Medieval Philosophy Redefined As The Latin Age

Through the kind courtesy of St. Augustine’s Press, we here offer to our readers an excerpt from Medieval Philosophy Redefined As The Latin Age, a newly published work of the late John Deely, one of the foremost semioticians of our time. He taught at the University of Saint Thomas and Saint Vincent College and Seminary. He passed away in 2017.

In this excerpted work, Deely brilliantly establishes the continuity of medieval thought in modernity.

Please do support the great work being done by St. Augustine’s Press by purchasing a copy of this book.


The 17th century crash and burn of Scholasticism—the tradition of commentary on Aristotle (in philosophy) and Lombard (along with the Bible in theology) begun in the late 1100s—resulted from accumulated abuses on the part of authorities civil and religious, abuses in which the scholastic “establishment” within the universities was all-too-often complicit. What discredited the Scholastics in the end was the actual demonstration b men we now call “scientists” of basic truths about the universe that scholastics denied—while encouraging church and state officials to take actions of repression and thought-control. Not until 1757 did the Roman Church lift its prohibition from 1616 of books dealing with Copernicus’ view that the earth was not the center of the physical universe, and not until 1835 did an edition of the Index of Forbidden Books appear which no longer listed as prohibited the works of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler!

However understandable, the turning away from scholasticism in philosophy turned out to be a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; for thinkers of the time were so taken with the experimental and mathematical techniques that had shown the earth to move and the stars to be other suns that they came to believe that the whole edifice of human knowledge, without remainder, could be rebuilt on the basis of science in this modern, empirical and mathematical sense. The ascendancy of this belief defined the historical epoch that has come to be called the Enlightenment, the belief that philosophers might ask questions, but only scientists could actually give answers. If you think that this Enlightenment attitude is a thing of the past, you are mistaken. Yet increasingly has it come to be recognized that if the whole of the knowledge we acquire before becoming scientists has no independent validity, then science itself would have no validity.

The first major thinker seriously to recognize this situation, or at least most completely to do so, was Charles Sanders Peirce. Borrowing a terminology coined by Jeremy Bentham, Peirce pointed to the difference between critical knowledge based on common experience or “cenoscopy”, presupposed to the validity of the specialized foci of modern experimental and mathematical science, in contrast with the knowledge that only experimentation and mathematization of results can produce, or “ideoscopy”, which is science in the modern sense. Until now, philosophers generally, in desperation, have tried appealing to “common sense” as the basis upon which philosophy has a legitimacy of its own prior to and independent of science. But so discredited has the notion of “common sense” become in intellectual culture that appeal to it has little chance of persuading a wide audience. What is needed, rather, is the recognition that, while both science and “common sense” depend upon “the total everyday experience of many generations of multitudinous populations”, yet “such experience is worthless for distinctively scientific purposes”.

The “distinctively scientific purposes” includes, however, both exploration of human experience that requires experimentation to advance knowledge and the more general “scientific purpose” to evaluate and expose in critically controlled terms that overall framework of knowledge within and on the basis of which scientific research comes to be conducted in the first place. Articulation of the presupposed overall framework of knowledge and of independent results attainable within it too requires “science” (as critically controlled objectification), but not ideoscopic science: here is the domain proper to philosophy, cenoscopic science. It has a legitimacy of its own, and this is what the early moderns lost sight of in their enthusiasm for the then-firmly-established-possibilities of ideoscopy. Moreover, the most basic of the cenoscopic lines of investigation proves to be precisely inquiry into the action of signs, “semiosis”, because it turns out that cenoscopy and ideoscopy alike depend on this action throughout for whatever knowledge they succeed to establish.

Now it so happens that the first realization of semiosis as underlying the whole of animal experience and human knowledge — that it is the action of signs which makes experience and knowledge so much as possible in any form—was the distinctive achievement of the Latin Age. That is not the whole story of medieval thought, but it is the untold part of the story, the part without which (as all the modern “histories of philosophy” taken together illustrate) medieval philosophy cannot be seen in its distinctive unity overall, extending from the break with ancient Greek philosophy around Augustine’s time to the modern break with Latin philosophy in the lifetime of Galileo, Poinsot, and Descartes. The articulation and exposition of this cenoscopic foundation of all science, termed today “semiotics”, the Latins termed simply doctrina signorum.

Philosophy, then, as cenoscopic science, not only precedes ideoscopic science and provides its framework. Philosophy also, rightly understood, shows the inevitability of ideoscopic development in order for human thought to reach maturation—just what the authorities, Church and Civil, in the closing Latin centuries, failed to understand.

Exactly as Hannam says in the subtitle of his book: “the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science”; but the Latins achieved this feat, as it were, indirectly, mainly as a consequence or by-product of their exploring the dimensions and depths of cenoscopic knowledge out of which ideoscopic inquiries inevitably arise.

Latin focus on the doctrine of signs achieved clarity only late, and precisely in the closing scholastic centuries of the age glossed over or omitted entirely in the standard “history of medieval philosophy”; yet it is far from the whole or only story of medieval thought that this book aims to tell. Just as important are the broader results scientific in a cenoscopic sense that the Latins are able to achieve in exploring those dimensions of experience which cannot be reduced to experimental results available to sense-perception, as is required in ideoscopy. To restore in new light the remarkable preceding achievements of medieval philosophy in thinking through those larger dimensions of human experience which go beyond sensible instantiations is just as integral to the story of medieval philosophy as is semiotic as the doctrine of signs. So the doctrine of signs (or semiotics, as we now say) is only part of the “medieval story” that this book aims to tell; but it is that part which provides an “Ariadne’s thread” through the larger maze of medieval noetic development, the thread without which the whole does not appear.

This book, then, is a work equally of philosophy and of history. The two are not perfectly separable; for while it is possible to do history without doing philosophy, the converse is not equally true, as the Analytic tradition of late modern thought is just beginning to learn. Ideoscopic science requires laboratories to explore the consequences of its theories. Just so does cenoscopic science require historical awareness. The philosopher ignorant of the history of philosophy is crippled in ways that we have only to read Wittgenstein to realize—provided that we have ourselves come to that reading with an historical consciousness including Aristotle’s work (which Wittgenstein made it a point of pride not to read). (Plato provided the best prenotes to Aristotle; but in the history of philosophy after Aristotle, Plato himself becomes a footnote.)

So this book aims to redress the imbalance in human intellectual community that the “Enlightenment mentality” understandably introduced, and to do so mainly by restoring, while for the first time telling in the light of semiotics, something like the full story of Latin Age scholasticism, when cenoscopy achieved some of its highest peaks at the same time that it made the modern development of ideoscopic science inevitable in its own right—over the dead bodies of the “authorities” presuming to speak for God.


The featured image shows Saint Jerome offering his work to Saint Marcella, who is accompanied by Saint Principia. From a manuscript from the Notre Abbey in Citeaux, France; early 12th century. (Bibliothèque municipale, Dijon – ms. 132 folio 1).

Jean Doresse And The Gnostics

The Chenoboskion-Nag Hammadi manuscripts are leather-bound codices (papyri, that is), dating from the middle of the 4th century AD, and found in 1947, northwest of Luxor, by Egyptian peasants, and since then kept at the Coptic Museum of Cairo. These compromise twelve papyrus codices, plus the remains of a thirteenth, totaling nearly 1,300 pages and over fifty Coptic texts, most of them completely unknown. Only one of these codices was acquired by the Coptic Museum in Cairo, as early as October 1946; it was not until 1975 that the entire collection was assembled there.

The result of a fortuitous find, the discovery of Nag Hammadi early aroused the attention of both antique dealers in Egypt and the authorities of the Coptic Museum. It was not one of those theatrical finds, which officials, journalists and the curious flock to. As with the Desert Scrolls of Judah (commonly referred to as “the Qumran”), almost all episodes of this discovery were suppressed, and almost all details of the history and actual content of the manuscripts have long remained unknown to this day.

Be that as it may, a whole apocalyptic and Gnostic literature then emerged from the earth. The direct sources that were so sorely lacking in research were finally found.

The first Europeans to have knowledge of the discovery were French personalities or scientists. This discovery involved several things: the search for the manuscripts dispersed by the peasants who had exhumed them; field investigations to find out the location of the find; the first readings of the pages less damaged by time; the identification of the writings that came to light there and the first inventory. All of this was the work of Jean Doresse (1917-2007), the main witness to the first stages of this major event in the history of research.

After auditing the lectures of Henri Charles Puech (in the section of religious sciences of l’École pratique des Hautes Études), Doresse joined the CNRS in 1941 and became a research grant holder in October 1944. In September 1947, he found himself in Egypt, in order to carry out, as “excavator for the Louvre museum,” the first of five missions, financed by the Archaeological Excavations Commission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In October 1947 (he was thirty years old), he informed C.H. Puech of the existence of a papyrus volume,140 pages long and containing Gnostic writings in Coptic Sahidic (the current Codex III). Thus began an exchange of correspondence (which lasted until 1970) between the young researcher, who had privileged access to the manuscripts, and the recognized scholar who, although unable to read or translate the writings, was nevertheless best able to interpret them.

A scientific committee made up of various personalities was then created with a view to publication. It consisted of Doresse, of course, along with Togo Mina, curator of the Cairo Museum at the time of the discovery and who first recognized the importance of these manuscripts, Canon Drioton, renowned Egyptologist and director of the Antiquities Department of Egypt until 1952, Charles Henri Puech, arguably the best specialist in Gnosis and Manichaeism, and Walter Till, the specialist in the Berlin Codex. But bad luck of “an evil sort” (to use Doresse’s own words) would plague what concerned the acquisition and publication of these ancient documents. Two years in to the work, Togo Mina died in 1949; he was always hounded by the thought that these manuscripts would disappear from Egypt, and he thus made Doresse promise to protect them from the inevitable greed.

In 1958, Doresse published, Les livres secrets des gnostiques d’Egypte (The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics), the result of archaeological adventure with multiple twists and turns; the book went through several editions. According to Doresse, “the style [of the book] reflects the fever of the time when the characters involved in this find were still alive.” He presented the 44 unpublished Gnostic treatises, narrated the adventures of their discovery, the vicissitudes of their purchase by the Coptic Museum, and then he explained the unfortunate delays in their publication – revolutions and wars are not favorable times for archaeologists.

After gathering all the information provided by the heresiologists and quickly pinpointing the gist of the already known Gnostic treatises, he proposed a provisional classification of them into four categories: prophetic revelations; pseudepigraphic writings taking on the aspect of Christian writings; gospels of a Christianized gnosis; and finally, those treatises more or less close to hermetic writings. He summarized the content of each treatise, by first trying to identify it, often successfully, by way of the information provided by Irenaeus Epiphanes and the Philosophumena.

Doresse also spoke, in a veiled manner, in the introductions to each of the new editions, of the harmful consequences of this discovery for his own existence and his career. The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics was planned as a trilogy, the first volume of which was then titled, Introduction aux écrits gnostiques coptes découverts à Khénoboskion (Introduction to the Coptic Gnostic Writings Discovered at Chenoboskion), and published in Paris, in 1958. Two other volumes were planned. Doresse then outlined the main features of a Gnostic doctrine by taking up a suggestive study by Henri Charles Puech, la Gnose et le Temps (Gnosis and Time). From the start, Doresse understood that these texts from Chenoboskion, much more numerous and evocative than those of Qumran, had greater historical significance.

Like the Qumran manuscripts, they relate to an age which, for the development of human consciousness, remains the greatest. This is the moment when the individual found himself most intensely placed before the problems of personal destiny and the destiny of empires and civilizations, which he regarded as definitely established. The central moment for these ages is the Cross. We know this today, but that age was the first to say it – we were in the presence of a veritable library that attested to the existence of a Gnostic Church which maintained links with groups located in other regions.

Very quickly, Doresse formulated the hypothesis that in all likelihood these were documents from the library of the monastery of Saint Pachomius, hidden there at the end of the 4th century, after the prohibition on Gnostic literature by Athanasius of Alexandria, and by the decrees of Emperor Theodosius I.

The Gospel Of Thomas

Such a discovery was not without consequences. Gnostic studies were soon drawn into an ever-expanding whirlwind that was difficult to curb. The eye of the storm was the Gospel of Thomas.

The more or less Christian apocrypha, used by the sectarians of Chenoboskion, was then given the authority of well-known apostles: James, Thomas, Philip, Matthias, John and Peter. The content of these texts is often trivial, not fundamentally contradicting that of the canonical Gospels, but distorting Christian doctrine and deviating from it. In general, the Gnostics of Chenoboskion wanted to introduce into their doctrine a false Christianity by hatching so-called Gospels put under the names of the Apostles, or even by placing certain revelations in the mouth of the Savior. Basilides had also fabricated a compilation of this kind.

Among these adulterated Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas made a lot of noise and gave rise to many rumors, not always of good quality. Many newspapers of the time argued, on the strength of false, distorted, or misinterpreted news, that this was nothing less than a “fifth Gospel;” that it revealed “unknown facts” about the life of Christ; or that it seemed “almost certainly” translated from Aramaic.

C.H. Puech then pointed out, rather fittingly, that to speak of a “fifth Gospel” did not make much sense. If we believe this to be so, then we would have to exclude the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) whose authority and authenticity has been determined by the Church. Or, we would have to recognize all works of the evangelical type as “gospels,” whether or not they were canonical; and we would then be dealing with an abundance of extra-canonical texts. And in that case, why give only a fifth place to the Gospel according to Thomas, or reserve that spot just for him, rather than any other work of the same sort?

This Gospel of Thomas is, in fact, nothing more than a collection of one hundred and fourteen logia; but it is the largest collection ever transmitted of the “Sayings of Jesus,” or “Words” attributed to Jesus. After a short preamble of four and a half lines, (and which already contains the first logion), the text is just made up of a series of sentences or words independent of each other, mechanically juxtaposed, outside of any systematic narrative-frame, and most often introduced by the stereotypical formula: “Jesus said.” An exordium which itself seems fictitious (no doubt added afterwards) specifies that these are the secret words that Jesus the Living said and that Didyma Jude Thomas wrote. It is written in Sahidic Coptic, and dates possibly from the second half of the 3rd century or, according to other specialists, from the 5th century.

Complete and written with admirable care, the Gospel of Thomas is the second of seven writings in the collection, where it appears between the long version of John’s Apokryphon and another apocryphal piece, the Gospel According to Philip. It is “apocryphal;” in other words, an esoteric text, or which takes itself as such, and which claims to record hidden, secret words, namely, words of Jesus. It is also a pseudepigraphic work since, despite its title and its preamble, both obviously fictitious, the writing cannot be traced back to the apostle, Didymus Judas Thomas. Far from uncovering unknown aspects of the life of Jesus, it presents no historical or narrative character; nor does it contain any account. And, if it relates some act of Christ, it is in an exception and merely schematic. Apart from the few lines at the beginning, it is exclusively made up of a series of words attributed to Jesus and placed end to end. Not a single one of these Words has any chance of going back to an Aramaic prototype.

Indirect sources knew of the existence of this gospel, but what is said is very vague or confusing. According to a tradition reported in the Pistis Sophia, Jesus would have, after his resurrection, entrusted to Thomas, as well as to Philip and to Matthew (or rather, as Theodor Zahn conjectures, to Matthias), the charge of relating all his actions and to record all his words. The three apostles, or disciples, would be the three witnesses whose testimony, according to Deuteronomy 19:15, and the Gospel of Matthew, would be necessary for the establishment of the truth. Thus transformed, at the whim of the Gnostics, into those of essential intermediaries, if not exclusive guarantors, of the authentic transmission of the integral and hidden teaching of Christ, their names – one could imagine – must have served to legitimize the fundamentals of the Gospels.

The introductory lines of the Gospel of Thomas can also be read, exactly reproduced in Greek, on the back of a papyrus of the 3rd century, unearthed in 1903, namely, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus No. 654. The papyri of Nag Hammadi, in fact, have made it possible to complete and rectify the Oxyrhynchus texts.

But are both the 3rd century papyrus and the Gospel of Thomas inspired by the same tradition? This is the first important question. Another is even more crucial – are all the words of Jesus collected in this Gospel, or, at least, some of them, “authentic?” Can they be traced back to Christ himself? Origen asked himself this; and with regard to one of the Sayings in this collection, Saint Jerome had to admit that there could be “gold in this mud.”

Although refusing all canonical authority to the apocrypha because of the falsehood that abounds in them (propter multa falsa), Augustine recognized that we sometimes find “some truth” in there. Puech’s response is cautious. If there are strong reasons to be assured of the inauthenticity of many of these new Sayings, all that we can do about those ones that give us pause is to establish, by more or less fragile criteria, that it is not impossible to suppose them to come from the tradition – written or oral – of contemporary Christian communities or close to the apostolic age. But, from that to concluding that they go back to Jesus Himself is leap into the unknown, the unverifiable. The Christian Church is founded primarily on authority, as was the Synagogue. The truth is what was taught by the founder and which is binding on the believer. Hence the need to know what Jesus said and what his immediate disciples heard.

However, a good number of Manichean texts exhumed, either in Central Asia or in Fayum, cite Words of Jesus which are found exactly, or with some variations, in the Nag Hamadi Library. In particular, we have only to compare the beginning of the Letter of Foundation (Epistola Fundamenti) of Mani, and the prologue to the Gospel according to Thomas, as it is restored to us, to be convinced that the founder of Manichaeism knew the same writing and was inspired by it on occasion.

But to work on a text, you need a translation, and the translation of the Gospel of Thomas was slow to appear. Years passed and the editorial work still had not borne fruit. In 1959, Jean Doresse then published L’Evangile selon Thomas (The Gospel According to Thomas), Volume II of work that began with Les livres secrets des gnostiques d’Egypt (The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics). This scholarly work of his provided researchers with a working text. Three other editions were published at the same time as the French edition: English, German and Dutch.

But by publishing this work, Doresse pulled the rug out from under Puech. The following year, Puech published a so-called “critical” edition with three other researchers, all well-known scholars. They were in such a hurry to publish that they did not wait to include with the text and its translation the critical commentary which they were preparing or claimed they were preparing. The stakes were indeed high as to which would be the preferred scholarly reference edition, cited in prestigious journals, along with the name of the editor or editors.

By this time, however, Jean Doresse had already moved on from all this, having understood that it was all needlessly contentious, and had begun work on Ethiopia.

International Greed And The End Of Certain French Research

The first editorial project was not brought to a halt by Togo Mina’s death in 1949, as Professor James M. Robinson claimed. Rather, the project was hijacked by international passions, in particular Anglo-Saxon, which also put an end to French research that had remained of Christian and Catholic inspiration.

In the early 1960s, the Director General of UNESCO, the Frenchman, René Maheu, concluded an agreement with Saroite Okasha, the Minister of Culture, and the National Council of the United Arab Republic, to publish a complete edition, edited by an international committee, chosen by Egypt and UNESCO. But when it became known that several of the selected texts were already the subject of a publication project, the UNESCO endeavor was reduced to a facsimile edition which, in turn, remained more or less dormant.

Progress was not made until 1966, with the first International Colloquium on the Origins of Gnosticism, organized in Messina, at the initiative of Professor Bianchi, and which came at the end of three years of preparation. At the Colloquium, held from April 13 to 18, 1966, sixty-four topics, all mimeographed and distributed three months earlier to all registered participants, were discussed at length.

During one week and in general assembly, ten areas of research were reviewed: the current state of Gnostic texts; the definition of Gnosticism; Gnosticism and Iran; Gnosticism and Mesopotamia; Gnosticism and Egypt; Gnosticism and Qumran; Gnosticism and Judaism; Gnosticism and Christianity; Gnosticism and Hellenism; Gnosticism and Buddhism. The result was a document, which was first submitted for discussion and then went to approval by the participants. Then it was published in Italian, French, English and German, with a series of proposals concerning the scientific use of the terms, “gnosis” and “Gnosticism:”

“Gnosticism” – a term of modern creation – defines a movement of thought centered on the notion of “knowledge” (in Greek, gnôsis) which developed in the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. On the other hand, the term “gnosis” – whose use is attested since the 2nd century indicates universal tendencies of thought which has in common the notion of knowledge, from which, for example, also derive movements as diverse as the Kabbalah, Manichaeism or Mandaeism.

While relevant, this distinction is not widely accepted today. A pity, as it does reflect the historical reality of the great constructions restored by the Apologists; and it does make it possible to account for gnosis as an anthropological phenomenon – the same leaven making bread of different shapes, often bewildering, baked with adulterated flour, and in general, largely inedible.

The Colloquium, at least, gave occasion for direct contact with the vestiges of Egyptian monasticism: an immense religious domain, extending over twenty kilometers in length and which contains the ruins of a set of more than seven hundred monasteries and hermitages erected from the 4th to the 9th century. The delegates spent a day in Wadi Natrun and visited three of the four Coptic monasteries that remain in the Nitrian Desert. They were delighted that the monastery of Saint Macarius, reduced to six old monks by 1969, had then more than forty. What now remains, however, is a long way from the fifty convents, most of which founded in the 4th century, which covered the site, and attested to the flowering of Christianity, as well as to the destructive power of Islam.

In 1970, UNESCO and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture founded the International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices and appointed Professor James M. Robinson, an expert in religious sciences as secretary, which made it easy for him to supervise the project, in collaboration with the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont (California). The Facsimile Edition of the Nag-Hammadi Codices was then published by Brill, and Harper and Row, in 12 volumes, between 1972 and 1984. Robinson then edited the American edition of these texts, completed in 1995. He was then closely associated, as editor general, with the publication of another collection of manuscripts of great importance for the study of Judaism and Christian origins, that of the so-called “Qumran” texts.

In 1987 a new English edition was published by the scholar Bentley Layton (Harvard University), entitled, The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations. The volume included new translations of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, and also extracts from heresiarch authors and other Gnostic texts.

UNESCO Takes Over

In 1973, a new project took shape, a French one, this time. Professor Jacques-É. Ménard made numerous visits to the theological faculty of the University of Laval, at the invitation of Professor Hervé Gagné. It was only a matter of translating and editing the texts of Nag Hammadi into French. He considers the Gospels to be a matter of literature. Administrative responsibility for the first Quebec team was entrusted to Hervé Gagné, and Jacques-É. Ménard was appointed as the first principal researcher and scientific director of the project (he did also form and lead a team in Strasbourg). Michel Roberge was appointed as the second principal researcher, with the task of leading the Quebec team. The list of company employees varied over the years, among them Louis Painchaud, Anne Pasquier, Paul-Hubert Poirier and Michel Roberge.

This joint project between France and Canada aimed to produce, in separate booklets, critical editions of each of the Coptic texts of Nag Hammadi and Berolinensis Gnosticus 8502, accompanied by original French translations, followed by commentaries, indexes and a general index to the entire collection. The delays were chronic, and in the opinion of the Quebec team the French contribution did not match their commitments. In France, Jean-Pierre Mahé, director of studies in the section of philological and historical sciences of the l’École pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, Annie Mahé, as well as Bernard Barc, of the Jean-Moulin University of Lyon were early collaborators. As well, there were Einar Thomassen from the University of Bergen, Jean-Marie Sevrin, from the Catholic University of Louvain, and John D. Turner from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Despite the delays, an international network was set up, with French, as well as Belgian, Swiss, German, Italian, Norwegian and American, researchers. More than ten Quebec researchers and as many foreign researchers, historians of religions, biblists, philologists, Hebrew scholars, linguists, or specialists in ancient Christian literature, contributed directly to the three sections of the collection, Coptic Library of Nag Hammadi, published jointly by the Presses de l’Université Laval and Peeters of Louvain.

As well, a team of German academics, located in the former GDR, and composed of Alexander Bohlig and Martin Krause, as well as New Testament specialists, Gesine Schenke, Hans-Martin Schenke and Hans-Gebhard Bethge, prepared a German translation of the texts, which appeared in 2001, under the aegis of the Humboldt University in Berlin. From 1977, Laval University worked on a French edition of these texts under the editorship of Louis Painchaud, in a collection intended for scholars, namely, le Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi (The Coptic Library of Nag Hammadi). It was not until 2007 that the Pléiade edition appeared, by Gallimard, under the editorship Jean-Pierre Mahé and Paul-Hubert Poirier.

But in 2008, there was a new publication, in French, in the form of small pamphlets authored by Professor James Robinson, in the Jardin des livres collection. The back cover blurb was oddly sensational:

In 1945, manuscripts (revolutionary for Christianity) resurfaced in Egypt, in Nag Hammadi. But since their discovery, a sort of veil has covered their content since only specialists and enthusiasts know them. However, their importance is capital, because they complete the four Gospels of Mark, John, Matthew and Luke. It took the film Stigmata and the book The Da Vinci Code for the world to discover the presence of Mary Magdalene with Christ. the Jardin des livres collection is very proud to finally publish the work of Professor James Robinson, the great world specialist.

The world was supposedly “discovering” the presence of Mary Magdalene with Christ… The world had been aware of the presence of Mary Magdalene for two thousand years already. The nature of this presence, of course, varies depending on whether it is discovered under a Christian or a Gnostic propensity.

Each booklet was preceded by a long introduction by Professor Robinson, who described, with great precision, the conditions of the discovery (which Doresse never described with such precision), and Robinson gave the framework of the research. Then more sensationalism, to say the least:

And it was precisely through the exclusion of these texts and others of the same kind that the Jewish and Christian canons were formed. The second reason is that these texts were probably considered sacred by their ancient users, on par with the canonical Scriptures, if not more so. The third, which we tend to forget, is that these texts come back to life in contemporary religious culture. The Bible and the texts of Nag Hammadi are inseparable like the inverse and the reverse of the same tradition…

This is how the idea arose that Christianity was in a way a “gnosis” which gained succeed, with the corollary that the Catholic Church carefully concealed the evidence by preventing access by the faithful to these marvelous texts which contain hidden splendors.

But undoubtedly more seriously, this orientation of research has buried real perspectives opened by Doresse and Puech on the links between Gnosticism and Manichaeism.

Gnosticism And Manichaeism

By the discovery of the Chenosbokion manuscripts, the image of founders and their great Revelations was entirely shaken: they were no longer named Valentinus and Basilides (Alexandrian Gnostics that the heresiological Fathers had fought), but Nicotheus, Zoroaster and Zostrianos, Seth and Adam. Unlike the two Hellenized Alexandrians, the men who claimed to confer on these texts a status of great revelation most often concealed themselves under prestigious names, while the others taught under their own name, and no doubt wanted to be founders of schools.

We must therefore admit two successive moments in the history of Gnosis and Gnosticisms, and which perhaps have no close links: a pre-Gnosis which did not know Christianity and is supported by great names of “initiates” (and called to a great future), and a Gnosis, which was later more closely linked to Christianity and less discreet because it assumed itself as a clear rival. Pre-Gnosis, which perhaps preceded Christianity, preferred to remain discrete and in the shadows. While this pre-Gnosis was dying out in Egypt, when Pachomius launched Coptic monasticism, the great Alexandrian Gnosticisms took off in Eurasia, where they would meet Manichaeism and perhaps even Mani or his first disciples. The Acts of Archelaus (a work dating from the first quarter of the 4th century) is one of the main Christian works directed against the Manicheans, in which the author evokes a controversy that opposed Mani himself with the bishop of Kashqar in Mesopotamia. After the presentation of these discussions, the bishop recounts the life of Mani as well as that of his writings and we find in this part of the text a very precise passage on the Persian doctrines to which Mani would have resorted, as did also the Gnostic Basilides, one of whose works the bishop quotes.

Essentially, most of the Chenoboskion manuscripts do not belong to the Gnostic currents known to the Apologetic Fathers but to a current called “Sethiianism,” named after one of the alleged editors:

What forms the primitive basis of the doctrine of our Gnostics of Chenoboslion seems to be this set of revelations of Zoroaster and Seth, initially independent of Christianity, which may have arisen from daring speculations on the Old Testament.

These Gnostics had taken, it seems, something from a very particular literature of which only scraps now remain: writings composed in Greek and placed under the names of the Magi Zoroaster, Ostanes, Hystaspes, writings inspired by Iranian beliefs. From this literature arose a number of increasingly confused traditions, where Zoroaster, on occasion, changed faces to identify with the prophet Seth, son of Adam, while his descendant Saoshyant, became a figure of Jesus. This would explain why the Gnostics put some of their now lost writings under the names of Zoroaster and Zostianos, as well as of Seth and Adam.

It should also be remembered that we do not know much for sure about this mythical Zoroaster and the religion he founded, except that it is a Mazdaism reformed by a great religious genius (between a mage and prophet) about whom little has been written but much fantasized. As for Manichaeism, it is the sect founded by Mani (215-276), and which took an impressive rise in all of Eurasia. Mani claimed to be at the same time Buddha, Jesus and Zoroaster. An astonishing religious personality, he drew his doctrine from the few teachings of Baptist sects then active in Mesopotamia, (including the Elcesaites, in which he was educated, and is regarded as a Gnostic sect), as well as from Iranian mythical elements, and all blended with a very large part, the most important, of Gnosis which he knew directly.

Doresse summed up this complex story as follows: one day Manichaeism (the doctrine of Mani) came; he assimilated the main elements of expiring Gnosticism thus continuing them; he then transmitted them with his own doctrines in the Middle Ages.

At the end of the second century, with its more or less hidden multiform sects, Gnosis contaminated the entire Mediterranean world. Manichaeism appeared at the time when the great Alexandrian Gnosticisms disappeared, or more exactly spread into Eurasia where they disappeared. In reality, they undoubtedly disappeared less than melted into Manichaeism, attesting to this trait which is peculiar to it, as to Buddhism; a formidable lability, a capacity to penetrate into any apparently foreign body and to find its place there. We know that Mani claimed to be the Buddha, Jesus and Zoroaster. He thus assumed in his modest person the totality of religious history in order to bring it to the fulfillment it calls for.

When and how, then, were Christian elements, some authentic, others fictitious and fabricated, added to the oldest writings? Because it was from such a meeting that gnosis was authentically and definitively born, and without doubt, it should be pointed out, the Alexandrian Gnosticisms of the 2nd century (Basilides, Valentinus, Isidore, Marcion). There are better questions to ask. Is the Gnostic current of Chenoboskion rooted directly in Christianity already established in the manner of the great Alexandrian Gnosticisms (Basilides, Valentinus, Isidore), which founded a community after their excommunication from the Church? Is it transplanted directly into a composite, syncretistic soil? Is it related to currents of Judaism or to a specific rabbinical current, which we now know to have developed what is called “gnosis?” So-called primitive Christianity, in other words, apostolic, was already quite consistent, but it had given rise to all kinds of comments, questions, and also counterfeits. These Gnostics were able to draw inspiration either from these counterfeits or from apostolic Christianity which they then transformed substantially for their own ends, by mixing in Iranized or Egyptianized apocalypses.

The literature of these Lower Egyptian Gnostics includes great apocalypses presented as though composed in earliest times and kept under the care of fantastical powers in holy and mysterious places. The setting often presents Christian or Judeo-Christian characteristics: the Temple forecourt, the Mount of Olives. Not only that but also a geography from Iranian traditions.

Did this prepare for the advent of Manichaeism? This was the hypothesis made by Paul Monceaux in 1913. It was fair, but it was formulated at a time when only indirect sources were available (the notices of the Fathers). The hypothesis fell into the oblivion of university research, the cellars of which are deep. Puech and Doresse gave it new vigor. It was, however, buried again, thus neutralizing all research on the links between Gnosticisms and Manichaeism and their development throughout Eurasia.

Alongside this hypothesis, was the idea of a Eurasian inculturation of Christianity, parallel to the first Hellenistic inculturation which also saw itself buried for the benefit of extravagances nourished by literature and cinematographic fictions.

Gnosis: The Archetype Of Excessive Noesis

According to the historian of religions Mircéa Eliade, one of the great common denominators of all religions (or invariants), is a nostalgia for origins.

