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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


(1730 — 88)



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'.



[1] 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 he says:

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.

Other Studies

I. Berlin, The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Rationalism.

I. Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder.

G. G. Dickson, Johann Georg Hamann's Relational Metacriticism.

J. C. O'Flaherty, Unity and Language: A Study in the Philosophy of Johann Georg Hamann.






[1a; cf. 1b] Rejection of Enlightenment 'sophistry'    Socrates [secs 1 & 2]


[1b] Scepticism and rejection of rationalism, 'analysis' fragmentation, abstraction 'faculty psychology', space and time as innate; deism, atheism; quest for wholeness — language as the unifying principle








[1b 2d]


[2a 11a]





   [also general rejection of the assumptions of

   Descartes, Diderot, Condillac, Holbach]


[1c] Language not a 'natural' invention of man but comes from God; thinking requires language





[1a b]



[1d] History has inner truth revealed by God — not through reason




[2a c]




[1e] Nature as a whole as 'symbol' of the Divine    Schelling [sec. 5 6a]
       [Boehme as a common influence]


[1f] Language can lead to error if divorced from life and history; we need a 'grammar of reason' (i.e., language)






[1g] 'Coincidence of opposites'    Bruno [1f]