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Body and Soul: Sensory Perception and Rational Thought in Herder’s Concept of Man

Over the last fifteen years, there has been a proliferation of literary analyses involving “the body.” From feminist theories of gender and identity formation to psychoanalytic theories of textual representation, “the body as text” has become an inescapable slogan. [1] Conversely, the text as body -- in structure as well as in semantic and reception theory -- is a common theme in textual criticism. While this fascination with the body is above all a (post)modern phenomenon, it can certainly be seen to trace its roots far back in the fields of aesthetics and philosophy. In fact, nearly all discussions of the nature of perception have historically centered around the relative strengths, merits, and authenticity of the bodily senses, or in short, the body’s relation to the soul. Baumgarten, Leibniz, Kant and Herder are but a few of the many German philosopher-aestheticians who dealt directly with these questions. From a modern viewpoint, however, Herder stands out from the rest: not only for the esteem in which he holds sensory perception (his “Hochschätzung der sinnlichen Wahrnehmung,” [2] as one critic calls it), but also for his remarkable insistence on the irrefutable Ganzheit of the human being, the interconnectivity of sense, perception, thought and reason. In this and many other respects, Herder can be seen as a very modern philosopher; his vision is consistently directed towards the future, but his reasoning unites theories from the past as well. As Astrid Gesche explains, “Herder wirkte in seiner Zeit dabei ultramodern, ohne jedoch die Bände mit der philosophischen Vergangenheit gelöst zu haben.” [3]

In examining Herder’s modern legacy, one must first understand the philosophical and poetic context in which his work belongs. Although he uses terminology (such as Mensch, Seele, or Humanität) that was common parlance among his contemporaries, there is undeniably a distinct ‘Herderian’ flavoring which is not always immediately apparent. It is thus important that we first examine how Herder defines (or refuses to define) his terms, and point out distinctions in cases where overlapping boundaries may lead to confusion. Proceeding from this definition of terms, and indeed connected intimately to it, we can then see how Herder’s conceptions of the rational and sensory processes differ from those of his contemporaries, namely Leibniz, Baumgarten and Kant. Finally, an explication of categories and effects arising from this argumentation will show the breadth inherent to Herder’s concept of ‘der ganze Mensch.’

Herder has often been called an irrational writer, a dreamer, a poet rather than philosopher, and far worse; indeed, for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Herder’s philosophical tracts were dismissed for being too vague, imprecise, incomplete, poetic, or flowery. This litany of criticisms leveled against his writing style, however misguided it may be, is not totally unfounded, for even the most casual reader is aware of Herder’s unique practice of mixing metaphorical, fragmentary, and exuberant speech into an otherwise ‘dry’ philosophical discussion. But even modern critics who recognize Herder’s style as deliberate may still resort to negative characterizations of his work. James van der Laan, for example, says of Herder’s argumentation that “Herder makes no pretense to finality. He typically offers only a partial account of the issue or subject under investigation.” [4]

Thus it comes as no surprise to see that Herder does not often provide his readers with concrete definitions of the terms he uses in his philosophical writings. Instead of definitions, the readers are confronted by imaginative metaphors, concrete analogies, and, more often than not, simple refusals to attempt definitions. This incompleteness or imprecision is of course not at all a failing in Herder’s eyes: it is a necessity due to the nature of his subject matter and indeed his world view. When presenting concepts which are as all-encompassing as Humanität, Mensch, or even Erkenntnis, Herder makes no attempt to disguise the fact that his investigation will not explicitly discuss every possible aspect or facet -- indeed, to explain and define such concepts is not the purpose of philosophy for Herder at all. Instead, philosophy must collect, synthesize, and coordinate real-world experiences. “Ich sage nicht, daß ich hiemit was erkläre ... Was Philosophie tut, ist bemerken, unter einander ordnen, erläutern, nachdem sie Kraft, Reiz, Würkung schon immer vorausgesetzt.” [5] Herder’s reliance on analogy, metaphor, and ellipsis is not, then, an inability to express himself concretely, but rather the only way for Herder to express the otherwise ineffable or abstract concepts with which he is concerned.

This form of expression did, of course, lead to problems in the reception of Herder’s works, as noted above. Already in Herder’s lifetime the complaints and stylistic criticisms began to overshadow the content of his thought. One of Herder’s strongest critics was his former teacher Kant, who immediately took issue not only with Herder’s writing style, but also with the philosophical assumptions that form the basis of Herder’s theories. The specific conceptual standpoints will be discussed below, but it is also important to note that the entire process of argumentation follows completely different rules for Herder and for Kant. In resorting to metaphorical excursus and inductive reasoning through analogy, Kant felt that Herder was “somehow guilty of violating the territorial limits of poetry and philosophy,” [6] and that this destroyed any claim Herder might have had to authoritative discourse. As a result, “Kant turned Herder into a daydreamer, an irrationalist, a person permanently of the past, and finally a pathological case,” writes Adler. [7] Herder was of course well aware of the problematical nature of his discourse, but firmly maintained that the proper language for philosophy should, in fact, be modeled on that of poetry. The ideal solution would be to combine the finest strengths of both disciplines: “Wüßte man nun den Dichter mit dem Philosophen zu verbinden, und was beide liefern, in Geschichte zu verwandeln.” [8]

