Johann Gottfried Herder: biography of this German philosopher

Johann Gottfried von Herder was a very important figure in German Romanticism, although he did not experience it fully. His particular philosophy was a precursor of the Sturm 1 Drang movement, which in turn was a precursor of the Romantic movement.

Unlike the Enlightenment, he believed that there were differences between people and that each nation had its own spirit, its own Volkgeist. In addition, he longed for the Middle Ages, seeing it as the origin of the peoples of Europe.

This intellectual had contacts with great figures of his time, such as Kant and Diderot, moreover who notoriously influenced Goethe. In this biography of Johann Gottfried Harder we will see more about his life, That of a thinker who, in addition to his way of thinking, his exaltation of individualism and of the nation, made him a reference for romantics.

    Brief biography of Johann Gottfried Harder

    Johann Gottfried von Herder was a German critic, theologian and philosopher whose work is considered a forerunner of literary romanticism in Germany.. His work strengthened the nationalist spirit to uphold the cultural traits and personality of the Germanic people, ideas which deepened writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a disciple of Harder and a key figure in German nationalism and romanticism.

    Herder felt that understanding the context was essential to understanding the artwork and culture of each country, as well as the need to make an in-depth study of the history of this nation, including the changes and socio-cultural processes that have led people to behave the way they do. To understand the present and predict what the future will look like, one must first understand the facts of the past.

    With this in mind, it is not surprising that Johann Gottfried von Herder addressed questions such as the history of man from ancient civilizations, the origin of the language, the influence of religious rites and their doctrines. Moreover, contrary to the majority opinion of many thinkers of his time, centered on the Middle Ages seeing it as a time not as dark as the Enlightenment wanted to portray it, Be at the origin of European peoples as they are today.

    first years

    Johann Gottfried Herder was born on August 25, 1744 in Mohrungen (now Morąg, Poland), then in East Prussia. His parents were Gottfried Herder and Anna Elizabeth Peltz who provided their six children with a strongly religious but low income home education. Young Johann learned by consulting his father’s Bible and in his early years learned what his parents could teach him within his means..

    Fortunately, he was able to attend the local school, although he often received grants to continue his education. At the age of 16, he obtained free accommodation with Vicar Sebastian Trescho in exchange for help working as a copyist. Being in the house of religious, he had the opportunity to consult his vast library, where he was able to learn in a self-taught way many theological questions and various cultural aspects.

    University education

    At first, Herder had to be a doctor, even though he didn’t have the money to pay for studies.. Surgeon JC Schwarz-Erla, who had visited the village of Herder in the company of a military regiment, offered to pay for his medical studies at Köningsberg University, and even registered for the title. Over time, however, he discovered that this was not his calling and preferred to study theology.

    In 1762, at the age of 17, he began his studies at the University of Köningsberg. the was the pupil of Emmanuel Kant already well known, considered as the founder of critical philosophy. Kant was a great reference for Herder, and makes it a work devoted to his figure, although he would later show some disagreement with his philosophy.

    It would also be around this time that Johann Gottfried Herder would become a protégé of Johann Georg Hamann., A philosopher from Köningsberg. With him, the young Herder would share the rejection of the enlightened rationalism that prevailed at the time.

    first works

    In 1764, Johann Gottfried Herder moved to the Latvian city of Riga, then part of the Russian Empire.. There he would be ordained a Protestant pastor and would practice both as a teacher and as a preacher. It was at this time that his first works were published, including “Fragmenti über die neuere deutsche Literatur” (Fragments on German Literature, 1765).

    Soon after, the young man sets out on a journey through Europe, being only 20 years old. It would be during this trip that his outlook on life would change, which is reflected in his Journal meiner Reise im Jahr 1769 “(Journal of my trip of 1769). In fact, in this text he makes it very clear that ‘he abandoned the security of his social bubble, so to speak, to embark on a journey into the unknown, to the new, to the outside of the academic.

    He finally arrived in Strasbourg, an important cultural center of the time. In the Franco-German city, he met a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a very important person for the great movement which led to German Romanticism, and also a great reference in consolidating the idea of ​​Germany as a nation. Herder and Goethe would speak on many subjects, and the latter would admit to having received influences from him through his observations on Homer, Shakespeare, Pindar and diverse literature.

    In France, he would also have contacts with Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert and the encyclopedists. He will study the works of Rousseau and will develop one of his most important works, “Kritische Walder. Oder Betrachtungen, die Wissenschaft und Kunst des Schönen betreffend” (critiques of Silvas or reflections on the science and art of beauty, 1769), text considered a direct antecedent of the movement “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Spirit), a literary current which anticipated romanticism by claiming a national conception of art and the justification of individualism and feelings.

