Saturday, March 09, 2013

Communities and Herder's Political Thought

Vicki Spencer's excellent Herder's Political Thought: A Study on Language, Culture, and Community is the second scholarly work on Johann Gottfried Herder I have read this year, and it is the better of the two, even though the first one I read--Sonia Sikka's Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference was both more rigorous and more clear in its treatment of Herder's ideas. The primary difference between the two is that Sikka's book was stalking bigger game: she constructed an argument to situate Herder philosophically, exploring how Herder's commitment to thinking anthropologically and organically about history, language, culture, and more, all supposedly revealed his unique combination of "universalism" and "relativism." By seeking to make such a broad statement, Sikka's otherwise excellent and thoughtful book was marred (slightly, but still significantly) by its non-engagement with Herder's many religious writings, thus resulting in Sikka's insightful but still flawed treatment of Herder's whole project. Spencer, by contrast, is not attempting here to make any such comprehensive argument; as a result, what seems to me to be similar flaws in her presentation (she also doesn't pay sufficient attention to Herder's Christian ideas) don't affect the results nearly as much.

Spencer's whole intention is to bring Herder's political thought into conversation with Anglo-American political theory, and particularly to show the value of Herder's positions on language, identity, community, nationality, and government to the liberal-communitarian debates of the 1980s and 90s. She does this by defining the kind of communitariansim which she believes Herder's overall work sketches out: a "liberal-communitarianism," one that is premised upon a "weak pluralism" and a "holistic individualism," one that allows for a wide variety of communal constructs, primarily realized through the public use of language, and all of which are historically constitutive of their individual members, though they are also subject to a degree of independent critique. In describing this interplay of the natural human self and variable human communities, she writes:

Herder regards a cultural community not simply as an attribute that its members possess. It is not simply an object that is external to the self and that we utilize to achieve our ends. It is constitutive of our identity as individuals....The character of a Volk cannot be considered as the mere aggregate of individual personalities. As an organic whole it emerges...from mutual relationships and interactions as more than the sum of its constituent parts....It does not follow that an individual possesses no identity apart from the whole any more than a word cannot be defined independently of a sentence. Yet an indivudal's identity is fundamentally transformed if these relationships dissolve....

An understanding of life as a process of self-clarification and discovery does not...negate people's capacity to criticize and reject individual cultural and linguistic practices. Culture, like language, possesses an objective dimension and a subjective one. While their dynamic and public nature means that neither can be fully brought under an individual 's control, they are nonetheless social practices that are created by the people who participate in them. Just as language is a 'treasure room of human thoughts to which each person contributed something in his own way!' so, too, is a community's culture. Neither is a historical given that the individual absorbs passively. Herder accords to artists, poets, and writers a significant role in the development of a community's culture....As much as Herder recognizes that our cognition is bounded, he also believes that 'cognition without volition is nothing as well, a false, imperfect cognition. (pp. 85, 87-88)

It wouldn't be difficult to come up with a liberal-communitarian axis, line up various thinkers and writers who were influential in this old (but still relevant) debates along it, and then situate Herder, as Spencer describes him here, accordingly (definitely further along than Will Kymlicka, not as far along as Alasdair MacIntyre). Charles Taylor is a heavy influence on her thinking, and as such one might argue the argument she is showing Herder as advancing is one we've already heard, and in more philosophically rigorous form than she provides here. While there is truth to that, it is also the case that, in applying this particular communitarian model, Spencer insists upon some distinctions and applications which results in some genuinely original observations, leading even someone like myself who spent years exhausting himself trying to work through translations of Herder to see things differently. For example, her treatment of Herder as a "republican" thinker, making a parallel between his defense of the Volk with the role of decentralized (and often stateless) political communities, designed to provide real possibilities for participatory self-government and self-realization, was thought-provoking:

