Metacritique of Dogmatic Reason: Johann Georg Hamann
September 10th, 2015
by Philip Pilkington
Lord Keynes of the Social Democracy for the 21st Century blog has been making my life difficult recently. He’s been making me leave rather curt replies to what appear to be his knee-jerk criticisms of Freud — which I don’t enjoy doing because he’s one of the sharpest and most philosophically sophisticated economic bloggers around.
Now today, after having got none of my work done, he’s written a piece on epistemology which once again leaves out the only viewpoint which I think worthwhile. How on earth am I to not reply? Yet in doing so, I must outline an entire tradition of philosophy which, I would argue, has been ruthlessly repressed in the Anglophone world. So much so that I fear very few will even have heard the names I’m going to utter.
Okay, so Lord Keynes says that “in essence there are four positions held since the late 18th century on” epistemology and then goes on to lay out that of Quine, the empiricists, Kant and Kripke. They all revolve, in some way or another, around Kant’s distinction between synthetic a priori, analytic a priori, synthetic a posteriori and analytic a posteriori judgements. I am not going to explain these here as Lord Keynes has done a fine job in the linked post.
So, what is the viewpoint I feel that is left out? Well, we could go to the post-structuralists for answers but no, I think it more productive to show that the position I want to elaborate has been there from the very beginning; from the moment Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason. And so I will instead focus on Johann Georg Hamann who wrote the Metacritique on the Purism of Reason in 1784.
Some biographical detail first. Hamann was a funny sort. He largely remained outside of official circles of philosophy in his time. Yet, he was recognised as one of the leading philosophical thinkers in Germany when he was alive. He was good friends with Kant who, despite Hamann’s fierce opposition to his system, listened carefully to his criticisms (which I don’t think he understood) and even tried to co-author with him on occasion. Kant’s ear was probably open because Hamann is the one that translated Hume’s major work into German which then went on to influence Kant to write his Critique. In a sense Hamann pushed Kant to write his great work, yet Kant never really understood what Hamann was saying.
Outside of the Anglophone world Hamann is fairly well-known. Goethe and Kierkegaard thought him to be the finest thinker of his time — a judgment I think correct. But within the Anglophone world the only major figure who engaged with him was Isaiah Berlin in his book on Counter-Enlightenment. Berlin’s book, I think, served as a warning to everyone else in the Anglophone world to avoid him as one might avoid an impure object (not unlike Freud today…). I say this in all seriousness. The Anglophone intellectual world since the early 20th century strikes me as one mired in crude systems of bullying and taboo — neoclassical economics is only the most extreme manifestation of this.
Anyway, what did Hamann have to say about epistemology? Hamann’s criticism of Kantian epistemology is tied up with his more general criticism of what he considered to be Kant’s dogmatic adherence to Reason. Hamann traced this leap to David Hume and the book he had translated for Kant. Hume, as Hamann correctly noted at the beginning of his Metacritique, had basically taken over his philosophical revolution for the Irish philosopher George Berkeley. This revolution, to boil it down, consisted in saying that all general ideas were really only particular ones repeated many times over.
