Against Belatedness

Richard Rorty

Lots of people blame the way things have been going lately on ‘false consciousness’. We are, they say, trapped in a conceptual scheme which distorts the way things really are. All our ways of talking, acting and hoping are infected by these concepts. We cannot expect things to get any better until we rid ourselves of them and adopt a new form of intellectual life, one which helps to encourage the emergence of new forms of social life. On this view, we are just not with it if our highest social hopes are, for example, that Somozas and Castros will be replaced by Allendes, that larger numbers of people will lead longer, more leisured lives, and that we shall eventually get solar power and nuclear disarmament. For we are still thinking in a ‘liberal’ or ‘hegemonic’ or ‘scientistic’ or ‘technocratic’ or ‘rationalistic’ way. This way of thinking is, we are told, ‘bankrupt’. What we should be hoping for is that, in our capacity as the vanguard of human thought, we shall be able to break out of the vocabularies which we have inherited from the 19th century, and thus ‘unmask’ what is being done by people whose highest hopes are still those of John Stuart Mill.

When people who take this line are asked what alternative concepts they would recommend, they usually reply that the question is premature. Self-criticism must come first. We need to deconstruct the metaphysics of presence, or to become aware of the repressive character of the most benevolent-looking of contemporary institutions, or to see the distortions induced by innocuous-seeming linguistic expressions. Time enough to think of some new metaphysics or institutions or language when we have gotten rid of the old. This is a predictible reply, for those who accuse us of ‘false consciousness’ would risk self-refutation if they replied: ‘Right. Here are the new concepts you need.’ The danger is that the rest of us might say: ‘They sound pretty good – we’ll give them a whirl.’ Such a reply would falsify the original claim that we had all been imprisoned within old ways of thinking. If intelligible alternative concepts are available for the asking, then the old concepts were not deep and tacit and unquestioned enough to have created ‘false consciousness’. Chains that easy to break cannot count as bondage. No ‘epistemological rupture’ will be required. So people who use such notions cannot tell us what is false about our consciousness by spelling out what undistorted consciousness looks like. They have to gesture in the direction of a place where such consciousness exists or existed.

Marxists usually gesture in the direction of a working class which has not been corrupted by ‘consumerism’, and hence retains a revolutionary consciousness. Others gesture in the direction of a monastery in Ladakh, or a commune in Oregon. But mostly the gesture is towards the past. Nietzsche, at his worst, gestured towards some narcissistic and inarticulate hunks of Bronze Age beefcake. Carlyle gestured towards some contented peasants working the lands of a kindly medieval abbot. Lots of us occasionally gesture in the direction of the lost world in which our parents or our grandparents told us they grew up. Heidegger, the great master of nostalgia, kept gesturing towards those pre-Socratics whose one-liners left most room for retranslation (or, as he put it, the most open space for Being).

It is to the credit of such post-Heideggerian philosophers as Derrida and Foucault that they avoid this insistence on the belatedness of the modern age. They are trying to work out from under the notion of ‘false consciousness’ by admitting that ‘false’ is not the right term, and that ‘unmasking’ is the wrong rhetoric. They recognise that if we are going to set aside the reality-appearance distinction, typical of what Heidegger called ‘the metaphysics of presence’, we must be careful not to smuggle it back in, disguised as a distinction between the pristine old and the nasty new. So what we get from Derrida and Foucault, and from other contemporary French writers, is not so much attempts to unmask the realities of the time as warnings to eschew ‘totalisation’ – to avoid the ‘metaphysical’ impulse to place everything within one great big ‘privileged’ ahistorical context. From this point of view, Heidegger’s downbeat history of philosophy (with everything getting more impoverished and constrained and etiolated as you go along) is just Hegel stood, yet again, on his head – the inverse of Hegel’s upbeat story of everything having gotten richer and freer and more colourful. What we want, on this view, is acknowledgment of discontinuity and open-endedness and contingency, rather than either nostalgia or exuberance.

