Appalling, twisted and dark: Ray Monk on Isaiah Berlin's attempt to revive the reputation of a philosopher neglected even by his admirers: The Magus of the North - Isaiah Berlin: Ed. Henry Hardy John Murray pounds 14.99

THINK less and live more. Such, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of Johann George Hamann, an 18th-century German thinker famous in his day as an opponent of the faith in reason that characterised the Enlightenment, but now read only by a few dedicated scholars. In the fervour of his anti-rationalism he was (to use a comparison repeatedly invoked by Berlin) a sort of D H Lawrence of his day - except that he did not write brilliant novels and short stories, but essays, reviews and fragments that, as Berlin is the first to admit, are all but unreadable. Berlin describes Hamann's writing style as 'appalling . . . twisted, dark, allusive, filled with digressions, untraceable references, private jokes, puns within puns and invented words'. When he goes on to say that Hamann's life, style, faith and thought 'were one', we begin to wonder exactly what he thinks is to be gained from studying Hamann's work.

The answer, it seems, is a better understanding of 'modern irrationalism', a tradition of thought that Berlin takes to include both 19th-century romanticism and 20th-century fascism. Hamann is important as 'the first out-and-out opponent of the French Enlightenment' and as 'the true founder of a polemical anti-rationalist tradition which in the course of time has done much, for good and (mostly) ill, to shape the thought and art and feeling of the West'. Berlin writes neither as a champion of Hamann's views nor as an admirer of his writing, but rather as a historian of ideas determined to apportion influence - and blame - where it is due.

Such a concern is entirely laudable, but it is not a standpoint from which an enticing or a satisfying book can be produced. Perhaps this is why, though most of the material which forms this book was written in the Sixties, it has remained unpublished until now. Indeed (so he informs us in his 'Editor's Preface'), until Henry Hardy came upon the collection of neglected drafts which make up this book, Berlin had forgotten he had ever written them: 'So thoroughly had Berlin dismissed this material from his mind that, until I found it, he assured me that nothing of the kind existed.' Hamann's fate, it seems, is to be forgotten, even by those who have set themselves the task of reviving interest in him.

The book that Hardy has constructed from Berlin's drafts follows the conventional form familiar to readers of, say, Oxford's 'Past Masters' series or Fontana's 'Modern Masters': a chapter on the life followed by chapters on the thought (in this case under the headings: The Enlightenment, Knowledge, Language, Creative Genius and Politics).

The biographical chapter is, alas, unrewarding and frustrating. Hamann led a fairly uneventful life: he was born in Konigsberg in 1730, attended the university there and, apart from a curious and unexplained visit to London in 1757, kept himself, his common-law wife and four children by a combination of a series of ill-paid posts with the Prussian civil service and some freelance literary work (the essays, reviews and fragments referred to earlier). He died in 1788, his reputation as the 'Magus of the North' assured by his having attracted as a disciple no less a person than Johann Gottfried Herder. The central event in his life - the key, one assumes, to understanding both his work and his personality - was a spiritual crisis and a subsequent religious conversion he underwent during his time in London. About this event, however, Berlin has disappointingly little to say.

Hamann's conversion shook him out of the conventional Enlightenment attitudes he had absorbed from his university education and inspired him to undertake a detailed and impassioned study of the Bible, the result of which was a fervid return to the Lutheran Protestantism of his childhood. From then on, his work took on a polemical - one might almost say a Messianic - tone. He was the prophet Elijah appointed by God to point out to the wicked king Ahab (Frederick the Great) the error of his ways. Like William Blake, Hamann was concerned to warn men of the folly of replacing the warm love of the human heart with the cold indifference of mechanical reason. Unceasingly, he set his face against the intellectual currents of his age and poured out a relentless series of polemics against, for example, Descartes' theory of knowledge, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, the political and social ideals of the French philosophes, and anything else that elevated human reason above the passions and political progress above the salvation of individual human souls.

Berlin presents these views with sympathy and lucidity, but also with an understandable determination to distance himself from them. The largest claims he makes for Hamann as a philosopher centre on his philosophy of language, which (as Berlin demonstrates in an Appendix), when stripped of its theological underpinnings, looks something like Wittgenstein's. This is interesting, but a slender basis upon which to resurrect interest in the man. Berlin writes about him much as Bertrand Russell used to write about Lord Byron (or, indeed, about D H Lawrence): with a mixture of bemusement, fascination and, ultimately, disapproval that irrationalism could be so attractive.

Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review