Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Johann Gottfried Herder

Johann Gottfried Herder (1744 - 1803) is best known for his concept of the Volk and is generally considered the father of ethnic nationalism.

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.

Born in Mohrungen (Polish: Morag), Kingdom of Prussia, Herder is also known as a philosopher, theologian and poet; he grew up learning from his father's Bible and songbook. He studied at the University of Königsberg and after that with Immanuel Kant. In 1764 Herder went to Riga as a preacher and teacher. He received some notice after the publication of his Origins of Language. While travelling, he met Goethe. This event can be seen as the beginning of the 'Sturm und Drang' movement. In the meanwhile he took a position with Count Wilhelm von Schaumburg-Lippe. By 1776 he had moved to Weimar and at Goethe's urging took a position as General Superintendent.

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'').

Herder died 1803 in Weimar, Germany.