Johann Georg Hamann

The German philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) was known as the "Magus of the North." He held that truth is a matter of subjective belief, and he sought to reveal the divine in things and people.

Born on Aug. 27, 1730, in Königsberg, East Prussia, Johann Georg Hamann was the son of the local surgeon-barber and heir of generations of Protestant pastors, and this background helps explain his interests in science, medicine, and especially religion. The young Hamann was tutored at home, and the remarkable range of his intellectual pursuits was largely a product of self-education. He displayed an aptitude for languages and mastered Greek, Latin, French, Italian, English, and Hebrew in addition to his native German.

In 1746 Hamann enrolled at the University of Königsberg as a student of theology and later of law. There he was influenced by Martin Knutzen, the philosophy teacher of his fellow townsman Immanuel Kant. He withdrew in 1752 and spent the next 7 years working as a tutor and then for a business concern, the House of Barens. In the latter capacity he traveled as far as London, where he underwent a spiritual crisis. Returning to Königsberg, he spent the next few years in study, writing, and translating. Kant introduced Hamann to Johann Gottfried von Herder and also secured him a position with the local government, which he held for the next 24 years. About the same time, 1763, he entered into a lifelong domestic arrangement and fathered four children. Hamann died on June 21, 1788, while visiting a group of his admirers in Münster.

The main intention of Hamann's writings was to state the relationship between faith and philosophy. His early unpublished works—Biblical Meditations (1758) and Thoughts on the Course of My Life (1759)—culminated in his first major work, Socratic Memorabilia (1759). His reputation was increased by the publication of a collection of essays, Crusades of the Philologian (1762), which included "Aesthetics in a Nutshell;" political satires such as Lost Letter of a Savage of the North to a Financier at Peking (1773) and The Worm of the North (1774); and his thoughts on sexuality, Essay of a Sibyl on Marriage (1775). Konxompax (1779), Metacritique of the Purism of the Reason (1784), and Golgatha und Scheblimini (1784) are various critiques of works by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Kant, and Moses Mendelssohn. He managed, however, to cultivate and maintain the friendship of the major figures of the German Enlightenment while criticizing their philosophies.

Hamann's writings focused on the study of the whole man of reason, emotion, language, and history. He believed that the rationalist gospel of the Enlightenment was inferior to facts and to true philosophy, which is "Socratic" or critical in the awareness of its own ignorance. Hamann's aim was to understand divine revelation and its workings in nature and history.


Further Reading on Johann Georg Hamann

There are only two complete works of Hamann translated and one major study of him available in English. Ronald G. Smith, J. G. Hamann, 1730-1788:A Study in Christian Existence— With Selections from His Writings (1960), includes the Metacritique, and James C. O'Flaherty's edition of Hamann's Socratic Memorabilia (1967) is an excellent translation with commentary and biographical introduction. W. M. Alexander, Johann Georg Hamann:Philosophy and Faith (1966), is a thorough and full study.