In the December issue of the Berlinische Monatsschrift, Johann Friedrich Zöllner pondered the question ‘what is enlightenment?’[1] While this remark found in a footnote received much attention, it was Kant’s response which became the hallmark answer to the question.[2] In December of 1784 Kant presented his “An Answer to the Question: ‘What Is Enlightenment?’[3]

Though Hamann never sought to answer Zöllner’s original question, he did react to Kant’s essay. Hamann’s response, however, is not found in a subsequent publication but rather in a letter. Christian Jakob Kraus (1753-1807), professor of practical philosophy at Königsberg and mutual friend of Kant and Hamann, had mailed Kant’s essay to Hamann. On December 18, 1784 Hamann sent his thanks to Kraus along with his opinion of the essay.[4] This letter expounded Hamann’s thoughts on Kant’s metaphor of self-incurred immaturity, the role of the guardian, and the juxtaposition of public and private reason.

Just as the Socratic Memorabilia was written in a Socratic manner, the Metacritique as a critique of the Critique of Pure Reason, now Hamann’s response to Kant’s essay was written in ‘cant-style.’  A play on Kant’s name, Oswald Bayer states, ‘When Hamann rewrites the text of Kant in “cant-style,” using Kant’s concepts and phrases to reduce Kant’s speech to the level of a lower language, he intends to bring those who look down on and judge the immature to the level at which Kant in his manifest wisdom looked down from the higher lookout of a historical view.’[5]

In addition to Hamann’s cant style, he also wrote in the satirical style with a ‘macaronic quill.’ Rather than interspersing different languages, as the common understanding of macaronic language, Hamann injected the ‘language’ of Christian faith into the text of Kantian reason. In doing so Hamann established a satirical tone, which weaved through the wording and phrases of ‘What Is Enlightenment?’, but contended against Kantian reason on the basis of Kant’s own metaphors and arguments. In his letter Hamann served as Nathan the prophet who condemned King David, played by Kant, with the king’s own judgment of death.[6]

Yet on a deeper level, Hamann was calling out Kant on the third purism of the Metacritique. In the ironical twists of Hamann’s letter, he illustrated the connectivity between reason and language. The entirety of Hamann’s response is based on the language of Kant’s essay. However, though using Kant’s language Hamann argued a completely antithetical position. Just as the very title of the Metacritique relativized the Critique and voided it of its transcendental and foundational position, so too was Hamann’s intention in his letter. The macaronic quill illustrated the very argument made in the Metacritique, that language and reason cannot be separated. By use of a macaronic style Hamann exposes the falsity of ‘pure reason’ and the assumed vantage point of objectivity.

Hamann began his response in the same manner Kant began his essay with the proclamation ‘Sapere aude!’[7] In doing so he desired to put himself under the ‘guardianship’ of Kant but with a ‘grain of salt.’ While adhering to Kant’s guardianship, and especially his metaphor of immaturity, at the same time Hamann had in mind the criticism of the Metacritique when he called Kant ‘our Plato.’[8] His cant and macaronic approach not only inserted the language of the Memorabilia and the Metacritique, but more importantly, the theological criticism of Kantian reason (i.e. socratic ignorance, the three purisms) within the language of Kant’s metaphor of what it meant to be modern and enlightened.

The proton pseudos in Kant’s metaphor was the “accursed adjective” “self-incurred.”’[9] Naturally, if one is unable to free themselves from immaturity, then it is of no fault of the individual. However, for Kant it is a self-incurred immaturity because the immature lack resolution and courage. Kant’s metaphor also implicitly referred to an ‘other’ or one who can free the immature from their laziness and cowardliness. Hamann made explicit which Kant only implied, that Kant is the self-appointed ‘other.’

Kant as the ‘Warden of the Mint,’ serving as the tester and judge of truth in the Memorabilia, and the critic of pure reason in the Critique of Pure Reason, now deemed himself the ‘other,’ who provides guardianship out of self-incurred darkness to the light of the Enlightenment. However, while Kant saw himself as the ‘other,’ in truth he was the ‘man of death.’ As King David sealed his own fate, the self-appointed guardian is in fact the self-incurred. Hamann drew on the language of light and darkness, eyesight and blindness, in describing the guilt of the other. Similar to what he argued in the Memorabilia, the ‘public’ and the ‘Warden of the Mint,’ and now the immature and the man of death, are like the blind leading the blind.[10] For Hamann the guardian was the one who lacked resolution and courage. The blame is not on the immature but on the blindness of the guardian.

Previously in the dedication of the Memorabilia, Hamann condemned the ‘public’ that despite their blindness and deafness to truth, they demanded daily ‘sacrifices’ which held captive his friend Kant. The insatiable appetite of the public, or ‘nobody’ who ‘must know everything, and learn nothing… judge everything and understand nothing, forever learning and never able to arrive to the knowledge of truth’ required an industry of scholarship of a never ending cyclical trap of self-delusion and self-exaltation.[11] Hamann’s Memorabilia was an ‘offering’ to the public which would free Kant from this slavery.[12] In the Memorabilia, Kant was a cog in this machinery of rationalistic thinking. Now, Kant has developed into the prime perpetrator who inflicted blindness on those who followed him. Whereas in the Memorabilia, he sought to ‘purify [Kant] from the bondage of [the public’s] vanity,’ now he strove to free the immature from the guardianship of Kant.[13] As the ‘public’ once held Kant captive, now Kant is the one who holds the immature in captivity.

