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Hegel on Hamann

Hegel on Hamann

by G. W. F. Hegel, Lisa Marie Anderson (Translator)

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In 1828, G. W. F. Hegel published a critical review of Johann George Hamann, a retrospective of the life and works of one of Germany's most enigmatic and challenging thinkers and writers. While Hegel's review had enjoyed a central place in Hamann studies since its appearance, Hegel on Hamann is the first English translation of the important


In 1828, G. W. F. Hegel published a critical review of Johann George Hamann, a retrospective of the life and works of one of Germany's most enigmatic and challenging thinkers and writers. While Hegel's review had enjoyed a central place in Hamann studies since its appearance, Hegel on Hamann is the first English translation of the important work. Philosophers, theologians, and literary critics welcome Anderson's stunning translation since Hamann is gaining renewed attention, not only as a key figure of German intellectual history, but also as an early forerunner of postmodern thought.

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Northwestern University Press
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Topics in Historical Philosophy Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

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Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2008 Northwestern University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8101-2492-9

Chapter One

The Writings of Hamann

By G. W. F. Hegel

First Article

The public is most greatly indebted to the esteemed editor for the fact that he now, through his promotion and perseverance, delivers into our hands the writings of Hamann, previously accessible in their entirety only to a few and with great difficulty, and after so many prospects of their complete reprinting had fallen through. Hamann himself did not give satisfaction (R 1:x, prologue) to various invitations to organize a collection of his writings. Only a few possessed a complete collection of them; Goethe (From My Life, book 12) had had the idea to attend to the editing and publication of Hamann's works, but did not carry it out. Jacobi, who made serious arrangements toward such an undertaking, was not granted that good fortune. A younger friend of Hamann, Real Privy Superior Government Councilor Herr L. Nicolovius in Berlin, declined the task and instead called upon our editor, an intimate friend of Jacobi's in the later part of Jacobi's life, whom Jacobi had chosen to assist him with the publication. Thus our editor carried out the bequest of his dear, esteemed friend and satisfied the wishes of the public, exceptionally favored at the same time by the additional fortune (R 1:xii) of having received from friends or heirs of Hamann a large number of letters to be printed, including some in a succession spanning several years, so that he was able to furnish this edition with them, which means that only a few circumstances or complications of Hamann's life will remain about which we have not been informed. To that which is brought together in this collection, we should add the third section of the fourth volume of Jacobi's works, in which is found the extremely interesting correspondence between Hamann and this intimate friend, but whose publisher did not permit a new printing of this correspondence to be made for the present collection. For a number of years we have looked forward, in vain, to the promised eighth volume of this edition, which shall contain commentaries, in part by Hamann himself, perhaps supplements from letters, and an index; since its appearance can apparently be expected to be delayed for a considerable time, we shall not postpone any longer this long intended review, as desirable as it would have been to have the promised commentaries already in hand. One feels the dire need for these commentaries when reading Hamann's works; but the hope of receiving elucidation from the promised volume is in any case greatly diminished when one reads, on page x of the prologue, that it was the impossibility, acknowledged by Hamann himself, of elucidating all which is dark in his writings, that prevented him from organizing their publication. Jacobi as well had been impeded in this task by the formidability of this demand, and the current editor says on page xiii that the commentaries which are to follow in the eighth volume will satisfy only a very moderate expectation, and that the chronological order of the writings, primarily the many letters regarding Hamann's authorship, must provide the principal facilitation of understanding. In addition, one soon learns that mysteriousness itself belongs to the characteristic temperament of Hamann's writing and individuality, and constitutes an essential current thereof. The primary obscurity, however, which lay over Hamann generally, has already disappeared now that his writings are before us. The Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek [Public German Library] had of course concerned itself much with him, but not in such a manner as to provide public recognition and access. Herder, on the other hand, and especially Jacobi (as witnessed in Goethe's singular comment, cited on page x of the prologue, which however must be qualified by Goethe's more elaborate and thorough appraisal of Hamann [loc. cit.]) speak of him in such a manner that they seemed to invoke him as one who should have come, one in full possession of the mysteries in whose reflection their own revelations merely played, just as the members of Freemason lodges are to be directed primarily to higher authorities located at the center of all the depths of the secrets of God and of nature. Thus, a nimbus had enshrouded the Magus from the North—this had become a sort of title for Hamann. Accordingly, he himself had spoken everywhere in his writing only fragmentarily and as a sibyl, and the only writings which one could procure inspired curiosity about the others, in which one might hope to find elucidation. Through this edition of his works which now lies before us, we are able to see who Hamann was, what his wisdom and knowledge were.

