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  • Introduction:Reflections on the Fiftieth Anniversary of Hans Blumenberg's The Legitimacy of the Modern Age

This collection celebrates the semicentennial of the publication of Hans Blumenberg's The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. The question that inspired Blumenberg may continue to provoke readers today, when challenges to secularism have emerged both in academic discourse and in political life: Can modernity ground its own normativity without appealing to the religious past? Or must we abandon the attempt to seek a rational grounding for modern norms? Is secularism still valid as a political framework and as a cognitive and moral ideal, or is it mistaken to believe in the independence or "self-assertion" of secular modernity?

Blumenberg, Social Theory, secularism, modernity, religion

The year 2016 marked a half-century since the appearance of an unusual monument in German philosophy: the capacious and highly speculative work by Hans Blumenberg first published in 1966 as The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.1 A semi-centennial may not strike some readers as a notably symbolic event, but reappraisal of Blumenberg's book is especially urgent today, when so many of its claims hang in the air with a question mark. The book's fundamental question is conveyed clearly in its title: Can modernity stand free of the religious past and justify its task of this-worldly progress in wholly profane terms? Or, alternately, does the modern age suffer a basic illegitimacy in principles, due to a hidden but enduring dependence on an essentially religious idea it claims outwardly to disavow?

This question is especially significant in our contemporary moment, when the idea of the secular is everywhere called into question not just as a theoretical matter but also as a common ideal. Examining Blumenberg's theme of secular legitimacy, one can hardly ignore facts of religious militancy in all its doctrinal variety. The intermingling of theocracy and technocratic forms is not confined to any single religion; it appears across the [End Page 67] globe, reminding us that what Jürgen Habermas has called the "dialectic of secularization" has not yet reached an end.2

Clearly, the ideal of the secular has not yet found the stability of a rationally mediated consensus. The principle of secular governance is under assault by rising forces of political-theological militancy in states as diverse in cultural and religious inheritance as Israel, India, Turkey, and the United States. Although this political context is hard to ignore, the following papers address themselves chiefly to questions of philosophy and history. Nonetheless, even within academic circles, Blumenberg's idea of secular legitimacy now seems to arouse political controversy: an emergent trend among philosophers and social theorists suggests that "the secular" is less an ideal than an ideology. This broad shift in alliances and ideological premises is truly striking: it marks a sea change in the discourse of the human sciences.

To explain what has changed requires a backwards glance and a provisional definition. Secularism, broadly speaking, was once the preferred ground of ideological consensus for philosophers and social theorists who committed themselves to the normative ideal of universal emancipation. The seventeenth-century wars of religion fortified the ascendant view that the modern state should no longer ground its authority in the incorrigible truths of revelation. The state, it was argued, would henceforth be seen not as the worldly agent of the divine but rather as a human artifice through and through. Although Hobbes saw Leviathan as an "artificial man," its sovereignty was no less absolute. The cognitive strain of a conflicted allegiance to "two masters" (human and divine) was held in check only though an eschatological proviso: God's ultimate sovereignty, Hobbes claimed, would play no role in secular politics until the end of time.

But the idea of the state as a purely human creation eventually shed Hobbes's authoritarian inheritance and informed a new theory of government as a rational contract, not given but rationally fashioned, and for the benefit of all its citizens. Although the secularist principle did not aim to vanquish religion as such, legally enforced separation was supposed to forbid state appeals to theology. Secularism as an ideal takes cognizance of pluralism: revoking religion as a requirement for citizenship, it thereby seeks to protect religious minorities from discrimination. It is chiefly thanks to this ideal of governmental neutrality that religious minorities in liberal-democratic regimes have been historically less vulnerable to state-sanctioned oppression, expulsion, and murder. [End Page 68]

Needless to say, such persecution becomes possible once again whenever the state abandons its principled neutrality and revives the political-theological dream of a homogeneous public good. This inherited fear of theocratic domination still lies at the core of political liberalism; but the fear does not belong to liberalism alone. Even radical critics of the bourgeois state such as Karl Marx understood the secular principle of citizenship as necessary for the disenchantment of social bonds. His argument was dialectical: By detaching religion from the state, the bourgeoisie had fortified the space of private egotism, introducing a new species of purely secular mystification; but it had also rationalized the structures of public law and made visible for the first time the profane logic of capitalist modernity. (To speak of the commodity as a "fetish," after all, was to call upon the Enlightenment's archive of religious critique: it named an illusion and called for demystification.) For Marx the possibility of human emancipation would not merely negate but also fulfill the ideal of freedom that bourgeois society had left incomplete. In all such discourses, secularism informed a normative ideal of modern freedom even while that ideal was still violated in practice.

