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Johann Georg Hamann and Time

Johann Georg Hamann

Johann Georg Hamann

I have never been big on time travel movies. Don’t get me wrong, the thought of time travel is intriguing. But the convoluted nature of some of these films makes it hard to get past the many inconsistencies. I am more than willing to adhere to the film’s understanding of time, but when the storyline breaks its own rules, that’s when I bail ship (now I’m the one being inconsistent, but I did not mind About Time).

Theologians and theoreticians attempts at understanding time is nothing new and will surely continue in the future. One can turn to Augustine’s thoughts on the matter in the Confessions, or more modern discussions of A Theory and B Theory. Into this mix, I would like to throw in Hamann’s reflections on time.

Like Augustine, Hamann addresses the issue of time in an autobiographical context. Whereas Augustine writes retrospectively in around 397, Hamann writes his London Writings ad hoc in 1758. There are many passages we can look at, but I want to look at just one.

As part of the London Writings, Hamann’s Biblical Reflections comprises of his reflections during his intensive reading of the Bible at and immediately after his conversion. Commenting on Deuteronomy 4:39, “know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other,” Hamann writes,

The whole duration of time is nothing but a to-day of eternity. The whole of time made up a single day in God’s economy in which all hours cohere and are included in one morning and one evening. The coming of our Saviour was the noon-day of time. The creation which cost God six days shall not last longer than to-day. God! what is eternity, and what is the Lord of eternity! How many millions of days it has taken, how many millions of revolutions the earth has made before it has reached to-day’s; and how many millions will follow which Thou hast numbered as all that have passed have been numbered. Just as this eternity of days which have been and will be in the world are nothing but to-day for Thee, so is the present day an eternity for me, even the present moment is an eternity for me. N I, 70[1]

Hamann juxtaposes the temporal nature of a day with the eternality of God. However, it is not a matter of the differences between the experience of time for humans and God. Rather, time is defined by who God is and what he has done. As God intervenes in the present, his eternality (human past and future) is brought along. With the incarnation the eternality of the divine is condescended to the noon-day of man.

Since it is God who defines time, we need more than reason to understand time. Hamann goes on to write,

Lord, thy Word makes us wise, even if it teaches us nothing more than to number our days. What a nothingness, mere smoke, a spiritual nothingness they are in our eyes when reason numbers them! What a fullness, what a treasure, what an eternity, when faith numbers them! Lord, teach me to number my days, that I may apply my heart to wisdom. All is wisdom in thy ordering of nature, when the spirit of thy Word illumines our spirit. All is a labyrinth and disorder when we try to look for ourselves. N I, 70[2]

In response to Deuteronomy 4:40, ”Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.” Hamann writes,

The Christian alone is lord of his days, because he is heir to the future. Our time is so bound up with eternity that one cannot separate them without extinguishing the light of their life. However dissimilar in their nature, their union is the soul of human life, as the union of the soul and the body constitutes temporal life. N I, 71[3]

Human time and eternity cannot be separated. The bond between the two is set firm only because the eternal One has entered into our time.

For more on Hamann and time, take a look at Oswald Bayer’s chapter “Created Time” in A Contemporary in Dissent.

[1] Quoted in Ronald Gregor Smith, J. G. Hamann, 1730-1788: A Study in Christian Existence (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960). 129,

[2] Quoted in Smith, 129.

[3] Quoted in Smith, 130.

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  1. What Time Is It For Hamann?

    Dear Hoon,

    By way of introduction, my areas of study are my own interests. In this, I too can never turn down a book on or about Hamann. But I am not an academic, nor a theologian and neither a philosopher.

    From the first quote you give here, from Hamann, you say “time is defined by who God is and what he has done.” Then in closing you say “Human time and eternity cannot be separated. The bound [sic] between the two is set firm only because the eternal One has entered into our time.” But I am unable to understand how you or Hamann view ‘time’.

    As if to answer any questions concerning ‘Hamann and Time’, you refer your reader to Oswald Bayer’s chapter on ‘Created Time’. But I have read and re-read this chapter to see how Bayer is understanding ‘time’ and how he sees Hamann understanding ‘time’. And my problem remains.

    Betz, Sparling and Haynes do not comment on Hamann and time. Bayer begins with a quote from Hamann’s ‘Metacritique of the Purism of Reason’. “Sounds and letters…all intuitive knowledge.” [ACID. 194] I can follow why, for Bayer, this quote is an entry into Hamann’s understanding of time if I follow Haynes’ translation and comments in ‘Hamann: Writings on Philosophy and Language’.

    Just before this quote, Hamann asks “How is the faculty of thought possible?” He then discusses that “the entire faculty of thought is founded on language.” Then comes the quote given by Bayer. I come back to Haynes and his comments concerning this quote. When Hamann says “Sounds and letters are therefore pure forms a priori, in which nothing belonging to the sensation or concept of an object is found”, Haynes gives Kant’s argument of ‘space and time are the pure forms and all representations are pure in which nothing belongs to sensation’. [HWoPaL. 211] This is not clear from Bayer’s explanation.

