Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet
Born in Königsberg,
the son of a surgeon-barber, Johann Georg Hamann studied at the University
there after a patchy education at a variety of schools. He subsequently worked in commerce and as a tutor. Because of his dark and oracular writings, which mark him out as a
severe critic of the Enlightenment and a precursor of Romanticism, he came to
be called the 'Magus of the North'.
PHILOSOPHY OF MAN/ CULTURE
 Hamann sees himself as a latter-day
Socrates; he attacks
sophistry in all its forms the deceptions of language and the intellect [a]. Approving of empiricist scepticism he rejected
'scientific rationalism', universal explanations, 'dead' abstraction, space and time as 'innate forms of
intuition', categories, fragmentation, the destruction of 'wholeness'. This can be seen in his criticisms of 'faculty psychology',
which seeks to separate reason, understanding, sense experience from matter; of rationalism in all its
forms (in metaphysics, history, science, aesthetics); and of natural religion and deism. What he seems to be saying is that the individual man is essentially
a unity of reason, sensuality, and faith, in whom truth is grounded and
expressed. Man may engage in many
activities but he is but one organism. Central to his position is his view of language. It is
through language that reason and knowledge are expressed, language belonging
simultaneously to the sensuous and the intellectual. Hamann therefore
considers it to be the
mediating and unifying principle [b]; and it is through
the splitting apart of sensibility and understanding from their common root in
Nature that the distortions implicit in dualism (especially of the Kantian
variety) have arisen. As to the
origin of language, Hamann says man has
always possessed it. Indeed "the entire
capacity to think rests on language" [Metacritique]. It is not a 'natural' invention
of reason but is in some sense communicated by God [c]. In earliest times the divine was revealed in
inspired music and poetry ("the
mother-tongue of the human race" [Aesthetica
in Nuce] ). History likewise has an inner 'truth' which is
revealed mystically by God rather than through the speculative and distorting
systems of reason [d]. Indeed Nature as a whole can be regarded as a 'language' or
'symbol' of the Divine [e]. And it is essential, Hamann says, that language itself, as a divine
revelation, should not be uprooted from its grounding in living human history,
if it is not to seduce, deceive, and confuse reason [logos] [f] language being
"the central point of reason's misunderstanding of itself" [ibid.]. As
I am inclined to think that our whole philosophy consists more of language
than of reason, and the misunderstandings of countless words, the posing as
real of the most arbitrary abstractions, the antitheses of pseudo-gnosis, and
even the commonest figures of speech of the sensus
communis, have produced a whole world of questions which have as little
reason to be raised as to be answered. We are still needing a grammar of reason. [letter to Jacobi, 1 December, 1784].
Understandably the unity Hamann seeks in
both man, world, and indeed God is one of opposites in tension (the sensuous and the
intellectual, body and spirit, God and man, calm and energy in God, for example); and he himself
acknowledges this coincidentia oppositorum [g] as intrinsic and inevitable.
Despite the seeming obscurity and
contradictory nature of his utterances, Hamann is significant for his
criticisms of all aspects of Enlightenment thought and of Kant's philosophy in
particular, and as a precursor of Romanticism and Existentialism. He emphasizes the unitary nature of the human
organism and recognises language as having a role to play in the unification
process and in the inner soul's expression of thought in the wider symbolic
world of culture. He is also original in seeing language as a source of
reason's 'confusion with itself it being the job of philosophy to understand
this. There is, however, a tension between the sceptical and empirical content
of his views and his excessive reliance on 'faith'. He is also open to the charge of 'emptiness'
in the positive aspects of his philosophy.
Hamann: His Socratic
Memorabilia has been translated with commentary by J. C. O'Flaherty. Selections from his copious and scattered
writings may be found in R. Gregor Smith, J.
G. Hamann 1730-1788: A Study in
Christian Existence. Note especially
Hamann's review of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and his Metacritique of the Purism of Reason.
Berlin, The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Rationalism.
Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder.
G. G. Dickson, Johann
Georg Hamann's Relational Metacriticism.
O'Flaherty, Unity and Language: A Study in the Philosophy of Johann Georg