Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hamann in Manhattan

Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) is an important figure in German thought of the 18th century, one on the edge of my expertise. Goethe probably learned of Hamann already in Frankfurt, in 1768-69, from Susanna Katharina von Klettenberg, a Pietist reader of the writings of the Counter-Enlightenment philosopher. Goethe became more intimately acquainted with Hamann's writings under Herder's tutelage in Strassburg. From this string of acquaintances and influences emerged the so-called Sturm und Drang. Goethe's early essays -- on Shakespeare, on German architecture -- show his enthusiasm for Hamann's "sibylline" style of writing. It is this style and the considerable erudition that he wields that make Hamann somewhat unapproachable for us moderns and keeps most of us from reading him. As Lessing said, one had to know "a little bit of everything" to understand him. Lately, in connection with my world literature project, I have been reading Herder, Hamann's literary descendent, and it is not easy going.

Interest in Hamann has been growing in recent years, as evidenced this past March at a conference on Hamann at Hunter College, organized by Lisa Marie Anderson of the German Department. Hamann, as I learned, has many heirs, including Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. He was the first major critic of Kantian rationalism, having invented the term "metacritique," which is first found in a letter to Herder of July 1782. Isaiah Berlin has called him an irrationalist, but that is one of the distortions of Hamann's legacy. As I mentioned in the Q&A after one of the talks, if Hamann hadn't lived, he would have had to be invented.

What made this conference of interest was the large number of papers focusing on Hamann's theology. I hate to single out any of the speakers (here is the program) since all were top-rate. There was a high level of enthusiasm for this neglected "Magus," though not everyone was a Hamann fan. (Okay, I will mention one: Manfred Kuehn, a Kant scholar.) As irritated as I often am with academics, it was one of those occasions when I was glad to be one.

I was happily surprised the other day to get an email from Jonathan Gray, from the University of London, a speaker at the conference, who had sent to all the attendees his very detailed notes of the talks. Since they are so full and rich, I asked Jonathan if I could post them here. So enjoy and profit from them! He also provides a link to photos. Goethe Girl is included in the one above, no doubt making a penetrating observation.

Michael Larson also posted on the March conference on his blog "Gemütlichkeit," along with a picture of three attendees. On the right in the above photo is Oswald Bayer, professor of systematic theology and philosophy of religion in Tübingen, who gave the keynote address: "God as Author: The Theological Foundation of Hamann's Autorpoetik." (Michael is the middle figure, next to Ronald F. Ziegler, who teaches systematic theology at Concordia Theological Seminary.)


Zentrist said...

Until this morning I'd never even heard of Hamann. Thanks for this valuable introduction--one who influenced greats like Schelling, Goethe, Hegel and Kierkegaard simply must be read, all the more so for his challenging, dense style. I feel a connection with him, and if translations do not exist, one might have to learn German!

Goethe Girl said...

Kenneth Hayes, who spoke at the conference, has done a marvelous job of translating some of Hamann's essays. I'll try to find the reference and send it along, but you might be able to find it on Amazon. It was Hamann's humor that Kierkegaard appreciated.

Zentrist said...

Thanks. Today I read Griffith-Dickson's lucid and comprehensive article on Hamann in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Some of the material she translated really gave you a sense of the man--and his humor! I appreciate the info about Haynes.

Goethe Girl said...

Griffith-Dickson spoke at the conference and was the essence of lucidity. I haven't read the Stanford article yet, but will do so now.