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Three critics of the enlightenment : Vico, Hamann, Herder

Isaiah Berlin (2013) – Hamann is the pioneer of anti-rationalism in every sphere

terça-feira 29 de agosto de 2023, por Cardoso de Castro


THE MOST PASSIONATE, consistent, extreme and implacable enemy of the Enlightenment and, in particular, of all forms of rationalism of his time (he lived and died in the eighteenth century) was Johann Georg Hamann  . His influence, direct and indirect, upon the Romantic revolt against universalism and scientific method in any guise was considerable and perhaps crucial.

This may seem at first sight to be an absurd claim on behalf of a man whose name is scarcely known in the English-speaking world, who is barely mentioned, at best, in some of our larger or more specialised encyclopedias as an esoteric writer, confused and obscure to the point of total unintelligibility, an eccentric and isolated figure, about whose views – beyond the fact that he was consumed by some kind of highly individual Christianity, usually described as a form of pietism, believed in the occult truths of divine revelation and the literal inspiration of the Bible  , rejected the French atheism and materialism of his time, and was at most a minor figure in the German literary movement known as Sturm und Drang (‘Storm and Stress’) – virtually nothing is said. Literary histories and monographs sometimes speak of him as a minor contributor to the turbulence of the ‘pre-Romantic’ German literature of the 1760s and 1770s; he occurs in the biographies of Kant   as a fellow citizen of Königsberg, as being an unhappy dilettante, an amateur philosopher whom Kant once helped, then abandoned, and who criticised Kant without understanding him; and biographies of Goethe   occasionally contain a few admiring quotations about him from Goethe’s autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit.

But no definite impression emerges: Hamann remains in these histories (as he did in his life) in the margin of the central movement of ideas, an object of mild astonishment, of some interest to historians of Protestant theology, or, more often, altogether unnoticed. Yet Herder  , whose part in altering historical and sociological writing can hardly be disputed, once wrote to him that he was content to be ‘a Turkish camel-driver gathering up sacred apples before his ambling holy beast, which bears the Koran  ’. [1] Herder revered Hamann as a man of genius  , looked upon him as the greatest of his teachers, and after his death venerated his ashes as the remains of a prophet. America was indeed called after Amerigo Vespucci, but it was Columbus who discovered that great continent, and in this case the Columbus, as Herder freely admitted, was Hamann. [2]

Hamann’s disciple F. H. Jacobi transmitted much of his thought to the Romantic metaphysicians of the beginning of the nineteenth century. Schelling   regarded him as a ‘great writer’ whom Jacobi perhaps did not understand at all; Niebuhr speaks of his ‘demonic’ nature and its superhuman strength; Jean Paul says that ‘the great Hamann is a deep heaven full of telescopic stars and many nebulae that no human eye can resolve’, [3] and even for a Romantic writer goes to unheard-of lengths to praise his unique, unsurpassed genius; in the same spirit   J. K. Lavater says that he is content to ‘collect the golden crumbs from his table’, [4] and similarly Friedrich Karl von Moser, ‘the German Burke  ’, admires his eagle flight. [5] Even if some of this is due to the enthusiasm of contemporaries which left little trace on later generations, it is still sufficient to stir curiosity about the character of this peculiar figure, half hidden by the fame of his disciples.

Hamann repays study: he is one of the few wholly original critics of modern times. Without any known debt to anyone else, he attacks the entire prevailing orthodoxy with weapons some of which are obsolete and some ineffective or absurd; but there is enough force in them to hamper the enemy’s advance, to attract allies to his own reactionary banner, and to begin – so far as anyone may be said to have done so – the secular resistance to the eighteenth-century march of enlightenment and reason, the resistance which in time culminated in romanticism, obscurantism and political reaction, in a great, deeply influential renewal of artistic forms, and, in the end, in permanent damage to the social and political lives of men. Such a figure surely demands some degree of attention.

Hamann is the pioneer of anti-rationalism in every sphere. Neither of his contemporaries Rousseau   and Burke can justly be called this, for Rousseau’s explicitly political ideas are classical in their rationalism, while Burke appeals to the calm good sense   of reflective men, even if he denounces theories founded on abstractions. Hamann would have none of this: wherever the hydra of reason, theory, generalisation rears one of its many hideous heads, he strikes. He provided an arsenal from which more moderate Romantics – Herder, even such cool heads as the young Goethe, even Hegel, who wrote a long and not too friendly review of his works, even the level-headed Humboldt   and his fellow liberals – drew some of their most effective weapons. He is the forgotten source of a movement that in the end engulfed the whole of European culture.

Ver online : Johann Georg Hamann

[1F. W. J. Schelling’s Denkmal der Schrift von den göttlichen Dingen etc. des Herrn Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi […] (Tübingen, 1812), 192.

[2Lebensnachrichten über Barthold Georg Niebuhr aus Briefen desselben und aus Erinnerungen einiger seiner nächsten Freunde (Hamburg, 1838) ii 482.

[3Jean Paul, Vorschule der Ästhetik, part 1, § 14: ed. Norbert Miller (Munich, 1963), 64.

[4Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi’s auserlesener Briefwechsel, ed. Friedrich Roth (Leipzig, 1825–7), i 438.

[5B ii 230.9.