Hamannian Origins of Existentialism
‘In the early stages of its evolution, […] existentialism might be described as a theoretical stance which: a) moved philosophical discourse away from Kantian formalism and emphasized the belief that the content of thought must reside in particular experiences and decisions; b) followed Kierkegaard in defining philosophy as a passionate and deeply engaged activity, in which the integrity and the authenticity of the human being are decisively implicated; c) sought to overcome the antinomies (reason/ experience; theory/ praxis; transcendence/ immanence; pure reason/ practical reason) which determine the classical metaphysical tradition by incorporating all aspects (cognitive, practical and sensory) of human life in an encompassing account of rational and experiential existence.’
-Thornhill, ‘Karl Jaspers’ [here]
In After Enlightenment Betz notes that Hamann did not understand ‘passions’ in terms of ‘the various vices or sins (like lust or pride) of a fallen world by which man is enslaved’; instead, he thought of passions in terms of ‘profound feelings, like fear, grief, love, and joy’. Hamann was already developing a Kierkegaardian and existentialist emphasis on suffering interiority unrelated to the dogmatic moral demands of organized Christianity. In a letter to Kant which was described by Josef Nadler as a ‘historical moment’ in the intellectual life of the eighteenth century, Hamann wrote of having exposed Kant ‘to the danger of coming so close to a man [Hamann] invested by the sickness of his passions with a power to think and to feel that a healthy person does not possess’: for Hamann passions related to a proto-existentialist complex fusing pathology, suffering and emotional-cognitive ‘power’.
Hamann also saw that the ‘sickness of his passions’ influenced his linguistic expression, as when he wrote in his Cloverleaf of Hellenistic Letters that ‘Every manner of thought that begins to be somewhat fashionable, every unnoticeable transition in one’s passions, affects the expression of one’s concepts’. Here the rôle played by passions recalls Hamann’s stammerer’s insight that (as Betz puts it) ‘there is no such thing as purely spontaneous language’: prior to communication, language is filtered through an experiential matrix of unnoticeable psychic transitions, reminiscent of the ‘fleeting, spiritual, arbitrary, and incidental determinations and circumstances’ of Aesthetica in nuce. When quoting the following lines from that text and noting that, for Hamann, within ‘the senses and the passions […], and not in a misguided form of pagan asceticism, lies the wellspring of human creativity’, Betz is referring to a level of passionate spiritual life through which language passes on its way to expression:
‘A philosopher like Saul sets up monastic laws (1 Sam. 14: 24) - - Passion alone gives to abstractions and hypotheses hands, feet, wings; - to images and signs, spirit, life, and tongue - - Where can you find more rapid inferences? Whence is the rolling thunder of eloquence engendered, and its companion – monosyllabic lightning.’
Betz helpfully observes that Hamann footnoted these arguments with a reference to these lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream :
‘Brief as lightning in the collied night,
That (in a spleen) unfolds heav’n and earth
And ere a man has power to say: Behold!
The jaws of darkness do devour it up’
|Carl Gustav Carus, 'Mondnacht im Schilf' (c. 1834)|
In the next line Shakespeare wrote of ‘quick bright things’; Hamann’s style obviously itself reproduces the ‘collied night’ of passionate spiritual life which he thought enabled such flashes of language. Betz compares Nietzsche’s vital style to Hamann’s: they shared ‘a style that is meant not to inform, but to effect something, to bring about some form of awakening, to help people – for both of them always “the few” – to see something new’. As Betz also notes, Hamann’s style generative of ‘monosyllabic lightning’ – jolting language flashes unfolded by the ‘spleen’ of fleeting spirito-experiential determinations – itself reflected his intrinsically irregular mode of production. The suggestion of producing a complete edition of his writings ‘struck Hamann as vain and fundamentally incongruous with the pseudonymous, occasional, and self-denying nature of everything he wrote’, Betz observes; yet Hamann’s writing was occasional also in that it responded to specific occasions in his life, and so was experiential and proto-existentialist even as it was self-denying. As he wrote to Johann George Scheffner:
‘It has truly been an Herculean labour for me to go through what I wrote between 59 and 83, since everything refers to the actual situation of my life, to moments, to mistaken, cockeyed, withered impressions that I am no longer able to renew.’