All… Except Christianity.

Gnosis claims to achieve an archetype of noetic plenitude, founded among other things on the idea of unity: it is a question of going beyond – most often by abolishing – the bipolarities and dualisms in which man finds himself a prisoner, or in which he thinks he is a prisoner; the first of these dualisms is that of spirit and matter. Gnosis implies nostalgia for a primordial Time, for a first origin where the soul is generally conceived as a divine spark which has fallen into matter and which has retained the memory of this divine origin.

This idea originated in the foothills of the Himalayas, and it gave birth to the doctrines of ensomatosis. Of all the symbol-religious systems, gnosis is the one that most often has recourse to those doctrines, thanks to which man projects himself and his destiny on to the screen of a mythical time where he relives endlessly his fall into matter and his ascent to imagined celestial origins. Hence the pervasiveness of the ideas of the circle, of paradise, of the pleroma, of hierogamy by which the pneumatic joins its ontological and transcendental “I.” It is understandable that Neo-Platonism played a preponderant role in Gnostic doctrines. We can better understand the mistrust of Christian theology, Byzantine as well as Latin, for Platonic philosophy.

Even though it is based on erratic and misleading thought, “gnosis” nonetheless responds to a powerful human need: the desire for heaven. The major idea is that of an ascent to a Primordial Unity, which implies a soul journey through which man rediscovers his soul, therefore himself. All ascension literature proceeds from this chimerical aspiration.

In fact, Christianity is the best antidote to this illusion of an archetype of noetic fullness. It frees us from images of the circle, of the obsession with origins, and when it postulates the immortality of the soul, it cannot be a divine particle, but a participating rational breath. If we admit that gnosis is knowledge, we must bring to light the fundamental Gnostic intuition which constitutes the ultimate hinge of this senseless quest, and it is of the noetic type.

However, our noetics has a complex philosophical history, since it inherited jointly, but not in the same proportions, nor at the same historical moment, from Aristotle and Plato. It was not until Thomas Aquinas that the idea of the substantial union of soul and body, and therefore of a soul (“form of the body,” animating principle, understood as an entelechy) was developed and formulated precisely, as being endowed with all that is necessary to live; that is to say to know God. But obviously the equipment is damaged by sin and it must be restored. When, in the quarrel with Averroes, Thomas Aquinas “bursts the Avicennian ceiling,” as Etienne Gilson rightly put it, he understood that the doctrine of Averroes, inherited from Avicennian gnosis, contained a Gnostic ferment.

Conclusion

Saint Irenaeus had seen with ironic perspicacity the nature of this spiritual charlatanism: “Nothing hinders any other, in dealing with the same subject, to affix names after such a fashion as the following: There is a certain Proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd; and along with this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus.”

Of all the elements of which Gnosticism is composed, none seems very original. The metaphysics is Neo-Platonism, with images and musings from the East, memories of Syria or Babylon. The moral is that of the Gospel, but often misguided, with Stoic formulas and tints of cynicism. The theories and rites of salvation, except for a few features which come from the Greek mysteries, are adventurous developments of conceptions which can be traced from Saint Paul to Origen. As for the mythology of Gnosticism, it is made up especially of borrowings from the old religions of the East, and marks a return to polytheism. Progress, if you will, but progress in reverse. And it is probably this mixture of Christianity and paganism, of religion and philosophy, East and West, which brought success to the Gnostic sects.
Gnostic pride has remained proverbial. Tertullian relates that they frowned in a mysterious manner when they said of their doctrine: “Hoc altum est” (This is profound).

Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.


The featured image shows folio 32 of Nag Hammadi Codex II, with the ending of the Apocryphon of John, and the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas, ca. 4rth century.

A Reflection On Mystery

Few words can be more misleading to the modern ear than the Orthodox use of the word “mystery.” It’s a fine New Testament word and is (technically) the proper name for the sacraments in Orthodoxy (though we most often say ‘sacrament’ in English). Its root meaning is that of something “hidden.” In our culture’s language, mystery is more a matter of a who-done-it or a reference to something so puzzling or beyond us that it cannot be known. It’s not unusual for the non-Orthodox to complain that when pressed really hard, the Orthodox will take refuge and say, “It’s a mystery.” So, what is the mystery in “mystery?”

There is a debate about the exact root of the word in Greek. Most agree that it has to do with silence. Indeed, one speculation is that it is onomatopoetic (a word that sounds like what it is). As such, it comes from a root which is the sound you make when your mouth is closed (“mmmm”). In St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy, directions to priests on certain prayers are that they are to be said “mystically,” meaning that the prayer should be spoken softly (sotto voce). This soft-spoken meaning also can reflect the sense of “secret.”

“Mystery” is a major term in some of St. Paul’s writings, particularly Ephesians and Colossians. There he describes the entire plan of salvation as a “mystery that has now been revealed.” He makes reference to the same thing in Romans as well (16:25). Christ Himself uses the term in Mark’s gospel, telling the disciples that it has been given to them to “know the mystery of the Kingdom of God,” while it is hidden in parables for others (4:11).

But there is more to the word than mere secret. St. Paul also speaks of the “mystery of godliness” and the “mystery of iniquity.” In those expressions the word does not describe secret information, but a hidden process at work. And this gets closer, I think, to St. Paul’s other uses as well. For him, “mystery” is not the same thing as “secret.” It is not information that is being held back. Rather, it is a reality that is not made manifest as of yet. And this is at the very heart of the Orthodox use of the word.

When St. Paul speaks of the “mystery hidden from before the ages” (1Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26) he is referencing Christ’s Pascha, the “Lamb slain from the foundation.” This is not a reference to a secret plan, but to the very hidden truth of Christ Crucified and its work in creation. I’ve always appreciated C.S. Lewis’ play on this in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He describes a “deep magic” which the witch does not know, and, on account of which she unwittingly brings about her own defeat. In the Corinthians passage St. Paul says:

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor. 2:7-8)

In the presentation of Christ crucified as mystery, we are to understand that the crucifixion itself is a manifestation in time of that which has been true from before the ages. The crucifixion is more than an event – it is a revelation of the truth of who God is. It is proper for us to say that Christianity is inherently apocalyptic – it is a revealing of that which has been hidden.

This same theme even plays out in the description of our salvation:

Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col. 3:2-4)

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. (Rom. 8:18-19)

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 Jn. 3:2)

Something of the same notion is found in the Old Testament as well:

Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. (Wis. 3:5-7)

It is keenly important to understand that what is hidden is not something that does not already exist: that would be a mere secret, an idea. The mystery described and referenced within the Scriptures is a reality that existed before the creation itself. It is Christ crucified. It is the treasure of our salvation:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet. 1:3-5)

It is this very “mystery” that forms the substance of the sacraments of the Church. In Baptism, we are Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ (an eternal reality); in the Eucharist, we eat and drink the Body and Blood of the crucified Christ, slain from the foundation of the earth, and so on. The mystery of our salvation is not presented to us as something that has not yet happened. It is rather something that has not yet been revealed. Its reality is greater than the things we see at present:

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17-18)

This same understanding is the basis for the various forms of allegory used in reading the Scriptures. That reading is not a literary device. Rather, it is a discernment of something that is true and real and that lies beneath the surface of the words. Those who champion the “literal-historical” reading, as though it were the only firm foundation, utterly neglect the very character of our salvation. The mystery of the crucified Christ is the content of all Scripture, and is read by those who know Him.

The Orthodox answer, “It is a mystery,” is not an effort to dodge difficult questions. It is, instead, an attempt to say what is most profoundly true. Not only is Christ the mystery which has been made known, but we ourselves are a mystery, yet to be revealed. The world around us, like the Scriptures themselves, have Christ Crucified as their truth, for Christ is the Logos, according to which and through which the logos of every created thing is made. If you do not know the mystery of creation, then you do not know creation.

It is a mystery known to the trees and rocks. They groan, waiting for it to be made manifest. Occasionally, they begin to shout, to sing and to clap their hands. The song of creation is a mystery, heard by those who have ears to hear.


Father Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


The featured image shows, “The Visitation,” by Gerónimo Antonio de Ezquerra, painted ca. 1737.

“Systematic” Theology And Orthodoxy

I have heard it said, numerous times, that Orthodox Christianity “does not do” systematic theology. Having done my graduate studies in systematic theology, I occasionally bristle at the comment, particularly when those making it have never actually studied the subject. It is true that Orthodoxy does not do “systematic” theology, as such, but the statement can be quite misleading, implying that there’s no place for systematics in Orthodoxy and that studying it is a waste of time (and un-Orthodox). So, here is a small tutorial in the topic.

The assumption behind systematic theology is that the universe is actually a “uni-verse” – that is, it has a unity throughout. The laws of physics that apply in this corner of the universe are the same laws that apply everywhere else. This also means that if you find laws elsewhere that contradict the laws you understand to apply where you are, then you need to re-examine your understanding. You do not have the complete story on your present circumstance.

In science, if you come across a new species of tree, you can study it to see what makes it unique. However, you will also assume that, since it is a tree, it will share most of the characteristics of other trees. If it doesn’t, either it isn’t a tree, or our understanding of trees needs to be revised.

This consistency and stability across creation is what is meant by “system” in “systematic theology.” If, for example, I say that “God is good,” and then something comes along that would seem to contradict that, then something about the statement “God is good” needs to be revised. Or, perhaps, I am misunderstanding the contradiction. What is “systematic” in such an approach is a reasonable expectation that a statement made in one place will not be contradicted in another. So, when reading a “systematic theology,” consistency and cogency are important measurements.

When I was studying systematics, one of our seminars required us to read about a dozen different, so-called, systematic theologies, from across a very broad spectrum. I recall someone presenting a paper on the doctrine of God in the writings of the radical feminist Catholic, Rosemary Radford Ruether. When the student finished reading the paper, there was a dead, stunned silence in the room. Finally, a sheepish voice piped up, “Isn’t that the Force in Star Wars?” We broke out in laughter because it was precisely what she had articulated. It might make for interesting reading, but it certainly could not be called “Christian.”

Orthodox theology is not studied or written in the manner of Protestant systematics. Orthodox thought is largely what has been traditioned and is drawn from the Fathers and our liturgical life. Protestant theology is often more ideologically driven, departing from and dismissing major portions of tradition. They are simply not the same thing. But, having said that, Orthodox thought is not devoid of system. Thinking carefully about that is, I think, worthwhile.

The first eight centuries in the life of the Church were a time when doctrine and theology were being expressed and argued in a manner that has not been repeated since. I do not think it is correct to describe the process as a “development of doctrine.” However, there was a very careful development of vocabulary. And, in that vocabulary, we can see something of a “system” being articulated.

When the First Council of Nicaea met, the greater debate centered on the use of the word “homoousios” (“one essence” or “one being”). The word did not meet with instant acceptance because it had once been a term favored by the heretic Paul of Samosata who used it to teach a form of “modalism.” The debate raged through the remainder of the century with councils and counter-councils and imperial interference and endless rangling. The work of the Cappadocians (St. Basil the Great, his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend, St. Gregory the Theologian) succeeded in defining and refining terminology such that a consensus prevailed in the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople I). It gave us the Creed in its present form. What they gave us, more importantly, was a growing consensus on vocabulary.

Slowly, as the centuries moved along, the common vocabulary of dogma found expression in the public teaching of the Church. This meant that words such as, “being,” “person,” “nature,” “energy,” “will,” etc., meant the same thing whenever they were used. Thus, when speaking of “person,” or “hypostasis,” the word came to mean the same thing whether it was referring to the persons of the Holy Trinity or human persons. All of that might seem easy now, or even obvious, but it was not so when all of those conversations began.

It is surprising for some to realize that St. Athanasius, who first introduced the term “homoousios,” might have had a slightly different understanding of the term than it came to have later in the century when it was reaffirmed at the Second Council. To see that requires a much deeper and more careful study of Patristic thought than is commonly done. The development of vocabulary, for example, is the reason why St. Cyril of Alexandria is given a pass for using the term “nature” (“physis”) in a manner that would later be described by the term “person” (“hypostasis”). The refusal to accept a developing and changing vocabulary in this instance resulted in the schism with the so-called “Monophysites,” who probably would be more accurately described as “Cyril-ites.” The “system” that was found in working out common meaning for technical terms required an agreement that clearly failed in the case of that early schism. Language matters.

All of this came to my mind recently during a social media conversation regarding atonement theory. The doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (that Jesus was punished for our sins to appease the wrath of the Father) was the topic. I have been quite critical of the theory and was being taken to task with examples of the use of “punishment” and “substitution” found, on occasion, in the writings of the Fathers. Perhaps I overstate the case when I say that I do not find it to be “Orthodox.” I will clarify.

What I find is that it is a theory expressed in terms, images, and language that seem to fall outside the vocabulary that I have generally seen to be normative in Orthodox writings (including those of the Fathers). When reading St. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, it is quite common to hear the problem of sin described in terms of “being” and “non-being,” rendered as “life” and “death.” Something of the same can be seen in St. Athanasius’ De Incarnatione. This pattern and vocabulary can be found throughout the Cappadocians, perhaps because they seem to be particularly attentive to language and consistency.

I have found a consistent vocabulary and use of imagery in the theme of life/death, being/non-being, communion/disintegration, etc., in thinking about how it is and what it means when we sin, and how it is and what it means that we are saved. It is possible to describe and think about these things in a consistent manner, such that when we speak of Christ’s incarnation, of our bondage in sin and death, His death on the Cross and His resurrection, as well as the sacraments of Baptism into His death and resurrection, and the Eucharist as communion in His Body and Blood, and so forth, a common vocabulary and understanding unite them all. For myself, this consistency has been common to my treatment of the atonement across the board.

Though it is possible to find isolated uses of penal imagery in the early Fathers, it nowhere seems to rise to the level of a common vocabulary extending throughout their work, much less becoming the basis for how we speak about asceticism, spirituality, or, the doctrine of God. Thus, when I describe it as being “not Orthodox,” I mean that it sounds “out of tune.”

The imagery of music, of a symphony, is quite apt when thinking about the whole of theology. There are many instruments in a symphony, each with varying shades of tonality and range of pitch. First, all instruments have to be “in tune,” so that what is “A-440” for one is the same for all. Second, comes the music itself. It is written in a single key (I’m sure that somebody has written a modern symphony with instruments playing in different keys – though, if it is taken far enough, we pass from music to pure noise). If you’re playing Beethoven’s 5th (which is written in C minor), and, fifteen measures into the performance the brass sections begin to play in E flat major, the result could be quite interesting, but less pleasant, and perhaps disastrous.

This, for me, is something of the effect of hearing an Orthodox priest teaching the atonement in the key of penal substitution. I feel as though Calvinists have stormed the auditorium and taken over some section of the orchestra. It can be defended by citing some place or other where such imagery was used on occasion. But the overall result is quite jarring, often creates confusion, and risks becoming a disaster. It can be done – but should you want to?

Orthodoxy has a two-thousand year history. It’s history does not begin in the mind of a systematic theologian. As such, we cannot describe it as “systematic theology.” But, if you listen carefully to the music of theology over those many centuries, certain themes sound clearly, while others seem to appear, and, just as suddenly, disappear. Music is not engineering. For me, it makes music a better analogy for theology.

I suspect that among my failings (if it be such) is a love for a symphony in a single key (with proper modulations and relative key changes). If it is possible to write and teach theology with a consistency that allows the whole thing to be seen for its unity, then I think it produces a better result. This same tendency, I think, was present in the Cappadocians, and has recurred in other major figures such as St. Maximus. It is why they sound so much alike, in general, and while none of them sound like Calvin.

But this is music, and I well appreciate that others might see this (hear this) in a different manner.


Father Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


The featured image shows, “Christ among the Doctors,” by Albrecht Dürer, painted in 1506.

Spinoza On Power

In this article I will focus exclusively on Spinoza’s theory of power (potentia) which forms a key element of his theories of natural right and imperium. For the legal theoretical importance of potentia in the areas, see the forthcoming articles NATURAL RIGHT and IMPERIUM, and for the relation to capacity (power) see the forthcoming article POTESTAS. My purpose here is to convey the deep structure of the Spinozan concept of power, rather than become too lost in the geometrico-theological terminology he deploys, or the countless interpretations by which he has been determined.

Following Spinoza, it is necessary to construct a definition. Firstly, Spinoza posits a self-caused something (substance) which is the cause of all things — this is its essence, which follows from its properties (infinity, immutability, capacity to know etc.). Spinoza calls this something ‘God’.

Secondly Spinoza now considers what this God is doing, the importance of which question is illustrated by the classical logical distinction between capacity to do and act. For example, Cato is able to walk (property and power [potestas]) and Cato walks (attribute) are clearly different things. Though this God must be able to do infinitely many things, for human purposes Spinoza can only perceive two properties enacted, namely the attributes of Thought and of Extension.

Thirdly, Spinoza notes that this God is ‘unrestrained’ save by its own necessity, and being essentially self-caused (so propelled to act, as it were), this God exercises all his properties infinitely; that is, just as Cato, when he walks, is a walking thing, so God is a thinking and extending thing. Spinoza reserves the name God for this thing when it is thinking, and Nature for when it is extending (Deus sive Natura).

Note that because God or Nature is unrestrained save by its own necessity, every attribute is enacted immediately and inexhaustibly: it is eternal. Now, this enactment is perceived as everlasting in the sense that while Cato may get tired of walking, God or Nature does not, but Spinoza wants us to conceive of this enactment as rigorously eternal i.e. not even indefinite duration may properly be ascribed to it.

Equipped with this construction of substance and its attributes, we are now in a position to conceive potentia by literally ‘plugging’ God or Nature into its attributes. What do I mean? Well, the attributes must be considered as ordering functions — if they are presented with something to function on, they will assign and distribute that something in a single and determinate manner. For example, imagine I took all the letters from this page and jumbled them up into a tiny ball. Now imagine there was a computer program which, if I fed these same letters into it, would distribute them in such a manner as to recreate this text. The attributes operate in something like this way: on their own they are empty, but if we feed God or Nature into them, God or Nature will be distributed in a single, determinate manner to constitute a completed, well-ordered world.

This is easier to illustrate with an albeit misleading example about Extension, where if we posit the Extension function Ext(x), then Ext(Nature) distributes Nature according to a definite coordinate system, in a manner that evolves Descartes celestial fluid model shown in the diagram above. This would be nothing other than Cartesian space, which is why it is misleading — Spinoza in our view is convinced that Cartesian analytic geometry is quite incapable of grasping the subtleties of the ‘infinite series’ of things. Likewise, we can imagine a Thought function T(x), which explicates God as the infinite understanding (every idea). To underline, while we speak of plugging God or Nature into the attributes, the essence of God is such that God does his own ‘plugging’: he self-explicates.

This concept of ordered distribution is critical to understanding power, for if it is not already evident, insofar as the attributes explicate the essence of God or Nature, they distribute God’s very power with the result that that which appears as distributed (the modes) each express God or Nature’s infinite power in a certain and determinate way (hence ‘modus’). As Spinoza puts it: ‘God is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of things’. Consequently, power or potentia is only correctly conceived when we appreciate that it has been distributed according to a certain and determinate order — that if I point at any ‘this’, it must have a definite degree of power — and that in fact this is the only real characteristic of power that Spinoza is asking us to be interested in. In other words, to the question ‘what is power?’ we must respond that power has been radically divested of any ‘occult qualities’ in favour of its determination by reference to its well-ordered distribution. That is, power is defined only by its relation to a whole order as a determinate difference: omnia determinatio est negatio. To put this in another way:

All instances of power distributed by the attributes identified above are intense in infinite degree – that is, all the way down – and are continuous everywhere.

I flag for the reader the possibly problematic interrelation between this distribution and the corporeal plenum which constitutes Spinozan extension which follows from the fact that in a plenum we have nowhere to assess these potentials ‘alone’. My view is that Spinoza’s conception of ‘corporeal plenum’ is rigorously other than the common sense meaning of the term (see my thesis referred to at the end).

Hegel’s criticisms of Spinoza on this very point of determinate negation are well known, but in fact Spinoza demands that we raise the complexity of our understanding multi-fold to really get at the heart of his conception. The problem with the above outline is that despite its liturgical nods to infinite power, it does not quite appreciate what Spinoza’s infinity means for the proposed structure. The tendency to distribute infinitely harks to Hegel’s spurious infinite which proceeds indefinitely, whereas, as I have shown elsewhere, Spinoza has available another conception of the infinite which is decidedly more concrete. This infinite is obtained by considering the finite case and then passing immediately to the limit, a technique Deleuze revived in his own work.1 What happens at the limit is inevitably some form of transition: the curve becomes the straight line (Cusanus), motion becomes rest (Bruno), the citizen becomes “a god amongst men” (Aristotle). So what happens when power is raised to the limit?

Correctly speaking Spinoza does not ask this about power because of its nature; rather he asks it about the ‘things’ of the type that we have been constructing: things that operate in a certain determinate manner. In other words, he asks it about machines. Spinoza is asking what happens when we raise a finite machine to the limit. What happens when we have a machine that operates at the concrete infinite? What can this ‘body’ do? We have already encountered a key aspect of the answer above, though we only applied its meaning spuriously. Such a machine would operate without restraint save in accordance with its own laws of operation. We initially applied this idea of non-restraint to conclude that the attributes distribute the operations of the machine ‘everywhere’, but even if we do assign power to every point of a notional space, however extended, can we be satisfied that every possible operation has been accounted for? Difficult as it may seem, we cannot. A distribution of power across infinitely many finite machines is just an indefinitely large aggregate of finite powers.

Furthermore, and I believe this to be Spinoza’s thought process, considered as the whole face of the universe — the aggregate of all the finite machines connected together in a plenum – all this power would have one effect and one alone: it would hold the universe together as a One, as one divine machine, but there would be no events. The machine would be like a lever in a void, held together by power, completely packed with as much potentia as it could ever need, but completely static. Even if we conceived that this lever was mobile — that it was moving at 1 ft/s downwards, say — this kinematic fact would suggest a constant motion, that is, a change which simply repeated itself to remain the same. People tend to trip up here, because they equate motion with dynamism, and read Spinoza’s theory in paricular as dynamic because machines move about indefinitely (this is their conatus, or endeavour to persist). The confusion is understandable, but leads to brutal, flattening misreadings of Spinoza, in which he is collapsed into a kind of eccentric Hobbesianism in which all are choked by the bonds of fate.

Spinoza realised there is a very real physical need for another machine to be posited which would literally upset the balance — a machine which additionally, once it had acted, must necessarily not have exhausted itself just so it can continue to force further impulsions into the finite mechanical system. It is this capacity which is provided by power taken to its limit. Thus Spinoza dynamises the universe and teaches us what dynamics is: it is not the motions of the spheres, it is not even change; it is the change of motion and so the variation of change. These variations of change he terms ‘transitions’ and they have their sources in the determinate distributions of God or Nature’s infinite that is inexhaustible power.

The infinite divine machine not only constitutes a (spuriously) infinite world of finite machines all running in a certain and determinate manner, but in addition it overlays (as it were) an order of (truly) infinite power which disrupts the settled concrescence of things. Accordingly, in addition to the appearance of actual power in the world, which Spinoza calls the ‘actual essence’ of things, we must also be attentive to a second critical category, viz. the ‘formal essence’ of things which is nothing other than the distributed power of God or Nature insofar as it constitutes potential ‘forms’ [formae] into which existing machines may coalesce and produce new effects. God or Nature not merely determines the world, but ‘over-determines’ the world into a foment of creation, though it is my view that this over-determination is perceptual and once all aspects of ‘time’ (eternity, duration, and time) are reintegrated into this model the augmented system returns to complete determination. The study of power now takes on the aspect of studying the distribution of formal essences and thus falls within the preliminary ambit of transcendental empiricism.

In addition, however, it is necessary to re-fold this notional formal overlay into the immanent structure of the world. By simply positing an additional realm of essences have we not returned to a kind of Platonism, to the transcendence which Spinoza explicitly ruled out? Our questioning consequently devolves on how this truly infinite power is integrated in the world at the same level as its finite content. In physical terms I have undertaken research attempting to piece together Spinoza’s thinking regarding this infinite Natural power which I will not repeat here, but it is his arguments and studies in the physical realm which, like all classical materialists, inform his explicit response in the field that concerned him most of all viz. ethics.

Spinoza’s insight is this: that insofar as the human is a thinking thing she is the vehicle, or better, source, of God’s infinite power in the thought world, a fact which indirectly follows from Spinoza’s reworking of the Cartesian cogito in which certain ideas transit into the substance of thought.2 Applying our knowledge, we realise that not only therefore does each human machine express finite power in its having this or that thought within the determinate chain of conscious duration, but in addition each human expresses infinite power as an inexhaustible power of thought intervening as the condition of thinking, and in particular as the condition of thinking the infinite idea Dei (the goal of all thought to which we must turn once thought).

For Kant this difference in the mind appeared as a difference between a determinate world of desires and a completely free, but empty, will that reigned over inclinations. Spinoza, on the other hand, has derived a necessary and determinate power which is nevertheless free because it is inexhaustible and can pass across the realm of formal essences in an instant (I call this an homological power). To adopt anachronistic language, the will is completely and materially determined as to its ethical content — it is this infinite will here being acted upon by other infinite wills (the acts of the virtuous) — but it freely gives that content to determinate desire and further determines this latter without negating or alienating its own power: in short, it negates negation.

It is wrong, however, to assume that a human is to be considered an atomic building block of this world. The very nature of Spinoza’s conception requires us to consider the human itself as constituted by a determinate series of machines coalescing around a formal essence, this latter itself determined by its relation to all essences. There is no foundational element: the essence does not justify some vulgar essentialism for the simple reason that it is mute form — it is the condition of meaning but has no meaning. The formal essence rather may be said to form a ‘hospitable zone’ in which an inexhaustible variety of lives may be lived, human and otherwise. In this idea we see aspects of Deleuze’s larval subjects, and Balibar’s transhuman individuality.

With this briefly outlined movement, Spinoza enters the sphere of legal theory armed with a conception of power which imputes into the overbearing ‘force’ theories of legal power of the Early Modern power an additional, subtly integrated structure of infinite power which rises up from every free-thinking individual. We will treat of these practical matters in our articles on NATURAL RIGHT and IMPERIUM.


Stephen Connelly is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Warwick.


The featured image shows, “The Rage of Achilles,” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, painted in 1757.

Philosophical Anthropology. Part 1: Giambattista Vico

Introduction

This is the first of a three part “essay” on three thinkers—Giambattista Vico, Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried Herder—who were pioneers of a more historically sensitive anthropological and dialogical style of philosophy than the philosophies that have done so much to shape and do so much damage in the modern world. Originally what are now three essays were the final part of my book, Idolizing the Idea: A Critical History of Modern Philosophy. When I finally found a publisher willing to take on a book that was deeply critical of both major paradigms of contemporary philosophy, which are commonly (if not very accurately) termed analytic and continental philosophy, they nevertheless baulked at a 200,000-word manuscript by a writer from the academic boondocks with no reputation. I had no choice but to cut the final section, which, was for me the best part.

I had intended to write a second volume in which I would start with them, but when the Postil expressed interest in them, I thought I could spare any potential readers my tendency for prolixity. I only raise this point about their original context as chapters from a book criticising how modern philosophy has repeatedly succumbed to what I call the idolatry of the idea. That is modern philosophies—including ones which insist upon not succumbing to the sweet sirens of abstract ideas by being faithful to history (its spirits or laws) (Hegel and Marx ), or the earth (Nietzsche, and the positivists and empiricists), or Being (Heidegger), or anti-totalism (post-structuralists)—constantly set up some unassailable idea, principle or model which it uses to judge us and our world, and what it repeatedly does is try and squeeze us into the idea. I call this position idea-ist—it is not the same as idealism, because materialists are as much idea-ists as idealists.

I, following the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who made this same point, also call this the know-All position. For it is based upon the belief that what the philosopher knows is the essence of things, or the All that really needs to be known. Religion is by its very nature dogmatic. And that is its strength—for its proscriptions proceed from (a) God, while our powers of reasoning are limited. That our powers of reasoning are very limited indeed is manifestly confirmed by philosophers themselves who do not agree on much at all, especially the larger questions of the nature of truth, or goodness. After more than two thousand years one may have thought if there were a truth it would have been found and appreciated at least by the philosophers who have gone in search of it.

In my book, I argue that what keeps happening in philosophy is that the questions keep shifting, and this has much to do with why the answers differ so much. I think this confirms the value of philosophy, but it is a confirmation that requires philosophers to have better appreciation of what they can and cannot do well. But such appreciation requires not succumbing to the temptation to think we know the All—and to accept that reality is, to use a religious term, “revealed.”

This in turn also means giving up another common philosophical habit—viz., the dismissal of very important contingencies which impact upon us and our world because the model or principle governing a philosophical position has occluded them. But as soon as philosophers think they know the essence of the world or us or history or whatever they think is the key to it All, they set up an optic of occlusion—and subsequently all manner of very important things become dismissed and widely ignored. Thus, for example, Heidegger dismisses mere empirical history as unimportant so he can focus upon the history of metaphysics and its role in shaping our world, but, as I argued in Idolizing, this is foolish in that it leads to the belief that the only things that matter are what metaphysics has done, or what Heidegger himself takes as an alternative voicing to metaphysics, viz., poetry can do.

I do not wish to repeat criticisms about modern philosophy that I have made elsewhere, but I will repeat one other point I made in that book: the development of modern philosophy has created a metaphysical dyad of “determinism” (we are determined by laws and/or a system), and “voluntarism” (we can make the world and ourselves the way we want). And both of these one-sided views of life are false—and it does not become true by simply oscillating between them as Marx and Nietzsche or the contemporary progressives, who see capital, or gender, sexuality or race as determining people’s behaviour, unless, like them, they can acknowledge it and thus change the world to make it how they want.

Let me be clear, principles and ideas can be very important, and the word idea is a perfectly useful word. Likewise, we have all sorts of ideas about all sorts of things, but in our day-to-day world we can easily distinguish between doing something and having a philosophy about doing something, and we can all see that the doing need not really be subordinate to the philosophy if we want to do it well. I might write on the Philosophy of Education or the Philosophy of Running or the Philosophy of Friendship or the Philosophy of Morals, or the Philosophy of Art and be a terrible educator, runner, friend, person and artist or even connoisseur of the arts. The philosophy is just a means to something—and we and our deeds are the something that we have knowledge for. At its best philosophy can help us organize the information we have—in this sense it can help us think better, but it is not a stand along thing. If someone is a terrible “reader” of affairs or people or the world, philosophy will not be that helpful.

The stuff we think with and about generally does not come from philosophy, unless we are thinking of some very specific philosophical thing; but even then, the information and associations we draw upon which can help us think better even about a philosophical claim or formulation is extra-philosophical. Likewise, although sometimes we may notice something with our senses that makes us reflect upon other associations or information we have and also while some kinds of activities and observations are conducted methodically, a great deal of what comes to mind when we think come from the names and words which trigger our feelings and other associations. And the names and words—and the value and weight we ascribe to them—in the overwhelming number of cases have arisen from collective experience and response to events.

Thus, it is when I speak of idea-ism I am talking of the tendency to take our ideas for the world and our actions as if they were all we needed to know, or even the most important thing. Yet it is obviously the case that the world and action are, with the aforementioned exception when a sensation is decisive, mediated in thought as names and words. I strongly recommend the works of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig who have made exhaustive cases for why names matter, and why ideas, and the philosophical fixation with ideas is a dangerous thing. Idolizing the Idea was in many ways simply a detailed account of the history of this fixation within modernity, and it was undertaken because this tendency has gone hand in hand with a more ideocratic and ideologically driven kind of politics and sociality that is making us strangers to ourselves and each other and making us spiritually sick.