To begin by considering the general situation in which Hamann emerges, he belongs to that time in which the thinking spirit in Germany, whose independence had arisen at first in scholarly philosophy, began now to spread [sich ergehen] in reality, and to lay claim to those things within it which were considered solid and true, and in which the entire domain of reality began to vindicate itself. It is characteristic of the German progress of the spirit toward its own freedom that thought found in Wolffian philosophy a methodical, sober form; once understanding, dealing now also with the other sciences, especially mathematics, had, in this form, penetrated general instruction and scientific culture, it now began to emerge from the academy and from its pedagogical form and to address in its foundations, in a popular way, every interest of spirit, the positive principles of the church, of the state, and of right. As much as this application of understanding lacked any spirituality, its content lacked just as much native originality. One cannot hope to conceal that this enlightening consisted solely in establishing now in Germany the principles of deism, religious tolerance, and morality which Rousseau and Voltaire had raised to the general way of thinking among the upper classes in and beyond France. While Voltaire lingered for some time in Berlin at the court of Frederick II, and many other reigning German princes (perhaps the majority) counted it as an honor to be in acquaintance, contact, or correspondence with Voltaire or his friends, the distribution of their principles went out from Berlin into the sphere of the middle classes, including the clergy, among whom the German Enlightenment counted its most active and effective collaborators, while the struggle in France was directed primarily against the clergy. There was then the further difference between the two countries that this uprising or rebellion of thought in France was embraced by everything which possessed genius, spirit, talent, nobleness, and this new manner of truth appeared with the radiance of all talents and with the vigor of a naive, spirited, energetic common sense [gesunden Menschenverstandes]. In Germany, on the other hand, that great impulse was divided into two different dispositions. On the one hand the business of the Enlightenment was pursued with dry understanding, with principles of bald utility, with insipidity of spirit and knowledge, paltry or ordinary passions, and, where it was most respectable, with some (albeit sober) warmth of feeling, and stood in malevolent, harassing, jeering opposition to everything which unfolded from genius, talent, or purity of spirit and mind. Berlin was the center of this enlightening, where Nicolai, Mendelssohn, Teller, Spalding, Zöllner, etc., were active in their writings, as well as the collective person, the Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek, in a uniform sense, though with a different sentiment; Eberhard, Steinbart, Jerusalem, etc., can be counted as neighbors in this center.8 Located in the periphery around it was that which blossomed in genius, spirit, and depth of reason, and which was attacked and disparaged by that center in the most spiteful manner. Toward the northeast, in Königsberg, we have Kant, Hippel, Hamann; toward the south in Weimar and Jena Herder, Wieland, Goethe, later Schiller, Fichte, Schelling, among others; further toward the west Jacobi with his friends; Lessing, who had long been indifferent toward the goings-on in Berlin, lived in the depths of scholarship, in wholly other depths of spirit than his friends (who believed themselves to be on intimate terms with him) surmised. Hippel, for example, was the only one among the above-mentioned great men of German literature who was not exposed to the invectives of that center. Although both sides came together in the interest of freedom of spirit, the former enlightening, as a dry understanding of the finite, persecuted hatefully the feeling or consciousness of the infinite which was located on the side of the latter [enlightening], whose depth was in poetry as well as in thinking reason. From the activity of the former there remains their work [das Werk], from the latter, however, the works [die Werke], as well.

If those who had fallen under the power of the business of the Enlightenment—because formal abstractions and some general feelings of religion, humanity, and legality constituted their intellectual peaks—could only be distinguished by unimportant peculiarities, then the latter periphery was a wreath of original individualities. Among them, Hamann is not only also original, but, what is more, an Original [ein Original], in that he persisted in a concentration of his deep particularity, which proved incapable not only of any form of universality, but also of the expansion of thinking reason as a matter of taste.

Hamann stands over against the Berlin Enlightenment above all by virtue of the profoundness of his Christian orthodoxy, but such that his way of thinking is not adherence to the wooden, orthodox theology of his time; his spirit retains the highest freedom, in which nothing remains a positive, but rather is subjectivized into the spiritual present and into one's own possession. With his two friends in Königsberg, Kant and Hippel, whom he esteems and with whom he has contact, he shares a relationship of general confidence, but not of solidarity of interests. He is further differentiated from that former Enlightenment not only by content, but also on the same grounds that separated him from Kant, namely because the need for thinking reason remained to him foreign and misunderstood. In this respect he is closer to Hippel, in that he can extend his inner meaning toward the expansion of neither knowledge nor poetry, but is only capable of humorous, flashing, desultory expression. But this humor is without richness and diversity of sentiment, and completely devoid of all impulse or attempt at form; he remains limitedly subjective. He has the most in common with that friend with whom his relationship is shown in his correspondence to be most intimate and reckless, with Jacobi, who was capable of writing only letters and, like Hamann, no book. However, Jacobi's letters are in themselves clear; they point toward thoughts which come to a certain development, execution, and a certain progress, so that the letters become a coherent sequence and a sort of book. The French have a saying: Le stile c'est l'homme même; Hamann's writings do not so much have a particular style as they are style, through and through. In everything which came from Hamann's quill, his personality is so extremely intrusive and absolutely preponderant that the reader is referred at every point more so to it than to that which might be interpreted as content. In the products which are passed off as writings and are said to treat of some subject matter, one notices immediately the incomprehensible eccentricity of their author. These products are in fact a tiresome riddle, and one realizes that its solution is the individuality of the author; but this solution is not explained in the writings themselves. It is primarily this insight which is now elucidated for us in this collection, through the publication of two previously unprinted essays by Hamann: one is the autobiography he composed in 1758 and 1759, which only extends to this point in time, and thus only incorporates the beginning of his life, but also the most important turning point in his development; the other, composed at the end of his life, sought to disclose the entire intention of his authorship (R 7:vii, preface) and give an overview of it. The copious, previously unprinted correspondence completes the materials which clarify his character. We must begin from this autobiography which, as the principal novelty of this edition, deserves a more thorough review.

