Metacritique of Dogmatic Reason: Johann Georg Hamann


Lord Keynes of the Social Democracy for the 21st Century blog has been making my life difficult recently. He’s been making me leave rather curt replies to what appear to be his knee-jerk criticisms of Freud — which I don’t enjoy doing because he’s one of the sharpest and most philosophically sophisticated economic bloggers around.

Now today, after having got none of my work done, he’s written a piece on epistemology which once again leaves out the only viewpoint which I think worthwhile. How on earth am I to not reply? Yet in doing so, I must outline an entire tradition of philosophy which, I would argue, has been ruthlessly repressed in the Anglophone world. So much so that I fear very few will even have heard the names I’m going to utter.

Okay, so Lord Keynes says that “in essence there are four positions held since the late 18th century on” epistemology and then goes on to lay out that of Quine, the empiricists, Kant and Kripke. They all revolve, in some way or another, around Kant’s distinction between synthetic a priori, analytic a priori, synthetic a posteriori and analytic a posteriori judgements. I am not going to explain these here as Lord Keynes has done a fine job in the linked post.

So, what is the viewpoint I feel that is left out? Well, we could go to the post-structuralists for answers but no, I think it more productive to show that the position I want to elaborate has been there from the very beginning; from the moment Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason. And so I will instead focus on Johann Georg Hamann who wrote the Metacritique on the Purism of Reason in 1784.

Some biographical detail first. Hamann was a funny sort. He largely remained outside of official circles of philosophy in his time. Yet, he was recognised as one of the leading philosophical thinkers in Germany when he was alive. He was good friends with Kant who, despite Hamann’s fierce opposition to his system, listened carefully to his criticisms (which I don’t think he understood) and even tried to co-author with him on occasion.  Kant’s ear was probably open because Hamann is the one that translated Hume’s major work into German which then went on to influence Kant to write his Critique. In a sense Hamann pushed Kant to write his great work, yet Kant never really understood what Hamann was saying.

Outside of the Anglophone world Hamann is fairly well-known. Goethe and Kierkegaard thought him to be the finest thinker of his time — a judgment I think correct. But within the Anglophone world the only major figure who engaged with him was Isaiah Berlin in his book on Counter-Enlightenment. Berlin’s book, I think, served as a warning to everyone else in the Anglophone world to avoid him as one might avoid an impure object (not unlike Freud today…). I say this in all seriousness. The Anglophone intellectual world since the early 20th century strikes me as one mired in crude systems of bullying and taboo — neoclassical economics is only the most extreme manifestation of this.

Anyway, what did Hamann have to say about epistemology? Hamann’s criticism of Kantian epistemology is tied up with his more general criticism of what he considered to be Kant’s dogmatic adherence to Reason. Hamann traced this leap to David Hume and the book he had translated for Kant. Hume, as Hamann correctly noted at the beginning of his Metacritique, had basically taken over his philosophical revolution for the Irish philosopher George Berkeley. This revolution, to boil it down, consisted in saying that all general ideas were really only particular ones repeated many times over.

We must understand this point for two reasons. First of all, because Kant then sought, through the use of “Pure Reason”, to try once again to discover general ideas. This is what all this synthetic a priori talk is really all about (and it is, to tie this back to Lord Keynes’ post, what von Mises would try to do with his praexology nonsense). Secondly, we must understand this because Berkeley had made this argument in a very different context. Berkeley, you see, thought that the scope of Reason was severely limited and that custom and tradition played a major role in thought. This was also the position of Hamann who, speaking of what the likes of Hume and Kant were trying to do, disapprovingly wrote:

The first purification of reason consisted in the partly misunderstood, partly failed attempt to make reason independent of all tradition and custom and belief in them. (Pp207)

Let us just survey the scenery here because it is so often forgotten. Berkeley made an argument about epistemological principles but he did so based on his idea that Reason was subordinate to custom and tradition. Hume then picked this argument up and ignored everything else Berkeley said, choosing instead to simply worship Reason. Kant then picked up this argument via Hume and tried to solidify this worship of Reason into epistemological principles that do not even need reference to immedaite experience, thus making Reason a dogmatic Absolute completely unfettered from custom and tradition. Or as Hamann writes in his typically beguiling prose:

The second [purification of reason] is even more transcendent and comes to nothing less than independence from experience and its everyday induction. After a search of two thousand years for who knows what beyond experience, reason not only suddenly despairs of the progressive course of its predecessors but also defiantly promises impatient contemporaries delivery, and this in a short time, of that general and infallible philosopher’s stone, indispensable for Catholicism and despotism. Religion will submit its sanctity to it right away, and law-giving its majesty, especially at the final close of a critical century when empiricism on both sides, struck blind, makes its own nakedness daily more suspect and ridiculous. (Pp207-208)

Did anyone ever try to refute Berkeley’s original arguments on custom and tradition? Of course not. Hume and Kant were quite crude thinkers in that they didn’t realise that they were engaged in the construction of a new form of custom that was to become increasingly dominant in the world: Enlightenment; the worship of Reason. And one doesn’t successfully help found a dogma by pointing out its arbitrariness! Better to allow your followers to wipe out your opponents (and your progenitors) by ignoring them!

