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Study Notes

Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744−1803)

A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 2 Jun 2020

As a German nationalist of the eighteenth century, Johann Herder proclaimed that the nation transcends all other elements of social differentiation.

For Herder, nationality was of overriding political importance when compared to narrow sectional interests. Recognising that we are all in it together, Herder believed that we should reject those ideologies based upon sectional appeal (notably socialism in relation to social class). In his words “there is only one class in the state, the volk, and the King belongs to this class as well as the peasant.”

Johann Herder was impressed by the tribalism of the nation and asserted that the cultural nation is the true basis of the community and identity. In doing so, he opposed the Enlightenment view that the political community is a construct made up of all those who are subject to a sovereign power arising from a social contract. An artificial construct between the state and the individual was a false notion dreamt up by idealistic dreamers. As with all conservative figures, he was strongly opposed to abstract notions.

Herder also claimed that a nation was characterised by elements such as tradition, education, language and inclination. Along with Wilhelm von Humboldt, Johann Herder argued that language determines thought and that language and cultural traditions are the ties that create a nation. This extends towards folklore, dance, music and art. Herder’s ideas would later inspire the Brothers Grimm’s folk tales – although it is important to make a distinction between his conservative nationalism and the Nazis.

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