Hans Blumenberg’s Variations on the End of Theory

If one subscribes to the diagnosis that theory has indeed reached its “end”, then one encounters two difficulties. First: If theory is over, then there is no more theory that could make this end understandable. Theory would be unable to analyze its own demise. Second, a significant part of those grand theories that now seem passé always consisted in proclaiming various “ends” (from the death of the subject to the end of history). To what extent did this include the “end” of the theory itself? The “end of theory” thus seems as theoretically inaccessible as its continuation. A productive way of dealing with this awkward situation can be found in the writings of Hans Blumenberg. His writings are, this project argues, characterized by a peculiar mixture of a “farewell” to theory and solidarity with it.

A goodbye to theory can be observed in Blumenberg when he departs from the attempt to tell history as a Geistesgeschichte, an attempt that he still made in Legitimität der Neuzeit. At some point, however, Blumenberg shifted his tack; he still pursued an intellectual, historical analysis, but no longer with the aim of tracking fundamental epochal shifts in broad, categorical systems of thought. Instead, his focus moved to examining what appear at first glance to be minimal deviations in the reception of one and the same anecdote. However, this apparent departure from grand, or high, theory corresponds to an unbroken solidarity with theory: When Blumenberg turns to certain metaphors, images, and anecdotes, it is never to leave theory behind, but to gain clarity about the scope, efficiency, interest, and legitimacy of theory itself. For example, the anecdote about the Thracian’s laughter at Thales, who falls into a well while observing the sky, can be understood as dealing with the presumed blindness of theory. The Lucretian image of a “shipwreck with spectators” similarly questions the frivolity of the theorist, who enjoys his disinterest in what is the subject of the theory. In Blumenberg’s Höhlenausgängen, the cave, on one hand, points the way to an exit from theory. Yet on the other hand, it also harbors the notion that the cave itself is a theoretical construct: Is the reader being seduced by the promise of a paradoxically radical exit to the beginning of theory?

Program funding through the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2019
Head researcher(s): Christoph Paret