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Reviews 137 The Legitimacy oftheModern Ageby Hans Blumenberg. Translated by Robert M. Wallace. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983. pp. xxxi + 677. $13.95 (paper). FrancisBacon andModernity by Charles Whitney. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. pp. ? + 234. $18.50 (cloth). Hans Blumenberg has contributed importantly to a widening debate on the genesis and historical formation of modernity. His response to twentieth-century disenchantment with the world is to contest theories that refer the crisis to some catastrophic breach situated in the past. Pathologies of modernity include Freud's phylogenetic scenario of the slaying of the primal father, Nietzsche's attack on Christian asceticism, Heidegger's "forgetfulness of Being," Theodor Adorno's critique of Englightenment rationality—even the neoconservative culture criticism that treats the decline of American political authority as a legacy of modernist aesthetics. Blumenberg challenges antimodernist historical consciousness and endeavors to reclaim the Enlightenment inheritance against the onslaught of its critics. At a time when much theoretical discourse operates on the assumption that we have left modernity safely behind and moved into a period of postmodernism, Blumenberg discloses continuities stretching back to the late Middle Ages. At a time when the deconstruction of Western rationality has helped bring about the "end of philosophy," his bulky, impressively learned, and sometimes oracular book dares to salvage the Enlightenment project by calling for a more rational rationality. This review, coming so long after the appearance ofthe German second edition (1973-76), is necessarily retrospective. Robert Wallace's translation, supplemented by an excellent introduction and useful notes, has helped to secure for Blumenberg a growing audience outside of Germany: the book has attracted reviews by Richard Rorty, Martin Jay, and William Bouwsma, and discussions have appeared in New German Critique. Considerable attention has fallen on Part I, which undertakes a refutation of theories that explain the modern world in terms of secularization. As Blumenberg demonstrates, we never seem to tire of the argument that a given phenomenon, supposedly constitutive of modernity, is actually a secularized version of an identifiably Christian institution. Modernity, the argument runs, may define itselfin opposition to theology, but in fact derives unconsciously from it. Thus we hear that modern theories of political equality are secularized versions of the concept ofequality before God; that the work ethic is a secularized version of monastic asceticism or of the Protestant notion of a calling; that scientists are secularized priests enforcing the ideology ofOne True Religion; that Defoe's novels are secularized spiritual autobiography, or that the world revolution predicted by Marx is a secularized version of biblical messianism and Christian eschatology. Although Blumenberg endorses a relatively weak version of the secularization thesis, agreeing that the modern world is "unthinkable without" Christianity (30), he rejects the idea that modern beliefin progress simply reproduces Christian teleology. He argues that whereas Christianity looks towards divine intervention in history to bring about its consummation , the modern idea of infinite progress makes "each present relative to its future, but at the same time it renders every absolute claim untenable" (35). At the very least, readers will come away from this section feeling that the secularization thesis is in danger of hypostatization, and will pause before accepting glib formulations of historical identity. Viewing theory as the highest form of human activity, Blumenberg undertakes the task of organizing structures ofthought into the form of a totalizing master-narrative. He resists the tendency, common in the old history of ideas, to regard "ideas" as extractable essences arising in response to timeless questions. He does, however, share its indifference to social practice, locating "history" and the production of meaning in the theoretical discourses of intellectual elites. One influential source of the idea that modern theories of historical progress derive ultimately from the salvation story is Karl Lo'with's Meaning in History, which is seriously challenged, if not demolished, here. Where Lowith considered the modern mind hopelessly caught in an unconscious struggle between Christian providentialism and pagan cyclicality, Blumenberg discovers the operation of a legitimate mode of consciousness, characterized by its pragmatic approach to the limits of understanding and emphasis on "human self-assertion." He finds the seeds of this attitude in the fourteenth-century 138 the minnesota review nominalism of William...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 137-140
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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