Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hans Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology: Chapter 9, "Metaphorized Cosmology"

Copernicus's geocentric model provoked a reassessment of metaphors relating to man's stature. While for some, like Goethe, the implication was a vindication of man's dignity as a being able to think freely, most, like Nietzsche, have seen it (although not necessarily with the same glee) as displacing man from a privileged position in the cosmos.

Copernicus conceived of his work as preserving the rationality of the universe and of man's place as a being uniquely able to grasp it. But the reception of the theory was not so straightforward. Even those who thought the theory validated man's value as a rational agent started from the premise that it displaced man from a teleologically favored location: they saw man's dignity shown by his ability to stand for himself without teleology. The anti-Copernican reaction also began from a metaphorized assessment of his theory as challenge to man's privileged position in the universe. Geocentrism only became Christian dogma under the pressure of the implicit metaphorical challenge of Copernicanism to Christian teleology.

For Aristotle, the attribution of a central location to the earth did not signify elevated status, but the opposite: the most dignified positions were the outermost spheres of the world-system. Man was neither the highest being nor the end served by the whole. Anthropological teleology was limited to the sublunary sphere, and even then it did not really set man apart; it amounted to the consideration that nothing was created without a purpose, but no more than that.

In Stoic cosmology, on the other hand, the earth's position at the center of the cosmos did signify a priority in rank. For the Stoics, the cosmos was not a static assembly of distinct strata, it was homogeneous in composition and movement, with all things seeking to move toward the center. Man's existence at the central point of the cosmos, the earth, supports a thoroughgoing anthropocentric teleology, where the purpose of the universe is to serve man's needs. Man is also distinguished in Stoic thought (taking a theme picked up from Plato's Timaeus) as the agent who can contemplate the beauty of the heavens, so everything is referred to man in an aesthetic as well as a cosmological sense.

Medieval cosmology used an Aristotlelean model of the cosmos, but integrated into it the contradictory Stoic material of high esteem for the centrally located earth and for man, especially in his role of contemplator (now understood to have God as his object). Copernicus sought to salvage man's (teleologically destined) position as contemplator while sacrificing the cosmological geocentrism which, in any case, only metaphorically endowed him with dignity; but the metaphorical debasement proved to be more compelling than the attempted theoretical elevation.

107: "Metaphorical realism is a factor of first importance in the formation of historical life. No paradigm is better suited to demonstrating this than the one discussed here. Subtle idealizations, such as those undertaken by Copernicus on the model of teleological anthropocentrism, fail to take hold and revert to their metaphorical quality. The replacement of the central position by a central function proved unable to establish itself as a legitimate 'transition', even if it was wrested as an 'achievement' from man's metaphorical eccentricity ..."

Galileo sought to raise the earth's rank within the medieval system of metaphorical valuation by showing it was really another star -- stellarization. Understanding this helps explain his preoccupation with finding evidence for the earth's movement and luminosity -- two features which would mark it as a star.

Cusanus had also attempted to establish the earth as a star among other stars, but in order to neutralize its value cosmologically rather than elevate it. This neutralization then opened the way for him to establish the earth's dignity as a consequence of the unique trait of bearing human beings.

Galileo's dogmatic retention of elements of Aristotelean cosmology -- such as the perfectly circular orbits of the heavenly bodies -- derive from his interest in preserving the system's attributes of stellar perfection while he elevates the earth to that status. The Aristotelean dicta that he rejects -- like the inferior status of what moves compared to the unmoved -- are those that would challenge the dignity of the stars, among which he would place the earth.

Fontenelle, as a representative of the Enlightenment's reception of Copernicus , sees the overturned cosmological geocentrism as a projection of the spirit of anthrpocentric teleology which is embedded in human nature. It is of a kind with all claims of priority or status by privileged individuals within human society --and similarly without merit.

1 comment:

James said...


I see you continue to be a real book reader. One book (actually a 2 volume work) which I hope you will give serious consideration to is Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right as seen at There is also a related site at

I believe the first volume, the bigger of the two, is by far and away the most comprehensive and detailed scientific treatise on the issue of heliocentric vs geocentric cosmology ever offered to the public. I have it, myself, and can vouch for the stunning magnitude of scholarship displayed therein.

James Phillips