Repetitio Sententiarum, Repetitio Verborum: Kant, Hamann, and the Implications of Citation

By Hamilton, John T. | German Quarterly, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Repetitio Sententiarum, Repetitio Verborum: Kant, Hamann, and the Implications of Citation


Hamilton, John T., German Quarterly


Precisely as a repetition of language, citation entails an act of speaking that is, at the same time, an act oflistening, or an act ofwriting that also involves an act of reading.1 Despite this conjoined effort, citational practice tends to privilege one aspect at the expense of the other, which, in turn, signals how language itself is believed to operate. The speaker or writer who assumes the role of an assured agent of language generally implements language as an instrument for communicating a thought, while the one who listens to language often regards the words themselves as the generative source of thought and concepts. Insofar as a citation is a repetition, one could specify the former case as a repetitio sententiarum (a repetition of thoughts), which presumes language to be a posteriori, and the latter as a repetitio verborum (a repetition of words), which instead presumes language to be a priori. This distinction is particularly acute in the alternative approaches that obtain in comparing the citational practices of that oddest couple of the late eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant and Johann Georg Hamann. In the starkest terms, whereas Kant reaches for language in order to transmit his thinking, Hamann abides with language as the determinant origin of the content of thought. The implications of these opposing presuppositions, however, point well beyond considerations of linguistic functions and instead strike at the very core of what generally counts as the Enlightenment, touching on and complicating fundamental questions of metaphysics, theology, and, ultimately, human nature.

In addition to providing one of the most important and memorable definitions of the European Enlightenment, the opening paragraph of Kant's response to the question "Was ist Aufklärung?" (1784) already broaches crucial issues regarding the form and function of citations in philosophical discourse.

Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit. Unmündigkeit ist das Unvermögen, sich seines Verstandes ohne Leitung eines anderen zu bedienen. Selbstverschuldet ist diese Unmündigkeit, wenn die Ursache derselben nicht am Mangel des Verstandes, sondern der Entschließung und des Muthes liegt, sich seiner ohne Leitung eines anderen zu bedienen. Supere uude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen! ist also der Wahlspruch der Aufklärung. (8: 33)

Kant's decision to appropriate a tagline from Horace's Epistles is, at the very least, intriguing. Despite the call to apply one's understanding "ohne Leitung eines anderen"-a qualification that Kant apparently feels compelled to repeat twice verbatim-he allows philosophy to be guided by a classical citation: sapere aude! The resolution to be intellectually self-sufficient, to abandon one's "selbstverschuldete Unmündigkeit," is expressed by borrowing a phrase from a poet. The exhortation to think for oneself is prescribed by an external source. The courageous independence of one's intellect is shown to be strikingly dependent. A plea for autonomy-for release from tutelage, for authenticity-curiously relies, still, on prior authority.

Without blinking, Kant emerges from the condition of immaturity or Unmündigkeit, relinquishing the position of an underage child who has no voice or mouth {Mund), by becoming a mouthpiece of poetic tradition or even by allowing tradition to speak for him, here in a text that explicitly challenges authorities and institutions that act as Vormünder, as advocates who dare to speak in the people's stead.

Daß der bei weitem größte Teil der Menschen (darunter das ganze schöne Geschlecht) den Schritt zur Mündigkeit, außer dem daß er beschwerlich ist, auch für sehr gefährlich halte: dafür sorgen schon jene Vormünder, die die Oberaufsicht über sie gütigst auf sich genommen haben. (8: 54)

As a legal term, Unmündigkeit denotes the incapacity for self-representation exemplified by the case of children, yet is also applicable to the insane, the senile, and-as Kant points out-women. …

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