Monday, December 24, 2007

Hans Blumenberg: The Threat to Theoretical Curiosity

Edmund Husserl
"counter to powerful interests"
(Image from The Husserl Page)

Many of my recent posts have spent an apparently inordinate amount of time delving into the so-called 'trial' of theoretical curiosity, that historical process by which the evaluation of curiosity changed from Antiquity's more or less neutral attitude through the Medieval period's condemnation of it as a vice to Modernity's extolling of it as a virtue.

If Hans Blumenberg is correct in the argument that he puts forth in his Legitimacy tome, then the Modern age emerged not as a secularization of the Medieval world, if one means by that expression that the Modern age simply appropriated Medieval concepts as its own in the same way that the Protestant states secularized the Catholic monasteries by confiscating their lands, their treasures, and their libraries. Rather, Modernity arose as something radically new, namely, through the self-assertion of mankind's right to unbounded curiosity as a existential necessity in the late Medieval period's nominalist construal of an indifferent cosmos and a hostile deity.

The 'trial' of theoretical curiosity might seem long over by now, possibly even of historical interest only, and such might have appeared the case in the early 60s, when Blumenberg's ideas were developing. As such, his study might have been seen as of theoretical interest alone, an investigation into an obscure issue long past, research that only a curious scholar would engage in. Perhaps so. Among scholars, at any rate, Blumenberg's work was recognized as original, even 'world-historical' in its far-reaching implications, but the issue seemingly remained an academic one.

Arguably, Blumenberg himself thought so at the time of his writing, for he noted:
Our situation is not that of the beginning of the modern age, however distinguishable by "specific transactions" that beginning may be. Is the problem of making a beginning still our problem? Jürgen Mittelstrass has answered this question by giving his concept of "'reflected' curiosity" as a specifically heterogeneous function that I would like to characterize as that of an already iterated 'reflection': What set the modern age's curiosity in motion no longer needs -- in its self-accelerated, immanently propelled motion -- rehabilitation and restitution of its primary energy; it has become indifferent to the new, as such, on account of its experience of the latter's inevitability, which may even constitute for it a burden to be endured, and instead it is all the more sensitive to the direction that belongs to the motion that is thus stimulated, sensitive to the question of where it is headed. (Blumenberg, Legitimacy of the Modern Age, p. 235)
Still, Blumenberg knew better, knew from his own life -- interrupted at around age 20 by World War II -- the threat that powerful interests could oppose to curiosity:
In this [current] situation [of theoretical ease], anyone at all who "defends man's interest in what, so to speak, does not concern him" seems anachronistic -- unless perhaps this were once again an act of defending theoretical curiosity in circumstances where it was supposed to interest itself only in material that did not run counter to powerful interests. Even in the categorization of theory as a derivative attitude subordinate to the radical of "care," there is a possibility, if not a necessity, of requiring the interest in theory to legitimate itself once again by demonstrating a contemporary and relevant, or even an authoritatively prescribed, "care" as its source. 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]." (Blumenberg, Legitimacy of the Modern Age, pp. 235-236)
In a note to this text, the translator Robert Wallace explains the obscure allusion as "[a] remark reportedly made by Archimedes to Roman soldiers who, after conquering his city, Syracuse, were on the point of killing him" (p. 241, n. a). According to this tradition, Archimedes was busily working on problems of geometry, following the path that his theoretical curiosity was leading, all but oblivious to the dire events transpiring around him, and was simply requesting that no one disturb his work ("μή μου τούς κύκλους τάραττε").

In reality, of course, Archimedes was a practical man dedicated to the defense of his city and occupied in applying his theoretical expertise in geometry to his city's defense. According to Lucian of Samosata, Archimedes used a series of mirrors arranged parabolically to focus sunlight upon Roman ships and cause them to burst into flames before they could attack. Whether this story is true or not, it does recall the sort of role that Archimedes played as an advisor to the military on the use of scientific and technical knowledge for defensive purposes, and his work on improving the catapult could be applied not merely to defensive purposes but also to offensive aims.

Nevertheless, Blumenberg's point remains. Conditions are not always favorable to the open-ended questions posed by curious scholars. The obscure reference above to "theory [being despised] . . . as mere gaping at what is 'present at hand'" alludes to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, which Blumenberg implicitly criticizes for denigrating theory as a "mere gaping" at things "present at hand" that the active man would grasp. That active man Martin Heidegger who joined the Nazi Party and turned against his Jewish teacher Edmund Husserl was the very same man who conveyed to Husserl the Nazi directive that he was no longer permitted to use the library at Alfred Ludwigs University, in Freiburg, the place where he had conducted much of his research.

His curiosity was verboten.

For that malady, Europe required the treatment of radical surgery, and one might think the West cured, secure in a world now safe for theoretical curiosity, but I question whether or not this safety is so secure, for, arguably, we face again the resurgence of theological absolutism, only this time of a more implacable sort than the late Medieval Christian nominalist kind.

Perhaps a new defense is required...

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At 12:43 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Merry Christmas, HJH.

At 7:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, CIV. Merry Christmas to you, too. You'll find a Christmas rhyme in my blog for the 25th.

Jeffery Hodges

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