La bible

Johann Gottfried von Herder

1. Life and Works

Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) 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 because of his unusual intellectual abilities. At this
period he also began a lifelong friendship with the irrationalist
philosopher Hamann. In 1764 he left Königsberg to take up a
school-teaching 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,
concerning the philosophy of language and literature, the
Fragments on Recent German Literature (1767–8); and
also published an important work on aesthetics, the Critical
(1769). In 1769 he resigned his position and
travelled—first to France, and then to Strasbourg, where in 1770
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
(published in 1772). From 1771–6 he served as
court preacher to the ruling house in Bückeburg. The most
important works from this period are the essay Shakespeare
(1773) and his first major essay on the philosophy of history,
This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of
(1774). In 1776, partly thanks to Goethe’s
influence, he was appointed General Superintendent of the Lutheran
clergy in Weimar, a post he would keep 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 on the Old Testament, On the Spirit of
Hebrew Poetry
(1782–3); his well-known longer work on the
philosophy of history, the Ideas for the Philosophy of History of
(1784–91); an influential essay on 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 (1793–7); a
series of Christian Writings (1794–8) concerned with
the New Testament; and two works opposing Kant’s critical
philosophy, A Metacritique on the Critique of Pure Reason
(1799) (directed against the theoretical philosophy of the
Critique of Pure Reason [Kant 1781/7]) and the
Calligone (1800) (directed against the aesthetics of the
Critique of the Power of Judgment [Kant 1790]). In addition
to the works just mentioned, Herder also wrote many others in the
course of his career.

Herder’s earlier works are often his best. He himself wrote in
On the Cognition and Sensation (this article will use such
abbreviated titles throughout) that “the first uninhibited work
of an author is … usually his best; his bloom is unfolding, his
soul still dawn” (HPW 219). Whether or not that
is generally true, it does arguably apply to Herder

2. Philosophical Style

In certain ways Herder’s philosophical texts are easier to read
than others from the period. For example, he avoids technical jargon,
writes in a way that is lively and rich in examples rather than dry
and abstract, and has no large, complex system for the reader to keep
track of. But his texts also have certain peculiarities that can
impede a proper understanding and appreciation of his thought, and it
is important to be alerted to these.

To begin with, Herder’s writing often seems emotional and
grammatically undisciplined in ways that might perhaps be expected in
casual speech but not in philosophical texts. This is intentional.
Indeed, Herder sometimes deliberately “roughed up”
material in this direction between drafts. Moreover, he has serious
philosophical reasons for writing in such a way, including the
following: (1) This promises to make his writing more broadly
accessible and interesting to people—a decidedly non-trivial
goal for him, since he believes it to be an essential part of
philosophy’s vocation to have a broad social impact. (2) He
believes in the expressive superiority of speech over writing. (3) One
of his central theses in the philosophy of mind holds that thought is
not and should not be separate from volition, or affect, that types of
thinking that attempt to exclude affect are inherently distorting and
inferior. Standard academic writing has this vice, whereas spontaneous
speech, and writing that imitates it, do not. (4) Herder is opposed to
any lexical or grammatical straitjacketing of language, any slavish
obedience to dictionaries and grammar books. In his view, such
straitjacketing is inimical, not only to linguistic creativity and
inventiveness, but also (much worse), since thought is essentially
dependent on and confined in its scope by language, thereby to
creativity and inventiveness in thought itself.

Another peculiarity of Herder’s philosophical texts is their
unsystematic nature. This is again deliberate. For Herder is
largely hostile toward systematicity in philosophy (a fact that is
reflected both in explicit remarks and in many of his titles:
Fragments … , Ideas … , etc.). He is
particularly hostile to the ambitious sort of systematicity that is
aspired to in the tradition of Spinoza, Wolff, Kant, Fichte,
Schelling, and Hegel: the ideal of a comprehensive theory whose parts
display some sort of strict overall pattern of derivation. He has
compelling reasons for this hostility: (1) He is very skeptical that
such systematic designs can be made to work (as opposed to creating,
through illicit means, an illusion that they do). (2) He
believes that such system-building leads to a premature closure of
inquiry, and in particular to a disregarding or distortion of new
empirical evidence. Scrutiny of such systems amply bears out both of
these concerns. Herder’s well-grounded hostility to this type of
systematicity established an important counter-tradition in German
philosophy (which subsequently included, for example, Friedrich
Schlegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Adorno).

On the other hand, Herder is in favor of
“systematicity” in a more modest sense: the ideal of a
theory that is self-consistent and supported by argument (this marks
an important point of methodological contrast with Hamann, whom Herder
already criticizes for failing to provide arguments in an essay from
early 1765, Dithyrambic Rhapsody [G1:38]).
He by no means always achieves this ideal (so that interpreting him
calls for more selectivity and reconstruction than is the case with
some philosophers). However, his failures to do so are more often
apparent than real: First, in many cases where he may seem to be
guilty of inconsistency he is really not. For he is sometimes
developing philosophical dialogues between two or more opposing
viewpoints, in which cases it would clearly be a mistake to accuse him
of inconsistency in any usual or pejorative sense. And (less
obviously) in many other cases he is in effect still working in this
dialogue-mode, only without bothering to distribute the positions
among different interlocutors explicitly, and so is again innocent of
real inconsistency (examples of this occur in How Philosophy Can
and This Too a Philosophy of History). Moreover,
he has serious motives for using this method of (implicit) dialogue:
(1) Sometimes his main motive is simply that when dealing with
religiously or politically delicate matters it permits him to state
his views but without quite stating them as his own and therefore
without inviting trouble. But he also has philosophically deeper
motives: (2) He takes over from the pre-critical Kant an idea
(inspired by ancient skepticism) that the best way for a philosopher
to pursue the truth is by setting contrary views on a subject into
opposition with one another in order to advance toward, and hopefully
attain, the truth through their mutual testing and modification. (3)
In addition, he develops a more original variant of that idea on the
socio-historical plane: analogously, the way for humankind as a whole
to attain the elusive goal of truth is through an ongoing contest
between opposing positions, in the course of which the best ones will
eventually win out (this idea anticipates and indirectly influenced a
central thesis of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty
[1859]). This yields a further motive for the dialogue-method (even
when it does not lead Herder himself to any definite conclusion), in
effect warranting the rhetorical question, And what does it matter to
the cause of humankind and its discovery of truth whether those
various opposing positions are advanced by different people or by
the same person? Second, Herder’s frequent appearance
of neglecting to give arguments is often, rather, a principled
rejection of arguments of certain sorts. For example, he has
a general commitment to empiricism and against apriorism in philosophy
that usually leads him to avoid giving familiar sorts of a priori
arguments in philosophy; and a commitment to sentimentalism in ethics
that leads him to refrain from familiar sorts of cognitivist arguments
in ethics.

3. General Program in Philosophy

The extent of Hamann’s influence on Herder’s best thought
has been greatly exaggerated by some of the secondary literature
(e.g., Isaiah Berlin). But Kant’s influence was early,
fundamental, and enduring. However, the Kant who influenced Herder in
this way was the pre-critical Kant of the early and middle
1760s, not the critical Kant (against whom Herder later engaged in
the—rather distracting and ineffective—public polemics of
the Metacritique and the Calligone).

Some of the pre-critical Kant’s key positions in the 1760s,
sharply contrasting with ones that he would later adopt during the
critical period, were: a (Pyrrhonist-influenced) skepticism about
metaphysics; a form of empiricism; and a (Hume-influenced)
sentimentalism in ethics. Herder took over these positions in the
1760s and retained them throughout his career. It should by no means
be assumed that this debt to the early Kant is a debt to a
philosophically inferior Kant, though; a good case could be
made for the very opposite.

Herder’s 1765 essay How Philosophy Can Become More Universal
and Useful for the Benefit of the People
is a key text for
understanding both his debt to Kant and the broad orientation of his
philosophy. The essay was written under strong influence from Kant,
especially, it seems, Kant’s 1766 essay Dreams of a Spirit
, which Kant sent to Herder prior to its publication
(“a sheet at a time”, Herder reports

Herder’s essay answers a prize question set by a society in
Bern, Switzerland: “How can the truths of philosophy become more
universal and useful for the benefit of the people?” This
question was conceived in the spirit of the
Popularphilosophie that was competing with school-philosophy
in the German-speaking world at the time. Kant himself tended to
identify with Popularphilosophie at this period, and
Herder’s selection of this question shows him doing so as well.
But in his case the identification would last a lifetime. Philosophy
should become relevant and useful for the people as a whole—this
is a basic ideal of Herder’s philosophy.

Largely in the service of this ideal, Herder’s essay argues in
favor of two sharp turns in philosophy, turns that would again remain
fundamental throughout the rest of his career. The first turn consists
in a rejection of traditional metaphysics, and closely follows an
argument of Kant’s in Dreams of a Spirit Seer.
Herder’s case is roughly this: (1) Traditional metaphysics,
through undertaking to transcend experience (or strictly speaking, a
little more broadly, “healthy understanding”, which
includes, in addition to empirical knowledge, also ordinary morality,
intuitive logic, and mathematics), succumbs to unresolvable
contradictions between its claims, and hence to the Pyrrhonian
skeptical problem of an equal plausibility on both sides that requires
a suspension of judgment (“I am writing for Pyrrhonists”,
Herder says [HPW 8]). Moreover (Herder goes on to add
in the Fragments of 1767–8), given the truth of a
broadly empiricist theory of concepts, much of the terminology of
traditional metaphysics turns out to lack the basis in experience that
is required in order even to be meaningful, and is consequently
meaningless (the illusion of meaningfulness arising through the role
of language, which spins on, creating illusions of meaning,
even after the empirical conditions of meaning have been left behind).
(2) Traditional metaphysics is not only, for these reasons, useless;
it is also harmful, because it distracts its adherents from
the matters that should be their focus: empirical nature and human
society. (3) By contrast, empirical knowledge (or strictly speaking, a
little more broadly, “healthy understanding”) is free of
these problems. Philosophy should therefore be based on and continuous
with this.

Herder’s second sharp turn concerns ethics. Here again he is
indebted to the pre-critical Kant, but he also goes somewhat further
beyond him. Herder’s basic claims are these: (1) Morality is
fundamentally more a matter of sentiments than of cognitions. (2)
Cognitivist theories of morality—of the sort espoused in this
period by Rationalists such as Wolff, but also by many other
philosophers before and since (for example, Plato, the critical Kant,
and G.E. Moore)—are therefore based on a mistake, and so useless
as means of moral enlightenment or improvement. (3) But (and here
Herder’s theory moves beyond Kant’s), worse than that,
they are actually harmful to morality, because they weaken
the moral sentiments on which morality really rests. In This Too a
Philosophy of History
and On the Cognition and Sensation
Herder suggests several reasons why: (a) Abstract theorizing weakens
sentiments generally, and hence moral sentiments in
particular (this is perhaps his least interesting reason). (b) The
cognitivists’ theories turn out to be so strikingly
implausible that they bring morality itself into disrepute, people
reacting to them roughly along the lines of thinking, If this is
the best that even the
experts can say in explanation and
justification of morality, then morality must certainly be a sham, and
I may as well ignore it and do as I please
. (c) Such theories
distract people from recognizing, and working to reinforce, the
real foundations of morality: not an imaginary theoretical
insight of some sort, but a set of causal mechanisms that inculcate
and sustain the moral sentiments. (4) More constructively, Herder
accordingly turns instead to discovering theoretically and promoting
in practice just such a set of causal mechanisms. In How
Philosophy Can Become
he mainly emphasizes forms of education and
an emotive type of preaching in this connection. But elsewhere he
identifies and promotes a much broader set of mechanisms as well,
including: the influence of morally exemplary individuals; morally
relevant laws; and literature (along with other forms of art).
Literature is a special focus of Herder’s theory and practice
here. He sees literature as exerting a moral influence in several
ways—for instance, not only through fairly direct moral
instruction, but also through the literary perpetuation (or creation)
of morally exemplary individuals (e.g., Jesus in the New Testament),
and through the exposure of readers to other people’s inner
lives and a consequent enhancement of their sympathies for them (a
motive that lies behind his epoch-making publication of the
Popular Songs [Volkslieder] [1774/1778–9], a
collection of translations of poems from peoples around the world).
Herder’s development of this theory and practice of moral
pedagogy was lifelong and tireless.

4. Philosophy of Language, Interpretation, and Translation

The Treatise On the Origin of Language from 1772 is
Herder’s best known work in the philosophy of language by far.
However, it is in certain respects both unrepresentative and inferior
in comparison with other works, such as the Fragments and
On the Cognition and Sensation, and should not monopolize

The Treatise on the Origin is primarily concerned with the
question whether the origin of language can be explained in purely
natural, human terms or (as Süßmilch had recently argued)
only in terms of a divine source. Herder argues in support of the
former position and against the latter. His argument is quite
persuasive (especially when supplemented on its positive side from the
Fragments). But this will probably not constitute a modern
philosopher’s main reason for interest in Herder’s views
about language – deriving its zest, as it does, from a religious
background that is no longer ours, and being an argument that Herder
long ago essentially won.

Of far greater modern relevance are three interrelated theories that
Herder develops: a philosophy of language concerning the very nature
of language, thought, and meaning; a theory of interpretation; and a
theory of translation. These theories are found scattered through a
large number of Herder’s works.

His theories in these areas owe significant debts to predecessors
– for example, his philosophy of language to Leibniz, Christian
Wolff, Spinoza, and Ernesti, his theory of interpretation again to
Spinoza and Ernesti, and his theory of translation to Thomas Abbt.
However, they also include important refinements and elaborations, and
overall his contribution was enormous.

