Home / Politics / Johann Gottfried Herder: Multiculturalism Or European Perfection?

Johann Gottfried Herder: Multiculturalism Or European Perfection?

The pursuit of truthfulness has been a uniquely Western ambition since the ancient Greeks came to discover that humans have a faculty called “mind” or “nous” that is distinguishable from bodily appetites and the “spirited” personal emotions, which allows human beings to think rationally in accordance with logical principles and factually demonstrated evidence over and above one’s inclinations and the taken for granted conventions of the time.

Unfortunately this unique disposition for truth telling has been warped in nefarious ways right inside the very institutions, universities, which Christian medievalists created for the purpose of guaranteeing the pursuit of rational inquiry without restriction. Today, open inquiry continues in the natural sciences except in topics deemed too controversial such as whether human beings can be differentiated along racial lines, but in the case of the social sciences and humanities a panoply of irrational discourses now dominate all the departments and anyone who dissents from an agenda dedicated to racial diversification is summarily dismissed.

Diversity is the official mandate of almost every university in the West. This reality goes beyond the fact that countless academics have chosen ethnic studies, multiculturalism or race relations as very lucrative fields of research. Everyone inside our universities, from students to the president, has been compelled to embrace diversity as the sine qua non, the indispensable condition, of progress and the creation of an “Enlightened” citizenry.

The very words “Knowledge,” “Truth,” “Scholarship,” “Open Inquiry” are now equated with Diversity.

But there is a rather troubling problem in all this: not a single great thinker in the West, not a single member of the Western Canon, not a single historic leader, and not a single founding culture of Western civilization, ever called for diversity. This is a major difficulty for an ideology that portrays itself as the latest expression of the progressive course of history.

Cultural Marxists want to hide from us the totally unprecedented, anti-Western character of their racial experiment. They want to instil upon students the idea that diversification is a natural continuation of such Western achievements as the establishment of constitutional government, industrialization, and the separation of church and state. They call themselves “progressive” because the idea of progress is uniquely Western, because this is the only civilization that engendered continuous novelties and whole new epochs while the rest of the world’s civilization remained stuck in an agrarian-despotic stage.


They want historical justification for their totally malevolent experiment. They want you to believe that past Western thinkers were already progressively calling for multicultural diversity in order to gain legitimacy. They want you to believe they are standing on the shoulders of giants. The German Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) is the thinker they have appropriated as the original advocate of the idea that multiculturalism and racial diversity are the most effective way for humans to achieve their perfectibility.

Herder is not as well known as Kant, Locke, or Aquinas, but he has been rightfully included in the long, and unparalleled, pantheon of great Western thinkers. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that Herder “is a philosopher of the first importance,” and that he “can claim to have virtually established whole disciplines which we now take for granted.”

Below I will ascertain the truthfulness of the claim that the “deeper intellectual roots of the conception of diversity” we are currently witnessing across the West can be traced back to Herder. The most that can be said in favour of Herder’s “cultural pluralism” is that he believed that all nations had their own cultural standards, their own “image of happiness,” customs, and language. It can also be claimed that he did not envision history as a straight line of development leading from lower to higher stages with the more advanced nations standing as models for the less advanced ones.

It may be said, too, that for Herder world history was a panorama of different cultures inhabiting different ecological settings “stretching in all directions, with all manner of turns and twists” [On World History. Johann Gottfried Herder: An Anthology, p.101]. But even these claims, as we shall soon see, cannot be upheld without qualifications. One thing about Herder that seems evident to me is that he called upon Europeans to be empathetic in their descriptions and explanations of the historical experience, languages, and customs of other peoples.

However, the extensive literature which now exists on Herder would have us believe that this German from the 18th century was calling for the integration of peoples from different cultural backgrounds inside Western nations. They want us to believe that, insofar as Herder spoke well of the variety of cultural expressions in the world, and against the imperialistic imposition of alien norms upon colonized nations, he was thereby calling for the co-existence and mixing of races and cultures inside Europe.

I agree with the exact opposite view, and would go further than the traditional interpretation that Herder was a romantic nationalist who combined a commitment to diversity among nations with an insistence on the importance of cherishing the singularity and homogeneity of customs, languages, and traditions within each nation. I believe that Herder’s conception of history is teleological in the Aristotelian sense that human beings are striving to actualize their full potential in a perfectionist direction. The difference with Herder is that he tried to see this teleological process unfolding in the course of history rather than in the course of individuals within a particular lifetime, as Aristotle did. The goal of history, for Herder, was the actualization of the full potentiality of humanity, what a human “is capable of being,” and he believed that this potentiality, or perfection, had reached its highest level among the peoples of Europe (Ibid, 100).

