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Review of  After Herder

Reviewer: Pierre-Yves Modicom
Book Title: After Herder
Book Author: Michael N. Forster
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 24.3072

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AUTHOR: Michael N. Forster
TITLE: After Herder
SUBTITLE: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2012


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


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

The first part represents more than half of the whole volume. It mainly focuses on Herder’s ideas regarding the philosophy of language, but also includes essays on his political, aesthetic and anthropological views. After a biographical sketch summarizing the main lines of Herder’s life and work, and formulating Forster’s general position (ch.1), the essay “Herder’s philosophy of Language, Interpretation, and Translation: Three fundamental Principles” (Chapter 2) presents the three central arguments underlying the Herderian turn: (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, no given referents to words); (3) all meanings are based on perceptual or affective 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 these principles leads Herder to claim both that our sensations model our language (and thus our thought), and that, conversely, linguistic conceptualizations retroact on our perceptual schemes. The following essay, “God, Artists and Animals” (Chapter 3), is devoted to the problems of God’s language, of the conceptual content of non-linguistic art and of animal communication, all of which seem to challenge principle 1. Then, in “Herder’s Importance as a Philosopher” (Chapter 4), Forster develops his views on Herder’s contribution to the theory of interpretation (i.e. hermeneutics) and to the philosophy of translation. With regard hermeneutics, Herder defends a holistic and relativist approach underlining the strong heterogeneity of conceptual paradigms between historical periods and nations. A correct interpretation of a 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 to the laborious assimilation of the Other’s conceptual background, a task requiring especially strong historical and philological tools. Moreover, on this holistic and relativist base, translation theory also has to be reconsidered: the old ideal of “providing the work that the author would have written had his native language not been the one he actually had but instead the target language” (p. 147) is presented as preposterous. For Herder, given principle 1, what was written and thought in language A could not have been written or thought in language B (p. 147). Those who believe that it is the aim of translation to overcome this gap are misguided: translation is not here to project schemes from the target culture onto the source text, but rather to free the reader from his/her conceptual environment and to bring him/her into the author's original frame of thought. This “foreignizing” approach means that the translator should “bend” ostensively the meaning of words from the target language in the direction of the source language in order to recreate the 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 to correctly understand a piece of art without determining to which genre it belongs. Furthermore, genres have to be determined through both historical and empirical bases. It is, for instance, an illusion to dub works by Sophocles, Shakespeare and Racine as “tragedy”, as if it were an eternal, non-historical genre. Chapter 6, “Herder and the Birth of Modern Anthropology”, deals with Herder’s views on the diversity of cultures and his legacy in Anglophone anthropology, with Malinowski and Boas supposedly being greatly influenced by his theories. Finally, “The Liberal Temper in Classical German Philosophy: Freedom of Thoughts and Expression” (Chapter 7) presents Herder’s political views 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 some scholars as the author of principles 1 and 2. Again, a short biographical sketch (Chapter 8) presents his life and thought. Then, a second text focuses on Hamann’s ideas on the philosophy of language (Chapter 9). Forster clearly shows that principles 1 and 2 were formulated by Herder a few years before Hamann, so that one can conclude the influence was from Herder to Hamann, and not the contrary. Forster further argues for Herder’s superiority to the more radical, but also superficial, Hamann.

Part three deals with Friedrich Daniel Schleiermacher, the founding father of hermeneutics and translation studies. It is divided into three essays: a general presentation of Schleiermacher’s life and thought (Chapter 10), a discussion of his hermeneutics, and finally, a comparison between his theory of translation and Herder’s. “Schleiermacher’s Hermeneutics: Some Problems and Solutions” (Chapter 11) shows that Schleiermacher mainly systematized and developed ideas first formulated by Herder. Moreover, when both are at odds, it appears that Schleiermacher’s theories are more radical, but also less tenable. Most significantly, Schleiermacher (and Hamann before him) tends to completely identify thought with language, whereas Herder only advocates for a relation of dependence. On the contrary, “Herder, Schleiermacher and the Birth of Foreignizing Translation” (Chapter 11) suggests that Schleiermacher’s theory of translation, although massively indebted to Herder’s, also presents some decisive “refinements” (p. 436). Schleiermacher has thought more seriously than Herder about the methodological requirements of his theory. He also noticed that his method of translation, to be wholly consistent, would have to be at least partly extended to grammar (morphosyntax). Finally, he also expressed doubts about the possibility of accomplishing such a task and proposed to see this method as an ideal rather than as a rule to be complied with.


