Volksgeist: spirit of the people: culture from native roots

June 15, 2010

A collage of fragments on the concept Volksgeist

Voltgeist; Spirit of the people.

1648 The Peace of Westphalia As a new century begins, the US advances the notion of “failed states” in international affairs, which claims a mandate for the sole remaining superpower to stage regime changes in any nation deemed a failed state in the world order of nation states that has existed since the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 (Liu 2001).”


“J.G. Herder wrote in 1784, five years before the French Revolution, his “Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind” in which his asserted that all true culture must rise from native roots, the life of the common people “the volk”, not from the cosmopolitan mannerism of the upper classes.  A sound civilization must express the Volksgeist, or national character. The French, in comparison, has a less developed tolerance for cultural relativity. The idea of Volksgeist became a highly significant idea through Europe and later around the world. It was the fundamental appeal in romantic thought against rationalism. It celebrates difference along with similarity in mankind, in contrary paths against the Age of Enlightenment and its coercive universality. Hegel asserts that for a people to enjoy freedom, order, and dignity, it must be in control of a potent and independent state, the institutional embodiment of reason and liberty. The age of French Revolution and Napoleonic triumph coincided with German cultural efflorescence, with Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller, Herter, Kant, Fichte, Hegel etc, who embodied German romanticism against the rational dryness of the French dominated Age of Reason. Following the Peace of Westphalia, German nationalism was largely dormant until late 18th century. The German upper class was contemptuous of anything German, their taste and mannerism and literature was French; their music, art and architecture were Italian. Frederich the Great hired French tax collectors and wrote in French (Liu 2001).”

1820 Philosophy of Spirit or Bildungsroman describes the passage of youth into civil society. Hegel linked youthful ideals, hopes and ambitions to revolutionary ardor and enthusiasm. Hegel, “Yet the world is inadequate to the ideal requirements of youth and youth are inadequate to actualize their own ideals (Chea 2003 summarizing Hegel (1820) Philosophy of Right ).” Cheah argued that Hegelian Bildung has a statist tendency that is a direct development of the organismic solution offered by Kant. Hegel’s ideal state is haunted by self-loss in its transition to a higher telelogical time:world history. “The eligibility of a given state to assume the mantle of world spirit depends on the character of its national spirit (Volkgeist) as manifested in the quality of its institutions. Hence, in world history, the ultimate measure of whether a state is the actualization of the Idea is the national community and all its spiritual products. Only something like “national culture” provides the strongist ties between individual and state for it gives the state absolute legitimacy in its citizens’ eyes […] The fact that national culture is crucial to the smooth functioning of state institutions reaffirms Bildung’s fundamental connection to the ideal state (2003:171).” NB Reread the intro to this amazingly useful book.

1859 University of Berns Philosophy Professor Moritz Lazarus and Linguistic Professor Heymann Steinthal described the concept of Volkerpsychologie. Inspired by Herbart’s psychological investigations on the individual they applied his methodology to larger units. They argued that they could uncover the laws (of folk psychology) governing the development of particular Volkgeister by collecting then analysing data collected from many different peoples. They believed that the essence of mankind was expressed in diverse Volder and that laws of folk psychology would emerge slowly out this data. They also referred to the work of Humboldt as their main inspiration.

“The object of Volkerpsychologie was the workings of the Volkgeist, the genius of a people, a concept which has its ultimate roots in Herder. In close analogy to Humboldt’s Nationalcharakter, the Volkgeist was the unifying psychological essence shared by all members of a Volk and the driving force of its historical trajectory. It found its purist expression in the psychological products of a people, foremost its language and mythology, but also its religion and customs, all of which were embodiments of a unique apperception of nature. The Volkgeist […] changed through historical processes that could best be studied by following the alterations of myths over time (Stocking 1996:28).”

1889 In his publication entitled The Aims of Ethnology Franz Boas referred to folk psychology as one of the “aims of ethnology” the investigation of the “laws of the lives of peoples” in his first theoretical piece of anthropology (cited in Stocking 1996:28).

1992 “[In Africa] National political institutions call for national, and so, trans-ethnic elements of culture. This national culture will be a complementarity of local cultures, coopting their virtues and their psychic strengths and creative power, and the inspiration of its people. The times are now favorable for such a development. The political and social upheavals which African countries have experienced have now concluded the first stage of their post-colonial era. That stage was marked by a dogmatism, inflexibility, and general combativeness, which, cumulatively, were the assertion of a separate identity, the specification of a cloak and a persona, through which thoughtful spokesmen for their African compatriots sought to be grasped, for the departing colonialism had left Africans naked. This is hardly a unique reaction, and is entirely similar to the efforts of various European spokesmen, in particular, certain German thinkers, to describe and thereby constitute the `Volkgeist’ or `Spirit of the people’ in reaction to the eighteenth century domination of Europe by French culture(Abraham 1992).”

“To-day, there is a greater intellectual acceptance as something applicable to Africa, too, the fact that all national cultures are now syncretist, that this is an inescapable existential condition of modern viability. The valorization of African cultures in this post colonial era requires an impulse forward from an idealized and static conception of traditions to the espousing of a vital syncretist heritage of elements derived from diverse sources, able to constitute for Africans a total resource for living, and to offer to non-Africans a familiar feeling. (Abraham 1992).”

Idealized and static concept of culture and traditions vs a concept of culture as vital and syncretist, inheriting elements from diverse sources. This syncretism is inescapable in modern societies and can contribute to a culture’s viability in a post colonial world (Abraham 1992).”

