As Hamann arranged for the publication  of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) with his publisher Johann Friedrich Hartknoch, it was his hope that Kant’s reading of Hume would lead Kant to the same conclusions as Hamann. In 1780, Hamann had begun a translation of Hume’s Dialogues and Natural History of Religion (1779), but due to a rival translation he gave up the project. Despite never completing the translation, Kant requested it in its partial form while writing his first Critique. However, to Hamann’s disappointment the Critique was not what he had expected.

After specifically requesting the proofs to be sent separately from Kant’s package, to avoid awkwardness, Hamann immediately read and reviewed the work.[1] He finished his review on the first of July, several weeks before receiving a copy directly from Kant. Despite completing his review Hamann never published it on account of their friendship and Kant’s financial generosity towards his son’s education.

In addition to the review Hamann began composing his critique, or rather, Metacritique of the Purism of Reason. The work went through two drafts, partially in a letter to Herder in December of 1783, and finally completed by 1784.[2] Once again, despite the encouragement from others, including Herder and Jacobi, Hamann refrained from publishing the work due to his friendship with Kant.

On the title page of the Metacritique Hamann alluded in the epigraph to the Memorabilia. Both works shared the words of Persius’ Satire ‘Oh, what emptiness of things!’ By drawing his readers, including Kant, back to the Memorabilia, Hamann was stating that while Kant had awakened from his ‘dogmatic slumber’ he had not yet arrived at Socratic ignorance. Hamann concluded the Memorabilia with an encouragement to a purification of the soul that submits itself to the ‘crumbs’ of truth as the Syrophoenician woman did in Mark 7:28. Despite this exhortation, Kant had now decided to put reason through a ‘purification’ that striped reason of tradition, experience and language.

The Metacritique begins with the first purism and the historical connection between George Berkeley (1685-1753) to Hume, and subsequently to Kant.[3] Hamann wrote to Herder, ‘So much is certain: that without Berkeley there would have been no Hume, just as, without the latter there would have been no Kant.’[4]

In the Memorabilia, pre-critical Kantian reason was guilty of neglecting the revelatory aspect of history and attempting to understand history purely by reason, without any sense of Socratic ignorance. Now, the ‘Prussian Hume’ attempted to exalt pure reason by robbing it of its relationship with history and the divine presence throughout history. In Kant’s attempt to establish pure reason he not only overlooked his own philosophical heritage but disconnected reason from history and its revelatory nature.

At the root of Hamann’s second purism is Kant’s dichotomy between experience and pure a priori knowledge. According to Hamann, such a distinction, first, elevates formal synthetic a priori reason beyond its boundaries, and second, is not possible. Similar to the Memorabilia and his use of empiricism, Hamann stated the infeasibility of ‘the possibility of the human knowledge of objects of experience without and prior to any experience and after the possibility of a sensible intuition before all sensation of an object.’[5]

Kant’s eagerness to construct a pure reason had naively overestimated his method of knowledge. In Hamann’s evaluation, Kant had stripped knowledge of its heart and experience, manufacturing a spineless and neutered shadow of existence. Kant ‘cleansed’ knowledge of all ‘impurities’ to a detriment. Repeating the first two purisms, Hamann wrote to Jacobi, ‘Experience and revelation are the same and essential crutches or wings of our reason… the senses and history are the foundation and ground – however deceptive the former and foolish the latter: nevertheless, I prefer them to all air-ethereal castles.’[6]

This distinction is based on the unsupported separation between analytic and synthetic judgment. Furthering this divorce is the additional categorization of reason as the object, source, and mode of knowledge. Not only is there a parting of object, source, and mode of knowledge, Kant also established reason as the foundation of this tri-fold categorization.

Kant’s establishment of reason as the foundation of object, source, and mode is due to the divorce of experience and reason. Kant’s disconnect between pure reason and experience created a subjugation of experience under a priori knowledge; it is only this transcendental knowledge, escaping experience, which is true and genuine. However, when reason is separated from experience, ‘it consists solely in the subjective conditions under which everything, something, and nothing can be thought as object, sources, or mode of knowledge.’[7]

Kant viewed his philosophical system as a path between dogmatism and skepticism, while Hamann saw in Kant a new dogmatism to a priori knowledge. Hamann accused Kant’s analytic judgment of deriving from ‘a Gnostic hatred for the material and a mystical love for form.’[8] Hamann was convinced that Kant was prejudiced against the material and that he believed that the physical was inferior to the abstract. Thus, there was no place in Kant’s system for the material to play a significant role.

Kant’s alleged desertion of the material stemmed from his commitment to form. Whereas the material represented the inferior, form signified the superior. His excessive dedication to form crippled any real acknowledgment of the material. Kant was without sound reason and in fact more of a mystic in his devotion to form.

