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Progress, Secularization and Modernity: The Lwith-Blumenberg Debate Author(s): Robert M. Wallace Source: New German Critique, No.

22, Special Issue on Modernism (Winter, 1981), pp. 63-79 Published by: New German Critique Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/487864 Accessed: 08/10/2010 12:32
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Progress, Secularization and Modernity. The L'with-Blumenberg Debate

by Robert M. Wallace

I. Contempprary Attitudes toward Progress "Progress" is no longer the watchword, the unquestionably beneficial goal and process that it once was in the United States and the West. The European intelligentsia shed its illusions about progress some time ago, under the impact of the world wars, the "Final Solution," etc. In the United States, innocence lasted longer, but with Vietnam and the environmental crises, the existence of widespread doubt about the capacity of the "progressive" trio of democracy, industry and science to resolve all problems has become a "normal" state of affairs here too. It is no longer only ideologically "counter-cultural" types who doubt the possibility or even the meaning of progress. Even the advocates of nuclear power, the builders of the latest Macdonald's, and the investigators of recombinant DNA, though they may still occasionally apply the word "progress" to these projects, defend them not as being themselves beneficial but merely as generating jobs, or ultimately as being "inevitable." For many of us "progress" has thus become another name for the steamroller of history a steamroller which it now seems may only stop when it has obliterated its "drivers" as well as everything else. Indeed, we may wonder whether that wasn't the real nature of "progress" all along. The suggestion of the occasional socialits that these phenomena are really symptoms of the irrationality of late capitalism and can and must be overcome by the establishment of a more thorough-going democracy, of an industry organized to meet real needs, and of a science which aims to solve people's real problems - such naively "progressive" suggestions are met with incredulity. The "socialist" countries now in existence seem more intent on progress as pollution than even our latecapitalist ones, and they don't inspire confidence in the possibility of progress in democracy either. But even more basically, we doubt our own ability to distinguish real needs from false, "manipulated" ones, to define really worthwhile goals and to make "real progress" towards them. Our experience is so dominated and suffused by the mechanisms of official and, we think, false progress that when we consider the possibility of an alternative, that possibility almost inevitably presents itself not as a differ63



ent kind of progress, "real" progress this time, but rather as no progress as an escape from progress and all that it connotes. And of course there are plenty of "world-views" available to help those who would like to define a non-"progressive" mode of existence. Oriental religions, mythology, meditation, fundamental or maybe existential Christianity, back-to-the-land anarchism, neo-Platonic, neo-Aristotelian, neo-Scholastic, or Heideggerian philosophy. . . everything and anything is capable of some sort of revival or appropriation, or even (perish the thought) commercialization. In the shadow of (and, often, by means of) the official, discredited but "inevitable" ongoing mechanisms of progress, the "alternatives"proliferate. However, these more or less escapist phenomena pose a less basic threat to the salvageability of any conception of real progress than is posed by attempts to explain the idea of progress itself as a mistake or an inauthentic version of something else. There have been a number of recent attempts along these lines, including the ecologically-inspired attempts to trace the origin of dominating or exploiting nature in Western religions. Heidegger has suggested that the modern preoccupation with technology is a phenomenon of the forgetfulness of Being which originates, perhaps, somewhere in Greek philosophy. One of the most interesting and incisive of these attempts, focussing on the concept of progress itself, is not as well known in this country as the two just mentioned, probably because it originated long before the ecology movement and has not lent itself to the kind of popularization that Heidegger has received. This is the doctrine, propounded pre-eminently by Karl Lowith, that the modern idea of progress is a transformation into worldly form of Christian eschatology, that is, of the Christian preoccupation with the future as the dimension of the "last things," the end of the world, the Last Judgement, salvation, damnation, etc.

II. Karl L)whith's Theory of Progress as Secularized Eschatology Lowith's book, Meaning in History, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1949 with the unfortunate subtitle, "The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History." The German edition, published in 1953 after Lowith's return to Germany, carries the much more accurate subtitle, "Die theologischen Voraussetzungen der Geschichtsphilosophie," that is, the theological presuppositions of the philosophy of history. L6with's thesis is not about theology as such; rather, it is about the derivation of modern philosophies of history, with their almost unbroken celebration of progress, from Christianity (and, through it, from Judaism). It is about the - mostly hidden - theological presuppositions of modern historical consciousness, as exemplified by leading thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries (Voltaire, Turgot, Condorcet, Comte, Proudhon, Hegel, Marx).

