Soctraic MemorabiliaPicking up from where we left off, part 1 ,1759 was a significant year for Johann Georg Hamann. After a dissolved engagement, Hamann moved back to Königsberg to take care of his father. Over the summer, Hamann was berated by longtime friend and would-be brother-in-law, Christoph Berens, to renege his recent conversion. In support of these efforts, Immanuel Kant stepped in as an appeal to Hamann’s intellect. Hamann rebuffed the two, the latter being the only one who would remain on good terms. The Socratic Memorabilia is not only Hamann’s response to their endeavors, but the initiation to a lifelong career of writing.

Before addressing Socrates’ life, Hamann takes a moment to examine the discipline of history. According to Hamann, history serves as a revelation of God’s truth. Coupling history with nature he states, ‘As nature was given us to open our eyes, so history was given to us to open our ears.’[1] The significance of properly understanding history is not merely an issue of accuracy. Rather, as God’s revelation, we must understand that history is a reflection of ‘God’s invisible being, his eternal power and Godhead.’[2]

That is why Hamann takes such offense to the popular histories of his time. The tomes of Stanley and Brucker or Buffon and Montesquieu only contributed to the ‘idol in the temple of learning.’[3] Without an understanding of divine providence, scholars bring death to history rather than enlivening it.

Elsewhere, Hamann draws on Ezekiel 37 when he describes history as the dry bones which need the prophet to speak to it the Word of God.[4] In the end we are left with a lifeless ‘statue’ rather than a dynamic encounter with the eternal God. These histories are as helpless as Peter the Great offering half his kingdom to François Girardon’s statue of Cardinal Richelieu if only he would teach him to rule the other half, or as Pygmalion falling in love with one of his own sculptures.

The key to unlocking the mysteries of history is neither pre-critical nor critical Kantian reason. As Hamann states, ‘perhaps all history is more mythology than this philosopher thinks, and is, like nature, a book that is sealed, a hidden witness, a riddle which cannot be solved unless we plow with another heifer than our reason.’[5] Rather than a rationalistic methodology that reduces the study of history to materialism, Hamann advances one which combines reason and revelation.

In his London Writings Hamann describes both nature and history as ‘ciphers – signs with concealed meaning.’ Only the ‘key’ of the Bible can unlock the truth of both of them.[6] All the critical thinking of Hamann’s age could not provide the correct approach and hermeneutic to history. What is required is a ‘little enthusiasm and superstition.’[7] Though Kant may think he epitomized the ‘heroic spirit of a philosopher,’ he omits the ‘leaven’ of faith.[8]

Turning to Socratic wisdom Hamann proclaims, ‘Know thyself!’ In doing so, we do not arrive at any rationalistic truth, but a paradoxical truth that is both emptying and filling. Socrates’ wisdom surpassed the Sophists, and Kant as representative of the Sophists, because ‘he [Socrates] advanced further in self-knowledge than they, and knew that he knew nothing.’[9]

Hamann did not argue that wisdom is within man, but rather, that wisdom is contingent upon knowing the inner core of man. In other words, Hamann is not proposing to unlock some esoteric, inner wisdom trapped within, but revealing the secret/truth of man in order to let wisdom permeate our lives. By knowing thyself we know that we know nothing.

This Socratic wisdom is also Pauline wisdom. Hamann quotes the apostle’s first letter to the Corinthians, ‘If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.’[10] Hence, Socratic wisdom ironically transforms into Socratic ignorance. The culmination of wisdom is an emptying of knowledge, the ultimate knowledge of not knowing. Also, in not knowing we arrive at a great truth that it is more important than anything we can know by ourselves; we are known by God.

Hamann addresses Socrates’ ignorance as a hypochondriac’s constant laboring over his illness. A philosopher may talk about his own ignorance not out of false modesty but true conviction. However, how does one actually understand and achieve Socratic ignorance? Reflecting Hamann’s own hypochondriacal tendencies, he states that one needs to exhibit some of the same symptoms to empathize with the illness. We must be sympathetic to the illness of ignorance in order to contract it.[11] Hamann illustrates these symptoms by stating that ‘no one is wise enough to believe it except the one who, as Moses makes clear, is taught by God himself to number his days.’[12]

Out of Socratic ignorance springs the ‘peculiarities of his manner of teaching and thinking’ and the true sense of Socrates’ genius.[13] Contra Kant, genius rests on the understanding of ignorance and humility. Hamann developed this theme in his response to an unfavorable review of Socratic Memorabilia. In his Clouds (1761) he writes, ‘In this divinity of ignorance, in this human of genius, supposedly appears to be concealed the wisdom of the contradiction, by which the adept collapse and the ontologist shatters his teeth.’[14] He further defined genius as, ‘The true genius knows only his dependence and weakness, or the bounds of his gifts. The equation of his powers is a negative quantity.’[15]

