Herder, Johann Gottfried

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HERDER, JOHANN GOTTFRIED (17441803), was a German pastor and theologian, a literary critic, and a philosopher of history. The unity underlying Herder's many and varied academic endeavors, which resulted in a seemingly unending flow of publications, stems from his consistently historical approach to the topics he studied. Historical awareness sets him apart most noticeably from the prevalent thought patterns of the ahistorical Enlightenment authors of his time and makes him a pivotal figure in eighteenth-century German intellectual life.

While Herder's significance is easily established in such disciplines as literature and literary criticism, cultural history, and philosophy of history or anthropology, it is much more difficult to define the influence he has exerted through his many contributions to the development of contemporary religious thought. In part this is due to the fact that Herder's approach often is more that of a sweeping questioner than a systematic thinker, and in part this is the case because religious views underlie all of his writings, most clearly his anthropological essays. Understanding the human being as made in the image of God was what moved him, not considerations of theological orthodoxy. Herder, the forceful critic of Enlightenment rationalism in general, favored an emphasis on divine revelation in creation and Scripture over dogma and systematic theology. In his Briefe an Theophron; Briefe, das Studium der Theologie betreffend, Fünfter Theil (Letters to Theophron; Letters Concerning the Study of Theology, Part V, 1781), Herder states this principle when he says that "the entire purpose of Christianity is something other than erudite exegesis and dogmatism, no matter how invaluable these might be" (Herder's Sämmtliche Werke, XI, 194). Given his love for literature, Herder extolled the poetic power of the Bible and, in keeping with his Pietistic heritage, wanted the Bible to speak directly to the individual reader. Living faith, according to Herder, defines true orthodoxy, rather than the other way around.

Herder's Background

Herder was a contemporary of Immanuel Kant (17241804) and Johann Georg Hamann (17301788). Like them he grew up in the province of East Prussia and studied in Königsberg (present-day Kaliningrad), where Kant was his teacher at the university and where Hamann became his friend and private tutor, introducing the young student to English language and literature, especially John Milton and William Shakespeare. Following a brief period of formal university studies (17621764), Herder assumed a teaching position at the German secondary school in Riga, Latvia, before he was installed in 1767 into the ministry. For the rest of his life he remained in the pastorate. He served three Lutheran churches, first in Riga (17671769), then in Bückeburg (17701776), and finally in Weimar (17761803), interrupted only by a study tour through the Netherlands and France in 17691770. Those two years of travel included a memorable voyage of five weeks on the North Sea, which he described in a catalog of new ideas and study plans published posthumously as Journal meiner Reise im Jahr 1769 (Journal of my travels in the year 1769, 1846), and a period of extremely vigorous and intense discourse with a group of young German poets, the Sturm und Drang circle around Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Strasbourg. Goethe, immediately upon his own move to Weimar in 1775, used his influence with the court there to secure for Herder a high ecclesiastical position in that small German principality. Herder's fame as a preacher never waned. He fused religiosity with his philosophy of humanism in ways that made his sermons easily understood and commonly admired.

Herder's Philosophy

Herder's first major publication, Über die neuere deutsche Literatur, Fragmente (On the new German literature, fragments, 17661767), contains his important views on language and expresses his love for idiomatic expressions and inverted word order, qualities he deemed essential to poetry. Shakespeare became his model. Shakespeare's use of Nordic mythology impressed Herder and led him to demand that one must seek to understand the cultural and intellectual environment in which a poet lived before attempting to interpret a given work of literature. The psychological-historical approach became a hallmark of Herder's criticism, whether he dealt with the poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures or with Latvian folk songs. In Kritische Wälder (Critical forests, 1769) Herder disputes G. E. Lessing's attempt to establish objective criteria for artistic production. Whereas Lessing saw Homer as the world's greatest poet, Herder considered Homer merely the greatest among the Greeks, claiming instead that individual circumstances, such as national language and ethnic peculiarities, determine appropriate criteria for judgment of works of art.

With Über den Ursprung der Sprache (On the origin of language, 1771) Herder joined the debate as to whether language was divinely given or a human invention, attempting to show that there cannot be a satisfactory answer to that question because language and human existence are synonymous. Herder wrote this essay for a contest sponsored by the Berlin Academy and won the prize. In 1774 Herder was awarded another academy prize with his entry "Auch eine Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit" (Another philosophy of history). Instead of delineating the development of the human race from primitive beginnings to a sophisticated and mature present stage (a practice common among Enlightenment authors), Herder denied such absolute progress and looked upon history as a window through which one can observe humanity's progression toward the goal God has established for it. He saw no justification for his contemporaries to consider earlier epochs to be morally, aesthetically, or intellectually inferior. In fact, he had praise for the "darkness" of the Middle Ages, during which virtue, honor, and love were of the utmost importance, and he chastised his own age for lacking in those human qualities. Herder believes that history is the revelation of God's plan for mankind; he eventually defined his own understanding of this plan more and more clearly as the number of his historical investigations grew. His works Wie die deutschen Bischöfe Landstände wurden (How the German bishops became an estate of the realm, 1774) and Ursachen des gesunckenen Geschmacks bei den verschiedenen Völkern da er geblühet (Causes of the decay of taste in the various nations where it once flourished, 1775) are two examples of his many historical writings.

