In Defense of the Letter ‘H’

14 May 2024 by Wes Bredenhof

I first came across the Lutheran Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) in Gene Edward Veith’s Post-Christian. Hamann was what we call ‘a character.’ He was eccentric, but also remarkably witty and outlandish. Goethe said he was “the brightest mind of his day.” Hegel praised him as having a “penetrating genius.” Kierkegaard acclaimed him “the greatest humourist in Christendom.”

I came across his name this past week as I was reading Andrew Wilson’s Remaking the World. He mentions Hamann’s friendship with Immanuel Kant. After Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason, Hamann wrote a response, Metacritique of the Purism of Reason. He argued that “free-floating rationality, abstracted and liberated from the shackles of its specific cultural, religious, and linguistic context, is a chimera. It is not good for reason to be alone” (p.270). And it’s here that Wilson describes what I think must be one of the greatest works of apologetics in history:

For a perfect illustration as to why, consider Hamann’s whimsical and hilarious essay defending the letter h. In a fit of enlightened fervor that verges on self-parody, the rationalist theologian Christian Tobias Damm had recently argued that the h should be removed from German words when it appeared unpronounced at the end. (Americans pulled the same trick with the letter u in English words like colour, albeit with rather more success.) The silent terminal h, Damm claimed, was “a pointless, groundless custom that appears barbaric in the eyes of all foreigners” — and since people who are not rational about spelling will not be rational about important things like “universal, sound, and practical human reason,” it should henceforth be abolished. Hamann demurred. If reason requires getting rid of the terminal h, he responded, why stop there? Why not remove double consonants, like those that the author has hypocritically retained in his own last name? Why not get rid of all silent letters? Why not publish a new edition of Damm’s work, but with all the unpronounced letters taken out? “What Damm could withstand this orthographic deluge?” (p.270)

Hamann’s point was that rationalism can and never will be consistently applied by its prophets. Some have see Hamann as a proto-postmodernist. But, as Wilson writes, he had an alternative to rationalism and postmodernism: “They thought the alternative to self-illumination was darkness. He thought the alternative was illumination from somehere — or Someone — else” (p.271).