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Wesleyan University

Blumenberg and the Philosophical Grounds of Historiography

Author(s): David Ingram
Source: History and Theory, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 1990), pp. 1-15
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
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The relationship between historiography and philosophy of history is much de-

bated still, despite the apparent demise of speculative thought. Although few
would rehabilitate Hegel's defense of universal history, or even the somewhat
more modest historiographicalclaim that the meaningfulnessof history as a whole
is ultimately implicated in the understandingof any particularevent, many would
argue that the structure of historical narrative presupposes at least some over-
arching sense of rational coherence, purpose, and continuity. Such continuity
may arise from the interpretativestandpoint of the historian whose causal expla-
nations of events, in the words of Arthur Danto, contain "narrativesentences"
redescribing past events in terms of subsequent ones.' Continuity may also be,
as Frederick Olafson has argued, a necessary presupposition for understanding
the intentions (or rationale, as Collingwood would have it) of historical agents,
in that they participate in traditions inherited from the past.' Or it may reflect
a belief about the way in which the historical process itself expresses sameness.
One prevalent view of historical sameness -I shall refer to it simply as the
secularization thesis- holds that the modern age is not as novel as it appears
to be. By "modern age" is meant not this or that historical period but just those
institutions and attitudes by which Western society has esteemed itself as pre-
eminentlyprogressive. Contrast is here made between a universalculturestressing
scientificproblem-solvingand individual autonomy and a parochialculturerooted
in religious dogma. Now, it is this contrast which is often appealed to in justifying
the discontinuity between the modern age and the Age of Faith that preceded
it. Indeed, according to one popular prejudice of the Enlightenment the very
"legitimacy"of the modern age depends on its capacity to ground scientific and
moral progress in rational insight alone. The Cartesian postulate of a rational
faculty capable of legitimating its insights independently of traditional prejudices
is extended to the modern age, signifying both this age's actual emancipation
from the past and its potential to bring about greateremancipation in the future.
All this is disputed by the secularization theorist, for whom modern institu-

1. Arthur Danto, Analytic Philosophy of History (Cambridge, 1964).

2. FrederickA. Olafson, The Dialectic of Action: A Philosophical Interpretation of History and
the Humanities (Chicago, 1979).

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tions and attitudesarebut the culminationof a metaphysical-theological tradi-

tion datingback to antiquity.The legitimacyof the modernage in both senses
is therebyundermined.If, for a dialecticianlike Hegel, modernityremainsa
progressive connotationdespiteits originin thepast,forothers,suchas Nietzsche,
Heidegger,andWeber,it does not. Indeed,it is theircontentionthatthe modern
age is an age of unfreedomand nihilism.Eithermodernemancipatoryattitudes
underminethe religiousfaithwhichoriginallylent themmeaningor they fulfill
its metaphysicaltelos, which was implicitlynihilisticfrom the verybeginning.
Yetmoreis at stakeherethana globalassessmentof moderninstitutions.Histori-
ographyis at issue as well. In particular,the secularizationthesis forcesus to
reconsiderthe possibilityof writinghistoricalnarrativewithoutspeakingof ep-
ochal breaksor progressrelativeto some historicalreferencepoint.
In a remarkableseriesof books, Hans Blumenberghas persuasivelyargued
that we can no morewritehistory(or at least the historyof ideas)withoutno-
tions of progressand noveltythan we can without notions of continuity.3On
the one hand, he maintainsthat successiveepochs must be comparableto one
another,evenif historicalbreaksrequirethat we relinquisha canonof enduring
questions(LM,460). If they werenot, then therewouldbe no possibilityof ex-
periencingthem:"Allchange,all successionfromthe old to the new,is accessible
to us only in that it can be related- insteadof to the 'substance'of whichKant
speaks- to a constantframeof reference,by whosemeansthe requirements can
be definedthat havebeen satisfiedin an identicalposition"(LM,466). Blumen-
bergis heresuggestingthat some minimalcontinuity-the functionalreoccupa-
tion of identicalpositions by successiveepochs-is a transcendentalcondition
for the possibilityof experiencinghistoricalchange in general.Accordingto
Blumenberg"theconceptof 'reoccupation' designatesthe minimumidentitythat
it must be possibleto discover,or at least to presupposeand to searchfor, in
eventhe mostagitatedmovementof history."In otherwords,theremustbe "ques-
tions (that are) relativelyconstantin comparisonto answers"and a "constant
matrix"of expectationsand needs.
On the otherhand,Blumenbergarguesthat discontinuity,or epochalchange,
is likewisea necessarycondition for experiencinghistory.This issue is closely
connectedwiththe legitimacyof the modernage.The"conceptof the legitimacy
of the modernage,"we are told, "is not derivedfrom the accomplishmentsof
reason,but fromthe necessityof those accomplishments" (LM, 99). But if the
legitimacyof an ageis a functionof its continuity(or necessaryrelatedness)with
respectto precedingepochs, it is just as much a function of its independence

3. See H. Blumenberg, Die Legitimatat der Neuzeit (erweiterte und uberarbeitete Neuausgabe)
(Frankfurt,1976);transl.RobertM. Wallaceas TheLegitimacyof the ModernAge (Cambridge,
Mass., 1983)-hereafter abbreviated LM; Die Genesis der kopernikanischen Welt(Frankfurt, 1975);
transl.RobertM. Wallaceas The Genesisof the CopernicanWorld(Cambridge,Mass., 1987)-
hereafterabbreviatedGCW;and Arbeitam Mythos(Frankfurt,1979);transl.RobertM. Wallace
as Workon Myth (Cambridge,Mass., 1985)-hereafterabbreviatedWM.All citationsand refer-
ences are takenfrom the Englisheditionsunlessspecifiedotherwise.

