Herder’s Critique of the Enlightenment: Cultural Community versus Cosmopolitan Rationalism (Brian J. Whitton)

Recent continental social theory has seen the emergence of a body of literature which represents a radical challenge to the primary concerns and assumptions of traditional Western social and political thought. While this challenge involves a number of aspects and embraces a heterogeneous group of thinkers, one theme common to them all is their opposition to the attempts of traditional scientific, social, and political disciplines to construct general theoretical programs as aguides to the practical actualization of a rational order within human society, however defined. What is most objectionable about this general project for such thinkers, included among them figures like Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida, is its implicit assumption of the possibility of establishing a hierarchy in the forms of knowledge – an ordering of discourses in accordance with theri relative approximation to the objetive principles of an ultimate discourse of reason or truth. Their special sensivity to language, and their shared belief in the infinite creative potencial of human linguistic activity, led these thinkers to arrack such “totalizing” rationalist discourses as legitimating forms of exclusionary practices which repress the full diversity of discursive interpretations of the real implicit in human linguistic activity in favor of one dominant, repressive discourse. Far from being unique to the postmodernist writters of the late twentieth century, however, this type of relativistic critique of totalizing discourses has some notable antecedents in modern social thought. The purpose of this article is to examine one such precursor of this form of critique presented in the writtings of the eighteenth century theorist, Johann Gottfried von Herder.

In his theory of history Herder presents a radical critique of the rationalist discourse of cosmopolitan human development advanced by the Enlightenment thinkers of his day, one wich is predicated upon a profound sentitivity to the importance of language in the process of historical human development. In the first part of this article I will outline Herder’s critique of the Enlightenment perspective and the main features of the particularistic conception of human cultural community which he develops in opposition to it. In so doing I will suggest some interesting parallels wich can be drawn between Herder’s relativistic conception of cultural community and the ideas on language abd human cultural development presented in the recent writtings of the postmodernist, Francois Lyotard. I then proceed to advance certain criticisms of the relativistic vision of human cultural development and community advanced in Herder’s thought.


Before considering Herder’s thought in detail, I will briefly outline some of the main themes of Lyotard’s recent book, The Postmodern Condition. This will provide the basis for a comparison of the theories of Herder and Lyotard later in the paper. Central to an understanding of Lyotard’s work is his view of language games as the defining aspect of any social system. He argues that:

“language games are the minimun relation required for society to exist; even before he is born . . . the human child is already positioned as the referent in the story recounted by those around him, in relation to which he will inveitably char his course . . . the question of social bond is itself a language game.”

According to Lyotard each culture is constituted by such language games and it is the knowledge forms to which these give rise which govern the life of the culture. In his work he distinguishes two major knowledge forms arising from these language games in the course of human history. These are, first, the traditional popular narrative form and, second, the modern scientific form. Narrative knowledges, identified as synonymous with traditional tribal cultures, are distinguished by their inmmediacy with the life of the culture and the spontaneous manner by which they legitimate its institutions of authority. As the determinant of criteria of social competence and how those criteria are applied, of “what has the right to be said and done in the culture,” such narrative knowledge forms are integral to the culture, “legitimated by the simple fact that they do what they do.” Popular narrative kwoledge, Lyotard notes, “does not give priority to the question of its own legitimation. . . . It certifies itself in the pragmatics of its own transmission without havin recourse to argumentation and proof.”

This traditional knowledge form is in direct contrast to the scientific form of modern Western culture. What sets the latter apart first and foremost according to Lyotard is its claim to objective legitimation, its supposed capacity to establish the truth of its propositions through the objetive processes of verification and falsification. In accordance with this claim to objective legitimation, it is only those discourses capable of objective validation which are appropriated into the corpus of acceptable knowledge withon the modern cultural order. Here Lyotard discerns the inherent hegemonic tendency of the scientific knowledge form. He notes that “scientific knowledge requires that one language game, denotation, be retained and all other excluded. [For this knowledge form] a statement’s truth-value is the criterion determining its acceptability. This principle renders problematic the status of the traditional narrative form of knowledge within modern society.

“The scientist questions the validity of narrative statements and concludes that they are never subject to argumentation or proof. He classifies them as belonging to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward. . . .At best, attempts are made to throw some rays of light into this obscurantism, to civilize, educate, develop.”

