Found in Translation: Thales’ Plummet according to Hans Blumenberg

Hans Blumenberg
The Laughter of the Thracian Woman
Bloomsbury, 2015

We do not know to which segment of Thales biography the anecdote of the well plummet refers (p. 105).

 Thales called his method metaphorology but this book is really anecdotology, though there are no punchlines or zingers, and Blumenberg’s writings intensely flat and bland.

Thales the Milesian, often thought of as the first Western philosopher, fell into a well while observing the stars. Blumenberg follows this anecdote and its variations over the centuries: Aesop, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes the Cynic, Tertullian, Brahe, Copernicus, Montaigne, Bacon, Bayle, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, and many more. Some take Thales’ side, some take the side of the Thracian slave girl who laughed at him; some think of Thales as a philosopher, some as an astronomer, and so on. The moral of the story varies with the one telling it.

However, I am going in a different direction. The primary meaning of “plummet” is “drop straight down, plunge”,  but the other meaning is “plumb-bob”: a piece of metal, traditionally lead, attached to the end of a plumb line. A plumb line, in turn, is a line from which a weight is suspended to determine verticality (in carpentry, etc.) or to measure depth (navigation: in this usage usually called a sounding-line or lead-line).*

In his fall / plummet, thus, Thales was both establishing the just, right, true vertical standard and measuring depth. The philosopher is both upright (lotrecht) and deep, The contrast in the anecdote is between the philosopher and the girl, who represents the generic human: unphilosophical, shallow, crooked, skewed, and unjust.

There are two problems here. For one, Blumenberg’s presentation ends with Heidegger, and to Heidegger the whole point about depth and everything else good and real is that it cannot be measured.* However, since Blumenberg is basically unsympathetic to Heidegger, perhaps here Blumenberg was subtly disagreeing with him.

The second problem seems weightier.The German word translated “plummet” (stürzen: “fall, plunge, plummet, tumble, collapse”, or der Sturz: “the fall”)has nothing to do with the German word for plumb-bob (das Lotblei, das Blei). Furthermore, the three words “plummet”, “Lot”, and “Blei” are not even etymologically related but come from entirely different roots. (The only German word-group which might be etymologically related to “plummet” includes der Plumps “bump, thud, splash”, plumpsen “to bump, thud, or splash” and das Plumpsklo “toilet”).

However, while these words are not phonetically related, their root meanings are the same, since “das Lot”, “das Blei”, and “plummet” all trace back to the metal lead (Latin plumbum; German das Blei; and German das Löt solder)**. And indeed, philosophy has always had the reputation for being heavy and leaden (as the Thracian slave girl would certainly have agreed).

And of course there has always been the alchemist’s hope that lead might be transformed into gold.

Now, you may say: “John, this is merely an artifact of translation and has no significance whatsoever”. But nothing could be further from the truth! The fact that neither the original author nor the translator intended this nuance of meaning — “intended”, as if that means something! — or even noticed it ,  just shows how deep the metaphor is.

 * Mark Twain, by contrast, took his pen name from the sounding-line term for two fathoms or twelve feet, which is deep by some standards but shallower than you would wish if you were a riverboat pilot. Twain was not much like Heidegger.

 ** I am faking it here. The German word das Löt, seems not to exist, though löt is used in compound words having to do with soldering, and solder is sort of like lead and often includes lead.

P.S. Yes, my knowledge of German is weak. It’s pure cruelty when internet stalkers keep reminding me of that.

Published in: on January 19, 2016 at 9:41 pm  Leave a Comment