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The Germanic Review, 90: 358–370, 2015

c Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
Copyright 
ISSN: 0016-8890 print / 1930-6962 online
DOI: 10.1080/00168890.2015.1096176

Book Reviews

Angus Nicholls. Myth and the Human Sciences: Hans Blumenberg’s Theory of Myth.
New York: Routledge, 2015. 278 pp. ISBN: 978-0-41-588549-2
he overwhelming success of “French theory” in the United States was, as Franc¸ois
Cusset has shown, due to a fortunate amalgamation of reasons, among them the early
ability to take root in certain U.S. institutions and the simultaneous resonance with a countercultural zeitgeist.1 But, more importantly, the very label “French theory” had an unusually
persuasive power. It was able to bring together currents of thought whose proponents would
consider themselves quite dissimilar in their country of origin; in its new home, it could
spawn a self-sustaining mode of thinking and gather acolytes. “French theory” never existed
in France. It was an American invention that became impressively productive on its own.
At the same time, the label provided a continuously open gate for new French philosophy
to enter the Anglophone world. Ranci`ere, Laruelle, and Meillassoux will not be the last to
profit from the warm reception that Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida kindled.
Why, one could ask, were the German philosophers read in the United States during
the same period less fortunate? Was it because the most established German currents of
thought—Frankfurt School and hermeneutics—were too obviously at odds with one another
for something like “German theory” to be conceivable? Had Luhmann and Kittler, writing
in the 1980s, missed their moment of countercultural significance (then again, what could
that have been)? Whatever the reason, it seems likely that recent German philosophy has a
much harder time finding adherents in the United States at least partly because it lacks the
unifying label enjoyed by its French counterpart, which simplified the transfer to another
research culture by dropping much of its historical-theoretical baggage.
Hans Blumenberg is a case in point: a philosopher who suffers from exactly such
baggage, which his foreign readers must struggle much harder to cheerfully disregard. He had
a brief American moment in the theory-heavy 1980s, when Robert Wallace translated three
of Blumenberg’s major works for MIT Press: Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1983), Work on
Myth (1985), and The Genesis of the Copernican World (1987). But already Blumenberg’s
characterization as an intellectual historian rather than a philosopher showed how unprepared
the American academic public was for him. The strict separation between both disciplines was
at odds with a German tradition that often practiced philosophy by way of the history of ideas,

T

1

See Franc¸ois Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans. Jeff Fort (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
358

Bouwsma. After a biographical introduction that situates Blumenberg in the context of German postwar philosophy (ch. made Blumenberg a staple in the persisting wave of Schmitt scholarship. not only for an Anglophone audience. instead of remaining a distanced observer. philosophical anthropology was an attempt at providing a theory of “the human” that avoided the pitfalls of speculative idealism without being dragged down to a merely accumulative scientism. by Hans Blumenberg. and it thus offers a test case for the question how “German theory” might be introduced to an English-speaking public. 4 (1987): 347. The two final chapters (the book has no explicit conclusion) are devoted to Blumenberg’s unspoken political theory—Nicholls. Nicholls unfolds a long genealogy from the Sattelzeit of 1800 up to the Davos debates between Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer. by necessity. also by necessity. a Goethe scholar. and he deems Work on Myth its last achievement. “Work on Blumenberg. still little known in the Anglophone world. Genesis went ignored. 3 . not suffering us to gloss over them in the way of the deterritorializing misreadings that have served “French theory” so well. 2 (1987): 376.”2 stuffed with references that “remain totally obscure to the average North American. which. constitutes the basic core of the 2 William J. oversimplifying somewhat. Indeed. Doty. While Legitimacy. Nicholls. calls it a “liberal conservatism” (197)—that flows from what he deems to be the philosophical anthropology of Work on Myth. Nicholls is drawn in himself. The book also shows how such an undertaking always risks suffocating the originality of its subject under the weight of the uncovered influences. Such an unraveling is what Angus Nicholls’s book Myth and the Human Sciences aims at. Review of Work on Myth.”3 It seems that “German theory” requires us to unravel its obscurities. it is on the very notion of “philosophical anthropology” that Nicholls’s account is centered (ch. and Work on Myth appeared “repetitive and frequently obscure. political theology. and this theory of human nature. The connection between myth and human nature he describes historically also informs his basic normative assumptions: Any theory of myth must. especially excels at making sense of Blumenberg’s Goethe chapter. 1). with its subject range of secularization. but explicitly formulated as a research paradigm in 1927–28 by Max Scheler and Helmuth Plessner. 4–5). 6). inevitably lowered expectations as to Blumenberg’s philosophical originality. In doing so.” Dating back to Herder. no.BOOK REVIEWS 359 so that Legitimacy and Genesis were received as “mere” works of intellectual historiography. 2–4). involve a theory of human nature.” Journal of Modern History 56. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55. He strives to offer at once a skeleton key to Work on Myth and an introduction to Blumenberg’s whole oeuvre by way of explicating the philosophical traditions that inform his work. although impressively erudite. However. deserves a special place for the understanding of Blumenberg and that of “German theory. which. he traces the specifically German co-evolution of theories of myth and anthropological thought he identifies as the main influences of Work on Myth (ch. no. It is for him a “reading [of] the history of Western thought as a story of human self-assertion against what [Blumenberg] calls the ‘absolutism of reality”’ (16). and a critical engagement with Carl Schmitt. Nicholls finds in Blumenberg a late representative of this current. seems out of place in a book about myth (ch. And he is certainly correct in asserting that this tradition. William G.