(For the Post-Keynesians interested in philosophy, by the way, please take note… this might sound awkwardly familiar.)

Anyway, the ultimate criteria on which this new dogma rested, according to Hamann, was on the use of language. In Kant, Hamann found a use of language that would become extremely popular as the Enlightenment captured ever more minds. He wrote, for example, that “a good many analytic judgments indeed imply a gnostic hatred of matter or else a mystic love of form” and that synthetic judgements tended to display “nothing more than an old, cold prejudice for mathematics” (Pp209-210)

Again, I do hope that the Post-Keynesians have their ears pricked up here. Because a certain economist from the first half of the twentieth would often repeat very similar criticisms of both economics and of science in general.

But back to Hamann and his “metacritique” of epistemology. Hamann says that what such forms of thinking do is enact such a violence on our use of language that it becomes very nearly meaningless babble. He writes that “it works the honest decency of language into such a meaningless, rutting, unstable, indefinite something = x that nothing is left but a windy sough, a magic shadow play, at most, as the wise Helvetius says, the talisman and rosary of a transcendental superstitious belief in entia rationis [a being with no existence outside of the mind], their empty sacks and slogans.” (Pp210).

What Hamann is complaining about is something that any critical economist should be aware of: the ability of a narrowly precise method to do such damage to its adherents abilities to even understand the language that they use that it gains complete and total control over them. Hamann saw this, all those years ago, as inherent not in the mathematical tendencies of neoclassical economics; but in what he considered the mathematical tendencies of Enlightenment itself.

With that, I will lay out a passage which I think lays out what I might jokingly refer to as Hamann’s own epistemology. One which, I should add, I adhere to completely.

Sounds and letters are therefore pure forms a priori, in which nothing belonging to the sensation or concept of an object is found; they are the true, aesthetic elements of all human knowledge and reason. The oldest language was music, and along with the palpable rhythm of the pulse and of the breath in the nostrils, it was the original bodily image of all temporal measures and intervals. The oldest writing was painting and drawing, and therefore was occupied as early as then with the economy of space, its limitation and determination by figures. (Pp212)

There is your a priori. It is in the beating of your heart and the movement of your lungs. No, that does not mean that it is biological determined or some other such nonsense. For biology is but a form of knowledge and all knowledge passes through a single filter: that of language; of sounds and letters. Language dominates Reason and is not subject to it. And language, if one cares to pick up an etymological dictionary, is handed down to us via custom and tradition. There is no escaping it. Not even by falling on one’s knees and worshiping at the temple of Science and Reason.


About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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37 Responses to Metacritique of Dogmatic Reason: Johann Georg Hamann

  1. Lord Keynes says:

    This is food for thought, I agree. And I will have to plead guilty to mainly concentrating on Anglo-American analytic philosophy in the original post.

    Obviously pre-20th century philosophers and the modern non-Anglophone Continentals have important things to say too, but I’ll just — as a preliminary thought — repost what I just said in a comment on my blog:

    Interesting post, and I am certainly keen to learn more about Johann Georg Hamann, given his close relationship to Kant and his role in translating Hume for German speakers.

    Some quick reading in Gwen Griffith Dickson’s Johann Georg Hamann’s Relational Metacriticism (Berlin, 1995) shows that Hamann was skeptical about synthetic a priori knowledge (p. 290).

    Dickson then quotes (n. 86, on p. 290) Irmgard-Maria Piske’s Offenbarung, Sprache, Vernunft: zur Auseinandersetzung Hamanns mit Kant (Frankfurt am Main and New York, 1989, p. 162), to the effect that Hamann rejected synthetic a priori knowledge, because (in his view) it can’t be grounded in “pure thinking,” but must, like all empirical knowledge, be grounded in reality. Moreover, Hamann thought that apodictic certainty — or epistemic necessity — rests “only on a priori signs” (such as in mathematics).

    Now this is all a perfectly reasonable empiricist position.

    We get confirmation of this is on p. 291 when Dickson says that Hamann thought even geometry must be grounded in “the spatial, the empirical world of experience”, and on p. 294 it is said that Hamann thought our knowledge of space and time arise “from our experience” and “senses”.

    My reading is hardly anything more than a smattering of course, but it appears that the epistemological views of Hamann — at least in his critique of Kant — can be fitted into the empiricist category:

    Knowledge is either (1) a priori (and necessary only because it is analytic or mathematical), or (2) empirical (a posteriori).

    At any rate, that is the sense I get.

    • This is a classic misreading of Hamann. It goes back to what I said about Berkeley in the original post. Hume just took over his position on particulars and universals and divorced it completely from his appeal to tradition, custom and belief. This is why people often think that Berkeley is an empiricist. Because he made an argument that, in retrospect (i.e. after Hume) looks empiricist. But his argument is very far from the empiricist argument which, remember, for Hume ends in skeptical nihilism (Berkeley was a Bishop!).