Multicultural Interpretations Of Herder

Reading current academics one would think, however, that for Herder the goal of history was the attainment of the greatest diversity inside European lands through the importation of masses of immigrants. This is the view that the most prominent Canadian philosopher of the last few decades, Charles Taylor, advances, as I indicated briefly elsewhere. It is a view that is now employed to justify mass immigration in the West among a prevailing number of academics. Take a look at this paper: J. G. Herder and the Politics of Difference, by Michael L. Frazer, professor at Harvard University, presented in a 2007 conference in Montreal about Immigration, Minorities and Multiculturalism.

Frazer bends out of recognition Herder’s teleological view to mean that “all nations and cultures pursue the ideal of Humanität,” or human actualization. He cites Herder’s words that “each [culture] bears in itself the standard of its perfection, totally independent of all comparisons with that of others.” Frazer calls upon Canadians to “reinterpret” the metaphysical conception of human perfection,” as postulated by the ancient Greeks, in favour of the way he thinks Herder interpreted this idea to mean that humans, “in all their diversity,” in different national and cultural settings, have achieved their own ideal of humanity.

Although Frazer presented this view in a conference dedicated to brainwashing Canadians about the perfection that Muslims and Africans would bring to inferior Euro-Canadians, he does not quite say that Herder envisioned a future of perfection once multiple races were brought together inside European countries. But there is a brilliant academic, Mahmoud Masaeli, professor of Global Ethics at University of Ottawa, who does say so in a paper entitled The Ethics Of Deep Diversity In Multicultural Societies in which Herder is the main protagonist. According to Masaeli, Herder has taught us that “the essence of humanity stems from the ability to come into diversity and difference.” Yet, for all the feel good phrases Masaeli strings together, he fails to provide a statement from Herder that can in any way be interpreted as a call for the creation of multicultural societies. The most he gets is that Herder believed that it would be mutually beneficial for members of different cultures in the world to get along.

There is an MA Thesis, Isaiah Berlin And Charles Taylor On Johann Gottfried Herder: A Comparative Study, submitted to the Department of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan, by Jesse Joseph Paul Semko (2004). This thesis takes Herder’s statement, “no individual human being exists for himself,” as the platform from which to argue that White humans cannot exist for themselves if they are to achieve their “Humanität.” “Since communication and social exchanges are the processes which advance humanity throughout history,” it follows that White communities “should be structured in such a manner” that they are open to cultural and racial diversity wherein “discussion and deliberation can flourish.” Only within a diverse community can Whites fully engage in a true “dialogical” conversation, which is the basis of true “knowledge,” as opposed to a “monological” conversation among Whites only, which is one-sided and cannot produce great thinkers.

In fact, the “Herderian model,” this student insists, requires White nations “to empower” immigrants with “additional rights,” over and above the individual rights Whites get, “to ensure that they can equally participate within the political process.” “A good human life is one lived within the context of a [diverse] cultural community.” The final sentence of his thesis is:

The Canadian [multicultural] experience exemplifies an essential theme in the perspective shared by Herder and Taylor; namely, that improving the communicative process [by bringing millions of Muslims and Africans] is the most effective way of creating conditions where human beings can continue to exist.

Obviously this student does not use the word “White” but it is amply clear that the Herderian model he has in mind refers to the Canadian and Western experience of multiculturalism.

This thesis should have been failed, in unison with the books by professors it relies upon, since there is not an iota of textual evidence in Herder that can be construed as a call for the integration of multiple cultures and races within any nation.

What Herder Really Said

I will offer a few passages from Herder which contradict directly this multicultural view and instead point to the idea that Europeans, thanks to the geographical peculiarities of Europe, were able to develop in a cumulative way the best predispositions of humans for freedom, reason, and, in this way, bring about a higher level of actualization of the human potential for perfectibility. Let it be said that I will be relying on a book, On World History. Johann Gottfried Herder: An Anthology (1997), which is a collection of articles and excerpts from Herder compiled by two editors who want students to believe that Herder was advocating a multicultural view of world history. Yet even in this book, the Eurocentrism of Herder cannot be hidden.

I will comment in-between some of the citations to make sure that Herder’s point is not misused in a multiculturalist manner.

Perfection in an object is found in nothing but that the thing is what it is meant to be and what it is capable of being (100).

Perfectibility, therefore, is not a deception; it is the means and final end to all that is called for and made possible by the character of our kind, by our humanity (104).

[In] order to live up to the potential of its kind, and for the sake of its worth and dignity, humankind is means to be developed (106).

The greatest number of humans is of the animal kind, brought into the world with only the potential for humanity, which must first be formed by diligence and labor. In how few is it rightly formed! (156).

