Johann Gottfried Herder. Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2004. lviii + 166 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87220-716-5; $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-87220-715-8.
Reviewed by Johann W. Tempelhoff (School of Basic Sciences, North-West University, South Africa)
Published on H-SAfrica (July, 2004)
With Nationalism in Mind...
With Nationalism in Mind...
Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) is today perhaps best remembered for his definition of the concept of nationalism more than two hundred years ago. It is a term, once conceived and understood in its proper context, that has shaped our understanding of the history of the world in a most marked manner. Although political scientists acknowledge his contribution, Herder also means a number of things to other readers in other disciplines.
For Germanists, he is representative of a new intellectual drift that acted as a counter-culture alternative to the Enlightenment. For historians, his significance is based on the fact that he moved away from universal perspectives of a world history in the direction of opening up the search for the internal spirit that drives the past of peoples, as individuals; and he did this in a manner that has never been repeated.
Moreover, Herder is remembered as one of the more original thinkers of the eighteenth-century, cosmopolitan travellers in Europe; after having studied under Immanuel Kant, he was able to assert an influence on the intellectual environment of German society. His was a time when German intellectual culture had reached a nadir in its development.
Another Philosophy of History is not Herder's most famous work. According to Evrigenis and Pellerin, the translators and editors who also wrote the introduction, it was intended to be a controversial work aimed at taking a stand against the Enlightenment, which was in a phase of exhaustion. In some respects the work is a "pamphlet" (p. xxiv) of sorts, as Herder himself recognized, written in a cryptic style intended to create an awareness of a new trend of thinking.
In this, the second work in which Herder started formulating a comprehensive critique of enlightenment, we deal with an author who is in the process of taking in a revolutionary stand. His expositions and attacks on enlightenment are passionate. It is not always the most rational of expositions. However, the reader becomes aware how "futile" the attempts of the "philosophes" have been at presenting the Enlightenment as one of significant universal images, truth and philosophical serenity.
Under the surface it is evident that Herder is more of an enlightenment product than he would care to admit. His exposition of the history of humankind tends to be in a mold of thinking that can hardly be discerned from the thought of Voltaire in some areas. There are interesting perspectives on the familiar history of how the Orient, the Middle East and particularly Egypt, shaped the youthful Greece and later influenced the well-ordered Roman civilization. The work is written in a strong metaphorical tone with distinct statements on outstanding features of a cultural and a political nature. However, it is only when Herder states that culture can never be the same, that it is unrepeatable, that his major departure from enlightenment thought becomes apparent (p. 77).
The translators and editors deserve praise for the manner in which they have given detailed attention to the practice of translation. The German language seldom translates well into English. It is too steeped in a unique tradition of the continental culture of Europe to be understood without other roots of signification. The consequence is that even the reader with some historical awareness of German culture is forced to recognize that the language has a foundation that transcends a sense of familiarity for those who perceive it only from the outside. German is however a language, as Herder himself would have acknowledged, that can describe our understanding of humankind in the greatest of detail and with substantial sophistication.
Herder's style of writing is complex. Needless to say he has been misunderstood by many of his readers. Take for example his conception of nationalism. It is remarkable to note that he outlines it in the text first in a negative context. He makes a general statement that every nation has its center of happiness within itself--very much the same as every ball has a center of gravity (p. 29). Then Herder goes on to explain that where the "circles of happiness" of nations collide there are indications of prejudice, loutishness and narrow nationalism. He explains "Prejudice is good in its time: it makes men happy. It pushes peoples together at their center, making them stand firmer upon their roots, more flourishing in their way, more virile, and also happier in their inclinations and purpose. The most ignorant, prejudiced nation is in this sense often the first: the age of dreamy wanderings and hopeful journeys abroad is already sickness, flatulence, bloatedness, premonition of death" (pp. 29-30)!
