Herder, Johann Gottfried (1744–1803)

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Johann Gottfried Herder, German philosopher and critic, was born in Mohrungen in East Prussia. His father was a schoolteacher and he grew up in humble circumstances. In 1762 he enrolled at the University of Königsberg, where he studied with Kant, who accorded him special privileges due to his unusual intellectual abilities. At this period he also began a lifelong friendship with the irrationalist philosopher Johann Georg Hamann. In 1764 he left Königsberg to take up a schoolteaching position in Riga. There he wrote the programmatic essay How Philosophy Can Become More Universal and Useful for the Benefit of the People (1765); published his first major work, on the philosophy of language and literature, the Fragments on Recent German Literature (17671768); and also an important work in aesthetics, the Critical Forests (1769). In 1769 he resigned his position and traveledfirst to France, and then to Strasbourg, where he met, and had a powerful impact on, the young Goethe. In 1771 he won a prize from the Berlin Academy for his best-known work in the philosophy of language, the Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772). From 1771 to 1776 he served as court preacher to the ruling house in Bückeburg. The most important work from this period is his first major essay on the philosophy of history, This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity (1774).

In 1776, partly through Goethe's influence, he was appointed General Superintendant of the Lutheran clergy in Weimar, a post he retained for the rest of his life. During this period he published an important essay in the philosophy of mind, On the Cognition and Sensation of the Human Soul (1778); a seminal work about the Old Testament, On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (1782); his well-known longer work on the philosophy of history, the Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Humanity (17841791); an influential essay in the philosophy of religion, God. Some Conversations (1787); a work largely on political philosophy, written in response to the French Revolution, the Letters for the Advancement of Humanity (17931797); a series of Christian Writings (17941798) concerned with the New Testament; and two works written in opposition to Kant's critical philosophy, the Metacritique (1799) (against the theoretical philosophy of the Critique of Pure Reason ) and the Calligone (1800) (against the aesthetics of the Critique of Judgment ).

Already in the 1760s Herder developed certain distinctive general positions in philosophy that would endure for the rest of his career. Most of these were strongly influenced by Kant, but by the pre critical Kant of the early and middle 1760s (not the critical Kant, against whom Herder later engaged in the public polemics just mentioned). Among these positions were: an insistence that philosophy should be useful for people in general; a (Pyrrhonist-influenced) skepticism about metaphysics, and about apriorism in philosophy; a form of empiricism; a (Hume-influenced) noncognitivism in ethics; and a principled rejection of ambitious forms of systematicity in philosophy. The early essay How Philosophy is especially revealing in this connection.


On the Origin is Herder's best-known work in the philosophy of language, but it is in certain respects unrepresentative and inferior in comparison with other works such as the Fragments and should not monopolize attention. On the Origin is primarily concerned with the question whether the origin of language can be explained in purely natural, human terms or (as Johann Peter Süßmilch had recently argued) only in terms of a divine source. Herder argues for the former position and against the latter. His argument is fairly persuasive. But this is unlikely to constitute a modern philosopher's main reason for interest in Herder's ideas about language (deriving its zest, as it does, from a religious background that is no longer ours).

Of far greater modern relevance are the following three theses already embraced by Herder as early as the 1760s, the first two of which founded the philosophy of language as we know it today: (1) Thought is essentially dependent on, and bounded in scope by, languagethat is, one can only think if one has a language, and one can only think what one can express linguistically. (2) Meanings or concepts are not to be equated with the sorts of items, in principle autonomous of language, with which much of the philosophical tradition has equated themfor example, the referents involved, Platonic forms, or empiricist ideas. Instead, they consist in usages of words. (3) Conceptualization intimately involves (perceptual and affective) sensation. More specifically, sensation is the source and basis of all our concepts, though we are able to achieve nonempirical concepts by means of a sort of metaphorical extension from the empirical ones, so that all of our concepts ultimately depend on sensation in one way or the other.

Herder also develops original theories of interpretation and translation founded on these principles. Fundamental to these theories is also a further insight: (contra such eminent Enlightenment philosopher-historians as Hume and Voltaire) peoples from different historical periods and cultures often vary radically in their concepts, beliefs, sensations, and so forth; and similar, albeit usually less dramatic, variations occur even between individuals within a single period and culture. This situation makes accurate interpretation and translation extremely difficult. In particular, it entails that interpreters and translators constantly need to resist a temptation to erroneously assimilate the concepts and thoughts they interpret or translate to their own. Herder develops his theories of interpretation and translation largely in response to this challenge.

