LINGUIST List 24.3072

Mon Jul 29 2013

Review: Philosophy of Language; German: Forster (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 10-Jun-2013
From: Pierre-Yves Modicom <>
Subject: After Herder
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Michael N. ForsterTITLE: After HerderSUBTITLE: Philosophy of Language in the German TraditionPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Pierre-Yves Modicom, Ecole Normale Supérieure


Originally published in 2010, together with a companion volume (“GermanPhilosophy of Language”), Michael Forster's “After Herder” is now re-editedand available in a paperback version. Unlike what the title may suggest, thisvolume is not primarily devoted to German philosophy of language after Herder,but rather to Herder himself, who is depicted as the main actor of thelinguistic turn of German philosophy in the late 18th century. Forster arguesthat this Herderian revolution is all too often ignored by scholars,especially in Anglophone countries. Thus, this collection of essays aims atpromoting a new perspective on the intellectual history of the philosophy oflanguage. Finally, Forster also underlines Herder's relevance for today’sphilosophy.


The book is divided into three parts. The first one is dedicated to Herderhimself and the following two to his influence on Hamann and Schleiermacher.Both were previously regarded as the authors of some decisive ideas, whichthey actually seem to have borrowed from Herder.

The first part represents more than half of the whole volume. It mainlyfocuses on Herder’s ideas regarding the philosophy of language, but alsoincludes essays on his political, aesthetic and anthropological views. After abiographical sketch summarizing the main lines of Herder’s life and work, andformulating Forster’s general position (ch.1), the essay “Herder’s philosophyof Language, Interpretation, and Translation: Three fundamental Principles”(Chapter 2) presents the three central arguments underlying the Herderianturn: (1) thought is strongly related to and heavily dependent on language;(2) meaning is equal to usage (i.e. there are no Platonic or mental ideas, nogiven referents to words); (3) all meanings are based on perceptual oraffective perception (a position which Forster dubs Herder’s“quasi-empiricism”). Henceforth, I shall refer to these arguments as“principle 1”, “principle 2” and “principle 3”. The combination of theseprinciples leads Herder to claim both that our sensations model our language(and thus our thought), and that, conversely, linguistic conceptualizationsretroact on our perceptual schemes. The following essay, “God, Artists andAnimals” (Chapter 3), is devoted to the problems of God’s language, of theconceptual content of non-linguistic art and of animal communication, all ofwhich seem to challenge principle 1. Then, in “Herder’s Importance as aPhilosopher” (Chapter 4), Forster develops his views on Herder’s contributionto the theory of interpretation (i.e. hermeneutics) and to the philosophy oftranslation. With regard hermeneutics, Herder defends a holistic andrelativist approach underlining the strong heterogeneity of conceptualparadigms between historical periods and nations. A correct interpretation ofa given linguistic or artistic work must be based on a systematic attempt to“feel one’s way in the Other” (pp. 141-145). This concept arguably refers tothe laborious assimilation of the Other’s conceptual background, a taskrequiring especially strong historical and philological tools. Moreover, onthis holistic and relativist base, translation theory also has to bereconsidered: the old ideal of “providing the work that the author would havewritten had his native language not been the one he actually had but insteadthe target language” (p. 147) is presented as preposterous. For Herder, givenprinciple 1, what was written and thought in language A could not have beenwritten or thought in language B (p. 147). Those who believe that it is theaim of translation to overcome this gap are misguided: translation is not hereto project schemes from the target culture onto the source text, but rather tofree the reader from his/her conceptual environment and to bring him/her intothe author's original frame of thought. This “foreignizing” approach meansthat the translator should “bend” ostensively the meaning of words from thetarget language in the direction of the source language in order to recreatethe author's conceptual schemes within the target language. Furthermore,Chapter 5, “Herder on Genre”, is devoted to the link between aesthetics,pragmatics and interpretation theory. For Herder, it is impossible tocorrectly understand a piece of art without determining to which genre itbelongs. Furthermore, genres have to be determined through both historical andempirical bases. It is, for instance, an illusion to dub works by Sophocles,Shakespeare and Racine as “tragedy”, as if it were an eternal, non-historicalgenre. Chapter 6, “Herder and the Birth of Modern Anthropology”, deals withHerder’s views on the diversity of cultures and his legacy in Anglophoneanthropology, with Malinowski and Boas supposedly being greatly influenced byhis theories. Finally, “The Liberal Temper in Classical German Philosophy:Freedom of Thoughts and Expression” (Chapter 7) presents Herder’s politicalviews and compares them to Mill's plea for the freedom of expression.