The Lowith-Blumenberg Debate


Lowith finds the key to the derivation of these philosophies of history from Christianity in Hegel, the one modern philosopher of history who makes his relationship to Christianity a central and overt feature of his system. This emerges in Hegel's doctrine that the modern spiritual and political world (which he claimed to bring to full comprehension in his philosophy) arose through a "suspension and carrying-forward" ("Aufhebung") of the Christian-Reformation phase of world history.' L6with, of course, abandons Hegel's assumption that this process constituted a "step forward," but he preserves Hegel's schematic outline in his own doctrine that the modern idea of progress suspends (i.e., for L6with, disguises) and carries forward (in secularized form) the Christian relationship to eschatology. The purpose of Lowith's book, he tells us, is to show that, contrary to the consciousness of most exponents other than Hegel, the "philosophy of history originates with the Hebrew and Christian faith in a fulfillment and that it ends with the secularization of [that faith's] eschatological pattern."z Lowith's book does not undertake to present a comprehensive history or analysis of the phenomenon of "progress." Most of the time, it stays on the level of the history of ideas (i.e., in this case, mostly of philosophy and theology), beginning with the most widely influential formulations of the optimistic "faith in progress" that was so prevalent in the 19th century and working backwards, looking always for earlier forms of the idea and for its ultimate source as an idea. The central portion of the book is a discussion of the theories of Marx, Hegel, Proudhon and Comte, the 19th-century socialists, idealists and positivists who all (despite their often radical disagreements with one another) in L6with's view share a conviction that world history is unified and intelligible in terms of an underlying pattern of unbroken and seemingly inevitable progress towards some form of ideal ultimate human condition. L6with ridicules this attitude, not vociferously but with the quiet effectiveness that is possible for a European whose youth coincided with World War One, young manhood with the Weimar Republic, and mature years with the "Third Reich", World War Two, the "Final Solution", and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He seeks continually the source of this non-rational faith in a pattern that scientific objectivity, as well as an honest awareness of daily human experience, should have exposed as an illusion before time and intellectual energy could be wasted on it. And he isn't bashful about stating his conclusion, time and again, as he finishes with each author, that this peculiar idee fixe is comprehensible only as a disguised version of the Hebrew and Christian focus on certain future events, and on movement towards them, as crucial for man's happiness.
1. L6withdiscusses Hegel at greaterlengthin hisfirstmajorwork,FromHegelto Nietzsche - TheRevolution German in Nineteenth-Century (NewYork, 1964; original published Thought in Zuirich in 1941). 2. Meaningin History(Chicago, 1949),p. 2.



One possible alternative explanation L6with does not consider. This is what might be called the "materialist" or sociological type of theory, according to which the illusions of these intellectuals are merely highfalutin' versions of the enthusiasm that was widespread, and would presumably have become widespread even without their help, as a result of the evident progress in the material productivity of science, technology, industry, etc. in the 19th, 18th and even earlier centuries. Why L6with does not consider this type of explanation I can, of course, only guess. However, two possibilities do occur to me. The first is that Lowith may believe that intellectual phenomena (the history of ideas) must be explained primarily by reference to other intellectual phenomena; that sociological explanations contain an unacceptable "reductionism," which taken to the extreme would deny the possibility of thought itself, and thus suffocate even itself as a (self-conscious) theory. This kind of response to the materialist "unmasking" of theories as mere reflections of social reality certainly has some plausibility. The second possibility is that L6with has in the back of his mind that the secularization of Christian ideas and attitudes is the fundamental explanation not only of the idea of progress but of the very motivation and power of "progress" itself, as embodied in the general dynamism (economic, military, scientific, etc.) of European capitalist society since, say, the 16th century. He does offer some speculative remarks, especially at the end of his book (pp. 202-203), that suggest this kind of account. If this is indeed what he really thinks, then to explain the idea of progress as a reflection of material developments would just lead back to Christianity again as the cause of those material developments. And much of the motivation for the materialist reduction would disappear in view of such a circle. But let us return to what Lowith does give us: his history of ideas. Another recurring theme in Lowith's thinking, along with the thesis that the modern idea of progress is the result of secularization of Hebrew and Christian "futurism," is the contrast of this fixation on the future with what Lowith takes to be the characteristic ancient (pre-Christian) attitude, one which sees history as a succession of rises and falls, growth and decadence etc., analogous to the natural cycles of living things and of the heavens, and epitomized in the common Greek theory (elaborated as a historical cosmology in the doctrine of the Stoics) of a continual "recurrence," which is essentially unchanged throughout past, present and future. It is clear that L6with feels drawn to this ancient world-view more even than to the indifference to worldly progress which characterizes what he regards as true Christianity. While he may honor the latter, still its historical advent and triumph were the end of antiquity and the source of at least one of our most basic modern confusions. How exactly did the transformation come about by means of which Christianity gave rise to the modern idea of progress? L6with examines several 18th century thinkers - Voltaire, Turgot, Condorcet - in whose time the idea is commonly agreed to have emerged in its full modern

