Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Herder

Barth describes Johann Gottfried Herder (August 25, 1744 – December 18, 1803) as “The master in the art of circumventing Kant,” an honorific which makes it possible to describe Herder as a theologian: “He was also truly a classical theologian, because he was the first to discover in convincing manner a way of making a theology possible which was able to bypass Kant” (302). Already we begin to see what Barth will focus on in this chapter. Looking ahead, we find precisely what we might expect when Barth calls Herder “the inaugurator of typical nineteenth-century theology before its inauguration by Schleiermacher” (325). We may (or may not!) have cause to dispute with Barth about this when we come to Schleiermacher, but this reference is highly suggestive for us in thinking about how it is that Herder might have circumvented Kant.

In broad strokes, this circumvention was accomplished through Herder’s employment of notions that emerge in Lessing, namely, ‘experience’ and ‘feeling’ (cf. 301). Though the use of these notions Herder latched on to what was already emergent in Rousseau (as per Barth’s account), namely, the “reducing of thought and action to a position of merely relative importance, and the award of pride of place to experience” (302). Barth sums things up:
“With Herder the vanquishing of the Enlightenment influence means the vanquishing of the supremacy of logic and ethics in general, of the categories of the understanding and of the categorical imperative as well, by means of the discovery of feeling and experience, the discovery that there is a form of knowledge and speech which arises directly from the events of life.” (303)
It does not take much imagination to see how one might, on the basis of such a position, be able to marshal a positive account of the theological task. But, what is Herder’s understanding of experience and feeling? Barth quotes from a number of Herder’s poems to make this point, but I will try to get to the heart of the matter. It seems as though Herder’s notion of experience is dialectical, that it, it is the negotiation of two poles: “being alone and…not being alone” (307), in Barth’s account. The human person is both inextricably linked to social and natural surroundings, and the human person also transcends these things. We act and are acted upon, and it is within this dialectic or contradiction that our experience emerges. This can be seen in Barth’s description of Herder’s understanding of the imago Dei: “if we keep our minds and spirits open to the influences of the world, which is God’s world, then we come to resemble God, as it were, of our own accord” (308).

It is not surprising, given Herder’s interest in experience and experience defined as relation to the world around us, that Herder would have something to say about history. Indeed, at least as per Barth’s account, history is the dominant aspect in Herder’s thought. “Herder’s genius…the new and epoch-making quality of his mind, is precisely his complete, loving and devoted understanding of the concrete reality of history” (312-313). But, what is history for Herder? “[N]othing else but living experience understood in the macrocosmic and universal sense, instead of, as preciously, in the microcosmic and individual one” (313).

So, what of history? And, more pressingly, what of religion? The two fit together nicely for Herder. To quote Herder, as given by Barth, “Religion is man’s humanity in its highest form’ (315; Herder’s Ideas, 122). This ties into history rather closely, for humanity is, in a very strong sense, history. “Man’s distinguishing quality is the fact that he stands within history” (316). We might even say that standing within history is what separates human beings from lower animal life forms. This consciousness of history is uniquely human, and thus our relation to history is unique. It is this, I think, that makes history ‘macrocosmic’ for Herder. But, not only is history the unique feature of humanity, but “religious man’s chief distinguishing quality too is the fact that he stands within history” (ibid). How could it be otherwise?

The next move, and a rather easy one to make, is to identify revelation and history. If the unique thing about humanity is history, then it makes sense that God would meet humanity in this form (this is a variation on Calvin’s accommodation doctrine, which is brought slightly more to the fore a little later in relation to natural / supernatural questions, cf. 320). Thus, for Herder, “Standing within history also means on principle standing in the stream of revelation,” for “history provides the record and commentary of revelation” (316). Thus, Herder prizes the Bible as history (cf. 321). Furthermore, our relationship to God is historical, not (in the first instance) rational or personal: “Man’s existence, according to Herder, with its historical quality, comprises his participation in God’s revelation in a manner which is without doubt the most direct possible” (317).

Now, this gets us to a very interesting relation between revelation and reason, at least as Barth poses the problem. It is, more accurately I think, a relation between history and reason. Revelation is seen as the parent who has trained the child, reason. But, at this point Herder also has recourse to more dialectical constructions that pit reason and revelation against each other in a balanced relationship that “cannot be explained intellectually, only experienced” (318). That is all well and good, but let’s play with it. It seems to me that this is only one very small step removed from a critically realist epistemology, as opposed to idealism as given by Kant. For Kant, the categories are a priori things, but, if revelation (which = history) is the parent that has educated reason, then the categories cannot be a priori. Instead, we must think of our historical, empirical, sensory human experience as building categories in our consciousness. These givens of history shape and are refined by reason, and that is how we get to a kind of critical realism. In any case, this is just a bit of extrapolation on my part.

Finally, we must consider again the question of the possibility of theology. It is clear that he has established a possibility, as the next epoch of theology would show. Theology continued, and it would seem to be thanks in no small measure to Herder. But, Barth has serious concerns because it seems to him that Herder has not truly gotten away from Kant in that Herder has still tied religion, revelation, and thereby theology to an anthropocentric measure. “[T]he most significant concept…for Herder’s thought, can be nothing but humanity” (310). Why is this? Because Herder does not finally get beyond Kant’s phenomena / noumena split. Herder does not enable human knowledge to get beyond that which is measured by humanity, and therefore theology remains beholden to reason. Barth poses this in somewhat technical epistemological terms: “Herder’s theory does not in fact extend beyond experience as such. He is far from basing theological knowledge upon the object of experience but bases it quite definitely upon experience as such” (324).

Suffice it to say that Barth wants a critically realistic or scientific theology that knows the thing in itself rather than simply the thing as it appears to us.



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