Rigorism of Truth

"Moses the Egyptian" and Other Writings on Freud and Arendt

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Hans Blumenberg
Ahlrich Meyer
Joe Paul Kroll
German Theory in Translation
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , February
     108 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996) was a philosopher and intellectual historian of enormous erudition. Best known for his work on the nature of modernity (The Genesis of the Copernican World, [MIT Press, 1989], Legitimacy of the Modern Age, [MIT Press, 1985]), metaphor (Paradigms for a Metaphorology, [Cornell University Press, 2010]), and myth (Work on Myth, [MIT Press, 1988]), Blumenberg’s philosophy emphasized the inextricable connection between cultural and literary forms and human meaningfulness. He is one of the quintessential thinkers of the 20th century, not in the sense that he ranks high on the list of the most prominent or widely read thinkers during this time (he doesn’t), but in the sense that his work is stamped with the anxieties, credulities, and epiphanies scarring the landscape of two world wars and the rise and collapse of nations.

The availability of Blumenberg’s Nachlass at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach has been a boon for researchers and led to a number of new publications, including the centerpiece of this book, the previously unpublished essay “Moses the Egyptian.” The substance of this essay was compiled between 1975-1982, and was written up in full about a decade later. In addition to the essay, a number of relevant notes and excerpts from Blumenberg are included, as well as an essay by the editor, Ahlrich Meyer.

Blumenberg considers two texts in concert: Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Freud’s 1939 study of the biblical founder of Israel made the provocative argument that Moses was an Egyptian and used the Hebrew people in order to advance his own monotheistic reforms. After Moses’s death at the hands of his adopted people, his monotheistic vision was appropriated, but his life and end were effaced by the Pentateuchal origin myth. Arendt’s Eichmann, on the other hand, was a sharp critique of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem grounded upon an argument that Eichmann was a clown, shared responsibility for the Nazi atrocities with complicit Jewish leaders, and in general did not possess the sort of heroic agency to exhibit a villainous evil of the sort that the Israeli court had pegged upon him. 

The common failure of Freud and Arendt, according to Blumenberg, was their absolute will to truth, or their rigorism. Blumenberg defines this as “the refusal to recognize an ultimate and inexorable dilemma in human action” (9). In these cases, at least, the refusal is a refusal of a political dilemma, and in particular the necessity of a political founding myth with a hero legitimizing a people. Eichmann is the negative founder of Ben-Gurion’s modern state of Israel, and Moses is the original founder of Israel as a monotheistic nation. What the Jewish people require in these figures is withheld or demythologized by the relentless pursuit of truth when Moses becomes an Egyptian interloper and Eichmann becomes a banal functionary of a larger system of violence. 

Blumenberg finds this tendency of Freud’s and Arendt’s untimely and damaging to the integrity of political life, not to mention naive about the nature of truth itself: “Nothing is less certain than that the truth wishes to be loved, can be loved, should be loved” (3). This is not meant as a critique of truth per se, but rather as a critique of the pursuit of naked truth, unveiled by the metaphors and mythologies that undergird political life. Freud and Arendt are moralists about truth.

Blumenberg’s proposal is tantalizing in how it brings together two texts that one would not initially associate with one another, though after reading Blumenberg the scales fall away and the association appears patently obvious. The essay also (as Meyer points out) reveals more extensive thought on Judaism and Zionism from Blumenberg than elsewhere in his published work. At times, though, I am left wondering whether Blumenberg inadvertently points out to the reader how myth has a tendency to fold back upon itself despite the best efforts of rigorists like Freud and Arendt. When Blumenberg asks, “does Hannah Arendt really believe this?” (6) about the dependency of Nazi success upon the smooth efficiency provided by complicity within the community of its victims, he is really asking whether Arendt has been doing some mythologizing of her own. If she has, and if this is done in the service of offering an internationalist and moralist understanding of the tragic 20th century, then perhaps the enduring importance of founding myths is reinscribed even by those rigorists who would seek to relieve the tension inherent in politics.

The book itself is a project defined by “rigorism of truth,” in the sense that it leaves nothing undocumented: the editor’s notes are longer than the essay itself, as is his afterword. This meticulousness can become tedious, for example when the identical paragraph of a September 1934 letter from Sigmund Freud to Arnold Zweig is excerpted twice in the space of three pages (30-31, 32), followed shortly by Blumenberg’s annotation of its contents (40-41). These make up index cards 8680-8681, index cards 16305-16308, and index cards 22761-22762 in the Nachlass, and so are repeated rather than consolidated. The added value to the reader seems minimal, though, especially given the availability of Freud’s correspondence. The German text of Blumenberg’s essay also includes marginal line numbers that are not present in this translation. Keeping them might have been helpful and left the text less cluttered given that there are one hundred endnotes for twelve pages.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Evan Kuehn is Theological Librarian at the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hans Blumenberg (1920–1996) was Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at the University of Münster and the author of books including Paradigms for a Metaphorology (also in Cornell’s Signale series), The Legitimacy of the Modern AgeThe Genesis of the Copernican World, and Work on Myth.

Ahlrich Meyer, a German political scientist and historian, is the author of many books in German.

Joe Paul Kroll is Editor at the Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz, Germany.


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