Friday, February 08, 2013

Herder and Relativism (Enlightened and Otherwise)

Johann Gottfried Herder, a late 18th-century German pastor, educator, translator, literary critic, and philosopher, consumed much of my life and thought from 1998-2001, while I was writing my dissertation on him. For the first couple of years after finishing my PhD, Herder continued to be my focus, as I clumsily tried to turn my dissertation into a book (no luck), to salvage academic articles from it (somewhat more successfully), and, of course, to sell it as an important part of the research agenda I could offer to the schools I interviewed at (a complete failure). My first blog, with its ridiculous name, was a reflection of that time. After a while, though, I stopped trying to pretend to myself that I had any plausible chance whatsoever of becoming a serious Herder scholar or specialist (or a genuine political philosopher at all, for that matter), and gratefully just tried to do my best the small corner of academia in which I managed to land. Since then, Herder has only rarely been on my mind. However, it just happens that I've received the invitation to review a couple of books on the man, here at the beginning of 2013. Here's some thoughts of mine on the first one; the second will come soon.

Sonia Sikka's 2011 book, Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference: Enlightened Relativism, is a work of pure philosophy, first and foremost. While she reflects upon how Herder's ideas have implication for how we think about history, culture, race, language, art, and more, her primary focus is given in the title of the book, explicated thoroughly in the first chapter, and then re-occurs throughout the rest of the text: namely, how Herder should be understood as a thinker who is both a universalist and a relativist, some who, one the one hand, could hold that there is "a minimally common human nature" which makes possible definitive cross-cultural and historical judgments of "practices, behaviors, and social arrangements that appear to damage the well-being of individuals" (p. 22), and on the other hand, affirm a "relativism about happiness [which] implies a deep form of evaluative incommensurability entailing that forms of happiness possible among these different societies...cannot be ranked" (p. 37). It's not surprising that Sikka makes this the heart of her consideration of Herder's contributions to philosophy, as the larger problem of "the One and the Many," of how to make sense of both particular differences and larger unities, has been one of the central pre-occupations of Western philosophy for as long as it has existed. Herder's writings are hardly oblivious to that fact; on the contrary, Isaiah Berlin once rightly described this struggle over how to respect both historical distinctions and natural commonalities--"the notion of unity in difference, still more of differences in unity"--as Herder's "idée maîtresse." This is especially true given the argument over how to situate Herder in regards to the universalism of the Enlightenment: was he wholly opposed to it, only partly so, or best described as articulating some parallel "counter-Enlightenment" at the same time? This historical question is one which Sikka gives extensive treatment, developing at length thoughtful arguments regarding Herder's relationship to Kant (which, as those of us who have studied the man know, is also a major theme in Herderian scholarship). So in sum, while those scholars who have become interested in Herder through the ways he has been employed in recent years by scholars of culture, nationality, and community to explore the nature of belonging may not find the general orientation of this book especially helpful to them, Sikka's overarching interpretation of Herder is a strong one, and as she persuasively connects it to most of the other issues addressed throughout the book's chapters, I think all who are curious about the man's work--including political theorists, historians, literary scholars, and anthropologists, not just philosophers--would benefit from giving it some time.

The essence of Sikka's overall interpretation is that Herder's universalism and relativism find their connection through his insistence on employing an anthropological and empirical--and thus, in a Kantian sense, thoroughly "pre-critical"--lens through which to ask questions about "happiness," "identity," "morality," or any other such quality about which we might be called to make judgments. For Herder, a study of history, rather a reflection upon the categories of thought, is the best way to get clear on how human beings construct their lives, and therefore is the only appropriate way for one has recognized the great diversity which exists in the world to respectfully and ethically interact with it. Sikka admirably (and, I think, correctly) lays out the consequences of this distinction in the second chapter of the book:

