Johann Gottfried von Herder’s Philosophy of “Kultur”

Johann Gottfried von Herder is one of the most important transitionary figures in German philosophy. Perhaps along with Fichte, Herder was actually one of the most influential philosophers after Kant but largely forgotten in the Kant to Hegel canonical study that dominates most philosophical departments and continental surveys. Nonetheless, Herder was instrumental in pioneering the genetic and organic, even holistic, theory of culture and history which would influence the rest of post-Kantian German romanticism and idealism in the nineteenth century.

Born in 1744 in what is now Poland but was then part of the Kingdom of Prussia, Herder became a student at the University of Konigsberg at 17 and studied under Immanuel Kant. However, while at Konigsberg he came under the more direct influence and guidance of Johann von Hamann, the poet-sage “Magus of the North” and became his disciple though never forgetting the teachings of Kant. Herder subsequently became a clergyman and literary critic infusing ideas of teleology, history, and nationalism together in his philosophy of culture.

There are three aspects of Herder’s philosophy of culture that I wish to highlight for us in this essay. First is his notion of organic holism and its roots in language. Second is his anti-imperialism and broader anti-materialism aimed at curbing British dominance of Europe. Third is the implicit cultural relativism entailed in Herder’s ideas and how the culmination of culture is cemented by the state and our unity to the state. Then we shall briefly pivot to understand why Herder sees the movement of culture and history as one and the same, and how this movement of culture and history culminating in the arts, language, and politics of the constitutional state begets the happiness and peace that all humans seek and are governed to actualizing.

The origins of culture, for Herder, is the “family writ large” that is the volk (the people). The volk, with their specific language and bloodline from history, constitute the lifeforce or Lebensgeist (life-spirit) of people. And as people assemble into tribe, community, and eventually nation, language and the organic genealogy of the nation which is constituted in the people pulsates as the life-spirit of the nation. However, peoples who share the same ur-sprache (ur-language) have been driven apart because of geography, superstition, and imperial conquest by alien forces. When a people, a nation, are entirely colonized and conquered—losing their language and ability to trace their genealogy, they become a dead people and a conquered nation. That, for Herder, is bad.

Why, however, are the forces of language and family the basis of the volk and kultur? People only gather together in communities in an organic fashion because only in an organic movement to community is there harmonious understanding and peace. Understanding and peace, according to Herder, is principally tied to language (as the force for understanding) and filial or tribal solidarity and similarity (as the force for peace). People who speak a different language from us therefore have a barrier erected from understanding and people who descend from different lineages and genealogies have a barrier that prevents peaceful coexistence. As people unite under a shared language and heritage this unity developed by people serves as the springboard for energetic creativity which is always reflected in the language arts, creative arts, and filial worship that people engage in. Literature and art, for instance, embody these primeval spirits of language and filial and tribal solidarity: literature is the construct of a specific language and art often depicts the sacred mythology, moments, and history of a specific people.

Herder’s organic holism is irrevocably tied to his romantic nationalism. Herder was a nationalist. But not an imperialist. In fact, Herder was staunch pluralist. All peoples and nations have this ur-sprache genealogy that ought to be safeguarded, nurtured, and grown. Herder sought to defend the diverse plurality of peoples and nations against homogenizing imperialism of the like exemplified, in his mind, by the Latin (Catholic) Church and British imperialism. Herder’s philosophy of culture has an implicit pro-Protestant and anti-Catholic, and anti-British and pro-German, sentiment to it. Protestantism (more specifically Lutheranism) was the proper religion of the German not merely because it was Christian but because it allowed for the linguistic flourishing of the German language in its vernacular translation of the Bible and vernacular liturgy. Additionally, Germany should be for the Germans and not the English (we must remember that in the mid and late eighteenth century when Herder lived much of Germany was under British imperial dominion because the ruling House of Hanover descended from the Germanies and retained control over some of the West German principalities—Hanoverians, Hessians, and Brunswickians all served as British mercenaries, for instance) because British imperialism tore the German people apart and scattered them across the world which destroyed their history, heritage, and identity in the service of the kingdom and nation antithetical to their own.

