|In Defense of Metaphor: Herder's Style of Language in his Journal|
Attempting to categorize a work such as Herder's Journal meiner Reise im Jahre 1769 is problematic. To begin with, the content of the Journal does not seem to correspond to the "travel diary" cited in the title. There are virtually no depictions of Herder's actual journey apart from occasional mentions of the ship, the coastline or the sea surrounding him. Herder refers to only a few dates, most of which are given on the very first page of the book; the rest of the nearly six months of Herder's travels are left unmentioned. In addition, Herder does not comment, as one might expect him to, on the events occurring during his travels, nor even of the inner thought processes which seized him upon contemplation of particular noteworthy sights. In this respect, of course, Herder's diary differs widely from many others written by his contemporaries. Goethe's Italienische Reise, for example, reports in detail about certain key moments in the author's journey, and even spends time discussing very specific ruins, plants, or individuals which he encountered. Herder, on the other hand, devotes the majority of his writing to discussing his own condition, his attitudes toward social and political issues of the day, and his plans for the future -- both his own and that of his homeland, Livonia.|
Herder knew, of course, that his journal was unusual: he himself called it "ein sonderbares Ding," and never intended that it be published for a wide audience. It was mostly written, apart from a few notes and reminders, nearly two months after the physical journey had been completed, in the fall of the same year. Surely he intended for a few friends and close acquaintances to see the diary, but it is obvious even upon a first glance that this was not a work for the general public. In his lengthy discourse regarding his own situation in Riga, for example, Herder does not attempt to present an idealized image of himself; instead, he bemoans not only his lack of exposure to the world, but his own shortcomings, and blames himself for not undertaking to educate himself outside of scholarly books and studies. "Ich beklage mich, ich habe gewisse Jahre von meinem Menschlichen Leben verlohren: und lags nicht blos an mir sie zu genießen?"  Herder's self-portrait is here a private one, and presents the author in precisely the terms that he sees - or would like to see - himself, but these are not the ramblings of a critic writing to impress his public. The fact that this was a private diary is not merely of historical importance, then, but is also a hermeneutic consideration. As Waniek notes, it is "just for this reason [that] Herder's Journal reveals his style of thought in its concentrated raw form, without any smooth appeal designed to win over an audience."  Thus we see Herder as the "Philosoph auf dem Schiffe," solitary and alone in his musings.
The private nature of the diary also explains much of its content. The primary concern which can be detected throughout the work is Herder's focus on self-determination. In Riga, his own attempts at realizing his youthful dreams had failed; although a successful educator and a popular preacher, Herder felt thwarted and confined by the town, and set off on his expedition with the express purpose of `expanding his horizons.' In nearly every aspect of his journal, this search is evident: his initial concentration upon his own intellectual development soon progresses to his plans for future generations of Livonians and their education, and then expands beyond the borders of Herder's personal affairs to the politics of Russia and to critiques of European national literatures. Surprising to a modern reader is perhaps the extent to which Herder focuses on the political sides of his cultural analyses: couched very nearly in modern terms, Herders states, "alles muß sich heutzutage an die Politik anschmiegen."  This is not merely an offhand comment, however, for Herder truly felt that political action was the outlet and indeed the duty of a philosopher. Mommsen explains: "Politische Aktivität sollte Hand in Hand gehen mit theoretischer Lehre. Eins sollte das andere befruchten, der Staatsmann seine eigenen neuen Ideen verwirklichen." 
To this end, Herder considered how best to put his manifold theoretical ideas into practice. His elaborate discussions in the Journal are the first step: by writing about his projects, Herder brings to them a certain reality, in the form of written language, and thus begins their implementation. His writings go beyond mere theory, beyond even the beginnings of practice; indeed, Herder's style of language infuses these discussions with a life of their own, one derived from the poetic devices, the metaphors, analogies, and turns of phrase which Herder uses so adeptly. Herder's belief, then, as expressed in the Ursprung der Sprache and other early works, that stale, aging, philosophical literature can be revived by hearkening back to poetic creativity, pervades the Reisejournal. As Mommsen states, the refreshing quality of the text - and of the ideas contained within it - gives proof of the proficiency of the author: "In einzigartiger Weise vermochte er wahrzunehmen, wo Leben durch Erstarrung gefährdet war, wo Bestehendes welkte, Überaltetes abstarb. Ebenso stark war sein Ahnungsvermögen für das zeugerisch Lebendige." 