His theory of interpretation (which is scattered through several works) stresses, inter alia, the need to complement a focus on word usages with a focus on historical context, authorial psychology, and literary genre; to "feel one's way into 'sich hineinfühlen in '" the author's meaning-internal sensations; to adopt a rigorously empirical approach to determining all of these things; to use "divination," in the sense of tentative hypothesis, when advancing beyond the available empirical evidence, for example, for an author's psychology; and to interpret the parts of a work in light of the whole work. This theory exercised a huge influence on subsequent theories of interpretation, in particular Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher's (which has often been mistakenly credited with introducing the psychological component of interpretation and "divination," which were in fact Herder's innovations).

Herder's theory of translation (which is mainly developed in the Fragments ) stresses the need to "bend" word usages in the target language in order to faithfully reproduce the alien word usages and hence meanings in the source language; and the need to reproduce not only the semantic content but also the musical "form" (e.g., the meter) of the source text, because this conveys nuances of the sensations internal to the author's meanings. With these two principles, Herder founded a new paradigm of foreignizing translation that came to dominate German translation theory and practice during and after his lifetime.


In On the Cognition and elsewhere Herder develops an interesting and influential philosophy of mind. The following are its main features.

(1) He argues for an uncompromisingly naturalistic and anti-dualistic conception of the mind. In particular, he tries to erase the division between the mental and the physical in two specific and suggestive ways: First, he advances a theory that minds and their conditions consist in forces (Kräfte ) that manifest themselves in people's bodily behaviorjust as physical nature contains forces that manifest themselves in the behavior of bodies. Second, he undertakes to explain the mind in terms of the phenomenon of irritation (Reiz ), a phenomenon recently identified by Haller, and exemplified by muscle fibers contracting in response to direct physical stimuli and relaxing upon their removalin other words, a phenomenon that, while basically physiological, also seems to exhibit a transition to mental characteristics.

(2) Herder also argues that the mind is a unity, that there is no sharp division between its faculties. This position contradicts theorists from the period such as Sulzer and Kant. It is not entirely original with Herder, having already been central to Rationalism, especially Wolff. But Herder's version of it is original in certain respects, e.g. in rejecting Rationalism's reduction of sensation and volition to cognition, and in establishing the unity thesis in an empirical rather than an apriorist way.

(3) Herder also argues that linguistic meaning is fundamentally social, so that thought and other aspects of human mental life (as essentially articulated in terms of meanings), and hence also the very self (as essentially dependent on thought and other aspects of human mental life, and as defined in its specific identity by theirs), are so too. Herder's version of this position is again empirically based (unlike later versions of it, e.g., Hegel's).

(4) In tension, though not contradiction, with the preceding position, Herder also holds that even within a single period and culture human minds are as a rule deeply individual, deeply different from each otherso that in addition to a generalizing psychology we also need a psychology oriented to individuality. (5) Finally (like predecessors in the Rationalist tradition and Kant), Herder rejects the Cartesian idea of the mind's self-transparencyinstead insisting that much of what occurs in the mind is unconscious, so that self-knowledge is often deeply problematic. This whole theory of the mind exercised an enormous influence on successors such as Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Nietzsche.


As already noted, Herder's philosophy of language is committed to the two doctrines that thought is essentially dependent on and bounded by language, and that meaning is word-usage. These doctrines seem to stand in tension with the expression of thought and meaning by the nonlinguistic arts, however. In the Critical Forests (1769) Herder initially tried to cope with this problem by denying that such arts express thought or meaning, but that is an implausible position, and in later parts of the work he began to develop a much more plausible solution: they do so, but the thoughts and meanings in question depend on a prior linguistic articulation or articulability by the artist (so that the interpretation of "nonlinguistic" art requires the interpretation of language). This was henceforth Herder's normal position.

Another important Herderian contribution to aesthetics is his theory of genre. Herder believes, plausibly, that a work of art is always written or made to exemplify a certain genre, and that it is vitally important for an interpreter to identify the work's genre if he is to understand it correctly. Herder's basic conception of genre is that it consists in an overall purpose together with certain rules of composition dictated thereby. Genres are to a great extent socially pregiven, but they vary from society to society, and they always play their role via authorial intention, so that the individual artist is not inexorably locked into them but can and often does modify them.