This brings us to Herder’s anti-imperialism and anti-materialism. For Herder, as with other German thinkers like Hamann and Fichte, the grounding of reality is spirit—for spirit is life. The crudity of the materialists (mostly emanating from Britain and France) destroy the creative genius that spirit brings. Spirit lifts us up to the heavens in the great chain of being, progress, which inspires man to ascend to the stars and meet his Maker face-to-face. Herder pioneers what Fichte later refined in his philosophy: a spiritualist idealism that enchants the world and gives us purpose and meaning while fending against the reductionist materialism implied by the so-called Enlightenment philosophies of Bacon, Hume, and Voltaire. As Herder said of Voltaire, in particular, “Voltaire’s philosophy has spread, but mainly to the detriment of the world.”

Why Herder’s philosophy of organic holism is anti-imperialist should be evident enough. Imperialism destroys the particularity of the volk and erases the language and heritage of people as it swoops in and imposes a new language and identity over others. Additionally, imperialism’s expansionist ideals are universalistic and not particularistic. Anything universal necessarily conflicts with something particular. Moreover, people who are transplanted elsewhere—taken away from their sacred land where language and genealogy is closest to them—makes them deracinated beings susceptible for cultural annihilation.

When people, like German soldiers used by the British imperial war machine for instance, are taken from the Germanies and cast into faraway lands in the Americas, these young men are aliens in the land they find themselves and in the desire for acceptance and peace erase their identities to adopt the identity of the majority they find themselves with. This, however, is something tragic since a German is a German and not an Englishman. No matter how hard he tries he can never escape this reality because he was generated into a world rather than created ex nihilo. Man descends from a long genealogy of circumstances which births him into the world and being at home with that genealogical generation is an essential part of man’s happiness. As such, people who lose connection with their organic past will forever be estranged people.

Therefore, Herder argues, people should dwell in the richness of their particular heritage, history, and identity. They should contribute to the ever-evolving progress of their culture and creative spirit. And they should respect the heritage, history, and identity of other people. However, Herder also cautions against becoming infatuated with the culture of others. Herder asserts that we should recognize the cultural creativity and uniqueness of all people while remaining steadfastly committed to the cultural creativity and uniqueness of our own people, “The moment that men start dwelling in the wishful dreams of foreign lands from whence they seek hope and salvation they reveal the first symptoms of disease, of flatulence, of unhealthy opulence approaching death.” To mix cultures brings only destruction because it ruins the original organic unity that serves as the life spirit and creative genius of all particular peoples.

Thus we see Herder’s anti-imperialism in another light. Not only does he rebuff the conquest of foreigners upon natives, he also rebuffs the attempt to import (an alternative form of imperialism we know today as “cultural appropriation”) foreign ideas into the native land. Only those who have become deracinated from their own culture look upon other cultures with that curious spirit of “hope and salvation” which is really a “disease” and “flatulence…approaching death.” In short, a people and nation approaching death because they cut themselves off from their own organic roots become interested in the culture of others and seek to import that culture into their own bringing irreparable harm to everyone involved.

This turns us to the fact that Herder was a cultural relativist. Personally, I dislike the term “relativist” due to the negative connotations that this term now has. I would prefer to use the term particularist to Herder’s cultural theory because, in my opinion, that is what best explains Herder’s outlook. Every culture is particular to the particular people to which it belongs. As such, each culture inevitably produces its own particular art style, literature, and religious beliefs that are best suited for them. There is nothing wrong with this Herder also informs us.