Part two is devoted to Johann Georg Hamann, who has been regarded by somescholars as the author of principles 1 and 2. Again, a short biographicalsketch (Chapter 8) presents his life and thought. Then, a second text focuseson Hamann’s ideas on the philosophy of language (Chapter 9). Forster clearlyshows that principles 1 and 2 were formulated by Herder a few years beforeHamann, so that one can conclude the influence was from Herder to Hamann, andnot the contrary. Forster further argues for Herder’s superiority to the moreradical, but also superficial, Hamann.

Part three deals with Friedrich Daniel Schleiermacher, the founding father ofhermeneutics and translation studies. It is divided into three essays: ageneral presentation of Schleiermacher’s life and thought (Chapter 10), adiscussion of his hermeneutics, and finally, a comparison between his theoryof translation and Herder’s. “Schleiermacher’s Hermeneutics: Some Problems andSolutions” (Chapter 11) shows that Schleiermacher mainly systematized anddeveloped ideas first formulated by Herder. Moreover, when both are at odds,it appears that Schleiermacher’s theories are more radical, but also lesstenable. Most significantly, Schleiermacher (and Hamann before him) tends tocompletely identify thought with language, whereas Herder only advocates for arelation of dependence. On the contrary, “Herder, Schleiermacher and the Birthof Foreignizing Translation” (Chapter 11) suggests that Schleiermacher’stheory of translation, although massively indebted to Herder’s, also presentssome decisive “refinements” (p. 436). Schleiermacher has thought moreseriously than Herder about the methodological requirements of his theory. Healso noticed that his method of translation, to be wholly consistent, wouldhave to be at least partly extended to grammar (morphosyntax). Finally, healso expressed doubts about the possibility of accomplishing such a task andproposed to see this method as an ideal rather than as a rule to be compliedwith.


I will proceed in three steps: first, I discuss Forster’s historiographicalclaims insofar as they are relevant for the history of the philosophy oflanguage; second, I show why Herder’s theory of meaning cannot be assimilatedto a pragmatic stance in the sense defended by Forster; and third, I point outdamageable inconsistencies within Herder’s theory of translation.

Forster often insists that Herder is hardly studied in the Anglophone world.Indeed, even in countries where Herder is part of the standard curriculum, thestudy of his oeuvre scarcely goes beyond “This Too a Philosophy of History”(1774) and (in the best cases) the “Treatise on the Origin of Language”(1772). Yet, as Forster convincingly shows, the 1772 essay has beenoverestimated in comparison to Herder’s other works on language, which containmuch more original insights. In this respect, there is no doubt that “AfterHerder” will change the general view on Herder. Standard interpretationsfocusing upon Herder’s anthropology or his philosophy of history have tendedto underline his deep religious background (Herder was a Lutheran priest) andto read his philosophy as a naturalized theology or theodicy. Forster quicklydismisses religious interpretations and centers his analysis on the questionof social anthropology linked with the philosophy of language. This is a verystimulating attempt, yet Forster's detailed affirmations might sometimes gotoo far.

For instance, principle 2 is not supported by any decisive quotation. Thepassages presented by Forster as textual evidence are indeed incompatible withPlatonism, or the thesis that words could have a referent by themselves. Butthey can also be read as a commitment to a very strong variant of nominalism,thus making Herder a companion to British empiricism. Even the revolutionarydimension of principle 1 is disputable: Forster acknowledges the existence ofa “counter-paradigm” (p. 59) to classical dualism, but the names he quotes(e.g. Leibniz, Wolff, even Condillac) are precisely those of dominatingfigures of the intellectual mainstream of that time. Forster brilliantly showswhy Herder’s philosophy of language is so fascinating, but not why it wasindeed revolutionary at the time. So, we might prefer to follow Cassirer’s(1932) old interpretation, in which the age of Enlightenment is seen as an ageof analytic thought (an age dominated by what we would now call “splitters”).Herder, albeit massively indebted to Enlightenment, broke with this traditionregarding methodological issues, since he strongly favored syntheticapproaches (i.e. “lumping”).