      The reading of Hamann above is similar. He is not an empiricist because, as he recognises, empiricism falls apart into skepticism (“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”). He has an a priori and that a priori is language. As I said, language is dominated by custom. And so if Reason is dominated by language then Reason is dominated by custom.

      This is what some social constructivists, like Levi-Strauss and Lacan, argue too. Our language is generated through custom and is largely arbitrary and our Reason is then subject to this. Note that this is not Wittgenstein. For him we just need to purge language and make it conform to Reason. But these thinkers say that trying to do this will only end in a mess. (Something Wittgenstein, to his credit, realised in his later writings).

      So, no. This is not empiricism. This is what some might consider a conservative argument that customs and traditions are primary and Reason is secondary.

    • (replying both to you and to Philip Pilkington)
      Thanks for the reference – in fact I don’t consider Hamann to be a typical Enlightenment empiricist; he rejects both the paths of Wolff/Leibniz and Hume.
      So in different parts of his oeuvre (and periods of his life) you can find him attacking either position.
      But he is deeply sceptical of knowledge claims that purport to bypass experience and aren’t thus grounded. The same could be said for uses of terms.
      His use of ‘a priori’ in the passage cited above (‘sounds and letters are pure forms a priori) MUST be taken with a heavy dose of irony. It is NOT his own natural language. It is an example of his tactic of [soi-disant] ‘metaschematism’ -taking up an opponent’s weapons and striking them back with it.
      Gwen Griffith-Dickson

  2. Tom Hickey says:

    Wittgenstein (LW) later work seem to be similar to Hamann’s approach. Ordinary language exists with and only has meaning in context, and a large part of that context involves customs and tradition aka conventions and institutions. Wittgenstein came to realize later that modeling language on the formal approach characteristic of science as he had done in the Tractatus (TLP) was a “mistake.” LW was an engineer by training, and was strongly influenced in the TLP by Hertz’s Principle of Mechanics.

    The TLP is correct as an articulation of the logic of description underlying scientific method at the time, but Sraffa seems to have awakened LW “from his slumbers” about formalizing the logic of language in general, much as reading Hume did for Kant. As a result, Wittgenstein came to see most philosophical enquiry as based on an incorrect logical approach that renders much of previous speculative thought meaningless since it was disconnected from the context that gave the terms it used their meaning. Many fail to see that LW’s investigations are logical rather than descriptive (anthropology, sociology), owing to examples he used, or speculative (articulating “principles”) presuming it to be “philosophical” in a traditional sense. But throughout his work, LW held to the TLP view that logic can be seen in the functioning of language but cannot be described because it is the basis for description. Seeing this, one can point out the dynamics of logic to others through the use of elucidation, which he attempted to do.

    Saul Kripke took Wittgenstein’s rule following paradox — a rule requires an other rule to follow ad infinitum — to its logical “Humean” conclusion in skepticism, but few “old” Wittgenstein and Kripke are on altogether on the same page, even though SK gets the paradox essentially correct. However, it is the case that LW’s work shows that absolute criteria are unavailable in ordinary language. This is to say that what dogmatists assert cannot be logically compelling based on some universal rule. Even in logic, we see that different logical systems have different practical uses, for instance Euclidean, Lobachevskian, and Riemannian geometry define difference spaces that are all useful in science. Arguing over which is the “real” space is a nonsense when dealing with the classical world, the quantum world and hyperspace.

    John Dewey’s insight as a pragmatist is based on a view of meaning as pragmatic. Dewey and James were influenced by C. S. Peirce’s work in semiotic that distinguished syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics as aspects of language use. To miss the pragmatic aspect is to miss the context that gives signs specific meaning as symbols is use. American Pragmatism grew out of Peirce thought Dewey to Quine.

    So the role of custom and tradition, which we would not call cultural and institutional on one hand and contextual on the other underlies these strains of thought together and distinguish them from empiricism, based on Hume’s epistemic assumption of sense-data and logic, and Kant’s attempt to subsume the apparent dichotomy through a transcendental approach of subjective idealism. A great deal of subsequent thought, especially in economics is grounded in the empiricism and positivism, on one hand, that is, neoclassical economics, and on the other, neo-Kantianism, which Mises typifies.

    • Yes, this correct, I think. As you can see I pointed to LW’s late work in my reply to Lord Keynes above. I can’t really add much to this so I’ll give a gloss on Wittgenstein and what I wrote above which might be interesting.

      Lacan, who I mention as following in the Hamannian tradition (he and Levi-Strauss were the major figures of the 20th century), once noted that in Wittgenstein’s early thought we see a similar process at work as is at work in clinical psychosis.

      Some background here. Lacan thought that psychosis was a language-based phenomenon in that it’s manifestation was primarily a breakdown of language. This is pretty much true if you look at actual cases and I think Lacan’s is a promising approach.

      Anyway, Lacan noted that Wittgenstein’s early thought had a similar structure to psychosis. Not only was it very turned away from reality, very self-enclosed, but it was also overly precise. It sought to pin down meaning to the point of eliminating it altogether. If you read Wittgenstein you see this; there is a real desire to eliminate any meanings not pinned down; that is, any meanings that LW doesn’t have control over.