Whereas Kant sees human beings as standing over against the world, Herder sees them as "woven into the whole of the world with all the threads of their existence." Ultimately, that is why emotions are, for Kant, "blind followers," whereas, for Herder, they are "discoverers leading our interpretations of the world"....As a result, Kant and Herder come to very different conclusions about what defines the character of the morally good person. Kant states that the person of cold temperament who acts from duty thereby gives himself a "higher worth" that the person who acts from sympathetic inclination. Herder claims that "merely following rules," without possessing virtue, means wanting to follow cold reason alone, and not enjoying the whole feeling part of humanity." It is not that Kant thinks the best person is cold-hearted, but, for him, virtue resides in choosing to do one's duty, and this choice is never more visible than when it is made in opposition to inclinations. Herder's idea of the virtuous person, by contrast, closely resembles Schiller's model of the "beautiful soul," in whom sense and reason, duty and inclination, harmonize....Herder always favors the perception of continuities and gradations, within the human psyche as well as in nature. (pp. 65, 67-68)

The importance of happiness, as well as other similar characteristics, for understanding Herder is fairly obvious to one who chooses to get acquainted with the larger philosophical argument which Herder (and Sikka) confront; of all Herder's voluminous writings on human culture and history, probably none is better known (thanks to the work of Isaiah Berlin, who made extensive use of it in developing his influential interpretation of Herder) than his relatively short monograph Yet Another Philosophy of History of the Formation of Humankind, which includes--in one its relatively rare crystal-clear sentences--the insistence: "Each nation has its center of happiness in itself, like every sphere has its own center of gravity!" In other words, according to Herder one really can't--not if one takes seriously the idea of basic human rights, anyway, as both Kant and Herder did--"stand over against the world" and make judgments about what will result in the happiness or progress or authenticity of those living within it; only those actually living in the culture or community in question, with its own history and character, can make that judgment. Absent Kant's elevation of the question of judgment into categorical realms, one simply has to take seriously the anthropological, empirical "facts on the ground," and thus also take seriously the language and perspective of those who belong to each particular place and time. Hence, for Herder there is presumably a genuine relativism (not a "pluralism," a label which Sikka thinks fails to recognize what she sees as Herder's insistence that "the goodness of individual lives is relative...to their achievement of the goals and ideals presented to them as desirable and worthy in the society of which they are members"--p. 4) when it comes to one's study of the world and its history.

How does Sikka see this same "pre-critical" lens as bringing some universalism into Herder's philosophy, and thus giving his relativism an "Enlightened" aspect? By treating Herder's key moral ideal--Humanität--primarily in a similarly anthropological fashion, reading it as conveying true moral import, but the nature of that importance being tied to the shared "aptitudes and predispositions" of human being; Humanität, as Sikka sees it, is fundamentally Herder's expression of "the ideal essence of the species," something which exists within the "general nature of man" itself (pp. 20-21, 75). So human beings carry within themselves a common capacity, rooted in our basic physicality and sociality, and on that basis one can authentically assess whether real progress towards moral betterment--that is, a fuller realization of that capacity--is taking place within the life of another person--or, more relevantly to Herder's interests, within the history of a nation or people. That this realization will take multiple forms is a given by Herder; hence, for Sikka, the primary ethical imperative of Herder's ideal is freedom: that is, allowing as many peoples to be able to linguistically, religiously, and politically develop their humanity in their own ways as possible. As she writes:

While Herder takes issue with many elements of Kant's moral philosophy, he wholeheartedly agrees with the basic principle that all humanity deserves respect, and that the recognition of this principle in practice entails political freedom. In this sense, Herder does promote the global realization of a single ideal....The ideal political condition of Humanität is...one in which no people is favored, insulted, or given the rights to rule over others, and in which cultures and allowed to flourish as integral wholes distinct from one another. (pp. 117, 120)

