The Genesis of the Copernican World: Translator's Introduction
Wallace (Robert M.)
Source: Blumenberg - The Genesis of the Copernican World
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Translator's Introduction (Full Text, without footnotes)

  1. Interpretations of the Copernican revolution have been hampered for a long time by an unexamined assumption about the relation between the history of science, on the one hand, and the history of European ‘consciousness' (in a broad sense that would include, for example, philosophy, religion, and metaphor, as well as science), on the other. Although Copernicus's work was predominantly scientific, its consequences, of course, extended far beyond science, inspiring philosophies, causing problems for religion, and producing powerful metaphors like that of man's "removal from the center" of the cosmos. But if we turn to what led up to this revolution, we find that although histories of science have mentioned some possible philosophical and religious "influences," they have not tried to show that any of these were necessary preconditions of the success of Copernicus's efforts, and consequently they have not really challenged the assumption, which is encouraged by the apparently self-contained, autonomous functioning of science in our own time, that the essential preconditions of Copernicus's work were all intrascientific. Thus what this case leaves us with is a picture of a one-way kind of causation1, in which while developments in science can have major effects on culture, the reverse is apparently not true. Historical and anthropological accounts of pre-Copernican myth, religion, and philosophy have not effectively challenged this picture either, since (reflecting, in practice, the same kind of relations between ‘science' and ‘nonscience' that the history of science presupposes) they have tended to see Copernicus as a bolt from the blue, impinging on but not deriving from the history of their subject matters.
  2. This kind of view of the Copernican event is especially troublesome if we believe, as is often said, that the Copernican revolution "created the modern world," because then the modern world itself is seen as a product essentially of changes originating within the self-contained activity called "science." But whether its consequences are defined as broadly as this or not, this kind of one-way, ‘exogenous' determination of important cultural phenomena by a process that is not affected by them in return has to provoke the kind of doubts to which all "reductionisms" are nowadays properly subjected. This is especially so when we remember that the notion of science as a self-contained and self-regulating long-term process itself originated only in the seventeenth century, at the same time that the Copernican revolution was taking hold.
  3. In this book, Hans Blumenberg breaks decisively with this traditional view of the Copernican reform as an event in the history of science that happened to have great repercussions outside science but had no essential extrascientific preconditions. Blumenberg undermines this view by showing how Copernicus's reform of astronomy was itself made possible, as a proposal that Copernicus and his readers could take seriously, by processes that involved the whole range of European thought, religious, philosophical, and metaphorical as well as literal and scientific. Bringing the history of science and the history of ‘consciousness' together, in this way, also enables Blumenberg to clarify, for the first time, the relations between the Copernican revolution and the origin of the modern age as a whole—two phenomena that are not, in fact, identical, and of which neither was the cause of the other, though since both derived (at least in part) from the same antecedent process, their temporal coincidence was certainly not accidental.
  4. As I mentioned, Blumenberg is not the first scholar who has considered possible connections between the Copernican turning and antecedent philosophical and theological ideas. A long series of writers has discussed the apparent influence on Copernicus of Renaissance Neoplatonism (which certainly would count as a philosophical influence); and others have thought that Copernicus may have benefited from the late medieval physical and cosmological innovations of the Nominalists, which one might also classify, like Aristotle's physics, as more philosophical than (at any rate) experimental. Alfred North Whitehead went even further with his assertion—which Thomas S. Kuhn2. quotes with approval in his account of the Copernican revolution that "faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology".
  5. It will become clear, however, that the connections that Blumenberg makes are far more systematic and thoroughgoing than these previous suggestions. What Kuhn and others offer are descriptions of the descent of particular possibly contributory ideas, and lists of possibly contributory circumstances (such as the religious ferment of the Reformation, the discrediting of Ptolemy as a geographer by the voyages of discovery, and the need for calendar reform), plus a few dramatic apercus like Whitehead's. Among these proposals, Whitehead's is the only one that seems definitely to claim to have identified a necessary extrascientific precondition of something of which the Copernican revolution was a part; but it flashes by so quickly that it is difficult to evaluate it. Blumenberg, on the other hand, provides a detailed analysis of a systematic process in medieval Christian thought that cleared away certain key long-standing obstacles to a theory like Copernicus's and made it possible for certain crucial contributory ideas to come together in a synthesis that would have been impossible, whether or not the other circumstances had been present, before that process had been worked through. In this way, he shows how certain ‘extrascientific' preconditions were in fact necessary to the Copernican revolution, rather than merely influencing (say) its timing or the form that it took; and he shows how these preconditions came about in the late Middle Ages. I will outline this process in sections 1-3.
  6. In the remaining sections I shall go on to discuss
    • what kind of "relativism" this account of Copernicus entails (section 4);
    • Blumenberg's account of Copernicanism's consequences for the concept of time and for antiquity's idea of the cosmos as something whose "contemplation" could be man's highest fulfillment (sections 5 and 6);
    • Blumenberg's typology of early attitudes to the new Copernican “truth" (section 7);
    • the powerful (and much misunderstood) metaphors that we have extracted from Copernicanism (section 8); and finally
    • Blumenberg's "revisionist" suggestion that a more consistent Copernicanism would require us to take seriously the possibility that we may in fact be unique in the universe — that reason may not be the logical culmination of nature's accomplishments, but an evolutionary3 anomaly (section 9).
1. Copernicus and Renaissance Humanism
  1. In his preface to the De revolutionibus, Copernicus makes the remarkable statement that the reason why he set out to see whether the assumption of a moving Earth would produce better explanations of the celestial phenomena was that he was dissatisfied with the way "the philosophers could by no means agree on any one certain theory of the mechanism of the universe, which was constructed on our behalf by the best and most orderly Maker of everything" [emphasis added].
  2. If we are to believe what he himself wrote, then, the hero who "destroyed our anthropocentric illusions" was motivated precisely by a teleological, anthropocentric view of the universe: by the premise that we should be able to understand the universe because it was created for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator. Is this phrase just a bow to inherited pieties — or even a prevarication intended to disguise the revolutionary implications of the new cosmology? Probably the former is the assumption made by most modern readers, since Copernicus's reverence for the ancient authorities (including Ptolemy!) is too consistently maintained for us to be able to picture him as a cunning double agent whose real loyalty is to the future. It is easier to imagine — indeed, many writers do imagine — that his only real concern was with mathematical astronomy, and that while his philosophical and theological remarks, like his sketchy remarks about terrestrial physics, were no doubt sincere, they were mainly intended to placate potential critics. A dedicatory preface addressed to the pope is obviously a political gesture in any case, so perhaps its contents are not to be taken too seriously.
  3. Blumenberg, however, takes not only this statement, and similar ones elsewhere in the De revolutionibus, but also Copernicus's whole literary manner — his references to Cicero, Plutarch, Hermes Trismegistus, and Sophocles — more seriously than previous commentators have done. As he says, "Copernicus himself places his work in the Humanist tradition." Renaissance Humanism turned to classical authors like these for assistance in combating the orthodox Aristotelianism of the universities, which the Humanists saw as incompatible not only with "eloquence" (i.e., with a classical Latin style) but with true piety and with wisdom. Copernicus, of course, was certainly not an orthodox Aristotelian either! When Kuhn, describing Humanism as to a large extent antiscientific, writes that "The work of Copernicus and his astronomical contemporaries belongs squarely in that university tradition which the Humanists most ridiculed," he neglects the difference between the university tradition of astronomy, in which Copernicus certainly did stand, and the university tradition of Aristotelian philosophy, in which he clearly did not stand. While Humanists did often depreciate knowledge (scientia), in favour of wisdom (sapientia) and piety, the knowledge they had in mind was above all that claimed by the orthodox Aristotelians. Astronomy, which was categorized as an art rather than a science and which, since the time of Ptolemy, had claimed only to predict celestial phenomena, not to describe the actual order of the universe behind those phenomena, was hardly a threat to eloquence, piety, or wisdom, and accordingly was not one of the Humanists' targets. As for astrology, to which some Humanists did indeed object on account of its determinism, Copernicus's writings show that (unlike many Renaissance and even seventeenth-century thinkers) he was able clearly to separate it from astronomy, in which the kind of knowledge that mattered to him would be located.
  4. But even granting that Copernicus may have been genuinely sympathetic to Humanism, is it not impossibly paradoxical that his application of Humanist anthropocentric teleology to astronomy should have produced not a geocentric system (which seems to be the usual, if not the universal, correlate of anthropocentrism) but a heliocentric one? And, in the actual historical situation, how can an anthropocentric premise have been a crucial element in Copernicus's break with the medieval view of the world, when that view is known, in retrospect, precisely for its anthropocentrism? It is probably questions like these that have deterred previous commentators from taking Copernicus's anthropocentric premise seriously.
  5. In part II, chapter 3 and 4, where Blumenberg deals with these questions, he draws some very important distinctions. First, he tells us that, contrary to a common assumption, the tradition of Greek cosmos metaphysics did not produce a comprehensively anthropocentric teleology prior to Stoicism. Plato's and Aristotle's cosmoses are indeed geocentric, but the only anthropocentric teleology they contain is implied in Aristotle's emphasis on the usefulness of terrestrial things to man, an emphasis that is counterbalanced by the teleological orientation of the cosmos as a whole toward the unmoved mover. Augustine makes it clear that God created the world not "for man," but simply Quia voluit, "Because he wanted to." Thomas Aquinas adapts Aristotle's ‘split' teleology, but in terms of an overriding goal: the gloria dei. Whatever content the Stoic concept of providence, which the early Fathers had borrowed, still possessed, was now restricted to arrangements on behalf of those who are chosen for salvation — which does not affect how the world functions for human beings in general. Thus, contrary to what the metaphorical interpretation of our ‘removal from the center' by Copernicus leads us to imagine, there is no continuous or predominant tradition of an anthropocentric interpretation of geocentrism. Only in the original, pagan Stoicism is the connection maintained. Medieval Christian thought, despite what the Incarnation, also, might lead one to imagine, is not predominantly anthropocentric, but theocentric.
