Conceptual History as a Philosophical Methodology: The Case of Hans Blumenberg’s Metaphorology

In a first blog post, I suggested that the figure of Hans Blumenberg can help us to understand one of the major differences between the ‘Cambridge School’ of intellectual history and Begriffsgeschichte, or conceptual history. This difference, I argued, is a disciplinary one: whereas Cambridge School intellectual history operates mainly in the fields of the historiography of political thought and contemporary political theory, conceptual historians intervene in a wider array of discourses and make more diverse use of historical insights. Hans Blumenberg, who is known as a philosopher, and not mainly as a political theorist, exemplifies this polydisciplinary outlook. At the same time, we can learn a lot about Blumenberg’s work if we interpret his early methodological writings in the context of conceptual history debates.

Hans Blumenberg is currently rapidly gaining ground in the English-speaking humanities, after having already attracted steadily growing attention from the German-speaking academic world. I suggest that it is worth looking at his example because, unlike Koselleck and Conze or Skinner and Pocock, Blumenberg did not use philosophical theory as a means to write history, but instead used intellectual and conceptual history as a means to philosophize. This is particularly visible in one of Blumenberg’s earlier works, ‘Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie’ (‘Paradigms for a Metaphorology’), which, tellingly, was published in the sixth issue of Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte (‘Archive for Conceptual History’).1 This was the very organ founded by Erich Rothacker in 1955 in which the two most important German schools of conceptual history—the Münster group surrounding Joachim Ritter, later main editor of Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie,2 and the Heidelberg group surrounding Conze and Koselleck, later main editors of Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (GG) in Bielefeld—published and debated their methodological principles.3

Blumenberg, who died in 1996, published the bulk of his work the 1970s and 1980s in Western Germany, where he was acknowledged during his lifetime as one of the most important philosophical voices of the post-war generation. Although what some saw as his most famous work—The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966)—was translated by the MIT Press in 19834 and favourably discussed by Richard Rorty,5 it took English-speaking readers some time to appreciate Blumenberg’s dense prose and philosophical style. Over the decades, the German philosophical community exploited Blumenberg’s seemingly never-ending literary Nachlass (of which more than twenty books have been published so far!) and incorporated the philosopher into the contemporary canon through the production of a remarkable amount of secondary scholarship, including a philosophical ‘road movie’.6 Yet it was only in 2020 that a first extended set of English translations was made available for a wider audience. History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader, published by Cornell University Press, offers a representative selection of texts, including (amongst other things) pieces on philosophical anthropology, intellectual history, and philosophy of culture, and situates them within the intellectual context of the Western German post-war debates.7 The publication of the English reader coincides with the 100th anniversary of Blumenberg’s birth, which was also celebrated in the German philosophical community with the publication of what will probably become the standard intellectual biography of the thinker for the years to come: Rüdiger Zill’s Der absolute Leser (‘The Absolute Reader’, Suhrkamp).8

Blumenberg’s programmatic essay ‘Paradigms for a Metaphorology’ can and should be understood in the context of debates surrounding modernity and the role of the historian in uncovering and working with past thought. In the 1970s, when Joachim Ritter—at this time affiliated with the University of Münster—started to publish the Historisches Wörterbuch, Blumenberg was appointed professor at the same institution. As mentioned above, he participated in debates over the methodological principles of historically informed philosophy and philosophically informed history in the Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte. He also sat on the DFG Commission on Conceptual History, chaired by Hans-Georg Gadamer, which decided whether to allocate funding to the various publication projects of conceptual historians working in West Germany at that time.

Yet, moving on from this evidence that Blumenberg was part of the debates, what particular perspective did he adopt? Here it makes sense to uncover what Blumenberg meant by ‘metaphorology’. As explained in my article on the study of intellectual history, both the ‘Cambridge School’ and practitioners of Begriffsgeschichte posit that understanding the nature of a concept—for example, ‘cosmos’ or ‘republic’—requires deep sensitivity to the various historical changes in meaning that it has undergone. Blumenberg accepts this. But he points out that the insight of conceptual history can function in two directions. Not only is it possible to use the history of the term ‘cosmos’ to understand how the concept came to be and what it meant to previous generations, but the history of a given concept can also be used to elucidate the ahistorical character of the very process that makes conceptual thought possible. In other words: if we understand what drives the historical transformation of concepts, we gain an ahistorical, purely philosophical insight. But what is this ahistorical engine of historical change in meaning? The answer, according to Blumenberg, lies in the metaphor.