The following are the main features of his theories in these

4.1 Philosophy of Language: Language, Thought, Meaning

Already in the mid-1760s—for example, in On Diligence in
Several Learned Languages
(1764) and the Fragments
(1767–8)—Herder began advancing three fundamental theses
in this area:

  1. Thought is essentially dependent on, and bounded in scope by,
    language—i.e., one can only think if one has a language, and one
    can only think what one can express linguistically. (This thesis is
    already prominent in On Diligence and in the
    Fragments. To his credit, Herder normally refrains from
    advancing a more extreme, but philosophically untenable, version of
    the thesis, favored by some of his successors, that simply
    identifies thought with language, or with inner
  2. Meanings or concepts are—not the sorts of things, in
    principle autonomous of language, with which much of the philosophical
    tradition has equated them, e.g., the referents involved (Augustine),
    Platonic forms, or subjective mental ideas à la Locke or Hume,
    but instead—usages of words. (This thesis is already
    prominent in the Fragments. Herder also develops important
    arguments for it.)
  3. Conceptualization is intimately bound up with (perceptual and
    affective) sensation. More precisely, Herder develops a
    quasi-empiricist theory of concepts that holds that sensation is the
    source and basis of all our concepts, but that there is also a
    converse dependence and that we are able to achieve non-empirical
    concepts by means of metaphorical extensions from the empirical
    ones—so that all of our concepts ultimately depend on sensation
    in one way or another. (For this thesis, see esp. Treatise on the
    , On the Cognition and Sensation, and the

The first two of these theses dramatically overturned the sort of
dualistic picture of the relation between language, on the one hand,
and thought/meaning, on the other, that had predominated during the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They thereby essentially founded
the philosophy of language as we still know it today.

Hamann has often been credited with introducing something like these
two revolutionary theses and then passing them on to Herder (e.g., by
Isaiah Berlin). But that is a mistake; Herder was already committed to
them by the mid-1760s, Hamann only later and under Herder’s

The third thesis, quasi-empiricism, would be far less widely accepted
by philosophers of language today. However, it may well be correct
too. Contrary to first appearances, it need not conflict with thesis
(2), the equation of meanings with word-usages. And the most likely
modern ground for skepticism about it, namely, a
Fregean-Wittgensteinian anti-psychologism concerning meaning that is
popular today, may well itself be mistaken.

In addition to making a fundamental contribution to the philosophy of
language, these three theses also underpin Herder’s theories of
interpretation and translation (as we are about to see).

4.2 Theory of Interpretation (Hermeneutics)

Herder’s theories of interpretation and translation both rest on
a certain epoch-making insight of his: Whereas such eminent
Enlightenment philosopher-historians as Hume and Voltaire had normally
still held that, as Hume put it, “mankind are so much the same
in all times and places that history informs us of nothing new or
strange” (1748: section VIII, part I, 65), Herder discovered, or
at least saw more clearly than anyone before him, that this was false,
that peoples from different historical periods and cultures vary
tremendously in their concepts, beliefs, values, (perceptual
and affective) sensations, and so forth. He also recognized that
similar, albeit usually less dramatic, variations occur even between
individuals within a single period and culture. These positions are
prominent in many of Herder’s works (see, e.g., On the
Change of Taste
[1766], This Too a Philosophy of
, and On the Cognition and Sensation). Let us
call them together his principle of radical mental

Herder in effect strives to develop a perfectly general theory of
interpretation (or achieving understanding), as Schleiermacher later
would – a theory that covers both texts and discourse, ancient
as well as modern, sacred as well as profane, artistic as well as
non-artistic, and so on. Indeed, in one important respect, his theory
is even more general than Schleiermacher’s would be: its
inclusion of non-linguistic art (sculpture, painting, instrumental
music, etc.).

Given the principle of radical mental difference, and the gulf that
consequently often initially divides an interpreter’s own
thought from that of the person whom he wants to interpret,
interpretation is often an extremely difficult task,
requiring extraordinary efforts on the part of the interpreter. (See
in this connection, e.g., Herder’s discussion of interpreting
ancient Hebrew in Treatise on the Origin.)

In particular, the interpreter often faces, and needs to resist, a
temptation falsely to assimilate the thought that he is
interpreting to someone else’s, especially his own. (This theme
is prominent in This Too a Philosophy of History, for

How, given these challenges, is the interpreter supposed to achieve
accurate interpretation? Herder’s answer comprises several

His three theses in the philosophy of language undergird his whole
theory of interpretation and entail certain parts of the answer to the
question just raised. It is an implication of his thesis that all
thought is essentially dependent on and bounded by language that an
interpreted subject’s language is in a certain sense bound to be
a reliable indicator of the nature of his thought, so that the
interpreter at least need not worry that the interpreted subject might
be entertaining ineffable thoughts or thoughts whose character is
systematically distorted by his expression of them in language. It is
an implication of Herder’s thesis that meaning consists in
word-usage that interpretation essentially and fundamentally requires
pinning down an interpreted subject’s word-usages, and thereby
his meanings. Finally, it is an implication of Herder’s
quasi-empiricist thesis concerning concepts that an
interpreter’s understanding of an interpreted subject’s
concepts must include some sort of recapturing of their basis in the
interpreted subject’s sensations.

Herder also espouses three further important principles in
interpretation-theory that contribute to answering the question raised

A principle of secularism in interpretation: Contrary to a
practice that was still common in Herder’s day in relation to
the Bible, the interpretation of texts must never rely on religious
assumptions or means, even when the texts are sacred ones, but must
instead rely only on secular ones. (This principle is already
prominent in Herder’s writings on biblical interpretation from
the 1760s.) Relatedly, the temptation to give allegorical
interpretations of sacred texts must be resisted, except in those
relatively few cases, such as the parables of the New Testament, where
they are clearly warranted by the text (see esp. Songs of
from 1778).

A principle of generic interpretation. In addition to the
nature of a work’s meanings, interpretation must also identify
the nature of its genre (i.e., roughly, a certain set of
general purposes and rules that it aspires to realize and conform to).
As in the case of meanings, genres vary from age to age, culture to
culture, and even individual to individual, and the interpreter
therefore faces, and needs to resist, constant temptations falsely to
assimilate a work’s genre to others with which he happens to be
more familiar (for example, Shakespearean “tragedy” to
Sophoclean “tragedy”, or vice versa). (This principle is
already prominent in the Critical Forests from 1769, but
finds its classic statement in the essay Shakespeare from

A principle of methodological empiricism in interpretation:
Interpretation must always be based on, and kept faithful to, exact
observations of relevant linguistic (and other) evidence. This applies
when the interpreter investigates word-usages in order to discover
meanings (a point that is already prominent in the
Fragments); when he attempts to pin down a work’s
genre, or the purposes and rules that constitute it (see esp.
Shakespeare); and (to anticipate a bit) when he makes
conjectures about an author’s individual psychology (see esp.
On Thomas Abbt’s Writings from 1768).

So far, these principles will probably seem sensible enough. But
beyond them, Herder also advances a further set of interpretive
principles that are likely to sound much more touchy-feely at first
hearing (the first of them, Einfühlung, rather literally
so!). However, I want to suggest that on the contrary they are in fact
quite hard-nosed.

Herder proposes (prominently in This Too a Philosophy of
, for instance) that the way to bridge radical mental
difference when interpreting is through Einfühlung,
“feeling one’s way in”. This proposal has often been
thought (for example, by Friedrich Meinecke) to mean that the
interpreter should perform some sort of psychological self-projection
onto texts. However, that is not Herder’s main idea
here—for making it so would amount to advocating just the sort
of distorting assimilation of the thought in a text to one’s own
that he is above all concerned to avoid. As can be seen from
This Too a Philosophy of History, what he mainly has in mind
is instead a rather arduous process of historical-philological
inquiry. What, though, more specifically, is the cash value of his
metaphor of Einfühlung? It has at least five components,
which are quite various in nature but consistent with each other and
all quite sensible and deep: (1) First of all, the metaphor implies
(once again) that the interpreter typically faces a radical
difference, a gulf, between his own mentality and that of the
interpreted subject, making interpretation a difficult, laborious task
(it implies that there is an “in” there that the
interpreter must carefully and laboriously “feel his way
into”). (2) The metaphor also implies more specifically
(This Too a Philosophy of History shows) that the
“feeling one’s way in” should include thorough
research not only into a text’s use of language but also into
its whole geographical, historical, and social context. (3) It also
implies a claim—based on Herder’s quasi-empiricist theory
of concepts—that in order to understand an interpreted
subject’s language the interpreter must achieve an imaginative
reproduction of his (perceptual and affective) sensations. (4) It also
implies (This Too a Philosophy of History again shows) that
hostility in an interpreter toward the people whom he interprets will
generally distort his interpretation, and should therefore be avoided.
(Herder, though, is equally opposed to excessive
identification with them for the same reason.) (5) Finally,
it also implies that the interpreter should strive to develop his
grasp of linguistic usage, contextual facts, and relevant sensations
to the point where this achieves something like the same immediacy and
automaticness that it had for a text’s original author and
audience when they understood the text in light of such
factors (so that it acquires for him, as it had for them, the
phenomenology more of a feeling than a cognition).

Herder also insists (for example, in the Critical Forests) on
a principle of holism in interpretation. This principle rests
on several motives, including the following: (1) Parts of a text taken
in isolation are typically ambiguous in various ways (in relation to
background linguistic possibilities). In order to resolve such
ambiguities, an interpreter needs the guidance provided by surrounding
text. (2) That problem arises once a range of possible
linguistic meanings is established for a piece of text. But in the
case of a text that is separated from the interpreter by radical
mental difference, knowledge of such a range itself presents a
problem. How is he to pin down the range of possible meanings, i.e.,
possible usages, for a word? This requires a collation of the
word’s actual uses and an inference from these to the rules that
govern them, i.e., to their usages, a collation that in turn requires
looking to remoter contexts in which the same word occurs (other parts
of the text, other works in the author’s corpus, works by his
contemporaries, etc.), or in short: holism. (3) Authors typically
write a work as a whole, conveying ideas not only in its
particular parts but also through the way in which these fit together
to make up a whole. Consequently, readings that fail to interpret the
work as a whole will miss essential aspects of its meaning—both
the ideas in question themselves and meanings of the particular parts
on which they shed important light.

Such holism in interpretation (like the holism of taking into account
a whole geographical, historical, and social context) may seem to lead
to a certain circularity: in order to interpret the part one needs to
take into account the whole, but equally, in order to grasp the whole
one needs to understand its parts. Herder agrees about this, but he
considers the circularity involved benign. Specifically, he recommends
interpreting parts in a provisional way in light of a general
knowledge of the language in order thereby to generate a provisional
interpretation of the whole, then applying this provisional
interpretation of the whole in order to refine the interpretation of
each of the parts, and so on, back and forth, indefinitely (see again
the Critical Forests). This might seem like a mere
pseudo-solution, but it is not: the key insight on which it implicitly
rests is that understanding is not an all-or-nothing matter but
instead something that comes in degrees.

In On Thomas Abbt’s Writings, On the Cognition and
, and elsewhere Herder makes one of his most important
and influential innovations: interpretation must supplement its focus
on word-usage with attention to the author’s
psychology. Herder implies several reasons for this (some of
which would subsequently be developed more explicitly and elaborately
by successors such as Schleiermacher and Friedrich Schlegel): (1) As
was already mentioned, he embraces a quasi-empiricist theory of
concepts that entails that in order to understand an author’s
concepts an interpreter must imaginatively recapture the
author’s relevant sensations. (2) As Quentin Skinner has
recently emphasized, understanding the linguistic meaning of an
utterance or text is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for
understanding the utterance/text tout court; in addition, one
needs to discover what might nowadays be called the author’s
illocutionary intentions. For example, I meet a
stranger by a frozen lake who tells me, “The ice is thin over
there”; I understand his linguistic meaning perfectly; but is he
simply informing me?, warning me?, threatening me?, joking? …
(3) Skinner himself tends to imply that one can determine linguistic
meanings prior to establishing authorial intentions. That may
sometimes be so (e.g., in the example just given). But is it
generally so? Herder implies not. And this seems right,
because the linguistic meaning of a formula is often ambiguous (in
terms of the background linguistic possibilities), and in order to
identify the relevant meaning one must turn, not only to larger bodies
of text (as was already mentioned), but also to hypotheses, largely
derived from them, concerning the author’s intentions (e.g.,
concerning the subject-matter that he intends to treat). This is a
further reason why interpreters need to invoke psychology. (4) As was
already mentioned, Herder implies that an author often conveys ideas
in his work, not explicitly in its parts, but rather via these and the
way in which they are put together to form a textual whole. It is
necessary for the interpreter to capture these ideas, both for their
own sake and in order thereby to resolve ambiguities at the level of
the parts. (5) Herder also implies that the second half of his
doctrine of radical mental difference—individual
variations in mode of thought even within a single period and
culture—generates a need for psychological interpretation. Why
does any special need arise here? Part of the answer seems to be that
when an interpreter is dealing with a concept that is distinctive of a
particular author rather than common to a whole period/culture, he
typically faces a problem of relative paucity and lack of
contextual variety
in the actual uses of the word that are
available as empirical evidence from which to infer the rule for use,
or usage, constitutive of its meaning. Hence he needs extra
help—and the author’s general psychology may provide this.
(Points (2) and (5) would subsequently be elaborated by
Schleiermacher, point (4) by Schlegel.)

In the same works Herder also indicates that interpretation,
especially in its psychological aspect, requires the interpreter to
use “divination”. This is another principle that is liable
to sound disturbingly touchy-feely at first hearing—in
particular, it can sound as though Herder means some sort of prophetic
process endowed with a religious basis and perhaps even infallibility.
However, what he really has in mind here is instead, quite differently
and far more sensibly, a process of hypothesis, based on the meager
empirical evidence that is available, but also going well beyond it,
and therefore vulnerable to subsequent falsification, and abandonment
or revision if falsified. (Etymologically, the French word “deviner”,
to guess/conjecture is relevant here.)

