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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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2. Formulation of the Concept. We can point to
three major steps taken towards the formulation of the
concept of Volksgeist, following which it became one
of the key notions of historical and literary movements.

J. G. von Herder does not use the term Volksgeist,
but only various expressions like Geist des Volkes, Geist
der Nation, Nationalgeist
(explicitly referring to
Moser), Genius des Volkes, and Nationalcharakter
(without mentioning Hume). In the line of the histori-
cal reflections mentioned above, Herder also stresses
the importance of climatic conditions for the shaping
of historical events and their direction. Yet in spite of
the absence of the term, the trend towards the formu-
lation of the characteristic features of the name of
Volksgeist” can be clearly discerned.

Herder refers also to “the spirit of the times” (Geist
der Zeiten
), which is close to the experience of past
times and which is impressed on the soul. The spirit
of the times can be best understood from its expression
in folklore and from daily experience; it expresses itself
in vernacular speech and in popular poetry. Hence
Herder's interest in the study of language and literature
as two branches of mankind's historical creativity. The
reference to the expressions of spirit replaces the direct
approach to the substance of spirit, since spirit as such
can neither be described nor painted. Spirit expresses
itself through words, movements, conflicts, forces, and
effects. As to the stability or destructiveness of the
national character, Herder oscillates between two
views: on the one hand, he describes it as an “innate
idea” (Descartes) and considers it as eternal and
indestructible; on the other hand, he speaks of his own
historical age as tending to blur the distinction between
various national traits. He then calls for an urgent
investigation of these expressions of national character
before they disappear.

Hegel coined the term Volksgeist in 1801 in speaking
about mores, laws, and constitutions as forming the
inner life or spirit of a people. From Hegel the term
apparently entered the vocabulary of different systems
and intellectual movements, although the ground had
been prepared gradually for this absorption through
the scattered ideas analyzed before. Hegel took
cognizance of Herder's work mainly in the area of
folk-poetry. He referred explicitly to Montesquieu
who, in Hegel's opinion, combined the true historical
view with a genuine philosophical position. According
to this view legislation—in general as well as in its
particular provisions—is to be treated not as something
isolated but rather as a subordinate component in a
whole. For Hegel, legal systems express a general atti-
tude of a people and therefore the Roman or German
concepts of laws are for him comprehensive systems
guided by certain principles which can be formulated.
Hegel's indebtedness to his predecessors comes to the
fore when, along with the characteristic features of a
nation's spirit whose investigation belongs to the natu-
ral philosophy of world history, he points to the natural
dispositions of the national spirit like the composition
of the body and the ways of life, whose study belongs
to the history of the nature of man. But Hegel's main
contribution to the formulation of the concept of
Volksgeist is the attribution of a historical character
to the concept. The spirit of a nation is one of the
manifestations of World Spirit (Weltgeist). That Spirit
is essentially alive and active throughout mankind's

Now, the spirit of a nation is an intermediate stage
of world history as the history of the World Spirit. The
World Spirit gives impetus to the realization of the
historical spirits of various nations (Volksgeister). The
spirits of individual nations are both the articulations
(Gliederungen) of an organization and its realization.
The spirits of individual nations represent a segment
of the World Spirit out of which emerges the unlimited
universal spirit. A comparison is introduced here be-
tween the status of an individual and that of a nation's
spirit. In the process of his formation the individual
undergoes various changes without, however, losing his
identity. As a part of world history, a nation—
exhibiting a certain trend expressed in its Volksgeist
plays its part in the total process of world history. But
once it contributes its share to world history it can
no longer play a role in the process of world history.
The submersion in the total process prevents a people's
cultural rebirth, because it has exhausted its creativity
in the historical growth of its guiding spirit. It is for
this reason that one of Hegel's disciples, Michelet,
considered the idea of a renaissance of the Jewish
people as philosophically impossible. The relations of
state to state are uncertain, and there is no imperial
Praetor available to adjust them. The only higher judge
is the universal absolute spirit, the World Spirit (Welt-
). In keeping with his general philosophical view
which stresses the actuality of spirit as a living expres-
sion of the World Spirit, Hegel identifies the spirit of
a people with its historical and cultural accom-
plishments, namely its religions, its mores, its consti-
tution, and its political laws. They are the work of a
people, they are the people.