Quite apart from any stylistic reasons behind Herder’s refusal to define his terms lies a belief that language unfettered by rigid boundaries is the best medium for expressing concepts which are fluid and all-encompassing. As we shall see, Herder’s notion of mankind is not tied to a single culture, era, or class; it is a term which can incorporate the ancient Greeks, medieval peasants, and Enlightenment philosophers all at once. As such, a delimited definition of such a term would, if even possible, be rather pointless. As Knoll succinctly describes, Herder’s imprecision was at least in part a matter of leaving the term its own freedom: “This all-pervasiveness, which renders simple translation [of Humanität] impossible, lies at the root of the widely averred - and frequently criticized - lack of definition of this central theme in Herder’s legacy. It clearly was deliberate on Herder’s part, for it allowed him in one concept to embrace the unending diversity of human situations.” [9] And as Adler significantly points out, Herder’s writing is “discourse-bridging” [10] -- the freedom from rigid terminological definitions allows Herder’s theories to apply across the board to the many different fields of philosophy, anthropology, aesthetics, history, et al.

Nonetheless, in order to examine Herder’s philosophical thought and theory, one must have at least a basic understanding of how terms such as Mensch and Seele are used, and how they are distinguished from their near counterparts. To begin with, Herder distinguishes at least three important notions relating to man: Mensch, Humanität, and Volk. Although these terms may appear self-evident, the nuances in each do bear consideration. Volk, for example, can mean for Herder a nation or tribe of people who share a common culture, tradition, and manner of thought; it may also, however, refer to a subset of a nation, for example the common people as opposed to the educated and citified upper classes. (One should bear in mind that Herder’s Volk is never equated with Pöbel, but is always a noble and idealized image of the culture-bearing common man.) For our purposes, in examining Herder’s conceptions of sensuality and rationality, Volk is of only minor importance, although its placement in Herder’s total body of work is of course essential.

Humanität is a far more delicate matter; indeed, numerous critical studies have been devoted entirely to interpreting Herder’s idea of humanity. Humanität certainly plays a distinctive role in many of Herder’s philosophical treatises: even in the title of his Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität, the central position and ideal goal of humanity are evident. To our discussion, humanity is of importance in part because der Mensch is, in concrete terms, the basis of Humanität -- as such humanity can be seen as a collective term for mankind. Humanität is, however, far more than that. Like Volk, it is an ideal goal, the state of perfection to which man aspires. Like man himself, humanity is ever-developing and constantly progressing. “Die Bildung zu ihr [Humanität] ist ein Werk, das unablässig fortgesetzt werden muß.” [11] And like man, it is a process that is open-ended, led forward by man himself: “what constitutes ‘humanity’ is not predetermined, but is developed by human beings in their history through their actions.” [12] A thorough discussion of the nature of humanity would of necessity take many more details into account -- the possibility of a moral dimension, the manner in which humanity can be attained and improved, and even the seemingly problematic inclusion of ‘inhumanity’ in the concept itself -- but for topical and space considerations, Adler’s summary can suffice: “Herder’s ‘humanity’ is what distinguishes human beings from all other living creatures, a specific dowry which equips human beings by nature with a potential for culture.” [13]

Finally, the concept of Mensch is of the utmost importance to Herder’s view of sensory perception and rational thought. Although Herder does not unilaterally define Mensch, he does offer clues as to man’s status, abilities, and characteristics. Foremost among these is the difference between man and animals. Man shares much with his animal cousins: both are creatures of the physical world, and as such react to external Reize as well as to internal Triebe. Yet the similarity ends once these physical perceptions are worked upon by man’s mind or soul. While animals are confined to the sensory realm with no ability to process their perceptions into abstract thought, man forms for himself ‘images’ -- necessary for imagination, rational and abstract thought, and moral/ethical reasoning -- which far surpass the animal drives. As Harth explains:

 Während die Sinnlichkeit der Tiere in den Bezirk ihrer Umwelt eingeschlossen ist und sich auf den einen Punkt der Bedürfnisbefriedigung und Selbsterhaltung konzentriert, ist die des Menschen eine anschauende Kraft, die ihn nicht mit dem Trieb zu fliehen oder zu begehren überwältigt, sondern ihm ‘Bilder’ und ‘Empfindungen’ zuführt. [14]

Importantly, Herder does not by any means undervalue or suppress the physical origin of man’s perceptive abilities: in nearly every statement about man’s capabilities and potential, the bodily senses and perception play a key role. The famous passage from the Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte shows Herder’s focus well. Here we see a physical being whose bodily stature is an indicator of his spiritual dimension; nature herself gave him the tools of sensory perception, and on the basis of them -- but from within himself -- he can process information, make rational, aesthetic, ethical, and even moral decisions.

