Hamann: Writings on Philosophy and Language
Series: Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy Edited by Kenneth Haynes First published 2007 Brown University, Rhode Island Note on the text, translation, and annotation
All Hamann’s writings after his rediscovery of his Christian faith are densely allusive to the Bible... Many of Hamann’s essays react to the precise wording of another piece of writing... In general, I have avoided the temptation to simplify Hamann’s words... In addition, it has meant preserving the multilingual aspect of Hamann’s writing. Hamann believed that speaking a language, like having a body, was a fundamental aspect of human finitude. To present his writings in a seamless web of a single language would have betrayed both his practice and his convictions.
Johann Georg Hamann (1730–88) is prominent in the history of German literature, being known above all for an idiosyncratic and sometimes bizarre style that was intransigently at odds with the aesthetics of his time and which fascinated and sometimes influenced writers of the nineteenth century. He is one of the most innovative figures within Lutheran theology and arguably “the most profound Christian thinker of the eighteenth century”1 his insistence on the historical truth of the Bible led him to a radical rethinking of the nature of both history and truth. Finally, he is a philosopher who wrote penetrating criticisms of Herder, Jacobi, Kant, and Mendelssohn; who gave philosophical attention to language in a way that, at times, seems strikingly modern; but whose own philosophical positions and arguments remain elusive.
Hamann was a minor civil servant for most of his adult life, working in Königsberg as part of the widely hated tax administration of Frederick the Great. He never attained any sort of significant professional success; friends had to intervene to prevent the sale of his library and to fund the education of his children. On the other hand, he had the freedom of his failure inasmuch as he was not obliged to meet the expectations of any particular audience. He exercised his freedom in several respects: to develop a rebarbative and enigmatic style, to reject basic assumptions of his contemporaries, and to range freely across disciplines.
Hamann, however, was not merely moving across disciplines but finding his deepest themes reiterated in a variety of material: ancient and contemporary; sacred and secular; historical, political, economic, theological, literary, and journalistic; and in a wide range of languages. Some of his most profound writing was composed at the intersection of philology, theology, and philosophy. Often he has been considered from only one of those perspectives, which is not only inadequate but also ironic insofar as his own emphasis was on unity. The powerful criticism which Hamann made in opposition to his age was at once stylistic, theological, and philosophical.
This selection, emphasizing the essays on language, is made up of twelve of Hamann’s writings, ten complete, and two in part, spanning more than twenty-five years of his life. His two most sustained philosophical essays (the Metacritique on the Purism of Reason, a response to Kant, and Golgotha and Sheblimini!, a response to Mendelssohn) have been included entire.
The twelve pieces fall broadly into three periods. The early period is represented by the two dedications to Socratic Memorabilia (1759) and several essays from his 1762 collection Crusades of a Philologist (the Aesthetica in Nuce, his most famous and influential work, and three essays tackling more narrowly linguistic topics which nonetheless provide him with an opportunity to begin his assault on fundamental assumptions of his contemporaries about the nature of language). A second period begins a decade later with the three essays he wrote in response to Herder’s prize-winning essay on the origin of language (1772). In them, as also in an essay opposing a spelling reform, New Apology of the Letter h (1773), Hamann deepens his reflections on language, his central theme, and ties them more aggressively to politics; because of his mocking opposition to Frederick the Great, some of the essays could not be published. A final period can be dated from his intensive re-reading of Luther in 1780 and includes three works, his most profound: the Metacritique (1784), Golgotha and Sheblimini! (1784), and Disrobing and Transfiguration (1786). The last work exists in two versions; the conclusion of the first version has been translated here.
The first extract in this selection comes from Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia of 1759, the work which inaugurated his career. In it he recovered Socrates’ traditional role as defender of foolishness against the world’s wisdom (Erasmus had aligned Socrates with Christ), pitting this image against one which many Enlightenment writers favored, Socrates as a supreme rationalist.20 The two dedications to this work are translated, the first addressing and guying the “public” and the second metaschematically equating Hamann’s friends Kant and Berens with the sophists of Socrates’ Athens. Among the themes being developed in this work Hamann treats language, implicitly in his claim “to have written about Socrates in a Socratic way” (p. 7) and explicitly in his comparison of coins and words as things that have their value relationally rather than intrinsically (see, for example, Werke, vol. II, pp. 71–2). Hamann continues to ponder the relational nature of language in most of his subsequent writings.