Kantian reason lacked true genius due to the philosopher’s insistence on the supremacy of reason. Kant’s philosophy was not only deficient of Socratic genius, but was also openly opposed to it. Antagonistic to Socratic ignorance and genius was the pride of Kant, who reacted to Socratic ignorance as one would to the ‘hair of Medusa’s head.’[16] Hamann mocks, ‘But, whoever needs so much acumen and eloquence to convict himself of his ignorance, cherishes in his heart a powerful aversion towards the truth of it.’[17]

If Socrates seems like an unlikely ally against Kantian reason, Hamann’s next supporter is an even greater irony, especially given that Hamann would later call Kant the ‘Prussian Hume.’ In agreement with David Hume (1711-1776) and British Empiricists, Hamann argued that knowledge and reality are mediated through experience and senses. In the London Writings Hamann described the five senses as the five barley loaves that feed the multitude in Matthew 14. According to Hamann, the entire ‘warehouse of reason’ and the ‘treasury of faith’ rest upon experience through the senses. [18]

However, Hamann did not hold to a positivism or strict empiricism. Though addressing epistemological issues, Hamann was not arguing for a systemic epistemology. As Gwen Griffith Dickson states, ‘The discussion of knowing here then is less a manner of a philosophical examination of the limits and possibilities of knowledge, like Locke’s, or Kant’s later critique; and more of the human implications of knowing and not-knowing.’[19] Though truth and knowledge is known through the senses, Hamann prioritizes revealed knowledge.

Hamann uses a similar line of reasoning in his interpretation of Humean skepticism.[20] Through the the motif of Socratic ignorance and revealed truth, Hamann positions Hume as an upholder of Christian faith.[21] Hence, Hamann was able to write to Jacobi saying that he was ‘full of Hume’ when writing the Memorabilia, yet turns skepticism on its head to argue for the validation of faith.[22]

In Hamann’s ironic twist, Hume’s skepticism is used to show the significance of what we do not know. Skepticism does not cripple Socratic ignorance, but releases faith from the necessity of a rationalistic validity. Hamann argues that our existence, the existence of all things, and the certainty of death are assumed and believed to be true.[23] However, skepticism neither disproves or proves our existence, the existence of all things, or our fate. According to Hamann, Hume shows that reason cannot prove all things. Just as our existence is not demonstrated by rationalistic means, so too is faith based on something other than reason.

Thus Kantian reason is like a ‘lion skin of Socratic ignorance’ that ‘betrays themselves by their voices and ears.’[24] The ‘sensibility’ of Socratic ignorance and Kantian rationalism is as different as a ‘living animal and its anatomical skeleton.’ Hamann’s answer to Kant’s rationalistic attempt to hold faith captive is a Humean skepticism which takes comfort in knowing that reason cannot prove all things, and a Socratic ignorance that leads us to the knowledge of being known. Hamann expands the discipline of history and Enlightenment skepticism to foster an appreciation of divine revelation. While arguing against rationalism, he upholds the role of reason in the pursuit of truth.

Part 1, Part 3Part 4

[1] Johan Georg Hamann, Sämtliche Werke, 6 vols., ed. Josef Nadler (Vienna: Herder, 1949-57), II, 64. Henceforth N. Translations from the Socratic Memorabilia are of my own, however, a translation can be found in James C. O’Flaherty, Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia: A Translation and Commentary (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1967). A translation can also be found in Gwen Griffith Dickson’s Johann Georg Hamann’s Relational Metacriticism (1995). In his London Writings Hamann wrote, ‘Disbelief and superstition are based on a shallow physics and a shallow history.’ N I, 9.

[2] N II, 64.

[3] N II, 62.

[4] N II, 176.

[5] N II, 65.

[6] N I, 308.

[7] Hamann used these terms ironically since they were often used derogatorily to depict those of orthodox faith.

[8] N II, 63.

[9] N II, 71.

[10] 1 Corinthians 8:2-3.

[11] N II, 70.

[12] N II, 73.

[13] N II, 75.

[14] N II, 98.

[15] N II, 260.

[16] N II, 73.

[17] N II, 73.

[18] N I, 298.

[19] Gwen Griffith Dickson,  Johann Georg Hamann’s Relational Metacriticism (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1995), 69

[20] Hamann’s mention of Hume in his letters to Kant and in the Socratic Memorabilia are the earliest known exposure of Hume to Kant. While it is still unclear the exact role Hume’s skepticism played in Kant’s critical philosophy, it is evident that one of Kant’s sources for Hume was Hamann. The discussion of Hume would become a repeated topic, including Kant’s request of Hamann’s translation of Hume. For an example of this early mention of Hume consult Johann Georg Hamann, Briefweschsel, 6 vols., ed. Walther Ziesemer and Arthur Henkel (Wiesbaden: Insel, 1955-75), I, 379. Henceforth ZH.

[21] ZH I, 356.

[22] ZH VII,167.

[23] N II, 73.

[24] N II, 73.

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