The Lowith-Blumenberg Debate


clarity. He also studies the enigmatic and isolated work of Giambattista Vico, and the overtly Christian historico-theological writings of authors such as Bossuet, Joachim of Floris, Saint Augustine, Orosius - and the writers of the Bible itself. These discussions are very interesting, but no clear pattern or sequence of transformation appears. L6with does not seem to suggest, for instance, that Christian thinking became increasingly more worldly during the Middle Ages, foreshadowing an eventual transformation into the (ostensibly) irreligious modern doctrines of progress. Nor does he define a point of stress, weakness, or potential crisis in Christian thinking which would help to explain the transformation. (Nor, again, does he put forward any "materialist" or sociological type of explanation, such as has been so tempting to others in explaining the waning of the Christian Middle Ages, etc.) The secularization of eschatology is apparently such an elusive, or such a deep-lying process that its stages, if it has stages, are not manifest in the documents of the history of ideas. It is, perhaps, a "theoretical construct," necessary to explain what is observable, but not itself apparent in the data. A skeptic might wonder whether the "materialist" explanation of the rise of the idea of progress is not, despite its unsatisfying "vulgarity," just about as persuasive as this sort of highly speculative theory. But L6with shows no signs of uncertainty. Apparently he wasn't looking so much for the confirmation as for an "illustration"of his theory of secularization in the writers he examines. Seeing no alternative intellectual account of the modern idea of progress - and there was none, prior to the appearance of Hans Blumenberg's studies in the 1960s - Lowith is simply confident that the account he has proposed must in some way be the correct one. What will be the consequences if we accept L6with's theory? Its most basic implication is that modern thought has a fundamentally false consciousness of itself. While claiming to be an expression of authentically human rationality, modern thought relating to history in fact derives its fundamental pattern of interpretation - that of direction toward a future goal or fulfillment - from theology, from the very dogmas that the Enlightenment and its 19th-century "historicist" heirs were concerned, if not to deny, at least to bracket off from their explanatory endeavors. And

this is not just an innocent "borrowing,"as it were, of "terminology" which can readily be separatedfrom the originalcontext from which it is
borrowed; in its original context this pattern of interpretation is so tightly intertwined with the concept of faith that the presence of the pattern in a modern context must cast fundamental doubt on that context's characteristic modern claim to elementary human rationality - once the source of the pattern is recognized. "The modern mind has not made up its mind whether it should be Christian or pagan. It sees with one eye of faith and one of reason. Hence its vision is necessarily dim in comparison with either Greek or biblical thinking." (p. 207) A grim conclusion, for those of us who would like to salvage something


Wallace and, for that matter, from modern society.

from modern philosophy -

L6with does not try to prettyit up. Fromthe wreckof modernityentailed

by the recognition of this false consciousness, he draws no reassuring moral. Nor (at least in Meaning in History) does he suggest any "way out." He praises the stoical refusal-of-illusions of figures like Jacob Burckhardt, and depicts the classical Greek concepts of nature, cosmos, etc. persuasively as a model of a world-consciousness untroubled by hope, illusions of progress, etc. But he does not claim to inhabit such a nature or cosmos. Perhaps it is an index of the exhaustion of our times that L6with's thesis was not systematically criticized - though, at least in Germany, it was widely known, cited and elaborated upon by theologians and philosophers -- until 1962, and no book was devoted to its refutation until 1966. Whatever the reason for the delay, that critique and refutation are now available, and form the subject of the remainder of this paper.

III. Blumenberg's Critique of the Secularization Theory Hans Blumenberg is a younger German philosopher who was known before his debate with L6with as the author of "Paradigms for a Metaphorology," of a book on The Copernican Turn, and other relatively specialized studies. At the Seventh German Philosophy Congress in 1962, Blumenberg read a paper containing both a thorough-going analysis of the notion of "secularization" and the claims made on its behalf, and a suggested alternative account of the origin of what he regarded as the legitimate modern idea of progress, and of the origin of the grandiose philosophies of history in which ideas of progress have played such a central role. This paper was revised, expanded, and supplemented by a dramatically original account of the origin of the modern age as a whole, in a book Blumenberg published in 1966 under the title Die Legitimitiit der Neuteit - The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.3 Part One of the book (like Blumenberg's original paper) is entitled "Secularization: Critique of a Category of Historical Illegitimacy." In it Blumenberg asks what exactly is meant by the assertion that a concept or structure is "the secularization of" a Christian concept or structure.4 First he points out how this kind of assertion differs from the more general kind

3. (Frankfurt am Main, 1966).An Englishtranslation (by the authorof thisessay) of the second edition of this book will be publishedby MIT Press. 4. Blumenberg remindsus of manyotherallegedinstances of thisprocess,besidesthe one which is supposedto have producedthe idea of progress.Epistemology's centralproblemof of salvation; the modernwork certaintyis tracedbackto the Christian's problemof certainty ethic, to Christiansainthood and asceticism;political sovereigntyto divine sovereignty; communismto paradiseor the apocalypse; the infinityof the universeto divineinfinity;etc. Blumenbergcriticizesonly some of these supposedsecularizations individually.

