Herder Publishes His Philosophy of History

Herder’s Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man set the stage for the dialectical thinking of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. This dialectical thinking—a fundamental aspect of nineteenth century German philosophy—would be taken up by Friedrich Engels and emerge as well in the political philosophy of Karl Marx.

Summary of Event

Johann Gottfried Herder’s philosophy of history was a reaction against the eighteenth century European Enlightenment, Enlightenment;Europe which was based upon an ultrarationalist Rationalism worldview. Most accurately represented by Newtonian Newton, Sir Isaac
Newton, Sir Isaac;natural law physics, Enlightenment intellectuals thought that every aspect of the universe was governed by natural laws. [p]Natural law These laws were believed to be universal and unchanging, and through the use of reason humankind could discover and understand their operations. In turn, this knowledge could be used to improve the quality of life by creating social structures that were compatible with these universal truths. [kw]Herder Publishes His Philosophy of History (1784-1791)
[kw]History, Herder Publishes His Philosophy of (1784-1791)
[kw]Philosophy of History, Herder Publishes His (1784-1791)
[kw]Publishes His Philosophy of History, Herder (1784-1791)
History;philosophy of
Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (Herder)
[g]Germany;1784-1791: Herder Publishes His Philosophy of History[2540]
[c]Philosophy;1784-1791: Herder Publishes His Philosophy of History[2540]
[c]Historiography;1784-1791: Herder Publishes His Philosophy of History[2540]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1784-1791: Herder Publishes His Philosophy of History[2540]
Herder, Johann Gottfried
Iselin, Isaak
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
Locke, John

Over time, this newfound rationalist optimism was challenged by an alternative philosophical school that rejected what it believed was an overemphasis on reason. Reason;and emotion[emotion]
Emotion;and reason[reason] The Romantics viewed the ultrarationalist approach as severely limiting the scope of humanity. These intellectuals also questioned the ability of Enlightenment philosophers to create a structure solely based upon reason that would bring peace and stability to the human community.

Herder’s Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784-1791; Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (Herder) 1800) is an important example of the Romantic Romanticism;and reason[reason] movement’s rejection of the concept of a totally rational, scientific civilization. Epistemology;and Romanticism[Romanticism] Romantics believed the Enlightenment limited not only the definition of what it meant to be human but also the parameters of human creativity. They disagreed with the empiricism of John Locke, which stated that people came into the world a blank slate, or tabula rasa, Tabula rasa and were then molded by the impact of experience. Romantics believed that human beings were far more complicated and spiritual than the tabula rasa image described by many Enlightenment intellectuals. Romantics also emphasized the importance of the individual, stressing the significance of inherited cultural characteristics in the development of a particular personality.

Herder saw in the Enlightenment the emergence of a secular Secularism;and the Enlightenment[Enlightenment] orthodoxy whose followers believed that they had discovered the pathway to universal truth. These European intellectuals attempted to create a modern utopia based upon conformance to natural law. Instead of focusing on the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments, Enlightenment orthodoxy directed people to follow universal scientific and secular truth. Herder considered this new worldview as a reflection of humankind’s first sin, that of pride. He believed the rationalist philosophers had discovered a scientific tree of knowledge in the workings of the market economy, in Newtonian physics, and in the philosophy of history. Herder feared that human reason unrestrained by traditional religion, Religion;criticism of in fact hostile to Judeo-Christian theology, would in the end become as authoritarian as the cultural structures it wanted to replace.

Voltaire best describes the Enlightenment view of history in his work Philosophie de l’histoire (1765; Philosophy of History, Philosophy of History (Voltaire) 1965). Enlightenment historians believed history should be very skeptical of long-accepted beliefs, especially those concerning the history of Christianity. Voltaire perceived most of these cultural traditions as nothing more than a support system for the superstitious and autocratic actions of organized religion. He wanted to use history as an intellectual scalpel to expose and discredit what he believed to be a corrupt and domineering institution that was preventing European society from realizing true progress and freedom. Voltaire also used the platform of history to attack the period of Christian ascendancy known as the Middle Ages. He popularized the term “medieval” and used it as a derogatory description of the period between the greatness of the Classical era and the “rebirth of learning” of the European Renaissance. Voltaire and his contemporaries emphasized the idea that the Middle Ages was an intellectually stagnant period dominated by the superstitious, dominating power of the Church of Rome.

