The Reluctant Pluralism of J. G. Herder (Damon Linker)

According to Isaiah Berlin’s influential interpretation, J. G. Herder (1744-1803) deserves to be recognized as the first cultural pluralist in Europe, and thus also as an important historical source of the pluralistic ideas espoused by increasing numbers of political theorists today. Herder’s importance actually lies in the ambivalent stance he takes toward his own pluralistic insights. That is, convinced that it is impossible to adhere to a completely pluralistic view of the world, Herder sets out to combine pluralism and its theoretical opposite (“monism”) into a novel theory of historical progress according to which history reaches its culmination in the realization of a purified form of Christianity. Contemporary pluralists have much to learn–both historically and theoretically–from Herder’s confrontation with his pluralism.

Recent thinking about politics has taken a pluralistic turn. Following a path first marked out in the writings of the late Isaiah Berlin, a number of theorists have begun to base their political reflections on the assumption that “values are not universal”– that “every human society, every people, indeed every age and civilization, possesses its own unique ideals, standards, way of living and thought and action.” [1] In contrast to the “monism” typical of so much of Western thought–according to which all legitimate questions have one true answer, and those answers are knowable through reason and compatible with one another–the pluralist claims that “there are many objective ends, ultimate values, some incompatible with others, pursued by different societies at various times.” [2] Although the claim that “ends [and] moral principles are many” has repeatedly led critics to suspect pluralists of relativism, pluralists themselves vehemently deny the charge. As Berlin writes, “the fact that the values of one culture may be incompatible with those of another…does not entail relativism of values, only the notion of a plurality of values not structured hierarchically.” [3] That is, according to the pluralist, each value or end is “objective” for the particular culture that holds it, even if it is not recognized as such by the members of other cultures, each of which must be understood to have its own, presumably very different, objectively valid values or ends. [4] Thus refusing to impose supposedly artificial and arbitrary standards on the manifest diversity of ways of life (while simultaneously managing to avoid the pitfalls of relativism), pluralism seeks to respect and affirm the irreducible and ineradicable particularism characteristic of human social and political life.

Along with the recent Berlin-inspired turn toward pluralism in political theory has gone a growing awareness of the historical and philosophical importance of J. G. Herder, a thinker once dismissed as being of little more than historical interest, as a source of ideas that went on to influence the development of nineteenth-century nationalist thought. In a series of essays published over the last few decades, [5] Berlin has made the case that Herder is better understood as a thinker who consistently exhibited a pluralistic approach to understanding the world–an approach that anticipated and even exercised an indirect (but nonetheless decisive) influence on today’s philosophical critics of monism. Like today’s pluralists, Herder held that “there are no immutable, universal, eternal rules or criteria of judgment in terms of which different cultures and nations can be graded in some single order of excellence. … Every society, every age, has its own cultural horizons. … Every age, every society, differs in its goals and habits and values from every other.” [6] It is for this reason that Berlin has passionately argued that it is high time Herder’s importance be recognized, for “all regionalists, all defenders of the local against the universal, all champions of deeply rooted forms of life, both reactionary and progressive … owe something, whether they know it or not, to the doctrines which Herder … introduced into European thought.” [7] It should therefore come as no surprise that a number of Berlin’s most accomplished students and admirers have followed him in turning to Herder, both to learn more about an important historical precursor to their own positions, as well as to plumb the theoretical depths of pluralism with a veritable pioneer as their guide. [8]

But is Herder the right man to be leading such an expedition? It will be the contention of this article that a careful examination of Herder’s works reveals a thinker far more ambivalent toward pluralism than the erudite essays of Berlin and his admirers lead one to believe. It is not that Herder is the rabid nationalist he was once dismissed as being; on the contrary, Berlin was right to find the seeds of a genuinely humane and tolerant pluralism in Herder’s writings. But that is far from being the end of the story. Read in the context of the works in which they are found, Herder’s most pluralistic pronouncements can be seen to be inextricably tied to a larger project: namely, the construction of a teleological philosophy of world history whose aim is to mediate between the extremes of complete pluralistic diversity and homogeneous monism. [9] Moreover, when we refrain from beginning our study of Herder with the assumption that his pluralism is the “wheat” that can and should be separated from the “chaff” th at surrounds it (to employ one of Berlin’s favorite expressions), we discover a thinker who viewed this attempt at mediation as a necessary supplement to his pluralistic insights, without which he believed they would be far more likely to become a source of psychological torment and theoretical confusion than a guarantor of tolerance for diversity or an opportunity for Western man to liberate himself from monistic prejudices.

