Hamann and the Tradition

Hamann and the Tradition

by Lisa Marie Anderson (Editor)


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Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of scholarly interest in the work of Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), across disciplines. New translations of work by and about Hamann are appearing, as are a number of books and ar­ticles on Hamann’s aesthetics, theories of language and sexuality, and unique place in Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment thought.

Edited by Lisa Marie Anderson, Hamann and the Tradition gathers estab­lished and emerging scholars to examine the full range of Hamann’s im­pact—be it on German Romanticism or on the very practice of theology. Of particular interest to those not familiar with Hamann will be a chapter devoted to examining—or in some cases, placing—Hamann in dialogue with other important thinkers, such as Socrates, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810127982
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 07/26/2012
Series: Topics in Historical Philosophy Series
Pages: 226
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Lisa Marie Anderson is an associate professor of German at Hunter College. She is the translator and editor of the critical edition Hegel on Hamann (Northwestern, 2008).

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Copyright © 2012 Northwestern University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8101-2798-2

Chapter One

Reading "Sibylline Leaves": J. G. Hamann in the History of Ideas

John R. Betz

The great Hamann is a deep heaven full of telescopic stars, with many a nebula that no eye will resolve. —Jean Paul

With his divinatory profundity [Hamann] stood alone in the literature of his time, for which his peculiar religious orientation was already alienating and all the more inaccessible given that his sibylline leaves and hieroglyphic intimations are even more veiled in the dark raiment of symbolic allusions. —Friedrich Schlegel

Though long overshadowed by the more familiar lights of the German Enlightenment, arguably no single figure of the late eighteenth century had a greater influence upon the intellectual giants of the early nineteenth century than the Königsberg author and critic Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), otherwise known by his sobriquet "the Magus of the North." Of course, given that Hamann is relatively unknown and rarely studied in the English- speaking world—and given that his influence upon the history of ideas is obscure, operating in the background behind the familiar stars—this claim may seem far-fetched. Indeed, most will know of Hamann, if at all, only indirectly in connection with the Sturm und Drang, or with his closest disciples, J. G. Herder and F. H. Jacobi, or with the broader intellectual movement somewhat misleadingly characterized in recent historiography as the "Counter-Enlightenment." In support of this claim, however, one need look no further than the testimony of Goethe, Hegel, Schelling, and Kierkegaard, all of whom regarded Hamann as a genius worthy of their study. In fact, upon reading and studying his "sibylline leaves" (as they were commonly called), all of them in one way or another made claims to being his heir or interpreter—often enough as though their literary or philosophical credentials depended upon it. As even Kant recognized—a lifelong friend of Hamann, who famously tried and failed to reconvert him to the cause and ideals of the Enlightenment—Hamann was an authority to be reckoned with. As Herder once confessed to Hamann, "Kant seems wholly retiré with me! But of you he speaks with respect [Achtung]" (ZH 1:452).

If this was true of Kant, it was all the more true of the intellectuals of the next generation, who were looking for a new start in philosophy and literature. To Goethe, for example, Hamann was the "brightest mind of his day," indeed, the "literary father" of the German people. To Hegel, who wrote a monograph-length review of the first edition of Hamann's works, Hamann was a brilliant critic of the Enlightenment, whose Metacritique of the Purism of Reason heralded his own attempt to overcome the problematic dualisms of Kant's philosophy. To Schelling, who discovered Hamann's writings at a critical juncture in his thought, Hamann was a prophet and seer, who pointed the way to his own "positive" philosophies of mythology and revelation. And finally, to Kierkegaard, Hamann was not only "the greatest humorist in Christendom," which is to say, "the greatest humorist in the world," but, together with Socrates, one of "the most brilliant minds of all time." Such extraordinary testimony on the part of such celebrated poets and philosophers would seem to demand the attention of the student of the history of ideas—especially given that all of these figures, for all of their well-known differences, regarded Hamann as pointing the way forward, as a herald of ideas they themselves, in one form or another, would develop and bring to fruition. Indeed, as I hope to show, the landscape of post-Enlightenment German intellectual life cannot be adequately appreciated or understood without him.