This idea was extended by the Swiss historian Isaak Iselin in his work Philosophical Conjectures on the History of Mankind
Philosophical Conjectures on the History of Mankind (Iselin) (1764). Iselin described human history as an inevitable drive toward progress. Progress;concept of
History;and progress That history showed the most powerful civilizations, from Mesopotamia and Egypt to Greece and Rome, had been based upon the pursuit of scientific knowledge and the acquisition of political power. He believed that all truly great civilizations constructed a rational cause-and-effect view of nature, and that the Enlightenment was the next great extension of human development.

It was to challenge this worldview that Johann Gottfried Herder began to develop his philosophy of history. He believed historical investigation should reflect the spiritual, psychological, geographical, and cultural side of the human condition. This focus on the impact of cultural history on the evolution of society would form the basis of the Romantic belief in the importance of the nation-state to human history. Historians and philosophers such as Herder thought that people developed their basic worldview and sense of who they are from their national identity. This connection between the nation and its culture formed the intellectual foundation for Herder’s concept of the Volk or people, which would eventually evolve into the German idea of Volksgeist, Volksgeist (group consciousness) or the cultural consciousness of a particular ethnic group. According to Herder, cultural history and the national traditions it fostered were the adhesive that held a society together.

Herder believed that to understand the history of a people, the scholar must investigate all the forces that had affected their development, starting with geography Geography;and historical understanding[historical understanding] and climate. Differences in geographic setting, whether it be maritime, steppe, or a mountainous location, determined a civilization’s yearly cycle of activity, its economic focus, and its relationship to other states. Landlocked countries would be oriented toward an agricultural perspective, and their historical experience would reflect the impact of the cycle of the seasons on their economic well-being and a more isolationist cultural worldview. Conversely, nations that were located near large bodies of water would have an economic and political history influenced by trade and a cultural history that was more open to diversity.

All of these factors combined to create a unique historical culture that was represented and understood in a nation’s material art, folktales, and literature as well as its religious beliefs and philosophical models. According to Herder’s Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, cultures are not stagnant but evolve with the changing circumstances of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and historical experience. As a historian, Herder was also the first to suggest that the traditional political Politics;and history[history] and military Military;history of focus of history was counterproductive. He believed that the glorification of both political intrigue and the relentless quest for domination ultimately did nothing to promote the ethical evolution of a society.

The investigation of the world’s great cultures and intellectual diversity would create, according to Herder, a societal model that would emphasize the protection of the freedoms of thought and speech. He also believed that because many different civilizations had developed their own unique and sophisticated moral systems, a strong argument could be made for widespread religious freedom. Herder thought that intellectual and religious freedom were a moral right because they fostered intellectual growth. He, like all Romantics, feared anyone who believed he or she had found universal and unchanging truth. His Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man firmly supported the idea that it was only through the struggle or dialectic Dialectical philosophy of opposing viewpoints that the continued evolution toward truth would occur. He believed it was this continued intellectual growth that was the true definition of progress.


Herder’s Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man and his emphasis on the importance of the continuing struggle between opposing points of view and its connection to human progress set the stage for the philosophical work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegelian philosophy His philosophy was based upon the idea that every stage in the evolution of mind incorporated a useful aspect and a false aspect. As each stage was overcome, the false aspect was left behind, and the useful aspect was preserved in an evolution toward the truth.

Friedrich Engels also developed a dialectical philosophy. In his version, every theory (thesis) gave rise to an opposite concept (antithesis), and the intellectual struggle between opposites that ensued ended in the combination of the best of both theories (synthesis). The continuous intellectual and evolutionary struggle, taking different forms in Hegel and Engels, was a model of progress central to nineteenth century German thought. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx would use the Hegelian dialectic as his model for the inevitability of communism.

Herder’s historical worldview also set the stage for the onset of the most powerful intellectual, cultural, and political force in modern history: nationalism. Nationalism;idea of His theory that every cultural group had a unique past that deserved recognition and respect would form the foundation of the modern political right of self-determination. Every ethnic group had the right to form an independent political structure that would guarantee and protect its cultural worldview.

Further Reading

  • Adler, Hans, and Ernest A. Menze. On World History: Johann Gottfried Herder. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. This book is the most respected work on Herder’s philosophy of history. Index.
  • Evrigenis, Ioannis, and Daniel Pellerin. Johann Gottfried Herder: Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 2004. This book allows the reader to investigate how Herder’s political philosophy influenced his philosophy of history. Index.
  • Forster, Michael. Johann Gottfried Von Herder: Philosophical Writings. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. This book is an excellent overview of Herder’s philosophical thought. Index.

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