Biography:Johann Georg Hamann

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Short description: German philosopher (1730–1788)
Johann Georg Hamann
Johann Georg Hamann (1730 –1788).jpg
Königsberg, Kingdom of Prussia
Died21 June 1788(1788-06-21) (aged 57)
Münster, Prince-Bishopric of Münster
Alma materUniversity of Königsberg
(1746–1751/52; no degree)
Era18th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Sturm und Drang
Main interests
Notable ideas
"Reason is language" ("Vernunft ist Sprache")[1]

Johann Georg Hamann (/ˈhɑːmən/; German: [ˈhaːman]; 27 August 1730 – 21 June 1788) was a German Lutheran philosopher from Königsberg known as "the Wizard of the North" who was one of the leading figures of post-Kantian philosophy. His work was used by his student J. G. Herder as the main support of the Sturm und Drang movement, and is associated with the Counter-Enlightenment and Romanticism.[5][6]

He introduced Kant, also from Königsberg, to the works of both Hume – waking him from his "dogmatic slumber" – and Rousseau. Hamann was influenced by Hume, but he used his views to argue for rather than against Christianity.[7]

Goethe and Kierkegaard were among those who considered him to be the finest mind of his time.[8] He was also a key influence on Hegel and Jacobi.[9] Long before the linguistic turn, Hamann believed epistemology should be replaced by the philosophy of language.

Early life

Johann Georg Hamann (20th century drawing)

Hamann was born on 27 August 1730 in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia). Initially he studied theology at the University of Königsberg,[10] but became a clerk in a mercantile house and afterward held many small public offices, devoting his leisure to reading philosophy.[11] His first publication was a study in political economy about a dispute on nobility and trade.[12] He wrote under the pen name of "the Magus of the North" (German: Magus im Norden).[11] Hamann was a believer in the Enlightenment until a mystical experience in London in 1758. There, he underwent a profound Christian conversion, reorienting his whole life and philosophy around the prophetic illuminating power of the Bible. This shift influenced all his subsequent work, shaping his views of nature, reason, and human identity.[13]

His translation of David Hume into German is considered by most scholars to be the one that Hamann's friend Immanuel Kant, also from Königsberg, credited with awakening him from his "dogmatic slumber". Hamann and Kant held each other in mutual respect, although Hamann once declined an invitation by Kant to co-write a physics textbook for children.[14] Hamann also introduced Kant to the work of Rousseau.[15]


Hamann was a lutenist, having studied this instrument with Timofey Belogradsky (a student of Sylvius Leopold Weiss), a Ukrainian virtuoso then living in Königsberg.

Philosophical views

His distrust of autonomous, disembodied reason and the Enlightenment ("I look upon logical proofs the way a well-bred girl looks upon a love letter" was one of his many witticisms) led him to conclude that faith in God was the only solution to the vexing problems of philosophy.

One of Kant's biographers compared him with Hamann:

Kant made reason the rule of his life and the source of his philosophy; Hamann found the source of both in his heart. While Kant dreaded enthusiasm in religion, and suspected in it superstition and fanaticism, Hamann reveled in enthusiasm; and he believed in revelation, miracles, and worship, differing also in these points from the philosopher. In some respects they complemented each other; but the repelling elements were too strong to make them fully sympathetic. The difference in their stand-points, however, makes Hamann’s views of Kant all the more interesting.[16]

In Hamann's own terms Kant was a "Platonist" about reason, believing it disembodied, and Hamann an "Aristotelian" who believed it was embodied.[citation needed] Hamann was greatly influenced by Hume. This is most evident in Hamann's conviction that faith and belief, rather than knowledge, determine human actions.[15] Also, Hamann asserted that the efficacy of a concept arises from the habits it reflects rather than any inherent quality it possesses.


Hamann's writings consist of small essays. They display two striking tendencies. The first is their brevity, in comparison with works by his contemporaries.[7] The second is their breadth of allusion and delight in extended analogies.[7] His work was also significantly reactive; rather than advance a "position" of his own, his principal mode of thinking was to respond to others' work.[7] For example, his work Golgotha and Scheblimini! By a Preacher in the Wilderness (1784) was directed against Moses Mendelssohn's Jerusalem, or on Religious Might and Judaism (1782).[17]

Hamann famously used the image of Socrates, who often proclaimed to know nothing, in his Socratic Memorabilia, an essay in which Hamann critiques the Enlightenment's dependence on reason. In Aesthetica in nuce, Hamann counters the Enlightenment by emphasizing the importance of aesthetic experience and the role of genius in intuiting nature.


