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Blumenberg and Husserl

Durkheim (not that one) wrote about my account of Blumenberg:

I think that Blumenberg is much more positive about the modern age than you suggest. Indeed, one might even compare his remarks on science – particularly its institutionalisation of method – with those of Popper. Popper of course would have no time for myth, but Blumenberg’s genius was to have shown that myth too can be defended in a similar way to science. The never ending variation that is the history of myth’s rewriting is comparable to the infinite progress that is the fate – and the triumph – of modern science.

I agree with this and I didn’t mean to give the impression that Blumenberg is a pessimist. In fact, Blumenberg’s ire seems reserved for those conservative pessimists like Schmitt, Loewith, or even Voltaire, who define the present moment as a crisis and look back to the past to try to find some point where we went wrong. He has even less patience for those, from Epicurus to the Gnostics to Kierkegaard, who ask that we should turn our back on the world and seek some private, otherworldly transcendence. And I do believe that Blumenberg’s endorsement of curiosity, science, and a secular interest in improving the world amounts to a prescription for a pragmatic progress: the right for humanity to explore, experiment, err, and positively evolve.

It is so optimistic, in fact, that it is difficult for me to accept enthusiastically. If I believe that a humanistic science offers the best way forward for the people on this planet, it’s only because I can’t think of any better ideas, not because I am filled with hope that things will work out. Blumenberg is more of a believer, and the faith he holds seems best portrayed in Blumenberg’s touching portrait of Husserl:

Scarcely a decade after theory, as mere gaping at what is ‘present at hand,’ had been, if not yet despised, still portrayed as a stale recapitulation of the content of living involvements, it was the greatness of the solitary, aged Edmund Husserl, academically exiled and silenced, that he held fast to the resolution to engage in theory as the initial act of European humanity and as a corrective for its most terrible deviation, and that he required of it a rigorous consistency, which is still, or once again, felt to be objectionable. Hermann Lübbe has described as the characteristic mark of this philosophizing, especially in the late works, the “rationalism of theory’s interest in what is without interest”: The existential problem of a scholar who in his old age was forbidden to set foot in the place where he carried on his research and teaching never shows through, and even the back of the official notice that informed him of this prohibition was covered by Husserl with philosophical notes. That is a case of ‘carrying on’ whose dignity equals that of the sentence, ‘Noli turbare circulos meos’ [Don’t disturb my circles].”

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, III.Introduction

Let’s leave aside that Archimedes, in addition to being killed while working on theoretical math, had also designed warships and this claw:

The ideal here is that of a scholar who can retain his absorption in theory even as the surrounding chaos nearly envelops him. Here, for Blumenberg, it is theory that acts as the linking and growing mechanism of humanity. (And as commenter Durkheim suggests, theory is something of a halfway point between myth and science.) The danger is, of course, that theory turn into something as private as Gnosticism. What is it that gives Blumenberg and Husserl the assurance that they have not disappeared into a private fount of knowledge irrelevant to the greater world? This is a crucial question for Blumenberg to answer in the context of the book. I think that the answer, which is hinted at above, is that there needs to remain some sort of firm method, that “rigorous consistency” that Blumenberg mentions: the placing of the external world as authority and arbiter rather than one’s own self-certainty. (Here, Blumenberg separates from Hegel and moves back to Kant.) Again, I see this as a pragmatic methodology more than anything else, except that there was no such named tradition in Germany.

The other somewhat orthogonal point is how Blumenberg contrasts Husserl with Heidegger, who goes unnamed but is sniped at as the person who attacks Husserl’s theory as “gaping at what is ‘present at hand'”. Blumenberg implicitly connects Heidegger’s political beliefs with Heidegger’s priority of the “at hand” and activity over cognition and observation. Heidegger’s political associates bar Husserl from the library at which he studied. Heidegger removes the dedication to Husserl from Being and Time. Husserl stands back. He keeps working. And Husserl remains one of the least alluring, least sexy philosophers ever. He never cheats, he is never cheap, he is never glamorous. (Even his glamorous successors–Derrida and Sartre–did not put a shine on him.) He just keeps working things out.

I don’t want to enter that eternal debate on Heidegger, but I do sympathize with the emphasis Blumenberg places on detached observation, on the classical act of thinking and theorizing that still seems to have gone missing amidst unending talk of politics, subversion, performativity, and so on. (To those who say that detached observation is a luxury, the subsequent activities are no less luxuries.)

When I quoted Satie the other day (apparently an appropriate quote, thank you Dennis), it was this contrast between theory and action that I was thinking of: youth in action, old age in reflection. As every development in culture and technology (hello, the web) rushes to celebrate and analyze itself before it has barely begun to be anything at all, the nonstop circle of activity exhausts me, and I want to be the rigorous, consistent theorist myself:

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, and innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.

Kafka, “At Night”

Hans Blumenberg’s Dichotomies

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.