Yet in spite of this view which confers, as it were,
an equal status on each accomplishment, Hegel tends
to give priority to the political constitution and to the
state. The actual state is inspired (beseelt) by the na-
tional spirit and this inspiration is expressed in the
various occurrences related to the state. The national


spirit has an intrinsic morality which expresses itself
in the confidence prevailing among the individuals
imbued with the same national spirit. In addition, all
elements of the population participate in the decisions
and actions of the government. Here again the national
spirit, though not identical with government, is related
to it. The principles of national spirits (Volksgeister)
are wholly restricted on account of their particularity
because, as existent individuals, they have their own
objective actuality and self-consciousness. Out of the
finitude of these minds arises the universal spirit, the
spirit of the world, free from all restriction, producing
itself as that which exercises its right, the highest right
of all, over the finite spirits in the history of the world,
which is the world's court of judgment. Hegel uses also
the term “genius of a nation,” following the termi-
nology found in the preceding discussions, as well as
the term “God of a people.” The identification of the
spirit of a people with God of the people is made
explicit, possibly under the influence of Hegel's histo-
rical speculations, by Nachman Krochmal, who distin-
guishes between the partial spiritual elements charac-
teristic of the people of the world, and “the absolute
spirit” identical with the monotheistic God and char-
acteristic of the Jewish people. Because of the absolute
character of this spiritual element it does not exhaust
itself in the limited span within the historical process,
but emerges time and again as the guiding principle
of the people in a cyclical process of rise and fall.

The third component which contributed to the for-
mation of the concept of Volksgeist is the Historical
School of Law where the issue of the relation between
the national spirit and the legal system became the
center of a lengthy controversy. F. K. von Savigny does
not use the concept of Volksgeist; this, however, ap-
pears in the works of G. F. Puchta. In Savigny we find
only terms like Volksbewusstsein or “the common
conviction of the people”; the loose terminology which
he uses conveys, however, the same meaning as the
term Volksgeist. Civil law has a definite character
which is the product of a people's specific character,
just as language, customs or constitution. These expres-
sions are linked into one whole by the people's com-
mon convictions, by the feeling of an inner necessity
which excludes all notions of an accidental or arbitrary
genesis of such expressions. Because of the historical
character of the legal system, the law must be
approached mainly as law based on a plurality of legal
systems (Gewohnheitsrecht). Savigny, however, has
some misgivings as to the accuracy of this definition.
The idea of customary law emerging from inner and
tacit forces must be juxtaposed to a legal system based
on the arbitrary decision of a lawgiver. The stress on
a law emerging from history enables Savigny to advo
cate the common German legal system. Just as there
is no Prussian and Bavarian language, so there is no
room and justification for a legal system based on the
political split then prevailing in Germany. Hence the
idea of Volksgeist ceased to be a mere descriptive
concept and became a political slogan. In spite of the
importance attached to the state, the interest of the
Historical School shifts from the state to the historical
people. This—as well as the absence of the idea of
a World Spirit—distinguishes the conceptions of the
Historical School from those of Hegel. The Historical
School faced a specific problem as to the justification
of a deliberate legislation. Savigny's view of this prob-
lem was moderate; for him the legislator must be the
representative of a people's common convictions and
feelings. Other thinkers of this School rejected the idea
of deliberate legislation altogether.

Echoing the seventeenth-century criticism of natural
science in the Middle Ages which was based on the
principle of hypotheses non fingo (“I do not frame
hypotheses”), some critics raised the objection that the
term Volksgeist expresses that which we do not know
or understand and reminds one of the primitive mind's
furnishing the world with spirits—the spirit of life, of
light, of fire. This criticism, however, does not diminish
the impact of the concept of Volksgeist on various
intellectual movements of the nineteenth and twentieth