Books In Review

The Magus of the North

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 44 (June/July 1994): 56-58.

A Man for Our Time?

The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism. By Isaiah Berlin. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 160 pp. $21.

Reviewed by Thomas K. Carr

Normally, convention dictates that when reviewing a book by a well-known scholar one should devote one's opening comments to an assessment of that scholar's achievements. A sense of what is practicable in so short a space prompts me otherwise. With his acuteness of intellect, range of interest, the sheer magnitude of his published work and extracurricular activities, Isaiah Berlin makes the task for anyone attempting a life- synopsis dauntingly difficult.

Consider: Berlin has published essays on Belinsky, Tolstoy, Marx, Pasternak, Schiller, Turgenev, Montesquieu, Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Mill, Vico, Verdi, Hobbes, Locke, Ben-Gurion, Nabokov, and Disraeli; and books on such themes as human freedom, personal identity, nationalism, the Enlightenment, and the philosophies of history, science, and art. At Oxford he has been a Fellow of New College (1938- 50), Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory (1957-67), first President of Wolfson College (1966-75), and a Fellow of All Souls where he is now. During World War II he served the British Foreign Office in Washington and Moscow. He was President of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978. He still makes regular appearances on the BBC and has for many years been a director of the Royal Opera House. Berlin is not a scholar; he is his own cottage industry.

It is therefore surprising that so universal a figure enjoying in late life such well-earned fame and influence would turn the powers of his pen not to the suffering economy of his adopted nation, nor to peace in the Middle East (a theme close to his Jewish heart), nor any other current issue of weight, but instead to an obscure, isolated, altogether neglected thinker from another time and place. Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88), German philosopher and sometime theologian, had been resting peacefully in relative oblivion, great fodder for the occasional dissertation but otherwise banished to footnotes and appendices. Resting, that is, until Berlin took it upon himself to rescue him. Convinced that this self-styled oracular sage- the "Magus of the North" he liked to be called-had something to say to our time and place, Berlin applied his customary powers of sympathy and imagination to penetrate some of history's most notoriously opaque writing. The result, artfully edited by Berlin's long-time assistant, Henry Hardy, is a clear and convincing account of one of the modern period's most unique and original thinkers who, having refused to countenance their advent, began discussion on some of the very issues that still stupefy our own best and brightest.

Hamann was born in Konigsberg, home of Immanuel Kant, who both admired and befriended Hamann despite the latter's sometimes vicious attacks on Kantian rationalism. In no sense a professional philosopher-he called himself an "ignoramus," his mind "a blotting paper," and his style a mix of "fragments, leaps, and hints"-Hamann made his living as a secretary- translator and later as a government warehouse manager. He never married but did live in his later years with one of his father's servants to whom he remained faithful all his life and with whom he had four children. He was fond of food and drink and travelled on business to England and Germany, Poland once, but otherwise lived within his meager means.

Hamann's conversion to pietistic Christianity at the age of twenty-eight centered on a devout, daily reading of the Bible-a practice he never abandoned. The pillars of his faith were few and straightforward: that the Bible, nature, and history are keys to self-understanding; that self-understanding is the key to an understanding of God. His defense of them was equally tenacious: faith is essentially a mystical relation between the soul and God, impervious to analytical reason and therefore beyond reach of the philosophers. Testimony to the power of this simple if not entirely original vision came from a certain Russian Princess named Golitsyn, a wealthy Catholic who looked upon Hamann as a saint and who made sure his last years were spent in comfort. He died in her house in Munster and is buried nearby, "a peculiar and enigmatic figure," writes Berlin, "to the end."

