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February 11, 2020

Contributions of Blumenberguian Philosophy to the Debate on Current Society

This article aims to present German philosopher Hans Blumenberg's notes on boredom and human imbalance as a means to better understand the conflicts that dominate contemporary societies.

 The anthropogenic understanding of boredom from Blumenberg’s philosophy (Ros Velasco 2017a; 2018; 2019) leads us to think about conflicts as natural phenomena that have characterised and shaped human beings since ancient times (Ros Velasco 2013). According to his view, boredom was an emotion selected in our ancestors because of its capacity to promote motion, creating a positive and beneficial conflict that prevents excessive adaptation to the environment (Blumenberg 2006). Nowadays, boredom is used not only to justify the conflicts in our current society but also to capture the attention of the audience and turn conflicts into a form of entertainment.

In his posthumous book Beschreibung des Menschen, Blumenberg develops an entire theory of boredom, which ensures that boredom makes us feel disgusted about our existence (Ros Velasco 2016a). The impression when we see through the retrospective observation of boredom is of pure emptiness. That is the reason why it is preferable to do something harmful than do absolutely nothing. We need new experiences to break the stillness and activate the mechanisms that keeps us awake. The more we do, the more we feel dissatisfied, never reaching an absolute end until death.

This tension means that sooner or later, we will be expelled from the environment to occupy a new one, as Blumenberg points (1985). We do not rest in our pursuit of normalising our feelings of tedium. Conflict and calm are two poles that complement and reflect the tension in living organisms. Conflict is always lurking behind the calm that has been created so that stability is continuously undermined. That is the case with any structure or institution created by a being who suffers from indeterminacy (Ros Velasco 2016a).

Following Blumenberg’s arguments, boredom might be understood as an anthropogenic state in which representatives of all cultures have found their inherent human nature (Ros Velasco 2016a). The feeling of disgust makes us what we are and shapes not only our character but also our habits and the world we have designed. Human beings have always suffered from boredom and have acted accordingly to cope with it by unleashing creativity and, sometimes, behaving compulsively (Ros Velasco 2017b). Everything is possible to curb the worst mood in which one can find oneself.

Changes maintain our interest and require us to adapt. Blumenberg agrees that boredom contributes to fuel our attention and boost our reflective activity. As sociologist Helmuth Plessner stated, the imbalance is truly stimulating (1970). It can help one to leave “stinky normality” (Blumenberg 2006: 691). Blumenberg pointed out that the elimination of imbalance is not only impossible but also undesirable. Wars, conflicts, or disagreements compose an inherent human reality. The possibility of achieving an ideal situation in which we find ourselves entirely calm is unthinkable. It is not realistic or responsible to ignore the instability that arises between different individuals themselves. Following Blumenberg’s approach, this is not a matter of making an apology of conflicts, but merely an attempt to describe the parameters within which instability occurs in the human world. Trying to ignore this reality can indeed be counterproductive.

Boredom, in our current society, seems to be very dangerous. Threats are always present, but individuals can only pay attention to those that interest them, which are then amplified to counteract the excessive swaddling that cultural coatings provide. We are aware that in a state of absolute stability, we cannot adapt to changes when they arrive. Mass society generates boredom; it does not allow desires to arise, everything is streamlined and devoid of tension, and excludes Darwinian situations that, after all, remain the most interesting. In turn, science makes the world effortless. Boredom seems an obstacle to self-knowledge, it makes us objects, and thus precludes prevention, encouraging excessive and compulsive action. We are beings characterised by the compulsion to action, and we cannot cease activity in the absence of conclusive answers. Boredom leads to a compulsion to act. It drives the imbalance preventing numbness and which makes us unable to respond to future events. However, boredom can always be the point that triggers barbarity.

Both balance and disorder are necessary to understand the curious way in which the two opposing logics act in us: the compulsion to act and the need for deferment through institutions. The same cultural institution, in this sense, is continually finding ways to prevent boredom and its consequent compulsion, what causes, in turn, an accommodation thanks to the luxury, the plethora and variety to taste. When cultures are too wealthy, they involve an excessive burden that man cannot support. Ortega y Gasset (1957) stated that centuries in which satisfaction was experienced were dead. Happy times in which we no longer want anything else and cannot renew our desires can cause death by satisfaction. The mass-man is deformed by luxury, the lack of concerns, and boredom.

