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Body Language

Corporeality, Subjectivity, and Language in Johann Georg Hamann


Julia Goesser Assaiante

Body Language: Corporeality, Subjectivity, and Language in Johann Georg Hamann addresses the centrality of sensual perception to the constitution of subjectivity and the resulting relationship between subjectivity and language in the work of Johann Georg Hamann. In positing the body as the entity that conditions a subject’s encounter with the world, Hamann, it is argued, prefigures a notion of finite subjectivity that not only runs counter to the Enlightenment tradition but also reemerges in nineteenth- (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) and twentieth-century (Benjamin) discourses on the tension between subjectivity and the abstraction of language. The paradox at the heart of this investigation is Hamann’s radical circumscription of reason as expressed through language, which nevertheless attempts to recuperate the concept of universal meaning through faith. Language is wrested away from abstraction and, therefore, any universality, and becomes the expression of the finite, corporeal subjectivity, a state of limitation that is at once granted and resolved by a divine creator.


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Introduction 1


Faith in Language This study takes as its point of departure Hamann’s own suggestionthat we begin with the only accessible certainty, our existence: “Unser eigen Daseyn und die Existenz aller Dinge ausser uns muss geglaubt werden und kann auf keine andere Art ausgemacht werden. Was ist gewisser als des Menschen Ende, und von welcher Wahrheit gibt es eine allgemeinere und bewährtere Erkenntnis?”6 A central paradox of Hamann’s thought is revealed in this curious inversion of faith and certainty: given that there is no truth more certain and established than one’s own existence (and by extension, the cessation of that existence), it is an odd claim indeed that this truth must be accepted on faith. Moreover, this faith becomes the precondition for the very truth it gen- erates: certainty is faith, and faith is certainty. The epistemological model Hamann proposes is therefore based on the assumption that all knowledge of the world begins with the belief that there is a world to be known. On this point, Hamann is the intellectual heir of Humean skepticism, through which knowledge of the outside world is a matter Introduction Goesser Assaiante_T4.qxd 9/1/2011 3:55 PM Page 1 of belief rather than an object of reason. As Hamann admiringly, if a bit cheekily, points out in a 1759 letter to Kant: “Der attische Philosoph, Hume, hat den Glauben nöthig, wenn er ein Ey essen und ein Glas Wasser trinken soll” (ZH.I.379). However, this tautology equating cer- tainty and faith is interesting...

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