Holiday Cheer from Eduard von Hartmann

Combining Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Mill, he gives us the best-case scenario:

The second condition of the possibility of victory is that the consciousness of mankind be penetrated by the folly of volition and the misery of all existence; that it have conceived so deep a yearning for the peace and the painlessness of non being, and all the motives hitherto making for volition and existence have been so far seen through in their vanity and nothingness that that yearning after the annihilation of volition and existence attains resistless authority as a practical motive. According to the last chapter, this condition is one whose fulfilment in the hoary age of humanity we may expect with the greatest probability, when the theoretical cognition of the misery of existence is truthfully comprehended, and this cognition gradually more and more overcomes the opposing instinctive emotional judgment, and even becomes a practically efficient feeling, which as a union of present pain memory of former pain, and forefeeling of care and fear becomes a collective feeling in every individual embracing the whole life of the individual and through sympathy the whole world, which at last attains unlimited sway. Doubt as to the general motive power of such an idea at first certainly arising and communicated in more or less abstract form, would not be authorised, for it is the invariably observed course of historically regulative ideas which have arisen in
the brain of an individual, that although they can only be communicated in abstract form, they penetrate in course of time into the heart of the masses, and at last arouse their will to a passionateness not seldom bordering on fanaticism. But if ever an idea was born as feeling, it is the pessimistic sympathy with oneself and everything living and the longing after the peace of non existence, and if ever an idea was called to fulfill its historical mission without turbulence and passion silently but steadily and persistently in the interior of the soul, it is this.

From this point of view too the possibility therefore appears anything but remote that the pessimistic consciousness will one day become the dominant motive of voluntary choice.

Philosophy of the Unconscious By Eduard von Hartmann, William Chatterton Coupland

Jeffrey Collins on Mark Lilla

From the July 18, 2008 TLS:

Several German thinkers produced by interwar Germany cast a shadow over The Stillborn God. Lilla’s account of the varied political implications of anthropological, cosmological and Gnostic conceptions of God recalls the work of Eric Voegelin; his interest in the fecundity of Hegel’s eschatological vision that of Karl Lowith. But the most palpable unnamed influence in Lilla’s text is Carl Schmitt, the German theorist of political “decisionism” whose posthumous academic popularity has been little hampered by his Nazism. Lilla borrows Schmitt’s thesis that Hobbes first introduced a hairline split between political and religious authority that was subsequently widened by Spinoza. Schmitt also influentially deployed the term “political theology” to argue that most ideologies of the state were “secularized theological concepts”. The Stillborn God seems to deploy this conceptual apparatus, but with the intention of celebrating the liberal tradition that Schmitt reviled.

As an account of Enlightenment ideas, The Stillborn God is schematically misshapen. Categorizing canonical philosophers as friends or enemies of a “Great Separation” – at least as that notion is defined by Lilla – elides too many complexities. John Locke, for instance, did advocate a stringent “separation” of religious and political life, but he did not share the anthropologically circumscribed (and inherently atheistic) understanding of religion that supposedly undergirded Lilla’s “Great Separation”. By contrast, Hobbes and Spinoza exhibited the irreligion that Lilla requires, but they were not “separationists”. Both advocated religious establishments, theological censorship, political controls on the clergy, and minimalist religious creeds designed to valorize state power. In crafting an autonomous political logic, they sought to co-opt (rather than sequester) the social power of religion.

Lilla has domesticated Hobbes in particular, who was capable of writing: “Is not a Christian king as much a bishop now, as the heathen kings were of old?”.

And Rousseau hardly betrayed Hobbes on this point. Lilla’s narrative, astoundingly, ignores The Social Contract, where Rousseau’s account of “civil religion” pays homage to Hobbes for boldly fusing religious and political power. Likewise, there is a distinct echo of Hobbes’s “Mortall God” in Hegel’s spiritualized state.

In short, Lilla’s effort to disentangle an Anglo-American “separationist” liberalism from a German “theological” variant encounters more than a few hopeless snarls. Indeed, his polarization of these two options sets up a non shooting war of small differences.

I think this is about right, but I take the error to be one of anachronism: casting contemporary atheism back onto the earlier thinkers most amenable to it, while ignoring the issue that the secularized state that it would produce was fairly unthinkable at the time. It doesn’t make Hobbes or Rousseau any less secular, but it makes the fulcrum on which Lilla’s distinction pivots somewhat incoherent. There’s a similarity here to the deflationary readings of Hegel, which assign to Hegel a thoroughly modern atheism which does not seem capable of transcending the present epoch.