Herder's Theology

Herder's love for biblical hermeneutics was directed mainly at the Old Testament, in which the sense of history and the beauty of poetry he found attractive are especially in evidence. His Älteste Urkunde des Menschengeschlechts (The oldest document of the human race, 17741776) offers an interpretation of the first few chapters of the Bible. Herder, the knowledgeable literary critic, builds a convincing case for an allegorical interpretation of Genesis 3, only to declare that such a reading is insufficient and leads merely to superficial moral teachings. Instead, he reads the account of the fall as history, maintaining, unlike many eighteenth-century theologians, the truth of original sin as an anthropological fact. His major contribution to the philosophy of history, the famous Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Ideas for a philosophy of the history of mankind, 17841791), seeks to establish the purpose of the human race from a Christian metaphysical point of view and to define that purpose as the practical application of humanitarian ideals.

While Herder continued to write about many aspects of the arts and letters and devoted himself (frequently in cooperation with Goethe) to careful study of the natural sciences, during his Weimar years he published with increasing frequency works specifically on religion. His book Maran Atha, das Buch von der Zukunft des Herrn (Maran Atha: The book of the coming of the Lord, 1779) represents Herder's poetic explanation of Revelation, one of the books in the Bible that rationalistic theologians found quite unacceptable. He wrote Briefe, das Studium der Theologie betreffend (Letters concerning the study of theology, 17801781) to serve as a handbook for students of theology, offering exegetical insights into the Old and New Testaments. Herder had become much more orthodox during his Bückeburg years, although questions of dogma never occupied a place of great importance in his scheme of thought. The study Vom Geist der Ebräischen Poesie (On the spirit of Hebrew poetry, 17821783) views the Old Testament as the greatest poetry given to humankind and therefore as a revelation of the ultimate truth. Pietistic influences were in part responsible for this view. Such influences were strong in Herder's youth and were renewed through his conversations and correspondence with Countess Maria Eleanora of Schaumberg-Lippe in Bückeburg and the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (17411801), both Pietists. Although Herder in Gott: Einige Gespräche (God: Some conversations, 1787) appears to embrace the ideas of Barukh Spinoza (16321677), there is widespread agreement that he was not a Spinozist because of his decisive disagreement with the deists. Rather, it is agreed that he used Spinoza's thoughts to clarify his understanding of God. Herder saw God as existing in the world, yet he refused to limit God's existence to this world. This was Herder's method in most of his writings. He reacted critically to what others had written and offered his own insights, yet he rarely presented his ideas in a systematic fashion. His was the role of a fruitful critic more than that of a builder of a complete worldview. The fact that others have seized upon his ideas and developed them constitutes his contribution and his significance.

See Also



The standard edition of Herder's works is Herder's Sämmtliche Werke, 33 vols., edited by Bernhard Ludwig Suphan, Jakob Balde, Carl Christian Redliche, Otto Hoffman, and Reinhold Steig (Berlin, 18771913; reprint, Hildesheim, 1967). A comprehensive and up-to-date analysis in English of Herder's contribution is Robert Thomas Clark's Herder, His Life and Thought (Berkeley, Calif., 1955), regarded as an authoritative account of Herder's far-reaching ideas. Rudolf Haym's Herder nach seinem Leben und seinen Werken, 2 vols. (Berlin, 18801885) deserves and receives continued admiration. A helpful study of Herder's theological position is Michael F. Möller's Die ersten Freigelassenen der Schöpfung: Das Menschenbild Johann Gottfried Herders im Kontext von Theologie und Philosophie der Aufklärung (Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1998). On Herder's life as a minister of the church, there is useful information in Eva Schmidt, ed., Herder im geistlichen Amt (Leipzig, Germany, 1956); and in Wilhelm-Ludwig Federlin's Vom Nutzen des geistlichen Amtes: Ein Beitrag zur Interpretation und Rezeption Johann Gottfried Herders (Göttingen, Germany, 1982). A detailed summary of Herder's hermeneutical work is in Thomas Willi's Herders Beitrag zum Verstehen des alten Testaments (Tübingen, Germany, 1971).

Friedhelm K. Radandt (1987 and 2005)

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