Fragments of his writings were published by Cramer, under the title of Sibyllinische Blätter des Magus aus Norden (1819), and a complete edition by Roth (7 vols., 1821–25, with a volume of additions and explanations by Wiener, 1843). Hamann's des Magus in Norden Leben und Schriften, edited by Gildemeister, was published in 5 vols., 1857–68, and a new edition of his Schriften und Briefen, edited by Petri, in 4 vols., 1872-74.[11]


Hamann argued that the communicatio idiomatum, namely, the communication of divine messages through material embodiments, applies not just to Christ, but should be generalised to cover all human action: "This communicatio of divine and human idiomatum is a fundamental law and the master-key of all our knowledge and of the whole visible economy."[18] Hamann believed all of creation were signs from God for us to interpret.[19]

Reason is language

His most notable contributions to philosophy were his thoughts on language, which have often been considered as a forerunner to the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy such as Wittgenstein's. He famously said that "Reason is language" ("Vernunft ist Sprache").[1] Hamann thought the bridge between Kant's noumenal and phenomenal realms was language, with its noumenal meaning and phenomenal letters.


Hamann was one of the precipitating forces for the Counter-Enlightenment. He was, moreover, a mentor to Herder and an admired influence on Goethe, Jacobi, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Lessing, and Mendelssohn. Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar devoted a chapter to Hamann in his volume, Studies in Theological Styles: Lay Styles (Volume III in the English language translation of The Glory of the Lord series). Most recently, Hamann's influence can be found in the work of the theologians Oswald Bayer (Lutheran), John Milbank (Anglican), and David Bentley Hart (Eastern Orthodox). Finally, in Charles Taylor's important summative work, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity (Taylor, 2016),[20] Hamann is given credit, along with Wilhelm von Humboldt and Herder, for inspiring Taylor's "HHH" approach to the philosophy of language, emphasizing the creative power and cultural specificity of language.

However, recent scholarship, such as that by Bayer, contradicts the usual interpretation by people such as historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, and describes Hamann as a "radical Enlightener" who vigorously opposed dogmatic rationalism in matters of philosophy and faith.[21] Bayer views him as less the proto-Romantic that Herder presented, and more a premodern-postmodern thinker who brought the consequences of Lutheran theology to bear upon the burgeoning Enlightenment and especially in reaction to Kant.[22]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Johann Georg Hamann, Brief an Herder, v. 8. August 1784, in: Johann Georg Hamann, Briefwechsel, 7 vols., Arthur Henkel (ed.), Wiesbaden: Insel Verlag, 1955–75, vol. 5, p. 177.
  2. O'Flaherty 1979, p. 19.
  3. Garrett Green, Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 53.
  4. "Hamann's Influence on Wittgenstein". Nordic Wittgenstein Review. 2018-06-26. Retrieved 2022-04-11. 
  5. Isaiah Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, London and Princeton, 2000.
  6. Berlin, Isaiah (1993). The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-19657-8. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Griffith-Dickson, Gwen (2017), Zalta, Edward N., ed., Johann Georg Hamann (Fall 2017 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University,, retrieved 2020-01-22 
  8. Betz, John (January 2009). "Reading "Sibylline Leaves": J. G. Hamann in the History of Ideas". Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (1): 94–95. 
  9. "Johann Georg Hamann | German philosopher" (in en). 
  10. W. M. Alexander, Johann Georg Hamann Philosophy and Faith, Springer, 2012 : "Hamann left the University in 1751 or as late as 1752 without taking a degree."
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Template:AmCyc
  12. Christoph Meineke: „Die Vortheile unserer Vereinigung“: Hamanns Dangeuil-Beylage im Lichte der Debatte um den handeltreibenden Adel. [In German] In: Beetz, Manfred / Rudolph, Andre (Ed.). Johann Georg Hamann: Religion und Gesellschaft (2012), pp. 46–64.
  13. See John R. Betz, "Hamann's London Writings: The Hermeneutics of Trinitarian Condescenscion." Pro Ecclesia, 14, no. 2 (2005): 194-195.
  14. See John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J.G. Hamann (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 36-37.
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Johann Georg Hamann (1730—1788)". 
  16. Stuckenberg, J. H. W. (1882). The Life of Immanuel Kant. London: Macmillan. p. 202. 
  17. Bruce Rosenstock (2010). Philosophy and the Jewish Question. New York: Fordham University Press. p. 29. 
  18. Hamann, Johann (2007), Haynes, Kenneth, ed., Writings on Philosophy and Language, Leiden: Cambridge University Press, p. 99, ISBN 978-0-511-34139-7,, retrieved 2012-12-06 
  19. Beiser, Frederick C. (15 October 1993). The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte. Harvard University Press. p. 20. ISBN 9780674295032. 
  20. Taylor, Charles (2016) The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  21. Betz, John (2012). After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann. Chicester: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-470-67492-5. 
  22. Bayer, Oswald. A Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as a Radical Enlightener. Roy A. Harrisville & Mark C. Mattes, trans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.