The first stage of the post colonial period in Africa, from 1960 through 2000? was characterized by political and social upheavals textured with dogmatism, inflexibility, and general combativeness, as expressions of emergent Volksgeist or the desire to assert a separate cultural and/or national identity (Liu 2001).”

The idea of Volksgeist became a highly significant idea through Europe and later around the world. It was the fundamental appeal in romantic thought against rationalism. It celebrates difference along with similarity in mankind, in contrary paths against the Age of Enlightenment and its coercive universality. Hegel asserts that for a people to enjoy freedom, order, and dignity, it must be in control of a potent and independent state, the institutional embodiment of reason and liberty (Liu 2001).”


“Perceived as a cultural being, the African today is highly complex, being in fact an accumulation of a variety of cultural fragments. He is endowed with a base of his traditional culture, which is by now irreversibly impregnated at various levels by elements of other cultures, some of which were imposed and others sought and acquired. His base of traditional culture is informed with beliefs about the nature of human beings as members of his society, beliefs about the ethics which should regulate human behavior within the family and its extensions as well as regulate general behavior towards members of the same society, and even higher beliefs which inspire the ethics. It is informed by beliefs concerning the place of human beings in the environment of nature, and the ethics which should govern human behavior towards that environment.””These western practices and norms have undermined the westernized Africans’ moorings in their traditional cultures. Where before they were driven by a sacred sense of responsibility towards their immediate families, their lineage groups and their societies, now they have a greatly weakened sense of their lineage groups, and almost replace a sense of their cultural society with a still developing national sense. The purposes and contexts of labor become mutated. Before, work would be possible only in groups, an exception being made solely in the case of the artist. Work would regularly be with other members of one’s family or age set; and its purpose would be the sustenance and well-being of the family, lineage group or community. In general, there would be no hiring of labor, each person carrying out family or social obligations as a matter of ethical imperatives. Now, labor is individual, and its competence, just like its rewards, is the individual’s. To-day, its driving force is economic necessity. The beneficiary of labor is now the employer; and its products are not chosen within the framework or dictates of traditional cultures (Abraham 1992).”

“Colonialism brought in new systems of education, an inquisitive and acquisitive attitude towards nature, the promise of mass literacy, scientific approaches to disease, the infrastructure of modern communication and commerce, cultural and religious enrichment, an expanded vision of moral ideas and ideals, the suppression of tribal warfare, party politics, and techniques of management and government unavoidable in the modern state. It brought ideals of constitutional government in contrast with sacred tradition, the ideal of legal egalitarianism and an impartial judiciary intended to pursue it, an efficient though impersonal civil administration, and the promise of a free press (Abraham 1992).”

“Colonialism also ushered in unbridled economic exploitation and sapped sub-Saharan cultures of their vitality. They became deprived of direction and internal impetus, and increasingly survived mainly as pageant and ceremonial. New ideas concerning individual accountability and individual reward, the spreading sense of individual vision and the ascendancy of self-interest in contrast with community interest as a basis of action, the growing sense of private power arising from self-action rather than clan direction, all of these atomizing factors, acting in concert, have loosened the internal bonds and efficacy of lineage-based clans.””To-day’s juxtaposition of diverse cultural strands in Africa, coupled with the general absence of an imperative culture, turns the people of Africa into cultural atoms, each person, it is true, imbued with cultural tendencies and cultural predispositions, but at the same time having open to him or her the attractions and the promise of every one of a rich and variegated landscape of cultures present. In this post-colonial era, when the power and authority of decision making lie with Africans themselves, there exists an embarrassment of riches in the shape of theories and methods upon which political and social decision makers can draw (Abraham 1992).”

Webliography and bibliography

Liu, Henry C K. 2001. “Tackle failed markets, not failed states.” Asia Times. (Liu 2001)

Liu traces a history of the term volk re: the nation state, power shifts, romanticism,

Abraham, W. Emmanuel. 1992. ‘Prologue: Crisis in African Cultures’, in Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye, eds., Person and community: Ghanaian philosophical studies , Washington: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1992.

Cheah, Pheng. 2003. Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation. Columbia University Press.)

“Even while its title alludes to death, Spectral Nationality delights in the life of ideas, and particularly in ideas of life. In this text, Pheng Cheah traces a constellation of concepts—including freedom, culture, organism, Bildung [as relates to Volkgeist], artifice, nature, life, and death—with confidence and aplomb from the point at which they are given a distinctive and perdurant articulation in Kant’s critical philosophy through their transposition to postcolonial theory. This drama of conceptual variation is staged in two acts: the first consists of four chapters on the development of the “organismic metaphor” in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German idealism, and the second consists of four chapters on the development of this same metaphor in twentieth-century postcolonial literatures. Each chapter bursts with nuanced erudition, but submits nonetheless rigorously to the book’s thesis: contemporary theories of freedom, including popular, postcolonial nationalisms, are underwritten by a metaphor of the organic body, but while this metaphor is essential to modern theories of freedom, it is also inherently unstable and prone to perform its [End Page 1239] own unraveling. The actualization of freedom, conceived as the philosophical and political project of modernity, is, then, incapable of completion, and the nation, conceived as a body in which to incarnate the promise of freedom, remains necessarily spectral, neither simply living nor simply dead. The introduction and first chapter undertake to purge nationalism of its common associations with intolerance, fanaticism, irrationalism, violence, genocide, romantic mystification, totalitarianism (Review by Matthew Scherer 2005.”

Stocking, George W. Volksgeist as method and ethic: essays on Boasian ethnography and the German. University of Wisconsin Press.

Wiredu, Kwasi. Gyekye, Kwame. eds. 1992. Person and community: Ghanaian philosophical studies Washington: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy.

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