It is found in the first volume, pages 149–242, and is titled Thoughts About My Life, Psalm 94:19 (the beginning), written in London, dated April 21, 1758.11 Hamann's disposition here is also expressed in the staid and well-stylized—and thus better written than most of his later writings—opening of another essay, Biblical Meditations of a Christian, also written in London, dated March 19, Palm Sunday 1758:

I began today, with God, to read the Holy Scriptures for the second time. As my circumstances impose upon me the greatest solitude, in which I sit like a sparrow on the rooftop and watch, I find in the company of my books, in the activity and exercise which they give to my thoughts, an antidote to the bitterness of many sad meditations on my past foolishness, about the misuse of the beneficence and circumstances with which Providence has so mercifully chosen to distinguish me.... The sciences and those friends of my reason seem to test my patience, like Job's, more than they comfort me, and to cause the wounds of my experience to bleed more than they ease their pain. Nature put into all bodies a salt which the chemists know how to extract, and Providence (so it seems) put into all adversities an original moral element which we are to release and separate out, which we can apply with great usefulness as an aid against the diseases of our nature and the evils of our mind. If we fail to see God in the sunlight, in the pillar of cloud, then his presence appears to us by night in the pillar of fire more visibly and more emphatically. I am able to have the greatest confidence in his mercy, because of his consideration for my entire life.... It is neither a consequence of my evil will nor for a lack of opportunity that I have not fallen into far deeper misery, into far heavier debt, than that in which I currently find myself. God! we are such poor creatures that even a smaller measure of our wickedness must become a fount of our thankfulness to you.

The inducement for this penitent disposition, and for the recording of his life up to that point, was the entanglements in which he became embroiled at this time, and upon which we must now focus, along with the principal moments of his early life.

Hamann was born on August 27, 1730, in Königsberg in Prussia; his father was a barber-surgeon [Bader] and, it seems, somewhat well-off. The memory of his parents (R 1:152–55) "is among the dearest notions of his soul and is connected to the tender stirring of love and gratitude"; without further details about their character, it is said that the children (Hamann had only one younger brother) found "their home a school under supervision, indeed under strict supervision, via the example of their parents." His parents' house was a constant refuge for young students, which made the work decent; in this environment, Hamann occupied himself with languages (Greek, French, Italian), music, dancing, and painting. "As much as we scrimped on our rough-and-ready clothes and on other foolish things, so many excesses were given and provided to us in our education." Hamann's education included seven years of instruction by a man who sought to teach him Latin without grammar instruction; thereafter he had a more methodical teacher, with whom he had to begin with Donatus's grammar. The progress Hamann made then was such that this teacher flattered both himself and Hamann in the belief that he had trained a great scholar of Latin and Greek; Hamann calls him a pedant. Beyond the skills obtained in the translation of Greek and Latin authors, in arithmetic, and in music, he [Hamann] indulges himself in the then-circulating opinion that education should be directed at the formation of understanding and judgment. Young nobles and many bourgeois children were to have as their texts for Latin and similar subjects textbooks about agriculture rather than the life of Alexander, etc.—opinions upon which the declamations and boastings of Basedow, Campe, and others, as well as their pompous enterprises, were based, and which have had such detrimental effects for the organization and the spirit of public education, that even now, however much we have turned away from these opinions, their consequences have not yet been fully remedied. Hamann complains that he was left lacking in history and geography (for which, he laments, he could never properly compensate) and did not attain the slightest understanding of the poetic arts, such that it was a great effort for him to organize and readily express his thoughts in speech or in writing. If a part of this lack is attributable to his instruction, the better part is attributable, as we will continue to see, to the otherwise characteristic temperament [Temperatur] and disposition of his spirit.


Excerpted from HEGEL ON HAMANN Copyright © 2008 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) was one of the leading German philosophers of the nineteenth century. He taught at the University of Heidelberg and the University of Berlin, where he wrote his most important works, The Phenomenology of the Spirit (1870) and the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1818).

Lisa Marie Anderson is an assistant professor in the Department of German at Hunter College, City University of New York. She resides in New York City.

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