Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hans Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator: Chapter 6, "Shipbuilding out of the Shipwreck"

This quirky chapter combines investigation of shipwreck metaphors in the rhetoric of science with a favorite Blumenbergian topos, the question of what can be expected from reason. Blumenberg finds a characteristically hopeful but modest answer from the 19th century physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond, in reference to Darwin's theory of natural selection: it is a plank that keeps us afloat. Here, Blumenberg notes, the actual shipwreck event has been removed from the frame of vision altogether -- it is something that has already happened. In fact, the entire background to the metaphor, the reference to voyages and destinations, has also been so removed. What remains is just survival, though du Bois-Reymond acknowledges that some would take away even that by saying that the plank is but a straw. (73-75).

73-74: "Shipwreck has lost its story setting. What has to be said is that science does not achieve what our wishes and claims had expected of it, but what it does achieve is essentially unsurpassable and suffices to meet the demands of maintaining life."

75: "In the reception histories of metaphors, the more sharply defined and differentiated the imaginitive stock becomes, the sooner the point is reached where there seems to be an extreme inducement to veer around, with the existing model, tn the most decisive way and to try out the unsurpassable procedure of reversing it.
The shipwreck metaphorics seem to have escaped such a reversal, even if the image does seem to be wound backward by considering the shipwrecked man and his efforts to salvage, from what was almost the end of his sea voyage, a Robinson Crusoe-like new beginning of self-preservation."

Paul Lorenzen, in his dispute with the logical positivist Otto Neurath about the difficulties of providing a sound linguistic foundation for thought, resorts to just such a metaphor of shipbuilding from a shipwreck. Neurath had illustrated his position that about the limits of our ability to create language anew by comparing language to a ship on which we are already embarked on an endless voyage, and which can only be repaired as it sails. Lorenzen retorts that the ship had once been built at sea, by our ancestors, from material they found afloat around them. The implication is that it would be possible to jump off the ship and start building anew. Blumenberg remarks that the metaphor actually pulls us a way from such a resolve, however, because of the central position it gives to the security of the already existing ship. (75-78)

78-79: "The demiurgical, Robinson Crusoe longing of the modern age is also present in the handiwork of the constructivist who leaves home and heritage behind in order to found his life on the naked nothingness of the leap overboard. His artificially produced distress at sea does not come about through the frailty of the ship, which is already the end result of a lengthy process of building and rebuilding. But the sea evidently contains material other that what has already been used. Where can it come from, in order to give courage to the ones who are beginning anew? Perhaps from earlier shipwrecks?"


Gabriel Finkelstein said...

Emil du Bois-Reymond's allusion to Lucretius was deliberate. See the chapter on "Goethe and Darwin" in my biography

aretino said...

I saw the biography of du Bois-Reymond in the weekly e-mail from the MIT Press. I had not realized how important he was, and I had even forgotten that Blumenberg had discussed him. Another case where reading has revealed an unexpected horizon to me!