The final section of my book was intended to make the case for the alternative to philosophical know-all-ism, and idea-ism that had already been undertaken by Vico, Hamann and Herder. Vico and Herder have widely been hailed as precursors of anthropology, even if their readership is, as with Hamann, almost excusive to scholars of their works, all three are also important figures in the history of hermeneutics. But their importance has generally been pretty limited in terms of the more dominant currents of philosophy. Kierkegaard loved Hamann, and Hamann was also appreciated by contemporaries such as Schelling and Hegel—but most Histories of Philosophy do not devote a chapter to him or Herder, or Vico.

Anyone familiar with Isaiah Berlin will have immediately recognized that they are the subject matter of one of his books, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, a work that took a previously unpublished essay by Berlin on Hamann and added it to the early book Vico and Herder. Berlin’s discussion of the three is scholarly and judicious, if somewhat uneven. I think he is most comfortable and perceptive with Vico, he genuinely appreciates Herder, but I do not think he conveys just how encyclopaedic and astutely philosophical Herder is, and I do not think he “gets” what Hamann was doing at all.

But my major criticism of Berlin is what I consider to be the simplistic way he sets up two camps, those who are on the side of Enlightenment and reason and science, and those, like Vico, Herder and Hamann who aren’t. Clearly, he has some sympathy with their objections to the Enlightenment, but he sees rampant nationalism and Nazism as the political-cultural progeny of the anti-Enlightenment. I just find this a very unhelpful and unconvincing way to think not only about them and their legacy, but philosophy and ideas and movements more generally. I have no intention of giving a developed critique of Berlin, and I do not want to give the impression that Berlin is all wrong or not worth reading, I will just say that what follows is an alternative to his way of thinking about the three and their significance.

As will be evident from the above, my interest in Vico, Hamann and Herder cannot really be separated from a more general view about philosophy which I have developed over almost fifty years, and which is a view that, to put it mildly, is not widely known or shared. Thus, I beg the reader’s indulgence for the following introductory lead into the essays on Vico, Hamann and Herder, as a way of better preparing him for what it is I am comparing them with when I discuss their contribution.

Hermeneutical Openings For Philosophical Anthropology

With the Pre-Socratics, philosophy commences with questions that seek to identify the overarching principles that equip philosophy for its own particular modality of inquiry. This initial search is for what is “eternal,” what provides an implacable and stable, even static means of orientation. With Plato it leads to a triumvirate of ideas—the good, the true and the beautiful. That we can immediately recognize the three domains of philosophy—moral philosophy, epistemology, and aesthetics—and their underpinning ontology and metaphysics is indicative of the importance of this aspect of the philosophical quest. The “pitch and jag” of questions posed to what are ostensibly answers to these, and subsequently other philosophical questions is, however, responsible for paradigmatic movements within philosophy’s unique “seam of speech.”

Aristotle’s questions ultimately lead him to open up another modality of orientation. This modality focusses upon the “structures” of things. To be sure Plato had brushed against this modality, but he does not delve into it to anywhere near the same degree or extent as Aristotle. While it certainly has multiple implications for morals (and a moral exploration of politics), epistemology, and aesthetics (consider, for example, how Aristotle’s Poetics attempts to identify not only the nature but also the structure of tragedy), it also affects how one thinks about the ontological and metaphysical terrain. For all the differences that come with this new clustering of questions and the answers that then open out into new questions, the quest is not able to throw off completely the stabilizing factors of philosophy itself—Aristotle too appeals to truth and morality and a kind of beauty.

While the early modern metaphysicians and philosophers of nature are generally identified as anti-Aristotelian, and were so in important respects, this particular aspect of philosophical development and importance is not thrown off in the paradigms that encompasses not only philosophers as epistemologically, metaphysically and ontologically diverse as Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Malebranche, Berkeley, but even those who branch out far beyond naturalism and veer into more historical and social considerations. In so far as historical and social analyses appeal to some sovereign idea, principle such as equality, or freedom from domination (as with Marx or the post structuralists), or culture (as in Nietzsche), or a cluster of contingencies, they remain susceptible to questions about the truth or moral character (with the kind of aesthetic emphases that have come to dominate from the latter part of the nineteenth century, “the beautiful” has lost its place as the sovereign idea of aesthetics).

To repeat, then, philosophy itself never completely shakes off the opening pitch of its questions, though what is “jagged” out of the answers will change.

But there is also a third line of questioning and orientation, and it is this line of orientation that takes greater account of social symbolization and semiosis, as it delves more deeply into the socio-historical-anthropological conditions, and the degree of impact and plasticity involved in our world-making. It is not the case that it completely abandons the original pitch, though as it evolves, that pitch dims substantially (this is evident, for example, if one compared Herder’s numerous concessions to the good, true and the beautiful, with his progeny, Rosenstock-Huessy, who has little good to say about these eternal philosophical beacons). The same is true of its relationship to the Aristotelian innovation.

Nevertheless, its own insights and quarries retrieved from its quests redound upon the “eternal” seam, as well as the more structural kind of analyses. But it does make historicity as well as culture take on a far greater philosophical significance. Further, it also creates a far more complicated picture of the problems that we confront than are conjured up by those seeking to solve our problems along more voluntarist lines. That is, the more we enter into this third paradigm the less we are likely to believe that our problems will be solved by placing excessive reliance upon either our knowledge of natural or social “laws,” or the good will and “faith” of those seeking change.

While this third paradigm, philosophical anthropology, does not completely eliminate the horizon of the eternal with its “stablizers,” it nevertheless also opens this up further. For in entering into a deeper appreciation of the social, history and culture, it must look beyond the strictly philosophical virtues and answers, not only to other narrative modes, but also to the importance of names themselves and thus it inevitably goes back beyond “ideas” For it is by responding to the range and chain of names that have left deep enough impressions on us to see their importance, so that we become conscious of the historical dimension of experience.

We should also mention from the outset, as will be developed throughout these three essays, that this should not be mistaken for “historicism” of the sort in which all meaning may only be found by sinking so deeply into historical detail there is nothing left to do but recount those details, or else appeal to them as if they themselves bore all authority for future orientation. Future and past both beckon us in our present. As we shall see in Vico, who is a pioneer of this third philosophical approach, the “eternal” and the structural are not completely overthrown by this new approach, yet, for all that, it remains another approach, replete with different kinds of questions and hence answers.

Vico’s New Science And The Opening Up Of The Idea To Past Ages

A brief comparison of Vico with David Hume is a helpful way to illustrate what is so original about Vico’s approach to philosophy.

Hume had argued that the strict divide between understanding and imagination which had been so important to the metaphysical revolution of the new philosophies was ultimately unsustainable: understanding and reason were not to be divorced so sharply from imagination, passion and impression. The importance Hume ascribed to imagination, impression and association in the context of “common life” thus helped draw philosophy back into the world as we live it, as opposed to what world a thinker wants us to (or thinks that we should) live in. Nevertheless, Thomas Reid’s critique that Hume still hung on to philosophical bric-à-brac that came from the “way of ideas” was important. For having invoked “common life,” Hume wipes away the different forms of life that peoples have over the ages by placing too much weight upon the constancy of human nature. As Leon Pompa recounts of Hume’s position:

Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations, and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour.

This was what enabled Hume, in spite of all his scepticism, to have such “certainty” about his own enlightened faith. We may indeed see certain constants across the ages if we focus upon certain human needs and behaviours—and on occasion it might make much sense to take note of such constants as the desire to survive, or the need to eat, or the extraction of resources and the opportunity costs involved, or the use of the imagination. But there is a serious problem that Hume bypasses, which Pompa raises against Hume’s position:

…such a conception of the nature of ideas is unacceptable when we consider their operation in the social and historical world. Here we are dealing with social agents, and it is impossible for anybody to be a social agent without understanding the concept of the type of social agent in question. One cannot, for example, be a judge or a school-teacher, unless one’s conduct reveals an understanding of what one should do in the legitimate fulfilment of one’s role. Indeed, the requirement is somewhat stronger than this. For not merely is it necessary to know what one’s role involves, but it is necessary also to know that others know what is involved. One cannot, in other words, act as a judge unless one’s conduct both conforms to a shared understanding of the role and to the knowledge that that understanding is shared. For, in the last resort, it is one’s success or failure in being able to show that one has acted in accordance with what one knows to be shared that determines the legitimacy of one’s actions as a judge. Acting in a social role thus presupposes possession of a social concept which one knows to be shared. This need not be something which one can explicate theoretically, but it must be such that one can use it. It is no objection to this that we use the concept of a natural object in order to can use it, should one be challenged, in defence of one’s claim to have acted legitimately in that role.

It follows from this that ideas cannot, in the social world, have only the secondary ontological status which Hume ascribes to them. For an idea to have this secondary status, it is necessary that that of which it is an idea could have existed in the absence of the idea itself. But this is not possible in the case of social agents, for to be a social agent is just to act in accordance with certain conventions and in the knowledge that those conventions are known to be shared. In the social world, therefore, consciousness of such ideas is constitutive: without it there could be no such world.

Unlike Hume, Vico had extricated himself completely from his earlier (Cartesian) mechanistic philosophical influences, and his cognizance of the plasticity of the human imagination and its impact upon sociality ultimately added the dimension of the cadences of lived-time to our self-understanding. While Vico’s New Science is “therefore a history of human ideas,” its novelty consists in the recognition that “ideas” are themselves deeply dependent upon human development. And although, he acknowledges philosophical antecedents in Jean Bodin and Francis Bacon’s recognition of the importance of myth in aiding human instruction, and, even more pertinently, the importance of “following the method of philosophizing made most certain by Francis Bacon, Lord of Verulam,” he transfers the “idea” to “this world of nations;” thus “carrying it over from the things of nature… to the civil affairs of mankind.”

In general, then, Vico observes that philosophy (including Bacon’s) has not hitherto “reflected on and seen” the actual or historical development of human sociality, and hence also it has failed to grasp what we can discover about the growth of the human mind. To understand that development, requires philosophy taking a new methodological step by turning to the signs that humanity over the ages has left behind in its action which provide evidence of “the human will,” that is “all histories of the languages, customs and deeds of peoples in war and peace.” The New Science then proposes that:

…philosophy undertakes to examine philology (that is, the doctrine of everything that depends on the human will; for example, all histories of the languages, customs and deeds of peoples in war and peace), of which, because of the deplorable obscurity of causes and almost infinite variety of effects, philosophy has had almost a horror of treating.

And,

This queen of the sciences, by the axiom [314] that “the sciences must begin where their subject matters began,” took its start when the first men began to think humanly, and not when the philosophers began to reflect on human ideas (as in an erudite and scholarly little book recently published [by Brucker] under the title Historia philosophica doctrinae de ideis, which comes down to the latest controversies between the two foremost minds of our age, Leibniz and Newton).

The method of the “New Science” thus requires a thorough study of the writings of antiquity, primarily Greek and Roman. Moreover, one of the most conspicuous feature of Vico’s astonishing originality in the New Science lay in treating Homer as a key to unlocking not only antiquity, but as an aid for identifying different ages in their decline and emergence—the patriarchal giant age of the gods symbolized by the cyclops, and the heroic, which is the primary content of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—as well as a close philological treatment of other ancient materials, particularly Plato and Roman authors (Tacitus, Varro, Livy, the Twelve Tables, Plautus, Plutarch). But Vico also finds supporting evidence in what he knows of the Egyptians, Germanic tribes, Chaldeans and Scythians in order to detect what kinds of ideas predominated in different ages. Vico also identifies how the ideas and the institutional contexts in which they emerge relate. The following rather lengthy passage provides Vico’s summary of the core insights into the three different major formative ages that his New Science has uncovered as providing the basic, and recurrent stages of the development of the gentiles:

(1) The age of the gods, in which the gentiles believed they lived under divine governments, and everything was commanded them by auspices and oracles, which are the oldest things in profane history. (2) The age of the heroes, in which they reigned everywhere in aristocratic commonwealths, on account of a certain superiority of nature which they held themselves to have over the plebs. (3) The age of men, in which all men recognized themselves as equal in human nature, and therefore there were established first the popular commonwealths and then the monarchies, both of which are forms of human government, as we observed a short while ago.

In harmony with these three kinds of nature and government, three kinds of language were spoken which compose the vocabulary of this Science: (1) That of the time of the families when gentile men were newly received into humanity. This, we shall find, was a mute language of signs and physical objects having natural relations to the ideas they wished to express. (2) That spoken by means of heroic emblems, or similitudes, comparisons, images, metaphors, and natural descriptions, which make up the great body of the heroic language which was spoken at the time the heroes reigned. (3) Human language using words agreed upon by the people, a language of which they are absolute lords, and which is proper to the popular commonwealths and monarchical states; a language whereby the people may fix the meaning of the laws by which the nobles as well as the plebs are bound. Hence, among all nations, once the laws had been put into the vulgar tongue, the science of laws passed from the control of the nobles…

Hitherto, among all nations, the nobles had kept the laws in a secret language as a sacred thing, for it will be found that everywhere the nobles were also priests. That is the natural reason for the secrecy of the laws among the Roman patricians until popular liberty arose. Now these are the same three languages that the Egyptians claimed had been spoken before in their world, corresponding exactly both in number and in sequence to the three ages that had run their course before them. (1) The hieroglyphic or sacred or secret language, by means of mute acts. This is suited to the uses of religion, which it is more important to attend to than to talk about. (2) The symbolic, by means of similitudes, such as we have just seen the heroic language to have been. (3) The epistolary or vulgar, which served the common uses of life.

One major implication of Vico’s work, that would prove enormously fecund for anthropologists as well as historians, is the recognition that reality is never fully encompassed by the social divisions and allotments intrinsic to a specific type of social reproduction. The imagination and institutions, ideas and experience are so closely bound up with each other, that we need to be conscious of the very different “social imaginaries” of different “life-worlds,” as they would later be called. This is also commensurate with us taking seriously ideas of a pre-philosophical ordering of reality rather than dismissing what does not conform to our more philosophical deliberations as mere delusions or superstitions.

With the New Science, Vico was seeking to become to the social and historical world what Aristotle had been to Logic and Newton to Physics: the discoverer of a great continent of learning, which once entered, forever changes how one sees things. We should also note that while Vico speaks of the will (and thus, as Berlin notes, continues in the Renaissance spirit so eloquently expressed by Pico della Mirandola in On the Dignity of Man), the metaphysic is not one of the subsequent idea-ist and voluntarist offshoots of the “will” which promises to set us free from the burdens specific to an age if we allow it flight (as, say, we find with Deleuze’s de-territorial-ization).

Indeed, the ever-conspicuous metaphysical presence of providence in the New Science militates against this. For its regular invocation in the New Science is in large part to demonstrate a profound truth that voluntarism misses: viz, that what we are doing individually and what we are actually doing collectively, or what we will to achieve, and what we actually leave behind of ourselves are not congruent: “…for out of the passions of men each bent on his private advantage, for the sake of which they would live like wild beasts in the wilderness, it has made the civil orders by which they may live in human society.” In so far as good comes out of our willing this is due to powers beyond our ken, and hence beyond our willing, which Vico identifies as Providence. At the same time, Vico does make the famous claim, repeated by Marx to his own voluntarist end:

…this world of nations has certainly been made by men, and its guise must therefore be found within the modifications of our own human mind. And history cannot be more certain than when he who creates the things also describes them. Thus, our Science proceeds exactly as does geometry, which, while it constructs out of its elements or contemplates the world of quantity, itself creates it; but with a reality greater in proportion to that of the orders having to do with human affairs, in which there are neither points, lines, surfaces, nor figures. And this very fact is an argument, a reader, that these proofs are of a kind divine, and should give thee a divine pleasure; since in God knowledge and creation are one and the same thing.

To be sure many of Vico’s philological readings have since then proved unsustainable. In part this also rested on his mistake that because man makes his world, this world might be easier to know than the natural one–for if anything is evident today, it is that in so far as we are all enmeshed in stories, it is no less difficult to move outside of our story-telling situation to really listen to story that comes from another set of appeals, contingencies and ways of seeing and making reality, than it is to be inducted into the natural sciences.

The latter requires intellectual ability, but the former requires a willingness (that far too few are willing to make) of self-dissolution, of getting out of one’s way and own “identity” so that one can open up to another way of being in and viewing the world. Nevertheless, what still rings true is that ‘the inexhaustible source of all the errors about the beginnings of humanity that have been adopted by entire nations and by all the scholars’ is that “whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand.”

For when the former [i.e., ‘entire nations’] began to take notice of them [i.e. the beginnings of humanity] and the latter [the scholars] to investigate them, it was on the basis of their own enlightened, cultivated and magnificent times that they judged the origins of humanity, which must nevertheless by the nature of things have been small, crude and quite obscure.

In the main, and prior to David Hume and Thomas Reid, the mechanistic philosophers believed it their job to rescue “experience” from “common sense,” but what Vico has noticed is how human experiences of times long since passed have been taken as confirming or conforming to more contemporaneous philosophical concerns and manners of thinking, something he sees as particularly conspicuous and damaging in the natural law philosophies of Grotius and Pufendorf. That is, philosophers all too frequently reflect upon other times and ages and find there aught but diminished versions of their own philosophical ideas staring back at them. Vico had also understood the challenges that await the “civilized mind” in exploring the poetic sensitivity, unencumbered by the vast array of accumulated experience that develops with numeracy and literature, the division of labour and urban life. Thus, he urged that the philological philosopher needs to “listen” to the “language” which had helped form the social experience of an age and hence was intrinsic to the understanding and “reasons” of its makers, and which is not to be confused with the “reasons” of philosophers:

…the nature of our civilized minds is so detached from the senses, even in the vulgar, by abstractions corresponding to all the abstract terms our languages abound in, and so refined by the art of writing, and as it were spiritualized by the use of numbers, because even the vulgar know how to count and reckon, that it is naturally beyond our power to form the vast image of this, mistress called “Sympathetic Nature.” Men shape the phrase with their lips but, have nothing in their minds; for what they have in mind is falsehood, which is nothing; and their imagination no longer avails to form a vast false image. It is equally beyond our power to enter into the vast imagination of those first men, whose minds were not in the least abstract, refined, or spiritualized, because they were entirely immersed in the senses, buffeted by the passions, buried in the body. That is why we said above [338] that we can scarcely understand, still less imagine, how those first men thought who founded gentile humanity.

In spite of the magnitude of the task, the worlds of different ages are not completely incommensurable for our understanding, rather we need to expand our ideas and understanding in such a way that we can enter into an appreciation of the making of another age. Above all that means philosophy must take a completely different direction than that required by Descartes and the new metaphysics more generally. Although his reputation would grow long after his death, Vico opened up the importance of method for understanding certain kinds of processes and identifying the patterns that may be discernible within them. Indeed, more generally, one of the great achievements of philosophy is to sensitize us to patterns, and hence orders heretofore unnoticed; the temptation, though to be avoided, is to focus so much upon the pattern that one ignores the great array of discordances, the processes of unravelling and turbulence, the “white noise” and “fuzzy logic” that produces a new pattern completely outside our ken and range of anticipations and expectations. But thinking itself, and not just philosophy, works with patterns, as well as with unique persons, events, memories and actions.

Vico had drawn attention to the fact that different ages with their different institutions were built upon different social imaginaries, and he required that our understanding of the “history of ideas” find access to the very different underpinnings of how ideas were made in different ages. Moreover, he also recognized how these patterns would repeat themselves. This was in recognition of the cyclical nature of societies and peoples–the “gentiles”–whose ideational and institutional formations were not based on the attempt to break the cycles of nature, and the “tyranny” of those cycles. Thus, although Vico also invokes the providence of the divine mind, he only occasionally deploys biblical examples.

Scholars have been divided over whether Vico’s cyclical account of the ages which was limited to the gentile nations was a contrivance for avoiding persecution. But there is a strong argument (developed by Franz Rosenzweig in the Star of Redemption without any reference to Vico) that the covenant at the basis of Jewish existence was a unique decision of a unique people with a unique God, whose revelations occurred through time and whose promise was of a time and world to come.

It is true that one can find in Plato’s Laws the germ cell of the idea of providential gods (“being good with all goodness, possess such care of the whole as is most proper to themselves”), and this is later picked up and developed by Plotinus and Proclus. And although Vico’s conception of God as divine mind is more Greek philosophical than biblical, the fully developed idea of providence–as it is in Judaism and subsequently Christianity–goes hand in hand with the revelation in ‘Song of Songs’ (again Rosenzweig draws this point out) that “love is as strong as death.” Daniel will prophesy that the kingdom of gold will give way to inferior kingdoms until finally the earthly kingdom is no more than iron mixed with clay, but “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.” In the Middle Ages this prophecy underpinned the notion of the church as the translatio imperii, the church as God’s eternal representation on earth, a testament to the defiance of the birth and extinction of human empires.

Irrespective of Vico’s faith, when we turn to Johann Georg Hamann we find, as Berlin rightly saw, a somewhat kindred spirit to Vico in so far as the importance ascribed to language and the imagination serves as a means to waken us to our sociality and historicity. But whereas Vico has tied his project to the “history of ideas” by opening up philosophy to philology, something Hamann is also doing, Hamann poses a far greater challenge in his restoration of the figurative imagination. And whereas Vico retreated to the distant past to show philosophy its shortcomings, Hamann simply had to point to the world around him as it was still being made by people driven by their biblical faith and their figurative imaginations.


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured images shows, “Der Einzug des Königs Rudolf von Habsburg in Basel 1273 (The Entry of King Rudolf of Habsburg into Basel 1273),” painted by Franz Pforr, ca. 1809-1810.

Philosophical Anthropology. Part 2: Johann Georg Hamann, On The Idolatry Of Faith In Reason

There is a great irony in Hume’s fate in so far as the very probablism which he used against religious faith was taken up in Germany by Friedrich Jacobi and Johann Georg Hamann, not only to provide an argument for the inescapable role of faith in life, but also, especially in Hamann’s case, for mounting an argument about the value of the Christian life. So impressed was Hamann by Hume that he translated his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion into German.

The religious Hamann had no delusions about where Hume stood on matters of religion—and in this respect, Hume was on the side of the enlightened, i.e., the enemy who were substituting their metaphysically derived ideas, which is to say, their bloodless version of life, for life itself. Nevertheless, as he would confide to Herder: “Hume [over against Kant] is always my man because he at least honored the principium of faith and took it up in his system.” And to J. Lindner he picks up on Hume’s statement in the Enquiry that because the Christian religion “was at first attended with miracles… even at this day [it] cannot be believed by any reasonable person,” commenting: “Hume may have said this with a scornful or wistful attitude, nevertheless it is orthodoxy and a witness to the truth in the mouth of an enemy and persecutor of the same—all his doubts are proof of his proposition.”

The sceptical Hume, for Hamann, therefore veers into the doubtful territory of faith. Had Hume been a little less prejudiced when roaming around in that territory, he would have had to concede that in it are to be found men and women, like Hamann, every bit as capable of using their reason, and yet also sceptical of reason’s overreach, whose faith, nevertheless, leads them to live the lives they do. In this respect, W.M. Alexander (whose book Johann Georg Hamann: Philosophy and Faith is, in my opinion, the best book, among some seriously good books, on Hamann) observes “Hamann’s problem” is,

the philosophy of his age and how his own thought as a Christian relates to it. How does the Christian exist (and more specifically—in his “authorship”—how does he think authentically as a Christian) in genuine contact with the world. Hamann was one of the first Christian thinkers to recognize that he lived—as did the early Church Fathers -in a non-Christian world—the Church was no longer communicating to “Jews” but to “Greeks.”

The essentially Christian character of Hamann’s thinking stands in striking contrast to what remained an essentially metaphysical position advanced by his friend Jacobi, who had become very famous in Germany with his Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza in Letters to Herr Moses Mendelssohn. Jacobi had detected the Spinozian (deterministic) influence upon the age, and had countered that faith is an ontological given and a foundation of reason. Furthermore, it was not just, as Kant had argued, a rational element within the moral sphere of life. While an ally of Jacobi with respect to emphasising the inescapable condition of faith in the larger scheme of reason, Hamann was also critical of the latter’s metaphysical philosophizing. Thus, Hamann would pointedly say to Jacobi of his David Hume on Faith: “In the absence of your book I can say nothing further, dear Jonathan [Jacobi!], except to speak of the relation of both of the objects of your authorship to mine: ‘Idealism’ and ‘Realism’ versus Christianity and Lutheranism. Both of the former are, in my eyes, ideal; the latter real.”

While Jacobi, then, wished to ‘demonstrate’ where faith stood in the greater schema of reason and, indeed, philosophy itself, Hamann’s faith was not the result of any philosophical question, but the result of a personal crisis. As a talented young man with prospects, he had been assigned to represent a Riga merchant on diplomatic business. That had proven to be a dead end and after squandering his and the firm’s money on drinking and carousing, and trying to make ends meet as a lutenist, he entered into what was probably a sexual friendship with another young man, whom he subsequently discovered to have received money for sexual favours by a wealthy patron.

Appalled, broke, and solitary he started reading the Bible, and like so many Jews and Christians he came to the realization that it was no ordinary book—but a book that expressed the immediacy of his circumstance and experience, and God’s responsiveness to humanity’s despair and cry. The truths that the book contained, then, were inseparable from the needs and longings and willingness of the reader to respond in kind to God’s love and majesty, which he saw depicted everywhere throughout this book which was part historical chronicle, part testimony, part instruction, part description, and so much else beside. But also, and most importantly, the record of an encounter between the one true loving God and His people, which opened up the believing heart to also encounter the living God, and take up a new life based upon that encounter.

In other words, what Hamann grasped was the fact of faith, and the fact of his faith being tied in with a tradition of experiences and stories and history, and an encounter of exactly the sort that he had experienced. This is obviously a million miles away from what Jacobi was doing, let alone what Kant did when he tackled the problems of God and the soul, and came to the conclusion they were the product of reason’s own dialectical transcendence of our cognitive conditions, a transcendence which is really an illusion, in so far as the conditions only have validity as truth conditions about the things of our world when they apply to the world. This is what Kant called appearances because the things of our world must appear in space and time in order to be experienced. Kant and Hamann had for some time at least been on friendly terms, and Hamann even helped find a publisher for the Critique of Pure Reason (a work, as we see below, he thought completely wrong-headed). For his part, Kant thought Hamann was a Schwärmer, a rapid “enthusiast,” which is, to say, what the British call “a nutter.”

Generally, Hamann’s philosophical contemporaries saw the bible as either a superstitious attempt to make sense of their experiences or a mythic rendering of moral laws—a position which one can only hold until one reads the Bible. Kant read it like this and had to morally reproach Abraham. For Hamann this was missing the whole point, as was the kind of discussion around faith that had involved Jacobi, Kant, and later Hegel: Hamann did not just believe something he read, he experienced his faith completely changing his life. The book made him a different man. Thus, it was not merely a cerebral matter, but a matter of soul, and thus to treat the Bible along the usual lines of scholarly or philosophical interrogation is really to miss what is most essential about it: it would be like saying one had been swimming but one just had not gone into any water.

Note also, that while the enlightened philosophers would question the reality of the object of faith—God—they would treat God as if He were an object, or, as in Kant, once it is conceded that God is not an object like a natural object, as a “mere idea of reason.” Hamann, as with so many of the faithful, does not see God as an object (or idea of reason) at all; God is no more an idea than He is a thing. But, if we are to stay with philosophical language, God is, nevertheless, a condition of reality, not a “logical condition,” but a creator of whom we can only make sense through encounter and engagement. From Hamann’s Lutheran perspective, when we speak of or about God rather than to Him, at least if we are not disposing ourselves as a vehicle of the Holy Spirit, we are already losing sight of Him. This is also why, for Hamann, “if they are fools who in their hearts deny the existence of God, it strikes me as yet more foolish to want to prove him first.”

To repeat, Hamann has invoked God in a completely different manner from the philosophers—for the purpose of the philosophers’ inquiries, God cannot be divorced from the subjects forming their narrative (the philosophers). For philosophers, what Hamann has done by insisting on taking seriously what the book actually does as opposed to what it merely says is to open-up the floodgates that threaten reason (and philosophy) itself. This, as far as Hamann is concerned, not his problem, but their problem, and it stems from their wanting to only look so far at what is going on in our lives and in world. That is, they want to deny God to be as God: what they know is what is—the entire philosophical attempt from Descartes to Kant to lay down what constitutes experience (the laws of nature) is, from Hamann’s point of view, a confirmation of this.

Hamann overturns what he sees as the self-delusion that motivates the enlightenment project—and his thinking returns us to the pre-philosophical disposition. Ancient people did not come to their gods through their powers of reason—because reason, imagination, and world were all intertwined. Thus, too they knew that their gods existed because they were implicated in a world of mutual dependency: sacrifices are as necessary for the gods as for the gods’ responsive beneficence. One might venture that this is as true of the Jews as of every ancient people, as evident in Yahweh’s jealousy and commandment against false gods.

This kind of anthropological understanding renders the kind of clear-cut distinctions of philosophical ideation irrelevant. The kind of truth that this hermeneutical community is engaging with is the truth of their very own existence, which would have no existence apart from the very parables, commands, bonds, and common orientation that is both the content of their faith as well as its condition. Hamann’s faith is, then, indeed the kind of faith to be found in what Hume had called “common-life,” but “common life” as a whole is no longer understood in the abstract as something that can be analytically dissected into the enlightened and superstitious parts; it forms a unity, which is not to say that things people do is beyond criticism—but the pitch of the criticism is always going to come from some human place, and not some ideational “heaven” that can be found by talking and thinking a certain way.

In this respect, Hamann thinks philosophers are victims of their own superstitions. For Hamann, truths that are abstractly constructed, that have not developed within time, literally have no life. Likewise, metaphysical “truths” are at best conjectures, and typically spurious. Only what has life can be true. As Alexander rightly says: “Truth,” for Hamann, “is not primarily and most authentically an idea or text of written words but a concrete historical life.” Likewise, “truth is not an academic possession: it unfolds only in the transition of a lifetime… ‘Truths are metals which develop under the earth.’”

The notion that truth is something that is revealed over time—“by their fruits you shall know them”—requires taking our temporality and historicity seriously. This, in turn, requires conceding that we do not engage with eternal “ideas,” for such an engagement is purely beyond our ken. We and our ideas grow, and hence reveal themselves for what they are in and through and over time—our climbing high to espy the “all” is sand-castle-in-the-air stuff that brings us crashing down to earth. From this perspective, the Platonic cast of mind shares with the metaphysics of modernity a view of the cosmos in which the eternal order of mathematics takes a particular pride of place, but for all that way of thinking can achieve by way of construction and contrivance with merely material “substances,” when it comes to what we hold important in our lives, what we believe in, then, at best, it may be an ancillary, but at worst, it is an elimination of who and what we are. The elective affinity between mathematical and metaphysical thinking is an affinity that draws us away from what we sense and feel, and want.

What we find in Hamann and ultimately makes his legacy so powerful and fecund, is the combination of a resolutely anti-metaphysical disposition with a great sensitivity for the kinds of problems (if not the answers) that are genuinely philosophical. Moreover, because, for Hamann, “All of our knowing is piece-work and all human rational foundations consist either in faith in the truth and doubt of the untruth, or faith in the untruth and doubt of the truth,” we cannot simply divide the world into what conforms to faith and what conforms to reason, as if this kind of bifurcation somehow conforms to some kind of objective disjunction.

Hamann’s antipathy to bifurcation makes him an important influence upon figures such as Herder, Hegel and Schelling for whom dualism was always the source of a more fundamental philosophical problem than a genuine solution. Moreover, for Hamann: “faith is no work of reason, and therefore is subject to no attack by the same, because faith as little happens through reasons as taste and sight.”