What, philosophically speaking, are metaphors? Blumenberg’s answer is complex:

. . . metaphors can also—hypothetically, for the time being—be foundational elements of philosophical language, ‘translations’ that resist being converted back into authenticity and logicality. If it could be shown that such translations, which would have to be called ‘absolute metaphors’, exist, then one of the essential tasks of conceptual history (in the thus expanded sense) would be to ascertain and analyse their conceptually irredeemable expressive function.9)

Blumenberg’s language, as we see here, is philosophically quite intricate. In his view, a metaphor means non-literal speech—that is, speech that aims to communicate a point without a clearly detectable denotation. An example of such non-literal speech is the Roman way of denoting governance: instead of simply saying ‘to govern’ (administrāre), Romans would often use the expression ‘to hold the helm of the state’ (tenere gubernācula reī pūblicae)—even though a state obviously does not have a helm; only a ship does. But a state is not a ship. Nonetheless, the sentence ‘Caesar is at the helm of the state’ is propositional, that is, truth-functional: because we understand its meaning, the sentence can meaningfully be true or false, despite the fact that Caesar is probably sitting on a horse or in a chair when he is governing, and is most probably not engaged in nautical activities. The metaphor functions non-literally, and thus non-conceptually, yet it fulfils a propositional role. What is more, if we look closely at the word for ‘helm’ (or more accurately, ‘rudder’), gubernācula, we will detect the very syllables that today form the concept of ‘governance’. But it is the latter concept, not the former metaphor, that has been subject to so much historical change in meaning. This produces a genuine philosophical insight: it was the ahistorical condition of a pre-existing metaphorical ‘typology’ that enabled the historical process behind the various ascriptions of meaning to the terminology of governance. It does not matter whether the metaphor is itself historically and linguistically conditioned—though of course, it is. What matters is the purely formal, ahistorical insight that without a historically contingent image—a steering rudder—the very concept of governance could not have been born. And the detection, description, and analysis of the various forms in which this formal condition manifests itself are tasks that fall to the philosopher.

To the philosophically trained reader, it will become clear that Blumenberg is engaged in a deeply modern, deeply Kantian pursuit. He wants, by means of an analysis of the historically contingent content of thought, to find out the very conditions that enable its possibility. He admits this himself:

. . . metaphorology seeks to burrow down to the substructure of thought, the underground, the nutrient solution of systematic crystallizations; but it also aims to show with what ‘courage’ the mind preempts itself in its images, and how its history is projected in the courage of its conjectures.10

If the detection of the non-conceptual, yet propositional function of absolute metaphors is the task of the philosopher–metaphorologist, then the mapping of the courageous underground of thought is their aim. And the underground of thought is metaphorical. This image of the mind projecting its own history might sound deeply Hegelian, but Blumenberg does not intend any such implications: what he has in mind is, surprisingly, a rather pragmatic programme:

Our situation is . . . characterized by the positivistic program of a resolute critique of language in its ‘guiding function’ for our thinking, whereby an expression like ‘true’ becomes immediately superfluous (Ayer) . . . [For] the truth [of metaphors] is pragmatic in a very broad sense. By providing a point of orientation, the content of absolute metaphors determines a particular attitude or conduct [Verhalten]; they give structure to a world, representing the nonexperienceable, nonapprehensible totality of the real. To the historically trained eye, they therefore indicate the fundamental certainties, conjectures, and judgments in relation to which the attitudes and expectations, actions and inactions, longings and disappointments, interests and indifferences, of an epoch are regulated. ‘What genuine guidance does it give?’ This form of the ‘truth question’, formulated by [American] pragmatism, is pertinent here . . .11

Like Kant, Blumenberg digs into the various mental preconfigurations in which the conditional structure of metaphors can appear; the data he relies upon is provided by conceptual history. In ten chapters, Blumenberg thus ‘paradigmatically’–that is, in exemplificatory fashion–examines the way specific metaphors have historically helped to crystallize or decrystallize thought. So, to Blumenberg, the metaphor that ‘truth is mighty’, for example, has historically been the precondition for the concept of spontaneous insight,12 or for the idea that truth will be evident in the sense that it speaks for itself.13 Similarly, the metaphor that truth is ‘naked’ could, according to Blumenberg, be seen a precondition for the modern idea that truth is often disguised—by social conditions, for instance—and needs to be ‘revealed’.14 Blumenberg also suggests that in the modern age, the metaphor of an ‘unfinished world’ lay behind the idea that meliorism and the organic evolution of nature are connected to metaphysical freedom.15 Through further exemplificatory analyses, he argues that the metaphor of the world as a book is typologically connected to the (modern) metaphor of the world as machine, which differs from the ancient metaphor of the world as a machina, an organic principle possessing self-motion.16 Subsequently, he uses the concept of ‘probability’ to show how a metaphor—in this case, the metaphor of the probable as a ‘substitute’ for truth—can develop into its own well-defined conceptual space.17 In contrast to this, the Copernican astronomical model is shown to be an example of how mere concepts—in this case, a system of new calculations, assertions, and justifications—can fuse into new metaphorical images, such as that of an equalizing, non-anthropocentric stellar democracy.18 These analyses are incomplete sketches; what Blumenberg wants to show is how in each case, important conceptual breakthroughs in the history of thought were either enabled by pre-existing metaphorical figures, or emerged as new ones.

