Hamann, Johann Georg (1730–1788)

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Johann Georg Hamann, the German Protestant thinker and critic of the Enlightenment, was born in Königsberg. In no sense a professional philosopher, and largely self-educated, he made his living as a secretary-translator and later as a government warehouse manager in Königsberg.


Hamann's originality early caught the eye of such diverse figures as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, G. W. F. Hegel, and Søren Kierkegaard, but his famous "darkness"his opaque stylehas daunted all but the most persistent investigators. Study of Hamann has long been dominated by Hegel's picture of him as an irrationalist and the paradigm of an individualist and also impeded by discouraging delays in the publication of complete editions of his works and letters. Following World War I, Hamann's influence on Kierkegaard began to be appreciated, but only more recently have scholars been able to expose enough of their subject so that the real dimensions of his thought could be guessed.

meditations and occasional pieces

Hamann's simplest writings were not intended for publication. These consist of his reflections following financial and spiritual crises he underwent on a business trip in 1758Biblische Betrachtungen (Biblical meditations; 1758), Gedanken über meinen Lebenslauf (Thoughts on the course of my life; 17581759), and Brocken (Fragments; 1758). The Sokratische Denkwürdigkeiten (Socratic memorabilia; 1759) was his first public attack on the spirit of his century. A meditation on Socrates and his relation to Christ, it adumbrates the central concern of Hamann's intellectual career, the relation of philosophy to Christianity. Hamann saw himself as continuing the work of Martin Luther, under the different conditions of a later age. Whereas for Luther the problem had been the relation of faith to the "law," the established ecclesiastical and religious systems, the problem now concerned faith and philosophy.

Most of Hamann's writings were short occasional pieces. Die Magi aus Morgenlande (The Wise Men from the East; 1760), an essay on the symbolic meaning of eighteenth-century astronomical observations, earned him the sobriquet of the "Wise Man of the North." His reputation during his lifetime was largely based on such collections of essays as the Kreuzzüge des Philologen (Crusades of the philologian; 1762), which contains the influential "Aesthetica in Nuce" (Aesthetics in a nutshell), and on some political satiresLettre néologique et provinciale (Neological and provincial letter; 1761), Lettre perdue d'un sauvage du nord à un financier de Pe-kim (Lost Letter of a savage of the north to a financier at Peking; 1773), and Le kermes du nord (The worm of the north; 1774). The sarcasm and irony characteristic of Hamann's style are readily apparent from some of his titles.

Philosophy as Criticism

In what sense was Hamann a philosopher? Like Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, and Kierkegaard, Hamann is difficult to classify. His relation to philosophy was ambivalent and paradoxical. His thought moved between the twin figures of Socrates and the "Philologian." The figure of Socrates, the philosophical hero of the Enlightenment, Hamann adopted for his own purposes, to turn the symbol of the Enlightenment against itself and to call for a philosophical confession of ignorance in place of philosophical pretensions to knowledge. The term Philologian was selected for its ambiguity, in that it suggests both a "lover of the word" and a "lover of reason."

Like Socrates, Hamann considered man to be the crucial problem. (Hamann's famous simile compares self-knowledge to a "descent into hell," suggesting later explorations, by existentialism and depth psychology, into the anxieties and subconscious turmoil of the human psyche.) Like Socrates, he called for and practiced a critical and questioning philosophy; he especially appreciated the acid analyses of David Hume's reason. His answer to Immanuel Kant's criticism of metaphysics was a higher level of criticism, not "metaphysics" but "metacriticism." But as the Philologian, Hamann saw Socrates as a forerunner and prophet (although an unwitting one) of the Christ and philosophy as a discipline seen in its true light only in the context of Christianity.

Criticism of the Enlightenment

Hamann's friends included many of the luminaries of the German Enlightenment, but personal relationships did not deter him from mounting the most severe criticism. (He believed friendship was like Mount Etna, "fire in the bowels" but "snow on the head.")

