Given that Johann Georg Hamann was born on this day in 1730, I thought it fitting to briefly address the “Magus of the North.”
As a member of the German Enlightenment, Hamann was mentor to Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. He served as a catalyst for the Sturm und Drang. Deemed one of the leading minds of the eighteenth century by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Hamann was a significant influence on the young Goethe and many other German Romanticists. Søren Kierkegaard recognized Hamann as the greatest humorist and was singled out as the one he had learned most from.
In 1759, Hamann penned an essay dedicated to Immanuel Kant and Christoph Berens. Socratic Memorabilia was in response to the pair’s attempt to bring the newly converted Hamann back into the fold of rationalism. Kant’s and Beren’s failed efforts were rebuffed by Hamann’s own attempt to convert the two to confessional Christianity through the writing of the Socratic Memorabilia.
The work did not result in the conversion of either Kant or Berens, but Hamann’s first post-conversion publication was followed by Moses Mendelssohn’s and Christoph Friedrich Nicolai’s pursuit of Hamann to serve as an editor for their journal, Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend. The Socratic Memorabilia also served as a seminal work for early Romanticism. Utilizing a popular patron of the Enlightenment, Socrates, Hamann probed the role of history and experience in reason to combat rationalism.
Hamann is known best for his critique of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Despite arranging for its publication and providing translations of Hume for Kant’s research, Hamann was disappointed by the work. However, he refrained from publishing his critique due to their friendship (a gesture Hamann did not extend to other friends such as Herder and Mendelssohn).
Hamann’s Metacriticism of the Purism of Reason (1781), in which he coined the term “metacriticism,” charged Kant with three purisms. First, Kant’s proposal separated reason from history. Second, Kant’s use of reason caused a chiasm between reason and experience. Third, and most significantly, Kant attempted to break the connection between reason and language. It is on this last purism that Hamann spent the majority of the Metacriticism discussing and initiating the first linguistic turn.
There are great resources for Hamannian studies, especially in recent years. Oswald Bayer’s groundbreaking work Zeitgenosse im Widerspruch: Johann Georg Hamann als radikaler Aufklärer (1988) is still one of the best introductions to Hamann’s thought. Fortunately, it has been translated as A Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as Radical Enlightener in 2012. John R. Betz’s After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann is also a great way to get acquainted with the life and thought of Hamann. If you can get a hold of Gwen Griffith Dickson’s Johann Georg Hamann’s Relational Metacriticism, the work provides thorough commentary of several crucial writings of Hamann.
Regardless if you are a German reader or not, Hamann’s cryptic writing style will be a challenge to anyone. However, if you want to read his writings, Joseph Nadler’s edition of Hamann’s corpus is the standard. The significant collection of Hamann’s letters, which are not written in his typical cryptic style, offers many insights to Hamann’s thought and writings. If you are not a German reader, Kenneth Haynes’ translated Hamann: Writings on Philosophy and Language includes many of Hamann’s most significant works.
Peter Leithart dubbed the present age as “Hamann’s Century.” Hopefully, Hamannian studies will continue to grow as it has done in recent years.