For the last two decades or so, however, academic discourse has witnessed something of a paradigm shift. The secularist principle that once served as a shared premise for normative work in social theory has now emerged as an object of concerted suspicion and genealogical critique. Anthropologists such as Talal Asad and the late Saba Mahmood, alongside historians such as Joan Scott, now look upon secularism with great skepticism.3 In their work it appears less as an ideal worth defending than an ideology that needs dismantling, since it serves all too often as an instrument of discipline, domination, and exclusion. They are indeed correct that secularism can be deployed in an asymmetrical fashion and is vulnerable to astonishing abuse by authoritarian governments who have little interest in the protection of religious heterogeneities. The example of Egypt (which is discussed at length in Mahmood's recent book Religious Difference in a Secular Age) reminds us that the modern state can invoke the principles of secularism to deploy strategies of governmental discipline that only enhance inequality. This genre of genealogical work pursues its critique of secularism chiefly through case studies and fine-grained anthropological inquiry. [End Page 69] But their conclusions are global; they convey the impression that such discoveries alone may suffice to bring the normative legitimacy of the secular itself into disrepute.

It is therefore fitting that we recall the moment a half-century ago when a philosophical debate in Germany brought the question of the "legitimacy" of secular modernity into especially sharp focus. It was in 1962 that Hans Blumenberg first presented a paper, "'Säkularisation': Kritik einer Kategorie historischer Illegitimität" ("'Secularization': Critique of a Category of Historical Illegitimacy") before an assembly at the Seventh German Philosophy Congress. This paper marked the beginning of the secularization debate in German philosophy.4 It drew a sharp rejoinder from Karl Löwith, and, four years later, Blumenberg expanded his initial arguments into a magnum opus, published under the title Die Legitimität der Neuzeit. Over the course of the next decade the author elaborated upon his claims in three successive editions. In 1983, the book was finally translated into English by Robert M. Wallace as The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.

In the Anglophone world, Legitimacy ranks as the best-known and most frequently discussed work in Blumenberg's oeuvre, but it was hardly his only or even his most characteristic work. In the politicized and factionalized intellectual history of the German Federal Republic, his many books resist simple categorization, and, partly for this reason, his claims were rarely taken up into the global networks of political or theoretical dispute alongside those of luminaries who might have seemed his natural interlocutors (e.g., Habermas and Luhmann in Germany; Foucault and Derrida in France; and Charles Taylor, Thomas Kuhn, and Richard Rorty in North America). Situated between philosophy and literature, phenomenology and anthropology, Blumenberg's works did not fit easily into conventional genres or harmonize with standard methods for scholarship. To quote Robert Buch and Daniel Weidner, they were "milestones but also monoliths [Meilensteine, aber auch Monolithe]."5

The unusual or even uncategorizable quality of the work also reflects the unusual life of its author. Hans Blumenberg was born in 1920 in Lübeck to a Catholic father (Josef Carl Blumenberg) and a Jewish mother (born Else Schreier). He was raised as a Catholic, descending from a long line of priests on his father's side, and, although he never strongly identified with [End Page 70] his mother's religious origins, he was classified by Nazi legislation as a "Halbjude." After graduating first in his class in 1939 from the prestigious Katharineum, the same Lübeck gymnasium as Thomas Mann, he pursued theological studies at the Theological Academy in Paderborn and the Jesuit school of Saint George in Frankfurt, but was then forced because of anti-Semitism to abandon his studies. He returned to Lübeck where he remained in hiding until the end of the war. After 1945 he pursued research at the University of Hamburg. A deeply erudite scholar of literature and philology as well as philosophy, in his postwar career Blumenberg followed a wandering course of appointments at various German universities, including the Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen and the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, until he finally secured a permanent post in 1970 as a professor of philosophy at the University of Munster, where he taught from 1970 until his retirement in 1985. A co-founder with Hans-Robert Jauss and Clemens Heselhaus of the important literary-philosophical journal Poetik und Hermeneutik, Blumenberg was an unusual and in many respects idiosyncratic scholar, whose works did not easily fit into the established grooves of West-German intellectual culture. An obituary published in Die Zeit after his death in March 1996 described him as an Außenseiter.6

That term also applies to The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. In a 1983 review of Legitimacy, Richard Rorty spoke to the "belatedness" of Blumenberg's reception, and he expressed sincere regret that the book had contributed so little to the debates of its time:

The first edition of Blumenberg's book was published four years after Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions and one year before Foucault's Les Mots et les Choses. But the latter book waited only six years to be translated into English. Ever since it has stood side by side with Kuhn's on many bookshelves, profoundly affecting the way we English-speakers think about intellectual history. It is a pity that Blumenberg's book went untranslated for 17 years. If it had been on those same shelves for the past decade our reflections on such topics as "progress" and "rationality" would have been greatly enriched.7 [End Page 71]

The unfortunate fact of Blumenberg's belated reception in the Anglophone sphere has many causes, as Paul Fleming has explained in a thoughtful essay on the "missed encounter" between Blumenberg and the United States.8 This belated reception has only recently begun to be redressed. With the appearance of new translations and with growing attention to his contribution to the history of myth and metaphor (metaphorology), his dialogue with Carl Schmitt, and newly edited works still emerging from his own Nachlass.9 Paul Fleming is altogether justified in calling this a "Blumenberg renaissance."10

