Leftover Beethoven Miscellany: Everybody’s Talkin’

From time to time until the book comes out, this space will feature bits and pieces that were too esoteric, tangential, or just plain odd to make it into the final version.

One of the casualties of the latest draft of the book was the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, reduced to a passing reference: even by my liberal standards, his connection to Beethoven is pretty indirect. But Herder is, I think, one of the most fascinating thinkers of the pre-Hegelian era, someone who, at times, seems to have wandered into the 18th century from some modern or even post-modern time. For Herder was a man fascinated by language.

Herder was a scrupulous thinker whose posthumous reputation was somewhat hijacked by his advocacy of the particular and all-to-easily simplified idea of German nationalism. But that was only a by-product of his overall philosophical goal, which was to put to bed the age-old problem of whether the mind was an understandable machine or a fundamentally mysterious thing, dualistically separate from rational analysis. Herder had the distinction of studying with both the über-rationalist Immanuel Kant and the loopy proto-Romantic Johann Georg Hamann; each held him in high enough regard to later feel betrayed whenever Herder tried to philosophically mediate between their two extremes.

Herder’s early career efficiently followed a best-and-brightest establishment path, aided by his own skill at wooing the power elite. He was so successful as a teacher that the city of Riga gave him two Lutheran churches to pastor in order to counter an offer from St. Petersburg. At the same time, his writings on German-language literature gave him a burgeoning regional reputation. Herder moved in the right circles, saying the right things. And then, in 1769, in his mid-twenties, he threw it all aside and took a six-month sojourn in France.

Herder’s reasons for going were not unlike those that drew a flood of expatriates to Paris in the 1920s and 30s—he had grown suspicious of his own respectability, and besides, French thinking enjoyed a continent-wide reputation for being on the cutting edge. But if Herder dreamed of becoming a philosophe, he was soon disillusioned, and the source of that disillusionment became the hub of Herder’s thinking: language. In Herder’s ear, the seeming universal appeal of French thought was, in reality, simply the appeal of the French language, its civility and polish and air of objectivity. From the diary Herder kept on his French journey (but which was only published over forty years after his death, in 1846, when the wave of German nationalism was once again cresting):

The question is not what a word can mean according to a few dictionaries, but what it means in the consciousness of living people—here, now, in all its capriciousness…

Languages, no less than governments, depend in this on the spirit of the age: this becomes striking to the point of being obvious, if one makes comparisons. The same spirit of monarchic manners which Montesquieu so strikingly portrays in his own person dominates his language also. Like the French nation, it has little real virtue, little inner strength; it makes as much as it can out of little, as a machine is moved by a small driving wheel.

French thought acquired its cosmopolitan reputation, Herder says, because the French language that such thought is beholden to is geared towards cosmopolitan niceties; but the demands of politesse and intellectual substance forms a zero-sum game. As scholar Harold Mah puts it, “In a society constituted by the requirements of civility, every linguistic act is a social performance, and every performance displaces the intellectual content of the linguistic act.” That, for Herder, marks the difference between the potential in French-language and German-language reasoning. In Mah’s summarization: “The French language suspends the mind above sense experience and therefore refers to nothing but itself; German goes all the way down to brute sense perception and, through it, goes all the way up to higher reason.”

Herder himself could indulge in less refined pro-German, anti-French rhetoric—“Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine!” read one poem, “Speak German, O you German!” But behind this linguistic chauvinism lies strikingly modern ideas, not only that the way we think is inseparably dependent on the language we are thinking in, but that the structures of languages themselves result less from human universality and more from particular cultural circumstances. (Contrasting the self-referentiality of French with the sensual omnivorousness of German, Herder not only anticipated the peel-back-the-surface approach of critical theory and cultural studies by nearly two centuries, he also offered an explanation why the German strains of such theory would focus on sociology, while the French strains would be more concerned with textual analysis.) Language became Herder’s philosophical touchstone. His theory of mind, which sidestepped the whole materialist-dualist question by positing the mind as a living organism, one with the body it inhabited (drawing on the latest biological research showing how muscles contracted when the attached nerve was irritated), was first delivered in the form of a theory of language acquisition: language evolved from man’s need to communicate survival techniques from generation to generation, reason growing out of the body’s needs. His view of philosophical discourse was bound up in the inescapability of language, leading him to elevate analogical argument to the point where he considers literature a better source of knowledge than philosophy:

[F]or the most part it was a single new image, a single analogy, a single striking metaphor that gave birth to the greatest and boldest theories. The philosophers who declaim against figurative language and themselves serve nothing but old, often uncomprehended, figurative idols are at least in great contradiction with themselves.

For Herder, “Homer and Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare and Klopstock have supplied psychology and knowledge of humankind with more material than even the Aristotles and Leibnizes of all peoples and times.” (It was this position that partially spurred Kant, a veteran declaimer against “figurative language,” to finish the third of his Critiques, the Critique of Judgement.) Herder’s pro-literature stance reveals Herder’s nationalism as more qualified than the following generation of German patriots. Herder’s nationalism was not based around geography or misty conceptions of the medieval Teutonic soul, but around language—his conception of German unity was a unification of everyone who spoke German.

Such a conception could introduce complications into an otherwise straightforward nationalistic spirit; any argument for national exceptionalism was actually an argument for linguistic exceptionalism, and, what’s more, an argument necessarily expressed within the language one wished to promote, and so on down the philosophical rabbit-hole. The way the German Romantics glommed onto instrumental music—that persistent claim that music picks up where language leaves off—can be read in part as a way to side-step the qualifications of Herder’s nationalism. That such instrumental music was so celebrated a product of German culture was an argument that there was something exceptional about the German soul that likewise went beyond language.

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