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Showing how 18th-century philosopher illuminates today’s social issues nets U of T scholar most prestigious prize in his field

Photo of John Noyes sitting on his desk in front of a bookshelf

John Noyes was awarded the most prestigious prize in his field, the Modern Languages Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Studies in Germanic Languages and Literatures. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

A plunge into a completely new area of scholarship turned into a swan dive for Professor John Noyes of German with the receipt of the most prestigious prize in his field, the Modern Languages Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Studies in Germanic Languages and Literatures.

Noyes, whose doctoral research focused on German colonialism in Africa, spent 15 years acquainting himself with something completely different: the writings of the 18th-century German philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder, and demonstrating how his thinking is relevant to the social and cultural problems we are wrestling with in modern times.

A very modern problem

“The surprise factor of coming across someone so critical of European imperialism at that time intrigued me,” Noyes said during a recent interview. “People of that period said that trade would give people worldwide the same set of values, but Herder maintained that it would make Europeans rich while making others into slaves. It’s a very modern problem.”

Herder was a Protestant preacher who was born into a poor Prussian family in 1744. He was planning to become a doctor, but it didn’t work out, so he ended up studying philosophy and theology with renowned philosopher Immanuel Kant. They had a public dispute and parted ways and Kant became his No. 1 enemy.

“Kant believed and hoped that all people could agree on the fundamental principles of what was right and wrong, but Herder was concerned that these fundamental principles are always culturally determined,” Noyes explained.

From the 18th to the 20th century, Herder was extremely influential in Germany, and his work was read by all the important philosophers of the day, including Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger. His popularity with the Nazis, however, made post-war German intellectuals wary of him, Noyes said. In addition, only a small fraction of his work has been translated into English, making him less accessible to North Americans.

Herder: Not a nationalist and a patriot

“The Nazis interpreted his belief that different cultures have different traditions as meaning people should be nationalists and support their own cultures,” Noyes said. “They believed he said that Germans were superior, but that’s only if he is read superficially.

“The idea of Herder as a nationalist and a patriot is just completely wrong.”

During Herder’s time, many scientists believed there were four or five races and some were smarter and more advanced than others.

“Herder said this didn’t make sense; biologically, we are all the same and our differences are little ones,” Noyes said. “This is a very modern way of looking at the world. And when he asked how to bridge these differences and how to think about our sameness, he got to more or less the same place as the post-colonial theorists.

“He thought that different cultures can communicate and reach agreement in the realm of the aesthetic: poetry, novels, painting and sculpture, for example. Art would give people the opportunity to experience what it was like to live in another culture; we could see how others felt and experience what we all have in common.”

“The problems of cultural relativism are still unsolved, and that’s what makes Herder important”

“What is impressive is the fact that he posed these questions and didn’t really have answers. He wondered about what makes humans different due to their cultures and what makes us the same. The problems of cultural relativism are still unsolved, and that’s what makes him important.”

Noyes’ study of Herder dovetails nicely with an ongoing research project thinking about what all human beings have in common. He is off to South Africa this semester on a fellowship that will allow him to consider “whether what people thought in the 18th century has any use now if we accept the idea that race is a fallacy and a myth.” He will explore how South African novelists approach these themes.

“We think history is relatively understandable,” Noyes said, “but to the people who were immersed in it, it was just as incomprehensible as living in our world is to us.”