While Hamann agreed that enlightenment is when one leaves behind immaturity, he argued that ‘true enlightenment consists of an emergence of the immature from a supremely self-incurred guardianship.’[14] The way out of immaturity is not by following the guardian but rather Socratic ignorance. In quoting Proverb 9:6, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, he argued ‘this wisdom makes us cowardly at lying and lazy at inventing-but all the more courageous against guardians who at the worst can kill the body and suck the purse empty-all the more merciful to our immature brothers and more fruitful in good works of immorality.’[15] In Aesthetica in Nuce (1762) Hamann argued when defining his aesthetic, stating, ‘his newest aesthetic, which is the oldest, listen: Fear God and give Him glory, for the time of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth and the sea and fountains of water!’[16] Though Kant stipulated that lack of courage prevents enlightenment, Hamann argued the contrary, that fear is the beginning of enlightenment. According to Kant the lack of resolution binds the immature, but for Hamann the ‘lover of boredom’ is the one who compiled the Memorabilia, offering the ‘public’ and ‘two’ Socratic ignorance.[17]


Hamann’s lifelong critique of Kantian reason provides us with a more nuanced understanding of Enlightenment theology and the limits of reason. Not only does Hamannian scholarship complicate our understanding of the Enlightenment, but also provides us with a powerful alternative to an overly simplified conception of modern theology. These three works show us the relationship between history and divine truth. History serves as a revelation of God’s providence and a critical component of reason. However, it also requires a hermeneutic that is based on divine revelation. Likewise, reason and experience are inseparable. Though not a positivistic empiricist, Hamann argued for the knowledge of truth through the senses and not idealism. Humean skepticism supports this understanding by revealing the limits of pure reason and the necessity of faith. Finally, reason is not only bound to history and experience but to language. Language is not pure but contingent on our history, experiences, and ultimately on the communicating God. As with Socratic ignorance we know nothing but that we are known, our language based reason is contingent on God’s speech to man.

The ‘northern lights’ of Kantian reason is merely an illusion, which failed to acknowledge the contingency of reason on history, experience, and language. Kantian reason did not begin with an aesthetic of the fear of the Lord, but rather, scoffed at Socratic ignorance. Instead of leading the immature to enlightenment Kantian reason had led them deeper into darkness. Hamann’s criticism calls his readers to the laziness and cowardliness of Socratic ignorance. Fear and the knowledge of knowing nothing, but rather being known, provided Hamann with the resolution and courage to not only come out of self-inflicted immaturity but stand up to the blind guardianship of Kantian reason. Hamann provides an alternative that utilizes a critical approach that introduces reason’s dependency on history, experience, and language, which not only contributed to later Romantics and the development of the philosophy of language but also to contemporary theological understanding of the role of reason.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

[1] Johann Friedrich Zöllner, “Ist es rathsam, das Ehebündniß nicht ferner durch die Relion zu sanciren?” Berlinische Monatsschrift 2 (1783): 621-643.

[2] Among the other responses, Moses Mendelssohn’s essay in the 1784 September issue of Berlinische Monatsschrift is most noteworthy. A translation can be found in James Schmidt’s What Is Enlightenment?

[3] A translation of the work can be found in Practical Philosophy. trans. and ed. by Mary J. Gregor, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 11-22. Kant’s original publication is found in the 1784 December edition of the Berlinische Monatsschrift.

[4] Johann Georg Hamann, Briefweschsel, 6 vols., ed. Walther Ziesemer and Arthur Henkel (Wiesbaden: Insel, 1955-75), V, 289-292. Henceforth ZH. All translations are of my own but Garrett Green’s translation can be found in What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth–Century Answers and Twentieth–Century Questions, ed. by James Schmidt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 145-153.

[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), 121

[6] ZH V, 290.

[7] The phrase’s first appearance occurred in the writing of Horace. However, in reference to Kant, Hamann first used the phrase in the very first encounter between the two. During Kant’s attempt to reconvert Hamann to Enlightenment thinking, he suggested a joint writing of a children’s physics textbook. Hamann wrote three ‘love letters’ to Kant in which he stipulated the requirements of such an undertaking and used the phrase Sapere aude. As seen in these ‘love letters’ and in ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ the use of the phrase Sapere aude by these two could not have been more different. ZH I, 446.

[8] ZH V, 289.

[9] ZH V, 289.

[10] Hamann also repeats the political and financial connection between these two groups. Just as he warns against the ‘purse snatchers’ in the Memorabilia, so too now in his letter the ‘financial exploitation of immature people.’

[11] Johan Georg Hamann, Sämtliche Werke, 6 vols., ed. Josef Nadler (Vienna: Herder, 1949-57), II, 59. Henceforth N.

[12] N II, 59.

[13] N II, 59.

[14] ZH V, 291.

[15] ZH V, 291.

[16] N II, 217.

[17] The full title is Socratic Memorabilia: Compiled for the Boredom of the Public by the Lover of Boredom, with a Double Dedication to Nobody and to Two. The ‘nobody’ represents the public while the ‘two’ are naturally Berens and Kant.

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