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  • Herder’s Publikum: Language, Print, and Sociability in Eighteenth-Century Germany
  • Anthony J. La Vopa (bio)

Eighteenth-century thinkers were fascinated by the ways in which the printed and the spoken word were forming a modern “public.” One of the the most richly ambivalent witnesses to this development was Johann Gottfried Herder, but the seminal work on the formation of a modern “public sphere”—Jürgen Habermas’s Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962)—has obscured Herder’s significance. 1 Through the lens of Habermas’s Marxism, it was the pace of capitalist expansion that determined the timing of the emergence of a “literary public” and its evolution into a “political public.” Hence eighteenth-century Great Britain was the “model case,” and the German states merited little attention. On the other hand, when Habermas focused on the public as a regulative idea, he put Germany in the vanguard. But then the credit went to Kant, not to Herder. In Kant’s Critical Philosophy Habermas found the “theoretically fully developed form” of “the idea of the bourgeois public sphere.” 2

This essay explains Herder’s alternative vision of a modern Publikum. In the early 1760s, when he was a university student in Königsberg, Herder learned much from Kant’s lectures, but his friendship with the enigmatic Johann Georg Hamann was already pulling him away from rationalist philosophy. In the 1780s Kant fired several salvos at Herder’s historical speculations, and in the next decade Herder retaliated with equally polemical (but less effective) assaults on the epistemological foundations of Kant’s Critical Philosophy. Their clashes became a locus classicus for the mounting tensions within the late Aufklärung and indeed within the Enlightenment as a whole. [End Page 5]

The argument between Kant and Herder was not simply about the philosophical viability of the concept of a priori reason. At issue were contrasting profiles of a modern public culture, each in its way reflecting the efforts of a university-educated intelligentsia to define its proper role in the larger culture and society. In an era when illiteracy and semiliteracy still predominated at the broad base of the social pyramid, it was the small elite of university-educated men who felt “most at home” in an expanding “realm of print.” 3 They are characterized here as an eighteenth-century clerisy, because that term suggests two salient features of their consciousness. Although they were increasingly skeptical of Lutheran orthodoxy and the corporate traditions of the clergy, they remained attached to Lutheran structures of thought and feeling. And, even as they sought to create a more socially inclusive public, they feared “the rabble” and were intent on uplifting popular culture on their own terms.

Within this shared perspective, Kant and Herder represent a polarity in the German clerisy’s conception of its mission. Kant’s normative ideal was a scholarly and reading “public” (or “republic”) of Weltbürger, cosmopolitan in the sense that their conceptual universe and their ethical principles transcended the constricting particularity of cultural and political loyalties. The clerisy that would preside over Herder’s Publikum was emphatically national. Herder wanted a new literary elite to use the power of print to restore authenticity and moral integrity to a particular national culture.

All this is familiar terrain to students of eighteenth-century Germany. We can advance our understanding of Herder’s thought and its significance, however, if we ask what it was about his engagement with print and other modes of communication that led him to give the Publikum a national profile, and how exactly he differed from Kant in that regard. Strukturwandel can point the way in this inquiry, but it can also mislead us. If we emulate Habermas’s concern with forms and milieus of communicative rationality, we gain a new appreciation of the originality of Herder’s thought and a new way of understanding its groundings in his social experience. We also come to realize, however, that Habermas’s Marxist lens blinded him to some of the distinguishing complexities of the German scene and that his Kantian lens brought into focus one German vision of a modern Publikum at the expense of another.

Our pivotal text is the “Journal meiner Reise...

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pp. 5-24
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