My theme is that, on the German intellectual landscape, Kant is as close to Enlightenment thinking as it gets. From the perspective of most of his followers and contemporaries, he is too contaminated by the Enlightenment. Because of his brilliance and fundamentality, Kant sets the framework for those who come after him. But his followers develop and extend what we take to be the worst elements of his philosophy.
One of Kant's younger contemporaries is a man named Johann Hamann (1730-1788). Like Kant, he was born and lived in Königsberg, and he was called by many of his contemporaries "the wise man of the north." Hamann hates the Deistic and atheistic leanings of the Enlightenment. He hates-and that is not an overstatement-the epistemology of reason that leads to Deism and atheism. He is not, however, a traditional religious thinker who simply dismisses reason altogether when it conflicts with faith. Reason is fine as long as one doesn't see it as more powerful than it really is.
Reason, on Hamann's account, is simply not autonomous, contrary to Kant. It is not capable of thinking in terms of broad abstractions and seeking universal truths. Instead, Hamann argues, reason is an embodied and particular faculty. It gets its material from our experiences and it never strays far from our experiences.
Now, experiences of things are individual, unique, particular, personal-and also relative. They are not impersonal, abstract, and universal. Man's mind is imagistic and concrete. And so when we learn and think about things, we learn best from history; we learn best from tradition. We don't learn much from science; we don't learn much from philosophy-they are too abstract.
Because reason is shaped by particular concrete experiences, it varies from individual to individual. We all experience different things. And so it is too limited to be relied upon to get the broad universal truths that men need to guide themselves in their day-to-day living. The only true source for broad guiding truth is therefore religious faith. Faith is the basic means of knowledge. It is direct communion with God. Reading the Scriptures literally lets you hear the voice of God. Revelation, not reason, is the sole source of knowledge of God.
So, like Kant, then, Hamann limits reason to make room for faith. They agree on that. But because of all Kant's compromises with the Enlightenment, from Hamann's perspective, he is still a threat. Kant is too rationalistic, too abstracted, ascribing too much power to reason.
There is further damning evidence about Kant. Kant uses reason as a practical guide to action. That's bad. One is, on the Kantian scheme, to grasp rationally and apply consistently the categorical imperative before deciding upon a course of action. Kant thus ascribes power to reason, fundamental power. But, Hamann argues, man is not basically connected to the world through reason. We are connected by emotion, especially the emotion of love. That's what connects you with things. As Hamann was fond of saying "The heart beats before the head thinks."
But even here in making faith and feeling the root, Hamann is not a conventional religious thinker. For he adds an early Romanticist twist. Even the idea that there are strict, iron-clad rules that we're supposed to follow, duties that we're to follow without exception-that's misguided. Read the Bible! The Bible is full of parables illustrating exceptions, paradoxes, contradictions-God breaks the rules all the time! Reason wants rules, but the heart knows no rules in its passionate, creative pursuit of the divine. Passion and creation require shattering rules, breaking conventions. It doesn't follow recipes. Life is not a woman you place on a shelf with strict orders not to touch. No, if you're going to create life you can't treat the rules as "Vestal Virgins." You have to violate them to bring forth life.
On that erotic note, let's stop with Hamann. The passion and force of his argument made him enormously influential on the pantheon of great German intellectuals: Goethe, Schleiermacher, Fichte, Schelling, and especially Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was almost a disciple of Hamann.
Aside from his influence, Hamann is important for our understanding of the German intellectual context. While from our standpoint Kant is anti-reason and subjectivistic, in the context of eighteenth century Germany Kant defines the pro-reason side of the debate. Kant is seen as standing for reason, abstraction, universality-everything Hamann rejects. The debate is thus framed with the Kantians at one end of the spectrum and the Hamannians near the other end. So choose.
Next big name: Johann Herder (1744-1803). Herder studied philosophy and theology at the University of Königsberg. His professor of philosophy was Immanuel Kant. While at Königsberg, he also became a disciple of Hamann, and upon graduating he became a Lutheran clergyman and man of letters. He is Kantian in his disdain for the intellect, though unlike the static and rigid Kant he adds an activist and emotionalist component. "I am not here to think," Herder wrote, "but to be, feel, live."
Herder's distinctiveness lies not in his epistemology, however, but in his analysis of history and the destiny of mankind. What meaning, he asks, writing voluminously on history, can we discern in history? Is it all chance events, randomness-or is there a plan?