A German should embrace his culture. An Englishman should embrace his culture. A Frenchman should embrace his culture. The Chinese should embrace their culture and the Japanese their culture, etc. The problem of the Enlightenment is its universalism which necessarily entails imperialism. Thus it is no surprise that the Enlightenment theorists all defend and promote imperialist projects. The fact that Germany was not imperialist, for Herder, was evidence for its goodness. Here we should stress that Herder never sought a Germany that would be would “mistress of the world” or steward of the world. Herder simply sought a Germany for the Germans and believed the petty differences of history and prior conquest which had carved up the Germanies into its many duchies and principalities should be overcome while not losing the particular customs and laws to those cities and principalities. And this, of course, was the path taken by nineteenth century Germany which was united but retained the older kingdoms and duchies and free cities as part of its national constitution.

History, for Herder, was the organic movement and progression of cultural creativity to the formation of national states which embodied the ur-sprache of life and bestowed it to all citizens. According to Herder, History had two possible trajectories: abundance for the few and comfort for the many or happiness for all. Abundance for the few and comfort for the many he believed was the universalist project of the Enlightenment in its materialistic economism which reduced life to a petty struggle for economic well-being and comfort (especially as entailed and embodied in the British liberal tradition of Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke). Happiness for all, Herder, believed, was the path offered by this vision of cultural romanticism, enchantment, and creativity which invited all people to dwell in the particularities of their communities and creative genius contributing to the growth and project of cultural pursuits: art, literature, religion, politics, etc. As Herder said, “Whatever a nation or a race of men wills for its own good with firm conviction, and pursues with energy, nature will assuredly grant.”

This unitive energy that a particular people have will bring them into greater harmony with each other in that energetic pursuit of cultural growth and creativity. Herder believed this was the original purpose of the ur-sprache which brought people together in understanding and solidarity. We unite for a shared purpose, not individualistic purposes. In that shared purpose we find our destiny and meaning in life which unites us with all our ancestors who came before us and ties us to all our posterity that will come after us in a grand waltz of harmonious creativity tying past, present, and future together.

The movement of History, for Herder, is this organic harmony consummated in cultural creativity and dwelling. Readers of Hegel and even Heidegger should be able to see the traces of Herderian thought to both. History has a unitive purpose of moral community and the purpose of cultural dwelling that stands out in Hegel and Heidegger respectively. These ideas are not unique to them but originate in the cultural theory of Herder.

Herder influenced, perhaps paradoxically for many of us today, the romantic nationalist movements of the nineteenth century which did culminate in the horror of two world wars, and the cultural relativist and postmodern movements which praise cultural diversity and relativity. Yet both post-Herder movements rejected Herder’s concrete philosophy. Herder’s romantic nationalism was anti-imperialist whereas nineteenth century romantic nationalism after Herder’s death often became imperialistic. Likewise, Herder’s cultural particularism sought to recognize cultural diversity while refraining from any sort of multiculturalism or cultural appropriation. Herder saw a world of many people united with their own history and heritage happily engaged in cultural creation which would bring them meaning and happiness in this life. He did not see a world where many people would shed their history and heritage and move to all the corners of the earth and, in doing so, destroy the old roots of culture which make life meaningful and purposeful once we dwell in them and contribute to their nurturing and growth.

Lastly, this brings us to a recurring theme of “secularization” or “culturalization” of Christianity in German romanticism and idealism. Herder clearly secularizes the Christian story of divinization and salvation in his cultural philosophy: his is a philosophy of divinization, joy, and life and not decadence, death, and extirpation. (Not to mention his notion of the ur-sprache is a secularized instantiation of Genesis 1 where God spoke the world into being.) Yet Herder’s optimism is constrained by that pessimism we briefly noted earlier—that in the rejection of one’s own rooted culture one embraces the disease of cultural deracination leading to death. As Herder also said, the alternative to his vision of cultural vitality and divinization is abundance for the few and comfort for the many—the “Enlightenment” vision of universal comfort and material “prosperity.” Herder obviously sees this parasitic philosophy as decadent and deadly; it is the lifeless corpse feeding on mere food and water until it finally dies in a warm bed with a blanket where all concern and consideration for cultural creativity and dwelling has died and we become mere economic animals concerned with the bases form of living which is no form of living at all. If we could sum up Herder’s philosophy it would be “man does not live by bread alone” but “by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of” Spirit.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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