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Herder, Postcolonial Theory and the Antinomy of Universal Reason

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2014

John K. Noyes*
University of Toronto


The writings of Johann Gottfried Herder are not only striking in their vehement opposition to European imperialism. They arguably present the first attempt to ground anti-imperialism not just morally but epistemologically. Herder does this through his encounter with Kant’s precritical theory, augmented by a novel philosophy of language. Herder believed philosophy needs to reformulate its aims in terms of anthropology, history, and aesthetics. In the process, he found himself facing what I am calling the antinomy of universal reason. Reason is a universal characteristic of humanity. In its expressions, however, reason is plural and diverse. This antinomy has carried through into postcolonial theory, where it presents some serious epistemological and methodological challenges. Using the examples of Dipesh Chakrabarty, Achille Mbembe, and Gayatri Spivak, I show what these challenges look like. In conclusion, I inquire into Herder’s attempts to find a methodology that allows a critique of imperialism while recognizing the antinomous workings of universal reason.

© Cambridge University Press, 2014 

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1 Jameson, Fredric, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1981): 19Google Scholar.

2 Bhabha, Homi K., “Unsatisfied: Notes on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism,”Text and Nation: Cross-Disciplinary Essays on Cultural and National Identities, ed. Laura Garcia-Moreno and Peter C. Pfeiffer (Columbia: Columbia University Press 1996): 196Google Scholar.

3 Cazdyn, Eric and Szeman, Imre, After Globalization (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2013): 48Google Scholar. Even those who manage to look deeper into his writings tend to misrepresent his positions. Robert Young, for example, in his otherwise perceptive pages on contradiction in Herder, dismisses him with the observation that he “speaks with a forked tongue: offering on the one hand rootedness, the organic unity of a people and their local, traditional culture, but also on the other hand the cultural education of the human race whereby the achievements of one culture are grafted onto another, sometimes occurring via revolution, or change of state (for example, the end of the Roman empire) or through migration, which Herder acknowledges as an historical tendency. In this way he resolves the anthropological question of how the unity of the human race squares with its inherent diversity.” Young is correct in seeing these two sides of Herder, but they in no way resolve the anthropological question. Young, Robert J. C., Colonial Desire. Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (London and New York: Routledge 1995): 42Google Scholar.

4 See the excellent discussion of nationalism in Spencer, Vick, Herder’s Political Thought. A Study of Language, Culture, and Community (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2010)Google Scholar, chapter 5.

5 Herder, Johann Gottfried, Philosophical Writings, ed. and trans. Michael N. Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002): 85Google Scholar.

6 The distinction is explained by Greif, Stefan, “Herder’s Aesthetics and Poetics,”A Companion to the Works of Johann Gottfried Herder, ed. Hans Adler and Wulf Koepke (Rochester: Camden House 2009): 143Google Scholar. In Greif’s usage it is not to be confused with Jacques Rancier’s understanding of aisthesis as a mode of judgement designating objects as art. Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (London: Verso 2013).

7 I use the term imperialism in the broad sense outlined by Barbara Bush, who sees it as an “expansion of states outside their territory, a widening of geographical space, either by land or by sea, extending boundaries of power and influence,” inscribing “social, cultural and political relations of power between the empire and its subordinated periphery.” Bush, Barbara, Imperialism and Postcolonialism (Harlow: Pearson Longman 2006): 12Google Scholar. Herder’s anti-imperialism has been noted by many scholars, but seldom examined in any sustained manner. See Knoll, Samson B., “Beyond the Black Legend: The Anticolonialism of Johann Gottfried Herder” North Dakota Quarterly 57.3 (1989): 5564Google Scholar; Knoll, Samson B., “Beyond the Black Legend: The Anticolonialism of Johann Gottfried Herder” North Dakota Quarterly 57.3 (1989)Google Scholar; Chase, Bob, “Herder and the Postcolonial Reconfiguring of the Enlightenment” Bucknell Review 41.2 (1998): 172196Google Scholar; Spencer, Herder’s Political Thought; Sikka, Sonia, Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference. Enlightened Relativism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2011): 99100CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Robinette, Nicholas, “The World Laid Waste: Herder, Language Labor, Empire,” New Literary History 42 (2011): 193203CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Sikka, Herder on Humanity, 204.

