*Herder, Johann Gottfried

Johann Gottfried Herder

Johann Gottfried Herder



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Herder, Johann Gottfried

German, 1744–1803
Johann Gottfried Herder lived in an age of momentous change and enormous creativity in German culture. He was a student of Immanuel Kant, a dialogue partner of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and a mentor and friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Therefore, Herder is often mentioned in conjunction with others rather than for his own sake. His image is still distorted, as he is labeled a “pre-Romantic” and antiEnlightenment thinker, whereas he tried to combine both trends. He is not remembered for one towering achievement, but for the many seeds he sowed in different disciplines such as aesthetics, literary criticism and history, philosophy of history, language theory, anthropology, psychology, and education. He was a theologian by profession, and worked as a high official in the Lutheran church. He was a renowned preacher, and contributed new ideas to Bible studies and the education of Lutheran ministers. Herder was also a singularly gifted translator and adapter of poetry from many languages and cultures. He is best remembered for his seminal anthology of folksongs from many cultures and ages, originally called Volkslieder (1778–79) but later renamed Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (Voices of the peoples in songs). This anthology and Herder’s concept of folk poetry had a tremendous impact on the Romantic search for national identity, above all in Eastern and Southeastern Europe.
Herder believed in the power of the spoken word, as he practiced it in his sermons. He considered the written text a poor substitute for direct speech and enriched it with features from oral language. He considered poetry the original and most powerful form of human communication, and interspersed his prose with poems or poetic quotations. He preferred informal and communicative genres, such as dialogues, letters, and speeches.
The style of his early works is effusive and intense, but even his more measured later prose remains emotional and personal, full of dashes, exclamation points, and rhetorical questions.
Herder was a universalist and had grand and ambitious projects. He considered his texts mere preliminaries for the real work, and liked to use titles such as “ideas,” “fragments,” “contributions,” and “thoughts on…”Recent Scholarship has defined his style and approach as “essayistic” (e.g. John A. McCarthy, 1989; James van der Laan, 1990). Even Herder’s magnum opus, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1785–91; Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Man), is unfinished and fragmentary in many of its sections.
In Herder’s Germany, the word “essay” had not yet entered the vocabulary; instead, other words were used, such as Versuch, Aufsatz, and Abhandlung, the latter dangerously close to academic writing. However, the short form of prose for an educated general audience, neither too academic and ponderous nor too flippantly superficial, and also not tied to religious observances, was in demand, especially for the emerging periodical press. It was meant for a public with no patience for complex language and deep thoughts. Such pieces could be read aloud and discussed in social circles, and applied to real-life situations. Herder was a popular author for these circles and contributed biographical essays, book reviews, essays on literature and the arts, and essays about philosophical and religious questions. Such essays, first published in journals, were usually republished in collections of poetry and prose, notably six installments of Zerstreute Blätter (1785–97; Scattered leaves). In the last decade of his life, Herder wrote short prose texts for collections, such as Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität (1793–97;
Letters for the advancement of humanity) and Adrastea (1801–04).
Herder was and is still faulted for his “unacademic” style, yet he showed perseverance in one academic genre of his age, the so-called prize essays for Academies of Science. He won prizes from the Prussian and Bavarian Academies, first with his Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache (1772; Essay on the Origin of Language), but he did not win a prize with the important psychological treatise Vom Erkennen und Empfinden der menschlichen Seele (1778; On the cognition and sensation of the human soul), although he wrote three versions and submitted the essay twice. Most of Herder’s prize essays held controversial positions, but the judges’ major objection was their nonacademic style.
Herder is not known for really outstanding individual essays, except the treatise on the origin of language, but some deserve special mention, not least because of their impact— for instance, his two essays in Von deutscher Art und Kunst (1773; On German art), a volume edited by Herder that also contains texts by Goethe, Justus Möser, and Paoli Frisi. “Shakespear” is an enthusiastic defense of Shakespeare’s form of the drama against classical norms, comparing Shakespeare to Sophocles. Despite its title, “Auszug aus einem Briefwechsel über Ossian und die Lieder alter Völker” (Extract from a correspondence about Ossian and the songs of ancient peoples) deals primarily with folksongs, and only secondarily with the problem of whether MacPherson’s Ossian was genuine Gaelic folk poetry, and how his texts should be translated.
Zerstreute Blätter reprinted major pieces from previous years, and included numerous noteworthy essays. To mention two theme essays: “Nemesis: Ein lehrendes Sinnbild” (Nemesis: a didactic symbol) traces the Greek goddess and concept of Nemesis as the balance of justice in history and human affairs and reintroduces it as a key concept.
“Tithon und Aurora” (1792) discusses aging and rejuvenation as well as radical changes such as revolutions, introducing the idea of evolution. The volumes also include biographical essays, such as the eulogy on Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, written after his unexpected death. “Über ein morgenländisches Drama” (1792; On an Oriental play) is a book review of the German translation of the Indian play Sakontala by Kalidasa, a translation by Georg Forster from the English. Sakontala is seen as a valid example of a non-Aristotelian drama, and as a demonstration of the significance of non-Western art.
Herder wrote many book review essays, the most influential being the review of Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg’s tragedy Ugolino in the Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek (General German library) of 1770, considered a model of sympathetic understanding.
The Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität offer significant texts on key concepts, such as “Humanität” and “Geist der Zeit” (spirit of the age). Other collections contain Herder’s influential reflections on ideas such as the immortality of the soul, palingenesis, and reincarnation. Both Adrastea and the Briefe end in sections condemning colonialism and the European domination and exploitation of the globe.
Since Herder’s shorter texts were much more popular than his larger works, they were often anthologized, together with extracts from his major books. His impact was considerable though not always acknowledged, since he had committed the grave sin in his last years of opposing the critical philosophy of Kant and the classical poetics of Goethe and Schiller. Still, his call for an openness to all cultures and his validation of national identity and folk poetry made him a revered figure for many movements of national liberation. Postmodernism is discovering the essayistic and forward-looking
features of his texts, and has a new sensibility for his idiom fusing prose and poetry.


