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Johann Gottfried von Herder has been widely associated with many subjects including poetry, theology, philosophy, and literature. He is also found to have contributed heavily to three distinct periods, including that of Sturm und Drang in Germany, Weimer Classicism, and Enlightenment. But he is perhaps best known for his contributions to the creation of the theory of cultural relativism.
Herder was born in what is now Poland and grew up impoverished, educating himself with the family songbook and Bible. He enrolled in a university at 17 in Germany where he was able to study under Immanuel Kant. He was soon the protégé of Johann Georg Hamann who was well known for disputing secular reasoning and claims therein. He was not sociable and was said by others to be inspired by God. As a clergyman he taught and produced literary criticisms simultaneously. He traveled the world, during which time he was able to shift his self-perception. He was able to meet Goethe when he reached France, and it was here that he inspired Goethe with his literary criticism. This is what led to the Sturm und Drang movement. It was because of his inspiration to Goethe that years later, when Goethe was well known, he used his influence to secure a position for Herder. Accepting it, Herder began to shift toward classicalism, endorsing the French revolution. He soon became ennobled in Germany.
During this time he promoted many theories which formed the foundation of comparative philology. He then moved on to contributing to what we know today as the theory of cultural relativism. This is a theory that cultures that shape their thoughts and group behaviors. In addition to that, people from other groups have to then take into consideration the different backgrounds or environments of other people in order to understand their behaviors, their traits, their thoughts, and what contributes to making their culture. By reviewing the cultures of others, people can gain better insight into the various groups which exist and have some form of relativism to them in comparison to their personal culture.
Part of the influence on this theoretical development was the importance that people placed on patriotism and nationalism, Herder concluded. Understanding how a nation can be both individual and separate, distinguished by tradition, heredity, education, climate, and more helped garner a better appreciation for other cultures. He praised different nationalities for their varied characters, inclinations, and languages.
Enlightenment was an important period as it was the backdrop out of which anthropological sensibilities began to oppose. It was Herder who formed the ancient cultural relativism ideas, which emphasizes that cultures exist in plural. Herder’s anthropology is linked closely to his contributions during the Enlightenment. More so than is often thought. While Herder’s work attacks the abstraction of Enlightenment, it retains the arrogance of the Eurocentric teleology and argues for the hermeneutical approaches which emphasize the importance for prejudice. In part of his work, Herder is suspicious of progress and the theories of gradual development. He openly criticizes colonialism. But he shares quite a bit with the natural historian Buffon, who argues that humans are characterized by their relationships to the environment around them, their ability to receive and transmit knowledge, and their flexibility in response to their culture or environment. As such, it is clear that Herder’s critique of progress as aforementioned is one intended to convey that culture is a process through which humans are able to develop, or reach Enlightenment. The definition of culture held by Herder is one closely aligned to the model of civilization associated with a unitary Enlightenment.
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