The Lowith-Blumenberg Debate


of statement, that ours is a "secularage," or that it is alwaysgettingmore and more secular (i.e., less interested in or dominated by religion). Whether true or not, such statementsare clearlyvery differentfrom (and much less interesting than) statementsto the effect that certain modern phenomena are secularized versions of Christianones. Turning to the latter, Blumenbergsuggests that Lowith'sbook and the subsequentliterwhichhe spells out in ature imply a model of the processof secularization terms of three criteria: - First, that an identifiablecommon"substance" the transforunderwent mation from Christian to "secularized"form. (So that, for example, merely analogous formation,without a continuousprocessof transformation connecting them, won't qualify.) - Second, that the "substance"belonged properlyto the earlier, Christian framework.And - Third, that the transformation not by one performed was a "one-sided" so to but an outside it.s itself, by agent speak), Christianity("secularizing" three to the first of these will refer here discussion criteria, mainly My which is centralto Blumenberg's (Blumencritiqueof Lowithin particular. theories"in generalcontainsa good deal berg's critiqueof "secularization that cannot be summarizedhere.) Turningthen to the criterionof the existenceof a common"substance" which undergoes the supposed process of secularization,Blumenberg points out first of all that there is an evidentformaldifferencebetweenthe ideas associatedwith eschatology,and the idea of progress.The formerall involve some form of dramatic transcendentincursion (coming of the Messiah, end of the world, Last Judgement) which consummatesthe history of the worldfrom outside. Whereasthe idea of progress,however versions, alwaysdenotes a processat spiritualizedit may be in particular work within ("immanentin") history,proceedingfromstageto stage (even to an ultimate "end") by an internallogic, not by externalintervention. of this problemat variouspoints Lowith had shownsome consciousness in Meaningin History, especiallyin the Epilogue, where he took pains to describe what eschatologicaland modern ideas had in common as simply for man, and hope (or an orientationto the futureas the crucial"horizon" in relation to that This was clearly attitude as man's expectation) horizon.6 meant to direct attention away from the differing modes of "consummation" in the Christianand the secularizedversionsof the idea. Lowith
defends 5. This model has been criticizedon variousgrounds,againstwhichBlumenberg und Selbstbehauptung, it in the second edition of his book (Volume One: Siakularisierung No. 79, Frankfurt wissenschaft 1974,pp. 23-31, 37). To the best of suhrkamptaschenbuch with comparable my knowledge no alternativeanalysisof the concept of secularization, does not undertake critiques clarity, has been suggested.L6with'sresponseto Blumenberg's to present an alternativeanalysis. 6. Meaningin History,pp. 84, 111, 196, 204.



again emphasized this minimum common substance in his eventual reply to Blumenberg's critique.7 Blumenberg's second line of criticism questions the continuity of the eschatological substance through the "secularization process," not by questioning the identity of the end points of the process, but by suggesting an entirely different derivation for the modern "result": a different "genealogy of the idea of progess."8 Briefly, what he asserts is that the modern idea of progress arose in the course of two main early-modern experiences: the spring forward made by astronomy in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the "quarrel of the ancients and the moderns" which raged in the late 17th century. The astronomical progress registered by Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler was possible only on the basis of comparisons of observations over centuries, an enterprise the success of which required (a) a time span far exceeding that of an individual life-time, and (b) a theoretical effort (of data-collection and transmission) that likewise would not even in principle be accomplished by a single individual. In this respect early-modern astronomy exhibited not only results, but also a structure (as a human enterprise) which was entirely novel in Western experience. No one would doubt its importance as a model for modern science down to the present. Blumenberg suggests that as a model of methodical progress it was relevant and was in fact influential outside "science" as well. But before the idea could be generalized in that manner, the mix was enriched by the "quarrel of the ancients and the moderns." Here the crucial result was that in the course of their debates over whether the achievements of ancient art and literature could be equalled or surpassed in modern times, the participants gradually overcame the Renaissance idea that those achievements constituted permanently valid models of perfection, in favor of a conception of the arts as expressing the creative spirit of their particular age. Unlike science, the arts did not require many individuals or generations for their success; but their success did inspire reflection on the dignity and creative power of man, in all ages. And what happened in the 18th century is that both conceptions - the new scientific idea of integrating the efforts of many individuals in an overarching, "progressive" totality, and the new aesthetic idea that if anyone is in charge and is productivehere, it is not God, and not nature, but man - were finally combined in the conception of progress in general as "man making history" in all departments (science, art, technology, society . . . )- the "idea of progress" that speaks through the writings of Voltaire, the Encyclopedists, Kant et al. What Blumenberg describes, then, is the gradual emergence of an idea
7. In Philosophische Rundschau,15 (1968), esp. p. 198. 8. The astronomical is tracedin detail in what is so far Blumenpartof this "genealogy" SocialResearch, berg'sonly text in English:"Ona Genealogyof the Ideaof Progress," Spring 1974.

The Lowith-Blumenberg Debate


of "progress in general" from partial experiences in the specific areas where early modern human endeavor had some of its most pregnant experiences. Only at the end of two centuries does an "idea of progress" emerge which is comparable in its generality to that of eschatology. But it is still crucially different from eschatology in its form - its "immanent" rather than "transcendent" consummation -- as Blumenberg pointed out initially. And its "genealogy," at least on the surface, has nothing to do with eschatology, and everything to do with what Blumenberg (in Part Two of his book) calls "human self-assertion," the fundamental irreligious effort of modern (post-Christian) man to make the most of what is available to him in this life and this world." And this assertedly legitimate (un-secularized, authentic) concept of progress is different from eschatology in a further, crucial respect, despite the level of generality it has now reached: unlike the ambitious "philosophies of history" (Condorcet, Proudhon, Comte, Hegel, et al.) which come later and which are the focus of Lowith's analysis, progress here is not yet and not essentially conceived of as an account of the inherent "meaning of history" as a whole. It is only as successful as human beings choose to make

it and succeed in making it - there is no way it can be found in all the

phenomena of recorded or unrecorded history, and it certainly does not "justify" or "explain the meaning of" the misery of the greater part of that history. It is still only a partial account of an aspect of human experience - though of a crucial aspect, in effect, for many of us.

