Johann Gottfried von Herder

Johann Gottfried von Herder might not be a household name today, but while he may be unfamiliar to many, his cultural philosophy has had a legacy that stretches into the present day - especially as far as nationalism is concerned. A philosopher, literary critic and anti-enlightenment reactionary, Herder became an important figure in the development of a revolutionary cultural and historic philosophy. Herder's work heavily inspired the German romanticist movement of the 19th century, and he is widely perceived as the father of cultural nationalism. 

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    Johann Gottfried von Herder Biography

    Johann Gottfried von Herder, Johann Gottfried von Herder portrait, StudySmarterPortrait of Johann Gottfried von Herder by Anton Graff, 1785, CC-PD-Mark, Wikimedia Commons

    Johann Gottfried Herder was born in Mohrangen, Prussia, on the 25th of August 1744. Too poor to attend school regularly, Herder used his father’s songbooks and Bible to educate himself. At the age of 17, Herder enrolled at the University of Königsberg to study philosophy, literature and theology. Although he was taught directly by enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, Herder was also influenced by Johann von Hamann. He went on to become Hamann’s protégé and used his teachings as a basis for his philosophical endeavours.

    In 1764, Herder travelled to Riga, now the capital of Latvia, as a Lutheran clergyman. It was here that he published his first literary critiques. He later travelled to Nantes, France in 1769 before continuing to Paris. Through his journal, titled Journal of my travel in the year 1967 (Journal meiner Reise im Jahr 1967, in German) an ideological and personal shift can be detected in Herder's thought during this period. Importantly, he begins to look to history to make sense of the present and future.

    In Strasbourg, 1770, Herder met the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - a poet, playwright and author. Herder's literary criticism encouraged Goethe to develop his own style, and he would later go on to become one of the most significant influences on the German language, political thought and philosophy. Later in life, though, Goethe's relationship with Herder soured considerably. Herder briefly became a court preacher in a small German town in the early 1770s, until Goethe, who had emerged as an acclaimed author, used his authority to appoint Herder as General Superintendent of the court of Weimar in the mid-1770s. Herder soon met his wife Maria Caroline Flachsland, and married her in 1773, in the German city of Darmstadt. The two would go on to have six children between 1774 and 1783.

    His support for the French Revolution starting in 1789, as well as his subsequent criticisms of Kant's work and the enlightenment movement, isolated Herder from his colleagues and academic peers towards his retirement. Herder passed away at the age of 59 in Weimar, 1803. A year before his death he had been ennobled by the Prince-Elector of Bavaria, allowing him to use 'von' before his surname.

    Johann Gottfried von Herder developed his philosophical outlook as a result of his personal experiences and his research into the works of other philosophers. As a protégé of Hamann, Herder contended the central aspects of the enlightenment discourse which dominated the 17th and 18th centuries.

    The Enlightenment: A period of revolutionary scientific, philosophical and political discourse with worldwide influence, the enlightenment was characterised by ideas of rationality and reason, through which knowledge, freedom and happiness could be achieved.

    Johann von Hamann

    Johann Gottfried von Herder, Johann Von Haman in 1949, StudySmarterJohann Von Hamann, Paul Ortwin Rave, 1949, CC-PD-Mark, Wikimedia Commons

    Johann von Hamann studied theology at the University of Königsberg and did not buy into the ideas of rationality and reason offered by enlightenment thinkers. Instead, he regarded all of creation as "signs" from God, which humankind must interpret. He also famously stated, "reason is language" ("Vernunft ist Sprache" in German), which is credited with kick-starting the intense philosophical focus on language in the following centuries.

    Herder's most significant work was written during his time as the General Superintendent of the court of Weimar in 1977. The treatise, titled The Origin of Language, won a competition set up by the Prussian Royal Academy of Sciences in an attempt to determine the importance and origins of language. Herder's cultural and national philosophies came into focus both in this work and in a later book entitled A Philosophy of Human Nature.

    Johann Gottfried von Herder Nationalism

    Herder's definition of the term 'nation' differs significantly from the contemporary meaning of the word. When Herder was developing his concept of the 'nation', Germany was not yet a unified country. Germani people lived in several principalities and independent states, known collectively as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Prussia, Herder's place of birth, emerged as the most powerful state. The regime which ruled Prussia during this period was all-powerful and did not allow its academics and intellectuals to participate in political matters. These factors were important in forming Herder's theory of a nation.

