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Herder in the Balance

In response to:

Dialectics of Enlightenment from the May 9, 2019 issue

To the Editors:

I was very surprised to find in Professor Appiah’s “Dialectics of Enlightenment” [NYR, May 9] a number of strange misconceptions, if not actual distortions, both of my own work The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale University Press, 2009) and of the history and nature of the Enlightenment more broadly.

My book indeed argues that the French-Kantian Enlightenment paved the way to liberalism and democracy, and it also makes the argument that Herder was the antithesis of Kant, Rousseau, and Voltaire, an antirationalist who despised the concepts of secular natural law and natural rights, and the founder of organic nationalism and the intellectual father of the Balkanization of Europe. But I have never suggested, as Appiah wrongly assumes, that the Counter-Enlightenment, “exemplified by Edmund Burke and Herder, paved the way to fascism,” or that Herder’s ideas about the individual brought the camps and the gulags. Herder’s work had different and often contradictory aspects, and it is precisely this complexity that Appiah fails to see. Far from advancing the “insignificance of the individual,” he claims, Herder “cherished individuality and personal development.” What Appiah is missing here is that this was the case only as long as individuality was free of any political, antireligious, and anti-Christian implications, only as long as the individual was not the creator of society and was not the maker of its own history. And this was the great difference between Herder and the thinkers of the Enlightenment and founders of liberalism. For them individualism had an essential political significance directly translated in terms of rights of man, political liberty, the human origin of society, the concept of the citizen, and the sovereignty of the body of citizens.

Another major error Appiah makes concerns the myth of Kant as Herder’s teacher. Professor Appiah tells us that Herder was a pupil of Kant in the early 1760s and found much value in Kant’s work, which had an enduring influence on him. But after the 1760s came the 1770s, which brought us Herder’s Another Philosophy of History and in the 1780s the Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, Herder’s major work, which provoked Kant’s scathing criticism. In his Opus Postumum, Kant says that “unreason and deliberate deception are Herder’s trademark.” In his biblical sermon of 1774, which set out to demolish Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, Herder could not bear the idea of a rational and secular interpretation of history made by man without the intervention of Providence.

Kant did not react to his former student’s pamphlet of 1774, but Herder’s conception of history was intolerable to him. Ten years later, his criticism of Herder in his “Review of Herder’s Ideas on the Philosophy of History of Mankind” of 1784 and 1785 amounted to a complete refutation of the Lutheran pastor’s work.

The dispute between Kant and Herder was of a fundamental nature. The human race could not have had two origins, the one given in Genesis and the one described by Rousseau. Kant took the side of Rousseau.

Yet, for Isaiah Berlin, Rousseau was “one of the most sinister and most formidable enemies of liberty in the whole history of modern thought.” This does not prevent Professor Appiah from praising Berlin’s vision of the Enlightenment. Once again he does not see that Berlin’s distinction between positive liberty and negative liberty implies, as Leo Strauss said in 1961, a relativism of values. His relativistic liberalism is the reason for Berlin’s hostility toward Rousseau. For Benjamin Constant, from whom Berlin took the idea of two concepts of liberty in his famous lecture of 1957, the Rousseau bashers were those “esprits subalternes who seek to achieve a fleeting success by denying all courageous truths.” Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, nobody has said it better.

Zeev Sternhell
Léon Blum Professor Emeritus
Hebrew University
Member, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities
International Honorary Member,
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Jerusalem, Israel

Kwame Anthony Appiah replies:

Herder arrived in Königsberg in 1762 in order to study with Kant and soon established himself as Kant’s favorite student. Kant—this Kant, with his Hume-influenced skepticism of traditional metaphysics—had a deep and lasting influence on Herder. Yet by the mid-1770s, when Kant’s transcendental turn became evident, what had been a close intellectual relationship turned to disaffection and debate. Herder was critical of critical philosophy; Kant, in his new phase, dismissed Herder’s conception of anthropology. The nineteenth-century historian of philosophy Rudolf Haym had a point when he pronounced Herder a “Kantian of the year 1765.” Was that the end of it? It’s not a big stretch to think that Kant’s later writing on race, backing away from his earlier assertions of hierarchy, might have been, at least in part, informed by earlier criticisms made by (among others) Herder.

Enemies, allies? It’s a misbegotten task to try to sort the intellectual luminaries of that era into two warring tribes; it risks effacing the internal complexities of each one. Kant sometimes had harsh things to say about Herder; but he had harsh things to say, too, about Voltaire, his partner in Sternhell’s Franco-Kantian duumvirate. (“His skepticism is much more harmful than it is useful,” Kant wrote. “His grounds are nothing but illusory grounds, which can deceive a simple man, but never an acute and reflective, learned man.”) Are we obliged to say that Kant and Voltaire were either allies or enemies, and dismiss anything that complicates our picture as a “myth”? Voltaire himself directed thunderbolts at Holbach; Condorcet at Helvétius. (Then again, as Emma Rothschild has observed, Condorcet, often taken as an icon of chilly rationalism, “sounds at times like Herder.”) The notion that battle lines can be drawn between the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment—indeed, the notion that there was a Counter-Enlightenment, in the sense shared by Isaiah Berlin and Zeev Sternhell—is finally untenable.

In The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, Professor Sternhell’s central concern was “the war on universal values, reaching its climax in fascism,” and he depicted Herder as a major aggressor in that war. Sternhell, a scholar of courage and conscience, acknowledged Herder’s “multidimensionality”; he knew that Nazi ideologists had caricatured his views. “But a time comes when it is necessary,” he wrote, “to draw up a balance sheet. To what did Herder contribute? To a moderate correction of the Franco-Kantian Enlightenment or to a harsh and fundamentally destructive critique of this tradition?” A damning balance sheet is similarly drawn up on Isaiah Berlin; Sternhell, convinced that pluralism is a sham, sees nothing of worth in the thinkers of Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment and condemns Berlin for claiming otherwise. Columns of credits and debits are reduced to a single grand total.

We’d do well to resist this balance-sheet approach to intellectual history. The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition suggested that Herder’s cultural determinism could easily be replaced with racial determinism, and raised the question of why the likes of Alfred Rosenberg found value in Herder, however distorted these readings. Those of us who admire Herder’s antiracism, his effort to craft a strikingly cosmopolitan account of human diversity, will be tempted to wave away such concerns as myth; it complicates a sunny picture of Herderian Humanität. We’d do better to ponder such complications—and put away our own balance sheet.