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International Herder Society

Call for papers

International Herder Society Conference

Herder and naturalism: philosophy, history, language, religion

Ottawa, August 13-15, 2021


Although Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) never actually used the word itself, it is nonetheless widely accepted that “naturalism” characterizes the spirit and intent of his thought as a whole. Given the polyvalence of this term, a good place to begin is with a broad definition of the meaning intended here: naturalism applies to all those theories that construe “nature” to be the basis and norm of all appearances, in history, culture, morality, and art (Gawlick). In light of this broad understanding, two questions concerning Herder’s thought immediately arise. First, what is meant by “nature”, and second, “nature” as the basis and norm as opposed to what?

Starting with the latter, it is the opposition between the natural and the supernatural or divine that plays the most decisive role in many of Herder’s writings. A famous example of such a naturalistic explanation in this sense is Herder’s insistence, against Süßmilch’s divine origin hypothesis, on a human origin to language (Treatise on the origin of language, 1772). And yet in the Preface to the very work in which Herder lays out his most elaborate naturalistic explanations, the Ideas towards a philosophy of history of humankind (1784-1791), we see him caution the reader not to be misled by his frequent use of the word “nature”, for “[n]ature is no independent entity, but rather God is all in his works”.

This brings us to the first question: what does Herder mean by “nature”? His identification of God and nature is clearly not to be taken in the sense of a God that directly intervenes in the world, as his rejection of a divine origin to language reflects. Rather, Herder’s conception of God’s relationship to the world centres on a concept that is fundamental to his brand of naturalism, namely, force or Kraft. Over several philosophical pieces from the 1760s, as recent Herder scholarship has sought to show, Herder works out his conception of a dynamic universe and his theory of organic forces that are finally presented to the public, in systematic form, in the first two parts of Ideas and in the Spinozistic treatise, God: some conversations (1787). God is understood to realize himself by unfolding what Herder calls his single, initially undivided force in and through the created universe, the components of which are formed by a scale of forces that act through attraction and repulsion in both narrower and broader senses. Following his mentor, the pre-critical Kant, there is certainly a story to be told about how the material universe arose and developed according to the action of physical laws that derive from physical forces. Herder’s naturalism, however, goes beyond mere materialistic explanation. Taking inspiration in part from Shaftesbury as well as from his interpretations of Spinoza and Leibniz, at the heart of Herder’s metaphysical concept of nature lies the concept of life. The same divine force gives rise both to physical and organic forces, to material forces (attraction and repulsion) and representational forces (Vorstellungskraft) and these, in virtue of their ontological sameness, can mutually influence each other in soul-body interaction, as physiology and the theory of epigenesis each make manifest.

This resolute anti-dualism extends to the epistemological level, as seen in Herder’s rejection in On the cognition and sensation of the human soul (1774, 1775, 1778) of the view that sensation and cognition are two separate and distinct faculties in favour of the view that there exists a continuity from irritation (Reiz), through the obscurest nervous sensation, up to the most abstract, rational knowing. Herder’s unique contributions here to the so-called rehabilitation of sensuousness (Sinnlichkeit) in the Aufklärung, which extend all the way back to his 1763 Essay on being, betray in part the influence of Rousseau and Hume—in particular, the latter’s call for philosophy to be a science of human nature. Indeed, as recent Herder scholarship has emphasized, a further fundamental aspect of Herder’s naturalism is his focus on the human, articulated most vividly in his own call for philosophy itself to become anthropology (How philosophy can become more universal and useful for the benefit of the people, 1765). Central to this reading of Herder’s naturalism is his understanding of human beings as linguistic creatures who, through their interactions with each other and their environment, produce the meanings and values that orient them in art, literature, music, customs and practices, but also in economic and political systems and even in religion. These forms of human self- and world-understanding constitute the diverse cultures which, in turn, must be understood historically, as arising, developing, and declining in and across space and time. Herder’s naturalistic understanding of human history, on this view, would involve not only the opposition natural vs. supernatural/divine (on the interventionist reading of God), but also natural vs. rational on a reading of “rational” in this context as entailing rationally discernible overarching principles that are somehow active in human history. Herder’s celebrated organic theory of culture, each of which has its own centre of gravity within it, stands in opposition to the kind of view he criticized in his 1774 pamphlet, This too a philosophy of history for the education of humanity, namely, the optimistic brand of philosophy of history for which each period of human history is construed as nothing but a step in the inevitable march of reason, culminating in the Enlightenment.

