a cryptological dialog between hans blumenberg and carl schmitt

The famous debate between Carl Schmitt and Hans Blumenberg has been ably dispatched in a recent dissertation by Joe Kroll, A Human End to History? Hans Blumenberg, Karl Loewith and Carl Schmitt on secularization and modernity.  Much documentary evidence has been published in Carl Schmitt, Hans Blumenberg Briefwechsel 1971-1978: Und weitere Materialien. Without entering these thickets, there is a cryptological dialogue which occurs between Blumenberg and Schmitt that is worth shedding light on. It concerns the primordial boundaries of the earth and the sea, of law and philosophy.

Schmitt begins his Nomos of the Earth with the contrast of the seas and the land. The opening chapter title is Law as a Unity of Order and Orientation. The reference of the word “orientation” is probably to Kant’s “What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?” That essay posited certain irreducible contours of orientation, such as left and right. Similarly, law orients us to the irreducible order of our embeddedness in the world.

In mythical languages the earth became known as the mother of law, this signifies a threefold root of law and justice.

First, the fertile earth contains within herself, within the womb of her fecundity, an inner measure. Because of human toil and trouble, human planning and cultivation of the fruitful earth is rewarded justly by her with growth and harvest. Every farmer knows the inner measure of this justice.

In other words, the first order imposed by the earth is simply that you don’t get out unless you put in. You need to till and work your field, to orient yourself to the fact that work is irreducible.

Second, soil that is cleared and worked by human hands manifests firm lines, whereby definite divisions become apparent. Through the demarcation of fields, pastures and forests, these lines are engraved and embedded. Through crop rotation and fallowing they are even planted and nurtured. In these lines, the standards and rules of human cultivation of the earth become discernable.

The second law is distinct from the first, inasmuch as it arises from the accretion of human activity. We could say that the second law is analogically related to the first, as the third is to the second. As the boundaries between the natural and unnatural become effaced, this second level points to the beginnings of a “second nature” tilled by human hands yet engraved and embedded as deep as the soil will go. Finally,

…the solid ground of the earth is delineated by fences, walls, boundaries, houses and other constructs. Then the orders and orientations of human social life become apparent. Then, obviously, families, clans, tribes, estates, forms of ownership and human proximity and also power and domination, become visible.

If the definite divisions became apparent and discernable in the second law, in the third they are starkly visible. So this progression is also the appearance of a phenomenon. It answers the question of how the visible orders and orientations became so starkly apparent with the gossamer and handmade lines of the original tillers, hoping to extract a measure of justice from an unforgiving but also not diabolical earth.

In this way, the earth is bound to law in three ways. She contains law within herself, as a reward of labor; she manifests law upon herself, as fixed boundaries; she sustains law above herself, as a public sign of order. Law is bound to the earth and related to the earth. This is what the poet means when he speaks of the infinitely just earth: justissima tellus.

The sea knows no such apparent unity of space and law of order and orientation.

Here, we can begin the covert dialog with Blumenberg, beginning with his Shipwreck with Spectator.

Two prior assumptions above all determine the burden of meaning carried by the metaphorics of seafaring and shipwreck: first, the sea as a naturally given boundary of the realm of human activities and, second, its demonization as the sphere of the unreckonable and lawless in which it is difficult to find one’s bearings.

Blumenberg tackles Schmitt head on. The sea is the place where “it is difficult to find one’s bearings” which “knows no such apparent unity of space and law of order and orientation.” So it is lawless—and law, Blumenberg implicitly concedes to Schmitt, is mythically tied to the earth.

Tarrying a bit longer on the beginning of the Nomos of the Earth we come to a reference to the Apocalypse of St. John (e.g. Revelation), that “the new earth, purged of its sins, will have no more oceans.” Blumenberg uses the same cumbersome nomenclature when he tells us “It is part of the Johanine apocalypse’s promise that, in the messianic fulfillment, there will no longer be a sea.”

In a previous post, we discussed Blumenberg’s fixation (in the Genesis) on the Spenglerian and Jonasian diagnoses of Gnostic attitudes towards space. In Shipwreck with Spectator, these negative valuations of space are exemplified by the sea which “stands for the all devouring matter that takes everything back into itself…the reliability of the cosmos becomes questionable and its opposite valuation in Gnosticism is anticipated.”

In light of the naturalness of our situation on the earth, and the dangerous situation we put ourselves in when we go to sea, the mystery which Blumenberg faces us with is why “human beings, living on the land nevertheless prefer, in their imagination, to represent their overall condition in the world in terms of a sea voyage.”

This question marks the decisive departure from the Nomos of the Earth. Where Schmitt is concerned with the ties of soil and law, order and orientation, Blumenberg is concerned with the unlawful, disoriented, seafaring stuff that is not subsumed under the nomos of the earth. It is not unfair at this point to remind ourselves of the programmatic statements in Paradigms for a Metaphorology about Descartes. There, Blumenberg introduces the field of metaphorology as both subordinate to conceptual history, and foundational to philosophy. Metaphors are not armaments or raiments for philosophical arguments to defend or flaunt themselves and nor are they leftover elements of some inassimilable but ultimately picturesque past. Rather, symbolized by the creative act of rhetoric by which necessity is compelled to create the entire universe in the Timaeus, rhetoric is “conceptually irredeemable.” We don’t cash out our metaphors but we leave them circulating as the foundational and irreducible elements of philosophical discourse.

So metaphorology is like seafaring inasmuch as Descartes is like Schmitt. Both look for a methodological flattening out, for the ultimate legal payoff, and for the cozy demarcation of territories that makes us feel rooted in our place. Continuing in Shipwreck, we see the ultimate payoff of seeking one’s fortune on the seas. “Shipwreck is something like the legitimate result of seafaring.”

In Shipwreck (1979) Blumenberg writes “Shipwreck, as seen by a survivor, is the figure of an initial philosophical experience.” Later, in Care Crosses the River (1987) Blumenberg moves to discussing philosophers as “professional survivors of maritime emergencies.” In either case, philosophy is about conditioning oneself to failure and sallying forth against legal counsel.

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1 Response to a cryptological dialog between hans blumenberg and carl schmitt

  1. Nice commentary. I am teaching Blumenberg today as part of a reading of space in The Tempest, and your connections to Nomos are really helpful.

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