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Herder, Johann Gottfried Von (1744–1803)


HERDER, JOHANN GOTTFRIED VON (17441803), German philosopher and theologian. Born in Mohrungen, East Prussia (now Morag, Poland), the son of a schoolteacher, Herder studied at the university of Königsberg for two years, where he began a lifelong friendship and correspondence with Johann Georg Hamann (17301787) and heard lectures by Immanuel Kant (17241804), then a private lecturer, not yet famous or even a professor. In 1764 Herder began a career as a Lutheran pastor, first at Riga (17641769), then at the court of Schaumberg-Lippe in Bückeburg (17711776), and finally at the court of Sachsen-Weimar in Weimar (17761803). Twice he nearly joined the theological faculty at the University of Göttingen, but in 1776 when the Hanoverian court in London required that he submit to a test of religious orthodoxy, he opted to follow Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832), whom he had met in Strasbourg in 1770, to Weimar. In 1789 the Weimar court promoted him as an inducement to decline Göttingen's offer.

During his travels in France and western Germany between his positions at Riga and Bückeburg, Herder learned of the annual essay competition sponsored by the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin on the topic of the origin of language. The Academy had been debating the question for nearly twenty-five years, and in December of 1770 as he convalesced from unsuccessful eye surgery in Strasbourg, Herder dashed off an entry in advance of a 1 January 1771 deadline. He won the competition, and the academy published the essay, which inaugurated a prolific literary career.

Herder's thesis, that the difference between humans and animals was language and that language was the vehicle of cognition, was not distinctly original. Others had pointed out that, since the orangutan possessed speech organs similar to those of humans but could not freely manipulate abstract concepts in the mind apart from what they represented in space and time, the seat of language had to be not in the mouth, but in the soul. The difference, argued Herder in Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache (Essay on the origin of language), was in the purposes of man. "The bee was a bee as soon as it built its first cell," he wrote, "but a person was not human until he had achieved completeness. People continued to grow as long as they lived. . . . We are always in process, unsettled, unsatiated. The essence of our life is never satisfaction, rather always progression, and we have never been human until we have lived to the end."

Unlike animals, children were uniquely vulnerable, but that weakness was by design. Children must learn to speak, and the family was the social unit charged with educating children in that most basic and essential of all human capacitieslanguage. More than teaching a child language, the family also imparted the individual's sense of identity and made him or her part of a group. Herder took it as a natural law that "man is by destiny a creature of the herd, of society." Where Jean-Jacques Rousseau had said in Émile that the child had more to say to the mother than the mother to the child, Herder countered that by teaching children language, the family's manner of thinking and set of values were developed and preserved. The education of the human race occurred in the bosom of the family. "Why does the mute child so weakly and unwittingly depend on his mother's breasts and his father's knee? So that he might be hungry for learning and learn language. He is weak so that his race may be strong." The treasury of the family heritage was preserved through the family language. As the clan expanded into a tribe, it celebrated the deeds of its forefathers. All heroic poetryGermanic, Ossianic, Homericwas tribal, that is, familial, in origin.

Through the 1770s and 1780s Herder explored the formation of national character in the primitive state. Die ältesten Urkunden des Menschengeschlechts (1774; The oldest documents of the human race) and Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit (1774; Yet another philosophy of history for the education of humanity) were comparative studies of the primitive mind in society, while Von deutscher Art und Kunst (1773; On the German type and art) and Vom Geist der hebräischen Poesie (17821783; The spirit of Hebrew poetry) celebrated the unique spirit of primitive Germanic and Hebrew literature. Although his prose essays drew together much of the leading scholarship of the day, Herder reflected the innovations of other scholars more than he advanced his own. His real genius was as a translator of poetry, and here he influenced Goethe and secured his reputation as an author of national import in the Romantic period. He collected two volumes of Volkslieder (Folksongs; 17781779, reissued posthumously with a third volume as Stimmen der Völker in Liedern [Voices of the peoples in song]), and his version of the Spanish heroic epic El Cid went through literally dozens of editions and reprintings in the nineteenth century. In what is now his most famous work, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (17841791; Ideas for the philosophy of the history of humanity, 4 vols.), he insisted that the education of the human race was tantamount to the education of individuals. The goal of the individual was to develop his or her personhood or humanity, and as individuals developed their faculties, so did the family, the community, the nation, and humanity as a whole. There was such a thing as what Gotthold Ephraim Lessing called "the education of the human race" but not in the Neoplatonic sense of individuals participating in some unified World Soul. Instead each individual, community, and nation developed according to its own internal logic, which was unique and valuable in its own right. Herder hated all forms of centralization and imperialism, whether ancient Roman or modern European, as these suppressed the unique genius of both the conquerors and the vanquished.