 Der Mensch ist der erste Freigelassene der Schöpfung: er steht aufrecht. Die Waage des Guten und Bösen, des Falschen und Wahren hängt in ihm; er kann forschen, er soll wählen. Wie die Natur ihm zwei freie Hände zu Werkzeugen gab und ein überblickendes Auge, seinen Gang zu leiten: so hat er auch in sich die Macht, nicht nur die Gewichte zu stellen, sondern auch, wenn ich so sagen darf, selbst Gewicht zu sein auf der Waage. [15]

In this quote we see, then, the underlying unity of the sensual and rational processes of man. Herder’s unique valuation of both realms, and his emphasis on their interconnectivity, is what sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. Instead of Kant’s a priori knowledge, and opposed as well to Baumgarten’s clear division between aesthetic and rational thought, Herder sets up a unity of body and soul, of man and nature, of feeling and thought. As Sauerland clearly states:

 Die Größe Herders kommt gewiß auch darin zum Ausdruck, daß er trotz des Wunsches, einmal eine Philosophie des Gefühls ... zu entwickeln, sich nie zu Verabsolutierungen hat verleiten lassen. Er sah den Menschen und seine Umwelt, den Menschen und die Natur immer als etwas Zusammenhängendes, als ein Ganzes. Im Grunde ist er nie imstande gewesen, Sinneseindrücke, Empfindungen und Gedanken voneinander zu trennen ... [16]

As should be clear, though, it is not merely a case of Herder not being able (“imstande”) to separate sensation and thought, but rather that his entire philosophy depends upon their interrelation. Despite his predilection for fragmentary forms of writing -- which in fact springs from an entirely different aspect of his thought -- Herder was a firm believer in the totality, unity, and correlation between the natural and rational world. This seems at times to take on religious qualities, as in statements such as “gewiß, was Leben in der Schöpfung ist, ist in allen Gestalten, Formen und Kanälen nur Ein Geist, Eine Flamme,” [17] but the belief is also grounded in purely practical reasoning. Nature may be infinite in variety, but, true to the principles of the Enlightenment, the sum of this variety is ordered and complete. In Adler’s words, “Herder understands creation to be a totality whose manifested multiplicity in all realms can be described as order - as in nature, so also in history.” [18]

Bodily sensation forms for Herder the basis of all thought, as he states in no uncertain terms: “Alle unser Denken ist aus und durch Empfindung entstanden, trägt auch, trotz aller Destillation, davon noch reiche Spuren.” [19] Thus physical sensations are the basis of imagination, as can be seen, as he points out, even in the term Einbildung: “... in unserm innern Menschen Alles zusammenfließe und Eins werde. Wir nennen die Tiefe dieses Zusammenglusses meistens Einbildung: sie besteht aber nicht bloß aus Bildern, sondern auch aus Tönen, Worten, Zeichen und Gefühlen, für die oft die Sprache keinen Namen hätte.” [20] The imagination is for Herder not merely abstract thought without sensation, nor even a simple recollection of a physical experience. Instead, the imagination has the pivotal role of recreating a physical experience, whereby thought and perception are combined, each emphasizing the other: “Aber da sie [die Einbildungskraft] die Spur der sensorischen Erfahrung nicht tilgt, sondern am Vorstellungsbild belebt, simuliert sie im Bewußtsein die Situation der Erfahrung derart, daß die sinnlichen Qualitäten der Vorstellungsbilder jene “anschauende Erkenntnis” hervorrufen, in der Denken und Empfinden einander komplementär bleiben.” [21]

Abstract and conceptual thought follows a similar process. Herder emphasizes throughout his writings the desire for concepts that can be understood visually, sensorily, even in abstraction. This demand for Anschaulichkeit, which finds expression in Herder’s writings about education, learning, child development, practical philosophy, and many other subject areas, is a direct result of his belief that sensory perception must form the basis of thought. In order to understand a concept, we must be able to experience it, at the very least analogously. In this respect, then, is Herder’s statement that we can only perceive that for which we can make analogies a crucial argument: “Ich kann mir überhaupt nicht denken, wie meine Seele etwas aus sich spinne und aus sich eine Welt träume? ja nicht einmal denken, wie sie etwas außer sich empfände, wovon kein Analogon in ihr und ihrem Körper sei.” [22]

From Herder’s belief that analogous experience can foster understanding, it is a logical step to his faith in inductive reasoning. Instead of deducing truth through abstract proof and non-experiential reasoning, Herder is a firm advocate of inductive reasoning, often expressed through a metaphor. We see this throughout Herder’s writing: instead of clear definitions and logical deduction, Herder presents the reader with metaphors from the real world; since the reader is familiar with and has experienced these ideas, the leap to the metaphorical concept is simple. Harth explains the relation thus: “So bleibt [Herder] auch methodisch dem induktiven Vorgehen treu, da er das Zusammenspiel aller Seelenkräfte am anschauenden Menschen erläutert und den Schluß zieht, daß er in der konkreten Erfahrungssituation stets als ganzer tätig ist. Es wirkt, so wendet er gegen die abstrakte Definition des Menschen als Vernunftwesen ein, überall die “ganze unabgeteilte Seele.” [23]

