A brief consideration of two thinkers from the Enlightenment period who were deeply critical of the Enlightenment, and who thus aid us in our attempt to transcend it.
Recently I offered an Aristotelian perspective on rational proof1 in order to contribute to the debate surrounding the efficacy of Enlightenment rationality. That essay focussed on ancient philosophers, and it is my hope now to expand upon this by examining the views of some early modern and contemporary philosophers. Specifically in this instalment, I wish to present two figures from late-18th century Germany: Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788) and Franz von Baader (1765–1841).
These two philosophers were men of their time, but only in the same sense that any person born into a particular period naturally becomes a man of his time. Both studied philosophy in the full bloom of Enlightenment, and both were equally dismayed with what they saw. There must therefore be something good which we can learn from Hamann and Baader.
Let us begin with Hamann. Like many philosophers of the time, Hamann was not trained explicitly as a philosopher, but as a theologian (a rank to which such slightly later contemporaries as Hegel and Schelling would also ascend) studying at Königsberg with Kant, who would become a lifelong friend and philosophical adversary. Hamann invented himself primarily as a philosopher of language, and indeed, it is his language which makes his works so captivating. His style is at times deliberately overblown and ridiculous, and at others, laconic and witty. The opening of his essay Philological Ideas and Doubts begins with a lengthy list of meaningless Greek onomatopoeiae such as ‘παπᾶ παπᾶ παπᾶ’ and ‘ὓ ὗ ὓ ὗ’ from which point he proceeds to declare that ‘the root and stem, the nourishing sap, and the living spirit of language, [is] above all its onomatopoeia.’2 His method is, however, quite ingenious. Although for much of his life a poor speculative theologian, Hamann’s major contribution to philosophy prefigures Wittgenstein by over a century. For Hamann, Vernunft ist Sprache: “Reason is language.” These apparently ridiculous sounds, presented quite surprisingly and out of nowhere, are in fact quotations from some of the ancient world’s greatest dramatists: παπᾶ from Sophocles’ Philoctetes, ὓ ὗ from Aristophanes’ Plutus. Thus Hamann shows us something which is in fact quite natural (if often hidden from our ‘rational sight’): that in the midst of a drama (be it fictional, or simply the drama life itself) apparently formless sounds can convey the most evocative meanings. Hamann roots rationality back to the mundane – to everyday human experience. In our own age, where language is used, or rather, is abused for the sake of perverting reason and turning what is manifest on its head, this is a most refreshing turn.
It was in language that Hamann saw the Enlightenment’s perversion of reason most acutely. Enlightenment rationalism of the likes of Kant led, according to Hamann, had a paradoxical effect: on the one hand it narrowed reason, and restricted what could be considered ‘normal’ or acceptable; on the other hand, it supplied a philosophical language which could be used to invent and justify any new and nonsensical precept, so long as the correct buzzwords were employed. He criticises
the heretics of psychology, Arianists, Mohammedans, and Socinians, who claim to have explained everything on the basis of positive power or entelechy of the soul.3
All of these groups (Arians, Muslims, and Socinians) are Unitarian in some sense, denying the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Here Hamann shows us his scepticism of philosophico-religious systems which claim to have a ‘packaged rational answer’, so to speak. For Hamann, the beauty of the Christian Trinity was in its innate contradiction: in the mystery of prayer to it and the experiences of ordinary people. As such, the philosophical cackling of those who ridiculed the ‘irrationality’ of the Trinity was foolery to him – the foolishness of a thinker who can dismiss centuries of common experience. And so in another place, he rounds his attack on the philosophers of his time for using reason to reduce once-meaningful beliefs to mere affectation:
[A]ll men’s rational arguments consist in truth and doubt about untruth, or belief in untruth and doubt about truth. … However, if the intellect believes in lies, and acquires a taste for them, doubts truths and despises simple fare, then light in us is darkness and the salt in us is no longer a seasoning – religion becomes a mere church-procession, philosophy a verbal ostentation, outmoded and meaningless opinions, obsolete and impotent rights!4
His point is that Enlightenment destroyed meaningful and truly powerful beliefs, which people held with the force of truth. Only the husk of these beliefs remained – indeed, in many European countries this remains the case to this day, such as England with its Anglican processions devoid of genuine belief – but the meaning behind them is lost, the husk becoming little more than an obsolete tradition or artefact.
There is a delightful common-sense realism to Hamann. I believe this to be reflected, if not improved upon, in Baader’s work a few decades after him; for Baader was reacting not against Kant, but against the older phenomena of empiricism, and even that protogenesis of modern Western philosophy: Cartesianism. It was when living in England from 1792 that Baader came into contact with the empiricism of David Hume – and first earned his distaste for it. On his return to Germany, he befriended Friedrich Jacobi (1743–1819), and under his influence began to write his first philosophical papers.
It seems appropriate here to divert from our course slightly in order to say a few words about Jacobi, given his influence upon Baader. Jacobi cannot be overlooked, given that it was arguably Jacobi’s reaction against the Enlightenment which ignited the first debates about rationality. In fact, it is not correct to call Jacobi’s thought a reaction against Enlightenment – Jacobi reacted against philosophy itself. Jacobi is, I have always thought, the first of the anti-philosophical philosophers, and his anti-philosophical system is striking. Baader follows from Jacobi in identifying the earliest signs of Enlightenment in Descartes and Spinoza, and both denounced the latter’s highly nonstandard views about God as the first signs of Enlightenment Deism (a position until relatively recently often closely associated with Atheism). For Baader and Jacobi, Deism – the belief that God is distanced from the material creation, that he does not intervene in any way – was not an Enlightened position on God, but rather a perversely self-justified excuse to disbelieve. Just as Hamann did, both these men saw deep-rooted beliefs and the collective expressions of those beliefs as the root of the truly rational.