Well, there's a plan. History, Herder argues, is moved by a necessary, dynamic development that pushes man progressively toward victory over nature. This necessary development culminates in the achievements of science, the arts, and freedom. So far, this is not new. Lutheran Christianity holds that God's plan for the world gives a necessary dynamic and direction to history's development, and the Enlightenment thinkers projected the victory of man over the brutish forces of nature.
But here's the difference. The Enlightenment thinkers had posited a universal human nature and they had held that human reason would and could develop equally in all cultures. Accordingly, they held that all cultures could and would eventually achieve the same degree of progress and that when that happened the human species would eliminate all the superstitions and the irrationalities and the prejudices that drive men apart and mankind would finally achieve a cosmopolitan, peaceful, liberal, social order.
Not so, says Herder. Instead, each people, each Volk, possesses a unique culture. It is itself an organic community stretching backward and forward in time. Each culture has its own special genius, its own unique special trait. And necessarily these cultures are opposed to each other. So as each fulfills its own destiny, its unique developmental path will necessarily put it in conflict with other cultures.
So then we ask: Is this conflict of cultures bad, is it wrong? Not necessarily, says Herder. In fact, we cannot make judgments about wrong or bad about where history is going. Judgments of good and bad are always defined internally by a culture's own standards. Each culture can be judged only by its own internal standards. One can't judge one culture from the perspective of another. One can only sympathetically immerse oneself in another culture, especially its artistic culture, to get the true flavor of what's going on there.
However, attempting to understand other cultures is not really a good idea. Herder argues that attempting to incorporate other cultures' elements into one's own necessarily leads to the decay of one's own culture. To be vigorous, creative, and alive you have to steep yourself in your own culture and absorb yourself into it.
And for the Germans, given their cultural traditions, attempting to engraft Enlightenment branches is going to lead to disaster. The German is not suited for sophistication, liberalism, science. The German should stick his local traditions, his language, and his sentiment. For the German, local culture is better than high culture. Being unspoiled by books and learning is best. Science is artificial. Be natural! Be rooted in the soil! For the German, the parable of the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge, is true. Don't eat of that tree! Live! Don't think. Don't analyze.
Now, Herder is not saying that the German way is the best and that it's fine for the Germans to become imperialistic and impose their culture on others. That step was taken by his followers. He is simply, as a German, in favor of the German people and arguing that they should go their own way and not follow the Enlightenment.
I mention Herder because of his enormous influence especially on the nationalist movements that are about to take off all over Central and Eastern Europe. But also understanding Herder is important to rounding out the German intellectual scene on the history and destiny of mankind. While Herder is Kantian epistemologically, he rejects Kant's universalism. For Herder, how reason shapes and structures varies culturally. And so in contrast to Kant's vision of a peaceful cosmopolitan future-Kant was Enlightenment enough on that point-Herder projects a future of multicultural conflict. And so in the context of this particular German debate, your choice is between Kant at one end of the spectrum and Herder at the other. So, again, choose.
Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from a two-session lecture on the Counter-Enlightenment that Stephen Hicks delivered at the 1999 Atlas Society Summer Seminar.
Stephen Hicks is chairman of the philosophy department of Rockford College, in Rockford, Illinois and executive director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He previously spent a year at The Atlas Society as a senior fellow. During this time he wrote the book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault .
Stephen R. C. Hicks, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University, Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship, and Senior Scholar at The Atlas Society.
He is author of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W. W. Norton & Co., 1998), Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (Ockham’s Razor, 2010), Entrepreneurial Living (CEEF, 2016), Liberalism Pro and Con (Connor Court, 2020), Art: Modern, Postmodern, and Beyond (with Michael Newberry, 2021) and Eight Philosophies of Education (2022). He has published in Business Ethics Quarterly, Review of Metaphysics, and The Wall Street Journal. His writings have been translated into 20 languages.
He has been Visiting Professor of Business Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Visiting Fellow at the Social Philosophy & Policy Center in Bowling Green, Ohio, Visiting Professor at the University of Kasimir the Great, Poland, Visiting Fellow at Harris Manchester College of Oxford University, England, and Visiting Professor at Jagiellonian University, Poland.
His B.A. and M.A. degrees are from the University of Guelph, Canada. His Ph.D. in Philosophy is from Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.
In 2010, he won his university’s Excellence in Teaching Award.
Instagram Takeover Questions:
Every week we solicit questions from our 100K followers on Instagram (a social media platform popular with young people. Once a month we feature Stephen Hicks' answers to select questions, transcripts below:
Also several articles, selected for likely interest to Objectivist audiences: