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Herder & Human Identity

Brian King says that to understand the herd, you need a Herder.

One question about human nature is whether it is the same for all people at all times, or whether it is fundamentally different in different cultures or historical periods. The argument that it is everywhere the same is implicit in the evolutionary view, since we all share common ancestors; but it has a longer pedigree than that. Plato’s account of the soul assumes that it applies to all men; Hume believed that “mankind is so much the same in all times and places that history informs us of nothing new or strange”; and the philosophers of the Enlightenment tended to see human truths in universal terms because they felt that the most significant aspect of human nature was rationality, which they observed to be evenly distributed throughout the world. However other thinkers, such as German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) thought that peoples from different historical periods and cultures vary so much in their concepts and beliefs that human nature is radically different in different cultures.

This idea originates from two basic observations. The first is that the need to belong to a group is as basic a need in humans as the need for food. Herder adapts Aristotle’s idea that man is a political animal, and takes it as a natural law that man is by destiny a creature of the herd, of society. And that, for Herder, is about it as regards any universal nature man has. The second basic view of Herder’s is that man’s values and sense of himself are passed on culturally, specifically by language.

Johann Gottfried von Herder (portrait by Darren McAndrew, 2016)

Personal Development

In his Essay on the Origin of Language (1772), Herder claims that the difference between humans and animals lies in the finality of purpose in animals and the developmental nature of purpose in man. “The bee was a bee as soon as it built its first cell,” he wrote, “but a person was not human until he had achieved completeness. People continued to grow as long as they lived… We are always in process, unsettled, unsatiated. The essence of our life is never satisfaction, rather always progression, and we have never been human until we have lived to the end.”

So according to Herder, we are always moving towards our true nature: our nature is a kind of project for us to fulfil. This seems to imply that your development and growth as a person is something that continues, or should continue, throughout your life. (A similar sentiment is echoed by Bob Dylan when he sings “He not busy being born is busy dying” in ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’). Herder, then, is saying that we have no set human nature except in so far as we are social creatures.

A critic might respond that this simply means that we are always unsatiated. But Herder is no existentialist, advocating that we should each individualistically fulfil our own destiny. Instead he argues that our movement towards becoming who we are, our identity, is largely determined by our cultural environment and the shared language that conveys that culture’s values to us. Becoming someone is principally (but not only) a collectivist thing; as Kwame Appiah says, “the individual identity… is likely to have what Herder would have seen as a national identity as a component of its collective dimension” (The Ethics of Identity, 2005). So although Herder does see that each person has an original way of being human and that he ought to be true to himself (a basic existentialist idea), he also sees that an essential part of a person’s identity is handed down to him through his culture, and is therefore not a matter of choice.

For Herder, each nation is separate, distinguished by climate, education, custom, tradition, and heredity. He claims that Providence “wonderfully separated nationalities not only by woods and mountains, seas and deserts, rivers and climates, but more particularly by languages, inclinations and characters.” He emphasized the importance of national culture in the formation of one’s identity and nature by saying, “he that has lost his patriotic spirit has lost himself and the whole world about himself” whilst teaching that “in a certain sense every human perfection is national.”

So for Herder, becoming someone involves a person growing and learning to fully identify with his or her culture and values. That is a large part of a person’s ‘true’ nature. He attaches great importance to culture and also national identity, as transmitted through language – that most basic and essential of all human capacities.

The process of passing on values occurs in families at first. By teaching children language, a family’s manner of thinking and set of values are developed and preserved in them. Then values are passed on through larger units such as schools, and eventually through societies or nations, the largest units that identify with the language. Each community or nation has its own language, unique tradition and history, which shapes the lives and values, the art and ideas, the activities and leisure pursuits of its inhabitants – its culture – and makes them the people they are – gives them their identity.

To a certain extent Herder is anticipating the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines thought and behaviour. In 1929 Edward Sapir said, “The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached… We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” (From a 1929 article entitled ‘The Status of Linguistics as a Science’ in Language Vol 5, No 4). This ‘mould theory’ of language does not just say that our thoughts are determined by our language, but that our very culture, values and ways of perceiving the world are moulded by the language in which we learn them, and that our ability to think outside the culture is therefore limited, if not impossible. Herder would have agreed: for him, our nature and identity are acquired through learning our values as expressed to us through language.