His notion of the uniqueness of cultural groups and the particular manifestations of mind in human history brought him into conflict with Kant's critical philosophy. Toward the end of his life Herder offered a Metacritique (1799) of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781) arguing that there was no such thing as pure reason, only human reason. If language was the vehicle of reason, and if languages differed between nations, then so must reason also differ. Reason existed only in particular historical circumstances as it was exercised by particular peoples, nations, and communities. Just as he wrote in Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit that each society must find its own unique form of happiness, and within a society each generation must do the same, so in the Metacritique he said that each nation defines reason and rationality in its own terms, terms that do not necessarily correspond to those of eighteenth-century Europe.

See also German Literature and Language ; Germany, Idea of ; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von ; Kant, Immanuel ; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim ; Neoplatonism ; Romanticism.


Primary Sources

Herder, Johann Gottfried. Essay on the Origin of Language. Translated by John H. Moran and Alexander Gode. New York, 1967. Together with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Essay on the Origin of Languages.

. J. G. Herder on Social and Political Culture. Edited and translated by F. M. Barnard. Cambridge, U.K., 1969. This most widely available English edition of Herder contains loose and misleading translations and should be carefully verified with the German.

. Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man. Translated by T. O. Churchill. London, 1800. Abridged as Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind. Edited by Frank E. Manuel. Chicago, 1968.

. Philosophical Writings. Translated and edited by Michael N. Forster. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2002.

. Sämtliche Werke. Edited by Bernhard Suphan et al. 33 vols. Tübingen, 18771913.

. The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry. Translated by James Marsh. Burlington, Vt., 1833.

. Werke in zehn Bänden. Edited by Martin Bollacher et al. 10 vols. Frankfurt am Main, 19852000.

Secondary Sources

Beiser, Frederick C. The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Berlin, Isaiah. Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. London, 1976.

Clark, Robert T. Herder: His Life and Thoughts. Berkeley, 1955.

Ergang, Robert Reinhold. Herder and the Foundations of German Nationalism. New York, 1931.

Koepke, Wulf. Johann Gottfried Herder. Boston, 1987.

Zammito, John. Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology Chicago, 2001.

Michael Carhart

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Johann Gottfried von Herder

Johann Gottfried von Herder

The German philosopher, theologian, and critic Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) is best known for his contribution to the philosophy of history.

Johann Gottfried von Herder was born into a religious middle-class family in East Prussia on Aug. 25, 1744, and was raised in the town of Mohrongen, where his father was the schoolmaster. A surgeon in the occupying Russian army offered to be young Herder's patron and finance his university education in the capital city of Königsberg. In 1762 Herder enrolled as a medical student only to discover that he was unable to attend dissections or operations without fainting. He transferred to theology, and during this period he met Immanuel Kant and Johann George Hamann. Despite their later disagreements, Herder wrote a moving description of Kant, then a young teacher, and Kant, equally impressed, remitted his usual lecture fees. In Hamann, Herder discovered a kindred spirit who wished to preserve the integrity of faith by exposing the limitations of "enlightened" rationalism. Their lifelong friendship and correspondence reinforced the interests of both philosophers in literature, language, translation, and esthetics.

Between 1764 and 1769 Herder lived in Riga, where he worked as a teacher and minister and wrote a number of reviews and essays. His first important works—Fragments concerning Recent German Literature (1767) and Critical Forests (1769)—display an early tendency to treat problems of esthetics and language historically.

In the following years Herder traveled throughout Europe and held a minor pastorate. In Paris he met the encyclopédistes Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert, and in Strasbourg he began his lifelong association with the poet J. W. von Goethe. Through Goethe's intervention, Herder eventually secured a permanent appointment as superintendent of the Lutheran clergy at Weimar in 1776. Herder worked conscientiously at his considerable administrative and clerical career in order to provide for his family of four children. Nonetheless, his prolific writings run to 33 volumes and include Letters for the Advancement of Humanity, Christian Writings, two works criticizing Kant (Metakritik and Kalligone), as well as collections of folk literature, translations, and poetry. He died in Weimar on Dec. 18, 1803.