Not only are spiritual and bodily forces intertwined for Herder, but they also share many of the same characteristics: both strive toward progression and perfection, both follow the laws of nature (or of God), and both rely upon one another to form mankind’s essential character. In Gesche’s words, “Seelische und körperliche Kräfte ... formten eine Symbiose in der Absicht, sich gegenseitig zu unterstützen.” [24] Indeed, Herder illustrates, without the one, the other is nothing or has no useful purpose; they are equally important to the makeup of man’s abilities: “Wo sollte es [Gefühl] in deine Vernunft kommen, wenn nicht durch Empfindung? Würde der Kopf denken, wenn dein Herz nicht schlüge? Aber Gegenteils, willst du auf jedes Pochen und Wallen deines Herzens, auf jeden Nachhall einer gereizten Fiber, als auf die Stimme Gottes merken, und ihr blindlings folgen: wo kannst du hingeraten?” [25]

Thus both sensory perception and rational thought have an undeniable place in the characteristic makeup of man. And, importantly, each has a position relative to the other, neither exists independently or in a vacuum. Working together they form a coherent whole: the senses relay information to the soul, which processes it; this sensory information remains even in the imagination and memory and forms the basis for all further thought and abstraction; finally, the spirit in return gives the body purpose, raises it above the animal level, gives it direction.

It should be noted, however, that Herder makes a very clear distinction between the five senses -- it is not merely physical perception of any kind that will lead to spiritual knowledge, but rather each sense has its own specific medium and its own value relative to the other. Herder distinguishes clearly between the lower senses (taste, smell, and touch) and the higher ones (sight and hearing), and explains that it is sight and sound which are most fertile in the imagination. It is “Gesicht und Gehör, die den meisten Stoff zum Denken geben,” [26] he writes. In addition to the distinction between higher and lower senses, in the Viertes Kritisches Wäldchen Herder proposes an aesthetic program which takes the various characters of the senses into account. As Sauerland explains:

 Als Basis der Ästhetik postuliert er eine “Psychologie der Sinne und der sinnlichen Begriffe”. Um die Gesetze und Wirkung der einzelnen Kunstgattungen aufdecken und erklären zu können, ist nach Herder jeweils eine Theorie des entsprechenden Sinnes notwendig: eine ästhetische Optik und Phänomenologie, eine ästhetische Akustik und Phänomenologie, eine ästhetische Lehre des Gefühls, d. h. Tastsinnes. In der Entwicklung dieser Theorien erblickt Herder die “Hauptaufgabe zu einem künftigen Gebäude der Philosophie des Schönen.” [27]

One cautionary note must be sounded in regard to Herder’s insistence on the interconnection between sense and reason. Since Herder, basing his metaphors and logic on real-world sensory perceptions, often seems to emphasize the sensory above the spiritual, it may seem to the casual reader that the soul is thereby undervalued. But Gesche does well to remind us that, although Herder certainly values sensory perception, he does not attempt to place it above the soul’s own abilities.

 Trotz der Hervorhebung der sinnlichen Wahrnehmung kann man Herder nicht als Sensualisten bezeichnen, der alle Erkenntnisse ausschließlich aus den Sinneswahrnehmungen ableiten ließ, denn für ihn war die menschliche Seele im Besitz spezieller Kräfte, durch die sie, unabhängig von äußeren Stimulationen, aktiv zu werden vermochte. Zwar blieb die Seele auf sinnliche Reize angewiesen, aber nur insofern, als diese in ihr ein “Bild” entstehen ließen. Jegliche weitere Umformung oder Weiterverarbeitung des Bildes blieb anschließend der alleinige Verdienst der Seele. [28]

Herder’s conceptualization of the soul and body as intimately connected is at the heart of his distinct position in regards to Enlightenment philosophy. In order to better understand the differences between Herder’s views and those of his contemporaries and predecessors, we must turn to some general observations about the ideals and philosophy of the Enlightenment, bearing in mind of course that, as in any historical period, exceptions to the rule can always be found.

Overall, as Israel Stamm clearly explains, German Enlightenment philosophy, and in particular aesthetic theory, was based on the Leibnizian breakdown of perception and ideas into the categories of klar, deutlich, dunkel, and verworren. The goal of the Enlightenment, true to its name, was a process of clarification: “the progression to ‘clear’ ideas, more specifically the Leibnizian progression from ‘obscure’ to ‘confused’ to ‘distinct’ ideas (‘dunkel,’ ‘verworren,’ ‘deutlich’).” [29] In the field of philosophy, as espoused by Leibniz, Baumgarten and Kant, rational thought concerned itself with distinct ideas. “Passions and impulses, however benevolent they might be, were inferior and less essential in man’s rational nature and of course unreliable, lacking, as they did, the fixity of ideas distinctly seen.” [30] While Herder does not immediately reject a categorization of perception, he does maintain, as we have seen, that the obscure and confused perception of the senses was no less a valid concern of philosophy than those distinct ideas of rational thought. Even more, he claims, knowledge and rational thought rely upon these confused ideas, since in Herder’s eyes the soul cannot simply invent concepts and ideas with no basis in experience. “Ich kann mir überhaupt nicht denken, wie meine Seele etwas aus sich spinne und aus sich eine Welt träume,” as we have seen. [31] In rejecting this fundamental tenet of Enlightenment philosophy, Herder clears the way for his own theory of aesthetics and perception. In doing so, he cannot resist poking fun at those components of the Leibnizian school that oppose his own theories; in characterizing contemporary German philosophy, he mocks: “Vor solchem Abgrunde dunkler Empfindungen, Kräfte und Reize graut nun unsrer hellen und klaren Philosophie am meisten: sie segnet sich davor, als vor der Hölle unterster Seelenkräfte und mag lieber auf dem Leibnitzischen Schachbrett mit einigen tauben Wörtern und Klassifikationen von dunklen und klaren, deutlichen und verworrenen Ideen, vom Erkennen in und außer sich, mit sich und ohne sich selbst u. dgl. spielen.” [32]

