Strange things are afoot among the intellectuals. Neo-Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri see the world divided into oppressive Empire and the resistant Multitude, and take inspiration from Saint Augustine’s two cities. Slavoj Zizek, who hailed Hardt and Negri’s 2000 book Empire as the “Communist Manifesto of the twenty-first century,” can’t stop quoting Chesterton. You can’t join the club of Continental deep thinkers nowadays unless you have published a book on the apostle Paul. Not that any of them actually believe any of it, but radicals have got religion.
In the current climate, it seems high time to rehabilitate Johann Georg Hamann. With his opaque style, his irony and obscure jokiness (which appealed to Kierkegaard), his obsession with language, his skepticism about Enlightened reason, Hamann would fit right in. He speaks their language. Plus, unlike today’s radicals who merely play with Paul, Hamann was a Christian through and through.
Hans Urs van Balthasar once lamented that nineteenth-century theology followed Schleiermacher rather than Hamann. Schleiermacher accepted the post-Kantian division of philosophy and theology. Still, he wanted to defend religion to its cultured despisers, and concluded that, since religion has been chased out from the truth business, it can set up its quiet, secure shop in the neighborhood of “feeling.” A personal friend of Kant, Hamann instead mounted a frontal assault on Kantian philosophy and refused to restrain his intense religiosity within the limits of Kantian reason alone. Balthasar thought a Hamannian nineteenth-century would have been healthier than the Schleiermacherian one we actually got. Balthasar was right.
Long before Heidegger, Hamann composed a Metakritik of Kant from the perspective of language. Kant wanted to elevate philosophy above language into a realm of pure reason, but Hamann forced Kant into a linguistic corner. Reason can reach “purity” only if it is purged of the particularities of common language. Kant needed either to prove that thought can function without language (a claim he never defends), or to discover some language of the mind that is free of the imperfections, accidents, and colors that taint every language known to man. The first option Hamann viewed as a kind of mysticism; Schwarmer (“enthusiast”) is one of his favorite epithets for Kant. The second option betrays a finicky Gnostic distaste for matter, time, and change. As Hamann puts it, Kant was faced with an unhappy choice: “Gnostic hatred of Matter or a mystical love of Form.”
Hamann pointed to the sheer givens of language as the supreme refutation of Kant’s effort to pry sense experience away from rational understanding. Words unite sense and concept: “words are as much pure and empirical concepts: empirical, because the sensation of sight or hearing works through them; pure, in so far as their meaning is determined by nothing that belongs to these sensations.” Elsewhere Hamann puts it this way: “Words therefore have an aesthetic [that is, sensible] and logical capacity. As visible and audible objects they belong with their elements to sensibility and intuition, but according to the spirit of their employment and meaning, belong to understanding and concepts.” Words bridge the abyss that Kant had opened up between reason and understanding. Every time we speak, we deny one of the fundamental premises of Kantian philosophy.
Behind this critical assault on Kant was Hamann’s conviction that thought and life depend on language: “Without language we would have no reason, without reason no religion, and without these three essential aspects of our nature, neither mind nor bond of society.” According to Hamann, language is “the single, first and last organon and criterion of reason, without any other credentials than tradition and use.”
Like the later Wittgenstein, Hamann usually had in mind the particular, traditional, used languages of everyday life. He trusted the collective wisdom embodied in real languages, and distrusted Kant partly because he “misuses all the word-signs and figures of speech of our empirical knowledge” and “reworks the straightforwardness of language into such a senseless, ruttish, unsteady, imprecise Something = x, that nothing remains but a windy sighing, a magic shadow-play.”
Some of Hamann’s specific turns of argument also had a Wittgensteinian feel. He recognized, for instance, the bewitching power of abstract nouns and accused Kant of “Prosopopoeia,” or person-making. Like a writer of morality plays, Kant reified and personified abstract concepts and then dressed them up as if they were real things. As Gwen Dickson says, in Kant “‘reasoning’—as an activity one might do best in the morning and more slowly and fallibly after a heavy lunch—becomes a thing, which can bear attributes, and moreover, attributes which are unconditioned by time, place, and blood sugar.” Here again Hamann discerned Kant’s Gnosticism in his tendency to treat Reason as a faculty capable of transcending the frailties that flesh is heir to.
For all the fragmentation of his style, a profoundly unified vision animated Hamann’s life and work. Hamann believed that the world is language, the Creator speaking “to the creature through the creature,” and he often repeated the Johannine confession, “In the beginning was the Word.” The theological impulse of his Metakrik shows through when he says that “the common language of the people gives us the best metaphor for the hypostatic union of the natures of the senses and of understanding, the communicatio idiomatum of their powers.” “Hypostatic union” is a technical term for the union of divine and human in the person of Jesus Christ, and “communicatio idiomatum” describes the sharing of attributes across the boundary between the two natures. For Hamann, this is no playful allusion, but points to the Christological grounding of his entire philosophy. Language refutes Kant because Christ the Living Word does.
Given the theological turn in French phenomenology; the obsession of radicals with Paul and Augustine; the Augustinian interests of the late Derrida; the widespread sense that the Enlightenment project has failed; the revival of interest in Hamann among Radical Orthodox theologians and others—given all this, perhaps there is now an opportunity to rehabilitate Hamann without apology, theology and all. Perhaps not the nineteenth or the twentieth but the twenty-first will prove to be Hamann’s century.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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