Herder as Historicist

In the evaluation of Friedrich Meinecke, Johann Gottfried Herder’s text of 1774, Another Philosophy of History for the Education of Mankind: One among Many Contributions of the Century, represents at once a work holding ‘an almost visionary power’ and ‘the most successful synthesis of historical thought [Herder] ever achieved’.[i] Frederick C. Beiser, in his landmark outline The German Historicist Tradition (2011), remarks how Another Philosophy of History has been termed ‘with some justification’, by Rudolf Stadelmann (and other scholars concur), ‘the grand foundational work of historicism’. Historicism, which Beiser reconstructively surveys from Johann Martin Chladenius to Max Weber, is defined in Beiser’s account as an intellectual tradition with a specific agenda: ‘to legitimate history as a science’.[ii]

If Beiser’s chapter on Herder wishes to present him as effecting a transition from eighteenth-century to nineteenth-century ways of thinking about the writing of history, the transition arguably manifests as a somewhat odd one: one that moves forward in order to look back. Introducing Another Philosophy of History, Beiser states that ‘the historicist tradition grew out of a reaction against Enlightenment historiography; and Herder’s tract is the first and most powerful statement of that reaction’. Or again, as ‘the most effective and influential critic of the historiography of the Aufklärung’, Herder is seen ‘anticipating the criticisms of that historiography so prevalent in the nineteenth century’. Yet Beiser also endorses Hans-Georg Gadamer’s correction of what he calls ‘the anachronistic attempt to see Herder through the lens of nineteenth-century historicism’ made by Meinecke. For Beiser judges that Gadamer was right to argue against Meinecke that (as Beiser puts it) ‘Herder’s theology should not be dismissed by secular modern standards’. Meinecke’s complaint that there is ‘still too much transcendence’ in Herder’s philosophy of history obscured – Beiser feels – ‘the importance theology had for Herder’, and simply ‘measured him by the more secular standards of the nineteenth century’.[iii] So, in Beiser’s account Herder’s thinking anticipates nineteenth-century historicism yet clings to eighteenth-century religion. The importance of the historicism originated in Another Philosophy of History, I want to stress here, was that it involved a criticism of Enlightenment historiography which enabled the development of a theological view of history based on the assertion of meaning, and moreover one allied to an enlightened Christianity.   

The young Herder was influenced by the historical school of Biblical interpretation that had developed in Germany around the middle of the eighteenth-century. The critical work of these Aufklärer theologians, such as Johann David Michaelis, sought to historicize – to restore – the original message and context of the Bible, so as to refuse the later dogmatic overlays that can conceal its moral content. Yet Herder’s internalization of the philosophical approach of the historical school of criticism came to clash with his religious faith, resulting, during the later years of his time as a cleric in Riga (1767-69), in what Beiser describes as ‘a profound spiritual crisis arising from the tension between his religious office and philosophical views’. Herder’s resignation from his Riga post and subsequent sea voyage to France offered no solution to the tension, and Beiser argues that Another Philosophy of History, Herder’s ‘first major historical work’, is ‘best seen as an attempt to solve this crisis’.[iv]

Another Philosophy of History is identifiable as a product of the long-term tension between Herder’s involvement with Aufklärer historical criticism and his religious belief in revelation in particular. For theologians such as Michaelis to affirm that ‘the original message of the Bible was its plain, historical sense’ – as Beiser puts it – had already been seen by Herder’s mentor Johann Georg Hamann (‘the Magus of the North’) as threatening to deny the metaphysical truth of the Bible. ‘Fearing that historical criticism would undermine faith in revelation, the Magus went on his “philological crusade” against Michaelis in Aesthetica in Nuce [1762].’ In his 1768 sermon ‘On the Divinity and Usage of the Bible’, Herder would offer quite a cunning, if superficial, solution to the problem of how to affirm revelation whilst holding to the principles of the new historical criticism. For in the sermon Herder asserted what Beiser calls ‘the historical relativity of revelation’. By noting that the Bible presents the ancient Jews as being in one particular sense proto-Christians, in that it shows that they too (already) experienced God’s revelation of himself, Herder argued that the Bible ‘has to be interpreted as an historical document’ (in Beiser’s words) precisely because it shows revelation itself to be historically relative, with its precise meaning variable dependent on ‘when and who receives it’ (Beiser).[v]