Lastly, reducing Schleiermacher to a smart student of Herder who systematizedthe work of his inspired master is also unfair. Herder rejected systematicthought and wrote many fragments whose interpretation is still today a matterof debate. But Schleiermacher found clear words to explain his ideas and –more crucially – to express which philosophical controversies he was trying tosolve. Self-conscious, reflexive philosophy is always preferable to intuitivetheories whose background is often unclear to the author himself. Forster’sinterpretation of Herder is very compelling and systematic: precisely for thisreason, one cannot be sure that it really corresponds to what Herder putbehind his own words. Schleiermacher is certainly the thinker whoretrospectively transformed Herder’s raw, partly inconsistent ideas into thisvaluable philosophical material.

I now turn to the question of Herder’s relevance for today. There are goodreasons for regarding Herder as a formidable opponent to universal orCartesian grammar and as a valuable brother-of-arms for Ordinary LanguagePhilosophers. Yet, it seems that his thought is not always consistent, and isoften at odds both with, other aspects of Forster's interpretation and withtoday’s pragmatics.

In particular, Herder’s theory of meaning (principle 2) appears to be eitherinconsistent, or incompatible with a pragmatic reading. Principle 2 isgrounded on a strong verificationist argument which is totally untenable forradical pragmaticians: no object is ever perceived per se, Herder claims, butrather always through general properties or “features” (p. 69, withundisputable philological evidence to be found in notes 55 and 83). Thisstaunchly verificationist position denies the very possibility of singularreference, and thus, of singular thought (see Donnellan 1966).

This argument is supposed to a compelling rationale against meaning beingequated with reference. It would have been valuable for the reader to learn inwhich sense Forster understands this concept of reference. Indeed, Herderclearly states that words do not point at objects by themselves, but he doesdeny that such a relation of pointing at something can be (and usually is)established in discourse. Obviously, if we interpret Herder as a companion toFrege and the late Wittgenstein (as Forster does), we have to recognize thatthere is such a relation of pointing at things. This is referenced in a broadsense. The question is now whether we should interpret this “pointing at” asdenoting (Russell 1905)or as referring proper (Strawson 1950, Donnellan 1966).Everything suggests that Herder would choose the verificationist approach(i.e. denotation), thus rejecting reference in the narrow sense. However, thisreading precisely involves mental ideas or conceptualizations. This, in turn,considerably weakens Forster’s claim that principle 2 is exclusive of “meaningas mental idea” (p. 64 and passim). It seems that we do have to choose betweena Humian, verificationist interpretation on the one hand, and ananti-psychological, directly referential one on the other. In other words, themain argument for principle 2 is actually an argument for a standardempiricist reading of Herder's philosophy of reference. Regardless, such anempiricist interpretation is much more compatible with principle 3 thanForster’s identification of meaning with usage. Thus, we are left with twosolutions: either Herder has no tenable theory of reference, or he is aconsistent empiricist defending some sort of holistic psychology. The latterreading is perfectly compatible with the quotations given by Forster, but notwith his much more radical gloss.

The interpretation of principles 1 to 3 also has consequences for theviability of Herder's theory of translation. Both Herder and Schleiermacherdefend translation techniques where each word from the source language istranslated by one and the same item in the target language. For instance,Greek “chlôrós”, which is both yellow and green, should be translated by one,and only one, color adjective (even though this means we have to speak of“green honey” or of “yellow water”; for more details, see pp. 337 or 433).Principle 1 arguably forces us to assume that “chlôrós” corresponds to justone conceptualization, and thus one category of perception (principle 3).However, the opposition between green and yellow makes no sense for Homer. Forthis reason, a faithful translation should not introduce a conceptualdifference because it would be an ethno- and logocentric self-projection atthe expense of the author's Otherness (i.e. “radical mental difference”, 395).We have to change the “rules of usage” either of “green” or of “yellow” inorder to use one of them as a strict equivalent of “chlôrós”. This change ofmeaning is what Forster dubs “bending” (p. 23).

Let us imagine that the translator “bends” the meanings of words in the targetlanguage. In this case, one may ask: What is required for “bent” meanings tobe successfully interpreted by someone who does not master the source language(which is normally the case of someone reading a translation)? Obviously, thatperson (i.e. the reader) must be able to redefine the “usage rules” for eachpredicate in each text, i.e., to change the meaning of words ad libitemaccording to the context. If this is possible, it means that the reader canfree him/herself from the conceptual scheme determined by language rules –which violates both principle 1 and 3. But those principles are precisely therationales used to justify the rule of translating one word with one word forthe sake of preserving the author's irreducible conceptual schemes. We arefacing a circle, in a couple possible senses: either strict conceptual schemesexist, and then bent meanings cannot be properly understood, or they do notexist, and as such, there is no reason to “bend” anything.

