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The Magus of the North’

In response to:

The Magus of the North from the October 21, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

One must be grateful to Isaiah Berlin for his insightful article, “The Magus of the North” [NYR, October 21]. It will do much to rescue Johann Georg Hamann from the unfortunate obscurity to which he has generally been relegated. However, it is a pity that Berlin has chosen to ignore the radical revision that Hamann’s relation to the eighteenth century Enlightenment has undergone in recent years. The consensus today among Hamann-scholars is that he too was, to a great extent, a child of the Enlightenment, and certainly no obscurantist enemy of that movement. Oswald Bayer, the Tübingen theologian and leading Hamann-scholar, recently published a book on that thinker subtitled “Hamann as Radical Enlightener.”* But it is not simply Hamann-specialists who have recognized that he was no irrationalist. Years ago the great Marxist scholar Georg Lukács in his landmark work, The Destruction of Reason, rejected the notion that Hamann was an irrationalist. In his view Hamann was no “destroyer” of reason.

The question of Hamann’s admittedly complex relationship to the Enlightenment really turns on his conception of reason. It was no less a person than his friendly adversary, Immanuel Kant, who contrasted his own mode of reasoning with that of Hamann, describing the latter as “intuitive reason” (“anschauende Vernunft“). Berlin is aware of this fact. Moreover, on May 24, 1991, when his book on Hamann, from which the present article is an excerpt, was in preparation, he wrote to me: “I am sure that you are right that Hamann wanted reason to be of two kinds—the kind that Schelling and Hegel talked about afterwards, and the kind that the French philosophes spoke of.” It is true that both Schelling’s and Hegel’s modes of reasoning differ from that of the philosophes, but the important fact is that each employs reason in the service of his particular metaphysics. Despite Hamann’s frequent and vehement attacks on (discursive) reason, it is possible to specify what he considered to be the legitimate use of reason, and why he could say: “Faith has need of reason as much as reason has need of faith.” A person who feels the need, as Hamann did, to appeal to Bacon, Locke, and especially Hume in establishing his epistemology cannot be considered an irrationalist. The genuine romantics felt no such need. Berlin does concede that Hamann was not a “heaven-storming” irrationalist, but he does not specify how his “irrationalism” differs from that of the heaven-stormers. Berlin has the right, of course, to opt for the older view championed by Rudolf Unger in his monumental work on Hamann, Hamann und die Aufklärung (1911), but his readers would be better served by being alerted, even in footnotes, to the fact that contemporary scholarship demurs on the charge of irrationalism against “the Magus of the North.” For it was precisely his conception of reason that allowed him to become the great critic, or “metacritic,” of religion, morals, and aesthetics that Berlin recognizes him to be.

One should not conclude from the foregoing remarks that I do not appreciate Berlin’s otherwise brilliant and instructive treatment of Hamann’s thought. For he has amply demonstrated that “Hamann repays study” and that “he is one of the few wholly original critics of modern times.” Further, Berlin’s (characteristically) illuminating comparison of his subject’s thought with that of the most disparate thinkers affords in this case a greater insight into Hamann’s position in the history of ideas.

James C. O’Flaherty
Professor Emeritus of German
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Isaiah Berlin replies:

Professor O’Flaherty is one of the most distinguished living students of Hamann’s thought, and, as my friend and editor Dr. Henry Hardy wrote in his preface to my book, we are both most grateful to him for the generous help he has given us in preparing my text for publication. I am only too glad to reiterate my thanks to him, but I must point out that, as Dr. Hardy also made clear in his preface, there are issues on which we are not in agreement. In the letter from which Professor O’Flaherty quotes I also stated that the notion of “intuitive reason” of which he speaks is not one that I understand. Intuition and intuitive understanding are conceptions which I believe I do understand, and which I have indeed discussed; but “intuitive reason,” whether in Hamann (as interpreted by Professor O’Flaherty) or Jacobi, in Schelling or Fichte or, apparently, Lukács, is opaque to me.

To call Hamann an anti-rationalist is to say that he attacked the methods by which the great rationalists of the seventeenth century, and their descendants and critics in the French Enlightenment (and after them such rational thinkers as Bentham, Mill, William James, Moore, Russell, and the great majority of English-speaking philosophers of our time), stated, analyzed, and sought to justify their views, and by which they criticized those of their opponents. It is this that makes the fact that Hamann is the first and most vehement opponent of the French Enlightenment and its descendants a phenomenon of historical importance.

It may be that my failure to identify the faculty of intuitive reason (a term not used, Professor O’Flaherty seems to say in his book Johann Georg Hamann, by Hamann himself) is due to some deficiency in my intellect or imagination: but it seems that Kant suffered equally from this fault. The phrase cited by Professor O’Flaherty occurs in a letter to Hamann in which Kant asks for his help in interpreting a dark passage in Hamann’s disciple Herder, but begs him to reply “in human language, if possible; for I, poor mortal, am not at all organized to understand the divine language of intuitive reason” (as translated by Professor O’Flaherty in the same book). Nor am I so organized.

The best of all modern historians of ideas, A.O. Lovejoy, is plainly equally puzzled by this peculiar conception of reason in his book The Reason, The Understanding, and Time. On this issue I am happy to ally myself with Kant, Mill, Lovejoy, and the admirable scholar Rudolf Unger, whose work on Hamann, no matter what the modern interpreters referred to by Professor O’Flaherty may say, seems to me (may he forgive me) entirely convincing.

  1. *

    Zeitgenosse im Widerspruch: J.G. Hamann als radikaler Aufklärer (Munich-Zürich: Piper, 1988).

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