As Beiser’s account suggests, Herder found a more genuine way of preserving faith in revelation than by simply asserting its historical relativity during his years of provincial seclusion in Bückeburg (1771-76), when, whilst working as a largely unwanted chief preacher and advisor to Count Wilhelm zu Schaumberg-Lippe, Herder evolved a ‘new attitude toward religion’. His ‘renewed spiritual self-awareness’ in Bückeburg found him ‘reaffirming the value of revelation’ – a reaffirmation which would itself become what Beiser goes on to term ‘the source and soul of Herder’s new “mysticism”’. For this was a mysticism (or theology) which derived not so much from any set religious experience, as from Herder’s intensive studies of Genesis and his fascination with his insight that the text was structured with ‘a peculiar symmetry which could be represented in the form of a sextogram with a point in the middle’ (Beiser). Whilst working on the manuscript of his Archaeology, Herder became convinced that this sextogram was actually a ‘hieroglyph’ which symbolized the structure of the Creation. Reading what Beiser calls ‘magical meaning’ into his sextogram-hieroglyph, Herder came to think of it as symbolizing the language of God – the Creation representing the symbols with which God speaks to man – and the first revelation of God.[vi] Crucially then, at this time Herder was developing a theology or mysticism through his assertion of meaning relating to the hieroglyph he found in Genesis. His idea of the revelational meaning of the hieroglyph was a direct inheritance from what Beiser identifies as Hamann’s ‘own version of the belief in revelation: [that] the Bible is a translation of the divine word into the human through the inspiration of the poet’.[vii]

As a product of his Bückeburg years, the historicism formulated in Another Philosophy of History was ‘the direct result of Herder’s new attitude toward religion and his reaction against the Aufklärung’. Here he develops not a theology, but instead a theological view of history based on the assertion of meaning. Beiser diagnoses a ‘dilemma of scepticism or complacency’ which arose from the two dominant Enlightenment views of historical meaning: ‘the sceptical view that history is meaningless and the optimistic view that the meaning of history is found in the present age’. Herder’s theological view of history based on the assertion of meaning represented his solution to the dilemma, which was in fact ‘a theodicy: that the meaning of history comes from providence whose ends are not accessible to reason’.[viii] Hence in Another Philosophy of History Herder writes of how providence supplies historical meaning which cannot be determined or discerned by human reason: ‘Everything is grand destiny, not reflected over, not hoped for, not caused by human beings.’ This argument that God has ‘a greater overall plan than what an individual creature is able to comprehend’, is supported by Herder’s contrast of the human individual’s goal(s) to what he calls the ‘complete sequence’ of historical processes. The ‘theodicy’ is true because ‘nothing ever leads towards anything merely individual’, and because

‘[…] all the scenes, in which every single actor has only that part to play which allows him to strive and be happy, all scenes together make a whole, a major presentation of which the individual, self-centered actor cannot know or see anything, but which the spectator with the right perspective, in calm anticipation of the complete sequence, can indeed see.’[ix]  

Echoing Herder’s dramatic allusion in this passage, Isaiah Berlin suggestively explained Herder’s idea of historical meaning – of the ‘ends’ and ‘values’ of historical processes – through a symphonic analogy. This analogy enabled Berlin to emphasize that Herder’s ‘spectator’ can only be the Spectator, and is certainly not Hegel’s perfected ‘world spirit’ (which begins to appear like a mere projection of an hubristic human individual). But Berlin’s musical analogy also allows him to see that Herder’s stress on the limits of the reason of an ‘individual, self-centered actor’, did not prevent him from valuing particularity per se:

‘[…] he speaks as if history were indeed a drama, but one without a dénouement: as if it were like a cosmic symphony of which each movement is significant in itself, and of which, in any case, we cannot hear the whole, for God alone does so. The later movements are not necessarily closer to, or a prefiguring of, some ultimate goal, and, therefore, superior to the earlier movements. Life is not a jigsaw puzzle of which the fragments must fit into some single pattern in terms of which alone they are all intelligible, […] – the world spirit come to full self-consciousness of itself, in Hegel’s famous image. Herder believes in the development of each movement of the symphony (each act of the drama) in terms of its own ends, its own values, which are none the worse or less morally valuable because they will pass or be destroyed and be succeeded by others.’[x]     

It seems to me that the works of Joseph Haydn or Antonín Dvořák are perhaps particularly well placed to illustrate Berlin’s analogy. Their works’ extreme inventiveness and use of surprise would match Herder’s foregrounding of the flux of autonomous ‘ends’ and ‘values’ through which, Berlin suggests, each stage of the historical symphony structures itself. Referring to Herder’s later Ideas for a Philosophy of History (1784-91), Berlin noted how ‘he repeats throughout the Ideen that originality – freedom of choice and creation – is the divine element in man.’[xi] Further, Dvořák’s and Haydn’s extraordinary achievements despite their underprivileged backgrounds can be said to model the sort of radical democracy suggested by the autonomous meaning (‘each movement is significant in itself’) of Herder’s historical periods, or ‘scenes, in which every single actor has only that part to play which allows him to strive and be happy’.

Beiser pointed to the shift in Herder’s thinking occasioned by the appearance of G. E. Lessing’s Wolfenbüttler Fragmente in the 1770s, which included his anonymous publication of H. S. Reimarus’s notorious critique of orthodox Christianity questioning the reliability of historical revelation. Reimarus’s stressing of how revelation, as Beiser puts it, ‘rests on historical testimony about the remote past, which weakens proportionally to the distance from its source’, prompted Lessing to call for a rational discussion of religion, which triggered the Fragmentenstreit controversy across Germany and in turn a ‘new rationalist temper’ of Herder’s thought.[xii] Beiser, however, underlines that the new rationalism of  Herder’s 1780-81 Briefe, das Studium der Theologie betreffend [Letters Concerning the Study of Theology] is not as radical as Lessing’s rationalism. Lessing, as Beiser observes, had argued that ‘history is never a sufficient proof for the eternal and necessary truths of reason, which are the basis of all true religion’. For Lessing, there was in fact an opposition between reason and what Beiser terms ‘historical faith’ (or the religious faith afforded by historical textual evidence), when historical beliefs tend to fail to measure up to rational examination. Herder, by contrast, upholds historical faith in his Letters Concerning the Study of Theology, because for him (as Beiser phrases it) ‘faith ultimately has to be based on history’ or Biblical testimony. Though reason indeed ‘eventually becomes independent of revelation, it never has the power by itself to discover or justify the essential truths of religion’. Moreover, if reason ‘eventually acquires the power to leave experience and to develop abstractions of its own’, nonetheless – Herder maintains – ‘abstraction has no laws over history; no history in the world rests on abstractions, grounds a priori ’.[xiii] Thus still in the 1780s, for Herder religious faith was supported by the historicism – by the emphasis on history and historical meaning – that he developed in Another Philosophy of History. Also inherited from that text, and despite the influence of the Fragmentenstreit and his new rationalism, was Herder’s underlining of the limitations of human reason vis-à-vis historical process: ‘abstraction has no laws over history’.