The question of the relationship between faith and knowledge and/or reason, and the nature of the relationship between the two would become a key one of the age. Kant would argue that freedom was a matter of rational faith, and that the reason behind identifying the limits of knowledge was primarily to enable that faith so that our sense of moral duty would preside over what merely is by nature. Hegel saw the problem as a symptom of the divided nature of the modern self, which sought knowledge, but could not bear to reconcile itself with the conditions of its own actual achievements of freedom, seeking solace in a beyond accessible to faith, but ultimately a mere empty “should,” ever out of reach and unrealizable.

Hegel’s brilliant critique of the antithesis between faith and knowledge/reason in Faith and Knowledge and tirelessly repeated throughout his corpus makes perfect sense when directed at Kant, Jacobi, Fichte, Schleiermacher, and even Schelling (in so far as he commences with the Absolute’s being and (un-, or dark) ground). For they are indeed operating with conceptual dualisms within a system, and hence too each was seeking some ground or rationally defensible starting point for what was always a metaphysics. But it does not touch Hamann. For Hamann has no interest in providing a rational basis for faith; he has no system. Christianity is not a philosophical system, even if theologians may wish to bring rationality to it for coherence.

The unity of a life is more akin to the kind of unity a body of faith displays (with members in division) than a philosophical system which, from the outset, requires conceptual or ideational consistency. Hamann commences with the fact of his faith and then clarifies how it shapes his life, and the lives of others who live in their faith communities. This is an anthropological move that differs from the neo-Hegelian anthropology of Feuerbach and the young Marx, insofar as the neo-Hegelian appeal to community, freedom, equality is always to an ideational end that motivates the anthropological aspect of their thinking. Hamann, however, emphasises the common anthropological condition, and then compares different bodies with their different faiths (most specifically philosophers and Christians like him).

Just as Hamann’s discussion of faith and reason is distinctly un-metaphysical, his observations about reason is not itself dependent upon an adequate logic of demonstration: reasons come after the fact. As he would write to Kant: “I must almost laugh over the choice of a philosopher for the purpose of bringing about in me a change of mind. I look upon the best demonstration as a reasonable girl does a love-letter.”

While, then, Hamann’s insight about faith and common life is far closer in spirit to anthropology than philosophy, it nevertheless has implications for philosophy, implications which would “rein in” its rationalist tendencies. This is well brought out in a letter to J.G. Lindner, where Hamann would paraphrase (or slightly misquote) Hume and critically compare the enlightened faith in reason with Jewish faith in the Law, and both with Paul:

“The final fruit of all philosophy is the noting of human ignorance and weakness.” This same function, which is related to our powers of understanding and knowledge, shows us how ignorant we are just as the moral shows us how evil and shallow is our virtue. This cornerstone at the same time is a millstone which shatters to pieces all his sophistries. Our reason therefore is just that which Paul calls the Law—and the Law of the Reason is holy, just and good. But is it given to us to make us wise? Just as little as the Law was given to the Jews to justify them, but to convince us of the opposite: how unreasonable is our reason, and that our errors are to be increased by it, just as sin increased by the Law. If everywhere Paul speaks of the Law one puts “reason” (this “law” of our century and the watchword of our clever heads and scribes), Paul will speak to our contemporaries.

For Hamann, when it comes to the kind of knowledge we most need, he wrote to Jacobi: “Sense and history are the foundations and ground—be the former ever so deceptive and the latter ever so simple, I still prefer them to all castles in the air.” Our circumstance is such that what we can think is always either revealed, fragmented, or abstracted: “A reason which acknowledges itself as a daughter of the senses and the material, behold! this is our religion.”

To make thought something more real than the senses is itself to commence a train of abstraction that can all too swiftly leave our language and traditions which have been the means by which collective sense is formed. It is philosophy that, according to Hamann makes “castles in the air.” Or as he put it in another letter to Jacobi—philosophy carries on with “empty shadow-boxing with ideas and speculations against data and facts, with theoretical deceptions against historical truths, with plausible probabilities against witnesses and documents.”

Although all the most reputable Hamann scholars recognize that dismissing Hamann as an “irrationalist” is nonsense, if by that we mean that he does not think reason has any role to play in a life. Beiser puts the matter succinctly when he points out that “The stumbling block of all irrationalist interpretations of Hamann is therefore nothing less than the central thesis” of Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia: that faith is neither rational nor irrational since reason cannot either prove or disprove it.

What Hamann does is something that no serious philosopher should, or even can, simply dismiss: he identifies reason’s limits as deriving from its dependency upon existence itself, community, history and language. He is not arguing that we should deny what we know or what can be known—but reason is an activity or operation taking place within our lives (a point taken up by Kierkegaard and existentialism more generally): to hypostazise it is to beguile ourselves into thinking that we really know all we would need about what is going on in life, and that we are not surrounded by genuine mysteries, which in Hamann’s case are given meaning through his faith in God and revelation.

For Hamann, one of the more persistent errors of philosophy is to treat reason as “real being,” which it is not, rather than as an activity which we undertake. As he wrote to Jacobi:

People speak of reason as if it were a real being, and the dear God as if the same were nothing but a concept. Spinoza speaks of an Object causa sui and Kant of a Subject causa sui. Until this misunderstanding is removed, it will be impossible to understand one another. When one knows what reason is, all discrepancy with revelation ceases.

Conversely while philosophers may ceaselessly dispute about what reason is, people of faith harken to their God and build their world around that harkening. To be sure once matters of faith becomes theological problems, the same problem occurs; but, if viewed with a more ancient eye, the issue of theological dispute can also turn around the matter of “which God?” is appealing to us and demanding our response—the God that creates, reveals and redeems, or a supra-human (diabolical) power that may be merely devouring us?

In this respect, Hamann’s position can be buttressed by an insight that plays a pivotal role in the work of Rosenstock-Huessy, a genuine progeny of Hamann. For Rosenstock-Huessy saw the problem of his age was not just that people did not believe in God, but they did not have any clue about the gods; only once one concedes the reality of gods—a reality that is witnessed in behaviours, for the gods are not under our command—is one in a position to understand God. For originally the gods are recognized and named, and their communal importance assigned so that they can be followed, summoned, supplicated to, and obeyed (or disobeyed). I will take up this point below.

For Hamann the discrepancy between reason and revelation ceases because revelation deals in contingencies, not metaphysics, which deals in the Absolute. The nature of the Absolute would become the centre of philosophical gravity for post-Kantian idealisms, but Hamann already recognized the problem of this philosophical move before it even takes place when he writes to Jacobi: “Being, faith, reason are merely relations which are not to be dealt with as absolutes; they are not things, but pure academic concepts, signs for the understanding, not things to be admired, but means of helping to awaken and fix our attention.”

If one thinks that the truth of life’s meaning is disclosed through reason itself, then Hamann’s position is absurd. Though it is precisely this question of what reason is and what it can really do that runs through Hamann’s critique of metaphysical thinking. While it is commonplace for philosophers to present people of faith as ignorant, or superstitious dupes as opposed, for example, to Dennett’s “brights,” Hamann’s contrast between the God of “rational salvation” and the “God of historical revelation’ is the contrast between ahistorical abstract thinking taking its cues of truth from “nature” and an historical hermeneutical community taking its orientation from a tradition and its symbols grounded in mystery, creation, miraculous contingencies, covenant, prophesy, love, hope and faith in salvation. The enlightened philosophers can only construe all this through a process of “denuding,” so that what is left is mere “nature;” or rather those features of nature, which accommodate the framing required by the experimental and mathematical conditions that render it a totality of laws.

Spinoza’s breaking down of the emotions into natural drives, which then, along with other natural circumstances, are invoked to make sense of the Bible, exemplifies the process. It is, though, the substitution of a history based upon the understanding as opposed to the history of the imagination, the substitution of what exclusively conforms to law for what is frequently parable, and the substitution of one community’s orientation—the philosophers’ community—for the communities of the Jewish and Christian peoples.

For Hamann the failure to grasp that historical nature is not mere nature, but one in which symbols, imagination, and the gamut of semiotic triggers bind and form communities is a mere prejudice of enlightenment philosophers, and illustrates a major difference between the depth of knowledge about the nature of people and life within the religious tradition that the enlightened are simply blind to because of their own prejudice. Thus, of Lessing’s Education of the Human Race, he writes in a letter to Herder:

A week ago, I took up the Education of the Human Race for the second time… Basically the old leaven of our fashionable philosophy: prejudice against Judaism [i.e. anti-historical]—ignorance of the true spirit of the Reformation [i.e. knowing only philosophical self-salvation].

Another major reason why Hamann is considered an early existentialist is because he revels in the absurd—in a manner that suggests a deep affinity with the British author Laurence Sterne—and he turns the tables on those who would take the absurdity of existence as if it were somehow capable of receiving a rational explanation. And he does this in all manner of ways, from the (seriously) playful nature of his authorship, to his position on language as a miracle, to his critique of the enlightenment as a form of idolatry. The great irony of the power of Hamann’s thought is that it plays the “fool” against reason’s majesty and might, only to expose the threadbare nature of that majesty. Philosophy engages in a substitution racket and takes unreal things as real things—and then it criticizes things we know through the very lives we live, because they do not conform to the unreal schema we have created.

Of course, Nietzsche will make this same point—but the real assessment of any comparison between Nietzsche and Hamann revolves around what one thinks of their respective faiths in the superman or Christian life, and it must be said, Nietzsche’s and Hamann’s radically different views over what the Christian life entails. Hamann would undoubtedly find in Nietzsche’s (and Heidegger’s) reading of Christianity an ahistorical fantasy. Both Nietzsche and Hamann, nevertheless, concur about Platonism being an “enemy” of life, and Hamann’s admiration for Socrates does not extend to the legacy of his greatest pupil, which he sees as an being inimical to Christianity: “Platonism is not the friend but the enemy of Christianity.”

Bearing the above in mind, then, it is true that Hamann was opposed to placing faith in the abstract “reason” of imagined “forms.” And he wrote to Jacobi that “the entire Kantian construction appears to me to rest upon the idle trust that certainty comes ex vi formae [by the power of forms].” Which is to say, he saw Kant’s entire undertaking of the transcendental delimiting of the legitimacy boundaries of our experience in the Critique of Pure Reason as completely wrong-headed.

For the mind to try and understand itself through self-reflection and the study of the “mind” is akin to someone thinking that fish are produced by a fishing rod, (the same analogy is also apposite for understanding why Hamann objects to naturalist attempts to understand language of the sort that he thought his close friend Herder had foolishly undertaken). Why the mind is more knowable than language and experience is itself, though, due to a mistaken faith. And this faith in the mind’s power to oversee itself, is, for Hamann, a blind and blinding faith that suffocates and smothers “life” with its own limited understanding and glaring light. As he would write to Herder: enlightened reason is the reason of “sadduaic freethinkers;” and their “reason is untruth, a superstition.” “Sound reason” exists in their “imagination.” Thus Alexander perceptively observes:

Hamann can sum up his authorship as an “exposure [Entkleidung] and transfiguration” of those who attempt “a violent unclothing [Entkleidung] of real objects down to naked concepts and bare intellectual entities, pure phantoms, and phenomena.”

And,

Hamann’s purpose is to challenge “the despotism of Apollo” [“God of wisdom” i.e., philosophy] which “fetters truth and freedom in demonstrative proofs, principles and conclusions” (II, 272). These things only distort truth, which is not enshrined in any consistent combination of ideas. Truth is the life which became flesh and the Spirit which “justifies and makes alive” (III, 227). God gives life to us in a unity which does not come before us dissected into intellectual abstractions. In His revelation of Himself He concentrates Himself in the unity of one human person. Not only in his thought, but in his style as well, Hamann tries to reflect this concentration and this unity. His style is its own symbolic attack on that way of thinking which “prefers the conceivability of a thing to its truth.
Truths, principles; systems I am not up to. Rather scraps, fragments, crotchets, thoughts.

I might also add here that the similarities between Hamann’s and Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics and their eschewal of “naked” truth cannot be overestimated—but Nietzsche, unlike Hamann, hails a new metaphysics of will to power because he wants philosophers to be the value creators of the future. For Hamann, the idea that one can philosophically will a culture would be just one further symptom of the derangement of enlightenment faith.

In so far as Hamann is correct to recognize that the “Greek” (i.e., philosophical) mind, with its various “ideas,” names, and way of going about its business had culturally triumphed over the “Jewish” and early Christian spirit, Hamann had no choice than to “speak Greek.” Although he mixed it up with babble and strange tongues to both engage and confuse minds dealing with clarity and distinctness in a world full of lives which rarely offers either. That is, to truly take on what he saw as becoming the dominant faith of the new age on whose cusp he lived, any criticisms which might be heard by the younger generation had to be, at least partially, philosophically shaped. Yet the purpose of his speaking philosophically was to draw philosophy into another, more hermeneutical rather than “rationalist” or metaphysical “camp.”

Moreover, it was not that he thought all philosophical thinking was useless, a point made obvious in his Socratic Memorabilia that shows his serious respect for philosophy which was genuinely inquisitive, yet sufficiently humble to accept reason’s aporias, rather than engage in elaborate rationalisation and abstraction which swiftly becomes an idol of one’s own making. To his friend Lindner he wrote:

An ancient king of Israel believed in an old witch who saw gods mount up out of the earth. Since then, our philosophers have tightly closed their eyes in order not to have to read any distractions to the detriment of nature, and have folded their hands in their laps to pamper their beautiful skin; and it has rained castles-in-the-air and philosophical systems from heaven. Whoever would work his land or build houses, dig up or conceal treasures, must dig in the womb of the earth, which is the mother of us all.

Alexander cleverly observes three major ways in which philosophy appears in Hamann:

Hamann uses the term philosophy in at least three different senses which taken together, point to Hamann’s distinctive conception of philosophy and faith.

1. Philosophy understood as against faith, or as another faith. Often “philosophy” in Hamann means “false philosophy.” Philosophy here is “idolatry.” If he thought of “Rome” and “papacy” as cryptic symbols for the new philosophical “despotism” of the Enlightenment, then perhaps he also spoke of this philosophy as anti-Christ …

2. Philosophy understood as before faith, or better, before Christ. Philosophy here is “ignorance.” This is philosophy which is not yet Christian, but is not anti-Christian or incompatible with faith. Its symbol is Socrates.

3. Philosophy understood as in Christ, or as thinking “from faith to faith.” Philosophy here is “love of the LOGOS.” Much of what he calls “philosophy” in this sense would in modern usage be called theology. An example is in his letter to the Princess Galitzin, December 1787: “Herein [in Jesus Christ] consists the Alpha and Omega of my entire philosophy. More I know not, and do not wish to know.”

What is most original is that Hamann had, at the time of the Enlightened philosophy’s greatest self-assurance, opened up the meaning of philosophy in such a way that we may legitimately inquire after the religion of a philosophy, and not blithely accept the enlightened reading of religion as the outer shell of a philosophy, which could be understood by the “natural reason” of the philosopher, and thus turned against those world and self-making aspects of religion which could be relegated to mere “superstition.” With this insight Hamann had thrown out a philosophical challenge to philosophers from Spinoza through to Hume and Voltaire et. al.

But while Hamann’s madcap style and provocations would ensure acclaim amongst philosophical and literary luminaries, such as, Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel (up to a point), and Jean Paul, his erstwhile friend Kant would fail to recognize anything of genuine philosophical importance in Hamann. And he would write his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, as if he were oblivious to the significance of his former friend’s challenge, and provide one further enlightened rationalisation for religion being morals for people who could not take their medicine straight, as rational ideas, but who needed the hoopla of ritual to ingest it. But, for Hamann, it was actually morality itself as an object of reason, and (again) the philosopher’s substantiation of a thought process into a “faculty” that was genuinely phantasmic and idolatrous. As he would write to Herder after reading Kant’s Metaphysical Elements of Ethics:

Instead of Pure Reason the talk here is of another phantom of the brain and idol: the Good Will. That Kant is one of our shrewdest heads, even his enemies must admit, but unfortunately this shrewdness is his own evil demon, just as is the case with Lessing; for a new scholasticism and a new papacy are represented by both of these Midas ears of our glorious age.

Just as Hamann saw philosophy in anthropological terms, his hermeneutical apologetics of Christian faith is such that it exposes any such enlightened reductions as vacuous precisely by illustrating how faith orientates, and hence how different faiths orientate differently. Thus, even if one does not share another’s faith, one at least will be able to see how faith incarnates a life and a life-world. This would be an insight that would be of decisive importance for Herder.

Of the various orientations and emphases that lay behind Hamann’s insight into where faith fits in life, one of the most elemental that has important implications in more standard philosophical theologies is his (Lutheran) overturning of the more traditional theo-philosophical account of the “nature” or character and “directionf of the relationship between humans and God. The Greek movement toward monotheism, which would be so fateful in the neo-Platonic and neo-Aristotelian traditions and that wing of the Christian tradition that had been deeply influenced by those traditions, had all identified the soul’s spiritual journey as a process of transcendence, an upward movement of the soul to a God who Himself is characterized by his “transcendence.”

In response to this Hamann makes the obvious point (though one that is rarely expressed within philosophically shaped theologies) about the Jewish and Christian God that “is the basis of all his [i.e., the philosopher’s] attacks” on “natural; theology” and “natural religion”, viz., that, within the biblical narratives, it is not God’s transcendence that is the all-important issue for understanding the human predicament in relationship to God, but God’s “condescension.”

When theologians and philosophers refer to God’s transcendence, a term that evolves out of the Greek philosophical mind rather than biblical tradition, and when they refer to transcendence, without focusing upon the greater mystery of condescension, for Hamann, they not only misconstrue God, but they foster an exaggerated and idolatrous faith in the power of the world. For transcendence, as Alexander sums up Hamann’s position, is “world-oriented,” but the “symbol of ‘condescension’ is God-orientated.” That is the theo-philosophical emphasis upon God’s transcendence means that He is conceived, in the first instance, in relationship to the world, which appears familiar to us. Alexander also uses the example of baroque art to brilliant effect to illustrate what Hamann’s sees as what is at stake when we focus upon the relationship between God and humans as one of transcendence, rather than “condescendence:”

A glance at the art ruling Hamann’s age instantly reveals the source of Hamann’s instinctive objection: its world is one in which reason’s confidence in its position, its powers and its cosmos are self-secure. The world is more real than God. Everything Hamann protests against is here: it is a world in which reason demonstrates its dominance over every nook and cranny of reality. Ornamentation and artistic ramification testify to its self-confidence. No area is beyond its all-shaping power. When God in His “transcendence” is represented, it is “transcendence” (as in Sebastiano Conca’s “David Dancing Before the Ark”) over an otherwise “solid” earth. There is no question here as to what reality is utterly prior—it is man’s world and the human reason which has shaped it—and no amount of “height” in the painting can improve God’s “status.” Divine infinity has disappeared and only a domesticated variety remains.

Alexander adds that commencing with the “world-orientated” theology turns “all symbols into irrational assertions, and theology has simply asseverated that we must be content with this irrationality.”

By starting from the familiar, as natural theology does, to the unfamiliar, we have immediately reversed what Hamann sees as the far more profound insight of revelation; for what we do in the world with biblical faith is commence with something mysterious that is disclosed through parables, stories, commands etc. Moreover, for Hamann, the whole point of the Bible is revealed through how it speaks to its faithful, and the living power it reveals to those who are prepared to build their lives and world through faith in that power. Thus, for Hamann: “Every biblical story is a prophecy which is fulfilled through all centuries and in the soul of every man” (1,315). But also, “Every book is a Bible to me and every occupation a prayer”’ And “All the miracles of the holy scriptures happen in our souls” (I, 78). In other words, Hamann sees the universe as one that is pregnant with meaning. Of course, so does the schizophrenic, but the “gamble” of faith (to draw upon Pascal) lies, for Hamann, not in the origin—for faith in something is inescapable—it lies in what that faith engenders in a life and in a community.

One of the more remarkable features of the Western world today is that while the academic mind so frequently serves the enlightened ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, it has largely accepted the importance of culture as a primordial and positive force of identity. We shall briefly return to this point in our discussion of Herder, but here I simply wish to underscore that Hamann was living at a time when Western culture was undergoing a seismic shift due to philosophy extending into the various domains of human being, which up until relatively recent times it had little, or at best, as in the church, an ancillary role to play.

He had grasped that the world of Christendom and its culture was being swallowed up into a world bathed in philosophical glare. He was not a romantic wanting to revive medieval Christendom, as say Novalis or Frederick Schlegel, or Franz von Baader would become. And he did not idolize culture itself. But what is interesting is that the kinds of arguments he is raising about peoples and their faith, arguments developed and expanded along somewhat similar lines by Herder in applying them to cultures (though I think Hamann always the more radical, consistent mind), have been accepted not only by the more anthropologically inclined and in the humanities more broadly, but in society’s ideas-brokers at large.

Yet when it comes to the West itself, the victory of the enlightened mind is intrinsic to the general historical amnesia, and often sheer hostility, to Christian symbols and history. Hamann’s importance is that he taps into the experiential dimension that makes sense of Christianity as a personal and collective act, by constantly deploying biblical examples to illumine (genuinely enlighten) everyday as well as more perennial kinds of experience.

To put this slightly differently: today we can all accept that the imagination, history, language, and faith of people matter more than the reasons we impose upon them (which is not to say that we have to accept, as Gellner and others have feared that this leaves us without any means of critical judgments about cultural practice). That is, we think culture matters. Hamann opens up the door to why and how faith matters culturally and personally.

For, while Hamann is “up front” about his Christianity and Lutheran outlook, an outlook he not only did not assume his readers shared, and which many of his readers did not share, Hamann undertakes to be a thorn in the Enlightenment, a kind of Christian Socrates against the enlightened philosophers, who, for Hamann, are the sophists of his own time. They come with their own theological dogma and faith in their reason to deliver salvation, which though is largely hidden to them because they think they serve truth, and that the world will be saved through their works. But their truth is a lifeless idol.

What has taken the place of divine infinity is now reason’s infinity: its infinite capacity is the corollary of its absoluteness—whether as a heuristic (Kant) or substance (Hegel) makes no difference to the essential point Hamann recognizes. What, though, is meant to be the philosophical display of reason’s supreme majesty, is, for Hamann, really indicative of the mayhem of the age, a mayhem in which the every-day truths of every-day life are maimed by abstractness.

The most fundamental act of intellectual maiming, for Hamann, occurs through the philosophical cleavages which purport to deliver rationally pure forms and classifications. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, as the name of his short essay on Kant clarified, was symptomatic of this delusional obsession with purity. As Hamann presents the problem, the increasing ascension of philosophical purity has occurred over time at the expense of the most elemental features of human sociality: tradition, custom, belief, religion, law-making, and ultimately language itself.

The first philosophical purification consisted in the partly misunderstood, partly failed attempt to make reason independent of all tradition and custom and belief in them. The second is even more transcendent and amounts to nothing less than independence from all 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, promises also, of that general and infallible philosopher’s stone indispensable to 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.
The third, highest, and as it were empirical purism, is therefore concerned with language, the only, first, and last organon and criterion of reason, with no other credentials but tradition and usage.

Yet again, we see a Nietzschean trope—“be true to the earth”—already deployed by Hamann against the destructive incursions of metaphysics into the most elemental features of social life.

Such talk as reason’s grounding or basis alludes to its capacity for building a tower or ladder to better understand the ways of God, the term which still worked for the deists, and, with German idealism, would become equivalent to or more often subsumed under the term the Absolute, before the Absolute would, with Fichte and the neo-Hegelians, and Nietzsche, become the imposition of the human will. For Hamann this overweening ambition and self-idolization—addressed in the story of the tower of Babel—could lead to nothing but disaster.

With great prescience he would see that the disaster would be driven by morality—which was just a veneer for the self-belief that people have in being able to dictate to God’s creation—i.e., life—how it should be: In a letter to Hartknoch he speaks of “our moralistic century” and in another to Jacobi he writes of the “moralistic” enlightened free thinkers as “apostles of lies.” And to Johann Steudel, he refers to “the moralistic generation of vipers among the Pharisees.” This is but one more example of Hamann’s turning of the tables on the men who believed that their own light would save the world—for it is usually Christians who are presented (and indeed often guilty of) grim and earnest moralizing.

For Hamann, “morality, bourgeois righteousness, industrious community service and charities” fueled the problem of evil—and he countered with the simple faith that “Christ is the door.” I think the following sentence will also resonate with those who cannot stand the virtue signaling that has become so widespread and which emanates from people who want for nothing, and who live off the ill-gotten (for they themselves keep saying how ill-gotten everything in the West is) gains of their forefathers, but seek ever more adulation for being who they pretend to be: “A strict moralism appears to me more vile and stale than the most capricious ridicule and scorn. To turn the good inward, and to show the evil outwardly—to appear worse than one actually is, to be better than one appears: this I hold for one’s duty and way of life.”

While Hamann is not strictly a political philosopher, he could see that what the enlightened philosophers were spreading was a suffocating web of tyrannical moralising. Thus, Alexander writes: “The ‘philosophical century,’ a proud epithet to the illuminati of the eighteenth century, Hamann uses as a term of opprobrium. He speaks of the ‘Babylonian philosophy’ which stands under the Confusion of Babel. It is the new “despotism,” a ‘metaphysical, moralizing’ Catholicism, ‘which has its seat in the very place [Berlin] where such an outcry is raised over the papacy.’”

More important than the nausea he felt at the philosophical sycophancy directed at Frederick the Great, and Frederick’s own taste for vain-glory was his prophetic sense of the hellish future emerging from the idolatry of reason’s light. In 1762 when the following passage first appeared it may have seemed the ravings of a lunatic, but in 1794 it was nothing if not prescient:

Nature works through the senses and the passions. But those who maim these instruments, how can they feel? Are crippled sinews fit for movement?—Your lying, murderous philosophy has cleared nature out of the way, and why do you demand that we are to imitate her?—So that you can renew the pleasure by becoming murderers of the pupils of nature, too—Yes, you delicate critics of art!, you go on asking what is truth, and make for the door, because you cannot wait for an answer to this question—Your hands are always washed, whether you are about to eat bread, or whether you have just pronounced a death-sentence.

Such prophecy, for Hamann, stands in the closest relationship to what it was he saw as the real meaning of Enlightenment: a power grab by abstract moralizers who want to become the guides and guardians of their new world. In his Letter to Christian Jacob Krauss he responds to Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?” with its “Sapere aude!” and Kant’s claim that enlightenment is the emergence of people from their “self-incurred tutelage.”

Hamann immediately “smells a rat;” for who is it who espies those in need of emancipation, and what is their role in the process, and what benefits accrue to them in terms of office, profession, prestige and such like? I quote at length because it is such a powerful indictment of the Enlightenment, which comes armed with its own mythology, and which has been used to judge all other mythologies but its own, which it seals with the sanction of a reason that is naught but its own conjuring:

Who is the other lay-about or guide that the author has in mind but has not the heart to utter? Answer: the tiresome guardian who must be implicitly understood as the correlate of those who are immature. This is the man of death. The self-incurred guardianship and not immaturity-
Why does the chiliast deal so fastidiously with this lad Absalom? Because he reckons himself to the class of guardians and wishes thereby to attain a high reputation before immature readers. The immaturity is thus self-incurred only insofar as it surrenders to the guidance of a blind or invisible (as that Pomeranian catechism pupil bellowed at his country pastor) guardian and leader. This is the true man of death-
So wherein lies the inability or fault of the falsely accused immature one? In his own laziness and cowardice? No, it lies in the blindness of his guardian, who purports to be able to see, and for that very reason must bear the whole responsibility for the fault.
With what kind of conscience can a reasoner [Raisonneur] & speculator by the stove and in a nightcap accuse the immature one! of cowardice, when their blind guardian has a large, well-disciplined army to guarantee his infallibility and orthodoxy? How can one mock the laziness of such immature persons, when their enlightened and self-thinking guardian-as the emancipated gaper at the whole spectacle declares him to be—sees them not even as machines but as mere shadows of his grandeur, of which he need have no fear at all, since they are his ministering spirits and the only ones in whose existence he believes?
So doesn’t it all come to the same thing? Believe, march, pay, if the d[evil] is not to take you. Is it not sottise des trois parts? And which is the greatest and most difficult? An army of priests [Pfaffen] or of thugs, hench-men, and purse snatchers? According to the strange, unexpected pattern in human affairs in which on the whole nearly everything is paradoxical, believing seems harder for me than moving mountains, doing tactical exercises-and the financial exploitation of immature persons, donec reddant novissimum quadrantem [till they have paid the last penny].

In this sense, then, the understanding and use of reason is itself corrupted, and philosophers who would have reason devour way more than it can chew, and in their devouring prepare the world for a new kind of hellish tyranny, concealed under the birth lights of rational progress.

In depicting Hamann’s critique of the Enlightenment, let us take up again the earlier point about the gods and the life-worlds of pre-philosophical peoples so that we can bring into sharp relief the world of faith in reason’s ideas and faith in gods. For Hamann is not for a second claiming that we should deny what we know to be true. But (again Nietzsche makes the same point but in a more palatable way to a readership hankering to display its creative genius in world-making), he contrasts one world, which divinizes its ideas without conceding that it does this, with another, which rests on faith about a God it obeys and whose way are miraculous and hence never completely rational or comprehensible.

And he finds no compelling reason whatever—precisely because he takes experience and history as the touchstones of reasons about human matters—for rationalized principles to be taken as completely truthful of anything about us or our world. Whereas Kant had thought he had demonstrated, in defense of human dignity, that the very form of our reason is the clue to how we generate a moral content so that we are not (at least in thought) beholden to the limits of our nature and world, Hamann sees nothing but lunacy in such an aspiration.

Again, the comparison with Nietzsche is apposite: Nietzsche had stressed that behind reasons of value we would find nothing, at least nothing other than a will to power. But for him that meant he and the higher men should see nihilism as an opportune condition so that they could then create a higher culture and breed supermen who would give meaning to the earth.

Hamann would have been caught between nausea and laughter had he read Nietzsche: nausea at the sickening nature of the arrogance and all the deluded blather about great men, and heroes that was so typical of 19th century romantics fearful that the world in the making was as Nietzsche had put it, one fit for nothing more than “hopping fleas;” laughter at the kind of people who sit around and fancy in all seriousness and pomposity that they can provide the conditions for human greatness. He would, though, I think we can safely say, have loved Chesterton’s depiction of the superman as the feathered creature living in Croydon who was so sensitive that a breeze could kill him.

Hamann perhaps speaks more forcefully to us today than to his contemporaries. For we have witnessed what forces the attempt to replace gods with reasons and political actions of the sort pushed for by Nietzsche and Marx have unleashed. And we can also see that the less eschatological rights-driven attempt to replace this world with a morally absolute one, while having success in the West, is not at all embraced in cultures, where traditional values and figurative speech and imagination still are very much alive.

The only God that reason ever overthrew was the God of reason, but that God was itself a philosophical/metaphysical creation. Yet it was the case that as the faith in abstract ideas grew, as people have become more caught up in and satiated by material success, as, to use Weber’s terms, instrumental reason contributed to the disenchantment of the world, Western people have cared less for a “language” and for rituals in which the “gods” were called upon.

But the world’s mysteries do not stop because we are less conscious of them. The pre-moderns, which is to say a great number who inhabit the globe today, had accepted and still accept that the world is full of mysterious powers and thus told stories about their gods. And their gods were the living powers which “overpowered,” or “ruled” over them, and hence the powers to which they supplicated themselves.

