Friday, January 21, 2011

Herder's "Copernican Revolution"

Johann Gottfried von Herder’s contemporary, Immanuel Kant, is famous for his “Copernican revolution”: the notion that rather than assuming that our minds must adhere to the construction of the universe in order to perceive and understand it, we should assume that the universe must conform to the construction of our minds and reason. The idea that reality is shaped by our minds and not vice versa was a revolutionary concept which allowed Kant to “save” metaphysics as a science.

Herder attended a number of Kant’s lectures as a student, and as our reading for Tuesday suggests, Herder’s ideas on race were intended as a response to the writings of his larger than life contemporary. I believe that while not as influential as Kant’s work, Herder’s short piece is a “Copernican revolution” of sorts, which deserves our attention.

Herder’s “Copernican revolution” is located in the statement: “each human being in the end becomes a world, that may have a similar appearance from the outside; but on the inside has a nature of its own that cannot be measured against any other”(24). The prevailing view of Europeans at the time was that the peoples encountered in Africa, Asia, and the New World were so physically different from themselves and Europeans as to constitute radically different races of humanity, or even different species. Most Europeans believed that the mental and emotional capacities of peoples could be generalized from their various phenotypes. Hence, Kant’s surety of the “strength of [the white] human stock in comparison to the others”(19). Herder, however, points out that the various peoples are actually overwhelmingly similar in appearance and that “one and the same species is humankind on earth”(25). In fact, it is to Herder’s great credit that he argues that the real difference between people is to be found inside, in the immensity of each persons “world.”

Still, this is a conception of humanity that could easily be as racist as any other. All it takes is for one to say something to the tune of: “admittedly, the physical differences between white Europeans and black Africans is far less that those between white Europeans and apes, but there is still a great interior difference between whites and blacks. The mental and emotional world of whites is so much deeper than blacks.”

Thankfully, Herder refutes such an argument with his emphasis on the individuality of human nature. Writing that each person “has a nature of its own that cannot be measured against any other,”(24) and that “they are each an innumerable harmony, a living self that has an effect on all the forces that surround them,”(24) Herder unequivocally argues that only significant difference between humans is that between one person and the next. This difference “cannot be measured” from our limited individual perspectives and is just as likely to be greater between Herder and Kant than it is between Herder and an African or Kant and an Asian. Surely the great Kant would admit that one cannot draw sweeping conclusions from a comparison that will every time and every where give different results.

Herder takes the prevailing assumptions about physical differences and the generalizations drawn from them and turns them on their head, much like Kant did to metaphysical assumptions. The conclusion to draw from Herder’s writing is that “overall and in the end everything is only a shade of one and the same great portrait that extends across all the spaces and times of the earth”(26).


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