According to Lyotard, where the traditional knowledge form of popular narrative lends itself to the expression of a diversity of narrative discourses or different narrative understandings of the world, the modern scientific form is, by its very nature,  exclusionary of discursive diversity.

It is at this point that Lyotard notes the paradoxical nature of the scientific knowledge form upon which Western culture is predicated. For the latter, he argues, is itself dependet upon a form of narrative for its ultimate legitimacy.

“Scientific knowledge cannot know and make know that it is true knowledge without resorting to the other, narrative kind of knowledge, which from its point of view is no knowledge at all. Without such recourse it would be in the position of presupposing its own validity . . . [of] proceeding on prejudice.”

The main forms which this recourse to narrative assumes is the appeal to the meta-narrative – the legitimating story of the subject wich unforlds itself in the process of history to discover its being in the knowledge of science. Only through the invocation of this epic story of the self-realizing subject, in its dual forms of the unfolding of the absolute idea (Hegel) and the emancipation of the concrete subject of humanity (the Enlightenment), has the culturally limited language game of modern science succeeded in sustaining its claim to superiority over other knowledge forms in modern society.

However, for Lyotard the advend of the present postmodern condition spells the death of this legitimating metanarrative within the represive dominance of the scientific knowledge form. The processes of delegitimation associated with the emerging postmodern era have, he maintains, seen the decline of the unifying power of the grand narrative and the violence it has visited upon the plurarity of language games. In place of the old “objetivizing” pragmatics of modern science, Lyotard notes the beginnins of the development of a new social pragmatics within postmodern society containing the possibility for a new relativistic idea and practice of justice — one bases upon a “recognition of the hereromorphous nature of language games . . . [and] a renunciation of terror, which assumes that they are isomorphic and tries to make them so.”


The broad themes elaborated above which preoccupy the thought of Lyotard bear a marked similarity to the idea implicit in Herder’s philosophy of history. The emphasis upon the essentially pluralistic nature of cultural forms of knowledge, the critique of the universal narrative as the legitimating form a particular, hegemonic cultural discourse which obstructs the free expression of alternative cultural discourses — these are central features of the particularistic conception of cultural development which Herder elaborates within the broader context of his critical encounter with the Enlightenment conception of history dominant in his day. In turning now to examine Herder’s thought, I shall first provide a brief account of the Enlightenment conception of history which forms the focus of Herder’s criticisms. I then proceed to outline Herder’s theory of the historical development of the Volk or nation as it emerges from his critique of the rationalist, cosmopolitan perspective of the philosophes. Having done this I shall be in a position to indicate the similarities in the work of Herder and Lyotard and to offer some criticisms of the relativistic conception of historical human development which Herder advances as the basic alternative to the Enlightenment perspective.

In the writings of some prominent thinkers of the French Enlightenment, we find articulared a highly optimistic view of human history as the linear progression of humanity towards a condition of inevitable perfectibility. For thinkers like Condorcet and Turgot, history is understood as the story of the progressive advancement of humanity towards an enlightened condition of human association ultimately embracing the whole of humankind, based upon the principles of reason. Of particular importance for our concerns are those more basic assumptions upon which this cosmopolitan conception of history rested. Underlying this optimistic view of human history is the distinctive rationalist conception of human nature characterizing the philosophy of the Enlightenment. According to this view, human beings have access to certain timeless, immutable principles or laws intrinsic to their nature. Moreover, as Becker notes, it was thought that, by the use of their natural reason, these principles could be grasped by people and applied to human affairs enabling them to “bring ther ideas and conduct and hence the institutions by which they lived, into harmony with the universal, natural order.” On this view, then, human history involved the progressive apprehension of these constant and universal principles of human nature previously obscured by superstition and custom by which the affairs of all people may be rationally organized.

A logical corollary of this rationalist conception of history as the inexorable progression of humandkind to a cosmopolitan condition of rational perfectibility was the tendency of Enlightenment philosophers to demean or deride those cultures, past and present, which lacked consciousness of the principles of the enlightened reason. Such cultures tended to be seen as lesser stages in the development towards this enlightened perfect end. Hence, in the view of Condorcet, it was the good fortune of the barbarous, unenlightened cultures of his day that they could acquire these rational principles of Enlightenment directly from the enlightened culture of European society. “The progress of these peoples [he notes] is likely to be more rapid and certain because they can receive from us . . . these simple truths and infallible methods which we have acquired only after long error.”

