Another History of Philosophy (Herder)

Herder, Johann Gottfried.  Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2004.

The English title is misleading.  One expects that this will be another volume along the same lines as Hegel or Augustine.  It is not.  The German title, Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menscheit, clearly teaches us this is about education, not history.  Even more, as the use of his term Bildung makes clear, it is about formative education.

Herder resists the Enlightenment attempt to judge all cultures from the standpoint of French atheism.  Moreover, one should not wish to go back in time and live in x culture, for “God, climate, and [the] stage of world development” made you what you are, where you are.

Every nation and culture has “its center of gravity” (Herder 29).

Key concepts:

Herder operates with a number of German terms that lose some of their nuance in English. The most important is Bildung. It isn’t simply education, but formation.  

Herder begins history with the Oriental patriarchs.  By Orient he probably means Mesopotamia and Abraham, not China or Japan. It’s necessary that history begin with the patriarchs.  Mankind needed to be formed (Bild- words) in a way that would be a scaffold for later epochs. Mankind didn’t need the dry, cold reason of the French Enlightenment, but custom and inclination.  Similarly, children do not need to begin with abstract reasoning but with stories of heroism.

Human history then moves from patriarchal huts to Egypt.  The emphasis is no longer “the paternal oracles of the deity,” but law and security (Herder 12). Man needed stability before he could move to the Greek genius. History then moves to Phoenicia.  Instead of a god-king, there is now an aristocracy of cities and commerce.

Then is Greece.  The Greeks blended Phoenecian and Egyptian ways of thinking. The aristocracy of cities became polises.  Greek art was light compared with Egyptian heaviness.  “The giant temple became a stage” (20).

Rome follows Greece, as manhood does boyhood.  Rome was also necessary in order to bridge Greece and Germany. Greek airiness lacked the manly spirit to tame the barbarians.  Only Rome (and the Gospel) could do that.  This gives rise to another of Herder’s arguments: each culture is an analogy of the one preceding it (39).

It is tempting to read Herder as one who wants to go back to Medieval Germany.  He doesn’t say that.  He is very clear on that point.  Nonetheless, given the current Christian fascination with “classical education” and “classical cultures,” prioritizing Medieval Germany over pagan Greece might have something going for it.

Much of the middle ages was no doubt brutal, but consider what happened: instead of slavery, there were guilds (at least in the later centuries); Europe populated; self-reliance, etc.  

All of this is excellent and good, but Herder is making a dangerous argument.  He comes very close to saying we can’t judge another culture from our standpoint.  What about cultural practices such as widow-burning in India and female circumcision in Africa?  We most certainly can judge (and stop, as the manly British did in India) those cultures.

He then deconstructs terms like “happiness.”  Happiness can’t simply be what French philosophes think it must be (with the conclusion that no nation was ever happy until 1789).

There are a number of modern-day applications we can make from Herder’s argument. Trying to import American (and really, just neo-liberal democracy) to other cultures is always doomed from the start. True, much of Iraqi and Afghani culture is bad, but destroying those mediating institutions, leaving nothing remaining, and then telling them to be good Western citizens is almost always worse.  You get ISIS as a result.

Do We Have a Fatherland?

This text ends with several of Herder’s essays on the topic.  This question would get him brought up on charges by Big Eva today.  That’s because modern Americans, both secularists and Evangelicals, are utterly clueless on what nationalism means.  A Fatherland is a nexus of numerous influences: soil, family, language.  These are manifested in its institutions (which is why the godly must always fight efforts from the UN which threaten our institutions).

Ultimately, though, a Fatherland is revealed by its language.  Note what Herder didn’t say.  He didn’t say race.  And for neo-liberals and neo-conservatives, he didn’t say oil or global markets.

This is a fun, bombastic work.  Herder is certainly wrong in some of the particulars, but it is still a fun read.

Hegel and Modern Society (Charles Taylor)

Taylor claims this isn’t merely a summation of his earlier tome on Hegel. That’s not really true. A number of pages are lifted but I think he succeeds in succinctly tying Hegel’s ontology to Hegel’s politics and showing the latter’s relevance for the modern age.

Hegel’s Ontology

Hegel sought to synthesize the Romantic desire for freedom and expression with the Rationalist desire for Reason. The Romantics saw Enlightenment science severing man’s unity. Man can only be self-conscious when he abstracts himself from the world. But when he does that, he severs himself from the organic unity of life. Reason and Life are thus opposites. But they are opposites which can’t exist without the other.

This leads us to Geist (God, sort of) as the Embodied Subject. A rational subject must be embodied because their must be an opposite pole in which it may flourish. Hegel rejects both Christian theism (God independent of the world) and naturalism (God as not absolute). Self-positing: God eternally creates the conditions of his existence. Hegel is not so much arguing for an existent reality, but for the conditions that Geist be.

