Gottfried von Herder
Herder was a
philosopher and literary critic, whose writings were instrumental in
forming the European romanticism. As the leader of the Sturm und
Drang movement, he inspired many writers, notably Goethe, the future
leader of the German Romantics.
was ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1765 having given up medicine because
he had an inconvenient tendency to faint during dissections. When he
later became General Superintendent of the Lutheran clergy at Weimar his
orthodoxy was questioned during the selection process - with some
Herder studied at
the University of K�nigsberg under Immanuel Kant. Among Herder's
earliest critical works was Fragmente �ber die neuere deutsche
Literatur (Fragments on Recent German Literature, 1766-1767), which
advocated the emancipation of German literature from foreign influences.
In it he discussed language and linguistic development. He wrote:
Language, is a
tool of the arts and sciences and a part of them. Whoever writes about
the literature of a country must not neglect its language.
Subsequent essays contributed to the development of Herder's idea of
(perhaps best translated "national character") as expressed in the
language and literature of a nation.
His major work was Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menscheit
(Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind). It attempts to
demonstrate that nature and human history obey the same laws and that,
in time, contending human forces will be reconciled. Although
unfinished, the treatise embodies most of Herder's ideas, and it remains
his most important contribution.
Towards the end of his life, Herder set out to criticise the
philosophies of Kant but met with a harsh reception. Kant's followers
thought that Herder had both misinterpreted and misrepresented Kant's
Later commentators have judged that Herder's criticisms were acute. In
particular he realised that Kant had failed to perceive the essential
tautology of arithmetic ("The proposition 7 + 5 = 12 is ... identical
[with] 1 = 1.") He also correctly identified that Kant's approach to the
way we think failed because of the latter's artificial abstractions
which bear no necessary coincidence with reality.
Herder's work was not systematic. But he earned considerable later
influence by clarifying some of the assumptions which underpinned the
Enlightenment of the 18th century.
He pointed out that reason is not a superior and
controlling human faculty which operates somehow independently of
our other faculties. "It is one and the same mind that thinks and
wills, understand and perceives, exercises reason and has desire,"
Thus reason and language can't be artificially separated from each
other. To examine reason must be also to examine the words through
which it is expressed. This places reason firmly in the arena of
social and cultural expression. Reason is not something we are born
with, but something we learn, said Herder.
The mastery of language and other signs (what we now know as
semiotics) is critical to our ability to reason. Language is
intrinsic to humanity.
His insights remain difficult for Christians to swallow, since they
call into question the possibility of establishing and expressing
theological formulae which are absolutely true for all people and
all times and are unaffected by social and cultural contexts.
Herder has left his mark primarily in the field of
the philosophy of history - an important arena to the Christian
faith, claiming as it does to be an historical religion. In contrast
with many of his contemporaries, he insisted on the importance of
the histories of other cultures such as China, India and the Middle
His work broke across a prevailing theme of the times - a search for
laws or rules of history by which it might be interpreted. There
are, he said, no such standards by which the history of everything
that has happened in the past can be judged. Rather than
irrationality and passion disrupting the smooth course of cause and
effect in history, history consists of highly complex patterns and
tides which prevent consistency of pattern.
This inevitably pointed historians towards interpreting events in
relation to the period and milieu in which they occur. Herder wrote
that "... the historian of mankind must, like the Creator of our
race or like the genius of the earth, view without partiality and
judge without passion." He likened the history of any society to the
growth and change of a biological organism.
The implication, therefore, was that history should be considered
"without foisting any set patterns upon it". In turn this implies
that any human achievement makes sense only when interpreted in
terms of the society in which it takes place. Extract an event from
its context and that event ceases to display coherence.
Herder's influence on subsequent historians was considerable. But it
took another hundred years before Ernst Troeltsch was able to bring
his thought to its fruition in relation to Christianity.
Herder's position means, in effect, that the life and acts of Jesus
make sense as history only when they are interpreted in terms of the
culture of which he was part. Jesus has therefore to be
re-interpreted in each subsequent age - as has proved the case.
There can be no statement of absolute truth if this is the case,
since historical truth is in some degree relative to the
- Herder prefigured modern concepts of the human mind by refusing to
sanction what amounted to a collection of sub-personalities - as when
reason, will, desire and so forth are described as entities acting
within the human persona. He thought that such views were
"philosophical nonsense" resulting from false abstraction. Reason,
feeling and every other aspect of human nature are parts of an
essentially unitary personality. He said that "... the inner man, with
all his dark forces, stimuli and impulses, is simply one."
Thus the traditional division between mind and body was also
misconceived. The soul of humans, properly understood, is "physiology
at every step".
Recent discoveries of how the human brain works back up Herder's
position in an uncanny fashion. The relevance of his views to his
time, however, rests mainly upon the increasing difficulty for
Christian thinkers after his time to separate the human psyche into
physical and so-called spiritual attributes.
It might appear that Herder broke away from the prevailing
metaphysical cast of much thought in his time. In fact, he proposed that
a primitive force or energy must logically underpin all human existence.
Without such a force all interpretation is inadequate, for there is no
other way of explaining the dynamic nature of existence. It is as it
were, that which activates and binds together everything, including the
In this respect he influenced later thinkers like Bergson. But his
influence impacted many other thinkers of his time and it's true to say
that he affected many others who went on to begin to formulate a more
contemporary approach to Christianity.