  6. The second important point is that just as geocentrism does not entail anthropocentrism, neither does anthropocentrism entail geocentrism. In the Renaissance, when Stoicism — through Cicero — again becomes influential, it is its anthropocentrism, and not its geocentrism, that catches the imagination. Petrarch, Ficino, and Erasmus restore Providence — for man, "for us" — to its early Christian position of honor, but geocentrism has no special significance for them. Man's position ‘in the center' is "idealized," Blumenberg says, and is no longer connected to a specific cosmological diagram. Pico della Mirandola and Charles Bouille (Bovillus), whose book was in Copernicus's library, make this especially clear. Thus Copernicus's nongeocentric Humanist anthropocentrism is not only not paradoxical, it was widely shared and was a natural source of inspiration for a talented astronomer, who saw God's good intentions, in relation to man's capacity for knowledge, being demonstrated by the new "harmonies" he was discovering.
  7. The impact of Copernicus's anthropocentrically ensured claim to truth on the status and methodology of the astronomy that he inherited was more revolutionary than his heliocentric model, by itself could have been. For more than a thousand years astronomers had been satisfied to try to predict the celestial phenomena (to "save the appearances"), without making claims about the actual mechanism that produced them; and many continued to be satisfied with this goal in the decades after the De revolutionibus appeared. It was all that their tradition required of them, and it had proved to be more than sufficiently difficult to achieve by itself. This modesty was reflected in astronomy's status in the universities as a preparatory "art," to be learned prior to and apart from philosophy (which included "natural philosophy," the study of nature). When Copernicus announced that the Earth was a star, and had the same natural motion, and thus the same nature, as the other stars, that "university tradition" was irreparably violated. To the extent that his claim was taken seriously, astronomy became irrevocably intertwined with "philosophy," i.e., with physics. Rejecting the advice of his clever Lutheran admirer Osiander (who later inserted the notorious anonymous preface into the De revolutionibus, which in fact did disguise Copernicus's claim from some early readers), Copernicus refused to present his theory in the traditional manner as a hypothesis that would simplify calculations but was not meant to be a picture of reality. To present it in this way would have been to abandon knowledge that God intended us to have.
  8. And it was precisely to this exemplary claim to truth, Blumenberg stresses, that "the epoch-making ‘energy' that was set free by Copernicus" was due. One can hardly imagine Kepler and Galileo persisting in their indispensable work without their conviction that Copernicanism was literally true, and not merely a convenient hypothesis. Nor are the conflicts with Catholic and Protestant authorities, and the potent metaphor of overcoming anthropocentric illusion, conceivable without that claim. It may well be that in the 'intrascientific' process by which a new theory supplants an older one, the claim to truth — rather than practical convenience — is methodologically irrelevant. But in our attitude to science, and to the human implications of scientific theories — what Blumenberg's analytical history of ‘consciousness' is meant to grasp — it can make all the difference.
  9. The consequences of Copernicus's claim reach an even more fundamental level in science itself than that of the motivation of its practitioners. There is no need to refuse to call the pre-Copernican astronomical tradition the tradition of a "science," since its objects and its techniques are to such a large extent continuous with Copernicus's, and even Newton's. But it lacked one characteristic that we now take for granted in all sciences, which is the ideal of unified science: that the sciences can (sooner or later) be systematically integrated with each other, as aspects of a single, homogeneous reality. An important historical point that Blumenberg makes is that the separation of astronomy from philosophy in the medieval university did not just go back to Hellenistic authorities like Ptolemy, but ultimately reflected an ontological and epistemological ‘divide' that had separated astronomy from physics ever since Aristotle: the division between the Earth, with its four elements, and the heavens, which Aristotle said were composed of a fifth element, different from all the terrestrial ones. For Aristotle, man inhabits the terrestrial realm and can have knowledge of the higher realm of the heavens only through a special influence from that realm, called "active intellect" and identified with the intelligence that moves the lowest celestial sphere (that of the Moon). Consequently, "Reason does not, in the strict sense, ‘belong to' man, but affects him, as a heterogeneous influx. The outcome of Aristotelianism is the subordination of anthropology to cosmology. Man is not really cut out for the contemplation of the heavens; instead, his theoretical curiosity confronts him with the appearance of an inaccessible and heterogeneous world region, for the understanding of which the world that he is familiar with supplies no assistance. Thus the systematic justification of astronomical theory's resigning itself to constructive hypotheses [as it did from, at least, Ptolemy onward] is sketched out. So it was not just the "qualitative," nonmathematical character of Aristotle's physics that obstructed the integration of physics with astronomy. That character reflected an ontological division — deriving ultimately, Blumenberg says, from the transcendency of the Platonic Ideas, which in Aristotle becomes the transcendency of the celestial realm — that separated the mathematically intelligible realm of the heavens from the qualitatively comprehensible realm of the Earth. So it was not just a less philosophical bent on the part of the Hellenistic astronomers that led them to cease trying to interpret their models as physically real; they were operating consistently with the authoritative schema established by Aristotle.
  10. It is this schema that Copernicus, the Humanist, cancels out with one stroke when he "makes the Earth a star." And in so doing he takes the crucial step toward the fundamental modern concept of a homogeneous reality, in which all special regions and disciplines must be capable of being systematically integrated. In this sense, he does make astronomy a science, in the full modern sense, for the first time; and in doing so he brings to the fore something that is a necessary condition for the other modern sciences, as well.
  11. Perhaps this sketch also suggests why Platonism, as such, cannot have been the key motivating factor in Copernicus's efforts, as has been asserted by a long series of commentators. Of course many Renaissance thinkers found "Plato" a useful authority to appeal to against the institutionalized authority of Aristotle; and the emphasis that Plato gave to mathematics is certainly shared by Copernicus, with his enthusiasm for harmony, circularity, etc. But the crucial Platonic doctrine of the duality of sensible appearance and intelligible reality, of "images" and "ideas," is entirely absent from Copernicus's thinking. What Cassirer said of what he still called Galileo's "Platonism" applies equally to Copernicus's, that it would be "not a metaphysical but a physical Platonism," which was "a thing unheard of." Even if it were the case (which it is not, as I shall show in the next two sections) that the only way to do justice to the philosophical aspect and motivation of Copernicus's reform, or of the scientific revolution as a whole, is to describe it as a reappearance and a transformed version of an ancient tradition of thought, it hardly seems appropriate to describe as "Platonism" something that contradicts what is universally recognized as Plato's central doctrine: the doctrine of the Ideas and their relationship to the world that we perceive. If the Platonism that is supposed to have inspired Copernicus (and Kepler, and Galileo) excludes this doctrine, it would seem more appropriate to call it, perhaps, "mathematicism." But without the direct connection to Plato, it would no longer appear as the recognized basic alternative to Aristotelianism, and the reasons for its influence in various circumstances would need to be analyzed much more carefully than the assumption of a continuous tradition originating in a great philosopher has required us to do.
  12. To return to Blumenberg's own account: Is he, then, proposing that we should interpret Copernicus's reform not as a result of the Renaissance's revival of Platonism but as a result of its revival of Stoicism? Such a proposal might be plausible to a certain extent, although the selectiveness of the revival (anthropocentrism — yes, geocentrism — no) might make one wonder how coherent the tradition would be. But if we are talking about a systematic process, rather than mere contributory ideas, we need to ask, What was the intellectual, or ‘spiritual,' context in which this revival took place? Why was it appropriate to have recourse to Stoic anthropocentrism at just this point? Were there other aspects of the situation as a whole that were essential preconditions of Copernicus's project?
  13. Blumenberg does in fact describe a process that produced the attraction and the plausibility of Stoic anthropocentrism for the Renaissance, and that also produced other essential preconditions of Copernicus's project; and in doing so he relates that project to the whole state of late medieval and early modern thought about God, man, and the world. The premise of his account is that a major cultural and intellectual transformation was under way that was independent of Copernicus's intervention, but helped to make it possible and to determine what its consequences would be. In order to understand Blumenberg's account of Copernicus it is necessary to have some acquaintance with his analysis of this broader transformation, which he presented in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. I will therefore summarize the relevant aspects of that analysis, as briefly as I can, in the next section.
2. Modernity and Christianity
  1. A central question to which The Legitimacy of the Modern Age addresses itself is the question of the origin and meaning of the modern theme of human self-reliance, or "human self-assertion," as Blumenberg calls it. Why, since the seventeenth century, have we been so preoccupied with security and survival, so conscious of scarcity, so intent on acquiring means of all kinds (capital, technology, mechanistic explanations of the world) — why have we been so ‘worldly,' in general, and so unwilling to rely (as people in previous epochs seem to have relied) on a cosmic order, a providence, or a promised salvation in the next world?
  2. Before proceeding to Blumenberg's answer to this question, I should register the obvious fact that if modernity is described in this way, Copernicus turns out — despite the central role he has been given in the modern age's self-image — not to be modern himself. His anthropocentric teleology "the world that God made for us" — is unacceptable in principle to modern thought, beginning with Descartes and Bacon, which is why it has been consistently overlooked by people who want Copernicus himself to serve as the revolutionary who marks the beginning of the modern age. Copernicus is blissfully unaware that he will later be praised (and damned) for "removing man from the center," and thus abandoning him to his own devices.