One of the most noticeable stylistic features in the Journal is Herder's repetition of key words. Certain memorable phrases and formulations recur in the diary at different places, sometimes as deliberate pointers back to the first occurrence, but at other times restated with a different referent. One purpose of this is, of course, quite practical: by repeating himself, Herder makes his point even more clear to the reader, and prevents possible misinterpretations. All of his works are, in fact, remarkable in their language and structure, relying primarily on paratactic clauses, each logically following the other. Clarity may occasionally fail - for example when Herder loses himself within a metaphor or breaks off in mid-sentence - but the order and progression of his thoughts is nearly always easily comprehended. Certainly Herder, as an experienced teacher, knew the perils of obscure explanations, and thus his attention to didactic methodology in his writings should come as no surprise. One critic even points out that criticisms of Herder's redundancy are quite misplaced, since this reiteration is a deliberate and well-founded strategy: Herder "[hat] schon erkannt, daß sich bei mangelnder Redundanz Fehler und Mißverständnisse im Kommunikationsprozeß einschleichen. Wiederholungen dagegen bieten zusätzliche Erläuterungen." 
Significantly, these repetitions are seldom empty, but rather contain new information, designed to supplement the reader's understanding. Herder speaks, for example, very early in his diary of his plans for his stay in France, where, after learning French, he hopes:
The act of repetition, expressing what has already occurred, seems important, but it is not discussed until several pages later, where Herder then underscores the usefulness of travel descriptions for schoolboys:
The similarity between the two descriptions is remarkable, and serves to remind us that Herder is writing, not as an elite theorist, but from personal exposure and reflection, basing his scholastic methods on precisely that which he himself has encountered. Notably, the same phrasing returns near the end of the Journal, then, as Herder takes up the subject of memory and imagination, once again stressing the necessity of echoing and repeating early experience:
As is clear in the quoted examples, Herder does not merely repeat the same ideas; instead, he returns to a concept preciously formulated and takes it up anew, regarding it from a different perspective and in a fresh light, and thus he elaborates on certain points which otherwise might have been neglected. Often, too, even within the same passage, Herder resorts to reiteration of individual ideas, phrasing his descriptions in multiple ways to ensure understanding. As one critic explains:
Herder's repetition is exemplified in another stylistic tactic: temporal circling around a subject. Through the use of metaphor, repetition or metonymy, Herder returns to take up a given concept from all sides, examining it in detail from every angle in order to visually and clearly elucidate it. Much of this is done through repeated references and explanations, often at great distance from another; sometimes, too, Herder will circle around a topic even within a short passage. An example from his proposed school system clearly illustrates this:
Here Herder remains on a literal level and does not resort to metaphorical imagery, but his exceptionally thorough analysis of the new system continually varies its focus, examining the effects of the student's freedom from many different viewpoints. Moreover, these continual changes in perspective serve to illustrate the original idea: by examining the pervasive effects of allowing a student to choose, Herder also weaves in a critique of the present restrictions, then cycles around and back to his proposed changes. It should also be noted that these circular movements are not merely one-dimensional, but rather spherical; also, they often take the form of concentric upward spirals, as Herder progresses towards his final goal. One critic writes:
These concentric spirals, then, enhance the reader's ability to follow Herder's reasoning: they lead the way, bringing a sense of order and completion to that which otherwise seems chaotic. The small jumps and leaps necessitated by Herder's return to a starting point or to the next level do occasionally distract, but the overall progression becomes smooth and persuasive. So, too, is the reader's attention drawn to the center of the circle, to the very object of analysis. Indeed, by force of such a physically fluid method of description, the reader is driven to assume an active role in contemplating, together with Herder, the subject under consideration.
As already noted, these spirals are not static repetitions of the same path: they lead, in fact, not to stagnation, but rather towards a specific, inclusive whole. As Herder concludes in the passage cited above, "alles wird ein regelmäßiges natürlich eingetheiltes Ganze." Often, it is Herder's use of contrasts that enables this progression: going beyond circling the target and examining it, he proceeds to compare it with other, perhaps very dissimilar elements. In the passage above, for instance, Herder contrasts the very different concepts of free choice and order, competition and cohesion between the teachers and students, each time reflecting on the outcome of his plans, and examining the very different possibilities which such a change would open up.
Sometimes, in fact, when contrasting such a wide variety of ideas, Herder's comparisons seem to fall prey to contradictions, and bring together elements that apparently have no outward connection. In the end, though, most of these seeming discrepancies can be resolved by paying very careful attention to Herder's thought process and analyzing the details of his comparison. At the same time, the very presence of these contradictions encourages the reader, again, to take an active role in understanding Herder's reasoning. Herder's monologue thus becomes very nearly a dialogue; the reader thinks and feels together with the author, at times even disagrees or hesitates before proceeding, all of which follows precisely from Herder's own guidelines: "ein solches Lesen muß Gespräch, halbe Begeisterung werden, oder es wird nichts!" 