In elaborating this theory of history as the evolution of the Volk community, Herder presents a thoroughgoing critique of the basic assumptions of this Enlightenment conception of history. At the heart of this critique is Herder’s opposition to the way this rationalist perspective abstracts historical human development from all connection with the contingent elements fo human historical linguistic and cultural practice. Against the static, ahistorical concepction of human nature espoused by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, Herder opposes a radical new development account of human nature and reason. Here the notion of human nature as something existing apriori, independient of contigent historical circumstances, is rejected. Human nature, Herder argues, is “not the vessell of an absolute, unchanging happiness as the defined by the philosophers; everywhere it attracts the measure of happiness of which it is capable; it is a pliant clay which assumes a different shape under different . . . circumstances.” Human nature is an ever-changing, constantly developing substance altering in response to diverse historical needs and circumstances.

In terms of this new, dinamic historical conception of human development, Herder stresses the historical specificity of the human condition. Humans must develop through struggle within their natural and social environment. Among the influences affecting their development, Herder identifies climate, or their geographical location, which exercises a definite influence on their conscious development. “The spirit has varied in direct proportion to climate and its effects.”

But by far the most crucial element for Herder in this dynamic process of human historical transformation is language. He notes that “the whole structure of man’s humanity is connected by a spiritual genesis,” a connection which takes the form of the elaboration of the uniquely human capacity for speech. As an attribute specific to human beings, language is seen by Herder as the central expression of a uniquely human, reflective consciousness. In developing their language, individuals give shape to their inner conscious nature, formulating their ideas and preconceptions through reflection on their experiences of the external world. Hence

“the more experience man gains, the more he learns to know diverse things from diverse aspects, he richer grow his language. The more he repeats what he has learnt and the words he has gained in doing so, the more permanent and fluent his language becomes. The more the differentiates and classifies the more it becomes organizes.”

According to Herder, the process of conscious linguistic development outlined here, the elaboration of the unique human power of conscious discourse, is conceivable only as a social process. The conscious development of the individual is part and parcel of his inclusion in a broader linguistic community, and inherited stream of words and images which he must accept on trust. The ideational form of language constitutes the natural force integrating people within a dynamic historical community of cultural development which Herder identifies as the Volk o nation. Moreover, rather than a substantive stucture standing over and above the individual, the Volk community forms a spiritual unity whose historical evolution  involves the conscious integration of the individual and the social in the progresive expression of a unique national, cultural consciousness embodied in the linguistic products of the nation.

What are the specific features of this conception of cultural community which Herder develops in opposition to the Enlightenment theory of cosmopolitanism and, in particular, what are the specific processes by which the cultural personality of the Volk community is historically actualized? Here Herder stress social education, understood in broad terms as the molding process of socialization and tradition. In the course of assimilating their language during everyday social activity, individuals incorporate their cultural heritage. They are brought into connection with the history, poetry, and religion of the nation and the social wisdom embodied in these cultural forms. The famliy unit assumes a vital role in this educational process. Acording to Herder, paternal love makes possible an education which is social and continuous, acting as a major instrument for the transmission of the values and prejudicesof succesive generations. The parent, herder argues, is the natural instructor of the child. “Each individual is son or daughter. . . . He or she receives from the earliest moments of life part of the cultural treasures of ancestral heritage. . . [which he or she] in turn passes on.” Through parental instruction the individual is brought into communion with the “ways of feeling and thinking of his progenitors. . . . He repeats, with every newly acquired word, not only sounds but certain ways of looking at the world.”

