Building bridges: the importance of johann gottfried herder's humanism for the humanities.

Author:Mathas, Alexander

Both the humanities and one of their primary foci, Humanism, have lost significance during the last three decades. In response to a number of pressures, the humanities have splintered into ever more specialized subdisciplines. Inside the academy the welcome study of issues, such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, nationalism, and colonialism, has emphasized the particular and the local. Yet the splintering of the humanities into sub-disciplines has also resulted in their marginalization.(1) This marginalization has provoked a call for certain universal values, a common ground, to counteract the disorienting effect of diversification and the dwindling relevance of the humanities.(2) In view of these concerns it would be timely to ask whether and how the humanities should refocus on their central mission of addressing universal, humanist questions (universalism) without neglecting cultural diversity (particularism).(3)

This mission also has a significant tradition in German eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) is a central figure in German and European arts and letters who strove to define what it means to be human in a physiological, intellectual, and ethical sense.(4) With his attempts to resist the separation of human knowledge into more narrowly defined disciplines, Herder could indeed be regarded as an early proponent of interdisciplinary studies.(5) The universal ideals he helped to promote, such as freedom, equality, moral justice, and compassion, still influence today's moral values. Whether these universal principles can still have a justification in a racially, culturally, ethnically, and socially diverse society with a pluralist mix of lifestyles that all beg to be recognized as equal but different is only one aspect of the more fundamental question of whether these values are compatible with today's definition of human nature. Herder's goal was to work against social fragmentation and contribute to restoring the human being to its "original unity," which comprised more than the sum of its individual parts; on the other hand, he was acutely aware of a growing body of empirical research, which he incorporated into his "holistic" philosophy. Yet, in his view, empirical science alone was inadequate for capturing the totality of the human experience. Rather than imitating the sciences, Herder and after him many other writers, philosophers, and scientists of his time--such as Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Lorenz Oken, Novalis, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and Carl Gustav Carus--assumed that nature is an organic totality with an inner purpose or life force and attempted to integrate scientific knowledge into a universal human ethics.(6) In light of discoveries in neuroscientific research and recent debates about the moral implications of genetic manipulation, the question of what it means to be human has gained new rel-evance.(7) This analysis discusses to what extent Herder's eighteenth-century humanism provides justifications for linking specialized scientific discourses to today's questions of human ethics and, by extension, for revitalizing the humanities.

However, humanist ideals have begun to ring hollow after the rise of capitalism and fascism. In light of the perversions and crimes committed against humanity in spite of--or even in the name of--humanist values, skepticism toward these principles seems warranted .(8) Postcolonialist, postructuralist, feminist, and other posthumanist(9) approaches reject a universalist humanist ethic, arguing that it has neglected, if not thwarted, the emancipation of minorities by privileging dominant Western moral values.(10) They no longer view the human subject as master of his own destiny but as a historically determined cultural construct that needs to be positioned within larger contexts, such as evolution, technological progress, or the ecology.(11) These posthumanist approaches also reject the notion of a universal human nature that created humanity's great cultural achievements. Yet certain fundamental principles and goals that motivate these emancipation movements are not incompatible with the ones advocated by late-eighteenth-century humanist thinkers. After all, posthumanist approaches are indebted to the humanist legacy and do not advocate a radical break with humanist values but rather an altered form of humanism.(12) Some posthumanist thinkers, such as Francis Fukuyama and Jurgen Habermas, present the dehumanizing aspect of technology in a critical light.(13) Likewise, eighteenth-century philosophers like Herder attempted to defend the rights of the individual against the threat of an instrumental reason that viewed the human subject only as a means to an end, a threat that continues to this day. Progress in the natural sciences resulted in more specialized research areas and thus had consequences for a redefinition of disciplinary boundaries. Herder--albeit open to new empiricist approaches--was concerned about the increasing specialization as it contributed to the human subject's fragmentation. As this analysis will show, he attempted to maintain human sovereignty by subordinating scientific progress to a humanist ethics without neglecting the particular discoveries in the emerging fields of empirical philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and medicine. Research by Claes G. Ryn and Joseph Baldacchino has suggested that the particularity of intuition can be articulated by reason or rationality of a simultaneously philosophical and historical type.(14)

Another factor that has contributed to humanism's notoriety is its reception in Germany. There the anti-humanist mission was promoted not only by philosophers who have been labeled reactionary, from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche to Heidegger, but also by anti-fascist writers and thinkers on the left who have shown how the Nazis glorified the classics and co-opted humanist pathos to serve their own ends.(15) In view of humanism's perceived conservative bent, many West German postwar intellectuals shunned its reactionary aura and attempted to construe a trajectory from German idealism to fascism.(16) Additional examples of the utilization of humanist ideals for political purposes include the GDR's attempt to present itself as the true inheritor of the divided nation's classical humanist legacy as well as the invocation of humanist values by Western Marxists against capitalism's alienating division of labor, a division that prevented human self-realization.(17.)

Humanism's diminished credibility in light of the foregoing and new findings in neurobiological research together have caused contemporary philosophers to question some of the most fundamental assumptions of what a human being is and consequently some key principles on which a humanist ethics is based. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, for instance, argues in his 1999 essay "Rules for a Human Theme Park" that humanism is based on repression and insinuates that the unsuccessful domestication of human instincts may have culminated in fascism.18 He implies that the biogenetic revolution of our time could provide an opportunity to liberate mankind from its self-imposed repression and offer an alternative to humanism.'9Sloterdijk's essay came in the wake of humanists' growing preoccupation with the consequences of the Human Genome Project. Far from welcoming its promise of unlocking the human genetic make-up, some scholars have expressed reservations regarding the project. Catherine Waldby, for instance, warns us of the project's ideological assumption that humans are a "stable, knowable 'species', an organic integrity whose limits can be positively specified."2[degrees] Yet other theorists--who could be described as posthumanist feminist thinkers, such as Donna Haraway, Teresa de Laure-tis, and Sadie Plant, perceive biogenetics as an opportunity to challenge the myth of biological humanism and liberate women from their traditional role as "a deficient version of humanity which is already male."2' Recent discoveries in the cognitive neurosciences and consciousness research have led German philosopher Thomas Metzinger to claim that there "is a new image of man emerging, an image that will dramatically contradict almost all traditional images man has made of himself in the course of his cultural history."(22) Metzinger bases this claim of "a radically new understanding of what it means to be human" on recent scientific research, "since about 1990," that supposedly has enabled scientists "to learn more about the human brain than in the three preceding centuries."(23) Metzinger, a philosophy professor at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, claims "that no such things as selves exist in the world."(24) According to his theory, subjects experience themselves as subjects due to misrepresentations or simulations of brain signals. These simulations appear as real due to an inherent blind spot that does not allow humans to grasp the constructed character of phenomenal reality. Subjects experience themselves as being someone because the system mistakes the internal model of itself for an actual conscious self, or in Metzinger's words: "The phenomenal property of selfhood as such is a representational construct; it truly is a phenomenal property in terms of being an appearance only."(25)

I am introducing Metzinger's self-model here because it stands in opposition to Herder's idea of the human self. Contrary to Herder, who takes the self for granted and describes sensations from the perspective of the perceiving subject, Metzinger approaches the self from an external position that aims at avoiding the fallacies of a distorted, subjective point of view. And yet, while Metzinger uses an abundance of empirical data to substantiate his claims, his theory cannot explain how a subject with an independent self-awareness appears, or "how the body that sits presently in front of my...

To continue reading