However, whilst Jacobi was horrified by the direction of Western philosophy, and rejected completely every systematic position from Aristotle to Fichte, Baader applied this righteous reaction a little more temperately. Rather than throw out philosophy altogether and rest upon the dogmatic certainties of the Christian religion, Baader remarked that Descartes’ infamous expression of first metaphysical principles, ‘cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore I am’ set Western philosophy on the wrong course. For Baader, the correct first principle would have been ‘cogitor ergo sum’, ‘I am thought, therefore I am.’5 Here the human condition is defined by the fact that it is created, and the lot which it is given is its definition. This definition is furnished by, as Baader would call it, the Absolute, but practically speaking, this is simply 19th century philosophical jargon meaning God.
Baader’s style is similar to Hamann’s, if not even more insurmountable in its idiosyncrasies. His sentence structures are quite dauntingly convoluted; he is prone to extended analogies, metaphors, and distractions in his prose, not to mention the deliberate use of neologisms. He supplanted, for example, the traditional German term for the Christian Trinity (Trinität or Dreifaltigkeit, ‘triune’) with his own new one (Ternar, ‘triplicity’ or ‘threefold’), feeling as though the traditional terminology did not sufficiently convey the mystical significance of divine ‘threeness’. Aside from a deliberately literary, anti-lucid style (presumably in response to the proto-analytic pretensions of the empiricists whom he despised) Baader looked back to the scholastic philosophers of medieval Europe for methodological inspiration. Specifically, in them he found the seeds of his own project: a necessary desire to syncretize science, theology, and philosophy into a single, yet fluid system. He writes in one essay:
Not only should science and religion reunite, but the former, driven by a deeper necessity of a deeper alienation from the latter, should unite with religion in a deeper, therefore newer, and more profound way, just as reconciled enemies establish a deeper, more profound union.6
The term ‘science’ (Wissenschaft) was even in Baader’s time not limited to what we would now designate ‘science’. Indeed, until the completion of the professionalization of the academic communities of Europe and America in the mid-20th century, the term ‘science’ could easily apply to natural, moral and metaphysical philosophy equally. The Hegelian school made no distinction between philosophy and science – but it necessarily subordinated all else to this Enlightened variety of philosophy – which is the true meaning of Wissenschaft at this moment in time. Yet Baader’s project was not to syncretize in the way that the Hegelians did – by using the philosophical sciences to create a systematic explanation of everything; rather he envisaged the syncretic polymathy of the scholastics. The works of mystics such as Hildegard von Bingen come to mind, whose oeuvre includes everything from mystical visions to Biblical exegesis, from practical and pastoral letters to natural philosophy and medicine. These things were not dominated by each other, but complementary; to appropriate Aquinas’ own term, philosophy acted as ‘the handmaid of theology’ – a necessary servant, but centred around the basic belief in doctrines revealed by the Absolute being which humans worship as Creator. This system, which Baader calls Sozietätsphilosophie,7 ‘partnership-philosophy’ is an association of disciplines. In the Sozietätsphilosophie we see the same search for truth across various fields united by a common concern for seeking the right way to ‘live and understand’, so to speak. The link between this and the Greek philosophies we considered beforehand is therefore quite clear.
Yet there is a crucial impasse at which we have arrived – one which both casual reader and philosopher alike might in all likelihood miss. The Counter-Enlightenment has been of interest in recent years to critical theorists, feminists, queer theorists and so on. If one is to take such a (proportionally) gigantic leap as to dismiss the achievements of the Enlightenment as a mistake, and demand a widening of the bounds of reason, then of course one opens oneself up to voluminous problems. It is this apparent widening of the bounds of reason, and an emphasis upon the power of language, that has led to all kinds of outwardly laughable and anti-rational modern trends: gender fluidity comes to mind, for example. If it is basic beliefs alone which provide the basis of reason, why should we dismiss those basic beliefs which are founded upon the contemporary liberal doctrine of personal identity? It is almost as though the Counter-Enlightenment and Enlightenment have come around full circle and now met. In fact, this provides us with our answer. The Enlightenment places at its root ‘freedom’ as the basis of all morality. Now, even the Counter-Enlightenment theorists could accept the place of freedom within morality to a degree, but not as morality’s basis. The crucial difference between the post-Enlightenment feminist theorist and the post-Enlightenment man of the Right is this: the former still accepts the moral consequences of Enlightenment, whilst the latter places at his moral foundation something which defies Enlightenment, as did Hamann and Baader; that thing being either purported divine revelation – that is to say, the most perfect form of anti-rational knowledge which mankind has available – or some abstract concept of the divine which governs the boundaries of reason. It is important to remember than the syncretizing of disciplines does not amount to an acceptance of everything and nothing.
There is much more that could be said about the figures whom I have discussed, but I suspect that the crux of the matter has been made clear. Both Hamann and Baader are relatively little-known in their own right, but their thought certainly deserves a place alongside the greatest luminaries of the Enlightenment proper. It is my hope that they (and their associates) will form part of the development of new philosophical responses to the excesses of our own age with the help of those who disseminate their ideas.
In the final instalment of my series of essays on Enlightenment and rationality, which will follow this one, I hope to examine some more contemporary approaches to the problem, and bring together the loose ends which have been left from my previous discussions on the subject.
2 J. G. Hamann, Writings on Philosophy and Language (CUP, 2007), pp. 113–114
3 Ibid., p. 118
4 Ibid., pp. 202-203
5 The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century German Philosophers (Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 28
6 F. X. von Baader, Sämtliche Werke, vol. I (Leipzig, 1850), p. 95
7 Bloomsbury Dictionary (op. cit.), pp. 28–29