One of the best books on Finnegans Wake, William Atherton’s The Books at the Wake, has just been republished, and I’d recommend it to anyone trying to get a basic grip on the text. But I quote him here for the Brunian synopsis he gives early on, which follows nicely from Blumenberg:
There was a medieval theory that God composed two scriptures: the first was the universe which he created after having conceived the idea of it complete and flawless in his mind; the second was the Holy Bible. What Joyce is attempting in Finnegans Wake is nothing less than to create a third scripture, the sacred book of the night, revealing the microcosm which he had already conceived in his mind. And as the phenomenal universe is build upon certain fundamental laws which it is the task of science and philosophy to discover, so the microcosm of Finnegans Wake is constructed according to certain fundamental axioms for which Joyce is careful to provide clues, but which it is the task of his readers to discover for themselves.
And one of the sources of these axioms is Bruno:
Probably Joyce was first attracted to him as a self-confessed ‘Restless spirit that overturns the structure of sound discipline’ and as a heretic who was burned to death. But he is not likely to have read his work very thoroughly for Bruno is one of the most verbose of all writers and on one occasion takes a page to say that he himself, Il Nolano, calls things by their right names: Chiama il pane pane, il vino vino, il capo capo, il piede piede… and so on to say that ‘He calls bread bread, wine wine, a head a head, a foot a foot’ until he has given nearly a hundred examples of his own virtue in calling things by their right names…[Joyce] seems to have found his style irritating on a second reading, and appears to be parodying the passage I have just quoted in ‘did not say to the old old, did not say to the scorbutic, scorbutic’ (136.10).
I like Bruno’s proof of proper use of language. Talk about self-assertion! But isn’t this part of the problem with setting up the duality of law and reality?
This is a quick attempt to summarize Blumenberg’s positions on some of the main pre-modern thinkers he treats. Corrections welcome.
Platonism: Knowledge = happiness = justice. Elitist guardians possess greatest amounts of all three. Knowledge to be pursued. A lawful, knowable connection between this reality and the reality of the forms.
Epicureanism: Happiness attained by ignoring that which does not directly concern you. Knowledge-as-exploration is distracting and leads to misery. Abandonment of any claim to universal knowledge. Anti-elitist.
Stoicism: Happiness attained by the cessation of desire, including desire for knowledge. Anti-elitist.
Skepticism: Pursuit of knowledge undermined through rhetoric, ultimately ending in a negation of humanity’s ability to know or master the world.
Gnosticism: As conceived by Marcion and others, Christian salvation is attained through knowledge of the irrelevance of this evil world and focus on private knowledge of the real and good God. Knowledge is good but resolutely non-secular, not to be pursued in this world–and therefore there is no public standard of knowledge, no method of verification. Elitist, as only those who pursue otherworldly wisdom get saved.
Augustine: Abandons Gnosticism to focus on salvation attained through virtuous acts and repentance in this world. Beginning of classic anti-elitist Catholic/Scholastic tradition. Condemns curiosity as an arrogant and dangerous distraction from the real matter of salvation.
Scholasticism: As epitomized by Aquinas, the attempt to locate salvation and relevance in this world while placing God in a realm beyond comprehension. The height of establishing a coherent and meaningful connection between this world and God. Curiosity beyond the restricted realm of humanity is fiercely condemned.
Voluntarism: The particular offshoot doctrine of God being constrained by no law or rule whatsoever in what He can bring about. Consequently, curiosity loses some of its forbidden character as there is no greater law or theory that could be discovered.
Nominalism: In the context of theology, a doctrine of Ockham and others that proposes that every object in this world does not have any linkage to a real, greater Platonic sort of form in the amorphous Godly realm. Undermines Scholasticism by making the “greater” reality (whether of forms or God) more remote from this reality and diminishing God’s derivable influence on this reality; thereby it is now safer for conceptualism and theory to exist in this reality, as it does not intrude on God’s turf.
Nicholas of Cusa: Specifically proposes that humanity may discover the truths of this world through a proto-scientific process of trial and error by which we may eventually achieve a perfect, though limited, knowledge of our own world. Endorsement of curiosity as an integral part of the theological whole.
Giordano Bruno: Expands and reverses Nicholas’s conceptions by putting no limits on the expansion of humanity’s knowledge, now encompassing the (Copernican) heavens and the earth’s place in the now non-geocentric universe. Beginning of genuine self-assertion over the (now-expanded) world.
Descartes: Represents an odd regression to the problems of Scholasticism, by attempting to reconcile a posited voluntarist God with one who guarantees a quasi-scientific, perfectible methodology in this world. The attempt fails, and so Descartes represents the last gasp of a not-yet-secularized scientific curiosity, for which Leibniz will take him to task.
The Legitimacy of the Modern Age covers a lot of ground, but one of the central theses, and the one that bears little resemblance to most prior theories of history, is this one:
The modern age is the second overcoming of Gnosticism. A presupposition of this thesis is that the first overcoming of Gnosticism, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, was unsuccessful. A further implication is that the medieval period, as a meaningful structure spanning centuries, had its beginning in the conflict with late-antique and early-Christian Gnosticism and that the unity of its systematic intention can be understood as deriving from the task of subduing its Gnostic opponent.
Legitimacy, p. 126
The first issue is what exactly Gnosticism is. It’s a term that’s been held up over a lot of heterogeneous (and usually heterodox) doctrines, and the closest Blumenberg comes to defining it concisely in the Christian context (for that is his major concern here) is that it is the thesis that knowledge is salvation. But in the larger scope of the book, the conflict between Gnosticism and its enemies–first through Augustinian-derived Scholasticism, and then through secular, scientific modernity–is best summarized as a conflict between hermeticism and worldliness.
That is to say, Gnosticism challenges the ability of a person to make meaning out of anything on earth, arguing that God’s sheer unknowability and the ultimate contingency and unreality of this life make meaningful action in this life not just difficult, but impossible. As with other hermetic doctrines of the past, and here Blumenberg not only invokes stoicism, but also skepticism and Epicurism (all of which, he maintains, preach a turning away from worldly curiosity because such things will never provide happiness for humans), knowledge of the world such as that provided by science is not real knowledge. The real knowledge is gained through turning inward and seeing through the illusions of our reality.
In turn, Augustine and the ensuing Scholastics say no, our actions do matter: we are given free will to sin or not sin, and those actions are of a consequence beyond anything in this world. This is a limited form of re-engagement with the world, as it does not provide a mandate for full engagement with the world, but only for behaving according to specified rules. The fissure left between virtuous behavior and the rest of reality is where the problems with the medieval “solution” arise. The problems of theodicy–those of justifying God’s ways in this world, including the presence and purpose of humanity–have not been solved, and so the seemingly arbitrary ways of the world cause a retreat to Gnosticism.
Gnosticism returns within Scholasticism in the form of nominalism, that is, the idea that God is beyond all explanation and law. As Aquinas, Ockham, and Nicholas of Cusa try to make their cases for Catholic doctrine, the ultimate lack of explanation reasserts itself. No law is sufficient to capture anything that God may or may not dictate, and so the guarantee of salvation is put into question.
Now, modernity, and specifically a secular scientific curiosity, begins to emerge to fill in the gap. In the absence of a justifiable mandate or explanation from God as to humanity’s presence in the world, the idea of secular self-assertion originates, carefully using the space created by shunting God far, far away from this world to justify an incremental, trial-and-error ideology and methodology for gaining mastery over the world for their own benefit. The problem that Gnosticism posed that the Scholastics could not satisfactorily answer–what is the meaning of the suffering and evil in this world?–gets a new answer: it is for humanity to master and overcome.
[I am being a little loose with the terms “world” and “earth” here, for Blumenberg makes the Copernican abandonment of geocentrism and the ensuing shift in the conception of the “heavens” the fulcrum point that tips the Middle Ages into modernity. But leave that aside for now.]
Here is Odo Marquard’s summary of this basic sequence:
Marcion believed that the only way for humans to be saved from the evil world was by an entirely different, unworldly redeemer god, a god who, battling with the world’s evil creator, destroys it in a redeeming eschatology. As a world-conserving age, the modern age opposes this: It is (as Hans Blumenberg says) an “overcoming” of Gnosticism, the “second” overcoming, in fact, because the first one–the Middle Ages–proved unsuccessful. The first, medieval refutataion of Marcion was the discovery of human freedom by Origen and Augustine, by which (as God’s alibi) all the world’s evils are imputed, morally, to man, as his sin, so that the principle that “omne ens est bonum” [all being is good] can continue to hold in respect of God. This first refutation of Marcion is finally retracted by nominalism’s intensification of the theology of omnipotence and by Luther’s doctrine of the servum arbitrium [subject will]. In this way, the creator god is again burdened with the world’s evils. He evades this burden…so that human beings have to dispute–ultimately in a bloody manner–about questions of salvation…The schatology of redemption has to be neutralized. This neutralization of the eschatology of redemption is the modern age. For if the modern age is to be possible, the urgency of redemption must be removed by an attempted demonstration that this world is endurable, even in the absence of the saving end, thanks to many a “rose in the cross of the present”; in other words, its creator was not a wicked god, and the world is not an evil world.
