“Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age” – Robert M. WALLACE

Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age is a book that rethinks both the substance and the process of Western intellectual history in a remarkably thorough and original way, shedding light on some of the most difficult questions of our time. Die Legitimität der Neuzeil was published in 1966, the first major work of a younger German philosopher who, without being identified with anyone of the dominant philosophical schools in Germany, had dearly assimilated all of them, together with the historiography of philosophy, science, and theology. The book soon became the center of a widespread discussion, and it continues to be one of the recent works most frequently cited in German philosophical discourse. A second edition, substantially revised in order to respond to criticisms and dispel misunderstandings evident in the reviews, appeared in three paperback volumes in 1973, 1974, and 1976. It is this second edition that is here presented in a complete translation.

To understand Blumenberg’s train of thought, one needs to have a clear idea of the way in which Löwith (and others) cast doubt on the legitimacy of modernity. Löwith’s Meaning in History focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth century ‘philosophies of history’ — from Voltaire, Turgot, and Condorcet to Hegel, Marx, Proudhon, and Comte — in which he finds the classical formulations of the modern idea of progress. Not content with optimism about their own times and their own futures, these authors (with the partial exception of Voltaire) interpreted history as a whole as embodying a logic of inevitable progress in which apparent relapses (what used to be called “dark ages,” for instance) have to be understood as necessary stages in preparing for subsequent steps forward. In the course of the twentieth century, most of us have become more or less skeptical about such theories, but certainly no alternative pattern of interpretation has achieved anything like the broad acceptance that the idea of progress once had. And one may reasomibly wonder whether it does not still underlie many of our attitudes, such as our continuing faith in science and the sense of superiority and of somehow inevitable world leadership that certain Western countries still seem to possess.

In any case Löwith is not satisfied to note the prevalence of the idea of progress in eighteenth and nineteenth century thought and to congratulate those of us who think we have overcome this illusion. He respects the intellectual claims of the ‘philosophers of history’ whom he studies, so that for him their ideas constitute a real philosophical problem and not just a historical or psychological ‘phenomenon.’ The possibility of interpreting their ideas as naive projections of contemporary scientific and technical progress, economic growth, and ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolutions onto the screen of the history of the human race as a whole is something that he does not even entertain. How then does Löwith interpret the modern ‘philosophies of history’? He interprets them as a “secularization” of the eschatological pattern set up by the Jewish and Christian religions, of their faith in a fulfillment of the world’s history through ‘final’ events (coming of the Messiah, Last Judgment, etc.), a faith whose essence he describes as “hope,” “living by expectation”, or simply “futurism.” In contrast, he describes ancient philosophy and religion as founded on a “reverence for the past and the ever present,” which are embodied in the cyclical pattern of reality exemplified by organic life and the revolutions of the heavens. In history this pattern took the form of the continual growth, maturity, and decline of individuals, cities, peoples, and (for some ancient thinkers) entire ‘worlds.’ It was Judaism and, above all, Christianity that broke the rule of this model in the Hellenistic/Roman world, introducing the entirely novel ideas of creation from nothing and total final destruction, of a unique world history centered (in Christianity) on a unique Incarnation and directed at one absolutely final Judgment. This, Löwith argues, is the only possible source of the modem notion of a single, unified, future-directed history of progress, despite the irreligious and even antireligious postures of many of the modern theorists of progress.

This, then; was the situation when Blumenberg first presented his critique of the secularization “category” at the Seventh German Philosophy Congress in 1962, a critique that was expanded and equipped with a complete alternative account of the origin of the modern age in Die Legitimität der Neuzeit (1966) and was defended and further elaborated in this revised edition.

Very briefly, as it applies to Löwith’s theory that the idea of progress is the result of a secularization of Christian eschatology, Blumenberg’s critique (part I, chapter 3) has two main elements. First, he points out that the ‘future’ that the modern idea of progress anticipates is conceived of as the product of an immanent process of development rather than as a transcendent intervention comparable to the coming of the Messiah, the end of the world, the Last Judgment, and so forth. And if the common element· is supposed to be “hope,” the Christian attitude to the final events· has been characterized far more by fear than by hope for’ most of the Christian era and has been’ such as to discourage precisely the kind of forward-looking constructive effort that is implied in ‘progress’ — so that the transformation of the one into the other is very difficult to picture. Second, there are in any case alternative accounts of the origin of the idea,’ accounts that do not reduce it merely to a naive projection of an optimistic period in European history any more than Löwith’s does. Blumenberg describes the idea of progress as arising from two primary early-modem formative experiences: the overcoming of the fixed, authoritative status of Aristotelian science by the idea of a cooperative, long-term scientific progress guided by method; and the overcoming (in the literary and aesthetic realm) of the idea of ancient art and literature as permanently valid models of perfection in favor of the idea of the arts as embodying the creative spirit of their particular ages and in that sense as capable of again achieving validity equal to that of the creations of the ancients. These two parallel developments, both of which occur primarily in the course of the seventeenth century, are then followed by a process in which the idea is extended to other realms (technology, society) and generalized as the idea of progress ‘across the board’, which figures in the writings of Voltaire and hus successors in the ‘philosopy of history’.

WALLACE, Robert M., Translator’s Note, in BLUMENBERG, Hans, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Transl. by Robert M. Wallace. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985.

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