Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Herder's Critique of Pure Reason

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Herder's Critique of Pure Reason

Article excerpt

J.G. HERDER WROTE in 1799 a lengthy and stridently polemical work attacking Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. This work, entitled A Metacritique of the Critique of Pure Reason, complains, among other things, that "to make oneself independent of oneself, i.e. to place oneself beyond all original, inner and outer experience, to think beyond oneself, entirely free of the empirical: this no one can do." (1) While plausible in itself, such a claim at first seems odd as an objection to the Critique of Pure Reason, given that the latter expressly denies that concepts can function independently of sensuous content. Herder's Metacritique has been criticized for overlooking this essential point, as well as for failing to understand that Kant's treatment of the a priori in the first Critique constitutes an attempt to isolate the necessary conditions for experience in general, conditions which--being conditions--cannot themselves be derived from experience or reduced to it. (2) The suspicion arises here that Herder's Metacritique actually represents a precritical position, especially since it appeals to empiricists like Bacon, Locke, and Hume in articulating its counterposition. (3)

At the same time, one cannot so easily dismiss as "precritical" Herder's insistence on the dependence of thought upon language. With respect to the nature and status of reason, Herder's view that "from childhood onwards we receive and expand our thought through language," and that "the human soul thinks with words," (4) has two interrelated consequences:

1) we can never separate ourselves from the particularity of our received ideas to inspect the functioning of a "pure" reason;

2) no ideas exist in the mind prior to their acquisition through a language.

Thus, whereas Kant's rejection of metaphysics is directed only at the possibility of gaining knowledge of things beyond the perceptible world, Herder also rules out the possibility of achieving a position from which one could speak, as Kant does, of the universal structure of our experience and its objects. (5)

Yet it is true that Herder's own position on knowledge, formulated in opposition to Kant's transcendental idealism, involves some sort of empiricism, combined with some sort of realism. I believe the most fruitful way of understanding this position is to see it as offering a variant critique of pure reason, a critique that has some parallels with Kant's version (and perhaps stronger ones than Herder himself recognized), but that reaches quite different conclusions. I will explicate this thesis in the following pages, pointing out, first, that Herder does indeed espouse a brand of empiricism, for which the "given" consists not of immediate and neutral sense data, but of experiences shaped by specifically human powers and interests and already conditioned by the complex and shifting a priori of language. While several features of Herder's analysis of language are strikingly similar to claims later made by Nietzsche, Herder nonetheless eschews both skepticism and subjectivism. He manages to do this because his empiricism is accompanied by a rather peculiar brand of realism. Herder does not suggest that human faculties deliver knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality, nor does he think our representations correspond to things as they are independently of all observation. Knowledge, for Herder, is decidedly perspectival. Herder remains a realist, however, because of the relation he posits between the human subject and being. Here, I will argue, Herder's account anticipates that of Heidegger, and one can see in Heidegger's critical revision of Husserl a certain repetition of Herder's position vis-a-vis Kant.


Herder's Empiricism. Herder is an empiricist insofar as he clearly believes that all ideas are derived, originally, from experience. In his early work, "An Inquiry into Being," he states, in explicit agreement with Locke, that "all our concepts are sensuous. …

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