Born 25 August 1744 in Mohrungen (now Morag), East Prussia. Studied theology, literature, and philosophy under Immanuel Kant at the University of K^nigsberg, 1762– 64. Teacher at the Cathedral School, Riga, 1764–69; preached in several churches in Riga. Traveled in France, and traveling companion to Prince Wilhelm of Holstein, 1769– 70; stayed in Strasbourg for eye operation and met and became friends with Goethe, 1770. Pastor, consistorial councillor, and superintendent to the petty court of SchaumburgLippe, Bückeburg, 1771–76. Married Caroline Flachsland, 1773: six children. Consistorial councillor, general superintendent, and court preacher, Weimar, 1776–1803. Elected external member, Prussian Academy of Science, 1787. Traveled to Italy, 1788–89. Awards: Prussian Academy of Sciences Prize, for essay, 1772, 1775, and 1780 (Berlin), 1778 and 1779 (Munich). Died in Weimar, 18 December 1803.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Haben wir noch jetzt das Publikum und Vaterland der Alten?, 1765
Über die neuere Deutsche Litteratur: Fragmente, 3 vols., 1767; parts in Selected Early Works 1764–1767, translated by Ernest A. Menze and Karl Menges, 1992
Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache, 1772; edited by Wolfgang Pross, 1978; as Treatise upon the Origin of Language, translated anonymously, 1827; as Essay on the Origin of Language, translated by John H.Moran and Alexander Gode, 1966
Von deutscher Art und Kunst: Einige fliegende Blätter, with Goethe, Justus Möser, and Paoli Frisi, 1773; edited by Hans Dietrich Irmscher, 1968
Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit, 1774; edited by Hans Georg Gadamer, 1967; as Yet Another Philosophy of History for the Education of Humanity, translated by Eva Herzfeld, 1968
Älteste Urkunde des Menschengeschlechts, 2 vols., 1774–76
Ursachen des gesunknen Geschmacks bei den verschiedenen Völkern, da er geblühet, 1775
Vom Erkennen und Empfinden der menschlichen Seele, 1778
Briefe, das Studium der Theologie betreffend, 2 vols., 1780–81
Vom Geist der ebräischen Poesie, 2 vols., 1782–83; as The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, translated by James D.Marsh, 1833, reprinted 1971
Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, 4 vols., 1785–91; as Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, translated by T.Churchill, 1800, reprinted 1966;
abridged edition, as Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Man, edited by Frank E.Manuel, 1968
Zerstreute Blätter, 6 vols., 1785–97
Gott: Einige Gespräche, 1787; revised edition, 1800; as God: Some Conversations, translated by Frederick H.Burkhardt, 1940
Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität, 10 collections, 1793–97
Adrastea, 6 vols., 1801–04
Johann Gottfried Herder on Social and Political Culture, edited and translated by F.M.Barnard, 1969
Selected Early Works, 1764–1767: Addresses, Essays, and Drafts; Fragments on Recent German Literature, edited and translated by Ernest A.Menze and Karl Menges, 1992
Against Pure Reason: Writings on Religion, Language, and History, edited and translated by Marcia Bunge, 1993
Vom Geist des Christentums: Aus den “Christlichen Schriften” (1793–1798), edited by Herbert von Hintzenstern, 1994
On World History: Johann Gottfried Herder: An Anthology, edited by Hans Adler and Ernest A.Menze, translated by Menze and Michael Palma, 1997
Other writings: works on philosophy (including Metakritik against Kant’s critical philosophy, 1799), aesthetics (Kritische Wälder, 3 vols., 1769), theology, and history, and correspondence. Also compiled a collection of European-language folksongs (1778– 79).
Collected works editions: Sämtliche Werke, edited by Bernhard Suphan and others, 33 vols., 1877–1913, reprinted 1994; Werke, edited by Wolfgang Pross, 3 vols., 1984–88;
Werke, 10 vols., 1985(in progress); Ausgewählte Werke in Einzelausgaben, edited by Regine Otto and others, 1985– (in progress).

