BOOK REVIEW / Another critique of reason: The Magus of the North: J G Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism by Isaiah Berlin, ed Henry Hardy, John Murray pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
IN 1965, Isaiah Berlin gave some lectures on Johann Georg Hamann, a maverick 18th-century philosopher with strikingly modern things to say about language, knowledge, humanity and its relationship to God. More than 25 years later, Henry Hardy has edited them, in a noble effort to rescue Hamann from unjust neglect. We are indebted to Isaiah Berlin's long-standing interest in him, and the publication of these early lectures ought to be celebrated.

With some authors there is a danger of underestimating their profundity by underestimating their flippancy: by taking ironists too seriously, one does not take them seriously enough. This is pre-eminently true of Hamann. His style is famous for its difficulty (Berlin calls it 'appalling'), but when Hamann's style is at its most wild and impassioned, he is in fact at his most ironic. His essays purport to be written by a variety of characters (including 'the letter H') who permit Hamann to say what he otherwise would not, or even to assert what he believes to be ridiculous. One cannot therefore assume that the views of Hamann's characters are his own. Yet given the difficulties of understanding the texts, the temptation is to mine his essays for sentences which seem intelligible and quote them independently of their fictional author and context, which risks distortion. By weaving these nuggets into a systematic 'Hamannian' point of view, some quite extraordinary 'Hamanns' have been created.

Isaiah Berlin has not escaped the dangers of selective mining and misleading quoting. There is a tendency to paraphrase, to construct a homogenous Hamannian stance, and to ignore the diverse purposes of his utterances; this makes their interpretation problematic. For example, Hamann charging Kant with a 'gnostic hatred of matter and a mystical love of form' is not understood for what it is - a playful characterisation of a priori knowledge and analytic judgements - but seems to be taken as a literal accusation. This obscures Hamann's interesting criticism of a particular philosophical point, while painting a false picture of a grumpy hedonist who, Berlin claims, misrepresents Kant 'fantastically'.

The picture that appears is somewhat skewed towards the 'irrationalism' which makes up Berlin's central theme, thereby reducing the positive role that Hamann ascribes to reasoning. Far from demanding that one choose between faith and reason, Hamann maintained: 'Without language, there would be no reason; and without reason, no religion.' Elsewhere, Hamann writes: 'They are both wrong, those who idolise reason and those who denigrate it.' His critique of 'Reason' was not a rejection of reasoning; it was a rejection of the picture of reason as an entity rather than an activity. As an entity, Reason could be considered impartial, universal, infallible; but as an activity humans perform, reasoning must be recognised as conditioned by culture, tradition and language: 'Without the word, no reason - no world.'

Berlin tends to overplay Hamann as a hostile madman, but much of the 'blind hatred' and 'violence' he ascribes to Hamann is really the posturing of one Hamannian character or another. Hamann's views on language, epistemology, and the human person - correctly interpreted - would be more popular and better understood today than they were in his own time: they suggest possible solutions for those who feel nowadays that modernism offers us too little, while 'post-modernism' has abandoned too much.