Emphasized in Berlin (2000)—a study originally published in 1965 that has been deeply influential on much Anglophone scholarship on Herder.
After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition, by Michael N. Forster. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, xii + 482 pp. ISBN 13: 978-0-19-922811-9 hb £52.50
Article first published online: 18 MAR 2013
© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
European Journal of Philosophy
Volume 21, Issue Supplement S1, pages E7–E12, March 2013
How to Cite
Zuckert, R. (2013), After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition, by Michael N. Forster. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, xii + 482 pp. ISBN 13: 978-0-19-922811-9 hb £52.50. European Journal of Philosophy, 21: E7–E12. doi: 10.1111/ejop.12012
- Issue published online: 18 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 18 MAR 2013
The word, ‘after’, in the title of this book is in a way misleading: of the twelve essays collected in the volume, five concern thinkers influenced by Herder—two on Hamann, and three on Schleiermacher—but seven concern Herder's philosophy itself, including an overview of his life and works, as well as more in-depth treatments of his doctrines concerning the relationship between language and thought, interpretation, and translation, his philosophy of art, the relationship of his thought to anthropology, and his political philosophy. This book does not, therefore, concern only, or even primarily, thinkers after Herder, but rather is one of the first extensive, philosophically rigorous treatments of Herder as philosopher.
Indeed, this work offers a novel account of Herder's philosophy and of his contribution to philosophical discussion. On Forster's portrayal, Herder's importance lies not, as the prevailing view would have it, in his status as a critic of the Enlightenment, in his opposition to rationalism, universalism and progressivism.1 Rather, Forster contends, Herder's most important contribution concerns the ultimate philosophical ground for such claims—most centrally his argument that thought is dependent on language because (briefly put) meaning is word-use: ‘if concepts or meanings just are usages of words’ (p. 68), then thought (which employs concepts or meanings) must be dependent on language, in and through which alone words are used. Herder's doctrines concerning the practices of interpretation and translation—as well as, more broadly, his attentiveness to cultural and historical diversity—follow from this most fundamental claim. Interpretation requires both close empirical and philological attention to words used and holistic attention not only to an author's overall diction, but also to the rules for such usage in his society at large. Because there is no one-to-one match between word-usages in different languages, moreover, there must be differences in concepts (including evaluative concepts, hence values) across human beings from different, linguistically formed cultures. Translation consequently requires not just holistic interpretation, but also an expansion and transformation of the word-uses in one's own language—a ‘bending’ (in Forster's terms) of word-uses in the target language in order to correspond to the word-usages in the original language, so as to convey both the meaning of the original (so far as possible), and the foreignness of those concepts. The fact that such translation is both desirable and (at least to a degree, as an approximation) possible on Herder's view may, finally, be understood as a synecdoche for Herder's rejection (indeed) of Enlightenment universalism in favour of a ‘pluralistic cosmopolitanism’ (p. 43), for his endorsement of ‘respect for the Other’ as such (p. 24), and his corresponding resistance to all imperialism, political, cultural or conceptual, as well as his advocacy of humility about one's own concepts and values as likewise partial and particular.
On closer examination, however, Forster's title does express the larger aims both in this book and in its companion volume (Forster 2011)—namely to argue that there is an unrecognized, but important tradition in German philosophy, focused on the above-described themes, initiated by Herder, and including not only Hamann and Schleiermacher, but also Friedrich Schlegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Hegel, and twentieth-century hermeneutics, and perhaps culminating with Wittgenstein. Hence in this volume Forster not only discusses Herder's influence on Hamann and Schleiermacher in the essays devoted to these two thinkers, but also considers Herder's own positions always with an eye to later developments within this tradition and beyond (e.g., in the modern discipline of anthropology, the founders of which were influenced by Herder and von Humboldt, as Forster demonstrates).