In the twentieth century, historians of politics and the history of ideas have noted in considerable detail the extent to which nationalism shaped the destinies of nations and ethnic groups. Particularly in Africa, narrow ethnic nationalism has tended, up to the present, to stifle attempts at progressive state development, as is evident in Rwanda where the Hutu- and Tutsi-elements somehow seem to be constantly at loggerheads. In South Africa a noble experiment was introduced after 1994. Ethnic nationalism--so prominent in the era of apartheid--was shifted to the background. In its place the idea of nation-building--a melting pot of sorts--emerged. Precisely how this balancing trick is going to be sustained only time will tell. On the one hand there already has been a move by government in the direction of once again recognizing traditional ethnic leadership and the role it has to play in rural South Africa. On the other hand, South Africa's Afrikaners also tend to keep alive a sense of cultural, rather than ethnic, nationalism. It is a sense of nationhood that has the Afrikaans language at the center of gravity. These manifestations of nationalism may be different to that which Herder had in mind in the eighteenth century. It could also be different from the sense of nationhood that gripped American society in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. There is then reason to feel that the distinction between "ethnic" or "whole-nation"-nationalism could be perhaps somewhat of a misnomer. What is certain is that locating the mythological identity of a people, as Herder suggests, in ancient Rome, Greece or even in the Gothic traditions of medieval Germany, could be a potent brew for misplaced sympathies. Particularly if nationalism has to be seen against the backdrop of twentieth-century strains of ethnic cleansing or acts of sheer disrespect for human dignity.
The book was written in 1772-73, at least three years before the American revolution. Yet Herder, with prophetic insight, is able to venture a statement on the effect of colonialism on peoples when he notes: "The more means and tools we Europeans invent to enslave, cheat, and plunder you other continents, the more it may be left to you to triumph in the end! We forge the chains by which you will pull us [one day], and the inverted pyramids of our constitutions will be righted on your soil--you with us" (pp. 90-91).
Presently, in the era of post-colonial thought that is now steeped in the thought of the late Edward Said, Herder's observation suggests that he was a visionary in his own right. Perhaps it explains why he has continued to assert an influence on philosophers of the left and of the right since the nineteenth century. Moreover his thought was well integrated into the work of Isaiah Berlin--one of the great minds of the twentieth century.
Ultimately Herder is also a philosopher of Christian religion. His thought in this sphere had an impact on Leopold von Ranke--one of the fathers of nineteenth-century German historical practice. Thus, his reference in this early work to the soul and spirit clearly reflects a perspective that would also assert an influence on Hegel. Once he transcends pure religious thought, Herder maintains: "It is the soul that remains, the spirit, that which fills the whole of mankind; and blessed is he who is given much from that pure, incorruptible source of life" (p. 92)! The reader becomes aware how easy the leap would be for him to conceive the idea of the spirit of the nation (Volksgeist).
As a theologian, coming from a pious German family, Herder is also predictable when he singles out Luther, along with Descartes and other great minds, as great "reformers." Although he refers to revolutions and the need to be able to see things in a different light, he personally refrains from addressing the phenomenon of revolution. Instead he opts for a more restrained description of the "reformer" (pp. 47-8). Not only does it provide a foundation for his understanding of the history of the church, but it also provides the vehicle to account for significant changes in governance (pp. 78-80) and scientific thought (pp. 81-2).
Another Philosophy of History is a book that has been assembled thoughtfully by two scholars with a particular interest in the history of political thought and theory. Six short, selected political writings on nations, cultures and ages, are added to the major text. For the interested reader, they offer an informative rounded picture of Herder's thought.
Apart from an informative introduction with the customary biographical sketch, there is also an exposition of editorial conventions followed in the translation and preparation of the work, a comprehensive bibliography on works dealing with Herder and his times, a biographical register, as well as a comprehensive index. It is a work that could well be worth reading for those interested in exploring one of the great minds in eighteenth-century German thought.
. See Robert Bartlett, Review of Patrick J. Geary, "The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe," Journal of Modern History 75, no. 4 (2003): pp. 919-920.
. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1995; reprinted with new afterword).
. See Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two studies in the History of Ideas (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).
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Johann W. Tempelhoff. Review of Herder, Johann Gottfried, Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings.
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