By virtue of this process of social education borne by family, teachers, and friends, there is established through the successive generations of the Vold community a “chain of unity and continuity in which each link . . . [receives and transmits] the cultural heritage of the Volk [in a process which entails] language and its continuous growth”. The national language, as the medium of the transmission of the cultural spirit of the Volk, connects its members in a organic community embracing the ideas, wisdom, and values of past, present, and future generations. Moreover, this historical transmission of the cultural heritage of the Volk community involves a definite dialectical dimension in its operation. Herder notes that parents “never teach their children language without the concurrent inventive activity of the child.” The process of cultural education is a complex one wherein each generation, in receiving the prejudices of the Volk language, subjects them to reappraisal and re-evalutation in accordance with its own historical needs and circumstances. “The generations renew themselves in a continuous flux . . . . In spite of the linear, prescriptive tendencies of tradition, each son continues to write in his own particular way.” It is through this historical transformation of the Volk language that traditional conceptions and beliefs are continually synthesized with those of the new generations. “The opposites assist and promote one another . . . [and] by their reconciliation there emerges a new world.” Thus the national language forms the living, psycological medium within which the national culture is perpetuated, transformed, and reiched over time. As such it constitutes the central agency in the historical extension of the creative powers of humans as conscious, self-constitutive members of the Volk.

There are a number of points arising from this highly original account of human cultural development which it is important to note here. The first of these is Herder’s emphasis upon the natural, internally generated nature of this dynamic condition of cultural community. The historical transmission of the national culture is both genetic and organic in nature, “genetic by virtue of the manner in which the transmission takes place [that is, through paternal instruction] and organic by virtue of the [dialectical] manner in which that which is being transmitted is assimilated and applied.” The primary agents of national development (notably the national languague and the powers of the synthesizing mind) represent for Herder naturally evolving forces developing within  abd through the members of the Volk as opposed to what he considers the artificial, externally imposed economic and political forces operating on and uniting people from without. Indeed it is a basic tenet of Herder’s thought that human communities, if they are to be effective and lasting in nature, must be predicated upon these natural, immediate cultural forces which link “minds through ideas, hearts through inclinations and impulses . . . and generations through examples, modes of living and education.”

A second major aspecto of Herder’s theory flowing from its naturalistic cultural conception of human community is his stress upon the essential plurality of human values and their relativity to specific nationa, historical communities. For Herder each distinct nation contains within itself ots own perfection independent of comparation with that of other cultures, a standard defined in accordance with its specific cultural traditions and values. Further, the image of what is morally right or wrong varies frpm cultura to culture, making all comparison between different cultures unprofitable. In his view:

“when the inner sense of happiness has altered, this or that attitude has changed; when the external circumstances . . . fashion and fortify this new sentiment, who can then compare the different forms of satisfaction perceived by different senses in different worlds. . . .Each nation has its own centre of happiness within itself, just as every sphere has its own centre gravity.”

To engage in the critical judgment of past cultures in terms of the ideals and values of one’s own time, as the Enlightenment historians tended to do, is, on this view, fundamentally problematic. According to Herder each historical culture represents a distinctive and unique manifestation of that which is specifically human. “From the shapeless rocks with which the Chinese ornaments his garden, to the . . .  ideal beauty of Greece, the plan of a reflective human understanding is everywhere observable.”

In accordance with this pluralistic, culture-relative conception of human values, Herder stresses the necessity for any adequate understanding of the diverse cultures of human history to grasp the distinctive assumptions and prejudices implicit in the cultural consciousness of any given national community. However, such knowledge is not easily acquired, as Herder was well aware. Historical understanding of this type required the cultivation of one’s capacity for sympathetic identification with the culture under consideration. Individuals must

“enter into the spirit of a nation before . . . [they] can share even one of its thoughts or deeds. . . . [They] must penetrate deeply into this century, this reigion, this entire history and feel it inside  . . . [themselves] – then only will . . . [they] be in a position to understand.”

Only by entering into the life of a culture, its beliefs and prejudices expressed in its cultural products, Herder maintained, can its intrinsic value and historical significance be grasped.

Lacking this capacity for sympathetic identification with the cultural consciousness of civilizations other than their own, the philosophes are criticized for their fundamental insensitivity to these crucial elements of human cultural community. Instead they are seen to engage in a mechanized form of thinking which abstracts human development and community form its life blood: the sensuous world of human cultural diversity. For Herder the inevitable consequence of this simplistic historical perspective is the creation of an abstract cosmopolitanism, a “paper culture” predicated upon an idealized conception of eighteenth-century European cultural life. He notes how

“the general philosophical, philanthropic tone of our century wishes to extend our own ideal of virtue and happiness to each distant nation, to even the remotest age of history. . . . [It] has taken words for works, enlightenment for happiness, greater sophistication for virtue and, in this way, invented the fiction of the general amelioration of the world.”

