Hamann, Johann Georg

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Hamann, Johann Georg (1730-1788): German, Theologian.

J. G. Hamann was one of the most important critics of the Enlightenment during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Born in Königsburg, Hamann was largely self-educated before studying theology at the University of Königsberg. After briefly serving as an itinerant tutor, he turned to commerce in 1755. Under the direction of prospective brother-in-law Johann Christoph Berens, Hamann traveled to London to carry out some business negotiations, but failed in his assignment. He spent his time in London engaging in dissolute behavior until he underwent a radical religious conversion in 1758. Giving himself over to a mystical form of Christianity, Hamann read the Bible extensively, completed voluminous commentaries on selected passages, and wrote a highly personal account of his sin and salvation.

After his conversion, Hamann began an attack on the Enlightenment’s threat to the immediacy of feeling central to Christian faith. Written in what would become his characteristically difficult and rhapsodic style, his Sokratische Denkwürdigkeiten (1759) turns the symbol of the Enlightenment against itself by portraying Socrates as a genius who admonishes the Sophists against their philosophical pretensions to knowledge. For Hamann, the immediacy of sensory experience is distorted and obscured by an abstracting reason; the fundamental error of the Enlightenment is its dismissal of the sensibility and emotion through which the divine presents itself to human beings. As he claims in Aesthetica in nuce (1762), the prophetic apprehension of God is expressed most directly and forcefully in artistic creation. While the philosophy of the Enlightenment robs God’s word of its divinity, Hamann calls for philosophy to interpret poetically the divine logos that expresses itself in nature; like God, the inspired genius reveals the divine in his art.

Hamann eventually directed his anti-Enlightenment criticism at the Kantian critical philosophy. Written in 1784, his Metakritik über den Purismum der Vernunft was not published during his lifetime, out of respect for his close and lasting friendship with Kant, Immanuel. But, when it appeared in 1800, Hamann’s metacritical investigation into the conditions for the possibility of a critique of pure reason concluded that Kant’s project is ultimately self-undermining. An inquiry into the formal conditions of sense experience assumes that reason is ultimately independent of such experience. But, claims Hamann, reason is dependent on language, and language is by nature impure because of its origin in experience.

A lifelong friend of Kant and Herder, Johann Gottfried, Hamann impacted the former primarily through his translations of Hume, David and the latter through his philosophy of language and intense opposition to the Enlightenment. This opposition and his emphasis on individual artistic genius as a direct apprehension of divine truth also prefigured the Sturm und Drang; influenced such philosophers as Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich, Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph, Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst, and Hegel; and anticipated the work of Kierkegaard and the existentialists.

Further Reading:

Isaiah Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment, 2000.

Matthew Altman

Central Washington University