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from preceding epochs-and all the more so when the age in question under-
stands itself as having radically broken with the traditions of the past.
Indeedthe problemof legitimacyis boundup with the veryconceptof an epoch itself.
The modernage was the firstand only age that understooditself as an epoch and, in
so doing, simultaneouslycreatedthe otherepochs.The problemof legitimacyis latent
in the modernage'sclaimto carryout a radicalbreakwith tradition,and in the incon-
gruitybetweenthis claimand the realityof history,whichcan neverbeginentirelyanew.
Likeall politicalandhistoricalproblemsof legitimacy,thatof the modernage arisesfrom
a discontinuity,and it does not matterwhetherthe discontinuityis real or pretended.
(LM, 116)
As Blumenberg repeatedly emphasizes, what makes the modern age legitimate
is not its origination in reason falsely conceived as radically self-determining,
but its relativenovelty and progressivenesswith respect to the contemplative atti-
tudes of the Middle Ages - an epochal discontinuity, Blumenberg contends, that
is necessary for the possibility of experiencing (and writing) intellectual history
in general.
In order to dispel any illusion of inconsistency here, it is imperative that we
examine more closely the kind of historical discontinuity which Blumenberg has
in mind. How can a "reoccupation of an identical position" be compatible with
novelty and progress? I shall begin answering this question with a brief descrip-
tion of the secularization thesis as it was formulated by Blumenberg'schief rival
in the modernity debate of the sixties, Karl Lbwith. Blumenberg's rejection of
this thesis in TheLegitimacy of the Modern Age (1966;2nd revised edition, 1976)
and his defense of an alternative theory of functional reoccupations raises im-
portant questions about the kind of progress he finds operant in historiography
and historical understanding.These questions, I believe, are best addressedwithin
the framework of his recent WorkOn Myth (1979), which defines the legitimacy
of an age or myth in terms of progressive adaptability rather than autonomy.
In conclusion I argue that neither this work nor the study on legitimacy succeeds
in establishing a transcendental warrant for the historiographic deployment of
categories of progress and novelty.

It may seem odd that a challenge to the legitimacy of the modern age would
come from precisely that corner of historiography which has provided such a
convenient perspective from which to view humanity's progress. Yet the fun-
damental irony animating secularization theories -their tendency to view moder-
nity as culminating an eschatological tradition whose dogmatic claim to authority
it contests and transcends - cuts both ways: these theories can just as easily deny
the age its alleged originality as debunk its presumption of having satisfied the
legitimate demands of its predecessor. This, at artyrate, was how Karl L6with
chose to interpretthe dilemma in his influential book Meaning in History (1949);
the modern faith in inevitable, irreversibleprogress which found penultimate ex-
pression in philosophies of history from Voltaireto Marx would seem to be little
more than a mere repetition of the eschatological hope embodied in the Judeo-

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Christiantradition.That beingthe case, it wouldseem that the suppositionon
whichthat faith was founded-the Enlightenment'sclaim to havebrokenwith
the past, emancipatedreasonfrom religion,and groundedreasonin itself-is
Now L6with'saccount,Blumenberg contends,simplyneglectsimportantdiffer-
encesbetweenChristianeschatologyand modernconceptionsof progress.The
eschatologicalemphasison the destructionof the worldthroughdivine inter-
ventionis far removedfromthe notion of methodicalprogressthat informsour
scientificself-understanding. As Blumenbergpointsout, if theologicalattributes
such as infinitycontinueto live on in modernnotions of space,time, matter,
and progress,they do so at the expense of their original meaning. Indeed,
paradoxesassociatedwiththeologicalabsolutismrenderanyattemptto transfer
the attributeof infinityto thesecategorieshighlyproblematic,if not altogether
meaningless.The notion of infiniteprogress,just to take one example,cannot
possiblyfunctionto securehope in a positivefulfillmentof the sort vouchsafed
by Christianityto the individualbelieverenteringinto communionwith God.
Positivelyconceived,"realinfiniteprogress"would signify the illegitimateand
inherentlycontradictory extensionof a finiteseriesof conditions- in thisinstance
a limitedprogressrelativeto some historicallycontingentgoal-to includethe
infinitelimit, end, or totality,of its own conditions.
Kant,who advocatedfaith in infinitemoralprogressfor regulativepurposes
only,dubbedthis dialectic"transcendental illusion."Acknowledgingthat prog-
ress in the attainmentof completeknowledgeand happinesswas a powerful
stimulusto rationalinquiry,he nonethelesssaw the wisdom of restrictingthe
cognitivedriveto conditionalknowledgeof observationalphenomena.Similarly,
if Blumenbergretainsthe ideaof the infinitein his descriptionof the progressive
aspirationsof the scientificage,it is as a negative,limitconceptmarkingresigna-
tion in the face of the indefinite,and thereforemeaningless,task by whichhu-
manity,not the individual,assertsits rightto self-preservation - and this by way
of self-limitationand self-renunciation(LM, 83-85).
This is not to deny that metaphysicalnotions of infiniteprogresssurvivein
modernphilosophiesof history.These represent,in Blumenberg'sopinion, an
unavoidablebut nonethelessillegitimate"reoccupation" of metaphysicalposi-
tions sincevacatedby medievalChristianity.But if that is so, then what exactly
is the differencebetweenBlumenberg'sreoccupationthesis and the seculariza-
tion thesisdefendedby Lbwith?In somesense,Blumenbergmustallowthatthe-
oriesof infiniteand inevitableprogresswere"provoked" andeven"necessitated"
by the problemsof the precedingepoch.
Thus, as we know,the modernage found it impossibleto declineto answerquestions
about the totalityof history.To that extentthe philosophyof historyis an attemptto
answera medievalquestionwiththe meansavailableto a post-medievalage. In this pro-
cess, the idea of progressis drivento a level of generalitythat overextendsits original,
regionallycircumscribedand objectivelylimitedrangeas an assertion.(LM, 48-49)
Accordingto Blumenberg,the modernage found it "impossibleto declineto