This condition, the philosophes believed, would ultimately embrace all of mankind with the progress of enlightenment.

From Herder’s standpoint, however, the actualization of a general philosophy of this kind, with its “rational axioms of human behaviour, . . .   commonplaces about what is right and good; views of all times and all peoples for all times and all peoples,” could only have disastrous consequences. Such a cosmopolitan condition, he believed, could take no other form than subjection of the great diversity of national cultures to the limited cultural standards of European society. Herder is particulary sensitive to the way in which such abstract, rationalist principles as equality, liberty, and fraternity may be invoked to justify a condition of manifest domination of one culture over the many. “The garment of generalities which characterize our [enlightened] philosophy can conceal oppressions and infringements of the . . . freedom of men and countries, of citizens and peoples.” A cosmopolitan world of the type proposed by the philosophes would, Herder believed, be a world where all spontaneous, creative drives of the different cultural communities would be stifled in favor of an externally imposed European cultural ideal and human life reduced to a dull, routine existence. Within this artificial condition where the internal cultural ties binding people in a dynamic creative unity are suppressed, the natural basis of conscious human creativity would cease to exit and all meaningful human development be excluded. For Herder, a cosmopolitan society would be no more than a patched up fragile structure wholly devoid of life whose component parts would be conected through mechanical contrivances instead of bonds of human sentiment.

Herder’s own particularistic conception of a cultural community as we have presented it, with its emphasis upon the naturally generated character of the Volk as an organic condition of cultural beloging, represents his humanistic alternative to the “inhuman” implications perceived as implict in the abstract cosmopolitan perspective. In opposition to the philosophes’ belief in the infinite perfectibility of human nature Herder asserts the naturally limited potential of human beings for meaningful associations and creative interaction.

“Neither our head nor our heart is formed for an infinitely increasing store of thougths and feelings. . . .That mind which embraces much within its sphere of activity as part of itself achieves happiness whilst one which over-extends its feelings is bound to dissipate them into mere words and reaps nothing by misery.”

Only when people possess this feeling of oneness with the national group do they feel at ease and free to develop their creative powers. Once they lose this sense of communion with the Volk community, human beings become alienated and are no longer able to act in an unself-conscious creative manner. Hence, to attempt to extend the realms of human socialization beyond the organic, cultural unity of the Volk is to overstep the natural limits constraining the development of conscious affinity among people.

This conception of the natural human condition as one of conscious integration in the cultural life of the Volk, o nation, was to form an important influence upon the later development of the political ideology of nationalism through its incorporation in the theorical writings of such later German thinkers as Fitche, Jahn and Arndt. However, as it is outlined in Herder’s theory of cultural community this notion of cultural nationality is an essentially tolerant one, free of the aggressive tendencies of later political versions. In effect Herder’s theory of cultural nationality is, first and foremost, a theory of freedom of all national groups to express their cultural identities to the fullest extent. Against the Enlightenment preocupation with the prospective emergence of a unified, integrated world predicated upon a single set of universal laws, Herder look a world of infinite cultural diversity and his writings represent a celebration of cultural divesity as the source of all that is rich and progressive in human life.

Viewed from this perspective Herder’s acount of the historical development of the Volk community forms part of a larger vision within his thought involving a process of spiritual evolution which embraces humankind as a whole. The essence of his larger dimension of Herder’s work is captured in his notion of Humanität — the common human essence manifest iin the cultural forms of each national community. Herder observes that, while human cultural existence may be modified in a thousand different ways, “within itself a unique variation on the theme of humanity and corresponding tendency to develop this variant to its fullest extent. Thus, despite the vast panorama of cultural change and diversity in human history, Herder contends that the divine mind has everywere combined the greatest possible multiplicity with unity. Humanität has been dispersed all over the earth.

“Since one form of mankind and one region could no encompass it, it has been distributed in a thousand forms, changing shape like an eternal Proteus throughout the continents and centuries. And even it it does no strive towards the greater hapiness of the individual. . . nonetheless a plan of progresive endeavour becomes apparent.”

