Johann Gottfried Herder

Portrait: Johann Gottfried Herder
Johann Gottfried Herder, portrait by Anton Graff, 1785
Gleimhaus Halberstadt / Wikimedia Commons

Johann Gottfried Herder

Enlightenment thinker, theologian, cultural philosopher

If it is true that without thoughts we cannot think and from the fact that we learn it follows that language determines the entire scope and limits of human knowledge.

Johann Gottfried Herder, Fragmente (Fragments), 1868

Johann Gottfried Herder was born in the East Prussian city of Mohrungen in 1744 and studied theology from 1762 in Königsberg (today Kaliningrad), where he attended lectures by Immanuel Kant, among others. It was at this time that he composed his first literary, philosophical and cultural-historical works. Recruited as an instructor at the Domschule in Riga in 1764, Herder manifested a great interest in the philosophy of language, which was the subject of intense academic debates in the 1750s and 1760s. While scholars such as Johann Peter Süßmilch regarded language as God-given, others, including Frenchman Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, saw it as a more advanced form of the communication between animals. Herder formulated his view of matters in his award-winning work Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache (Essay on the Origin of Language), which he published in 1772. He regarded language as a reason-guided compensation for humans’ lack of instincts and as a precondition for cognitive reflection and the acquisition of knowledge.

After stints as a travelling tutor of royal offspring and court chaplain in Bückeburg, Herder settled in Weimar in 1776 and befriended Goethe, among others, with whom he later fell out, however. In Weimar he wrote his magnum opus Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Humanity, 1784-91). In old age, Herder was beset both by physical and financial difficulties. He died in 1803 – some months before his 60th birthday – after taking a cure. Through his works, he exerted a major influence on the cultural history of the 19th century. As a folklorist, he conducted studies of the character of various nations. He was also lauded as a literary translator.