Johann Georg HamannThe significance of Kantian thought in modern theology continues to be a fixture in the discipline. For instance, Gary Dorrien’s Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology (2012) presents Kantian and Hegelian philosophy as origins of modern theology. Dorrien traces Kantian critical reason and Hegelian idealism to figures such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Ernst Troeltsch, Paul Tillich and Karl Barth. His work and other similar literature map out a cohesive progression from Enlightenment philosophy to modern theology.

Undoubtedly, there are many problems when attempting to advance such a unified proposal. Apart from giving the false appearance that those in this chosen line of history remained consistent among themselves, it also marginalizes dissenting voices. For instance, current Enlightenment studies are increasingly more aware of the various Christian elements during this period.

The days of Peter Gay’s singular depiction of the Enlightenment as a unified secularism are gone. This antiquated position is now replaced by a multifaceted approach to the Enlightenment, which distinguishes between camps such as the Moderates and Radicals. Popularized by Jonathan Israel, this type of scholarship provides a much needed corrective to our understanding of the Enlightenment.[1]

However, despite this improvement, Dorrien, Israel, and other scholars still neglect Christian involvement in the Enlightenment.[2] For instance, Israel’s dichotomy between the Radical and Moderate Enlightenment relegates Christianity to mere ignorance or superstition.[3]

This four-part series will challenge the present historiography by introducing Johann Georg Hamann’s (1730-1788) critique of Kantian reason. By presenting what has been called the ‘first and best critic’ of Kantian reason, we gain a better understanding of what Enlightenment theology entails and the implications it has on the limits of reason.[4] Not only does Hamann complicate our comprehension of Enlightenment theology, he also adds an important dimension to the trajectory of Enlightenment thought in modern theology.

The enigmatic ‘Magus of the North’ served as teacher to his disciples Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, was called the greatest intellect by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Søren Kierkegaard said Hamann was the one he had learned most from. Oswald Bayer identifies Hamann as a ‘radical enlightener,’ ‘equal in stature to Kant and Hegel.’[5] Frederick C. Beiser writes, ‘Judged by twentieth–century standards, Hamann’s thought is often striking for its modernity, its foreshadowing of contemporary themes.’[6] And now, benefiting from years of German scholarship, English Hamann studies has been coming to fruition in recent years. While this sweeping assessment may display some of the outcomes of Hamann’s scholarship, his path initiated from a completely different origin and underwent a life-altering experience hundreds of miles away from his homeland.

In April of 1757, as a member of the Aufklärung and the Berens wholesale company, Hamann arrived in London on business. Though the details remain ambiguous, we know that Hamann failed at his daunting task to broker an agreement between British and Russian trade offices. In the midst of disappointment, financial crisis, and emotional distress, in utter despair Hamann turned to reading the Bible. March 13, 1758 was the fateful day that allowed Hamann to pen these words:

I suddenly felt my heart swell, it poured out tears, and I could no longer- I could no longer conceal from my God that I was the fratricide, the fratricide of his only begotten Son. The Spirit of God continued, despite my great weakness, regardless of the long resistance, which I had made against his testimony and his stirring of me, to reveal to me more and more the mystery of the divine love and the blessing of faith in our gracious and only Savior.[7]

Hamann returned to Riga a changed man, converted to the Christian faith. However, shortly after his arrival Berens and Hamann had a falling out over Hamman’s courtship of Catharina Berens; Christoph Berens could not approve of his sister’s marriage to one devoted to the Christian faith.[8]

Though Berens recognized the possibility of never mending the rift between the two friends, he was not willing to write Hamann off as wasted potential. Hence, Berens enlisted Immanuel Kant to win Hamann back to rationalism. In the summer of 1759 the trio arranged a series of meetings in an attempt to lure Hamann back into the fold. The world does not know what would have become of Hamann if these meetings had never occurred, but this fateful summer was the catalyst for Hamann’s literary career and the repeated criticism of his soon to be friend, Immanuel Kant.

In August of 1759, Hamann penned his first work, the Socratic Memorabilia, and his formal refusal to Kant’s advances. [9] Suffice it to say, Hamann rebuffed the philosopher quite impolitely as witnessed in his letter to Kant. Not only did Hamann cancel their most recent meeting, he scoffed at the decision to use a philosopher to convince Hamann of his wayward ways.[10] It is a wonder how the two remained life-long friends, often seen on afternoon walks, but nonetheless Kant ceased his reconversion efforts and Hamann began his.

This series will examine three works of Hamann, in hopes of understanding his critique of Kantian reason and how his theology fuelled his work as an Enlightener. First, in his Socratic Memorabilia, the oft described proto-rationalist for many members of the Aufklärung, was used to demonstrate the limits of rationalistic reason and the promotion of what Hamann called Socratic ignorance.[11] In doing so, the Memorabilia was not only a defense of the Christian faith, but Hamann’s attempt to convert Immanuel Kant. Second, by examining the three purisms which Hamann charged Kant in the former’s Metacritique of the Purism of Reason (1784), we will see two repeated themes from the Memorabilia, the role of history and experience in reason, and the culmination of Hamann’s critique, the inseparability of language and reason.[12] Third, in Hamann’s response to Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” (1784) we will see how Hamann once again used the themes of the Memorabilia, but now with the addition of his linguistic argument in the Metacritique, to combat Kantian reason.[13]

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

[1] Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 3-22.

[2] A noteworthy exception to this is David Sorkin’s The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna (2008). Also consult Jonathan Yeager, Enlightened Evangelicalism: The Life and Thought of John Erskine (2011).

[3] Radical Enlightenment9.

[4] John R. Betz, “Enlightenment Revisited: Hamann as the First and Best Critic of Kant’s Philosophy,” Modern Theology 20:2 (April 2004), 291-301.

[5] Oswald Bayer, A Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as Radical Enlightener, translated by Roy A. Harrisville and Mark C. Mattes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), xi.

[6] Frederick C. Beiser, The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 17.

[7] Johan Georg Hamann, Sämtliche Werke, 6 vols., ed. Josef Nadler (Vienna: Herder, 1949-57), I, 41. Henceforth N.

[8] Johann Georg Hamann, Briefweschsel, 6 vols., ed. Walther Ziesemer and Arthur Henkel (Wiesbaden: Insel, 1955-75), I, 307. Henceforth ZH.

[9] The Socratic Memorabilia has been translated by by James C. O’Flaherty. A translation can also be found in Gwen Griffith Dickson’s Johann Georg Hamann’s Relational Metacriticism (1995).

[10] ZH I, 373-381.

[11] For the eighteenth–century reception of Socrates consult Benno Böhm, Sokrates im achtzehten Jahrhundert: Studien zum Werdegange des modernen Persöhnlichkeitbewußsteins (Leipzig: Quelle and Meyer, 1929).

[12] In addition to Dickson’s Johann Georg Hamann’s Relational Metacriticism, a translation of the Metacritique can be found in Kenneth Haynes’ Hamann: Writings on Philosophy and Language (2007) and James Schmidt’s edited volume What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (1996).

[13] A translation of Hamann’s letter can be found in Schmidt’s What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions.

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