Friday, December 07, 2007

Hans Blumenberg: "sitting on the dock of the bay wasting time"

"wasting time"
(Image from Suhrkamp Insel)

Hans Blumenberg has a lengthy Otis Redding moment in discussing the process by which curiositas came to be justified through its centuries-long trial in the Christian West.

I mentioned yesterday Blumenberg's argument that Augustine's radical application of "the lust of the eyes" (warned against in 1 John 2:16) to his critique of curiosity would logically lead to a rejection of the Ancient and Medieval assumption that the world was teleologically organized for mankind's benefit and thus was open to mankind's observation in the interest of knowledge appropriate to mankind.

Even the teleological assumption entailed at least a mild rebuke to curiosity, for teleology implies that the knowledge appropriate for mankind to obtain should be readily available in a cosmos oriented to human needs. Going beyond those needs into deeper knowledge was considered improper, as though one were a 'busybody', a 'nosy' person, and such knowledge would have the status of 'gossip.'

Augustine's 'gnostic' distrust of the cosmos, however, and its concomitant distrust of the senses, especially the eyes, as leading one astray and into a curious, time-wasting attention to empirical matters and a dangerous inattention to God at the expense of one's soul, should logically entail the rejection of belief in a cosmos teleologically arranged for mankind's benefit.

Although Augustine himself retained a place for useful knowledge, his implicit rejection of teleology worked itself out through such High Scholastic intellectual endeavors as Nominalism and thereby ultimately engendered the legitimization of curiosity as a part of a necessary human self-assertion against divine absolutism and therefore the right, contra Augustine, to "waste time":
Waste of time seems at first glance to be quite a superficial standard for the legitimacy or illegitimacy of posing purely theoretical questions. But in this criterion the conceptual pattern of curiositas reappears: In the boundlessness of his cognitive will, man denies his finitude precisely in his dealings with time by behaving as though he does not need to apply any measure or to bring forward any justification here. If the modern idea of science will be characterized by its forgoing an evaluation of its objects and a distinction between what is worth knowing and what is a matter of indifference, this will only be possible through the elimination of this very objection based on the finite time given to the subject, an elimination accomplished by the integration, through 'method,' of a potentially infinite sequence of inquiring subjects active in temporally extended functional complexes -- subjects whose individual lives and needs (in regard to truth) can be neither the point of nor the standard against which to measure the totality of knowledge to be realized.

To both the ancient world and the Middle Ages, a knowledge that neither related to nor could be made to relate to the capacity of the individual and his existential fulfillment was still an altogether remote idea. The basic idea of the teleological serviceability of natural objects that are available and can be singled out from the whole had excluded the possibility that only a knowledge directed at the whole of nature could enable man to assert himself in his personal existence both against and by means of nature. Only the metaphysical suspicion that nature could function without regard to man in its lawfully regulated processes makes urgent and necessary a knowledge of nature that can examine each state of affairs merely for its potential relevance to man and that must therefore reject the criterion of the 'appropriate expenditure of time' as a point of view associated with a teleological contemplation of the world. (Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, pages 317-318)
Augustine's unwitting destruction of teleology, understood more fully in the Nominalist speculations of High Scholasticism, thus paradoxically engendered a legitimization of the very curiosity that he had considered illegitimate.

If Blumenberg is correct, then the rise of modern science -- and of rational Modernity generally -- results not from Christian assumptions about the rationality of God and his creation but from suspicions that this God and his creation are not rational!

But is Blumenberg correct?

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At 4:11 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Just to mention that Monday 10th December is the 40th anniversary of Otis Redding's death in a plane crash in Wisconsin. An immeasurable loss for black American music. I still grieve and many others do, as well.(Sorry to deviate from your subject matter.)

At 5:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perfectly acceptable deviation, Alison. I hadn't noticed the date of his death (other than to note that it was in 1967).

It is sad, and I'll think of Mr. Redding this Monday.

Jeffery Hodges

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