Hans Blumenberg: Work on Myth, ch. 1

This is the second part of an occasional series as I work through this monster of a book, which to me seems far more dense than Blumenberg’s earlier The Legitimacy of the Modern World. (In the intervening years, he seems to have read many, many more books.)

Blumenberg started the book by placing humanity in an antagonism with its environment, and the problem caused when, as I mentioned in the first part, one can no longer just run away from the hostile things in the world. Myth then emerges as, he plainly states, a way of engaging with and shaping that which is beyond us. The formation of an ordered world of myth (and its sibling theory) produces “the capacity to be addressed…Every story gives an Achilles’ heel to sheer power” (p. 16; power here being that which exerts itself over us).

Then there is a five-step process of the development of myth, beginnign with the undefined, superior, hostile Other (pp. 22-23):

  1. The Other becomes the Other One, via the process of giving a name or names to the Other. (This is clearer in German, where the journey from das Andere (abstract Other) to der Andere (personal Other One) is a function of the grammar.) This lays the ground for personification and engagement.
  2. A physiognomy of the Other One is generated, along with accompanying behavior patterns and character, setting the grounds for the laws of engagement with the Other One.
  3. The concept of fidelity emerges, by which the Other One will reliably show favor to those that…the Other One favors, in accordance with the physiognomy and laws.
  4. Humans may enter into a covenant of some sort with the Other One: if you do what it wants (which may well not be possible), the Other One will deliver on its promises.
  5. The covenant is superseded by “an absolute realism of the commitment of divine favor to men,” where we and the Other One are in it together, so to speak, and the world is friendly.

The last two stages are Judaism and Christianity, at least in the history that Blumenberg chronicles, and anyone who has read Hegel will see the Protestant-influenced German movement from the Jewish world of Talmudic law to the Christian world of Christ’s love. Except that Blumenberg is quite clear that the Christian cycle fails to solve the problems of the covenant-based myth: evil, suffering, etc. Like all myths, he says, it moves the problems of its predecessor around, but this is hardly an undisputed achievement. So theodicy continues to exist and the supposed friendliness of the world is always in doubt; the myth is under constant threat of replacement.

So far this is indeed very Nietzschean, but Blumenberg is much more historically savvy, or at least he wants to present the problem as one that lives on in theory itself. (Nietzsche was more content to wave away theory; Blumenberg is not an anarchist.) And he has a small coup in the first chapter to show his insight.

If we look back on the multiplicity of the historically accumulated theories of the origin of religion, they sort themselves out into two main types. The first is represented by Feuerbach, for whom the divinity is nothing but man’s self-projection into heaven, his temporary representation in a foreign medium, through which his self-concept is enriched and becomes capable of retraction from its interim state of projection. The second is represented by Rudolf Otto, for whom God and the gods arise from an a priori and homogeneous original sensation of the ‘holy,’ in which awe and fear, fascination and world anxiety, uncanniness and unfamiliarity are secondarily combined. Must one not also expect both theories to have their corresponding phenomena, which just haven’t been separated, descriptively, by the name “religion”?

p. 28

To paraphrase: the theories of the origin of religion merely recapitulate religious experience itself rather than providing explanation. In other words, we have not come so far from myth as we think. And, Blumenberg hints, it applies just as easily to philosophy, which so often appeals to either (a) a holistic identity of divinity and man (Spinoza, Hegel, transhumanists) or (b) some kind of radical alterity by which the Other is apotheosized and related to mystically (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Levinas, Badiou). At least as I read him, Blumenberg’s ambition is to portray these religious and philosophical mechanisms as aspects of a single, more fundamental mythical (or perhaps more accurately, metaphorical or meaning-generating) mechanism.

One thought on “Hans Blumenberg: Work on Myth, ch. 1

  1. Hello,
    Just to say what you do really helps me out. I’m a PhD student from Belgium, and “Work on myth” is a tough book to … work on, even in this really good English translation. So thank you very much to synthetize and summarize Blumenberg’s ideas, which are not entirely available in French yet :)
    Geo

Leave a Reply