Herder has two reasons for thinking it vitally important to define a work's genre correctly if one is to understand the work properly (both good reasons): first, because an author intends his work to exemplify a certain genre, there will normally be aspects of the work's meaning that are expressed, not explicitly in any of its parts, but rather through its intended exemplification of the genre; second, correctly identifying the genre is also required for correctly interpreting things that are expressed explicitly in the parts of a work. Just as Herder insists on a scrupulously empirical approach to interpretation generally, so he insists on it in connection with determining genres in particular; he sharply rejects apriorism here, including the relative apriorism of generalizing from certain familiar examples. Such relative apriorism is disastrous, in his view, because the superficial appearance of a similar genre shared by different historical periods or cultures, or even by different authors within one period and culture, or even by a single author in one work and in another, usually masks important differences.

Herder sees misguided relative apriorism in the definition of genres in many areas of interpretation. For example, his essay Shakespeare (1773) discerns it in the French critics' approach to tragedy, which assumes the universal validity in tragedy of Aristotelian genre-purposes and -rules originally derived exclusively from ancient tragedies, and consequently assumes that these provide an appropriate guide for interpreting Shakespearean tragedy, whose genre-conception is in fact different; and This Too discerns it in Johann Joachim Winckelmann's approach to Egyptian sculpture, which erroneously imports genre-purposes and -rules derived from Greek sculpture. Herder also stresses that determining the genre properly is vitally important not only for the correct interpretation of an artwork, but also for its correct evaluation. For example, the French critics not only make an interpretive mistake when they go to Shakespeare with a genre dogmatically in mind that was not his, but also an evaluative one: because they falsely assume that he must be aspiring to realize the genre-purpose and -rules that Aristotle found in ancient tragedy, they fault him for failing to realize these, while at the same time they overlook the different genre-purpose and -rules that he really does aspire to realize and his success in realizing these.


Herder's philosophy of history appears mainly in two works, This Too and the later Ideas. These works are famous for their teleological conception of history as the progressive realization of a divine purpose (unspecified in the former work, but specified in the latter as the realization of "humanity" or "reason"). This conception was influential on subsequent thinkers (especially Hegel). However, the philosophical interest of Herder's works today lies elsewhere.

Herder's main achievement here arguably consists in his insight into, and detailed empirical elaboration of, the thesis mentioned earlier that (contra such Enlightenment philosopher-historians as Hume and Voltaire) there exist radical mental differences between historical periods, that people's concepts, beliefs, sensations, and so on differ in deep ways from one period to another. This thesis is already prominent in On the Change of Taste (1766). It too exercised an enormous influence on successors (e.g., Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dilthey).

Herder indeed makes the empirical exploration of the realm of mental diversity posited by this thesis the core of the discipline of history. He takes relatively little interest in the supposedly "great" political and military deeds and events of history, focusing instead on this varying "innerness" of history's participants (consequently, for him psychology and interpretation take center-stage as methods in the discipline). This is a deliberate and self-conscious choice for which he has deep reasons: On the one hand, he is skeptical of the traditional justifications for a history that focuses on the "great" political and military deeds and events of the past, justifications in terms of their being morally edifying (his values rather incline him to find them morally repugnant), revealing an overall meaning in history (despite his own official teleology, he is skeptical about this), or affording efficient causal insights that will enable us to explain the past and predict or control the future (he considers the potential for such insights and benefits severely limited). On the other hand, he sees positive reasons for focusing on the "innerness" of human beings in history: His discovery of radical diversity in human mentality has shown there to be a much larger, less explored, and more intellectually challenging field for investigation here than previous generations of historians had realized.

Also, studying people's minds through their literature, visual art, and so on promises to contribute to our moral self-improvement, since, unlike political-military history, it exposes us to people at their moral best and hence is morally edifying, and it serves cosmopolitan and egalitarian moral ideals by enhancing our sympathies for peoples and indeed for peoples at all social levels, including lower ones. Finally, doing "inner" history is also valuable as an instrument for our non moral self-improvement: It advances our self-understanding, because contrasting our own outlook with the outlooks of other peoples enables us to recognize what is universal and invariant in it and what by contrast distinctive and variable, and because in order fully to understand our own outlook we need to identify its origins and how they developed into it (this is Herder's famous and influential "genetic method"); and additionally, by investigating the nonmoral ideals of past ages (e.g., their aesthetic ideals) it enables us to enrich our own nonmoral ideals and hence happiness. This whole position strongly influenced successors, especially Wilhelm Dilthey.

