Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age: Part 4, Chapter 1, "The Epochs of the Concept of an Epoch"

We begin with an inquiry into the change in the use of the term "epoch" in Goethe's lifetime -- a change from signifying an event to signifying a period of time. This philological exercise leads into something like a dialectic of historical reason. Periodization has important functions in historical thinking. It captures real differences in historical context and thus inoculates against anachronisms that would issue from the neglect of these qualitative differences. It also responds to a need to see history as something responsive to individual intervention. But historical research dissolves any particular boundary chosen to differentiate epochs. It finds continuities or precedents for any any epochal event or figure.

Thus it is with the epochal transition from the middle ages to the modern ages. Historicism blurred the transition and pushed it back in time with ever accumulating discoveries of new debts and antecedents.

Restatement of Blumenberg's conception of epochal transition as a reoccupation of positions, riffing from Kant's first analogy of experience. Changes of epoch are only possible to experience or understand at all because something -- namely, a frame of systematic requirements -- stays in place across the divide.

466: "Here we are not dealing with the classical constants of philosophical anthropology, still less with the 'eternal truths' of metaphysics. The term 'substance' was to be avoided in this context because every type of historical substantialism such as is involved in, for instance, the theorem of secularization -- relates, precisely, to the contents, which are shown in the process of 'reoccupation' to be incapable of this very permanence. It is enough that the reference frame conditions have greater inertia for consciousness than do the contents associated with them, that is, that the questions are relatively constant in comparison to the answers."

466-467: "During the phases in which the function of this frame of reference is latent -- in the periods, that is, that we assign to the epochs as their 'classic' formations -- we must expect, above all, gains by extension and losses by shrinkage; in the new reorganization, certain questions are no longer posed, and the answers that were once provided for them have the appearance of pure dogma, of fanciful redundancy."

The epochal transition from middle ages to modernity didn't occur at a single point in time, but there was a threshold which can be discerned by examining two figures on opposite sides of it: Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno.

470: "[Nicholas of Cusa and Bruno] can only be brought into confrontation to the extent that they allow us to recognize the congruent position frames for their reality, to the extent that they pose homologous questions to which their answers, in spite of their mutual opposition, still relate. Only this differential analysis makes visible what it is that separates the positions on either side of the epochal threshold; it discloses what must have happened in order to force their incompatibility."

The self-understanding of the modern age as a new foundation created by an act of will creates a demand for a single event or figure which marks the transition from the middle ages. But this cannot be provided, because they were intermeshed; they, so to speak, cohabited for some time.

In any case, the effort to find a point that represents a sharp break between a fully rational present age and a not fully rational predecessor creates a tension in present's self-conception: in making reason contingent, it brings into question whether modernity, too, might be found wanting in rationality. (This seems like an issue to me whether or not the break is sharp.) There is reassurance, however, in that modern epochal system is more resilient than its medieval predecessor. The strength of the medieval system was that it did not rely on confirmation from the life-world. But this in its turn increased the pressure on its internal coherence. The strength of the modern system is its unceasing drive for confirmation from the life-world, and the flexibility which result form this orientation. The corresponding weakness is the lack of clarity in what the totality of the system amounts to, and the uncertainty about whether it was susceptible to alteration by deliberate action.

Discusses the 'seriousness that is always new' as a marker of epochal thresholds (mythical to classical, classical to medieval, and medieval to modern). This brings us to Nicholas of Cusa, whose thought is marked by a free and easy play with the medieval system, although also a concern for its decline. (I think Blumenberg is suggesting that this really marks Nicholas as a pre-epochal figure). This in turn leads into consideration of the significance of the interest in Nicholas as a candidate for the epochal figure of modernity. Blumenberg attributes this interest to a concern for the perceived destructive consequences of modernity, and the sense that this destructiveness issues from an illegitimately radical break with what came before it. The consequent desire to retrieve the legitimacy of the modern age by finding a liminal figure who does not share the radical consciousness of the traditional epochal figures finds a congenial candidate in Nicholas.

Blumenberg rejects the idea of there being an epochal figure or event at all.

477: "It is true that we must proceed from the assumption that man makes history -- who else should make it for him? -- but what we can discover in history is not identical with what has been 'made' to occur at any given time. For in relation to actions that could have 'made history' -- whether of the discredited 'great men' or, more recently, of the masses that are defined by their economic conditions -- the element of interference always supervenes. In the realm of ideas, this has brought historians to the resigned confirmation of the 'misunderstandings' that dominate histories of the reception of ideas and that can occasionally be described as 'fruitful.' The principle that man makes history certainly does not mean that was is made depends solely on the intentions and the percepts as a result of which and according to which it was produced."

(Isn't Marx more succinct? "Men make history, but they do not make it just as they please.")

478: "Man does indeed make history, but he does not make epochs. This is a deduction not from the admirable principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but more nearly from the reverse, that it is less than them; that is to say, it is not the equivalent of action. Action takes place within the horizon of the historically possible, but its effect is not the arbitrarily, accidentally, 'totally other,' either. The effect also occurs in a context of the reciprocal interaction of synchronicity and nonsynchronicity, of integrative and destructive interdependence. An epoch is the sum total of all the interferences between actions and what they 'make.'"

Epochal threshold discerned by 'interpolating' between Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno.

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