How do we become human? In Forming Humanity: Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition, Jennifer Herdt narrates a tale—“Once upon a time,” she begins (1)—of late eighteenth-century German thinkers and artists who saw humanity as a task, not a starting point, and for whom self- and communal formation occur not through divine re-formation after the image of God in Christ, but through human agency, dialogical encounter, and mutual recognition.
In casting this group of thinkers and artists—some you probably know (Goethe, Schiller, Hegel), others you’ve just heard of (Herder, Humboldt)—as a tradition of reflection on ethical formation,1 Forming Humanity is at once recovery and assertion. If Herdt is critical of her story’s central figures and ideas, she nonetheless contends that reflection on the Bildung tradition has continuing philosophical force. We cannot avoid its central question, she tells us—how indeed do we become human?—and should not disdain its call to responsibility: to identify and correct the failures in our imaginations of “the human.”
Herdt’s argument is historical and philosophical, descriptive and normative.2 Forming Humanity’s first two chapters deftly trace Bildung’s intellectual precursors in Greek paideia, Roman humanitas, and seventeenth-century Pietism. Studies of Herder and Hegel frame central chapters on aesthetics (the “Religion of Art”) and literature (Bildungsroman). The Bildung tradition that emerges is attractive to our moment: its “humanity” constructed through the diversity of human particularities of characters and cultures, not abstract totalities.
And yet, there are pitfalls. The Bildung tradition, we learn, has been too-easily coopted to authorize cultural and racial privilege. (In many of its tellings, what we all should humanly become can look suspiciously bourgeois and Teutonic.) So too its accounts of history may leave us queasy: everything works for the good, it seems, never mind the suffering along the way. Forming Humanity’s subtitle is thus Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition. Redemption comes from the dialogical humanism the tradition avows—conversation always continues—with Herdt adding a theological interlocutor in Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian of the twentieth century.3
Barth is usually cast as the archcritic of humanism and modernity. He condemns “autarchy,” human self-sufficiency apart from God and our neighbors. As such, Bildung stands duly condemned. (We make ourselves, after all.) For Herdt, however, Barth is an internal critic of the Bildung tradition insofar as he acknowledges culture as our task: the very task, indeed, of realizing our humanity. So judged and so engaged, the tradition is opened up: an eschatological vantage point sees human formation as provisional and indeterminate; formation’s connection to dialogue means listening for the voice of very-Other others. Or, as Barth might say, listening for the Word of God.
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This symposium adds five more speakers to these dialogues: Thomas Pfau, Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal, Vincent Lloyd, Molly Farneth, and Chad Wellmon.
Forming Humanity proves rich fodder; even as the symposium panelists praise Herdt’s scholarly achievement and engage the work’s historical, philosophical, aesthetic, and literary details, they do not balk from challenging Herdt’s foundational claims or principal purposes. Among the latter are Barth’s inclusion as Bildung’s refiner, not contradictor, and Herdt’s Bildung tradition as a partner to Christian humanism, not its secularizer or replacement (239).4
Pfau finds Bildung irremediable: its history darker than Herdt’s account, its metaphysics relentlessly secular. Becker-Lindenthal adds Søren Kierkegaard to the fray: like Herdt’s Barth, the Dane can be a critical friend to this tradition, his judgment its refinement. For Lloyd, the Bildung tradition misidentifies the facts of life (and death), hawking false reconciliation where there is paradox. Farneth saves Hegel, in part, from Barth and Herdt’s restorative Christian reading. Wellmon saves Barth from Hegel and Herdt.
How do we become human? Let the dialogues begin!
Bildung is an unfamiliar term to English speakers. The word itself is shaded with meaning, not least from Bild, “image, picture,” and bilden, “to form, fashion, shape, mold, educate, or . . . improve/broaden the mind” (28). Herdt notes that, in the German language, “the noun today most commonly means education (particularly in the sense of a holistic liberal education), but it can also mean formation, fashioning, shaping, or even simply form, as well as cultivation, culture, or civilization. It can refer either to the process of formation or to the endpoint or culmination of this process” (28).↩
For a direct treatment of her claim that the historical and normative questions are mutually interrelated, see Jennifer Herdt, “Religious Ethics, History, and the Rise of Modern Moral Philosophy: Focus Introduction,” Journal of Religious Ethics 28.2 (2000) 165–88.↩
Surprisingly, perhaps, the symposium panelists do not challenge Herdt’s choice to shape Forming Humanity by engaging with Barth, even if they disagree with her interpretation of him. For the alternate position, see Timothy Stoll’s review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/forming-humanity-redeeming-the-german-bildung-tradition.↩
In Herdt’s telling, the Bildung tradition, refined in Barthian judgment and forgiveness, ultimately narrates the work of ethical formation as participation in humanity’s reditus (return) to a God “whose life is overflowing self-gift and invitation into friendship” (9).↩