/IV. Lowith's Response

But allowing that such a relatively modest authentic idea of progress may have existed, and played a modest role, in the 18th century - allowing that it may still exist, among the remnants of our tradition that we carry with us and that some of us tend with loving care - the reader may wonder how it was that this idea was so rapidly (if not immediately) transformed into the much more ambitious schemas of people like Condorcet, Saint-Simon, Proudhon, Comte, Hegel and (as he is often interpreted) Marx, in all of which the reader is led to see the whole of human history as directed towards a higher state through a process of seemingly inevitable and predictable progress. Isn't it this kind of thinking that most sharply distinguishes the modern world-view from those of the ancients and of
often makesuse of religious 9. Blumenbergdoes not deny that modern"'self-assertion" intentionsor, as a language. He argues that it does so either to disguiseits non-religious of chosen "style," to dramatize its daring and extremism, so that this "secularization of the religiouscontent.See Die Legitimitiit language"does not carrywith it a secularization
der Neuzeit (hereafter: Legitimitat), pp. 62-71; Siikularisierung und Selbstbehauptung (hereafter: Siikularisierung), pp. 119-133.



primitive societies? Given the radical difference between ancient and modern world-views (which Blumenberg does not deny), and the presence of Christianity as the primary experience intervening between them, it may seem - it certainly seems to Lowith - to be an arbitrary and willful blindness to refuse to interpret the modern idea of progress as a transposition - a secularization - of the Christian attitude to the future. "Who could deny," Lowith writes in his review of Blumenberg's book, "that the inheritance of a powerful tradition (and what tradition, as compared to the political authorities, has been more potent and stable through two millenia of Western history than institutionalized Christianity?) is a co-determining factor even of all relatively new beginnings? That the idea of progress should have only regional significance and a partial derivation, namely from the realm of the scientific discoveries and the literary-aesthetic controversies of the 17th century, and not touch the question of the meaning and the course of history as such and as a whole, is as improbable as the assertion that the rationality and autonomy of man in the modern age is an absolutely original and free-standing one." to' Now Blumenberg has not made his last assertion, since the whole of Part Two of his book is devoted to showing the historical context and provocation for the modern claims to autonomous rationality (part of the complex of "human self-assertion"). So there can be no question of Blumenberg's ignoring pre-modern history, including Christianity. But if modernity did not spring into being spontaneously, from "outside" history, as it were, then surely the idea of progress must be traceable to pre-modern ideas? And what alternative to the secularization theory would Blumenberg propose for this purpose? and why? Blumenberg has in fact answered these questions - though perhaps not always at sufficient length and in sufficient detail to make all of his answers easy to grasp. (Part One of his book was rewritten and considerable expanded in the second edition, for this reason.) Blumenberg is aware that what he has reconstructed as the "legitimate" modern concept of progress will not meet the requirements of the "ambitious" philosophies of history with which Lowith is (and the rest of us, in our disappointment or cynicism, tend to be) preoccupied. He has a whole theory designed both to account for this difference, and to show what he regards as the true role of Christianity in generating these "ambitious" modern philosophies of history. And he has a complete account of the role of Christianity in the genesis of his "legitimate" idea of progress as well (the account of the origin of "human self-assertion," mentioned above). I will sketch these explanations in that order: first, that of the "ambitious" philosophies of history, then that of human self-assertion and the idea of progress.

10. Philosophische Rundschau, 15 (1968), p. 197.

The Lowith-Blumenberg Debate V. Blumenberg's Explanation of the Over-Ambitious "Philosophies of History"


First, then, what are we to make of Condorcet, Saint-Simon, Proudhon, Comte, Hegel, et al.? Blumenberg writes that "The idea of progress as a conception of the meaning and shape of human history as a whole did not become possible as a result of the transformationof theological eschatology and its deprivation of its 'original' intention, . . . rather [the original, modest idea of progress] had to be extended from its original regionally circumscribed and objectively limited area of validity and exaggerated, into the role of a 'philosophy of history,' if modern thought was to be able

to respond to a question whichhad remained,as it were, unmastered and

unsatisfied since theology had made it virulent."" This was the question of the meaning of the totality of history - a question that the idea of progress, and the Enlightenment in general, could not rationally answer, but which was felt, because of the powerful influence of Christianity (the Christianity that had presented Creation and Eschatology as the fundamental poles for the interpretation of the whole of history) on people's fundamental expectations, to be a question that any world-view was somehow obliged to answer. "The formulation of the idea of progress," Blumenberg goes on, "and its taking the place of the religious interpretation of history, are thus two distinct events . . . Belief in progress had its empirical basis in the extension of the reality accessible to and manageable by theory, and in the effectiveness of the scientific method employed for this purpose. When this, which was experienced and demonstrably stable, was translated into a faith encompassing the future, then the self-consciousness of reason as the productive principle of history was made to satisfy a need which in itself was not rational .. ." 12 But this process of over-extension or exaggeration was not a necessary or an inevitable one. It was natural, undoubtedly, because we have an ingrained habit of trying to answer every seemingly important question we are confronted with, but it was not inevitable. "We are going to have to rid ourselves,' Blumenberg writes, "of the idea that there is a fixed canon of great questions," which have always oriented human inquiry and always will. "Questions do not always precede their answers";'" some questions only arise and become subjects of concern when the answer is believed to be in hand. This holds for questions like those of the origin of evil, the origin of the world, and the like - questions that the Greeks, for instance, did not ask (at least, did not expect literal answers to) because they had not heard of the (Gnostic) evil creator, or of original sin, or of a God who created matter from nothing. And it also holds for the question of the
11. Legitimitat, p. 35. Cp. Siikularisierung, p. 60. 12. Legitimitiit, p. 36. Cp. Sakularisierung, pp. 60-61. 13. Legitimitarit, p. 42 and p. 43; Siikularisierung, p. 78.