Why did Herder come to this conclusion? What assumptions about human nature led him to it? How did his philosophy of history propose to accomplish the mediation between pluralism and monism? What might Herder’s views on these matters have to teach today’s pluralists? This article will seek to answer these and related questions. In doing so, it will make contributions to the history of political theory as well as to contemporary theoretical debates. It will contribute to the former by painting a more accurate view of Herder, and thus the development of pluralistic ideas in the West, than can be found in Berlin’s influential writings. As for the latter, by examining Herder’s reasons for seeking to unify pluralism and monism as well as the means whereby he tried to attain this goal, this article will hopefully prepare the way for a widening of the terms of debate among and about today’s pluralists. [10]

Herder’s Pluralism and Its Discontents

Reading selected passages of Herder’s works in isolation can certainly lead one to conclude that he was an unambiguous pluralist writing 200 years before his time. To begin with, Herder was indeed concerned that much of the scholarship and theoretical speculation of his century had engaged in over-generalization– that a discursive, logical approach to studying human phenomena Had prevented historians and philosophers from understanding and grasping its remarkable diversity and variety. [11] Herder frequently expressed his deep-seated conviction that human beings can only find their moral and intellecutal orientation within the “whole” (Ganze), the closed “horizon” (Horizont) of particular cultures, not in the cosmos or in principles generated by a universal faculty of reason. [12] Passages abound in which Herder writes of each “nation” or “people” in history having its own standard of goodness and perfection. [13] As he writes in a characteristic statement, “Every nation has its center of happiness within it self, just as every sphere has its own center of gravity!” [14] According to Herder, each culture is a kind of self-contained, monistic whole unto itself.

In making these claims, Herder does indeed seem to hold to the central tenet of pluralism-namely, that there are many objectively valid ends and ways of life that men can pursue, no one of which can be ranked as intrinsically better or worse for mankind as such. Each is an “expression” ([ddot{A}}Berung) of a people living a particular time and place, and each springs from its whole “form of life” (Lebensart). [15] When not invoking parallels between cultures and the family or a plant, [16] Herder uses medieval images of the “ship of state” to describe it, [17] or claims that the “harmony” and “nobility” of a “field army” is the “archetype of human society,” since both of these images capture the closed and unified purposiveness that is characteristic of human cultural existence. [18] Hence, what Herder writes about literary figures and political actors is true for all human beings and practices: “Shakespeare was no Sophocles, Milton no Homer, Bolingbroke no Pericles: yet they were in their kind and in their situation what those were in theirs.” [19] We need not–and moreover, cannot–rank them according to some standard that is valid in itself for all times and places; each cultural expression can be said to be good or bad, but only within the context in which it arose.

But things are not so simple. For when these and similar passages are read in the context of the works in which they were written, one discovers that, in addition to holding that each culture has its own standard of goodness within itself, Herder also maintains that each of these cultures must be understood as contributing to the realization of a higher good that comes to light in the whole of world history. In other words, Herder views the plurality of norms, practices, and beliefs in human history as constituting a larger, purposive whole, with each of those norms, practices, and beliefs serving as a means to realizing a divinely ordained end. Why did Herder maintain this view? Because he was convinced that a complete pluralism teaches a truth about mankind and the world that is incompatible with the necessary conditions of human happiness as he understands them. [20] For Herder, man can only experience happiness when he understands himself to exist within a unified, monistic whole, a cultural constellation of norms, practices, and beliefs in which he can find meaning and purpose. [21] Moreover, in order to confer that meaning and purpose on the individual, those norms, practices and beliefs must be understood by the individual to be true or accurate reflections of the world as it is in itself. Herder’s pluralism describes a world in which this is the natural state of affairs, with each particular culture happily believing in the truth of its own meaningful and purposive norms, practices, and beliefs. But there is a problem with this way of conceiving of the human situation, for it creates a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the way Herder understands the meaningful and purposive experience of particular cultures and the way meaning and purpose are experienced by actual members of particular cultures. Although, according to Herder’s pluralism, someone who lives his life entirely within his culture’s closed horizon will experience his norms, practices, and beliefs to be true-in-themselves (and thus capable of making it possible for him to experience happiness), viewed from the external perspective occupied by Herder himself, any given culture’s norms, practices, and beliefs appear to be merely relatively true or true-for-them; they are an expression of its overall form-of-life at a particular age of its development in history, not a reflection of the world as it is in itself.