Given this state of intellectual play, about the last thing one would expect to come down the pike is a great sweeping history of the course of European thought, built on the Hegel-Heidegger scale, which has Francis Bacon as one of its heroes, speaks well of the Enlightenment (of all periods), and suggests that the future lies (of all directions) ahead. It has been a long time since anybody with pretensions to historical depth has agreed with Macaulay about Bacon. The Enlightenment has been a favourite target ever since Adorno blamed it for Los Angeles. The belief that things might well get better and better the more technological mastery we acquire has almost vanished, even from the popular press. But Blumenberg’s book makes all the things that Heidegger made look bad look good again. He turns Heidegger’s story on its head, but does not fall back into the totalising metaphysics which backed up Hegel’s story. He gives us good old-fashioned Geistesgeschichte, but without the teleology and purported inevitability characteristic of the genre, and condemned by liberals such as Popper and Berlin.

Die Legitimität der Neuzeit was published in 1966, and has been much discussed in Germany, though not much elsewhere. Badly-educated English-speaking philosophers like myself (the kind who read long books in German only if they absolutely have to, non sine ira et studio) owe a great deal to Robert Wallace. He has translated eight hundred pages of very tough German as lucidly as literalness permits. (We also owe a lot to the MIT Press series ‘Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought’, which promises more Blumenberg books in the future.) Those of us who agree with Nietzsche and Heidegger that the philosophical tradition is pretty well played out, with Carlyle and Foucault that the arts and the sciences have not been unmixed blessings, and with Marxists that we should not believe what the lying capitalist press tells us about the modern world, but whose highest hopes are still those of Mill, now have a champion. Or, if not exactly a champion, at least somebody whose upbeat history we can cite against those who revel in belatedness, and against those who fear that telling big sweeping geistesgeschichtlich stories will reinforce our bad old totalising urges.

The German mode of gearing up to think about something – starting with the Greeks and working down through, for example, Cicero, Galileo and Schelling before saying anything off your own bat – is easily parodied. But it is an explicit and conscientious way of doing something that we all do, usually tacitly and carelessly. We all carry some potted intellectual history around with us, to be spooned out as needed. Those of us who don’t do the historical work ourselves are fated to pick up, usually at several removes, somebody else’s story (for example, Augustine’s, Macaulay’s, Marx’s, H.G. Wells’s, Will Durant’s). Such stories determine our sense of what is living and what is dead in the past, and thus of when the crucial steps forward, or the crucial mistakes or ruptures, occurred.

Most intellectuals still think that the most decisive step of all came in the 17th and 18th centuries, when we got out from under prejudice, superstition and the belief in God. Since then we have been becoming freer and freer thanks to the developing natural sciences, the proliferation of new artistic forms, increasingly democratic political institutions, and similar aids to self-confidence, necessary for life in a Godless universe. The alternative, minority view (which has become the majority view among French and German intellectuals in the last few decades) is that the 17th and 18th centuries merely ‘secularised’ various religious themes. This story dismisses such visions of human progress as Mill’s, Marx’s, Dewey’s and Rawls’s as merely anthropomorphised and vulgarised versions of Christian eschatology. This view is nicely summed up by a quote from Karl Löwith, included by Wallace in his very clear and helpful ‘Translator’s Introduction’: ‘The modern mind has not made up its mind whether it should be Christian or pagan. It sees with one eye of faith and the other of reason. Hence its vision is necessarily dim in comparison with either Greek or Biblical thinking.’ From this point of view, it does not make much difference whether you prefer Socrates to Christ or conversely, as long as you despise the dim moderns. Löwith here follows Nietzsche, who was equally nasty about both Socrates and Christ, but insisted that either was infinitely preferable to us feeble late-comers. Löwith’s view chimes with Heidegger’s slogan ‘We are too late for the gods and too early for Being,’ and with similar slogans in Ortega, Strauss, Adorno etc. Whatever else these people disagree about, they unite in despising the hopes of contemporary liberals.