I will proceed in three steps: first, I discuss Forster’s historiographical claims insofar as they are relevant for the history of the philosophy of language; second, I show why Herder’s theory of meaning cannot be assimilated to a pragmatic stance in the sense defended by Forster; and third, I point out damageable 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, the study 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 been overestimated in comparison to Herder’s other works on language, which contain much more original insights. In this respect, there is no doubt that “After Herder” will change the general view on Herder. Standard interpretations focusing upon Herder’s anthropology or his philosophy of history have tended to underline his deep religious background (Herder was a Lutheran priest) and to read his philosophy as a naturalized theology or theodicy. Forster quickly dismisses religious interpretations and centers his analysis on the question of social anthropology linked with the philosophy of language. This is a very stimulating attempt, yet Forster's detailed affirmations might sometimes go too far.

For instance, principle 2 is not supported by any decisive quotation. The passages presented by Forster as textual evidence are indeed incompatible with Platonism, or the thesis that words could have a referent by themselves. But they can also be read as a commitment to a very strong variant of nominalism, thus making Herder a companion to British empiricism. Even the revolutionary dimension of principle 1 is disputable: Forster acknowledges the existence of a “counter-paradigm” (p. 59) to classical dualism, but the names he quotes (e.g. Leibniz, Wolff, even Condillac) are precisely those of dominating figures of the intellectual mainstream of that time. Forster brilliantly shows why Herder’s philosophy of language is so fascinating, but not why it was indeed 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 age of analytic thought (an age dominated by what we would now call “splitters”). Herder, albeit massively indebted to Enlightenment, broke with this tradition regarding methodological issues, since he strongly favored synthetic approaches (i.e. “lumping”).

Lastly, reducing Schleiermacher to a smart student of Herder who systematized the work of his inspired master is also unfair. Herder rejected systematic thought and wrote many fragments whose interpretation is still today a matter of debate. But Schleiermacher found clear words to explain his ideas and – more crucially – to express which philosophical controversies he was trying to solve. Self-conscious, reflexive philosophy is always preferable to intuitive theories whose background is often unclear to the author himself. Forster’s interpretation of Herder is very compelling and systematic: precisely for this reason, one cannot be sure that it really corresponds to what Herder put behind his own words. Schleiermacher is certainly the thinker who retrospectively transformed Herder’s raw, partly inconsistent ideas into this valuable philosophical material.

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

In particular, Herder’s theory of meaning (principle 2) appears to be either inconsistent, or incompatible with a pragmatic reading. Principle 2 is grounded on a strong verificationist argument which is totally untenable for radical pragmaticians: no object is ever perceived per se, Herder claims, but rather always through general properties or “features” (p. 69, with undisputable philological evidence to be found in notes 55 and 83). This staunchly verificationist position denies the very possibility of singular reference, and thus, of singular thought (see Donnellan 1966).

