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Three Critics of the Enlightenment

Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder is a collection of essays in the history of philosophy by 20th century philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin. Edited by Henry Hardy and released posthumously in 2000, the collection comprises the previously published works Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (1976) – an essay on Counter-Enlightenment thinkers Giambattista Vico and Johann Gottfried Herder – and The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism (1993), concerning irrationalist Johann Georg Hamann. Berlin’s initial interest in the critics of the Enlightenment arose through reading the works of Marxist historian of ideas Georgi Plekhanov.[1]

Vico and Herder are portrayed by Berlin as alternatives to the rationalistic epistemology which characterized the Enlightenment.[2] Berlin held that the agenda of the Enlightenment could be understood in a number of ways, and that to view it from the perspectives of its critics (i.e. Messrs Vico, Herder and Hamann) was to bring its distinctive and controversial aspects into sharp focus.[3] Three Critics was one of Berlin’s many publications on the Enlightenment and its enemies that did much to popularise the concept of a Counter-Enlightenment movement that he characterised as relativist, anti-rationalist, vitalist and organic,[4] and which he associated most closely with German Romanticism.

Berlin identifies Hamann as one of the first thinkers to conceive of human cognition as language – the articulation and use of symbols. Berlin saw Hamann as having recognised as the rationalist’s Cartesian fallacy the notion that there are “clear and distinct” ideas “which can be contemplated by a kind of inner eye”, without the use of language.[5] Herder, coiner of the term Nazionalismus (nationalism) is portrayed by Berlin as conceiving of the nation as a “people’s culture,” the unique way of life of a particular folk, bound by ties of kinship and ties to land, defined by their unique history.[6]

Publication history


1. Isaiah Berlin entry by Joshua Cherniss, Henry Hardy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008-02-01

2. Password, F. (2006). “Secularism, Criticism, and Religious Studies Pedagogy”. Teaching Theology & Religion 9 (4): 203–210. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9647.2006.00285.x. “Suggesting in effect that it can be better to theorize boldly than to engage in circumscribed projects, Berlin characterizes the “creative imagination” and “imaginative reconstruction of forms of life” in Vico and Herder as legitimate criticisms of scientific rationalism and the Enlightenment…In theory as well as in art, imagination represents an alternative to arid rationality.”.

3. McGrath, A.E. (2001). A Scientific Theology: Nature. 1.. Edinburgh; New York: T\&T Clark. ISBN 0567031225.

4. Darrin M. McMahon, “The Counter-Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature in Pre-Revolutionary France” Past and Present No. 159 (May 1998:77-112) p. 79 note 7.

5. Bleich, D. (2006). “The Materiality of Reading”. New Literary History 37: 607–629. doi:10.1353/nlh.2006.0000. Retrieved 2008-06-19.

6. Cosgrove, Charles (2005). Cross-Cultural Paul. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ISBN 0802828434

Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder

Author Isaiah Berlin

Subject(s) Counter-Enlightenment

Genre(s) History of philosophy

Publisher Pimlico

Publication date 2000

Media type Hardcover, paperback

ISBN 0712664920

OCLC Number 0691057265

The Magus of the North:

J.G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism

Isaiah Berlin (Author)

Henry Hardy (Editor)

From Publishers Weekly

Revered by Kierkegaard as a genius, German thinker Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), a Lutheran pietist, counterposed God’s will and direct revelation to the shortcomings of science and secular liberalism. In this absorbing if unconvincing study, Berlin portrays Hamann as “the first out-and-out opponent of the French Enlightenment,” a forerunner of Nietzsche and the existentialists in his defense of the intuitive and the concrete against the hyperrational, generalizing, scientific West. In his opposition to reason, his anti-intellectual identification with the masses and his attacks on Jews, Hamann fueled the irrational currents that culminated in Nazi hysteria, charges Berlin.

Nevertheless, the author, a distinguished historian of ideas, believes that Hamann’s original views on creativity, language as a system of symbols and the hazards of abstract thought command the attention of readers willing to tackle Hamann’s digressive, dense and flowery prose style.

From Library Journal

Hamann was the son of a bathhouse keeper who himself became a warehouse manager. His is an outsider’s philosophy, but he caught the eye of Goethe and Hegel. He came from the strain of German pietism that produced Kant yet struck out against the whole enlightenment preoccupation with reason and rational morality. In this book, revived from forgotten Columbia lectures, Berlin concentrates on Hamann’s skepticism, not his Bible-based fideism. Berlin sees Hamann’s arguments against the pretensions of human reason as the first major assault on the Enlightenment’s use of reason to bring heaven to earth. But in this portrait by the debonair apostle of a cool Oxonian common sense that rejects rationalism and skepticism alike, Hamann seems to froth at the mouth. Berlin’s one positive interest is developed in his appendix on Hamann’s belief that language is the result of the knitting together of the human faculties to make an intelligible unity and is neither a miraculous intervention of God nor something we invented. Any Berlin book is essential for academic libraries and public libraries serving informed readers.

Product Details:

  • Hardcover: 143 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux (T)
  • May 1994
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374196575
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374196578

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