Herder is also impressive for having recognized, and if not solved then at least grappled with, a problem that flows from his picture of history (and intercultural comparison) as an arena of radical variations in human mentality: the threat of skepticism. Herder is determined to avoid skepticism. He vacillates between two main strategies for doing so that are inconsistent with each other: His first is to acknowledge the problem in its full force but to respond to it with relativism: especially in This Too he argues that (at least where questions of moral, aesthetic, and prudential value are concerned) the different positions taken by different periods and cultures are equally valid, namely for the periods and cultures to which they belong, and that there can be no question of any preferential ranking between them. His second strategy is to try to defuse the problem at its source by arguing that, on closer inspection, there is in fact much more common ground between different periods and cultures than it allows. This strategy plays a central role in the Ideas, where in particular "humanity" is presented as a common ethical value. The later Letters goes back and forth between these two strategies.


Herder's most developed statement of his political philosophy appears in a late work prompted by the French Revolution of 1789: the Letters (including the early draft of 1792). In domestic politics, the mature Herder is a liberal, a republican, a democrat, and an egalitarian. In international politics, he has often been classified as a "nationalist" or (even worse) a "German nationalist," but this is misleading and unjust. On the contrary, his fundamental position is a committed cosmopolitanism, an impartial concern for all human beings. This is a large part of the force of his ideal of "humanity." Hence, for example, in the Letters he quotes with approval François de Salignad de la Mothe Fénelon's remark, "I love my family more than myself; more than my family my fatherland; more than my fatherland humankind." (2002, p. 389). Moreover, unlike the cosmopolitanism of his teacher Kant, Herder's is genuine: Whereas Kant's is vitiated by a set of empirically ignorant and morally inexcusable prejudices that he harborsin particular, racism, antisemitism, and misogynyHerder's is entirely free of these prejudices, which he indeed works tirelessly to combat. Herder does also insist on respecting, preserving, and advancing national groupings. But he has good reasons for doing so: (1) The deep diversity of values between nations entails that homogenization is ultimately impracticable, only a fantasy. (2) It also entails that, to the extent that it is practicable, it cannot occur voluntarily but only through external coercion. (3) In practice, attempts to achieve itfor example, by European colonialismare moreover coercive from, and subserve, ulterior motives of domination and exploitation. (4) Furthermore, real national variety is positively valuable, both as affording individuals a vital sense of local belonging and in itself.

Moreover, Herder's insistence on respecting, preserving, and advancing national groupings is unalarming, for the following reasons: (1) For Herder, this is emphatically something that must be done for all national groupings equally (not just or especially Germany!). (2) The "nation" in question is not racial but linguistic and cultural. (3) Nor does it involve a centralized or militaristic state (Herder advocates the disappearance of such a state). (4) Herder's insistence on respecting national groupings is accompanied by the strongest denunciation of military conflict, colonial exploitation, and all other forms of harm between nations; a demand that nations instead peacefully cooperate and compete in trade and intellectual endeavors for their mutual benefit; and a plea that they should indeed actively work to help each other.

On the one hand, Herder's political philosophy can appear theoretically thin, but this is intentional and arguably a virtue, a salutary minimalism. There is certainly no grand metaphysical theory underpinning it (à la Fichte or Hegel). But that is deliberate, given his skepticism about metaphysics. Nor does he have an elaborate account purporting to justify the moral intuitions at work in it as a sort of theoretical insight (à la Kant or Rawls). But that is again deliberate, given his noncognitivism in ethics. Nor does he call on such tired staples of political theory as the state of nature, the social contract, natural rights, the general will, and utopias for the future. But again, he has good specific reasons for skepticism about these. On the other hand, he does have a "political theory" of another, and arguably more valuable, sort. For one thing, in accordance with his general empiricism, his political philosophy is deeply empirically informed (e.g., he argues that freedom of thought and expression is required for the advancement of truth and artistic creativity by appeal to historical examples, especially classical Athens). For another thing, conformably with his noncognitivism in ethics, he is acutely aware that his political position ultimately depends on moral sentimentshis own and, for its success, other people's as welland this leads him to engage in moral theorizing of another sort, namely theorizing about how, and by what means, people's moral sentiments should be molded in order to realize his political ideals. These two sorts of theorizing are deeply developed in Herder's political philosophy.


Religion was a lifelong preoccupation of Herder's. He made important contributions to the theory of biblical interpretation and to the actual interpretation of the Bible (in particular, insisting on and applying the same sort of rigorous secular approach to interpretation that he advocates for profane texts). In addition, he played a major role in reviving a form of Spinozism, a position to which he was already attracted early in his career, but to which he gave fullest expression in his neo-Spinozistic God. Some Conversations of 1787. In this work he develops a version of Spinozism that consciously modifies the original in certain respects. He shares with Spinoza the basic thesis of monism, and like Spinoza equates the single, all-encompassing principle with God. But whereas Spinoza characterized it as substance, Herder characterizes it as force, or primal force.