    Shortly after, in 1770 he would move to Hamburg, a city in which Gotthold Ephraim Lessing would know. Later it would travel until Darmstadt, where its future wife Maria Karoline Flachsland would know, with who would marry in 1773 and would get to have seven children.

    Precursor of the romantics

    In 1771 moved to Bückeburg, exercising consistorial advisor until 1776 and would publish shortly after his “Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache” (Essay on the origin of the language, 1772), where it emphasizes the natural character and evolutionary language in addition to being the protagonist of any cognitive process. This work will earn him a prize from the Berlin Academy.

    On the recommendation of Goethe, Johann Gottfried Herder was appointed in 1776 general superintendent of the Lutheran Church in Weimar. At the same time he would publish an important test on the philosophy of the spirit, called “On the knowledge and the feeling of the human soul” in 1778.

    Very interested in ancient history and in particular the Middle Ages, he wrote between 1778 and 1779 “Volkslieder nebst untermischten anderen Stücken” (The voices of peoples in songs), a work in which he brings together very important poems from the Bible, Homer , Ossian and other historical figures, as well as poems by him with those of Goethe and Matthias Claudius. They were poems which did not always correspond to the artistic current of the moment, denoting certain classical influences rather than illustrated on Herder.

    Weimar will become his city of residence until his death, being only to stay in Italy precisely between the years when he wrote “The voices of the peoples in songs”. Weimar had become the center of German classicism and thanks to his work as a court preacher and a member of the consistory, Herder had a daily and relatively safe life for the rest of his life, with the exception of “ a few philosophical confrontations and the publication of several other works. .

    The last years and death

    The last few years have been relatively comfortable for them in Weimar but in the philosophical sphere they have had to live in tense situations. His support for revolutionary ideas in France made him hostile to his friends and he began to distance himself from Goethe. It also did not help him criticize the philosophy of Kant, his own mentor, which caused his popularity to drop at the end of his life and ultimately strayed from his social circle.

    But despite these quarrels, his thought, work and philosophy were very important for the time, so much so that in 1802 he was granted the prefix “von” in his surname by the Prince of Bavaria, passing to s’ officially calling Johann Gottfried von Herder and acquiring a notoriously distinguished, noble proper name. He died only a year later, on December 18, 1803 at the age of 59.

      The thought of this philosopher

      Johann Gottfried Herder’s work is a clear reflection of his personality and his intellectuality. It is not limited to talking about or being constant about a single subject, but written with great passion on theology, philosophy, literature, philology, history and its German nation all together, Mixture of several themes. This was used by his critics as a negative point, labeling his works as grammatically and emotionally messy, as if more than academic work was informal speech turned into text.

      The spirit of the people

      Of course, he had a style of writing not very peculiar to an intellectual, but that is not why his works are less important. Their work focused on the rescue of German history and culture, analyzing how they had progressed through history and how historical events influenced the character and current situation of peoples. Many consider Herder to be one of the main precursors of the “Volkgeist” or the spirit of the people, an idea which encompasses the unique characteristics of each nation, and was already present in works prior to “official” German Romanticism, just in the time of this author.

      Present, past and future

      Johann gottfried herder wanting to anticipate how his country could evolve socially, and therefore instead of looking at this, he decided to do it by looking at the past. For this reason, he became interested in knowing and publishing the origin of popular songs from the Middle Ages, a time that many considered dark, but he really saw a lot of light in it. It was a time when European cultures were emerging, their traditions and songs being passed down completely orally.

      The Enlightenment, in addition to being contrary to medieval, proclaimed that all men were equal, which Herder rejected.. For this German philosopher, each nation is different, insofar as it gives its spirit, its “Volkgeist”, and that only people who have been exposed to the characteristics of their country, both culturally traditions …) and geographical ( climate, topography) and historical (political changes …) can really understand this nation.

      Another idea, and one that was really controversial, was that Herder was totally against talking about the Enlightenment as synonymous with the height of human cultural development. This movement considered men to be at the top of human history, which Johann Gottfried Herder claimed was a lie, because in ancient times there were much brighter figures, the Middle Ages being an important period of “ splendor philosophical in many ways. ”

      Bibliographical references:

      • Royal J. Schmidt, (1956) “Cultural Nationalism in Herder,” Journal of the History of Ideas 17 (3), pp. 407-417.
      • Headstrom, Birger R. (1929). Herder and the theory of evolution. The Open Court 10 (2): pages 596 to 601.
      • Michael N. Forster (2010) After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition, Oxford University Press.
      • Díez Álvarez, LG (2017). Johann G. Herder: Intellectual Profile of Radical Enlightenment. Arbor, 193 (784): a385. doi:

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