After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition

After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition

Michael N. Forster

Language: English

Pages: 496

ISBN: 0199659389

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Philosophy of language has for some time now been the very core of the discipline of philosophy. But where did it begin? Frege has sometimes been identified as its father, but in fact its origins lie much further back, in a tradition that arose in eighteenth-century Germany. Michael Forster explores that tradition. He also makes a case that the most important thinker within that tradition was J. G. Herder. It was Herder who established such fundamental principles in the philosophy of language as that thought essentially depends on language and that meaning consists in the usage of words. It was he who on that basis revolutionized the theory of interpretation ("hermeneutics") and the theory of translation. And it was he who played the pivotal role in founding such whole new disciplines concerned with language as anthropology and linguistics. In the course of developing these historical points, this book also shows that Herder and his tradition are in many ways superior to dominant trends in more recent philosophy of language: deeper in their principles and broader in their focus.

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precisely thereby gathers for himself a treasure of determinate concepts. The first words that we mumble are the most important foundation stones of the understanding, and our nursemaids are our first teachers of logic.⁸ Herder’s mentor Hamann has often been credited with inventing this revolutionary doctrine and communicating it to Herder (for example, by Rudolf Haym, Fritz Mauthner, Josef Nadler, Roger Brown, Isaiah Berlin, language, interpretation, translation 57 Fred Beiser, and Ian

in the same work Hamann implies that, rather than concepts being autonomous of and actively governing language, the opposite is in fact true,⁶⁹ that language is ‘‘without any other source of authority than tradition and usage,’’⁷⁰ and that words get elevated from being mere objects of the senses into constituting ‘‘understanding and concepts’’ simply by the ‘‘spirit of their use and application.’’⁷¹ 66 herder However, it again seems to me very probable that Herder is the source of this doctrine

though there are also a few statements reaching back as far as the early 1770s). The intellectual debt is actually the other way round!⁶ Why have interpreters made this mistake? One reason is that Hamann’s muddle-headed vanity and Herder’s affable generosity have conspired to obscure this situation in their correspondence and their other writings. But the main reason lies in the following circumstances: In his best known (but not necessarily best) work in the philosophy of language, his Treatise

unities of place, time, and action, Shakespearean tragedy routinely violates them.⁵³ He also implies, even more plausibly, that there are several other genre-differences here: ancient tragedy includes a chorus and music, whereas Shakespearean usually does not;⁵⁴ ancient tragedy requires its main protagonist to have a relatively high moral stature, whereas Shakespearean does not (an extreme example is Richard III);⁵⁵ ancient tragedy accords a central place to recognition scenes, whereas

‘‘whole event [Begebenheit].’’ And Herder argues that French interpreters and critics have consequently both misunderstood Shakespearean tragedy and made misguided critical assessments of it—critical assessments that fault it for failing to fulfill certain genre-purposes and -rules which do not in fact belong to its genre (especially, conformity to the rules of the unities) and that omit to commend it for successfully fulfilling the genre-purposes and -rules which really do constitute its genre.⁷⁸

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