The progresive unfolding of this common human essence would appear to involve a seemingly unending process as, with each new national community, there emerge new and unique expressions of Humanität. Ultimately, then, within Herder’s relativistic cultural perspective the historical elaboration of the diverse cultural forms constitutes and endless drama, “God’s epic throught all the centuries . . . a fable with a thousand variations full of meaning.”


The preceding analisis brings out clearly the nature of Herder’s arguments against the universalistic claims and assumptions of the Enlightement conception of history, rooted as they are in a profound belief in the intrinsic value of human cultural diversity. I want now to indicate more explicitly the important areas of commonality between the theory of cultural community presented above and the relativistic conception of human cultural development formulated by Lyotard.

What both Herder and Lyotard are attacking in ther writtings, albeit at very different stages of its historical development, is the paradigm of cultural knowledge arising from the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Moreover, despite the important differences in their historical backgrounds, the basic character and aims of their critiques of the Enlightenment paradigm of knowledge are remarkably similar. At the core of both critiques is a rejection of the pretensions to objectivity of this paradigm and, consequent upon this, its claim to constitute a higher form of knowledge than those cultural forms of knowledge differing from it by virtue of its capacity for rational legitimation. Proceeding from a view of the inherently relative, pluralistic nature of human cultural knowledge as an arbitrary linguistic construct, both Herder and Lyotard reject such claims to objectivity as based upon an artificial reification of a particular, limited cultural form to the status of universality.

In Herder’s theory, this claim to epistemological superiority advanced by the Enlightenment philosophers is seen to be based on their erroneous belief in the existence of a set of eternal, abstract rational principles inherent in human nature, existing independently of the contingent, formative processes of history. As conceived by the critical reason of the philosophes, these rational principles were thought to transcend the superstitions and myths of earlier ages, forming the measure against which earlier, unenlightened cultures were judged and ultimately found wanting. In elaborating his historical, culture-relative conception of human development, Herder seeks to expose the contingent nature of the claims of this Enlightenment culture to universal validity and, in so doing, to reveal the true basis of this “universalistic” discourse in the reified categories of a limited European culture.

Similarly, in Lyotard’s theory the claim of the modern scientific knowledge form to epistemological superiority is predicated upon the purported ability of the scientific language game to verify its knowledge claims by reference to objective principles of verification or proof. Moreover, it is their inability to stand up to the rigors of objective testing based on these scientific principles which determines the inadmissibility of the knowledge forms of traditional cultures to the body of knowledge accepted as legitimate and meaningful by the modern scientific culture. However, in a manner similar to Herder, Lyotard emphasizes the perilous nature of the claims of the modern scientific discourse to universal objectivity. As only one of many knowledge forms historically generated within the arbitrary language games of human cultures the modern scientific knowledge form is ultimately unable to validate its claims to objectivity in its own terms. Rather, its claims to epistemological superiory are seen to rely upon an appeal to a more fundamental, legitimating discourse of the same narrative form which its own denotative paradigm specifically excludes. This legitimating discourse turns out to be the meta-narrative of the historical emancipation of the rational human subject– the same universalistic discourse of the Enlightenment which is the focus of Herder’s critique.

For both Herder and Lyotard then, the success of the claims of the Enlightenment knowledge form to objective legitimation is made possible only through its reification, by its abstraction from the reality of its origins in those constitutive processes of linguistic cultural practice which represent the common source of all forms of knowledge. The hegemonic status of this modern cultural discourse is sustainable only insofar as it suppresses its own contingent, culture-relative nature — an act of denial which inevitably entails the repression of those other, historically diverse cultural forms which present to it the true face of its own limited arbitrary nature. It is only with the demise of this modern rationalist cultural form, they believe, that the opressive implications of the demand for the objective validation of knowledge threatening the perpetuation of diverse cultural perspectives will be overcome.

While their critiques of the Enlightenment paradigm of knowledge thus exhibit remarkable similarities, it is also important to note the significant differences in the perspectives of Herder an Lyotard — differences which emerge most clearly in theier respective views concerning the process of the breakdown of this hegemonic cultural discourse and the nature of the relativistic world deriving drom this disintegrative process. In outlining these points of divergence in their thought, some consideration needs to be given to the very different cultural milieux within which the basic conceptions of language and culture embraced by these two thinkers are formed. For it is the manner in which these contemporary influences shape their understanding of language and culture as the central medium of creative human development which acounts, in large part, fot the differences alluded to here.

