27 May, 2006

J. G. Herder on mankind

A comment to Tuesday's post on language mentioned the name Herder, though readers will be forgiven if they blinked and missed it. This is Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), scholar, philosopher, student of Hamann, and all-round polymath, identified by Lewis Beck as the chief source of naturalism, historicism, nationalism, monism and mysticism among German intellectuals at the end of the century. Herder made possible the Jena Romantic movement, as well as the theories of Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, G. W. F. Hegel, and therefore Marx and all the rest. In other words, Herder is one of the towering figures of intellectual history, though today largely forgotten (at least in the English-speaking world) by non-specialists.

The mention of his name was a small coincidence, for I've been reading his masterpiece, the Ideen für Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784), rendered in a succulent proto-Ruskinian English by T. Churchill as Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (1800). The work is, quite simply, astonishing. Herder's subject—the study and philosophy of Man, being the closest thing to anthropology for a good hundred years to come—and his idiom derive from the thinkers of the French Enlightenment, primarily Condillac and Rousseau. A separate treatise, On the Origin of Speech (1774), has much in common with Rousseau's Essai sur l'Origine des Langues (c. 1760), and (in context, but not in conclusion) with the remarks on language in Condillac's Essai sur l'Origine des Connaissances Humaines (1746). Man's essential characteristic is Reason, which overcomes base animal instincts, and his highest attainment is intellectual freedom. Reason is revealed primarily through language, which is conventional rather than natural, and which separates us from the animals (this a subject of considerable debate, following Edward Tyson's 1699 discovery of the apparent biological capacity for speech in orang-utans). The origin of language is expressive passion, and thus verbs, which are violent and active, are older than nouns. Speech is valued above writing as more natural. Different climates engender different kinds of men, and thus of language: warmer southern regions produce effeminate men with languorous vowels (Spanish, Italian), whereas northern climes produce warlike men with thick consonants (German, Russian). Mankind is naturally social, and his most appropriate state is the small, well-organized nation. The first human settlements were on hills, later in rivered valleys (this specifically from Plato's Laws, Book III). All these things had been said before Herder; but he was largely responsible for introducing them to Germany.

More interestingly, we see here the early seeds of Romanticism. Although Reason is the quintessence of man, it is not inborn, but must be learnt. Reason gives us humanity, of which the highest manifestation is not science but religion, a religion of man, and of the interior soul. But while man is the greatest thing on the earth, at the same time he pales in comparison to the great fecundity and sublime power of Nature, about which Herder dissolves in continual rapture. At one point the author scorns the hubris of the human creature, little more than a plant in his mechanical cycle of nourishment and decay.

Curious also is the resurgence, in modified form, of various elements of the mediaeval world-picture. Before the general acceptance of Copernican heliocentrism, there had been a pleasurably neat conception of man at the geometric centre of a universe consisting of concentric spheres, with hell below, and heaven above. This physical position reflects symbolically a moral centrality—man is the most important thing in creation, right at the centre; he is farthest from God, beyond the empyrean at the greatest sphere, but also has the capacity to ascend or descend, based on his ethical decisions. Such a view was expressed even as late as Pico's Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), fifty odd years before Copernicus' discovery. One might think that Herder, living long after the general acceptance of a Copernican-Newtonian universe, would be hard pressed to peddle a similar line. Not at all; he only relocates the Great Chain to the planets of the Solar System, stretched out in a hierarchy from the sun. Man lives on a planet midway between the sun, to which all souls strive, and the outer peripheries of the galaxy—he is still symbolically at the centre.

Furthermore, Herder revives the mediaeval teleological view of history, formerly propounded by St. Augustine and Otto of Freising. The sweep of human history, he says, has a purpose (though not one set out by a transcendent deity); everything happens for a greater reason, as mankind slowly tends towards the highest state of perfection. Just as Augustine had justified the barbarian invasions by suggesting (correctly) that they would be responsible for the general spread of Christianity, so Herder traces the 'evolution' of life from the simplest forms to man, and from man's most savage beginnings in Asia to the Renaissance. I parenthesise 'evolution', because what Herder really describes is a succession of superior forms, rather than an evolutionary process as it would be later understood. One of the highlights of the work is a fantastic description of biological 'evolution' in terms of the mouth and digestive system, which recede from the totality of the organism to a small element as the forms develop:
The first mark, that distinguishes an animal to our eyes, is the mouth. Still a plant is, if I may so express myself, all mouth: it sucks with roots, leaves, and pores: like an infant it lies in the lap of it's [sic—the regular orthography in this translation] mother, and at her breast.

. . . The many stomachs of inferiour creatures are united to one in [man], and in some other animals, which internally approach his form; and his mouth is rendered divine by the faculty of speech, the purest gift of the deity.
The result of this picture is a view of human cultures which become progressively more sophisticated as they attain a greater use of reason. By today's standards, this might sound like a blueprint for Volkish racism—but Herder was remarkably moderate. One of his important innovations was a methodical insistence on the importance of climate on shaping character; he concludes, for instance, that the African remains barbaric not from any inherent racial flaw, but merely because his physical environment prevents him from evolving. Herder constantly lambasts his contemporaries who deride non-Western cultures as inferior, not only reminding them of the notable artistic and religious achievements of those cultures, but also mocking the common man for sharing greedily in the achievements of his great forebears—not every Englishman a Newton.