Herder also implies an additional important point concerning the
general nature of interpretation: After him, the question would be
explicitly raised whether interpretation is a science or an art.
Herder does not himself explicitly raise or address this question. But
his strong inclination would clearly be to say that interpretation is
like rather than unlike natural science; see, e.g., already
On Thomas Abbt’s Writings. He has several reasons for
thinking so: (1) He assumes (as indeed did virtually everyone at this
period) that the meaning of an author’s text is as much an
objective matter as the subjects investigated by the natural
scientist. (2) The difficulty of interpretation that results
from radical mental difference, and the consequent need for a
methodologically sophisticated and painstaking
approach to interpretation in many cases, make for further points of
similarity between interpretation and natural science. (3) The
essential role of “divination”, qua hypothesis,
in interpretation constitutes yet a further point of similarity
between interpretation and natural science. Moreover, (4) even the
subject-matter of interpretation is not, in Herder’s view,
sharply different from that dealt with by natural science: the latter
investigates observable physical processes in nature in order to
determine the forces that underlie and produce them, but, similarly,
interpretation investigates observable human verbal (and non-verbal)
physical behavior in order to determine the forces that underlie and
produce it (Herder explicitly identifying mental conditions,
such as conceptual understanding, as “forces”).

Finally, Herder also has a set of sophisticated and attractive reasons
why accurate interpretation of the sort that he aims at is important.
These include (1) the intrinsic interest of the ideas of historical
and cultural Others thereby discovered, (2) the cosmopolitan respect
that striving to understand them accurately both evinces and
encourages, (3) the possibility of thereby discovering ideas different
from our own which we can incorporate into our own perspective in
order to improve it in various ways (e.g., ideas concerning morals or
art), and (4) the possibility of thereby enhancing not only our
understanding but also our self-understanding, namely, by
coming to see in the light of comparisons what is distinctive of our
own perspective and what not, and by coming to see how it has
developed historically out of earlier perspectives.

Herder’s theory of interpretation had an enormous and beneficial
impact on subsequent hermeneutics. His theory was taken over almost
wholesale by Schleiermacher in his much more famous lectures on
hermeneutics, delivered during the first third of the nineteenth
century. In particular, such fundamental and famous positions in
Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics as his supplementing of
“linguistic” with “psychological”
interpretation and his identification of “divination” as
the main method of the latter are due entirely to Herder. Moreover,
where Herder and Schleiermacher do occasionally disagree
concerning interpretation, Herder’s position almost always turns
out to be philosophically superior on reflection.

By decisively influencing Schleiermacher’s hermeneutic theory
Herder also exercised an indirect decisive influence on that of
Schleiermacher’s great pupil August Boeckh, whose
Encyclopedia and Methodology of the Philological Sciences
(posthumously published in 1877) essentially reproduced
Schleiermacher’s theory with only modest elaborations, and
became the standard methodological work for classical scholars and
others. Moreover, Boeckh’s one significant departure from
Schleiermacher’s theory, namely, his addition of
generic (i.e., genre-focused) interpretation to the several
aspects of interpretation that Schleiermacher had already
distinguished, in effect simply reincorporated the strong emphasis
that Herder had already placed on this.

4.3 Theory of Translation

Herder already in the Fragments of 1767–8 developed an
important new theory of translation that subsequently went on to have
an enormous and beneficial impact on both the theory and the practice
of translation in Germany. The following are some of its key

Translation (like interpretation) faces a deep challenge due to the
phenomenon of radical mental difference. It especially does so because
of the deep differences in concepts that occur between different
historical periods and cultures, and even to some extent between
individuals within a single period and culture.

As a result, translation is in many cases an extremely difficult

Again as a result, translation commonly confronts a choice between two
possible approaches: what Herder calls a “lax” approach
(i.e., one in which the language and thought of the target text are
allowed to diverge rather freely from those of the source text) and an
“accommodating” approach (i.e., one in which they are made
to conform closely to those of the source text).

Herder rejects the former approach. He does so largely because it
fails to achieve the most widely accepted and fundamental goal of
translation: semantic faithfulness.

He in particular rejects a certain rationale for it that Dryden and
others had advocated, namely, that a translation should provide
the work that the author would have written had his native
language not been the one he actually had but instead the target
. Herder objects to this that due to the essential
dependence of thought on language and the deep differences in the
latter, in cases such as that of translating Homer, for example, the
author could not have written his work in the modern target

So Herder urges that the translator should instead err in the other
direction, toward “accommodating”.

But how is this to be achieved?

One essential means to achieving it that Herder identifies is that the
translator must have interpretive expertise. So Herder
requires this.

Another, much less obvious, means is a certain vitally important
technique that Herder develops for overcoming conceptual discrepancies
between the source language and the target language. That might seem
simply impossible (indeed, some more recent philosophers, such as
Donald Davidson, have hastily assumed that it would be). But Herder,
drawing on his novel philosophy of language, finds a solution: Since
meanings or concepts are word-usages, in order to reproduce (or at
least optimally approximate) in the target language a concept from the
source language that the target language so far lacks, the translator
should take the closest corresponding word from the target language
and “bend” its usage for the course of the translation in
such a way as to make it mimic the usage of the source word. This
technique essentially requires that the source word be translated
uniformly across its multiple occurrences in a work (and also that the
single target word chosen not be used to translate any other source
words). Such an approach is far from being common in translation
practice, so far indeed that it is rarely found in translations.
However, Herder scrupulously uses it in his own translations, as does
an important tradition that has subsequently followed him in adopting
it (including Schleiermacher, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber).

Herder is well aware that using this “bending” approach
will inevitably make for translations that are more difficult to read
than those that can be produced by a more “lax” method
(e.g., by using multiple words in the target language to translate a
single word in the source language). However, he considers this price
well worth paying in order to achieve maximal semantic accuracy.

Another key means that Herder adopts is to complement the goal of
semantic faithfulness with that of faithfulness to the musical
of a work (e.g., meter, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance).
As might be expected, his motives for doing this are partly
extra-semantic: in particular, aesthetic fidelity, and fidelity to the
exact expression of feelings that is effected by means of a literary
work’s musical features. But they are also in part semantic: in
his view, musical form and semantic content are strictly inseparable,
so that fully realizing even the goal of semantic faithfulness in fact
requires that a translation also be faithful to the work’s
musical form. Why does he believe that musical form and semantic
content are inseparable in this way? He has two main reasons: First,
musical forms often carry their own meanings (think, for example, of
the humorous and bawdy connotations of the meter/rhyme-scheme of a
limerick). Second, as was recently mentioned, Herder believes that
musical form is essential to an exact expression of feelings; but, as
we saw earlier, he also thinks that feelings are internal to meanings
(this is part of the force of his quasi-empiricism in the philosophy
of language); so reproducing a work’s musical form in
translation turns out to be essential even for accurately conveying
the meanings of its words and sentences in translation.

In addition to being necessary in order to achieve translation’s
traditional fundamental goal of exactly reproducing meaning (as well
as aesthetic fidelity and fidelity in the expression of feelings) as
fully as possible, the more “accommodating” sort of
translation that has been described is also necessary, in
Herder’s view, in order to achieve certain further important
goals. One of these lies in a potential that translation has for
enriching the target language (both conceptually and in musical
forms). Herder argues convincingly that whereas “lax”
translation forgoes this opportunity, “accommodating”
translation capitalizes on it.

Another of these further goals lies in both expressing and cultivating
in a translation’s readers a cosmopolitan respect for the
Other—something that requires that the translation reproduce the
Other’s meanings and musical forms as accurately as

Herder holds that the preferred “accommodating” sort of
translation demands that the translator be in a sense a
“creative genius”, i.e., skilled and creative enough to
satisfy the heavy demands that this sort of translation imposes on
him, in particular, skilled and creative enough to invent the new
conceptual and musical forms in the target language that it

Despite his commitment to the central importance of this sort of
translation (largely, as we have seen, due to its necessity for
achieving translation’s traditional fundamental goal of
faithfully reproducing meaning), Herder is also in the end quite
liberal about the forms that translation—or interlinguistic
transfer more generally, including, for example, what he sometimes
distinguishes from “translation
[Übersetzung]” proper as “imitation
[Nachbildung]” or “rejuvenation
[Verjüngung]”—can legitimately take. He
allows that its possible forms are quite various, and that which one
is most appropriate in a particular case will largely depend on the
author or genre in question and on the translator’s (or
transferer’s) purposes.

Herder’s theory of translation (as just summarized), together
with his demonstration of its viability in practice, for example, in
his sample translations of Shakespeare in the Popular Songs,
had an enormous and beneficial impact on a whole generation of German
translation theorists and practitioners—including Johann
Heinrich Voss (the great translator of Homer), August Wilhelm Schlegel
(an important translation theorist and the great translator of
Shakespeare), Goethe (a significant theorist of translation), Wilhelm
von Humboldt (a significant theorist of translation and translator),
and especially Schleiermacher (an important theorist of translation
and Germany’s great translator of the Platonic dialogues).
Herder’s principle of complementing semantic faithfulness with
faithfulness in the reproduction of musical form had an especially
powerful impact on these successors. His principle of
“bending” word-usages in order to cope with conceptual
incommensurabilities was less widely followed, but was adopted by
Schleiermacher among others. The currently predominant translation
theory, the “foreignizing” approach of Antoine Berman and Lawrence
Venuti, ultimately derives from Herder and Schleiermacher, and is
indeed less an improvement on their version than an impoverishment of
it (especially concerning meaning).

5. Role in the Birth of Linguistics and Anthropology

Herder’s philosophy of language and interpretation, together
with several further philosophical principles that he developed, made
a vitally important contribution to the birth of two whole new
academic disciplines that did not really yet exist in his day but
which we today take for granted: linguistics and cultural
anthropology. (For further details, see Section 1 of the
Supplementary Discussion.)

6. Philosophy of Mind

In On the Cognition and Sensation from 1778 and elsewhere
Herder develops an important and influential position in the
philosophy of mind. The following are some of its central

Concerning the fundamental mind-body problem, Herder tried out various
solutions over the course of his career, but the considered solution
at which he eventually arrived was uncompromisingly
naturalistic and anti-dualistic.

In On the Cognition and Sensation he undertakes to erase the
traditional sharp division between the mental and the physical in two
specific ways: First, he advances a theory that minds and mental
conditions consist in forces [Kräfte] that
manifest themselves in people’s bodily behavior—just as
physical nature involves forces that manifest themselves in the
behavior of bodies. Officially, he remains agnostic on the question of
what force is, except for conceiving it as something apt to produce a
type of bodily behavior, and as a real source thereof (not merely
something reducible thereto). This, strictly speaking, absolves his
theory of certain common accusations (for example, H.B. Nisbet and
Frederick Beiser’s characterization of it as
“vitalist”). But it also leaves it with enough content to
have great virtues over rival theories: (1) The theory ties types of
mental states conceptually to corresponding types of bodily
behavior—which seems correct (e.g., the desire to eat an apple
seems not just contingently but conceptually tied to behavior that
tends toward apple-eating), and which therefore marks a point of
superiority over both dualistic theories and mind-brain identity
theories. (2) On the other hand, the theory avoids reducing
mental states to bodily behavior—which again seems correct,
given such obvious facts as that we can be, and indeed often are, in
token mental states that happen to receive no behavioral manifestation
at all, and which hence constitutes a point of superiority over
behaviorist theories. (3) Moreover, Herder’s official
agnosticism about what (mental) force is can be seen, not as the
theoretical weakness it might seem to be, but as showing his
recognition of the important conceptual fact (recently exploited by
functionalists in their “multiple realizability argument”)
that although the concepts of mind and mental conditions imply a real
source of a type of behavior, they do not imply anything about the
nature of that source’s constitution.

Second, Herder also tries to explain the mind in terms of the
phenomenon of irritation [Reiz], a phenomenon that
had recently been identified by the physiologist Albrecht von Haller,
and which is paradigmatically exemplified by muscle fibers contracting
in response to direct physical stimuli and relaxing upon their
removal—in other words, a phenomenon which, while basically
physiological, also seems to exhibit a transition to mental
characteristics. There is an ambiguity in Herder’s position
here: Usually, he wants to resist physicalist reductionism, and so
would be reluctant to say that irritation is purely physiological and
fully constitutes mental states. However, in the 1775 draft of On
the Cognition and Sensation
, and even in parts of the published
version, that is his position. And from a modern standpoint,
this is arguably a further virtue of his account (albeit that we would
of course today want to recast it in terms of different, and much more
complex, physiological processes than irritation).

This second line of thought might seem at odds with the first one
(forces). But it need not be. For, given Herder’s official
agnosticism about what forces are, this second line of thought could,
so to speak, fill in the “black box” of the hypothesized
real forces, namely in physicalist terms. In other words, it turns out
(not indeed as a conceptual matter, but as a contingent one) that the
real forces in question consist in physiological processes.

Herder’s philosophy of mind also advances another important
thesis: that the mind is a unity, that there is no sharp
division between its faculties. This thesis contradicted theorists
such as Sulzer and Kant. However, it was not in itself new with
Herder, having already been espoused in a strong form by the
Rationalists, especially Wolff (Herder’s introduction to his
1775 draft shows that he is fully aware of this debt). Where Herder is
more original is in rejecting the Rationalists’ reduction of
sensation and volition to cognition; establishing the unity thesis in
an empirical rather than an apriorist way; and adding a normative
dimension to it—this is not only how the mind is but
also how it ought to be. This last feature might sound
incoherent at first hearing, for if the mind is this way by its very
nature, what sense can there be in prescribing to people that it
should be so rather than otherwise? However, Herder’s idea here
is rather the perfectly coherent one that, while the mind is indeed
this way by its very nature, people nonetheless sometimes behave as
though one faculty could be abstracted from another, and try to effect
such an abstraction, but this then leads to various malfunctions, and
should therefore be avoided.