      Now, for Lacan, if this process stopped functioning in a psychosis the result would be a psychotic break. Meaning would breakdown altogether and we would get all the language phenomenon we see in that illness (word salad etc).

      Actually, Hamann is complaining about something similar. He says that when people like Kant try to be overly precise and eliminate all imprecision, they come out the other side babbling and talking incoherently; not even understanding themselves what they are saying. I think this does actually tell us something about the underlying (a priori?) structure of language itself. If we do try to engage in intellectual processes similar to those we see in psychosis the end results will probably be very similar.

      • Tom Hickey says:

        As you know, there are many theories concerning Wittgenstein, most of which are based on an element of truth. The way I view the composition of the TLP is chiefly in terms of motive, which was dialectical. LW was responding to issues that Frege had raised with respect to sense and reference and which Russell had dealt with. LW’s admitted “mistake” was in assuming “logical space” that he could not account for. But as far as he was concerned at the time of writing the TLP he had resolved the issues that Frege and Russell were grappling with based on an analysis of the propositional calculus applied to description. LW made clear to the Vienna Circle, who saw TPL as a positivists manifesto, that he had no such intention and regarded it differently. LW seems to have regarded Positivism as just another “philosophy,” hence “nonsensical,” meaning non-descriptive even though it pretends to be. It is just another dogmatism. So he rebuffed the Positivists of his time that wanted to subsume the TLP as expressing their POV. I suspect that this confusion over the TLP and the failure of most to appreciate what he was doing, including Russell, convinced LW that his early method was a strategic and tactual mistake. Subsequently interaction with Frank Ramsey and Piero Sraffa at Cambridge also convinced him that his earlier generalization about language as a whole was a mistake. He had mistakenly thought that the logic of description and propositional calculus could be the basis of an articulation of the logic of ordinary language as well as scientific formalism. My view of LW’s work is that the TLP can be viewed as a special case, whereas the PI and other unpublished notes known as the later LW are an attempt to articulate a general approach to language use as a “case approach.”

        One of the basic problems in the history of philosophy is the problem of universals, the capacity of sophisticated use of which distinguishes human communication from communication among other animals. The two dominant theories as the realistic, that is, meaning is based on naming essences abstracted from real objects (Aristotle) and idealistic, that is, meaning is innate to consciousness, which knows the forms as ideas that names label (Plato). The other major school was nominalism, which held that meaning is a verbal construct. While it is clear that LW sought to show that realism and idealism cannot be stated meaningfully, some concluded that he was therefore a nominalist, which he denied.

        My view is that it is impossible to state wittgenstein’s position on this, since if it could be done in his view, he would have done it. Instead, his “position” on ontology, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics is shown in his logical elucidations of how language functions. I don’t think that LW would call this relativism or skepticism, and I think that he would reject the charge of nihilism as nonsense in the logical sense. He would just say, Look to the logic and see how it is working in any context.

        A lot has happened scientifically in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and cognitive science since LW was working on these issues. Now we are getting a better scientific view of how language works in terms of brain functioning in addition to logical functioning of language. This tends to corroborate LW suggestions that meaning and communication are far more complex than philosophical speculation based on generalization from special cases, dogmatic assumptions, or more limited scientific knowledge — Hume’s empirical based o sense data and Locke’s realism based on differentiating qualitative sense data from quantitative extension had been based on recently discovered research in optics for example.

        AT this point, LW’s logical analysis, American pragmatism beginning with C.S. Peirce, and contemporary research in cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, sociology and institutional economics show quite definitively that approaches that do not take this social dimension of information into consideration or are in conflict with it cannot be representational, or be made representational using other means.

        Finally regarding LW, based on the context in which he was working, that is, his own life, I think that LW was closely aligned with C.S. Peirce in emphasizing the logical method of semiotics, which looks like nominalism and pragmatism, while also holding that this does not imply “relativism” or “nihilism” in that while “truth” and “reality” are not objects of knowledge, they are not therefore non-existent.

        LW was a mystic, and I view his work as an aspect of perennial wisdom.

        Similarly, C. S. Peirce called what he was doing “pragmaticism” to distinguish it from nominalism and pragmatism since there was confusion on this at the time.

      • Well, I think we’re sort of touching on here what I was hinting at in my last post. I’ll put it on the table: Wittgenstein was probably psychotic. You say:

        “My view is that it is impossible to state wittgenstein’s position on this, since if it could be done in his view, he would have done it.”

        Well, why didn’t he do it then? I think it was for the same reason that you always find in psychosis: the “truth” is incommunicable (another reason that Lacan thought this was a language phenomenon). The only sort of “truth” which is able to operate “publicly” in psychosis is negative truth — i.e. criticism.

        As I said in my original response, Wittgenstein sought to destroy meaning which he could not gain a firm hold over. This was his intention. As to what he believed, well I think he did believe something — and it was probably something religious-themed that would have been classified by most people as a delusion had he articulated it (recall those biographical caveats from WWI) — but as far as what he believed insofar as what you and I would be interested in, the answer is likely: nothing.