But if this is really so, one might legitimately ask why it is that today so few, even in the modern academy, have heard of him. As I will attempt to explain in the first section below, this circumstance has largely to do with the peculiarity of his obscure, allusive style, which has made Hamann, the German Heraclitus, one of the most difficult—if not the most diffi cult—authors in the history of German letters. As H. A. Salmony put it, "No work in the German language is as difficult to understand as every one of Hamann's writings." Hamann's contemporaries were equally aware of the hermeneutical challenges his writings posed. As Lessing once put it to Herder, "I would not [presume] to understand [Hamann] in every respect; at least I would not be able to be sure whether I understood him. His writings seem to be tests of manhood for those who claim to be polyhistorians. They truly require a little knowledge of everything [Panhistorie]." If Hamann was this difficult to understand even for someone as erudite as Lessing, it stands to reason that understanding him today will be no easier. As Goethe observed, given the obscurity of Hamann's allusions—which typically presume an extensive knowledge of classical and modern authors, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and an insider's familiarity with the intellectual debates of the eighteenth century—the difficulty of understanding him has only grown, and will continue to grow, with time.

Herein, then, lies the chief reason for Hamann's present-day obscurity: his writings are so difficult, so "dark and puzzling" (in Moses Mendelssohn's phrase), that most have found it easier to ignore him. And even for those who have found him worthy of study and have labored to understand him, the cryptic and fragmentary nature of his works has made it exceedingly difficult to translate or pass on his thought in anything approximating systematic terms. Indeed, not only did Hamann not have a system, as a matter of principle he made every effort to avoid the semblance of one. As he strikingly put it to Jacobi, "A system is already, in itself, an obstacle to the truth" (ZH 6:276). Thus, necessarily, when Hamann's thought is assimilated, it is never assimilated whole and entire, but in fragments—he offers his readers nothing else—and in ways that make the nature of his influence difficult to trace. But, however difficult the task of tracing his influence may be, especially for us today, it is not impossible. To this end, therefore, after a brief discussion of Hamann's style and his early reception, the rest of this chapter will identify some of the main channels through which his influence fl owed: from his early relationships with Kant and Herder to his subsequent reception by Schelling, Hegel, and, finally, Kierkegaard. At this point, it is hoped, Hamann's significance to the history of ideas, and to the history of modern philosophy in particular, will be clear.

At the outset, though, one cannot discuss Hamann's significance to the history of ideas without willy-nilly mentioning Isaiah Berlin, the eminent historian of ideas whose monograph on Hamann, The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism, catapulted Hamann out of obscurity and established his significance as "one of the few wholly original critics of modern times." For this, anyone who considers Hamann worthy of a wider audience owes Berlin a debt of gratitude; his celebrity accomplished overnight what the lifelong work of many Hamann scholars could not. That being said, such overnight recognition has come at a price. For one thing, at the time it was published in 1993, it was already a dated work, based upon a decades-old manuscript that does not take into consideration the conclusions of Hamann scholarship since the 1950s. More troublingly, it comes at the price of a tendentious interpretation, stemming from Berlin's partiality to Hamann's opponents, a procrustean, demonizing genealogy which seeks to link Hamann to the rise of National Socialism 200 years after Hamann's birth—ignoring the fact that Hamann was a friend of Mendelssohn, a critic of antisemitism, and a defender of the revealed religion of Judaism—and, in general, a failure to fathom the depths of Hamann's legitimate concerns.

To be more precise, the problem lies not with Berlin's correct perception of Hamann's hostility to the Enlightenment (bearing in mind that the "Enlightenment" is a later historiographical invention and that the word appears next to nowhere in Hamann's corpus, and bearing in mind that Hamann did not reject the principles of the Enlightenment tout court, such as those of popular representation and freedom of religion). The problem lies rather with his thesis of Hamann's "irrationalism"—as though anyone who would critique a doctrine of reason, as one finds in Kant, which is abstracted from history, tradition, experience, and even language, must be an "irrationalist." Clearly, in view of post-Kantian philosophy, which has largely accepted the validity of Hamann's metacritique of Kant, such claims cannot be sustained. Nor, after first impressions, do they find any ultimate support in the writings of Hamann himself. As Hamann himself put it to the more fideistic Jacobi, "Faith has need of reason, just as reason has need of faith" (ZH 7:165). Indeed, in this respect, far from promoting a new "irrationalism," Hamann is simply restating the sobriety of Christian theology, for which neither faith nor reason can get along without the other: since reason needs to be enlightened by faith (fides perficit rationem), without which reason cannot be perfected, and since faith in turn needs reason in order to understand what it believes (intellectus fidei).

