Postmodernism, Part 15: Herder’s Volksgeist

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks (with support from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.)

Previous posts:

Enlightenment and Darkness

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

Right Collectivism


Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.  Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.

Postmodernism’s radical left politics don’t flow naturally from Heidegger’s subjectivist philosophy.  Postmodernism’s leftist political philosophy is explained by twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe.  Postmodernists took refuge in an earlier totalitarian collectivist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

jean-rousseauJean Rousseau

Rousseau’s political philosophy features socialism, totalitarianism, and unthinking religious fervor.  Rousseau’s Counter-Enlightenment was the polar opposite of Enlightenment thinking and values.  He was a totalitarian collectivist, who damned reason and civilization, sacrificed the individual to the state, called for intolerant state religion, despised political and economic liberalism, and embraced dictatorship.

Napoleon gave Germany an epic case of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror.  Napoleon gained power and trounced Germany.  He ended the Holy Roman Empire, occupied German territories, and imposed foreign values on them.  Germans blamed the Enlightenment for invading the dark forests of deeply rooted German traditions.

Kant gave Rousseau’s totalitarian collectivism a German spin: feudalistic militarism.  Life is suffering.  (We deserve it.  So, get over it.)  Morality is selfless duty unto death.  (So, unthinkingly obey your masters.)  Life is cheap.  (So, make death count.)  Human progress is warfare until judgment day.  (The dark forest of Kant’s German traditions had such deep roots they seemingly reached back to pagan Germanic warrior cults.)

Napoleon’s foreign invasions were setting the brooding German Counter-Enlightenment thinkers on fire.

Sturm and Drang

Enlightenment scientific rationalism sparked a passionate reaction against logic and reason.  This is why Rousseau’s passions so inflamed the German Counter-Enlightenment thinkers (hence, Kant).  In the arts, Rousseau inspired the passionate Romantic movement.  Philosophy and the arts entwined in fierce embrace.

The Romantic movement began with the German Sturm and Drang (“storm and drive”).  It included philosophy, music, and literature.  Its proponents included Wagner,  the composers Haydn and Mozart, and the legendary Goethe (who had been up close and personal with the French Revolution and Napoleon’s invading troops).  Sturm and Drang elevated, nature, youth (dying young), violent emotion, and the humble.

Rousseau and Sturm and Drang inspired many Counter-Enlightenment thinkers (who influenced the collectivist Right) and Romantic thinkers (who influenced the collectivist Left).

Herder’s Volksgeist

Johann Herder (the “German Rousseau”) discovered multiculturalism, moral relativism, and the German Volksgeist (the national spirit).  He was Kant’s student (but left Kant for being too reasonable).  Herder was a multiculturalist and moral relativist.  He warned against infecting German culture with diseased foreign ideas.

Herder studied under Kant but became a disciple of Johann Hamann (Kant’s friend and colleague).  Hamann and Kant both distrusted the Enlightenment and reason.  However, Hamann thought Kant’s subjectivism was still too cozy with reason.  Herder followed Hamann in abandoning reason.

herderJohann Herder

Herder discovered the German Volksgeist (national spirit).  Kant thought Nature’s grand plan used warfare for universal human progress.  Herder rejected the idea of universal human progress.  What mattered (to him) was German progress.

Herder was a multiculturalist and moral relativist.  Each Volk (people) has its own distinct culture, morality, and destiny.  So, there’s no such thing as universal progress because there’s no universal yardstick.  (Each culture has its own yardstick.)

Herder warned against infecting German culture with foreign ideas (in a nonjudgmental way).  When we “start dwelling on wishful dreams of foreign lands,” he taught us, we’re just asking for trouble: “symptoms of disease, of flatulence, of unhealthy opulence, of approaching death!”  Foreign ideas (the Enlightenment, etc.) were like a disease that threatened to sicken and kill the Germans.

Herder was a patriotic German nationalist.  He was not a racist.


Herder greatly influenced the German arts.  His writings helped inspire the Sturm and Drang movement.  His studies of German language and myths, in search of deeper meanings, would influence many others.

Just as romanticism would inspire totalitarian collectivism, Herder’s ideas would be borrowed and twisted to terrible ends (as Herder had feared).


Germans continue brewing the Collectivist Right.  Next: Part 16, Fichte’s School of Nationalism.