Enlightened relativism: The case of Herder

Philosophy and Social Criticism 31 (3):309-341 (2005)
Johann Gottfried Herder has been described as the founder of cultural relativism within the German philosophical tradition, which would make him the starting-point for one thread in the pattern of ideas leading to the Nazi disaster. More recently, some scholars have rejected this interpretation, arguing that Herder actually supported the universalist values of the Enlightenment. I argue that Herder’s position is actually a complex, and laudable, blend of universalism and relativism. It includes: (1) the presumption of a set of basic human goods, upon which some universal criteria for ethical judgements may be founded: and, (2) the view that human practices, values and beliefs must be interpreted within their social context, and that the happiness and virtue of individuals can only be measured in relation to their specific values, being a function of their capacity to satisfy their desires and to live up to their ideals. Key Words: Counter-Enlightenment • cultural relativism • ethical relativism • Eurocentrism • Johann Gottfried Herder.
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DOI 10.1177/0191453705051708
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Chase Richards (2012). Herder's Phantom Public. Modern Intellectual History 9 (3):507-533.

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