Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age: Part II, Chapter 3

So, you've surely been asking yourself why modern self-assertion emerged at the end of the Middle Ages and not earlier -- say, in response to the Gnostic challenge of late antiquity. Oh, you haven't then? Not to worry. Hans Blumenberg, clever man, has been pondering the question for you.

typically odd deployment of erudition to introduce a theme without seeming responsible for bringing it up himself ... an account of the Leibniz-Arnaud debate deployed to bring in (smuggle in) the theme of the comparability of Epicureanism and Nominalism

beats Macintyre's name dropping of the Scottish Enlightenment, for instance


I read the chapter a second time, and the segue into the comparison of Nominalism and Epicureanism felt more natural.

Perhaps this comparison really isn't to the point, however. What is supposed to be elucidated is the difference between the epochal crises that ended antiquity and the middle ages, respectively. (The chapter is entitled "A Systematic Comparison of the Epochal Crisis of Antiquity to That of the Middle Ages.") Blumenberg had already assigned Gnosticism the role of instigator in the crisis of antiquity, however, as he acknowledges again here (p. 148). Blumenberg motivates his chosen comparison by noting that the patristic tradition borrowed the Stoics' arguments against Epicureanism (and indeed borrowed much of Stoic cosmology) for their battle with Gnosticism. Still, this puts Epicureanism at one remove from a truly parallel function to Nominalism's role in the Medieval crisis.

Three points of comparison of ancient Epicurean atomism and medieval nominalism

1. The arbitrariness of what exists.

Epicureanism - The world is not created in accordance with any model, or even created at all; it is the outcome of chance. There is no special significance to this world, so we can take an attitude of detachment and indifference to it, or at least to knowledge about it. Subjective consequence: repose.

Nominalism - There is no model for anything in creation, because God's power must not be bounded even by the existence of a pattern or form. Subjective consequence: uncertainty, instability.

2. The plurality of worlds.

Epicureanism - That chance has thrown up many worlds illustrates that there is nothing ordained about this world. One's situation in it is not a matter of cosmic justice and order. So we can take an attitude of indifference to what fate has in store for us, because there is no design to it. Note that to make this indifference plausible, Epicureanism does depend implicitly on cosmological guarantees of the dependability of the world. At the same time, it destabilizes the heavenly bodies by bringing them into the same order of chance as everything else, thus undermining any attempt to seek meaning in contemplating the order of the heavens.

Nominalism - There must be a plurality of possible worlds, because God's power to create something new and different cannot be bounded. Shows that nothing is binding on God about this world; He could always change the world, end it, or create a new one.

3. Rejection of an anthropic teleology for the world.

Epicureanism -The key consequence is that man is not burdened by debt to the world because of it being made for him. At the same time, Epicureanism defuses the destabilizing consequences of rejecting teleology by holding that nature does in fact provide what man needs (Blumenberg sees this as a smuggling in of providential cosmology). Although the gods are not responsible for the world, they do provide a humanly accessible model of happiness.

Nominalism - Intensifies the medieval trend of withdrawing the tenet that god created the world the world or incarnated his son on behalf of man - because to do anything in reference to man rather than himself confilicts with the Aristotelean conception of divine perfection which increasingly defined Christian dogma.

Blumenberg's philosophy of history:
"Let us not forget that what is written here is not meant as a myth of the 'object spirit,' which plays out its dialectic with and over man. But there are phases of objectivization that loose themselves from their original motivation (the science and technology of the later phases of the modern age provide a stupendous example of this!); and to bring them back into their human function, to subject them again to man's purposes in relation to the world, requires an unavoidable counterexertion. The medieval system ended in such a phase of objectivization that has become autonomous, of hardening that is insulated from what is human. What is here called 'self-assertion' is the countermove of retrieving lost motives, of new concentration on man's self-interest." (pp. 177-178)