In articulating the contours of this tradition, Forster has several aims, both historical and philosophical. He wants, first, to show that it is Herder—and not other candidates such as Hamann—who initially formulated the positions that define this tradition, which ought, therefore, to be understood as ‘after Herder’. Though Forster himself does not emphasize this point, he also thereby suggests an alternative vision of German philosophy generally to the one embodied in the standard canon of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche. Forster's proposed German philosophical tradition not only includes other, less frequently discussed thinkers, but also focuses not on Kantian themes such as idealism, autonomy, or self-consciousness, but on Herderian themes of language and culture; one assumes, too, that this tradition is not a priorist in method, but rather determinedly empiricist, deeply connected to and informed by other empirical disciplines (such as anthropology or philology) that attempt to understand cultural diversity and linguistic practice. Not coincidentally, and as Forster stresses, most members of this alternative tradition are not ‘pure’ philosophers, but were engaged in ‘hands-on’ linguistic enterprises, whether translation (in the case of Herder and Schleiermacher), or empirical linguistic investigation (in the cases of Schlegel and von Humboldt).
Finally, Forster wishes to argue that the philosophical approach of this tradition is superior—in both ‘depth’ and ‘breadth’ (pp. 3–4)—to more recent, Anglophone philosophy of language. The thinkers in this proposed tradition treat language not as metaphysics by other means, but in more humanistic and empirically informed terms and in a way always cognizant of the historicity and diversity of linguistic practice; of the consequent challenges presented by the practices of interpretation and translation; and, more broadly, of the importance of language for human self-understanding and the understanding of others. Thus there is another sense in which this book is ‘after Herder’: like many of Herder's own works, it is a work of advocacy, studded with exclamation marks, polemical remarks concerning alternative philosophical views, and free expressions of evaluative judgments more generally—all hallmarks of Herder's own lively, passionate style.
After Herder is an ambitious and provocative work, and one that draws on the author's extensive knowledge of philosophical and extra-philosophical arguments, questions, texts and traditions. Much of the discussion in the work is insightful; particularly worth mention here are Forster's judicious and sensitive handling of Herder's political philosophy; his placement of Herder in the context of his rationalist predecessors; his provocative interpretations of Herder's works in aesthetics (the Critical Forests and the ‘Shakespeare’ essay) as contributions to the philosophy of language and interpretation; and his elucidation and clear-eyed evaluation of Hamann's philosophical claims and contributions. Forster here both performs a great service to scholars of the German philosophical tradition, and accomplishes an impressive interpretive feat, by providing a lucid, sharp treatment of Herder's philosophical claims, a careful sifting and evaluation of Herder's arguments for them, and as a result a more precise and extensive account of his influence on the German tradition than has previously been available. For one of the likely reasons for the comparative neglect of Herder in scholarly discussion of the German philosophical tradition is Herder's tendency to present his views indirectly—in polemics, allusions, metaphors and rhetorical questions, or as embedded in the discussion of particular examples—which renders it difficult to identify and evaluate his claims, and thus to understand the determinate nature and extent of his undeniable influence on later philosophers. Together with Forster's fine translation of some of Herder's most important works (Herder 2002), After Herder will serve, then, as a solid basis and provocative impulse for future discussion both of Herder's philosophy and of Forster's broader Herderian tradition.
The book does advance many suggestive and controversial claims, which will no doubt have their intended effect of prompting further discussion and debate. Forster argues, for example, that it is a ‘philosophically superior’ position to hold that ‘there is no … conceptual commonality [based perhaps in ‘innate concepts’] across all different languages' (p. 346), and yet that it is ‘deeply confused’ to have doubts about whether one may attain ‘objective understanding’ of other cultures (p. 219). I shall here, however, only reflect a bit on one overarching issue, concerning Forster's interpretive methodology. In articulating Herder's positions, Forster frequently takes principles or concepts of other later figures—Mill's manner of defending liberty or Dilthey's conception of history or, prominently, Schleiermacher's principles of interpretation and translation—as guides, either finding versions of them already in Herder, or pointing out Herder's divergence from (and often superiority over) them. This approach does facilitate the remarkable clarity of Forster's discussion of Herder, whose own presentation of his views is (as noted above) often ambiguous and indirect. It also directly reflects—indeed instantiates—Forster's historical and evaluative aims: to demonstrate Herder's influence and (often) the philosophical superiority of Herder's views to those of later thinkers.
