Volksgeist (folk or national spirit) is perhaps the best known of a family of terms referring to sets of mental, intellectual, moral, and cultural traits that define particular human groups represented as being "nations" or "peoples." Additional related words include Volksseele ("folk soul"), "national character," esprit de la nation ("spirit of the nation"), and a host of others. These terms have never had narrowly fixed meanings, either individually or in comparison with each other. Sometimes they have been used to denote irreducible, irrational spiritual forces that lie close to the foundations of perception and behavior and explain why people of one nation must differ radically from those of another. More often, they have served as platforms for arraying ranges of cultural characteristics in such a way that distinctions between nationalities can be identified, the moral and political implications of the distinctions can be developed, and the cultural similarities among people of the same nationality can be used to construct a conscious national community. Regardless of their stated intentions, writers employing these terms have tended to apply them both descriptively and judgmentally and seldom have avoided tautology. Volksgeist (which will stand here for the entire family) has not been a popular word among intellectuals since the middle of the twentieth century, but concepts closely related to it are far from uncommon in contemporary public discourse.
Benedict Anderson has argued that nations are "imagined communities." Volksgeist originated mainly in the efforts of early modern Europeans to imagine communities that corresponded either to the extensive, politically centralized territorial states emerging around them (France, for instance) or to groups of people of similar language who were not experiencing such political developments but might do so in the near future (Germans and Italians). Its relationship to actual states in the eighteenth century was quite complex. Volksgeist was created as much by the critics of the major nation-states as by their apologists. Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), one of the originators of the concept, argued that the cultural identities—the "spirits"—of peoples derived mainly from their interactions with their environments over time, which suggested that the efforts of the French state to establish cultural uniformity among the various nations of which France was composed was as illegitimate as its attempts to extend its imperial control over nations beyond its borders and to impose a single, authoritarian political hegemony over the diverse orders of French society. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), generally acknowledged as the person who first brought most of the conventional elements of Volksgeist together into a coherent whole, represented nations as embodiments of unique sets of cultural characteristics in explicit opposition to attempts to define nations politically.
Herder bears the reputation of being the father both of Volksgeist and of modern nationalism. In each case the reputation is only partly deserved, but his contribution was profound nonetheless. Herder used extended expressions such as Geist des Volkes rather than Volksgeist, but in representing peoples (Völker) as actual humans with individual differences, sharing cultural traits shaped by their ancestors' history and experience of a particular physical environment and mentally constructing their world through language and law inherited from earlier generations, he expressed the essence of the concept and laid the groundwork for what would later be called ethnology. Herder's presentation shows that there was more to the creation of Volksgeist than simply engagement with the implications of the nation-state. It was also a reaction to the inadequacies of the model of the abstract rational individual that underpinned the Lockean interpretation of society. With regard to nationalism, Herder did not call for a unified state defined by the German Volksgeist, even though he argued against imposing French political and cultural hegemony on Germans. He did, however, claim that the only effective and legitimate governments were ones that developed naturally among particular nations and that reflected, in their differences from other polities, the cultures of the peoples they governed. Whether such a relationship was possible between nations defined as natural cultural entities and governments that ruled very extensive areas was, to Herder, at best questionable. He did not foresee the massive efforts of nineteenth-century nation-states to create common nationalities among their diverse citizens by such means as public education.
The word Volksgeist itself was coined by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) to denote the separate spiritual essences of the diverse nations that characterized the present stage of human history and that would, through a dialectical process, produce the uniform "world-spirit" which spelled history's end. Hegel's formulation had some resonance later in the nineteenth century, but the most important versions of the idea followed more directly the line established by Herder. Early nineteenth-century Romantic philologists such as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1785–1863, 1786–1859) focused on the centrality of language in framing the distinctive ways in which particular peoples interpret the world, on the history of languages as the key to the real history of nations, and on the study of folk tales as a means of comprehending the spiritual realities of peoples that lay hidden beneath layers of sophistication and cultural borrowing. These intellectual concerns were often bound up with political ones, as national character was commonly cited as a justification for claiming political autonomy within imperial states or asserting independence (Hungarians and Czechs in the Austrian Empire, for example, or the Irish with respect to Great Britain) or for insisting on the union of peoples of similar language (as in Germany). Volksgeist was also frequently connected with democratic, or at least anti-hierarchical, political tendencies. If the core of a genuine nation lay not in the power or civilization of its elite, but rather in the language and folk heritage of its common people, it followed that in some manifest way those people should participate in the political life of the national state.
Apart from its political implications, the most important consequence of the formulation of Volksgeist was its influence on the formulation of the concept of culture in the middle years of the nineteenth century. The idea that "peoples" identified by particular, but wide, arrays of traits could be taken as the fundamental units of social and historical study was basic to the establishment of ethnology as a science. The comparative ethnology of both the diffusionist and the functionalist schools was predicated on this assumption, which dominated cultural science until past the middle of the twentieth century. Comparative studies of folk culture, pioneered in Germany by Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl (1823–1897), were also strongly affected by the concept of Volksgeist. Such studies found echoes in many countries. Another human science that incorporated Volksgeist was Völkerpsychologie (folk psychology), which aimed at distinguishing psychological characteristics and mental operations that were common to all people from those derived from their varied cultures. The broad complex of cultural studies affected by the idea of Volksgeist provided discursive and conceptual frameworks to intellectuals throughout the world—to George Eliot (1819–1880), for example, and to W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963), whose book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), examines in great depth the relationship between a people, the larger political nation to which it belongs, and the distinctive forms of perception that it derives from its history and culture.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Volksgeist came to be associated with the fashion for biological racialism that swept through social thought in Europe and America, helping to produce what has been called "völkisch" ideology. It was this association that, perhaps more than anything else, caused the sudden decline of Volksgeist as a respectable term in intellectual discourse after World War II.
Woodruff D. Smith