Again, let me turn to Hamann’s greatest and most original “pupil” of the twentieth century Rosenstock-Huessy, a thinker who like Hamann challenged the security of the modern mind by his persistent recourse to ancient symbols and “names” to enable it to see with different, and more attuned eyes what was happening in the pre-modern world and to the selves it was shaping, in order to better see what moderns were oblivious to in their own destructive doing. The echoes of Hamann loudly resound in the following passage addressing the perennial and existential nature of human supplication and “divine” invocation by Rosenstock-Huessy:

Manifold are the powers which raise their voices in man. Anything may become his “god”, anything his ‘world.” Atheists, for example, may bring the “concept of God” before their tribunal in the name of their own God, matter. In other words, their God is matter, and their doubts and questions are aimed at a dead thing, the definition of theology. But this heckling of theological concepts has little to do with the name of the living God. A God is present in the materialist’s question as in any other. God is not a concept. He is always a person, and he bears a name. The name in which we are asked to ask others.
For instance, when I ask a sportsman: “How may a good sport do such and such a thing?” I invoke the power of sport. The sportsman in question shall not justify himself for my personal satisfaction. He is summoned to satisfy “Sportsmanship” and Her imperative. I am evading the disagreeable situation of somebody setting himself up as in authority, but putting the Sport on the higher level and myself remaining on the same human level with the other fellow. Yet there can be no doubt that I am relying on the existence of two levels, one of human democracy, the other of ruling powers….
The power who puts questions into our mouths and makes us answer them is our God. The power which makes the atheist fight for atheism is his God. Of course, God is not a school examiner. Man never gives his real answer in words; he gives himself…The gods whom we answer by devoting our lives to their worship and service ask for obedience, not for lip-confession. Art, science, sex, greed, socialism, speed—these gods of our age devour the lives of their worshippers completely.

That the gods preceded man, and that, historically, polytheism precedes monotheism are both indications of how the ancients sought to make sense of their worlds and their selves. Monotheism was, inter alia, a cry for the concordance of these powers to cohere and life and death to be under the dominion of a higher justice and goodness than evident in our mortal experience. This cry for concordance is partly addressed in Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythologies, where the gods belonged to a common “household,” so that these living powers and mysterious surprising forces, for all their discord, share the same “dwelling.” The polytheistic residues are evident, as Rosenstock-Huessy also observes, in the plural Elohim expressing, for the Jews, “the divine powers of creation.”

The modern rebuilding of everything from scratch, the mind’s year zero of Descartes et. al. is at once a reversal of how life has been experienced, and figuratively represented by pre-philosophical people, as well as an occlusion of our fragility and dependency. The initial anti-historical bent of Descartes was quickly replaced by a combination of models and axiomatic philosophical mythical history, so conspicuous, in the social contract theorists, that were indicative of the new myth-making of those relying upon their “natural reason,” and who would interpret history as not only a repository of myth, but as a template for their own projections which were meant to grasp what was really happening in order better to fix it with their philosophies. That is, they preferred their stories to those who had made the past, and reconfigured them in such a way that the earlier stories would fit the templates and models of those who “understood” more and came later, and whose energies were devoted to making a new kind of future.

But if we rely upon our understanding to provide “meaning” of the past we are inevitably drawn back into the mythic. That generation upon generation of historians will revise previous findings of the past as they get closer to the “truth” is invariably the result of the new quest and questioning being posed to the “facts” of the past. But the new quest with its own certitudes—such as the certitude of knowing what is involved in the creation of a less oppressive or more just society (in spite of philosophers ceaselessly disputing the principles and assessments as much as historians dispute the roles and “weights” of different causes and meanings of events)—is itself but the identification and valorisation of ideas of orientation and value that reflect faith in the new god.

Historical knowledge ostensibly provides a firm foundation alongside reason, but its mythic dimension is the inevitable result of us not simply deriving meaning from events, much less interpreting an event as just a collection of itemised or catalogued facts, but us drawing upon events to support the meaning of the world we inhabit. Thus, Hamann surmises against Viscount Bolingbroke: “Perhaps the whole of history is more mythology than this philosopher thinks, and like nature a sealed book, a cloaked witness, a riddle which cannot be solved unless we plough with some other ox than our reason.” And, “The field of history has always seemed to me to be like that wide field that was full of bones, and behold, they were very dry. Only a prophet can prophesy of these bones that veins and flesh will grow on them and skin cover them.”

The reference here to prophecy stands in the closest relationship to another invaluable insight of Hamann, viz., that as we are ever poised between past and future, and as future is making us as much as past is forming us, we are as much implicated in the quality of our prophetic capacities as in our observational ones. Neither our prophetic nor observational capacities are substances. But they are all part of a more general sensorium which informs our understanding, even though we understand very little of how we understand, let alone prophesy, or mediate between past and future.

Our knowledge is indeed in part, and our prophesying in part; united, however, it is a triple cord that is not quickly broken. If one falls, the other will lift up his fellow; if the two lie together, then they have heat. What would all knowledge of the present be without a divine remembrance of the past, and without an even more fortunate intimation of the future, as Socrates owed to his daemon? What would the spirit of observation be without the spirit of prophecy and its guiding threads of the past and future? It rains its gifts on the rebellious also, that the Lord might nonetheless be and dwell among them incognito without their knowledge and will.

And,

Despite the authority of the intellectual universe into presence and absence, I do not pretend that these predicates are anything more than subjective conditions by which no actual duplication of the objects themselves is substantiated, but rather merely a relationship of the diverse views and sides of one and the same thing to the measure of the inward man which corresponds to them, to his negative, variable, finite power which is incapable of any omnipresence because this is the exclusive property of a positive immeasurability.

Likewise, the spirits of observation and of prophecy are expressions of a single positive power which cannot be divorced by their nature but only in thoughts and for the use of thoughts; they in fact mutually presuppose themselves, refer to each other, and have effects in common. Hence when I compared the present with an indivisible point, the duplication of its power and its close connection with the past, as effect, and with the future, as cause, are not at all cancelled.

The enlightened philosophers had indeed put themselves in the role of prophets through their intimation that knowledge in accordance with the philosophical strictures they placed upon it would yield a more benign future. But knowledge is a vast, indeed boundless field, when it comes to trying to identify precisely what will come of what we do. The enlightened philosophers were only as good as the lights by which they operated, and those lights were (to rephrase Pascal) as much of the heart as of the head, the question that Hamann keeps throwing at these philosophers and their philosophers is simply: how much do you really know about the human heart and the human circumstance? Is it really better than the vast compendium of observation across ages, types of people and circumstances, the concatenation of contingencies gathered within the Bible?

Of course, this earlier “knowledge” is not method-dependent, and hence “unenlightened,” but are Spinoza and Descartes, Rousseau and Kant et. al. really more insightful about who and what we are than the biblical authors, or artists such as Homer or Shakespeare? Some do concede they are. But there is no compelling grounds to concede this. Further those who use philosophy to prove the superiority of the philosophical approach to value and existential meaning are only compelling to those who already share their faith in philosophy’s power.

As we saw with the founding of the new metaphysics, it initially takes off by studying nature and reason as such, before moving into ethics, politics, aesthetics etc. But Hume had raised the issue whether the science itself really needed the metaphysics (even though he still drew upon it). For his part Hamann, like Pascal, had the good sense to know that the study of natural science (a subject which he seems to have taken little interest in) was completely irrelevant to the kinds of claims he was making.

On the other hand, he made the critical observation of the Cartesian and post-Cartesian view of nature that is at once the kind of pre-philosophical observation any person sensitive to “nature” could make, and also central to the phenomenological critique of reductive naturalism and its metaphysics. The following collection of citations from Hamann all bring out different features of this insight, and give a sense of how important it is to Hamann:

Only a “bloody-lying philosophy” pretends this is all to nature, and thereby sets nature aside
Nature is an equation of an unknown quantity, like a Hebrew letter without vowel-points. It is a book, a letter, a “fable.” It takes more than physics to exegete her).
The great and small Masoretes of philosophy have poured over the text of nature like a flood. Must not all her beauties and riches be reduced to water?
Is nature a matter of “single, natural points to which everything reduces itself? Does everything consist of mathematical lines?”
Nature groans under such tyranny and longs for the day when it will be free of man’s fallen condition.

Just as Plato had moved from the study of the cobbler to reasoning about how we should live, and the nature of the entire cosmos, the new philosophical idea-ism had quickly moved from the study of “nature” and “mind” to all else beside. But such a move requires ignoring the very different (to use Wittgenstein’s formulation) “rules” of different “language games.”

And it is precisely when we take stock of the unavoidable fact that reasoning, whilst not denying ‘blazes’ of insight, or the mute thereness of all manner of contingencies, nor, even, the importance of silence in reflection, is operating in a world made by and smothered in the calls and behests, the promises and decisions, the education within a “problematic” and field of learning with its historical development, and concatenation of support structures, professional opportunities, that is to say in the vast formative, triggering, incubating and commanding powers of language enmeshed in assigned roles and circumstances, the understanding of which circulates socially.

As Hamann would write: “If I were only as eloquent as Demosthenes, I would need to do no more than repeat one phrase three times: reason is language, Λόγος; this marrowbone I gnaw and will gnaw myself to death over it.”

Hamann’s conviction that reason cannot be divorced from language, and that human life is so bound up with language that one cannot “transcend” it to make any sense of actual lives, and “life-worlds” stands in striking contrast to the idea that the mind “uses” language as a tool is an elementary, albeit widely held belief that is found in philosophy. Whether Hamann followed all the conceptual twists and turns of the first Critique and how they related to Aristotle, Leibniz, and Newton is impossible to gauge from his pithy critique of Kant and comments expressed in letters, but he certainly recognized immediately that Kant had treated reason as if language were not intrinsic to reason or even the world. Commencing with a paraphrase of Kant’s question, he observes:

How is the faculty of thought possible? the faculty to think right and left, before and without, with and beyond experience?—then no deduction is needed to demonstrate the genealogical priority of language, and its heraldry, over the seven holy functions of logical propositions and inferences. Not only is the entire faculty of thought founded on language, according to the unrecognized prophecies and slandered miracles of the very commendable Samuel Heinicke, but language is also the centerpoint of reason’s misunderstanding with itself, partly because of the frequent coincidence of the greatest and the smallest concept, its vacuity and its plenitude in ideal propositions, partly because of the infinite [advantage] of rhetorical over inferential figures, and much more of the same.
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.

That Kant had privileged mathematical physics over the vast expanse of the world “experience,” thereby creating a hiatus between “morality” and “experience,” each with their own transcendental foundations adding support to metaphysical principles, whilst also making the faculty of (aesthetic and teleological) judgment a mediator between two worlds, is completely in keeping with the Cartesian break with experience as historical. Thus, conceptualisation of experiences in Kant, governed by the understanding in conjunction with its intuited representations, draws upon a mental disposition to reality, which has nothing to do with the actual social processes involved in the demarcation of different spaces of investigation, role reciprocation, and the great amalgam of activities and other dispositions (mental as well as physical and social) where tradition and language reinforce each other. But it is precisely these kinds of convergences that Hamann notices. Thus, in his Essay on an Academic Question, (published under the pseudonym Aristobulus) Hamann writes:

The lineaments of a people’s language will therefore correspond with the orientation of its mode of thinking, which is revealed through the nature, form, laws, and customs of its speech as well as through its external culture and through a spectacle of public actions.

It is through speech that we take notice, that we form not just groups, but communities beholden to publicly declared commitments and associations, thereby leaving the eternal present of mutability or more elemental languages of mere animality, and move between past and future, as generations may “feed off” the discoveries and legacies, as well as errors of the past. “Speak that I may see you!—This wish was fulfilled by creation, which is a speech to creatures through creatures; for day unto day utters speech, and night unto night shows knowledge.”

But, for Hamann, speech does not thereby elevate us to the all-seeing position of a Zeus, or deist’s philosophical God, which the philosopher would love to reach, and which may free us from error. On the contrary,

To speak is to translate—from an angelic language into a human language, that is, to translate thoughts into words—things into names—images into signs, which can be poetic or curiological, historic or symbolic or hieroglyphic—and philosophical or characteristic. This kind of translation (that is, speech) resembles more than anything else the wrong side of a tapestry:
And shews the Stuff, but not the Workman’s skill, or it can be compared with an eclipse of the sun, which can be looked at in a vessel of water.

Or, as Paul put it, we experience the world as through a glass darkly. And while our senses do indeed convey information to us, it is our galvanization of collective and collaborated experiences that enables us to make sense of our senses. Thinking that reason somehow provides the all-knowing vantage point, makes no sense at all to Hamann, because reason can only work with the materials at its disposal, and apart from sensation it is primarily language. Thus, he writes to Jacobi:

With me it is not so much the question: What is reason? but rather: what is language! And I take this to be the basis of all paralogisms and antinomies which it is customary to lay at the doorstep of the former [the reason]. Thus, it happens that one takes words for concepts, and concepts for things themselves. In words and concepts no existence is possible which applies simply to things and matters of fact.

Language is simultaneously the storehouse, retriever of all past knowledge and past experience, as well as what activates so many of our moods and aspirations for the future—it speaks from and of the inner as well as the outer. We did not make language any more than we made our hands or feet or heads. Yet, at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, we are making and remaking it all the time, just as it is making and remaking us. It is the source of our reason as much as the source of the abuse of reason, and much else. But it is also miraculously bestowed, rather than willed, and it grows and activates far beyond any limits of intention. It is alive with spirit. The divine word and the Holy Spirit are, for Hamann, both intrinsic to the faith that is deeply experiential and antithetical to a more abstract way of thinking based-on separating our participation in life from life as objectified.

Hamann had seen and amply demonstrated that the seam of biblical speech fitted the very condition that anything real has: potency. And the reality of something is its truth. Plato had conceded that even as he attempted to bifurcate reality into the higher and lower, the idea and that which participates within it. As did Aristotle, who distanced himself from this dualism of Plato, as he tried to conjoin the aspects of what made the real in such a way that it would remain within the province of philosophy. This required designating what was substance and what mere accident so that we could compare and inquire into substances.

But both Plato and Aristotle elevate the mind and definition in tandem with the idea and substance. The proof, though, of a process resides neither in our understanding nor defining—again that is what Hamann knew and appealed to. Of course, there are philosophers in moral philosophy who follow some variant of Kant’s dualism in which the truth of a principle is in its rational grounding—the world and all in it hence must be shrunken in order to conform to an overarching morally rational principle. Which only serves to show exactly what Hamann knew—that a madman is not to be divorced from the contingency he loves by the demonstration of his madness. He or she must be won over by loving another contingency.

Hamann plays the madman because he thinks we are all a little mad, and the maddest are those who believe in their own purity and rational certainty; they have found the perfect means of convincing themselves that the unreal is real. Contingency, though, including the contingency of our feelings, memories, “prejudices,” schooling, allegiances etc. are enmeshed in our convictions and willingness to change our minds.

Hamann grasped that the way the world is spoken of becomes the way the world is: this speaking is through commands and decisions, oaths and affirmations, loyalties and obligation, the creation of masters and protectors and commanders. When the heart goes bad, it may still, indeed, in some cases only then open itself enough to be saved, which is a Jewish and Christian idea; but to believe that the heart might be able to escape sin, that it will not mess-up, is a philosopher’s moral fantasy, that rests upon principles and ideas being substitutes for who we really are, what we do and what we believe, and what tempts us and what saves us.

The Enlightenment with all its hope has been one current in the formation of a modern world that for many is experienced as a hopeless, loveless, isolating, selfish enterprise. Just as language is the clue to our world making, to how we beckon and call, describe, and evoke, draw others into social projects whether to hold a meeting, build a bridge, follow a career, go to war, make a law, buy a product and engage in any number of actions, the poor use of language is also responsible for all manner of errors and seductions. It is not that we think without language, but the language we think with may not be its best usage.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment elevated the mind, but generally either ignored or objectified language as in the study of linguistics. This is because it puts demands upon the world to be represented in sufficient clarity and distinctness that we know what things really are, as opposed to what we merely think and say they are. Mystery dissolves under the glare of enlightenment. And the danger of the idea of enlightenment itself was that it tore us out of the traditional gatherings and collective experiences and the sediments of that gathering in language and promised redemption through abstraction.

To be sure, the radical nature of the search for light had taken on such momentum because of the scale of carnage of the religious wars and Thirty Years War, as well as the new pathways of life that accompanied the Reformation, and the new modalities of social power which required political articulation. While, then, the Enlightenment was itself a reaction to, and symptom of a tradition in crisis, the fact was that Hamann could also see a catastrophe of enormous magnitude incubating in the solution, which is why he sought to temper the philosophical abstractions that were carving out a new future with the more figurative traditional spiritual stock and forces of Christian culture.

Hamann’s friend and admirer Herder would attempt to bring those “forces” of culture back into philosophy. In this respect he more than Hamann continues in the vein of Vico.


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured image shows, “The Cult of Reason being celebrated at the Notre Dame, Paris,” anonymous engraving, 1793.

Philosophical Anthropology. Part 3: Why Herder Matters

1. Herder And Philosophical Anthropology

Like Hamann, Johann Gottfried von Herder has remained a peripheral figure in the history of philosophy, often (and irrespective of the mounting number of books and articles demonstrating the folly of this oversimplification) wrongly caricatured as an irrationalist, nationalist and relativist. As with Hamann he does not fit the more common arc of the history of philosophy that moves from Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and Leibniz to Hume and Kant, through Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.

Although, due to Herder’s Spinozian organicism (and its fusion with Leibniz and Shaftesbury), and his metaphysical arguments for the centrality of attractive and repellent forces, the claim that there is a point of “indifference,” that nature is an organic whole of gradations, along with his preoccupation with the spirit of peoples, many of his ideas (though to be sure thrown-off and applied rather than systematically developed) are firmly imprinted in Schelling and Hegel.

Nevertheless, Herder’s approach is so contrary to systemic closure that his absence in Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy should not be surprising: for ultimately philosophy in Herder is so closely allied with the vast expanse of human sensibility and knowledge more generally that it makes it difficult for philosophers to know exactly what to do with him. Thus, it was that Kant, Herder’s former teacher, in his first review of Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, chastised him like a schoolboy for his lack of philosophical rigour: “Our resourceful author should curb his lively genius somewhat, and that philosophy, which is more concerned with pruning luxuriant growths than with propagating them, should guide him towards the completion of his enterprise.”

For his part, when Herder was his student he had been deeply impressed by Kant, and had even read a poem of his in class lauding his teaching. But, Kant’s critical philosophy was symptomatic of the depth of division between their respective philosophies. Whether in the analytic or the continental and poststructuralist tradition, Herder has remained largely out of sight and mind. It is true that Heidegger did give a graduate seminar on Herder’s work, On the Origin of Language, in 1939 which has now been published and translated as, On the Essence of Language: Concerning Herder’s Treatise On the Origin of Language—but this treatise is not only a mere slither of Herder’s corpus, it represents a position Herder later came to see (largely due to Hamann giving him a blast) as mistaken.

If it is Kant and his successors rather than Herder that has been incorporated into the larger body of philosophy, Herder was, nevertheless not only a decisive figure in the formation of the golden age of German letters, commencing but moving far beyond Sturm und Drang, but also a major influence in nineteenth century movements outside of Germany such as Emerson’s Transcendentalism, English romanticism, the Oxford movement, the pre-Raphaelites, and figures, such as, Ruskin and Carlyle.

Within Germany, there was hardly any contemporary cultural figure Herder did not engage with personally—Lessing, Klopstock, Winckelmann, Jacobi, Lavater, Mendelssohn, von Haller, Schiller, Abbt, Nicolai, Lenz, Wieland, Merck, Gleim—a “who’s who” of German letters of the time. He was Goethe’s greatest educator. And after Goethe had broken with him—due to Herder’s intolerable rudeness toward him—Jean Paul would make himself his “student.”

Likewise, there is no subject that did not interest him. In every way, he defied conforming to a type. He was an inspiring pastor, rather than a university professor; an inspirer of poets, translator and literary critic, rather than a poet (he wrote many poems, but they are not what make him important); a philosopher generally unacceptable to other philosophers; the author of a philosophical anthropological history, rather than a historian as such; a Christian and a Spinozist (and hence too a major figure, along with Goethe, in the Romantic rendering of Spinoza); a disciple of Hamann who, nevertheless, does not share Hamann’s hostility to metaphysics; a lover not only of Hebrews and Winckelmann’s Greece, but of all human cultural achievement. Few had read so widely and deeply about the various “spirits” of the ages and across the globe, or indeed, as his Adrastea illustrates, European political history and genres of expression of the eighteenth century.

I should also mention that there has always been a current of interest in Herder in the English speaking world, beginning in 1800 with what remains the only complete translation of Herder’s Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit by T. Churchill (translated as Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man).

By far the most comprehensive and detailed examination of Herder’s life and thought in English is Robert Clark Jr’s extremely thorough Herder: His Life and Thought. It is also the case that work on Herder is now more intense than ever, and with such landmark studies as the recent edited collections by Hans Adler and Wulf Koepke, Companion to the Works of Johann Gottfried Herder, and, Anik Waldow and Nigel De Souzas’s Herder: Philosophy and Anthropology (also an edited collection); as well as a number of quality works by F. M. Barnard, Michael Forster, John Zammito, Sonia Sikka, Vicki Spencer and others, Herder’s intellectual importance no longer need be a forgotten secret.

Yet the fact remains that Herder is still something of a minor philosophical figure in a time when the appetite for German eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophy has never been greater. Perhaps nothing is more indicative of this state of affairs than the fact that while there is now a reasonable selection of his works available in English, such major works as his Letters on the Advancement of Humanity (with the exception of some letters), his two large and important critiques of Kant: Understanding and Experience: A Metacritique of the Critique of Pure Reason, and Kalligone, his critique of Kant’s Critique of Judgement, as well as his encyclopedic Adrastea have not been translated. Though there is a reasonable amount of German secondary literature on Herder’s writings on Kant, his critique of Kant remains largely ignored in the English-speaking world, and most of the German material tends to side with Kant. More’s the pity, for Herder rightly saw that the Kantian legacy is one in which people who do not know or feel enough (aesthetics) are all ready to pass judgment as if they were reason incarnate.

If, we are looking for the key to what holds Herder’s work together, there is much merit in Nigel DeSouza’s claim that “Herder’s thought as a whole is best seen through the lens of the term ‘anthropology:’ all his writings on literature, the arts, history, language, religion and education have at their center the aim of understanding human beings.” Herder himself writes that: “Philosophy is drawn back to Anthropology.” Nevinson’s observation, which defines Herder via negation, is no less astute: “Herder was neither a priest, nor a poet, nor a philosopher.”

Herder’s genius is the genius of intellectual openness, and insatiable interest. He has the same spirit of endless humane curiosity that makes Herodotus the world’s first historian and anthropologist—though Herder took inspiration from almost everyone and everything he read, even if he could be a savage polemicist. Indeed, when it came to philosophical inspiration for his ideas, he was an enormous sponge soaking up—and refashioning for his own purposes—all manner of contradictory intellectual influences, which he combined into a philosophy which was uniquely his. Thus, along with Hamann, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Shaftesbury, he incorporates the pre-critical Kant, Rousseau, Bacon, Vico, Montesquieu, Thomas Abbt, Locke, Newton, Baumgarten, Plato, and pretty much everything else he could get his hands on.

Ultimately it is the integration of philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, religion, natural science and the recognition of humanity as culturally constituted, and culture itself as temporal (cultures are born, live and die) as well as spatial habitats that makes Herder our contemporary. Paradoxically, in spite of falling far behind Kant or Hegel in terms of direct philosophical influence, he is more our contemporary than either of them. For while their genius is indisputable, each come to grief through the limits of making what they know dominate their respective systems.

While Kant has the advantage over Hegel of making systemicity a heuristic rather than Absolute, in the overall scheme this matters little—for Kant’s philosophical inquiry is based upon the fabrications that have already been philosophically prepared for it, i.e. the transcendental conditions, and accompanying cognitive sources Kant believes he has been the first to successfully isolate within the greater orb of reason, while Herder consistently held that the mind and soul cannot be divorced from the gamut of physiological forces which provide its great “sea of inflowing sensuality which stirs the soul, which supplies it with material.” Hence contra the lineage that links Descartes with Kant: “One will never get deeply to the bottom of these forces if one merely treats them superficially as ideas that dwell in the soul, or, worse still, separates them from one another as walled compartments and considers them individually in independence.”

The Newtonian base-line of the first Critique, when taken in conjunction with the account Kant provides, and the orientation required to build up our concepts so that they match our intuitions, serves for what is ultimately a very narrow funnel for a more enlightened understanding of the world, and the kind of knowledge we have of it. The epistemological foundation, and underlying ontology, of theoretical knowledge is theoretical physics, hence the touchstone of human knowledge is supplied by the disposition of the inquirer, whose own participation in reality, is also “theoretically” limited to that of observer and crafter of models for testing and confirming the laws of nature.

Of course, this is then subordinated to the moral aspirations and ideas of the rationally moral “free” subject. The Critique of Judgment belatedly comes to rescue the subject from the isolation of moral freedom, by conceding that the sensory side of the subject may be awakened to what is beautiful and sublime, and be permitted to deploy a heuristic for the purposes of identifying ends within natural processes, and a moral purpose within history. Hamann, Herder, Schelling, Hegel all react to Kant’s compartmentalizations and the transcendental “funnels” of the self’s mental activities as simultaneously failing to provide anything more than a mental spectre of the unity we experience in action, as well as the vast body of knowledge—including the scientific knowledge of nature that falls outside Newtonianism or biology—that refuses to be funneled into Kant’s compartments.

Hegel is closer to both Hamann and Herder in simultaneously valorising the underlying unity we provide for our imaginings, knowledge and experiences whilst rejecting the fissures Kant requires to ensure claims be allocated to the compartments philosophy has created. Nevertheless, whereas Hegel’s Absolute requires perfect knowledge at every movement of its dialectical development (even if, to save him from himself, Hegelians avoid this or purport, in spite of all Hegel’s claims to the contrary, that this is not the case), Herder’s philosophy is developmental and dialogical, provisional rather than complete, an aspiration for further conversableness.

Schelling’s anti-Hegelian combination of the contingency of being, and the irruptiveness of freedom is closer to Herder, but, unlike Herder, his philosophical labour is so tightly aligned with his metaphysical conundrums and explorations that one is interminably drawn back into the cosmic inwards of his system. That is, whether Schelling is exploring nature, the arts, mythology or revelation, the demonstration of his system with its key principles shapes the directions and developments of his corpus.

Again, Herder is not sufficiently beholden to philosophy for such a conceit: although there are recurrent philosophical decisions and metaphysical ideas that drive his work—such as organic relationships, providence, force, sensation, physiology, language—he assembles philosophical positions to enhance the “understanding” of the material under observation so that the different groupings best be compared and learnt from. The primary purpose is always to make our inquiries contribute to a better understanding of the world and the cultures and peoples who constitute it.

Far from being inconsistent with his opposition to system-building, this is all part of a programmatic undertaking for philosophy, rather than the marshalling of evidence to confirm the principles of exploration as such. That Hamann could respect and intellectually support Herder in spite of sharing none of his metaphysical speculations is indicative of the intellectual openness of his philosophical deployments. (Hamann commented that Herder’s God, Some Conversations was a “Schuhu, a great horned owl that had better creep away and hide itself in the dark.”
While Nietzsche emphasises that truth is grounded in perspectivism, Herder can be seen as something (but only something) of a kindred spirit in opposition to abstractions that simply ride over the social, historical and cultural (“spirited”) habitats which supply people with their understanding and ideas about life and what has value.

But Herder wants to take to the open seas to “gather” as many perspectives as humanly possible. Nietzsche also uses the metaphor of open seas—but outside of his beloved Greeks, and the rather slim pickings he takes from European history and elsewhere, as in his appeal to the Book of Manu, Nietzsche’s dreams of supermen and higher men, alongside his divide between master and slave morality leaves him little need to leave his (and Zarathustra’s) mountains.

Nietzsche, in spite of his opposition to Platonisms of all sorts represents the terrible tendency of idea-ism—which, connects him with Marx, and the 68 generation, viz., intellectual self-satisfaction with the very little knowledge one actually has, and complete self-assurance that this knowledge of the world and people suffices for dictating a future that the people of the world need to make a better world. For his part, Herder could never know enough. The ambition and the urge, confirmed by the sheer depth and breadth of the subject matters of his corpus, is expressed with youthful exuberance in his Travel Diary of 1769 where he writes of the thrill of travelling (in mind as well as body), whilst contrasting the world and all its inexhaustible richness with the situation of the everyday life of the scholar.

On land one is chained to a fixed spot, and restricted to the narrow limit of a situation. Often the point is the student’s chair in a musty study, a place at a monotonous boarding-house table, a pulpit, a lectern. And the situation is often a small town, where one is an idol of an audience of three, to whom alone one pays attention, and a monotony of occupation in which one is jostled alike by conventionality and presumption. How petty and restricted do life, honor, esteem, desire, fears, hate, aversion, love, friendship, delight in learning, professional duties and inclination become in such circumstances; how narrow and cramped the whole spirit in the end!

The Diary itself is a great sea of ambition and enthusiasm, a life-long project requiring him to know all he can, to answer the countless questions he raises about—pretty-well everything. At one point he exclaims:

What a work on the human species! The human spirit! The culture of the earth! Of all spaces! times! Peoples (Völker)! forces! mixtures! forms! Asiatic religion! And chronology and policing (Polizei) and philosophy! Egyptian art and Philosophy and policing! Phoenician arithmetic and languages and luxury! Everything Greek! Everything Roman! Nordic religion, law, customs, war. Honour! Papal time, monks, learning, North-Nordic-Asiatic crusaders, pilgrims, knights! Christian heathen awakening of learning! France! English, Dutch, German form! -Chinese, Japanese politics! Natural science of a new world! American customs etc.—Great theme: the human race will not pass until it is all done! Until the genius of luminosity is traversed! Universal history of the world!

A no less ambitious account appears in the same work:

Let my first prospect be the study of the human soul, in itself and in its manifestations on this earth; its strains and stresses, its hopes and satisfactions, its influence on a man’s character and on his conception of duties; in short let me discover the springs of human happiness. Everything else is to be set aside whilst I am engaged in gathering materials for this task and in learning to know, arouse, control and use every motive force in the human heart, from fear and wonder to quiet meditation and gentle day dreaming. For this purpose, I will collect data from the history of all ages: each shall yield to me the pictures of its own customs. Usages, virtues and vices, and its own conception of happiness; and I will trace them all down to the present and so learn to use them rightly. In every age—though each in a different way—the human race has happiness as its objective; we in our own times are misled if, like Rousseau, we extol ages which no longer exist and never did exist, if we make ourselves miserable by painting romantic pictures of these ages to the disparagement of our own instead of finding enjoyment in the present.

The critical reference to Rousseau, the warning against extolling ages “which no longer exist and never did exist,” and the dangers of idealizing other peoples and ages for the purpose of criticising one’s own nation and age is indicative of Herder’s desire for a well-informed understanding of what humanity has actually achieved in its diverse ways of world-making, in the context of its material, physical, social, and historical conditions. Herder realized that he was laying out a research project rather than providing anything like a final reckoning. Thus, in the Preface to what (among many contenders) is probably his magnum opus, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man he writes:

He who wrote it, was a man, and thou who reads it, art a man also. He was liable to error, and has probably erred: thou hast acquired knowledge, which he did not and could not possess; use, therefore, what thou canst, accept his good will, and throw it not aside with reproach, but improve it, and carry it higher. With feeble hand he has laid a few foundation stones of a building which will require ages to finish: happy, if when these stones may be covered with earth, and he who laid them forgotten, the more beautiful edifice be but erected over them, or on some other spot!He who wrote it, was a man, and thou who reads it, art a man also. He was liable to error, and has probably erred: thou hast acquired knowledge, which he did not and could not possess; use, therefore, what thou canst, accept his good will, and throw it not aside with reproach, but improve it, and carry it higher. With feeble hand he has laid a few foundation stones of a building which will require ages to finish: happy, if when these stones may be covered with earth, and he who laid them forgotten, the more beautiful edifice be but erected over them, or on some other spot!