Following Montesquieu, and like modern liberal-communitarians, he places his faith in local communities as the basis for public participation. He identifies the lack of public spirit in his own society as party due to the influence of those who believe that true citizenship lies beyond local communities, with civil servants placing their faith in dynastic empires and philosophers supporting the notion of universal citizenship....In Herder's political thought, the state is by no means a universal necessity or even a desirable unit of association. His form of republicanism does not require the state in its modern form, but he recognizes the need for some form of unifying association among the constituent parts of a whole. Far from being  absolute opposites, Herder envisages unity and diversity as two sides of the same interactive process: 'In this law: to effect many things in one, and to combine the greatest variety with an unconstrained uniformity: consists the height of beauty'....There is a significant difference between the kind of multi-dimensional and multi-cultural state Herder envisages and the uniform constitutionalism that has dominated modern conceptions of the state (pp. 164-166, 202).

Spencer's account and defense of Herder's argument for local communities is a strong one, but it admittedly depends upon the above-implied balancing act. Somehow, the public groupings capable of sustaining the natural and historical development of a language and culture (which must be more than just a family unit or some other tiny gathering seeking mere survival against the elements; while Spencer attempts to read Herder's arguments in an as non-statist and as local a light as possible, she acknowledges that his reasoning leads to the conclusion that "for humans originally to have created language...'sociality' is essential"--p. 39), which is what is necessary for people to realize their own contributions to Humanität (Herder's highest ethical ideal, the collective achievement of an individual's and their community's fullest moral potential), had to grow and development so as to allow for opportunities for participation and discourse, while nonetheless remaining in some associational connection to one another, reflecting some kind of underlying "uniformity" (though not, Spencer thinks, a "uniform constitutionalism"). In our political world, this would seem to be a perfect fit for federalism, wherein basic associational rules govern a variety of sovereign communities which can develop morally and linguistically along their own separate histories. But federalism does not fit well with communitarian ideas perfectionism, and Spencer, while she sees Herder's ideas for moral improvement usually making use of educational rather than political entities, acknowledges that he writes that ideally "politics and morality...'must become one'" (p. 175). Thus Herder's attempt to integrate, as Spencer sees it, both unity and diversity simply re-iterates one of the longest standing arguments within the communitarian tradition: completely aside from the question of how one justifies or defends the substantive development of any particular given community, what situates it in regards to any other? How is it that a defense of the distinct moral development of different communities can avoid falling into the same overall trap of atomistic individualism, with just publics being the monads in question rather individuals? Is Herder ultimately just a relativist after all, or might he, perhaps, not be as much an opponent of imperialism as he seems? Spencer would say no to both, and I would agree, but that leaves us in need of a solution.

The usual solution for those who articulate Herder's communitarianism is through nations. "Nationality" becomes a framing concept, ratifying an important element of human diversity, while also providing both a degree of Volkish (arguably essentializing) uniformity within them and a kind of broader, conceptual (but non-centralizing) uniformity throughout the whole history of human endeavor. Humanität is thus understood as something realized around the world and throughout history in and through nations, with national identity providing the clearest, and most concisely identifiable, markers of the boundaries as well as the constitutive elements of a productive human community. Many of those who find Herder's ideas appealing have in essence taken this route (myself included). But Spencer denies the appropriateness of this conceptual framing, insisting that Herder's ideas hardly support nationalist arguments at all, much less the civic and communitarian defenses of national identity made by authors like David Miller (see p. 149 and passim). Noting that Herder defines neither nations nor the Volk as dependent upon any given "geographic borders" or "parliament of rulers," but rather ties both to the public discourse and participatory associations formed through language itself, she concludes that Herder's analytical focus and moral concern addressed groupings very different from "the modernity, civic conception of the nation," and that if his insistence on "cultural respect" resembles nationalism, it is largely because of an international system which "accords autonomy almost exclusively to states while often failing to accord due respect and public recognition to cultural communities" (p. 133, 153-154). I really appreciate Spencer's hammering home of this point; in my past work on Herder, I don't think I appreciated the politically anarchic and pluralistic character of many of his writings, despite that having been observed--as Spencer notes--by important Herder scholars like F.M. Barnard and Frederick Beiser before. But in making this point, Spencer leaves unexplained two matters: first, Herder's own frequent usage of locutions like "national character" or "national religions" when arguing against any kind of universalism, and second, the still-unresolved problem mentioned above: how did he imagine the stateless dialogical operation of individual and community development, with all its moral substance, to nonetheless follow or even just ultimately achieve some sort of baseline "uniformity"?