This leads to Herder's single most significant thesis—that a given culture cannot be understood as a lesser form of another, but only on its own terms; all men conceive according to what they already know. Likewise, each culture is revealed through its language and art, which is unique to that one culture, and definitive of it. This idea was enormously influential, begetting the epochal historicisms of Hegel and Marx. Herder specifically anticipates Hegel's Philosophy of Fine Art in his discussion of the relative aesthetics of Ancient India, Egypt and Greece; but he always remains readable, never delving into the oceans of abstraction favoured by his more famous successor.


Herder's Outline, in conclusion, is a monumental achievement, although left unfinished. In 600 pages he covers a gigantic amount of material, including astronomy, geology, biology, and the social sciences of his day, and synthesises from these a theoretical view of culture, psychology and history—everything for a reason, just the way I like it. (Which is not to say that I agree with any of his ideas. There is some notion today that if a man's ideas are wrong, they are uninteresting; I could never agree with this. The Bible fascinates me, yet I could hardly be more of an atheist. I've never read a more brilliant thinker than Plato, yet I can't think of a single Platonic idea that I share.) The Outline is neither just data, nor mere abstract metaphysics, but a wealth of detail keystoning a grand philosophical vision. It even possesses, at least in the English, a singularly beautiful prose.

I leave my readers with this, a small contribution to Project Gutenberg—a passage from the Outline purporting to synthesise (from David Cranz's History of Greenland) a catechism between a European and a Greenland Inuit, supposedly demonstrating one culture's inability to understand the concepts and questions of another. I'm not sure it does any such thing; but it makes an absorbing read, nonetheless. Incidentally, this material (either in Cranz or in Herder>) inspired Coleridge's 'The Destiny of Nations' (1796), online here.

Question. Who created Heaven and Earth, and every thing that you see?

Answer. That we cannot tell. We do not know the man. He must have been a very mighty man. Or else these things always were, and will always remain so.

Q. Have you a soul?

A. O yes. It can increase and decrease: our angekoks [shamans] can mend and repair it: when a man has lost his soul, they can bring it back again: and they change a sick soul for a fresh sound one from a hare, a rein-deer, a bird, or a young child. When we go a long journey, our soul often stays at home. At night, when we are asleep, it wanders out of the body: it goes a hunting, dancing, or visiting, while the body lies still.

Q. What becomes of it after death?

A. Then it goes to the happy place at the bottom of the sea. Torngarsuck and his mother live there. There it is always summer, bright sunshine, and no night: and there, too, is good water, with plenty of birds, fishes, seals, and rein-deer, all of which may be caught without any trouble, or taken out of a great kettle ready boiled.

Q. And do all men go thither?

A. No: only good people, who were useful workmen, have done great actions, caught many whales and seals, endured much, or been drowned at sea, died in the birth, &c.

Q. How do these get thither?

A. Not easily. They must spend five days or more in scrambling down a bare rock, which is already covered with blood.

Q. But do you not see those beautiful heavenly bodies? Are not they more probably the place of our future abode?

A. It is there, too, in the highest Heaven, far above the rainbow; and the journey thither is so quick and easy, that the soul can repose the same evening in his house in the moon, which was once a greenlander, and dance and play at bowls with the other souls. Those northern lights are the souls playing at bowls and dancing.

Q. And what do they there besides?

A. They live in tents, by a vast lake, in which are multitudes of fishes and birds. When this lake overflows, it rains upon Earth; if the banks were to break down, it would cause an universal deluge.—But in general only the vile and worthless go to Heaven; the diligent go to the bottom of the sea. Those souls must often suffer hunger, are lean and feeble, and can have no rest for the quick turning round of the sky. Bad people and sorcerers go thither: they are tormented by ravens, which they cannot keep out of their hair, &c.

Q. What do you believe was the origin of mankind?

A. The first man, Kallak, came out of the earth, and his wife soon after came out of his thumb. She bore a greenland woman, and the woman bore Kablunaet, that is, foreigners and dogs: hence both dogs and foreigners are incontinent and prolific.

Q. And will the world endure for ever?

A. Once already it has been overwhelmed, and every body drowned, except one man. He struck the earth with his staff, a woman came out, and they repeopled the World. It now rests on it's supporters, but they are so rotten with age, that they often crack; so that it would long ago have fallen down, if our angekoks were not continually repairing them.

Q. But what think you of those beautiful stars!

A. They were all formerly greenlanders, or beasts, who have travelled up thither on particular occasion, and appear pale or red according to the difference of their food. They that you see there meeting are two women visiting each other: that shooting star is a soul gone on a visit: that great star (the Bear) is a rein-deer: those seven stars are dogs hunting a bear: those (Orion's belt) are men who lost themselves hunting seals, could not find the way home, and so got among the stars. The Sun and Moon are a brother and sister. Malina, the sister, was assaulted by her brother in the dark: she endeavoured to escape by flight, and ascended into the sky, and became the Sun: Anninga pursued her, and became the Moon. The Moon is continually running round the virgin Sun, in hopes to catch her, but in vain. When he is weary and exhausted (in the last quarter) he goes seal hunting, at which he continues some days, and then he returns again as far as we see him in the full Moon. He is glad when women die, and the Sun is pleased at the death of men.


Gawain said...

Thanks, Conrad, what a nice piece.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Quite welcome. Thanks for reading!