As a mystic, Kant’s attachment to form lacked rhyme or reason but he nonetheless slavishly clung to it. It was Kant’s underlying dogmatism that created an artificial altar for a priori knowledge. This cyclical phenomenon made the subject as the object, resulting in self-certainty as supreme and a monopoly of truth from within. Kant had masked his mystical affection to form by construing a theory of pure reason. Hamann, in a derogatory sense, titled Kant a modern Plato who extended even past the ancient philosopher. In an ironic twist Kant had built on Plato, though pure reason was to have no history, to create a modern, or even a contextual, archaic philosophy of form.

The final purism is Kant’s attempt to divorce reason from language.[9] There are two parts to the purism of language. First, in what has been called the first linguistic turn, Hamann contended that reason is based on language.[10] Without language there would be no reason, at least not one that is comprehendible.

Second, language itself is not a pure form, but is contingent on our experience and history.[11] Within the purism of language are the first two purisms, since language is the embodiment of tradition and experience. Hamann wrote, ‘language, the only, first and last organon and criterion of reason, without a credential other than tradition and usage.’[12] This linguistic argument was not opposing Kant’s pure form of reason with the understanding that language supersedes reason in its purity. Instead, Hamann argued that neither reason nor language is pure, but rather, both are dependent on our experiences and history, which are contingent upon divine revelation and Socratic ignorance.

Repeating the Metacritique’s concept that language is at the heart of reason’s misunderstanding, several years later Hamann wrote to Jacobi, ‘People speak of reason as if it were a real being, and dear God as if the same were nothing but a concept. Spinoza speaks of an Object causa sui and Kant of a Subject causa sui. Before this misunderstanding is removed, it will be impossible to understand one another.’[13] Kant’s ‘gnostic hatred of matter’ coupled with his ‘mystic love of form’ resulted in a ‘cold prejudice for mathematics.’[14] The ramification is that this ‘learned mischief turns the honesty of language into such a senseless, in heat, unstable, undefined something = x.’[15]

Ultimately, the difference between Kant and Hamann is theological. Hamann believed in a God who not only existed but also a God who speaks; he is a God of communication and speech. Kant envisioned a closed system, where there existed no communicating deity.

For Hamann, the pinnacle act of communication was the incarnation, thus creating an incarnational theology as the core of all reality.[16]  The reason why we can speak and have language is because God has first spoken to us. This parallels Socratic ignorance, in that, to know we must first understand that we are known by God.

Hamann was satisfied with bringing to light the importance which language played in Kant’s philosophy, leaving the readers to further unravel Kant’s Critique and unclench the ‘fist’ into an ‘open hand.’[17] Kant’s critical idealism is in effect an attempt to extricate man from the world. The purpose in doing so is to create a vantage point separate from the world. While Kant attempted to exalt and administer self-autonomy, Hamann emphasized man’s dependence on God, or Socratic ignorance. In charging Kant with the three purisms, Hamann brought man back to the world through history, experience, and language. As Oswald Bayer titles the last lines of Metacritique the ‘Metacritique in nuce’ he believes Hamann had alluded to 1 Cor. 4:6 as a final challenge to forsake the ways of the world and take up faith.

Part 1, Part 2Part 4

[1] Johann Georg Hamann, Briefweschsel, 6 vols., ed. Walther Ziesemer and Arthur Henkel (Wiesbaden: Insel, 1955-75), IV, 614. Henceforth ZH. Consult Oswald Bayer, Vernunft ist Sprache: Hamanns Metakritik Kants (Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 2002), 63-149.

[2] ZH, 151-198.

[3] Johan Georg Hamann, Sämtliche Werke, 6 vols., ed. Josef Nadler (Vienna: Herder, 1949-57), III, 283. Henceforth N. Dickson argues that Hamann is not only mocking Kant based on his philosophical lineage, but by using Berkeley and Hume, Hamann is saying that just as Kant cannot escape his lineage nor does he answer the issues raised by Berkeley and Hume. Gwen Griffith Dickson,  Johann Georg Hamann’s Relational Metacriticism (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1995), 281.

[4] ZH IV, 376.

[5] N III, 283. All translations of the Metacritique are my own but can also be found in Relational Metacriticism and Kenneth Haynes’ translation in Hamann: Writings on Philosophy and Language(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007).     

[6] ZH V, 265-266. Also consult ZH VII, 183-188.

[7] N III, 284.

[8] N III, 285.

[9] While Dickson, Bayer, and Irmgard Piske do not limit this purism to just Kant, Alexander thinks differently. Though it appears that Hamann explicitly charged Kant of this purism, there is no indication that he limits this accusation to just Kant.

[10] To Herder, Hamann once wrote, ‘Reason is language, logos; on this marrow bone I will gnaw on till death.’ ZH V, 177.

[11] For a discussion of the origins of language, and Hamann’s debate with Herder on this origin, consult After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann, 141-164.

[12] N III, 284.

[13] ZH VI, 26-27.

[14] N III, 285.

[15] N III, 285.

[16] Vernunft ist Sprache: Hamanns Metakritik Kants, 61.

[17] N III, 289.

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