History / Ideology / Philosophy / Racism

“Volksgeist” – A Current in German Philosophy of the 19th and 20th Century

Google Ngram Viewer_Kulturmorphologie-page-001 (1)

In German philosophy of the 19th and early 20th century, there seems to be a current of thinking that assigns a special ontological status to peoples and culutres. These are treated as having something like a soul or “Geist” of their own, a quasi-mental object that exists more or less independently of the individual people, or being something comparable to an organism. In this school of thinking, a people (“Volk”) is not an abstraction (in my terminology: an as-if-structure) but something that really exists by itself. I am planning to investigate this complex of ideas a bit more closely when I have the time to do so. This Ngram is a first step into this direction.

A precursor seems to be the concept of “Volksgeist” (“national spirit”) that can be found in the works of both Herder and Hegel. While the “Volksgeist” stayed in fashion for a long time, Hegels concept of “absoluter Geist” was less successful,, although it continues to pop up in philosophical texts. Around 1860, a concept of “Volksseele” arises (“national soul” or “ethnic soul” would be possible translations). I have not yet found out where this term comes from. Another concept that can be found during the time under consideration here is “Volkscharakter” (national character). This concept becomes popular in the 1820s. It later shows the double peek (1918 and 1940) typical of many concepts connected to German nationalism and Nazi ideology. This double peak can be seen (more pronounced) in “Volksseele”. (If you want to see the “pure” Nazi peak in 1940, try a German Ngram of “Volksgemeinschaft” (“Gemeinschaft” means community). The double peak can be seen in words like “Volkskörper” (“Körper” meaning “body”).

“Völkerspsychologie” (“ethno-psychology”) was a paradigm of psychological research that belongs into this complex of ideas. According to this graph, it originated in the  1850s, had a first peak in the 1880s and a second, stronger peak between 1900 and 1920. It seems to have declined before the rise of the Nazis. The later peak for the concept around 1960 might be due to secondary literature about it, although I have not checked this yet. “Volksseele” seems to be connected to “Völkerpsychologie”, then declines together with it but is later taken up by the Nazis (at least that is what the Ngram suggests).

Kulturmorphologie (“cultural morphology” is a set of theories connected to the names Oswald Spengler and Leo Frobenius (and some others). Here, cultures or “Kulturkreise” (cultural complexes) are treated as independently existing entities that can be compared to living organisms. The term “Morphologie” here is not so much connected to the branch of linguistics by that name, but to the “Morphologie” of Goethe (e.g. in his theories about plants). If you produce an Ngram of “Kulturmorphologie” alone, its development can be seen better. Its later stages might be due to secondary literature, since as a research paradigm, it declined in the 1950s and 1960s. It is interesting that at some point, it starts to move more or less in sync with “objektiver Geist”, maybe due to secondary literature that connects the two.

The concept of “Kulturkreis” is originally tied to this school of thinking. It declines, together with the whole current of thinking, but interestingly suddenly rises again in the late 1980s (another concept showing this behaviour is “Hochkultur” (“high culture” – not shown here – that seems to replace “Kulturvolk” (cultured nation) at some point. While these concepts where no longer used in scientific contexts, they were taken up in popular books and media and I suspect that this transfer from scholarship to popular media is the reason for their late rise.

There are connections fromthis whole complex of ideas to racism and Nazi ideology. I seems to me that these concepts and their high prevalence in the time between the wars played a role in the emergence of Nazi ideology and contributed to making Nazi ideology plausible and acceptable to educated people.

There seems to have been a branch of this current of thinking in Japan as well, since in the late 19th century during the time of the Meiji restauration, as well as between the wars, many Japanese studied in Germany or studied German philosophers. There are probably also parallel developments in other countries, connected to racism and colonialism.

I have not yet undertaken any serious research into the literature about these topics, I am still in the early stages of surveying the terrain. So this post is a very preliminary first step into this direction.

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