As his partner in conversation, the reader is frequently left with a number of questions in regard to neglected tangents and undiscussed conclusions. Herder is quick to point out that his contemplations are only that: he does not present an entire picture, nor even a very thorough one, of his philosophical musings. Many critics have remarked on the fact that "Herder makes no pretense to finality. He typically offers only a partial account of the issue or subject under investigation."  Herder is unable delve fully into his subject matter, not due to any literary or linguistic failings on his part, but because most of what he discusses is either of such wide scope as to make a complete analysis impractical, or, by its very nature, ineffable and only interpretable in the most abstract of terms. As a result, Herder relies on analogy - again a type of comparison or contrast, but of a far more intricate and complex sort.
Herder's analogical thinking functions as a way to express the otherwise unexpressible, and to explain, in a manner easily comprehended by his readers, subjects which are of a highly abstract character. Analogies are not, for Herder, mere reductions: on the contrary, his analogies often expand the scope of his analysis beyond the confines of either tangible object, and carry his discussion into distant theoretical realms. An example is, of course, Herder's infamous comparison of the North Sea herrings to the wandering Germanic tribes - a bold metaphor, to be sure, and one which seems to raise more questions than it answers. But it is here that we see Herder's technique at its most flexible: while contemplating the fish in the water, Herder's analogical thought process sets in, causing him to seek useful comparisons in order to explain what it is that was so impressive and noteworthy about the school of shimmering creatures. And, because of Herder's metaphorical paradigm, which encourages him to seek visual, tangible metaphors in his analogical formations, he comes upon the metaphor to the Germanic peoples. His precise purpose in using such a metaphor is much less obvious, but the steps which take him to the image are easily retraced.
Herder's analogical thinking is nearly always expressed through metaphors; when one speaks of analogy in Herder's writings, it is inevitable that a metaphor will be close behind. Indeed, as one writer comments: "whatever definition the reader has in mind when he identifies metaphors, he will find them everywhere in Herder's text."  Metaphors are, for Herder, not at all a flowery poetic device, and never simple ornamentation. The very method in which Herder thinks is shown by his reliance on metaphor: he uses the physical, visual comparison as a way of endowing his thoughts with clear, perceptible, and sensual existence. Eco called metaphors a "Vehikel der Erkenntnis,"  but it can be stated even more strongly: they are, indeed, the only means, for Herder, of recognizing and attempting to reproduce that which is not otherwise linguistically expressible.
It is thus surprising, considering the very necessary role which metaphorical language plays here, to see the type of criticism which has been leveled at Herder. Even Kant did not seem willing to recognize the legitimacy of Herder's argumentation, since to him the constant intrusion of poetical manipulation into the supposed authority of philosophical inquiry was a grave mistake. Kant felt that Herder, in resorting to metaphorical excursus and inductive reasoning, was "somehow guilty of violating the territorial limits of poetry and philosophy,"  and that this destroyed any claim Herder might have had to authoritative discourse. But it was with precisely this goal in mind that Herder set out to write philosophy: to free it from the rigid and sterile regulations with which it had been beset, and to return to it the beauty and vibrancy of youthful poetry. The best discussion of history, he claimed, would arise when one combined the finest from the two disciplines: "Wüßte man nun den Dichter mit dem Philosophen zu verbinden, und was beide liefern, in Geschichte zu verwandeln." 
Metaphorical imagery is thus a conscious strategy of argumentation for Herder, and evidence of it occurs throughout his writings. In the Reisejournal, there are several particular fields of emphasis in which most of his metaphors have some foundation; here too, repetition plays a significant part, as Herder returns again and again to a number of figurative images. The most important images are probably those belonging to Herder's external world: as he himself states, his primary purpose in setting out on his adventure is to experience the world, thus the reflection of his surroundings in his writing is quite appropriate. Although not a travel diary, Herder's journal does document his voyage; he concentrates throughout the work on analogies to the sea, the waves, the ship, and the fish he observes around him. The example of the herrings is perhaps the most striking, but others abound: the ship as a "kleiner Staat," the waves as a comparison to "Luftundulationen und Schälle," and even the question of social institutions: "Kennet der Fisch Gattin? Sind die Gesetze der Ehe anders, als untergeordnete Gesetze der Fortpflanzung des Universum?"  Later in the work, Herder expands his analogical thinking into other facets of the animal kingdom and to historical and mythological references, as well as to physical sensation, for example in his ongoing discussions of the contrasting "Betäubung" and "Schauder" metaphors. In all of these cases, figurative imagery functions as not only an aid to understanding, but in fact creates relationships and gives new insight by setting up paradigmatic comparisons.
