Humboldt, Wilhelm von

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Humboldt, Wilhelm von (1767-1835): German Philosopher.

Wilhelm von Humboldt was born to a Pomeranian noble family in Tegel outside Berlin. After his father’s (Alexander Georg von Humboldt 1720-1779) death, his mother, Elisabeth Colomb, presided over her sons’ liberal education, and Wilhelm followed his father’s footsteps into the civil service. In 1802 he served as Prussian envoy to the Papal court. Returning to Berlin in 1808, he served as Minister of Public Instruction in Reichsfreiherr Karl von Stein’s reforming ministry, reorganizing secondary education and eventually founding the University of Berlin, known today as Humboldt Universität. In the latter half of his life, he continued to act as Prussian ambassador (in Vienna 1810 and in London 1817-1818) and received an Iron Cross for his attempts to preserve Prussian unity at the Congress of Vienna.

Despite his illustrious career as a statesman, Wilhelm von Humboldt is known as the founder of comparative linguistics. In addition to German, he spoke French, Latin, Greek, English, Spanish, Basque, Icelandic, Gaelic, American Indian languages, Slavic languages, Hungarian, Sanskrit, Arabic, Phoenician, ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Chinese, Javanese, and Indonesian. Humboldt’s interest in comparative linguistics influenced his philosophical project: to locate the link between word, world, and the individual. Humboldt was one of the first writers to vehemently claim that national character can be determined through investigation of language. Humboldt bases his cultural critiques on a close study of grammatical form but does not place German at the top of a socio-linguistic hierarchy. His essay, “Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwickelung des Menschgeschlechts” (”On the Difference of Human Speech Structure and its Influence on the Spiritual Development of the Human Race,“ 1836), concludes that a nation’s Geist (spirit) can only progress so far as its language complexly evolves. Another linguistic essay, “Über den Dualis” (“On Dualism,” 1827/30), portrays him as a cultural relativist, for he argues against historians who denounce African, native Peruvian, and Mexican cultures as ‘primitive’. Finally, in his linguistic writings, Humboldt advocates a universal medium for cultural progress, education, believing that in order for a people to demand and even earn freedom, they must first be educated.

Self-education defines Humboldt’s activities during the decade of the French Revolution. After leaving behind the traditional university in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1788, Wilhelm von Humboldt augmented his law studies at the more progressive university in Göttingen with lectures in experimental physics, universal history, and ancient languages and literature (from Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph, Schlözer, August Ludwig von, and Heyne, respectively). Extended trips to see friends Georg Forster and Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich supplemented traditional education, and he visited Paris in August 1789, attaining intimate knowledge of the Revolution. In the 1790’s, Berlin rivaled Parisian salon culture, and he entered Berlin’s vibrant social life by joining the Tugendbund (moral order), which included Henriette Herz, Brendel Veit (daughter of Mendelssohn, Moses and later wife of Friedrich Schlegel(Schlegel, August Wilhelm and Friedrich)), and Karl Laroche. This society acquainted him with his future wife, Caroline von Dacheröden, and facilitated his relationship to Weimar culture. He met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1789 and lived in Jena with his family between 1794 and 1796 before moving to Paris.

The 1790’s also produced Humboldt’s liberal treatise, Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen (1792, The Limits of State Action), which argues that the organic, cultural community precedes its political expression, the nation state. However, Humboldt places limits on the transformation between cultural and political community. According to Humboldt, culture and enlightenment provide stronger assurances against tyranny than violence. Nonetheless, Humboldt emphasizes the need for universal education throughout his study of state borders, because he believes only an educated Volk can check state control. During the same decade Humboldt published controversial essays on gender in Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von’s journal Die Horen. Humboldt’s essays, “Über den Geschlechtsunterschied und dessen Einfluß auf die organische Natur” (“On Gender Difference and its Influence on Organic Nature”) and “Über männliche und weibliche Form” (1795) attempt to answer the age-old question: what is the essential difference between men and women? Humboldt answers this question with ‘biological’ nature. Women are naturally weak yet nurturing, men naturally strong yet forceful. Applying Kant’s and Schiller’s concepts of Stofftrieb and Formtrieb to gender studies, Humboldt defines ideal humanity as a union of male, female drives. While masculinity embodies generative power to stimulate reason, femininity represents gentle, receptive power to reflect warmth and feeling. Contrary to Schiller’s enthusiasm for the Horen essays, Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804) sharply criticized their style and methodology. Then again, in the Horen essays Humboldt utilizes an investigative methodology and terminology that twenty-first century readers recognize as proto-anthropological.

In later life, Humboldt revised his concept of gender relations, admitting after meeting female writers and artists that women could create independently. After his wife’s death in 1829, Humboldt retired to his residence in Tegel, where he wrote about linguistics, continued to serve the Prussian state despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and dedicated himself to his children and grandchildren. While at Tegel, he corresponded with Charlotte Diede, who published their correspondences in 1847 as Briefe von Wilhelm von Humboldt an eine Freundin (translated into English as Letters of Wilhelm von Humboldt to a Female Friend in 1849). This book enjoyed multiple editions and was viewed as ‘proper reading’ for young ladies in the late nineteenth century.

Further Reading:

Michael Losonsky, Wilhelm von Humbold: on language: on the diversity of human language construction and its influence on the mental development of the human species, 1999.

Wendy C. Nielson