meaning and pattern of history as a whole - one reason the Greeks did not ask themselves this question was because they had no notion of the creation or of the end of the world (except perhaps as phases in a cyclical process of world-destruction and regeneration). And just as these questions have not always been with us, neither must we always regard them as binding for our intellecutal endeavor. This is not to say that we can simply dismiss them with a derogatory epithet like "metaphysical." That would be the positivist procedure, which limits intellectual endeavor arbitrarily in advance by reference to a particular model of knowledge (that of the physical sciences, usually) which it postulates, without historical reflection, as simply definitive for knowledge in general. But neither should we refuse to consider the genesis of a question (of a classic "problem") as having some relevance to its status and claims on our concern, or regard our ongoing failure to deal with it satisfactorily (the kind of failure of which consciousness is so widespread in contemporary philosophy) as a phenomenon of mere inexplicable weakness, rather than as something deserving and demanding historical interpretation in its own right. Certainly in a case where a type of intellectual endeavor has been all but abandoned, as is the case with the philosophy of history (in the "ambitious" sense of something more than just reflection on the methodology of historical science), it is high time we consider why exactly it arose, what was the origin and status of the question with which it was trying to deal, whether that question is or should be a live question for us, and for that matter whether it should have been a live question for the 18th and 19th centuries, or shouldn't rather have been neutralized (amputated, in effect, from the canon of questions having a claim on modern thought) by means of critical inquiry into the conditions of its origin and of its authentic significance. Of course Lowith in his way is making a similar statement about the distortion of our thinking by inappropriate questions (inappropriate concepts or attitudes, he would say); but his diagnosis finds the entire modern orientation and conceptual apparatus (at least in relation to history) inappropriate, rather than discriminatingbetween the authentically modern problems (such as how to assert our needs and concerns effectively in the world) and concepts (such as the concept of progress), and the inauthentic and disastrous problems (such as the "meaning" of history as a whole) the admission of which leads to the over-extension and failure of those concepts. So Blumenberg's explanation for the predominance, among modern philosophies of history, of over-ambitious theories of progress as the pattern
14. In the course of his book, Blumenberg cites several other instances of this kind of process, in which a question put in place by Christianity is uncritically accepted by modern thought as an eternal one which "must" be dealt with, and which then is "dealt with" in a manner that is disastrous for the consistency of modernity. (See the passages cited in note 21, below.)

The Loiwith-Blumenberg



of history as a whole, is that modern thought in general was unable to neutralize critically questions (like that of the meaning and pattern of history as a whole) that it inherited from Christianity, as easily as it had discredited the Christian answers. (And in fact Blumenberg points out that Christianity itself had an exactly similar problem in relation to the ancient world, and with similar results.) Hence the over-exertion, and the consequent suspicions of false consciousness (i la "secularization"), that arise in this field. VI. Blumenberg's Account of the Origin of the Modern So that is how, for Blumenberg, the "philosophy of history" is traceable, in terms of a certain kind of continuity but not through secularization, to Christianity.'" But the idea of progress itself, the assertedly legitimate idea of progress before it has been pressed into service as an answer to a question which modern thought should not have tried to answer - does Blumenberg think that this idea sprang into being from nothing, that its origin was not "co-determined" by the great Christian tradition? No he does not. But again his account of the manner of that "codetermination," which is found in Part Two of his book, has nothing to do with secularization, or with the continuity of any underlying substance or tradition. As I have mentioned, Blumenberg interprets the concept of "progress" as that of the implementation of "human self-assertion," which in turn he sees as the fundamental characteristic of - and the legitimate core of - the modern age in all its manifestations.'"6And human selfassertion he considers to be fundamentally intelligible only as a response to
15. Unlike L6with, Blumenberg does not include Marx within the modern complex of the "philosophy of history" for which the two theorists offer their differing explanations. Lowith himself remarked that in contrast to Hegel, Marx "maintains the original tension of a transcendent faith over against the existing world" (Meaning in History, p. 51). (So this is the true significance of Marxist "materialism"!) Blumenberg comments that "If the final state proclaimed by the Communist Manifesto translated impatience and dissatisfaction with 'infinite progress' into a summons to definitive action, this nexus at least excludes the possibility that both concepts of history, the finite and the infinite, could be secularized." (Legitimitit, p. 57; compare Siikularisierung, p. 101.) And he goes on to suggest that the linguistic similarity betwen the Manifesto's appeal and that of the messianic and gospel tradition indicates a similar urgency, a "constant function for consciousness," but not an identity of content. (Legitimitiit, p. 58; Siikularisierung, p. 102.) Blumenberg would presumably agree with current critics that the faith of some "Marxists" in an inevitable mechanism of progress through the final revolution is the result of a misunderstanding of Marx's model of social history (a misunderstanding which repeats the syndrome of the genesis of the ambitious "philosophies of history"). 16. It is probably worth warning against the temptation to interpret this "self-assertion" exclusively or even primarily by reference to technology, though the significance of the latter is certainly to be found in its relationship to the former. On the relationship see Legitimitiat, p. 159, p. 170; Siikularisierung, p. 225, p. 236. For Blumenberg's defintion of self-assertion see Legitimitiit, p. 91; Siikularisierung, p. 159.