It might be possible to solve this problem by making use of Herder's thinking about nature and anthropology; given that he was deeply committed to an empirical reading of human endeavors, it would not be difficult to simply present Herder's whole philosophical project in light of his thinking about a connecting "organicism" and "vitalism." Spencer is open to some of this, talking about how Herder's liberal-communitarianism partakes of an "open teleology." But that kind of emphasis upon natural law has its own problems, not the least being that advances and changes in the way we understand human evolution, cognition, and anthropology will have therefore made Herder's teleological arguments that much less persuasive. (While there are probably some who might be convinced that the diverse substantive moral commitments which we articulate through all our cultural communities nonetheless share a similar innate and expressive code, the 18th-century science needed to support such beliefs is mostly dismissed today, as it is implicitly by Spencer herself, when she distances Herder's philosophy of language from Chomsky and others who speak of "innate ideas" underlying linguistic development--pp. 30-31.)

But there is another way to resolve this dilemma, and that is with religion, with Herder's ontology of being. That may not be any more persuasive to contemporary secular audiences than trying to urge a reflection upon communitarian themes, particularly regarding cultural membership, via a philosophical anthropology of human history, but it has the virtue of incorporating something relevant to politics too often left out in accounts of Herder's ideas. Spencer, like so many other students of Herder, does not address at any length his religious writings, though she recognizes that he identifies Humanität with Christian principles (p. 167-168). Her emphasis on the distinction between Herder's cultural communities and the state helps buttress her implication that Herder, as one who often condemned evangelistic religious imperialism, did not mean "state church" by "national religion" (which is, in fact, something he ruled out explicitly in his essay On National Religions, an essay which Spencer does not cite), but I think she misses an opportunity to notice how Protestant ecclesiology nonetheless provides a way of conceiving this balance between uniformity and diversity. If Humanität was ultimately a kind of divine potential, one realized through diverse exposures to and distinct cultural and linguistic articulations of a singular revelation, then Herder's whole vision of a world of interacting and interdependent cultural communities, not centralized around any state structure but nonetheless treating each other with equal respect, with "enlightened 'aristo-democrats,' as he refers to them....helping individuals develop and understanding of the self both as an individual and as a member of a community 'with a firm sense of justice and duty'" (p. 170--and I think someone familiar with Herder's religious background and interactions would be hard pressed not to recognize the idea of Lutheran conventicles and congregational leaders and educators like himself here) holds together much better, I think.

As I said at the beginning, it was clearly not Spencer's intention in this book to get Herder's whole philosophy to "hold together," though; she wanted to explore the implications of his ideas for debates over community, identity politics, multiculturalism, language policy, and much more. It may be the flaw of someone like Charles Taylor--and myself, for that matter--to want to turn Herder into a Hedgehog, when he really is obviously much more of a Fox. A line of thinking which can connect all of Herder's disparate moves can be found, I think, but hunting for it is perhaps a distraction from what Herder actually offers to political thinkers. Early in her book, Spencer admits that Herder never produced "one major text to include in the philosophical canon" (p. 20), though she insists that isn't a valid reason for his ideas to have been so rarely incorporated into the Western canon. I agree--and while I'm hedgehoggy enough to regret that this fine book can't quite tie together all the excellent ideas she retrieves from Herder's writings, it's worth keeping in mind that we rarely actually need complete philosophical arguments to be persuaded of valuable ideas. Herder has many such ideas; I'd already come to agreement with a lot of them, but Spencer here has persuaded me of a few more. For that, she has my thanks.

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