  3. The usual modern answer to the question of where modern 'self-reliance' comes from is that it is simply the natural, normal, and rational approach to human existence, which automatically asserts itself when hindrances like myth, dogmatism, prejudice — and anthropocentric illusions like cosmic and Christian providence, and promises of salvation — are cleared out of the way. As to why such ‘hindrances' should have been predominant throughout the greater part of human history, we have no very clear idea. Finding 'anticipations' of modernity in the Renaissance, in the Middle Ages, and in antiquity — an effort to which much energy has been devoted — does not, of course, solve the problem. This innocent ignorance, on modernity's part, about itself, has given rise, since nineteenth-century Romanticism, to doubts as to whether modernity does not in fact represent an unfortunate rupture in some greater, more coherent mode of existence, which is variously identified with Christianity, myth, cosmic order, etc.
  4. As the title, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, suggests, this is not Blumenberg's approach. He takes considerable pains, in that book, to defend modern concepts against the suggestion that they are illegitimate because they are really "secularized" versions of concepts that were originally, and properly, medieval and Christian. But he does not accept the usual Cartesian/Enlightenment/positivist self-image of modernity, either, according to which it is simply ‘normal' and unproblematic. Instead, he proposes a comprehensive analysis of ‘where modernity came from' that, without making it a transformed version of something else, or something that was there all along (but obscured by other things), also makes it clear that it did not come "out of the blue," either. To put it in a nutshell: Blumenberg describes modernity as an attempt at solving a problem that was implicit in the whole state of late medieval thought about God, man, and the world. It was this problem that made modernity appropriate at a certain point in history, and the absence of which (the fact that it had not yet emerged) explains the absence of modernity at earlier points in time.
  5. Blumenberg's rubric for this problem is "theological absolutism." What this refers to is the late medieval emphasis on God's omnipotence, with the associated idea of the "hidden God," whom we cannot expect to comprehend in any way. In theology, these ideas led to a stress on man's powerlessness to choose even to have faith, which is something that, like everything else, is freely and inscrutably given or withheld by God. The arbitrariness of this situation is often expressed by the idea of the eternal "predestination" of souls either for salvation or for damnation. In philosophy, this kind of thinking led to the ecclesiastical condemnation (in Paris, in 1277) of the Aristotelian proofs of the uniqueness, as well as the eternal existence, of the world, and later to Nominalism's denial of the reality of universals4. These originally Greek doctrines were suspected of placing limits on the omnipotence that absolute divine sovereignty required. The consequence was, however, that just as man's faith and salvation were put in the hands of a completely inscrutable God, so was the world. It lost all the characteristics that, for classical and High Scholastic philosophy, had rendered it intelligible and reliable. "Providence" now had meaning only as God's provision for the elect, not for men or the world in general. This situation — a world that was made for God, not "for man," in which man could not be at home, but from which the only means of escape was also entirely outside his power — represented the extreme of human self-abnegation, and could not be endured indefinitely. And indeed, after a great struggle with these issues, extending through the Reformation and the wars of religion, many Europeans more or less consciously and more or less wholeheartedly replaced theological absolutism's human self-abnegation with modern "human self-assertion," in which people decide to see what they can make of the world "even if there is no God" — and of which a key axiom must be that we cannot know the purposes, the "final causes," of phenomena (for to know them would be to know, and to rely on, God's will), but only the "efficient causes" by which we find that we can produce the same phenomena.
  6. As to how things came to such a pass in the late Middle Ages, Blumenberg has, again, a fascinating story. Very briefly: The theology of divine omnipotence and predestination was first crystallized in the later works of St. Augustine, in the fifth century. "In many ways," Blumenberg writes, "the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages travels Augustine's path over again." How are we to understand that path? Once again, in terms of a problem: the problem of how "to hold the God of creation and the God of salvation together in one system." The expectation of Christ's imminent second coming and the end of the world had put all the stress on the "God of salvation." As that expectation was increasingly disappointed, the God who created the world in which one was apparently going to remain became an issue again. Gnostic dualism said that the contrast between these gods was due to the fact that they were different gods, and opposed to one another. Blumenberg argues that this plausible interpretation of a difficult situation was the central problem that Patristic theology — culminating in Augustine's doctrines of free will and original sin (which made man responsible for the miserable state of the world), and then in the correlative ideas of divine free will, omnipotence, and predestination — had to try to deal with. But the means that were employed for this purpose wound up reproducing the problem, in that "the absolute principle's responsibility for cosmic corruption — the elimination of which had been the point of the whole exercise — was after all reintroduced indirectly through the idea of predestination. For this sin, with its universal consequences ... only the original ground of everything could be held responsible." This is the sense in which Blumenberg can describe the modern age as "the second overcoming of Gnosticism"; a thesis that presupposes that "the first overcoming of Gnosticism, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, was unsuccessful."
3. Copernicus and Christianity: The "Opening Up of the Possibility of a Copernicus"
  1. Clearly Copernicus as a philosopher, with his innocently anthropocentric Humanism, does not anticipate and could not survive modern "self-assertion"'s merciless critique of teleology. Neither does he anticipate its other characteristic themes: self-preservation, scarcity, the importance of technique (and experiment), method, and methodical doubt or critique. The ontological unification of reality that his position presupposes, which anticipates Galileo's and Descartes's homogeneous mathematization of the physical world, is never spelled out explicitly. Despite our retrospective heroization of him, and the fact that his work may have had a greater direct and identifiable effect on modern consciousness than all the philosophers of "self-assertion" put together, the philosophical propositions that Copernicus does articulate exclude his philosophical position, as a "transitional episode," from belonging to the modern age.
  2. The tendency of much historical scholarship, since the nineteeth century, has been to push the origins, or the earliest indications, of modernity further and further back into what the eighteenth century had regarded as the "dark ages." While Blumenberg of course shares these scholars' desire to appreciate and understand late medieval and Renaissance thought, he maintains that its relation to the period beginning with Bruno, Galileo, Descartes, et al. exhibits such a fundamental discontinuity that it is not always useful to conceive of the Humanists as "forerunners" of the modern age. Instead, he suggests that we interpret their period as reflecting "the epochal crisis of the Middle Ages, their falling apart into Nominalism, on the one hand, and Humanism on the other." Blumenberg's account of the thought of Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) (who has sometimes been described as the first Humanist, and consequently also as "ushering in modern thought"), in Part IV of The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, is an example of the kind of subtle and powerful interpretation that Blumenberg's schema, in which "modern" thought appears much later, makes possible. Part II of the present book is another demonstration of this.
  3. The reason why Humanism could only be an unstable, transitional formation is that it did not give its adherents means with which to resist the subversive doubts that Nominalism, and the Augustinian logic in general, promoted about the world and God's providence within it. Humanist anthropocentrism could administer a suitably "pious" rebuke to the orthodox (Averroist) Aristotelians in the universities, who were the Humanists' main targets. But in theology, as the success of preachers like Luther and Calvin suggests, theocentrism, divine omnipotence, and human helplessness were the compelling conclusions of medieval thinking. The Humanists, including Copernicus, relied, in effect, on God's goodness; but only human self-assertion — by ceasing to rely on Him for anything — could really deal with the way God's freedom, understood in accordance with Augustine's logic, problematized God's goodness, for man.
  4. However, the fact that Copernicus avoided confronting this crucial late medieval problem does not mean that Nominalism had no influence on his endeavor. On the contrary, it played a very important (albeit indirect) role, not in determining the content of Copernicus's proposals, but in making them possible at all — that is, in enabling Copernicus to entertain them seriously, and to expect that his readers would do so as well. This was a crucial contribution for at least two reasons: first, because essentially the same theory had not been taken seriously when Aristarchus of Samos proposed it, in the third century BC, and second because Copernicus's proposal "stands at the end of centuries that had born the imprint of the most closed dogmatic system of world-explanation, whose basic character, not accidentally, can be summarized as implying the impossibility of a Copernicus before his time."
  5. So the question is, what happened to that dogmatic system so that Copernicus finally became "possible"? Blumenberg's answer has two parts, which are presented in chapters 2 and 3, respectively, of part II. First of all, he tells us, the Augustinian logic that he described in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age undermined the Aristotelian geocentric cosmology and physics by insisting, as in the great Paris condemnation of 1277, that it was not necessary for God to arrange things in the way that Aristotle had thought they were arranged. This condemnation served as a license for thinkers to consider hypotheses that, in an ‘Aristotelian world,' would have been impossible, and thus not worth considering. However, as the history of the debate over Copernicanism shows very clearly, this did not mean that Aristotle's doctrines ceased to carry authority. They continued to be the only comprehensively worked-out system of cosmology and physics that was available, which made it very difficult for people to imagine doing without them. But although they were the only comprehensively worked-out system, they were no longer the only available ideas. Thinkers who had availed themselves of the "license" of 1277 had in fact generated some partial alternatives, whose existence was an indispensable precondition of Copernicus's being taken seriously. There was the appetitus partium, the desire of parts to cohere as a whole, which, in lieu of the later concept of gravity, helped to explain why a rotating Earth that was no longer located "at the center" (so that Aristotle's idea of the elements' seeking their "natural places" could no longer be applied to it) did not simply fly apart. And there was the famous concept of impetus, which, in lieu of the Newtonian concept of inertia, helped to explain why objects such as falling stones and flying birds, which were not in contact with the Earth, did not have to be left behind by its rotation, as they would under Aristotle's theory of motion (which required a mover continuously acting, by direct contact, on the object that is moved).