In the years immediately after Socratic Memorabilia, he writes a number of short pieces on literary and philological topics, collecting them and adding a few more in Crusades of the Philologist, where the title refers “to the zigzag sallies of the Teutonic Knights past the megaliths scattered throughout the Baltic area in order that they might avoid participating in an actual crusade.”21 The collection consisted of thirteen essays, four of which are translated here. The first of these, Essay on an Academic Question, was provoked by the topic which the Berlin Academy set for the prize essay of 1759, on the mutual influence of language and opinions (the contest was won by Johann David Michaelis, a philologist of Oriental languages who was to become Hamann’s particular bête noire). Hamann objects to the evasiveness of the Academy’s question, which he believes was set out in fashionable and vague terms in order to promote the influence of the French language and French opinion (the public language of the Academy, like that of Frederick the Great, was French). The next essay, Miscellaneous Notes on Word Order in the French Language, begins with an allusion to Friedrich Carl von Moser’s Master and Servant (1759), a work of political theory much influenced by the French writers of the time. The bulk of the essay is devoted to a discussion of the relation between money and language and between word order and thought; the latter question was part of a wide contemporary debate originating in France on the “natural order of thought.” Both essays are significant for their exploration of the political dimension of language, and in particular for introducing and scrutinizing the theoretical grounding of what would become linguistic nationalism.
The three letters that make up Cloverleaf of Hellenistic Letters are concerned, respectively, with the language of the New Testament, the value of Greek literature, and the language of the Hebrew Bible. The first letter revisits an old debate on the quality of the Greek of the New Testament, which in comparison with Attic Greek seems barbarous and debased. Hamann defends it for the same reasons others had condemned it; its lowliness is evidence of divine purpose. Moreover, its Greek bears traces of the languages of the Jews and the Romans, and its hybrid and impure state is superior to mere purity. The second letter considers the poets, philosophers, and historians of ancient Greece, finding that it is only through a kind of prophecy that they may be understood and enable the present to be understood, that is, only through understanding the connection of past, present, and future. The third letter responds to Michaelis’ Opinion on the Means Used to Understand the Defunct Hebrew Language (1757). Without venturing to contradict the book’s precise claims about Hebrew and Arabic, Hamann attacks its philology more broadly, denying its claim to read truthfully or in good faith. Hamann shares Nietzsche’s intense ambivalence toward philology as at once truth-denying and truth-giving.
The Aesthetica in Nuce, the last of the four works translated from the 1762 Crusades, continues to attack Michaelis, opposing to his rationalist criticism of the Bible a new aesthetics, elements of which would be found congenial by Romantic writers: poetry has a priority over prose, emotions and images lose their primordial force when they are subject to abstraction, the “oriental” style of the Bible is superior to the etiolated good taste of the French, mimesis has as its proper object the divine creative process and not mere created things, and so on. These propositions, as propositions, had been anticipated by other writers;22 Hamann’s originality lies elsewhere, in the weird originality of his style and in the status he gives to poetry and art as the primary mode of human and Christian existence.
In 1771, Johann Georg Herder won the prize offered by the Berlin Academy for the best answer to the question of the origin of language. The topic had been discussed since antiquity, and for much of the eighteenth century it was debated with a particular intensity.23 Herder’s answer was resolutely naturalist, which elicited several ripostes from Hamann, including the three that are translated here: The Last Will and Testament of the Knight of the Rose-Cross, Philological Ideas and Doubts, and To the Solomon of Prussia. Hamann, despite his friendship with Herder, thought that the debate was foolish and its terms (natural vs supernatural) hopelessly compromised. For him, the proponent of the supernatural version of the origin of language (viz., Süßmilch) hides under a blanket and shouts “Here’s God!,” while the naturalist Herder walks onto the stage and says, “Look, I am a man!” (Werke, vol. III, p. 17). The Knight of the Rose-Cross opens by rejecting this picture of the world in which natural and supernatural are divided and opposed to each other; it ends by uniting them, in a retelling of the biblical creation story in which Adam’s discovery of language was “as natural, as close and easy, as a child’s game” (p. 109). Philological Ideas and Doubts proceeds by parody and pays close attention to Herder’s own words and arguments. (The “ideas” of the title translates Einfälle and could also be rendered “raids” or “incursions.”) Hamann seizes on the weaknesses of Herder’s account of the origin of language – the capacious role played by the ill-defined faculty of “reflection,” the asocial and ahistorical anthropology which invokes “freedom” and “reason” as constant human qualities and which claims that language could be invented by a man in isolation – and makes them appear ridiculous. To the Solomon of Prussia, written in French, does not continue the polemic with Herder; instead, it addresses Frederick directly, calling on him to emulate Solomon, expel the French, recognize Herder’s genius, and renew Prussia. Hamann’s rage is carefully controlled and subordinated throughout this parodic address, which stood no chance of being published.