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answerquestionsabout the totalityof history"becausethe defenseof progress
through"self-assertion" couldnot dispensewithlegitimation.And thislegitima-
tion had to occur withinthe frameworkof the dominantworldview,that is, it
had to be formulatedin the categoriesof High Scholasticismand it also had
to addressits unresolvedproblems.One could thereforesay that, insofaras the
modernage initiallysaw itself as respondingto and successfullyansweringthe
questionof salvationbequeathedto it from the priorepoch, therewas indeed
an immanentconnectionlinkingthe new historiographywith the old.
Thisfact,however,shouldnot obscureimportantdifferencesbetweenthis kind
of connectionand that arguedfor by the secularizationtheorist.First,the con-
nectiondefendedby Blumenbergpresupposesthat only some of the questions
initiallyaddressedby earlyadvocatesof modernitywereidenticalto thoseposed
by the systemtheywereopposing;the connectiondefendedby the secularization
theoristimplies- so Blumenbergtells us-that theirrespectiveanswersto these
questionswerealso the same.ForBlumenberg,only attemptsby modernthinkers
to answerthe metaphysicalquestionsposed by Christianityareillegitimate,not
the modernistenterpriseas a whole.
Second,despiteappearancesto the contrary,it is the secularizationthesis,not
Blumenberg'stheory of reoccupations,which definesthe legitimacyof an age
in termsof its originationin an absolutebeginning.Accordingto Lowith,the
emancipatory demandsof the modernageareillegitimatesincetheyreflectsecula-
rizednotionsof absolutebeginningsandendings(creatioex nihiloanddies rae).
Illegitimatetoo is the Judeo-Christiantraditionwhencethese notions spring,
for it is derivativeof, but not adequatelyfoundedby, the cyclicalcosmologies
of antiquity.But if adequationto an originalgroundis taken as the markof
legitimacy,the secularizationthesis faresno better.For as Blumenbergnotes,
saecularisatiois a juridicalnotion originatingin canonlaw,whereit referredto
the freeingof clericsfrom the obligationof their orders.It was only after the
Peaceof Westphaliain 1803- whenthe expressioncameto designatethe illegiti-
mate expropriationof Churchproperty-that the termmigratedto the nether
regionsof historiography. Of perhapsgreatersignificancefor us is Blumenberg's
claimthat the extensionof this juridicalnotion beyondits originalmeaningis
invalidon transcendental groundsas well.Whenthe trialof theoreticalcuriosity
wasdrawingto a close at the end of the eighteenthcentury,it wasthe Enlighten-
mentitself andits advocacyof unlimitedknowledgewhichcameunderscrutiny.
Althoughthe need whichset theoreticalcuriosityin motion was indeed"legiti-
mate,"it could not orient,let alone "legitimize,"
the lawfulnessof reasonintent
on seekingabsolutesatisfaction.It remainedfor Kantto showhowthis satisfac-
tion couldonly be achievedby restrictingthe pretensionof knowledge,or better,
by directingit upon itself. Transcendentknowledgeof the totalityof objective
conditionsdeterminingthe subjectfromwithoutis deniedin favorof transcen-
dentalknowledgeof the totalityof subjectiveconditionsdeterminingthe object
from within.
Now Kant'sresolution of the antinomiesis importantfor understanding

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Blumenberg's reluctanceto extendjuristicconceptssuchas legitimacyto the do-

main of historiography.As Blumenbergputs it:
A conceptof historythat resultedfrom appreciationof traditionhas committedus to
seeingobligationsabove all in the relationof each age to what went beforeit and the
sourcesof valueshandeddownto it. In the processthe abilityto see the debtthat history
owesto succeedingageshas beenweakened.Of coursesuchformulationsshouldnot en-
couragemoralizingabout historybut can only show howproblematicit is to interpret
historicalconnectionswiththeaidof legalconcepts.Afterall,thequestionof thelegitimacy
of an epoch does not ariseimmanentlyin the studyof history.Whileit is truethat one
who has neverbeforebeen accusedof being"inthe wrong"can in fact be in the right,
the problemof legitimacyonly articulatesitself whenrighteousnessis in disputeand has
to be contendedfor. (LM, 116-my italics)
Of course,froma Kantianperspectiveit would be difficultto extendsuchjuristic
notionsto the domainof historiography sincethe retracingof "obligations"and
"debts"- the legitimationof the presentepoch as the legacy of some "first
occupant"- wouldrequirea speculativephilosophyof history,andtherefore,an
infiniteregressmiredin a transcendentaldialecticof the sort mentionedearlier.4
Thatbeingthe case,the verytitleof Blumenberg's treatise,whichhasled so many
commentatorsastray,wouldbe betterunderstoodas an ironicgloss on the fu-
tility of politicizinghistoriography.


So far I havearguedthat the notion of legitimacyis one whichBlumenberghim-

self finds ill adaptedfor use in historiographicaldebates.Yethe continuesto
appealto it in orderto capturetwo apparentlyconflictingconditionswhichany
historyof ideasmustsatisfy:epochalnecessityandepochalautonomy.Now con-
sideringthe importancewhichBlumenbergattachesto the notion of legitimacy,
it is hardlysurprisingthat most commentatorshavereadhim as defendingthe
progressivenatureof modernityvis-a-visearlierepochs. In a recentreviewar-
ticle,for example,RobertPippinwritesthatBlumenberg not onlywantsto "legiti-
matethe motivesof the heroesof modernscience,"but he wantsto "defineand
defendthe criterionof legitimationhe uses."He leavesno doubt that Blumen-
berg's"approachto the problemof modernity" is "deeplycommittedto defending
the progressivenatureof the modernenterprise." Thisdefense,Pippinconcludes,
is not only highlyambiguousbut it is also question-begging.On the one hand,
withregardto the "demandfor self-assertion"and "themodernversionof inde-
pendenttheoreticalcuriosity,utility,self-knowledge,progressin research,etc.,"

4. As Blumenbergputs it: "thetheologicaltalkof secularizationcan avoidthe talkof constants

onlybecauseit presupposesas beyondquestionan absoluteandtranscendent originof the contents
thatareaffectedby it. If KarlL6withlegitimizessecularization,insofaras for himit is stillan intra-
Christianand postpaganphenomenon... then he musthavealready'secularized' the premiseof
the originalityof the wholesystem.... The progressthat is exposedas fate wouldthenbe the late
(andin itselfnot illegitimate)consequenceof an earlierillegitimacy,of the infringementof the right
that naturehas over man"(LM, 29).