Herder thus rejects the Leibnizian view of clear versus obscure ideas on the basis of his belief in the primacy of sensory perception. With Baumgarten, however, Herder takes a different stance. Baumgarten, although adhering firmly to a strict distinction between distinct and confused ideas, nonetheless allowed, indeed demanded a place for sensory perception in philosophical -- specifically in aesthetic -- theory. In fact he saw fit to ignore, for the purposes of aesthetic and poetic inquiry, any ideas that did not arise from sensation. Again, Stamm explains: “Baumgarten’s new aesthetics stood for the ‘confused’ ideas of poetry as opposed to abstract clarity: “Begrifflich deutliche, vollständige, adäquate und bis in die tiefsten Tiefen dringende Vorstellungen sind nicht sensitiv [of the senses], und daher auch nicht poetisch.” [33]

This recognition and appreciation of perception based on the bodily senses met with Herder’s approval, as did the manner in which Baumgarten staked out a firm claim for the justification of poetic and aesthetic theory. “Im Geiste des Menschen, das war Baumgartens große Ahndung, in der Seele muß der Poesie ein Gebiet des Eigenthums zuerkannt, und genau angewiesen werden können ... Nach Wolfs Sprache hieß dies das Gebiet der untern Kräfte, der sinnlichen Vorstellungen ...” [34]

Two other important (pre-Kantian) precursors to Herder’s theories should be noted as well, both of whom valued the ideas arising from sensory perception. As Stamm explains, a view of man as “a creature of sense and feeling, who lived in a world not of distinct ideas but of whole beings and concrete objects” led Georg Friedrich Meier to uphold the value of confused ideas, even to claim that they were “more relevant than the distinct ideas of Reason.” Meier, a student of Baumgarten, expressed in rather polemical terms the relative character traits resulting from confused and distinct thought: “Ja, weil sehr leicht erwiesen werden kan, daß nur der geringste Theil unserer Erkentnis deutlich ist, so getraue ich mir zu behaupten, daß ein bloßer practischer Aestheticus unendliche mal volkommener sey, als ein bloßer practischer Logicus ... ein schöner Vortrag findet einen viel stärckern und ausgebreiterten Beyfal, als eine bloße mathematische Demonstration.” [35] So too did Johann Georg Hamann, a friend and mentor of Herder, hold to a belief in wholeness and organicism “against the abstract disjunctions of the Aufklärung.” [36] Hamann’s theories were also important to Herder’s view of physical sensation, specifically as regards the concepts of Nerven and Reize.

The final straw in Herders confrontation with Enlightenment aesthetics and philosophy came in the form of Immanuel Kant. As we have seen, Herder presupposes that experience is necessary for any form of knowledge. This stands, of course, in direct and critical opposition to Kant’s theory of a priori knowledge. For Kant, there exist assumptions or ideas which come before all human experience; to Herder, this is simply impossible -- there is no chance of reconciliation here. Herder asserts the primacy of sensory perception and experience: “Wollen wir nun der Erfahrung folgen, so sehen wir, die Seele spinnet, weiß, erkennet nichts aus sich, sondern was ihr von innen und außen ihr Weltall zuströmt ... “ [37] Indeed, some of Herder’s staunchest invective weighs in against Kant on this very point, for example:

 Man hat “über den Ursprung der Menschenseelen” so sonderbar mechanische Träume gehabt, als ob sie wahrlich von Leim und Kot gemacht wären. Sie lagen geformt im Monde, im Limbus und warteten, ohne Zweifel nackt und kalt, auf ihre prästabilierte Scheiden, oder Uhren, oder Kleider, die noch ungebildeten Leiber; nun ist Gehäuse, Kleid, Uhr fertig und der arme, so lang müßige Einwohner, wird mechanisch hinzugeführt, daß er - bei Leibe! nicht in sie würke, sondern nur mit ihr prästabiliert harmonisch, Gedanken aus sich spinne, wie er sie auch dort im Limbus spann, und sie, die Uhr des Körpers, ihm gleich schlage. [38]

