Johann Gottfried von Herder

Johann Gottfried von Herder

Born in Mohrungen, Prussia, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) attended the lectures of Immanuel Kant in Königsberg for 2 years, beginning at 18 years of age. Herder was most fascinated with Kant’s early scientific reasoning, especially his philosophy of nature.

At the age of 21, Herder became a Protestant pastor. In Königsberg, Herder became friends with the counter-Enlightenment figure Johann Georg Hamann. Both Herder and Hamann rejected the later Kantian critical philosophy, and had already rejected any notion of a “faculty.” Both had little interest in “time” as an abstraction. Instead, all consciousness should be thought of as language-based. Though his friend Hamann was averse to the entire tradition of rationalism, and though he himself never accepted Kant’s critical philosophy, Herder was a rationalist and an ideal­ist when history was the subject.

Herder traveled throughout the German­speaking lands and conversed with many of the greatest minds of his time. He was interested in all things natural, human, and divine. On December 18, 1803, Herder passed away in Weimar.

The German Historical Sense and Herder

Johann Gottfried Herder occupies a permanent, important place in the history of human thought concerning time, for it was he (with his contempo­rary Hamann) who introduced a “historical sense” to the German nation as a whole. Of course, before Herder there were authors with a strong historical sense. But all these influences and prede­cessors were non-Germans, especially the figures from the French Enlightenment. And, of course, before the Enlightenment, the Scholastics had understood time and history in the abstract. But they were more interested in “eternity” than in human history. They distinguished sacred from secular time in order to give absolute priority to the former. The Scholastics lacked a sense cen­tered on natural and human history. Herder pro­vided a new mode of thinking for the German public by offering just such a historical sense.

Most important, this historical sense was lack­ing in the orientations of Leibniz and Kant. The thought of Leibniz was almost entirely nonhis- torical. Mathematics and physics (monadology) do not require a developed notion of human his­tory, because they are largely theoretical, abstract sciences. Perhaps Kant sought to sidestep the question of history (and phenomenology) by focusing largely on the transcendental structures of the ego. His thinking was strikingly nonhistori- cal, even transtemporal. The reader of Kant is often left with a sense of timelessness and of ratio­nality at rest, a sense of the structure, but not the content, of time.

Herder and Hamann

Herder had a noteworthy German cohort in devel­oping a historical sense, Johann Georg Hamann. Herder’s senior and friend, Hamann had also embraced history and sought to instill the German nation with it. Hamann’s thought was largely a reaction to the Enlightenment and to the ideas of Benedict Spinoza. The German public, in general, had reacted to the twin specters of Spinoza and Enlightenment science with fear and loathing. Spinoza’s ideas were considered deterministic and covertly antireligious. The advance of English sci­ence, especially chemistry, was threatening because the “soul” could then perhaps be explained by the chemical processes of the mind within the brain.

Hamann sought to guarantee religion a safe respite. Faced with the advance of Spinoza’s ideas, Hamann retreated into irrationalism and a sort of counter-Enlightenment orientation. He sought to link biblical history with modern history, and to prevent any juncture between history and science, materialism, or atheism. Again, Hamann had a sense of history, but it was of a religiously ortho­dox orientation; history is the story of the divine will. Above all, he viewed history as entirely sacred; a strictly secular history could not be con­ceived of. In short, Hamann viewed history as an irrational but divine phenomenon.

Confronted by the twin specters of Spinoza and Enlightenment, Herder chose a different strategy from Hamann. While Herder still viewed history as a divine phenomenon, he claimed that history is rational and an object of science. As the third element of his strategy, Herder chose to incorpo­rate a broad range of natural sciences into his scientific account of history.

Like Hamann, Herder saw history as divine, but in a very different sense. Hamann had sought to develop history out of revealed scripture; Herder, on the other hand, attempted to delete all religious or mythological content from his history. He would accept no divine intervention, no mira­cles, as a cause in history. In short, Herder’s explicit project was to develop a scientific (non- theological) account of history. He saw the inevi­tability of considering time not as entirely sacred but also as secular (natural scientific), and even as an agency of human free will (the historical sense). And so he set off on the project of authoring a coherent history of the universe, nature, man, society, and God, all strictly within a natural sci­entific methodology.