9 Herder is following what Gaier calls a characteristic move in eighteenth-century philosophy—the shift in focus from “the aporia of philosophy to aesthetics as a metatheory.” Werke in zehn Bänden, vol. 1, ed. Ulrich Gaier (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag 1985): 857. Citations from this edition are my translation.

10 See Sikka’s excellent discussion of cultural relativism and universalism in Herder. Herder on Humanity, chapter 1.

11 Kant, Immanuel, “Reviews of Herder’s Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind,”Political Writings, ed. H. Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1970): 220Google Scholar.

12 Johann Gottfried Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschiche der Menschheit, Sämtliche Werke, 33 vols., ed. Bernhard Suphan (Hildesheim: G. Olms 1967–1968), vol. 13, 384. Citations from this edition are my translation. Wherever italics are used for emphasis, this is from the original German.

13 Herder, Sämtliche Werke 29, 426.

14 Herder, Ideen, Sämtliche Werke 13, 263.

15 Herder, Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität, Werke in zehn Bänden, vol. 1, ed. Hans Dietrich Irmscher (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag 1991): 672. Citations from this edition are my translation.

16 Herder, Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität, 116.

17 Herder, Ideen, Sämtliche Werke 14, 37.

18 Figueroa, Dimas, Philosophie und Globalisierung (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann 2004): 10Google Scholar. My translation. This period has been described by Immanuel Wallerstein as “the second era of great expansion of the capitalist world economy.” The Modern World System III. The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World Economy 1730–1840s (San Diego, London, etc.: Academic Press 1989). Christopher Bayly speaks of the “first age of global imperialism,” beginning around 1760, that is around the same time Herder started to write. Bayly, Christopher A., “The First Age of Global Imperialism c. 1760–1830,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 26.2 (1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Bayly notes that “Imperialism—territorial expansion within and outside Europe—was centrally driven by the scissors effect which rising military expenditure and stagnant or falling cash revenues put on all the larger regimes, European and non-European. Imperatives of military finance had driven states to strengthen internal control and to projects of external conquest throughout history. But these forces now worked with a global reach and they were reinforced by ways of deploying men, knowledge, and control over physical resources. This speeding up of quantitative changes became, in the later eighteenth century, the forcing house of qualitative change” (32).

19 Herder, “On Diligence in the Study of Several Learned Languages,” Selected Early Works, 1764–1767: Addresses, Essays, and Drafts; Fragments on Recent German Literature, ed. Ernest A. Menze and Karl Menges, trans. Ernest A. Menze (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press 1992): 30.

20 Herder, Johann Gottfried, This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity, Philosophical Writings, ed. and trans. Michael N. Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002): 352Google Scholar.

21 Herder, Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität, 673. This is why Karl Menges claims that Herder is pursuing ways of writing against transcendentalism, which “presents itself as the paradigm of the Enlightenment when, in fact, it is only a heteronomous discourse of power.” “Identity as Difference. Herder’s ‘Great Topic’ and the ‘Philosophers of Paris.’ ” Monatshefte 87.1 (1995): 15.

22 Herder, Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität, 708.

23 Herder, Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität, 672.

24 Herder, This Too a Philosophy of History, 352.

25 J. G. Herder, “Versuch über das Sein,” (Essay on Being), Werke, vol. 1, 2–21.

26 In his Treatise on the Origin of Language (1774), Herder argues that there is a “language of nature,” a neurological substratum, a somatic system comprising the “internal nerve structure” of the body and the organs of speech. The sympathetic cries (speech is saying too much) aroused in the nervous system are no more than “the natural law of a sensitive machine” and have little or nothing to do with the moment of language acquisition. The neurological system already evokes a certain sociability in the expressive individual because expression assumes the resonance of another sympathetic being (intended in a purely biological sense). This is the sociability of the organism, not of the reasoning human. But as a shared process for structuring the sensitivity to the external world, it guarantees the universality of reason. See Herder, Philosophical Writings, 73–74.