In the penultimate paragraph of the Preface, he will even refer to the book as his “infantile attempt.” To be sure, his hope that such a building might be completed “before the end of the chiliad, if not in the present century” reflects a providential view where our participations might somehow form a whole to be completed, thus underestimating the importance of the ever-changing temporalities intrinsic to the dialectical relationship between who is exploring and what is being explored. But ultimately, it is Herder’s opening of the vista of ideas, and his provision of an opening for doing philosophy, rather than the prospect of any closure that makes him so important. Although he displays little interest in the technological side of Bacons’ programme), he esteems Bacon for his emphasis upon the empirical study of the natural world around him.

Thus, the opening chapters of Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, commencing with the chapter “Our Earth is a Star among Stars,” are intended to supply the most up to date relevant scientific details of what we know about the natural conditions which give rise to life, and its organic forms, on earth before he focuses more upon “man” and his powers and habitat. Like Vico, Herder’s project requires listening to peoples of the past, to learn from them how they have gone about their “business.” And like Hamann he appreciates the centrality of language, and tradition. But it also requires a conversation between traditions in the context of them becoming contemporaries in a new world.

Further, Herder is driven both by a desire to understand as well as educate so that we may better appreciate the vastness of human experience, especially human achievements across ages, peoples and “nations” and cultures. In this respect he is dedicated to the project of moral and political advancement for the purpose of creating more peaceful conditions, and a richer deployment of the powers of the human spirit. But he is ever cautious of the dangers of adopting the higher moral ground for instructing those whose material and spiritual habitats have thrown up very different circumstances, problems, as well spiritual resources for dealing with their situations. Different habitats have required, and frequently still require very different responses from those appropriate for our “life-world.” The danger with abstraction, in part at least, lies in the failure to adequately appreciate the different constituent conditions which need to be understood if we are to understand what we are talking about, or what is a requisite of any “talking with.”

While empirical material is of the essence, Herder does see philosophy as an important means for improving our judgment in order to have a better (a clearer and more distinct) comprehension of what we are dealing with. Philosophy’s role is largely to assist in the organising of the material. Thus, in the Fourth Grove of his Critical Forests, he says:

The essence of philosophy is to entice forth, so to speak, ideas that lie within us, to illuminate into distinctness the truths that we knew only obscurely, to develop proofs that we did not grasp clearly in all their intermediary steps. All this requires judgments and inferences, judgments that start from the comparison of two ideas and are developed through a series of inferences until the relation of these ideas to each other becomes evident. Herein lies the essence and formative power of all philosophy: that through it I can see manifestly, certainly truths I did not see before at all, or at least not as clearly, not as distinctly; that through it I can form judgments of taste with a certainty and distinguish beauties in a light in which they had not appeared to me before; that through it I can view the origin, form, and consequences of the essence of good and evil in a manner that I simply had not glimpsed before. Such is the plastic power of philosophy.

Closely related to this role for philosophy is a view of ideas that is very close to Leibniz’s emphasis upon perception being a continuum in which clearer ideas are rooted in more obscure ideas and perceptions which are, nevertheless, in spite of their obscurity formative of the mind. In the Fifth Collection of his Letters on the Advancement of Humanity, number 61, what he writes of Leibniz well applies to himself: “There is nothing I admire more in this great, impartial soul, who his whole life joyfully adopted everything which served any part of science.” For all of his deep debt to Leibniz, though, which includes him not depriving sensation of intellection at its elemental levels, and his appreciation of Leibniz’s ability to always look for the best in a position, there is none of Leibniz’s logicism. Likewise, he refrains from accepting the idea that monads are completely self-contained and windowless.

But, as in Leibniz, the sharpness of distinction between reason and feeling is blurred for Herder. For a feeling has its reasons. This does not mean that Herder makes feeling everything, but it is allied with the importance he ascribes to aesthetics in intellectual development, and also it is indicative of an important difference between him and Kant on the matter of representations. Kant’s critical philosophy works in close conjunction with the problem of the fit between a “model” of the sort that is required for investigations in physics and brings together mathematics and the isolation of variables. From Herder’s perspective such a belated process of intellection cannot be taken as providing a clue to the ground of experience. Thus, in the same work, Herder writes:

The whole ground of our soul consists of obscure ideas, the most vivid and most numerous ideas, the throng from which the soul prepares its more refined ones; these obscure ideas are the most powerful mainsprings of our life, make the greatest contribution to our happiness and unhappiness. If we imagine the integral parts of the human soul in physical terms, it possesses, if I may be permitted to express myself in this way, a greater mass of powers specific to a sensuous being than to a pure spirit: the soul has therefore been endowed with a human body; it is a human being. As a human being it has developed, in accordance with its mass of internal powers and within the bounds of its existence, a number of organs with which to perceive surrounding objects and, as it were, to intromit (sic) them for its own enjoyment. Even the number of these organs and the vast wealth of impressions flowing into them demonstrate, as it were, how great the mass of the sensuous is within the human soul.

Philosophy, then serves, primarily as a means of sifting and clarifying for better comparison the material contingencies and hence also values that accompany the different experiences that form different persons and peoples. Different regions, and this is true for different ages, are enmeshed in different sensoria:

The sensibility of human nature is not exactly identical in every region of the earth. A different tissue into which the strings of sensation are woven; a different world of objects and sounds that initially rouse one dormant string or another by setting it in motion; different powers that tune one string or another to a different pitch, thereby setting its tone forever, so to speak—in short, there is a quite different arrangement of our faculty of perception, and yet it still lies in the hands of Nature.

The temptation of philosophy is to take short-cuts by laying down principles or finding general concepts—against which Herder says, “I cannot lay down rules; my aim is to present a history of individual experiences”—into which to pour what Kant calls a “manifold.” But, for Herder, by this very act philosophy ceases to be an assistant in the great labour of better understanding. Thus, he urges:

Let the man, who is proud of his reason, contemplate the theatre of his fellow beings throughout the wide world, or listen to their many-toned dissonant history the way of man resembles a labyrinth, abounding on all sides with divergent passages, while but few footsteps lead to the innermost chamber.

Concomitantly, just as Vico had criticized the tendency for philosophers to read history as if early peoples were opaquely expressing the ideas of later-day philosophers, Herder requires of philosophers that they go beyond their own systems and principles in order to recover what they have yet to learn. Although Herder played an important role in reviving Spinoza on account of his provision of an organic and dynamic view of life’s intrinsic unity, he also criticises the fact Spinoza has “only a metaphysical sense of the poetry of the Prophets; and in the whole composition of his works, he is a solitary thinker, to whom the graces of the social world and an ingratiating manner are entirely unknown.”

The problem of Spinoza and enlightened philosophers, including Kant, who undertake to identify and lay down general ethical or moral ideas in detail is their mistaken belief that the more abstract and general ideas are sufficient for providing guidance to the living. Thus, the philosopher is in danger of becoming a “know-all” about the good, true and the beautiful, instead of a contributor to a deeper fathoming of what they actually entail. And, as we have said repeatedly, what they entail must not be closed off by a decision that delimits them from the outset. Their content can only be discovered by the undertaking a “journey” of the human spirits and the multitude of achievements of those spirits.

2. The Importance Of Herder’s Metacritique Of Kant

Herder’s two critiques of Kant are his two most detailed cases pitting the idea of philosophy as a “journey” in opposition to the kind of philosophy that is “fixed and restricted to the narrow limit of a situation.”

Since the deafening silence that greeted the publication of the Metacritique (there was support from others on the philosophical margins such as Wieland, Gleim, and Knebel), and Goethe’s expression that he wished Herder had never published his Metacritique (Clark even makes the ridiculous suggestion, given its length and elaborate details, that he probably did not even read it), there has been no shortage of commentators lining up to “tut-tut” over Herder’s critiques of Kant, including, a Herder scholar of great merit, Michael Foster, who calls them, “an angry and irresponsible attack on Kant.” Such a dismissal does no justice to the character, nature, depth, or significance of Herder’s criticisms of Kant. Even more silly is the claim, made when it first appeared, that the two volume Metacritique merely plagiarises Hamann’s Metacritique (a work, though delivering a surgical strike, runs to less than twenty pages).

Herder wrestles seriously and at length with both the first and third Critiques, and he does so because he detects that Kantianism has been as influential as it has been damaging to philosophy, and not only to philosophy, but to the culture, particularly the younger generation. In the Preface to the Metacritique he writes:

The critical philosophy has played its role for twelve years, and we see its fruits. Which father (they all ask themselves) wishes that his son would become an autonomous critical type, a metaphysicus of nature and virtue, a dialectical or even a revolution rabble rouser, in accordance with a critical blow? Now look around and read. Which recent book, which science is not more or less covered with the stains of this sort, and how many noble talents (we hope, only for a while) destroyed?….
A person who would deform a nation’s language through artifice (verkünstelt), (how cleverly it is done) has corrupted and spoiled the tool of its reason; a great many young people have had their noblest organ mutilated, and the understanding itself, whose field can never close out speculative inquiry, misled. Could we have a greater duty and gift, than the free heartfelt use of our understanding?

The same concerns are also a primary motivation for writing the Kalligone where he speaks of how he has seen “so many, many youth corrupted by the Critique,” and he criticizes “the ignorant, arrogant, and insolent,” who take on academic positions, while they “should still be learning.” They pontificate upon what they neither have “the concepts,” nor “knowledge,” to understand. “The time will come,” he warns, “when the nation itself is ashamed of every ignorant, indecent, random criticism of a shame inflicted on her.”

If the Kalligone is often polemical, that is largely because Herder had spent a lifetime thinking about art and its social and historical significance, and hence the work is replete with examples from different genres, while Kant’s aesthetics proceeds with little attention to actual aesthetic works. What Herder finds particularly galling is that Kant treats human creativity as if it were of far less consequence than the philosophical dictates concerning aesthetic value and meaning. Indeed, Herder is repulsed by Kant laying down an aesthetic without thinking he needs to explore the vast array of aesthetic creations which have played such an important part in the cultural formations of peoples.

Further, whereas Herder attempts to think how all kinds of knowledge are gathered and connected through the physiological apertures of our being, and the capacities of expression available to us, and thus how aesthetics is an essential part of what defines us as human, Kant’s third Critique was an “after-thought,” predicated upon the belated recognition of a gap in the critical system.

Thus, in the first Critique there was not a hint that art was even on Kant’s “radar” as important for answering what he referred to as “all the interests of my reason, speculative as practical,” which he says, “combine in the three following questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? What may I hope?” Kant continues by “flattering” himself that he has “exhausted all the possible answers” to the first question, “which is merely speculative.” It was only belatedly that Kant realized that there needed to be some bridge between freedom (practical reason) and necessity (“experience”), which sent him back into the cognitive sources and kinds of judgments—in this case, aesthetic and teleological judgments—which provide clues to claims about beauty, sublimity, self-regulatory systems (biology), and a sense of historical moral improvement.

A core component of Herder’s critique of Kant, in both the Kalligone and Metacritique, is his frustration at Kant’s philosophy failing to adequately incorporate the developmental and conditional—specifically social, historical and cultural—of science, morals and aesthetics because of the apparatus it sets to work with.

In the Metacritique, Herder also does not accept, for a moment, the very restricted view of the sciences that comes from the net Kant weaves with Euclid, Aristotle and Newton. Although Kant “experts” tend to spend their labours nuancing the intricacies of Kant’s moves and choices, the most egregious error of the first Critique emerges from the very thing that makes it such a water-tight accomplishment; the alignment of what Kant sees as the three foundational sciences of space and time (Euclid, and the foundations of mathematics in the number line), of rational thought (Aristotle), and of the physical world (Newton).

But no matter how great a philosophical attempt one may think the critical philosophy was, it was an all-or-nothing philosophy. For if these foundational sciences are just further steps along the way to a greater understanding, how can they then serve as foundations robust enough to provide the clues to the elements of cognition for the framing of nature’s law-governed structure?

Developments in spatial/geometric understanding, logic itself, and eventually even within physics were the developments that were far more destructive to the critical philosophy than any of the idealist critiques that were made by Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. For while the post-Kantian idealist philosophers, whether fairly or not, could all be accused of metaphysical regression, once the bulwarks of the transcendental philosophy were shown to be less than implacable, the very basis of the problem as well as the clues to the solution had also collapsed.

Now, while Herder does not put the case as bluntly as I have just done, this needs to be born in mind when assessing Herder’s Metacritique, which is, as we shall see below, very much driven by a much more developmental understanding of knowledge so that he finds the very idea of “pure reason” to be a mistaken enterprise, and the mistakes of that enterprise lie at the very foundations of Kant’s problem and ricochet through the answers it provides, which in turn generate in Kant further problems and answers.

Just as in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein breaks open the kind of logical atomism which he once “perfected” by tackling the most basic assumptions which allow it to take off, Herder’s Metacritique refuses to concede the adequacy of the nomenclature for a philosophical enterprise as all-encompassing as Kant proposes his to be. That challenge stands in the closest relationship to his emphasis upon what he sees—and what Hamann also sees—as a false dualism between thought and language, a dualism which is ensconced by Kant’s dividing representations (Vorstellungen) into intuitions and concepts, with intuitions being mute, as they await to be “understood” by means of our concepts. By his invocation of Vorstellungnen as the primary genus which then requires further subdivision, Kant has already mentalized, and thereby invoked a kind of understanding of experience that simply confirms the dualism that he commences with.

By contrast, Herder finds it meaningless to talk in this way about experience as such—what does it mean, he asks, to “intuit” “a tone, a smell, taste, feeling?” Instead of the term Anschauung (which Kant deploys in a manner that draws upon an incipient dualist metaphysics), Herder argues that we would do better to use the more accurate, and less metaphysically and “mentalized” weighted term, Inne-werden (“an awareness” of something). Mentalization without regard to how language dictates our organizations is for Herder an error—one he believes (with more than a little generosity) neither Leibniz, nor Locke committed, both of whom he cites on language.

For Herder, when we are talking of ideas, we are always referring to names of things, names come from the fact that objects are intrinsically meaningful because of the capacity of people to recognize common generalities within differences. In his Ideas of a Philosophy of Mankind, he makes the point in such a way that we can see immediately how his argument also differs so fundamentally from Kant’s asocial atomistic approach and the metaphysical quandaries that are generated out of the approach. Likewise, we see how Herder has pitched the nature of knowledge in such a way that it bypasses the kind of metaphysics that Kant grapples with:

No language expresses things, but names: accordingly, no human reason perceives things, but only marks of them, which it depicts by words. This is an humiliating observation, which gives the whole history of our intellect (sic) narrow limits, and a very insubstantial form. All our science of metaphysics is properly metaphysics, that is an abstracted systematic index of names following observations of experience. As a method, and an index, it may be very useful, and must guide our artificial understanding to a certain degree in all other sciences: but considered in itself, and according to the nature of things, it affords not a single perfect and essential idea, not a single intrinsic truth. All our science reckons with abstracted, individual, extrinsic characters, which reach not the interior of the existence of any one thing, as we have no organ to perceive or express it. We know not, and can never learn to know, any power in its essence: for even that, which animates us, and thinks in us, we feel and enjoy it is true, but we do not know. Thus, we understand no connexion between cause and effect, because we can see into the interior neither of what acts, nor of what is produced, and have absolutely no idea of the entity of a thing. Thus, our poor reason is nothing more than a figuring arithmetician, as its name in many languages implies.

As we can see, then, for Herder, to commence with metaphysics, as if it were the condition of the sciences, rather than a concatenation of ideas and names that has emerged in conjunction with experience and with the sciences, is to proceed in a fundamentally wrong-headed manner. A point which, for Herder, is confirmed by the fact that knowledge is built out of historical experience. Closely related to this is Herder’s fundamental disagreement with the way questions of the soul in Kant are transported beyond any social, historical or anthropological content onto the plane of pure reason.

In Kant, we recall, the ideas of God, and the soul are the products of a transcendental dialectic, reason taking categories, whose sole legitimate function is for the understanding of experience, and treating them as substances. That is, Kant’s treatment of God and the soul is a purely rational one, which is why his transcendental critique is ipso facto a critique of rationalist metaphysics. Nevertheless, for all its elaborateness, Kant’s critique of rationalist metaphysics is simply a reformulation of the enlightenment critique of the feverish imagination, except now it is reason that has literally taken leave of its senses—or more precisely taken the understanding’s categories out of their legitimate deployment.

Herder, although open enough to seek common ground with deism—as he does in his defense of Spinoza in God, Some Conversations—ultimately does not see God as a rational answer to a rational problem, but as an anthropologically invoked power, a power which is part of a community’s sense of itself and its world. If we want to understand God or the soul in the sense that Herder does, we need to understand the meanings that people have ascribed over time and in their respective locations to these names. God and soul are not metaphysical objects—at least in the sense Kant uses the term—but words that circulate in a community’s doings.

From Herder’s perspective, then, we can understand why different peoples have different gods, and we can then track how the different communal commitments to the powers they serve help form a collective history and identity (a culture) over time; with Kant all we can say is that people have been deluded by a transcendental dialectic, and their different delusions (cultures) count for little in the greater scheme of achieving knowledge and freedom.

All of the above is closely related to another feature that Herder’s Metacritique shares with Hamann, viz., opposition to the compartmentalisation of the pure forms and functions of reason by reason. In this respect he sees the critical philosophy as resting on a phantasmic starting point. Kant has made himself both party and judge, law and witness in reason’s “trial.” But for Herder, we are not capable of overseeing what we are within; we use our “reason” to identify and demonstrate what our reason does, which is also why it is wrongheaded to identify “transcendental elements” divorced from reason’s ongoing discoveries. And those discoveries cannot be separated from the names that have accrued over time to identify experience. Closely related to this is Herder’s emphasis upon the capacity of the soul to “recognize” unity in its diversity.

By claiming that the cognitive elements are pure, i.e. transcendental, means they are neither physiological, nor psychological. But the fact that the very names of the components which Kant draws upon are also often psychological and physiological, lends support to Herder’s refusal to accept what he ultimately sees as an attempt to surpass the reason—which Herder tabulates late in the Metacritique—of the wisdom of life, culture, and the supra-cultural in a wisdom of life that is “transcendental hot air.” For Herder the truer formulation for any “Critique” of reason would be: “the [physiology of human knowledge,” something he sees Bacon as already having made a major contribution to.

Given these broader metacritical points, it is perfectly understandable why Herder takes issue with the key terms that gets the Critique off the ground, viz., the “a priori,” and “pure.” Thus, he writes:

In order to avoid misunderstandings, we want to leave aside completely the words a priori, and pure, i.e., pure concepts, calling general concepts general, necessary [concepts] necessary, without bringing into play the strange convoluted concept of a priority preceding all experience, because generality and necessity cannot be ascribed to any knowledge, if it is not necessary and general in its nature.

And as with Hegel later, Herder is just as unwilling to concede the very starting point of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason—the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments. For Kant, an analytic judgment logically contains the predicate in the subject—while a synthetic judgment is formed by adding knowledge that goes beyond mere logical unfolding.

As readers of Kant know, the example he gives of an analytic judgment is that bodies are extended substances. As readers of Leibniz know that is what Descartes thought, but Descartes got it wrong. I just raise this so the reader may see that while some analytic judgments may be straightforwardly analytic in Kant’s sense—e.g., a bachelor is unmarried—the distinction is very unhelpful when we are speaking about subjects where knowledge is involved. And this was Herder’s point where he notes that:

The determination, that the predicate contains in the concept of the subject and is part of the same, which would have to be brought out analytically through division, is far too narrowly conceived: because in naming the subject not everything, which lays in it or belongs to it is revealed immediately; judgments are made, if we do not want to eternally rattle-off one and the same A+A, or wish to dissolve 4 into 2 + 2, which expand our knowledge, i.e. that say something in the predicate that is not instantly apparent in the subject.

Kant’s theory of mathematics depends upon mathematical judgments not being analytic, but synthetic (they cannot be empirical because numbers and geometry are not contingent entities, but he argues they are not merely logical either; rather, they are constructed by the mind; more specifically the faculty of “inner intuition”). This is laid out in the earliest section of the Critique of Pure Reason, “The Transcendental Aesthetic,” and it was an essential element in his grand design of laying down once and for all the foundations of a metaphysics that he thought could lay claim to be complete and implacable. It was also intended as the coup de grâce against Leibniz’s Platonism—Leibniz is the real bête noir of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and the entire strategy of the Critique is to discredit what he saw as Leibniz’s rationalism.

But Kant’s theory of mathematics, and the argument that mathematical judgments are synthetic, has frequently met with bewilderment, and is one major reason Kant’s theory of mathematics has found no strong philosophical support (the other problem is that the “architecture” of Kant’s solution does not help once we get beyond the number-line and operate with irrational numbers, and take note especially of non-Euclidean geometries).

Herder’s response to Kant’s primary claim about mathematics, which is the key to providing Kant’s “solution” to the problem of how the apodictic knowledge and axiomatic system of mathematics is applicable to phenomena, i.e., physical structure and laws of the natural world is this: “Thousands and ten thousand mathematical judgments are analytic; the ‘synthetic method’ cannot help but proceed analytically in mathematics until they reach an identical concept.” Likewise, he also takes issue with the primary reason that Kant has for arguing that mathematical (which includes geometrical) judgments are synthetic, i.e. (and as I have just said) because mathematics involves construction. Herder responds that “there are definitely cases in mathematics, where I recognize the truth of apodictic sentences, although I cannot construct them identically; and opposite cases, which are nevertheless apodictically certain, but the construction seems to contradict the concept.”

More generally, whereas Kant’s Critique proceeds by way of piling dualisms upon dualisms, dualisms, which Herder says involve “artificial hair-splitting” which extends to “syllables and spelling, such as deist and theist, transcendent and transcendental and so many other spider-webs.” Herder emphasises how our ideas are dependent upon integration, and that integration reaches from the most elemental of physiological processes to the greater social and cultural processes in which we are incorporated.

Thus, whereas Kant had argued that Hume had opened up the way for him by positing the problem of causation as an illustration of a synthetic a priori judgment, Herder argues that the sentence “what happens must have a cause” is an identical sentence: “because in the occurrence we postulate the cause of becoming.” Likewise, for Herder, if we deploy concepts such as force, effect, countereffect we are committed to conceptual associations, which are intrinsic to their very meaning. Thus, when we say “the effect and countereffect is the same” we are simply using the ideas in a manner that makes them meaningful.

Of course, this is another example of Leibniz’ enormous influence upon Herder. But whereas Kant had insisted upon the synthetic a priori safeguarding us from metaphysics spawning a rationalist substitution for experience, Herder is not at all convinced that this is the case. The question remains one of integrating material, and for Herder the “integration” is done “all the way along the line:” this is what reasoning does: it associates by bringing parts together in so far as they conform to some underlying “identity.” The strict division between purely rational or “pure experience” requires that our abstraction denies the integral unity that is involved in perception.

Our knowledge is initially dependent on an infinitude of micro-cognitive sensory processes, so that “every sense has its sphere; every object its meaning.” It is true that once we “model” experiences to espy sharper differentiations, our testing of natural phenomena can be enhanced. But to take a late stage in a process of understanding, as if that requires completely refabricating the development of the process is, for Herder, only to create an entirely new fleet of problems that are not only unnecessary, but catch us in the kind of spider webs of reason which, in spite of its intention, occlude our lived experience of ourselves as social and historical creatures.

Herder’s refusal to accept the a priori/a posteriori disjuncture is also evident in his critique of Kant’s discussion of space in the transcendental aesthetic. While Kant acknowledges that mathematics begins through practice (he speaks in the first Critique of mathematics having “long remained, especially among the Egyptians, in its groping stage”) he stresses that it only really became a science once someone brought out “what was necessarily implied in the concepts that he had himself formed a priori, and had put into the figures in the construction by which he presented it to himself.”

That there is a tipping point in which practical know-how is transformed into a “science” is not to be disputed, and that the development is irrelevant once a foundation has evolved (leaving aside here the development of foundations themselves) is also not a problem, especially for those doing the science. But the issue dividing Kant and Herder is whether the science is really explicable in Kantian terms, and whether his explanation actually adds anything at all to the science, which of course it doesn’t and wasn’t actually designed to do; Kant’s “theoretical reason i.e., understanding of phenomena” only has a purpose in so far as there is also its other—“practical or moral reason.”

To reformulate this somewhat: Kant is a Euclidean and Newtonian, but neither Euclid nor Newton are Kantian. Kant is not tackling the problems that lead to a metaphysics of experience in order to advance either mathematics or physics (and ironically as those disciplines advanced, Kant’s philosophy looked ever more arcane and unhelpful), but to circumscribe the bounds of the metaphysics of experience—that is, in order to create a rational faith in our moral freedom.

But here we just need to say that there is nothing philosophically wrong-headed in Herder pitting the importance of our lived-experience within spaces and times (in a move that anticipates phenomenology) against Kant’s transcendental aesthetic. For Herder’ counter argument to Kant is undertaken to demonstrate that Kant’s philosophical terminology is dubious, and that becomes even more apparent when one tries to address other questions about the nature of knowledge that Kant had not considered.

The accusation, then, that Herder fails to understand Kant’s problem I find completely unconvincing; he is considering (unsurprisingly given his own philosophical holism) where the bits and pieces of the system that Kant builds with his answers lead. Stated otherwise, it is not the case that Herder fails to understand that Kant’s view of space and time is developed around the primacy Kant allots to kinematics—this strikes me as so obvious to anyone who reads the first Critique with any care, that it is not really plausible that Herder missed this. Rather, Herder refuses to sever a theory of knowledge from our own being in the world, and he refuses to accept an ontology that does not register with the kind of being we are as well as the way our existence develops.

Thus Herder’s “discussion of the word space” commences with the fact that “we are with others”—space is originally a location, a “where” of our existence—it thus has to do with places. Space, he says, is a “concept of experience caused by the sensation or impression that I am neither the All (das All), nor everywhere, that I occupy only one place in the universe.” But our experience is such that “we encounter some occurrence which makes space for itself with its powers.” We learn that there are limits that surround what we encounter but that may be overcome.

Movement, change, velocity, location are all part of the experience, as are our being action and suffering: “Our language,” Herder reminds his readers, “is full of expressions of space in every being, act and suffering.” Herder’s approach to time is similar, starting with our noticing natural changes and dividing them—they are grounded in “practical purposes.” He continues that “time has nevertheless become a discursive, i.e. general concept of measurement of all transformations.” And time is intrinsic to ordering our concepts in a series, just as space for our situating things.

On the surface this may seem to confirm Kant’s view of time and space as a priori forms of experience, but whereas Kant is focusing solely on time and space as kinematic “backdrops” for an experience that applies more to projectiles than to people if we conceive them as more than mere mechanical composites, Herder is interested in space and time as lived, and how, in the living, times and spaces are discursively developed. And this extends to the sciences as well as the most basic aspects of human orientation and participation. That is, living in space and time will indeed be essential to developing such a science as physics (not that it is inevitable, for all knowledge is contingent), but it is not confined to that.

In so far as we are ever something of a mystery to ourselves, and that our knowledge of ourselves is revealed through our doings over time, any epistemology or ontology we invoke has to be open enough to the variety of vistas that we may consider and engage with as well as the variety of actions that we engage in. The “knot” of human physiology and aesthesis (which is closely connected to how nature operates within and through us), language, and historical being, for Herder, cannot be severed by an appeal to ideas which are taken to be formal conditions (calling them transcendental does not help one iota).

To be sure, one might well find fault with the metaphysical arguments Herder deploys against Kant. Nevertheless, Herder’s own metaphysical arguments are predicated upon them being able to link up with the fundamentals of experience grounded in physiological (aesthetic) impressions, and linguistic and historical contextualizations. Were this not the case, Newtonianism would not need to have been the result of a vast array of social and historical contingencies (predecessors, pedagogical spaces, literacy, mathematical knowledge etc.) that prepared Newton himself for the experimental and mathematical approach to nature he excelled in. (And Herder is neither ignorant of, nor positioning himself against Newton’s work—as far as it goes).

That Kant can narrow his focus in such a way that he sloughs off developmental matters into the domain of irrelevance suggests that the human mind, in spite of all Kant’s safeguards and deference to the phenomenal world we are implicated in, really is, for Kant, “God-like” (in the Greek rather than biblical sense). This is, in spite of Kant thinking that by arguing against the idea of “intellectual intuition” he has emphasised the finitude of human intellect. But what Kant gives with one hand, he takes away with the other; for he has dispensed with all manner of finitudes to prioritise the philosophical disposition itself above the contingencies which are fundamental to its precondition, but which fall outside the problem he has cordoned off.

Were the problem as Kant depicts it, why would we need to be “schooled” in its nature? Why would the sciences need to evolve—and I do not mean (as Kant emphasizes) the specific laws observed, but the sciences which study the laws? Hegel tackles this problem by tracking reason’s dialectical development and the emergent spheres of conceptual schema taking definitive ideational shape. But while Hegel is resolutely anti-dualist, the logicism of his philosophy enmeshes History in a philosophical logic and thereby creates an irreconcilable difference between his approach and that of Herder’s. Thus, for all his differences with Kant, Hegel’s philosophy, as with Fichte and Schelling, takes off from Kant’s problematic in which reason is substantialised, rather than, as in Herder, an operational development of our historical and language-dependent nature.

In sum, Herder is absolutely right to challenge Kant on the very ground where the problematic is laid down and the cognitive sources and elements are identified, for the mind not only cannot be purely extracted, but its nature is revealed by its doings. Isolating a particular “doing,” and then making that particular doing the basis for all our other knowledge is precisely what Herder contests. To be sure, Herder is willing to concede that there might be fundamentals akin to categories that we might identify as more elementary for understanding how we process information, and he provides a number of different tables throughout the Metacritique, commencing with his initial categories of understanding: “1) Being; 2) Existence; 3) Duration; and 4) Force.” Further, as force is construed “through number and measure,” and as our understanding also draws upon “contiguity, sequence and emergence,” for Herder, space and time are indeed the “mediums” in which force operates.

We will not reproduce how Herder develops the conceptual associations that he builds up throughout the Metacritique, we will just underscore, and repeat, the point that Herder recognizes that the sciences work in close association with “how” we go about knowing—principles and “laws” are closely connected, but knowledge is essentially developmental. And, for Herder, it is inconceivable that one can meaningfully do this without considering the labours of the species over time, and in the context of its habitat. That Kant is too indifferent to the importance of this habitat is stressed by Herder near the conclusion of the Metacritique where he criticizes Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties for how narrowly Kant construes philosophy, all the better to make the case for his own critical philosophy being the great arbitrator.

The ploy is, for Herder, a symptom of the narrowness of Kant’s vision of philosophy and the sciences, and is closely associated with a strong institutional dependency on Kant’s part. For Herder, Kant’s philosophical cleavages, with their respective foundations, is really just supplying the conditions for institutional specialization—which would then be carried out along Kantian lines. It is thus also the privileging of the academic “guilds” as much as Kant’s philosophy. For his part, Herder opposes the guilds, and ultimately anything which would close off knowledge for a more “holistic,” yet developmental, and hence pedagogically dynamic curricula. Likewise, he also emphasizes the importance of outsiders (a class to which he belongs):

Erasmus and Grotius were not faculty theologians, and took upon themselves the freedom, to clean up much in Theology. The monk Roger Bacon, and his name’s sake Francis Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Tschirnhaus, and how many others, who expanded the sciences not with words but with concepts, were lovers of the sciences, although no Faculty-trustees. As the faculties slept or became barbarised, a free society of lovers, the academy of Florence, arose, others followed, for whom we have to thank for the greatest developments in the sciences.

As mentioned above, behind Kant’s transcendental critique of “experience,” and Herder’s Metacritique, there is another set of questions and answers that sharply divides the two. From the outset of the critical philosophy, Kant had claimed that by identifying the source and scope of (judgments or knowledge of) experience by recourse to their “cognitive source” and “elements” and “rules,” he had hoped to secure what he sees as most important about human beings and rationality—moral freedom understood as the categorical imperative—from the mechanistic “reductions,” which would make any appeals to virtue and dignity irrelevant. Thus, it is that Kant locates freedom and dignity in pure reason itself, rather than any experience.

