Herder's Anthropology and Kant's Paltry Image of Man

[. . . . It] seems to me that in spite of the large number of monographs—and among them many brilliant works—about [Johann Gottfried von] Herder and his ideas on the philosophy of the history of man, his incredibly thorough and rich speculative system has not been fully appreciated for its greatness and, above all, its superiority to Kant's rather paltry image of man. Perhaps this is because Herder's intuitive-historical way of thinking and his writing style, in which fantastic analogies sometimes run riot, lack the pathos of the strict abstractness that deals with the issues as harshly as Kant—under whose harsh treatment they sometimes lose their form.

Neither the Cartesian dichotomy of body and anima or ratio nor the Kantian division into sensory nature and reason is satisfactory for Herder—he sees more. As a philosopher of the Enlightenment, Herder, like Linnaeus and Buffon, also sees man as a rational person, raised above the animal kingdom because of his reason. But for Herder reason is not a substance that can be isolated and, freed of all connections to the senses, added on to the body or soma as a differential element. Instead, he sees reason as an autonomous, psychic-lawful essence, as the spiritual unity of man in the same sense J. H. Fichte later expressed in more clearly defined concepts.

Herder's understanding of man as a unified spiritual entity is the starting point for the drastic, polemic difference between him and Kant. In Kant's theory of reason, reason is the differential element, a substance in itself foreign to the body and the senses, that develops toward ever greater perfection and that continues this development when it has cast off the earthly shackles. Thus, a straight line runs through the development of reason in this world and the next, and death is merely a relatively irrelevant event. In Kant's view, the rational person must continue with this unending development when freed from the body just as much as in earthly life. And life on earth does not seem to obstruct this development any more than the life hereafter.

Herder is also convinced of the development and, like Kant, believes that reason cannot attain perfection in this life; here man is always in a state of becoming, a bud of humanity, so to speak. It is only death that brings the decisive change: the rational creature tied to the world of animals and the body becomes a free being. We do not know any details about his status but we have to believe that in this being the bud comes into full flower.

Herder does not continue the line of development from birth through death to infinity but juxtaposes the conditions in this life and the afterlife as the imperfect one and the perfect one. Before death man is completely shackled by earthly life, but after death he is free and can develop without restraint. Herder's image of this transition from one status to the other is that of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. On either side of the transition there is a whole human life; while we know the makeup of life on this side, that of the life beyond death is a matter of faith.

Inherent in Herder's integral view is the belief in the meaning of earthly existence, which for Kant is characterized by a disconcerting meaninglessness. We will discuss below in more detail the difficulties inherent in Kant's construction, difficulties Kant was well aware of but could not overcome. . . .

While Kant found the meaninglessness of earthly life "disconcerting," Herder believes that "All the works of God have this property, that, although they belong to a vast whole each is in itself a whole, and bears the divine characters of its destiny within it." Earthly destiny, however, is "some form of human happiness and manner of life," simple pleasure in the company of parents and children, the quiet breath of daily life as one complete in itself.

"Humaneness and happiness, in this place, to this degree, as this link, and no other, in the chain of development that extends throughout the whole race"—that is the meaning of life. "What and wherever thou art born, O man, there thou art what thou shouldst be: quit not the chain, set not thyself above it, but cling to it firmly! Only in connection with it, in what thou receivest and giveth, and in thy activity in both, only there wilt thou find life and peace for thyself." Earthly life is here seen as one, unified, integral, and meaningful, a view that developed and matured to full clarity in the nineteenth century.

In Herder's use of the Cartesian dualism of body and human soul the two integral concepts of the this-worldly and the other-worldly rational person replace the one specific differential concept of the soul. The specific concept of the body is replaced by that of the meaningfully structured earthly figure (with which we need not deal here) and that of the living form as a manifestation of a genetic force.

Taking up an idea from Harvey and Wolff (about which below in greater detail), Herder posits a "vital organic force" that becomes active as soon as the egg cell is fertilized and builds up the species- specific body out of matter. This invisible force reveals itself in the matter that becomes a living being before our very eyes. "It becomes visible in the mass belonging to it and must carry the prototype of its appearance within itself, no matter how or where from. The new creature is nothing less than the realization of an idea of creative Nature, which always thinks actively."

The vital force creates the form and continues to maintain what it has created; this innate life force permanently dwells in all the parts of the body it has formed. "It is present everywhere in the creature in many different ways, for only through this force is the creature a living whole, maintaining itself, growing, and acting."

Here too it is striking how close these formulations are to J. H. Fichte's anthropology. If we replace the concept of genetic force, which Herder took from the biology of his day, with the concept of the real soul substance, we are faced with Fichte's idea of the body-soul that indwells its body in all its parts. The concept of body that in Herder's work emerges palpably from the dispute between epigeneticists and preformationists was recovered for our time in Scheler's anthropology. Herder carefully and painstakingly distinguishes this life force from "our soul's faculty of reason"; the soul, he argues, surely did not build up the body, which it does not know, but only makes use of it as of an imperfect instrument for its thoughts.

Chapter 5,
The Classification of Races: Herder,
pp 67-69.