Herder’s naturalism is an extraordinarily rich and varied one that reaches into virtually all aspects of his thought and oeuvre: his conception of nature itself, concept of force, philosophy of life, theory of human nature and language, understanding of natural and human history, and his theology and concept of religion. And as should be made clear, all the theses proposed here are best understood only as possible topics for discussion in a conference that will ideally involve both interpretations of Herder’s naturalism as well as the elucidation of the internal tensions, inconsistencies, and problems to which that naturalism and the interpretations of it give rise. It also goes without saying that besides the theses mentioned above, there are many others with respect to Herder’s naturalism that it would be of interest to pursue. The following thus serves only to bring to mind some of the relevant areas, so as to facilitate the process of choosing and refining a topic for a paper that also falls within one or more of the four sub-themes of philosophy, history, language, and religion.

  • Herder’s concept of nature: its relations to contemporary debates about vitalism, mechanism, materialism, but also with respect to its own sources in Shaftesbury, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, and Lambert, above all. Of interest are epistemological aspects as well as ontological and theological problems.

  • Herder’s account of human nature such as: the soul-body relationship, the role of physiology in this account, Herder’s rejection of faculty psychology with its sharp distinctions, his inversion of the hierarchy of the senses and his concomitant privileging of the sense of touch as fundamental and his emphasis on the lower regions of the soul and on the primacy of sensuousness (Sinnlichkeit).

  • Herder’s account of language, including: both his explanation of its human origin and of its subsequent growth and development in human culture(s) according to “natural laws” (Part II, Treatise on the origin of language); his account of the connections between language, thought, expression, and cultural difference. The role of his philosophy of language in his late Metacritique of Kant’s philosophy and the methodological and epistemological innovations Herder proposes in comparison with Schulphilosophie.

  • Herder’s philosophy of history in its innumerable dimensions as found, principally, in This too a philosophy of history and in the Ideas and the problem of whether or in what sense Herder proposes a naturalistic theory of history, and of whether there is not only a tension, but rather even a contradiction between a conception of human history as embedded in nature and a theologically grounded concept of humanity (Humanität; cf. Ideas, Book 15, Chapter 1).

  • Herder’s aesthetics, starting with his critical discussion of Baumgarten and his plans for an aesthetics that more adequately and genuinely investigates the lower regions of the soul and sensuous knowledge. Herder’s linking of the senses of sight, hearing, and touch to the respective arts of painting, music, and sculpture. His deeply contextual analysis of standards of beauty and taste as they develop and change over time and from culture to culture. His critique of a self-standing sense of taste, analogous to a moral sense.

  • Herder’s relationship to religion, whose importance for his thought is clearly demonstrated by his several long and detailed treatises on religious texts, his sermons, and his clerical activity, but whose transcendental dimension (which still remains to be more precisely determined) at the very least stands in tension with his consistent attempts to account for religion and religious texts as human products or human phenomena. Herder’s conception of God in his metaphysics and in his theology/theological writings and his understanding of God’s relationship to his creation and to human history, e.g., in his understanding of the connection between revelation and history.


Proposals for individual papers should be sent to ndesouza@uottawa.ca (Nigel DeSouza) by January 10th, 2021. Please make the subject of your e-mail “IHS 2020” and attach an abstract of no more than 500 words that includes the title of your paper, and your name, affiliation, and e-mail address. Notifications of abstract acceptance will be sent by February 15th, 2021.

The conference fee is $75 Canadian (students $40).




Call for Proposals

Herder Yearbook XVI / 2022

Edited by Rainer Godel and Johannes Schmidt


The Herder Yearbook / Herder Jahrbuch is published every other year as the academic journal of the International Herder Society (IHS). The next volume will appear in the fall of 2020. Central to the yearbook are scholarly contributions on Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), his writings, and intellectual endeavors. Alongside, the yearbook offers articles that shed light on texts and contexts by Herder’s contemporaries. Furthermore, the editors will also consider essays on the reception and impact of Herder (from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century).

The yearbook is open to current research contributions from a multitude of disciplines, among them, but not limited to, literary and language studies, (historical) linguistics, philosophy, history, history of ideas and sciences, as well as cultural studies. Proposals for contributions may be submitted at any time in English, German, or French. The Herder Yearbook perceives itself to be a double-blind peer-reviewed publication. Any submission will be evaluated thoroughly by at least two scholars.

At this time, the editors of the Herder Yearbook, Dr. Rainer Godel (Leopoldina) and Dr. Johannes Schmidt (Clemson University), request proposals for articles (on rare occasions also for reviews). However, acceptance of a proposed topic by the editors does not guarantee its publication. Only articles will be published that meet the high quality standards of the yearbook, which will be ensured by means of an anonymous evaluation procedure, corresponding to the Anglo-American double-blind peer review. Further details about the Herder Yearbook are available here or directly form the editors:

Rainer Godel (Rainer.Godel@leopoldina.org),

Johannes Schmidt (schmidj@clemson.edu)


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