Myth and the Human Sciences

Hans Blumberg's Theory of Myth

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Angus Nicholls
  • New York, NY: 
    , September
     260 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Though seldom read by contemporary American audiences, Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996) was at one point in post-war Germany such a major intellectual figure that he was only speaking semi-ironically when he fantasized about receiving a telegram informing him that half of the world was reading his work. “What,” he imagined asking acerbically, “is the other half doing?” (7). In Germany, his work is experiencing a revival of interest after a brief lull following his death in 1996. Among scholars, his mammoth tomes The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966) and Work on Myth (1979) are receiving renewed  attention, while his personal habits of copying quotations onto index cards late into the night have made their way to the broader public through the novel, Blumenberg by Sybille Lewitscharoff (Suhrkamp Verlag, 2013). Myth and the Human Sciences: Hans Blumenberg’s Theory of Myth by Angus Nicholls is, on the whole, an erudite, thoughtful, and largely successful attempt to reintroduce Blumenberg’s theory of myth to an Anglo-American audience.

Myth and the Human Sciences has four parts. It begins with an introduction to Blumenberg’s life and work. Here, Nicholls sketches Blumenberg’s early years as a young, half-Jewish man barred from schooling under the Nuremberg Laws, his war years working in a factory and later hiding with his future in-laws, and, finally, his career as a prominent, literary scholar and semi-heretical follower of Edmund Husserl’s school of phenomenology. It is also here that he first explains Blumenberg’s theory of myth. In brief, Blumenberg imagines myth as a cultural adaptation for the deficiencies of the weak, physically unremarkable human species. In particular, Blumenberg draws on Edmund Husserl’s (1859-1938) idea of a “life world” (Lebenswelt). A life world is a set of adaptive behaviors, ranging from the use of tools, story-telling, habits, “beliefs, attitudes, and survival methods” (22). So long as they are working correctly, they remain invisible in their everydayness. When a threat emerges—whether natural, supernatural, or political—to disrupt the life world, humans become immensely disoriented. Myth names the threat, integrates it into the life world through metaphor or philosophical concepts, and, in so doing, repairs the fissures in the life world.

After outlining this theory of myth, Nicholls devotes the next three chapters to the intellectual influences on Blumenberg’s theory of myth, namely German philosophy, phenomenological and hermeneutical debates, and paleoanthropological theories about the relation between cultural and genetic adaptation. From there, he offers a close reading of the Prometheus story within Blumenberg’s overarching theory of myth before ending with a discussion of the political implications of the theory, particularly as it relates to the self-created mythology of national socialism. 

The book has a great deal to recommend it. It is incredibly erudite and does a real service to scholarship, both in introducing Blumenberg’s thought to new readers and in contextualizing it within key questions of 20th-century philosophy, such as how to understand human culture within a Darwinian framework of adaptation, whether myth should be understood as an earlier stage in the development of reason, and what the political implications of embracing myth are, particularly in the wake of the Third Reich’s self-mythologizing. 

For all of its meticulous scholarliness, the book also has a surprisingly resonant emotional core. For me, the single best moment in the book came in the final set of chapters on Blumenberg’s relationship to politics and the legacy of the Third Reich. Nicholls asks the reader to pause and really consider what it would have been like for the Jewish men of Blumenberg’s generation whose education had been interrupted by the Nuremberg Laws to begin their studies, after years of persecution, with professors who had openly sided with the Nazi Party. As Nicholls points out, the situation would have been desperately painful for both the Jewish students dependent on their ex-Nazi professors to further their career and for the professors who would have preferred to avoid any reminder of their past. The point is well taken, as most of the Jewish postwar figures we still read—Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Gershom Scholem—were twenty years older than Blumenberg and done with their education by the 1930s. Blumenberg, for his part, seems to have remained largely silent on the matter, only remarking about his old teacher, the ex-Nazi Erich Rothacker, “I did not want to be, what I did not need to be: the last judgement” (186). Though brief, the discussion serves to highlight the existential stakes of Blumenberg’s work.  Of course this man, with his history, would be interested in understanding how to repair his world after a catastrophe destroyed his sense of normalcy.

Which is not to say that Nicholls is sentimental or lets Blumenberg’s argument uncritically stand. One of the other high points of the book comes when Nicholls engages with the shortcomings of Blumenberg’s argument. He does a particularly fine job assessing how much of the paleoanthropology Blumenberg relied on is still considered valid. He also frankly admits that Blumenberg does not provide much in the way of argument for why we should consider humans essentially lacking and vulnerable, however moving the account may seem.          

Myth and the Human Sciences has its flaws, though they are more related to the book’s structure than its argument. The flow is somewhat strange at times. After his brief introduction of Blumenberg’s life and theory of myth, Nicholls proceeds to spend half of the book setting his work in its historical intellectual context. Yet it is not always obvious how the chapters connect. I am happy to believe that Blumenberg is drawing on German philosophy, including hermeneutics and phenomenology, as well as paleoanthropology, but what connects these fields of interest and why are the chapters in that order?

Likewise, the book would have benefited from a longer discussion of Blumenberg’s relevance to contemporary conversations. As written, the book’s most natural audience consists of specialists in German philosophy. Nicholls does briefly discuss Blumenberg’s relevance in terms of Richard Dawkins’s and Daniel Dennett’s work on cultural adaptation, but I believe he does a disservice to his own subject by limiting the discussion to those two writers. It seems like more natural points of connection would have been the major theorists of myth since Blumenberg’s death, such as Bruce Lincoln. Without any discussion of how theories of myth developed after Blumenberg, it is difficult to evaluate how influential he was, how relevant he remains, and how much of his work is outdated. 

Overall, though, the book is well worth reading and should be of definite interest to philosophers of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Liane F. Carlson is the Henry R. Luce Intiaitive in Religion in International Affairs Postdoctoral Fellow at teh Center for Religion and Media at New York University.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Angus Nicholls is Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London, UK, where he teaches German and Comparative Literature. His previous books include Goethe’s Concept of the Daemonic (2006) and Thinking the Unconscious (co-edited with Martin Liebscher, 2010). He is co-editor of History of the Human Sciences and of the Publications of the English Goethe Society.


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