In this way, Blumenberg uses intellectual history as a kind of inventory that provides him with a wealth of material to test the mind’s capacity for ‘courageous conjecture’ and to inquire into the structure of the mind itself. This leads to an almost ironic result: metaphorology, understood as a philosophical method of conceptual history, teaches that the substructure of thought itself is non-conceptual. Tying this back to the way in which historians write intellectual history, we are confronted with an interesting juxtaposition: the question for figures as different as Koselleck, Skinner, Conze, and Pocock was that of how to write history. How should philosophical theories about the nature of concepts or ideas—like speech act theory, or phenomenology—be used to write good intellectual history? For Blumenberg, however, the question is reversed: what, he asks, are we supposed to do with intellectual history? He thus turns the study of intellectual history on its head: he uses history, and the theoretical corollaries of political, theological, and scientific thought, to produce new and original philosophical theories about the ahistorical, but nonetheless historicizing, nature of the mind.

  1. Hans Blumenberg, ‘Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie’, Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte, 6 (1960), 7–142. []
  2. Joachim Ritter, Karlfried Gründer, and Gottfried Gabriel (eds.), Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, 13 vols. (Basel, 1971–2007). []
  3. See Melvin Richter, The History of Political and Social Concepts: A Critical Introduction (Oxford, 1995), 17. []
  4. Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, Mass., 1983). []
  5. See Richard Rorty’s review of Hans Blumenberg, Against Belatedness: The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert Wallace (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), in London Review of Books, 5 (1983), 3–5. []
  6. Christoph Rüter, Hans Blumenberg: Der unsichtbare Philosoph (Cologne, 2018). []
  7. See Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll, ‘Hans Blumenberg: An Introduction’, in eid. (eds.), History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader (Ithaca, NY, 2020). []
  8. Rüdiger Zill, Der absolute Leser: Hans Blumenberg. Eine intellektuelle Biographie (Berlin, 2020). []
  9. Hans Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology, trans. Robert Savage (Ithaca, NY, 2010), 3. Original: ‘Dann aber können Metaphern, zunächst rein hypothetisch, auch Grundbestände der philosophischen Sprache sein, “Übertragungen”, die sich nicht ins Eigentliche, in die Logizität zurückholen lassen. Wenn sich zeigen läßt, daß es solche Übertragungen gibt, die man absolute Metaphern nennen müßte, dann wäre die Feststellung und Analyse ihrer begrifflich nicht ablösbaren Aussagefunktion ein essentielles Stück der Begriffsgeschichte (in dem so erweiterten Sinne).’ (Blumenberg, ‘Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie’, 8. []
  10. Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology, 5. Original: ‘Die Metaphorologie sucht an die Substruktur des Denkens heranzukommen, an den Untergrund, die Nährlösung der systematischen Kristallisationen, aber sie will auch faßbar machen, mit welchem “Mut” sich der Geist in seinen Bildern selbst voraus ist und wie sich im Mut zur Vermutung seine Geschichte entwirft.’ Blumenberg, ‘Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie’, 11. []
  11. Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology, 14. Original: ‘Unsere Situation ist daher gekennzeichent durch das positivistische Programm einer entschlosenen Kritik der Sprach ein ihrer “Leitfunktion” für unser Denken, wobei ein Ausdruck wie “wahr” im Nu ganz überflüssig wird (Ayer) . . . Ihre Wahrheit [der Metaphern] ist, in einem sehr weiten Verstande, pragmatisch. Ihr Gehalt bestimmt als Anhalt von Orientierungen ein Verhalten, sie geben einer Welt Struktur, repräsentieren das nie erfahrbare, nie übersehbare, nie übersetzbare Ganze der Realität. Dem historisch verstehenden Blick repräsentieren sie […] die fundamentalen […] Gewißheiten, Vermutungen, Wertungen, aus denen sich die Haltungen, Erwartungen, […], Sehnsüchte und Enttäuschungen […] einer Epoche regulierten. What genuine guidance does it give? Diese Form der „Wahrheitsfrage“, wie sie der Pragmatismus entworfen hat, ist hier […] in Geltung.’ Blumenberg, ‘Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie’, 20. []
  12. Blumenberg, ‘Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie’, 14–15. []
  13. Ibid. 46. []
  14. Ibid. 50–8. []
  15. Ibid. 63–8. []
  16. Ibid. 71–83. []
  17. Ibid. 89–106. []
  18. Ibid. 107–22. []

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Maximilian Priebe

He is a MPhil Student in Political Thought and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge.

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