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.

* * * * *

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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