Blumenberg gets his book off to an unfortunately slow start with a hundred pages on the notion of ‘secularisation’, designed to under-cut the cliché that liberal belief in progress is just warmed-over Christian hope. This section is filled with arch and allusive replies to critics of the first edition of the book – replies which Wallace does his best to elucidate in footnotes, but which are often pretty confusing. Still, the drift is clear: just because we have recognised the silliness of the claim that Christianity was ‘just superstition and priestcraft’ we need not run to the other extreme and say that Enlightenment beliefs in Nature and Progress were ‘just heretical re-formulations of Christian dogma’. What the Enlightenment gave us was not ‘the transposition of authentically Christian convictions into secularised alienation from their origin, but rather ... the reoccupation of answer positions that had become vacant’. That is, people still needed answers to questions like ‘What is it all for?’ but once they had given up trying to make sense of a relation between themselves and Omnipotence they found some genuinely new answers to give to this question, answers which had nothing to do with Omnipotence.

These answers consisted in variations on the claim that the point of our lives lies in our contribution to an infinite task – the acquisition of Baconian knowledge-as-power, the satisfaction of theoretical curiosity – which lies before the species as a whole. This is not a Christian heresy, any more than Christianity was ‘just’ Gnosticism plus some new proper names. The Enlightenment did not just rechristen the Incarnate Infinite ‘man’ instead of ‘Christ’. Rather, from Hobbes on ‘the infinite serves ... less to answer one of the great traditional questions than to blunt it, less to give meaning to history than to dispute the claim to be able to give it meaning.’ The substitution of an infinitely long time in which progress can occur for a pre-existent infinite which will redeem our finitude is not just a ‘transposition’. It is a leap in the dark of the same magnitude as the ‘leap’ which Kierkegaard said separates the Christian from the Socratic. Here as elsewhere in the book, Blumenberg shows us how easy and misleading it is to pick a description sufficiently abstract to encompass ancient, medieval and modern beliefs, and then to say that they are all ‘merely alternative forms’ of the same superseded way of thinking. This facile use of abstraction ignores the struggle and the labour which were required to forge these ‘alternative forms’, and the fact that no one would have gone through such struggles for the sake of a ‘transposition’.

In Part Two of the book – ‘Theological Absolutism and Human Self-Assertion’ – Blumenberg hits his stride, and swings into his story. He thinks that the Middle Ages reached a predestined crisis when the notion of Divine Omnipotence was thought through by Ockham to its bitter end. Ockham urged that there was no reason knowable to man why God actualised this possible world rather than another. This left us no alternative but Baconian pragmatism: the attitude that says: ‘Who cares how things look to God? Let us find out how they can be made to work for us.’ On this view, Ockham cleared the ground for Galileo: ‘It was not a matter of indifference which of the possible worlds God had in fact created; but since man could not hope to fathom this decision, it had to be made a matter of indifference. The search for a set of instruments for man that would be usable in any possible world provides the criterion for the elementary exertions of the modern age; the mathematising and the materialising of nature.’

To view nature as matter in motion was not, on Blumenberg’s view, a live option until the medieval dialectic had played itself out – until the hope that nature was created for the sake of man had destroyed itself from within. It is not that ‘science’ (incarnate earlier in Lucretius and reborn in Galileo) ‘discovered’ what the world was really like, and thus no longer needed the hypothesis of a divinity. Rather, there was intellectual room for what we now call ‘science’ only when another, initially more promising, alternative had been worked through.