Herder’s overall thesis of the mind’s unity rests on four
more specific doctrines concerning intimate mutual involvements
between mental faculties, and malfunctions that arise from resisting
them, doctrines that are in large part empirically grounded and hence
lend the overall thesis a sort of empirical basis as well:

A first doctrine concerns the relation between thought and language:
Not only does language of its very nature express thought (an
uncontroversial point), but also (as we noted earlier) for Herder
thought is essentially dependent on and bounded by language. Herder
largely bases this further claim on empirical grounds (for example,
concerning how children’s thought develops in step with language
acquisition). The normative aspect of his position here is that
attempts (in the manner of some forms of metaphysics, for example) to
cut thought free from the constraints of language lead to

A second area of intimate mutual involvement concerns cognition and
volition, or affects. The claim that volition is and should be based
on cognition is not particularly controversial. But Herder also argues
the converse, that all cognition is and should be based on volition,
on affects—and indeed, not only on such relatively anemic
affects as the impulse to know the truth, but also on much less anemic
ones. In this connection, he is especially concerned to combat the
idea that theoretical work in philosophy or the sciences is or should
be detached from volition, from affects. In his view, it never really
is even when it purports to be, and attempts to make it so merely
impoverish and weaken it. His grounds for this whole position are
again mainly empirical in nature.

A third area of intimate mutual involvement concerns thought and
sensation. Conceptualization and belief, on the one hand, and
sensation, on the other, are intimately connected according to Herder.
Thus, he advances the quasi-empiricist theory of concepts that was
mentioned earlier, which entails that all of our concepts (and hence
also all of our beliefs) ultimately depend in one way or another on
sensation. But conversely, he also argues (anticipating much important
twentieth-century work in philosophy) that there is a dependence in
the other direction: that the character of an adult human
being’s sensations depends on his concepts and beliefs.
Normatively, he sees attempts to violate this interdependence as
inevitably leading to intellectual malfunction—for example, as
has already been mentioned, he thinks that metaphysicians’
attempts to cut entirely free from the empirical basis of our concepts
lead to meaninglessness. His grounds for this whole position are again
largely empirical in character.

A fourth area of intimate mutual involvement concerns unity among the
faculties of sensation themselves. For one thing, Herder implies that
our underlying animal nature involves a sort of primordial fusion of
perceptual with affective sensations (albeit that, unlike other
animals, we also have a distinctive ability to suspend this fusion, an
ability that he calls Besonnenheit). For another thing, he
argues that the several faculties of perceptual sensation themselves
form a sort of unity. His grounds for these two positions are again
mainly empirical in character. In particular, he says that the unity
of the several faculties of perceptual sensation is shown by clues
that emerge in unusual situations and in pathological cases. For
example, he argues that the dependence of the mature sense of sight on
the sense of touch is shown both by the way in which the sense of
sight develops in young children and by the way in which it develops
after medical operations on previously blind people such as
Cheselden’s blind man.

In a further seminal move in the philosophy of mind Herder argues that
linguistic meaning is fundamentally social—so that thought and
other aspects of human mental life (since they are essentially
articulated in terms of linguistic meanings), and therefore even the
very self (since the self is essentially dependent on thought and
other aspects of human mental life, and moreover defined in its
specific identity by theirs), are so too. Herder’s version of
this position seems intended only as an empirically based causal
claim. It has since fathered a long tradition of attempts to generate
more ambitious cases for stronger versions of the claim that
meaning—and hence also thought, human mental life more
generally, and the very self—is at bottom socially constituted
(for example, in Hegel, Wittgenstein, Kripke, Burge, and Brandom).
However, it may well be that these more ambitious cases and stronger
versions do not work, and that Herder’s original version is
exactly what should be accepted.

As we have seen, Herder also, in tension but not contradiction with
this principle of sociality, holds that (even within a single period
and culture) human minds are as a rule deeply individual,
deeply different from each other—so that in addition to a
generalizing psychology there is also a need for a psychology oriented
to individuality. This is an important idea that has strongly
influenced many subsequent continental thinkers (for example,
Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Proust, Sartre, and Manfred Frank). Herder
himself advances it only as an empirically based rule of thumb. By
contrast, a prominent strand in Schleiermacher and Frank purports to
establish it as an a priori universal truth. However, here again
Herder’s original version is arguably the more plausible

Finally, like predecessors in the Rationalist tradition and Kant,
Herder sharply rejects the Cartesian idea of the mind’s
self-transparency—instead insisting that much of what occurs in
the mind is unconscious, so that self-knowledge is often deeply
problematic. In addition, he identifies literature (e.g., Shakespeare)
as an especially rich source of insights into the unconscious. This is
another compelling position that has had a strong influence on
subsequent thinkers (both in the philosophy of mind and in

This whole Herderian philosophy of mind owes much to predecessors,
especially ones in the Rationalist tradition. But it is also in many
ways original. The theory is not only important in its own right, but
also exercised an enormous influence on Herder’s successors,
including Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Nietzsche.

7. Aesthetics

Unlike his teacher Kant, who had relatively little interest in or
knowledge of literature and art, and whose treatment of them in the
Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) is correspondingly
weak, Herder had a passionate interest in and a deep knowledge of
them, and as a result was able to develop a rich set of original and
important ideas about them. In this respect he set a valuable
precedent that would be followed in the next generation by the
Romantics (especially Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel) and

Herder also anticipated and influenced the Romantics in another
important way. One of their most striking and distinctive positions
was a certain valorization of literature and art over other areas of
culture (such as science, religion, and morality). But Herder had
already developed such a position before them. First, from an early
period he argued that song was the origin of all language
– and consequently also of all thought. Second, in works such as
the Treatise on the Origin and especially the essay On
Image, Poetry, and Fable
(1787) he argued that all language (and
consequently also all thought) is fundamentally figurative or
metaphorical in nature—for example, that its grammar typically
projects the two genders onto the whole of nature, and that it
pervasively involves a set of creative transitions from an object to a
sensory stimulus to an individualistically formed image and thence to
thought and language—and is thus poetic. Third, he
argued in works such as Attempt at a History of Lyric Poetry
(1764) and On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry that poetry has
been fundamental to religion from the beginning, and elsewhere that
non-linguistic art, especially sculpture, has played an important role
in religion from an early period as well. Fourth, he also argued that
poetry has a very important function in moral education, indeed one
even more important than that of other mechanisms of moral education
such as laws.

What, beyond this, are Herder’s most important contributions to
aesthetics? He is skeptical about the sort of aprioristic and
systematic aesthetics that the inventor of the discipline of
aesthetics, the Rationalist philosopher Baumgarten, had recently
developed. Instead, he calls for a bottom-up, or empirical,
approach to the discipline. And his considered position concerning the
ideal of an aesthetic system is dismissive as well. It is
true that he began his career aspiring to something of the sort and
that in the Critical Forests (1769) he accordingly set out to
argue for the following little aesthetic system: whereas music is a
mere succession of objects in time, and sculpture and painting are
merely spatial, poetry has a sense, a soul, a force; whereas music,
sculpture, and painting belong solely to the senses (namely, to
hearing, feeling, and vision, respectively), poetry not only depends
on the senses but also relates to the imagination; whereas music,
sculpture, and painting employ only natural signs, poetry
uses voluntary and conventional ones. It is also
true that this system would later be taken over (with only minor
modifications) by Schleiermacher in his aesthetics lectures, and that
it has sometimes been touted as Herder’s main achievement in
aesthetics more recently as well (for example, by Robert Norton). But
as Herder himself quickly came to realize after formulating it, it is
a very naive system. And his real achievements in aesthetics are other
than and contrary to it.

Let us turn to those real achievements, then. One of them concerns the
relation between art and language. As we saw earlier, 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. This prompts certain questions. These doctrines make a
plausible break with a common Enlightenment assumption that thought
and meaning are in principle autonomous of whatever material,
perceptible expressions they may happen to receive. Following Charles
Taylor, we might call such a move one to “expressivism”.
But what form should expressivism take exactly? Is the
dependence of thought and meaning on external symbols strictly one on
language (in the usual sense of “language”)? Or
is it rather a dependence on a broader range of symbolic media
including, besides language, also such things as painting, sculpture,
and music—so that a person might be able to entertain thoughts
that he was not able to express in language but only in some other
symbolic medium? Let us call the former position narrow
and the latter broad expressivism.

Hamann in his Metacritique, despite verbally echoing
Herder’s two doctrines in the philosophy of language, espoused a
version of broad expressivism. But Herder adopted narrow expressivism,
as those two doctrines already seem to imply. Moreover, after much
wrestling with the subject, he eventually developed a very attractive
version of narrow expressivism. The key work here was again the
Critical Forests. By the time of writing this work, Herder
was already committed to the two doctrines in question, and, as this
would suggest, from the start in the work he was committed to narrow
expressivism. However, his commitment to it there was initially
unsatisfactory and indeed inconsistent. For one thing, it initially
took the implausible form of denying to the non-linguistic arts any
capacity to express thoughts autonomously of language by
denying that they can express thoughts at all. This was the
force of the naive theory recently described that the work initially
set out to develop. Adding inconsistency to this unsatisfactoriness,
Herder was from the start in the work also committed to saying (far
more plausibly) that visual art often does express
thoughts—for example, he intervened in a quarrel between Lessing
and Winckelmann on the question of whether linguistic art (especially
poetry) or visual art (especially sculpture) is expressively superior
in ways that tended to support Winckelmann’s case for visual
. This unsatisfactoriness and inconsistency mainly resulted
from Herder’s oversight of a single fact: that it is perfectly
possible to reconcile narrow expressivism with the attribution of
thoughts to non-linguistic art, namely, by insisting that the
thoughts expressed by non-linguistic art must be derivative from and
bounded by the artist’s capacity for linguistic expression
However, by the time Herder wrote the later parts of the Critical
, he had found this solution. Thus in the third part,
focusing on a particularly instructive example, he notes that the
pictorial representations on Greek coins are typically allegorical in
nature. And by the time he writes the fourth part he is prepared to
say something similar about much painting as well, writing there, for
example, of “the sense, the allegory, the story/history that is
put into the whole of a painting” (G2:313). By
1778 he extends this account to sculpture as well. Thus in the essay
Sculpture [Plastik] from 1778 he abandons the merely
sensualistic conception of sculpture that had predominated in the
Critical Forests and instead argues that sculpture is
essentially expressive of, and therefore needs to be interpreted by, a
soul. But this no longer forces him into unfaithfulness to
his principle that thought is essentially dependent on, and bounded
by, language, for he now conceives the thoughts that are expressed by
sculpture as having a linguistic source:

The sculptor stands in the dark of night and gropes toward the forms
of gods. The stories of the poets are before and in him.

Subsequently, in the Theological Letters (1780–1) and
the Letters for the Advancement, Herder extends the same
solution to instrumental music as well.

The considered position at which Herder eventually arrived also
implies that “non-linguistic” art is dependent on thought
and language in another way: In the fourth and final part of the
Critical Forests (which was only published posthumously in
the nineteenth century) he develops the point that human perception is
of its nature infused with concepts and beliefs, and consequently with
language—which of course implies that the same is true of the
perception of “non-linguistic” artworks in particular. So
“non-linguistic” art is really doubly dependent on thought
and language: not only for the thoughts that it expresses but
also for those that it presupposes in perception.

With Herder’s achievement of this refined form of narrow
expressivism and Hamann’s articulation of his broad
expressivism, there were now two somewhat plausible but competing
theories available. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century German theorists
(e.g., Hegel, Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and Gadamer) would subsequently
be deeply torn between them. And the issue remains an important one
today. While the philosophical considerations involved are difficult,
I believe, and have argued elsewhere, that Herder’s position is
the correct one.

Herder’s position here also carries important implications for
hermeneutics. Since, in his considered view, thought/meaning and
language play important roles not only in literature but also in
“non-linguistic” art, for him both cases present similar
interpretive challenges, requiring similar interpretive solutions.

Another of Herder’s most important contributions to aesthetics
lies in his historicism, or, more broadly, his recognition that there
are radical mental differences between historical periods, cultures,
and even individuals. In connection with literature and art this
position takes five main specific forms.

First, as we have already seen, Herder holds that concepts, beliefs,
values, and so on vary deeply between historical periods, cultures,
and even individuals. This obviously applies to literature in
particular. Moreover, since, as we have just seen, for Herder
seemingly non-linguistic arts such as painting, sculpture, and music
likewise presuppose and express concepts, beliefs, and values, it also
applies to them.

Second, Herder holds that genre—i.e., a certain set of purposes
and rules—is an essential aspect of any work of literature or
art. But he also holds that genres differ in deep ways between
historical periods (as well as between cultures and even individuals),
and this not only in the sense that new genres emerge and old ones
die, but also in the sense that seeming continuities in genre
typically in fact mask important differences. For example, in the
essay Shakespeare (1773) he argues in detail that the genres
of ancient Greek “tragedy” and Shakespearean
“tragedy”, which interpreters have often assumed to be the
same, are in fact deeply different from each other, constituted by
different purposes and rules. Similarly, in This Too a Philosophy
of History
(1774), he argues, against Winckelmann, who had tended
to assimilate the genres of ancient Greek portrait sculpture and
Pharaonic Egyptian portrait sculpture, that whereas the former was
dominated by the genre-purpose of portraying this-worldly life, charm,
and beauty, the latter had the quite contrary genre-purpose of
conveying ideas of death and eternity.

Third, Herder argues that literature started out predominantly
sensuous in character but then became increasingly intellectual as
history proceeded. In the early essays On the Ode (1764/5)
and Attempt at a History of Lyric Poetry he explains this
development in terms of a diminution of strong feelings (e.g., fear)
and an increase in mental complexity and science, and he regards it as
a sort of decline. Later on, in the Letters for the
, he retains the descriptive part of this account, but
revises its conception that a decline is involved: the more sensuous
poetry of the ancients and the more intellectualized poetry of the
moderns are two different but equally legitimate types of poetry.
(This new position would strongly influence the Romantics.)

