The Grammar of Reason: Hamann’s Challenge to Kant

  • Robert E. Butts
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 155)


Among the critical responses to his Critique of pure reason of which Kant was almost surely unaware, or was disinclined to answer, are those of Herder (1799a, b) and Johann Hamann (1781, 1784). Herder’s immense Metakritik appeared in 1799. Hamann’s brief 1781 review was never published, and the longer, but still highly compressed, Metakritik über den Purismus der reinen Vernuft, appeared in 1800, twelve years after Hamann’s death, and four years before Kant’s.1 By the time of the appearance of the Herder volumes Kant had abandoned all philosophical hope for his former student, whose Sturm und Drang opposition to Kant’s rationalism Kant had reacted to critically in his reviews of Herder’s Philosophy of history, and in the essay ‘Conjectural beginning of human history’ (1786). As for Hamann, long before 1800 Kant had given up reading his literary efforts, complaining that Hamann’s lyrical style was largely incomprehensible. Whatever Kant’s final verdict on the work of two of his most unorthodox contemporaries may have been, those of us who are interested in the total cultural response to the critical philosophy must see both responses as raising intriguing questions about Kant’s system, questions almost completely neglected in more academic eighteenth century discussions of the critical philosophy. Both Herder and Hamann were anxious to promote theories of the nature and origins of language, topics on which the Kantian writings are largely silent. It is clear that nowhere in the entire corpus of Kant’s writings is there any sustained and systematic treatment of language. The Herder and Hamann reviews challenge the critical philosophy at exactly this fundamental point: how can the championing of the life of reason he complete without integrating a philosophy of language into the system?


Secret Message Critical Philosophy Word Usage Empirical Concept Symbolic Cognition 
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  1. 1.
    On August 5. 1781, Hamann wrote to Herder: “A week ago, in the morning, I received a bound copy of Kant [the first Critique; Hamann had read the first 30 proof sheets on April 7, 1781: letter to Hartknoch, April 8, 1781]. On 1 July I sketched a review en gros, but put it back in my files, because I did not want to give offense to the author, an old friend and I must almost say benefactor, since I had him to thank almost entirely for my first job. But if my translation of Hume should ever see the light of day, I will not mince matters, but say what I think”. [Hamann was an enthusiastic follower of Hume (he translated his Dialogues concerning natural religion into German), whose analysis of belief as generated by habit or custom Hamann regarded as a form of justification of faith based on tradition: “Hume is always my man, because he at least honours the principle of belief and has taken it up into his system” (to Herder. May 10. 1781).].Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Any effort to deal with the Herder material would take another two-volume work: I will not discuss Herder in this paper.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    To Jacobi, April 27, 1787: “What is the common way of word usage? Witnesses”. Zweifel und Einfälle (R IV, 328ff = N III, 191ff):”... All philosophical contradictions and the whole historical riddle of our existence,... are resolved by the primal message of the Word become flesh. This witness is the spirit of prophecy and the reward of its promise, ‘a new name which no one knows save he who receives it’”.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    In his way, Hamann put as much emphasis upon sensation (Empfindung) as did Kant. But the difference in usage is striking. In the first Critique Kant offers this definition: “A perception which relates solely to the subject as the modification of its state is sensation” (A320/B376). In his various uses, Hamann means by the term any or all of the following: sensation, sensory knowledge, sensibility, a felt association of personal trust in what is being sensed, a private and ineffable epistemological coalescence of experiencer and what is being experienced, an immediacy of experience conjoined with faith (as witnessing) that can only be destroyed if abstracted from its context. It is not unlike Hamann to build a whole philosophico-theology into a single term.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    All translations of Harmann’s works are those of Smith (1960). His translations are generally excellent.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Hamann has much to say about abstract ideas, and most of it is philosophically quite serious. In the opening paragraph of MPRV he praises Berkeley for his demotion of universals to representing particulars. Incidentally, there is nothing in Hamann’s colorful rejection of purported constitutive metaphysics that Kant would have objected to. The big difference is one having to do with the role of reason.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Kant’s discussion of the “clue” and its application to the derivation of the categories follows A70-83/B95-109. In the second edition additions, at B109-110, Kant claims for the system of the categories that it already contains a complete plan for a whole science (pure physics), providing determinate principles and the form of a system. He refers to Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft as the completion of a system in which the table of logical forms of judgment reflects the system of categories, which in turn are applied to the phoronomy, mechanics dynamics, and phenomenology of the “special metaphysics” of matter. If this is the path Kant’s role of reason points to, we can at least understand Hamann’s deep existential distress. There appears to be no confidence in science provided for in the writings of God.