The fact that Herder’s assumptions are, simply put, completely incompatible with Kant’s was, as we have already seen, a significant factor in Kant’s criticism of his former student, and also contributed to the low respect which many later critics found for Herder’s aesthetic theories. Equally as important a confrontation, however, was the utter abstraction of Leibnizian theories as opposed to the practical and worldly philosophy of Herder. The unity of body and soul underscores a belief in the importance of the here and now, and a sense of historical relevance as well. To clarify: if man only reasons as a result of physical experience, then physical experience is essential to philosophy. This line of thought leads directly to a fundamental character of Herder’s philosophy: it is based in practical thought, and finds applications in everyday life. To Herder, Leibnizian philosophy was in the end mere “Vernünfteln” and therefore undesirable, since it was a closed system. “The Leibnizian progression is but an unfolding (explication) to greater abstraction; its result is an internal refinement of a closed intellectualism.” [39] Instead, Herder campaigned for and practiced a philosophy that applied directly to man and to history. “All philosophy which is supposed to be a philosophy of the people must make the people its central point ... our entire philosophy becomes anthropology,” [40] reads a draft of Wie die Philosophie zum Besten des Volkes allgemeiner und nützlicher werden kann.

As a result of this desire for direct application, Herder incorporates into his theories of aesthetics practical suggestions for improvements several fields, most notably in his plans for educational reform. This is a recurrent theme of Herder’s many works, brought to its fullness in his Journal meiner Reise im Jahre 1769, and can of course be understood without reference to his aesthetic theories. But when one considers some of the specific points Herder emphasizes in regards to the education of the young, and the manner in which they learn, one sees that the belief in the importance of Anschaulichkeit and in the unity of body and soul underlies his entire program. Young people, for example, should be taught concepts only as a result of direct experience (“nichts als Begriffe durch Sinne” [41]), and these concepts must be made visually, graphically, sensorily perceptible. “Man müsse daher die Begriffe wieder, um es in unseren Wortschatz zu sagen, versinnbildlichen.” [42] The student should ideally be given the opportunity, “alle seine Sinne zu gebrauchen.” [43] The school curriculum should consist of physics, natural science, cultural history and other practical subjects which help children to develop, “die Seelenkraft [zu] erweitern” and to reward them with “Glückseligkeit des Menschen auf sein ganzes Leben.” [44] As he repeats in Vom Erkennen und Empfinden der menschlichen Seele, the development of reason and thought in the young soul is based directly on bodily sensation: “So, sehen wir, sammlet sich das Kind, es lernt sprechen wie es sehen lernt, und genau dem zu Folge denken.” [45] Not only is this of practical value in the sense that the young learn through experience, but Herder is also concerned with the development of ‘der ganze Mensch’ here: by incorporating sensory perception, the soul will be filled with experiences to draw on for imagination and rational thought. Or, even more holistically, as Harth explains, “die ästhetische Sensibilität besitzt offenbar die integrative Funktion, die zerstückt und einseitig tätigen Kräfte des Menschen zu jener “ganzen Seele” zusammenzufügen, die Herder als Bildungsziel vor Augen hat.” [46]

Another direct consequence of Herder’s desire to unite physical and spiritual experience takes shape in his theories of language. These ideas, expressed in particular in the Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache but resonating in nearly all of Herder’s works, take as their starting point the idea that language, based on the sense of hearing, is an essential part of the ability to reason. It sets man apart from animals, and it springs forth in the soul directly as a result of the need to name, characterize, and know the perceptions delivered by the finer senses of sight and sound.

 Da er von Besonnenheit gewebt ist, da sich in ihm kein Zustand findet, der im ganzen genommen nicht selbst Besinnung sei oder doch in Besinnung aufgeklärt werden könne, da bei ihm das Gefühl nicht herrschet, sondern die ganze Mitte seiner Natur auf feinere Sinne, Gesicht und Gehör, fällt und diese ihm immerfort Sprache geben: so folgt, daß im ganzen genommen auch kein Zustand in der menschlichen Seele sei, der nicht wortfähig oder würklich durch Worte der Seele bestimmt werde. [47]

Language not only arises in the soul based on the perceptions of the senses to fill man’s need for knowledge, but it is also itself a reflection of sensory perception, in a manner similar to imagination. In describing the relative merits of written language, for instance, Herder stresses that works of literature can and should reflect the author’s relationship to the world. The closer and more original the language is to the original sensations, the better: a work is “um so ‘natürlicher’ ... je mehr der Sprachausdruck dem ursprünglichen Sinneseindruck entspricht.” [48]

A final dimension of Herder’s conception of body and soul that merits at least a brief mention is the close relationship between sensory perception and the possibility of ethical or moral decisions. Since the recognition of aesthetic qualities has its basis in sensation -- “die Sinne weisen etwas von sich, wenn es nicht zur ‘Erhaltung unseres Seyns und Wohlseyns’ dient, sie nehmen etwas an, wenn es unser ‘Wohlseyn’ hervorruft oder gar steigert” [49] -- it is not a great leap to see that Herder can also combine the qualities of good and true and beautiful, all of which can be determined, or at least have their origin, in physical sensation. Indeed, Herder states quite explicitly that the possibility of a moral conscience is dependent upon experience and perception: “Gibts ein Gewissen, ein moralisches Gefühl, das mir, abgetrennt von allem Erkenntnis, richtigen Weg zeige? Die Worte selbst scheinen Unsinn ...” [50] The inclusion of a moral possibility in the realm of sensation and perception is of course a delicate and wide-reaching topic, and bears much further investigation, but it serves to show just how pervasive and interconnected the role of sense and spirit is for Herder.

