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  • Herder's Hermeneutics: History, Poetry, Enlightenment by Kristin Gjesdal
  • Kurt C. M. Mertel
Kristin Gjesdal. Herder's Hermeneutics: History, Poetry, Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. pp. xiv + 231 Cloth, $76.69.

In spite of his status as a highly original thinker whose views were, in many ways, ahead of his time and anticipate those of more famous successors, the work of Johann Gottfried von Herder has not received the attention it deserves in mainstream philosophical discourse. In Herder's Hermeneutics, Kristin Gjesdal successfully addresses this deficit by exploring the enlightenment origins of the hermeneutic tradition through a careful and compelling reconstruction of Herder's theory of interpretation. Breaking with the widespread view of Herder as a contra-Enlightenment thinker, Gjesdal conceives of Herder's hermeneutics as contributing to the enlightenment of the Enlightenment project through an immanent critique of its (Eurocentric) presuppositions and prejudices. At the core of this project is Herder's own version of the Copernican turn, namely, the "anthropological turn," which takes the essential finitude, and cultural and historical situatedness, of human beings as its point of departure. Hence, the task of a critical hermeneutics is both to reflect upon the limitations and possibilities afforded by our situatedness, and to arrive at a holistic understanding of human nature, through a nuanced grasp of cultural difference with a view to promoting a process of individual and collective learning and self-cultivation, namely, Bildung and Selbstdenken.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The focus of chapter 1 is on Herder's metaphilosophy and call for an anthropological turn. Against the current of contemporary scholarship, Gjesdal subtly argues that Herder's anthropological turn should not be understood as a wholesale abandonment of the philosophical enterprise in favor of an empirical one, but rather as attempt to put philosophy on a new, more fruitful footing to fulfill its emancipatory aims. While this new mode of philosophical praxis involves a detranscendentalization of reason, and human subjectivity, as well as a rejection of philosophy as a "master science," this does not entail that philosophy must abandon its claim to truth. Rather, it means that philosophy must cultivate its own scientific standards—and avoid absolutizing them—as a precondition for a fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue.

Having articulated the nature and aims of the anthropological turn, chapter 2 focuses on the special role of aesthetics as a paradigm of critical-reflexive hermeneutic praxis through an illuminating discussion of Herder's "end of art" argument, which predates Hegel's by more than half a century. The fact that art is no longer a self-evident expression of a community's self-understanding should be taken as a call for philosophical reflection on the modern hermeneutical situation in which art is produced and understood, rather than as calling for its subsumption and articulation within a philosophical system (Hegel). [End Page 758]

Chapter 3 provides a discussion of Herder's philosophy of taste to show how our evaluative outlook and practices are decisively shaped by cultural and historical context. This, in turn, enables us to recognize that our evaluative outlook is one among others and possesses no priori claim to absolute validity. Instead of conceiving this plurality of cultures as a problem to be solved, however, Gjesdal persuasively argues that it should be understood as the very medium in which "enlightenment philosophy lives and thrives" (16).

Chapters 4 and 5 turn to Herder's notion of sympathy as a core element of his hermeneutics that allows it to successfully avoid the twin pitfalls of abstract universalism and aesthetic particularism. This is followed by an edifying discussion of Herder's reading of Shakespeare, which shows how the methodological standards provided by critical hermeneutics can expose and challenge the distorting character of the prejudices informing the literary criticism of his contemporaries.

In Chapter 6, Gjesdal challenges the view that Herder's This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity is a metaphysical and, therefore, a failed historicist project by showing how it is primarily concerned with criticizing the prevailing models of historical scholarship, thereby serving as a propaedeutic to historical research.

Chapter 7 is devoted to a further elaboration of Herder's theory of...


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