Herder was not concerned with Spinoza, since his natural science was strongly influenced by Roger Joseph Boscovich, in that his theory of atoms was a point-particle theory rather than the Newtonian corpuscular theory—meaning that instead of Newton’s extended atoms, Herder insisted on Boscovich’s dimensionless force-points. (Recall that Herder, like Kant, was in the genera­tion of thinkers immediately after Newton, Leibniz, and Boscovich. It seems most likely that Herder discovered Boscovich’s ideas when Kant was struggling with them in the early days at Königsberg. Kant finally resolved his struggle with Boscovich by incorporating the theory of force­points into his own natural philosophy in his late work Metaphysics of Natural Sciences.) Force­points completely subverted Spinoza’s monism and determinism so abhorred by the German sense of piety. Boscovich’s natural science (Theory of Natural Science, 1776) was a theory of force, not substance. By adopting an atomism most closely related to Kant and Boscovich, Herder was able to sidestep Spinoza’s “deterministic” meta­physics entirely. But Herder could not deny the advance of Enlightenment science, so he chose to concentrate on the natural within history. He began with an explanation of the universe and the origins of nature, and then worked his way through the rise of animal life. Finally, he gave a historical account of human civilizations.

Herder saw that the sciences had to be given a sense of time. Previously the sciences were taught as a hierarchy rather than as having a shared his­tory. The static classifications of Aristotle and Linnaeus could no longer do justice to the advance of science. To account adequately for the develop­ment of the universe, Earth, and man, a timeline was necessary with which to distinguish develop­mental stages. This meant discovering the unidi­rectionality of time and of a sequence of events following that linear model. The sciences could no longer burst forth fully grown from the brow of Zeus.

Developing an interdisciplinary history of the sciences was a daunting challenge for Herder. Writing well before Charles Darwin, Herder did not have a theory of evolution. Nor did Herder have the advantage of the theory of developmental history authored by Karl Ernst Ritter von Baer. Yet he traced history from the origins of the uni­verse to the rise of humankind across a panorama of the sciences. Breaking completely with Hamann, Herder saw in history not the divine will of God, but instead the actualization of divinity in man.

Herder’s Legacy

Herder’s contributions to the historical sense— religion, rationality, and science—proved fateful to subsequent German thought on history. After Herder, the first on the scene, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, adopted the religious interpretation of his­tory provided by Herder; history was indeed the actualization of the “absolute ego” in man. Fichte also adopted the notion that there is a deeper logic and rationality to history; it is the gradual actualization of the Idea (logos). Fichte returned to Hamann’s tradition of pietism and developed his system of ethical idealism entirely within a quite preachy, harshly moralistic tone. But Fichte ignored the natural sciences in favor of his own principle of ego. Next in the line of succession came F. W. J. Schelling. In keeping with these predecessors, Schelling viewed history as sacred time. He also saw history as the gradual unfolding of an Idea, and so all things are ultimately know­able by reason. In contrast to Fichte, Schelling greatly esteemed the natural sciences. If Fichte’s system may be called “ethical idealism,” Schelling’s system could be called an “idealism of nature” or “objective idealism.” Thus Schelling was a more complete replication of Herder’s historical sense even if in the strange new idiom of systematic idealism. After Schelling, Hegel advanced the his­torical sense to perhaps its most extreme form. In fact, Hegel adopted Herder’s three contributions, mediated through Fichte and Schelling, as his own. Religion had its eternal safe haven in Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, and history was the moving image of eternity. Also, history had its own rational pro­cess for Hegel, which may be captured in a system of logic. Rationality is indeed only the standard of knowledge for a historical stage of development. Hegel’s Absolute sought to subsume Nature and man entirely within itself. Finally, Karl Marx reworked Hegel’s absolute idealism, mediated by Ludwig Feuerbach, the utopian socialists, and later Darwin, into an all-inclusive theory of his­torical materialism. Directly or indirectly, these thinkers traced several fundamental elements of their historical sense back to Herder.

It should be observed that each stage within Herder’s history was equal to every other; there is no progress or higher spirituality as history pro­ceeds (in contrast to Hegel’s notion). He did believe, though, that human history should be narrated ultimately in terms of races and nations. Thus Herder truly set the scene for Fichte’s entrance onto the stage.

Greg Whitlock

See also Baer, Karl Ernst Ritter von; Boscovich, Roger Joseph; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von; Marx, Karl; Schelling, Friedrich W. J. von; Spinoza, Baruch de; Time, Sacred

Further Readings

Beck, L. W. (1965). Early German philosophy: Kant and his predecessors (chap. 15). Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press.

Herder, J. G. von. (1963). God, some conversations.

Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill. (Original work published 1787)

Herder, J. G. von. (2002). Philosophical writings. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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