In Herder’s case the critique which he directs against the cultural knowledge form of the Enlightenment is properly situated as part of a larger current of German intellectual thought of the time, centering around the radical ideas of the Sturm und Drang. This movement of literary and artistic criticism, which included among its number figures like the young Goethe and Schiller, was to prove the source of some of the central ideas associated with the German Romantic movement. But, as Taylor has observed, its most distinctive characteristic eas the overriding aspiration of the Sturmer und Dranger to recapture the fundamental unity of human experience rent asunder by the dichotomizing reason of the Enlightenment. In opposition to the latter’s “artificial” bifurcation of human experience into the antithetical categories of thought and feelings, reason and emotions, and humanity and nature, they aspired to an ideal conception of life as the harmonious unity of humans with themselves (their spiritual nature) and their larger natural and social world. The attainment of this unity with one’s world was of foremost importance for the Sturmer insofar as it constituted the indispensable condition for human spiritual self expression — the essential requirement for the realization of humans’ authentic being. Moreover, it was language and the cultural creations generated by human linguistic activity which were identified as the essential medium whereby this creative, expresive unity achieved its actualization. In the natural creations of human language, the Sturmer believed, one could discern the aesthetic expression of the harmonious community of people with the greater spiritual whole which formed their world.

Through their personal literary creatuibs the different members of the Sturm und Drang sought to articulate their profound sense of the contemporary fragmentation of this creative, spiritual unity of human existence consequent upon the impact of the culture of the Enlightenment upon the existing social order. This pessimistic assessment of the character of contemporary cultural life also encouraged a more general tendency among many of the Sturmer to identify with the traditional life forms of the lower orders of German society as the embodiment of their ideal. The social world of the German peasants, farmers, and crafts-people, their customs and cultural traditions deriving from a simple life of interaction with nature largely untouched by the “artificiality” affecting the higher social orders of German society, seemed to epitomize, for many of thr Sturmer, that harmonious, spiritually fulfilling existence to which they themselves aspired. Accordingly, in their writtings, we find the first expression of the idealized conception of the common people o Volk and the celebration of German folklore and language which were to become dominant themes of the later German Romantic movement.

These general themes of the Sturm und Drang received powerful expression in Herder’s thought. We have seen how he constructs a distinctive philosophy of history which identifies the natural organic unity of the individual and the larger cultural community as the essential condition for the realization of those creative, spiritual powers distinguishing humans as conscious linguistic beings. Moreover, for Herder, the perpetuation of this process of creative cultural development presupposes the preservation of that immediate, spontaneous unity of human beings with the Volk and its traditional cultural forms facilitated by the cohering, integrative power of the naturally evolving national language. Insofar as it threatens to fragment this natural, harmonious unity the artificial Enlightenment knowledge form can have no place within this historical proccess of cultural development. By eroding the organically evolved customs and traditions underpinning the historical process of cultural development, this divisive knowledge form would effectively destroy the foundations upon which the continued expression of the diverse cultural life forms of the species is dependent. Accordingly, Herder is uncompromising in his total rejection of the “unnatural” cultural paradigm of the Enlightenment in favor of the preservation of a prerationalistic world in which the multiplicity of traditionally evolved cultures receives full expression.

Writing at a much later stage in the development of the Enlightenment knowledge form and responding to very different cultural  influences, Lyotard’s vision of a evolving, relativistic, postmodern condition of cultural diversity contrasts markedly with Herder’s perspective. In his writtings we find no notion of a possible return a premodern, nonscientific order embracing the traditional cultures of narrative knowledge. In fact, Lyotard’s is a more dialectical approach, one shaped by his sensitivity to the impact of the information revolution upon contemporary Western society. It is his assessment of the latter’s implications for the nature of life within modern society — an assessment strongly colored by the Nietzschean influences pervading his thought — which is the major factor shaping his conception of this emerging postmodern world.

[History and Theory, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May, 1988) , pp. 146-168]


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