Ever since Hegel wrote a long and inflammatory review of his work, Hamann has been considered an irrationalist too ambivalent and paradoxical to merit attention. In Berlin's estimate this is not far from the truth: "It does not matter where in [Hamann's] writings one begins," he comments,

nothing has a beginning or a middle or an end. . . . The thread of argument, such as it is, is constantly being broken by other arguments or topics, digressions within digressions . . . and the continuity of thought emerges, after a long passage in underground channels, in some unexpected place, and is once again soon buried under the luxuriant, irrepressible, chaotic, scattered tropical growth of Hamann's ideas and images.
Yet Hamann's wit and radicality of doctrine caught the attention of Goethe, Herder, and Jacobi, three rather sensible Romantics, and later that of Humboldt, Schleiermacher, and Kierkegaard, the last of whom, Berlin tells us, "revered him." To be sure, Hamann despised his age, denouncing above all the Enlightenment's trust in metaphysical axioms and a priori arguments at the expense of cognition derived from personal experience and the persistent introspection of feelings. Still, antirationalism is not the same as irrationalism. Hamann's equals are Pascal and Polanyi, not Nietzsche and Derrida. Berlin admits as much in a passage that bristles with damningly faint praise, exposing his own qualified assent to the Enlightenment:

The fact that Hamann's [anti-Enlightenment argument] was ill-conceived, overdone, naive, ludicrously exaggerated and irresponsible, or touched with bitter and savage obscurantism and a blind hatred of some of the noblest moral and artistic . . . achievements of mankind, does not lessen its importance. . . . For some of what is most original in Hamann turned out to be in large measure disturbingly valid.
To be sure, Berlin is himself a rationalist versed in the heady Oxbridge school of philosophical analysis as well as commensurate traditions from the Continent. What is there, then, of enough validity to Berlin to be worth his delving so deeply into Hamann's thought? Certainly not his theory of knowledge, his justification of private judgment and self- guaranteed certitude based solely on contact with God: Berlin is far too consensus-minded a thinker to countenance that. Hamann believes against the enlightenment theory, which Berlin himself holds, that it is not man-made concepts but the cohesive presence of God's Spirit that gives unity to the disjecti membra of sense impressions (which makes Hamann less a "genuine nominalist" than Berlin claims him to be).

Might it then be that Hamann's nature mysticism-"if I stumble and err"- paraphrases Berlin's, "I have but to read the Bible or study human history or look at nature to see what it is that God's creatures are meant to do; for there are parables and allegories everywhere around me"? Perhaps. Considering the demand today for a coherent eco-theology, Hamann proves here to be possible source material: he believes that placing human reason above nature is a "hideous chimera," a "bleak construction of the rationalizing intellect," and prefers instead to leave human destiny to the variable flux and vicissitudes of life in and through which, aided by intuition and a love for God, we are each of us individually to discover our destinies. Indeed, Hamann comes close to pantheism (which Berlin is right to deny) when he insists, like Hegel, that the Almighty be brought within the confines of time. But his disbelief in world progress puts him in line not with Spinoza but Whitehead, not New Age theosophy but the process theologies of Cobb and Ogden. Still, to Berlin's consideration, there is nothing really original here, nothing not "already to be found in Eckhart and Tauler and Bohme and the whole German mystical tradition."

Thus it is neither his epistemology (which Berlin rejects outright) nor his theology (of mere historical interest) for which Hamann is best remembered. Rather it is Hamann's "new and original theory of language" that in Berlin's estimation affords him lasting significance in the annals of history. "Hamann's view of language," he writes, "is at once the most central and the most original doctrine in the rich and disordered world of his ideas, and perhaps the most fertile." One of the book's lengthiest chapters and its only appendix are devoted to the subject, the import of which is only just beginning to be fully appreciated. Here the world-historical Hamann was to shine forth.

Hamann's critique of language was born amidst a controversy launched by Condillac in 1746 about the origins of speech. It divided those who believed speech to be a merely human invention, a product of nature or creative activity, from those who for religious reasons believed it to have been given to mankind by God. On the former side stood Rousseau, who in 1755 claimed language to be a thing created by human thought to fit a specific need, i.e., communication, and therefore that thought precedes and is independent of language just as language precedes speech. Also on their side was Herder, Hamann's disciple, whose celebrated thesis of 1772 attacked the theological notion of a complete language springing forth fully armed, grammar and all, before human reason had the chance to develop to a level capable of producing such a thing on its own. While language "reveals God in the light of a higher day . . . his work is a human soul which itself creates and continues to create its own language."

