Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

8
THE POLITICAL THEORY OF J. G. HERDER

8.1. Herder as a Political Thinker

One of the most important and influential political philosophers of the 1790s was J. G. Herder ( 1744-1803). Herder is generally recognized as the father of two of the most significant doctrines of modern political thought, namely, nationalism and historicism. 1 Although he was not the first to advocate these doctrines, 2 he played a prominent role in their development and transmission. It is necessary, however, to distinguish Herder's nationalism and historicism from the later versions of these doctrines. Unlike later nationalism, Herder refused to identify the nation with the state, and he abhorred all forms of cultural and political chauvinism. 3 And, unlike later historicism, he never embraced cultural relativism or rejected the concept of a natural law. 4

Herder's significance as a political thinker also rests on his prominence and influence in the 1790s. Although he was not a member of the romantic circle, he played a crucial role in the development of its political thought. 5 His political theory anticipated that of the young romantics in many respects: its emphasis on the value of the community, its sharp separation of the community and the state, its insistence on understanding a state as the product of its history, and its affirmation of the unique value of every culture. If there is any single figure who can claim to be the father of romantic political thought, then it is indeed Herder. Schiller's influence on the romantics, though considerable, lies more in the field of aesthetics; Fichte's influence, though equally weighty, is counterbalanced by the romantics' strong reaction against him.

In the spectrum of political thought in the 1790s Herder has indeed most affinity with the early romantic school. He shared the young romantics' humanist, democratic, and communitarian ideals, and their contempt for the privileges and corruption of the ancien regime. Although Herder did champion many liberal ideals, such as freedom of the press and liberty of conscience, it would be misleading to regard him as a liberal in the technical sense. For Herder never accepted the characteristic liberal doctrine that the

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