This argument is supposed to a compelling rationale against meaning being equated with reference. It would have been valuable for the reader to learn in which sense Forster understands this concept of reference. Indeed, Herder clearly states that words do not point at objects by themselves, but he does deny that such a relation of pointing at something can be (and usually is) established in discourse. Obviously, if we interpret Herder as a companion to Frege and the late Wittgenstein (as Forster does), we have to recognize that there is such a relation of pointing at things. This is referenced in a broad sense. The question is now whether we should interpret this “pointing at” as denoting (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, this reading precisely involves mental ideas or conceptualizations. This, in turn, considerably weakens Forster’s claim that principle 2 is exclusive of “meaning as mental idea” (p. 64 and passim). It seems that we do have to choose between a Humian, verificationist interpretation on the one hand, and an anti-psychological, directly referential one on the other. In other words, the main argument for principle 2 is actually an argument for a standard empiricist reading of Herder's philosophy of reference. Regardless, such an empiricist interpretation is much more compatible with principle 3 than Forster’s identification of meaning with usage. Thus, we are left with two solutions: either Herder has no tenable theory of reference, or he is a consistent empiricist defending some sort of holistic psychology. The latter reading is perfectly compatible with the quotations given by Forster, but not with his much more radical gloss.

The interpretation of principles 1 to 3 also has consequences for the viability of Herder's theory of translation. Both Herder and Schleiermacher defend translation techniques where each word from the source language is translated 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 just one conceptualization, and thus one category of perception (principle 3). However, the opposition between green and yellow makes no sense for Homer. For this reason, a faithful translation should not introduce a conceptual difference because it would be an ethno- and logocentric self-projection at the 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” in order to use one of them as a strict equivalent of “chlôrós”. This change of meaning is what Forster dubs “bending” (p. 23).

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

It seems that this dogma of 1:1-translation relies on the presupposition that each word has only one meaning and that the semantic interpretation of the whole is the combination of the individual meanings of all parts. We can call this principle a sort compositional atomism. Let us imagine that the global semantic content of the utterance can retroact on the interpretation of partial 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 and the same way. Now, Herder’s theory of interpretation is deeply holistic, and thus, should allow such a holistic contextual retroaction. Consequently, we have to accept that the meaning of “chlôrós” be re-determined as meaning either “green” or “yellow” by the immediate context, e.g., the noun to which the adjective is predicated. This contextual re-determination of meaning appears to be a much more natural and frequent case of semantic “bending” than the translation rule advocated by Herder himself. If “bent meanings” in the sense of Herder can be successfully interpreted by the reader, this presupposes such a holistic retroaction on individual meanings. So, if we allow for bending as a translation tool, we have to generalize it as a spontaneous pragmatic bias (an insight corroborated by many theories in text linguistics). However, in this case, the atomistic stance underlying the Herderian argument for 1:1 translations becomes untenable.

The success of “bending” presupposes abandoning the very principles that were responsible for the problem to which “bending” was the answer. Furthermore, if we accept the strong readings of principles 1 and 3, as well as Herder's own interpretation of them for his cultural anthropology, “bent” meanings would certainly be misinterpreted. Schleiermacher seems to have seen those consequences, as he is far more skeptical than Herder regarding the mere chances of success for this approach (pp. 423 ff.). A truly faithful and understandable translation is, for him, an ideal to which we must tend but which we will never reach – a typically post-Kantian figure of thought. If we follow Herder’s principles till their last consequences, we are led to the same conclusions (which are indeed looming at some moments of Herder’s thought: see p. 398). Forster claims that Herder gives us the tools for a moderate 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 radical relativism is merely his unwillingness to draw all the consequences of his own arguments. In this sense, Schleiermacher did not radicalize Herder, but rather made him consistent.

It is undisputable that Herder and Schleiermacher are valuable forethinkers for many philosophers of language. However, it seems that this is much more the case for cognitivist, constructivist and/or relativist approaches than for pragmatics proper. German idealists were, without a doubt, the first thinkers who tried to coin a broad, audacious and synthetic framework including semantics, pragmatics, the philosophy of language and anthropological linguistics. We can share their views or reject them. In the first case, they are considerable forethinkers, but even if we disagree with them, we must at least recognize them as formidable opponents. This is an excellent reason to read and appreciate Michael Forster’s highly stimulating defense of Herderianism.


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. The Philosophical 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 zur Bildung der Menschheit (This too a Philosophy of History for the Education of Humankind). 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 Normale Superieure (Paris).

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