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it is premodernculturethat is said to have"producedthe criterionby virtueof
whichthe demandis 'legitimate,'is a 'better'resolutionof variouslatescholastic
problems."On the otherhand,"wheresome old questionscannotbe 'answered'
becausethe newanswersto otherold questionsentailthe rejectionof the ques-
tions (the 'point'of history,the justificationof curiosity),Blumenbergchanges
gears,in effect,invokeshis reoccupationthesis, and seemsto admitthat those
discontinuous,wholly new elementscannot be legitimatedin the same way."S
As for being question-begging,Pippin assertsthat Blumenberg'sdefenseis
vulnerableto two objections:he has not respondedto neoconservativecritics
such as Straussand Voegelin(not to mentionradicalcriticssuch as Foucault
and Lyotard)who are less concernedwith modernscience'sresolutionof late
scholasticcontradictionsthan with its impacton politics,law,medicine,educa-
tion, and the qualityof life in general;nor has he shownthat his own dialectic
of legitimation,wherebyeachage derivesits initiallegitimacyandimpetusfrom
its predecessor,can dispensewitha speculativephilosophyof historya la Hegel,
Marx, Freud,or Heidegger.6
Pippin,likemanyof Blumenberg's critics,confusestwo distinctsensesof legiti-
mationand progress.7On the one hand, he wantsto situateBlumenberg'strea-
tise withinthe contextof a contemporaryreferendumon the impact,benevolent
or otherwise,whichmoderninstitutions,values,and attitudeshavehad on con-
temporarylife- andthis despiteBlumenberg's disclaimerthatthe issueof legiti-
mation is not concernedwith the "accomplishmentsof reason."On the other
hand,he interpretsBlumenberg'sinterestin "thenecessityof those accomplish-
ments"as validatingthesesameinstitutions,values,and attitudesrelativeto the
criteriaof the precedingage. In both instancesthe legitimationof the modern
age is held to be cognatewith its progressivecapacityto solve the problemsof
the precedingage in a betterway,therebyensuringa constant,methodological
improvementin the overallcondition of humanity.
In the remainderof this section I wouldlike to arguethat Blumenberg'sun-
derstandingof the link betweenlegitimacyandprogresshas nothingwhatsoever

5. RobertPippin,"Blumenberg
and the ModernityProblem,"Reviewof Metaphysics40 (1987),
6. Ibid., 554-557.
7. Martin Jay, for example, faults The Legitimacy of the Modern Age for neglecting the down
side of rationalself-assertion:the denigrationof a personalhappinesslinkedto the realizationof
theemancipatory goalsof religiousandmythictradition(reviewessay,Historyand Theory24 [19851,
192-196).BernardYackalso seemsto misunderstand the pointof Blumenberg's "defense"of moder-
nity.Thoughhe recognizesthatBlumenberg's "'demonstration of the modernage'does not demon-
he laterarguesthat Blumenberg"isa newand ingeniousdefenderof the En-
strateits desirability,"
lightenmentand its influence"("Mythand Modernity," PoliticalTheory15 [19871,257-259).Jay's
objectionmisconstruesBlumenberg's notionof self-assertionto meannarrowtechnologicaldomi-
nation(see LM, 200 for Blumenberg's disclaimerthat "purposespositedby a technicalwill must
playthe primaryandmotivatingrolefor the technicalprocess")and ignoreswhatBlumenberg later
has to sayaboutthe emancipatoryfunctionof "finalmyths"(see below).Yack,on the otherhand,
failsto see thatBlumenberg's demonstrationof the "necessity"of modernfoundationalismis only
an explanationof its possiblemotivation,not a defenseof its legitimacy.

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to do with sucha progressivecapacity.At most, it establishesthe necessityand

irreversibilityof an epochaltransformation in whichsomethinglikerelativetech-
nologicalprogressoccurs.Betterstill, it showswhy cumulativemethodological
advancesin research,occurringwithinthe normalscientificpractice(as Kuhn
understandsit) of a frameworkincorporatingBaconian,Galilean,Newtonian,
and quantumtheoreticalparadigms,replaceda finiteprocessof self-reflection
aimed at achieving contemplativeunion with an eternal verity.8Even this
"metanarrative" accountof modernity'slegitimacyis considerablyweaker,in my
opinion,thanthe "progressive" accountwhichmostcommentatorstakeBlumen-
bergto be defendingand comportsbetterwith his own reservationsabout ex-
tendingthe categoryof legitimacyto the domain of historiography.
Letus beginby examiningthe metanarrative accountof legitimacyandits rela-
tionshipto the idea of progress.As I noted earlier,Blumenberginsiststhat the
"conceptof the legitimacyof the modernage is not derivedfrom the accom-
plishmentsof reason,but fromthe necessityof those accomplishments." At the
sametime,he acknowledges thatthe necessityof theseaccomplishmentsis related
to the conceptof progress,understoodas a regulativeidea underlyingour in-
creasingcapacityto dominatenaturethroughrationalself-assertion.This idea,
he tells us, "could... only havebeen derivedfromthe modelof the integration
of theoreticalactionsin the newscience,"namely,froma replicablemethodthat
firstmadepossiblethe "collectiveidea of a unifiedhistory"in which"mansees
himself as the only one in chargein this totality"(LM, 34). Scientificmethod
not only guaranteescumulativeprogressin the technologicaldominationof na-
ture, but it constitutes a unified subject of history who comprehendsthis
progress-albeit one that is far removedfrom the foundationalcogito of Des-
cartes.At the same time, however,"theseparationbetweencognitiveachieve-
ment and the productionof happiness"underlyingscientifictruth (LM, 404),