Fourth, Herder holds that aesthetic values such as beauty are
fundamentally a matter of feelings and that the feelings in question
vary in important ways between one period, culture, or even individual
and another. This theme is already prominent in On the Ode,
where he discusses major differences in the feelings of beauty that
occur between different periods/cultures—for example, between
his own age and the age of the ancient Greeks. It is also prominent in
On the Change of Taste (1766), where he adds that the changes
involved are indeed sometimes extreme enough to amount to an outright

Fifth, Herder holds that it is an essential part of the function of
literature and art to communicate moral values, but he also observes
that the moral values communicated often differ in deep ways from one
period, culture, or individual to another. For example, in Attempt
at a History of Lyric Poetry
he argues (very insightfully) that
early Greek poetry, especially Homer, communicates a very different
set of moral values than our own.

These historicist insights concerning literature and art are extremely
important in their own right. In addition, Herder sees that they carry
deep implications for the interpretation and the critical
of literature and art. Let us reconsider the first two
of them in this connection.

The first insight concerns radical differences in concepts, beliefs,
values, and so on. Since literature paradigmatically expresses such
things and is obviously linguistic, Herder’s general hermeneutic
principles for interpreting linguistic texts and discourse in the face
of radical mental difference (as already discussed) of course apply to
literature in particular. Accordingly, in the Critical
he emphasizes that it is important to penetrate
Homer’s alien linguistic and conceptual world by using careful
philological means; that it is always necessary to interpret the local
features within a work, for example, “ridiculous”
passages, such as the Thersites passage, in the Iliad (II:
211–277), in light of the economy of the whole work; and (this
time in connection with the example of Horace’s odes) that the
solution to the problem of achieving such holism despite the need to
interpret the parts of a text sequentially lies in working through the
text in sequence in order to arrive at a provisional interpretation of
all its parts together, then applying this provisional interpretation
of the whole text in order to refine the interpretation of each part,
and so on indefinitely.

But since Herder also holds that such seemingly non-linguistic forms
of art as painting, sculpture, and music likewise presuppose and
express concepts, beliefs, values, and so on that are ultimately
grounded in language, he believes that the same general hermeneutic
principles for interpreting linguistic works in the face of radical
mental difference also make an essential contribution to the
interpretation of this sort of art.

Moreover, since understanding what a piece of literature or art
presupposes or expresses is obviously a prerequisite for evaluating it
properly, this sort of hermeneutic approach is not only essential for
interpreting it but also for evaluating it.

Our second example concerns genre. Herder believes,
plausibly, that a work of art is always written or made in order to
exemplify a certain genre, and that it is vitally important for the
interpreter to identify its genre if he is to understand it.

Why does Herder believe that identifying genre is essential for
understanding? He has at least three reasons in mind (all of them good
ones): First, grasping a work’s genre is itself an essential
constituent of understanding the work and its contents (much as
grasping a sentence’s meaning and illocutionary force is an
essential constituent of understanding the sentence and its contents).
Second, since 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. Third, correctly identifying
the genre is also vitally important for accurately interpreting many
things that are expressed explicitly in the parts of a

However, as we noted, Herder introduces an important historicist
insight about genre here: he recognizes that even when different
historical periods, cultures, or individuals appear to share a single
genre—for example, ancient Greek “tragedy” and
Shakespearean “tragedy”, or Pharaonic Egyptian
“portrait sculpture” and ancient Greek “portrait
sculpture”—this appearance usually in fact masks important

This has important consequences for interpretation. For example, it
leads Herder to emphatically reject apriorism as an approach to
identifying a work’s genre—certainly the absolute
apriorism of refusing in one’s definition of the genre to be
guided by an observation of examples at all, but also the more
tempting relative apriorism of indeed allowing oneself to be guided by
it but restricting the examples considered to a limited number of
cases to the exclusion of other ones to which the resulting
genre-conception is then to be applied in interpretation. For, in
light of the historicist insight just mentioned, even the latter
procedure will usually turn out to be disastrously misleading, in
Herder’s view.

Instead, according to Herder, the interpreter should approach the task
of identifying the genre involved in a work in a thorough and
scrupulous empirical manner. As one might expect, this above all
requires examining the work itself closely in order to discover which
genre-purposes and -rules are operative within it. But it also
requires taking into account the whole social context within which the
work was produced and the historical genesis of its genre through
antecedent genres. In addition, it may sometimes include taking into
account an author’s or artist’s explicit statements about
the genre that he is using.

Moreover, Herder emphasizes that correctly identifying the genre of a
work by these means is vitally important not only for
interpreting the work correctly, but also for critically
evaluating it correctly: French critics not only make an
interpretive mistake when they go to Shakespeare’s
tragedies with a genre in mind from the ancient world that was not in
fact his, but they also, on this basis, make an evaluative
mistake: because they falsely assume that he somehow 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 quite different genre-purpose and
-rules that he really does aspire to realize and his success in
realizing these. Similarly, Winckelmann not only makes an
interpretive mistake when he implicitly imputes to the
Egyptians a Greek genre-conception for sculpture that was not theirs,
but also, on this basis, makes an evaluative one: because he
falsely assumes that the Egyptians somehow must be aspiring to realize
the Greek genre-purpose and -rules, he faults them for failing to
realize these, and at the same time he overlooks their success in
realizing the very different genre-purpose and -rules that they really
do aspire to realize.

Herder’s new historicist approach to interpreting and evaluating
literature and art led to enormous progress in the actual
interpretation and critical evaluation of both. For example, it
enabled the Schlegel brothers to achieve a much deeper understanding
of ancient tragedy than had been achieved before, an
(anti-Aristotelian) understanding of it on which all serious classical
scholarship concerned with it has rested since. And it not only
enabled Friedrich Schlegel (in his work on paintings in the Louvre and
on cathedral architecture) to develop a similar approach to visual
art, but also (in part thereby) made possible the highly sophisticated
twentieth-century art history of Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich,
which transcended previous art historians’ (Kant-influenced)
overemphasis on style in visual art to include a scrupulously
historicist attention to the role of meaning and genre in it as

Herder also has important ideas concerning a topic that has often been
assumed to be central to aesthetics: beauty. A first
important idea he develops here (both in relation to art and more
generally) is that standards of beauty vary greatly from one
historical period or culture to another. At least, this is his normal
position, from early works such as On the Ode and On the
Change of Taste
to late ones such as the Calligone
(where he invokes it against Kant’s Critique of the Power of
). Occasionally—for example, in the Critical
and even at points in the Calligone—he
instead argues (as other thinkers, such as Hume, had done before him)
that there is a deeper uniformity in standards of beauty across
historical periods and cultures. However, the former position is his
more considered one and is ultimately the more plausible one.

A second important idea, which he already develops in the Critical
and then repeats in the Calligone, concerns the
very concept of beauty. He argues, plausibly, that the concept’s
origins lay in visual experience (as, he thinks, is suggested
by an etymological connection in German between the words
schön [beautiful] and Schein [shine,
appearance]), but that it has since been extended from that primary
domain to cover virtually “everything that has a pleasurable
effect on the soul”, that in this sense “sight …
allegorizes the images, the representations, the conceits of the
soul”, so that beauty just becomes our most general
term of approval for whatever we find pleasing in relation to any of
the senses and indeed even mental life more broadly

A third important idea that he develops is that beauty is in fact much
less important in literature and art than it has often been thought to
be. This demotion of beauty is based not only on his somewhat
deflationary genealogy of the concept just mentioned but also on his
proto-Romantic conception that literature and art have fundamental
functions in relation to language/thought, religion, and morality, and
on his mature insistence that meaning and thought play a vital role
even in “non-linguistic” art. He tended to accentuate this
demotion of beauty increasingly as time went on. Accordingly, whereas
in early works such as On the Ode and the Critical
he still treated beauty as central to aesthetics, by the
time he writes the Calligone he has changed his mind and now
insists that it is not nearly as essential to art as it is often taken
to be. In particular, he argues there that art is much more
essentially a matter of Bildung—cultural formation or
education (especially in moral respects).

Finally, let us consider Herder’s thesis that literature and art
have a morally educative function a little further. In On the
Effect of Poetic Art on the Ethics of Peoples in Ancient and Modern
(1778), On the Influence of the Belles Lettres on the
Higher Sciences
(1781), and the Calligone he not only
sees this as one of their most essential functions, but also holds
that literature has a more powerful effect as an instrument of moral
education than other such instruments, including law.

He also develops a nuanced account of how literature and art do and
should perform this function. For example, in On the
he specifies three distinct ways in which literature or
poetry promotes the formation of moral character. First, it does so
“through light rules”—in other words, through a
subtle articulation of ethical principles. Second, and more
importantly in his view, it does so by representing good moral role
models in a positive light so that people will emulate them:
“still better, through good examples”. Third, it also does
so by conveying a range of practical experience that is conducive to
the formation of moral character and which would otherwise have to be
acquired, if at all, by the more arduous and painful route of
first-hand experience. In addition, Herder elsewhere implies a fourth
important way in which literature contributes to moral character
formation: it is a fundamental principle underlying his Popular
that literature, by vividly conveying the inner
lives—for instance, the fears, hopes, and joys—of other
people to its audience or readership, will stir the latter’s
sympathies for them and thereby inculcate more moral attitudes toward
them. Fifth, Herder in the Calligone adds a further point,
concerning “non-linguistic” art, namely, that visual art
has a power to make moral ideals attractive by presenting them blended
with physical beauty, and that, similarly, music has a power to affect
moral character either for good or for ill depending on the principles
of conduct that are associated with it.

Herder’s conception that the formation of moral character both
is and ought to be a primary function of literature and art serves him
as an important criterion for evaluating individual works. For
example, when he observes in On the Effect that unlike
earlier poetry modern poetry has typically lost this function, he
means this as a serious criticism of modern poetry. And he applies
this criterion as a ground for criticizing certain works by his friend
Goethe that he considers to be immoral or amoral in content.

8. Moral Philosophy

Herder also develops a powerful and historically influential moral
philosophy. This includes positions in both meta-ethics and
first-order morality. Let us consider the former first.

As in the philosophy of mind, Herder’s position in meta-ethics
is naturalistic in spirit. Such a position was by no means
uncontroversial in his day, as can be seen, for example, from his
correspondence with Mendelssohn in 1769 concerning Spalding’s
and Mendelssohn’s religious, afterlife-focused conception of
humankind’s “vocation [Bestimmung]”, which
Herder sharply opposed in favor of a this-worldly conception of the

As was mentioned earlier, Herder in particular holds a sentimentalist
position concerning the nature of morality: rather than being a sort
of knowledge of objective facts (as in Plato’s moral theory, for
example) or a set of deliverances of universal reason (as in the
critical Kant’s moral theory, for instance), morality is
fundamentally an expression of human sentiments. Herder already
espouses such a position in How Philosophy Can Become (1765),
continues it in This Too a Philosophy of History (1774)
(where he usually refers to the sentiments in question as
Neigungen, inclinations), and still holds it in Letters
for the Advancement
(1793–7) (where he usually refers to
them as Gesinnungen, attitudes).

Herder took over this position from his teacher, the pre-critical
Kant, who had similarly espoused a form of sentimentalism in
Dreams of a Spirit Seer (1766). Via Kant it can ultimately be
traced back to the British sentimentalist tradition, especially Hume,
whose main argument for it Herder seems to echo at points in This
Too a Philosophy of History
: moral judgment of its very nature
motivates; but reason does not motivate, only sentiments do that;
therefore moral judgment must fundamentally consist of sentiments.

However, Herder’s sentimentalism is not crude or unqualified (as
Hume’s arguably was), for he recognizes that
cognition—i.e., concepts and beliefs—plays a major role in
morality as well. This can already be seen from the Critical
(1769), where he argues against cruder theories of moral
value that equate them with sentiments abstracted from all cognition,
and where in the fourth part he indeed argues that sensations in
general are concept-, belief-, and
theory-laden. It can also be seen from On the Cognition and
(1778). (Nietzsche would later take over this more
sophisticated form of sentimentalism from Herder.)