Moreover, this modification involves further ones, including these: (1) Whereas Spinoza's theory rejected conceptions of God as a full-blooded person or mind, and a being who not only thinks but also has purposes, Herder's identification of God with force imports, thanks to his general identification of mind with force, a claim that God is in fact a mind, and and a being who not only thinksbut also has purposes. (2) Herder believes that Spinoza's original theory contained a residue of objectionable dualism, inherited from Descartes, in its conception of the relation between God's two known attributes, thought and extension (and similarly in its conception of the relation between finite minds and bodies); by contrast, Herder's conception of God as a force (and of finite minds as likewise forces) overcomes this residual dualism, since forces are of their very nature expressed in extended bodies. Herder's neo-Spinozism, including these modifications, was largely responsible for a great wave of neo-Spinozism that swept German philosophy in this period (embracing Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Hölderlin, Novalis, F. Schlegel, and others).

See also Descartes, René; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Empiricism; Fénelon, François de Salignac de la Mothe; German Philosophy; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Haller, Albrecht von; Hamann, Johann Georg; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hölderlin, Johann Christian Friedrich; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Noncognitivism; Novalis; Philosophy of History; Philosophy of Language; Philosophy of Mind; Political Philosophy, History of; Pyrrho; Rationalism; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Schlegel, Friedrich von; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst; Skepticism; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Spinozism; Sulzer, Johann Georg; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de; Winckelmann, Johann Joachim; Wolff, Christian.


works by herder

Herders Sämtliche Werke, edited by B. Suphan et al. Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 18871913.

Johann Gottfried Herder Werke, edited by U. Gaier et al. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1985.

Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man. Translated by T. Churchill. London: Luke Hansard for J. Johnson, 1803. This is a translation of the Ideas.

God. Some Conversations. Translated by F. H. Burkhardt. New York: Veritas Press, 1940.

Forster, M. N. Herder: Philosophical Writings. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Contains translations of How Philosophy, On the Origin, On the Cognition, and This Too, as well as various other pieces.

Barnard, F. M. J. G. Herder on Social and Political Culture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Contains partial translations of Herder's 1769 Journal, On the Origin, This Too, the Dissertation on the Reciprocal Influence of Government and the Sciences, and the Ideas.

Nisbet, H. B. German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: Winckelmann, Lessing, Hamann, Herder, Schiller, Goethe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Contains two pieces by Herder on aesthetics, including his Shakespeare.

works about herder

Barnard, F. M. Herder's Social and Political Thought: From Enlightenment to Nationalism. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1965. Chapters 35 on political philosophy are especially good.

Beiser, F. C. Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 17901800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992. See esp. chap. 8. An excellent treatment of Herder's political philosophy.

Beiser, F. C. The Fate of Reason: German Philosopy from Kant to Fichte. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987. Chap. 5. Covers several topics well, including Herder's philosophies of language, mind, and religion.

Berlin, I. Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. New York: Viking Press, 1976. A concise and excellent overview.

Clark, R. T., Jr. Herder: His Life and Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955. Detailed and useful, though unimaginative.

Ergang, R. Herder and the Foundations of German Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931. Helpful on Herder's political thought and on his intellectual influence.

Haym, R. Herder nach seinem Leben und seinen Werken. Berlin: Gaertner, 1880. A detailed and excellent intellectual biography. Still the best single work on Herder.

Irmischer, H. D. Johann Gottfried Herder. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2001. A short and helpful overview.

Lovejoy, A. O. "Herder and the Enlightenment Philosophy of History." In his Essays on the History of Ideas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1948. A good introduction to Herder's philosophy of history.

Meinecke, F. Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook. London: Routledge, 1972. Chap. 9. Helpful on Herder's philosophy of history.

Nisbet, H. B. Herder and the Philosophy and History of Science. Cambridge, MA: Modern Humanities Research Association, 1970. A helpful account of Herder's stance towards science.

Norton, R. E. Herder's Aesthetics and the European Enlightenment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991. Helpful both on certain aspects of Herder's aesthetic theory and on Herder's general relation to the Enlightenment.

Zammito, J. H. Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Especially helpful on Herder and the precritical Kant.

Michael N. Forster (2005)

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Herder, Johann Gottfried (1744–1803)

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