The "Metaphor of Life": Herder's Philosophy of History and Uneven Developments in Late Eighteenth-Century Natural Sciences

The origins of the evolutionary concept of history have normally been associated with the development of an organicist notion of society. The meaning of this notion, in turn, has been assumed as something perfectly established and clear, almost self-evident. This assumption has prevented any close scrutiny of it. As this article tries to show, the idea of "organism" that underlies the emergence of the evolutionary concept of history, far from being "self-evident," has an intricate history and underwent a number of radical and successive redefinitions from the mid-eighteenth century up to approximately 1830 (the hey-day of Romanticism and the period in which the first modern "philosophies of history" took form). More specifically, this paper traces some of these transformations in order to contextualize and shed some new light on Herder's philosophy of history and the complex process of its inception-a process that was not concluded by the end of his intellectual career. As the article shows, Herder did not actually succeed in solving some key problems involved in an evolutionary concept of history. The difficulties he found were analogous to those that emerged at that very moment in the development of a dynamic, ontogenetical theory (that is, a theory of the embryo's transformation), and both were ultimately linked to the combination of some uneven developments produced in the natural sciences of that time. Herder's philosophy of history thus appears as a paradoxical (and highly unusual, seen from a epistemological point of view) case of a system of thought that formulates problems which it is still radically unable to solve, lacking the tools to devise a possible solution for them.

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