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Tag: heidegger (page 4 of 7)

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: Former Reflections Enduring Doubt

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.

Hans Blumenberg on Heidegger, Freud, and Others

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.

A Bit on Kant’s Schematism

It should be noted how Kant’s proposal for connecting the
sensible and the conceptual, though superficially straightforward, is at another level extremely
perplexing. Is a transcendental schema a thought about time, or is it time as thought in a certain
way? Our ways of referring to transcendental schemata inevitably assimilate them, it would
seem, to one side or the other of the concept/intuition divide. Moreover, it appears necessary to
do exactly this, if we are to answer the question of what they are, or say anything contentful
about them. The cost of the assimilation, however, in either direction, is to make them
apparently unfit for their designated mediating role: if they are either concepts with a special
relation to intuition, or intuitions as formed conceptually, then they seem to presuppose the very
possibility of connecting the sensible and the conceptual which transcendental schematism is
invoked to explain.

Kant may declare that transcendental schemata are irreducibly sensible-and-intellectual, and
that this is how the question of their identity should be answered. If so, Kant’s original division of
our representations into intuitions and concepts is not exhaustive, for there is a third class,
about which we can say very little, other than that it is dependent on and somehow derivative
from the others. We can specify it in terms of the transcendental role to which the problem of
relating concepts and intuitions gives rise, but the manner of its derivation, and the nature of
schemata, we cannot specify. Note, it is not just that we can say relatively less about schemata
than we can about intuitions and concepts, and that we cannot identify their ultimate source; we
are equally ignorant of the grounds of our faculties of sensibility and understanding.
Transcendental schemata remain in a special sense hard to grasp, because they are required to
combine in themselves two kinds of property, or representational functions, the seeming
immiscibility of which is precisely what made us introduce them in the first place. That this is
nevertheless Kant’s own view of the matter is, plausibly, what is suggested by his statement that
schematism is ‘an art concealed in the depths of the human soul, whose real modes of activity
nature is hardly likely ever to allow us to discover’ (A141/B180-1).

Sebastian Gardner

I’ve been accused of obsession with the schematism, but the intuition-concept gap is for me the core problem that Kant runs into, and I have never been able to find an adequate solution in Kant for it. Here’s Paul Guyer’s unsatisfactory explanation:

Thus, in the case of
the categories our concepts are not “homogeneous” with our objects, and
some intermediary has to be found in order to make them so.
But this is
not the case with our other concepts, which are inherently homo-
geneous with their objects. A pure mathematical concept like circle is
homogeneous with our experience, because it describes its object in terms
of properties that can be directly presented in experience – that something
is a curved, closed line every point of which is equidistant from its center
is the kind of thing we can observe because the pure form of all our outer
intuition is spatial. And an empirical concept like plate or dog is already
homogeneous with its object because it includes predicates that correspond immediately to observable properties of objects, whether those
properties are pure, like the circularity of a plate, or empirical, like its non-
porousness or like the furriness or noisiness of a typical dog.

If you’re willing to accept that Platonic concepts like “plate” and “dog” have exact referents in the real world, then fine. But Kant doesn’t (since he thinks the application of all concepts is normative and prescriptive and subjective) and his whole project is to figure out a way to salvage conceptual mental content out of a non-conceptual world.

Anyway, I mention this because I was just thinking about how much of modern philosophy grows out of exactly this particular problem. Kant wasn’t the first to come up with it, but I think it’s his formulation of it and failed solution to it that echoes in Russell (who tries to pull the same trick solution), Heidegger (who tries to punt the problem away), and many others.

And ultimately there’s something a little pleasing in Kant’s ceding of this problem to “art,” which is a rare concession on his part.

Charles Sanders Peirce

I am a man of whom critics have never found anything good to say. When they could see no opportunity to injure me, they have held their peace. The little laudation I have had has come from such sources, that only the satisfaction I have derived from it, has been from such slices of bread and butter as it might waft my way. Only once, as far as I remember, in all my lifetime have I experienced the pleasure of praise–not for what it might bring but in itself. That pleasure was beatific; and the praise that conferred it was meant for blame. It was that a critic said of me that I did not seem to be absolutely sure of my own conclusions. Never, if I can help it, shall that great critic’s eye ever rest on what I am now writing; for I owe a great pleasure to him; and, such was his evident animus, that should he find that out, I fear the fires of hell would be fed with new fuel in his breast.

Charles Sanders Peirce, “Preface to an Unwritten Book”

I was introduced to Peirce by a man who said that Peirce scholars tended to be rather eccentric, like the man himself. At age 27, he published the fairly brilliant “On a New List of Categories” (the greatest American work of neo-Kantianism of the 19th century?), whose idiosyncratic depiction of the process of judgment gives little indication of his forays into physics, biology, logic, philosophy of mind (where he shares some of his views with William James), philosophy of language and linguistic development, and “pragmaticism.” As far as comprehensiveness goes, I think he doesn’t have a real American successor until Wilfred Sellars.

But the eccentricity of some Peirce specialists wasn’t concretized for me until I stumbled on this book: His Glassy Essence: An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce, by Kenneth Laine Ketner. It is written in an informal style in the voice of Peirce (and this is before the Reagan “autobiography” that garnered so much attention). I have no problem with the approach in principle, but it does make sense that it would be applied to Peirce; I can’t ever imagine someone writing an “autobiography” of Hegel or Heidegger. Ketner is also the co-author of US Patent 6819474 – Quantum Switches and Circuits, alongside another Peircian and…Charles Sanders Peirce himself, possibly with reference to Peirce’s hypothesis that electrical switches could execute logical operations.

Ketner is, of course, the Charles Sanders Peirce Professor of Philosophy at Texas Tech University.

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