27 In 1774 he notes that “reason is no compartmentalized, separately effective force but an orientation of all forces that is distinctive to his [i.e., the human being’s] species.” Treatise on the Origin of Language, 85.

28 “Versuch über das Sein,” Werke 1, 10.

29 “Versuch über das Sein,” Werke 1, 10.

30 In a section of one of his Metacritique of the Critique of Pure Reason of 1799, entitled “Von Antinomien der Vernunft” (On Antinomies of Reason), he states that there may be antinomies in law, but not in reason, for “to assume two pure reasons which contradict themselves means to reduce the examiner to quarrel (eris) and to change the office of reason into the art of quarrel (eristic)” (Herder, Sämtliche Werke 21, 223). Herder rejects Kant’s use of the antinomies of pure reason, arguing that they are situated in psychological capacities of relating to the world, and their opposition is resolved within reason itself. Thus, as Nisbet observes, “all conflicts are ultimately reconcilable, and never absolute, for Herder.” Nisbet, H. B., Herder and the Philosophy and History of Science (Cambridge: The Modern Humanities Research Association 1970): 72Google Scholar.

31 “Hegel implicitly acknowledges that he is indebted to Herder for several of his own mature positions (including his neo-Spinozist monism and his concept of Geist) in a neglected and much misunderstood section of the Phenomenology of Spirit of 1807, which turns out to be entirely concerned with Herder’s standpoint: “The Spiritual Animal kingdom [Das geistige Tierreich].” Forster, Michael N., German Philosophy of Language. From Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011): 147CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Herder’s biographer Robert T. Clark noted that Herder’s historical writing is “not the talk of a Romanticist; it sounds more like the economic determinism of a forerunner of Marx, and some commentators have pointed out that Herder anticipated Marx’s delineation of the class struggle. This, like various other ideas accorded Herder by later writers, is an exaggeration; but it is clear that the germ of economic determinism, of the materialist interpretation of history, lies in Part IV of the Ideas.” Herder: His Life and Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955): 333–334.

33 “Herder’s interest in politics was but an aspect of a much wider interest that encompassed not only art and literature but also a distinct cosmology and philosophy of history. For it was this close association of political, historical, poetical, and religio-cosmological thinking that was to characterise the comprehensive, ‘ideological’ style of political thought from the Romanticists to the Marxists.” (Barnard, F. M., Herder’s Social and Political Thought: From Enlightenment to Nationalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965): 31Google Scholar.

34 Sonia Sikka notes Herder’s “role in shaping the thought of later German philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger.” Herder on Humanity, 5. See also chapter 6.

35 Trabant, Jürgen, “Language and the Ear: From Derrida to Herder,” Herder Yearbook 1 (1992): 122Google Scholar.

36 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2008): xiiiGoogle Scholar.

37 “Reason becomes elitist whenever we allow unreason to stand in for backwardness, that is to say, when reason colludes with the logic of historicist thought.” Provincializing Europe, 238.

38 Provincializing Europe, 254.

39 Provincializing Europe, 254.

40 Mbembe frames his book by questioning what Enlightenment’s promise of universality means for Africa (p. 11), and by observing how “Africa” exists only in the contiguous, the peripheral, the ephemeral (p. 242).

41 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 8.

42 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 9.

43 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 12.

44 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 12.

45 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 12.

46 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 14.

47 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 14.

48 Herder distinguishes between Being or God, which cannot be positioned in time and space, and the being of bodies, which can be located and described in terms of Crusius’s ubi (where?) or quando (when?). And mediating between Being and bodies is per, the concept of force. Versuch über das Sein (Essay on Being, 1764), Werke, vol. 1, ed. Wolfgang Pross (München: Hanser 1984): 586.

49 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 15.