8. Accordingto Blumenberg,Kuhn'snotion of scientificrevolution"simplycannotbe the ulti-

mateconceptof a rationalconceptionof history;otherwisethat conceptionwouldhavedeniedto
its objecttheverysamerationalityit wantedto assertfor itself"(LM,465). In particular,"inrelation
to thenewfoundationscalledforafterward,to thepreference givento thenew'paradigm,' thisschema
has no explanationto offer"(idem).I findtheseremarkspuzzling.TheStructureof ScientificRevo-
lutions(Chicago,1970)certainlyacknowledgesa functionalcontinuitylinkingwhatareotherwise
disparate paradigmsin itsemphasison theneedof eachsucceeding traditionto resolveresidualproblems
besettingits predecessor,thoughadmittedlythis is maskedby Kuhn'stalk of the incommensura-
bilityof old and newparadigms.Of course,it does not showthat the mereexistenceof suchprob-
lems,or anomalies,necessitatesa paradigm(or as the case maybe, epochal)shift. But then neither
does Blumenberg's treatmentof the same,whichappealsto a psychologicalnexusof needsas well
as a logicalnexusof questionsestablishing,at most, the (stillcontingent)possibilityof change.In
any case, Blumenbergis dead wrongabout Kuhn'sfailureto explainthe preferabilityof the new
paradigm.If anything,it is Kuhn,not Blumenberg,who claimsto answerthis question.Although
both agreethat scientificdevelopmentis "unidirectional and irreversible" (to use Kuhn'sphrase),
it is Kuhnwho arguesthat "a scientifictheoryis usuallyfelt to be betterthan its predecessorsnot
only in the sensethat it is a betterinstrumentfor discoveringand solvingpuzzlesbut also because
it is somehowa betterrepresentation of whatnatureis reallylike"(ScientificRevolutions,206).For
a differentinterpretation of the relationshipbetweenKuhnand Blumenbergsee MichaelHeidel-
berger,"SomeIntertheoretic RelationsbetweenPtolemaeanandCopernicanAstronomy," Erkenntnis
10 (1976),323ff.;and Wallace'scommentsin the translator'sintroductionto GCW,xxvii-xxxiii.

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as well as the detachmentof rationalself-assertionfrom the logic of salvation
(LM, 99), underscoresthe limits of such progress.Thus it cannot be said that
modernself-assertionnecessarilymarksout a relationshipto the worldthat is
moreprogressive thanits predecessorin dealingwithexistentialconcerns- a fact
that will becomeapparentwhenwe examineBlumenberg'sexplanationfor the
persistenceof myth.
At thisjunctureone mightwellobjectthat,byshowingthe necessityof modern
accomplishments,Blumenberghas in factproventheirpreferability vis-a-visthe
priorage'saccomplishments.For,if anythingis evidentto Blumenberg,it is that
"a programof self-assertionagainsttranscendentuncertainties,rejectingevery
kindof resignation,had becomenecessary"in the face of "difficultieson which
the medieval/Scholasticsystemwas to run aground,"and that such an epochal
changewas"irreversible," moving"ina single,unambiguousdirection"(LM,468).
One is hereremindedof similarstrategiesof legitimationdeployedby develop-
mentalpsychologists,for whomthe superiorityof a stageof moralor cognitive
developmentresidesin the capacityto resolveoutstandingproblemsposed by
its predecessor.Superficialsimilaritiesaside, however,Blumenberg'snotion of
an epochalchange,likeKuhn'snotionof a paradigmshift, cannotbe easilytrans-
posed onto an evolutionarymodel.
If the questionsaddressedby the modernage wereexactlyidenticalto those
addressedbymedievalChristianity, therewouldindeedexista framework bywhich
cross-epochalcomparisons of a developmentalsort could be made. However,
Blumenbergqualifieshis reoccupationthesiswhen he observesthat "inthe new
organization,certainquestionsare no longerposed, and the answersthat were
once providedfor them havethe appearanceof puredogma"(LM, 467). Else-
where,Blumenbergstatesthat eventhe questionsthat areretainedfromthe old
systemlose their originalmeaningonce they are framedwithina new epochal
Thereoccupationof systematicfunctionsduringthechangeof epochconditionslinguistic
constancyin a varietyof ways.Not only the greatquestionsbut also the greatwordsre-
quirehistorical"preparation." This processresemblesmorethan anythingelse the pro-
cess of ritualization:An ingrainedtraditionalmode of activityhas lost its motivating
contentof ideasandthusalso its intelligibility,so thatthe schemaof the activityis avail-
ablefora retrospective andintegrationintoa newcontextof meaning,which
in the processmakesuse of and secures,above all, its sanctionedstatusas something
that is beyondquestioning.(LM, 78)
Despitethe fact that modernself-assertionmay havebeen the only possiblere-
sponse to questionsraisedby medievalChristianity,it does not follow that it
wasrespondingto just thesequestionsandno others.Rather,giventhereinterpre-
tation of these old questionswithinthe new contextof meaning,the questions
addressedshould also be different,and only a dialecticalhermeneuticsof the
Gadameriansort wouldreducethis differenceto a newidentity.9But unlessone
insistson equatingthe persistenceof linguisticformand functionwith the con-

9. See Gadamer'sreviewof LM in PhilosophischeRundschau15 (1968),201-202.

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tinuationof meaning,thereis no pressingneedto finda deepersubstantiveiden-

tity underlyingthe structuralcontinuityof epochaldialogue(LM, 16-17).That
beingso, it cannotbe maintainedthatBlumenberg privilegesmodernself-assertion
over medievalChristianityas a superiorresponseto identicalproblems.
Thisis also trueof Blumenberg's morerecentpronouncementson the "rhetor-
ical transaction"involvedin historicalreoccupations- an aspectwhichbecame
clearto himonly afterTheLegitimacyof theModernAge firstappearedin 1966.
Accordingto Blumenberg,functionalreoccupationsarenot structurallypredes-
tined, since historicalagents are free to reinvestthem with new content.
"Carryingsover,"metaphoricalfunctions,again and again play an essentialrole here.
The God of the Old Testamenttransfershis sovereigntyin historyby meansof a cove-
nant.Thecitizensof the NationalConvention,in the FrenchRevolution,takemetaphors
of the RomanRepublicliterally,in their costumeand speech.10
The importantthing to note hereis that historicalsignificance-the questions
and answersthat makeup the movementof "philosophyof history"-are con-
tingentevenif the functionalpositionsarenot. Blumenbergis awareof "thesus-
picion that what is being practicedhere is the implicativemetaphysicsof a
metasystem,"but he immediatelyremarksthat this impressionis dispelledonce
the functionalismof his reoccupationthesisis correctlyunderstood(LM, 466).
On this reading,historicalidentity"isnot one of contentsbut one of functions"
in which"totallyheterogeneous contents... takeon identicalfunctionsin specific
positionsin the systemof man'sinterpretationof theworldandhimself'(LM,64).