This tension can be illustrated with the following example. As Herder describes it, a member of a given culture would not understand his gods to be merely “his,” equal in ontological status to the gods of a neighboring nation. On the contrary, he would understand his gods to be the real or true gods and those of his neighbor to be untrue or false ones–and, according to Herder, it is this conviction that makes it possible for this hypothetical man to experience happiness. However, in the very act of recognizing this to be the case for all members of particular cultures, Herder manages to alienate himself from believing in the truth of any culture’s norms, practices, and beliefs, including his own; for in contrast to the experience of our hypothetical member of a given culture, the pluralist understands his own culture’s stories about the gods to be merely “his.” Hence, for Herder, pluralism implies relativism, if not logically, then psychologically. And this is no mere academic point for Herder, since it means nothing less than that the truth of pluralism is an obstacle in the way of the satisfaction of the most profound human longing.

But Herder does not simply maintain that adhering to a pure form of pluralism would make it impossible for one who holds it to believe in the simple truth of any particular culture’s norms, practices, and beliefs. He also thinks that it would imply a positive teaching about man and the world that differs radically from what that very pluralism teaches about the monistic content of every culture: the most profound lesson of pluralism, according to Herder, is that human life is fundamentally grounded in finitude and arbitrariness. Although all cultures in human history have viewed themselves as static and permanent entities oriented toward fixed ends, pluralism teaches that the deepest truth of things is that nothing is eternal. As Herder writes, when the history of the world is viewed from a pluralistic standpoint, we see that,

no people remained or could have remained as it was for a length of time; that everything–like every art and science, and what in the world does not?–has its period of growth, flourishing, and decline; that each of these changes only lasted precisely as long as could have been given to them on the wheel of human fate; and that, finally, no two moments in the world are the same. [22]

For Herder, a truly consistent pluralism would have the effect of showing that each culture lacks a larger whole to bestow meaning and purpose upon it–something that, if true, would undermine the necessary conditions of human happiness. [23]

Some of the most haunting passages in Herder’s corpus can be found at those places in which he confronts what he believes to be the devastating psychological implications of what his own pluralistic insights show him about man and the world. According to Herder, each human life, which seems so laden with significance when viewed within the context of a particular culture, appears to be a mere “comma” or “dash” in the “book of the world” when it is seen from the perspective of the pure pluralist. [24] From this standpoint, it appears that “the whole world is an abyss–an abyss in which I stand entirely lost!” [25] For the pluralist, each man is nothing more than an “insect perched on a clod of earth,” who cannot help but feel that “I am nothing.” [26] In these and similar passages, all of the meaning and purpose that prevails within the horizon of particular cultures has vanished. In its place, Herder invokes metaphors of desolation. First man is pictured to be wandering in a “desert,” searching for an “ideal istic spring” that will quench his thirst by showing him that a “plan” (Plan) exists beneath the superficial “chaos” (Verwirrung) that reigns throughout the “ruins of history” (tr[ddot{u}]mmervollen Geschichte). [27] Next, Herder adopts a different image, describing man as a creature lost on a vast and stormy sea, shrouded in fog and deceived by illusory lights that falsely lead him to believe he is close to the safety of the shoreline. [28] At times, Herder even shows signs of contempt for people who live entirely within the closed horizon of a particular culture, “as if their anthill were the universe.” [29] Apparently he resents the fact that they never confront the “melancholy prospect” of having “to see in the revolutions of the earth nothing but ruins upon ruins, eternal beginnings without end, upheavals of fate without any lasting purpose.” [30]

