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Friday, May 18, 2018

Kant, Hamann, and the Rise of the Sturm und Drang

A 20th century drawing of Johann Georg Hamann
Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) had been deeply influenced by the Enlightenment ideals, but due to the personal problems that he experienced during his stay in London in 1757-58, he had a religious awakening and he slowly fought his way back to the belief that God and church were the only salvation not only for himself, but for everyone.

When he returned to Königsberg in March of 1759, he was a changed man—he had discarded his belief in the Enlightenment ideas which he had shared with several friends, and intellectuals like Immanuel Kant, in Germany. Now he had rejected science and reason, and embarked upon an inflexible kind of faith in the religious doctrines preached by the Church.

His employer Bernes noticed the change in Hamann and enlisted the help of Kant to make Hamann realize that he should discard his new philosophy and once again become an advocate of the Enlightenment. Bernes and Kant met Hamman in early July 1759 at a rural inn outside Königsberg  but the meeting didn’t go well. The philosophical differences between Kant and Hamann were too wide. On July 24, Kant and Bernes gave a visit to Hamann and they offered Hamann the task of translating some articles from Diderot’s Encyclopedie. Kant was hopeful that Hamann would return to his senses while translating the classic of the Enlightenment. But Hamann did not accept the offer. Instead, he sent a strong letter to Kant rejecting his role as a mediator.

Frederick C. Beiser’s The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte, (Chapter 1, “Kant, Hamann, and the Rise of the Sturm und Drang”), offers an interesting account of how the interactions between Kant and Hamann became the catalyst for the rise of the Sturm und Drang. Here’s an excerpt:
Hamann's letter to Kant, dated July 27, 1759, is a significant historical document. It has good claim to be the first clash between the Aufklarung and Sturm und Drang, the first battle between Kant and his pietistic opponents. Apart from its personal content—the rejection of Kant's mediation—the letter consists mainly in a defense of faith and feeling against the tyranny of reason. Hamann casts himself in the role of a prophet who is persecuted by the 'priests' of the Aufklarung. The dramatis personae are now clear to him: if Kant is Socrates, and if Berens is Alcibiades, then Hamann is the genius who speaks through Socrates. This genius represents divine inspiration, the voice of prophecy, which is what "little Socrates" needs if he is to explain "the mystery of faith" to "big Alcibiades." But Hamann fears that Kant, as a mere philosopher, has no understanding of the heart. Hence he tells Kant that he writes to him in epic rather than lyric style since a philosopher cannot comprehend the language of feeling. Hamann then ridicules Berens' use of a philosopher to change his beliefs: "I nearly have to laugh at the choice of a philosopher to change my thinking. I see the best demonstration like a sensible girl sees a love letter, and I see a Baumgartian definition as a fleuret.” 
In his closing paragraph, however, Hamann cites one philosopher who does understand the need for faith: "the Attic philosopher," David Hume. If Hume is right that reason cannot prove or disprove the existence of ordinary things, then it a fortiori cannot prove or disprove the existence of 'higher things'. If we can only believe in the existence of tables and chairs, then a fortiori we can only believe in the existence of God. Hume is "a Saul among prophets" since he sees that reason cannot make us wise, and that we need faith "to eat an egg or to drink a glass of water.” 
Hamann's appeal to Hume here is strangely, and perhaps intentionally, ironic. Hume argues that there are no rational grounds for the belief in the existence of God in order to attack faith; but Hamann reverses his argument and uses it to defend faith. The argument is the same; but its uses conflict. To Hamann, the merit of Hume's skepticism is not that it challenges faith, but that it secures it from the criticism of reason. 
Whatever the merits of his interpretation, Hamann's citation of Hume in his July 27 letter proved fateful. It is the earliest evidence of Kant's acquaintance with Hume. Here was the spark that later awakened Kant from his "dogmatic slumber." Hume also played a decisive role in the development of Hamann's philosophy, particularly his defense of faith against the attacks of reason. In citing Hume against Kant, Hamann also set a precedent for those philosophers who eventually launched a Humean counterattack upon Kant. 
The influence of Hamann on the Sturm und Drang movement is beyond dispute, but Kant, despite his opposition to the movement, ended up playing a catalytic role in the movement. His conflict with Hamann helped create the Sturm und Drang movement, which was in essence a counter-Enlightenment movement. Hamann was inspired by Kant, but he developed his own philosophy in a reaction to Kant’s pro-Enlightenment philosophy.

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