Rationality, Religion and Modernity Part B: A Social and Environmental Philosophy by Kenneth Wilson

I now turn to a detailed discussion of the alleged legacy of the middle ages in the context of the work of Hans Blumenberg. Blumenberg begins his monograph The Legitimacy of the Modern Age with a discussion of the meaning of secularisation. Blumenberg is interested in the status of the modern age. This obviously leads to a contrast with pre-modern ages, in this case the Christianity of the middle ages.

When one contrasts the middle ages with the modern era it seems clear that our world has undergone a process of secularisation, which Blumenberg points out is incomplete, and that this is a condition of our being able to discuss it at all.[7] In other words, if the process of secularisation had been completed, then perhaps it would not be on the horizon of thought.


That a process of secularisation has taken place is beyond doubt, though what is debated here is its precise nature. Those who support the eighteenth-century Enlightenment movement tend to see secularisation positively, while anti-Enlightenment thinkers view it negatively. But this separation of positions still leaves open what exactly is meant by secularisation. Blumenberg clearly argues against those theorists who see secularisation as merely a mutation of an original theology. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age is specifically aimed against the work of Karl Löwith. As Blumenberg’s translator notes:

What will be the consequences if we accept Löwith’s theory? Its most basic implication is that modern thought has a fundamentally false consciousness of itself.[8]

Clearly, if Löwith were correct, then modern reason is illegitimate. One of the basic tenets of the modern, western world-view is that it has shed the allegedly backward superstition of the medieval period. Yet, Löwith would have us believe that modern reason is fundamentally defined by its medieval precursor. That is to say, on Löwith’s view, modernity is in fact quasi-medieval. Accordingly, Blumenberg notes:

The illegitimacy of the result of secularisation resides in the fact that the result is not allowed to secularise the process itself from which it resulted.[9]

In other words, secularisation only appears to us as such, its underlying nature, its noumenon, if you will, remains religious and theological. It is this thesis that Blumenberg argues against. His view is that religion is less important in the modern age than hitherto and not that the world-view of the middle ages has simply mutated. Blumenberg is correct, I would argue, because if the modern world-view is but a transformation of that of the middle ages, then behind this lurks an infinite regress. For, why not have ancient Greek or even Celtic civilisations as being the original, definitive world-view?
Indeed, my point here is that it is almost certainly an over-simplification to stress the sole influence of the middle ages on the modern. A more realistic, though more complex model, is one in which many different historical periods have played a role in defining the current historical period. On this view, the modern age is seen as a new beginning but not ab initio. There are many factors which came into play to make the modern age possible. Of course, there was undoubtedly a legacy from medieval Christian theology, but at issue here is whether this is to be seen as the sole defining characteristic for the modern period.

technological changes

Equally, there are many other factors one could cite. For instance, the rediscovery of classical texts, facilitated by Islamic scholars, laid the ground for the Renaissance. Secondly, technological changes such as the arrival of the compass from the Orient, and the invention of the printing press, all served to change the forces at work in early modern European culture. Needless to say, these are just two of the changes which paved the way for the modern period. Notably, the examples which have been cited are not only cases of changes in intellectual apparatus – a point to which the discussion will return below.
Inherent in the secularisation thesis Blumenberg is arguing against, is a strongly determinist view about causation in history. Blumenberg indicates this by his use of the term “historicism.” This is not historicism in the sense used by Popper, rather it describes certain philosophies of history which believe that the causal influence of some given historical antecedent strongly determines the effect or effects which flow from it.[10] This issue may be construed as turning on the question of just how much freedom modern reason has from antecedent epochs and from history.
This cannot be seen as a constant, easily defined matter. On the one hand, the Vatican continues its role up to the present, while, on the other, many people rarely go to church. Nevertheless, overall, the power and influence of the church may be said to have declined since the inception of the modern age. Löwith’s form of historical determinism, which Blumenberg argues against, sees the causal influence of the past as overpowering and inescapable. This is clearly an affront to the modern self-conception of freedom and autonomy from the past. Rather than our future being in our own hands, we are grasped by the hands of the past.
The view that the process of secularisation represents a “transposition” of the world-view of the middle ages is essentially a conservative doctrine. It reminds one of the cliché that “there is nothing new under the Sun.” Again, underlying this is a view about the human intellectual apparatus. For example, if “the modern world can be largely understood as the result of a secularisation of Christianity,”[11] then the modern world-view expresses nothing novel over that of the middle ages. Yet there is ample evidence of quite novel developments in the modern era. Of the many examples one could cite, calculus and the exploitation of electricity would serve.[12] That human consciousness can develop hitherto unknown ideas in a variety of circumstances and at different times seems clear. Blumenberg remarks:

Since concepts are something we ourselves constitute, their history can be understood teleologically, so that conceptual history is not bound by the schema of degeneration, in which full weight and value are present only in the originality of the initial instant.[13]

Blumenberg may be taken to mean by this that our intellectual apparatus need not be marked by a “falling away” from some pristine, initial condition, whether it be in relation to the middle ages or ancient Greek civilisation. Put differently, Blumenberg disagrees with the view that some given point or period in the past necessarily represents some form of Golden Age.


Blumenberg makes it plain that Christianity is an important influence on the modern age. The second part of The Legitimacy of the Modern Age deals with this topic. Early in his book he acknowledges that, “Much in the modern age is ‘unthinkable without’ the Christianity which went before it.”[14] What he argues against however is the notion that the modern age is to be understood only in terms of the influence of the Christianity of the middle ages.
To take a particular example, which Blumenberg discusses, there have been those who have claimed that the modern idea of progress is a secularised version of eschatology. Surely this cannot withstand close analysis. As Blumenberg points out, where is the connection between progress and the end of the world? Surely in meaning the former is antonymically related to the latter. Blumenberg puts it in the following way, “…but the idea of progress is precisely not a mere watered-down form of judgement or revolution; it is rather the continuous self-justification of the present…”[15] Moreover, as Wallace notes:

Blumenberg points out first of all that there is an evident formal difference between the ideas associated with eschatology, and the idea of progress. The former all involve some form of dramatic transcendent incursion (coming of the Messiah, end of the world, Last Judgement) which consummates the history of the world from outside. Whereas the idea of progress, however spiritualized it may be in particular versions, always denotes a process at work within (“immanent in”) history, proceeding from stage to stage (even to an ultimate “end”) by an internal logic, not by external intervention.[16]

Blumenberg goes on to concede, correctly I think, “…an element must belong originally to Christianity if it is possible to speak meaningfully of its later being secularised.”[17] This returns us to the question of novelty. To argue that the totality of the modern world-view is historically determined by the Christianity of the middle ages (i.e. the secularisation thesis), denies the possibility of original, new elements in the modern world-view. So, while the modern age exhibits continuity with the middle ages precisely in that it is secularised, one can also indicate novel developments in the modern world-view which generate historical discontinuities. Wallace makes clear that a key defining aspect of the early modern period for Blumenberg are the novel developments in astronomy, which were “novel in western experience.”[18]
The process of secularisation is lamented by anti-Enlightenment thinkers on the basis that a more secular world is a more ‘worldly’ one. One can see this in terms (for the anti-Enlightenment thinker) of worldliness representing a loss of innocence, accompanied by the increased importance of profanity. That which was held to be sacred was held to be so by an alleged authority from God. It was only a matter of time before this was questioned by human reason. A loss of innocence accompanied by the development of reason can be seen to lead to the idea of progress. Instead of evaluating change relative to God, change became evaluated in relation to the success of our activities in the world.
As Blumenberg writes, “Talk of the ‘legitimacy’ of the modern age makes sense only to the extent that that legitimacy is disputed.”[19] As has been made clear Blumenberg’s dispute is with Löwith, who would wish to claim the ultimate importance of medieval theology for a proper understanding of the modern age and world-view. Many, Blumenberg included, would interpret this as an affront to the status of modern reason. The claim that modernity really has not overthrown medieval theology is undermining.
However, while I am sympathetic to Blumenberg’s defence of modern reason, I am equally of the opinion that modern reason may have reached the limits of its viability – to the extent that human survival has been brought into question. If modern reason is to be viable, to be sustainable, then it would seem that it has to be re-examined. Blumenberg’s work is a careful, scholarly analysis of historical influence on the modern age. However, he comments that:

Theology created new ‘positions’ in the framework of the statements about the world and men that are possible and expected, ‘positions’ that cannot simply be ‘set aside’ again or left unoccupied in the interest of theoretical economy.[20]

Whether Blumenberg is correct in claiming that our theological inheritance cannot be ‘jettisoned’ turns on the general issue of historical influence on the present. Clearly there are instances of our present reality being very strongly determined by some historical precursor, however distant in time. Equally important, is the idea that aspects of our present may also exhibit a high degree of independence from historical influence. Since, if every action in the present were highly determined by historical influence, surely it would be meaningless to speak of free will.

