Herder, Johann Gottfried°

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HERDER, JOHANN GOTTFRIED ° (1744–1803), German philosopher, author, critic, and translator and as such one of the central figures of 18th-century German intellectual life. He exerted his widest influence as Generalsuperintendent in classical Weimar (1776–1803), winning a reputation particularly as a preacher. Few Protestant theologians have devoted so much admiring attention to the Old Testament at the expense of the New, or considered the Bible and the Jewish people with such remarkable objectivity. While acknowledging the Divine inspiration of the biblical writers, Herder saw them as spokesmen for humanity; and, in his pioneering aesthetic comparison between the poetry of the Bible and that of classical antiquity or of writers like Milton, he proclaimed the superiority of the Hebrew genius. His opinions were expressed in the Aelteste Urkunde des Menschengeschlechts (2 vols., 1774–76) and in his translation and commentary Lieder der Liebe (1778). More importance is, however, attached to his incomplete Vom Geisteder ebraeischen Poesie (2 vols., 1782–83; The Spirit Of Hebrew Poetry, Vermont, 1833), which regards all Hebrew literature from Genesis to rabbinic times as a single unit, endowed with unique quality and power. Vom Geiste der ebraeischen Poesie was written in dialogue form, a device borrowed from *Judah Halevi's Kuzari. Herder greatly admired the medieval Spanish poet (whose Ode to Zion he translated into German), and other post-biblical Jewish writers and philosophers, such as *Maimonides, Isaac *Abrabanel, and Solomon *Maimon. His familiarity with rabbinic literature, particularly the Midrash, is seen in his various "Juedische Parabeln." Herder was friendly with Moses *Mendelssohn and in his essay "Ueber die Bekehrung der Juden" (Adrastea, 4 (Leipzig, 1802), ch. 7) called for the total emancipation of the Jews. His own religious philosophy developed in contemplation of *Spinoza's thought, though Herder himself always rejected the Deist position. N.H. *Wessely wrote his Shirei Tiferet in response to Herder's challenge that no epic had yet been written about Moses.


R.T. Clark, Herder: His Life and Thought (1955); F.M. Barnard, in: JSOS, 28 (1966), 25–33. add. bibliography: K. Menges, in: Euphorion 90 (1996), 394–415; M.F. Moeller, Herders Menschenbild (1998).

[David Baumgardt /

Marcus Pyka (2nd ed.)]