What were Hamann's objections to the philosophy of the Enlightenment? He viewed as "idealistic vanity" the attempts of leading Enlightenment thinkers to base philosophy upon undeniable rational truths (Moses Mendelssohn), to speak of "pure" reason (Kant), to discover a "natural religion" (the deists), to penetrate the mystery of man's constitution and isolate the origin of man's linguistic capacities (Johann Gottfried Herder and others), and to separate the knowledge of God from its provenance in historical revelation (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing). Hamann valued Hume's skepticism but insisted that it illustrated not the glory but the bankruptcy of reason. Skepticism is a paradigm of the ambiguity of all human powersreason so conceived and directed is self-destructive. Hume, he felt, performed a service for philosophy in demonstrating what happens when reason is conceived as purely analytical, stripped of its functions of comprehension and intuition and removed from its orientation in religion and its foundations in historical experience.

Hamann's objections to Enlightenment philosophy can be illustrated by two sexual images he employed (such images were characteristic of his style). The rationalism of the age was trying to strip truth of her clothes, or, to change the figure, was trying to divorce what Nature had joined together, to attain reality by removing all excrescences, such as tradition, history, and experiential particulars. For Hamann truth appeared most authentically as "enfleshed" and therefore embodied in a unity of reason, faith, and sensual experience. He was skeptical of abstractions and saw language as the means by which the reason is confused as well as the means by which it expresses itself (the "seducer" as well as the "helpmeet" of man). He insisted on the wisdom and religious depth inherent in the naive vernacular, in imagery, and in myth. A "coincidence of opposites" was to be expected in the present world, even where the opposites seemed to be the most surprising and paradoxicalflesh and spirit, God and man, sensual language and transcendent conceptuality, history and reason. The most radical skepticism conceals a surreptitious credulity, and the most notorious agnosticism a covert religion.

Quarrels with other Thinkers

Hamann's belief that the Enlightenment was sacrificing the concreteness, historicity, and earthiness of reality to the paramount desire of rationalism to systematize initiated his quarrel with such thinkers as Herder, Mendelssohn, Kant, and Lessing as well as obscure lesser lights. Philologische Einfälle und Zweifel über eine akademische Preisschrift (Philological ideas and doubts about a writing which received an academic prize; 1772) attacks Herder's prize-winning essay on the origin of language; Golgatha und Scheblimini (1784) is a criticism of Mendelssohn's theory of "natural religion" and its relation to church and state; KONXOMPAX (1779) contains a satire on Lessing's dichotomy between the knowledge of God and the knowledge of "accidents" of history.

Criticism of Kant

Hamann's evaluations of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason are found in his letters and in several essays, one of which is called "Metacritik über den Purismum der Vernunft" (Metacritique of the purism of the reason; 1784). The issue between these thinkers is the extent to which reason can be "pure" (that is, devoid of experience). Hamann objected not only to Kant's overvaluation of formal knowledge but also to the belief that Kant demonstrated that in some respects reason can be separated from sense experience.


To Hamann, demonstration of a separation between reason and sense experience is impossible because it depends on language, or mental symbols, the "purity" of which is ambiguous. This ambiguity cannot be removed (and the old Platonic ideal of knowledge of forms refurbished) by the double maneuver of surrendering knowledge of reality itself and locating the forms of space and time in the knowing ego, known to be emptied of fallible sense experience. The mark of such an "emptiness" (absence of sense experience) would be a synthetic judgment a priori, and according to Kant this would be based on the pure forms of sensible intuition. However, to Hamann these forms of intuition, which he took to be types of language, cannot be demonstrated to be pure, because language contains the capacity to create what may be an illusion. "Not only does the entire capacity to think rest upon language but language is also in the middle of the misunderstanding of reason with itself." The forms of intuition are not simply passive channels for the content of experience, but active forms of language (or of symbols) that have the power to deceive the mind and create the illusion that they are a priori and necessary.

