Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age: Part II, Chapter 2

Scholasticism destroys confidence in the idea of an orderly cosmos congenial to humanity. This 'disappearance of order' provokes a reaction, but not to restore belief in a world that is good for man -- that has been permanently lost. Rather, this reaction accepts the unreliability, the changeability of the world, but therefore sees the world as something which man can act on to make it better .

Blumenberg sees the modern advance in technical matters as a radical break, not as the acceleration of a gradual accumulation that dates to pre-modern times. This is a case that would have to be made in much more detail to convince me.

139: "If the 'disappearance of order' that was brought about by the disintegration of the Middle Ages pulled self-preservation out of its biologically determined normality, where it went unnoticed, and turned it into the 'theme' of human self -comprehension, then it is also the case that the modern stage of human technicity can no longer be grasped entirely in terms of the syndrome of the anthropological structure of wants. the growth of the potency of technique is not only the continuation -- not even the acceleration --of a process that runs through the whole history of humanity. On the contrary, the quantitative increase in technical achievements and expedients can only be grasped in relation to a new quality of consciousness. In the growth of the technical sphere there lives, consciously facing an alienated reality, a will to extort from this reality a new 'humanity.' Man keeps in view the deficiency of nature as the motive of his activity as a whole."

In positing art as a more radical imposition of human will against the world than science and history (which are beholden to the world insofar as they seek truths in it), Nietzsche at least correctly identified what the turning towards modern consciousness hinged on: the rejection of the belief that the world is good for man just as it is.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age: Part II, Chapter 1

We get a brilliant sketch of the development of Western systems of thought from classical antiquity through Scholasticism seen through the lens of the origin of what is bad in the world.

Classical - There is a dualism of Idea or cosmos on one hand and of matter or necessity on the other. The world-forming demiurge attempts to shape matter in accordance with the order of Ideas, but perfect realization is frustrated by the limits of his ability to "persuade" matter into form. The defects of what exists are accounted for by this falling short.

Neoplatonic - posits greater distance between the classical principles of form and matter, and tends towards giving theological values to them. In the particular form given by Plotinus, the world results from the world-soul "falling" and getting trapped in matter; the soul can correct this loss of order by reversing the fall and liberating itself from matter.

Gnostic - radicalizes conflict of good and bad, and posits opposing agents behind them. In the particular form given by Marcion, the world itself is bad, as is the demiurge who creates it. The God who saves souls trapped in the world is not responsible for creating it; salvation in fact consists in the destruction of this world.

Augustinean Christian - Early Christianity is confronted by Gnosticism with the intolerable prospect of an evil world which shows no signs of going away. Augustine salvages the goodness of the creation (and the unity of the creating and redeeming Gods) by assigning responsibility for what is bad in the world to the free will of man, and particularly to the inherited stain from the original misuse of this free will.

Blumenberg makes passing reference to Gnosticism "reoccupying the positions" of Neoplatonism. But doesn't Blumenberg's account fit better with a scheme rooted in substantive historical constants? Is the recurrence of the issue of what is bad in the world a substantive historical constant?

Blumenberg took issue at the end of Part I with critics of the modern world who looked for some wrong turn in the distant past of Western thought to account for supposedly pervasive defects in the present. Yet in finding the origin of Scholasticism's crisis in Augustine's turn, he pursues an line of analysis which at least looks similar in form. What can be said to distinguishes these cases? Is it that the problems Blumenberg diagnoses in late medieval thought were less pervasive than those seen by contemporary critics of modernity? In other words, does his analysis simply lack the same totalistic pretensions?

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age: Part I, Chapter 9

We take an excursion through the literary uses of theological language (and vice-versa, for that matter). In brief, using religious vocabulary for dramatic effect shouldn't be confused with expressing religious ideas.

Towards the end, we have a tussle with other indictments of the legitimacy of the modern age; phenomenology and critical theory are brought into the dock for arraignment.

118-119: "Whether people's readiness to entertain assertions of objective guilt derives from an existential guiltiness of Dasein vis-a-vis its possibilities, as Heidegger suggested in Being and Time, or from the "societal delusion system" of Adorno's Negative Dialectics, in any case it is the high degree of indefiniteness of the complexes that are described in these ways that equips them to accept a variety of specific forms. Discontent is given retrospective self-evidence. This is not what gives rise to or stabilizes a theorem like that of secularization, but it certainly does serve to explain its success. The suggestion of a distant event that is responsible for what is wrong in the present -- a suggestion with which the secularization theorem also presents us -- is (not the only, but) an additional reason why the category of secularization is in need of a critique."

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Deja vu (Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, pp. 240-241)

"Finally, no assessment of Russia's overall capacities in this period can avoid some comments on the regime itself. Although certain foreign conservatives admired its autocratic and centralized system, arguing that it gave a greater consistency and strength to national policies than the western democracies were capable of, a closer examination would have revealed innumerable flaws. Czar Nicholas II was a Potemkin village in person, simple-minded, reclusive, disliking difficult decisions, and blindly convinced of his sacred relationship with the Russian people (in whose real welfare, of course, he showed no interest). The methods of governmental decision-making at the higher levels were enough to give 'Byzantinism' a bad name: irresponsible grand dukes, the emotionally unbalanced empress, reactionary generals, and corrupt speculators, outweighing by far the number of diligent and intelligent ministers whom the regime could recruit and who, only occasionally, could reach the czar's ear. The lack of consultation and understanding between, say, the foreign ministry and the military was at times frightening. The court's attitude to the assembly (the Duma) was one of unconcealed contempt. Achieving radical reforms in this atmosphere was impossible, when the aristocracy cared only for its privileges and czar cared only for his peace of mind."

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age: Part I, Chapter 8

Even for Blumenberg, the arguments in this chapter tend toward the cryptic.

Carl Schmitt claims the concepts of modern state are secularized theological concepts.

Blumenberg first asks what Schmitt's position (in favor of absolutism, basically) gains from this assertion. Intelligibility by analogy, it appears. For from within the reference point of Enlightenment thought, there is no support for the existence of "exceptional" cases which require arbitrary authority.

Schmitt argues that Blumenberg is defending the legality of the modern age rather than its legitimacy. (Legality (for Schmitt): timeless justification with respect to a structure of norms. Legitimacy: demonstration of foundation within history.) Blumenberg concedes (I think) that the former corresponds to how modern rationality defines itself. He claims, however, that his project is not to defend this self-understanding but to demonstrate how it performs the (necessary) function of self-assertion against what preceded it.

98: "From the point of view of all kinds of requirements for legitimation, not only did rationalism make a disturbing and destructive entrance, but when the ground had been cleared and leveled, it proved to be sterile as far as new conceptions were concerned." I don't think I agree with this. Doesn't this read arguments for popular rule out of the content of modern political thought?

Introduction of concept of sufficient rationality, 99: "[T]his book's concept of rationality is neither that of an agency of salvation nor that of a creative originality either. On the analogy of the principle of sufficient reason, I would like to entitle this concept that of a sufficient rationality. It is just enough to accomplish the postmedieval self-assertion and to bear the consequences of this emergency self-consolidation. The concept of the legitimacy of the modern age is not derived from the accomplishments of reason but rather from the necessity of those accomplishments."