  6. There is a natural tendency to think of Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme, and the other Nominalists who developed these ideas as engaged, essentially, in "science," or at any rate in "natural philosophy," which is really no different from what a pagan Greek or a secular modern scientist might engage in. Kuhn, for instance, describes the Scholastic criticism of Aristotle as "the first effective research in the modern world," and as exhibiting "an unbounded faith in the power of human reason to solve the problems of nature." To counteract this natural projection of our own assumptions, and to help us to understand the very long period — from, say, 1400 to 1580 — during which the Nominalists' theories were, indeed, taught in the Italian universities, but in which they led to no further concrete progress, it is important to realize how conservative the actual intentions of these thinkers were. Like all the Scholastics, they were working on a system whose internal coherence was their overriding concern. When they criticized Aristotle, it was not with the idea that entirely new ideas might eventually be needed (which might have directed their attention toward, for example, carrying out concrete measurements or experiments) — it was always with the intention of repairing the inherited system. Thus, as Blumenberg shows, "The clearest ‘forerunner' of Copernicus in Nominalism, Nicole Oresme [who discussed the possibility of the Earth's diurnal rotation], deviated from Aristotelian cosmology precisely in order to be able to save Aristotelian physics" — removing the ambiguity of Aristotle's account of the motion of comets by stipulating that even sublunar objects (and thus, necessarily, the Earth) could have a natural circular motion. And Jean Buridan, who also breached the Aristotelian division of the heavens from the Earth, but in the opposite direction, by applying the concept of impetus (which had previously been used in analyzing the motion of projectiles) to the motion of the celestial spheres, was not on the track of astronomical knowledge, as such; he was merely generalizing his critique of the Aristotelian idea of natural motion as goal-directed motion, a critique that was entailed by Nominalism's emphasis on the inscrutability of the divine will. As Blumenberg sums up the situation, "The exhaustive exploration of the speculative possibilities of the Scholastic system is aimed at displaying God's sovereignty and his potentia absoluta [absolute power], but not at expanding man's knowledge of the world; if it nevertheless proves useful for the latter, then this is a result of the efforts to maintain the system's stability in spite of that demand on it." Thus while Nominalism created indispensable preconditions for Copernicus's great step forward, that step could not have been taken by a Nominalist, but only by someone who had reasons for thinking that knowledge about the heavens should in fact be accessible to man — i.e., by a Humanist.
  7. The second part of Blumenberg's account of the way in which Nominalism helped to "make a Copernicus possible," which he presents in part II, chapter 3 — "Transformations of Anthropocentrism" — has to do with the homogeneity of the world whose order Copernicus believes we can know, because it was made "for us." The problem here is that in antiquity, the anthropocentric providence on which Copernicus would later rely was intimately associated with an understanding of theory as an essentially visual relationship between man and the cosmos — the "contemplation of the heavens" (whose history Blumenberg discusses in part I of the book: see section 6 of this introduction). For such a relationship, it was appropriate for the "contemplator" to be located at the physical center of the cosmos, where the Stoics put him. The fact that Humanism was able to revive Stoicism's anthropocentric teleology without becoming entangled in Stoic geocentrism at the same time implies that in the meantime the theoretical attitude had become separated, in principle, from its traditional visual connotations — which is a result that cannot be adequately explained by the renewed influence, for example, of "Platonism," because, as I pointed out earlier, Platonism lacks precisely the conception of a homogeneous knowable reality.
  8. Where, then, did Copernicus get the idea of a cognitive access to the entire, homogeneous world, which was not the visual access that the Stoics had assumed, but was not a Platonic access to a merely intellectual world either? This is the main question that Blumenberg addresses in the final pages of part II, chapter 3, where he brings out a surprising relationship between Nominalism's God and Copernicus's man. Copernicus's teleological premise, he points out,
      cannot be read as a generalization of the partial teleology that, according to Aristotelianism, benefits man; it cannot be read this way because it excludes precisely the element of need. It is supposed to guarantee a possible access to truth by man that has nothing to do with the ways in which the art of astronomy is useful in life. A satisfaction is pictured that goes beyond man's needs — a satisfaction of a kind that, in the Middle Ages, only the visio beatifica, in the next world, could be. God is the final end of all natural beings, Buridan asserts, in a sense of sovereign independence [i.e., although they exist ‘for His sake,' He does not need them], but not in the Aristotelian sense of His having no knowledge whatsoever of the world. Could one say that this relation too was now defined, after the Creation, as one of pure theory? And defined, in that theory, as a universal homogeneity of all objects in the world? In that case, this turning would already, by implication, have suspended Aristotelianism's split teleology and produced, objectively, the unitary character of the nature as the ‘reference-person' of which man, again, makes his appearance in Copernicus's formula.
  9. Blumenberg's suggestion, then, is that the cosmos was first unified as an object of ‘theory' by Nominalist theology, in keeping with Genesis's "And God saw all that He had made, and it was very good." Unlike any Greek god, and certainly unlike Aristotle's "unmoved mover," to whom Aquinas had tried to assimilate his Christian God, this (Augustinian/Nominalist) God took an interest in the world — simply because He had chosen to create it. And of course for Him distinctions of near and far, matter and form, Earth and heavens amounted to nothing. Everything without distinction existed (had been created, by Him) for Him.
  10. Which is precisely the relationship that Copernicus asserts between man and the universe: Everything was created "for man" (though of course not by him), and is therefore equally accessible for him. "Without any blasphemous defiance, the Copernican world-formula grants to man a privilege, as an end, that only a theory that is beyond the realm of pressing needs could have. . . . " By claiming the right to such a theory, Copernicus crosses the boundaries of the human condition as the Middle Ages conceived it. He is able to do this because the change in the conception of God's relation to the world that Nominalism's Augustinian logic has forced upon Scholasticism — its dismantling of the idea of a God Who "remains external to the world, not in immediate relation to all of its elements" — has set up a new framework, in which, given a "high degree of exertion against the late Scholastic Middle Ages," God's position (as far as knowledge of the world is concerned) can be reoccupied by man.
  11. Unlike its Stoic ancestor, the teleology "for man" that is produced by this reoccupation does not imply any particular cosmological diagram, because the relation to reality — the "idealized" position in the center, as Blumenberg calls it in the next chapter — that it entails is conceived on the completely non-spatial (and likewise nonvisual) analogy of God's position. This, then, is the ultimate model of a relation to reality — compatible with "Platonic" mathematicism, and compatible with Stoic anthropocentrism, but not dependent on either of them for its basic pattern — that underlies Copernicus's claim to knowledge of a homogeneous universe — the claim that motivated his whole effort. Thus in this essential way as well, Nominalism's dismantling of High Scholastic Aristotelianism is a necessary precondition of Copernicus's reform, although clearly there is no way in which one could undertake that reform and still remain a Nominalist. Although Copernicus does not "construct a position that can confront theological voluntarism," as modern "self-assertion" does, he does move irreversibly beyond such voluntarism by putting man, at least in respect to his type of knowledge, in the position of its God.
  12. In the final chapter (chapter 6) of Part II, Blumenberg rounds out his account of how Copernicus's theory became (physically and metaphysically) "possible" with a hypothetical account of how Copernicus, as an astronomer, actually arrived at it. His idea, which he supports with a detailed reading of the De revolutionibus and the Commentariolus, is that Copernicus started from a partial heliocentric model, applied to Venus and Mercury only — which is a construction that would not have been original with him, having been proposed by Heraclides of Pontus, in the fourth century B.C., as a way of explaining the observed permanent proximity of these two planets to the Sun. Copernicus would then have generalized that model to include the other planets as well, and only inserted the Earth in the system — to fill the gap between Venus and Mars, and harmonize the whole picture as the very last step in the process. The logic of this possible train of thought, in which the Earth's annual motion, as a planet, comes first, and its diurnal rotation is only, as it were, an afterthought, helps to explain why those "forerunners" of Copernicus (like Nicole Oresme) who considered a possible diurnal rotation did not get any further. They had not, in fact, taken even the "first step" on Copernicus's actual path.
  13. To sum up, then: The tradition of astronomy contained ideas that, when Copernicus combined them and worked them out in a thoroughgoing manner, yielded his new model of the planetary system. But, first, neither he nor his readers could have entertained that model seriously as a description of nature if it had not been for Nominalism's previous critique of Aristotelian physics and cosmology, and for the useful conceptual "spin-offs" (appetitus partium, impetus) from that critique. And second, he probably could not have believed in and pursued the kind of knowledge of a homogeneous nature that he did believe in and pursue if it had not been for the model of such a nature, and of a nonvisual ‘theoretical' relation to it, that he could find in late medieval theology. (In this sense — which, however, is probably not the sense in which he meant it — Whitehead's remark about faith in the possibility of science being an unconscious derivative from medieval theology is quite correct.) Thus, Copernicus's effort and success were made possible by the internal logic of the Scholastic system and the modifications that that logic produced in the system. This is why the Copernican revolution was neither the result of an ‘exogenous' input into European consciousness, nor the result merely of the return of one or more pre-modern philosophical traditions to prominence, nor the result of a combination of one or both of these factors with various social circumstances, but reflects, instead, a central systematic process in medieval Christian thought as a whole.
