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Reviewed by:
  • Writings on Philosophy and Language
  • Robert Sparling
Johann Georg Hamann , Writings on Philosophy and Language. Trans. and ed. Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Pp. xxxv, 252. $24.99.

Kenneth Haynes has done the English-speaking world a remarkable service by providing it access to numerous central texts of Johann Georg Hamann, the enigmatic figure who wrote a seminal Metacritique of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, who influenced Herder, Jacobi, and Kierkegaard, and whose theory of language foreshadows much in twentieth-century thought. Hamann is famous for elevating the sensory and the aesthetic over the intellectual and the rational. "Poetry," he declared famously, "is the mother-tongue of the human race" (63). He railed against philosophical abstractions, and he insisted that thought is language, logos. Concerned with defending a Christocentric, Biblical worldview in the face of the Enlightenment desire for rational religion, Hamann turned his attention to questions about the language of scripture and the nature of reason itself. His seminal argument about thought's dependency on speech arose from a profound exploration of human cognition, its limitations and its possibilities. Haynes's volume offers a wide selection of Hamann's work, much of which is translated here for the first time.

Haynes is not the first to translate Hamann. Previously, Anglophone readers had access to James O'Flaherty's elegant translation and commentary of the Socratic Memorabilia and to Gwen Griffith Dickson's Johann Georg Hamann's Relational Metacriticism, which contains both annotated translations of several essential Hamann texts and a book-length exegesis and analysis of the same texts. [End Page 331] Some excerpts are also available in Ronald Gregor Smith's J. G. Hamann: A Study in Christian Existence, though these tend to be selectively chosen to support the author's thesis that Hamann was an existentialist. What is particularly useful in this latest translation is that it allows Hamann to speak for himself. Haynes confines his introduction to a mere nineteen pages, in which he does not attempt to provide the definitive exegesis, but simply seeks to give readers the basic tools necessary to tackle these dense texts. He introduces us to some Hamannian concerns and alerts us to errors that have dogged Hamann scholarship, such as the imprecise charge of "irrationalism." Haynes's modesty is refreshing given the past tendency of Hamann translators and editors to dominate the original texts with lengthy philosophical commentaries.

Not that Hamann's previous translators are to be blamed—the original texts are dense, allusive, and almost always occasional responses to the works of his contemporaries. A representative sentence in Hamann contains numerous references both to ancient and modern works as well as to Scripture. No one today can read Hamann without substantive annotation and contextualization. (Even Hamann periodically had to explain his references to his friends.) The multivolume series Johann Georg Hamanns Hauptschriften erklärt has a layout of Byzantine complexity, with multiple levels of text and footnotes on each page! Readers of Dickson's translations will bear the paper-cut scars from constant flipping to the endnotes. Haynes has managed to provide the essential annotations on the same page as the text itself, and he has avoided cluttering the page with unnecessary details. Naturally, this practice involves some omissions, but the result is a readable Hamann text for the reasonably educated layperson who wishes to read fruitfully without experiencing historical vertigo.

The translations themselves are lively and surprisingly lucid. Hamann was a stylistic eccentric who stretched the limits of German grammar and shocked his readers with strange non sequiturs and playful uses of other people's terms and grammatical constructions. (Haynes terms this style "parody" [ix], a somewhat insufficient description.) At times, Hamann would take the terms from the book he was attacking and the grammatical construction from a passage in the Bible; he would concoct polylinguistic neologisms and puns; and he would often construct mammoth, baroque sentences in which the grammatical construction seems designed to confuse the reader. We can understand why Kant once begged Hamann to write "in the language of human beings" (Kant, Correspondence trans. Zweig [Cambridge: CUP, 1999], 144). For a reader who, in Hamann's image, knows how to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 331-333
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-23
Open Access
No
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