No Frigate Like a Metaphor: On Hans Blumenberg’s “The Readability of the World”

By Bruce KrajewskiMarch 26, 2023

No Frigate Like a Metaphor: On Hans Blumenberg’s “The Readability of the World”

The Readability of the World by Hans Blumenberg

“WE’RE ALL TERRIBLE at understanding each other,” says social psychologist Heidi Grant. It’s partly why we have Amber Ruffin’s comic routine “Amber Says What,” as well as the South Park episode “Do You Know What I Am Saying?” On one level, Grant’s thesis confirms a fundamental principle of understanding, articulated by Hans Blumenberg in the last chapter of The Readability of the World (published in 1981 as Die Lesbarkeit der Welt, and in English translation last December): “What is readable, the document, is the absolutely improbable in its surroundings; the probable is chaos, noise, de-differentiation, decay.” Over 150 years earlier, the founder of the modern theory of understanding called hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher, condensed the matter to “misunderstanding occurs as a matter of course.” A similar point has been made in our time by French philosopher Michel Serres, who proposes that before the word, there was noise. Despite noise, many of us imagine that we can read one another easily: “If a woman is wearing Doc Martens, she’s liberal. If a man is wearing Doc Martens, he’s conservative.” According to Blumenberg, humans have a built-in drive toward legibility, a yearning to be read, manifested by excessive expressiveness. Think of the ubiquity of bumper stickers.

The Readability of the World counts as evidence of Blumenberg’s own voluminous expressiveness. In 22 chapters, he squeezes in what any academic could label a parade of dead white men. Homer, Plato, Socrates, Francis Bacon, George Berkeley, Kant, Descartes, Rousseau, Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Ernst Robert Curtius, Ernst Cassirer, Schrödinger, Georg Lichtenberg, Leibniz—you get the picture, even if you count the cameo appearances by Anna Freud, Hypatia, and Dorothea Schlegel. His reputation as “one of the most important philosophers of the postwar period” arose, in part, from doorstop books like The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966), The Genesis of the Copernican World (1975), Work on Myth (1979), and Cave Exits/Entrances (1989). As the James Joyce of philosophy who expects so much from readers, Blumenberg refuses the role of textual Sherpa. He furnishes minimal aid to the reader to carry his books’ weight. No maps. No illustrations.

Blumenberg’s solution to offering readers “the world” of things that can be read is to opt for an episodic presentation. He writes: “Only episodes can be dealt with under the heading The Readability of the World.” It’s a way of “capturing the whole in the part,” à la physiognomy and the Romantic ruin, or the way an aphorism distills a stream of thoughts, or the way we talk of novels as “worlds.” He reminds readers that wanting to know it all (omniscience) is a temptation as old as the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You can count on humans to pursue what exceeds our comprehension and capabilities.

To navigate through the treacherous waters of temptation, Blumenberg chooses what he calls “metaphorology”: “a method for recovering the traces of such wishes and expectations,” such as trying to know what we cannot know. Blumenberg drives the point home in chapter 14, in his reflections about the physicist Lichtenberg’s study of Copernicus: “[W]e know the heavenly body on which we live only externally, restricted as we are to its thin outer crust. We thus live between the heights and the depths […] It limits our knowledge of the relevant processes to the confines of the planet’s atmosphere.”

Thus, Blumenberg dishes “disappointment” to his audience. Like Stanley Cavell’s famous statement that our relationship to the world is not one of knowing, Blumenberg wants to focus on the limits of, the longing for, and sometimes the tragedy of comprehension. Our failures to know have produced “historical attitudes ranging from resignation to fury at the world.”

Our push for knowledge causes us to read what is not there. “[W]e see faces or landscapes in the sand, though they certainly are not there. Symmetry is another example, as are silhouettes in inkblots […] all this is not in the things but in us.” Worse is that Blumenberg asserts that the image of reading results in unnecessary distortions of the human condition. He asserts that “the world itself is nothing like a text.” History is on his side: there exists “an ancient enmity between books and reality,” Blumenberg writes. “[T]he book […] remains the figure of a covert longing for a more accessible understanding than that offered by the jargon of theoretical specialization.” In other words, books are an illusory shortcut to encyclopedic comprehension, including encyclopedias, a beloved genre of the Enlightenment also explored in Readability. “Those who ask for more will receive less,” Blumenberg says as a warning, for example, to those who imagine that reading travel books makes one as “worldly” as the traveler who writes about the journey. We need to be on alert when “bookish experience comes to rival worldly experience.” Why? “The whole has a different criterion of reality than its parts,” says Blumenberg, even if many humans behave as though nothing is incapable of being separated into parts.

Everything leads us down the path to nothing. Blumenberg chooses the leader of the symbolist movement in poetry, Stéphane Mallarmé, specifically his “Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard” (“A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”), to highlight the book metaphor’s ever-encroaching inclusivity, its capacity to be everything and nothing. For one follower of hermeneutics, Gerald Bruns, “Un coup de dés” is to be understood via Maurice Blanchot. Bruns asks,

Is Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, in which typography replaces syntax as a way of piecing words together, a poem? By what criteria? Modernist works define themselves by the negation of criteria. Blanchot cites ‘surrealism as a powerful negative movement’ that rejects all definitions of what counts as art.

