Johann Georg Hamann

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Johann Georg Hamann
Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788).jpg
Born(1730-08-27)27 August 1730
Died21 June 1788(1788-06-21) (aged 57)
Alma materUniversity of Königsberg
(1746–1751/52; no degree)[1]
Era18th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Sturm und Drang
Main interests
Philosophy of language, epistemology, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, philosophy of history, political philosophy
Notable ideas
"Reason is language" ("Vernunft ist Sprache")[3]

Johann Georg Hamann (/ˈhɑːmən/; German: [ˈhaːman]; 27 August 1730 – 21 June 1788) was a German philosopher, whose work was used by his student J. G. Herder as a main support of the Sturm und Drang movement, and associated by historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin with the Counter-Enlightenment.[6] However, recent scholarship, such as that by theologian Oswald Bayer, describes Hamann as a "radical Enlightener" who vigorously opposed dogmatic rationalism in matters of philosophy and faith.[7] Bayer views him as less the proto-Romantic that Herder presented, and more a premodern-postmodern thinker who brought the consequences of Lutheran theology to bear upon the burgeoning Enlightenment and especially in reaction to Kant.[8] Goethe and Kierkegaard were among those who considered him to be the finest mind of his time.[9]


Johann Georg Hamann (20th century drawing)

Hamann was born on 27 August 1730 in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia). Initially he studied theology at the University of Königsberg, but became a clerk in a mercantile house and afterward held many small public offices, devoting his leisure to reading philosophy. His first publication was a study in political economy about a dispute on nobility and trade.[10] He wrote under the nom de plume of “the Magus of the North” (German: Magus im Norden). His translation of David Hume into German is considered by most scholars as the one that Hamann's friend, Immanuel Kant, had read and referred to as inspiration for awakening from "dogmatic slumber". Hamann and Kant held each other in mutual respect, although Hamann once declined an invitation by Kant to co-write a physics textbook for children.

Philosophical arguments[edit]

His distrust of autonomous, disembodied reason and the Enlightenment ("I look upon logical proofs the way a well-bred girl looks upon a love letter" was one of his many witticisms) led him to conclude that faith in God was the only solution to the vexing problems of philosophy. His most notable contributions to philosophy were his thoughts on language, which have often been considered as a forerunner to the linguistic turn in postmodern philosophy and also Wittgenstein's philosophy. He famously said that "Reason is language" ("Vernunft ist Sprache").[3] One of Kant's biographers compared him with Hamann:

Kant made reason the rule of his life and the source of his philosophy; Hamann found the source of both in his heart. While Kant dreaded enthusiasm in religion, and suspected in it superstition and fanaticism, Hamann reveled in enthusiasm; and he believed in revelation, miracles, and worship, differing also in these points from the philosopher. In some respects they complemented each other; but the repelling elements were too strong to make them fully sympathetic. The difference in their stand-points, however, makes Hamannn’s views of Kant all the more interesting.[11]

Influences on Hamann[edit]

Hamann was greatly influenced by David Hume. This is most evident in Hamann's conviction that faith and belief, rather than knowledge, determine human actions. Also, Hamann asserted that the efficacy of a concept arises from the habits it reflects rather than any inherent quality it possesses. Hamann famously used the image of Socrates, who often proclaimed to know nothing, in his Socratic Memorabilia, an essay in which Hamann critiques the Enlightenment's dependence on reason.

Hamann's influence[edit]

Hamann was one of the precipitating forces for the Counter-Enlightenment. He was, moreover, a mentor to Herder and an admired influence on Goethe, Jacobi, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Lessing, and Mendelssohn. Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar devoted a chapter to Hamann in his volume, Studies in Theological Styles: Lay Styles (Volume III in the English language translation of The Glory of the Lord series). Most recently, Hamann's influence can be found in the work of the theologians Oswald Bayer (Lutheran), John Milbank (Anglican), and David Bentley Hart (Orthodox). Finally, in Charles Taylor's important summative work, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity (Taylor, 2016),[12] Hamann is given credit, along with Wilhelm von Humboldt and Herder, for inspiring Taylor's "HHH" approach to the philosophy of language, emphasizing the creative power and cultural specificity of language.

The character of Hamann's writing[edit]

Hamann's writings consist of small essays. They display two striking tendencies. The first is their brevity, in comparison with works by his contemporaries. The second is their breadth of allusion and delight in extended analogies. For example, his work Golgatha and Scheblimini! By a Preacher in the Wilderness (1784) was directed against Moses Mendelssohn's Jerusalem, or on Religious Might and Judaism (1782). His work was also significantly reactive and reparative: rather than advance a “position” of his own, his principal mode of thinking was to respond to others' work.