But this approach is also potentially problematic, in two respects. First, it can lead to the attribution of philosophical positions to Herder on the basis of relatively thin and ambiguous textual evidence. To take a central example: Herder does indeed frequently claim that thought is bounded by language, but it is not clear that he does so on the basis of a theory of meaning as word-usage. Herder's recommendations, quoted by Forster in this context, that in interpreting an author, one attend not to etymology but to the author's and his contemporaries' word-usage (pp. 65–6) could equally suggest that Herder has what Forster describes as the ‘epistemological’ position of Ernesti—namely that word-use is not identical to meaning, but rather a guide to it (p. 68).2 The other two passages Forster emphasizes both assert strongly the dependence of thought on language—that learning words is the ‘foundation’ for learning to think, that thought ‘sticks’ to expression—but it is not clear that they assert that meaning ‘just is’ word-usage. (By contrast, Forster quotes a relatively straightforward passage from Schleiermacher to this effect [p. 328].) I am inclined to think that a survey of the kind that Forster, following Herder and Schleiermacher, recommends—that is, close attention to Herder's own usage of ‘meaning’ and related terms—would yield an even more complex and pluralistic conception of meaning than Forster suggests. As Forster notes, Herder's complaints that people learn words from books and then go about using them without really knowing what they mean suggest that on his view sensible ideas are, in addition to use, essential to meaning. A fuller account of Herder's view of meaning might also draw on etymology and (at least in some cases, and given Herder's commitment to realism in epistemology and elsewhere) reference.3 And it would seem that any such account ought to allot a substantial role in meaning to expression (which Forster seems both to recognize [pp. 69–70] and to reject [p. 111]), and this both in narrower and broader senses—namely, both of speaker's attitudes and feelings, and of societal practices and worldviews; the latter are expressed, according to Herder, in Shakespeare's and Sophocles' plays, or in the very grammatical and semantic structures of Hebrew and Latin.4 Thus too one might suspect, quite in concert with Forster's general aims, if not his specific claims here, that Herder has a considerably broader conception not just of meaning, but also of what a ‘theory of meaning’ might be, than that which prevails in contemporary Anglophone philosophy of language.
Second, Forster's approach threatens to underestimate the accomplishments of later figures in this tradition—again most importantly Schleiermacher. Forster does, in a characteristically clear and careful way, articulate differences between Schleiermacher's positions and Herder's, and credits Schleiermacher with ‘refinements’ on Herder's view (p. 153). Yet Forster's methodology still threatens to obscure Schleiermacher's achievement in formulating the questions and principles of interpretation or translation, by taking these principles to be present already in Herder. Yet as Kant remarks about the study of the history of philosophy, one can often find concepts or arguments in earlier thinkers, but only once someone else has in fact articulated them. This is not only a concern about fairness to Schleiermacher, but also about how to understand the progression of this (or perhaps any) historical tradition. In concrete terms, this interpretive approach might be (in part) responsible for the somewhat unfortunate repetitiveness of this book. As Forster himself notes apologetically, repetition is perhaps inevitable in a work comprising a collection of essays, some previously published. The repetition is, however, particularly noticeable in the previously unpublished chapters 9, 11 and 12, on Hamann's and Schleiermacher's relations to Herder, which introduce little material not covered in the chapters on Herder. This may be so not just because these chapters stand at the end of the volume, but also because a method of reading-back might effectively preclude the presentation—or even the recognition—of forward motion in a tradition. This approach also obscures the specific character of Herder's role as the initiator of this philosophical tradition. Like Rousseau, Herder is a philosopher brimming with original, provocative ideas, questions, problems and suggestions, which are often neither directly expressed, nor fully worked out, but are richly and productively ambiguous—and, as again in the case of Rousseau, it might be right to see the ensuing tradition as one in which later figures work out more fully, explicitly and perhaps one-sidedly (or multi-directionally) those initial suggestions.
These concerns do not call into question Forster's achievement, nor do they dispute Forster's most fundamental contentions concerning the value and historical importance of Herder's philosophy; indeed many of them are inspired precisely by Forster's own reflections. They suggest, then, that After Herder well repays study, as a resource for greater understanding and further discussion of the German philosophical tradition.
As a side note, these are surprising claims for Herder to make, given that he elsewhere advocates the use of, and uses, etymology—and genetic analysis more generally—as a philosophical method to discern meaning, thereby arguably initiating such tendencies in German philosophy. It would be interesting to know Forster's view concerning the relationship between these two Herderian positions.
The most definitive passage Forster cites rejecting reference as a component of meaning ought to be read, I believe, as a case of Herderian (polemical) overstatement, as it expresses an uncharacteristic and extreme scepticism.
On the importance of the concept of expression in Herder's philosophy, see Taylor (1989).
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