Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803)

Key ideas

· Summary

Isaiah Berlin lecture Herder Romantic nationalist

Herder was associated primarily with culturalism. Every nation has its own unique character: Volksgeist - the special spirit of a nation.. He rejected the rational beliefs of liberal forms of nationalism, focusing instead on nations as cultural, organic groups invested with their own unique 'spirit'. Herder suggested that every nation was different, and that each had its own unique character and identity that it should pursue and enhance. Humanity was a single species but had developed different languages, cultures and ways of life because people evolved in different environments. Relations between nations allowed an understanding of other nationalities, and encouraged people to understand what was distinctive about their own nation. Herder rejected imperialism which he saw as imposing on a people a culture which was not theirs. Herder also rejected materialism- there was more to human life than simply seeking riches or pleasure- instead the best was to live was to be true to your own culture- to live by it and to follow it. He did not expect Germans to be backward looking instead their culture should develop according to its particular 'Germanness'.

Herder believed that Volksgeist both reveals itself and is preserved in songs, myths and legends, which provide a nation with its source of creativity and act as inspiration to new forms of. In this view, the role of nationalism is to develop an awareness and appreciation of national traditions and collective memories rather than to provide the basis for an overtly political quest for statehood. In fact Herder was anxious that states should not stifle free and natural individuals. In the 19ht Century nationalism was expressed through cultural revival and this was particularly marked in Germany, where it was reflected in the revival of folk traditions and the rediscovery of German myths and legends. The Brothers Grimm, for example, collected and published German folk tales, and the composer Richard Wagner (1813–83) based many of his operas on ancient myths. Herder placed a particular importance on the capacity of language, which was far more important than political institutions. to foster a people’s historical identity and generate a sense of unity.

Volksgeist: Herder identified the people (Volk) as the root of national culture and special nature (Volksgeist) that each nation should try to express. The Volk could best be understood by studying their history - their language, culture, customs, religion, literature, law and folklore. Herder argued that nation-states are an expression of cultural differences, not the creator of them.

' Patriotism: Herder attached exceptional importance to the concept of nationality: 'He that has lost his patriotic spirit has lost himself and the whole worlds about himself.'