For his part, Herder is as little attracted to Kant’s view of freedom as he is to Kant’s ideas of reason and aesthetics, and the two metaphysical pillars (of nature and right) that the transcendental philosophy grounds and (in the third Critique) “bridges.” Herder remarks on Kant’s formulation of the moral law well bring out what he thinks of Kant’s view of freedom: “The general will of the legislator is just as incompetent-presumptuous as it is powerless: because the general, in this case the will, only becomes actual in deed through the particular and most particular… And what if persons, means and ends collide? Thus, the most vain egotism, which submits to the great purpose of the “judgment of all,” under the name of ‘self-esteem, self-respect,’ pervades everything and furtively engages in an eternal war between ‘self-purposes and self-legislators.’”

Although Kant is not mentioned by name in Herder’s work, Of Religion, Doctrines and Customs, Herder makes the decisively anti-Kantian observation that the egoistic usurpation of moral law-making, in its “empty legislative form” finds:

…neither power, salvation, spirit, nor life… Nothing tires more than commanding; even the pride that one has in being able to command soon becomes tiresome; and how? and would not a pure “un-will” to obey step into the position of the pure will to command? Mighty autonomist, your monarchy ends. Instead, anarchy, an impotent-wild word stand-off, would take over: “Compel yourself!”—”I cannot.” “You can, because you should.”—”I do not want to, because I cannot,” etc.

Herder can see no point in taking the essential social dilemma of moral choice and making it akin to a private matter to be subject to a formal law, as if the labour of socialization and instinctual cultivation were largely unimportant. We are, emphasizes Herder, mimetic creatures, and that mimesis extends even to how we use our limbs. We do not instruct ourselves out of nothing, but are socially saturated, as we are exposed to “an ocean of ideas, habits and actions” which we absorb and then use as though they were our property. “Spirit receives from spirits.” While “our entire lives are led by drives,” Kant’s moral thought treats drives as impediments to the purity of our reason and pure will, thereby relying upon a drive of his own fabrication—it is but “the personification of pride in its deepest powerlessness.”

Against such abstract egoic and formalistic ethics, Herder anticipates Nietzsche (albeit devoid of the latter’s pagan call for a revival of master morality, and the cruelty such a revival would require). For Herder, Kant’s grounding of morality in the form of reason is one more example of what he sees as the narrowness of a philosophy which fails to adequately embrace the idea that it is only through learning about the vastly different goods, truth and beautiful creations of the species that we can better form our world. The fact that the philosopher deals in ideas does not give him or her any special purchase on what we can know, or even what is worth knowing:

Really, ideas yield nothing but ideas, greater clarity, correctness, and order in thinking—but that is all one can count on with certainty. As for how everything will mix within the soul; or what will be encountered and what will have to be changed; how powerful and enduring this change will be; or, finally, how it might combine and clash with the myriad incidents and contingencies of human life, let alone of an age or of an entire people, of all Europe, of all the universe (as our humility imagines)—you gods, what an altogether different world of questions!

It is the different world of questions that ultimately require, for Herder, a turning not only from the known into the unknown, but from the living to the living. We have to put ourselves aside, and not just look for what catches our own light. At the same time, Herder sees difference and connection, and it is the appreciation of both that he sees as essential for human growth:

As the philosopher is much in the dark respecting the origin of human history, and singularities occur in its remotest periods, which will not accord with this system or with that, men have fallen on the desperate mode of cutting the knot, and have not only considered the Earth as the ruins of a former habitation, but have supposed the human species to be a remnant of the former inhabitants of this planet, who escaped perhaps in caves or mountains, from the revolution of its Last day. Thus, its reason, arts, and traditions, are treasures saved from the wrecks of the primitive World; whence on the one hand, they appear from the beginning with a splendour derived from the experience of thousands of years; and on the other, never can be clearly traced, while the remnant of the human species has served like an isthmus, at once to unite and to confound the cultivation of two worlds. If this opinion were true, there could be no such thing as a pure philosophy of the history of man; for the human species itself, and all its arts, would be nothing more than the recrement arising from the destruction of a former world.

3. “Humanity:” Encountering, Culture, And Dialogue

While Herder eschews any philosophy “according to which the whole human species possesses one mind; and that indeed of a very low order, distributed to individuals only piecemeal” (which is again indicative of a major difference between Herder and Hegel—and indicative of the difference between emphasising reason in language or reason as mind or spirit), he sees that while we can only understand humanity via the history of its traditions, we need to investigate what it was that those tradition and the organic powers of the species enabled and hence what made them sustainable for any length of time.

Such an understanding necessarily has a philosophical dimension, and thus he writes: “The philosophy of history, therefore, which follows the chain of tradition, is, to speak properly, the true history of mankind, without which all the outward occurrences of this World are but clouds, or revolting deformities.” Note that this openness which requires of us that we take history seriously avoids the seminal pitfall of historicism, whose founder he is sometimes said to be, viz., the task for a philosopher of humankind is not to become so locked in the history of the world of a people that it is an exercise in monadic identification.

Rather, the point is to search for the “Glorious names, that shine in the history of cultivation as genii of the human species, as brilliant stars in the night of time!” If the past leaves us with nothing but dead facts we have to ask what we are doing with it. Rather a philosophical study of history is undertaken to appreciate a living connection between times and regions—for once we enter a past world, we may be changed for the better by the experience of feeling, seeing, and knowing more about humanity and its powers.

In so far as the very enterprise is one which requires inquiring into times and habitats, there is the danger that one is so ensconced in one’s own tradition and experiences that one is incapable of really seeing the other. Thus, Herder insists, in letter 116 of the Tenth Collection of his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity: “The original form, the prototype of humanity hence lies not in a single nation of a single region of the earth; it is the abstracted concept from all exemplars of human nature in both hemispheres.” Concomitantly he stipulates: “Let one be unbiased like the genius of humanity itself; let one have no pet tribe, no favorite people on the earth…let none put into the hands of any people on earth on grounds of ‘innate superiority’ the sceptre over other peoples—much less the sword and enslave the whip.” He adds a couple of pages later: “Least of all, therefore, can our European culture be the measure of universal human goodness and human value; it is no yardstick or a false one. European culture is an abstracted concept, a name. Where does it exist entirely? With which people? In which times?”

To be sure there is a certain pedagogical and moral idealism in the project, but the idealism requires that we learn from each other, rather than push people into the prefabricated idea requiring common conformity to values and expectations which are laid down by those whose philosophical lights make them the leaders of humanity. Thus, he emphasizes again:

There must gradually awaken a common feeling so that every nation feels itself into the position of every other one. People will hate the impudent transgressor of foreign rights, the destroyer of foreign welfare, the brazen abuser of foreign ethics and opinions, the boastful imposer of his own advantages on peoples who do not want them.

If we compare this with Rousseau, who would force people to be free, with Kant, whose moral republicanism sloughs off anthropological, historical and social experience, with Nietzsche, who divides the world into masters and slaves and calls for philosophers of the future to create the conditions for the coming of the superman, with Marx, who would extinguish all classes save the proletariat, with the anti-domination philosophers, whose focus on domination largely bypasses non-Western brutalities, and who see nothing but an unjust world in need of their moral leadership, we can readily see how Herder’s position is essentially a prototype of dialogical encountering between diverse hermeneutical communities.

The point is to learn from each other. The idea that is sometimes expressed by people who know a little bit about Herder is that he can be adequately classified as a relativist. Bu this can only be held if one not only fails to take seriously what Herder is trying to do and how he goes about it. His great work, Adrastea, is “devoted to truth and justice.” And the statement made almost immediately after the “Dedication” of the Adrastea is as succinct an account of how Herder considers the truth as any he provides:

The ray of light refracts itself in a thousand colours and swathes itself differently to each object. But all colors belong to one light, the truth. In many melodic courses, the sound changes up and down; and yet only one harmony is possible on a gamut of world events and the relationship between things. What now fails, dissolves itself into another age.

Although Franz Rosenzweig shows no signs of any in-depth reading of Herder, his proclamation to Rosenstock-Huessy that the dialogical method he favoured involved shoving “the whole of history between myself and the problem, and so think with the heads of all the participants in the discussion” is essentially a restatement of Herder’s understanding of truth.

The importance of the many-sided character of truth and the dialogical dimension is also well brought out by Herder’s treatment of the importance of error in Letters for the Advancement of Humanity:

Free investigation of truth from all sides is the only antidote to delusion and error of whatever nature they may be. Let the deluded defends his delusions, and defend his opinion against those who think differently; that’s their business. Even if neither were to be improved, for the unprejudiced person a new reason, a new insight into truth, would surely emanate from every disputed error.

Herder is not, then, arguing that there are no truths, but as in one’s dealings with the deluded person, just having the truth does not suffice. It is our engagements with each other that matter—for every errancy can be important for gaining greater insights about each other, and our world, every encounter an opportunity for generating new forms or deeds of conviviality, love and solidarity (or their opposite), and hence for helping create a more “truthful” and valuable world.

The historical context of Herder’s work is one in which different “peoples” have become increasingly conscious of each other’s presence. How, then, do we deal with this? That is a serious and real, and not just “ideal” question. Having ideas about better and worse ways to be in the world, having principles that facilitate action is not the same as the idea-ism of paradigmatical imposition of a sovereign principle that is indifferent to what is occluded by the principle.

This is also why, as we mentioned earlier, Herder is happy to accept the traditional philosophical appeals to the good, true, and beautiful, provided that their content is open to the creative explorations of the human species. To be sure, he extends this way of thinking into the political and does side with republican politics. At the same time, he is conscious that this ideal itself can be phantasmic and even disastrous. Thus, he writes, in the same Letter, of the potential danger of pursuing “the best form of the state, indeed of all states:”

This phantom is uncommonly deceptive in virtue of the fact that it obviously introduces into history a nobler yardstick of merit than the one that those arbitrary reasons of state contained—indeed even blinds with the names of “freedom,” “enlightenment,” “highest happiness of the peoples.” Would God that it never deceived! The happiness of one single people cannot be imposed onto, talked onto, loaded onto the other and every other. The roses for the wreath of freedom must be picked by a people’s own hands and grow up happily out of its own needs, out of its own desire and love. The so-called best form of government, which has unfortunately not yet been discovered, certainly does not suit all peoples, at once, in the same way; with the yoke of badly imported freedom from abroad a foreign people would be incommoded in the worst possible way. Hence a history that calculates everything in the case of every land with a view to this utopian plan in accordance with unproved first principles is the most dazzling deceptive history.

And, in keeping with this, he emphasises:

All excessive subtle taxonomies of human beings according to principles from which we are supposed to act exclusively are quite foreign to the spirit of history. It knows that in human nature the principles of sensuality, of imagination, of selfishness, of honor, of sympathy with others, of godliness, of the moral sense, of faith, etc. do not dwell in separated compartments, but that in a living organization that gets stimulated from several sides many of them, often all, cooperate in a living manner. It allows each of them its value, its rank, its place, its time of development—convinced that all of them, even unconsciously, are operating towards a single purpose, the great principle of humaneness [Menschlichkeit]. Hence it lets all of them bloom in their time right where they are: sensuality and the arts of the imagination, intellect and sympathy, honor, moral sense and holy worship.

In sum, then, Herder’s desire for cultures and communities learning what each has been able to create, and hence to cultivate over time is predicated on the fact that the world is “a world,” albeit a world constituted by different habitats, sentiments, ideas etc. The faith he has is that this world can be one in which peace ultimately reigns. And he requires that we all explore and bring to the human banquet what is the best of our creations—it also requires identifying each other’s delusions and pathologies.

Herder is not so starry eyed about other people and cultures that he does not criticize them. But he is also very critical of his own culture. Only through our inquiries into our respective histories and behaviours can we all learn from each other. We will all inevitably be enmeshed in our prejudices and have our myopia—Herder himself is not completely free from this, but who is? We have to be able to put aside “one-sided,” “fixed” and “rigid” ideas—(and one of the great virtues of poetry for Herder is that it helps us overcome separation and one-sidedness).

In this sense, there is indeed a biblical, messianic component to Herder’s thinking. He was a Christian thinker, but a Christian who was frequently critical of how Christians have acted. Although, an exploration of Herder’s Christianity would be a huge topic in itself, it is not exaggerating to say that the central tenet of the Christian faith, for Herder, is the advancement of humanity itself.

Thus, in the second Collection of the Letters for the Advancement of Humanity, he writes that “The religion of Christ, which he himself taught and practised, was humanity itself. Nothing but that… Christ knew no more noble name for himself, than that he named himself the Son of Man, a man.” And in Adrastea, he asks: “Does Christianity teach anything other than pure humanity?” But this is not the Godless humanity of Voltaire, or the Enlightened who think they know what humanity is without it having to be revealed through its deeds and dreams. This idea of a humanity bonding through its conversableness also stands in the closest relationship to his view of providence. Thus too, in Adrastea, he writes:

Now you know… what my religion of all religions is. It’s an Adrastea, but in a much higher equation than the Greeks ever gave it. She was first a jealous, then a warning or punitive goddess; her highest maxim was, “Not beyond measure!” The nemesis of Christianity postulates balance and retribution in everything, in the moral as well as in the physical world, the least and the greatest, as the law of nature, but the determination of human beings elevates them in the overcoming of evil through good, with the charitable persistence of magnanimity. Humanity finally makes it the tipping of the scale, as a compensation of Providence, as it were, the decisive voice of the judge of the world, the judge, who always comes and is there, who receives and recompenses everything.

Herder’s contribution to philosophy is ultimately a “programmatic” contribution, a contribution which requires that philosophy develops in keeping with all the available knowledge it can draw upon. The development, itself, though is for the greater purpose of advancing our common humanity.

But this can only be done if we do not take humanity as an abstraction, but as the plethora of powers that have accrued over time and across the spaces. Those powers are themselves tested and judged in the course of the times. Thus too, Herder states that revolution “is as necessary to our species, as the waves to the dream, that it become not a stagnant pool. The genius of humanity blooms in continually renovated youth, and is regenerated as it proceeds, in nations, generations, and families.”

Herder’s deference to errancy and providence also places his thought at odds with that most modern kind of idea-ism which, for all its other differences, is as common to Kant and Robespierre, as to Marx and the anti-domination thinkers, as it is to even more garden variety ethics: the ethico-political idea-ism which emphasizes volition and principles. There is, of course, much that Herder does not really explore, but it does provide a kind of orientation and spirit that opens up the philosophical enterprise to a more expansive vista and quest so that it can be attentive to its own paradigmatical and sovereign entrapment.


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured image shows a portrait of Johann Gottfried von Herder, by Gerhard von Kügelgen, painted in 1809.

God And The World: Renovating Philosophy

I intend here to return to my renovation of Platonism—and to confront some classical arguments in favor of God’s existence, then present how my claims on God and on the supraworldly realm are corroborated by cosmic evolution. I will also deal with the issue of apodicticity in mathematical knowledge—and in the knowledge of essences.

The Identity Argument

A classical argument for the existence of God goes like this. At a given moment, in a certain respect, any existing entity is necessarily what it is, rather than what it is not. It follows that any existing entity is necessarily an entity which has always existed, or an entity which was engendered by another entity; and that an entity that changes is necessarily an entity that owes its change to the action of another entity. In other words, no existing entity is an entity born out of nothing, nor an entity that changes spontaneously.

It is thought one can deduce the existence of God from this argument. Some of the entities in that world change or appear seemingly in a spontaneous manner (i.e., change or appear without finding the origin of their change in another entity existing in that world) and the universe itself has not always existed. The apparently spontaneous change and appearances, and the appearance of the universe itself, are therefore, it is said, the result of an entity eternal and external to the universe. And that entity would be God (conceived of as supramundane).

This argument is refuted as follows. The alleged fact that any entity is necessarily what it is rather than what it is not in some respect, at a given time, does not imply that any entity necessarily remains identical to itself (unless an external action to make it other than what it is at a given moment, in a given respect); nor does it imply that any entity is either uncreated or created by another entity. In other words, if one proved that our world is indeed subject to the law of identity, the fact that it is subject to the law of identity would not result in the impossibility for the entities within it—or for our world taken as a whole—to change spontaneously or to create itself spontaneously.

The aforementioned argument in favor of the existence of God—which concludes the existence of God on the grounds that entities in that world change in an apparently spontaneous mode and that new entities appear spontaneously (and that the world itself was created), and that the law of identity allegedly makes spontaneous change or creation impossible—is therefore false. The existence of God (conceived of as supramundane) would not be implied by the law of identity if it existed. The apparition of the universe from nothing would not be rendered impossible by the existence of the law of identity.

The Movement Argument

Another classic argument in favor of the existence of God, which for its part was proposed by Aristotle and taken up by Saint Thomas Aquinas, goes like this. Any existing entity that happens to be moving (in the broad sense of displacement, action, or change) necessarily finds the origin of its movement in another entity that, temporally, precedes it or is simultaneous with it. Yet an infinite regression of movers is inconceivable, whether on the worldly or supraworldly level. It follows, it is said, that the existence of a prime and supramundane mover, itself immobile, is necessarily supposed by the existence of movement in the world.

The premise of the impossibility of spontaneous movement is ambiguous from several points of view. It strictly admits two interpretations with regard to the question of the supramundane extent of said impossibility. The first interpretation is that any existing and moving entity, whether on the plane of that world or on the supramundane plane, finds the origin of its movement in another entity. The second interpretation is that in that world, and only in that world (rather than on the supramundane plane), any existing and moving entity necessarily owes its movement to another entity. To those two distinct interpretations of the premise of the impossibility of movement correspond two distinct interpretations of the argument. Either way, the argument does not hold up.

As for the first interpretation, the argument is thus refuted. The alleged facts that, on the worldly and supramundane planes, every movement (in the broad sense, therefore beyond the sole fact of moving in space) is (strictly) the fruit of another mover, and that, on the mundane and supramundane planes, every mover is necessarily either a first engine or a non-prime engine (otherwise there would be an infinite regression in the number of movers, which is allegedly inconceivable), are false. Moreover, they exclude each other, i.e., cannot coexist; and, for that, their necessary implication is self-contradictory. The force of attraction exerted in that world by quarks, stars, or apples, which falls within movement in the broad sense, is not the result of an external mover.

As for an infinite regression (in any domain), it is quite conceivable that it is possible in that world as much on the supramundane plane—and possible in that world as in other possible worlds. Besides, the allegation that movement, in that world as well as on the supramundane plane, is inconceivable in the absence of a prime mover contradicts the allegation that an external mover, in that world as much as on the supramundane plane, is necessary to generate the movement of a given entity. And that to affirm simultaneously those two premises necessarily amounts to affirming, notably, that the movement of a certain mundane or supramundane entity requires the movement consisting for a primary and supramundane mover to provoke (directly or indirectly) the movement of the above-mentioned entity, but that the movement of the first and supramundane agency will itself necessitate the movement of another agency prior to that first mover. Which is a self-contradictory, and therefore absurd, assertion.

Instead of these two premises implying that the existence of a first and supramundane agency, itself immobile, is a necessary condition for the movement of entities in that world—they imply that the movement of entities in that world has, as a necessary condition, a prime and supramundane agency, and that the latter is itself a non-immobile agency which has as a necessary condition for its movement a mover prior to that prime mover. In other words, the necessary implication of those two premises is that there is a prime and supramundane mover, itself mobile, which is both prime and non-prime, which is absurd. It is, admittedly, quite conceivable that there exists a supramundane and mobile agency which—instead of being prime—is itself moved by another supramundane and mobile agency preceding it, and that that other supramundane and mobile agency is itself moved by another supramundane and mobile agency preceding it; and so on.

But that speculation is neither the conclusion that effectively flows from the premises mentioned above (namely that any intramundane or supramundane movement is the result of an external agency, and that an infinite regression is possible neither on a worldly plane nor on a supramundane plane); nor the conclusion that the movement argument (thus interpreted) believes, wrongly, to be able to infer from said premises. The concept of an immobile mover is itself contradictory: every mover exerts a movement in so far as it exerts an agenting activity.

When it comes to concluding that there is a primary and supramundane agency, the argument from movement, if we now interpret it in these terms, is more coherent. In such a world, but not on the supramundane plane, any moving entity (in the broad sense) is necessarily moved by another entity. Yet an infinite regression of the movers is inconceivable, whether on the worldly or supraworldly plane. It follows, says the argument of movement thus interpreted, that the movement in such a world necessarily presupposes a primary and supramundane mover, itself immobile, whose agential activity is not due to another mover preceding it.

Here, the premises are now compatible, but are again wrong. Endless regression is not more inconceivable on the mundane level than on the supramundane level. Moreover, it is wrong that any moving entity in that world (as it is reasonably conjectured) finds the origin of its movement in another entity. As for the suggested inference, it is almost consistent. What the above-mentioned premises necessarily imply is in fact that movement in such a world necessarily presupposes a primary and supramundane mover itself mobile, whose agential activity finds its origin in itself. They do not imply what the argument from movement (thus interpreted) claims to be able to infer from it—namely, that they do not imply that movement in such a world necessarily presupposes a primary and supramundane driver, itself immobile. They even imply that it is wrong (and absurd) that the prime and supramundane mover be itself immobile.

As correct as the inference is that intramundane movement necessarily presupposes a primary and supramundane mover, which is at the origin of its own movement—the premise of the necessary impossibility of spontaneous movement in such a world, and the one of the inconceivability of an infinite regression of the agents on the worldly or supraworldly plane, are both false. Therefore, that alleged proof of the existence of God is not valid. Here, I will leave aside Saint Thomas Aquinas’s four other arguments for the existence of God.

The Perfection Argument

The argument of perfection, most often known as the “ontological argument,” goes like this. It is in God’s concept to be perfect. If God lacked the property of existing, something would be lacking in him; he would therefore not be perfect. It follows, it is said, that it is in the essence of God (i.e., among the constitutive properties of God) to exist. That classic argument, which dates back at least to Anselm of Canterbury, was the subject of a refutation attempt by Immanuel Kant. For my part, I claim that the Kantian critique is not more valid than is the argument from perfection itself.

The Kantian criticism goes like this. The term “is” is not a “real predicate,” i.e., a logical predicate corresponding to an alleged attribute of the object contained in the concept of the logical subject. In Kant’s terms, it is not “a concept of something which can be added to the concept of a thing.” The term “is” is either “the copula of a judgment,” i.e., a word which establishes a link between the logical subject and the logical predicate, without itself being a logical predicate; or a logical predicate which poses the object of the concept of the logical subject without itself, being a real predicate. In other words, the fact that an existing entity exists is not an attribute of said entity; and the fact that the logical predicate “exists” to be used does not add anything to the concept of the logical subject, nor does it make explicit what the concept of the logical subject contains.

The concept of perfection is certainly contained in the concept of God; but the judgment “God is” is a synthetic judgment (in the Kantian sense, i.e., in the sense of a judgment which associates with the logical subject a logical predicate, not included in the concept of said subject), which does not associate a “real predicate” to the concept of God.

Therefore, if God existed, it would not add any attribute to God that was not already formulated in his concept. Just as “a hundred real thalers contain nothing more than a hundred possible thalers,” the perfection of God, if he existed, would contain nothing more than the perfection constitutive of God according to his concept. In other words, the fact for God to exist (instead of being only possible through the concept of God) would not increase the perfection of God; but would only make it happen with all the properties which are attributed to him according to his concept, without adding or subtracting anything from his properties.

In Kant’s words, “even if I were to think in a thing, all of reality, except one; that one missing reality would not be supplied by my saying that so defective a thing exists, but it would exist with the same defect with which I thought it; or what exists would be different from what I thought. If, then, I try to conceive a being, as the highest reality (without any defect), the question still remains, whether it exists or not.” Therefore, it is impossible to infer the existence of God from the concept of perfection, included in the concept of God, just as it is impossible to infer the existence of one hundred real thalers from the concept of one hundred thalers. “Whatever, therefore, our concept of an object may contain, we must always step outside it, in order to attribute to it existence.”

Kant’s critique of the ontological argument (as Kant calls it) comes to a correct conclusion, but infers it (correctly) from a false premise. It is quite true that the existence of God would not make him more perfect than he already is according to his concept; and that the fact the concept of perfection is included in the concept of God does not render his existence necessary. Nonetheless, it remains false that existence is not a property of existing entities; and that the logical predicates “is” or “are” are not “real predicates.” Existence and the mode of existence are genuinely properties of existing entities: just as the fact of not existing and the mode of non-existence are genuinely properties of non-existent entities.

To say that Donald Duck is a fictional character genuinely consists of attributing “a real predicate” (namely “fictional character”) to the logical subject, “Donald Duck.” In other words, it genuinely consists of attributing to the logical subject, “Donald Duck,” the “real predicate” of inexistence; and, more precisely, the “real predicate” of the mode of non-existence consisting of being a fictional character (rather than a real person).

To say of a human who really existed that he was born in this or that year and died in this or that year genuinely consists of attributing to the logical subject the “real predicate” of a certain mode of existence (namely, the fact of coming into existence through birth and of existing for the duration of a human lifetime); and the “real predicate” of a certain mode of non-existence (namely the fact of having ceased to exist after death).

The flaw in the perfection argument is the following one. An existing entity that would be perfect in every way would not need to exist to be perfect. In other words, the perfection constitutive of a perfect existing entity would not render its existence necessary: the attribute of existence existence and the attribute of perfection would be in said entity independent of each other. Therefore, the fact that perfection is included in the concept of God does not imply that the existence of God is necessary. Just as Botticelli’s Venus does not need to exist to be perfectly beautiful, so God does not need to exist to be perfect. The existence of Botticelli’s Venus would not render her more beautiful than she already is according to her painting; the existence of God would not render him more perfect than he already is according to his concept.

So, what is going on with these concepts, including the attribute of existence – for example, the concept of substance, which includes the attribute of existence in an eternal and uncreated mode. In a certain existing entity, the attribute of existence is not implied by those attributes distinct from the attribute of existence. Therefore, the non-existential attributes of an entity, alleged by a certain concept, including, and thus alleging, existential attributes imply neither the allegation of the alleged existential attributes, nor the existence of the alleged existential or non-existential attributes. It follows that in a certain concept whose object corresponds to a certain existing entity, and whose object is defined by an attribute of existence, the inclusion of the attribute of existence does not render the object real; i.e., that the existence of the object is not implied by the inclusion of the attribute of existence. In other words, it follows that a certain concept will be true or false, depending on whether its object exists or not—and not depending on whether the attribute of existence is included or not. Jesus existed depending on whether he existed or not—and not whether or not the concept of Jesus says of Jesus that he was born in Bethlehem on December 25 shortly before the year one. Venus existed depending on whether or not she existed—and not on whether or not Botticelli’s painting shows the birth of Venus in a seashell. Substance exists according to whether it exists or not—and not whether or not its concept describes it as an uncreated, eternal entity.

The World As Incarnation

I intend now to return to my conception of God—and to argue in its defense. My conception of God, which I already introduced elsewhere, can be put as follows. Let us imagine that someone starts to write a book in an improvised mode. His story begins with a character rolling a six-sided dice, which lands on the face with three dots. On the one hand, the fact that the dice lands on that face is due to chance in the world of the story considered independently of the writer. On the other hand, in the world of the story, considered in relation to the writer, that fictional event is rendered necessary by the fact that the writer decides to land on the face with three dots.

Then the writer wonders what the possibilities are for the rest of the story, i.e., wonders what such a beginning for his story renders possible and impossible for the rest of the story. One possibility is that the character, having thrown the dice, finds himself in a casino; another one is that the character does not find himself in a casino, but in a bedroom with the dice on a bedside table. The number of possibilities is tremendous, but the writer cannot identify each of them. He finally decides that the character finds himself in a field of daisies and has thrown the dice on a wooden table. Then he continues to expand the created fictional universe by identifying possible implications and by actualizing some of them. The situation of God in relation to His creation is to some extent similar to the situation of that writer in relation to his story.

The notion of reality has a strong sense and a weak one. In the weak one, reality is the totality of what exists—whether supramundane or intramundane, and whether material or spiritual. I claim there are two levels of reality in the weak sense. One is like the letters written in a novel; the other is like the fictional world created by those letters. In the strong sense, reality is the material, worldly plane. For the sake of semantic clarity, the rest of the article will make use of the notion of reality only in the strong sense. I claim reality (understood in the strong sense) to be the incarnation of a supraworldly, spiritual plane that is like a book whose letters produce a fictional world.

Two things must be specified when doing that comparison. On the one hand, the letters of a novel do not incarnate themselves into the occasioned fictional world. But the supramundane plane, for its part, incarnates itself into the real world it occasions (while remaining virtual and external to the world). On the other hand, the letters in a novel are placed one after the other. But the supramundane plane is, for its part, atemporal—in the sense that its past, its present, and its future are simultaneous rather than successive. The supramundane plane is composed of an infinity of ideational entities—and endowed with a pulse to select some of those ideational entities and to turn the selected ones into material entities.

In selecting and materializing some ideational entities, the supramundane plane proceeds like the aforementioned writer. It starts with materializing some ideational entities (what occasions the apparition of the world from nothingness); then deciphers the possible implications from those very first materialized ideational entities. It selects some of those implications and actualizes them, what is tantamount to materializing some other ideational entities; then it actualizes some of the new offered possibilities, and so on. The world is the material, temporal incarnation of the virtual, atemporal pulse through which the supramundane plane sorts and actualizes its own content.

The pulse through which the supramundane plane sorts and actualizes its own content is also the pulse through which the supramundane plane is united. That virtual and atemporal supramundane plane united by its own sorting, actualizing pulse—and selectively incarnated into a material, temporal world to which it however remains external—is what I deem to be God. Like the aforementioned writer, God improvises His creation; and like the aforementioned writer, God plans and renders necessary those events in our world that happen in a random, unplanned manner.

As random and unplanned as are genetic mutations in our world considered independently of the supramundane plane, they are decided and forced in the supramundane plane and incarnated into our world. In improvising the course of unplanned, random events, God tries to generate ever-higher levels of order and complexity in the world; that is how an undirected, random cosmos is persistently, but fallibly, evolving towards order and complexity. Just like mistakes happen in some improvised fictional narratives, mistakes happen in the march of the improvised universe; it is not a perfect universe, nor a universe with a predefined arrival line. It is an irremediably imperfect universe, partly random (and irremediably random); but relentlessly, surprisingly evolving towards order and complexity, without the final stage of cosmic history being preset.

Again, the cosmos is a temporal, material improvised incarnation of an atemporal, virtual improvised pulse; a pulse whose past, present, and future stages happen simultaneously. The operation of that pulse does not exclude the operation of some intermediate demiurges between God and the humans; but every pulse in the world happens as an incarnation of a single pulse. Whether it comes from a demiurge, a human, a bacterium, or a dog—every pulse in the mundane realm comes as a temporal, material, singular illustration of the divine pulse, incarnating itself into the whole cosmos and remaining however external to the cosmos.

I will not venture to try to prove the existence of God (such as described here); but I believe I can show that my approach to God is highly corroborated (in default of being proven) by two things, at least. On the one hand, cosmic evolution, as conjectured nowadays in Western science, is an undirected, largely random process that however leads, more or less, to ever-higher levels of order and complexity. By itself, such a process is highly unlikely to result in such high levels of organization as those conjectured.

My approach to God proposes a solution to that paradox and transcends the opposition between the thesis of the “intelligent design” and those theoretical conceptions known as “Neo-Darwinism.” Cosmic evolution (including biological) is indeed undirected and largely random, as so-called Neo-Darwinists claim; but it is also the shadow, so to speak, of a directed, spiritual process. The latter is not present in the world, in which evolution is really undirected and (partly) random—unlike what the proponents of the “intelligent design” thesis believe. Instead, the divine process, which is purposeful and nonetheless fallible, is incarnated into the cosmos, which remains undirected and largely random for its part.