Significantly,the same questionsabout continuityand progressraisedin The

Legitimacy of the Modern Age resurface in Workon Myth. However, contrary
to what one might expect, Workon Myth does not repudiatethe existenceof
transhistoricaluniversals.Blumenbergresiststhe Enlightenment'stendencyto
periodizemythand reason,preferringinsteadto regardthemas complementary
anthropological - constants."I
- one is almosttemptedto say,metaphysical Still,

10. H. Blumenberg, "An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhet-

oric," transl. Robert M. Wallace in After Philosophy: End or Transformation?,ed. Kenneth Baynes,
James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), 451.
11. In The Legitimacy of the Modern Age rationality denotes a distinctly modern accomplish-
ment whose tendency toward theoretical abstraction, as evidenced by the reduction of space, time,
matter, and motion to indifferent formal magnitudes, is opposed to the signification and valoriza-
tion accomplished by religion and myth. In Work on Myth the epochal break separating the Age
of Reason from the Age of Faith is weakened. Although Blumenberg acknowledges the distinction
maintained in his earlier study, he also argues that myth is "a piece of high-carat 'work of logos"'
in its theoretical distantiation and reduction of nature to separate agencies whose powers are already
limited and regulated in a lawful manner (WM, 12). In one of his more expansive moments, Blumen-
berg actually asserts that "reason means just being able to deal with something - in the limiting case,
with the world," thereby further blurring the distinction between reason, myth and self-assertion
(WM, 63).

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his refusal to view myth as a mere stepping stone on the way toward rational
self-assertion - a position that is entirely consonant with the historicist interpre-
tation hitherto advanced- is severelycompromised by his surprisingacknowledg-
ment that "there is objective progress"and that "history, whatever else it might
be, is also a process of optimization" (WM, 165).
How are we to reconcile these statements, which point so emphatically in the
direction of a metaphysical metasystem, with the historicism of The Legitimacy
of the Modern Age? One way to begin is by noting that the universals in ques-
tion, be they mythic or rationalistic, are symbolic structuresthat arise in response
to one, all-encompassinghuman problem- what Blumenbergcalls "theabsolutism
of reality."The absolutism of reality refers to a limit state, not dissimilar to the
state of nature formerly introduced by social contract theorists, in which "man
came close to not having control of the conditions of his existence and . .. be-
lieved that he simply lacked control of them" (WM, 3-4). Myth mitigates the
threat of anxiety produced by this feeling of helplessness in that it interprets
(names, differentiates,limits), and therebycontrols, what is otherwise an indefinite,
overwhelming power.
Humanity's need for myth is thus coextensive with its need for meaning,
significance and value -a need that, far from being dispelled by rational disen-
chantment of nature, is rather provoked by it. The durability of myth, however,
is not to be attributed to the existence of unchanging mythic archetypes which
provide universal, metaphysical patterns of meaning. Although myth functions
to limit the autonomy of reason -and to that extent serves to mitigate epochal
breaks - its meaning, Blumenberg reminds us, is continually modified in an un-
ending labor of adaptation, thereby rendering futile the Romantic quest for
original semantic contents. The durability of myth must therefore be explained
functionally, in terms of the successful (and legitimate) reoccupation of iden-
tical positions constituting the broader, anthropological system of life. Indeed
Blumenberglikens the manner in which myth withstands the test of time in count-
less receptions to a process of natural selection. 12 So construed, this "Darwinism
of words" affirms but the existence of functional or adaptational universals in
response to the repeated challenge of existential contingency, and is strictly in-
compatible with any teleological fulfillment of an archaic cultural heritage.
Still, it is disturbing that Blumenberg speaks of history as a process of evolu-

12. There are similarities between the reinterpretationof mythological "constants" in the course
of oral transmission and the Rezeptionsasthetik developed by Wolfgang Iser and Hans Jauss under
the influence of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Both Blumenberg and Gadamer agree that the significance
of a given tradition remains inextricably bound to the history of its reception and is therefore not
identical to the original authorial intentions underlying its production. Such reception is akin to
"applying"an authoritativebody of interpretationswhose "truth"or "legitimacy"is rhetoricallycom-
pelling for a given community rather than rationally (or universally) justifiable in a theoretical, or
discursive sense. The difference between Blumenberg's reception theory and that of philosophical
hermeneuticsresidesin the former'sfunctionalism,which conceivesculturalpreservationinstrumentally
andformally (in terms of an identity of adaptivefunctions, not of meanings).See WM, 83-84, 172-174;
and "An Anthropological Approach to Rhetoric," 435-449).

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tionary optimization in the Darwinian sense. To be sure, by interposing culture

between itself and nature humanity has shifted the burden of adaptation onto
an artificial"phantom body" incorporating language, myth, art, science - the to-
tality of "symbolic formations" in Cassirer's sense. But whether it is humanity
or culture that is said to be evolving, the assumption remains that there is a con-
stant, unchanging problem - the absolutism of reality- that seemingly provides
an objective yardstick for measuring progress across epochal thresholds. Yeteven
Blumenberg acknowledges that there are difficulties with this assumption, not
the least of which is the uneven development of antagonistic cultural subsystems,
whose very optimization creates ever newer problems of adaptation.
In orderto recognizethis fact [that historyis a processof optimization]one does not
need to denythat therecan be inconsistenciesin the systemof the objectificationspro-
ducedby selection,inconsistenciesthat impairthe overallresult.Theyaredue precisely
to the isolationandrenderingautonomousof partialsubsystemsin the historicalprocess;
the historyof scienceandtechnology-both severedfromthe continuityof life as a result
of unavoidablespecialization-is an exampleof this. Thusconflictsarisebetweentech-
nologicaloptimizationandmodesof behaviorand thoughtstructuresthathavebeensta-
bilizedby selection(WM, 165-166).
Given the fact that increasingscientificrationalizationaccompanyingself-assertion
generates problems of value and meaning that can only be mitigated by remythi-
cization, it would be better to view optimization as a process of contingent adap-
tation to new problems (however these are culturally defined) rather than as a
progressiveaugmentation of problem solving capacity in general. That being the
case, optimization would not necessarily imply that improvements need be nor
can be made in existing institutions. It could mean instead that the durability
of an institution is already evidence of a high degree of adaptability. This in fact
is precisely how Blumenberg ends up viewing the matter.
But evenif the termoptimization can neverclaimto be applicableto a synchroniccross
sectionas a whole,it does establisha definitedistributionof burdensof proof for what
wantsto giveitselfout as rationality.At leastargumentsof the kindthatassertthatsome-
thingcan no longerbe acceptedbecauseit has alreadybeenacceptedfor a verylong time
withoutexaminationdo not havethe rationalplausibilitythatis grantedto themat times.
Whatthe heading"institutions" coversis, aboveall, a distributionof burdensof proof.
Wherean institutionexists,the questionof its rationalfoundationis not, of itself, ur-
gent, and the burdenof proof alwayslies on the personwho objectsto the arrangement
the institution carries with it.13
The idea that optimization denotes a limiting concept circumscribing the rights
of rational self-assertion vis-A-vis a process of selection that is largely but not
entirely "natural"(that is, unplanned) presents a conservative counterresponse
to the Enlightenment's demand for rational foundations, the nihilistic destruc-

13. WM, 166. The notion of institution derives from Arnold Gehlen's technical use of the term
to designatejust those taken-for-grantedcustoms (institutio) that condition our behavior and thought

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tivenessof whichcannotbut fuel existentialanxiety.It impliesthat the needto
findrationaljustificationfor someinstitutionsclaiminglegitimacy(suchas myth)
mayitselfbecome"irrational if not properlymotivatedor moderated"(WM,163).


Blumenberg's defenseof the legitimacyof the modernage- andthushis defense

of functionalreoccupations whichpermitcontinuityandhistoricalnecessitywhile
at the sametime allowingcontingentnoveltyand freeinvention- has come full
circle.In somesense,both TheLegitimacyof theModernAge and Workon Myth
assertthe same thesis, but from opposite ends of the spectrum.For as much
as the latteremphasizescontinuityand institutionaldependence-even to the
extremeof functionallyequatingreasonand myth-it too ultimatelyreaffirms
the "autonomy"of self-assertion.
This is especiallyevidentin Blumenberg'snotion of a "finalmyth,"or a pro-
cessof mythicizingwhich"bringsmythto an end."Theideaof a finalmythwhich
"fullyexploits,and exhausts,the form"of a givenmyththroughextremedefor-
mationsof its "originalfigure"is exemplifiedin GermanIdealism'stransforma-
tion of the cognitivesubjectinto the infinite,absolutegroundof reality,in the
reincarnationand recurrencemythsof Schopenhauerand Nietzsche,and in the
adaptationsof the Prometheusmythfamiliarto us fromKafka,Gide,andothers
(WM, 266). Likethe "absolutismof reality"the "finalmyth"is a limitingcon-
ceptthatcanneverbe achieved.Its functionis to present"thesubject'sresponsi-
bility to himselfand for himself,"but in a mannerwhichliberatesthe decision
to act from temporizingrationalizationand futureuncertainty.14
The reaffirmationof self-assertionwhich one finds in Workon Myth, how-
ever,is byno meanswithoutconsequenceforBlumenberg's claims.
Blumenbergwouldliketo claima kindof transcendentalstatusfor the necessity
of drawingepochalboundarylines. Moreover,he wouldlike us to believethat,
unlikethe distinctionbetweenantiquityand the MiddleAges, the distinction
betweenthe modernage andwhatprecedesdesignatesa real,not merelynominal
(or subjective)break(LM, 467). Such a realisticview of historiographyis not
only contestedby Blumenberg'sown conceptionof the metaphoricalnatureof
thought, but, as he himself concedes,it is based upon prejudicesthat are dis-
tinctlymodernin origin."1Forthe historiographical necessityof drawingepochal

14. Forhispart,Blumenberg is partialto thereincarnation

mythof Schopenhauer (minusitsthreat
of futurerewardsand punishments)because,unlikeKant'spostulateof immortality,it securesthe
subject'sresponsibilityfor actingwithoutimposingupon it the burdenof occupyingany rational
groundwhatsoever.That is, it affirms"anoriginalsubstratumunderlyingall events,which itself
no longerrequiresjustification,"no ground(Grund).For a discussionof the importanceof "vul-
canism"and "neptunism" as mythicmetaphorsin Blumenberg's descriptionof the historicalpro-
cess,see JorgVillwock,"Mythosund Rhetorik:ZuminnerenZusammenhang zwischenMythologie
undMetaphorologie in derPhilosophieHansBlumenbergs," PhilosophischesRundschau32 (1985),
15. AlthoughBlumenbergregardsrealismas integralto modernprogressivistattitudes(it is, he
pointsout, one of the ironiesof our age that this resultof Copernicananthropocentrism has been

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boundarylines only firstemergedwith modernity'sclaimto havingcarriedout

a radicalbreakwith the precedingtradition.But this claim, as we have seen,
representsan illegitimatehypostatizationof transcendentaland/or speculative
reason.Furthermore,we now see that therecan also be somethinglike "mythic"
historiography,which affirmsindividualautonomyby obliteratingthe oppres-
sivenessof a certainpast and an uncertainfuture.Tocite Blumenberg,"incon-
trastto all history,in whichthe epochstakeoverfromone anotherwiththe con-
sciousnessthat now, finally,mattersare getting serious, that, after so much
frivoloussquandering of man'sbestpotential,nowfinally,everythingis at stake-
in contrastto this, everystepof workon mythis a dismantlingof the old serious-
ness;eventhe art mythsof the end of art or of the deathof God aremadethis
way"(WM, 632-633). That Workon Myth must also be read as non-epochal
historiography is attestedto both by its disregardfor "dogmatic"considerations
pertainingto epochaldistinctionsandultimatequestions,andby its ownattempt
at "bringingmyth to an end."
Needlessto say,all this is sorryconsolationfor those modernistswho would
findin Blumenbergan advocatefor theircause.Disappointmentcanonly be fur-
ther heightenedin light of Blumenberg'sdismal prognosis-so reminiscentof
the gloomypropheciesassociatedwiththe FrankfurtSchool- that "theorythat
can no longerbe anythingbut hypothesishas alreadylost its immanentvalue,
its statusas an end in itself;thus the functionalizationof theoryfor arbitrarily
chosenends, its entryinto the role of technique,of a means,is a processsubse-
quentto the loss of its statusas an end in itself' (LM, 200). Whatdoes this dis-
missalof historiography withpracticalintentamountto, if not a wholesalerepu-
diationof alllegitimizing narrativessavethoseof myth?Areweto stop"grounding"
our moralbeliefs and practicesin universalcriteriaof reason?Must we learn
to acceptthe fact (as Lyotardputs it) that what moralmythswe do possessare
"legitimatedby the simple fact that they do what they do"?16
In the finalanalysis,Blumenbergwouldhaveus believethat historicalunder-
standingand actionarefunctionallylegitimatedby defacto institutions,be they
traditionalauthoritiesor rationallyadaptive"instrumental" mechanisms,whose
subject of self-legislationwho was originallyconstitutedas an autonomous
memberof a communityof endshas beenreplacedin his philosophyof history
by an irrationalsubjectof self-assertion,who can only be functionalizedfor the
"arbitrarily chosenends"of the system.Perhapsit is expectingtoo much from
historiography to demandthat it legitimatethis or that formof rationality.Still,

invertedby Kantianidealism),he too emphasizesthe symbolicallymediatednatureof knowledge.

Moreradicalthan Kant,he (like Nietzsche)sees all symbolicthought,includingreason,as essen-
tially metaphorical,non-literal,and polysemic-fulfillingrhetoricalratherthan logical functions
("Paradigmen zu einerMetaphorologie," Archivfur Begrifsgeschichte6 [1960],7-142).
16. J.-F. Lyotard,ThePostmodernCondition:A Reporton Knowledge,transl.G. Bennington
and B. Massumi(Minneapolis,1984),23.

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for those of us living out the last daysof the Enlightenmentin post-industrial
capitalism,it mightnot seemall that unreasonableto recoverthe "teleologyof
humanreason,"if not in self-assertionnarrowlyconstrued,then at least in the
everydaycommunicativeidealsof reciprocity,freedomand equalitywhichun-
derwritetrue historicalunderstanding.17

Loyola Universityof Chicago

17. Developinga lineof argumentsuggestedbyGadamerandHabermas,Olafson(236-253)con-

cludesthatthe communicative dialecticinformingthe historicalstrugglefor mutualrecognitionas
wellas thehistoricaltaskof understanding anticipatesa regulative
Idea(somethingakinto Gadamer's
VorgriffaufVollkommenheit, Habermas's idealspeechsituation,or Kant'skingdomof ends)capable
of groundinga universalhistory.Habermashimselfnoted the absenceof any "universalistic and
individualistic" communicative ethicfunctionalfor identityformationin LM(The Theoryof Com-
municativeAction. VolumeOne:Reasonand the Rationalizationof Society,transl.T. McCarthy
(Boston,1984),397-398).Indeedin thatearlierworkBlumenberg maintainsthat"theold consensus
gentium[consensusof all] is no longerthe criterionof truth . . . in view of the particularismof
interestsandconvictions" (LM,96). However,in Workon MythBlumenberg explicitlyacknowledges
that for thoselivingin the modernage the possibilityfor cooperationrestson mutualexpectations
of rationalaccountabilitywhich,in turn,presuppose"thepossibilityof givingrationalarguments
for behavior"(WM,234).Elsewherehe discussesthe rolethatcommunicationplaysin establishing
the "objectivity" of myth,and therewith,the objectivityof valuesand normsconstitutiveof the
formationandpreservation of personalidentityas Habermasunderstandsit (WM,168).Of course,
one neednot followApel'squasi-transcendental approachof Habermas"'fallibilistic" Kohlbergian
strategyin rationally"grounding" thenormative presuppositionsof communication andunderstanding.
Perhapsit is sufficient,followingBlumenberg's lead,to acknowledgethattheseidealsrepresent"op-
timizations"of "our"Westernheritage.As Blumenberg,Rorty,andother"hermeneuticists" remind
us, one neednot embracethe moreexcessive,foundationalistclaimsof the mythof enlightenment
in orderto acknowledgeits defacto "pragmatic" legitimacyin regulating"our"lives.In this respect
at least, Blumenberg's laterdefenseof the "rationality" of mythhas a decisiveadvantageoverthe
"positivistic" identificationof reasonand instrumentalscienceassertedin TheLegitimacyof the
ModernAge, forit seemscompatiblewithHabermas'sattemptto showhowthe objectiveteleology
thatis absentin moderninstrumentalist conceptionsof self-preservationmighthavesurvivedin the
formof a universalistic and individualisticcommunicativeethicfunctionalfor identityformation
in rationalizedsocieties.

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