In the new picture of being that Hamann offered as an alternative to his age, man is seen as a creature of flesh and blood ("the heart beats before the head thinks"), history as a living communication of the meaning of man's existence ("a continuing sign"), and the world as the "language" of God ("speech to the creature through the creation"). The metaphor of "language" points to the symbolic nature of the world, which is not to be exhausted in its material significance, deified in a pantheism, or transcended by reason in a Platonic dualism.


Scholarly interest in Hamann has focused upon his influence on the Sturm und Drang and Romantic movements and on such figures as F. H. Jacobi, Friedrich von Schelling, Hegel, and Friedrich Schleiermacher; upon his role as a forerunner of existentialism; upon his pioneering exploration of the nature of human sexuality (see his Versuch einer Sibylle über die Ehe [Essay of a sibyl on marriage; 1775] and Schürze von Feigenblättern [Skirts of fig leaves; 1777]); upon his influence on religious thought, such as the Movement of Awakening (Erweckungsbewegung, a revival of intellectual pietism) and neoorthodoxy; upon his contributions to a philosophy of language; and upon his reconception of reason as essentially historical.

See also Anselm, St.; Augustine, St.; Enlightenment; Existentialism; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; Luther, Martin; Mendelssohn, Moses; Pascal, Blaise; Philosophy of Language; Philosophy of Sex; Reason; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst; Skepticism; Socrates; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Unconscious.


works by hamann

Werke, 6 vols. Edited by Josef Nadler. Vienna: Thomas-Morus-Presse im Verlag Herder, 19491957.

Briefwechsel, 8 vols. Edited by Walther Ziesemer and Arthur Henkel. Wiesbaden: Insel-Verlag, 1955.

works on hamann

Alexander, W. M. "The Alpha and Omega of Hamann's Philosophy." Ultimate Reality and Meaning 4 (1981): 297309.

Alexander, W. M. "Johann Georg Hamann: Metacritic of Kant." Journal of the History of Ideas 27 (1966): 137144.

Alexander, W. M. Johann Georg Hamann: Philosophy and Faith. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966.

Betz, John R. "Enlightenment Revisited: Hamann as the First and Best Critic of Kant's Philosophy." Modern Theology 20(2) (2004): 291301.

Blanke, Fritz et al. Hauptschriften erklärt, 8 vols. Gütersloh, 1956. Commentaries on Hamann's major works. Vol. I contains a comprehensive bibliography (pp. 145176).

Butts, Robert E. "The Grammar of Reason: Hamann's Challenge to Kant." Synthese 75 (1988): 251283.

Graubner, Hans. "Theological Empiricism: Aspects of Johann Georg Hamann's Reception of Hume." Hume Studies 15(2) (1989): 377385.

Leibrecht, Walter. Gott und Mensch bei Johann Georg Hamann. Gütersloh, 1958.

Metzke, Erwin. J. G. Hamanns Stellung in der Philosophie des 18. Jahrhunderts. Halle, 1934.

Nadler, Josef. Johann Georg Hamann, der Zeuge des Corpus Mysticum. Salzburg: O. Müller, 1949. Biography.

O'Flaherty, James C. Johann Georg Hamann. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

O'Flaherty, James C. The Quarrel of Reason with Itself: Essays on Hamann, Michaelis, Lessing, Nietzsche. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1988.

Redmond, Michael D. "The Hamann-Hume Connection." Religious Studies 23 (1987): 95107.

Salmony, H. A. Johann Georg Hamanns metakritische Philosophie. Zollikon: Evangelischer, 1958.

Smith, Ronald Gregor. J. G. Hamann, with Selections from His Writings. London: Collins, 1960.

Swain, Charles W. "Hamann and the Philosophy of David Hume." Journal of the History of Philosophy 5 (1967): 343351.

Wessel, Leonard P. "Hamann's Philosophy of Aesthetics: Its Meaning for the Storm and Stress Period." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 27(1969): 433443.

W. M. Alexander (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)