Hamann’s and Herder’s philosophies of language have been repeatedly examined in modern scholarship, but unfortunately no consensus about them has emerged.24 Their differences have been described in diverse, and sometimes invidious, ways. Moreover, while some historians emphasize their continuity with previous thinkers, especially French, others largely assimilate them to the German Romantics of a subsequent generation. Finally, neither Hamann nor Herder is particularly consistent. The task of clarifying the “linguistic turn” in German philosophy at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century is obdurate.
The New Apology of the Letter h was written in response to an orthographic reform proposed in an appendix of Christian Tobias Damm’s Observations on Religion (1773). Damm, in common with a number of eighteenth-century writers, worried over the irrational spelling of German words, in which letters (especially the letter h) do not always correspond to sounds. Hamann reacts strenuously to the proposed rationalized spelling, attacking Damm’s confused arguments but also defending the letter on religious grounds (as Jakob Boehme had previously interpreted the letter); Hamann then adds a statement spoken in the voice of h itself, one of his most effective instances of a favored rhetorical device, prosopopoeia. The essay has been well described by Jonathan Sheehan:25
Like other grammarians of the eighteenth century, Hamann viewed the h as a visual representation of the bodily expulsion of breath. Unlike these grammarians, however, Hamann cherished a language that did not exist for the clear expression of thoughts, and a writing exceeding its function as a mirror of speech. Rather, writing was to preserve the speech of God or, even more precisely, the breath of God . . . The h, furthermore, not only represented the breath but was itself the very sign of superabundance and overflow in human language that hearkened to God’s hidden hand . . . [F]or Hamann, the excess of God’s creation “still displays itself in nature,” and thus still was present in language and testified to this original act of creation . . . Rather than just reversing the terms of the reformers, then, Hamann’s theology of the h displaces the terms by asking the principal question at stake: what is language for?
Golgotha and Sheblimini! (1784) is Hamann’s response to Mendel- ssohn’s Jerusalem, published the year before. Mendelssohn’s plea for religious toleration is divided into two parts: in the first half he argues, from within the framework of social contract theory, that matters of conscience cannot be regulated either by church or by state; in the second he represents Jewish doctrine as the natural religion of eternal truths and interprets Jewish ceremonial law as a particularly vivid way of motivating right action in accordance with those truths. The careful distinctions of Mendelssohn’s argument – between actions and convictions, eternal and historical truths, church and state – are rejected by Hamann, who sees in them “the serpent’s deception of language” (p. 172), a “cleaving” of a complete whole “into two dead halves” (p. 179). In contrast to Mendelssohn, he insists on the temporal truths of history, unique and unrepeated, which become truths only by the authority of the tradition which has preserved them.
The Metacritique on the Purism of Reason, Hamann’s response to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, was written in 1784. Herder and Jacobi read it in manuscript; it was published posthumously in 1800. He objects to Kant’s division of knowledge into sensibility and understanding, and more generally of his dualism of phenomenal and the noumenal, on the grounds that such a division cannot be overcome to correspond with the unity of experience. The dualism is arbitrarily made and then arbitrarily overcome. Moreover, it breaks the bond connecting reason and language, taking reason to be a priori whereas it is always found in language and history and can be represented as prior to them only by an ungrounded abstraction.26
Disrobing and Transfiguration: A Flying Letter to Nobody, the Well Known (1786) is both a defense of his writing and a continuation of the disagreement with Mendelssohn, who died early in the year at the height of the “pantheism controversy” between Jacobi and himself.27 It exists in two versions; in both, Hamann first recalls his Socratic Memorabilia and then defends Golgotha and Sheblimini! against a hostile review, indicating that he no longer needs to temper his remarks out of consideration for his friendship with Mendelssohn. The conclusions to the two versions differ more substantially, though both are critical of Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem and his Morning Hours (1785). The conclusion of the less polemical first version has been translated here.
Hamann’s striking and provocative sentences have always attracted attention, even when readers were stymied by the essays in which they appeared. Nor is it improper that individual statements by Hamann, read aphoristically, have aroused excitement; his style encourages and occasionally demands it. On the other hand, not all readings need to take this form, and my translation and commentary is intended to encourage further readings by removing some of the extrinsic obstacles to the essays. Aquiring the relevant information, however, is only the first step in understanding why Hamann writes what he writes, how he moves from one thought to another, what motivates particular references and allusions. That task is for readers.