But it is Blumenberg's original concern about the modern age that now confronts us with special and renewed urgency. Can modernity ground its own normativity without appealing to the religious past? Or must we abandon the attempt to seek a rational grounding for modern norms? These questions recall a host of prior methodological and logic questions: What, after all, is a "ground," and does its metaphorical or logical status change [End Page 72] once we think of ourselves as floating upon a temporal sea without the hope for a metaphysical anchor or land? (Here Blumenberg's own metaphorological inquiry, Shipwreck with Spectator, is of great relevance, as is his fascinating and imaginative inquiry into notions of groundedness and groundlessness in Care Crosses the River.) The momentous question that so preoccupied Blumenberg fifty years ago may continue to inspire or at least provoke readers today, in an era when the challenges to secularism have emerged with such force both in academic discourse and in our political life. The forum that follows brings together five scholars—Jean-Claude Monod, Daniela Helbig, Willem Styfhals, Daniel Weidner, and myself—each of whom offers a unique perspective on Blumenberg's book and its enduring significance. The essays published here leave the reader with what I hope will be an enriched understanding of Blumenberg's legacy, and with renewed confidence that the key concerns of The Legitimacy of the Modern Age will still be with us when we celebrate the book's centennial. [End Page 73]

Peter E. Gordon
Harvard University


1. Hans Blumenberg, Die Legitimität der Neuzeit (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1966; extended and revised ed., 1973, 1974, 1976). Translated into English from the 1976 edition by Robert M. Wallace as The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983).

2. Jürgen Habermas, "Faith and Knowledge," trans. Hella Beister and William Rehy, in The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers, ed. Eduardo Mendieta (New York: Routledge, 2004): 327–38, esp. 328.

3. Joan Wallach Scott, Sex and Secularism. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017); Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

4. Blumenberg, "'Säkularisation': Kritik einer Kategorie historischr Illegitimität," in Die Philosophie und die Frage nach dem Fortschritt, ed. Helmut Kuhn and Franz Wiedemann (Munich: A. Pustet, 1964), 240–65.

5. Quoted from "Einleitung," in the excellent guidebook, Blumenberg lesen, ed. Robert Buch and Daniel Weidner (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2014), 15.

6. Eckhard Nordhofen, "Zum Tode des Philosophen Hans Blumenbergs," Die Zeit 16, April 12, 1996.

7. Richard Rorty, "Against Belatedness," The London Review of Books 5, no. 11 (June 16, 1983): 3–5, at 5. It should be noted here that Kuhn's Structure received renewed attention on its own semicentennial. See, for example, Robert J. Richard and Lorraine Daston, eds., Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions at 50: Reflections on a Science Classic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); William J. Devlin and Alisa Bokulich, eds., Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions—50 Years On, Boston Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 311 (Cham: Springer Verlag, 2015); and Peter E. Gordon, ed. "Forum: Kuhn's Structure at Fifty," Modern Intellectual History 9, no. 1 (2012): 73–147. The fiftieth anniversary of Foucault's Les mots et les choses was likewise the topic of a recent forum. See "Words, Things, and Beyond: Foucault's Les mots et les choses at 50," ed. and intro. Gordon, History and Theory 55, Theme Issue 54 (December 2016).

8. Paul Fleming, "Verfehlungen: Hans Blumenberg and the United States," New German Critique 44, no. 3 (132) (2017): 105–21.

9. Introductory works include: Franz Josef Wetz, Hans Blumenberg zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius-Verlag, 2004); Elizabeth Brient, The Immanence of the Infinite: Hans Blumenberg and the Threshold to Modernity (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2002); Felix Heidenreich, Mensch und Moderne bei Hans Blumenberg (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2005). On Blumenberg and Schmitt, see Marcel Lepper and Alexander Schmitz, eds., Hans Blumenberg, Carl Schmitt: Briefwechsel 1971–1978 und weitere Materialien (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2007). On metaphorology, see Philipp Stoellger, Metapher und Lebenswelt: Hans Blumenbergs Metaphorologie als Lebenswelthermeneutik und ihr religionsphänomenologischer Horizont (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000). On myth see Angus Nicholls, Myth and the Human Sciences: Hans Blumenberg's Theory of Myth (New York: Routledge, 2015). Among Blumenberg's contributions to metaphorology, see especially Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence, trans. Steven Rendall (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997); The Laughter of the Thracian Woman: A Protohistory of Theory, trans. Spencer Hawkins (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015); Paradigms for a Metaphorology, trans. Robert Savage (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010); and the collected essays in Care Crosses the River, trans. Fleming (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010). A complete bibliography was produced in 1999 by David Adams and Peter Behrenberg, "Bibliographie Hans Blumenberg," in Die Kunst des Überlebens: Nachdenken über Hans Blumenberg, ed. Franz Josef Wetz and Hermann Timm (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1999). For some of the most recent and creative interpretative essays in English, see the special Hans Blumenberg issue of Telos 158 (Spring 2012).

10. Fleming, "Verfehlungen: Hans Blumenberg and the United States," 119.

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