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Hans Blumenberg and Hannah Arendt on the "Unworldly Worldliness" of the Modern Age

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 61, Number 3, July 2000
pp. 513-530 | 10.1353/jhi.2000.0026

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Journal of the History of Ideas 61.3 (2000) 513-530

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Hans Blumenberg and Hannah Arendt on the "Unworldly Worldliness" of the Modern Age

Elizabeth Brient


In attempting to describe and respond to the dominant ethos of the modern age one is quickly confronted with a startling and seemingly intractable paradox: the age which has defined itself by the very intensity of its "this worldly" orientation is at the same time haunted by an ever growing sense of world loss, of the Unheimlichkeit of modern reality.

On the one hand the modern turn away from the transcendent contemplative and religious ideals and values of antiquity and the Middle Ages is evidenced by a profoundly new, active, and indeed constructive approach to the world. Modern science is predicated on an objective stance which demystifies the cosmos and allows for a technological mastery of nature which has improved human life in innumerable ways. The modern conception of the self is grounded in a new conception of the autonomy and dignity of the individual, and modern political theory begins with the notion that society is an artifact to be constructed in the service of the very individuals who constitute the body politic. We are made uneasy by the nagging suspicion that life in this world which we have remade for ourselves is somehow hollow, an artificial construction without depth or solidity, a merely superficial order which threatens to dissolve into meaninglessness. The technological advances made possible by modern science have also brought the atomic bomb, global warming, and acid rain. Power over nature has led to the power to destroy nature. The modern world has seen an unprecedented rise in individual freedom, and yet the autonomy of the individual has all too often given way to the anomie of the individual. Loss of community advances alongside failed experiments in social engineering, and the specter of totalitarianism haunts the modern dream of social and political emancipation. [End Page 513]

Paradoxically, then, modern worldliness is attended by an uneasy sense of world alienation. It has become quite common in attempting to give an account for this perplexing state of affairs to speak of a process of secularization in the transition from the medieval to the modern world, a process in which many of the central ideas and principles of the modern age are taken to be secular variations on medieval theological themes. Thus, for example, faith in the progress of science or of history is taken to be a secularized version of belief in divine Providence, the political equality of all individuals under the law is said to be a secular reiteration of the understanding of the equality of all human beings before God, the transcendental subject is exposed as a secular version of the divine or angelic knower, and the communist state and other modern utopias marking the end of history are said to be secularizations of Christian eschatological expectations of the end of the world and the coming reign of God.

This reading of the epochal transition explains the worldly character of modern reality in terms of the "immanentization" or secularization of religious attitudes and expectations. It also serves to explain the uncanny sense of worldlessness characteristic of much of modern life. This is because the new secular forms are now revealed either as distorted and impoverished versions of an originally meaningful world view (as for example in Neo-Scholasticism) or as the unfortunate perpetuation or unfolding of an inherently nihilistic tradition (as say Nietzsche, Heidegger, and many contemporary post modernists would have it). But does the secularization thesis as a tool of historical explanation really do justice either to the complex reality of the epochal transition in concrete historical terms or even, and more to the point, to the fundamental character of the supposedly secularized modern ideas?

Hans Blumenberg and Hannah Arendt would both no doubt answer emphatically in the negative. Both insist on the genuine novelty of modernity, on the fundamentally unprecedented character of the modern orientation to and in the...