By Tae-Yeoun Keum
Not quite a quarter-century after his death, interest in the work and thought of Hans Blumenberg (1920–1996) is enjoying an unprecedented renaissance. In recent years, the famously reclusive philosopher has been the subject of a novel (newly translated into English), a documentary film, numerous essays and think pieces, not to mention a steady surge of academic studies. These years have also marked an important boom in translations of his work and new publications from his Nachlass—including the momentous discovery and publication of the essays included in Präfiguration: Arbeit am politischen Mythos (2014).
The attention is timely. Although Blumenberg has been consistently hailed as one of the most important philosophers of Germany’s post-war generation, his sprawling body of work did not fit easily into the debates that had dominated mainstream philosophical discourse in his lifetime, and the fiercely literary style of his writing—which regularly drew from an encyclopaedic array of obscure details, anecdotes and examples — made him difficult to categorize. At best, scholarly interest in Blumenberg tended to focus on his role as Carl Schmitt’s interlocutor in the so-called “secularization debates” of the 1970s.
The current renaissance in Blumenberg studies, however, draws much-needed attention to the philosophy of myth that he had developed over the course of his career. This comes at a time when we are made increasingly aware of the yawning gap between contemporary political developments and the rational visions that had dominated much of twentieth-century political theory. Blumenberg’s work, once considered apolitical, has now become newly relevant in a political moment rocked by the power of grand narratives, symbols and metaphors, and the figurative dimensions of the background assumptions propping up our world views.
Blumenberg’s philosophy of myth and its political consequences cannot be understood without appreciating that it constituted a response to a larger, specifically German tradition of theorizing about myth.
Myth is a curious concept in the history of philosophy and political thought, one that appears to have taken on an outsized significance for what it actually is. Ordinarily, we are accustomed to a fairly specific meaning of myth, as a kind of traditional literary genre of tales about supernatural figures or events. But from the Enlightenment onward, this genre also came to double as a philosophical concept, often as a catch-all category for the opposite of critical reason, a foil for philosophy, or irrationality at large.
Briefly, we can say this turn came about as Enlightenment thinkers like Pierre Bayle and Bernard de Fontenelle began writing polemically about the classical mythology of Greco-Roman antiquity, unveiling the absurd content of these stories as part of a broader program of championing critical reason against the forces of superstition and tradition (107–19). From their efforts emerged a different conception of myth: conceived not merely as a literary genre of traditional tales, but also as a distinctively superstitious, non-critical mode of reasoning that might have once led the unenlightened peoples of antiquity to generate and to propagate such grotesque stories.In the early years of the Enlightenment, myth stood for mere nonsense, something to be dismissed. In the German tradition, however, myth was consistently linked to ideas and phenomena of great political consequence, and demanded to be taken seriously. Indeed, it is safe to say it represents one of the most fraught concepts in the history of German thought.
The first significant inflection point in the conceptualization of myth in the German tradition is the Romantic movement of the eighteenth century. In stark contrast to the dismissive stance that Enlightenment thinkers took toward myth, the German Romantics valorised it.
A close-knit circle of authors—centred around Friedrich Schelling, the Schlegel brothers, the poet Hölderin, and Friedrich Schiller—took an intense interest in the political and philosophical significance of myth. They conceived of myth as continuous with the achievements of critical reason, and a resource that could be used to restore to modern politics and culture a lost creative disposition toward the world. Crucially, they imagined that myth could be reinvented for the modern age: new stories had to be created, and a mythical mode of being had to be rediscovered.
There were a number of consequences to this development. First, myth became a category of theoretical interest—one with constructive potential even in the modern age. Blumenberg is in many ways an heir of the German Romantic project, insofar as he recovers the paradigm that myth can somehow aid rather than obstruct our philosophical and cultural activities.
But whereas the Romantic longing for a “new mythology” was motivated by an acutely held conviction that we lived in a modern landscape that had been emptied of myth, Blumenberg did not share this sense of crisis. He felt that myths had never gone away, though they may manifest in new forms. He did, however, have something of a response to the Romantics’ call for the modern reinvention of myth. Blumenberg believed that we have been “working” on our myths all along, constantly reinventing our inherited stories to serve new needs. The insight that myths are the products of such processes of creative reinvention is a cornerstone of Blumenberg’s work, as is the implication that humans have a surprising degree of agency in reshaping the dominant narratives of their culture.