NUMBER 4 / 2015 humanities (33). And Blumenberg indeed does not shy away from giving the answer Nicholls has him evade: precisely because the human is always given to itself as a “secondary synthesis of a primary multiplicity. which does not merely bracket but actually negates the question of anthropological essentialism. This anthropological bias has to do with Nicholls’s choice of taking Work on Myth as his starting point. he completely overlooks that Blumenberg conceives of “history” no less phenomenologically than the “human. 2014).” Nicholls does not even mention the project of a “historical phenomenology” that dominated the first part of Blumenberg’s career and never faded away completely. he actively works against it. While it was indubitably a major influence. However.”4 Nicholls is aware of this deconstructive tendency. James Bohman. Felix Heidenreich and Angus Nicholls (Berlin: Suhrkamp. he gets Blumenberg backwards. ed. 456. often. Yet by doing so. Kenneth Baynes.360 THE GERMANIC REVIEW  VOLUME 90. . Blumenberg’s relationship toward philosophical anthropology was immensely complicated. yet he either ignores it—declaring Blumenberg squarely an anthropologist driven by a “will to science”—or tries to solve it by highlighting the historical dimension: “Blumenberg’s theory of myth amounts to a historicist version of philosophical anthropology” (153). His discussion of Blumenberg’s political thought suffers from the same bias (although it offers a welcome analysis of two important texts from the Nachlass5 ). In this way.” as a phenomenon external to consciousness like any other. and he tries to explain the whole oeuvre from this one last book. The bias is also not helpful for making sense of another key text that has been available to the English reading public for some time now: Paradigms for a Metaphorology (trans. Blumenberg does not have an anthropology in the sense of the tradition in which Nicholls wants to place him. Nicholls indeed identifies what he calls “anthropological reduction” (109) in Blumenberg: Just as Husserl tried to evade the decision between positivism and psychologism by applying an “eidetic reduction” (the “bracketing” of circumstantial knowledge in the process of phenomenological analysis). 4 Hans Blumenberg. 1987). Pr¨afiguration: Arbeit am politischen Mythos. 5 One of which Nicholls edited together with Felix Heidenreich: Hans Blumenberg. anthropology can only exercise a deconstructive function by showing that human nature is a creation of this consciousness: “What remains as the subject matter of anthropology is a ‘human nature’ that has never been ‘nature’ and never will be.” After Philosophy: End or Transformation? ed. This may in itself be a problematic statement. so does Blumenberg “bracket” the question of the essence of man. much too aware of the pitfalls of essentialism that lurk at its every turn. “An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric. it holds the greatest promise as a gateway for a new and deeper reception of Blumenberg in the Anglophone world. Nicholls stops short of drawing the conclusion that this amounts to a negative anthropology. This smooths out the kinks from a body of work that is much more diverse than the simple decision for or against philosophical anthropology might suggest. 2010) is completely untainted by any anthropological claims. but what is worse is that Blumenberg actually offers little to back it up. and Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge: MIT. which inevitably sets it up as its telos. yet as an important supplement to both analytic and deconstructivist theories of metaphor.

Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film. the perceptual and theoretical upheavals induced by new visual media. More a form or an approach than a genre and recognizable only after the fact. ISBN 978-0-674-41672-7 etween Germany’s relatively later processes of urbanization. in small form. the miniature—an innovative and critical short prose form that draws on the ways of seeing found in new media in order to capture the temporalities and fragmented experiences of the modern metropolis—allows him to draw this constellation under the rubric of the literary. depended on the twin contexts of the feuilleton of the modern mass press and the modern city. “Weimar” has more often lent itself to analysis for thinking about modern German culture than “modernism. In this sense the miniature offers both a loose category of literary forms and a periodizing mechanism for delineating the distinct historical epoch of high modernism. and the idea of the miniature can even involve ways of seeing generated by photomontage. for teaching) the cultural production of the interwar period in the German language context. the experience of the metropolis as “an island of accelerating modernization” (5). the concept of the modernist miniature most evidently includes feuilletons. avant-garde and reportage. in the form of film. 2015. The epithet “literary” seldom springs to mind as one of the first attributes for describing (or. confronted the possibilities and limitations of photography (H¨och). industrialization. it leaves little room for him to stand on his own. whether these find themselves in a novel (Rilke. photography. in Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. This quality makes it a helpful tool for understanding “German theory” as a set of currents and influences. to this current almost completely. 346 pp.BOOK REVIEWS 361 Nicholls’s book is valuable as the introduction to an important late work. The miniature’s proper setting is necessarily transitional. specifically that of philosophical anthropology—but because it tries to commit its main subject. HANNES BAJOHR Columbia University Andreas Huyssen. and the rise of a mass. as well as the depiction of one of its author’s major influences. Adorno’s Minima Moralia registers the end of the miniature as a specifically modern form. too. If a fundamental (though implicit) achievement of Huyssen’s book is to ask what German-language literary modernism was. indeed. as it. then the concept of the metropolitan miniature offers him a sophisticated way of answering this question by binding together. so the associations go. and radio. its subject the host of perceptual and experiential changes central to modernity as such. Crucially.” “Weimar” was modern. Keun) or hitherto classified as novellas (Benn). consumer culture. as the experience of the metropolis became generalized and globalized. Hans Blumenberg. mass culture and mass media. but it also encompasses other short prose forms. If its first premonition. The modernist miniature differs from earlier literary representations of B . but it was modern. and democratization on the one hand and its more drastic experience of the caesura of war and revolution on the other.