4. Does This Analysis Lead to "Relativism"?
  1. Does this analysis of the process that "opened up the possibility of a Copernicus" imply, as it appears to, that Copernicus's theory was impossible — that it could not have been successfully advocated — prior to the late Middle Ages? Such a conclusion, based on Blumenberg's account of the key role of Christian theology in producing, through Nominalism, the conditions that made a Copernicus possible at that point in history, would be in sharp contrast to our usual conception of science as a self-contained, autonomous process, which generates outputs that affect our other activities but is not dependent on them, in return, for anything more than material inputs. It might also suggest a contrast with our usual assumptions about rationality. Taken together with Blumenberg's remarks about the novelty of the "self-propelling scientific attitude toward the world, which is projected as a guiding idea" in the modern syndrome of self-assertion, his analysis of the Copernican reform of astronomy might encourage one to suppose, as Michael Heidelberger does, that for Blumenberg "the conditions which make internal relations between scientific theories at all possible did not arise prior to the emergence of modern science ... [so that] it is only natural ... that in general one cannot find a purely internal relation between Ptolemean and Copernican astronomy, which could be sufficient to justify the choice of the Copernican theory as rational." The ‘choice' between Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomy, then, would not be one that could be argued rationally, but would depend upon one's epochal affiliation — on what historical experiences one had gone through. Such a view of science and of Copernicus would not only be in conflict with scientific rationalism's claims to universal relevance, intelligibility, and authority, but would make one wonder what kind of rationality, if any, is shared by humanity as a whole. If we read Blumenberg in this way, he would appear to be a rather extreme relativist, whose thinking might very well be open to the criticism that it puts in question at least the possibility of translation (between the languages of different epochs and cultures), and perhaps also (if its logic were pressed to the extreme) even the possibility of communication in general.
  2. Now, in comparison with the Cartesian/Enlightenment/positivist tradition, Blumenberg certainly is a relativist. "Historical respect for the equal rank of the aids that man avails himself of in comprehending the world" is always his guiding idea, whether he is interpreting metaphor, myth, Gnosticism, Christianity, metaphysics, Romanticism, Idealism, Lebensphilosophie, phenomenology — or, for that matter, Enlightenment rationalism or positivism. None of these, he clearly thinks, has the right to judge the others and find them wanting. (Though each of them can certainly be assessed internally by how well it succeeds in dealing with the problems that it sets out to deal with. Such ‘assessment,' as a process, is what history is made up of.) Such a view does, indeed, deny the special dignity of science presupposed by scientific rationalism.
  3. Furthermore, Blumenberg is, I think, quite serious about the "possibility" of a Copernicus not presenting itself before the late Middle Ages. Of course the game of "What if?" for example, What if Aristarchus of Samos had been Copernicus and Newton rolled into one? — is easy to play, and impossible to refute definitively. But there are good reasons why Aristarchus in fact was not Copernicus and Newton. For the preeminent ancient theorists of the cosmos, Plato and Aristotle, physics was not fully mathematizable because only whatever was perfect (the Ideas or the fifth element) could be perfectly mathematical. The main rival doctrine to theirs in physics — atomism — seems not to have been conceived as mathematizable either, perhaps for the same reason — as a description of a universe of chance, it was obviously ‘imperfect.' The mathematical fictionalism5 that became the rule in Hellenistic astronomy took this dualism so seriously that it ceased to try to describe cosmic reality, as such, at all. It may be that this attitude even influenced Stoicism, if Blumenberg is right that Cleanthes, the leading Stoic, accused Aristarchus of impiety just because he presented his heliocentric model as more than a fiction, thus profaning the "mystery" of the cosmos. It appears, then, that a mathematical description of a homogeneous reality was not going to be possible until (again, through Nominalism) the idea of an omnipotent God Who creates "from nothing," and thus has the same ‘immediate' relation to everything, had destroyed the dualism of matter and form that runs through these older doctrines. In response to the question why such a dualism should have been the first form taken by self-conscious reason in our tradition, Blumenberg suggests that it represents a pattern of "relapses" into "the double-layered relationship that exists, in mythical thought, between what one sees and what really happens — between the flat appearances in the foreground and a ‘story' in the background." For whatever reasons, it does seem to be the case that the idea of a homogeneous and mathematizable reality is a unique characteristic of modern European thought; and it is certainly a necessary precondition of a theory like Copernicus's.
  4. However, I think Michael Heidelberger is mistaken in concluding that, in Blumenberg's view, modern science is so different from everything premodern that premodern ‘theories' are simply incommensurable with modern ones. It seems probable that Heidelberger arrived at this interpretation of Blumenberg by seeing Blumenberg's conception of the change from the ‘prescientific' epochs to the 'scientific' one as a generalized version of Kuhn's conception of "paradigm changes" within science. But an epochal change, as Blumenberg conceives it, is not comparable to a Kuhnian paradigm switch, which, as he says in his second reference to Kuhn in this book, "neglects the way in which every possible discontinuity presupposes [an underlying] continuity." In the revised edition of The Legitimacy of the Modern Age Blumenberg compared the process of epochal change not to a paradigm switch but to the "logical situation that Aristotle put under the heading of aporia and that Kant discussed as the fundamental pattern of the ‘transcendental dialectic.' In both cases the process of cognition itself forces the abandonment of its presuppositions and the introduction of new elementary assumptions, which, while they do create a way out of the problematic situation, do not require the shattering of the identity of the overall movement that gave rise to that situation." That is, Kuhn neglects the underlying continuity of the "process of cognition itself." "'Scientific revolutions,’" Blumenberg wrote, "if one were to choose to take their radicalness literally, simply cannot be the ‘last word' of a rational conception of history; otherwise that conception would have denied to its object the very same rationality that it wanted to assert for itself."
  5. Thus, rather than projecting the kind of incommensurability that Kuhn saw in science onto the plane of the history of Western consciousness as a whole, Blumenberg wants to find continuity beneath the great discontinuities of that history by broadening our understanding of "the process of cognition" as a whole to include what scientific rationalism, since Descartes, has condemned as irrational. He wants to find in his "object" — the history of Western consciousness — "the same rationality that he wants to assert for himself." Whether he succeeds in finding it, each reader will have to judge for himself. But it is clear that his type of ‘relativism,' which expects to find rationality (in his own, broad sense) in more various modes of thought in our tradition than any rationalism (including Hegel's) has found it in, does not correspond to the usual picture of relativism as doubting the universality of reason.
  6. Where it does agree with skeptical forms of relativism is in its estimate of the extent to which definitive rationality has been or can be achieved. In contrast with the classical spokesmen of modern rationalism, Blumenberg underlines the negative side of the now generally acknowledged "endlessness" of scientific progress: the fact that, because definitive results can never be arrived at, practical conclusions also can only be temporary and provisional, and no decision (practical or theoretical) can ever be fully rationally justified. Aside from whether science, even in its ideal final state, could ever rationally determine our "ultimate ends," this actual insurmountable provisionality makes it necessary to supplement the scientific analysis that we are able to carry out at any given time with "rhetoric," which thus is "not an alternative that one can choose instead of an insight that one could also have, but an alternative to a definitive evidence that one cannot have, or cannot have yet, or at any rate cannot have here and now."
  7. This, of course, is the entering wedge for myth, metaphor, religion, metaphysics, and everything else from which modern rationalism has wanted to free itself. Even if it has no scruples about condemning whole epochs for their predominant ‘irrationality,' rationalism has to recognize that by itself it can never in practice be a sufficient guide to action. Once it has admitted this, Blumenberg suggests, maybe it can find some consolation in historians' and anthropologists' discoveries that the thought processes of other cultures and ages, which now turn out not to have been superseded as completely as rationalism had hoped, have not been entirely incoherent or arbitrary either.
  8. Less surprising to rationalism than the enduring relevance of 'premodern' modes of thought in the "age of reason" is, no doubt, the presence of ‘protomodern' scientific theories in earlier ages, especially in antiquity. Blumenberg's emphasis on the unusualness of modern science, and on the epochal break that initiates it, has led Heidelberger and perhaps others to suppose that Blumenberg sees the epochs as reflections of completely discontinuous paradigmatic relations to reality, so that a continuous scientific argument ("internal relations between theories") extending across an epochal break would be inconceivable for him. But the reason Blumenberg takes epochal breaks as seriously as he does is that modern, Cartesian rationalism, with its idea of "starting over from scratch," makes that kind of break — and the corresponding sharp division between science and ‘irrational' modes of thought into an essential part of its self-comprehension. Taking this claim at its word, and insisting on the ‘abnormality' (in relation to mankind as a whole) of the result, is the first step in Blumenberg's effort to understand the experience that produced this version of rationality. But he does this for the sake of historical comprehension, not because he accepts the Cartesian claim that an absolute break did in fact occur. In a world as pluralistic as Blumenberg's, in which Gnostic and Christian thought, for example, are in their own ways rational ("aids that man avails himself of in comprehending the world"), it is not surprising that antiquity had a version of rationality that could produce theories that make claims that are similar to modern scientific ones, and can be judged on similar criteria. (Though of course when one looks more closely at what those theories meant to their authors, one finds systematic differences between the ancient and the modern versions.) The "cognitive process" that we are all engaged in is, in an important sense, one process, despite the dramatic dissimilarities between its various traditions and epochs. That is why we are able to translate and interpret one epoch, or culture, to another.
  9. It is also why Blumenberg's radical relativism is in its own way a radical rationalism. A question that has repeatedly been raised about his historical writings is why he never considers the possible influence of external factors — social change, modes of production, affective states, etc.— on the intellectual processes that he studies. The reason for this, it seems to me, is not that he is an idealist, for whom all significant change originates in the mind, but rather that he wants to find out to what extent human thought has in fact been rational in his sense: to what extent one can find something like a "cognitive process" in history. Once one had determined the answer to that question, one could go on to examine parallelisms and causal connections between thought and other aspects of human existence; but starting with the latter question would not facilitate, and might well hinder, progress on the former one. Blumenberg's procedure, in working on the first question, is to grant — hypothetically — to past thinkers "the very same rationality that he wants to assert for himself." (Not an omnipotent rationality, I repeat merely a "sufficient" one.) It seems to me that the results, in this book and his others, indicate that this kind of hypothesis certainly deserves to be explored further.