Hamann’s foregrounding of contingent ‘moments’ also characterized his proto-existentialist conception of reason as something which, in Betz’s words, ‘is never pure, as Kant alleges is possible, but always situated within a given tradition to which it reponds’. Betz provides a quotation from Hamann’s Metacritique of the Purism of Reason, in which he refers to an ‘occasion’ when Hume recognized the influence of
’s thinking on his own: Berkeley
‘It seems to me, first of all, that the new scepticism owes the old idealism infinitely more than this fortuitous and particular occasion would give us to understand in passing, and that, without Berkeley, Hume would hardly have become the great philosopher that the Critique [of Pure Reason], from a position of similar indebtedness, alleges him to be.’
Betz convincingly suggests that Hamann’s very emphasis on the contingent moment in these lines, underlines the importance for him of existential life as a determinant of philosophical activity – even as he downplays the status of Hume’s ‘fortuitous’ recognition. As Betz puts it, Hamann’s ‘“fortuitous,” “particular,” “occasional,” [sic] “in passing,” are all meant to highlight the contrast between his understanding of the life of the intellect (as a function of the historical contingencies of our Sitz im Leben)’, and ‘Kant’s understanding of intellectual activity (as something conducted in the ether of pure, necessary, universal concepts)’. Betz notes that Hamann’s invocation of Francis Bacon, in Aesthetica in nuce, signals Hamann’s ‘stand with the British empiricist tradition against the Cartesianism and Stoicism of the modern Continental tradition, for which nature, the senses and passions, rather than being sources of knowledge and creativity, are always already deceptive and problematic’.
Hamann’s use of the image of Pilate washing his hands of Christ, in the same text, directs us, for Betz, to ‘the Christological basis of Hamann’s critique of the abstract rationalism of the age – the fact that in Christ the divine is at one with the human, the spiritual is at one with the sensible and material’. Betz adds that, ‘as von Balthasar points out, Hamann’s entire aesthetics is centred upon the fleshliness of God in Christ and the wonder that it is precisely through the flesh that the spirit is saved’. This emphasis on the value of existence beyond abstract cognition clearly situates Hamann as a Christian existentialist; as Betz records, the first study of Hamann in English was Walter Lowrie’s Johann Georg Hamann: An Existentialist, which was published by the Princeton Theological Seminary Press in 1950. Noting that Kierkegaard drew on Hamann’s thought, Betz calls Hamann ‘arguably the original source of the “existential turn” in the history of German philosophy’. Betz cites the remarks in Hamann’s Doubts and Ideas that ‘our existence is older than our reason’ , and that ‘the ground of religion lies in our whole existence and outside the sphere of our cognitive powers, all of which taken together constitute the most arbitrary and abstract mode of our existence’.
Despite his self-alignment with Baconian empiricism, however, Hamann was – in Betz’s words, following Bayer’s analysis – ‘no strict empiricist’. As Hamann wrote to Jacobi,
‘Is knowledge possible apart from rational principles? – just as little as sensus sine intellectu. Composite beings are not capable of simple sensation[s], and still less simple [i.e., immediate, intuitive] knowledge. In human nature, sensibility can as little be separated from reason, as reason can be separated from sensibility.’
Hamann’s sense of the inseparability of the empirical and the rational, of experience and reason, was grounded in what Betz describes as his ‘spiritual understanding of language as involving a mysterious coincidentia oppositorum of the sensible and the intelligible’. Betz quotes from Hegel’s 1828 review of the first edition of his writings: ‘Hamann places himself in the middle of the problem of reason and proposes its solution; and he conceives it in terms of language.’ For Hegel, ‘in Hamann the concrete Idea ferments and turns itself against the divisions of reflection’. Betz continues,
‘In other words, whereas Kant’s philosophy divided the phenomenal from the noumenal, the sensible from the intelligible, and subsequent to “this unnatural and unholy divorce” (in Hamann’s phrase) could offer only a tenuous connection by means of synthetic judgments a priori, Hamann repeatedly points out that the actual living unity of these elements, which reason subsequently sunders, is already given in language.’
