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: Apertures: Fine Sieve, Wide Net
In the study of the appropriate objects, the metaphorologist encounters surprises of the kind that one would think were reserved for logicians.
Barely a year and a half before his death, the sociologist and philosopher Arnold Gehlen writes to the publisher Vittorio Klostermann, in response to the suggestion of a complete edition, that he was unable to take all of his own work seriously enough to want to see it reprinted in such a form. Whereas the editors and the publisher were to set the edition at ten volumes soon after Gehlen’s death in January 1976, Gehlen’s own estimate runs to seven or eight. Combining humility with self-regard, he concludes: “I can assure you that I know no-one to be more self-critical than me, I would take a fine sieve…”
In 1978, the editor Lothar Samson gives an account of the criteria applied to the selection ultimately made. The restrictions suggested by Gehlen himself would have seriously impaired the value of the edition as a comprehensive representation of the work. Thus: “Gehlen’s basic idea is adhered to, but a wider net is applied.”
There is no way of judging how much practice in dealing with metaphors is required to stumble at this point. Gehlen’s sieve was to be fine, the editor’s net wide, in order to avoid the constraints that the author may have been entitled to set. Whoever hesitated to surrender to the vividness of this distinction will find no difficulty in not leaving it at the difference in imagery between the fine perforation of the sieve and the wide mesh of the net, but will insist, with the amusement that is still possible and admissible here, on the contradictory functions of sieve and net.
The sieve, as Gehlen had intended it, holds back what is not to be used or consumed; and the finer it is, the more residue it can draw from that which passes through. The net, by contrast, is designed to hold as useable catch whatever cannot pass through its mesh and to release all the small fry and Jungvolk of the sea by means of the mesh’s well-chosen width. Instead of resisting the author’s wishes, the editor would, succumbing to his own rhetoric, have indicated the opposite of his intention: to produce an edition limited to the ‘big fish’.
Original title: “Durchlässe: enges Sieb, weites Netz”. In Hans Blumenberg, Begriffe in Geschichten. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998, pp. 36-37. Originally published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, c. 1985-1990. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll.