Saturday, December 15, 2007

Blumenberg's Legitimacy of the Modern Age: Reviewed by Martin Jay (On Curiosity)

Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration
Curious Odyssey through the Pillars of Hercules...

The Christmas season is upon us, the season of giving, and dozens of students are generously giving me their final papers.

Well, I believe in the Christmas spirit of reciprocity, so each one of these same students will soon be receiving something particularly fitting in response.

Merry Christmas, O My Students...

Anyway, due to this holiday cheer, I won't be writing much this morning, nor perhaps for several mornings, though I'll keep posting daily snippets.

Today, a long snippet. First, though, I should inform you that I contacted my old history professor Martin Jay because I wanted to get a copy of his review of Blumenberg's Legitimacy book. I read it some 20 years ago but couldn't recall where I had found it. Jay wrote back:
I was very interested to hear that you are working on Blumenberg, a thinker who definitely repays the effort it takes to read him. I don't know of anything as penetrating on the theme of curiosity as his discussion in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age . . . . As for my own review of the Blumenberg book, it first appeared in History and Theory back in about 1975 [sic: 1985] and then was republished in my collection Fin-de-siecle Socialism a few years later. I don't have an electronic copy to send as an attachment, but if you can't find it anywhere, I would be happy to send a reprint.
Once I knew where to look for it, the search became simpler -- though I could have located it anyway through a Google search but didn't want to deal with logging in to the university's document retrieval system. Well, I had to log in anyway, and I've easily found the review. Jay does such an excellent job of summarizing Blumenberg's thesis that I will simply quote the five central paragraphs on curiosity:
[I]t was the unleashing of curiosity, so Blumenberg contends in the third major section of his book, that marks the modern sensibility. Turning a remarkable amount of erudition on the question of why that unleashing took so long, Blumenberg presents a brilliant account of what he calls the "trial" of theoretical curiosity. Theory in its classical guise was, as we have already had occasion to note, contemplative rather than experimental, which meant that the ancients refrained from doing more than passively "reading" a cosmos whose objective existence they did not doubt. What made it even more inimical to the full unleashing of curiosity was the assumption that such contemplation could produce human happiness, an assumption itself tied to the belief, still held by many medieval thinkers, that knowledge of the Truth was the road to contentment. In this sense, both classical and medieval theory could be called "pragmatic," for its ultimate goal was not knowledge per se, but the happiness its possession would bring. But this kind of pragmatism, which perhaps can be traced back as far as the Socratic quest for the good life, proved hostile to any kind of knowledge that does not translate into personal fulfillment. Thus, Blumenberg concludes, it created an impediment, more passive than active, to the complete valorization of human curiosity no matter what its purpose.

With the Stoics, Blumenberg argues, came a further obstacle to unlimited curiosity. Far more skeptical than their predecessors about the possibility of achieving a human version of divine truth, they preached against the inevitable disappointment that seeking it would engender. Instead of an open-minded and open-eyed contemplation of the world, they counseled a therapeutic form of ataraxia, in which disillusionment is avoided by a preemptive refusal to seek the truth at all. For the Stoics, Blumenberg writes, "intellectual curiosity is now the disastrous drive that misleads us into violating the boundary settlement between the human and the divine sphere" (264). Although Christian thinkers like Augustine had to work their way through the skeptical implications of this doctrine, they nonetheless did not come to accept theoretical curiosity as a viable alternative. For now the road to happiness was understood to be through faith, not philosophy and certainly not science. Augustine was particularly uneasy about worldly curiosity because of its potential to distract man from his proper sacred concerns. Moreover, insofar as legitimate knowledge comes only from its rightful author -- here the Platonic residue was still potent -- the Truth can be grasped not by examining the world through the fallible senses, but rather through the unmediated acceptance of God's word. What Augustine damned as "ocular desire" (312), because it led man into temptation, was thus as far removed from the classical emphasis on contemplative vision as the modern stress on its experimental counterpart.

Although the Scholastics were poised ambiguously between Aristotle's affirmation of a contemplative knowledge of the cosmos and Augustine's warning against all curiosity as a vice, it was not really until the modern age that the verdict of the "trial" was finally rendered in favor of unconstrained curiosity. One major reason for the change was the uncoupling of happiness and salvation from knowledge, which followed the growing popularity of the doctrine of predestination prepared by the nominalists and brought to a head by Calvin. For if man's redemption had nothing to do with his practical life on earth, then it was unnecessary to be so anxious about the distracting effects of curiosity about allegedly superfluous matters. In addition, the growing hiddenness of God in the early modern era meant the world could no longer be passively read as a divine text. A Deus Absconditus meant a "speechless" world lacking the marks of the divine word, a world as a result open to man's own constructs and manipulations.

The vindication of curiosity was therefore closely linked to the emergence of self-assertion as an alternative answer to the still unresolved Gnostic question of the meaning of an imperfect and corrupt world. Only when the qualitative knowledge assumed to be the analogue of divine wisdom was abandoned as a goal and replaced by an inevitably imperfect knowledge expressed in quantitative terms could modern science begin. Only then could man break through the forbidding Pillars of Hercules standing as the image of transgression as far back as the Odyssey and embark, as the famous title page of Bacon's Instauratio Magna implies, on uncharted seas.

Moreover, only when personal happiness was decisively severed from the collective pursuit of a truth that could be sought but never completely won, only when the hope for immortality was displaced from the individual soul to the species as a whole, only then could curiosity be utterly without limits. As such, it could then be extended from nature to man himself by philosophers like Hobbes and projected by others like Feuerbach into a desire to know what is not yet knowable. Faust's famous pact with the devil, an early modern invention that expressed a still ambiguous attitude towards the "vice" of curiosity, could ultimately become a triumphant symbol of modern man's insatiable desire to know, which Freud would later naturalize into a sublimation of an infantile sexual curiosity to see. (Martin Jay, "Review: The Legitimacy of the Modern Age by Hans Blumenberg; Robert M. Wallace," History and Theory, Vol. 24, No. 2. (May, 1985), pp. 190-191. Accessed via JSTOR.)
The irony in Blumenberg's moral tale lies in the way that Christianity liberated the 'vice' of curiosity from its Ancient and Medieval constraints by its dissociating human happiness from any human effort, a feat achieved first through the late Medieval Nominalists but carried forward by the Protestant Reformation, especially by the Calvinists.

In short, Blumenberg argues that modern science emerged not through Christianity's conception of a rational God but through its conception of an irrational one.

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At 8:40 AM, Blogger GoldenLovejoy said...

I have read 'Care Crosses the River' recently and desire to read more of Blumenberg's work. Through Wikipedia I found that Martin Jay had written a review of one of his books. His "Downcast Eyes" is one of my favourite books so I was quite excited to find out more. The search for the article online brought me here to your fascinating blog. Thanks for writing, it is most interesting. Your studies also look very interesting. If you were able could you recommend an 'entry-level' english version of Blumenberg's work - particularly if there are any regarding art and aesthetics (akin to 'Car Crosses the River).

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've read only the three big tomes by Blumenberg: Legitimacy, Copernicus, and Myth. I don't know of anything easy by Blumenberg - I tried the Care book, but in German, so that was too hard for me, too.

The best way to read Blumenberg is with a serious, committed group - that's how I was initiated (to Legitimacy, nonetheless!), and I learned so much more, hidden arguments against Heidegger that would have passed right over my head - so if you read together with others who are willing to go the distance and study Blumenberg paragraph by paragraph, you'll find each work much more accessible.

Also, if you look around on my blog, you'll find a lot of links to Blumenberg and his ideas.

Jeffery Hodges

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