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The knight of Rosenkreuz’s last will (R IV, 21 = N III, 27):“But everything divine is also human; for man can neither work nor suffer except according to the analogy of his nature, no matter how simple or how artificial a machine this nature is. This communication of divine and human idiomatum is a basic law, and the main key to all our knowledge and the whole visible economy”.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    The questions are of course rhetorical. Hamann knew that he and Kant had such deep differences that no resolution could he hoped for. Enlightenment science and existential Christianity are twain that shall never meet. What is to be hoped for in this investigation of Hamann’s reaction to Kant is a better understanding of Kant, and, I devoutly hope, nothing more.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    For example: “All language is signification or thought; the supreme way of indicating thought is by language, the greatest instrument for understanding ourselves and others. Thinking is speaking to ourselves” (Anthro AK VII, 192); and “While as yet alone, man must have been moved by the urge for communication to make his existence known to other living beings, particularly to such as utter sounds. These sounds he could imitate, and they could later on serve as names. A similar effect of the above urge may he observed even now. Children and thoughtless persons are apt to disturb the thinking part of the community by rattling, shouting, whistling, singing and other kinds of noisy entertainment, often also by religious devotions of such a nature. I can see no motive for such conduct except the wish on the part of those who engage in it to make their existence known to one and all” (’Conjectural beginning of human history’, AK VIII, 110n-111n.). The first sound is the result of an existential urge, but the language which results is learned, not by means of divine instruction, but by means of attempted pragmatic orientations in a shared spatial and temporal environment. Much more could be said about Kant’s random thoughts about language, but this is not the place. I will, however, return to some of these points below in my discussion of the role of the sensus communis in Kant and Hamann.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    I am not here in a position to discuss the details of Kant’s views on the semantical opacity of dreams, of ESP reports, and of creatures of a deranged mind. See my (1984) for details. However, I will have to note emphatically below that Hamann’s transgression of the limits of the phenomenally knowable classifies him, by Kantian lights, as, like Swedenborg, a Schwärmer.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Edward Young (1683–1765), an English writer whose works were much admired and cited by Hamann, especially Young’s The complaint or night thoughts on life death and immortality (1742). Young believed that genuine literary creativity owes its power to defiance of literary convention, and in his theology taught that we have analogical epistemic access to incorporeal forms of life. Both views are grist for Hamann’s mill.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    I am here omitting reference to crucial elements of Hamann’s theology. Human language in its purified, faith informed, condition is fitted to symbolize the relevations of God just because God became man: “In spite of the light which God sheds in our souls by the Word, he wants to be near us himself. He is where his Word is, he is where his Son is. If his Word is in us, his Son is in us; if his Word is in us, the Spirit of this Word is in us” (Biblical reflections, p. 129). The message of the incarnation that our language comes to symbolize is of course a gnostic secret: literally, a thing of faith.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    I use the Meredith translation of Critique of judgement; page references are to the Academy Edition.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    I cannot, for example, in a dream, distinguish between dreaming and being awake, so long as I attend only to the appearance state given in my present intuition. Nor, in exactly similar circumstances, can I make the distinction between dreaming and wakeful consciousness while awake. Elsewhere Kant will insist that to make these and other distinctions requires that I can move from inner sense to outer sense; in short, it requires that I can only make the distinctions by reference to my body and the bodies of others; the form of space is a prerequisite for any warranted assertability of judgments. Here, of course, the question is one of communicability within a group of language users, and the best I can hope for is the form of consensus; I cannot enter into the minds of others.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    This presentation of Kant’s touchstone or test of the common sense can be enlarged to encompass his basic thoughts about the nature of enlightenment. We are familiar with Kant’s definition: “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self incurred tutelage” (Ak VIII, p. 35). The point is that we are to take responsibility for our own thoughts (and resulting actions), because there is no other authority than reason; there is no appeal except to what can count for all as a rational principle of belief or action. In the Logik (Ak VII, p. 57) he refers to an “external mark or an external touchstone of truth [as] the comparison of our own judgement with those of others”; and he states that the common understanding (gemeine Menschenverstand = sensus communis) is “a touchstone to discover the mistakes of the technical use of the understanding”; “... this is what it means to orient oneself in thinking or in the speculative use of reason by common understanding, when common understanding is used as a test of judging the correctness of the speculative one”. Here again we see the apparent force of the suggestion that we place ourselves in thought in the place of the other, not by appeal to actual thoughts of others, but by appeal to what could count for all as a matter of rational principle. The point is put with evident force in the closing footnote of the 1786 essay, ‘What is orientation in thinking?’ (Ak VIII, p. 146): “Thinking for one’s self means to seek the supreme touchstone of truth in one’s self; that is, in one’s own reason; and the maxim of always thinking for one’s self is enlightenment.... to make use of one’s reason means nothing more than to ask one’s self, with regard to everything that is to be assumed, whether he finds it practicable to make the ground of the assumption or the rule which follows from the assumption a universal principle of the use of his reason. This test can be applied to himself by each person and by this test he will soon see superstitution and fanaticism disappear even if he is far from possessing the knowledge requisite to a refutation of either on objective grounds. For he merely makes use of the maxim of the self-preservation of reason”. All of this is typical of Kant: The test of inwardness is the personal test of the rational universalizability of one’s subjective commitments, and this test is viable even if one does not in the given case know the objective truth. It is the opposite of the Hamannian test of inwardness as the test of ineffable and literally incommunicable personal faith. It is no wonder that Kierkegaard will later come to admire Hamann: both took intense inwardness — committed and irrational subjectivity — to be the test, indeed, the essence, of truth.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    The Prussian Magus had nothing but contempt for what he understood as the public, and displayed this feeling in the defiant dedication of his Socratic memorabilia (1759): “To the public, or nobody, the well-known”. This work of course, is addressed in reality to Kant and the businessman Berens, Kant’s former student and Hamann’s former friend and employer. It was written after the failed attempt by Berens and Kant to reconvert Hamann to the cause of the Enlightenment in the wake of his Christian rebirth in London. The early relationships between these three young men were apparently quite complicated, leading Hamann to distrust his early “public”, and Kant to stress the need for communication across character and social differences. Hamann cherished his privacy and individuality; he was a “loner” who sought inner meaningfulness in the darkness of his own faith. Kant was the popular lecturer, the writer, the host at luncheons designed for maximum sharing of information on all topics of current interest; he was, in the literal and non-pejorative sense, the publicist of the life of reason.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    I have no space to examine them in any detail here, but there are various word usages and conceptual slurs in the writings of Hamann that seem pretty directly aimed at Kant. For example, he adopts the biblical literary device called “metaschematism” (metaschematismus) and refers to the process of “metaschematizing” (metaschematisiren). The reference is to I Corinthians 4:6, where metaschematizing has the form of ambiguous exemplification, or exemplification by means of analogy. The story is told “in a figure transferred” (meteschemalisa, transfiguravi), or “by taking as an example”. Alexander (1966, pp. 153-55) points out that for a Christian the most fundamental case of such metaschematizing is the Incarnation itself: God identifying himself with man, although it is man who has turned against him, this most fundamental of all ambiguities was surely taken by Hamann to justify even the most outrageous forms of literary analogy. Given that Kant’s appeal to schematization involves an effort to insure that our semantics is one that leads us directly to unambiguous observables as clear sensuous examples (meanings as referents) of our concepts, we have in Hamann’s preference for metaschematizing as deliberately ambiguous exemplification a not very carefully concealed repudiation of Kant’s kind of semantics. The Socratic memorabilia tells us that analogy was the soul of Socrates’ reasoning, and this work is one so packed with metaschematizing that one wonders just where is the leading thread. I suppose that even this deep perplexity is likely one Hamann hoped for in his readers.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Butts (1984, Chap. III) contains a detailed investigation of Kant’s treatment of Swedenborg, and Chapters IV and V discuss the problem of “locating” spirits and souls. In the lecture notes referred to now as Metaphysik Dohna we find the marvellous line: “Der Ort der Seele is da wo der Ort des Menschen ist”. I take this line as a motto for Kant’s campaign to keep spirits and souls located in the public space of the lives of mankind. The campaign is both philosophical and medical; it encourages both sound epistemology and mental health.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Butts (1984) contains discussion of Kant’s various warnings about and philosophical antidotes for Schwärmerei. A particularly illuminating discussion of the problems in connection with the differences between schemata and symbols is at pages 68-74 of the second Critique.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    I must admit that there is much in the relationship between Kant and Hamann that is apparently inscrutable. In his April 8, 1766) letter to Mendelssohn replying to the metaphysician’s negative reaction to Träume Kant writes: “In my opinion, everything depends on our seeking out the data of the problem, how is the soul present in the world, both in material and in non-material things”. Kant reads this question as one of receptivity: how is it that we are affected by any external agencies? And he concedes that the question of the union of the soul and the body is just a special case of this more general problem. Nevertheless, his mature view is that the special problem is logically incoherent, and thus he seems at various places in his writings to agree with Hamann’s verdict that “Unfortunately dreams and illnesses are the best data of the energy of our soul” (to Scheffner, November 10, 1784). In this letter Hamann is replying to Scheffner’s request for an appraisal of Swedenborg’s form of Schwärmerei. Hamann replies that Swedenborg’s case is one of “transcendental epilepsy”, resulting in “critical frothing” [babbling in tongues?]