    Johann Gottfried von Herder The symbol of the Holy Roman Empire StudySmarterThe double-headed eagle with coats of arms of individual states, the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire, Hans Burgkmair the Elder, 1510, Public Domain, Wikimedia commons

    Herder saw the 'state' and the 'nation' as two separate concepts. He insisted that nations were not political structures, but rather distinct societies that could also exist within multi-national states. To be considered a nation, Herder believed that a society must have a distinctive language and culture. Inspired by Hamann's work, Herder adopted a romantic approach and believed that language and culture were gifted to societies by God, thereby rejecting the generalised rational approach of enlightenment thinkers.

    Herder believed that nations created natural borders as opposed to the fabricated borders which states established regardless of which nations they contained. Therefore, Herder was not a nationalist in the contemporary sense, but a cultural nationalist. He believed that all nations had a distinctive Volkgeist (the spirit or essence of the people) which bound them together and that this Volkgeist should be protected and passed on through generations.

    Another key aspect of Herder's nationalism was the idea that nations would eventually coexist peacefully alongside one another. Each volk (or 'people') would progress and retain their Volkgeist without the need for conquest and rivalry.

    Johann Gottfried von Herder's Cultural Philosophy

    Herder believed that culture is history and that it is expressed, passed on and retained through the art and language of a nation. His cultural philosophy can be largely summarised in two main points:

    1. Language and Genetics: Herder believed that as the Volk or people developed, their own distinct culture developed out of their language and shared history. This is because communities learned to communicate among themselves through a specific language. Each community’s language was distinct; people who spoke the same language were, therefore, initially genetically related. These communities eventually developed into nations with particular cultures and ways of life that would be handed down throughout history, using language as a tool. Sometimes, these communities have been separated by artificially-imposed borders.
    2. Anti-imperialism: Herder believed that imperialism destroyed indigenous cultures. This is because imperialists would often enforce their own beliefs and cultures upon the colonised people, resulting in the gradual eradication of their languages and cultures over time, which for Herder, meant the loss of the Volkgeist. This would lead to conflict and discontent, as only a common Volkgeist and language can guarantee peace and happiness within a nation.

    He who has lost his patriotic spirit has lost himself 1

    -Johann Gottfried von Herder

    Herder was a pluralist, who desired the protection of all distinct cultures and languages. In modern terminology, Herder would be considered an unyielding opponent of cultural appropriation, as he believed that it polluted the natural and god-given culture of a particular people, and would eventually lead to their destruction whilst causing irreversible damage to other cultures.

    He was also a cultural relativist, as he rejected the racist notion of enlightenment, which sought to spread the 'universal' ideas of rationality and reason to 'civilise' people and allow human progression. He insisted that each culture creates its own standard for 'civilisation' and that each culture and nation is equally valid within its own context.

    every nation bears in itself the standard of its perfection, totally independent of all comparison with that of others2

    Johann Gottfried von Herder - Key takeaways

    • Johann Gottfried von Herder was a philosopher, literary critic and anti-enlightenment reactionary.
    • He was born in Mohrangen, Prussia on the 25th of August 1744 and died in Weimar in 1803.
    • Johann Gottfried von Herder developed his philosophies as a result of his personal experience whilst living in the Holy Roman Empire and his research into the works of other philosophers such as Johann Hamann.
    • Herder was a cultural nationalist who believed all nations had a distinctive spirit which bound them together, and that this culture should be protected and passed on by the people through generations.
    • His cultural philosophy can be largely interpreted through 2 themes: Language and Genetics and anti-imperialism.
    • Herder was a cultural relativist who rejected the central enlightenment ideals of universal rationality and reason.


    1. Johann Gottfried Herder, sämtliche werke, Vol XVIII, p 337
    2. As quoted in Kennedy, G. A., Nisbet, H. B., Rawson, C., & Selden, R. (Eds.). (1989). The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: Volume 4, The Eighteenth Century (No. 4). Cambridge University Press.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Johann Gottfried von Herder

    Who was Johann Gottfried von Herder?

    A  philosopher, literary critic and anti-enlightenment reactionary

    What did Johann Gottfried Herder believe?

    He believed all nations had a distinctive spirit which bound them together, and that this culture should be protected and passed on by the people through generations.

    What did Johann Gottfried Herder claim?

    That nations were not the same as states, and that a society which had a distinct language and culture could be considered a nation.

    What was the theory or philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder?

    He believed that culture is history and that it originates from language and genetics. He also believed that imperialism would destroy cultures and that universal ideals could not be applied distinct cultures.

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    Was Von Herder in favour of the Enlightenment?

    In his earlier years, what material did Von Herder use to educate himself?

    When did Von Herder move to Strasbourg?


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