What is the Dialectic?

we start with the most elementary notion of what consciousness is, “to show that this cannot stand up, that it is riven with inner contradiction and must give way to a higher one, which is also in turn shown to be contradictory” (55).

Politics as Alienation Overcome

Modern society has seen the proliferation of Romantic views of life along with the rationalization and bureaucratization of collective structures and an exploitive stance toward nature (71). The adequate form of Spirit (remember, Spirit must be embodied) is social. Man has to be part of something larger than himself, since man cannot exist by himself.

alienation: this happens whenever the public existence no longer has meaning for me: e.g., the perceived futility of voting; nominal religious belief in Church-States. Individuals then strike out on their own to define their individuality. They then (ironically) come together as a new social unit.

Negative freedom would require that the whole outcome be decided by me. Yet, the whole outcome is a social one, so it cannot be decided by me alone. Thus, negative freedom is impossible.

The Modern Dilemma

Here is why modern liberal society is doomed: radical participation in civic structures is only possible if there is a ground of agreement, or underlying common purpose (Augustine’s common objects of love). Democracy and participation cannot create this; they merely presuppose it. The demand for absolute freedom by itself is empty.
Modern ideology and equality leads to homogenization [Taylor isn’t always clear on what he means by homogenization] of society. It is an acid drip on traditional structures, yet it cannot replace them.

Hegel and Marx

This is where Charles Taylor, using Hegel’s analysis, cuts Marxism to the bone. The Soviet view sees the proletarian party as “engineers of building in conformity with the laws of history…[combining] two opposed pictures of the human predicament. It shows us man, on one hand, imposing his will on the course of history…On the other hand dialectical materialism sets out the laws which govern man and history with an iron necessity” (151). “The laws of history cannot be the basis of social engineering and reveal the inevitable trend of events” (152).

Analysis and Conclusion

A Christian cannot accept Hegel’s ontology. It echoes pantheism and is openly process theology. Hegel’s analysis of epistemology on lower levels is sometimes interesting. Hegel’s insights on politics (if not his conclusions!) are occasionally brilliant.

The concepts of social alienation are more pronounced today than ever before. Hegel was spot on. His critique of Negative Freedom of the French Revolution applies equally to Marxism (and its body count) and the Cultural Leninism of today’s America

Frame: Theology in the Enlightenment

In this chapter Frame refocuses his argument and explains why he spends more time on modern, rather than ancient thought.

A biblical metaphysic dictates an epistemology and ethic in which divine “revelation is the supreme authority” (Frame 214).  The problem for the Greeks–and I suspect for most of autonomous thought– is “that the object of knowledge–the world–is irrational,” which means the goal of knowing is to impose (violence?) a rational order on irrational chaos.

Frame says the two worst heresies the church faced are Deism and Liberalism (220).  I…um…don’t know about that.  But it does explain much of the book.  He defines liberal as anyone who doesn’t submit to the authority of Scripture (216ff).

He notes that Pascal is one of the first thinkers “to take seriously the subjective or existential dimension of knowledge, not as a barrier to understanding, but as a necessary basis for it” (231).

Jonathan Edwards

Edwards held to biblical revelation but he did not react hysterically to the Enlightenment.  Edwards also allows us to examine some aspects of ontology:

Substance: God is the only true substance.  Hints and charges of pantheism.  I don’t think Edwards intended this but it is hard to escape the charge.  See Oliver Crisp’s works on Edwards.

understanding: faculty of the mind.  Arises as God supplies us with impressions and ideas.

Will: the seat of passions and affections.  (JBA: this is true but Edwards said MUCH MORE on the will).

Thomas Reid

Surprisingly good section on Reid.  Van Tillians as a whole have been very sloppy in their scholarship on Reid.  Frame summarizes Reid’s first principles (243):

  1. Consciousnesss is reliable in showing us what exists.
  2. Conscious thoughts reveal a self, mind, or person.
  3. Memory is generally reliable.
  4. Personal identity continues through time (Ship of Theseus).
  5. Sense perception is generally reliable.
  6. People intuit that they have free will.
  7. Natural faculties (reason) are generally reliable.
  8. Others have life and intelligence similar to ours.
  9. Physical expressions and actions of people reveal their minds.
  10. Human testimony is generally reliable.
  11. People’s actions are more or less regular.
  12. The future will be generally like the past.

Frame has a problem with (6).  But for the rest these can’t be proven.  Their are prior to proof.  They aren’t absolute and one can find exceptions to them, but they are generally the case for everyday life.  They “force assent.”