Monday, October 30, 2006

Another Scholar's Take on Herder

Here Georg Iggers gets at what I find troubling in Herder, in a much clearer way than I can:

"Basic to Herder's position are two concepts which remain fundamental to the entire affirmative tradition of German historicism with which we are dealing. The first of these concepts involves the idea of individuality. Herder, in contrast to natural law philosophy assumes that all values and all cognitions are historic and individual. 'In a certain sense, every human perfection is national, secular, and most closely considered, individual.' History, he insists, is constant movement. Nevertheless, within the flux of history, there are certain centers with at least relative stability: the nations. They possess a morphology; they are alive; they grow. They are not rational in character, but dynamic and vital; things in themselves, not means. It is the historian's task to understand them. Nations have the characteristic of persons: they have a spirit and they have a life span. They are not a collection of individuals, but are organisms."
-The German Conception of History, p. 35.

In denying natural law, Herder makes nations into monads (and he actually cites Leibniz on this), answerable only to themselves. We cannot judge the Italians by any objective standard because we're not Italians, for example. Iggers notes that Herder eventually backed down from this position, and it's no wonder. But, you can see the impact of his argument on the storm and stress school of German writers, especially Goethe. And, as I've said, I think Hegel puts the same idea (which isn't a lot different from Christian Providence ideas itself) in different words.

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