The Konigsberg lay theologian and philosopher J. G. Hamann (1730-88) is undeniably an obscure figure. A solitary, isolated thinker inclined to mysticism, he lived all his life in poverty and neglect, despite the admiration of Herder and Goethe. Yet this neglect, Isaiah Berlin argues, is undeserved. Hamann was a man of profoundly original opinions whose importance has only become apparent in our own time. He was the first out-and-out opponent of the Enlightenment, the father of modern European irrationalism, and a crucial forerunner of romanticism and existentialism - a uniquely independent thinker who deserves to be rescued from the comparative oblivion in which, at any rate in the English-speaking world, he has languished since his death two centuries ago. Berlin's study will do much to secure this rescue. Hamann's writings are notoriously opaque: part of his rejection of all abstraction and system was to present himself as an oracular sage' the 'Magus of the North', as he liked to be called. However ' with his customary powers of empathy Berlin penetrates to the heart of Hamann's concerns and extracts a clear and convincing account of his main ideas on human knowledge on the relationship between language and thought, on creative genius and the relation of God to man. He demonstrates the power of the insights that emerge from Hamann's queer mixture of visionary pietism and sceptical empiricism. Hamann will never fully emerge from the darkness with which he surrounded himself, but this book makes plain why the effort to understand him is both important and worthwhile.
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Oxford philosopher/historian Berlin's strangest book, one that he set aside 25 years ago and had no wish to return to until editor Hardy intervened. Nor is this labeled as part of his ``history of ideas'' series (Against the Current, 1982; The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 1991; etc.). Hardy encountered a collection of draft material dating from the 1960s that Berlin had written about J.G. Hamann (1730-88), beloved by Kant and Goethe, and decided to collate it, along with missing passages later found on dictabelts. Berlin makes clear from the beginning that he has little sympathy for Hamann, despite his importance as an enemy of the Enlightenment, leader in the romantic revolt against universalism and the scientific method, and spearhead of the rise of modern irrationalism. (The closest 20th- century equivalent would be D.H. Lawrence with his mysticism of the blood and hatred of all philosophers and artists who to his mind insulted the natural forces he worshipped.) Hamann was part of the great tide of German mysticism erupting from Jacob Bohme. A trauma in his young manhood led Hamann to reread the Bible entire, and he arose from this experience seeing God everywhere, in everything, and regarding human beings' hunger for classification and order as a terrible distortion of the divine spirit. Berlin describes him as the only ``wholly original critic of modern times,'' but points out his spiritual shortcomings and intense stupidity, which somehow contributed to his genius. Critical yet fair scrutiny gives new life to an attractive, even Blakean figure who anticipated the Industrial Revolution's dark satanic mills. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.From Library Journal:
Hamann was the son of a bathhouse keeper who himself became a warehouse manager. His is an outsider's philosophy, but he caught the eye of Goethe and Hegel. He came from the strain of German pietism that produced Kant yet struck out against the whole enlightenment preoccupation with reason and rational morality. In this book, revived from forgotten Columbia lectures, Berlin concentrates on Hamann's skepticism, not his Bible-based fideism. Berlin sees Hamann's arguments against the pretensions of human reason as the first major assault on the enlightenment's use of reason to bring heaven to earth. But in this portrait by the debonair apostle of a cool Oxonian common sense that rejects rationalism and skepticism alike, Hamann seems to froth at the mouth. Berlin's one positive interest is developed in his appendix on Hamann's belief that language is the result of the knitting together of the human faculties to make an intelligible unity and is neither a miraculous intervention of God nor something we invented. Any Berlin book is essential for academic libraries and public libraries serving informed readers.
- Leslie Armour, Univ. of Ottawa
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