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Volksgeist is a German loanword (literally meaning "spirit of the people" or "National character") for a unique "spirit" possessed collectively by each people or nation. The idea is often attributed to the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, but he never actually used the word. Hegel coined the term Volksgeist in 1801[1] but some authors deny that the idea is originally German. According to these authors the influence of the idea in German thought comes from Montesquieu and Voltaire, i.e. from the Age of Enlightenment.[2]Johann Gottfried Herder used the idea as a way of encouraging German-speaking peoples to forge a national and cultural identity. Later, in some authors, for example Ernest Renan and his "esprit de la nation" or "génie de race", the concept is characterized by racism.[3]

In Germany the concept of Volksgeist has developed and changed its meaning through eras and fields. The most important examples are: In the literary field, Schlegel and the Brothers Grimm. In the history of cultures, Herder. In the history of the State or political history, Hegel. In the field of law, Savigny and in the field of psychology Wundt.[4] This means that the concept is ambiguous. Furthermore it is not limited to Romanticism as it is commonly known.[5]

The concept of volksgeist was also influential in American cultural anthropology. According to the historian of anthropology George W. Stocking, Jr., "… one may trace the later American anthropological idea of culture back through Bastian's Volkergedanken and the folk psychologist's Volksgeister to Wilhelm von Humboldt's Nationalcharakter -- and behind that, although not without a paradoxical and portentous residue of conceptual and ideological ambiguity, to the Herderian ideal of Volksgeist."

Notes and References

  1. Azurmendi, Joxe: Volksgeist-Herri Gogoa. Ilustraziotik nazismora, p.138. Azurmendi quotes Kantorowicz and Rotenstreich
  2. Azurmendi, Joxe: "Génie du people, Esprit de la nation, Volksgeist" in : Humboldt. Hizkuntza eta pentsamendua, p.241
  3. Azurmendi, Joxe: Historia, arraza, nazioa, p.75
  4. Azurmendi, Joxe: Volksgeist-Herri Gogoa. Ilustraziotik nazismora, p.65
  5. Azurmendi, Joxe: Volksgeist-Herri Gogoa. Ilustraziotik nazismora, p. 285

Further reading

See also