Book Notice: John R. Betz

Ever wondered who’s the source behind this maxim? “Reason is language.

It’s from a writer worth knowing a thing or two about — Johann Georg Hamann. I’d understand if you hadn’t heard this name before. It’s been an obscure one for a while, though there are signs that scholars nowadays are trying their hardest to remedy this injustice. He was an 18th century Prussian. Here are his dates: 1730-1788, for those who mind such details. He resided in Königsberg, which you may recall was the home of Kant. Hamann was in fact a contemporary, friend, and critic of Kant. Other interlocutors of his included Mendelssohn and Lessing. He’s considered by some to be the first critic of the Enlightenment. He was praised by the likes of Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Dilthey, and Kierkegaard for his towering intellect and humane sensibilities. And it’s no wonder why. Hamann anticipated the rise of historical consciousness, philosophy’s turn to ordinary language, existentialism, literary Romanticism, and postmodernity’s suspicions of the sufficiency of ‘reason alone’. He was a philologist by training and a journalist and civil servant by profession. His forays in philosophy and theology were those of an amateur (in the best sense of the word). Though early in life he frequented pro-Enlightenment circles, it was when he was on business in London, at 27 years old, moneyless and friendless, that Hamann was converted to a devoutly confessional Lutheranism. He picked up a Bible, read it cover to cover, and learned that “the same one who authored the Bible was also the author of his life” (31).

For aiding in the recovery of this “postmodern prophet” (xi), Loyola College’s John R. Betz is to be applauded. Recently, Betz published After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann, (Wiley Blackwell, 2009). The work offers a comprehensive introduction to Hamann’s life and corpus of writings, all of which were short, highly occasional and composed in notoriously obscure prose. Even Hamann’s admirers are willing to concede that “no work in the German language is as difficult to understand as every one of Hamann’s writings.” (with the likes of Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger for countrymen, that’s a bold claim.) Lest you theologians out there be scared off prematurely, Betz proves a genial guide, and he crafts his narrative with the aim of situating Hamann in the history of theology, bringing to view the resources Hamann’s provided to theological projects as diverse as those of von Balthasar, Milbank and the German Lutheran systematic theologian Oswald Bayer. Betz also writes with an eye to Hamann’s postmodern resonances, concluding with a chapter that situates Hamann in relation to the projects of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. Betz’s monograph has earned its standing as the leading English-language account of Hamann on the market today.

To give you a sense for Hamann’s range, here’s a snippet from Betz’s introduction: “those interested chiefly in the fundamentals of Hamann’s Christian vision might simply read Chapters 2 and 9. […] For those interested in Hamann’s radical, Lutheran use of Hume or his doctrine of Socractic ignorance, Chapters 1 and 3 will be most relevant. For those interested in his theological aesthetics, Chapters 2 and 5 will be most relevant; for those interested in his biblical hermeneutics as an alternative to merely rational or historical-critical approaches to Scripture, Chapters 2, 5, and 12 will be most relevant; for those interested in Hamann’s view of language, Chapters 5 and 6; for those interested in his critique of Kant [his was the first review of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason], Chapter 11; for those interested in his understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and the possibilities he offers for Jewish-Christian dialogue, Chapter 12; for those interested in his spiritual life, teaching, and influence as a spiritual father, Chapter 13” (21-2). Needless to say, Hamann has something to offer a broad swath of readers.

If Hamann’s style and achievements are piquing your interests, you’re in luck; in addition to Betz, there’s plenty of more literature out there for you to peruse. You may consider turning next to some of the following recent works:

  • Ed. Lisa Marie Anderson, Hamann and the Tradition, (Northwestern University, 2012) – a collection of essays from a recent cross-disciplinary conference devoted to Hamann, gives some attention to Hamann’s stature as a theologian
  • Oswald Bayer, A Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as a Radical Enlightener, (Eerdmans, 2012) – a translation from Bayer’s 1988 German monograph
  • Robert Sparling, Johann Georg Hamann and the Enlightenment Project, (U of Toronto, 2011) – focuses on Hamann’s considerable contributions to political philosophy
  • James O’Flaherty, Johann Georg Hamann, (Twayne, 1979) – considered a classic biographical portrait

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