After Herder Philosophy Of Language Essays

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 Forests (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 Language (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 Humanity (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 Humanity (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 himself.

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 Become 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 Seer, which Kant sent to Herder prior to its publication (“a sheet at a time”, Herder reports [B2:259]).

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 attention.

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 it should 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, or ought to be, no longer ours.

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. The following are their main features.

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 language.)
  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 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 Origin, On the Cognition and Sensation, and the Metacritique.)

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 influence.

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 History, and On the Cognition and Sensation). Let us call them together his principle of radical mental difference.

Given this principle, 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 instance.)

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

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 above:

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.)

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 1773.)

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 makes conjectures about an author’s psychology (see esp. On Thomas Abbt’s Writings [1768]); and when he attempts to pin down a work’s genre, or the purposes and rules that constitute it (see esp. Shakespeare).

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 rather literally so!). However, I want to suggest that they are in fact on the contrary quite hard-nosed.

Herder proposes (prominently in This Too a Philosophy of History, 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 an 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 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 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 it 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).

In addition, Herder 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.

In On Thomas Abbt’s Writings, On the Cognition and Sensation, and elsewhere Herder makes one of his most important innovations: interpretation must supplement its focus on word-usage with attention to the author’s psychology. Herder implies various reasons for this (several of which would subsequently be elaborated more explicitly 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 it tout court; in addition, one needs to establish 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 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? 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 (as was already mentioned) to larger bodies of text, 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 because doing so is often essential for resolving ambiguities at the level of the parts. (5) Herder also refers to the second half of his doctrine of radical mental difference—individual variations in mode of thought even within a single period and culture—as a source of the 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.

In On Thomas Abbt’s Writings, On the Cognition and Sensation, and elsewhere 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 that has a religious basis and is perhaps even infallible. However, what he really has in mind here is instead, 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.

Finally, Herder also implies an additional important point concerning the general nature of interpretation:

After Herder, the question was 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. 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”).

Herder’s theory of interpretation had an enormous and beneficial impact on subsequent hermeneutics. His theory was taken over almost in its entirety 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 inspection.

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 interpretation to the 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 theses:

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 undertaking.

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 language. Herder objects to this that in cases such as that of translating Homer, for example, the author could not have written his work in the modern target language.

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 mistakenly 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 currently 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 subsequent tradition that has 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 form of a literary 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 possible.

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 requires.

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 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.

Herder’s philosophy of language, interpretation, and translation owes 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, even his borrowings incorporate important refinements, and his overall contribution was enormous.

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 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 a very interesting and influential position in the philosophy of mind. The following are some of its central features.

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

In On the Cognition and Sensation he tries 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. He officially 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 accusation that it is “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, 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 as showing 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 exhibits 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 (though, of course, we would 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 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, since 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 quite coherent one that, while the mind is indeed this way by its very nature, people 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 metaphysics, for example) to cut thought free from the constraints of language lead to nonsense.

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. 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 origin 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. Accordingly, he argues, for example, 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 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 etc. 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 versions do not work, and that Herder’s original version is exactly what should be accepted.

Herder also, in tension though 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 empirical rule of thumb. By contrast, a prominent strand in Schleiermacher and Frank purports to establish it as an a priori universal truth. However, Herder’s original version is again arguably the more plausible one.

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. This is another compelling position that has had a strong influence on subsequent thinkers.

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 important in its own right. And it exercised an enormous influence on Herder’s successors, including Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Nietzsche.

7. Aesthetics

Unlike his teacher Kant, who had little interest in or knowledge of literature or 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 Hegel.

Herder also anticipated and influenced the Romantics in another important way. One of the most striking and distinctive positions of the Romantics 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, in works such as his Attempt at a History of Lyric Poetry (1764) and On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry he also argued that poetry has been fundamental to religion from the beginning. And elsewhere he argued 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.

Besides the aforementioned, what 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 kind 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 voluntaryand conventional signs. It is also true that this system was later 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 (for example, by Robert Norton). But as Herder himself quickly came to realize after formulating it, it is a 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 expressivism and the latter broad expressivism.

Hamann in his Metacritique espoused a version of broad expressivism. But, as his first two doctrines in the philosophy of language already seem to imply, Herder adopted narrow expressivism. Moreover, after much wrestling with the subject, he eventually developed a very compelling version of narrow expressivism. The key work here is 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 is committed to narrow expressivism. However, his commitment to it there is initially unsatisfactory and even inconsistent. For one thing, it initially takes 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 is the force of the naive theory recently described that the work at first set out to develop. Adding inconsistency to this unsatisfactoriness, Herder is from the start in the work also committed to saying (far more plausibly) that visual art often does express thoughts—for example, he intervenes 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 tend to support Winckelmann’s case for visual art. This unsatisfactoriness and inconsistency mainly result 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 writes the later parts of the Critical Forests, he has 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, speaking 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 to be unfaithful 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. (G4:317)

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 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 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, a bit 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., roughly, 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 began 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 Advancement, 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.