the self-destructive working-out of the implications of the Christianity formulated in the era of the "Fathers" (Saint Augustine et al.), a workingout which he sees manifested in the doctrines of late-medieval nominalism and which he summarizes under the rubric of "divine absolutism." The great accomplishment of the "Fathers" had been to overcome the Gnostic interpretation of Christ's message as one of world-denial (implicitly, of world-demonization) by integrating the ancient positively-valued cosmos into Christian doctrine and explaining the evil in the world as (not its nature but) the punishment of man's original sin. But the price of this accomplishment was the introduction of the (entirely novel) concept of absolutely arbitrary "freedom of the will," as both the source of original sin and the "explanation" of God's implication of all mankind in that sin and of his impenetrable acts of grace in redeeming some (but not all) from it. This will, in the form of "divine omnipotence," was the central theme of medieval theology, and one which increasingly undercut both the Aristotelianizing efforts of high scholasticism and every attempt to re-emphasize the "human" relevance and meaning of Christ and the gospel. This situation is displayed dramatically in Ockham's doctrine that there is no reason for the creation of this (rather than any other possible) world, just as there is no reason for the workings of grace, beyond the fact that God wills it (quia voluit). Both salvation and the creation had thus been deprived of all accessible meaning and reliability. The attitude prescribed to man in this situation is not faith (which requires grace), and not love (ditto, presumably), but simply blind submission. Human self-assertion, as an alternative to this desperate way of being in the world, had to interest itself not in fulfillment but in power, and in a world not of order but of pure causal contingency - because these were all that were left to man at this point. '7 Obviously this conclusion is not drawn simultaneously by everyone in Europe, so that one could date the "event" of the inauguration of the modern age. For some of us perhaps it has still not occurred. But for the intepretation of the documents of the "history of ideas" it is an extremely powerful hypothesis, as the extensive detail in Blumenberg's Parts Two, Three and Four shows. And for those of us for whom Christianity is not entirely defunct, it is a fascinating analysis of what's fundamentally at stake and going on in both our Christian and our post-Christian consciousnesses. Concerning the idea of progress and its relationship to Christianity, it is hoped that this lightning summary shows how that idea (as part of human
17. To the Christian of course this appears as pride, fundamentally as self-deification. Luther says man cannot by his nature want God to be God, but rather wants to be God himself. We prefer to say that we seek to do what would make sense and have a chance of success "even if there were no God," or perhaps to reinterpret God as the most perfect being" who guarantees the goodness and reliability of the world (as in Descartes, Leibniz, and eighteenth-century Deism). See Legitimititd,pp. 143- 144:; Sikularisierung, pp. 21(0-211.

The Lbwith-Blumenberg Debate


self-assertion) can be "co-determined"(indeed, in a way, wholly deterwithoutbeing a metamined) in the most intimatefashionby Christianity, to morphosisof Christianconceptualmaterial.It is a matterof responding a provocation,or takingup a challenge,ratherthanof takingover any idea already present in the traditionwhose crisisconstitutesthe challenge. In addition, hopefully, this summarysuggestshow one can reasonably impliedby secularizaspeak of "legitimacy,"in contrastto the illegitimacy tion theories, in interpreting the originof these modernideas. "Legitimacy" need not imply only innocence of theft, of living on stolen capital;it can also refer to the consciousnessof drawinga justifiedconclusion,of takinga But to see why self-asserstep which is appropriatein the circumstances. one has to take tion is a justified step to take under the circumstances, Christianity,and especially its internaldevelopmentand problems,more - thanis done by those who hypostatize seriously- and more historically it as simply "faith"over against(Greek) "reason." VII. "Transforming versus"Self-Assertion" Appropriation" Unfortunately, Lowith in 1968 has not assimilatedthese ideas. He concludes his review of Blumenberg'sbook with some thoughtson the
historical process which make this all too clear: ". .. actually there can be

no talk of legitimacyof illegitimacy,as appliedto historical epochs, since in the history of concepts, ideas and thoughtsthe [juristicconcept of legitithe and transform macy] extends itself as far as the power to appropriate contents of a tradition. The results, at any given time, of such a transforming appropriationcannot be positively or negatively reckoned up failsto recogaccordingto a standardof genuineownership.[Blumenberg] nize that in history, whether political or any other history, the never completed results are alwayssomethingdifferentfromwhat was intended and expected by the foundersof a new epoch. The birthsthat take place in historicallife are all 'ilegitimate'."'8 The first thing that this passage makes absolutely clear is that for is seeminglyconceivable L6with the process of historicaltransformation - as appropriating, substance of a pre-existing only as one of appropriation transforming,but in any case continuinga tradition.That new structures and ideas could come into existence in opposition to a reigningtradition - "determined that is (consciously or otherwise) perceived as bankrupt it opposes, what determined is as that tradition, every opposition by by" of thattradition- seems to be but not in their substancea metamorphosis is so permeatedby inconceivableto Lowith. This greatcriticof historicism it that he cannot consider the possibilityof a relativelynew beginningin
18. Loc. cit. (Phil. Rundsch.15, 1968),p. 201.