Herder was well aware of his position among the philosophers of his day; that the majority of them disagreed quite vehemently with his proposed improvements was no secret. Indeed, Herder's stance as an opponent of traditional discursive reasoning and scientifically sterile composition guaranteed him a steady stream of arguments and public disputes, some of which became dangerous to Herder's own reputation. Why, then, did Herder persist in attacking the older forms, and in setting forth the combination of poetic philosophy as the ideal paradigm? The answer can be found in his reliance on metaphorical language. If philosophical writing is to be devoid of figurative language, argued Herder, it will be incapable of expressing the very heart of the matter: philosophy must rely on metaphors as the only way to express concepts which are otherwise unstateable. This follows directly from Herder's belief in inductive reasoning: instead of deducing, through proof and reflection, the truth behind an idea, a metaphor allows the philosopher, as well as the reader, to understand, intuitively, the existence and thus the truth within the concept. Says one critic: metaphors "[werden] intuitiv vom Leser/Hörer als legitim erkannt," and are thus useful in expressing the ineffable: "Durch Metaphern kann antizipiert werden, was faktisch noch nicht aussagbar ist." 
Also important is the ability of metaphors to bridge the gap between two concepts which would otherwise be separated by enormous differences. Making the comparison between herrings and Germanic tribespeople involves not only a leap of imagination, but a leap of faith as well: the reader must trust in Herder's ability to successfully connect the two concepts, and furthermore, to produce a relevant commentary. This is the power of metaphor for Herder: it forces the reader to invest his own thoughts and analytical skills, and expands the text into a dialogic discourse. So too, in bringing together a wide range of topics, Herder is able to display other similarities and to comment on more general principles, as one critic explains:
The creativity of language is constantly being emphasized in Herder's works. As a fluid and living embodiment of the human soul, language is constantly in flux and can be adapted to fit new situations. Here again poetic imagery proves its worth: because a metaphor is applied to two or more situations at once, it is indeed designed to change, to expand to include other concepts and thus highlight relationships and differences. The metaphor is, for Herder, the prime example of living language. It is flexible, dynamic and in constant motion: "als Reaktion auf neue Erfahrungen können sich die Signifikanten (Laut-, Schriftbild) auf neue Signifikate (Vorstellungen) beziehen, d.h. der Sprachcode ist ein offenes, dynamisches System."  It is only fitting, then, that Herder should call on metaphorical imagery to prove his own theories of language, human development and history, and political systems, in an attempt to tie all of these together into a single living philosophy of human existence.
By implementing his own suggestions for the improvement of German literature and for the revitalization of stale philosophy, Herder sets in motion a process which was to continue well beyond the confines of Herder's initial goals: his opposition to mainstream philosophy, indeed to traditional society, was taken up as a rallying cry by the writers of the Sturm und Drang, who dramatically exceeded Herder's own efforts and intentions. But Herder's very insistence upon the worth of poetry, and on the necessity of change, is significant. In fact, a momentary reflection of Herder's aesthetic and socio-political theories is contained in even the simplest metaphor he uses. Again, a critic: "Gerade das Aufreißen festgefahrener Sprachstrukturen und damit Denkstrukturen durch Bildbrüche und neue Assoziationen ist nicht nur ein ästhetisches, sondern ein sozialpolitisches Anliegen Herders."  By blurring the boundaries between scientific and literary analysis and questioning the very nature of philosophy, Herder presents a challenge to traditional structures, and shows that alternate paradigms are not only available, but feasible.
On an aesthetic and linguistic level, Herder's use of metaphor should be seen in context with his theory of the origin of language. In addition to the belief that national literature, even in its old age, can reach a climax by hearkening back to the lively, vivid poetry of its youth, Herder also maintains that all language is based on sensory perception. The sheep's bleating is the characteristic which imprints itself on the human soul, causing us not only to recognize the sheep a second time, but to have a name for the concept of `sheep.' By extension: metaphors, which call to mind very vivid and specific sensory images, facilitate and indeed permit understanding, recognition and repetition; without such concrete images, philosophical discourse will remain lifeless and incomplete.
Herder implements in his Journal nearly all of his proposed modifications to the writing of philosophy: the use of figurative and metaphorical language as the means of expressing and conceptualizing relationships, combined at times with a circling and returning to examine concepts from as many different angles as possible - all of this can all be traced back to his desire for a lively, visually and sensually stimulating literature, one which will reawaken the sleeping spirit of the country and establish a renewed national character for Germany. By virtue of his very subject matter, a journey toward discovery and self-determination, Herder sets up the final metaphor in his work. As he discusses his attempts to learn about himself, his adventures removed from books and in the heart of the world, all the while expressing his thoughts in poetical, vivid imagery, Herder presents the model for the rest of his country. Germany, too, like Herder, must undertake a journey toward self-discovery, abandon her dry philosophy and look within herself to find that core of true character, in order that she may develop into the philosophically mature and youthfully responsive thinker, thus achieving her full potential.
Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1995 for German 948 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "In Defense of Metaphor: Herder's Style of Language in his Journal." Website Article. 15 May 1995. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/948paper.html>.