. Kant will soon conclude that receptivity is entirely a matter of what we receive from “outer sensation”, but this conclusion is compatible with the view that the evidence for mental activity is “inner perception”, which clearly includes dreams, and observation of suspected deranged behavior. In referring to Swedenborg’s alleged spiritual revelations as a kind of transcendental epilepsy he may in fact have been paying Kant a compliment for having realized that the question of the data that affirm our knowledge of the soul or mind is one that cannot, in Kants sense be conceptualized. Apparently Kant’s final conclusion is that the representation of inner sense is an unconceptualizable perception, a conclusion entailing that, apart from subjective apperception, we have no knowledge of mental powers except that which we derive from bodies in action in ordinary spatial contexts. And from this it would seem to follow that Kant’s preferred psychology is either behaviouristic or based on observations of psychopathological states. To be fair to Hamann thus seems to involve admitting that he understood the direction of Kant’s thinking about psychology better than any of Kant’s other contemporaries. It would have been quite natural for him to exclude himself from those classified as transcendental epileptics. Perhaps the irrationalities of his own meditations on things unseen amounted to a tacit acknowledgement of the correctness of Kant’s diagnosis of Schwärmerei. But one cannot be sure even at this point, for Hamann often praises the enthusiastic (schwärmerisch) state because it is one in which the mysteries are truly revealed. Hamann may have been clear headed in his understanding of Kant, but to set enthusiasm (which can become fanaticism) against enlightenment draws the philosophical dividing line sharply.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    In §10 of the Dissertation Kant says that we have no intuition of things intellectual, but only a symbolic cognition of them. He does not explain the distinction between intuitive and symbolic cognitions which suggests that it is one that was in current use. The suggestion is confirmed by the fact that the distinction is explicitly made in Baumgarten’s Metaphysica (§620). Recall that Baumgarten’s text was used by Kant for his lectures on metaphysics.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    In Anthropologie (Ak VII pp. 191-92) Kant repeats the substance of his discussion in the third Critique. We are told, however, that extensive use of symbols reveals a deficiency of concepts, and are treated to the delicious observation that when an American Indian says, “Wir wollen die Streitaxt begraben”, he means, “Wir wollen Friede machen”. Apart from the fact that it is strange to imagine North American Native People as speakers of German, I would have thought that if this is the way in which the Native People interpret their metaphor, what is displayed is a richness of conceptual resources, not an impoverishment of these resources. There are good and apt metaphors, but Kant’s insistence on discursive conceptual clarity often seems to get in the way of his appreciation of this point.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    I have avoided discussion of schematization of pure concepts of the understanding for the sake of concentrating efforts on comparison of Kant and Hamann. Schematic application of categories is obviously of paramount importance to Kant: categories are applicable to possible experiences; ideas of reason are not. It is this important distinction Kant wishes to emphasize in the passage we are now studying.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    In discussion of this paper at the conference, François Duchesneau, with characteristic philosophical acumen, pointed out that my account of the roles played by both the sensus communis and symbolic cognition omits reference to the theory that underlies Kant’s entitlement to introduce such uncategorized forms of cognitive appeal. Of course he is right. My account presupposes Kant’s theory that distinguishes between determining and reflective judgments, and also between theoretical, practical and technical judgments. For Kant, there is a crucial (even if unsuccessfully developed) difference between judgments that make knowledge claims, those that assert moral imperatives, and those that presuppose that what is being judged is produced by art or skill. I am suggesting that Kant’s reply to Hamann would have necessarily presupposed all of the details of his account of theoretical knowledge, but that his direct rejection of Hamann’s confidence in symbolic expression would have been based on his theory of estimation or reflective judgment, a theory dealing explicitly with questions of teleology, or of artful production. What strikes me as central to the reply I am having Kant make to Hamann is that for Kant all questions of meaning and warranted assertability presuppose the possibility of public communicability. It is this presupposition that relates the appeal to public sense and the viability of a communicable sense of symbolization as a language use. I am grateful to Duchesneau for providing the opportunity to highlight these fundamental matters.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert E. Butts
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyThe University of Western OntarioCanada

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