A second, perhaps inadvertent consequence of German Romanticism was that it helped establish a dichotomy between myth and reason, enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, that ended up setting the terms of all subsequent discourse on myth in philosophy and political thought. A large part of Blumenberg’s legacy can be understood as an innovative effort to dismantle that dichotomy. For Blumenberg, both myth and critical reason were distinct ways of addressing the same basic human need to impart meaning onto reality. By questioning whether myth and rationality were ever so mutually opposed, Blumenberg pointed to the ways in which their seemingly separate spheres were in fact interconnected and complementary.
If Romanticism marks the beginning of German theoretical interest in myth, the rise of Nazism corresponds to a very different kind of watershed. Explicit appeals to national mythological traditions were a characteristic feature of fascist ideology and propaganda, from the evocation of classical Roman legends in Mussolini’s speeches to the use of runic signs in Nazi iconography. Commentators at the time took it for granted that if modernity could generate its own myths, they would look a lot like fascist propaganda, with its stories about the destinies of chosen races, or kingdoms that will last a thousand years.
For much of the twentieth century, Nazism supplied the paradigmatic example of modern myth. In turn, it became a vivid case study in the deadly repercussions of leavings myths to rear their heads and thrive unchecked in the public sphere. By the time Blumenberg—himself persecuted during the war as a “half-Jew”—was able to commence his academic career, the dominant position on myth in the post-war intellectual scene was one of unambiguous condemnation.
Extending the legacy of early anthropology and psychanalysis, which had prominently associated myth with primitive culture and the unconscious minds of adolescents, Blumenberg’s contemporaries took myth to be a distinctly vicious form of cultural regression that ought to have no place in modern, mature societies. Their call for every resource of critical reason to be deployed against the traces of myth in contemporary politics is familiar to us today: for instance, through Habermas’ vision of a society that leaves behind its myths for increasingly rational forms of communication (44, 52-3).
Blumenberg’s refusal to condemn myths in the same vein meant that he spent much of his philosophical career thinking against the grain of his time. He did not share the belief, so commonplace in the twentieth-century liberal tradition, that myth ought to be eradicated from modern society, or that it was even possible to do so. He resisted the contemporary temptation to reduce the possibilities of myth to fascism—a resistance was all the more remarkable given how much he had suffered under the Nazi regime. He famously claimed to sleep only six nights a week to make up for the time that had been taken away from him during the war.
The political ramifications of Blumenberg’s philosophy are still being worked out. At least in part, the lack of attention paid to his work by political theorists over the decades can be credited to his refusal of any easy identification between myth and fascism. During a time when the very idea would have seemed impossible, he stubbornly embraced the potential of myth to be a positive force in modern society.
When we read Blumenberg’s writings on myth, however, as part of the broader theoretical tradition he had inherited, it is easy to see that their political salience was built into the project from the beginning. By self-consciously positioning himself in dialogue with the long history of German theorizing about myth, Blumenberg was able to take a far-sighted view of myth’s possibilities that could not be boiled down to the most pressing political issue of the day. This expansive vision, in turn, made him the most captivating thinker of the last century to take up the mantle of the philosophy of myth.
Today, perhaps, we are better positioned to appreciate our need for a more nuanced account of the place of myth in contemporary life. Blumenberg’s legacy serves as an unusually prescient guide in navigating this challenge.
First, he offers us a theory of myth that is grounded in the idea of narrative meaning. Myth, for Blumenberg, is not a convenient foil for philosophy, or a synonym for the irrational. The real significance of myths, rather, lies in the narrative patterns, metaphors and symbols at their core. Such figurative content, Blumenberg helps remind us, is what lights up our world views and political imagination with meaning.
Second, Blumenberg takes apart the traditional opposition between myth and enlightenment, laying bare the extent to which they are intertwined. In so doing, he helps us see that we do not give up on a politics of reason when we extend recognition to the role that myths and other imaginative frameworks play in shaping our lives.
Finally, by rejecting the notion that myth is necessarily monolithic, Blumenberg urges us to embrace our own creative capacity to reshape the stories and metaphors in our culture. It is only by being at “work” on the myths of our own world that we can begin to rewrite the narratives that dominate it.
Tae-Yeoun Keum is the Christopher Tower Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, and from Fall 2020 will be Assistant Professor in Political Theory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2017, she received the American Political Science Association’s Leo Strauss Award for the best dissertation in political philosophy. Her first book, Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought, is forthcoming with Harvard University Press.