Fourth, Herder holds that aesthetic values such as beauty are ultimately 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 inversion.

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 ours.

These historicist insights concerning literature and art are extremely important in their own right. In addition, both for Herder and in fact, they carry deep implications for the interpretation and the critical evaluation 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 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 Forests 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 interpreting the odes of Horace) 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 in order to understand it.

Why does he believe that identifying genre is essential for understanding? He has at least three reasons (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 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 things that are expressed explicitly in the parts of a work.

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 differences.

This has important consequences for interpretation. For example, it leads Herder to an emphatic rejection of 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 the observation of examples though restricting these to a limited number of cases and excluding others 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 disastrous, in Herder’s view.

Instead, according to Herder, the interpreter should approach the task of identifying the genre that is 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 also emphasizes that identifying the genre of a work correctly 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 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 tragedy than had been achieved before, and it enabled Friedrich Schlegel to develop a new, highly sophisticated form of art history (especially in his work on paintings in the Louvre and on cathedral architecture), thereby preparing the way for nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship on tragedy and art history.

Herder also has important ideas concerning a topic that is often thought 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 Judgment). Occasionally—for example, in the Critical Forests 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 unity in standards of beauty across historical periods and cultures. However, the former position is his more considered one and is the more plausible one.

A second important idea, which he already develops in the Critical Forests (and then repeats later 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 the 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 becomes our most general term of approval for whatever we find pleasing in relation to any of the senses and indeed mental life more broadly (G2:289–291).

A third important idea that he develops is that beauty is in fact considerably less important in literature and art than it has often been thought to be. This demotion of beauty is not only encouraged by his somewhat deflationary genealogy of the concept just mentioned but also by his proto-Romantic conception that literature and art have fundamental functions in relation to language (and thought), religion, and morality, and by his mature insistence that meaning and thought play an important role even in “non-linguistic” art. He tended to advocate this demotion of beauty increasingly as time went on. Accordingly, whereas in early works such as On the Ode and the Critical Forests he still treated beauty as central to aesthetics, by the time he wrote the Calligone he had changed his mind and now insisted that it is not nearly as essential to art as it is often taken to be. In particular, he argues in the Calligone 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. In On the Effect of Poetic Art on the Ethics of Peoples in Ancient and Modern Times (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 instruments, such as law.

He also develops a nuanced account of how literature and art do and should perform this function. For example, in On the Influence 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 presenting 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 formation: it is a fundamental principle underlying his Popular Songs that by vividly conveying the inner lives—for instance, the fears, hopes, and joys—of other people to its audience or readership, literature will stir their sympathies for them and hence 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 the primary function of literature and art serves him as an important criterion for evaluating individual works. Thus when he observes in On the Effect that in contrast to earlier poetry modern poetry has typically lost this function, he means this as a serious criticism of modern poetry. And he even applied this criterion as a ground for criticizing certain works by his friends Goethe and Schiller that he considered to be immoral or amoral in content.

8. Moral Philosophy

Herder also develops a philosophically powerful and historically influential moral philosophy. This consists of a set of 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 Herder’s 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 same.

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 espoused 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 (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 Forests (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 Sensation (1778). (Nietzsche would later take over this 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 say 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. 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 here).

Another radical thesis that Herder champions is that moral sentiments 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 History. 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 society and the 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 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 Nietzsche.)

Another major contribution that Herder makes in the area of meta-ethics is his application of his “genetic” method of explanation to the domain of morality. This method depends on Herder’s historicism. It purports to make a mentalistic 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, one can 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 History

The Review of Metaphysics


The Review of Metaphysics is devoted to the promotion of technically competent, definitive contributions to philosophical knowledge. Not associated with any school or group, not the organ of any association or institution, it is interested in persistent, resolute inquiries into root questions, regardless of the writer's affiliations.
Published for more than fifty years, the Review of Metaphysics has established itself as an essential resource for the profession both in the major research libraries of the world and in the private libraries of professors, scholars, and students of philosophy. Among the top English-language journals in circulation, and boasting one of the largest foreign circulations, the Review offers its reader an overview of contemporary philosophy and a standpoint from which to assess its developing currents.

Coverage: 1947-2014 (Vol. 1, No. 1 - Vol. 68, No. 2)

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The "moving wall" represents the time period between the last issue available in JSTOR and the most recently published issue of a journal. Moving walls are generally represented in years. In rare instances, a publisher has elected to have a "zero" moving wall, so their current issues are available in JSTOR shortly after publication.
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