The Fabric of Thought: Reason, Language and Experience in German Philosophy from Hamann to Habermas

Jonathan Gray

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines aspects of the relationship between reason, language and experience by means of an engagement with the legacy of the eighteenth century “linguistic turn” in German philosophy. The examination begins with the emergence of the idea of “pure reason”, including efforts to establish a calculus of thought inspired by innovations in mathematics and the natural sciences. These aspirations to formalise and mechanise reason have parallels with the “thin” conception of rationality in analytic philosophy in the twentieth century. Hamann and Herder’s works provide the basis for an alternative “thick” conception of language as a socially and historically situated “fabric of thought” which provides the conditions of possibility for both reason and experience. This conception has advantages over the twentieth century linguistic turn in accounting for how language structures experience and sustains social worlds, because the latter maintains a disproportionate focus on what Charles Taylor describes as language’s “designative” and “information-encoding” capacities. The works of the Early German Romantics and Nietzsche provide resources for a richer and more ambitious vision for the role of philosophy in creatively reshaping this fabric, articulating new ideals, and opening up horizons for new social, cultural and political ways of being. Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s work is used to suggest how human beings simultaneously shape and are shaped by language, how languages give form to experience, and how it is that language can be creatively reshaped in response to experience. Finally, the thesis examines how debates between Gadamer’s hermeneutics and Habermas’s critical theory echo Hamann’s encounter with Kant. These thinkers broaden the scope of what should be considered relevant to philosophy as a form of critical social and cultural praxis.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Bowie, Andrew, Supervisor
Award date1 Oct 2016
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016

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