Culture is the leading institution that is continually finding ways to prevent boredom. Today we play with danger as if it were a late form of struggle for existence. The right to appropriate what culture offers seems to be characterising our way of life. Blumenberg explains that the option of running risks is offered under the headings of Adventure, Risk Tourism, or the promise of Entertainment (1992/1993). More and more often people see news about boredom in the newspapers and magazines. It is used as a sales strategy and also to justify the behaviour of people who commit crimes or have unusual ways of behaving. We often see headlines or slogans saying “The best against boredom”, “Because of boredom” (UNF 373-375), trying to grab the audience’s attention. The world becomes a boring one, managed administratively, and powered by artifice, Blumenberg concludes (UNF 3502-3503).

One clear example of its power is how people are bored with an everyday fact: politics. Our political and social life is built on a series of concepts that sound hollow, dull, boring, perhaps because they represent a dream or a promise impossible to meet: the elimination of conflicts. The rhetoric of trust does not work; it hides the fact that reality is not practical and draws the attention of individuals who end up feeling cheated and violated. The population is unconcerned about their care, delegating an overwhelming responsibility to their institutions because of their boredom. Blumenberg concludes that the reason for being disappointed with education, politics, or justice, or directly with ourselves, lies in the fact that we tried to ignore discomfort by trusting hypocritically in the concept of perpetual stability. Blumenberg proposes to move to a more mature way of thinking about how we deal with reality, to be able to endure so much displeasure as needed to accept reality as it is. As Blumenberg notes, we need to tolerate boredom (UNF 2321).

“Our time is not worse than any other”, the poet Alexander Pope said (1952). Paradoxically, we love our time. Certainly, we are ‘poor,’ but we are not bad enough to silence our consciousness.

* This 2013-work shows the very first reflections of the author on the topic in which she is now specialised, that of boredom. She would like to note that further development of these ideas can be found in her doctoral dissertation Boredom as a selective pressure in Hans Blumenberg, which will be published under the title La enfermedad del aburrimiento (2020). She also recommends reading her more recent works on boredom (see references). She would like to express her gratitude to the DAAD and the DLA Marbach, for the award of scholarships to research Blumenberg’s Nachlass. Moreover, she thanks the Spanish Ministry for having granted an FPU scholarship to finance her predoctoral research. This work has also benefited from the projects FFI2012-32611-FFI2016-75978-R, FFI2016-78285-R. The wording of this chapter has been possible thanks to the award of a Postdoctoral Fellowship by RCC at Harvard to join the RLL at Harvard University. Blumenberguian quotes from the Nachlass have been used with Bettina Blumenberg’s consent.


Blumenberg, Hans (1952): “Plädoyer für diese Zeit,” Marbach: DLA. - (1985): The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Massachusetts: MIT Press. - (1992/1993a): “Langeweile, Kurzweil,” Marbach: DLA. - (2006): Beschreibung des Menschen, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. - (UNF 2321): “Das Letzte aller Kultopfer: die Langeweile,” Marbach: DLA. - (UNF 3502-3503): “Der Lumpensammler,” Marbach: DLA. - (UNF 373-375): “Tödliche Langeweile,” Marbach: DLA. Ortega y Gasset, José (1957). The Revolt of the Masses, New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Plessner, Helmuth (1970). Laughing and Crying, Northwestern: Northwestern University Press.
Ros Velasco, Josefa (2013): “La distinción schmittiana amigo-enemigo como categoría antropológica en Hans Blumenberg,” Eikasia 50: 41-50. - (2016): “El aburrimiento como vértice intercultural,” Humanismo global. Derecho, religión y género, Sevilla: Thémata, 317-326. - (2017a): El aburrimiento como presión selectiva en Hans Blumenberg, Madrid: UCM. - (2017b): “Boredom: A Comprehensive Study of the State of Affairs,” Thémata 56: 171-198. - (2018): “Boredom: humanising or dehumanising treatment”, The Neurobiology-Psychotherapy-Pharmacology Intervention Triangle, Wilmington: Vernon, 251-266. - (2019): “Hans Blumenberg’s philosophical anthropology of boredom,” Metaphorologie, Anthropologie, Phänomenologie, Freiburg: Karl Alber, (forthcoming).

Written By

Josefa Ros Velasco
Complutense University of Madrid / Harvard University

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Email: [email protected]

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