Theories of Race

Johann Gottfried von Herder

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    Johann Gottfried von Herder



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Johann Gottfried von Herder is a figure of majestic dimensions in the history of philosophy, exerting a major, even decisive influence on many leading figures in the century that followed him (Hegel, Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Mill, Goethe) and contributing to the development of several entire disciplines (philosophy of language, linguistics, hermeneutics, anthropology, Biblical scholarship). In sharp contrast to the philosophical style prevailing in Germany during the time he wrote, Herder’s thought is large and various and his writing often unsystematic, diffuse, and even seemingly improvisatory. The very title of the work excerpted here, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, suggests a nondogmatic provisionality entirely characteristic of Herder’s thinking.

A commitment to openness and exchange, a broad tolerance of imprecision, and a resistance to closure are apparent in his few comments on race, which occur in the middle of a spacious discussion of the history of humanity—the first section is entitled “Our Earth is a Star among Stars”—where Herder places human diversity in the context of natural diversity, with the entirety governed by a uniform system of laws dominated by principles of opposition and reconciliation. Herder argues that humanity should be divided into peoples rather than into distinct races because, as he puts it, “the whole of humankind is engaged in a continuing metamorphosis” such that “complexions run into each other.”

For Herder, human differences are attributable largely to the effects of climate and geography on an organism restricted by nature to a limited number of possible variations. Sections in Book Six of Outlines on the “organization” of various peoples precede more general reflections in Book Seven, which begins with a programmatic statement whose title states the argument: “Notwithstanding the Varieties of the human Form, there is but one and the same Species of Man throughout the Whole of our Earth.” Herder’s view of the primacy of peoples—ethnic groups living together—was cited in the early twentieth century by Franz Boas in his efforts to orient anthropology away from race.*

Herder’s book, considered the masterpiece of his mature years, drew the skeptical attention of his former professor Kant, who pointed out in a long review that with the kind of information about the peoples of the world then available, one might conclude anything at all about human diversity, and “the philosopher [whom Kant describes as “our ingenious and eloquent author”] is at liberty to choose whether he wishes to assume natural differences or to judge everything by the principle tout comme chez nous, with the result that all the systems he constructs on such unstable foundations must take on the appearance of ramshackle hypotheses.” For Herder, the concept of race itself was an hypothesis, and a useless one. “I see,” he said, “no reason for this appellation.” Instead, he proposed another kind of concept altogether (to which Kant took great exception) in the “genetic power,” the mysterious essence, “the Mother of all the Forms upon Earth,” on which climate and geography act to produce diversification.

A far more astringent and abstract—a more “categorical” and less “romantic”—thinker than Herder, Kant was irritated above all by what seemed to him his former student’s naturalism, which makes no allowance for, nor demands on, the human being as opposed to any other natural creature, and which could produce sentences such as “each human individual has the measure of his happiness within him.” For Kant, happiness was not the point of existence, which had a higher purpose toward which humans, possessed of reason, should strive. “Does the author really mean,” Kant demanded, “that, if the happy inhabitants of Tahiti, never visited by more civilized nations, were destined to live in their peaceful indolence for thousands of centuries, it would be possible to give a satisfactory answer to the question of why they should exist at all, and of whether it would not have been just as good if the island had been occupied by happy sheep and cattle as by happy human beings who merely enjoy themselves?”**

What seems to have provoked Kant to this attack on his former student was Herder’s acceptance of a certain shapelessness and even meaninglessness in human existence, which, in Herder’s account, had no higher end toward which it ought to tend. There is no “ought” in Herder, and so traveler’s narratives, which documented mere variation, the more astonishing the better, were entirely adequate as sources of information about human existence. To Kant, who was then in the process of developing a critical philosophy devoted to the proposition that the proper end of human existence was the realization of freedom, such accounts were merely reminders of an inertial tendency in human life, and therefore of the difficulty of the philosophical, intellectual, and moral task.

Herder may have been fortunate in his temperament, but he was not averse to controversy. The second volume of Outlines seems, in fact, to be a veiled response to Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View” (1784). Herder’s rejection of the “scale of Being” constitutes a direct rejoinder to those (e.g., Long) who would deploy such a concept to argue for the proximity or even the intermingling of Africans and primates. [On the “chain of being,” see Linnaeus, Kames, White, Jenyns, Cuvier.]. And in a general sense, Herder’s refusal of the concept of race placed a stone in the path of those who would argue for any essential differences within mankind that would justify assertions of racial superiority or inferiority.

*Franz Boas, “The History of Anthropology,” Science 20 (October 21, 1904) 512: 513-24. 

**Immanuel Kant, “Review of Herder’s Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, from Kant’s Political Writing, ed. H. Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970): 201-20, 219-20.

Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man


Book VII, Ch. I. Notwithstanding the Varieties of the human Form, there is but one and the same Species of Man throughout the Whole of our Earth

No two leaves of any one tree in nature are to be found perfectly alike; and still less do two human faces, or human frames, resemble each other. Of what endless variety is our artful structure susceptible! Our solids are decomposable into such minute and multifariously interwoven fibres, as no eye can trace; and these are connected by a gluten of such a delicate composition, as the utmost skill is insufficient to analyse. Yet these constitute the least part of us: they are nothing more than the containing vessels and conduits of the variously compounded, highly animated fluid, existing in much greater quantity, by means of which we live and enjoy life. “No man,” says Haller, “is exactly similar to another in his internal structure; the courses of the nerves and bloodvessels differ in millions and millions of cases, so that amid the variations of these delicate parts, we are scarcely able to discover in what they agree.” But if the eye of the anatomist can perceive this infinite variety, how much greater must that be, which dwells in the invisible powers of such an artful organization! So that every man is ultimately a world, in external appearance indeed similar to others, but internally an individual being, with whom no other coincides. . . .

The whole course of a man’s life is change: the different periods of his life are tales of transformation, and the whole species is one continued metamorphosis. Flowers drop and wither; others sprout out and bud: the vast tree bears at once all the seasons on it’s head. If, from a calculation of the insensible perspiration alone, a man of eighty have renovated his whole body at least four and twenty times; who can trace the variations of matter and it’s forms through all the race of mankind upon the Earth, amid all the causes of change; when not one point on our complicated Globe, not one wave in the current of time, resembles another? . . .

As the human intellect, however, seeks unity in every kind of variety, and the divine mind, its prototype, has stamped the most innumerable multiplicity upon the Earth with unity, we may venture from the vast realm of change to revert to the simplest position: all mankind are only one and the same species. . . .

I could wish, too, that the affinity of man to the ape had never been urged so far, as to overlook, while seeking a scale of Being, the actual steps and intervals, without which no scale can exist. What for example can the rickety ourang-outang explain in the figure of the kamtschadale, the little pigmy in the size of the greenlander, or the pongo in the patagonian? for all these forms would have arisen from the nature of man, had there been no such thing as an ape upon the Earth. And if men proceed still farther, and deduce certain deformities of our species from an intermixture with apes, the conjecture, in my opinion, is not less improbable than degrading. . . . In fact, apes and men never were one and the same genus, and I wished to rectify the slight remains of the old fable, that in some place or other upon the Earth they lived in community, and enjoyed no barren intercourse. . . .

Lastly, I could wish the distinctions between the human species, that have been made from a laudable zeal for discriminating science, not carried beyond due bounds. Some for instance have thought fit, to employ the term of races for four or five divisions, originally made in consequence of country or complexion: but I see no reason for this appellation. Race refers to a difference of origin, which in this case either does not exist, or in each of these countries, and under each of these complexions, comprises the most different races. For every nation is one people, having its own national form, as well as it’s own language: the climate, it is true, stamps on each it’s mark or spreads over it a slight veil, but not sufficient to destroy the original national character. This originality of character extends even to families, and it’s transitions are as variable as imperceptible. In short, there are neither four or five races, nor exclusive varieties, on this Earth. Complexions run into each other: forms follow the genetic character: and upon the whole, all are at last but shades of the same great picture, extending through all ages, and over all parts of the Earth. (163-66)

Book VII, Ch. II. The one Species of Man has naturalized itself in every Climate upon Earth.

Observe yon locusts of the Earth, the kalmuc and mungal: they are fitted for no region but their own hills and mountains. The light rider flies on his little horse over immense tracts of the desert; he knows how to invigorate his fainting courser, and by opening a vein in his neck, to restore his own powers, when He sinks with fatigue. . . . With thoughtless indifference sits the indolent kalmuc, contemplating the undisturbed serenity of his sky, while his ear catches every sound, that pervades the desert his eyes is unable to scan. In every other region of the Earth the mungal has either degenerated or improved: in his own country he is what he was thousands of years ago, and such will he continue, as long as it remains unaltered by Nature or by art.

The arab of the desert belongs to it, as much as his noble horse, and his patient, indefatigable camel. As the mungal wanders over his heights, and among his hills, so wanders the better-formed bedouin over his extensive asiatic-african deserts; also a nomad, but a nomad of his own region. . .

In this manner I might go on, and exhibit climatic pictures of several nations, inhabiting the most different regions, from Kamtschatka to Tierra del Fuego: but why should I give these brief sketches, since every traveller, who sees with accuracy, or feels as a man, gives the shade of the climate to every little stroke of his delineations? . . . The ancient allegorical tradition says, that Adam was formed out of the dust of all the four quarters of the Globe, and animated by the powers and spirits of the whole Earth. Wherever his children have bent their course, and fixed their abode, in the lapse of ages, there they have taken root as trees, and produced leaves and fruit adapted to the climate. Hence let us deduce a few consequences, which seem to explain to us many things, that might otherwise be deemed striking singularities in the history of man.

In the first place it is obvious why all sensual people, fashioned to their country, are so much attached to the soil, and so inseparable from it. The constitution of their body, their way of life, the pleasures and occupations to which they have been accustomed from their infancy, and the whole circle of their ideas, are climatic. Deprive them of their country, you deprive them of every thing. . . .

No words can express the sorrow and despair of a bought or stolen negro slave, when he leaves his native shore, never more to behold it while he has breath. . . . But how many more deplorable instances of been known of these poor stolen wretches destroying themselves in despair! Sparmann informs us, from the mouth of a slavedealer, that at night they are seized with a kind of frenzy, which prompts them to commit murder, either on themselves or others . . . . And what right have you, monsters! even to approach the country of these unfortunates, much less to tear them from it by stealth, fraud, and cruelty? For ages this quarter of the Globe has been theirs, and they belong to it: their forefathers purchased it at a dear rate, at the price of the negro form and complexion. In fashioning them the african sun has adopted them as it’s children, and impressed on them it’s own seal: wherever you convey them, this brands you as robbers, as stealers of men. (167-70)

Hans Vermeulen, “The German Invention of Völkerkunde: Ethnological Discourse in Europe and Asia, 1740-1798,” Sara Eigen and Mark Larrimore, eds., The German Invention of Race (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), 123-45. 

John H. Zammito, Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).