Where Herder’s position becomes most original, though, is in
historicizing the moral sentiments in question—or (a
little more broadly and more precisely) in seeing them as varying
deeply from one historical period to another, one culture to another,
and even one individual to another. He already champions such a
position in On the Change of Taste (1766), for example,
indeed going as far as to point out that the moral sentiments in
question sometimes even get inverted, so that what one period,
culture, or individual found morally praiseworthy another finds
morally reprehensible or vice versa. This radical position can also be
found in his published writings. This position makes Herder’s
sentimentalism markedly different from Hume’s, rather a
precursor of Nietzsche’s (which it again strongly influenced

Another radical thesis that Herder champions is that moral sentiments
moreover as a rule turn out to be both suitable to and explicable in
terms of the particular type of society and mode of life to which they
belong. This is a central thesis in This Too a Philosophy of
. Thus Herder tries to show there that the moral values of
each of the major period/cultures that he considers in the work can be
explained in terms of their suitability to the character of the
particular society and way of life to which they belonged—for
example, the ancient Egyptians’ morality of diligence and civic
faithfulness to their agricultural, industrial, and urban society and
mode of life; the Romans’ morality of courage, prudence, and
patriotism to their imperialistic, war-based society and mode of life;
and so on. This thesis implicitly reinforces Herder’s Humean
argument for sentimentalism by showing that moral attitudes are
explicable in terms of their social function without recourse to moral
facts. (Here again Herder’s approach would later be echoed by

Another major contribution that Herder makes in the area of
meta-ethics is his application of a novel “genetic” method
of explanation to the domain of morality. This method depends on
Herder’s historicism. It purports to make a psychological
phenomenon more intelligible by tracing it back to its historical
origins and showing how these developed into it via a series of
intermediate forms. Herder first developed this method in the
mid-1760s in application to literary genres and language (in
Attempt at a History of Lyric Poetry and the
Fragments respectively), but he then went on to apply it to
moral (and other) values in This Too a Philosophy of History
(1774). Since moralities change over time, it is possible to
contribute to explaining or better understanding the morality of a
late age, for example, eighteenth-century Europe, by identifying the
earliest morality in its historical tradition and then showing how
this developed through a chain of subsequent moralities into the late
morality in question. Accordingly, This Too a Philosophy of
attempts to show (roughly) that after the authoritarian
morality of the ancient Hebrews had laid the foundations, the
Egyptians’ morality of diligence and citizen’s
faithfulness arose; this then gave way to the Phoenicians’
morality of freedom and openness; the Greeks next synthesized the
preceding moralities into a morality of citizen’s faithfulness
and freedom; Rome then modified this inheritance into moral values of
courage, prudence, and patriotism; following the collapse of the Roman
Empire, the northern tribes, together with Christianity, developed a
richer set of values that included courage, faith, honesty, reverence
for gods, humanity, chastity, and knightly honor; and then finally the
(professed) morality of modern Europe emerged as a result of this
whole tradition. This Herderian approach to explaining, or
contributing to a better understanding of, morality would subsequently
be taken over and developed further by Hegel (in the early theological
writings and the Phenomenology of Spirit [1807]), Nietzsche
(especially in On the Genealogy of Morality [1887]), and

A further important aspect of Herder’s meta-ethics has already
been touched on: the complex position that he already develops in
How Philosophy Can Become that sentimentalism is the correct
account of the nature of morality; that cognitivism is therefore
useless as an account of morality or as an approach for inculcating
it, and is moreover harmful because it provokes skepticism about
morality and distracts people from the real foundations of morality
and from reinforcing them; and that philosophy should therefore
instead focus on identifying and reinforcing those real foundations,
namely, a set of causal mechanisms that generate and support the moral

As was also mentioned earlier, How Philosophy Can Become
mainly emphasizes certain forms of education and an emotive type of
preaching in this connection—both activities that Herder went on
to theorize about at greater length elsewhere. But these are only two
parts of a much broader theory and practice of moral pedagogy, or
cultivation of the moral sentiments, that he developed over the course
of his career, in what became one of his most central, distinctive,
and consuming projects. The additional causal mechanisms that he
identified and supported included the influence of morally exemplary
individuals, the law, and literature (together with the other

Herder’s development of this whole theory and practice of moral
pedagogy was lifelong and tireless. It arguably constitutes the most
important philosophical contribution to moral pedagogy since the
(strikingly similar) moral pedagogy that Protagoras developed in
antiquity (as preserved in the Great Discourse of Plato’s

As can be seen from This Too a Philosophy of History, Herder
believed that this project had a special historical urgency in his day
because since the Renaissance and the Reformation the moral values
that people profess, such as love of humanity, freedom, and honor,
have largely become hollow, no longer genuinely anchored in moral
sentiments, and therefore fail to serve the social function to which
they would correspond.

A final important aspect of Herder’s meta-ethics, prominent
especially in This Too a Philosophy of History, flows from
several of the meta-ethical positions that have already been
mentioned, specifically, from sentimentalism, his thesis of the
profound variability of moral sentiments between periods, cultures,
and even individuals, and his thesis of the general suitedness of the
various moralities that arise to the societies and modes of life to
which they belong: there can be no valid justification for making
differential evaluative comparisons between one morality and another,
for saying that one morality is better or worse than another. This is
the implication of a famous remark in This Too a Philosophy of
that where values are concerned

at bottom all comparison proves to be problematic … Each nation
has its center of happiness in itself, like every sphere its center of
gravity! (HPW 296–297)

This relativism (as it has often, and reasonably, been called) is
arguably one of Herder’s most important contributions to moral
philosophy. However, it is also problematic, both in its relation to
other parts of Herder’s philosophy and intrinsically. (For
further details, see Section 2 of the
Supplementary Discussion.)

Let us now turn more briefly to some of Herder’s distinctive
positions in first-order morality. For at this level too he developed
positions that are of great importance—for their intrinsic
value, their influence on successors, or both.

One very fundamental, original, and attractive principle that he
develops here is what might be called pluralist
, in contradistinction to the homogenizing
of the tradition. Cosmopolitanism already had a
long history by Herder’s day that reached back to (Cynicism and)
Stoicism in the pagan Greek world. That tradition had usually
championed a homogenizing form of cosmopolitanism, i.e., a form of it
that grants equal ethical respect to all human beings only on the
basis of an assumption that they all share much in common
psychologically, especially in their moral values. In particular,
Herder’s Enlightenment predecessors, including Kant, had held
such a position. Moreover, this version of cosmopolitanism continues
to be predominant among moral philosophers and worthy organizations
such as the United Nations to this day. There is a huge problem with
this form of cosmopolitanism, however: its assumption that human
beings all share a great deal in common psychologically, especially in
moral values, is false (and attempting to make it
true would require massive coercion). Herder recognized this problem,
but he did not throw out the baby of cosmopolitanism with the
bathwater of homogenization. Instead, he developed a distinctive
pluralist form of cosmopolitanism: a commitment to equal
moral respect for all human beings despite, or even in part
because of, the diversity of their psychologies, and in
particular their moral values. This position is prominent in the
Letters for the Advancement, for example. It also undergirds
Herder’s strong stance against imperialism and colonialism in
This Too a Philosophy of History, the Ideas, and the
Letters for the Advancement.

A second moral principle of Herder’s that deserves mention here
is the closely related principle of humanity
[Humanität], which he develops in the Ideas and
the Letters for the Advancement. This principle has both
descriptive and normative aspects. Descriptively, it includes an
implication of the unity of the human species and of the mere
superficiality of racial differences. Normatively, it includes an
implication of cosmopolitanism; implications of specific standards of
decent treatment (e.g., not killing, physically abusing, or deceiving
people); and also functions as a sort of substitute for the ideal of
human rights, an ideal that constitutes a closer
specification of cosmopolitanism but which Herder tends to shy away
from for various reasons (see for this the section on Political

Herder’s principle of humanity takes two distinguishable forms:
an early form for which he normally uses the term Menschheit,
found especially in This Too a Philosophy of History, and a
later form for which he usually uses the term Humanität,
found especially in the Ideas and the Letters for the
. These versions differ not only terminologically but
also substantively, in that, for example, the later version tends
toward a more cognitive and universalistic conception of moral value
than the earlier one. It can be argued that Herder’s earlier
version was the actually the more original and philosophically deeper
of the two.

A further noteworthy component of Herder’s first-order morality
is his moral ideal of Bildung, in the sense of an autonomous,
individualistic development of all one’s capacities into a
harmonious whole. He already worked out this ideal in writings from
1769 such as his Journal. Later, in On the Cognition and
, he developed some deeper philosophical foundations for
it: an account of human autonomy or freedom as something quite
compatible with the laws of nature (an account closely related to one
that he had already worked out in the Treatise on the Origin
according to which a distinctive characteristic of humankind lies in a
certain sort of flexibility, or freedom from determination by narrow
instincts); a quasi-Leibnizian account of individuality as a general
feature of all nature, including human nature as a special
case; and an account of the deep interdependence of human
beings’ psychological faculties, which undergirds the
“harmonious whole” component of the ideal. This ideal
would later go on to have an enormous influence on successors such as
Schiller, Wilhelm von Humboldt (who saw its realization as the highest
purpose of the state or even the whole universe), and Hegel.

In addition to these striking moral ideals, Herder is also committed
to a range of much less surprising ones, especially ones associated
with the Christian moral tradition, such as sympathy, love,
forgiveness, honesty, justice, and equality. Although not surprising
in themselves, these ideals help to illustrate another striking
feature of his moral philosophy: his firm avoidance of the sort of
moral monism that began in antiquity with Plato’s
Protagoras (specifically, with its argument for the unity of
the virtues) and which has continued in modernity with Kant (in his
commitment to the categorical imperative as the sole moral principle)
and Utilitarianism (with its commitment to happiness as the sole moral
criterion), in favor of moral pluralism, or a commitment to
an irreducible plurality of moral values/ideals. This is arguably
another great merit of his moral philosophy.

Finally, Herder’s ethical theory is important not only for what
it includes but also for what it excludes. In particular, he shows
little interest in the issue of free will, rarely if ever implying
that such a thing exists or that it is a precondition of moral
responsibility. (Freedom in the sense of a sort of autonomy,
or flexibility, that exists within the limits of the laws of
nature and merely amounts to a certain liberty from constraint by
narrow instincts and political freedom are another matter; he
is interested in these.) This position contrasts sharply with
that of most modern moral philosophers, including both Hume and Kant,
for example. However, it looks much less idiosyncratic if one takes a
broader perspective and notices, for instance, that neither the early
Greeks (e.g., Homer) nor the Chinese ethical tradition have had any
conception of free will or any inclination to think that such a thing
is required for moral responsibility. Indeed, I would argue that
Herder’s position here, like that of those other traditions,
turns out to be a great virtue, since the very conception of free will
and of morality’s dependence on it, which has dominated western
philosophy and religion since late antiquity, turns out to be

9. Philosophy of History

Herder’s philosophy of history appears mainly in two works:
first in This Too a Philosophy of History and then later in
the Ideas.

His philosophy of history is striking for its development of a
teleological conception of history as the progressive realization of
“reason” and “humanity”—a conception
that anticipated and strongly influenced Hegel, among others. However,
this conception is dubious on reflection, and is arguably not
one of Herder’s most intrinsically important achievements in
this area.

His most intrinsically important achievement arguably instead lies in
his development of the thesis already mentioned
earlier—contradicting such Enlightenment philosopher-historians
as Hume and Voltaire—that there exist radical mental differences
between different historical periods (and cultures), that
people’s concepts, beliefs, values, sensations, and so on differ
in deep ways from one period (or culture) to another. This thesis is
already prominent in On the Change of Taste (1766) and it
endures throughout Herder’s career (albeit with some periods of
doubt or ambivalence). It had an enormous influence on successors such
as the Schlegel brothers, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Nietzsche, and

Herder makes the empirical exploration of the realm of mental
diversity posited by this thesis the very core of the discipline of
history. For, as has often been noted, he takes relatively little
interest in the so-called “great” political and military
deeds and events of history, focusing instead on the
“innerness” of history’s participants. This choice
is quite deliberate and self-conscious. Because of it, psychology
and interpretation
inevitably take center-stage as methods in the
discipline of historiography for Herder.

Herder has deep philosophical reasons for this choice, and hence for
assigning psychology and interpretation a central role in
historiography. To begin with, he has negative reasons
directed against traditional political-military historiography. Why
should historiography focus on the “great”
political and military deeds and events of the past, after all? There
are several possible answers: (1) A first would be that they are
fascinating or morally edifying. But Herder will not accept this. For
one thing, he denies that mere fascination or curiosity is a
sufficiently serious motive for doing historiography. For another
thing, his antiauthoritarianism, antimilitarism, and borderless
humanitarianism cause him to find the acts of political domination,
war, and empire that make up the vast bulk of these
“great” deeds and events not morally edifying but morally

This leaves two other types of motivation that might be appealed to
for doing the sort of historiography in question: (2) because
examining the course of such deeds and events reveals some sort of
overall meaning in history, or (3) because it leads to
efficient causal insights that enable us to explain the past and
perhaps also predict or control the future
. Herder is again
skeptical about these rationales, however. This skepticism is perhaps
clearest in the Older Critical Forestlet (1767–8)
where, in criticism of rationale (2), he consigns the task of
“the whole ordering together of many occurrences into a
plan” not to the historian but instead to the “creator,
… painter, and artist”, and in criticism of rationale
(3), he goes as far as to assert (on the basis of a Hume- and
Kant-influenced general skepticism about causal knowledge) that with
the search for efficient causes in history “historical seeing
stops and prophecy begins”. His later writings depart from this
early position in some obvious ways, but they also in important ways
remain faithful to it. (For further details, see Section 3 of the
Supplementary Discussion.)

Herder’s arguments against these three rationales can all be
found briefly summarized in Letters 121–122 from the
10th Collection of the Letters for the Advancement
(though they are more fully stated individually elsewhere).

Complementing this negative case against the claims of traditional
political-military history to be of overriding importance, Herder also
has positive reasons for focusing instead on the
“innerness” of human life in history. (1) One reason is
certainly just the sheer interest of this subject-matter (though, as
was mentioned before, that would not be a sufficient reason in his
eyes). (2) Another reason is that his discovery of radical diversity
in human mentality has shown there to be a much broader, less
explored, and more intellectually challenging field for investigation
here than previous generations of historians have realized. Two
further reasons are moral in nature: (3) He believes, quite plausibly,
that studying people’s minds through their literature, visual
art, and so on generally exposes one to them at their moral best (in
sharp contrast to studying their political-military history, which
exposes one to them at their worst), so that there are benefits of
moral edification to be gleaned here. (4) He has cosmopolitan and
egalitarian moral motives for studying people’s minds through
their literature, visual art, and so forth: in sharp contrast to
studying unedifying and elite-focused political-military history, this
promises to enhance our sympathies for peoples, and moreover for
peoples at all social levels, including lower ones. Finally, doing
“inner” history is also important as an instrument for our
non-moral self-improvement: (5) It serves to enhance our
self-understanding. One important reason for this is that it is by,
and only by, contrasting one’s own outlook with the outlooks of
other peoples that one comes to recognize what is universal and
invariant in it and what by contrast distinctive and variable. Another
is that in order fully to understand one’s own outlook one needs
to identify its historical origins and how they developed into it
(this is Herder’s justly famous “genetic” method,
about which more will be said in a moment). (6) Herder believes that
an accurate investigation of the (non-moral) ideals of past ages can
serve to enrich our own ideals and happiness. This motive finds broad
application in his work. One example of this is his exploration of
past literatures in the Fragments largely with a view to
drawing from them lessons about how better to develop modern German

Herder’s decision to focus on the “innerness” of
history’s participants, and his consequent emphasis on
psychology and interpretation as historical methods, strikingly
anticipated and strongly influenced Dilthey. So too did his rationale
for this decision, as described above, which is indeed arguably
superior to Dilthey’s, especially on its positive side.