It seems that this dogma of 1:1-translation relies on the presupposition thateach word has only one meaning and that the semantic interpretation of thewhole is the combination of the individual meanings of all parts. We can callthis principle a sort compositional atomism. Let us imagine that the globalsemantic content of the utterance can retroact on the interpretation ofpartial meanings. In this case, there is no longer any reason to interpret,and thus, to translate all occurrences of a word (e.g. “chlôrós“) in one andthe same way. Now, Herder’s theory of interpretation is deeply holistic, andthus, should allow such a holistic contextual retroaction. Consequently, wehave to accept that the meaning of “chlôrós” be re-determined as meaningeither “green” or “yellow” by the immediate context, e.g., the noun to whichthe adjective is predicated. This contextual re-determination of meaningappears to be a much more natural and frequent case of semantic “bending” thanthe translation rule advocated by Herder himself. If “bent meanings” in thesense of Herder can be successfully interpreted by the reader, thispresupposes such a holistic retroaction on individual meanings. So, if weallow for bending as a translation tool, we have to generalize it as aspontaneous pragmatic bias (an insight corroborated by many theories in textlinguistics). However, in this case, the atomistic stance underlying theHerderian argument for 1:1 translations becomes untenable.

The success of “bending” presupposes abandoning the very principles that wereresponsible for the problem to which “bending” was the answer. Furthermore, ifwe accept the strong readings of principles 1 and 3, as well as Herder's owninterpretation of them for his cultural anthropology, “bent” meanings wouldcertainly be misinterpreted. Schleiermacher seems to have seen thoseconsequences, as he is far more skeptical than Herder regarding the merechances of success for this approach (pp. 423 ff.). A truly faithful andunderstandable translation is, for him, an ideal to which we must tend butwhich we will never reach – a typically post-Kantian figure of thought. If wefollow Herder’s principles till their last consequences, we are led to thesame conclusions (which are indeed looming at some moments of Herder’sthought: see p. 398). Forster claims that Herder gives us the tools for amoderate relativism that preserves the possibility of intercultural dialogue(as opposed to Davidson’s doubts on the very possibility of translatability).But in the end, it appears that what preserved Herder from such radicalrelativism is merely his unwillingness to draw all the consequences of his ownarguments. In this sense, Schleiermacher did not radicalize Herder, but rathermade him consistent.

It is undisputable that Herder and Schleiermacher are valuable forethinkersfor many philosophers of language. However, it seems that this is much morethe case for cognitivist, constructivist and/or relativist approaches than forpragmatics proper. German idealists were, without a doubt, the first thinkerswho tried to coin a broad, audacious and synthetic framework includingsemantics, pragmatics, the philosophy of language and anthropologicallinguistics. We can share their views or reject them. In the first case, theyare considerable forethinkers, but even if we disagree with them, we must atleast recognize them as formidable opponents. This is an excellent reason toread and appreciate Michael Forster’s highly stimulating defense ofHerderianism.


Cassirer, Ernst. 1932. Die Philosophie der Aufklärung. Tübingen: Mohr /Siebeck. English translation 2009: The Philosophy of the Enlightenment.Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Donnellan, Keith S. 1966. Reference and Definite Description. ThePhilosophical Review 77. 281-204.

Forster, Michael (ed.). 2002. Herder: Philosophical Writings. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy).

Herder, Johann Gottfried. 1772. Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache.Berlin. (Treatise in the Origin of Language). English translation in: Forster,Michael (ed.). 2002.

Herder, Johann Gottfried. 1774. Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zurBildung der Menschheit (This too a Philosophy of History for the Education ofHumankind). English translation in Forster, Michael (ed.). 2002.

Russell, Bertrand. 1905. On Denoting. Mind 14-56. 479-493.

Strawson, Peter Frederick. 1950. On Referring. Mind 59-235. 320-344.


Pierre-Yves Modicom is Ph.D. candidate in German Linguistics at U.Paris-Sorbonne. He holds a M. A. in Linguistics and studied Linguistics,Philosophy and German Studies at U. Paris-Sorbonne and at the Ecole NormaleSuperieure (Paris).

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