Baconian pragmatism and what Dyksterhuis called ‘the mechanisation of the world-picture’ made possible the modern age – the age of what Blumenberg calls ‘self-assertion’. His attempt to legitimate the modern age is an attempt to defend all the things which Heidegger despised about the 20th century: its proliferating curiosity, its urge for technical mastery, its refusal to be interested in something larger than itself which contains it and makes it possible, and its consequent orientation toward an unknown future. For Blumenberg, the Romantic attempt to discredit the Enlightenment, and the continuation of this attempt by Nietzsche and Heidegger, confuse a justified criticism of the Enlightenment’s attempt at ‘self-foundation’ with an unjustified criticism of its ideal of self-assertion. The Enlightenment was, indeed, wrong to see itself as the discovery of the true, ahistorical framework of human existence – as the first occasion on which humans had seen themselves as of they truly were. But one can agree with Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s and Derrida’s criticisms of the very idea of such a framework (‘the metaphysics of presence’) without despising the mode of life which the Enlightenment made possible for us. Blumenberg wants to abandon Husserl’s nostalgic Cartesian hope to escape from history into presuppositionless philosophy (a hope still shared by many analytic philosophers). But he insists that the fact that the modern age lacks ‘foundations’ is to its credit, not a reason for mistrusting it. It is an indication of courage, not of weakness or of self-deception. The legitimacy of our modern consciousness is simply that it is the best way we have so far found to give sense to our lives. This is to say that it beats the only other two ways we know bout – the ancient attempt to find philosophical foundations, and the medieval attempt to find theological ones. So Blumenberg can pretty much agree with Heidegger’s account of the stages we have traversed since Parmenides, but whereas Heidegger sees these stages as successive fallings-away from primordial greatness, Blumenberg sees them as rational rejections of alternatives that didn’t work out. The rejections were rational not by reference to ahistorical criteria, but merely by reference to what he calls ‘sufficient rationality’ – rationality as pragmatic choice among available tools, without recourse to antecedent standards of preference. This is just enough rationality ‘to accomplish the post-medieval self-assertion and to bear the consequences of this emergency self-consolidation’. Blumenberg wants to make a virtue of what the Romantics rightly diagnosed as a necessity for those who think of empirical science as the paradigmatic human activity: viz. the abandonment of a context for human life larger than that provided by the activities of our contemporaries, and the abandonment of some more definite object of hope than the unknown fortunes of our descendants.

The story which is adumbrated in Part Two of The Legitimacy of the Modern Age is told again, at greater length and with more attention to the ancient world, in Part Three (‘The “Trial” of Theoretical Curiosity’). This is the longest part of the book, and is a series of reminders that the sentence which begins Aristotle’s Metaphysics (‘All men by nature desire to know’) has not always had the sense it has for us. It has not always meant that our curiosity about how things work is an essential and laudable part of us. For the ancients, this phrase implied both that knowledge of theoretical truth was necessary for happiness and that ‘the truth in its totality was at the disposition of the individual’ (as opposed to the race, in the course of a potentially infinite future). Our modern concept of happiness has to do (as Heidegger rightly says) with mastery rather than with contemplation or participation. It is a Baconian conception of happiness which, Blumenberg says, ‘reduced the necessary knowledge to the amount fixed by the requirements of domination over natural reality. The recovery of paradise was not supposed to yield a transparent and familiar reality but only a tamed and obedient one.’ Blumenberg tells a story of how the assumption that reality was transparent and familiar yields to ancient scepticism about both of the implications which Aristotle had drawn from his maxim. He then shows how the Sceptics’ renunciation of knowledge of reality (‘for the last time in our tradition down to Nietzsche,’ Blumenberg provocatively but dubiously says) is trumped by Tertullian’s claim that Christ has made theoretical curiosity obsolete. This claim detaches happiness from the pursuit of knowledge, and puts Christian faith in the vacancy left by the sceptical dissolution of the possibility of a contemplative life. From then on, the burden of proof was on those who (like St Thomas Aquinas) thought that Aristotle was not wholly wrong, and that curiosity might not be simply a vice (the excitation of an unruly member, the inquiring eye as homologue of the pushy penis).

