Herder, Johann Gottfried

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Herder, Johann Gottfried (1744-1803): German Philosopher.

Herder’s wide-ranging vitalist and organicist accounts of art, philosophy, language, and religion, made him a key figure in the emergence of German Romanticism.

Herder was born in Mohrungen, Prussia in 1744. He began studies in medicine at the University of Königsberg, but soon changed to theology. This shift led to his acquaintance with renowned German philosopher Kant, Immanuel. Kant encouraged Herder by waiving his course lecture fees, by offering him access to his unpublished manuscripts, and by directing him to the works of figures like Hume, David and Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Herder’s other mentor that would play a crucial role in his intellectual development was none other than the anti-rationalist, philosopher of feeling – and critic of Kant- Hamann, Johann Georg.

Herder’s wide-ranging interest and studies in aesthetics, history, language, psychology, and philosophy, make his accomplishments difficult to summarize. This is compounded by the fact that unlike many thinkers of his day who aspired to produce systematic philosophy, Herder would offer no such system, but merely – as Kant would critically remark – the building blocks or stones which only future generations could finish. Many have suggested that Herder has much in common with that overlooked Italian philosopher Vico, Giovanni Battista. This is true particularly in the following sense: Herder’s ideas were so readily and quickly absorbed by his culture that the inventiveness of his intellectual achievements was easy to overlook.

Nevertheless, it was through several key criticisms of Eighteenth Century Enlightenment Thought (Aufklarung), which marked Herder’s importance for Romanticism. In his work, for which he is perhaps best remembered, Ideas Toward a Philosophy of the History of Humanity, Herder outlines a theory of history which rejects the dominant Enlightenment view of universal laws and standards of consciousness and culture in favor an embedded, historicist, account. By looking at both Western and non-Western cultures (which was quite unorthodox at that time), Herder shows that standards of culture and conscious, far from being universal, are unique to specific cultural groups.

Although Herder is best remember for his philosophy of history, this concern with history could also be readily understood in term of a historical and developmental account of consciousness. His interest in language, art, history, and psychology, could all be understood as investigations into the origins of numerous activities that laid bare the essence of mind. In the field of psychology, Herder rejected the “faculty” psychology of Eighteenth Century Rationalists in favor of his decidedly vitalist notion of “force” (Kraft), which would have influence on the nineteenth century vitalism of Bergson and Schopenhauer. In the field of language, his first important essay, “On the Origin of Language,” had wide-ranging consequences. In showing the centrality of language for explaining the nature of mind, this essay addressed the limits of scientific or naturalist explanation. It established Herder’s organic vitalism by arguing that mind is neither ghost (spirit) nor machine. In sum, apart from these specific achievements, one could say that as a consequence of his work across numerous fields, Herder’s central contribution lay in the original way in which he opened up traditional disciplinary boundaries, paving the way for the full flowering German Romanticism.

Further Reading:

Isaiah Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment, 2000.

Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment Against Empire, .

F. Scott Scribner

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