fruit on tree

If this is correct, then some aspects of our theological inheritance could be readily jettisoned. As to the question of leaving ancient intellectual positions ‘unoccupied,’ I do not see the necessity of occupying positions which bear no fruit; while, we may of course “occupy” such positions for their historical interest. That ancient Greek or medieval scholars established the entirety of the ‘architectonics’ of thought itself, is a claim which remains to be conclusively established. Also, there is the further criticism that while some given position may have been taken at some given time in the past, this does not automatically confer eternal usefulness or validity.
Blumenberg argues that ancient positions, “…cannot simply be ‘set aside’ again or left unoccupied in the interest of theoretical economy.” [My italics] In theory, it may be granted that this is correct, but in practice one cannot actually engage in intellectual activity without the Principle of Parsimony operating in some way. One simply cannot consider everything; life is too short and the Literature so vast. Theoretical economy is a necessary condition of useful thought. One cannot engage with all positions that have ever been taken – one has to choose some, and perhaps invent a few. Perhaps one cannot be overly critical of the passage above, if only because Blumenberg goes on to say:

We are going to have to free ourselves from the idea that there is a firm canon of the ‘great questions’ that throughout history and with an unchanging urgency have occupied human curiosity…[21]

However, while admitting of change in the nature of the great questions, Blumenberg goes on to comment that:

Even when modern philosophy conceives itself as in the sharpest possible contradiction to its theological prehistory, which it considers itself to have ‘overcome,’ it is bound to the frame of reference it renounces.[22]

This amounts to a denial of the autonomy of modern philosophy, and consequently implies very strong causal links between modern thought and its antecedents. This cannot be justified for the reasons which have been given above. It is a fact that there are many philosophers internationally who know little or nothing of ancient Greek or medieval philosophy. They may be slightly ashamed of this, but for many, these areas of the history of philosophy are not relevant to their practice. To argue their practice is necessarily strongly shaped by such history of thought, leads to the view that their practice is somehow deficient.
Surely the semantic space provided by the concepts in contemporary usage have an ‘internal’ autonomy. While the role of historical continuity is acknowledged here, Blumenberg seems to underplay the importance of modern philosophical developments which, I would argue, exhibit features which can only be understood in terms of historical discontinuity and novelty. Therefore, Blumenberg would seem to contradict himself, by on the one hand remarking that we must free ourselves from the canon of ‘great questions,’ while on the other, claiming modern philosophy is necessarily bound to a “frame of reference it ‘renounces.’”
For it to be at all possible for a world-view to change, historical discontinuities must exist; and for discontinuities to exist, so must the possibility of novelty. Blumenberg’s discussion of changes in world-view is entirely restricted to the plane of positions in thought. Indeed, as Robert B. Pippin comments:

…Blumenberg’s approach continues…to attribute enormous power and influence to the complications, contradictions, and resulting solutions within the intellectual tradition, perhaps more than it can bear.[23]

It should be pointed out that this fails to take into consideration technological developments, for instance the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth-century. This brings to the fore the observation that the community of scholars before the printing press was very small indeed; while subsequent to its invention, the community of scholars expanded in a dramatic way. Obviously this would potentially give a voice to those who had no commitment to Catholic theology (e.g. Protestants) or indeed theism. Changes in world-view must be brought about by a combination of occupied, disputed, theoretical positions and material changes. Technological determinists give heavy emphasis to the latter, while historians of ideas favour the former; though an adequate understanding requires a considered balance of both. To recapitulate, Blumenberg states the question at issue for him in the following way:

The occasion for talk of the legitimacy of the modern age does not lie in the fact that this age conceives of itself as conforming to reason and is realising this conformity in the Enlightenment but rather in the syndrome of the assertions that this epochal conformity to reason is nothing but an aggression (which fails to understand itself as such) against theology, from which in fact it has in a hidden manner derived everything that belongs to it.[24]

This clearly states Blumenberg’s concerns. It is clear that history can have an influence on some given present, of which we may be quite unaware. This phenomenon arises as history is not given to us in anything like its entirety – there is much about human history which is both mysterious and unknown. So the position Blumenberg is arguing against is, in principle, a possibility, though the burden of proof lies with those who propose it. Again, while some given aspect of history may be unknown, it does not follow that, whatever it was, it does not therefore have an influence. Since language is as much a part of history as anything else, a particular example might be words of unknown etymology.