To be sure, over against his contemporaries' exaggeration of its powers, Hamann tended to stress the weakness of reason; he was, after all, a Lutheran. He did not believe that reason alone could defend itself against skepticism and, ultimately, nihilism; nor did he believe that reason alone constituted a sufficient basis for the progress and flourishing of human culture. But, surely, this does not make him an "irrationalist"—any more than one could conceivably level this charge against a Pascal or a Dostoevsky. Nor is he adequately described as an "anti-Enlightener," according to Berlin's broad- stroke historiography of the "Counter-Enlightenment." Instead, following Oswald Bayer, and a more ancient understanding of illumination, it would be more accurate to say that Hamann was a "radical Enlightener"—one who in his twenty-seventh year experienced a genuine, life-transforming enlightenment by the Holy Spirit; who could subsequently regard the popular Enlightenment of his day, to which he had previously subscribed, only as a cheap imitation; and who, therefore, in an effort to communicate real enlightenment, like a modern- day Socrates, sought to give his contemporaries a much- needed "metacritical" bath, exposing what he perceived to be the blind spots, hypocrisies, uncritical prejudices, and unquestioned dogmas of modern rationalism. All of which, even at a purely philosophical level, is wholly legitimate—unless reason is exempt from any metacritical investigation beyond the authorized self- critique of the Critique of Pure Reason. At the end of the day, therefore, Berlin's use of terms like "irrationalism" and "Counter-Enlightenment" should be recognized for what they are: expedient slogans for classifying, marginalizing, and effectively dismissing from public discourse those who would criticize or call into question the sacrosanct and inviolable ideology of the Enlightenment.

Light in the Darkness: The Notorious Difficulty of Hamann's Style

But if Berlin's thesis of Hamann's "irrationalism" cannot ultimately be sustained, it must readily be admitted (in Berlin's defense) that it is neither far-fetched, since Hamann lends himself to this kind of reading, nor original, given that Berlin stands in a tradition of interpretation going back to the 1760s. As Eckhard Schumacher notes, "From the first reviews in the 1760s to the literary histories of the nineteenth century to today's lexical entries, Hamann's texts have variously been characterized as the epitome of darkness, the paradigm of unintelligibility." Indeed, in an early review of Hamann's Socratic Memorabilia published in the Hamburgische Nachrichten in 1760, one reads: "No alchemist, no Jacob Böhme, no mad enthusiast could say or write anything more unintelligible and nonsensical than one may read here." So too, with similar contempt, the first lexicon article on Hamann from 1811 speaks of "the dark chaos of his mystical and unnatural style ... his mysterious allusions, his fanatical excurses, his affected bon mots, his puzzling citations, his exaggerated use of biblical texts, and his disconnected, unbalanced, metaphorical manner of expression, which are merely a few of the defects that he gladly heaps upon his readers as though they were ornaments." Clearly, Berlin is not the first to have considered Hamann "irrational"; to many of Hamann's contemporaries, he was not only irrational, but quite possibly mad.

Of course, not all contemporary reviews were this negative. On the contrary, Mendelssohn, who was no average critic, was initially so impressed by the Socratic Memorabilia that he sought to recruit Hamann as a contributing editor for his journal. In the end, though, in his review of Hamann's Crusades of the Philologist a few years later, even Mendelssohn is exasperated with Hamann's style, which he rather accurately describes as a "mishmash of satirical ravings, comical acrobatics, oblique allusions, overblown metaphors, and critical oracles interlarded with verses from Scripture, embellished with quotations from Latin and English, not to mention frequent footnotes to Plato, Bacon, Michaelis, Ausonius, Wachter, Holy Scripture, Petronius, Shakespeare, Young, Voltaire, and hundreds of others." Indeed, the net effect of Hamann's style, Mendelssohn writes, is that "any reader looking for good sense is tempted to be maddened by impatience."