history, except in its extreme claim (in, e.g., Descartes) to absolute originality and freedom from historical context and conditioning - a claim which for us now is so absurd as to refute itself and, in Lowith's eyes, to refute all in any way comparable claims on behalf of modernity. In a way, Lowith's position here seems familiar and innocent enough. Certainly his doubts about the application of notions of "legitimacy" in the interpretation of history sound like the voice of our conscience to all of us brought up on the "scientific" distinction of fact and value. And yet who was it who in Meaning in History contrasted the modern "mixture," the "one eye of faith and the other of reason," with the clear choices of the Greek and the Christian world-views? Does this not suggest a special kind of "illegitimacy," peculiar to the modern age? Or are we to understand that Christianity related to the Greek world in the same way as modernity to Christinaity: by "transforming appropriation" of the contents of the traditions available to it, and that its claims to originality and authenticity are as transparently vain as the modern ones? This is certainly not what Lowith wants to assert. On the contrary, he thinks that the advent of Christianity was the one truly great break in the continuity of the West, the entry of "not just one epoch among others, but the decisive epoch, which" (unfortunately!) "separates us from the ancient world."'9 Isn't it clear that for Lowith some epochs are legitimate, in the sense of possessing an authentic principle and consistency, of which they can claim genuine "ownership," and some are not? And isn't it reasonable, in the face of such claims on behalf of Christianity (and on behalf of antiquity, for that matter), for modernity to seek to vindicate itself as something more coherent, authentic and appropriate in its turn than secularization theories will allow? Is it not reasonable, in that effort, for the modern historian to distinguish (if he can) between the authentic conceptual equipment and development of the elementary modern endeavor (as in the idea of progress), and the exaggerated and failed results of attempts to answer pre-modern questions by these modern means (as in the great "philosophies of history"), rather than tarring it all with the same brush? Isn't that what he must do, in keeping with his profession of scientific rigor?

VIII. Practical Implications L6with's and Blumenberg's positions, incompatible on the level of theory, also have sharply different implications for social and political practice. Lowith's attitude to contemporary social phenomena is one of systematic detachment: recognizing their reality but as far as possible
19. Ibid., p. 199.

The Liwith-Blumenberg Debate


entertaining neither hope nor fear for the future. A repeated emphasis in his writing since Meaning in History has been on the constancy of human nature: even the real possibility of nuclear warfare does not signify or call for any fundamental change in man's relation to the world and to other men, for such a change is impossible ("Man is no less man at the beginning of his history than he will be at its end"). For L6with, Polybius's observation of a natural cycle of changes in constitutions, of turns from victory to defeat and from subjugation to domination, is still the last word on man's political nature.20 Clearly the only attitude that an individual can clearsightedly adopt in such circumstances is one of stoical self-sufficiency and acceptance of what fate may bring. (Unless, of course, he chooses the Christian turning, away from the world's reason and towards faith in transcendent salvation.) Blumenberg, on the other hand, has taken pains to deny the fateful inevitability of the "steamroller"; to defend the possibility of man making history more bearable for himself; and to defend the Enlightenment and its would-be continuers (such as Marx) from charges of fundamentally false consciousness, by reconstructing a legitimate (un-secularized) concept of possible progress. He has also presented a diagnosis and critique of such distortions and denials of the Enlightenment tradition as we encounter not only in the "ambitious" philosophies of history, but also in the Enlightenment's own tendency to leap too quickly into the disputes of optimism versus pessimism; in the modern concept of sovereignty and of a public sphere defined by the sovereign power; and in the modern tendency to expect from "evolution" and other "natural" self-regulatory processes an eventual solution to problems that have so far baffled our efforts at practical solution.2 I think the practical relevance which all of these efforts of Blumenberg's will have, if they are successful, should be clear. Lowith's thinking, for all his disdain for the claim of the passing "age" upon philosophy, may ironically at the moment be more in tune with the privatistic and cynical "spirit of the age," but Blumenberg's is clearly more relevant to any contemporary endeavor to take practical charge of events - to make some real progress, rather than continue mainly to suffer from official "progress" and its very possibly fatal consequences. There is much traditional wisdom in Lowith's position, but traditional wisdom is no more adequate to our situation than is blind positivism. Hence the crucial importance of getting a grasp on the processes in our history and in our own thinking that Lowith and Blumenberg, in their different way, attempt to illuminate.
20. Gesammelte zur Kritikdergeschichtlichen Abhandlungen Existenz(Stuttgart,1960),p.
160. (Citation from Jiirgen Habermas, Theorie und Praxis [Neuwied and Berlin, 19631,p. 363). 21. Blumenberg's accounts of these latter syndromes, which I can mention here only in passing, are presented in Legitimitiit, p. 61, pp. 59-61, and pp. 192-200; Sakularisierung, pp. 103-118 and pp. 259-266.