        You said Wittgenstein was a mystic. I 100% agree. Many mystics, particularly those who had overt hallucinations, were psychotic. And so too, I think, was Wittgenstein. That does not diminish his work per se (although I don’t think he was nearly as profound as, say, Hamann), but it should put it in its proper perspective.

      • Tom Hickey says:

        Well, we disagree over that, but this is unsurprising, since there is very little agreement among interpreters of LW, even by those who knew him well. What we can say from this is that he was genuinely an enigmatic figure.

        And, of course, those who think that mysticism is either bogus (and a lot of it admittedly is), or psychotic (and some of it admittedly is), will conclude that all mystics are either charlatans or crazy. However,I think there is good reason to doubt this as a generalization, and so do many of the scientists working in transpersonal psych and cognitive studies, as well as the many who have reported having experienced mystical experiences. But everyone has to come to their own conclusions on this, and there is wider disagreement with no publicly available criteria.

        There is now no doubt now that there are biological correlates with reporting of so-called mystical experience. But how to interpret this is not clear.

        I have worked in this area for some time and have my own convictions based on evidence in terms of which I interpret LW. He did have “issues,” e.g., he seems to have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome and had gender issues, and was profoundly affected by the carnage of war, having lost a close friend in WWI, all of which influenced his mental state, which would have influenced is outlook and POV. But I think there is more to it than that, and I don’t think it affected his logical abilities or communications skills. But he was “a weirdo” in the eyes of many who were in his ambit, albeit a gifted one.

        I am more on the side of Lord Keynes when it comes to psychoanalysis, and I am more on the side of Chomsky wrt to Post-Modernism. This sort of thing offered in explanation just doesn’t pass the rigor test — although they may be useful in other contexts.

        Wittgenstein’s attitude toward Freud is somewhat complex.

        Wittgenstein never wrote a paper on Freud or on Psychoanalysis. Everything that we know about Wittgenstein’s criticisms on Freudian psychoanalysis has been either passed on to us through a friend of Wittgenstein, namely Rush Rhees, who carefully noted some of his conversations with Wittgenstein on the subject (see “Conversations on Freud” in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief), or through some minor remarks made by Wittgenstein himself in his writings. This should not be surprising since most of Wittgenstein’s writings are either a sort of collection of remarks or lectures (e.g. Philosophical Investigations).

        Wittgenstein lived in Vienna when Freud was developing psychoanalysis and was in contact with people who were either undergoing treatment or ‘experimenting’ with these new ideas. Wittgenstein himself had experience with hypnosis and interpretation of dreams, and he was familiar with most of Freud’s works, e.g. Interpretation of Dreams, and influences, e.g. Breuer. According to Rush Rhees, Wittgenstein called himself a ‘disciple or follower of Freud’, but this claim seems not to have shielded Freud from the strong criticisms that Wittgenstein made of Freud’s psychoanalysis.

        Wittgenstein and Freud: Philosophical Method vs. Psychoanalysis

        This paper just gives a basic outline of LW’s relationship to and critique of Freud. The upshot is that LW viewed Freud’s method as mythological, i.e., providing a new mythology as therapy, instead of as scientific, as Freud thought.

        Wittgenstein Reads Freud by Jacques Bouveresse is a sustained investigation by a Wittgenstein scholar if you haven’t encountered it. Here is the book description from Amazon.

        Did Freud present a scientific hypothesis about the unconscious, as he always maintained and as many of his disciples keep repeating? This question has long prompted debates concerning the legitimacy and usefulness of psychoanalysis, and it is of utmost importance to Lacanian analysts, whose main project has been to stress Freud’s scientific grounding. Here Jacques Bouveresse, a noted authority on Ludwig Wittgenstein, contributes to the debate by turning to this Austrian-born philosopher and contemporary of Freud for a candid assessment of the early issues surrounding psychoanalysis. Wittgenstein, who himself had delivered a devastating critique of traditional philosophy, sympathetically pondered Freud’s claim to have produced a scientific theory in proposing a new model of the human psyche. What Wittgenstein recognized–and what Bouveresse so eloquently stresses for today’s reader–is that psychoanalysis does not aim to produce a change limited to the intellect but rather seeks to provoke an authentic change of human attitudes. The beauty behind the theory of the unconscious for Wittgenstein is that it breaks away from scientific, causal explanations to offer new forms of thinking and speaking, or rather, a new mythology.
        Offering a critical view of all the texts in which Wittgenstein mentions Freud, Bouveresse immerses us in the intellectual climate of Vienna in the early part of the twentieth century. Although we come to see why Wittgenstein did not view psychoanalysis as a science proper, we are nonetheless made to feel the philosopher’s sense of wonder and respect for the cultural task Freud took on as he found new ways meaningfully to discuss human concerns. Intertwined in this story of Wittgenstein’s grappling with the theory of the unconscious is the story of how he came to question the authority of science and of philosophy itself. While aiming primarily at the clarification of Wittgenstein’s opinion of Freud, Bouveresse’s book can be read as a challenge to the French psychoanalytic school of Lacan and as a provocative commentary on cultural authority.