Having read such reviews of his work, one would think that Hamann might have considered adopting a more popular style. Instead, oddly enough, he seems to have delighted in the public's perception of him. In his Clouds, for example, which was published in 1761 and is an anonymous response to reviews of the Socratic Memorabilia, he not only quotes the Hamburg review with approval, referring to himself (in the third person) as "unintelligible," "dark," "cryptic," even "deranged," but compares his writing "to a Japanese or Chinese picture, in which one can perceive wild and dreadful figures, but whose significance no rational person can understand" (N 2:86). Clearly, Hamann did not mind giving the impression of being an irrationalist—even a madman. Nor, had he wished to do so, was he able to let go of this particular style. As he once confessed to Herder: "Such crumpled, confusing and anomalous allegorical figures have become my element; without them I can neither breathe nor think" (ZH 3:38).

The newcomer to Hamann thus has good reason to be perplexed—and deterred. But it would be a mistake to conclude that he was truly irrational, much less mad—after all, he was well aware of his "madness" in a way that truly mad persons are not. Rather, for Hamann, whose authorship was highly deliberate, "irrationalism" was a mask—one of many that he adopted for certain, ultimately evangelical reasons. It would also be a mistake to conclude that he was simply a bad writer. As his confessional London writings and his earlier contributions to the weekly Daphne attest, he was perfectly capable of limpid prose. Furthermore, as O'Flaherty points out, one must take stock of the fact that "scattered throughout his generally obscure prose are many succinct, epigrammatic, and very quotable expressions," as the existence of several popular collections of Hamann's sayings attests. Above all, however, the thesis of Hamann's "irrationalism" and even the milder thesis that his writings are merely perversely impenetrable fail to explain why so many celebrated, impeccably "rational" German intellectuals of the next generation were fascinated by his writings, avidly collected them, pored over them as though they were oracles, and—fearing that their loss would be tantamount to a cultural tragedy—made concerted efforts to publish them. As Jean Paul, impatient to hear news of the publication of Hamann's works, wrote to Jacobi in 1804: "What will happen with Hamann?—Say something definite! I can see everything die—for it will come again—but not a genius."


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Table of Contents

Editor’s Introduction
List of Abbreviations

Part 1. Situating Hamann

1. Reading "Sibylline Leaves": J. G. Hamann in the History of Ideas
John R. Betz

2. "There Is an Idol in the Temple of Learning": Hamann and the History of Philosophy
Kenneth Haynes

Part 2. Hamann in Dialogue

3. God, I & Thou: Hamann and the Personalist Tradition
Gwen Griffith-Dickson

4. Hamann and Kant on the Good Will
Manfred Kuehn

5. Metaschematizing Socrates: Hamann, Kierkegaard and Kant on the Value of the Enlightenment
 Kelly Dean Jolley

6. Skepticism and Faith in Hamann and Kierkegaard
Stephen Cole Leach

7. Hamann, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein on the Language of Philosophers
Jonathan Gray

Part 3. Hamann’s Place in German Literary History

8. Rhapsodic Dismemberment: Hamann and the Fable
Lori Yamato

9. Hamann, Goethe and the West-Eastern Divan
 Kamaal Haque

10. Hallucinating Europe: Hamann and His Impact on German Romantic Drama
Christian Sinn

Part 4. Hamann and Theology

11. God as Author: On the Theological Foundation of Hamann’s Authorial Poetics
Oswald Bayer

12. Metaphysics and Metacritique: Hamann’s Understanding of the Word of God in the Tradition of Lutheran Theology
Johannes von Lüpke

13. Is Theology Possible After Hamann?
Katie Terezakis

Appendix: A New English Bibliography of Works on Hamann
Andrew J. Sherrod


  • Hamann’s Philosophical and Theological Status: John R. Betz and Katie Terezakis in Dialogue
  • Hamann. A New English Bibliography
  • Note on the Contributors


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