Hamann was furious at his beloved student's degree of naturalism (he later shifted loyalties to Jacobs) and attacked Herder bitterly. What arose then was Hamann's own unique theory, previously scattered among his mostly occasional writings, and which Berlin neatly summarizes for the reader in eight straightforward claims:

(a) that there is no "perfect language" which mirrors reality without remainder; (b) that universally valid propositions, therefore, are elusive and illusory; (c) that rules and laws are temporal, impermanent holds on reality; (d) that theoretical abstraction creates imaginary entities which have no relation to real life; (e) that every language is a way of life based on patterns of communal experience; (f) that there is no universal language into which particular languages can be translated; (g) that only by entering into its actual everyday usage is a language to be understood; (h) that we must distrust grammar and rely instead on the peculiarities of concrete word usage.
"This is surely a doctrine," Berlin comments, "that was not wholly unfamiliar in the middle of our century among English-speaking philosophers" (i.e., postwar Cambridge under Wittgenstein). Yet what is more interesting, and indeed more relevant to current issues, is Hamann's insistence that "language is the first and last organ of reason." The Cartesian notion that there are ideas, "clear and distinct," which can be contemplated by a detached mind, a notion peddled in some form by all rationalists, was for Hamann a fallacy. Ideas arise from the senses and are so intertwined with the words used to think and express them as to form one indissoluble, "organic" entity: namely, language. As such, words are the bearers of human experience, stamped with life, and the richer, therefore, the better-a theme that especially inspired Goethe.

It is this poetic vision of language, of the inextricable unity of words and lived experience, that has been taken up today by the school of postmodern hermeneutics. Issuing from the writings of Nietzsche, Husserl, and the late Heidegger, such figures as Merleau-Ponty, Bloom, Saussure, Rorty, and Derrida (the last notoriously) have pushed this reason-language unity to its limit. They have concluded that reality as we know it is merely a product of language, constituted differently in accordance with the different ways we speak about it; that there are, therefore, as many "realities" as there are languages.

This nihilistic vision is at points echoed in Hamann: "Where there is no word," he writes, "there is no reason-and no world," for language and reason are one. Yet unlike his deconstructionist successors, the identity of speech and thought does not lead Hamann to limit reality to the humanly spoken, for underlying every disparate word is the Word of God, "as near and as easy as a child's play." "For me," wrote Hamann cryptically, "every book is a Bible." It is this infinite linguistic frame that enables Hamann's rationalist critique to retain its sensibility. Rather than denying a reality outside the text qua Derrida, for Hamann everything is text, for everything is the language of God. Hamann's is a world bristling with divine presence and creative energy-a world like Schiller's "initiate" in Gods of Greece for whose "consecrated eyes everything bears the divine trace."

Are these the rantings of a disreputable thinker properly cloaked in obscurity? Perhaps they are to those who have never read Hamann, or who dismiss Romanticism as the emotional masturbation of those too self- obsessed to think critically. But Berlin, the consummate rationalist, does not think so. While his sympathies for Hamann are qualified, Berlin believes that trading the values of materialism and technological progress for those of heart and soul is not only profitable, in the long run at least, but also authentically human. Hamann will never become the darling of either the deconstructionists prophesying the future or the reactionary defenders of past forms of life. He is instead a man for our time even if he was not a man for his. Hamann speaks for those who, like Berlin, are firmly planted in the present, and who seek to defend its inarticulate, mysteriously dark depths out of which the great poet-God addresses us.

Thomas K. Carr is Junior Dean of Oriel College and a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Oxford University.