans Blumenberg, Lebensthemen. Aus dem Nachlaß. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1998, pp. 19-28. Originally published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, December 30, 1987. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll.

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Hans Blumenberg: The Datum

In my last post, I briefly addressed the question of what guided Blumenberg’s choice of authors as points of departure for his Begriffe in Geschichten and how they might illuminate his broader discussion with those authors. In the present case, as far as Leo Strauss and Karl Löwith are concerned, it pains me to say: not a lot. Blumenberg may of course have been reading the correspondence between the two émigrés with his own debate with Löwith from the 1960s in mind, but what arrests him here is a parenthetical reference Strauss makes to Edmund Husserl.

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Hans Blumenberg: Apertures: Fine Sieve, Wide Net

I began this series of translations of Hans Blumenberg’s shorter texts with a selection from Begriffe in Geschichten. Whilst many of these short digressions plunge to the core of his interlocutors’ ideas, albeit by a somewhat oblique approach, others make observations to which the author under discussion seems incidental. Of course, the matter may not be as simple as that, especially when the author concerned happens to be Arnold Gehlen. Blumenberg’s philosophical anthropology is heavily indebted to that of Gehlen, and Blumenberg is said to have referred to the latter’s Der Mensch as second only to Being and Time in its importance to twentieth-century German thought. Being placed in such close proximity to Heidegger may constitute only qualified praise, but although he voices occasional reservations, Blumenberg’s discussion of Gehlen remains remarkably free of the jibes directed at the ontologist from the Black Forest. On the question of man’s organic incompleteness, Blumenberg follows Gehlen, whilst criticizing the “absolutism of institutions” that he finds Gehlen’s later work. Blumenberg, too, may be seen as having taken a net to Gehlen’s œuvre: one with a wide enough mesh to hold back his magnum opus, but letting pass the later (and indeed smaller, not to say lesser) writings. But the question concerning Blumenberg’s own Nachlass also hovers over this text, as Josh has rightly pointed out.
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Hans Blumenberg: What is Absent about the Lion

The posthumous collection Löwen was published in 2001 according, it would seem, to Blumenberg’s own intentions. In this slim volume are gathered 32 short pieces, almost never longer than a handful of paragraphs, each devoted to unlocking the significance of a leonine reference in literature, iconography or speech. The lion is an eloquent and ubiquitous symbol, but it seems to figure in Blumenberg’s reflections, broadly speaking, as representing the power of the absolute and its limitations.

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Ovadia Hedaya and Menashe Klein on the Holocaust

Last week, Shlomo Amar intimated that the Plesner committee could cause earthquakes. Similarly, Ovadia Yosef has often been criticized for his reasons for disasters like Hurricane Katrina. People don’t realize that these guys are lightweights. For all the bluster, Yosef and Amar are the sane moderates in the world of Sefardic theodicy. The obvious champion is Ovadia Hedaya. Hedaya, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Kabbalistic yeshiva Beit El, filled out his responsa in Halacha with Kabbalistic musings. At the end of volume 8, he tells us his reason for the Holocaust.
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