    Hamann then mentions that “The oldest writing was painting and drawing…was occupied…with the economy of space, its limitation and determination by figures.” [HWoPaL. 211-212] Haynes then gives Kant’s argument that “every determinate magnitude of time is possible only through limitations of single time that underlies it.” [HWoPaL.212] Again, this is not clear from Bayer. Continuing, Hamann says “Under the exuberant persistent influence of the two noblest senses sight and hearing, the concepts of space and time have made themselves so universal…” [HWoPaL. 212]. Haynes is not helpful here as he contrasts innate ideas with ‘blank slate’. It is the relationship between ‘sight and hearing’ and ‘space and time’ which needs to be understood from Hamann’s viewpoint. Sparling and Betz make no comment on this either. However, Bayer comments “language with its store of figures from which the affects are nourished determines time lived and experienced.” [ACID. 194] No mention is made of hearing, although previously Bayer has said “Time and space are linked to each other like hearing and seeing.” [ACID. 193]

    It is only by reading Dickson [Johann Georg Hamann’s Relational Metacriticism] that I have access to Bayer’s further comments on ‘time and space’. “Time and space (in this order!) are like hearing and seeing connected; one should see the audible word. The sense of hearing as the sense of time and the sense of sight working together with the sense of touch…as the sense of space, can as little be isolated from one another as painting, the oldest writing, from music, the oldest language. Sound and letter, sense of time and space unite in the synaesthia which stamps ‘the whole sphere of understanding’. ‘Speak, that I might see you!…” [JGHRM. 294] If ‘Speak, that I might see you’ is taken as an example of pairing, Dickson’s other pairings are of hearing and time, sight and touch, space and ???, painting and music, and, writing/letter and language/sound. Dickson gives no further consideration of time and space. It is as if for Dickson, Betz, Sparling and Haynes ‘time and space’ are taken as ‘commonly accepted’: time is a geometric container in which human activity occurs within space.

    The exception is Bayer as he recognises that if Hamann reverses Kant’s time and space with its geometrising emphasis on space then what of Hamann’s emphasis on time? How is Hamann’s understanding of time differing from Kant’s understanding of time? Is this important? Yes. As we speak to see so we hear to ‘time’. Bayer, in ACID, then says “The root of [Hamann’s] understanding of time is found in the Biblical Meditations and accompanying texts…there is a total breakdown of the usual concepts of time and their demarcation…” [195] Bayer continues that “The significance of time for the conduct of life, for the ethos, most often in ethics, Hamann grasped at its core.” [196] This is what Rousas Rushdoony is saying about ‘Time as the Moral Question’ chapter in his ‘Systematic Theology’ volume 2. But what Bayer is saying of Hamann and what Rushdoony has said it is more the activities done in calendric time and not time as activities.

    However, Bayer continues and says that Hamann “conceives time differently.”

    “He does so by virtue of the condescension of the triune God who has interlaced his eternity with time, not only with his incarnation and death on the cross but as the Creator who addresses the creature through the creature, and as the Spirit who kills and makes alive through modest, particular, temporal events, as narrated by the Bible.” [196]

    This reads very similar to what I understand as an Hebraic approach to time: time is not a container where we do activities but the activities we do is time and they are done as moral actions in the providential activities of God and before Him Who indirectly and mediatorily reveals Himself. Related to this, Bayer makes mention of ‘Call and Response’.

    From this he says “The fact that Hamann’s meditation on time in essence occurs in the form of a prayer is neither accidental nor external to it.” [200] During Bayer’s discussion of ‘Hamann and Time’ he has been referencing from Ronald Gregor Smith’s translated extracts of ‘Biblical Reflections’ and from ‘Biblische Betrachtungen’. It is here that Bayer quotes from ‘Biblische Betrachtungen’. And it is here that I have my problem in not reading German. Smith says that there is “space only for a fraction of the material available” regarding ‘Biblical Reflections’ and his translated extracts.

    The quote by Bayer is from ‘Biblische Betrachtungen’ and not from Smith’s translated extracts. In the translated extracts by Smith there are mentions of time but it is too easy to read into them ‘calendric time’ and pass it over. Bayer indicates, but does not develop the point and if he does then it elsewhere and in German, that for Hamann ‘time is conceived differently’. This is further shown by Bayer’s concluding comments in the chapter ‘Created Time’.

    “Since Hamann notes this reversal and reflects on it, he contradicts the concept, in vogue since Aristotle, according to which ‘time’ mainly is ‘that by which movement can be numerically estimated,’ in essence, linear, chronometric. He contradicts the reflection and repetition of this linear concept of time in logic…Hamann radically questions the pre-eminence of this chronometric orientation and with it the pre-eminence of the notion of causality.” [207]

    But Bayer does not address these various issues which are of as much concern to understand Hamann – for then ‘Metacritique of the Purism of Reason’ is as much about ‘time’ as it is about ‘language’ as “there is a total breakdown of the usual concepts of time and their demarcation…” [195] – as it is for ourselves.



    • Peter,
      Looks like you have done quite a bit of reading. Could you clarify for me the exact point you wish to address?

      • Dear Hoon,
        The exact point I would address is in the title – what time is it for Hamann? From my reading I have tried to explain, so others can follow, that Bayer is not clear what time is for Hamann.

        But even having Haynes alongside Bayer this still does not bring clarity. There is a hint of a Hebraic understanding of time by Bayer’s mention of ‘call and response’ but it is not developed. As I do not know what time is for Bayer – as I also do not know what time is for you either – I do not know how Bayer is reading Hamann regarding time. And not reading German I do not what Hamann is saying in ‘Biblische Betrachtungen’ which relates to time and maybe Bayer is missing. For even though Bayer can write of Hamann that he “radically questions the pre-eminence of this chronometric orientation and with it the pre-eminence of the notion of causality” [ACiD. 207], Bayer references this to Haynes. Here I am left ‘radically questioning’ why Bayer should reference this part of Hamann’s ‘Metacritique’, where Hamann asks “Now is it possible, idealism asks from one side, to discover the concept of a word from the intuition alone of a word?”



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