Clearly, Herder stands out from the thinkers of the German Enlightenment in claiming an equal validity and an interrelatedness for sensory perception and for rational thought, but he was also unique in applying this unity of body and soul to all mankind, regardless of nationality, culture, class, or historical age. His theories about aesthetics, education, and language (as well as history, ethics, and many other wide-ranging topics) all have their basis in practical and real-world applications which have the goal of furthering the cause of humanity -- all humanity. While other Enlightenment thinkers, who dealt in the realm of the individual and intellectual, saw the progress of mankind as something each individual must undertake for itself -- as Stamm puts it, “we are here reminded of Leibniz’ monads, each unfolding its consciousness without influence and without effluence” [51] -- Herder’s program for the betterment of humanity has a definite social or communal dimension. Herder’s focus is the unity of mind and body, on the one hand, but it is also the unity of individuals, together advancing toward the goal of an ideal humanity. While his theories may have lain dormant through much of the 19th century, the ongoing rediscovery and investigation into Herder’s writings will surely bring to light other aspects of Herder’s peculiar position in German philosophy.


(1)  See, for example, the works of Helene Cixous, Elaine Showalter, Rosemary Stevens, Martin Gliserman, and others too numerous to cite. [return to text]
(2)  Karol Sauerland, “Zur Rolle der Sinne in Herders Denken,” Germanica Wratislaviensia 44 (1984), 55. [return to text]
(3)  Astrid Gesche, Johann Gottfried Herder: Sprache und die Natur des Menschen (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 1993), 23. [return to text]
(4)  James M. van der Laan, “Herder’s Essayistic Style,” in Johann Gottfried Herder. Language, History, and the Enlightenment, ed. Wulf Koepke (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1990), 115. Note that van der Laan’s analysis itself is not at all derogatory to Herder; his descriptions nonetheless tend to negation and exclusion rather than inclusion. [return to text]
(5)  Johann Gottfried Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden der menschlichen Seele (Werke in zehn Bänden, Bd. 4), ed. Jürgen Brummack und Martin Bollacher (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1994), 338. Hereafter FHA. [return to text]
(6)  Walter Moser, “Herder’s System of Metaphors in the Ideen,” in Johann Gottfried Herder. Innovator Through the Ages, ed. Wulf Koepke and Samson B. Knoll (Bonn: Bouvier, 1982), 102. [return to text]
(7)  Hans Adler, “Johann Gottfried Herder’s Concept of Humanity,” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 23 (1994), 56. [return to text]
(8)  Herder, Fragmente II, 62. [return to text]
(9)  Samson B. Knoll, “Herder’s Concept of Humanität,” Johann Gottfried Herder: Innovator Through the Ages, ed. Wulf Koepke and Samson B. Knoll (Bonn: Bouvier, 1982), 9. [return to text]
(10)  Adler (1994), 59. [return to text]
(11)  Herder, Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität, in FHA 7: Brief 27. [return to text]
(12)  Adler (1994), 64. [return to text]
(13)  Adler (1994), 65. [return to text]
(14)  Dietrich Harth, “Ästhetik der ‘Ganzen Seele’ - Versuch über Herders Konzept der literarischen Bildung,” Bückeburger Gespräche über Johann Gottfried Herder 1971, ed. J. G. Maltusch (Bückeburg: Grimme, 1973), 130. [return to text]
(15)  Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte, Buch IV, in Johann Gottfried Herder. Schriften: eine Auswahl aus dem Gesamtwerk, ed. Walter Flemmer (München: Goldmann 1960), 94. [return to text]
(16)  Sauerland, 62. [return to text]
(17)  Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, 338. [return to text]
(18)  Adler (1994), 61. [return to text]
(19)  Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, 392. [return to text]
(20)  Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, 349. [return to text]
(21)  Harth, 129. [return to text]
(22)  Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, 353. [return to text]
(23)  Harth, 131. [return to text]
(24)  Gesche, 24. [return to text]
(25)  Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, 361. [return to text]
(26)  Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, 348. [return to text]
(27)  Sauerland, 54. [return to text]
(28)  Gesche, 27 [return to text]
(29)  Israel Stamm, “Herder and the Aufklärung: A Leibnizian Context,” The Germanic Review 38 (1963), 197. [return to text]
(30)  Stamm, 198. [return to text]
(31)  Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, 353. [return to text]
(32)  Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, 340. [return to text]
(33)  Stamm, 206, quoting Baumgarten, Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus, trans. in Albert Riemann, Die Aesthetik Alexander Gottlieb Baumgartens (Halle, 1928), 109. [return to text]
(34)  Stamm, 206, quoting Herder, Von Baumgartens Denkart in seinen Schriften, in Herders Sämtliche Werke, ed. B. Suphan (Berlin, 1877ff.), XXXII, 178f. [return to text]
(35)  Stamm, 205, quoting Meier, Anfangsgründe aller schönen Wissenschaften (Halle: 1748-1750), I, 8. [return to text]
(36)  Stamm, 204. [return to text]
(37)  Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, 354. [return to text]
(38)  Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, 336. [return to text]
(39)  Stamm, 207. [return to text]
(40)  Herder, FHA 1:134, quoted in Adler, 67. [return to text]
(41)  Herder, Journal meiner Reise im Jahre 1769, ed. Katharina Mommsen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1976), 141. [return to text]
(42)  Sauerland, 59. [return to text]
(43)  Herder, Journal meiner Reise, 143. [return to text]
(44)  Herder, Journal meiner Reise, 57. [return to text]
(45)  Herder, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, 358. [return to text]
(46)  Harth, 134. [return to text]
(47)  Herder, Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache, ed. Hans Dietrich Irmscher (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1966), 86. [return to text]
(48)  Harth, 129. [return to text]
(49)  Sauerland, 56. [return to text]
(50)  Herder, Seele 360. [return to text]
(51)  Stamm, 202. [return to text]