In this connection Betz also quotes from Katie Terezakis’ The Immanent Word :
‘The strength of Hamann’s linguistic “metacritique” of Kant lies in his reckoning with the unreservedly immanent character of language, as the genetically prior, shared root of sensibility and understanding, and thus as the ideal and real boundary of subjective consciousness.’
Terezakis’ underlining of Hamann’s understanding of language as the boundary of subjective consciousness, helps us to understand that we should not overemphasize the subjectivism of Hamann’s oeuvre – a radical subjectivism to which Betz draws attention when he writes of Hamann’s ‘collection of writings that to this day are not only sui generis but doubtless some of the oddest and most fantastic in all of western literature’. For Hamann, as Beiser noted in some observations in The Fate of Reason which are quoted by Betz, subjective creative freedom is in a sense bounded by being itself an imitation of nature:
‘If we were to sum up Aesthetica in nuce, then we would have to single out two doctrines: that art ought to imitate nature and reveal the word of God; and that art ought to express the innermost personality of the artist. What is central to Hamann’s aesthetics, however, is precisely the combination or intersection of these doctrines. It is a seemingly paradoxical fusion of an extreme subjectivism, which insists that the artist express his innermost desires and feelings, and an extreme objectivism, which demands that the artist strictly imitate nature and surrender to its effects upon him.’
As Betz writes, ‘the resolution of this apparent paradox between subjective freedom and objective imitation is to be found in Hamann’s understanding of the human being as the imago Dei’. Because he believed that human poetic freedom is a reflection of God’s creative freedom, for Hamann (in Betz’s words) ‘the maximum of human freedom and creativity, rather than being an instance of pure subjectivism, is simultaneously the maximum of God’s self-revelation’. For Hamann, Betz continues, ‘human poesis’ is ‘always already a participation in the expressive language of creation’.
Such ideas contributed to Hamann’s early existentialist thinking of language as a dialogical religious phenomenon. As we have seen, in some beautiful lines inThe Knight of the Rose-Cross, Hamann conveyed his view that the original natural creation constituted – just as language constitutes still – a communication between the human and the divine:
‘Every phenomenon of nature was a word – the sign, symbol, and pledge of a new, secret, inexpressible, but at the same time all the more intimate union, communication, and communion of divine energies and ideas. In the beginning everything that the man [Adam] heard, saw with his eyes, looked upon, and touched with his hands was a living word; for God was the Word.’
For Hamann in The Knight of the Rose-Cross, the ‘communicatio of the divine and human idiomatum is a fundamental law and the master key of all our knowledge and the entire visible economy’; for him, therefore, language is not only the boundary of subjective consciousness but also the medium of intersubjectivity. As Betz observes, ‘for Hamann the origin of language is not to be conceived in monological but in dialogical terms (anticipating the thought of Martin Buber and Ferdinand Ebner)’. Hamannian communicative intersubjectivity derives this existentialist or religiously dialogical quality from its relation to his theology of human freedom as response, imitation and surrender – a theology which, Betz notes, anticipates Bayer’s contemporary Lutheran ‘theology of human freedom as Verantwortung’, developed ‘largely along Hamannian lines’ in Bayer’s Freiheit als Antwort [Freedom in Response]. For Hamann, Betz underlines, ‘human freedom is properly understood not as an absolute freedom, i.e., as an autonomous self-positing, but rather as the freedom of a creature to respond, having previously been addressed by another’. Unable to claim the absolute freedom of personal fluency, Hamann theorized a revelational intersubjectivity which twinned language’s creative capacity with human incapacity: for Hamann, without surrender there can be no ‘participation in the expressive language of creation’.
Next post: Thornhill on Hamann and Jaspers