Johann Hamann: Poetry, Language, and Human Nature

Johann Hamann is one of the most understudied and unknown philosophers, especially in the English-speaking world.  A figure of tremendous importance to history, who was called the “brightest star” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Hamann came to be an influential father of the Sturm und Drang  movement in Germany, a key father figure in the litany of German Counter-Enlightenment writers and philosophers, and also an ironic influence in postmodern deconstructionist literary and language theory.  Hamann was, first and foremost, a philosopher of language who came to the conclusion that language, more specifically poetry, is the very core of human nature and something that empiricists were incapable of grasping.

From about 1620-1781, European philosophy was experiencing the so-called Enlightenment.  Hamann is generally cast as a father of the Counter-Enlightenment and he saw the crisis of modern philosophy being the crisis of reason.  The solipsism, relativism, and epistemological nihilism emerging from Cartesian and mechanistic (Anglo-utilitarian and Parisian) philosophy were the main culprits of this crisis for Hamann.  In an attempt to save reason (in the classical, Transcendent sense), Hamann turned to language.  Hamann saw Enlightenment “reason” (in the sense of reckoning) would lead to a hollow way of life, in his words Enlightenment rationalism was, “An ens rationis, a stuffed dummy which the howling superstition of our unreason endows with divine attributes.”

Hamann is arguably the first systematic philosopher of language – which is his influence to contemporary postmodernism.  According to Hamann, the question of “What is Reason?” was really the question “What is Language?”  And this question of what language is, is what preoccupied much of Hamann’s philosophy.

Part of what Hamann is criticizing is the mechanistic universe and mechanistic way of life.  Mechanical philosophy, as it infects every aspect of life, creates a constrictive framework which stifles the vitality and organic (rhizomatic) fluctuation of life.  Furthermore, the mechanical reasoning of Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, leads to a rigid and unpassionate view of life which, ultimately, kills life.  The mechanistic outlook on life was a prison to try and capture the uncapturable.  No schema, no system, and certainly no claim of “universal reason,” could possibly capture the vitality that is life. This prison which destroys the vitality of life is, as he said, lebensfeindlich (antagonistic to life).

To this point Hamann turns to language to solidify his position.  In turning to language Hamann hoped to show why language is the attempt capture reason and communicate it.  But, in this turn to language, Hamann hoped to show the deficiencies of language and what, in language, did hold sway over the human being.  Human language cannot capture the real essence of reality (the thing itself).  This does not mean that language is useless however, as we shall see. Instead, language is the most sacred and precious gift to humanity even if it doesn’t capture the thing itself.

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There are two critical principles to Hamann’s philosophy of language.  First is that symbolism, imagery, and passion hold sway over sentence analysis and logic.  That is to say, humans – as passionate creatures – understand the passionate (seen through symbolic imagery) before they understand the rigidity of sentence structures.  Symbolism, imagery, metaphor, and analogy are what humans understand first and foremost in language.  Thus, as he says, “poetry is the mother tongue of humans.”  And it should not be surprising that it is after Hamann that Germany experiences a great poetic renaissance and that the poet Goethe praises him. You have, after Hamann, the great renaissance of German literature with Novalis, Goethe, Herder, Holderlin, Schlegel and others. The origins of language, for Hamann, begins in symbolism, imagery, and the archetypal. Indeed, the very essence of being human is encapsulated in poetry, but yet, not encapsulated in poetry because poetry directs us to that world of the symbolic, fantastical, and chaotic. Poetry makes us human. The absence of poetry, or counterfeit poetry, makes us inhuman. Poetry is the pristine and highest form of the language bridge to the Transcendent realm above us.

