chapter  17
Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (Johann Gottfried Herder, 1744–1803)
Pages 7

Herder was born in East Prussia, brought up as a Lutheran, and attended Köningsberg University, where he was influenced by Immanuel Kant’s lectures on how climate and geography have influenced human development and historical change. He became a pastor and held a number of religious offices, ending up in Weimar, capital of the duchy Saxe-Weimar-Eisinach, as chaplain to the duke and his court. His religious convictions were elastic, even ambivalent. After a sermon disturbing to the duke, Goethe was surprised he did not abdicate. Herder also took on duties as superintendant of the duchy’s schools, which were widely known for their excellence. There was no “Germany” in his time, only a jumble of mostly small

principalities ruled by princes, dukes, and bishops. Pressures and influence came from France, cultural arbiter of the time, even after the revolution of 1789, which German literary figures and intellectuals like Herder bitterly resented and sought to neutralize by recovering a distinctly German culture. He was a dogged critic of the French Enlightenment, with its cosmopolitan rationalism and neoclassical aesthetic based on uniform rules for poetry and art that assumed a uniformity of human nature. He was friends with poet and polymath Wolfgang Goethe, who

recommended him for office to the duke, even securing a house for him and his wife, Caroline, when they moved to Weimar. Along with other literary figures of the time, notably Goethe, Christoph Wieland, and the poet Friedrich Schiller, he was the fourth luminary to burnish Weimar’s reputation as a German “Athens” at a time when Germans had no central capital like Paris or Vienna for art and scholarship. In his writing, he dwells at length on wholeness of personality, but

personal integration in a harmonious group eluded him. By report he was a divided man, given to fits of petulance, hungering for praise, often resentful and suspicious, and tiresomely pedantic. Caroline attempted to provide domestic stability while he juggled ritual and ceremonial tasks as chaplain while toiling at a host of writing projects. A psycho-historian might be inclined to attribute his passion for cultural groups unified by language and custom, spontaneously expressing themselves in simple folk poetry and song, a poignant outreach of an unhappy, complicated life. He wrote some history, which included a treatise on the origin

of language in 1772, One More Philosophy of History in 1774, and Reflections, published in four parts between 1784 and 1791, but was

mainly a prolific author of literary criticism, folklore, philosophy, theology, aesthetics, and linguistics. He produced a mountain of ideas, themes, and speculations, codified in some 33 volumes. Reflections starts off: “If our philosophy of the history of man would

in any measure deserve that name, it must begin from Heaven. For as our place of abode, Earth, is of itself nothing, but derives its figure and constitution, its faculty of forming organized beings, and preserving them when formed, from those heavenly powers, that pervade the whole universe.” This is a fair sample of the prose that sprawls over 632 pages. It bears the stamp of romantic texture and diction for which Herder was a forerunner. It has a diffuse quality that comes from loosely disciplined enthusiasm for all forms of human expression, which makes him hard to read both in German and English translation. He neglected logical organization or systematic exposition. He never questions his own views. But within the intellectual-historical rainforest he created, Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit) is by wide consent a seminal document for historical consciousness in the nineteenth century and beyond. Although not a historian by vocation, Herder conveys a definite

notion of what history is and how it should be done, which he believed could rival natural science in explanatory power:

The whole history of mankind is a pure natural history of human powers, actions, and propensities, modified by time and place. This principle is not more simple, than it is luminous and useful, in treating of the history of nations … the examining mind must exert all its acumen on every historical event, as on a natural phenomenon. Thus in the narration of history it will seek the strictest truth; in forming its conceptions and judgments, the most complete connexion: and never attempt to explain a thing which is, or happens, by a thing which is not.