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 on Johann Gottfried von Herder

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 Biography 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.