The next passage below is about the Eskimos and Greenlanders living “near the North Pole.” The editors of the book I am citing want students to believe that Herder is profiling these Arctic peoples, and every other cultural group in his historical account, to convey that history is about “the development of the greatest possible variety in the totality of time and space” (162). This is inaccurate. What Herder wants to convey is the extent to which the potential that lies in humankind was able to manifest itself within respective geographical and climatic regions in the world. We are all members of the human species, and, as such, the potentiality for perfectibility inheres in all humans, but the reality is that different cultures have brought forth different levels of attainment in the arts and sciences and thus different levels of potentiality.

How has the organization of the human being preserved itself under these [North Pole] limitations? […] Here, and in a few other parts of the earth, dire necessity sits on her loftiest throne and compels humans to lead almost the life of the bear. Yet everywhere the quality of humanity is preserved; for even in what appear to be features of the greatest inhumanity among these people, their humanity is evident when they are closely examined (163-165).

Reading Herder on “the nature of African peoples,” it is quite evident that he is not saying, contrary to what Frazer would like us to believe, that African culture “bears in itself the standard of its perfection, totally independent of all comparisons with that of others.” There is, rather, a benevolent form of patronage in his call upon Europeans “to lay aside their prejudices” when examining the lack of cultural development of Africans, by considering that Africans could only achieve so much in the regions of the earth they inhabited (178). After describing the physiology of Africans, their “ampler measure of sexual enjoyment,” he says:

Thus, let us sympathise with the Negro, but not despise him, since the conditions of this climate could not grant him nobler gifts, and let us honor mother nature, who gives in denying. He lives a carefree life in a land that offers him his nourishment with abundant liberality. (183-4).

The peoples of the Americas fare better in his description:

[I]f, after this description, we were to ascribe to the Americans a dominant or central character, it could be goodness of heart and childlike innocence; a character that their ancient establishments, their habits, their few arts, and above all their initial conduct toward the Europeans, confirm. Springing from a savage land and unsupported by any assistance from the civilized world, all the progress they made was their own; and in their feeble beginnings of civilization, they exhibit a very instructive picture of humankind (194).

Herder recognizes the higher achievements of the Asians, but even in the case of the relatively civilized Chinese he finds them wanting in bringing to fruition what humankind is capable of being. It is also amply obvious from the passage below that he was not of the view that all cultures should be judged in their own terms; Herder was very Eurocentric and always used the higher level of achievement of Europeans as a standard by which to judge the attainment of other cultures.

Is it to be wondered at that a nation of this kind should have invented so little in the sciences according to the European standard, or that it has remained at the same point for some thousands of years? Even Chinese books of law and morality continually follow the same circle, and carefully and precisely say the same things about childish duties, in a hundred different ways with systematic hypocrisy. Among these people, astronomy and music, poetry and art of war, painting and architecture, are what they were centuries ago, children of their eternal laws and of their unalterably childish institutions (235).

How about the ancient Greeks?

At last, human beauty found a site along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, at which it was able to fuse with the spirit, and thus could become visible, in all attractiveness of terrestrial and heavenly beauty, not only to the eye but also to the soul; this was Greece threefold, in Asia Minor and on the islands, in Greece proper, and along the shores of the other countries of the Occident…In the first place, it is obvious to everyone that the region of the most perfectly formed people is a middle region of the earth lying, like beauty itself, between two extremes (176).

He goes on:

We have considered the history of this remarkable region from several points of view, as it represents in a way for the philosophy of history a development unique among all the peoples of the earth. The Greeks not only remained free from any intermixture with foreign nations, so that their formation has been entirely their own, but they also lied their historical epochs to the fullest, and from the smallest beginnings journeyed through their entire course in a manner unmatched by any other people in history. The nations of the continent either have stopped at the earliest beginning of civilization, and unnaturally perpetuated it by laws and customs, or have become prey to conquest before they had lived their course; the flower cut down before it blossomed. Greece, on the contrary, enjoyed the fullness of its time; it developed of itself what was capable of developing, a perfection to which it was helped once more by the good fortune of its circumstances (287).

How about Europe’s historical perfection at large?

How, therefore, did Europe attain its civilization and the rank due to it above other peoples? Place, time, necessity, the state of affairs, and the course of events impelled it to this; but, above all, its particular industriousness in the arts, the result of many common exertions, procured this rank to it…The potential nature of the modern civilization of Europe is evident from what has been said; only a civilization of human beings as they were and wanted to be; a civilization driven by industriousness, the sciences, and the arts (his italics, 309-10).

Concluding Thought

Why, then, do we have countless articles and books claiming that Herder was the father of multiculturalism and diversity? I cannot think of any other answer than to say that wilful deception reigns at the highest levels of academia. The outrageous misinterpretation of Herder is another case. There is no intellectual justification, not even in the philosophy of liberalism, in favour of diversification and the destruction of the millennial cultures of Europeans. They can only find this justification by means of intellectual fabrications. Deception and the Suppression of Truth are no less an intrinsic component of Multiculturalism than of Communist countries.