50 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 15

51 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 16. This reads as remarkably similar to Herder’s attacks on the idea of progress in history. “Humankind is destined to undergo a progression of scenes, of forms, of mores: woe betide the person who dislikes the scene in which he is to appear, act, and live out his life! But woe betide also the philosopher of humanity and mores whose own scene is the only one, and who also always mistakes the first one for the worst. If all belong together to the whole of the advancing play: in each one a new, quite remarkable side of humanity is manifest.” Herder, “Auszug aus einem Briefwechsel über Ossian und die Lieder alter Völker,” Von Deutscher Art und Kunst (1773), Sämtliche Werke 5, 164.

52 Mbembe’s anaysis is moved by the desire to counter what he regards as undue emphasis placed on representation by social theory (p. 6), while at the same time acknowledging the centrality of representation in civil society (p. 39) and in political action (p. 142–143).

53 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 16–17.

54 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 17.

55 As Samson Knolls observes, these poems are intended to prepare the way for Herder’s justification of self-defence of the less powerful in the face of inhumanity on the part of the powerful. Samson B. Knolls, 1989. “Beyond the Black Legend: The Anticolonialism of Johann Gottfried Herder.” North Dakota Quarterly 57/3 (1989): 60.

56 Spivak, Gayatri C., A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1999): 19Google Scholar.

57 Spivak, Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 1.

58 Mack, Michael, Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity: The Hidden Enlightenment of Diversity from Spinoza to Freud (London: Continuum 2010): 70Google Scholar.

59 Spivak, Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 27.

60 “Without language the human being has no reason, and without reason no language.” Treatise on the Origin of Language, 91.

61 Spivak, Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 28.

62 Adorno, Theodor W., Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge, 1973): 346Google Scholar.

63 Spivak, Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 312.

64 Spivak, Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 312, 319.

65 He did this most clearly in God, Some Conversations (1787), in which the positions of the interlocutors are at least intended to point to, if not replicate, those of Herder’s friends who were involved in the debates around Spinoza in the year 1783 (Herder, Goethe, Jacobi, Lessing, Mendelssohn). Again and again, we find him structuring his works around the dialogical principle. We find it for example in his short piece “Über die Seelenwanderung. Drei Gespräche” (“On Metempsychosis. Three Conversations,” 1782), in the early fragment “Ein Gespräch Zweifel zu Mendelssohns Phädon” (“A Conversation Doubt on Mendelssohn’s Phaedon,” 1768), in some of the Letters on the Advancement of Humanity, in the pieces he wrote for the Journal von Tiefurt in 1781–1782: “Verstand und Herz. Ein Hausgespräch am langen Winterabend” (“Understanding and Heart. A Domestic Conversation on a Long Winter Evening”), “Die heilige Cäcilia oder wie man zu Ruhm kommt. Ein Gespräch” (“St. Cecilia, or on How one attains Renown. A Conversation”), and “Ob Malerie oder Tonkunst größere Wirkung gewähre. Ein Göttergespräch” (“On whether Painting or Musik Provides the Greater Effect. A Conversation among the Gods”).

66 See the note to Hamann accompanying the conversation on Mendelssohn’s Phaedon: “Socrates is dead, and his disciples are celebrating his communion; a Simmias among them ruminates on the doubts that refuse to leave me upon reading Moses’s Phaedon” (Sämtliche Werke 32: 200).

67 Clark, Robert T., Herder. His Life and Thought (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1955): 351Google Scholar.

68 Nisbet’s pages on the dialectical method in Herder’s writings are worth noting, although I find he tries a little too hard to distance Herder’s dialectic from the historical materialism of the Marxian dialectic. Herder and the Philosophy and History of Science, 72–85.

69 As Menges points out, “Writing is a symptom of the aging of a culture, as is the preference for prescriptive rules, academic decorum, and imitative entertainment. These symptoms are indicative of a loss of sensual perception in the process of modernity and its accelerating descent into an ever-more differentiated rational but also impersonal and alienating life-world. Herder’s general interest in questions of origin is a reflection of this dialectic of Enlightenment.” Karl Menges, “Particular Universals: Herder on National Literature, Popular Literature, and World Literature,” A Companion to the Works of Johann Gottfried Herder, 195.

70 Spivak, “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value,” Diacritics 15.4 (1985): 73–93.

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