Donald Philip Verene: Knowledge of Things Actual And Divine

I would feel a lot better about this book if it lost its subtitle. The full title is Knowledge of Things Actual And Divine: Vico’s New Science and Finnegans Wake, but this book is an exegesis on Vico with some Joycean flavoring. To the best of my knowledge, an extensive investigation into Vico’s presence in Finnegans Wake and its parallels with Vico’s philosophy has yet to be written. (Atherton’s book is the best treatment I know of. Campbell and Robinson give it a go but their analysis is tenuous.) Indeed, Verene complains that Joyce scholars know little of Vico. Since I know little of Vico, I thought I would apply what I learned from the book to the Wake. As for Vico himself, Verene only strengthens my conviction that Vico was an esoteric genius far ahead of his time, and had he been German, he would have stolen a good deal of thunder from Hegel. And I have great respect for the historicist thinkers that followed and paid tribute to him last century: Croce, Cassirer, Collingwood, and so on.

Verene does make some observations on the Wake, but these fall prey to the problems of making any decisive interpretation of Finnegans Wake. Early on he says, “Vico is the protagonist of Finnegans Wake. He is Earwicker.” The problem is not so much that this statement is wrong is that it is incomplete. Verene marshals many textual references conflating Vico with male archetype HCE, but Vico is no more the protagonist than Adam, Humpty Dumpty, Dublin, Finn MacCool, or some Irish pub owner. Verene analyzes Vico’s life in terms of a series of “falls,” and here he is on solid ground in equating Vico’s clap of thunder with the thunderwords of the fall that occur periodically in the Wake, but the problem is that the Wake always outsizes any interpretation because there is always such a huge remainder, and so declaring Vico the protagonist is ultimately, I think, wrongheaded. And I take issue with Verene’s claim that “Shem, like a forger, moves around a lot, but Shaun, like a post, occupies set positions and talks of past and future.” While Shem is a more slippery character than Shaun, it is Shaun who sets out on the quest in the third book of the Wake, and it is he who is the deliverer of ALP’s letter which Shem has transcribed. Again, it is not so much that such claims are wrong as much as that they need far more elaboration. So it’s best to see the book as using Joyce as a tool to conceptualize Vico’s life and work.

And on Vico, there is much of interest to Wake scholars. I’ll enumerate a few points that gave me insight into the structure of Joyce’s nightmare book. Two cycles are commonly cited as the basis for the Wake’s structure: Vico and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But the three large books of the Wake do not clearly map onto the three ages of Vico’s New Science (divine, heroic, and human), though the final, short section does read as a recorso, restarting the book. Without elaborating on these matters, Verene still gives much evidence to contribute to the parallel. In particular, I was fascinated by the elaboration on Vico’s three languages, from the mute language of the divine to the verbal language of humanity:

The verb introduces time, and things can no longer be what they
are; their meanings can no longer just be mute. What is mute has being. It is
not transposed in time. The mute meaning is the denial of time. Like the ritual,
it takes us to the origin and stops time. The mute gesture is a ritual in brief. We
are back where the gods were.

Mapping the ages onto the Wake, this strongly parallels the curiously static character of the first book, which spends more time making lists and describing history than it does having anything actually happen. If the divine is a state of pure mute ritual language, then the non-narrative descriptions of the first book of the Wake fit well with Vico’s divine age.

Likewise, there is much to connect the second book with Vico’s seventh oration, which discusses education its goal of producing “the heroic mind:”

The ideal of ‘‘heroic mind’’ for Vico involves three things: all branches of
knowledge must be studied and put together; the human mind is divine and in
its activity of learning reaches God the creator in an attempt to make itself
whole; and the acquisition of knowledge, when rightly practiced, leads the
individual toward virtue and the good.

One crux of the second book of the Wake is the children learning about adult sexuality via the fall of man and forbidden knowledge. Joyce perverts the idea of education significantly, but it is still this education, and this very fall, that enables the maturation of the children and the eventual overthrow of the parents (who could be likened to gods themselves). That, in turn, leads to this passage of Vico’s:

Knowledge of the corrupt nature of man invites the
study of the entire universe of liberal arts and sciences, and sets forth the
correct method by which to learn them (125).

Which is to say, the fall is that which engenders knowledge and progress, and following on from that, the flowing of time itself. Joyce is perhaps more fatalistic than Vico in that he sees nothing but the endless battle of son against father and brother against brother, and little to be learned from it, but more significantly, Joyce renders this knowledge wholly physical and bodily, downplaying if not eliminating theology, philosophy, and eschatology. See also the mysterious fight between Berkeley and Patrick in Book IV, which may suggest that Joyce is neither a materialist nor an idealist, but merely a monist (or a this-ist, focused wholly on the world at hand). The exact relation of Joyce’s stance to Vico’s emphasis on the irreducibility of the real/mythic to abstraction is something I’m still puzzling over.

This is only the barest start. I haven’t even touched on how Vico’s conceptualization of language might relate to the linguistic apparatus of the Wake, as it’s simply too huge a topic to chance saying anything about. Verene’s book reminds me that I really do need to read The New Science from cover to cover, so that I can come back and say more insightful things about Verene’s book and Vico. And it reminds me how fantastic Finnegans Wake is underneath all the verbal impenetrability, as one of the greatest portrayals of human history in literature.

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