Blumenberg takes very seriously indeed the episcopal condemnation of St Thomas for having cast doubt on divine omnipotence, interpreting it as an indictment for curiositas. He sees the medieval period as driven to insist on that omnipotence by the break which it had made with ancient thought. So he thinks it was fated to wind up with Ockham’s nominalist and voluntarist rejection of the Aristotelian and Thomistic claim that the human mind naturally grasps the essences of things. But this rejection leaves theoretical curiosity without excuse. Bacon’s desertion of the idea of ‘the essences of things’, and the infinitising of space and time which followed Copernicus, provided a new excuse – one which the ancients had never thought of, and which the medievals would have regarded as blasphemous. Blumenberg traces the further development of this excuse in discussions of (among others) Galileo, Descartes, Voltaire, Hume and Kant. He ends this section of the book with a sympathetic restatement of Feuerbach’s claim that ‘the future heals the pains of the past’s unsatisfied knowledge drive,’ and a sympathetic interpretation of Freud’s remark that ‘the postponement of loving until full knowledge is acquired ends in a substitution of the latter for the former.’ Both men are interpreted as recognising that ‘ancient efforts to understand the infinite, the absolute, the self-sufficient, the self-enjoying turn out to be necessarily roundabout attempts by man to grasp himself ... as having a right to self-enjoyment.’

The concluding Part Four of the book is a very beautiful diptych called ‘Aspects of the Epochal Threshold: The Cusan and the Nolan’. Blumenberg thinks that what happened between the time of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno (of Nola) was a genuinely ‘epochal’ change, but that ‘there are no witnesses to changes of epoch. The epochal turning is an imperceptible frontier, bound to no crucial date or event.’ So he offers us the view from Cusa’s side of the threshold (‘the world as God’s self-restriction’) and from Bruno’s (‘the world as God’s’ indefinitely long and wide ‘self-exhaustion’). Here the discussion becomes much more detailed and exegetical than in earlier portions of the book, and I shall not try to summarise it. Suffice it to say that Bruno, like Bacon and Feuerbach, is one of Blumenberg’s unfashionable heroes. For Blumenberg, Bruno ‘only accepted a challenge that was historically posed. He gave it an answer that went to the root of the formation of the age that had come to an end. What was received as “joyful tidings” and in the toil of centuries had become “Scholasticism”, he experienced as trauma.’

In the sketchy plot-summaries I have been giving I have barely been able to hint at the subtlety, richness and originality of Blumenberg’s book. There is not a stale sentence in it. Everything has been thought out anew. This makes it a slow book to read, for one constantly has to chew over novel interpretations of familiar texts. (Not to mention having to deal with texts one never knew existed – like Peter Damian’s discussion of whether God can restore lost virginity.) Although the scholarship is overwhelming (and, like all scholarship, disputable and likely eventually to be corrected), one never feels that a fact or a text has been dragged in so that the author can show off. On the contrary, there is a moral earnestness about the book which is extremely impressive. Blumenberg clearly feels that the damage done to the liberal intellectuals’ self-confidence by Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s contempt for the modern needs to be undone. It took considerable courage to try to do this: to be unfashionable enough to insist that, despite all the continuities which scholarship has detected, the traditional divisions between ancient, medieval and modern are just as important as we always thought them, and then to argue that our technological civilisation has nothing to be ashamed of (even though it has a great deal to be wary of).

It should not be thought, however, that Blumenberg wants to revive Enlightenment scientism. He should not be seen as a champion of ‘reason’ against what is sometimes (misleadingly) called ‘Heideggerian irrationalism’. He rightly criticises Heidegger’s own ‘history of Being’ as a revived form of Ockhamite theology, but he is equally adamant against the idea that the modern age is the one ‘in which reason, and thus man’s natural vocation, finally prevailed’. As he says, ‘the idea of reason liberating itself from its medieval servitude made it impossible to understand how such servitude could ever have been inflicted upon the constitutive power of the human spirit ... Another dangerous implication of this explanation was that it was bound to inject doubt into the self-consciousness of reason’s definitive victory and the impossibility of a repetition of its subjection. Thus the picture of its own origins and possibility in history that the epoch of rationality made for itself remained peculiarly irrational.’ On Blumenberg’s view, the Enlightenment’s scientistic attempt to ground itself as well as to assert itself – its urge to regard itself as something more than just a further desperate attempt by the species to give itself a point – was bound to produce Heidegger’s reactive attempt to get beyond ‘grounding’ (and, also, one might add, the popular French parlour game of mettre en abîme).