I cannot disagree with this reading of Herder's central philosophical concerns; clearly, Herder's whole vision of the world was in a very real sense anthropological and empirical--he was a philosophical realist, convinced that the best metaphors for understanding the world were sensuous and organic ones, reflecting his belief that all which as worth knowing or even was capable of being known about it had its roots in natural, knowable processes. Sikka correctly notes this realism in his philosophy (pp. 105, 206-207), and thus makes a good case for seeing Herder as a thinker who has a very material conception of both humanity's diversity and our shared anthropology (a phenomenon most clearly revealed in our expressive propensity for language, and its constitutive cultural consequences). This allows her to build her argument for seeing Herder as both a universalist and a relativist on fairly unambiguous ground, intelligently importing that philosophical framework into an analysis of Herder's ideas about history, race, progress, and more. It is a solid argument--but not, for me, a wholly persuasive one. This is not to say that I didn't learn a good many things about Herder from Sikka's book; I absolutely did. But, as she herself notes when discussing Herder's philosophy of language, "one cannot do justice to Herder's conception of language as a central constituent of cultural identity without examining the metaphysical, rather than exclusively anthropological, dimensions of this idea" (p. 183). The same could be said at many points throughout the book--to take Herder's claims on their own terms, the metaphysical must be conceived as connected to the anthropological. Sikka does frequently note that, for Herder, there is no clear demarcation between these two areas of inquiry, and she ably discusses the way Herder's concept of Kraft, an undefinable "living organic force" (p. 141) plays a connecting role here. But I remain unsatisfied with her treatment of the connection nonetheless, as if she was convinced that Herder himself would have been in agreement with her apparent conclusion that his own universalism was ultimately a thin veneer over a deeper pluralism. Herder, I think, would not have agreed with that conviction at all.

I have to admit that part of this disagreement with Sikka may simply be sour grapes, arising from her treatment of a published argument of my own about Herder. She approvingly makes use of an observation of mine about the metaphysical implications of Herder's constitutive approach to language, noting that "for Herder, what is taking place in the formation of language 'is not a purely subjective ordering, but an alignment of our thinking with truths that are there to be understood' and that...'finding forms of expression is, therefore, a way of relating to reality'" (p. 183). But then, a few pages later, she quotes me again, and writes that "[i]t cannot be true...that 'Herder believed that when we mark off and hermeneutically open up, through language, an understanding of the given historical and natural context which informs all our thinking, we are situating ourselves into communities which share a grasp of things that is fundamentally right'" (p. 190). I cannot see why Sikka would want to distance Herder from what seems apparent to both me and other students of his writings: namely, his own belief that there are true accounts of history, reality, and morality revealed through the process of expression. This is especially puzzling given that in Sikka's own thorough account of Herder's philosophy she notes multiple times that, for Herder, "words actually represent bits of the world"; that "[w]hat is special about human beings...is their ability to reflect on what presses upon them and to bring it to the explicitness of the word...[which is] a form of revelation"; and that "Herder sees the human subjects as bound up with the reality it perceives and thinks that he can claim: 'the thing itself'...exists 'in you, in me, as in all objects'" (pp. 177, 189, 211). Perhaps the problem is simply that Sikka does not see Herder's ethical universalism, and thus his invocations of reality and truth, as grounded in anything more substantive than his anthropology of human beings, since his metaphysical reflections seemed to her to be conditioned more by the particularity of human expressions of happiness and so forth than anything more unified. But if that is the case, then Sikka's problem is in fact one she has in common with some of the most important of Herder scholars: she's not reading his Christian writings. And given that Herder's actual profession was that of a Lutheran clergyman and educator, that's an unfortunate gap, however common it might be.

