Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind

Johann Gottfried von Herder was a German philosopher associated with the Enlightenment. He wrote the article, “Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind” in 1784, and he discussed the idea of nationalism. Paul Halsall provided an introduction to this article. There have been different types of nationalism, such as cultural pride, …right to self-government, and …national superiority” (Halsall 1)

He established the central ideas of nationalism, which are that people can be defined as having a “common history, language, and tradition” and that a nation “has a unique claim to be considered a legitimate political basis for sovereignty” (Halsall 1). In general, the people of nations do not necessarily consider themselves as members of a given nation. They are more aware that they belong to a smaller group, such a family or a town whereas nationalism is in a broader sense.

For France, the concept of nationalism was difficult because most residents of France did not speak French. Ultimately, a French national identity was created by having all people learn to speak French. For French thinkers, an nationalistic France was not complicated because France had been established as a united state. However, for German thinkers, the idea of nationalism was more difficult because heterogenous groups of people were interspersed. For example, people had different religions, languages, and traditions. THe idea of nationalism can be created throughout language because “to deprive a people of its speech is to deprive it of its one eternal good” (Halsall 2).

How do you think that the United States establishes its own sense of nationalism and how does this compare to the idea of nationalism in France during the French Revolution?

von Herder: Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind

In his “Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind,” von Herder writes about the importance of cultural nationalism and the value of local culture. A German scholar, he believes that the people of Germany are brought together by their shared language and customs, and that these attributes make the nation unique to other countries. He compares a nation-body to that of a family and believes that the two are inherently the same because they are both natural. Von Herder also believes that nature creates families and the most natural state is a group or body of people who share a national character and come together as one. He also deplores the concept of a the expansion of states that create a “a wild confusion of races and nations under one scepter.” He states, “An empire made up of a hundred peoples and 120 provinces which have been forced together is a monstrosity, not a state-body.” Von Herder emphasizes the importance of a shared cultural tradition. “Has a people anything dearer than the speech of its fathers? In its speech resides its whole thought-domain, its tradition, history, religion, and basis of life, all its heart and soul. To deprive a people of its speech is to deprive it of its one eternal good…” Von Herder believes in the idea of a community of people united together through their shared practices, values, common language, and history.

It is apparent the von Herder relies on language as a source of German community, but also as a key aspect of the nation’s culture, tradition, and history. He states, “The best culture of a people cannot be expressed through a foreign language; it thrives on the soil of a nation most beautifully, and, I may say, it thrives only by means of the nation’s inherited and inheritable dialect.” Here, von Herder is implying that the best culture of people cannot lack a traditional and historical common language, which would mean that the inclusion of any foreign or external language would be a threat to this cultural well-being. He has also explicitly states that the best culture thrives only by the means of ancestral dialect.

If we take the United States, for example, which has been infused with a plethora of languages and cultures and has even been dubbed as a cultural “melting-pot,” I would presume that von Herder would consider this a nation lacking what he would consider a “national character.” Do you agree?

Religion in a Revolutionary Context

Religion remained the primary justification of the French Revolution by the citizens of the third estate. Robespierre, the leader of Public Safety, pushed both ideologies of Supreme “Reason” and “Being” in order to provide a more understandable means to motivate revolutionaries. The state religion at the time revolved around a Deist philosophy, the notion that there is no divine intervention and God is a clockmaker who merely wound up the springs of nature and set them into motion. Logically, because God cannot interrupt the flow of the human course, but simultaneously promoted particular virtues that the monarchy did not reflect, it became justified that it was their right to overthrow the atheistic monarch to perpetuate God’s will. Religious sentiments such as these are extremely powerful. When man and woman can be convinced that their violence is justified and the result will bring them higher fortunes, it is very difficult to stop them.

La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem composed during the French Revolution, contained very violent language that no one could find religiously justifiable without it’s context. Phrases such as “Their impure blood should water our fields”, paired with adjectives like “vengeful”, actually caused it to be banned by Napoleon and Louis XVIII due to its revolutionary implications. These documents reveal that revolutionary culture during the French Revolution was fueled by violence while simultaneously being justified in religious contexts.

What is Enlightenment?

Being called enlightened alludes to the belief that someone is more knowledgeable about a topic than the majority of the community. This process is brought about when one begins to think for himself, therefore looking beyond how society sees things in order to create new thoughts and assumptions about how something is and what it might be/become. Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, defined Enlightenment as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage”. In this statement he expresses Enlightenment as thinking outside of the box in order to broaden ones mind and break away from the societal norms that they had been learning under since their birth. We understand that the process of enlightenment is necessary to progress in the global environment; I contend that Enlightenment has been an ongoing process that has been in motion since the dawn of man. How else (besides lucky discoveries) did people invent things without thinking “how can I make this tool better?”, and, at the root of it, isn’t that question the base of Enlightenment? Therefore, I believe, at its most basic point Enlightenment is the drive for a society to break out of its shell in search for methods that make the population’s lives easier by discovering new and improved tools and processes of getting things done.