Selected Bibliography:

Adler, Hans. “Herders Holismus.” In Herder Today. Ed. Kurt Mueller-Vollmer. Berlin: der Gruyter, 1990. 31-45.
Adler, Hans. “Humanität - Autonomie - Souveränität. Bedingtheit und Reichweite des Humanitätskonzepts J. G. Herders.” In Akten des VII. Internationalen Germanisten-Kongresses Göttingen 1985, Bd. 8. Ed. Walter Haug and Wilfried Barner. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1986. 161-166.
Adler, Hans. “Johann Gottfried Herder’s Concept of Humanity.” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture, 23 (1994): 55-74.
Aidzu, Shin. “Zu Herders Begriff der Bildung: Versuch einer Interpretation.” In Bückeburger Gespräche über Johann Gottfried Herder 1983. Ed. Brigitte Poschmann. Rinteln: Bösendahl, 1984. 98-110.
Dobbek, Wilhelm. J. G. Herders Weltbild: Versuch einer Deutung. Köln: Böhlau, 1969.
Fugate, Joe K. The Psychological Basis of Herder’s Aesthetics. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.
Gaier, Ulrich. Herders Sprachphilosophie und Erkenntniskritik. Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 1988.
Gesche, Astrid. Johann Gottfried Herder: Sprache und die Natur des Menschen. Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 1993.
Harth, Dietrich. “Ästhetik der ‘Ganzen Seele’ - Versuch über Herders Konzept der literarischen Bildung.” In Bückeburger Gespräche über Johann Gottfried Herder 1971. Ed. J. G. Maltusch. Bückeburg: Grimme, 1973. 119-140.
Heise, Wolfgang. “Realistik und Utopie in Herders Humanitätskonzept.”Weimarer Beiträge 25 (1979): 47-81.
Herder, Johann Gottfried. Werke in zehn Bänden, ed. Martin Bollacher, Jürgen Brummack, Ulrich Gaier, Gunter E. Grimm, Hans Dietrich Irmscher, Rudolf Smend, Rainer Wisbert, Thomas Zippert (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1985ff.). Sigle: FHA
Irmscher, Hans Dietrich. “Grundzüge der Hermeneutik Herders.” In Bückeburger Gespräche über Johann Gottfried Herder 1971. Ed. J. G. Maltusch. Bückeburg: Grimme, 1973. 17-57.
Irmscher, Hans Dietrich. “Nationalität und Humanität im Denken Herders.” Orbis Litterarum 49 (1994): 189-215.
Knoll, Samson B. “Herder’s Concept of Humanität.” In Johann Gottfried Herder: Innovator Through the Ages. Ed. Wulf Koepke and Samson B. Knoll. Bonn: Bouvier, 1982. 9-19.
Moser, Walter. “Herder’s System of Metaphors in the Ideen.” In Johann Gottfried Herder. Innovator Through the Ages. Ed. Wulf Koepke and Samson B. Knoll. Bonn: Bouvier, 1982. 102-124.
Sauerland, Karol. “Zur Rolle der Sinne in Herders Denken.” Germanica Wratislaviensia 44 (1984): 53-62.
Spencer, Vicki. “Towards an Ontology of Holistic Individualism: Herder’s Theory of Identity, Culture and Community.” History of European Ideas 22.3 (1996): 245-260.
Stamm, Israel. “Herder and the Aufklärung: A Leibnizian Context.” The Germanic Review 38 (1963): 197-208.
Terray, Elemír. “Johann Gottfried Herders Menschenbild.” In Akten des V. Internationalen Germanisten-Kongreßes, Cambridge 1975 (Jahrbuch für Internationale Germanistik Reihe A, Bd. 3). Ed. Leonard Forster and Hans-Gert Roloff. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1976. 142-49.
van der Laan, James M. “Herder’s Essayistic Style.” In Johann Gottfried Herder. Language, History, and the Enlightenment. Ed. Wulf Koepke. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1990. 108-123.

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1999 for German 948 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Body and Soul: Sensory Perception and Rational Thought in Herder’s Concept of Man." Website Article. 15 December 1999. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/948Herder.html>.