It remains to be stressed that, consonant with the way in which the theological view of history developed by Herder in Another Philosophy of History is based on an assertion of meaning, the Christianity behind this theological view was intended to be an enlightened Christianity. To Rudolf Haym’s comment that Another Philosophy of History is distinguished by ‘pious faith, belief in revelation’, Beiser adds the caveat that ‘it is important to see’ that Herder’s 1774 text ‘was no orthodox defence of traditional Christianity’. Beiser takes post-Fragmentenstreit letters of Herder’s such as the letter of July 1779 to J. K. Lavater, in which Herder labels the arguments of the orthodox ‘crude and dumb’, as evidence that the newly rationalist Herder ‘wanted to be one of Lessing’s enlightened Christians’. But Beiser’s next remark – that ‘that meant he [Herder] would now have to re-enter the arena of rational argument and discussion – the very arena he had shunned and scorned in Bückeburg’ – should not mislead us into thinking that enlightened Christianity was absent from the Bückeburg-period Another Philosophy of History.[xiv] For, as Beiser himself notes, that text already shows many features aligned to enlightened Christianity. In Another Philosophy of History Herder does not assume the supernatural, or the existence of miracles and prophecy; nor does he give evidence of faith in the incarnation and trinity. Further, Beiser adds, ‘nowhere is Herder’s reluctance to introduce orthodox Christianity more apparent than in his account of early Christianity, which he understands essentially as a moral religion, even as a “philanthropic deism”’.[xv]

Herder presents ‘the bare, new Christian religion’ which came to prominence despite the efforts of the emperor Julian as a universal ‘actual religion of all mankind, an impulse towards love’. As a religion Christianity, in Herder’s account, was ‘the first (whatever those who professed it may later have made of it) to teach such pure spiritual truth and such heartfelt duties; to dispense so fully with superficiality and superstition, with frills and coercion’. Original Christianity embodied ‘the most honourable moral philosophy, the purest theory of truths and duties, independent of all legislation and petty local constitutions’. Interestingly, Herder’s description of early Christianity here resembles Berlin’s characterization of German Pietism, with its ‘belief in the unadorned truth’ and ‘contempt for outward forms’. It was the influence of the ‘stern atmosphere’ of such Pietist spirituality, for Berlin, that in certain respects united the thinking of the ‘East Prussians’ Herder and Kant – who were otherwise, as Berlin acknowledges, very different thinkers. The inwardness and purism of the Pietist impress ensured that Kant and Herder both sought ‘moral independence’ and ‘spiritual self-determination as against half-conscious drifting along the streams of uncriticized dogma (whether theological or scientific)’, Berlin suggested.[xvi] We can hence begin to see how the Pietist quality of the Christianity of Another Philosophy of History, intrinsically relates the theological view of history developed by Herder in the text to central (here, Kantian) principles of Enlightenment. Pietism itself can be understood as enlightened Christianity on account of its programme of spiritual self-determination; we could say that this inward-tending mission of autonomy and definition carried over into Herder’s theological view of history and contributed to its grounding assertion of meaning.     


[i] Meinecke quoted from Ioannis D. Evrigenis and Daniel Pellerin, ‘Introduction’, in Johann Gottfried Herder, Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings, trans. by Ioannis D. Evrigenis and Daniel Pellerin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2004), pp. ix-xxxix (p. xxiv).

[ii] The German Historicist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015; first publ. 2011), pp. 132 (quoting Stadelmann), 6.

[iii] Beiser, pp. 132, 100, 99.

[iv] Beiser, pp. 110, 128-29, 114.

[v] Beiser, p. 112-13.

[vi] Beiser, p. 129 (quoting Herder); Herder’s Archäologie der Hebräer [Archaeology of the Hebrews] was in fact ‘completed for publication before his departure [from Riga] in 1769’, according to S. Mark Lewis, Modes of Historical Discourse in J. G. Herder and N. M. Karamzin (New York: Lang, 1995), p. 35.

[vii] Beiser, p. 113.

[viii] Beiser, p. 131.

[ix] Herder, pp. 47, 72.

[x] Isaiah Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, ed. by Henry Hardy, 2nd edn (London: Pimlico, 2013; first publ. 2000), pp. 269-70.

[xi] Berlin, p. 251.

[xii] Beiser, pp. 143-44.

[xiii] Beiser, p. 145-46.

[xiv] Beiser, pp. 139 (quoting Haym), 144 (quoting Herder).

[xv] Beiser, p. 139 (presumably it is the German words for ‘philanthropic deism’ which are translated as ‘the deism with the greatest love for man’ in Herder, p. 36).

[xvi] Herder, p. 36; Berlin, pp. 216, 217. 


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