5. The Consequences of Copernicanism for Time
  1. The historical analysis that I summarized in sections 1 and 3 is laid out in part II of the book: "The Opening Up of the Possibility of a Copernicus." Part IV, on the position of Copernicanism in the history of the concept of time, provides more detail on Copernicus's preconditions and on his thought process. It focuses on time first as another aspect of the medieval undermining of Aristotelianism that contributed to the Renaissance "idealization of the center of the world," and thus helped to make Copernicus's project possible. And then it examines (I believe for the first time) the pains that Copernicus took, in spite of his own non-Aristotelian beliefs, to try to head off Aristotelian objections to his model by providing, like Aristotle, a "perfect," uniform cosmic motion — which would be the axial revolutions of a "perfect sphere" that in this case was not the outermost heaven, but the Earth — to exhibit and embody cosmic time. Thus another oddly ‘medieval' aspect of Copernicus's work is made intelligible, as something more than a mere instance of the inertia of tradition, and at the same time our respect for Copernicus's skill in argumentation is enhanced.
  2. Turning to consequences of the Copernican event, part IV then goes on to describe how the later development of Copernicanism totally obliterated Copernicus's effort in this connection, by postulating an "absolute" time or an ideal one (Newton, Leibniz), neither of which had a special connection to any particular heavenly body, and finally by demonstrating the truth of Copernicanism — that the Earth moves — precisely by proving the Earth's imperfect sphericity (Maupertuis).
6. Consequences for the "Contemplation" or "Intuition" of the Universe
  1. The remaining four parts of the book parts I, III, V, and VI — deal entirely with consequences of the Copernican event. So, with one exception, the material they cover is modern. The exception is the remarkable introductory chapters of part I, "The Ambiguous Meaning of the Heavens" — chapters that go back to Sophocles and Anaxagoras, and to the elementary physical preconditions of the practice of an astronomy based on vision, in order to clarify the significance of astronomy in its pre-modern and pre-Christian form, as the "contemplation of the heavens." For just as the perspective of the history of science has created the mistaken impression that the Copernican revolution, with all of its consequences for modern man's conception of himself and his relation to the universe, was an 'exogenous' input into culture, injected into it by a pre-existing, self-contained, autonomous activity called "science" — so also in its assessment of "ancient science" that perspective tends (particularly in the case of astronomy, as a natural consequence of the very technical nature of much of its material) to isolate the processes of "observation" and "theory-formation" as though they were just as remote from the "life-world" of the Greeks as they seem to be from ours today.
  2. On the ‘anthropological' side, too, such a perspective does not encourage one to notice what Blumenberg calls the "remarkable improbability" of the circumstance "that we live on the Earth and are able to see stars — that the conditions necessary for life do not exclude those necessary for vision, or vice versa" (thanks to the Earth's unique atmosphere, which is transparent, but also protective against cosmic rays and particles); nor does it encourage one to notice the equal improbability of a creature on such a planet, bent on self-preservation, in fact "lifting its gaze out of the sphere of biological signals and drawing something inaccessible into its range of attention" — i.e., seeing stars. Thus the sheer unlikeliness of pure theory as a phenomenon in nature tends to escape the philosophy and the historiography of science.
  3. A specific characteristic of such pure theory, as it was practiced and viewed until very recently — a characteristic that is implicit in the previous paragraph, and that will provide the theme of part I of this book — also tends to be overlooked by those who see modern science as ‘normal.' Blumenberg underlines this characteristic memorably with his discussion of Poincare's question as to whether, and if so, when, a Copernicus would have appeared if the Earth had been covered by a permanent blanket of clouds. The point is that theory, though it is (no doubt) conceivable as an activity entirely independent of vision, was originally and remained until not so long ago something intimately tied up with seeing the world (in this case, with seeing the stars). Vision was not just one source, among others, of (more or less reliable) "data" — accurate vision was theory's fulfilment as well as its source. And it was the confusion that was thrown into the way people saw the world, and eventually into the very idea of seeing it at all (i.e., of seeing anything more than a minuscule and superficial, unrepresentative aspect of it), that constituted the greater part of Copernicanism's historical impact.
  4. It is only in the light of this ‘anthropological' significance of vision (which evidently persists, as a need, even though science no longer thinks of itself, primarily, as serving it) that we can understand, or even take seriously, a statement like Anaxagoras's (from the fifth century B.C.), that a good reason to choose to be born, rather than not to be born, would be "for the sake of viewing the heavens and the whole order of the universe." The central role of "contemplation of the heavens," as a concept of human fulfilment, in Greek thought down to the Stoics (and in neo-Stoic thought down to the present) depends on the idea of true vision as a fulfilled state, a state of happiness (and thus, necessarily, on a conception of "theory" as an activity of individuals, rather than a cumulative, impersonal, institutionalized process) . The real is what "shows itself," and is (indistinguishably) both known and enjoyed as such.
  5. However, Blumenberg in no way romanticizes this relation to the "cosmos," as though it were a lost Eden or a golden age, from which the impersonal and unvisual mechanism of modern science has exiled us. Anthropologically, he makes it clear elsewhere that the improbable activity of pure theory does not distinguish mankind as a specially favored species, but is, if anything, an offshoot of a uniquely problematic situation faced by this species, to which it has responded with unique behavioral experiments, both "practical" and "impractical”. On the historical side, his chapter "Cosmos and Tragedy" begins with the statement that the terms in its title constitute an unresolved antinomy, and goes on to take Anaxagoras's "reason for choosing to be born" with the utmost seriousness, as a risky answer to the (for the Greeks) very persuasive statement of the Chorus in the Oedipus at Colonus that the best thing is not to have been born. This "tragic" perception was expressed in the story of Prometheus's defense of mankind (which Blumenberg goes on to examine at length in Work on Myth), a fundamental premise of which was that (contrary to the image of the "cheerful" ancients, in their comfortable, geocentric cosmic housing) man does not belong in the cosmos that Anaxagoras wants to contemplate. Hence the antinomy. Any positive relation between man and the cosmos seems to be a matter of sheer luck, or (which amounts to the same thing) of unreliable divine favor, and thus a rather weak reed to lean on. Blumenberg shows how this perception, or this fear, is the focus of Epicurus's therapeutic efforts, how it is exacerbated by Stoicism's dogmatic optimism of "providence," and how it eventually feeds into Gnosticism's epoch-making demonization of the cosmos (which, according to his account in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, constitutes the problem that first Christianity and then modernity seek to overcome).
  6. Thus we see that the "contemplation of the heavens" was not in fact the unproblematic source of fulfilment that its advocates presented it as, and to which neo-Stoicizing thinkers, beginning with the Renaissance, have wanted to return. But of course this has not prevented it from being a very strong orienting image in our whole tradition. It is to an examination of the effects of modernity and of the Copernican revolution on that image, and on the associated idea of "intuition" (Anschauung, as the Germans call it: knowledge as direct sensual/aesthetic contact with the world), that the remainder of part I is devoted.
  7. Blumenberg does not assign relative weights to the Copernican event and to the independent process of "human self-assertion" (which has its own far-reaching consequences in science) in undermining antiquity's linkages between theory and vision, and between both of these and human fulfilment (happiness). But the picture that emerges is one in which Copernicus's removal of man from the center, and the expansion of the universe (and the consequent invisibility of much of it), which resulted from the subsequent development of his theory, contributed to a process that was already well under way before their relevance to it became evident. So that Copernicanism perhaps had more to do with the way the process was experienced, imagined, and expressed than with its occurrence, as such. Blumenberg illustrates its early stages in Ockham, Pico, Francis Bacon (the anti-Copernican), Hobbes, and the "Cambridge Platonist" Henry More. (Incidentally, this range of examples makes it clear that it is not a renewed Platonism, either, that severed the links.) As far as the relation between vision and theory is concerned, Copernicus's own constructive/intellectualist epistemology is simply representative of the trend of the times. Also like most of his contemporaries, of course, he has no idea to what that trend will lead.
  8. That realization begins to dawn in the eighteenth century, when Diderot himself begins to realize how the kind of knowledge that is gathered in his Encyclopedia can stand in the way of experience of the world, rather than enhancing it, as the Greek conception of theoria assumed it would. Science has become an endless, impersonal process. In his early Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, Kant, responding to the boundlessness and disorder of the post-Copernican universe, tries to find a rational unity and totality in it by postulating laws of cosmogonic evolution6, but he cannot pretend that there is any position in the universe from which this totality could be grasped in intuition. Blumenberg places Kant's later thoughts on "the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me," and his notion of the "sublime" as the symbolic presence of the ungraspable ‘totality' in finite experience, in the context of this unsolved, and insoluble problem.
  9. Kant's attempts, by means of ethics or aesthetics, to preserve some relation between the individual's ‘intuition' of the universe and mankind's abstract knowledge of it are brushed aside by German Idealism and its heirs, for whom nature is arbitrary, and the only source of meaning is man. Paraphrasing Schelling, Blumenberg observes that "man's localization in the universe is a matter of complete indifference, if he no longer stands within the whole, but rather stands over against it as subject." For the Enlightenment — as in Fontenelle's Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds — "the impact of the Copernican disappointment [had been] moderated by the guarantee that the cosmic presence of reason was not a matter of man alone." The other worlds were inhabited by other and probably more rational beings. Idealism, on the other hand, deals "with the Copernican disillusionment by revaluing it as a condition of the possibility of a new self-consciousness7 that pushes its eccentric position outward until it becomes an exterior one."
