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.

The question of Blumenberg’s debt to and departure from Husserl (not to mention some of his most celebrated students) cannot be discussed here, if it can be discussed in brief at all. Yet it looms large over this short text, which seems almost casually dismissive of Husserl and the phenomenological project he embodied. Far from getting “zu den Sachen selbst”, Husserl’s phenomenology had failed to address reality in its temporal dimension, ultimately retreating from the problem of history. This is only one of the charges brought against Husserl in Blumenberg’s 1986 book, Lebenszeit und Weltzeit, in which Husserl’s attempt to salvage something of the quest for truth as an infinite task is set against the absurdity of such a project given the divergence between the human life-span and cosmic time.

Of the inadequacy of phenomenology to describing experience of the kind discussed below, Blumenberg writes: “Phenomenological reduction is an act of force which seems to be opposed by the whole weight of an existing world; in that respect it may be compared to Freud’s invention, the abnegation of the analyst, who is supposed to resign himself to being the mute witness of all the libidinous storms of transference directed at him.”*

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Hans Blumenberg: The Datum

Does it sound credible when Leo Strauss writes to Karl Löwith from Oxford on August 15th, 1946: “If there is a datum God, we shall describe it”? Strauss wryly adds (and Löwith gives it another two exclamation marks): “The difficulty is that those who believe they know something about God contest that he is a describable datum.” But this is probably what Husserl would have had to say and accordingly did say, with that child-like faith and optimism about what phenomenology could achieve. And to accord importance to people who “believe” they know something would have been the least of all objections – for to believe that one knows is no better than to know one believes.

A more serious objection is that the very concept of God would exclude the possibility of having and describing a datum of Him. There we encounter the fundamental trait of phenomenology not to obey the dictates of concepts, as long as such concepts are not founded upon the justification of an all-encompassing intuition [erfüllende Anschauung]. A datum, something given, is, in the broad sense of the term, just intuition – although this is where the dilemma begins, in which a concept of intuition must in turn rely on intuition in order to know where it begins and where it ends. The recourse to a kind of ‘phenomenological experience’, which in the consummation of its process ‘acquires’ the concept of its objective claim: intuition from the genesis of intuition, such recourse is inevitable.

It seems likely that there should have been phenomenological theories of religion, but their ‘datum’ is not God, but rather the specificity of the ‘experiences’ [Erlebnisse] had with Him or by Him, which cannot be recounted but at a delay. And these are not records of experiences, let alone ‘descriptions’, because the experience of this ‘object’ evokes positions incompatible with theoretical distance. They come closest to having a model in Augustine’s Confessiones, which allow the ‘spectator’ only to listen to the author continually addressing the object of his experience, as if the momentary were the permanent, the ecstatic experience the lasting ‘intuition’. Can Husserl have meant that the phenomenologist, too – in full possession of a subjectivity purified by reduction – was capable of such ‘intuition’ virtually? Then, the supposed ‘datum’ God would be the result yielded up by a method at long last mastered and sustained.

Why should Husserl the Cartesian have denied this, given that the master of the cogito had related his conception of the new ‘method’ to the ‘meditations’, the type of which he knew from Ignatius of Loyola’s meditations, and that Husserl even (or especially?) in the late period of his thought process would not dispense with the title of the Cartesian Meditations? Someone who wrote Mediations may very well have said what Leo Strauss reported of him.

Original title: “Das Datum”. In Hans Blumenberg, Begriffe in Geschichten. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998, pp. 30-31. Originally published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, c. 1985-1990. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll. The translations of the Strauss/Löwith correspondence are taken from The Independent Journal of Philosophy 2:5-12 (1978).

* Hans Blumenberg, Lebenszeit und Weltzeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986, p. 357.

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