Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Why should philosophy be concerned with certainty?

Hamann: Writings on Philosophy and Language Series: Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy Edited by Kenneth Haynes First published 2007 Brown University, Rhode Island. Note on the text, translation, and annotation:

All Hamann’s writings after his rediscovery of his Christian faith are densely allusive to the Bible... Many of Hamann’s essays react to the precise wording of another piece of writing... In general, I have avoided the temptation to simplify Hamann’s words... In addition, it has meant preserving the multilingual aspect of Hamann’s writing. Hamann believed that speaking a language, like having a body, was a fundamental aspect of human finitude. To present his writings in a seamless web of a single language would have betrayed both his practice and his convictions. 10:54 AM

Hamann and philosophy
Hamann’s own philosophy has sometimes been called fideist or irrationalist. In particular, older scholarship often represented him as a member of a German Counter-Enlightenment, along with Herder, Jacobi, and sometimes Justus Möser, figures supposed to be united in rejecting the claims of reason and the methods of science.12 However, as historians have become skeptical about the utility of the phrase “The Enlightenment,” the claims of “The Counter-Enlightenment” to a coherent program have come to seem even more exiguous.13

Hamann is perhaps the figure most uncompromisingly at odds with the Enlightenment, but even he has been described as radicalizing, rather than rejecting, the Enlightenment.14 Moreover, Hamann could be as absolute in his criticism of Herder or Jacobi as he was in dissenting from Kant or Mendelssohn, as demonstrated by his three essays translated below on Herder’s treatise on the origin of language (The Last Will and Testament of the Knight of the Rose-Cross, Philological Ideas and Doubts, and To the Solomon of Prussia).

The fundamental divide between Hamann and Jacobi makes clear how inadequate it is to regard Hamann as a philosopher of irrationalism or an advocate of faith opposed to reason. In David Hume on Faith, or Idealism or Realism: A Dialogue (1787), Jacobi defended himself against the charge of irrationalism by invoking Hume to insist on the necessary primacy of faith (or belief, as the same word in German, Glaube, can mean either). In a letter to Jacobi written from April 27 to May 3, 1787,15 Hamann is relentless in attacking what he takes to be Jacobi’s errors – reducing being to a property or an object rather than understanding it as the general relation in which we are enmeshed prior to cognitive acts; taking faith as a self-evident part of human experience but then attempting to defend it by arguments from Spinoza and Hume; distinguishing faith from reason and realism from idealism although those distinctions have no basis in experience.

The irrationalist or fideist philosopher attempts to close the gulf (or, as Lessing called it, the “ugly broad ditch”) that has opened up between faith and reason, while the rationalist or skeptic philosopher is intent on preserving the distance between them, but both recognize the gulf.

For Hamann, on the other hand, “it is pure idealism to separate faith and sensation from thought”16 no special faculty for faith should be imputed, which could then be found in opposition to the faculty of reason. Jacobi, from Hamann’s perspective, has been betrayed by his initial jargon into investing metaphysical wraiths with real substance. It makes no sense to isolate certain features from reality, combine them into a larger abstraction, and then attempt to infer reality from that abstraction. Jacobi’s faith then becomes a desperate way out of “the impossible situation of having to retrieve existence in general out of thought in general”17 instead of a routine and ordinary part of daily existence.

Occasionally Western thinkers have launched linguistic critiques of philosophy (as done by Valla, Lichtenberg, Maimon, Mauthner, and Wittgenstein),18 and it is possible to see Hamann as such a figure. Yet he rarely engages with the details and implications of a specific vocabulary and is not interested to offer improvements or think through the consequences of an alternative vocabulary. For the most part Hamann prefers to offer a metacritique instead, that is, he seeks to isolate what he considers to be the proton pseudos, the initial and fundamental error, of a philosopher. He does so by using exaggeration and grotesque parody to render foolish what he takes to be the initial impulse behind a philosophical problem.

In the case of Kant, for example, Hamann believes that what motivates the Critique of Pure Reason is no more than prejudice in favor of mathematics and a predilection for purity. Mathematics may yield certainty, but to favor it relegates human reason to a position inferior to the “infallible and unerring instinct of insects” (p. 211). Why should philosophy be concerned with certainty?

This linguistic assault on philosophy is carried out in Hamann’s distinctive style of parody. Hamann believes that philosophy deals with unreal problems created by the misapplication of language (“language is the centerpoint of reason’s misunderstanding with itself,” p. 211); his object, therefore, is not to refute a philosophical position but to expose and make ridiculous its pretensions. In this sense, his “metacritique” may have more in common with Aristophanes’ mockery of Socrates than with philosophical texts.

It is possible, of course, to imagine fuller rebuttals of Kant and Mendelssohn and others along the lines which Hamann has sketched, by tracing more precisely and systematically the philosophical implications of what he saw as the impurities of human existence – that we speak a language we did not invent, inherit a history we did not make, and live in a body we did not create – and such rebuttals would soon be offered, and these would, in their turn, be subject to further refutations and restatements. However, Hamann always refrained from doing so.

Should Hamann then be considered a philosopher at all? He scarcely develops his suggestive remarks about reason, language, sociability, and history, and nowhere does he demonstrate a talent for consecutive logical thought. However, rather than take him as a confused precursor of philosophical themes and arguments to come, it does more justice to him to respect his antagonism to philosophical abstraction and argumentation. Jacobi, who introduced the term “nihilism” into the European languages, found skepticism19 philosophically threatening and attempted to rebut it. Hamann had no such anxiety; skepticism did not present worrisome arguments that needed to be rebutted.

Hamann, after all, was not tempted to find first principles on which to ground knowledge with certainty, nor did faith and reason collide in his understanding. Since he did not see himself as confronted by philosophical difficulties, he was not tempted to find a way out of them, for example by making covert appeals to unavowed philosophies, as in giving to common sense an epistemological status it cannot easily bear, or in appealing to the authority of everyday experience that is taken to be incipiently or inherently philosophical, or in making a leap of faith. It is often difficult, especially when confronted with matters of great import, to refrain from making or implying philosophical statements, and Hamann is an unexcelled guide to this therapy.

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