Herder’s Neusprach

Many would see as dangerous the notion that language use and the attendant culture determine one’s values and limit effective criticism of the culture, since this appears to be a recipe for totalitarian success.

Many regimes throughout history have attempted to mould peoples’ values and identities through their cultures, with various degrees of success – the medieval Catholic Church and the communist regimes of the Twentieth Century are arguably instances of this. Some might also argue that contemporary Western society’s insistence on liberal individualism and its materialism is also a more subtle version; after all, advertising is not just promoting a product but a way of life and a set of values that attend that way of life.

In his novel 1984, George Orwell portrayed a totalitarian society that controlled language itself. The Party promotes a specially invented, highly restricted language called ‘Newspeak’, which was founded on the idea that if there are no words for a concept it cannot be thought. Hence words like ‘freedom’ were omitted from its vocabulary, to make the idea unthinkable, so that people were less likely to make ‘unreasonable’ demands and rebel. Similarly words like ‘thoughtcrime’ were introduced to make this concept appear real and threatening.

Orwell writes the following in his ‘Principles of Newspeak’ appendix to 1984:

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper… but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought – that is, a thought diverging from the principles of [the Party’s worldview] – should be literally unthinkable… [Newspeak’s] vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever… Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”

The question presented here is how far our ability to think is dependent on the extent of our vocabulary. Are less well educated people easier to be made to conform? Can regimes manipulate peoples’ values so thoroughly, or does something more basic come through to undermine its attempts? And, if so, where do these more basic values come from, if not from culture and language? Is there something in our human nature that’s more fundamental?

Universality versus Relativity

There are further counterpoints to Herder’s view to consider. If cultures alone generate values and tastes, how can Western people like, say, Chinese art, when they have not been brought up in that tradition? Similarly, why are certain cultural items, such as songs, sports, or films, popular across a wide variety of cultures? What does this imply about cultural values?

It could be argued that Herder is exaggerating the differences between cultures. Two observations serve to show that there is a great deal of shared values throughout the world. One is that we have international events, such as music festivals or football tournaments, where common values or perhaps even universal values are clearly shared; the other is that study of ancient civilisations (for instance, the over 4,000-year-old Sumerian civilisation) reveal people having very similar concerns and values as our own.

Herder’s view is a cultural relativist one in that he maintains that since each culture originates its values, it can only be judged on its own terms. And since there are no external, objective, universal values by which anyone can judge a culture, one culture is as ‘valid’ as any other. His cultural relativist position is confirmed by the following statement: “every nation bears in itself the standard of its perfection, totally independent of all comparison with that of others” for “do not nationalities differ in everything, in poetry, in appearance, in tastes, in usages, customs and languages?” As he says, “each nationality contains its centre of happiness within itself, as a bullet the centre of gravity.” So each society is self-contained as regards its values; one society cannot be ‘superior’ to another and, by implication, one society cannot through time progress to being a ‘better’ one. Herder condemns those who would judge another culture by some alleged universal standard by saying, “the savage who loves himself, his wife and child with quiet joy and glows with joy at the limited activity of his tribe as for his own life, is in my opinion a more real being than that cultivated shadow who is enraptured with the shadow of the whole species.”

‘True’ people therefore are not completely self-created (as many existentialists would say) but are mainly the products of tradition and custom. So, the intellectual who tries to see things from the perspective of universal truths and is critical of their own society’s customs and traditions (Herder was attacking the Enlightenment philosophers here) is less ‘real’ than someone who is brought up in the narrow conventions of his society and just accepts and values what his family and society have told him to. What we would nowadays call philosophers would not fully be people, according to Herder!


In a way, Herder is turning Plato on his head by saying that the ordinary uncritical man is more fully human than the philosopher: that the man who stays in Plato’s famous Cave of illusion is more fully human than the one who tries to escape. Herder was one of the first to see the ordinary man as something more than just ‘the rabble’ or ‘the mob’. However, his praise of the dignity of a nation’s common people (‘das Volk’) was a forerunner of Twentieth Century perversions of that idea, which in the name of the state attempted to produce mass ‘democracies’ of mob rule, as the Nazis did.

© Brian King 2016

Brian King is a retired Philosophy and History teacher. He has published an ebook, Arguing About Philosophy, and now runs adult Philosophy and History groups via the University of the Third Age.

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