Monday, August 04, 2008

Hamann was a champion of one side of the Enlightenment, albeit a severe critic of its other, extremely rationalistic, side

"The Magus of the North" in THREE CRITICS, Oct 13 2000 By James C. O'Flaherty (Winston-Salem, North Carolina United States) - See all my reviews This review is from: Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder (Paperback)

My review is limited to the study of Johann Georg Hamann in the present volume, and the three star rating applies to it alone. Combining Isaiah Berlin's books on Vico, Hamann and Herder under one cover was a felicitous idea of Berlin's editor and literary executor Henry Hardy. The position which these thinkers share: their anti-Cartesianism, their emphasis on history, tradition, language and mythology may now be seen through the considerably different lenses they employ.

I feel compelled, however, to register a caveat. When the present Hamann study appeared in book form in 1993, I expressed my reservations about it in a letter to the "New York Review of Books," to which Berlin replied. I lamented the fact that he had ignored modern Hamann scholarship, and had clung to the interpretation of Hamann as an irrationalist, especially that espoused by Rudolf Unger in his 1911 book, "Hamann und die Aufklaerung," ignoring modern discussions of the "dialectic of the Enlightenment." Specialists in the field now consider Unger's interpretation outdated, and see Hamann as a champion of one side of the Enlightenment, albeit a severe critic of its other, extremely rationalistic, side.

The question of Hamann's relation to the Enlightenment turns on the conception of reason. I have maintained that Hamann employed a mode of reason distinct from that of the rationalistic Enlighteners as well as from that of his friendly adversary, Kant. In order to designate that mode, I adopted a term once used by Kant in referring to Hamann's thought, i.e., "intuitive reason," or, in the original German, "anschauende Vernunft." I accepted the term as an apt one for Hamann's mode of thought, however Kant felt about it.

Further, I have demonstrated how it can be linguistically distinguished from the traditional logico-mathematical mode of thought in my book "The Quarrel of Reason with Itself" (1988), and elsewhere. It is one which Berlin rightly sees as akin to Dilthey's "verstehen," which Berlin also rejects.

He lists a group of philosophers whose conception of reason matches his own: Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, Franz von Brentano, William James, Bertrand Russell and the "Vienna Circle." Most of these thinkers are about as far removed from any kind of "verstehen" as possible.

Who then, besides Hamann, may be said to have employed what I have called "intuitive reason"? The prime examples are the great epistemological heirs of Hamann: Goethe and Nietzsche. Goethe belongs here because of his refusal to analyze the "Urphaenomen." Hence, his anti-Newtonian stance. Nietzsche, especially in "Zarathustra," which I have analyzed closely from the standpoint of intuitive reason in "Nietzsche and the Judaeo-Christian Tradition" (1985).

Having stated my reservations concerning Berlin's interpretation of Hamann, I must say, however, that we can be grateful that he has helped mightily to rescue that German philosopher from the obscurity to which he has been unjustly relegated by those who remain under the spell of the strictly rationalistic wing of the Enlightenment. Berlin, in spite of his basic lack of empathy with Hamann, not only recognized his importance, but was always fascinated by him. He was an early and enthusiastic subscriber to "The Hamann News-Letter," which I edited and published in the early 195O's and 196O's. Further, his correspondence with me regarding Hamann over a period of three and a half decades shows an unflagging interest in the man who both attracted and repelled him.

In a letter to me of June 25,1972, he wrote: "My passion for Hamann is undiminished." Not too surprisingly, there are certain passages in the present book in which Berlin seems, unwittingly, to move toward a certain degree of empathy, hence to a kind of "verstehen." But such passages are few, and many others are unjustly harsh. Nevertheless, for all its shortcomings, Berlin's study of Hamann is valuable for introducing the reader, especially the anglophone reader, to the historically important pre-Romantic figure, known as "The Magus of the North," without whom the development of German Romanticism would be unthinkable, and whose insights increasingly bear fruit today, especially in theology and philosophy. As Berlin has said: "Hamann repays study."

(Addition to my already posted review), Feb 4 2001 By James C. O'Flaherty (Winston-Salem, North Carolina United States) - See all my reviews This review is from: Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder (Paperback)

Following that dictum, I might point out that, especially in two areas of contemporary concern, Hamann's thought is highly relevant: Oswald Bayer has shown in Autoritaet und Kritik (1991) that Hamann's hermeneutics -- antedating by two centuries Derrida's reflections on intertextuality -- provides the basis for a devastating critique of deconstruction by subverting the French thinker's concept of the "center," and demonstrating where the true center ("Mitte") is to be located. Further, there is presently a lively discussion among scholars of Hamann's critique of Kant's famous essay: "What is Enlightenment"? Berlin's present study would have done more justice to Hamann's thought by discussing such developments as these and others, which were available during his lifetime.

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