It seems to follow from what he says, though Blumenberg does not make this explicit, that the way to stop the pendulum swinging between ‘irrationalism’ and ‘defences of reason’ is to let historical self-consciousness take the place of metaphysics. Such historical self-consciousness would not require ahistorical metaphysical or epistemological back-up, but merely a vocabulary which, as he says, has ‘a durability that is very great in relation to both our capacity to perceive historical events and the rate of change involved in them’. In other words, if we can tell a story about why we moderns are in better shape than the ancients and the medievals, we’ve got what he calls ‘sufficient rationality’ – the same sort of Whiggish rationality as we use when telling stories of scientific progress. We can ignore the question of whether the heuristic vocabulary we use in telling this story – the vocabulary which describes ‘the constant matrix of needs’ which humans fulfil by telling themselves philosophical and theological and historical stories is – grounded in anything. (As we ignore the question of whether the vocabulary of modern physics, which we use heuristically when writing the history of ancient physics, is more than ‘just’ our vocabulary.) If such a vocabulary makes enough sense of the past to let us avoid unanswerable riddles like ‘How did human reason let itself be repressed for so long?’ or ‘How did we ever get stuck with the “metaphysics of presence” in the first place?’ that will be justification enough.

Blumenberg resembles Foucault in his attempt to get intellectual history out from under ‘the dilemma of nominalism and realism in interpreting the validity of the concept of an epoch’. He shares Foucault’s distrust for ‘the logic of continuity’ which ‘takes as its only alternatives the constancy of what “was there all along”, or preformation extending as far back as documentation is possible’. But whereas Foucault settles for striking discontinuities, abjuring ‘totalising’ stories which cover twenty-five hundred years, Blumenberg thinks that we can keep on writing such stories if we recognise that ‘all logic ... is based on structures of dialogue.’ But the dialogue in question is one which only belatedly finds out what it has been about:

If the modern age was not the monologue beginning at point zero, of the absolute subject – as it pictures itself – but rather the system of efforts to answer in a new context questions that were posed to man in the Middle Ages, then this would entail new standards for interpreting what does in fact function as an answer to a question but does not represent itself as such an answer ... In a cartoon ... De Gaulle was pictured opening a press conference with the remark, ‘Gentlemen! Now will you please give me the questions to my answers!’ Something along these lines would serve to describe the procedure that would have to be employed in interpreting the logic of a historical epoch in relation to the one preceding it.

Here Blumenberg seems to be saying that, just as the history of science represents Aristotle as talking about inertia even though he did not believe there was such a thing, so we must read the ancients and the medievals by our own lights. We need not worry about whether those lights pick out ‘what was there all the time’, nor about whether we can translate our jargon and theirs into a common ‘neutral’ vocabulary. It is enough that we should find a story which treats our predecessors neither as heroes nor as fools, but simply as fellow inquirers who lacked the advantages of hind sight.

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. For Blumenberg, as aware of ‘incommensurability’ as Kuhn and of ‘ruptures’ as Foucault, helps us see that we have to keep right on being ‘Whiggish’ in our historiography, and that what matters is the subtlety and self-consciousness of our Whiggery. He thus helps us see that the demand to unmask completely, to make all things new, to start from nowhere, to substitute new true consciousness for old false consciousness, is itself an echo of the Enlightenment. It is precisely that part of the Enlightenment which really is ‘bankrupt’