Another of Herder’s major contributions to the philosophy of
history, likewise based on his insight into radical mental difference,
is the “genetic” method recently mentioned. This was a
revolutionary invention that has proved to be of enormous intrinsic
value and which has exercised a huge influence on the philosophies of
important successors such as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Foucault.

Herder’s genetic method is first and foremost a means toward
better understanding, or explaining, psychological outlooks
and psychologically laden practices—especially a means toward
better understanding one’s own, toward better
self-understanding. The method achieves its distinctive
contribution to better understanding such outlooks and practices,
saliently including one’s own, by showing, in a naturalistic
(i.e., non-religious, non-mythical, non-transcendent) way, that and
how they have developed historically out of earlier origins prior to
which they were not yet really present at all and from which they have
emerged via a series of transformations.

Herder initially developed this method in the 1760s mainly in relation
to poetry and language. His unpublished Attempt at a History of
Lyrical Poetry
(1764) contains his earliest presentation of the
method and applies it to poetry. His slightly later published work,
the Fragments (1767–8), refines his presentation of it
and applies it to language. He then goes on to apply the method to
moral (and other) values. Thus in This Too a
Philosophy of History
(1774) he largely focuses on moral,
aesthetic, and prudential values, developing the large-scale
“genetic” thesis that history has consisted of a great
chain of cultures (Oriental patriarchal culture, then Egyptian, then
Phoenician, then Greek, then Roman, and so on) that have built on each
other cumulatively and thus eventually generated modern European
culture (toward which he is strikingly ambivalent). For example, he
claims that Greek culture combined antecedent Oriental and Egyptian
culture’s obedience with antecedent Phoenician culture’s
freedom in a new synthesis, and then passed this on to subsequent
European cultures.

Hegel, especially in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807),
Nietzsche, especially in On the Genealogy of Morality (1887),
and Foucault subsequently took over this method and modified it in
various ways.

How exactly is Herder’s method supposed to advance (self-)understanding?
It aims to do so in two
distinguishable ways, which together constitute what one might call
the essential model of genetic explanation.

The method’s first contribution to (self-)understanding
is roughly as follows. Someone who possesses his or her own
distinctive concepts, beliefs, values, sensations, customs, art forms,
and so on but does not compare them with perspectives that have lacked
them altogether or possessed variant alternatives runs a grave risk of
taking them to be universal and indispensable, and also of overlooking
what is distinctive in their character. The genetic method counteracts
both of these types of (self-)misunderstanding by making one familiar
with earlier historical periods that have lacked the relevant concepts
etc. altogether and with intervening historical periods in which they
were indeed anticipated but only in forms significantly different from
the form in which one possesses them oneself, thereby making it
possible both to perceive the non-universality and dispensability of
the concepts etc. in question and to compare them with others in order
to reveal their distinctive character.

The method’s second contribution to (self-)understanding
consists at its most basic level in showing two things: first, it
shows that the concepts etc. in question, rather than, say, having
been innate and therefore present in human minds all along or else
having emerged ex nihilo fully formed at some point in
history, are the products of historical developments before which they
did not really exist at all and in the course of which they only
existed in variant forms; second, it shows what exactly these
historical developments that produced them have been. At a less basic
level, it normally also includes a provision of one or another further
sort of explanation that is more specific in character. For example,
the method shows that lyric poetry began as, and then continued
throughout its transformations to be, an expression of deep emotions;
that languages developed gradually from primitive beginnings to
achieve their striking later complexity; or that modern culture and
its values arose through a series of accumulations and transformations
of earlier cultures and their values.

Finally, Herder is also impressive for having recognized, and, though
not solved, at least grappled with, a problem that flows from his
picture of history (and intercultural comparison) as an arena of
radical differences in human mentality. This is the problem of
skepticism. (For further details, see Section 4 of the
Supplementary Discussion.)

10. Political Philosophy

Herder is not usually thought of as a political philosopher. But he
was one, and moreover one whose political ideals are more admirable,
theoretical stances more defensible, and thematic focuses of more
enduring relevance than those of any other German philosopher of the
period (including Kant). His most developed treatment of political
philosophy occurs relatively late, in a work prompted by the French
Revolution of 1789: the Letters for the Advancement of
(1793–7) (including the early draft from 1792,
which is important for its frank statement of his views about domestic

What are the main features of Herder’s political philosophy? Let
us begin with his political ideals, first in domestic and
then in international politics. In domestic politics, the mature
Herder is a liberal, a republican, a democrat, and an egalitarian
(this, it should be noted, in historical circumstances where such
positions were by no means commonplace, and were embraced at a
personal cost).

His liberalism is especially radical in that it advocates
virtually unrestricted freedom of thought and expression (including
freedom of worship). He has several reasons for this position: (1) He
feels that such freedom belongs to people’s moral dignity. (2)
He believes that it is essential for individuals’
self-realization. (3) He believes that people’s capacities for
discerning the truth are very limited and that it is only through a
constant contest between opposing viewpoints that the cause of truth
gets advanced. (John Stuart Mill would later borrow from these
considerations—largely via Wilhelm von Humboldt—to form
the core of his own case for freedom of thought and expression in
On Liberty.)

Herder is also committed to republicanism and democracy
(advocating a much broader franchise than Kant, for example). He has
several reasons for this position, ultimately deriving from an
egalitarian concern for the interests of all members of society: (1)
He feels it to be intrinsically right that the mass of people should
share in their government, rather than having it imposed upon them.
(2) He believes that this will better serve their other
interests as well, since government by also tends to be
government for. (3) He in particular believes that it will
diminish the warfare that is pervasive under the prevailing autocratic
political régimes of Europe, where it benefits the few rulers
who decide on it but costs the mass of people dearly.

Finally, Herder’s egalitarianism also extends beyond
that. He does not reject class differences, property, or inequalities
of property outright. But he does oppose all hierarchical oppression;
argue that all people in society have capacities for self-realization,
and should receive the opportunity to fulfill them; and insist that
government should intervene to ensure that they do receive it, for
example, by guaranteeing education and a minimum standard of living
for the poor.

Concerning international politics, Herder has often been classified as
a “nationalist” or (perhaps even worse) a “German
nationalist” (for example, by R.R. Ergang in Herder and the
Foundations of German Nationalism
[1931] and K.R. Popper in
The Open Society and its Enemies [1945]). Some other
philosophers from the period deserve such a characterization (for
instance, Fichte). But where Herder is concerned it is deeply
misleading and unjust. On the contrary, like Kant’s, his
fundamental position in international politics 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 for the
he approvingly quotes Fénelon’s remark,
“I love my family more than myself; more than my family my
fatherland; more than my fatherland humankind”
(HPW 389). Moreover, Herder’s cosmopolitanism
is arguably a good deal purer than Kant’s. Kant’s is
undermined by various prejudices that he harbors – in
particular, racism, antisemitism, and misogyny (for a charitable
discussion, see Kleingeld 2013). By contrast, Herder’s is free
of such prejudices, which he indeed worked tirelessly to combat.

Herder does indeed also insist on respecting, preserving, and
advancing national groupings. However, this is entirely 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! (In the
Letters for the Advancement he emphatically rejects any such
notion of a “favorite people [Favoritvolk]”, as
he puts it [HPW 394].) (2) The “nation”
in question is not racial but linguistic and cultural (in the
Ideas and elsewhere Herder indeed criticizes and rejects the
very concept of race). (3) Herder does not seek to seal off nations
from each other’s influence or to keep them static; he regards
inter-linguistic and -cultural exchange and linguistic-cultural
development as normal and welcomes them. (4) Nor does his commitment
to national groupings involve a centralized, militarized state (in the
Ideas and elsewhere he strongly advocates the disappearance
of such a state and its replacement by loosely federated local
governments with minimal instruments of force). (5) In addition, his
insistence on respecting national groupings is accompanied by the
strongest denunciations 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.

Moreover, Herder has compelling reasons for this insistence on
respecting national groupings: (1) The deep diversity of values
between nations entails that homogenization is only a fantasy:
non-existent hitherto and impracticable for the future. (2) Such
diversity 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 it, for example, by
European colonialism, are 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.

Indeed, Herder’s pluralist cosmopolitanism is an important and
attractive alternative to the homogenizing forms of cosmopolitanism,
based on illusions concerning either the fact or the prospect of
universally shared values, that have predominated since the
Enlightenment and are still popular today, both among philosophers
(especially in the Anglophone world) and in international political
organizations such as the United Nations.

Another important part of Herder’s political philosophy, which
bears on both domestic and international politics, is his striking
preference for an ideal of humanity over his age’s
ideal of human rights. (For further details, see Section 5 of
Supplementary Discussion.)

Now that we have surveyed the various political ideals that make up
Herder’s political position, one final issue still needs to be
addressed. It might still be objected that all of this does not yet
really amount to a political theory—such as other
philosophers have provided, including some of Herder’s
contemporaries in Germany. In a sense that is true, but
philosophically defensible; in another sense it is false.

It is true in the following sense. There is indeed no grand
metaphysical theory underpinning Herder’s position—no
Platonic theory of forms, no correlation of political institutions
with “moments” in a Hegelian Logic, no
“deduction” of political institutions from the nature of
the self or the will à la Fichte or Hegel, or whatnot. But that
is quite deliberate, given Herder’s skepticism about such
metaphysics. And is it not indeed philosophically a good thing?

Nor does Herder have any account purporting to justify the moral
intuitions at work in his political position as a sort of theoretical
insight (in the manner of Kant’s theory of the
“categorical imperative” or Rawls’s theory of the
“original position”, for example). But that is again quite
deliberate, given his sentimentalism in ethics, and his rejection of
such theories as both false and harmful. And is he not again right
about this, and the absence of such an account therefore again a good

Nor is Herder sympathetic with such tired staples of political theory
as natural rights, the state of nature, the social contract, the
general will, and utopias for the future. But again, he has good
specific reasons for skepticism about these notions. So this again
seems like a good thing.

This, then, is the sense in which the objection is correct; Herder
does indeed lack a “political theory” of these
sorts. But he lacks it on principle, and is arguably quite
right to do so.

On the other hand, in another sense it is false to say that he lacks a
“political theory”. For he does have a
“political theory” of a different, and arguably far more
valuable, sort. First, consistently with his general empiricism, his
position in political philosophy is deeply empirically informed. For
instance, as can be seen from the Dissertation on the Reciprocal
Influence of Government and the Sciences
(1780), his thesis
concerning the importance of freedom of thought and expression, and
the competition between views that it makes possible, for producing
intellectual progress is largely based on the positive historical
example of ancient Greece, and in particular Athens, as contrasted
with later societies, such as Rome, that lacked the freedom and
competition in question and generated correspondingly weaker
intellectual achievements. And in the 1792 draft of the Letters
for the Advancement
he even describes the French Revolution and
its attempts to establish a modern democracy as a sort of
“experiment” from which we can learn (for example, learn
whether democracy can be successfully extended to nations that are
much larger than ancient Athens).

Second, in conformity with his general sentimentalism in ethics, he is
acutely aware that his political position ultimately rests on moral
sentiments—his own and, for its success, other people’s as
well. For example, in the 10th Collection of the
Letters for the Advancement he emphasizes that people’s
moral “dispositions” or “feelings” play a
fundamental role as essential supports for his political
position’s realization. This standpoint absolves him of the need
to do certain sorts of theorizing—not only precluding any need
for cognitivist groundings of the moral intuitions in question, but
also promising short, effective solutions to various problems that
would no doubt look like real brain-teasers to a cognitivist. However,
it also leads him to engage in theorizing of another sort, namely,
theorizing about the ways in which, and the causal means by which,
people’s moral sentiments should be molded in order to realize
the ideals of his political position. His discussion of moral
“dispositions” in the 10th Collection is an example of
such theorizing—concerning the ways in which, rather
than the causal means by which. Some of his extensive
theorizing about causal means (education, exemplary individuals, laws,
literature, and so on) has already been discussed earlier in this

These two sorts of political theorizing—empirical
theorizing and theorizing about moral sentiments—are
deeply developed in Herder. And they are arguably much more pointful
than the sorts that are not.

In short, to the extent that Herder’s political philosophy
really is theoretically superficial, it is, to borrow a phrase of
Nietzsche’s, “superficial—out of
” (whereas more familiar forms of political
philosophy are profound—out of superficiality). And in another,
more important, sense it is not theoretically superficial at all.

11. Philosophy of Religion

A final area in which Herder has noteworthy achievements is the
philosophy of religion. It seems appropriate to begin discussion of
this with a couple of qualifications, though. In Herder’s day
German philosophy was still deeply committed to a sort of game of
trying to reconcile the insights of the Enlightenment, especially
those of modern natural science, with religion, and indeed more
specifically with Christianity. Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher,
and many others played this game—each proposing some new
reconciliation or other. Herder was part of this game as well. This
was not a good game for philosophers to be playing. But it was not
until the nineteenth century that German philosophy found the courage
to cut the Gordian knot and turn from apologetics for religion and
Christianity to thoroughgoing criticism of them (the prime examples
being Marx and Nietzsche). This situation imposes certain limits on
the value of Herder’s philosophy of religion (as on that of the
other reconciling philosophers just mentioned).

Also, it should be noted that while Herder’s philosophy of
religion was generally very enlightened and progressive in both his
early and his late periods, there was a spell in the middle, the years
1771–6 in Bückeburg, during which he fell into the sort of
religious irrationalism (a position that essentially rejects reason
and instead bases religious views on belief alone) that is more
characteristic of his friend Hamann. This happened as the result of
what would today be classified as a mild nervous breakdown
(documentable from his correspondence at the time), and should
basically be discounted.