  10. Of course, this dramatic solution did not carry lasting conviction. Neither has any of the post-Idealist proposals that address the problem. After discussions of Feuerbach's and Schopenhauer's attempts to rehabilitate ‘intuition' as a fulfilling relation to the world (in the course of which Blumenberg expands his sympathetic account, in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, of Feuerbach's theory of curiosity), he reaches the culminating episode of the whole story: Nietzsche. In his early "anthropomorphism," Nietzsche claimed to accept without reserve man's parochial and episodic status in the universe. "How can anyone dare to speak of the Earth's destiny? ... Mankind must be able to stand on its own without leaning on anything like that ..." (which is perfectly consistent with Idealism — but without the Idealists' convenient substitution of History as the thing to lean on). But in the end it turned out, Blumenberg says, that there was one thing Nietzsche could not endure: "... to be unimportant for the world, not to be responsible for it .... " His solution to this problem the — myth of eternal recurrence — raised the importance of man's actions to the highest level by making him central, if not in space, then in something even more important: in the world process. His actions were not mere incidents, but sources of eternal law. But the result, ironically, was that the superman's success depended, after all, on nature — in the form of the overarching "law" of recurrence — and thus did not differ in principle from the Stoics' reliance on cosmic Providence.
  11. This demonstration of how the great advocate of human (or superhuman) self-reliance — of the "will to power" — unconsciously relapses into a pre-Copernican reliance on nature dramatically underlines the ambiguities of modern human self-reliance. Nietzsche is probably not alone in being less self-sufficient than he would like to think he is. Recognizing this persistent and perhaps constitutional human ‘neediness' helps to restore, once again, a continuity to the human experience in our tradition, a continuity that is obscured by the contradictory self-stylizations of admiration of cosmic providence, on the one hand, and hard-bitten, post-Christian human self-reliance and rejection of teleology, on the other. (It is important to notice, though, that this is a continuity not of inherited cultural goods — truths, attitudes, topoi, or whatever — but of the reverse: of constitutional lacks. It is the differing attempts to make up these lacks "differing answers to the same questions," in the "reoccupation" model in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age — that makes the epochs so different from one another.)
  12. If we admit that we have a ‘need' for nature, after all, then the question remains, how to satisfy it (if indeed we can). In the final chapter of part I, Blumenberg describes the dilemma of an interest in nature that, rather than, like Nietzsche, scorning both science and (Romantic) personal ‘experience' of the world (the one because of its impersonality and tentativeness — its "asceticism" — and the other because of its passivity), instead wants to embrace them both — and seems inevitably to fall into anachronism in the attempt. Blumenberg seems to suggest, though, that conscious anachronism need not be fatal to thinking or to experience. After all, one of the lessons of modern astronomy is that, because of the finite speed of light, no simultaneous cross section even of the visible world is available to us, in any case. And similarly, an ultra-Platonist "demand for ultimate authenticity in all experiences" would overlook the fact that simulation, as in the planetarium, can actually "augment what can be seen at all" (final sentence of part I). So whatever "intuition" we engage in is, potentially, a much more complex matter than Anaxagoras could have imagined. But that need not mean that its basic human significance — the need that it addresses — has changed.
7. Attitudes to the New "Truth"
  1. Part III, "A Typology of Copernicus's Early Influence," might equally well have been entitled "A Typology of the Ethics of Claims to Truth." To read the title that Blumenberg actually gave it as implying a claim to present either a comprehensive survey or an exhaustive typology of Copernicus's influence, even in the period (bounded by Rheticus, on the one hand, and Galileo, on the other — i.e., from the 1540s to the 1630s) with which it primarily deals, would, I think, be a mistake. In particular, Copernicus's reception by astronomers (other than Galileo) is barely touched on. What this part does deal with thoroughly is the major ways in which thinking people in this period dealt with Copernicus's claim to have put forward a new truth about the world. There are those who are aghast, or are delighted, at Copernicus's "moving the Earth" out of its traditional repose and into orbit around the Sun. They — Donne, Ramus, Calcagnini, and many others — develop the (double-edged) metaphor of the theoretician as ‘perpetrator,' which makes truth, in a sense, a function of power; which is a one-sided but a powerfully suggestive characterization of the new role of science in the modern age. Then there is Osiander, who, on the contrary, tries to mask Copernicus's claim to truth, by presenting it as mere "model building," in the manner of traditional astronomy (and anticipating modern positivism). There is Melanchthon, who, in the light of his own kind of neo-Stoic anthropocentrism, views the heavens so much as a divine communication that Copernicus's claim to understand their mechanism seems impious to him. There is Rheticus, who has such a powerful need for a completed truth, a definitive enlightenment, that even Copernicus's personal instruction does not equip him to tolerate the ambiguity of a ‘truth' that is going to require a whole subsequent revolution in physics, as well as astronomy, to make it complete. There is Bruno, who is posthumously honored for going to the stake for this truth, when his central concern was not with it, at all, but with a parallel issue: the inconceivability of a finite divine incarnation within an infinite universe. And finally there is Galileo, for whom Copernicanism is the central concern, in a way that (together with his anachronistic faith in the direct visual apprehension of essential patterns, such as the ‘Copernican' pattern of Jupiter and its moons) may even have inhibited his development as a theorist — but who is cast posthumously as a failed apostle, in contrast to Bruno, because he chose not to suffer for his truth.
  2. Blumenberg's general point about all of these dramatic stories is that if a ‘positivist' philosophy of science had prevailed during the period — a philosophy for which theories were merely more or less convenient ‘models,' rather than candidates for Truth — then Copernicus's proposal would have had an honored place in the history of science, but would not have ignited the epochal conflict, and set free the "epochal ‘energy'” of which these stories are early manifestations. "The important thing for Copernicus, in his changes in the world system, was to register reason's claim to truth; and the object of the anti-Copernican reaction, just as soon as it was fully formed, was to reject that claim" (introduction to part III) which is why the Copernican reform could become the paradigm, for the Enlightenment, of the progress of reason. And it is also, at the same time, the reason why both fronts in that paradigmatic conflict could become so dogmatic and, to that extent, unenlightened. "The ethics of claims to truth consists in their having to demand of their adherents more power of conviction and testimony than can usually belong to a scientific theory (or, more generally, to a rational assertion). Thus those who are not convinced, or who hold back, quickly become traitors to the ‘cause' ...," etc. (ibid.). So for an advocate of "historical respect for the equal rank of the aids that man avails himself of in comprehending the world" — that is, for the kind of "relativist" that I described Blumenberg as in section 3 — it is important to understand the kinds of disrespect and intolerance that can be created by the "ethics of claims to truth" (and of claims to "enlightenment"). The trick is to understand these things in a way that does not add to the sequence of reciprocal denunciations a denunciation of the Enlightenment's claim to truth, by describing it (in its turn) as the primary source of obscurity, as a mere expression of a ‘will to power,' or whatever. Blumenberg avoids that trap, with the result that part III (and part VI, which continues some of its themes) is an important contribution to an ‘anthropology' of human attitudes to truth (as well as to the history of our age, in which the stories that he retells have been so potent and have become so paradigmatic).
8. Man's "Removal from the Center," and the Effort to Be "Still More Copernican"
  1. The ‘heroic age' of Copernicanism, which culminates in Newton's consolidation of its victory in astronomy and physics, is followed by the age of its metaphorical interpretation. The early metaphors of the theoretician as ‘perpetrator' and of the 'stellarization' of the Earth (which Galileo celebrated) are followed, in this new period, by metaphors that bring out positive or negative implications of the astronomical reform for man in his relation to the universe. Fontenelle sees the Earth reduced to a salutary, ‘democratic' equality with the rest of "the crowd of the planets" (a metaphor that accords with the Enlightenment's assumption of a cosmic community of reason, in which man participates). Goethe is more of two minds. For him, relinquishing "the enormous privilege of being the center of the universe" meant that "a world of innocence, poetry and piety, the testimony of the senses, the conviction of a poetic-religious faith ... went up in smoke"; but at the same time the new doctrine "justified those who accepted it in, and summoned them to, a previously unknown, indeed unimagined freedom of thought and largeness of views." Nietzsche, unambiguously on the negative side, asks, "Has the self-belittlement of man, his will to self-belittlement, not progressed irresistibly since Copernicus" — because his "existence appears more arbitrary, beggarly, and dispensable in the visible order of things?" Even those of us who (like Nietzsche in other contexts) are least inclined to see man's destiny as depending on his pregiven place in nature, as opposed to his own efforts — even such people find the diagram of man's "removal from the center" so persuasive — as, above all, the paradigmatic instance of our overcoming of anthropocentric illusion — that the supposedly historically interchangeable phenomena of geocentrism and anthropocentrism have served for three centuries, almost unchallenged, as the summary description of ‘what modern science overcame.' So Blumenberg's critique (in part II, chapter 3) of the assumption that a geocentric cosmology always entails an anthropocentric worldview has pretty fundamental implications for both the negative and the (more or less self-congratulatory) positive interpretations of the Copernican revolution. We can no longer confuse the metaphor of man's "removal from the center" with a factual description of successive modes of thought in our history.
  2. But, once again, Blumenberg would be the last person to dismiss our "removal from the center" as a mere metaphor. In his Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie, it was one of his leading exhibits in support of his thesis that metaphor is not something that can simply be eliminated in favor of literal, univocal terminology. And he takes it for granted that this metaphor relates to an important truth. As he says in this book, "To us, consistent Copernicanism seems to be the carrying out of the elementary insight that man's point of view and his optics, in relation to the universe, are arbitrarily eccentric, or, in the least favorable case, extremely unsuitable.' That is, that we cannot assume that the world is teleologically suited to our needs (whether epistemological needs or needs in general). The metaphor of our "removal from the center" expresses this very well. It is when we deduce literal, historical conclusions from it (e.g., that people who preceded Copernicus must necessarily have seen the universe as anthropocentrically teleological), and still more when we deduce conclusions about man's relative ‘importance' from it (the standard deduction that we find not only in Nietzsche but in Bertrand Russell, Freud, Carnap — practically everywhere), that the misunderstood metaphor becomes pernicious.