This creates a problem for the pro-Enlightenment thinker. In principle, we can compensate for historical influences we know about. But how is one to deal with those we do not know about, that is to say, the historical unconscious? A good, though incomplete, answer to this question would be to raise the cultural status of historians that they may make all history known. This is incomplete because there exist historical questions which can never be answered. So however hard the new, prestigious band of historians worked, for however long, there would be historical, epistemological categories which would remain eternally empty. Thus the historical unconscious has an eternal existence. Consequently, as has already been noted, it is possible for the modern age to derive everything it is from a type of unconscious theology, but is this in fact the case? The burden of proof still remains with those who propose a strong theological influence on the modern age.
One further issue with which Blumenberg does not deal, is the status of the ‘modern age’ relative to other cultures. For instance, does the Islamic world conceive of itself as being in the modern age in the same way as does the West? If one could establish just one significant difference in a culture other than that of the West, then there would be a case for talk of the modern age in the West as being ethnocentric, and therefore culture relative. In fact Arabs often conceive of the beginning of the modern age for them as being inaugurated by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt at the end of the eighteenth-century.
In conclusion, Blumenberg makes the correct move in arguing against Löwith’s secularisation thesis; however, in my view he does not go quite far enough. As Pippin notes:

Somewhat ironically, in his attempt to carry out his program Blumenberg has produced a book that is just as much a “legitimation” of the premodern world, since he is always claiming that any assessment of the progressive qualities of modernity can only be made in specific comparison with preceding options, and in terms of the criteria of that preceding tradition.[25]

Thus, Blumenberg is inclined to pull his punches in his defence of the legitimacy of the modern age. In the Introduction reference was made to the crisis of modernity. This thesis may be seen as a humble attempt to find a response to that crisis. However, the result of this chapter is negative rather than positive; in that, an avenue which some take, that is to say, some form of retreat into the past has been found lacking. More positively, something has been salvaged for modern reason. Given the reality of the modern crisis, it can be easy to reject even the most important foundations of modernity. Nonetheless, as has been suggested, the autonomy of secular reason from its theological cousin, is a valuable aspect of modern rationality.

  • [1] Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, (Trans. R. M. Wallace, London: MIT Press, 1985). The edition which is referred to here was first published in German in 1976. (Hereafter LMA.).
  • [2] Stephen K. White, The Recent Work of Jürgen Habermas: Reason, Justice and Modernity, (Cambridge: CUP, 1988), pp. 10-21.
  • [3] An example of what I have in mind here might be the case of Aztec civilisation from about 1450, when it is thought to have adopted, on a large scale, the practice of human sacrifice. Contextual rationality would have one conform to such practices. One could not then suppose that this was truly rational. For a discussion of this phenomenon see R. J. Blackburn’s, The Vampire of Reason: An Essay in the Philosophy of History, (London: Verso, 1990), pp. 171-173.
  • [4] Alasdair MacIntyre, Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedias, Genealogies, Traditions, (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1988).
  • [5] Isaiah Berlin, The Counter-Enlightenment, in, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), Chp. 1. p.1.
  • [6] T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Third Edition, (London: University of Chicago Press, 1996). pp. 103, 112, 148, 150.
  • [7] LMA, p. 4.
  • [8] R. M. Wallace, “Progress, Secularization and Modernity: The Löwith-Blumenberg Debate”, New German Critique, Vol.22 (winter), 1981, pp. 63-79. p. 67.
  • [9] LMA, p. 18.
  • [10] LMA, p. 51, Translator’s note b.
  • [11] LMA, p. 25, Blumenberg’s quotation of C. F. von Weizäcker. See fn. 17, Chp. 2.
  • [12] Indeed it may be pointed out that such developments are a reflection of a fundamental change in world-view over that of the medieval period.
  • [13] LMA, p. 22.
  • [14] LMA, p. 30.
  • [15] LMA, p. 32.
  • [16] R. M. Wallace, Op. Cit., p. 69.
  • [17] LMA, p. 37.
  • [18] R. M. Wallace, Op. Cit., p. 70.
  • [19] LMA, p. 61.
  • [20] LMA, p. 64.
  • [21] LMA, p. 65.
  • [22] LMA, p. 69.
  • [23] Robert B. Pippin, “Blumenberg and the Modernity Problem”, Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 40, 1987, pp. 535-557, p. 546.
  • [24] LMA, p. 97.
  • [25] Robert B. Pippin, Op. Cit., p. 554.


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