One could say that Herder thinks that, experienced in and of itself, pluralism leads to a psychological abyss. Convinced that the happiness of mankind depends upon him feeling himself to exist within precisely the kind of extracultural whole that pluralism emphatically denies (at least at the level of particular cultures), Herder sets out to develop a philosophy of history that would show that each particular culture exists as a part in larger meaningful and purposive whole while still recognizing the distinct individuality of each of those parts. Herder was convinced that only by combining his pluralistic insights with a modified form of monism could the apparent arbitrariness of history be redeemed and happiness be possible for the pluralist, because only the existence of such a trans-cultural whole could show that the events of history take place for a reason–as a means to fulfilling a higher purpose. [31]

Humanity’s Prophet: Multiplicity in Unity

In Herder’s first attempt to write a philosophy of history that would mediate between pluralism and monism (the Yet Another Philosophy of History of the Education of the Human Race of 1774 (Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit)), he fastened on two possible principles of unity in the world as it exists in itself, outside of any particular culture: God’s providence and the historical process independent of God’s will. With regard to the issue of providence, any theory Herder proposed would have to be different than the traditional theological ones found in the writings of such authors as Eusebius and Bossuet: it could not be tied to any particular culture, as had all others in history (including Christian accounts). For despite the fact that each culture in history claims that its notion of providence is true-in-itself, Herder’s pluralism shows that every one of those notions is actually an expression of culturally rooted norms, practices, and beliefs, rather than genuine reflection s of the world as it is in itself. One indication of the culturally relative status of all prior providential accounts of the world is the fact that the gods of each particular culture always seem to favor that culture over others and often at the expense of others. An account of a transcultural whole modeled on such an arrangement would thus be one characterized by partiality rather than genuine holism. [32] Hence any notion of providence invoked by Herder would have to be radically reconceived–it would have to be thoroughly compatible with the universal and egalitarian implications of his pluralism. That is, it would somehow have to show that the good of each particular community is compatible with the good of every other one, and thus also with the good of the whole. [33]

Another model of transcultural unity–one that at first sight seems to avoid the problems of providential favoritism–was proposed by some representatives of the Enlightenment: a vision of moral and material progress over time. But Herder judged this kind of account to be thoroughly unacceptable for his own project, since, like traditional notions of providence, it favored some communities in history over others and thus showed that it was meant to justify and defend the norms, practices, and beliefs of particular cultures–specifically, those of modern, enlightened Europe. Moreover, if this narrative of progress were true, it would affirm that an underlying arbitrariness and injustice reigns in human history, since the possibility of individuals attaining happiness would be contingent upon when and where they happened to have been born; for example, according to the progressive historiography favored by some in Herder’s time, [34] an inhabitant of eighteenth-century Paris would be more capable of being happ y than someone who found himself in the so-called dark ages of medieval Europe, let alone in less “civilized” regions of the world. But this was unacceptable to Herder. In contrast, then, any vision of progress would have to be compatible with the view that Herder consistently expressed throughout his career: each culture in history has to have its own standard of happiness within itself–it has to be an end in itself, in addition to being a means to a higher end. Only in this way could the world outside of any particular culture be thought of as a whole that balanced and synthesized monistic and pluralistic elements. [35] Herder’s entire philosophy of history must be understood as an extraordinarily ambitious attempt to show that the world is, in fact, such a whole of multiplicity in unity. [36]

In the 1774 Philosophy of History, Herder moved in the direction of developing a theory of progress that met this demand by appealing to an analogy of organic growth [37]–the idea that the history of the human race as a whole is analogous to the life of an individual human being. This theory went a significant way toward overcoming the problems with more straightforward theories of progress discussed above, but Herder never worked out its details or their implications in a philosophically satisfying way in this early work. However, by the time Herder came to write his mature philosophy of history in the Outlines for a Philosophy of History of the Human Race of 1784-91 (Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit), he had developed a highly unusual and complex theory of progressive providentialism. An examination of how the “fingers of divinity” operate in human history, the Outlines seeks to show that it is possible to “wander through the labyrinth of history to perceive everywhere harmonious, divin e order.” [38] Herder believes that detecting divine meaning and purpose in history will show us that even in the those most extreme cases in which “the history of miscarriages, wastes, and monstrosities” leads us to believe that “the laws of nature seem to be upset through alien causes,” the apparent disturbance can be explained. For, according to Herder, “even in the seemingly greatest chaos” one can find “constant nature, that is to say, immutable laws of a highest necessity, goodness, and wisdom” that are oriented toward the realization of a divinely ordained end in the historical process as a whole. Herder comes to describe this end as “Humanity” [39] and to see it as the task of a “genuine philosophy of man” to detect and trace its development as it is progressively realized over time in the cultural norms, practices, and beliefs that prevail within history. [40]