      • A few points:

        (1) I don’t think that someone being psychotic discounts what they are saying. Not at all. I think there is good reason to believe many cultural figures were psychotic. My favourite artist — William Blake — was both a mystic and psychotic. That does not diminish his work one iota. In fact, “psychosis” is a somewhat arbitrary term (outside of Lacanian theory) and doesn’t mean all that much and also relies on a tenuous definition of “reality”.

        (2) I think that Freud’s work was “mythological” and I think Freud actually knew this. After all, he wrote a whole slew of works on this (“Totem and Taboo”, “Moses and Monotheism” etc.). He just used the terminology of science to distinguish the self-conscious mythology he was doing from the unself-conscious mythology that came before.

        (3) From a Lacanian standpoint what Wittgenstein wrote strongly indicates psychosis (Lacanians consider some instances of Asperger’s to possibly indicate underlying psychotic structure, by the way). When I read it that’s what it reads like. As I said above, modern psychiatry has a very slippery definition of psychosis. Lacan has a very clear definition and Wittgenstein fits the bill. I only mention this because an understanding of it makes his position far more explainable. As you said yourself: he never really took a position. I think the Lacanian angle explains why. That’s all. Not to say that what he wrote wasn’t interesting or relevant.

  3. Denys Greenhow says:

    One example of building castles in the sky using ” reason” and language later to be debunked was a man who Rousseau once described as the greatest man ever. The Swedish botanist Linnaeus. He was apparently charming an likeable and clever and built up the taxonomy of plants based on their differing sex organs. However now modern genetics has driven a coach and horses through all the fine latin foundations of his ” science” as it turns out the phylogenetic family tree of plants is rather different based on genetics. The thing about science is yesterday’s constructs are laid to ashes by today’s empiricism. The moral of the story is see that castles in the sky are actually stepping stones closer to truth and not truth themselves. That is a faith perhaps Krugman is prepared to hold but he has got rathe comfortable with the stepping stones he inhabits and that is the great tragedy of all social constructs. People in glass houses…

    • I sort of get what you’re saying, but I think you’re just talking about two different modes of classification. Linnaeus was just using a different mode of classification. It may have been somewhat useful. Today, we find genetics more useful. In two centuries we might find some other mode of classification more useful, I’d imagine.

  4. Denys Greenhow says:

    It becomes increasingly hard to see without impatience old customs that as you say lack utility. To get stuff done you take the shortest route. So custom ain’t always such a great thing depending on what you want it for. But understanding where we are now does need an understanding of customs and that’s maybe relevant to economics it being a social science. Understanding who we are is also about getting stuff done I will grant. Otherwise one can lose meaning and identity.

    • Well, what I’m saying is a tad deeper than that, I hope. What I’m saying is that the language on which, for example, genetics relies is subject to customs. As an example, take ten major words that are important in genetics and look them up in an etymological dictionary. You’ll quickly see that their meaning is tied up with all sorts of old, long-buried meanings. (My guess is you’ll even come across the ideas of your friend Linnaeus in the process).

      I’m really not making a wishy-washy argument about why we shouldn’t “forget traditions” or whatever here. What Hamann and I are saying that all knowledge relies on these linguistic fossils and we literally cannot even articulate what we call “science” without them.

  5. DeusDJ says:

    Philip, doing a history of analytic philosophy is not doing/understanding the history of philosophy. If you’re going to talk about language and the use and comprehension of the word “reason”, you’d have to go back to how the scholastics used the word and how it came to be used after Descartes. Doing so, you’d understand why I would disagree with your assertion that “reason” comes after customs and language.

    • I wasn’t aware that Hume and Kant were part of the tradition of analytic philosophy… In fact, I’m not sure that any of the philosophers mentioned in the piece are in the tradition of analytic philosophy. Wikipedia agrees:

      Unless Kant, Hume, Berkeley or Hamann managed to live into the 20th century…

      • DeusDJ says:

        Look at the broad meaning of analytic philosophy: “A broad philosophical tradition[2][3] characterized by an emphasis on clarity and argument (often achieved via modern formal logic and analysis of language)”

        Sounds like a certain Philip Pilkington to me! And never mind that…if you know your history of philosophy then one could categorize Hume (but probably not Kant) as an analytic philosopher, broadly construed.

      • Hume is generally classified as an empiricist or a skeptic. He was not an analytic philosopher.

        Am I? Well, I might be many things, but I am not that. I think that their view of human language is rancid and their method of reasoning a symptom of arrested development.

      • DeusDJ says:

        That’s obviously because analytic philosophers weren’t named as such until the 20th century, as you said . I’m just saying the philosophical tradition for many analytic philosophers goes back to Hume, etc.

      • Yeah. Well Giles Deleuze claimed that Hume was a Post-Structuralist. Should we dig him up and ask him which he was?

        You’re doing history backwards and its not helping you clarify anything. My post is not a “history of analytic philosophy”, it is a piece on the differences between Kant’s and Hamann’s positions on epistemology and knowledge more generally.

