Published Humanitas, Volume XXVI Nos. 1 & 2, 2013

Both the humanities and one of their primary foci, Humanism, have lost significance during the last three decades. In response to a number of pressures, the humanities have splintered into ever more specialized subdisciplines. Inside the academy the welcome study of issues, such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, nationalism, and colonialism, has emphasized the particular and the local. Yet the splintering of the humanities into sub-disciplines has also resulted in their marginalization. This marginalization has provoked a call for certain universal values, a common ground, to counteract the disorienting effect of diversification and the dwindling relevance of the humanities. In view of these concerns it would be timely to ask whether and how the humanities should refocus on their central mission of addressing universal, humanist questions (universalism) without neglecting cultural diversity (particularism).

This mission also has a significant tradition in German eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) is a central figure in German and European arts and letters who strove to define what it means to be human in a physiological, intellectual, and ethical sense. With his attempts to resist the separation of human knowledge into more narrowly defined disciplines, Herder could indeed be regarded as an early proponent of interdisciplinary studies. The universal ideals he helped to promote, such as freedom, equality, moral justice, and compassion, still influence today’s moral values. Whether these universal principles can still have a justification in a racially, culturally, ethnically, and socially diverse society with a pluralist mix of lifestyles that all beg to be recognized as equal but different is only one aspect of the more fundamental question of whether these values are compatible with today’s definition of human nature. Herder’s goal was to work against social fragmentation…

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