Günther, Gottfried, Albina A.Volgina, and Siegfried Seifert, HerderBibliographie, Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1978
Irmscher, Hans Dietrich, and Emil Adler, Der handschriftliche Nachlass Johann Gottfried Herders, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1979
Kuhles, Doris, Herder-Bibliographie 1977–1992, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1994

Further Reading
Barnard, F.M., Herder’s Social and Political Thought: From Enlightenment to Nationalism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965
Barnard, F.M., Self-Direction and Political Legitimacy: Rousseau and Herder, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988
Berlin, Isaiah, Vico and Herder: Two Studies on the History of Ideas, London: Hogarth Press, and New York: Viking Press, 1976
Clark, Robert T., Herder: His Life and Thought, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955
Fink, Karl J., “Tithonism: Herder’s Concept of Literary Revival,” in Johann Gottfried Herder: Language, History, and the Enlightenment, edited by Wulf Koepke, Columbia, South Carolina: Camden House, 1990:196–208
Haym, Rudolf, Herder nach seinem Leben und seinen Werken dargestellt, Berlin: Weidmann, 2 vols., 1877–85
Irmscher, Hans Dietrich, “Grundzüge der Hermeneutik Herders,” in Bückeburger
Gespräche über Johann Gottfried Herder 1971, edited by Johann Gottfried Maltusch, Bückeburg: Grimme, 1973: 17–57
Irmscher, Hans Dietrich, “Herder über das Verhältnis des Autors zum Publikum,” in Bückeburger Gespräche über Johann Gottfried Herder 1975, edited by Johann Gottfried Maltusch, Rinteln: Bösendahl, 1976:17–57
Irmscher, Hans Dietrich, “Beobachtungen zur Funktion der Analogie im Denken Herders,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 55 (1981):64–97
Koepke, Wulf, “Herders Totengespräch mit Lessing,” in Aufnahme—Weitergabe: Literarische Impulse um Lessing und Goethe, edited by John A.McCarthy and Albert A.Kipa, Hamburg: Buske, 1982:125–42.
Koepke, Wulf, “Herder’s Craft of Communication,” in The Philosopher as Writer: The Eighteenth Century, edited by Robert Ginsberg, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania: Susquehanna University Press, and London: Associated University Presses, 1987:94– 121
Koepke, Wulf, Johann Gottfried Herder, Boston: Twayne, 1987
Koepke, Wulf, “Herders Zerstreute Blätter und die Struktur der Sammlung,” Herder Yearbook 1 (1992):98–117
La Vopa, Anthony J., “Herder’s Publikum: Language, Print, and Sociability in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 29 (1995):5–24
Liebel-Weckowicz, Helen, “Herder’s Place in the Development of Ideas on Human Genesis and Evolution,” Eighteenth-Century Life 9 (1984):62–82
McCarthy, John A., Crossing Boundaries: A Theory and History of Essay Writing in German, 1680–1815, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989
Möser, Walter, “Herder’s System of Metaphors in the Ideen,” in Johann Gottfried
Herder: Innovator Through the Ages, edited by Wulf Koepke, Bonn: Bouvier, 1982:102–24
Nisbet, H.B., Herder and the Philosophy and History of Science, Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association, 1970
Norton, Robert E., Herder’s Aesthetics and the European Enlightenment, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991
van der Laan, James M., “Herder’s Essayistic Style,” in Johann Gottfried Herder: Language, History, and the Enlightenment, edited by Wulf Koepke, Columbia, South Carolina: Camden House, 1990:108–23

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