As did his 1774 Philosophy of History, Herder’s mature theory of human historical development begins with his attempt to identify an aspect of human existence that is common to each and every particular community and that can also provide a sign or indication of the end toward which history as a whole can be said to be developing. How does our Humanity manifest itself in history, according to Herder? What is the concrete norm, practice, or belief in which the end of history can be seen? Herder claims to find such a sign in man’s practice of and belief in religion–not in the norms, practices, and beliefs of this or that particular religion, but rather in what he takes to be the transhistorical essence of religion as such. [41]

Unlike such modern critics of religion as Hobbes and Hume, Herder asserts that religion is as coeval with man as language and reason, and that it comes about as a means both of explaining events within the world and of giving them meaning and purpose: it is “the instructor of man, his comforter and guide through the dark and dangerous mazes of life.” [42] One could say that, for Herder, God made man in such a way that he would develop diverse religious norms, practices, and beliefs through the use of his language and reason–and that, in doing so, he would contribute to the formation of a “Godlike Humanity” (Gott[ddot{a}]hnliche Humanit[ddot{u}]t) that will eventually come to fruition at the end of the historical process. [43] As he writes, “religion, considered merely as an exercise of the understanding, is the highest Humanity, the most sublime blossom of the human mind.” [44]

Now, Herder does not mean by this statement that man’s end is the simple and continuing development of the diverse religious norms, practices, and beliefs that prevail within particular communities in history. But neither does he mean to suggest that the members of particular communities must explicitly reject their own particularistic religious views; as Berlin has ably shown, Herder never relented in his scorn for the kind of cosmopolitanism that tries to create a cultureless citizen of the world. [45] Instead, Herder held that those particularistic religious norms, practices, and beliefs must be given a new interpretation according to which the mark of their divinity is contained, not primarily within themselves, but rather in their contribution to the formation of the new, trans-cultural religion of Humanity.

This new humanitarian religion would be characterized by peace, love, and mutual sympathy among members of different cultures. [46] But once again, this religion would neither require nor assume an abandonment of particularistic norms, practices, and beliefs on the part of members of those cultures. For want of a better term, they would be (to invoke a Hegelian concept) “sublated” (aufgehoben)–that is, the meaning and purposiveness contained within each community’s norms, practices, and beliefs would be canceled, transcended, and yet also preserved in the new religion of Humanity. So, for example, the world that Herder prophesies at the end of history would be one in which Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists from nations throughout the world simultaneously affirm their own religious standpoints and, at the same time, love, respect, and sympathize with those of the others in the knowledge that, despite (or rather, because of) the differences between them, each of their communities is a part in a larger whole of Humanity which is comprised of them all. In other words, the religion of humanity that Herder claims lies at the end of human historical-cultural development is one in which the greatest degree of diversity or difference is combined with the greatest degree of unity. It would be a form of monism that has learned the lesson of pluralism.

But has there ever been anything like such a religion? Is there any model, any indication of what one might look like? Or does Herder understand his prophecy to be entirely without precedent in the annals of human history? There is certainly ample reason to think that it would have to be entirely novel, for all prior religions have been radically exclusionary in character. Not only have they been hostile to outsiders, but they have persecuted dissenters within their own boundaries. That is, every historical religion has upheld particular dogmas and punished those within its ranks who strayed from its official teaching. Hence, to the extent that Herder’s new religion resembles actually existing religions, it will tend toward homogeneity (i.e., it will seek actively to minimize particularistic differences within itself as much as possible), and thus not be based on the love and mutual respect of cultural difference as he claims it must be. But on the other hand, if Herder’s humanitarian religion does allow for genuine differences, it would seem to have little in common with monistic religion as it has historically been understood; it would thus be far from clear how it could provide the meaning and purpose he thinks it must in order to make it possible for pluralistic man to be happy.

[The Review of Politics, Spring 2000 v62 i2 p268]


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