  3. Part V of this book, "The Copernican Comparative," which examines Johann Heinrich Lambert's and Immanuel Kant's cosmological extensions and philosophical applications of Copernicanism, needs to be seen against this background. Both Lambert, in his Cosmological Letters, and Kant, in his early Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, saw themselves as extending into the universe as a whole the kind of thinking that Copernicus had begun, and Newton had perfected, for the solar system. Lambert's repeated reflection that "perhaps we are still not sufficiently Copernican" (whereupon he would postulate galaxies as rotating ‘super solar systems,' or super-galaxies as ‘super super solar systems' — etc.) sums up the endeavor that Blumenberg calls the "Copernican comparative": to transcend and subsume simpler systems in more comprehensive ones that are less constrained by one's initial, contingently given standpoint. Blumenberg points out that in spite of the radicalism of his materialistic8 cosmogony, the young Kant was less wholehearted than Lambert was in this kind of escalating ‘Copernicanism,' because of his persistent attachment to a Stoicizing, teleological notion of man as contemplator of the universe. One might think, in view of the famous interpretation of his mature "critical" philosophy as carrying out a "Copernican revolution" in philosophy, that it represented his adoption of a more rigorous Copernicanism in general. It turns out, however, from Blumenberg's exhaustive analysis of Kant's references to Copernicus, in his introduction to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, that although Kant did sharply curtail his earlier Stoicizing tendency, there is no evidence that it was a stronger influence of Copernicus's theory or example that led him to do so. (More likely, the major factor in the change was his effort to come to terms with Hume's skepticism.) Kant's intention in the main passage in the text was merely, as a result of his disappointment with the response to the first edition, to suggest to readers that they should ‘experimentally' entertain the theses of the Critique, as Kant (probably following Osiander's anonymous preface) thought that Copernicus had done with his "hypotheses." Kant never compared his critical turning, itself, to Copernicus's reform of astronomy; on the contrary, when he talked about philosophy "entering on the secure path of a science" he probably had in mind people like "Galileo, Kepler, Huyghens and Newton," rather than Copernicus, as the comparable revolutionaries in the physical sciences. And, sadly, the Copernican analogies that generations of commentators have read into his text have only encouraged the same misinterpretations of the Critique as idealist that Kant tried to combat elsewhere in the second edition.
  4. As Blumenberg says, "It is neither surprising nor reprehensible that a metaphor having the epochal importance that this one possesses sets the reader's constructive imagination in motion even before he has finished reading it. Kant is making use of a historical potential that seems, in the hindsight of historiography, to have been bound to become an independent force." This is the same unspecific 'potential,' of course, that impels all the thinkers I mentioned a moment ago — Nietzsche, Russell, Freud, Carnap — to found historical narratives on the metaphor of man's removal from the center. One would have to be pretty hard-nosed to resist it entirely. But it is particularly ironic that Kant should have got caught up in this process, when one realizes that his "critical" separation of theoretical reason from practical reason — which freed him from the Stoicizing tendency of his early thought — was intended precisely to prevent man from taking his cue, in "practical" matters, from his pregiven position in nature, so that while Kant the critical philosopher could certainly use Copernicus's theory as a source of analogies, to see it as defining man's relation to the universe (as many of us are chronically tempted to do) would be contrary to his most basic principles.
  5. If, then, neither Lambert (with his nesting Copernican systems) nor Kant provides a model of how we can be "still more Copernican," i.e., how we can be more consistently modern, and if we are going to forswear self-congratulatory or self-depreciating historiographical applications of the metaphor of our "removal from the center," then the question of what consistent Copernicanism entails for us is, after all, a surprisingly open one.
9. Copernican Vision
  1. The final part of the book part VI, "Vision in the Copernican World" — addresses this open question first by continuing the examination of the ‘anthropological' presuppositions and implications of the Copernican revolution, which was begun in the introduction to part I, and then by making some rather novel suggestions about the Copernican lessons of the contemporary "space age."
  2. Unlike part I, which also had a great deal to do with vision, "Vision in the Copernican World" does not contrast ancient and modern conceptions of the relation between ‘contemplation of the heavens' and happiness. The historical contrast now is simply with the pre-modern "postulate of visibility": that what is real must be in some way, at some time, visible. First Copernicus's expansion of the universe, and then the telescope and the microscope, explode this postulate. It takes a while for this fact to sink in. Galileo, entranced with the new things he can see with the telescope, does not realize what its indefinite improvability implies: that our faculties are in no way correlated with the scale of reality, so that the immeasurable range of what he cannot see is at least as significant as the measurable range of what the instrument has enabled him to see for the first time. Despite the revolutionary impact of his discoveries and his writings, Galileo is still tied to a pre-modern faith in vision as access to the eidetic patterns of reality — hence his inability to take seriously Kepler's purely quantitative investigation of the planetary orbits, and hence also the problems he gets into over his announcement of the moons of Jupiter. (Blumenberg examines in detail one of the critiques of that announcement, by Francesco Sizzi, and makes it very plausible.)
  3. Pascal, with his two infinities — the great and the small — and Lichtenberg, with his conception of man as dealing merely with the "surface" of things, begin to conceptualize the real implications of the Copernican universe, as revealed by the telescope. Now, Blumenberg observes, "The visible world is not only a tiny section of physical reality, it is also, qualitatively, the mere foreground of this reality, its insignificant surface, on which the outcome of processes and forces is only symptomatically displayed. Visibility is itself an eccentric configuration, the accidental consequence of heterogeneous sequences of physical events." Blumenberg finds the first anticipation of the possibility of such a breakdown of the privileged position of human perception in Montaigne, who wrote without any knowledge of the telescope, but with a strong awareness — in the aftermath of late medieval "theological absolutism"—that no cosmic appropriateness can be taken for granted. Thus we are reminded that it was not the telescope, as a technological ‘accident,' that gave rise to the modern doubts about the adequacy of man's faculties. Rather, the telescope entered a situation that was ready (in a way that antiquity, for example, was not ready) to receive it.” Again we see how religion, philosophy, and culture in general are, or at least were, entwined with ‘science and technology' in an interacting process, rather than a one-way process in which one of them 'exogenously' determines the other.
  4. In his final chapter, Blumenberg turns to a recent example of such interaction: the exploration of space, and what we have ("reflexively") learned from it about ourselves and the Earth. He maintains that the experience of seeing the Earth—"seemingly alive"—in the heavens above the lifeless surface of the Moon (an experience that he takes to be ‘real,' despite the elaborate technological linkages that alone enabled most of us to ‘have' it) has enabled us, for the first time, to appreciate the apparent uniqueness of our "oasis in the cosmic desert"—has turned our "interest from the remote world to the proximate one, from a centrifugal direction to a centripetal one"—and, by showing us the unimportance of mere magnitude, has in fact "brought to an end the Copernican trauma of the Earth's having the status of a mere point, of the annihilation of its importance by the enormity of the universe."
  5. Such a "centripetal" turning, if in fact it has occurred, runs the risk of being labeled a new "geocentrism," and being suspected of its twin sin of anthropocentrism. Blumenberg is not afraid of either label, but his series of skeptical questions about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence9 — the most striking "centrifugal" project that is currently being mooted — culminates in a suggestion that again (just like his analysis of the historiographical application of the metaphor of our "removal from the center") makes the usual applications of the "lesson of the Copernican revolution" look a little hasty. Blumenberg is afraid, he says, that "the burden of proving one's post-Copernican freedom from prejudice" lies not on those who doubt the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence10, but on those who argue for it, because the assumption that rationality is the natural summit of organic evolution—so11 that if such evolution12 occurs elsewhere in the universe, it will eventually produce rational beings, with whom we might someday communicate—may itself be an anthropocentric illusion (a repetition of "the old favor that man rendered to himself of taking the crown of creation into his safe keeping"). If one follows "all the anthropological indications," Blumenberg writes, "reason would not be the summit of nature's accomplishments, nor even a logical continuation of them. Instead, it would be a risky way around a lack of adaptation; a substitute adaptation; a makeshift agency to deal with the failure of previously reassuring functional arrangements and long-term constant specializations for stable environments." In that case what the eighteenth century took to be the essence of Copernicanism — namely, the ubiquity of reason, in all the "worlds," as the telos of everything else—would be a fundamentally ‘pre-Copernican' error; and an — apparently "anthropocentric" — acceptance of the possible uniqueness of the Earth and of human reason would actually be t lie long-overdue next step in consistent Copernicanism.
  6. "Putting reason in its place" (both figuratively and literally), in this way, is of course also a further step in Blumenberg's ongoing "relativist" critique of the Cartesian/Enlightenment/positivist exaltation of scientific reason as (in contrast to other, merely human, anodes of thought) an achieved transcendent perspective. A striking corollary of that critique is the way in which this final chapter takes as its point of departure the lived experience of the view of the Earth from space (more specifically, from the Moon). "Kepler had described it in advance, but in this case knowledge was not the important thing." Thus, in the centripetal, "geotropic" turning that Blumenberg thinks the "space age" is experiencing, visual ‘intuition' reasserts itself as a key element in man's relation to the world. So that here too once again, without denouncing or rejecting any phase in the history of our thinking on these subjects — Blumenberg reestablishes a continuity with premodern assumptions that modernity (often in the name of "consistent Copernicanism") has rejected as obsolete prejudices. As in both The Legitimacy of the Modern Age and Work on Myth, here again his endeavor is to distinguish essential modern accomplishments from their rhetorical accompaniments, and to show how those accomplishments grow out of, and do not invalidate, other phases of human experience.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 2: See "Kuhn (Thomas) - The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought", p. 126.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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