The Blumenbergian response to Bruns is a charge of “immaturity.” In the world after Homer’s epic, the Bible, and encyclopedias, authors make books that seek to escape determination. Blumenberg calls this an “aesthetic permissiveness” that leads to the book about nothing. This discussion occurs in the chapter titled “The Empty World Book.” For Bruns, Mallarmé fashions a work that teaches us that “there is nothing that cannot count as a work of art.” Blumenberg offers this counter:

[T]he demonstration of possibility is superior to any mere presentation of reality. […] [T]he book about nothing is the definition of the autarkic [self-sufficient] book; it needs nothing but itself. It is naked meaning. Here the connection with the metaphorics of the world as book becomes apparent: if the world had once been a message from the creator to his creatures, then the loss of this function could only leave behind the emptied gesture to meaning, the world as book about nothing.

The popular culture equivalent might be Seinfeld, the “show about nothing.”

Part of the emptiness thrust upon the world by Mallarmé includes the dispensability of the reader. According to Mallarmé, “[U]npersonified, the volume, inasmuch as one separates oneself from it as author, does not require any approach by the reader.” It’s a partial reversal of the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last,” which concludes with a world emptied of people except for one eager reader, Henry Bemis, who stumbles upon a public library but then is unable to indulge his fantasy because he breaks his reading glasses. Instead of books waiting to be read by a passionate audience, Mallarmé’s books do not want nor need readers. Mallarmé’s books project a force field of indifference to human interaction, as if the fantasy of the Mallarméan book is a companionless world, a friendless landscape.

On a first pass through Readability, anyone might miss Blumenberg’s bitterness about the proposition of an audienceless art. Blumenberg’s Mallarmé episode concludes with the teenage Gustave Flaubert’s take on the Fra Vicents case. Flaubert’s “Bibliomania” has a criminal antiquarian bookseller bent on being the owner of a book thought to be the only copy in existence, though the bookseller learns later about a duplicate. The bookseller commits murder in pursuit of what he believes is the sole copy. Blumenberg sees the main point of Flaubert’s story in the twist that “the infernal hero is illiterate.” Had the bookseller been able to possess the sole copy, like a Henry Bemis sans glasses, he would have been unable to read it. Blumenberg reads this part, this example from Flaubert, as a commentary on the whole category of “unique books” like Mallarmé’s. Mallarmé and authors like him turn their backs (Blumenberg’s phrasing) not only on readers but also on their own works, the price of fashioning ex nihilo, from a blank page, “a world” in a book.

Once a book is on the scene, in play, some people cannot help but think in terms of characters, codes, tools for decryption, language, letters, plots, scrolls, pages, and chapters. “Readability” stands as part of this paradigm. By pulling out “letters” from this nomenclature, Blumenberg can delve into the search for genetic codes that give us, for instance, the name for the 1997 film Gattaca, the title of which is based on the letters G, A, T, and C—guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine, the four main components of nucleotides in DNA. The story of scientists’ arrival at G, A, T, and C is also the story of “metaphoric progress,” attributable to Friedrich Miescher, who shifted “clockwork” to “speechwork.” In Blumenberg’s words, “Miescher found the way out of his purely mechanical or motoric understanding of the relationship between sperm and egg by means of the metaphor of the alphabetic combination of words and concepts.”

The biochemists’ journey encapsulates the ancient and ongoing tension between laboratory and book knowledge. Readability offers a lengthy glimpse into the way knowledge has been tied to “the cultural idea of the book.” The use of metaphorics overcomes another tension, that between the familiar and the unfamiliar, for metaphor is a “procedure of comprehending something by means of something else.” The first “something” is alien and unfamiliar and the “something else” more familiar, “more easily at our disposal.” In short, the metaphor aids in getting a handle on the initial X that seemed puzzling, opaque. Metaphor puts things in motion, transports us from one place to another. In Greek, metaphorá is “transport.” As science advances, “[a]s theory makes analytical and functional advances,” it discards the means by which it got transported to the place that proves progress. Science “burns the bridges,” according to Blumenberg.

Learning about Blumenberg’s metaphorology as well as the stars of intellectual history has been made possible for Anglophones by the extraordinary translation skills of Robert Savage and David Roberts. Savage has played Ariadne in Blumenbergian labyrinths before. While not as adventurous with translation choices, such as you find in Blumenberg’s St. Matthew Passion (released in English in 2021), Savage can be relied upon at every turn. He’s an expert at readability.


Bruce Krajewski is a translator and editor of Salomo Friedlaender’s Kant for Children, forthcoming in 2024 from De Gruyter. He was co-winner of the Modern Language Association’s Scaglione Prize for translation for Gadamer on Celan (1997).

LARB Contributor

Bruce Krajewski is the translator and editor of Salomo Friedlaender’s Kant for Children, forthcoming in 2024 from De Gruyter. He was co-winner of the Modern Language Association’s Scaglione Prize for Translation for Gadamer on Celan (1997).


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