On the other hand, my approach to God takes into account the existence of suprasensible intuition, i.e., the experience of the supraworldly, ideational realm through unempirical perception. Suprasensible intuition is especially practiced in the knowledge area known as mathematics—as Pythagoras and Plato claim. For the sake of semantic clarity, the rest of the article will call “entities” only those distinct beings that are material and intramundane.

The distinct beings within the supraworldly, ideational realm will not be called entities. The distinct ideational beings include numbers and figures; but, also, the ideational models for the entities within the worldly realm—as much those that used to exist as those presently existing and as those existing in the future. The ideational models within the supraworldly realm also include models for those entities corresponding to possible worlds that the sorting, actualizing pulse chooses not to actualize. The issue of knowing whether some truths in that world remain true in all the possible worlds is an old one. Mathematical truths are often thought to be such truths—and, more precisely, thought to remain true in all the possible worlds through being apodictic statements. I intend now to turn to that issue.

Mathematics As Suprasensible Intuition

An allegedly apodictic statement is a statement allegedly true by its sole terms—and therefore true by right and true whatever may be. An allegedly analytical statement is a statement that, allegedly, is true or wrong depending (and depending only) on the (correct) laws of formal logic. In Kant’s approach to analyticity, an analytical statement is, more precisely, a statement in which the predicate is included in the concept of the subject. In the approach of logical empiricism, an analytical statement is, more precisely, a statement that is either tautological (i.e., true for any distribution of the truth-values in the calculation of predicates), or reducible to a tautology (i.e., a statement true for any distribution of the truth-values in the calculation of predicates). In Leibniz’s approach, an analytical statement is, more precisely, a statement whose opposite is self-contradictory.

An allegedly synthetic statement is a statement that, allegedly, is true or wrong depending (and depending only) on whether it is congruent with reality. In Kant’s approach to syntheticity, a synthetic statement is, more precisely, a statement in which the predicate is not included in the concept of the subject. In the approach of logical empiricism, a synthetic statement is, more precisely, a statement that is neither tautological nor reducible to a tautology. In Leibniz’s approach, a synthetic statement is, more precisely, a statement whose opposite is not self-contradictory.

The problem with the notion of apodicticity is dual. Firstly, the problem is to know whether an apodictic statement is possible. Secondly, it is to know whether an apodictic statement (if it is possible) is necessarily an analytical statement. Kant is commonly thought of as claiming the mathematical statements to be apodictic ones that are nonetheless synthetic in the Kantian sense, i.e., endowed with a predicate that is not included in the concept of the subject.

According to my understanding of Kant’s approach to mathematics, he really conceives of mathematical statements as synthetic statements that are not apodictic; but which can nonetheless be proven true or false independently of sensible experience. And that by reason of the fact their concepts are constructed exclusively within the “pure forms of sensible intuition” that are, according to Kant, space and time, i.e., the fact that their concepts are constructed not on the basis of sensible experience, but only within the a priori spatial, temporal framework that the human mind, according to Kant, confers onto sensible experience. What Kant has in mind when speaking of an “a priori synthetic judgment” is not an apodictic synthetic judgment, but a synthetic judgment that, while being a priori (i.e., independent of sensible intuition) and while being not apodictic, can be proven true or false when—and only when—constructed within the human mind’s “pure forms of sensible intuition.”

Kant’s thesis (that mathematical judgments exclusively deal with concepts the human mind spontaneously constructs within the spatial, temporal framework of the human mind) is notably opposed by the one—notably shared by Pythagoras and Plato—that mathematical statements are exclusively the fruit of suprasensible experience. I will leave aside the issue of knowing whether Pythagoras and Plato also think of mathematical statements as apodictic ones.

In my opinion, Kant’s thesis suffers two flaws, at least: on the one hand, a logical flaw (i.e., a flaw in terms of internal coherence); on the other hand, an analytical error, i.e., a mistaken appreciation of reality. On the one hand, it claims the (true) mathematical synthetic judgments to fall both within unapodictic statements (i.e., those statements that are not true by the sole reason of their terms) and a priori, objective knowledge (i.e., objectively true knowledge logically anterior to sensible experience); but is really unable to account for the alleged ability of the human mind to determine in an a priori mode (i.e., independently of sensible experience) whether its mathematical synthetic judgments are true or wrong.

If mathematical judgments were, indeed, both unapodictic and (exclusively) constructed within the alleged spatio-temporal framework of the human mind (as Kant claims), the fact would still remain that such origin for mathematical judgments would not allow the human mind to determine in an a priori mode whether those unapodictic judgments are true or wrong. Thus, Kant’s thesis leaves unexplained an alleged fact it proposes to explain: the alleged character of (true) mathematic judgments as a priori, unapodictic, objectively true knowledge.

On the other hand, Kant’s thesis is partly mistaken about the origin of mathematical synthetic judgments. Those are really the fruit of suprasensible perception to some extent; and the fruit of the human mind to some extent. Here I will leave aside the issue of knowing whether the mathematical statements the human mind is able to conceive (and able to conceive of as true) are necessarily an extension of statements the human mind is able to conceive of as true by the sole operation of certain admitted logical laws. Or the issue of knowing whether any true mathematical statement, i.e., any mathematical statement congruent with reality, is necessarily an extension of certain admitted logical laws congruent with what may be called the ontological structure of reality. My only points here are the two. First, the truth of a mathematical statement—such as “7 + 5 = 12”—is not apodictic. Second, our mathematical concepts and statements are to some extent the product of the suprasensible perception which Plato and Pythagoras refer to; and to some extent the product of the human mind itself.

At least in that world, perhaps also in all the possible worlds (which remains to be determined—and I will leave aside that issue here), an apodictic statement (i.e., a statement true by its sole terms—and therefore true whatever may be, and true by right) cannot exist. At least in our world, a true statement can be true only by virtue of its conformity to reality. Hence, there can be no statement true by reason of its sole terms. A certain statement that holds true, whatever may be, is true by virtue of a certain fact that remains whatever may be, i.e., a certain fact that remains in all the possible worlds; but it is not true in an apodictic mode.

The same applies to logical laws and to definitions. An objectively valuable logical law, i.e., a logical law that objectively allows for coherent lines of reasoning, is objectively valuable because it is in line with the ontological structure of (our) reality; but it is not rendered objectively valuable by its sole terms. The law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, the law of the excluded middle, the modus ponens, the modus tollens, etc., cannot be logically valuable unless the corresponding alleged ontological facts (i.e., the alleged fact that any existing entity is necessarily what it is, rather than what is not, etc.) are real. Likewise, an objectively valuable definition is necessarily a true definition, i.e., a definition that is congruent with reality; it cannot be rendered objectively valuable by its sole terms.

An allegedly analytical statement is an allegedly apodictic statement that allegedly owes its apodicticity to being true by the sole operation of some (allegedly correct) logical laws. An admitted logical law is not analytical, i.e., is not rendered true or false by its own operation; but it is true or false, depending on whether it is congruent with the ontological structure of our world. A tautological statement is a statement that certain admitted logical laws (whatever they may be) deem to be true (or deem to be false) for any distribution of truth values. A tautological statement necessarily expresses what it claims to be—a certain illustration (in our world) of the ontological structure common to all the possible worlds. For instance, “a cat is cat” expresses a certain illustration of the ontological law of identity—and implicitly claims such law to be common to the ontological structure of all the possible worlds.

A tautological statement is not analytical, i.e., is not rendered true or wrong by the sole operation of certain admitted logical laws; but it is true or false, depending on whether it is congruent with an actual illustration (in our world) of a certain ontological law of our reality—and on whether that ontological law is common to our world and to all the possible worlds. “A cat is a cat” is true depending on whether the alleged fact that a cat is a cat is an actual illustration (in our world) of an actual ontological law in our world—and on whether that ontological law is common to the ontological structure of all the possible worlds.

A definition is a statement of some alleged properties in the object of a certain concept. An admitted definition in a certain language is contentless and conventional from the angle of that language, considered independently of reality; but it is informational and speculative from the aspect of that language considered in relation to reality. An admitted definition is not analytical, i.e., is not rendered true or false by the sole operation of certain admitted logical laws; but it is true or false depending on whether it is congruent with the object of the definition. A mathematical statement is not analytical either; but it is true or false depending on whether it is in line with what may be called the mathematical field of reality.

Here I will leave aside the issue of knowing whether a mathematical statement and a definition can be reduced to a tautology; but let us admit they can be reduced to a tautology, i.e., a statement that certain admitted logical laws deem to be true for any distribution of truth values. Their reducibility would not render them analytical—since they would be reducible to a (tautological) statement that is not analytical. Saying that a statement is true for any distribution of truth values, in regards to certain admitted logical laws, is tantamount to saying that the latter is true in all the possible worlds in regards to those laws. Yet a statement is not rendered effectively true in all the possible worlds by the fact of being tautological in regards to certain admitted logical laws.

The only way for a statement to be true in all the possible worlds (i.e., true whatever may be) is to be congruent with a fact that remains in all the possible worlds. A tautological statement is not contentless (as Ludwig Wittgenstein and others claim). If it were a contentless statement, it would be neither true nor wrong; but a tautological statement is true or false depending on whether it is congruent with an actual illustration (in our world) of an ontological law common to all possible worlds.

Wittgenstein’s claim that a tautological statement exhibits (but does not tell) the ontological structure of our world (and only that of our world) is doubly wrong. Instead, a tautological statement tells (instead of showing) what it claims to be—the ontological structure common to our world and to all possible worlds. If any possible mathematical statement is reducible to a tautology, then any possible mathematical statement speaks of the ontological structure allegedly common to our world and to all possible worlds. Any possible mathematical statement is true or false, depending on whether it is congruent with an actual illustration (in our world) of an ontological law common to all the possible worlds.

Going back to Kant’s claim about the origin of mathematical judgments, I suspect that the human mind is indeed endowed with a spatio-temporal framework which it uses to structure the sensible content; and that such framework is innate or acquired through experience or culture. But the human mind is not the only originator of its mathematical statements and concepts; they are to some extent the fruit of suprasensible intuition (in people highly gifted with suprasensible perception). On the one hand, the human mind’s spatio-temporal framework hosts within it the fruit of suprasensible intuition; on the other hand, the human mind works from the fruit of suprasensible intuition and generates its own mathematical concepts and statements.

The necessarily flawed character (to a varying degree) of a suprasensible intuition is one of the reasons why our mathematical knowledge is necessarily perfectible—and why revolutions can happen in mathematics. The fact the human mind, when it does not host the necessarily flawed fruit of a suprasensible intuition, only deals with its own invented concepts and statements, is another reason for the perfectibility of our mathematical knowledge. It is true that our mathematical concepts and statements, whether they stem from suprasensible intuition or from the human hind itself, can be corroborated by reality, such as it is observed or conjectured; but our observations of reality and our conjectures about reality can only corroborate our groping mathematical knowledge. They cannot confirm it. Such affirmation deserves further clarification, which I intend to deal with elsewhere.

The Issue Of Essences And Definitions

Besides containing ideational numbers and figures, the ideational domain also contains ideational models for existing entities (as well as for those that used to exist and for those that will exist). The essence of a (material) entity is what a (material) entity is. More precisely, it is both what an entity is—and what makes said entity be what it is, rather than be what it is not.

The essence of an entity is dual: it has an ideational component on the one hand; and a material one on the other hand. The ideational essence, i.e., the ideational component of an essence, contains the sum of all the properties of the considered (material) entity. The material essence, i.e., the material component of an essence, only contains the sum of all the constitutive properties of the considered (material) entity. I intend now to deal more extensively with the subject of ideational and material essences.

A mistake by Plato was to conceive of essence as only ideational—and to conceive of ideational essence as only containing the constitutive properties. More precisely, those constitutive properties that are general in the strong sense, i.e., attached to the genre under which a considered entity falls. An ideational essence instead contains the sum of all the properties of the considered entity—and not only those properties that are both constitutive and general in the strong sense.

As for the material essence, it only contains those properties that are constitutive—but as much those constitutive properties that are general in the strong sense as the rest of those properties that are constitutive. Another mistake by Plato was to conceive of the material entity as partaking of its ideational model. Any material entity is instead the incarnation of its ideational model, which incarnates itself into the corresponding material entity while remaining ideational and external to the corresponding material entity.

The definition of a material entity can be unique to some individuals, or can be generally admitted, i.e., admitted in a certain language and common to all the people participating in that language. Any definition deals with some properties of the defined material entity; more precisely, those properties whose inclusion into the considered definition allows the latter to make the considered entity easily distinguished (and recognized) when referred to in a certain statement. The properties evoked in a certain definition do not necessarily coincide with the constitutive properties of the defined entity. But the definition of a certain entity is true or false, depending on its conformity to the properties of the entity. Here, I will leave aside the issue of defining properties rather than entities—and the issue of defining ideational models rather than material entities.

A property is what is characteristic of a certain (material) entity at a given moment of the entity’s existence. Among the properties of an entity, some are constitutive of said entity, i.e., part of what makes that entity what it is (rather than what it is not); others are accessory, i.e., external to what makes that entity what it is (rather than what it is not).

Among the constitutive properties, some are innate to an entity, i.e., are attached permanently to said entity over the course of its existence (unless its integrity is broken); others are emergent in the weak sense, i.e., become attached (whether permanently or temporarily) to said entity over the course of its existence. Among the emergent properties in the weak sense, some are constitutive; others are accessory. Among the emergent properties in the weak sense, some are emergent also in the strong sense, i.e., they introduce qualitative novelty into the world; others are emergent only in the weak sense, i.e., are properties that become attached (instead of being permanently attached to the considered entity over the course of its existence), but which are not novel qualitatively.

Among the properties of an entity, some are necessary, i.e., are forced to be attached permanently to the entity, or are forced to become attached to the entity; others are contingent, i.e., are attached permanently to the entity, or become attached, but without being forced to be attached permanently or forced to become attached. Among the necessary properties, some are constitutive, permanent properties; others are constitutive, emergent (in the weak sense) properties. Among the constitutive properties, some are general in the strong sense, i.e., are attached to the genre within which the considered entity falls; others are unique, i.e., are attached to the considered entity but are not attached to its genre.

While any constitutive, permanent property is also a necessary property, any necessary property is not a constitutive, permanent property. While any general property in the strong sense is also a constitutive, necessary property, any constitutive, necessary property is not a general property in the strong sense. Among the properties of an entity, some are fundamental; others are secondary. Among the constitutive properties of an entity (whether they are permanent or emergent in the weak sense, and whether they are general in the strong sense or unique), some are fundamental; others are secondary.

The ideational model of a certain entity contains the sum of all the properties of said entity over the course of its existence—as much those constitutive, as those accessory; as much those permanent, as those emergent in the weak sense; as much those emergent only in the weak sense, as those emergent also in the strong sense; as much those necessary, as those contingent; as much those general in the strong sense, as those unique; as much those fundamental, as those secondary. Any admitted definition in a given language is true or false depending on the quality of the reality—whether or not that definition only deals with all or part of the constitutive properties of the defined entity. Any admitted definition is both a contentless statement from the aspect of language considered independently of reality—and an informational statement from the aspect of the confrontation of language with reality.

What is more, any admitted definition is both conventional from the aspect of language considered independently of reality—and conjectural from the aspect of the confrontation of language with reality. No definition (whether it is generally admitted or not) is analytical, i.e., true or false by the sole operation of certain admitted logical laws. But any admitted definition in a given language is thought (by that language) to be synthetic, i.e., to be true by being congruent with reality. No definition (whether it is generally admitted or not) is rendered true by the fact that the involved language deems that definition to be true; but any definition is true or false depending on reality.

Any definition is likely to get updated when progress is made in the knowledge of reality—whether such progress is made through (sensible) observation, through corroborated conjecturing, or through suprasensible perception (i.e., through the suprasensible grasp of ideational models). As for those (impracticable) definitions dealing with all the properties of a certain entity—a perfectly true definition of that kind is a definition perfectly mirroring the whole ideational model of the defined entity. And as for those definitions only dealing with all or part of the constitutive properties of the defined entity—a perfectly true definition of that kind is a definition perfectly mirroring all or part of the constitutive properties formulated within the ideational model of the defined entity. The ideational entities within the ideational domain are too much complex with respect to what a human mind is really able to understand (no matter how powerful a human mind is). Hence, the suprasensible grasping of a certain ideational model by a certain human mind is necessarily imperfect. In other words, only a more or less misrepresentative portrait of a grasped ideational model can be obtained through suprasensible intuition.

Conclusion—And A Few Words On The Kabbalah

The problem of knowing whether the world emerges from God is different from the problem of knowing whether God necessarily occasions the existence of the world. Besides, the latter arises differently, depending on the answer given to the former. If God, conceived of as substance (in the sense of an uncreated, necessarily existing entity), creates the world, the question of the necessary or contingent character of the world’s causation then applies to a world distinct from God. If God, conceived of as substance (in the sense of an uncreated, necessarily existing entity), sees the world emerging from God, the question of the contingent or necessary character of the world’s causation then applies to a world that constitutes a constitutive emergent property in the strong sense, i.e., a property that, while being constitutive of God and introducing novelty, is not co-eternal with God.

For my part, I claim that the world is neither created nor emergent, but that it incarnates God (conceived of as uncreated and as necessarily existing), who nevertheless remains distinct from said world (as the Father remains distinct from the Son, who is nevertheless His incarnation). That relation of incarnation is necessarily occurring. Hence, the world is necessarily occasioned. Besides, that relation of incarnation is co-eternal with God—although the world has a temporal beginning.

The cosmos is neither an emergent property of God (as in the medieval Kabbalah), nor a product of God (as in the modern Kabbalah). The cosmos is an incarnation of God— more precisely, an incarnation of the book, that is—both in a simultaneous and improvised mode—written in God’s mind. The Kabbalah’s idea that the cosmos is created through letters is thus deepened in this way: the cosmos is created through an improvised, atemporal writing process, incarnating itself into the temporal, (partly) random cosmos.

As for the Kabbalah’s idea that man is made in the image of God and is mandated both to repair the world and to respect God’s law, is deepened in this way: the writing process incarnating itself into the world aims to accomplish ever-higher levels of order and of complexity, but is likely to commit mistakes. It is up to man to repair those mistakes to the extent possible—and to respect at the same time the cosmic order, which is part of God’s law to humans.

When some men are trying to repair the creation, they are really the incarnation of God trying to repair His own work through them. Yet some men are more linked to God than others—and therefore, more able than others to grasp the writing process through suprasensible intuition. Those men are as such because they have a more yechidah soul.


Grégoire Canlorbe is an independent scholar, based in Paris. Besides conducting a series of academic interviews with social scientists, physicists, and cultural figures, he has authored a number of metapolitical and philosophical articles. His work and interviews often appear in the Postil.


The featured image shows, “Young Man Holding a Roundel,” by Sandro Botticelli, painted ca. 1475.

Education As Provocation: A Conversation With Konrad Paul Liessmann

This month, we are so very pleased to have a conversation with Professor Konrad Paul Liessmann, the renowned Austrian philosopher, essayist, and cultural critic at the University of Vienna.

The Postil (TP): Welcome, Professor Liessmann, to the Postil. It is a great pleasure to have you with us. Recently, your book, Bildung als Provokation (Education as Provocation) was translated into French as La haine de la culture. Pourquoi les démocraties ont besoin de citoyens cultivés (Hatred of Culture: Why Democracies Need Educated Citizens). The difference between the two titles is interesting. Could you speak to this difference? Is there a connection between education today and a “hatred of culture?”

Konrad Paul Liessmann. Photo Credit: Heribert Corn.

Konrad Paul Liessmann (KPL): There is this connection. Culture, in the sense of the great works of world literature, music and the visual arts, was banned from education. The only thing that now counts in education, therefore, is competencies; dealing with the great documents of culture is hardly relevant anymore. This is also the result of a “hatred of culture,” an attitude that wants to make it easy for everyone and denounces as elitist any argument that requires concentration, knowledge and effort. That doesn’t mean that this culture should be adopted uncritically; but without this culture all education is empty.

TP: How do you understand culture?” Do you think we have lost culture?

KPL: Of course, there are the most varied of provisions of culture. One can start from a concept of culture that turns everything into culture that people somehow do regularly, ritualized and in a formed way—in this sense one can speak of a culture of beer drinking as well as a culture of war. But one could also start from a narrow concept of culture that only accepts those forms of culture in which that tendency towards reflexivity and aestheticization has become independent. That could best be called “art.” Indeed, no one wants to reduce culture to art anymore. One would rather “expand” the concept of art and allow it to coincide with the expanded concept of culture. However, it was only the elitist concept of culture that was limited to artistic activity and associated with an exquisite quality standard that made it attractive for its expansion. The fact that even the stupidest TV show wants to be culture only makes sense if you want to peck at the aura of a term that you simultaneously negate with this claim.

However, the concept of culture also suggests other interpretations and differentiations. In its original meaning, culture has, strangely enough, three opposing terms that say more about it than laborious definitions of the term culture itself: nature, barbarism, and civilization. Culture can only be determined on the basis of these and in contrast to them. Culture is originally, in its derivation, from “agriculture,” that is, worked nature. Furthermore, culture is the work on human nature. What is still raw in people, i.e., na-ture, is cultivated and refined with regard to the actual purpose of the human: autonomy and freedom. Culture always has a strong aesthetic component. Culture is always freedom from necessity, a game of fantasy and imagination, and not the practice in the practical constraints of the digitalized competitive society. In this sense, it could be that we actually lose culture because we only see everything from the point of view of usefulness.

TP: Education, of course, is the primary focus of your book. But education now means so many different things. How do you understand education?

KPL: The beautiful German word Bildung has a wide variety of meanings. Of course, this includes essential aspects of upbringing (“Education”), but the imparting of scientific, cultural, aesthetic and historical knowledge is also part of education for me. And finally, education also has a lot to do with self-education, with the formation and cultivation of mind, body and soul, with the development of dispositions and talents.

TP: There is much talk about “skills” and getting students ready for jobs (which are non-existent). Do you think universities are betraying young people because they are training them to be obsolete?

KPL: Our dynamic world no longer allows precise predictions about the world of work of tomorrow. So it is hardly possible to train young people for a certain profession. Universities shouldn’t do that either. Universities should offer a scientific education that represents a solid basis for future prospects.

TP: You offer a very pertinent quotation from the German philosopher Peter Bieri, who also writes novels under the pseudonym, Pascal Mercier – “…the educated person reads books in such a way that they change him?” Could you speak about this “change?”

KPL: Well, Peter Bieri talks mainly about reading literature, novels, short stories, poetry. According to his thesis, the reader of literature learns how to talk about the way people think, want and feel. The reader learns the language of the soul. He learns that one can feel differently about the same thing than he is used to. He learns new words and new metaphors for mental events. Because his vocabulary, his conceptual repertoire, has grown, he can now talk about his experience in a more nuanced way, and this in turn enables him to feel more differentiated. Whoever feels more differentiated, who now has words for complex feelings, has changed through reading. Reading helps to better understand other people, other situations in life, strange worlds. Precisely because this is so important in a diverse world, I don’t understand why literature is disappearing from schools.

TP: Do you think education is secular redemption?

KPL: No, I do not think so. But very often it is pretended that all the problems of our world are solved if enough is invested into education. In no area of life is there so much hope set as in that of education; there is no authority that is trusted as much as education. Education is a sought-after resource for countries with few natural resources in global competition; education is seen as a medium with which girls, migrants, outsiders, lower classes, the disabled and oppressed minorities are to be emancipated, promoted, integrated and included; and education should protect young people from being seduced by drugs, the Islamic State, and protect them from the populists. Education is supposedly the means by which prejudice, discrimination, unemployment, hunger, obesity, anorexia, AIDS, inhumanity and genocide is prevented—the challenges of the future are met and children are happy, and young sdults should be made employable: But none of that is possible. There are far too many expectations placed on education— and that is why one is always disappointed in education.

TP: Technology has given modern man much leisure time – but modern man is also forever in a rush, never having enough time for anything. Could you explain this paradox?

KPL: I think modern technology is ambivalent: it gives us freedom and makes us dependent. This also characterizes digitization. Any relief will be undone by the variety of possibilities that this technology offers and that we want to exhaust. That’s why we’re constantly rushed because we don’t want to miss anything. And we don’t want to miss anything because we no longer have any idea what is really important in our life. I hardly exlcude myself from all this. Technology has a great seductive power—we forget how much it makes us slaves to our machines. The machines should serve us and not we who should serve the machines.

TP: Will technology make institutional education unnecessary?

KPL: I do not believe that it will. The current corona crisis in particular shows how important schools and universities are. Learning is primarily a social process; meeting people is constitutive for educational processes, not working through programs.

TP: You mention the term “pseudo-scientificization of pedagogy” used by the philosopher Julian Nida-Rümelin. Could you explain what this means?

KPL: We have a fundamental problem with the scientification of professions that could be viewed more as craft, such as education. A good teacher doesn’t have to be a good scientist, and a good scientist is by no means a good teacher. Nevertheless, I believe that in a modern knowledge-society, teachers in schools need scientific training, because the sciences are the basis of teaching. The fact that so much fake news and conspiracy theories are circulating today also has to do with the fact that we don’t know enough about how knowledge is produced and communicated.

TP: You make a very powerful statement in your book—“No, education alone cannot change a society.” What led you to this conclusion?

KPL: If you will permit: the historical experience. The current balance of power is reflected in every idea of education; the hope that the youth will do better one day has still been disappointed. Social changes result from social and economic tensions, from technological innovations, and, yes, also from wars. Education alone can do little here. And yet I do not give up the hope that educated people treat themselves, treat others, treat the environment a little more carefully than is currently happening.

TP: There is a very intriguing chapter in your book, entitled, “Europe Considered as Fine Art. Towards an Aesthetics of a Continent.” How should we understand this?

KPL: The idea was, based on the famous book “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” by Thomas de Quincey, not to look at Europe from an economic, political or bureaucratic point of view, but rather from an aesthetical one. How does a colorful map of Europe from the Middle Ages, the 19th century and the present affect us? What role do the great authors from Homer to Shakespeare to Flaubert and Dostoevsky play in our conception of Europe? What significance does “absolute music” have as a genuine European invention for European consciousness? Is it a coincidence that the “European Anthem” goes back to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? And what do metaphors from architecture, such as, the talk of the “common-house Europe” mean for our self-image? I wanted to pursue these and similar questions.

TP: You also make an essential difference between art and science. Do both exist for the “betterment” of “society?”

KPL: No. They do not exist “for” the betterment of society. Because art and science have to be free and autonomous, only then do they work well. If they are subjected to other purposes, no matter how desirable to us, art and science will be corrupted. Ideology and morality therefore have no place in art and science. But as an expression of freedom, art and science can also be a model for what a sovereign and self-confident human life could look like. But: art is not science and science is not art. Art is committed to imagination and aesthetic form, science to empiricism and rationality.

TP: In your invigorating discussion of revolution, you talk about Henning Ritter’s Die Schreie der Verwundeten (Screams of the Wounded). Why are revolutions cruel?

KPL: I don’t know. But they are. All. Every revolution has betrayed its goals and ideals. Perhaps this is due to a fatal logic: because revolutionaries believe they are on the right side of history, they consider anything to be permitted in order to achieve their goals. Whoever considers everything to be allowed because the end justifies the means becomes cruel, evil, inhuman. We must distrust revolutionaries of all shades.

TP: You call modern democracy “an administrator of poverty.” That is both a marvelous and a disturbing phrase, given the ease with which censorship is now applied and the strict control of speech (especially in English-speaking countries). Is this the result of the “mercantilization of society and life,” to use your apt term?

KPL: This question touches on several aspects. The modern, democratic state becomes an “administrator of poverty” insofar as we see it primarily as a welfare state that is supposed to alleviate the worst negative consequences of economic and ecological developments. The state is no longer a center of power, but a compensation institution. This can be seen clearly, for example, in education policy, which has actually become social policy under the keywords “equity of opportunity” and “equal opportunities.” And the state is increasingly understood as a moral institution that has to ensure that people speak correctly, think correctly, love correctly, eat rightly and act correctly. Sometimes nudging is enough, sometimes it leads to regulations and prohibitions. This undoubtedly restricts human freedom. In addition, we model our lives in principle according to the model of the market, according to the model of companies. Professors become knowledge-managers, lovers become people who invest emotions with the hope of high returns.

TP: The structure of the “political party,” you state, has fallen into a crisis as a political model. Do you think such political parties have a future?

KPL: Well, I am not advocating the abolition of parties, I just see how the traditional big parties—bourgeois parties, social democratic parties—get into a crisis and new parties emerge faster and faster, which can also quickly disappear. This has to do with the fact that people are no longer clearly defined socially and culturally. Changing interests lead to changing political representations. As the name suggests, parties correspond to a part of the whole; a democracy should be able to identify itself in the interaction of the parties. But you can imagine a democracy—as in antiquity—without parties, even without elections: you can also draw lots for important functions among the citizens.

TP: The idea of “limits” or “borders” is an important one in your thought. How should we understand these two terms, and is there a connection between borders and education?

KPL: Border in a double sense (“limit” and “border”) plays an important role not only in my thinking, but also in thinking in general. Without drawing boundaries, we cannot think; every “definition” is such a boundary. Boundaries teach us to differentiate, and boundaries mark differences. But limits are also an instruction to act: up to here and no further. And I could go on. Limits can therefore always be postponed, changed, exceeded. Borders therefore arouse curiosity; they refer us to the neighbor on the other side. This is also important for education: boundaries never divide absolutely, but they show what is here and what is there. And in a political and legal sense, borders have been invented to protect the weak. The strong do not need limits. “No borders” used to be the battle cry of aggressors. I don’t know if it’s really any different today. Of course, one shouldn’t draw rigid, inhumane boundaries. But without borders, our thinking and the world sink into chaos.

TP: “Anyone who thinks is fundamentally intolerant.” Could you explain this interesting phrase, and is the work of the intellectual still relevant?

KPL: The sentence sounds provocative, but it isn’t. The thinker is concerned with, arguable, justifiable insights, with the claim to truth. Tolerance is a wrong principle in science. As Karl Popper already taught, one has to do everything possible to falsify hypotheses and theories, i.e., to show that they are false. Theories only acquire a certain plausibility if this does not succeed. Thinking can and must be intolerant because it is not about the tolerance of other opinions, but about the search for truth. Tolerance would mean that we would no longer be able to recognize errors. That would be fatal. Intellectuals have the task of making that clear. Tolerance is only required in questions of religious belief, not in questions of scientific truth.

TP: In the final chapter of your book, you call for a “new Enlightenment.” What will this “new” Enlightenment look like?

KPL: My point is that the new Enlightenment should build on forgotten dimensions of the old Enlightenment. In this context I recall a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, the German-Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn. For Mendelssohn, enlightenment, i.e., science and rationality, was one aspect of general human education. The other side was culture, i.e., art and emotion. We have to learn again to think together the many dimensions of man. That also means that education has to educate itself about itself.

TP: Are you hopeful about the future of the West?

KPL: The philosopher Günther Anders, who spoke about the “antiquity of man,” once remarked: Hope is just another word for cowardice. If the ideas of European humanism are important to us, we should do everything we can to assert these ideas; that does not exclude criticism and self-criticism. But if we want to say goodbye to them because we are falling back into tribal structures, or want to submit to the dictates of the digital industries, we can do that too. In both cases there is nothing to hope for.

TP: Professor Liessmann, thank you so very much for your time. It has truly been a great pleasure and honor to speak to you.


The featured image shows, “Portrait of a Young Scholar,” attributed to either Jan van Scorel or Maarten van Heemskerck, painted in 1531.


Translated from the German by N. Dass.