We must understand this point for two reasons. First of all, because Kant then sought, through the use of “Pure Reason”, to try once again to discover general ideas. This is what all this synthetic a priori talk is really all about (and it is, to tie this back to Lord Keynes’ post, what von Mises would try to do with his praexology nonsense). Secondly, we must understand this because Berkeley had made this argument in a very different context. Berkeley, you see, thought that the scope of Reason was severely limited and that custom and tradition played a major role in thought. This was also the position of Hamann who, speaking of what the likes of Hume and Kant were trying to do, disapprovingly wrote:
The first purification of reason consisted in the partly misunderstood, partly failed attempt to make reason independent of all tradition and custom and belief in them. (Pp207)
Let us just survey the scenery here because it is so often forgotten. Berkeley made an argument about epistemological principles but he did so based on his idea that Reason was subordinate to custom and tradition. Hume then picked this argument up and ignored everything else Berkeley said, choosing instead to simply worship Reason. Kant then picked up this argument via Hume and tried to solidify this worship of Reason into epistemological principles that do not even need reference to immedaite experience, thus making Reason a dogmatic Absolute completely unfettered from custom and tradition. Or as Hamann writes in his typically beguiling prose:
The second [purification of reason] is even more transcendent and comes to nothing less than independence from experience and its everyday induction. After a search of two thousand years for who knows what beyond experience, reason not only suddenly despairs of the progressive course of its predecessors but also defiantly promises impatient contemporaries delivery, and this in a short time, of that general and infallible philosopher’s stone, indispensable for Catholicism and despotism. Religion will submit its sanctity to it right away, and law-giving its majesty, especially at the final close of a critical century when empiricism on both sides, struck blind, makes its own nakedness daily more suspect and ridiculous. (Pp207-208)
Did anyone ever try to refute Berkeley’s original arguments on custom and tradition? Of course not. Hume and Kant were quite crude thinkers in that they didn’t realise that they were engaged in the construction of a new form of custom that was to become increasingly dominant in the world: Enlightenment; the worship of Reason. And one doesn’t successfully help found a dogma by pointing out its arbitrariness! Better to allow your followers to wipe out your opponents (and your progenitors) by ignoring them!
(For the Post-Keynesians interested in philosophy, by the way, please take note… this might sound awkwardly familiar.)
Anyway, the ultimate criteria on which this new dogma rested, according to Hamann, was on the use of language. In Kant, Hamann found a use of language that would become extremely popular as the Enlightenment captured ever more minds. He wrote, for example, that “a good many analytic judgments indeed imply a gnostic hatred of matter or else a mystic love of form” and that synthetic judgements tended to display “nothing more than an old, cold prejudice for mathematics” (Pp209-210)
Again, I do hope that the Post-Keynesians have their ears pricked up here. Because a certain economist from the first half of the twentieth would often repeat very similar criticisms of both economics and of science in general.
But back to Hamann and his “metacritique” of epistemology. Hamann says that what such forms of thinking do is enact such a violence on our use of language that it becomes very nearly meaningless babble. He writes that “it works the honest decency of language into such a meaningless, rutting, unstable, indefinite something = x that nothing is left but a windy sough, a magic shadow play, at most, as the wise Helvetius says, the talisman and rosary of a transcendental superstitious belief in entia rationis [a being with no existence outside of the mind], their empty sacks and slogans.” (Pp210).
What Hamann is complaining about is something that any critical economist should be aware of: the ability of a narrowly precise method to do such damage to its adherents abilities to even understand the language that they use that it gains complete and total control over them. Hamann saw this, all those years ago, as inherent not in the mathematical tendencies of neoclassical economics; but in what he considered the mathematical tendencies of Enlightenment itself.
With that, I will lay out a passage which I think lays out what I might jokingly refer to as Hamann’s own epistemology. One which, I should add, I adhere to completely.
Sounds and letters are therefore pure forms a priori, in which nothing belonging to the sensation or concept of an object is found; they are the true, aesthetic elements of all human knowledge and reason. The oldest language was music, and along with the palpable rhythm of the pulse and of the breath in the nostrils, it was the original bodily image of all temporal measures and intervals. The oldest writing was painting and drawing, and therefore was occupied as early as then with the economy of space, its limitation and determination by figures. (Pp212)
There is your a priori. It is in the beating of your heart and the movement of your lungs. No, that does not mean that it is biological determined or some other such nonsense. For biology is but a form of knowledge and all knowledge passes through a single filter: that of language; of sounds and letters. Language dominates Reason and is not subject to it. And language, if one cares to pick up an etymological dictionary, is handed down to us via custom and tradition. There is no escaping it. Not even by falling on one’s knees and worshiping at the temple of Science and Reason.