    • Tom Hickey says:

      DeusDJ, it’s probably more to the point now to look that the traditional meaning of “reason” in light of cognitive science, specifically Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error, Looking for Spinoza, and The Feeling of What Happens,which strongly suggests based on brain functioning that “pure” reason is an abstraction instead of the independent and autonomous faculty of knowledge that distinguishes humans from animals, as tradition holds. In fact, the Eastern view of knowledge in which conscious thought arises from a bed of impulse is more nearly correct that the view of traditional Western thought based on the Greek conception of logos (intelligibility) as the basis of order (kosmos). Not that the Greek conception is “wrong.” It is emerges at a higher level than impulse. The Greeks understood this as the difference between the Apollonian and Dionysian, Olympian and Chthonic, of which Nietzsche made much in Apollonian and the Dionysian-Chthonic. Nietzsche considered himself to be a poet rather than a philosopher.

      “To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.” ― Martin Heidegger

      “Philosophy, then, is not a doctrine, not some simplistic scheme for orienting oneself in the world, certainly not an instrument or achievement of human Dasein. Rather, it is this Dasein itself insofar as it comes to be, in freedom, from out of its own ground. Whoever, by stint of research, arrives at this self-understanding of philosophy is granted the basic experience of all philosophizing, namely that the more fully and originally research comes into its own, the more surely is it “nothing but” the transformation of the same few simple questions. But those who wish to transform must bear within themselves the power of a fidelity that knows how to preserve. And one cannot feel this power growing within unless one is up in wonder. And no one can be caught up in wonder without travelling to the outermost limits of the possible. But no one will ever become the friend of the possible without remaining open to dialogue with the powers that operate in the whole of human existence. But that is the comportment of the philosopher: to listen attentively to what is already sung forth, which can still be perceived in each essential happening of world. And in such comportment the philosopher enters the core of what is truly at stake in the task he has been given to do. Plato knew of that and spoke of it in his Seventh Letter:

      ‘In no way can it be uttered, as can other things, which one can learn. Rather, from out of a full, co-existential dwelling with the thing itself – as when a spark, leaping from the fire, flares into light – so it happens, suddenly, in the soul, there to grow, alone with itself.’”
      ― Martin Heidegger

      BTW, I think that Wittgenstein would agree with that as poetry. It would be a mistake to think it instead as akin to science.

  6. DeusDJ says:

    I actually like what Hamann said:

    “The first purification of reason consisted in the partly misunderstood, partly failed attempt to make reason independent of all tradition and custom and belief in them. (Pp207)”

    This is exactly right. But it really started with Descartes and a few others, not with either Hume or Kant. Where I would disagree with your conclusion, to put it simply, is that Reason IS in fact custom and tradition. It makes no sense outside of it.

    • Tom Hickey says:

      “Reason IS in fact custom and tradition. It makes no sense outside of it.”

      Yes, and “reason” has different meanings in tradition and conventions over time. It is a concept that has developed but in some ways also degenerated.

      Several cognitive scientists, George Lakoff in addition to Antonio Damasio, have observed that contemporary thinking about reason in traditional and conventional terms results in a lot of thinking that is not only non-scientific and dogmatic, but also anti-scientific, based on recent findings.

    • DeusDJ says:

      Ah! and it appears Hamann agrees with me on this. An interesting fellow, and it seems he himself couldn’t escape his Aristotelian teachings (apparently he disliked scholasticism, but that’s not surprising given his Lutheran background!)

    • Payam, your method of reading the history of ideas backwards is as infinitely amusing as it is bizarre. You must write a piece on it some time. I’d be fascinated to understand how you would justify it philosophically. I know of a few others who might be just as interested; Judge Scalia, being one.

      • DeusDJ says:

        I went too far with the analytical philosophy stuff, admittedly. As far as Hamann having a scholastic education, a biography says as much.

      • Yeah, I’m also talking about the Aristotle stuff. Let’s lay it out (so that you can quote “Metaphysics” or whatever to “disprove” me).

        (Q) Was Aristotle’s definition of Reason different from Hume’s or Kant’s?

        (A) Probably.

        (Q) Does this mean that Reason actually means what (you think) Aristotle meant it to mean because his “interpretation” is older than Hume’s or Kant’s?

        (A) No, there is no reason to make this argument. It appears to be some sort of mystical worship of the ancients or based on some archaic belief in some fundamental, essential meaning of words.

        (Q) Should we understand “Reason” in Aristotle’s sense rather than in Hume or Kant’s sense?

        (A) Well, you can do whatever you want. If you do this you will not be understood by others because Reason is generally understood in the more modern sense. But there is nothing stopping you from interpreting it in what you think the older sense is. It does seem like you will have a very difficult time getting people to listen to you though.

        This is what happens when you do the history of thought backwards. You start thinking that by finding an “original” meaning among the Ancients that you somehow disprove those that came after. You can think this if you want, but good luck. Because no one else who does history of ideas is going to buy what you’re selling.