Language, then, is not about communicating thoughts in a formal manner as in rigid analytic linguistic analysis.  Language is about the chaotic, the passionate, and the metaphorical – all things which humans immediately grasp and understand because this is the fundamental reality of life and the world which language, in its formalism and rigidity, cannot comprehend.  (Yes, Hamann is very much anti-analytic.)  The second, and most important principle to language according to Hamann, is that the purpose of language is really about mediation. Language is the mediation between man and nature, between man and man, and between man and God.  Language allows for introspective contemplation and the mediation of the self. Most importantly, language is that which mediates between God and man:

Every phenomenon of nature was a word,—the sign, symbol and pledge of a new, mysterious, inexpressible but all the more intimate union, participation and community of divine energies and ideas. Everything the human being heard from the beginning, saw with its eyes, looked upon and touched with its hands was a living word; for God was the Word [e.g. the Logos].

To embody the Logos is to enter into the journey to the celestial realm by the wings of the Logos.

For Hamann, words describe an image.  Therefore, language is the verbalization and written expression of an image is the mediation between humans and the thing itself. To which poetry, art, music, literature, and religion, all become mediators between us and the real things in life and we often say that these forces ‘speak to us in mysterious ways.’ Language and thought are, therefore, tied together in Hamann’s philosophy – itself indicative of Hamann’s unitive philosophy; they are tied together insofar that language is the spoken expression of a thought of a conception that has entered the mind. Those who can’t use symbols cannot think, and those who cannot understand symbols cannot understand at all. Thinking emerges with imagery and symbolism which is why humans instinctively understand imagery and symbolism (which stands in stark opposition to Hobbes’ linguistic theory which argued that imagery, symbolism, and metaphor was useless and reflective of superstition).

Moreover, when language fails to keep words and thoughts unified there is a chasm between language and thinking (reason) which prevent us from advancing in knowledge.  The attempt to capture conception or thinking, which is free flowing, by the rigidity of grammatical rules, is an automatic failure as life is in a constant state of flux and the attempt to constrict language (and therefore constrict thought) is the attempt to destroy life.  Per Hamann, “Through speech all things are made.”

This does not, however, allow for the free construction of language for Hamann.  This is because all conceptions already exist within the Divine Mind that is Truth itself (God).  Therefore, when we use language, it either corresponds with an existing truth to which allows understanding or it does not, which leads to misunderstanding because it is false.  Language is the key to understanding and understanding depends on the other (the Not-I).  For Hamann the other is, of course, Transcendent Truth to which all things come to understand.

The sin of language theory is to “mistake words for concepts and concepts for the real things” as Hamann says.  While they are all tied together, a word is not a concept and a concept is not the real thing.  The fire is the real thing-in-itself.  But our attempt to understand fire starts with the image of fire.  This begins the thought process of what fire is (as conception).  At the end of this entire process is the language and definition of fire—but the language and definition of fire is not fire itself.  It is straightforward language theory.  That said, the sin of contemporary language theory (in Hamann’s time) was to either mistake the language for the real thing, or to disassociate the real thing from language altogether (therefore rendering language useless) as it was severed from the true realm which it mediated us to.

For example, to say that the definition of fire is the real thing is false: the actual fire is the real thing, our language of fire is just the verbalized expression of the conception (or image) of fire which we encounter in the world.  They are all tied together and without one the other does not follow and does not permit understanding.  We cannot understand fire without language.  Hence they are unified together for-us.  Our knowledge depends on the other according to Hamann—(see the dialectic at work and how this influences almost all subsequent German philosophy from Kant and Fichte to Hegel and Marx).

Conversely, to separate language from the real thing also does grave harm as it also establishes the chasm by which we cannot come to understand the real thing which always eludes us as we have no mediation to, or with, it.  This returns us to Hamann’s mediation theory of language—without language we have no mediation, no bridge, to understanding the real thing which means language cannot lead us to Truth which stands above it.

The paradoxes that abound in existence is something that Hamann finds a home in.  The real genius, for Hamann, is the man who knows that he lives in a world of paradox, symbolism, imagery, and constant relationality (via mediation).  The problem of the contemporary metaphysicians is that they believe, in their fixed materialist world, that the world is simply that which is (reducing us to mere objects in the world or a subject detached from objects).  Again, for Hamann, such an embrace of this outlook on life (though it is wrong in his mind) will inevitably lead to nihilism and the extermination of life.

