The end of metaphysics is old news, Robert Alan Sparling reminds us in Johann Georg Hamann and the Enlightenment Project: “It is one of the Enlightenment’s enduring legacies to reject both faith and ‘obscure metaphysics’ in the same breath. This post-metaphysical aspect of modernity is a central element of Enlightenment thought. For all that Kant attempted to save a chastened metaphysics from Humean doubt, we find ourselves in a world in which even Kantian transcendentalism is widely treated with suspicion, and thick ontology is treated as fanatical error.”
Contrary to appearances, Hamann opposes this tendency of the Enlightenment as much as he does every other aspect of his age: “Hamann’s attack on the Enlightenment,” Sparling says, “is a valuable tool in the salvation of ontological thought” (xii).
But the way he saves ontology is critical:
Hamann appears to “flirt” with all sorts of post-modern, post-metaphysical trends – relativistic aestheticism, reactionary conservatism, pragmatism: “his emphasis on individuality and creativity is easily mistaken for the first, his insistence on linguistic bounded-ness is taken for the second, and his periodic flirtation with naive intuitionism might be taken for the third” (222).
These are, however, “mistaken interpretations,” since all miss “the theological impulse of Hamann’s writing.” Had he no Bible, Hamann’s “view of aesthetic language and the mind’s captivity in becoming might indeed have become artistic and wilful. Or, at the very least, it would have something of the Heideggerian poetic to it, ushering in a pagan god of some sort.” Hamann’s thought, however, “is entirely unthinkable without the ‘word of God,’” without the fact of revelation. Hamann’s sporadic and occasional writings evidence a systematic and organized “anti-philosophical ‘philologism’” that depends on “the organized system of religious revelation” (221-2).
It’s a funny thing that Sparling sees this, and yet commends Hamann as a valuable source in saving ontology. Funny because Sparling makes it clear that he does not share Hamann’s faith and that Hamann’s reliance on revelation “raises alarm bells.” In our world “the Christian Logos has lost any power it may have had” (questionable, that, but leave it be); yet, Hamann’s use of Christian tropes highlights the “significance of mytho-poetic symbolism in cognition.”
So: Hamann’s thought depends on Christian faith, yet we can appropriate Hamann’s insights while stripping off the Christian form.
Despite the contradictions, Sparling’s book is a welcome addition to the growing number of recent monographs on Hamann. He is a careful and generous reader of Hamann, and his book has the virtue of focusing on Hamann as a political thinker, rather than as philosopher, theologian, or Ur-Sturm und Drang. About this, perhaps more later.