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 11:20 AM
Hamann and theology
Hamann’s style has theological and philosophical implications, just as his theology has stylistic and philosophical ones, and his philosophy stylistic and theological ones. Theology is grammar, according to Hamann, who took the equation from Luther.6 Two Lutheran emphases in particular are strongly marked in his writing. The first is a theme found in all his writings, kenosis, the self-renunciation, self-emptying of God. This is the paradox in Christianity whereby power manifests itself in powerlessness, as omnipotence in the helplessness of an infant or divinity tortured and killed as a criminal. The biblical support comes mainly from the Sermon on the Mount and other parables (“so the last shall be first, and the first last”) and the kenotic hymn, so-called, of Philippians 2, one of Hamann’s base-texts. It is one of the main currents of interpretation of Christ’s crucifixion and marks especially the Lutheran (and Augustinian) tradition.
Hamann’s own style is kenotic insofar as it cultivates despised forms, makes rude references, and places unreasonable demands on readers; at a period when good taste was very highly praised, to write in bad taste could be kenotic. Hamann takes as the preeminent example of a kenotic style that of the New Testament. In the first of the Cloverleaf of Hellenistic Letters, he defends the Greek of the New Testament for the same reasons it was a scandal to literary men of his time: its impurity, as in the traces of Aramaic audible in its idiom; its lack of ornament and rhetoric; its lowliness and even degenerate condition relative to Attic standards. In the New Apology of the Letter h, Hamann argues even about orthography in these terms, which give him grounds to defend a useless, redundant, and traditional element of spelling.
Moreover, for Hamann kenosis is a principle of critique quite generally. His was a unique voice insisting that Frederick the Great was a tyrant and that the philosophical activity of the Berlin Enlightenment was a way of justifying Frederick’s despotism. The contrast between “Fritz in the purple cradle” (Frederick the Great) and “Fritz in praesepio” (Fritz, an average German, in a cradle) organizes his essays (see p. 102). To the Solomon of Prussia is an uncompromising indictment, and an occasionally scurrilous one, of Frederick the Great and the culture which supported and was supported by him. The title “Golgotha and Sheblimini!” (Hamann’s rebuttal to Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem) sets up the same contrast: “Golgotha” is Calvary, where Christ was crucified, and “Sheblimini!,” Hebrew for “Sit thou at my right hand” (see Psalms 110:1 and Hebrews 1:13), is taken as the command by which Christ was exalted. Hamann believes that Mendelssohn’s arguments for religious toleration and natural law were complicit with the machinery of Frederick’s absolutist state – and not just Mendelssohn’s arguments, but those of the Berlin Enlighteners generally, all of whom Hamann suspected of seeking to give a blank check to secular power.
Throughout his career language was Hamann’s great theme. On August 6, 1784, he wrote to Johann Gottfried Herder, “If I were only as eloquent as Demosthenes, I would need to do no more than repeat one phrase three times: reason is language, Λóγος on this marrowbone I gnaw and will gnaw myself to death over it” (Briefe, vol. V, p. 177). Hamann’s understanding of language was always theological. In his earlier writings, he was concerned to emphasize the many and diverse phenomena involving language, denying primacy to its function of communicating propositions. He emphasized language, including the language of nature,7 as the means of God’s revelation to humankind. In his later writing, he began to understand language in sacramental terms that were closely informed by the Lutheran doctrine sometimes known as “consubstantiation” (though the term is contested). Unlike members of the Catholic and Calvinist confessions, Luther had insisted that both the body and blood of Christ and the bread and wine of the elements were present in the Eucharist, not only one or the other. 8 For Hamann, this became a means of distinguishing kinds of writing. Letter and spirit must both be present, body and symbol must co-inhere, if an utterance is to be authoritative (that is, a Machtwort, which transforms elements into a sacrament).
Hamann is often seen as a proponent of holism,9 and this is an adequate description so long as it is seen in the appropriate context. At least since Augustine, Christianity has insisted on the value of the letter (in contrast to the allegorizing of the Greeks) and on the value of the spirit (in contrast to the legalism of the Jews). A peculiar richness resulted from the presence of two distinct systems of truth obligation, and Hamann sought to preserve this, insisting on the unity of letter and spirit against what he took to be the impoverishing discourse of Enlightenment philosophy. Furthermore, holism is present above all in the incarnation of Christ, who unites human and divine attributes. Hamann, like Luther, invokes the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, whereby the attributes of each of the two natures are shared by the other in Christ. Hamann extends the principle, seeing in language the interrelation of human and divine generally.10
Hamann’s holism, then, has a primary theological orientation which lies behind his rejection of the opposition between, and even the dualism of, faith and reason, idealism and realism, objectivity and subjectivity, body and spirit. By the 1780s, Hamann formulates this rejection of opposites in another way, in “the one important exception to Hamann’s general refusal to appeal to a metaphysical principle,”11 the coincidentia oppositorum, the union of opposites (as they are experienced by us) in God. Hamann believes that human knowledge is piecemeal, contradictory, and not resolvable by philosophical analysis.
Holism motivates his attacks on Mendelssohn’s and Kant’s philosophies. To Mendelssohn’s argument that actions and convictions must be treated independently, Hamann replies that “actions without convictions and convictions without actions are a cleaving of complete and living duties into two dead halves” (p. 179), resulting in the dead body of the state and a scarecrow-ghost of a church. Of Kant’s distinction of the sensibility and the understanding, Hamann asks, “To what end is such a violent, unjustified, willful divorce of that which nature has joined together! Will not both branches wither and be dried up through a dichotomy and rupture of their common root?” (p. 212). -> 11:20 AM