  7. DeusDJ says:

    Philip, you are clearly beyond confused. Why again were you citing Hamann if not to show something very essential about “reason” itself? What i’m doing, what Hamann did, and what you did above are all doing the same thing. I was annoyed by your conclusion more than anything else, and should have just stuck to that criticism…mainly because there is no way you could understand what Hamann said and then say that reason comes after culture/customs and hence language. I understand you’re bringing Berkeley into this, who I am not really familiar with, but you can’t use Hamann to support Berkeley’s position when their conceptions of reason are (from your commentary) clearly different.

    • DeusDJ says:

      You should judge the acceptability of my philosophic system on whether it engages their Truths. You cannot engage those Truths by abusing language and making it a test of wills.

    • I don’t think that you’ve understood either mine or Hamann’s position at all. If you believe that there is “something very essential about ‘reason’ itself” then you’re very far from anything Hamann, me or even analytic philosophers are saying.

      Reason is just a word. It means different things at different times. But I don’t think this is what you want to hear. So, I’m sorry for that.

      • DeusDJ says:

        Au contraire, I think what you would rather not want to hear (though it seems you don’t know much about Aristotle) is that reason, in times past, referred to practical reason, which yes, of course (by its practicality) means different things to different societies. And practical reasoning for the ancients was a form of moral reasoning, and this is what was lost by the wholesale rejection of scholasticism, causing the likes of Kant and Hume to make use of “Reason” in a way Hamann criticized (which answers as well somewhat your complaint of my “backward history”). If practical reasoning is moral reasoning, and it can be molded due to its malleable nature, then this is where the virtues, or excellencies in practical reasoning and human action, came into the picture. So Hamann, taken back into his own historical context and not into your modernist exegesis, is clearly concerned with Kantian ethics for this reason.

        What this suggests is that the Truths that exist for each society are very real, and there’s nothing arbitrary about them (your relativist standpoint). When two ideas clash, as is happening with me and you now, it requires not that we talk about it from an impartial standpoint, or in your special way of thinking about things, from a standpoint that makes it to where everything is by its ontological status relative to a society or group, allowing you to conveniently ignore their Truths and even jab at them from time to time for your own amusement. It requires that you understand things from my perspective as well, and bring epistemological crises to my doorstep. Of course if you’re honest I think I’ve brought it to yours.

      • You’ve got to study this in more depth if you’re going to “school” me. Example: Kant is famous for having a theory of practical reason (one of his three critiques):

        I don’t think your discoveries are what you think they are. And I think you need to read up more on the likes of Kant and Hume and many other things before you draw conclusions; especially ones that make out that I don’t know something in philosophy that is so well-known that it is taught to undergrads. (I.e. Aristotle and his practical ethics etc.).

      • DeusDJ says:

        Oh please Philip, now you’re just being so goshdarn predictable. it’s amusing that you would cite Kant as a response even after you glorified Hamann. In fact Kant separated morality from practical reason (ie from the pursuit of happiness), so that critique is not applicable to the kind of practical reasoning I’m talking about.

      • I’m going to be blunt with you, Payam. And I apologise in advance.

        Being lectured on this by you — because it feels like a lecture (“It requires that you understand things from my perspective as well, and bring epistemological crises to my doorstep. Of course if you’re honest I think I’ve brought it to yours.”) — it feels like being lectured on monetary economics by an internet Austrian. You’re making a lot of fairly blatant mistakes, some of which I’ve pointed out, and yet at the same time you’re lecturing me; you’re adopting a sort of professorial tone.

        I spent five years of my life reading this stuff. Primary texts; secondary texts; tons of stuff. Less than a year ago you came to me with some paper on Aristotle — a secondary or tertiary source written by an economist, not a philosopher — claiming that you have all the answers. This was soon after you told me that you wished you’d spent more time studying philosophy. I don’t find your assertions any more credible now than I do then. Why? Because you’re not coming across as someone who has read any of this in depth. Sorry. You’re just not.

        Spend more time on it. Seriously, do. I’d encourage that. But you’re going to have to get a far broader scope before you start lecturing people on the history of thought. Otherwise you’ll just come off as amateurish and… well… just wrong.

  8. DeusDJ says:

    Alasdair Macintyre and his ilk are not economists. I think the problem is that some people do history of philosophy, and some people do analytic philosophy. Those who go in-between are the ones who have spent sufficient time learning/doing philosophy.

    I don’t doubt what you do know, which is vast and from what I’ve told others, a very developed philosophical system. but given that I’ve read a lot of history of philosophy…well, that brought me up to speed in a much faster way than reading and torturing myself with the analytic stuff.

    • Read and torture yourself. Seriously. There is no Slim Fast diet here.

      • DeusDJ says:

        Phil, there is a difference to reading the entirety of philosophy in depth and having read one or two particular methods within philosophy in depth. I have done the latter, and I have done a history of philosophy. Quite frankly a lot of the analytic stuff is addressed/critique within my method, so for me to read all of it and think of it on its own terms would be the very definition of masochism (which isn’t to say that I need to do more reading). Quite frankly, the “mistakes” i made above were not related to my own philosophic system, or to the critiques of yours within my own. You did not address those critiques.

        And you have to forgive the lecturing, professorial nature I have at times, when it’s early in the morning and I’m angry the Iranian in me comes out. Full of religious conviction and ready to preach 😀

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