Jeff Markham in a recent email:
“I have a book suggestion for you– Have you ever heard of Isaiah Berlin? He died about ten years ago, and was a very influential academic in Great Britain. He was even knighted by the queen for his work. Years ago, I saw Rorty and Habermas in a debate and they were both all “Berlin this and Berlin that.” He was mostly a historian of ideas and wrote many great works. Anyway, the first thing I thought of when I read through the Blake poem was this book:
The book is about Johann Georg Hamann:
He is, according to Berlin, the pioneer of anti-rationalism in every sphere. He is the “forgotten source of a movement that in the end engulfed the whole of European culture.”
The book is divided into 9 sections (only 128 pages total)
3: The Central Core
4: The Enlightenment
7: Creative Genius
Sections 4, 5, 6, and 7 are really wonderful.
In Kant’s prolegemena to a future metaphysics, he explained that Hume awoke him from his dogmatic slumber. Hamann, close friends with Kant, also found inspiration in Hume’s brilliance.
Berlin explains that Hamann read Hume with great attention.
Hamann said such great things like, “Hume is always my man.”
Hamann does not sit, in cathartic resignation, in a mental landscape of Humean skepticism. Rather, Hamann turns Hume’s very empirical weapons that were earlier used against dogmatic theology against rationalist epistemology. (As his admirer Kierkegaard did against the Hegelians).
Hamann, from my perspective, can be understood as the first pragmatist.
Hamann says that the greatest error in the world is “to confuse words with concepts and concepts with real things.” Philosophers are imprisoned in their own systems, which have become as dogmatic as those of the Church. “The geometrical method may do for spiders like Spinoza who catch flies in their nets, but to apply it to living experience, to regard words like ‘reason’, ‘existence’ as referring to anything other than relationships that do not exist in reality, as being more than a mere aid to stimulate attention – that leads to private fantasies.
This interesting twist on Hume goes beyond mere empirical claims about gravity. Hamann, unlike Hume, has faith in a higher power. He is a Christian in a remarkably unique way. He thinks that religious belief is only justified when it is not based in reason. God cannot be proven through rational means. It is better, Hamann believes, to deny Gods existence than to prove it with evidence from the external world (See Hume: A Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion).
For Hamann, God is a poet, not a geometer. God is the creator of beauty, the arbiter of faith. Reason and God are uncorrelated. Words like ‘cause’, ‘reason’, ‘universality’ are mere counters, and do not correspond to things. Conventional signs are needed, no doubt, but they are unreal.
His beliefs about religion are not mystical or evangelical. Rather, he believes in embodied thought. Theory is only useful if it changes practice. Towards action, Hamann is exceptionally clear. Theory for him was practice, and practice was the exercise of will, the self-commitment to what one not merely recognized but felt and, in a sense, willed to be true with every fibre of one’s being. Indifference to this – suspension of judgement, coolness – is a contemptible aspect of failure to face reality.
If this interests you, ask to borrow my book.