A Personal Dictionary

literature: n; 5.

We measure a great book by the quality of its shade. Terrible literature hurts our eyes precisely because of a lack of shade.

from A Personal Dictionary


The Legitimacy of the Modern Age

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age
by Hans Blumenberg

677 p
translated by Robert M. Wallace
1983; MIT Press
ISBN 0262021846

   This book sat, slouched, reclined, and finally slept on the shelf above my desk for over six years. I made a start at it once but immediately realized that I was incapable of engaging it. There were requirements that I did not possess. My papers were not in order. Not knowing what I was lacking I returned the book to its purgatory and read Blumenberg’s much more modest Shipwreck With Spectator. Years passed and my literary wandering continued until I reached Hans Vaihinger and The Philosophy of What If ? From this I was delivered into The History of Materialism by F.A. Lange. Suddenly, that presence on the shelf above my desk, instead of mocking me, seemed to welcome me. I was ready.
   And so I set out into The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Its demands are not slight. It is not a book that can be picked up and then abandoned. To participate in Blumenberg’s expansive view of history, and to accompany his arguments rather than try to catch up to them, one must dedicate one’s time. Silence helps. Being in a foreign country by yourself for a month is also useful.

   The proposal that modernity, and its attendant idea of progress, are the secularization of eschatology is what Blumenberg denies. His arguments issue from his detailed analyses of the intellectual and theological history that begins with the Greeks and continues through the Middle Ages and into the early Renaissance. Much philosophy of history seems too clean. Dreams are clean; life is a bloody and imperfect spectacle. In reading Blumenberg’s account of spiritual and intellectual history I understood that the intellectual exhaustion that besets certain individuals is symptomatic of a spiritual exhaustion of their corresponding culture. As well, his conception of history, so deceptively simple, is undeniably fertile. As Blumenberg argues, the continuity of history is a “continuity of problems rather than of solutions, of questions rather than of answers”. Moreover, once a certain question is posed “it becomes unavoidable”. It is precisely such possibilities of being, such survivors of questions, which I recognize as companions.

epoch: n; In the history of ideas, in the accounts of the intellectual battles and the corresponding successes and failures, what is not recounted is that within any epoch there are those who have thought through, partially or fully, the contradictions which characterize and haunt their age. In an individual the end of an epoch can be reached and the subsequent transcendence of their particular age may be, if not achieved, then at least attempted. A process that may take a culture hundreds of years can be achieved within the intellectual development of a single person. And yet, it is as though only the small, hesitant steps can be followed. For a culture the giant strides that lead irreversibly elsewhere are not enticing. Understanding, at the level of a culture, is less a matter of arriving somewhere than it is a question of maintaining cohesion. It would seem that the less understanding the better, as though understanding itself has a dissipative effect, as though any epochal conception is culturally ruinous. (A Personal Dictionary)

   The question is not important for the answer which may succeed it, but for the possibility that will survive it.

   I will leave it at that.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hello,nice post thanks for sharing?. I just joined and I am going to catch up by reading for a while. I hope I can join in soon.