The Magus Of The North: Johann Georg Hamann

Johann Georg Hamann
Johann Georg Hamann

Johann Georg Hamann is arguably the most extraordinary thinker and writer of the late 18th century, and studying his works leads one to wonder why he is so little known.

Compared with his contemporaries such as Immanuel Kant who was his friend, (although they were usually in radical disagreement on philosophical matters) and those who were influenced by him in various ways—he was the mentor of Herder, drew Hegel’s admiration and Goethe’s enthusiastic praise, and was a major influence on Kierkegaard, as important as Hamann is as a thinker and writer, few people nowadays have heard of him, which is a terrible loss.

One of the most important reasons for his relative obscurity must be the fact that Hamann’s approach differed sharply from the common ways of thinking and writing of his time, which are in many respects very similar to ours. Throughout the whole of intellectual history there are very few thinkers who, compared with the time they lived in, can be truly called non-conformist.

Hamann, who was known by the nickname ‘Magus im Norden’ – ‘the Magus of the North’, had a very skeptical attitude towards the Enlightenment, and thus willfully adopted a writing style radically opposed to the prevailing one, influenced by Enlightenment ideals.

From our ISU Prussia readings so far, we are familiar with this latter style from reading the essays by Mendelssohn, Kant and Fichte, and also from our modern ‘academic style’ of writing, which aims towards similar standards: clear, orderly, objective, impersonal, with few, if any, references to tradition, the historical circumstances of the author, or the author’s personal history—and, perhaps most importantly, serious in tone, with little, if any, humor.

In contrast, Hamann’s own style goes completely against this ideal: he avoids systematic, ordered exposition and instead writes short essays, not treatises or books. He uses parody and satire extensively; he employs an enormous wealth and breadth of classical, Biblical, historical and personal references and allusions – mostly to humorous effect, and does not seem at all concerned with making himself clear and easy to understand.

Hamann’s style was notoriously challenging even in his own age, and will certainly baffle a first-time modern reader. His works might seem like they consists of a series of obscure and oracular riddles, unless one has the benefit of a critical translation, footnotes and explanations of the relevant references, which is enormously helpful and makes studying him quite pleasant. Fortunately, there are very good English translations of this kind that have been published in recent years.

But dismissing Hamann as a thinker because he does not conform to our comfortable expectations of what philosophy should ‘look like’ would be a terrible mistake, if we are at all interested in going beyond what we are taught to be comfortable with. Likewise, his pervasive humor (Kierkegaard calls him ‘the greatest and most authentic humorist’ of all time) is not what we are taught to associate with ‘serious’, intelligent thought and analysis.

Yet, all these standards of ‘serious writing’ were already there in Hamann’s time, and his refusal to conform to, or even compromise with them for the sake of public recognition, should itself draw our attention to him more than to any other thinker from the Enlightenment age – if we truly value independence and courage in matters of thought as much as we claim.

And there is indeed very much to gain, on all levels, from studying Hamann and taking him seriously (even, or especially, when he is joking). For example, we can look at his response and critique of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, titled ‘Metacritique of the Purism of Reason’, in which Hamann presents a very powerful counter-argument to the Kantian project, which he applies to the Enlightenment as a whole.

He argues, on linguistic grounds, that the Enlightenment drive towards ‘purifying’ reason of everything which is traditional and historical is bound to fail. This is because all Enlightenment theories about reason, Kant’s system included (and any attempt towards systematic thought), inevitably employ language, which is itself a historical and traditional object that develops and changes its rules over time in decidedly non-rational ways.

Thus, the adherents of the Enlightenment cannot possibly justify their claims to universal certainty, independent of all history and tradition. Language must be used, reason is never ‘pure’, nor can it ever be, and thus it cannot claim to judge all reality ‘from outside’, or to be able to make a radical break with its own past. This is a weighty argument, then and now, against not only rationalism, but ultimately against ideology in all its forms.

Still, valuable as his critiques of his contemporaries undoubtedly are, I feel that Hamann’s greatness as a thinker can only be gleaned from examining his original contributions to intellectual history. Let us look closely at one of his famous witticisms: “I look upon logical proofs the way a well-bred girl looks upon a love letter”. On the surface, this is only a humorous analogy expressing his own position towards the rationalistic arguments common during the Enlightenment. But if we dig deeper into the meaning of this statement, we find that it conceals, so to speak, much buried treasure.

We have here a subtle reference to Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, which is centered around love speeches, and we need to examine the dialogue closely to find out how the activity of the philosopher, which for Socrates fundamentally involves the mysterious ‘erotic art’ (the only one in which he claims any skill), is inextricably connected with precisely such love speeches.

Then, we also need to examine Plato’s Symposium, where Socrates gives an account of these matters which is interestingly different, but which seems to affirm the same fundamental thesis that not only is love philosophical, and thus love-letters are too, but philosophical writings are always love letters of a particular sort – we might venture to say love letters for the soul.

This is very relevant for Hamann’s project as the word for ‘soul’, psyche, is always feminine in Greek. And what better attitude might a student of such ‘love letters’ have in such matters than employing the self-control, modesty, awareness of the great value of what is at stake, and a healthy skepticism – all traits peculiar to a ‘well-bred girl’?

Of course, I have only provided here a vague outline of the kind of argument that Hamann’s witticism suggests. Indeed, it would take a book-length study of the Platonic dialogues involved to establish my thesis conclusively. But it is Hamann’s thinking and writing which opens the door to such an unusual and promising line of thought, and it is this inestimably precious quality I have found in very few other thinkers indeed.

by Eugen Russo (4th year BA, Romania) 

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