Herder’s philosophy of history and humanity

An earlier post attempted to express the idea that “humanity” and human culture are self-creators: there is no fixed and prior system of meanings, values, allegiances, and ways of acting that constitutes humanity. Instead, human beings have, through the history of millennia of culture formation, created frameworks of value, meaning, and social relationships that have structured human communities and individual lives in different epochs. This view can be described as “historicist”, in the sense that it places human nature and human values into contingent historical traces. 

Human beings bring something crucial to this epochs-long process that other living organisms do not (ants, rabbits, lions): a capacity for thinking, experiencing, reflecting, and feeling that leads them to adjust their value systems over time. Through ordinary experience, human relationships of love and hate, poetry and religion, philosophy and story telling, human communities shape their values over time. And sometimes there are revolutions of thought in which profound changes ripple through the value systems and systems of meaning of various human communities.

In reflecting on the history of western philosophy to identify thinkers who have advocated for ideas like these to explain the history of humanity, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) stands out. He stands in contrast to his teacher Kant, but also to the British empiricists and to Platonic philosophy, in his strong philosophical conviction that human beings are fundamentally historical creatures. And in Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions Martha Nussbaum suggests that Rousseau offers a similar view in Emile (link). Michael Forster puts this feature of Herder’s philosophy at the center of his philosophy of history (SEP, Herder):

His most intrinsically important achievement arguably rather 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 lasts throughout Herder’s career. It had an enormous influence on successors such as the Schlegel brothers, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dilthey. (Forster, SEP, Herder)

Herder makes the empirical exploration of the realm of mental diversity that this thesis posits 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. (Forster, SEP, Herder)

One way of interpreting this philosophy of history is as a developmental conception of civilization: human history is a sequence of civilizational systems that give way to their successors, with the suggestion that there is a direction or teleological structure to this sequence. That is the way that Hegel’s philosophy of history works: great historical epochs (civilizations) represent partial and one-sided ideas of freedom, to be superseded by complementary ideas in future epochs. 

But we can adopt the historicist view of human culture without any commitment whatsoever to directionality, progress, or unified movement. Instead, we can look at the process as contingent, path-dependent, and heterogeneous at any given moment in time.

Here are suggestive excerpts from Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (link). Here is a very clear statement on the transitory nature of human cultural, civilizational monuments:

Thus everything in history is transient: the inscription on her temple is evanescence and decay. We tread on the ashes of our forefathers, and stalk over the entombed ruins of human institutions and kingdoms. Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, flit before us like shadows: like ghosts they rise from their graves, and appear to us in the field of history. (Book XV)

And here is an especially clear passage commenting on the “self-creation” of human beings:

Thus we everywhere find mankind possessing and exercising the right of forming themselves to a kind of humanity, as soon as they have discerned it. If they have erred, or stopped at the half way of a hereditary tradition; they have suffered the consequences of their error, and done penance for the fault they committed. The deity has in nowise bound their hands, farther than by what they were, by time, place, and their intrinsic powers. When they were guilty of faults, he extricated them not by miracles, but suffered these faults to produce their effects, that man might the better learn to know them. (Book XV, Chapter 1)

This line of thought about human beings, civilization, and history is historicist in a particular sense: human beings create themselves through actions and the process of living, using their consciousness as a way of attempting to understand and guide their actions. Human beings take shape through their histories. From this process emerge culture, norms, and ways of living.

Georg Iggers provides a helpful account of the meaning of “historicism” in his 1995 article, “Historicism: The History and Meaning of the Term” (link). And in his telling, only one of the several meanings this term has had in the past two centuries is relevant to my intended use in application to Herder. The meaning that I have in mind is synonymous with the idea of the “self-creation” of human cultures: no Ur-text of human values at the beginning, no necessary path of development, no uniform and homogeneous “world culture” at any point. Instead, there is only humanity, in the persons of specific communities and populations; and the systems of values their poets, philosophers, preachers, and fanatics have proliferated during a period of time. There is diffusion, dispersion, cross-fertilization, innovation, and back-tracking, as living human beings and their poets struggle forward in cooperation and competition in changing circumstances of nature, society, and technology. Sometimes communities emerge with what we would describe as deplorable values; and sometimes there are long stretches of time in which value systems prevail that support benevolence, fairness, and concern for others.

As Iggers points out, one of the criticisms of historicism was its supposed “relativism” — the idea that it implies that all moral and religious belief derives from a community’s social and natural circumstances, and that no moral or religious scheme is superior to any other. In a sense this conclusion follows from the view that there is no objective, rational, and extra-historical standard for comparing and judging competing moral systems in concrete human communities. But we can also take the view of “self-creation” very seriously, and can maintain that the struggle to live across time in typical human circumstances has resulted, for us, in a system of values that we can both endorse and continue to criticize and correct. We prefer to be beings who have compassion for each other and who treat other human beings fairly; therefore a moral system that favors benevolence, compassion, and justice is superior to one that favors cruelty, indifference, and exploitation. We are now the kinds of creatures who have defined ourselves partially in terms of those values; and we can judge ourselves, our ancestors, and our fellow human beings accordingly. There is no external “epistemic” basis for these values; rather, they are values we and our predecessors have created for ourselves; we have become (partially) the embodiment of those values. And when Klingons, Nazis, or NKVD officers fundamentally violate those values, we must oppose them if we can.

Sonia Sikka’s Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference: Enlightened Relativism is an excellent and detailed discussion of this aspect of Herder’s philosophy.

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