Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hans Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology: Chapter 10, "Geometric Symbolism and Metaphorics"

Blumenberg begins by explaining the contrast he wants to draw between symbolism and metaphorics with reference to Fontenelle's critique of geocentrism at the end of the previous chapter. Fontenelle portrays geocentrism's function not as giving an orientating response to a conceptually unanswerable fundamental question (which would make it an absolute metaphor) but as projecting an image of unequal social conventions into the natural world and thus providing an after the fact justification for them. A symbol merely identifies a relationship; it's content has no significance.

Blumenberg spends most of the chapter examining how the circle and the sphere have been used in the history of cosmological metaphorics. The spherical form of the cosmos in Plato assures that it is complete and bounded, in contrast to the threateningly infinite cosmos of Democritus. The model of the cosmos as a stationary, spinning sphere also imitated the combined activity and rest attributed to the divine. This marks a beginning of transfer of attributes of perfection from the Ideas to the cosmos. Aristotle extends this thought to its limit, giving comprehensive scope to the propagation of the ideal of circular motion to nature. The Stoics take this idea even further, attributing even the inner cohesion of objects to a kind of circulation within them. In distinction from Aristotle, however, for the Stoics it is centripetal rather than circular motion which is natural: circular motion results from the displacement of of something from the center due to the natural centripetal movement of some other thing.

Plato requires circular movement for heavenly bodies because he holds that it is most perfectly rational (and hence, the best imitation of the ideal). For Aristotle circular motion is the result of the eros of the first sphere for the unmoved mover. Plotinus synthesizes these accounts, describing circular motion as a physical imitation of the theoretical activity of the unmoved mover ("thought thinking itself"). This circular motion is composite for Plotinus, however. The natural motion of the cosmic body is a straight line; the cosmic soul, in attempting to draw the cosmic body to itself, adds a second component to the motion that results in circular motion. The circular motion that the soul induces in the cosmic body is a metaphor both for the soul's desire for the Mind and for the impossibility of ever consummating it.

122-123: "One cannot talk of 'symbolism' here: the symbol stands in the service of knowledge and must therefore be fixed and static, whereas here we can already detect the highly complex movement that must be represented, indeed 'accomplished', in the geometric expression. Metaphor is capable of movement and can represent movement; there can be no more impressive confirmation of this than Cusansus's self-transcending 'explosive metaphorics', which operates with geometric figures even as it transforms them."

Negative theology does not seek to transmit a body of knowledge, but to train one's intuition in a spiritual process. Cusanus's doubling of circles and spheres is such a process; it begins with steps which are easy to apprehend, but which continue indefinitely is overwhelming. "The aim is to make transcendence something that can be 'experienced' as the limit of theoretical apprehension ..." (123)

Blumenberg does not classify Cusanus's mathematical explosive metaphorics as an absolute metaphor, because it is seen as a positive means to knowledge, not as a means of filling in a vacuum of orientation at the base of thought. But it is similar to absolute metaphors in that its function is pragmatic: it seeks to create a mystical attitude.

Kepler took the traditional metaphorical superiority of the structural center seriously, although the sun rather than the earth now occupied that position for him, and he took equally seriously the metaphorical superiority of circular orbits. This metaphorical realism was a step back from the metaphorical idealization of Copernicus (whose saw man's centrality consisting in his rationality), to say nothing of the acentric universe of Bruno. Nonetheless, this lapse was a key to his systematic accomplishment. In the first place, it allowed him to conceive of a force from the the sun as the source of planetary movement. Furthermore, once the orbits were seen as the result of a solar force, it was possible for him to examine them not as a static idea but as the result of a process, and thus to abandon the ideal assumption of a circular path.

Newton's conception of planetary paths as the result of a composition of different forces itself became a metaphor beyond the realms of astronomy and physics. Montesquieu, Mandeville, and Kant all examine society and history as the result of the composition of actions of individuals or social institutions.

Blumenberg notes that the emergence of modernity can be comprehended in part as and abandonment of circle metaphorics -- and so it is unsurprising that that those, like Nietzsche, who are disenchanted with modernity and seek to overturn it also seek to revive such metaphors.

Reading this, I have been able to see, really for the first time, a sense in which Nietzsche is an authentically anti-modern thinker.  I had seen unmasking as the essential move of Nietzschean philosophy, which seemed to make it characteristically modern.  Blumenberg's exposition of Nietzsche's metaphorical commitments has complicated my view -- and made me think that Heidegger was not so wrong to see him as the last of the metaphysicians, after all.

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.