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Johann Gottfried Herder

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Johann Gottfried Herder
Johann Gottfried Herder

Johann Gottfried von Herder (August 25, 1744December 18, 1803), German poet, critic, theologian, and philosopher, is best known for his influence on authors such as Goethe and the role he played in the development of the larger cultural movement known as romanticism



Born in Mohrungen (Polish: Morag) in the Kingdom of Prussia, Herder grew up in a poor household learning from his father's Bible and songbook. Starting in 1762 he studied at the University of Königsberg, where he was influenced by Johann_Georg_Hamann and Immanuel Kant before he took his 'critical turn'. Now a preacher, in 1764 Herder went to Riga to teach. It was during this period that he produced his first major works, which were literary criticism.

In 1769 Herder traveled to the French port of Nantes and continued on to Paris. This resulted in both an account of his travels as well as a shift of his own self-conception as an author. By 1770 he traveled to Strassbourg , where he met a young Goethe. This event proved to be a key juncture in the history of German literature, as Goethe was inspired by Herder's literary criticism to develop his own style. can be seen as the beginning of the 'Sturm und Drang' movement. In 1771 he took a position as head pastor and court preacher at Bückeburg under Count Wilhelm von Schaumburg-Lippe . Throughout this period he continued elaborating his own unique theory of aesthetics in works such his famous Essay on the Origin of Language while Goether produced works like The Sorrows of Young Werther -- the Sturm und Drang movement was born.

By the mid-1770s Goethe was a well-known author, and used his influence at the court of Weimar to secure Herder as position as General Superintendent. Herder moved there in 1776, where his outlook shifted again towards classicism. Herder was at his best during this period, and produced works such as his unfinished Outline of a Philosophical History of Humanity. Towards the end of his career Herder endorsed the French Revolution, which earned him the enmity of many of his colleauges. At the same time, he and Goethe experienced a personal split. Herder died in 1803 in Weimar.

Works and ideas

Along with Wilhelm von Humboldt, he proposed what is now called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - that language determines thought. Herder's focus upon language and cultural traditions as the ties that create a "nation" extended to include folklore, dance, music and art, and inspired Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their collection of Germanic folk tales.

Herder emphasised that his conception of the nation encouraged democracy and the free self-expression of a people's identity. He proclaimed support for the French Revolution, which did not endear him to the royalty. He also differed with Kant's philosophy and turned away from the 'Sturm und Drang' movement to go back to the poems of Shakespeare and Homer.

To promote his concept of the Volk, he published letters and collected folk songs. These latter were published in 1773 as Voices of the People in Their Songs (Stimmen der Voelker in ihren Liedern). The poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens von Brentano later used Stimmen der Voelker as samples for The Boy's Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn).


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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04