His Thought

The speculative dimension of history is concerned with the search for philosophic intelligibility or meaning in the study of human events. Ancient historians saw the repetitive pattern of history, and in this cyclical perspective the justification for studying the past was to anticipate the future. Christianity introduced a linear conception of time and the notion of Providence by dating history from a specific event and envisioning a definite end. Beginning with the late 17th century, philosophers secularized Providence: God's story was replaced by a belief in human progress and man's future perfectibility. By and large, professional historians and philosophers have discarded such theories in favor of a position known as historicism. In this view there are no general patterns, and each historical epoch is unique in its individual character and culture.

Herder's work is the first to incorporate elements of historicism. In an early work, ironically entitled Another Philosophy of History for the Education of Mankind (1774), and his later four-volume Idea for a Philosophy of History for Mankind (1784-1791), he displays an ambivalence toward the goals of rationalism and the Enlightenment. In the Idea Herder's Protestant pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature is reinforced by physical-cultural relativism: on a star among stars, man, as a creature among creatures, plays out his unique destiny in proportion to the "force" or "power" resulting from the interaction between individual, institution, and environment. Like Kant, Herder was among the first to strike upon the ingenious solution, later favored by G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx, of locating progress in the species rather than in the individual. Thus humanity progresses, through God's mysterious ways, in spite of the individuals who compose it. History offers a synthesis of Providence, progress, and individuality since "whatever could be has been, according to the situation and wants of the place, the circumstances and occasions of the times, and the native or generated character of the people."

Further Reading

Robert T. Clark's biography Herder: His Life and Thought (1955) is excellent and contains the fullest analysis in English of Herder's work. G. A. Wells, Herder and After (1959), discusses Herder's conception of both man and history and its critical reception from the 19th century to current times. Other brief studies include Alexander Gillies, Herder (1945), and portions of Arthur O. Lovejoy, Essays on the History of Ideas (1948).

Additional Sources

Barnard, F. M. (Frederick M.), Self-direction and political legitimacy: Rousseau and Herder, Oxford, England: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University, 1988.

Berlin, Isaiah, Sir., Vico and Herder: two studies in the history of ideas, New York: Viking Press, 1976.

Berlin, Isaiah, Sir., Vico and Herder: two studies in the history of ideas, New York: Vintage Books, 1977, 1976.

Berlin, Isaiah, Sir., Vico and Herder: two studies in the history of ideas, London: Hogarth, 1976.

Bluestein, Gene, Poplore: folk and pop in American culture, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Ergang, Robert Reinhold, Herder and the foundations of German nationalis, New York, Octagon Books, 1966 c1931.

Fugate, Joe K., The psychological basis of Herder's aesthetic, The Hague, Mouton, 1966.

Johann Gottfried Herder: language, history, and the enlightenment, Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1990.

Johann Gottfried Herder, innovator through the ages, Bonn: Bouvier, 1982. □

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Herder, Johann Gottfried von

Johann Gottfried von Herder (yō´hän gôt´frēt fən hĕr´dər), 1744–1803, German philosopher, critic, and clergyman, b. East Prussia. Herder was an enormously influential literary critic and a leader in the Sturm und Drang movement. After an impoverished childhood, he studied theology at Königsberg and came under the influence of Kant. During an appointment at Riga, Herder gained attention with his Fragmente über die neuere deutsche Literatur [fragments concerning current German literature] (1767). In 1776 he became court preacher at Weimar through the influence of Goethe, whose work was greatly affected by Herder's ideas, particularly by his Über den Ursprung der Sprache [on the origin of language] (1772). In this treatise Herder held that language and poetry are spontaneous necessities of human nature, rather than supernatural endowments. At Weimar, Herder became the leading theorist of German romanticism and a contributor to the most brilliant court of the era. There he produced his anthology of foreign folk songs, Stimmen der Völker (1778–79) and also made some of the earliest studies of comparative philology, comparative religion, and mythology. His vast work Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784–91; tr. Outlines of the Philosophy of Man, 1800) developed a major evolutionary approach to history in which he propounded the uniqueness of every historical age.

See biography by W. Koepke (1987); study by F. M. Barnard (1965, repr. 1989).

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Herder, Johann Gottfried von

Herder, Johann Gottfried von (1744–1803) German philosopher and poet. He believed human society to be an organic, secular totality that develops as the result of a historical process. Herder was a founder of German Romanticism and a critic of Kant. Outlines of a Philosophy on the History of Man (1784–91) is regarded as his masterpiece.

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