Notwithstanding these qualifications, Herder did make important
contributions to the philosophy of religion—that is, important
in terms of their intrinsic value, their influence, or both.

One of these contributions (arguably important mainly for its
influence) lies in his neo-Spinozism. Herder’s sympathetic
engagement with Spinoza’s work goes back at least as far as
1769. But its main expression occurs in God: Some
from 1787 (a second, substantially revised edition
appeared in 1800). Herder published this work in the wake of
Jacobi’s Letters on the Doctrine of Spinoza (1785), in
which Jacobi had revealed that the highly respected philosopher,
critic, and dramatist Lessing—who was much admired by Herder in
particular—had confessed to him shortly before his death that he
had abandoned orthodox religious conceptions in favor of Spinozism.
Jacobi had himself argued, sharply to the contrary, that Spinozism,
and indeed all fundamental reliance on reason, implies atheism and
fatalism, and should therefore be rejected in favor of a leap of faith
to a conventional Christian theism. Jacobi’s work, along with a
reply by Moses Mendelssohn that disputed the attribution of Spinozism
to Lessing though not the perniciousness of such a position, caused a
public furor. In God: Some Conversations Herder intervened.
In this work he supports Lessing as Jacobi had characterized him by
developing a version of “Spinozism” that modifies the
original in some significant respects, largely with a view to defusing
Jacobi’s objections.

Herder shares with Spinoza the basic thesis of monism, and
like Spinoza equates the single, all-encompassing principle in
question with God (which of course already challenges Jacobi’s
charge of atheism). But whereas Spinoza had characterized this single,
all-encompassing principle as substance, Herder instead
characterizes it as force, or primal force. This
fundamental modification involves several further ones that Herder
also finds attractive, including the following: (1) Whereas Spinoza
had tended to conceive the principle in question as an inactive
, Herder’s revision rather turns it into an
activity. (2) Spinoza’s theory had attributed
thought to the principle in question, but had rejected
conceptions that it had intentions or was a mind. By
contrast, Herder claims that it does have intentions. And
since his general philosophy of mind identifies the mind with force,
his identification of the principle in question with force also
carries an implication that it is a mind (he does not yet
quite say this in God: Some Conversations, but a few years
later in On the Spirit of Christianity of 1798 he explicitly
describes God as a Geist, a mind). In these ways, Herder in
effect re-mentalizes Spinoza’s God (thereby further undermining
Jacobi’s charge of atheism). (3) Whereas Spinoza had conceived
nature mechanistically, in keeping with his Cartesian intellectual
heritage (and had thereby invited Jacobi’s charge of fatalism),
Herder (though officially still agnostic about what force is) rather
tends to conceive the forces at work in nature as living, or
organic (a conception of them that he mainly owes to Leibniz). (4)
Herder believes that Spinoza’s original theory contained an
objectionable residue of dualism (again 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 own conception of God as a force (and of finite minds
as likewise forces) is designed to overcome this alleged residual
dualism. For forces are of their very nature expressed in the behavior
of extended bodies. (5) Herder also sketches a more detailed account
of nature as a system of living forces based in the primal force,
God—an account that in particular ascribes an important role in
this system to the sort of opposition between forces that is
exemplified by the magnet with its two opposite poles, and that
characterizes the system as a self-development toward higher and
higher forms of articulation.

During the last quarter or so of the eighteenth century and then well
into the nineteenth century a wave of neo-Spinozism swept through
German philosophy and literature: in addition to Lessing and Herder,
further neo-Spinozists included Goethe, Schelling, Hegel,
Schleiermacher, Hölderlin, Novalis, and Friedrich Schlegel. This
wave was largely a result of Herder’s embrace of neo-Spinozism
in God: Some Conversations (and in Goethe’s case
Herder’s sympathy with Spinozism even before that work).
Accordingly, it for the most part took over Herder’s
modifications of Spinoza’s position.

However, it is arguable that Herder’s most
intrinsically valuable contribution to the philosophy of
religion concerns the interpretation of the Bible. In this connection,
as has already been mentioned, he champions a strict
secularism. This was already his position in the 1760s. At
that period he argued firmly, in the spirit of Galileo, for
disallowing revelation any jurisdiction over natural
science—though he did so not in an anti-religious spirit but in
the hope and expectation that an autonomous natural science would
confirm religion. And he made a parallel case for the autonomy of
interpretation: Religious assumptions and means have no
business interfering in the interpretation of texts either, even when
the texts are sacred ones. Instead, even the Bible must be interpreted
as the work of human beings, and by means of the same sorts of
rigorous hermeneutic methods that are employed for interpreting other
ancient texts—any religious enlightenment coming as a
result of such interpretation, not entering into the process
itself. This whole position remained Herder’s considered
position in his later period as well.

The principle that the Bible should be interpreted in the same way as
other texts was not the commonplace in Herder’s day that it has
become since, but nor was it entirely new with him. In adopting it he
was self-consciously following the lead of several recent Bible
scholars—in particular, Ernesti, Michaelis, and Semler. However,
his secularism is more consistent and radical than theirs, in
particular because it foreswears not only any reliance on a divine
inspiration of the interpreter but also any assumption that the Bible,
as the word of God, must be true and consistent throughout. (For
further details, see Section 6 of the
Supplementary Discussion.)

Another important interpretive principle of Herder’s, closely
related to his strict secularism, is an insistence that interpreters
of the Bible must resist the temptation to read the Bible as
allegory (except in those relatively few cases—such as
the parables of the New Testament—where there is clear textual
evidence that a biblical author intended to convey an allegorical
meaning). The locus classicus for this issue is the Songs of
(1778), where Herder argues against then-common allegorical
interpretations of the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon
in favor of an interpretation of it as simple erotic love poetry (an
interpretation that is now generally accepted as correct). In On
God’s Son, the World’s Savior
(1797) Herder gives a
perceptive general diagnosis of how the temptation to allegorical
interpretation arises: over the course of history people’s
beliefs and values change, leading to discrepancies between the claims
made by their traditional texts and their own beliefs and values; but
they expect and want to find their traditional texts to be correct;
and so they try to effect a reconciliation of them with their own
beliefs and values by means of allegorical readings.

Herder’s theoretical commitment to strict secularism and to
non-allegorical readings in biblical interpretation led him to
interpretive discoveries concerning the Bible that were themselves of
great importance. For example, concerning the Old Testament, his
commitment to applying normal interpretive methods enabled him to
distinguish and define the different genres of poetry in the Old
Testament in a way that was superior to anything that had been
achieved before. The same commitment, and his consequent readiness to
find falsehood and even inconsistency in the Bible, also allowed him
to make such important interpretive observations as that the ancient
Hebrews’ conceptions about death, the afterlife, the mind, and
the body had changed dramatically over time. (For both of these
achievements, see especially On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry.)
Again, as was just mentioned, his rejection of unwarranted allegorical
interpretations allowed him to substitute for the traditional
interpretation of the Song of Solomon as religious allegory
an interpretation of it as simple erotic love poetry that is now
generally accepted.

Similarly concerning the New Testament, Herder’s commitment to
applying normal interpretive methods, including his readiness to
discover falsehood and inconsistency, enabled him to treat the authors
of the four gospels as individual human authors rather than mere
mouthpieces of the deity, to perceive inconsistencies between their
accounts, to establish the relative dates of the gospels correctly for
the first time (Mark first, Matthew and Luke in the middle, John last
and late), and to give a broadly correct account of their genesis in
oral sermon and of their likely relations to each other (achievements
that he attained above all in two late works from 1796–7, On
the Savior of Mankind
and On God’s Son, the
World’s Savior

Herder’s strict secularism and resistance to allegory in
interpretation would shortly afterwards be taken over by
Schleiermacher, who similarly embraced the principle that the
interpretation of sacred texts must treat them as the works of human
authors and apply exactly the same interpretive methods to them as are
applied to profane texts, and who similarly followed through on this
commitment, in particular finding not only falsehoods but also
inconsistencies in the Bible.

Herder’s great achievements in this whole area also have
something of the character of the early acts of an inexorable personal
tragedy, however. As was mentioned, Herder by no means intended his
championing of the cause of intellectual conscience in insisting on
the autonomy of natural science and interpretation to undermine
religion in general or Christianity in particular; on the contrary,
his hope and expectation was that both sorts of autonomy would in the
end support religion and Christianity. However, this hope has been
sorely disappointed. Autonomous natural science has increasingly made
religion generally and Christianity in particular look untenable. And
Herder’s policy of reading the Bible with the aid of normal
interpretive means as a collection of human texts, with all of the
foibles of human texts, has increasingly led to an undermining of the
Bible’s claims to intellectual authority (a landmark here was
the publication of David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of
[1835–6]). Much of what Herder has ultimately
achieved in this area would therefore have been deeply unwelcome to

12. Intellectual Influence

Now that we have surveyed Herder’s main achievements as a
philosopher, we are in a somewhat better position to see not only
their intrinsic value but also their enormous intellectual influence,
as adumbrated at the start of this article—an influence that
occurred both within philosophy and beyond it, and that extended even
to the founding of whole new disciplines. (For further details, see
Section 7 of the
Supplementary Discussion.)

13. Guide to the Literature

General Treatments

Adler and Koepke 2009 (an excellent collection of articles covering a
wide range of topics); Beiser 1987 (ch. 5 covers several subject
helpfully, including Herder’s philosophies of language, mind,
and religion); Berlin 1976 (concise and excellent); Clark 1955
(detailed and useful, though unimaginative); Forster 2018 (covers the
subjects treated in this article in more detail); Gillies 1945 (not
philosophically sophisticated, but good on Herder’s relation to
literature and on his influence); Greif, Heinz, and Clairmont 2016 (a
useful reference work); Haym 1880 (a classic, detailed intellectual
biography; still the best general book on Herder available); Heise
1998 (a good short introduction); Irmscher 2001 (an excellent short
introduction); Nisbet 1970 (a helpful general account of
Herder’s views about science); Sauder 1987 (contains helpful
contributions on a wide range of topics); Wiese 1939 (a helpful

Intellectual Life

Adler 1968; Beiser 1987 (ch. 5); Berlin 1976; Clark 1955; Haym

Philosophical Style

Adler 2009; Berlin 1976; Clark 1955; Haym 1880; Zammito 2001 (an
excellent, thorough study).

General Program in Philosophy

Heinz 1994; Zammito 2001 (very good on this subject).

Philosophy of Language

Aarsleff 1982; Coseriu 2015; Forster 2010, 2011a, 2015, 2018 (ch. 1);
Hacking 1988, 1994; Sapir 1907 (an excellent discussion of the
Treatise on the Origin by an important twentieth-century
linguist); Taylor 1991, 1996, 2016.

Theory of Interpretation (Hermeneutics)

Forster 2010 (especially chs. 1–5), 2011a (especially ch. 9),
2012b, 2016, 2018 (ch. 2), 2019b; Gjesdal 2004, 2017; Irmscher 1973 (a
very influential article that attempts to assimilate Herder’s
position to Gadamer’s, an ambition that is both interpretively
and philosophically questionable); Willi 1971 (a helpful treatment of
Herder’s approach to interpreting the Old Testament).

Theory of Translation

Berman 1984; Forster 2010 (ch. 12), 2018 (ch. 3), 2021; Huber 1968;
Huyssen 1969; Kelletat 1984 (a helpful treatment of Herder’s
interest in world literature, and of his theory and practice of
translation); Purdie 1965; Sauder 2009.

Linguistics and Anthropology

Broce 1986; Coseriu 2015; Forster 2010 (ch. 6), 2011a (ch. 4), 2018
(ch. 4); Gjesdal 2013; Mühlberg 1984; Pross 1987; Zammito

Philosophy of Mind

Beiser 1987 (ch. 5); Forster 2011c, 2018 (ch. 5), 2019a; Nisbet


Forster 2010 (chs. 1, 3, and 5), 2011a (ch. 6), 2016, 2018 (ch. 6);
Gjesdal 2017; Guyer 2007; Irmscher 1987; Mayo 1969; Norton 1991
(helpful both on aspects of Herder’s aesthetic theory and on his
general relation to the Enlightenment); Wiora 1953; Zuckert 2019.

Moral Philosophy

Berlin 1976; Booher 2015; Crowe 2012; DeSouza 2012a, 2012b, 2014;
Forster 2017b, 2018 (ch. 7), and forthcoming; Sikka 2011.

Philosophy of History

Barnard 2003; Beiser 2003; Bollacher 1994; Forster 2011b, 2012a, 2018
(ch. 8); Gadamer 1942; Irmscher 1984, 2010; Lovejoy 1948 (helpful and
concise); Maurer 1987; Meinecke [1936] 1972 (ch. 9 on Herder is very
helpful); Otto and Zammito 2001; Staedelmann 1928; Wells 1960; Zammito

Political Philosophy

Barnard 1965 (chs. 3–5 cover Herder’s political thought
very well); Beiser 1992 (ch. 8 on Herder’s political philosophy
is excellent); Berlin 1976; Bernasconi 1995; Ergang 1931 (helpful on
Herder’s political thought and on his intellectual influence,
but marred by a false assimilation of Herder’s nationalism to
later German nationalism, and by an unduly warm assessment of such a
position); Forster 2010 (ch. 7), 2017a, 2018 (ch. 9); Sikka 2011.

Philosophy of Religion

Bell 1984; Forster 2012b, 2018 (ch. 10); Lindner 1960; Vollrath 1911;
Willi 1971.

Herder’s Influence

Ergang 1931; Forster 1998, 2010, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2012a, 2012b,
2012c, 2016, 2017b, 2018 (ch. 11), 2019a; Gillies 1945; Harris 1972;
Heinz 1997; Jacoby 1911; Taylor 1975; Zammito 1992, 1997.