Johann Gottfried Herder was born in the small Prussian town of Mohrugen on August 25, 1744, to a very humble family origin. His father was a bell ringer, sacristan and doorman at a girls' school. It would be the village priest who initiated him in basic studies and put him in contact with the works of the great thinkers of the moment. At the age of 18 he decides, against the opinion of his parents, to begin theological studies at the University of Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia.
During his years at the university, he will have to combine his studies with a parallel teaching job at the city's elementary school and give private classes, both essential activities to obtain the necessary income that he needs. allowed to stay. In Königsberg he made friends with another of the great thinkers of the German eighteenth century, Hamman, with whom he shared the rejection of the rules that enlightened rationalism had imposed in all areas of culture.
At the end of 1764 Herder moved to Riga as a professor at the cathedral school. There he was ordained a pastor and soon began to excel as a preacher. In these years he began his writing career and published, always anonymously, the works “ On recent German literature. Fragments ” and “Silvas critics ”. After the authorship of both was revealed, a small scandal broke out as a result of which Herder left the city and made the decision to travel through Europe. The result of this trip was, in the literary sphere, the publication of a new book:“Diary of my trip in 1769 ”, which more than a diary consists of a declaration of the author's intentions. During the trip he will meet Goethe in Strasbourg, whose friendship exerted a strong influence on his work and his personality.
After finishing his trip he settled in Buckeburg and a year later he was appointed town councilor and senior parish priest. He did not cease, during this time, his creative activity and concluded the “ Essay on the origin of language ” and other works. In 1775 he was about to go to the University of Gottingen as professor of theology, which ultimately did not happen. More successful was Goethe's initiative that he go to Weimar, a city to which he moved in 1776, after leaving Buckeburg, together with his family and in it he was general superintendent of the Lutheran church and senior parish priest of the cathedral. This period, during which he publishes his most important works, marks the height of Herder's life as a man of letters and as a man of action. He will remain in Weimar until his death on December 18, 1803.
Herder is considered one of the promoters of the sturm und drang movement, predominantly literary movement that inaugurated German romanticism and that emerged as a rejection of the exacerbated rationalism of the Enlightenment. His contribution to German thought helped awaken in the collective mentality its own historical consciousness and the renewal of its culture.
Herder's work, like that of most intellectuals of his time, is not limited to a single discipline. He wrote books on theology, literature, philosophy, history, and philology. It is difficult to separate when he deals with one subject or another, since they are usually intermingled. Moreover, in his attempt to understand the bare reality of the past (from himself and not through the references of the present), he comes closer to a philosophical conception of history. He seeks to unravel the principles on which any genuine understanding of men, peoples and times must be based. He manages to place history above reason and preserves it from schemes and generalizations.
The first thing that draws attention to Herder's thought is his rejection of the Enlightenment and especially of the idea of progressive development that the Enlightenment defended. He considers that they view history with prejudice and use it to prove their own preconceived theses, according to which the society and culture of the 18th century would represent the apogee of humanity. Those prejudices prevent them from studying and understanding each culture by itself, according to its own spirit and its own complex unity. He also criticizes cosmopolitanism and fights to tear down the absolute concept of culture as a single tradition made up of universally valid models, since he understands that humanity is made up of a plurality of cultures, all of them rooted in a nation or people with different spirits.
In his early work Another philosophy of history for the education of Humanity (1774) already displays the arguments against the theories defended by the Enlightenment. The reconstruction that he makes of history is based on the parallelism between the phases of the biological development of the individual and the stages of the civilizing process, an approach that was not new at that time. His originality, however, lies in the way in which he matches periods and ages. In the first cycle childhood would be the East, adolescence Egypt, youth Greece and maturity and old age Rome. The second cycle would address the entire Middle Ages and end in the Enlightenment, seen as an old phase. In this way, he focuses his efforts on rehabilitating the Middle Ages, whose barbarism and movement reflect the vigor of man in contrast to the excessive rationality of his time, characterized by the mechanization of life and the loss of spontaneity.
Herder therefore defends, against the progressive development of the Enlightenment, the study of each culture and each phase of she for her own interest, trying to understand them from within and without value judgments. Each nation or culture carries with it its own happiness and comparisons should be avoided since each era is different from the others and has its own intrinsic value.
Yes in Another philosophy of history Herder's theses were stated, in Ideas on the philosophy of the history of mankind (written between 1784-1791) condenses and develops all his thought. In the first two parts of the work, the author describes the physical environment and the organization of man's life in its origins, that is, he describes the natural setting in which the history of mankind unfolds, which appears as a natural disposition of the species and at the same time as an ideal. Herder once again extols the primitive as a critique of the Enlightenment.
The third part of the work is dedicated to the study of "documented history", from the East to the fall of the Roman Empire, and returns to the cyclical idea of splendor and fall . In this part he extracts a series of general laws on the behavior of peoples and the purpose of culture, based on the development of the entire humanity.
In the fourth part, which reaches to approximately the year 1500, Herder emphasizes the role of Christianity in the development of European culture and the influence exerted by ethnic groups, nations and cultures. In this part, and despite his recommendation to avoid favoritism, he tries to reinforce the image of the Germanic peoples.
Within Herder's complex philosophy of history, the role played by providence and religion is not entirely clear and a certain evolution is perceived when analyzing it. In his mature work, Ideas on the Philosophy of Human History , he clarifies the scope of Providence rejecting that in history there is a divine intervention that produces miracles or directs men. The divine work is limited to creating in man and in nature a series of forces or dispositions that will inevitably develop according to certain norms, which are the natural laws themselves. God is the origin of these creative or vital forces, but otherwise man is completely free.
As Herder himself states in the foreword to Ideas the objective of his work is to search for general laws that would make the development of human actions understandable over time without losing sight of their diversity. Ultimately, he tries to build a philosophy of the history of humanity by unifying the evolution of the species based on the needs imposed by the way of life and natural conditions. Herder's final conclusion is that both the evolution of culture and of nature itself, on which the former rests, have occurred in accordance with the ultimate goal:the formation of humanity.