Hamann was a lutenist, having studied this instrument with Timofey Belogradsky (a student of Sylvius Leopold Weiss), a Ukrainian virtuoso then living in Königsberg.


Fragments of his writings were published by Cramer, under the title of Sibyllinische Blätter des Magus aus Norden (1819), and a complete edition by Roth (7 vols., 1821–25, with a volume of additions and explanations by Wiener, 1843). Hamann's des Magus in Norden Leben und Schriften, edited by Gildemeister, was published in 5 vols., 1857–68, and a new edition of his Schriften und Briefen, edited by Petri, in 4 vols., 1872-74.


  1. ^ W. M. Alexander, Johann Georg Hamann Philosophy and Faith, Springer, 2012 : "Hamann left the University in 1751 or as late as 1752 without taking a degree."
  2. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, London and Princeton, 2000.
  3. ^ a b Johann Georg Hamann, Brief an Herder, v. 8. August 1784, in: Johann Georg Hamann, Briefwechsel, 7 vols., Arthur Henkel (ed.), Wiesbaden: Insel Verlag, 1955–75, vol. 5, p. 177.
  4. ^ O'Flaherty 1979, p. 19.
  5. ^ Garrett Green, Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 53.
  6. ^ Berlin, Isaiah (1993). The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-19657-8.
  7. ^ Betz, John (2012). After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann. Chicester: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-470-67492-5.
  8. ^ Bayer, Oswald. A Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as a Radical Enlightener. Roy A. Harrisville & Mark C. Mattes, trans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.
  9. ^ Betz, John (January 2009). "Reading "Sibylline Leaves": J. G. Hamann in the History of Ideas". Journal of the History of Ideas. 70 (1): 94–95. JSTOR 40208092.
  10. ^ Christoph Meineke: „Die Vortheile unserer Vereinigung“: Hamanns Dangeuil-Beylage im Lichte der Debatte um den handeltreibenden Adel. [In German] In: Beetz, Manfred / Rudolph, Andre (Ed.). Johann Georg Hamann: Religion und Gesellschaft (2012), pp. 46–64.
  11. ^ Stuckenberg, J. H. W. (1882). The Life of Immanuel Kant. London: Macmillan. p. 202.
  12. ^ Taylor, Charles (2016) The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.


  • Isaiah Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, London and Princeton, 2000, ISBN 0-691-05726-5
  • Dickson, Gwen Griffith, Johann Georg Hamann's Relational Metacriticism (contains English translations of Socratic Memorabilia, Aesthetica in Nuce, a selection of essays on language, Essay of a Sibyl on Marriage and Metacritique of the Purism of Reason), Walter de Gruyter, 1995. ISBN 3-11-014437-9
  • Forster, Michael N., After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition, Oxford University Press, 2010, ch. 8–9.
  • David Bentley Hart, "The Laughter of the Philosophers", First Things. January 2005.
  • Kenneth Haynes (ed.), Hamann: Writings on Philosophy and Language (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), Cambridge University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-521-81741-7
  • James C. O'Flaherty, Unity and Language: A Study in the Philosophy of Hamann, University of North Carolina, 1952;
  • James C. O'Flaherty, Hamann's Socratic Memorabilia: A Translation and Commentary, Johns Hopkins Press, 1967; Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 67-12424;
  • James C. O'Flaherty, Johann Georg Hamann, Twayne Publishers, 1979, ISBN 0-8057-6371-6;
  • James C. O'Flaherty, The Quarrel of Reason with Itself: Essays on Hamann, Michaelis, Lessing, Nietzsche, Camden House, 1988, ISBN 0-938100-56-4
  • Wikisource This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainRipley, George; Dana, Charles A., eds. (1879). "Hamann, Johann Georg" . The American Cyclopædia.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, Lisa Marie (ed.), Hamann and the Tradition. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2012 ISBN 978-0810127982
  • Alexander, W. M. (1966). Johann Georg Hamann: Philosophy and Faith. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Beiser, Frederick (1987). The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-29502-1
  • Betz, John (2009). After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J.G. Hamann. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell ISBN 978-1-4051-6246-3
  • Smith, Ronald Gregor (1960). J.G. Hamann 1730-1788: A Study in Christian Existence. New York: Harper & Brothers.
  • Sparling, Robert Alan (2011). Johann Georg Hamann and the Enlightenment Project. Toronto: University of Toronto Press ISBN 978-1-4426-4215-7

External links[edit]