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Reviewed by:
  • Selected Writings on Aesthetics
  • Robert C. Holub
Johann Gottfried Herder, Selected Writings on Aesthetics. Translated and edited by Gregory Moore (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). Pp. x, 455. $65.00.

In the German-speaking world, Johann Gottfried Herder is known chiefly for his association with Goethe. On his travels from Riga to Paris, Herder had stopped in Strasbourg in 1770 to seek medical assistance for chronic eye problems, and Goethe was in the same city in connection with his legal studies. The results of their intense conversations are well known. Goethe came away from this fortuitous coincidence of place with a new understanding of poetry and literary endeavor. Most accounts in German literature attribute Goethe’s turn from a rococo style to a more folkish and direct style to Herder’s influence, and see in his lyric poetry of the early 1770s, as well as his plays Götz von Berlichingen and the earliest version of Faust, the results of Herder’s aesthetic reflections on language and drama. Through Goethe’s mediation Herder obtained a position in the Weimar court in 1776, where he remained until his death in 1803.

The English-speaking world is apt to have a slightly different perspective on Herder. Although Goethe may not be absent, Herder is just as likely to be viewed through the philosophical lens of Isaiah Berlin, who grouped him together with Vico and Herder’s erstwhile teacher Johann Georg Hamann as a critic of the Enlightenment. According to Berlin, Herder resolutely opposed the philosophical universalism of the eighteenth century, adhering instead to a particularist viewpoint that manifested itself in three key tendencies: populism, or the belief in the value of belonging to a group or culture; expressionism, the notion that human activity is comprehensible only as the expression of the entire personality or the group; and pluralism, the conviction that cultural groups are multiple, unique, and therefore not easily conceived as hierarchical. It is quite possible that some Anglophones may still harbor the notion that Herder stands in a nationalist tradition that culminates in National Socialism, although Berlin’s influential study, as well as much of recent German scholarship, refutes this connection by demonstrating that his nationalism did not advocate German superiority over other cultural entities.

The volume under review will contribute to a further understanding of this pivotal and prolific German writer from the late eighteenth century. Its focus is the aesthetic writings of Herder, in particular those composed in the early part of his career. Only the three shorter pieces at the end of the collection—“On the Influence of the Belles Lettres on the Higher Sciences,” “Does Painting or Music Have a Greater Effect?”, and “On Image, Poetry, and Fable”—were published after 1780, and they occupy less than 15 percent of the volume. Two shorter pieces from the 1760s (“Is the Beauty of the Body a Herald of the Beauty of the Soul?” and “A Monument to Baumgarten”) serve as a preface to two lengthy essays, the first and the fourth “grove” of Herder’s “Critical Forests, or Reflections on the Science and Art of the Beautiful” (1769), the former dedicated to a detailed discussion of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoön, the latter to aesthetic reflections occasioned by Friedrich Just Riedel’s Theory of the Beaux Arts. These two essays, both composed in the late 1760s, comprise almost 70 percent of the book and are followed by perhaps the most celebrated piece, entitled simply “Shakespeare,” which originally appeared in the important collection Von deutscher Art und Kunst, and the less [End Page 589] renowned, but interesting speculative musings on “The Cause of Sunken Taste among the Different Peoples in Whom It Once Blossomed.”

Much of the discussion in this anthology is therefore devoted to the difference among various art forms. The “first grove” sets the tone for Herder’s aesthetic reflections. The eighteenth-century debate around the relationship between painting and poetry had sought a revision of Horace’s famous dictum “ut pictura poesis,” which apparently equates the two art forms. Several writers within and outside the German-speaking world had commented on this issue, but Herder focuses his remarks on Lessing’s noted...


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