  • Isaiah Berlin; Henry Hardy (ed.) The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism, London, John Murray, 1993, ISBN:0-719-55312-1
  • Isaiah Berlin; Henry Hardy (ed.) Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, London and Princeton, 2000, ISBN:0-691-05726-5
  • Dickson, Gwen Griffith, Johann Georg Hamann's Relational Metacriticism (contains English translations of Socratic Memorabilia, Aesthetica in Nuce, a selection of essays on language, Essay of a Sibyl on Marriage and Metacritique of the Purism of Reason), Walter de Gruyter, 1995. ISBN:3-11-014437-9
  • Forster, Michael N., After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition, Oxford University Press, 2010, ch. 8–9.
  • David Bentley Hart, "The Laughter of the Philosophers", First Things. January 2005.
  • Kenneth Haynes (ed.), Hamann: Writings on Philosophy and Language (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), Cambridge University Press, 2007, ISBN:978-0-521-81741-7
  • James C. O'Flaherty, Unity and Language: A Study in the Philosophy of Hamann, University of North Carolina, 1952;
  • James C. O'Flaherty, Hamann's Socratic Memorabilia: A Translation and Commentary, Johns Hopkins Press, 1967; Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 67-12424;
  • James C. O'Flaherty, Johann Georg Hamann, Twayne Publishers, 1979, ISBN:0-8057-6371-6;
  • James C. O'Flaherty, The Quarrel of Reason with Itself: Essays on Hamann, Michaelis, Lessing, Nietzsche, Camden House, 1988, ISBN:0-938100-56-4

Further reading

  • Alkire, Brian (2021). The Last Mask: Hamann's Theater of the Grotesque. Zürich: Diaphanes, 2021 ISBN:978-3-0358-0370-9
  • Anderson, Lisa Marie (ed.). Hamann and the Tradition. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2012 ISBN:978-0810127982
  • Alexander, W. M. (1966). Johann Georg Hamann: Philosophy and Faith. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Bayer, Oswald. (2012). A Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Haman as a Radical Enlightener. Translated by Roy A. Harrisville and Mark C. Mattes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. ISBN:978-0802866707
  • Beiser, Frederick (1987). The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press ISBN:0-674-29502-1
  • Betz, John (2009). After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J.G. Hamann. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell ISBN:978-1-4051-6246-3
  • Cattarini, L.S. (2018) Beyond Sartre and Sterility, contains introductory article on Hamann (Magus of the North) ISBN:978-0-9739986-1-0
  • Milbank, John. (1999) "The Theological Critique of Philosophy in Hamann and Jacobi." In Radical Orthodoxy. Edited by John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward. London: Routledge. 21-37.
  • O'Flaherty, James C. (1979) Johann Georg Hamann. Boston: Twayne. ISBN:978-0805763713
  • Smith, Ronald Gregor (1960). J.G. Hamann 1730–1788: A Study in Christian Existence. New York: Harper & Brothers.
  • Sparling, Robert Alan (2011). Johann Georg Hamann and the Enlightenment Project. Toronto: University of Toronto Press ISBN:978-1-4426-4215-7

External links