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Another interesting aspect of Hamann’s philosophy of language is how it relates to his social philosophy.  Hamann was intensely conservative.  He was a communitarian particularist.  For Hamann, the vitality of a people was bound up to their language.  And the vitality of any nation was bound up with its national poetry!  A people and nation that was ascendant would be producing great works of literature and music (and art because art is expressionist and deals with imagery and symbolism).  A people and nation that was stagnant and heading toward decline and extermination would be a people and nation that was literarily and artistically drained and exhausted.  A drained and exhausted people also would also lead to its language becoming corrupt, decadent, and incomprehensible.

Language, therefore, serves as the mediation between peoples.  Language, not religion or land, is the bond that unites people.  Hamann is a linguistic nationalist.  Now, a people may share the same land and same religion, but this is ultimately incidental and nothing more.  What really unites a people is their language.  Therefore, when a people lose their language they lose their identity and sense of togetherness.  A nation cannot survive the loss and corruption of its language because everything else flows from this: religion, culture, art, music, literature, etc.  National consciousness is tied to language. The resuscitation of civilization is found in the resurrection of its language because in language we find the unitive communicative force of divine love and understand which binds people together instead of tearing asunder. After all, the God of Genesis called forth order out of the chaos of creation with speech.

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Hamann has been appropriated, somewhat unfairly to himself, by postmodernists and other literary and linguistic deconstructionists who find, in Hamann, the first systematic thinker who attempts to analyze the problem of language and concludes that language is not about the real thing.  Likewise, Hamann’s criticism of Enlightenment language theory and its rigidity is something that later postmodernists have also seized on.  However, the postmodern and deconstructive appropriation of Hamann is not for the same end that Hamann was engaged in his deconstructive efforts; Hamann wanted to show the falsity of the Enlightenment vision to restore the truth of the symbolic, “mythic,” and spiritual realm of the white rose.

Hamann’s philosophy of language is of the upmost importance today and for anyone who studies the history of philosophy.  Hamann’s linguistic and literary nationalism marks him as an early father of romanticism, the Sturm und Drang movement, and of German nationalism in particular.  His assertions that the vitality and destiny of a people, and nation, being bound up with its language is something that many people today have come to (re)assert.  Hamann’s perspectivism, image and symbol-based metaphysic of language, was a major influence on Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung, and Jung’s reemergence in the popular sphere thanks to Jordan Peterson means that Hamann needs to be studied to fully understand Jung.  And the newfound interest in myth, symbolism, and imagery were all dealt with Hamann in the eighteenth century in detail.  While it is true that the Analytic tradition of philosophy, naturally, skipped over Hamann while the Continental tradition preserved him, even where he has been preserved he has been relegated (like other German notables like Herder and Fichte) to second tier figure status behind disciples totally indebted to him: Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche.

What do we see in Hamann’s philosophy of language? Humans are poetic animals, symbolic and image-oriented creatures. Poetry and language are what makes us human. Moreover, it is poetry that mediates man to the Sublime, to the universals, to God and the Transcendent. Poetry, and the language that accompanies it, visualizes and paints imagery for humans; thus, humans are not “language animals” per se, but visual animals first from which language flows: Like Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, humans learn through images first and not verbalization first – language attempts to describe the image. Lastly, human ties – community – is the product of a shared language because it is language that mediating bond between men that brings two together as one and allows for an ascent to the higher realm of existence which is above language. Language is that mystical force that allows man to penetrate into the Divine. Put it this way: Language is not the end in of itself; language is the gateway, the sacrament, the bridge, to that which transcends it of which language attempts to mediate to man. We are not united by the “image”, we are united by the shared language that transports us as if on celestial wings to that image. Once we sever language from the image, however, we have no Logos to take us to that realm of overflowing abundance. But when language mediates us to the symbol, to the Divine, to that which is higher than itself, we enter the inexhaustible abundance of lebensgeister.

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