Odo Marquard, “Unburdenings”
This is ultimately a rather Whiggish argument, and there’s no question over the course of the book that Blumenberg believes that on balance such self-assertion is a good thing. He opposes it to conservative polemics that things used to be so much better when religion was around, implicitly arguing that things were so inexplicably awful during such superstitious times that modernity at least offers the will to overcome that wretchedness. And consequently, if theodicy had been so successful at countering angst over the world, why has it never provided an adequate answer? (To these inadequate answers, he adds those of Heidegger, Schmitt, and others like Levinas.)
The hermetic impulse persists today in the myriad new age trends that pledge distance from worldly affairs, assorted Pyrrhonist and stoic philosophies, and the general fear that the paths of self-assertion have not quite worked out as their early proponents (Bacon, Diderot, etc.) had promised. One particularly bizarre variant is transhumanism, which promises an entire new world achieved through technology. (Is this perhaps an echo of Eduard von Hartmann, who urged the elimination of the evil Schopenhauerian Will through technological advancement?) It’s an understandable impulse. Blumenberg repeatedly cites the failings and failures of what he terms modernity, but beyond legitimate, worldly modernity reluctantly seems to be preferable to the alternatives.
Having just finished The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, I made a list of some of the dichotomies he treats. There are a lot of them, and the major headache of the book came from trying to keep their shifting relations in mind all at once. Blumenberg isn’t the sort to ever claim a definitive sequence or priority of concepts and their interactions, so the various ideologies treated in the book, from Platonism all the way to Feuerbach and (briefly) Freud, each create their own correlations between these concepts. Occasionally, some of the dichotomies collapse entirely, as with Nicholas of Cusa’s attempt to reconcile the finitude of the Incarnation with the infinity of God.
Gnosticism vs Scholasticism (especially voluntarism)
Holism vs subject/object duality
Immanence vs transcendence
Progress vs stasis/circularity
Perfection vs imperfection
Infinite vs finite
Knowledge vs morality
Knowledge-seeking vs happiness
Curiosity vs resignation
Geocentrism vs Copernicanism
Completeness vs incompleteness
Public vs private/secret/invisible
Autonomy vs indifference
Platonic realism vs nominalism
Form vs substance
Some disparate philosophies get combined on one side or another at times. Skepticism, stoicism, and Epicureanism, contra Hegel, are all treated as forms of resignation against pursuing knowledge.
The terms “forgetfulness of Being” and “repression”, deriving from very different sources in the thought of our century, represent a common underlying circumstance, namely, that what is past and forgotten can have its own sort of harmful presence.
Talk of the “undealt-with past” has concentrated in recent decades on the sins of omission of what has now become the generation of the fathers–in fact it has concentrated (increasingly) less on those who set the machinery of destruction in motion than on those who neglected to destroy it in good time or to prevent its schemes from being implemented in the first place. One should not fail to notice how such structures of reproach become plausible: They are integrated into a familiar schema, which through its capacity for variation continually gains in apparent conclusiveness.
Whether people’s readiness to entertain assertions of objective guilt derives from an existential guiltiness of Dasein vis-a-vis its possibilities, as Heidegger suggested in Being and Time, or from the “societal delusion system” of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in any case it is the high degree of indefiniteness of the complexes that are described in these ways that equips them to accept a variety of specific forms. Discontent is given retrospective self-evidence. This is not what gives rise to or stabilizes a theorem like that of secularization, but it certainly does serve to explain its success. The suggestion of a distant event that is responsible for what is wrong in the present…is an additional reason why the category of secularization is in need of a critique.
The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, I.9
In other words, in bad times we seek out frameworks in which we can point to some point in the past where things went wrong, either by ignoring certain facts of existence or entering a philosophical cul-de-sac. This conveniently generates both an excuse for terrible things that might otherwise be wholly our fault, as well as a clear corrective that gives moral standing to the diagnostician. (Or, in the case of Adorno, the insistence that there is no possible corrective gives him moral standing.) Remember Being! Remember neurosis!
The solution doesn’t have to take the form of a return to the past, but it does have to cause some sort of undoing of the present, which I take to be the underlying motivation of such strategies: the desire to go from here to not-here and, even better, never-was-here. The shape of not-here matters less than the appealing prospect of having forgotten the bad times and being All Better Now.
Secularization and Heidegger seem to be the better examples. With (late) Freud and Adorno, their sheer pessimism undermines the case against their original frameworks. On the other hand, students of both of them have had no trouble constructing prescriptive frameworks that promise corrective measures just as boldly as Heidegger does.