Herder's religious writings--not just his studies of Old Testament language and poetry, which are well known, but his sermons, his counsel to other preachers, and his reflections on Christian teachings, history, and ecclesiology--are numerous, and too rarely read. (Berlin himself almost totally ignored them.) Herder's major work on the nature of God, God: Some Conversations, his engagement in the "pantheist controversy" involving the legacy of Spinoza in 18th-century Germany, is more often considered, and Sikka focuses on it in her final chapter, though I think her overall conclusions about Herder's "enlightened relativism" lead her to miss the even deeper paradox of Herder's faith than that book showed. That "Herder's position on religious diversity blends a species of relativism--in this case an appreciation of the cultural relativity of symbolic forms--with a universalism projecting a broad ideal of human flourishing" (p. 241) is mostly correct, but it fails to address Herder's clear prioritizing of the Christian value of some specific types of human attachment to those symbolic forms over others. Sikka does note Herder's "privileging" of Christianity, but tends to understand that applause for its place in history as part of Herder's imagining of Christianity "as exclusively a moral code, stripped of ritual, ceremony, symbol, and arguably all that makes it a particular religion" (pp. 219-220). This suggestion that Herder was eliding particularity, including particular symbolic forms, which talking about the moral reality and force of Christianity is, I think, simply wrong. On the contrary, anyone familiar with his essay On National Religions (which Sikka never cites) can't help but be struck at his emphasis upon the idea that religious truth was best realized through the specific development of "a pure, free Christian religion," one which was connected to the expressive development of a particular people (which he saw most impressively in the development of Lutheranism through Germany). This is in opposition to Christianity's realization as a "national church" like Roman Catholicism (which he critically calls "state Christianity") or Henry VIII's Church of England.

The complicated, confusing truth is simply that Herder's relativism--which was quite real--perhaps wasn't so much "Enlightened" as reflecting a nuanced Protestant teleology, one which consisted of a multiplicity of divine revelations to be worked out in diverse times and places, yet all of which Herder believed shared a connection (via Kraft, the operation of which Herder equated, in a funeral sermon, with "God's own intent") to "true convictions about God and human beings." Through this undefined and perhaps essentially unknowable historical process, Christianity would ultimately become the "pure dew of heaven for all nations, which neither changes any tree's character or type of fruit, nor strip any person of their own nature." Humanität, therefore, had for Herder a much more substantive shape than that of human beings being capable of an expressive exploration and development of their own human capacities, and the ethical imperative to respect such; for Herder, it meant the revelation of the divine origin of those capacities. As he put it in probably his most consistent and important work, Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Humankind: "O benevolent God, you did not leave your creation to murderous chance; you engraved your image, religion, and humanity on the human soul. The outline of the statue lies there, hidden in dark, deep marble, but this outline cannot hew or fashion itself. Tradition and teaching, reason and experience must do this; and yet, you have sufficiently supplied the means for obtaining them." No, Herder did not believe that everyone would eventually become Lutheran--but he did believe that Lutheranism contributed to and joined in with a religion of humanity, of Billigkeit or equal treatment, a particularized and organic Christian message for everyone in every place, whatever or wherever that may be. Kant may have famously denied knowledge in order to make room for religious faith, but for Herder, relative anthropological knowledge and a unifying metaphysical faith--a Christian and humane one--were both available to us, if one would only stop constructing distracting rational and cosmopolitan philosophies and instead see the world as it really was.

In the end, I have to say that I think very highly Sikka's book; it is well-written, comprehensive but not over-long, and makes a strong argument for its overall thesis, one that should be taken seriously by any student of Herder's philosophy, and which has important things to say to those approaching Herder with an eye to his historical, literary, political, and anthropological contributions as well. I am critical of Sikka's work only in that I feel that she did not take Herder seriously enough as a religious thinker, as someone who, in his own way, was very conscious of the problem for Enlightenment Europe of religion in general and Christianity in particular, and whose response to that problem was deeply entwined in his whole philosophy of relativism and universalism. I would be fascinated to read a work of Sikka's which applied the same rigor and thought she shows in this book to those parts of Herder's legacy that perhaps didn't appear to her to be relevant to her thesis. In contrast to her, I think they are very relevant. But I can only make that observation after having worked through this fine scholarly work, and for that I'm in her debt.

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