Wilhelm von Humboldt Essay - Critical Essays

Paul Robinson Sweet

Humboldt, Wilhelm von


Wilhelm von Humboldt 1767-1835

German philosopher, linguist, educator, and diplomat.

Known by his contemporaries for his diplomatic achievements, Humboldt is considered one of the most influential and groundbreaking linguists and philosophers of eighteenth-century Germany. Humboldt was highly acclaimed as an excellent diplomat, achieving fame in the years following the Napoleonic era by helping the Chancellor of Prussia, Karl August Hardenberg, protect Prussian interests during the reorganization of Europe. Little was known at the time of his deep-ranging interests in the areas of education, philosophy, and linguistics, partly because of the complexity of Humboldt's writings, and partly because his areas of expertise were so varied that scholars reviewing his work often argued extensively on his contributions to their own specific areas of interest, unable to appreciate the vastness of his knowledge and the wide-ranging thrust of his scholarship. Today, linguists acknowledge Humboldt as one of the most innovative thinkers of his time, and scholars trace many trends in contemporary linguistic thought and the philosophy of language to Humboldt's work. In addition to his political essays and his lectures on the nature of language, Humboldt is also remembered as the founder of a university in Berlin and an important advocate of educational reform in Germany.

Biographical Information

Humboldt was born on June 22, 1767, into a wealthy and aristocratic family in Pomerania. His parents, Alexander Georg and Elisabeth Colomb von Humboldt, provided their two sons, including older brother Alexander, with plenty of educational opportunities, including a private tutor at home. The family also associated with an enlightened circle of philosophers, who, led by Moses Mendelssohn, let the brothers participate in many intellectual discussions. Although Humboldt studied law at the Universities of Frankfurt and Göttingen, he found himself developing a deep interest in the areas of philosophy, history, and philology. Soon he abandoned a legal career in favor of pursuing private studies in Greek and Latin. Humboldt married Caroline von Dacheröden on June 29, 1791. Their marriage was a happy one and provided Humboldt with inspiration and support in his intellectual endeavors. During this time of private study Humboldt began expostulating his ideas on religion, poetry, education, and the role of the state, laying the foundation of his later philosophical and educational thought. One of the most significant theses developed by Humboldt during this time was the idea of Bildung, or education, and the effort towards perfection in the pursuit of one's talents. He expounded these ideas in various works over the years, including his most significant work on the subject, Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Gränzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen (1851). In 1794 the young couple moved to Jena, where Humboldt met and became friends with two other philosophers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Despite his best efforts, however, Humboldt was unsuccessful in establishing a literary career, and, in 1797, after coming into an inheritance following the death of his mother, Humboldt moved to Paris. Here he wrote Ästhetische Versuche. Theil I: Über Göethe's Hermann und Dorothea (1799), his first major work expounding literary theory. Although the work did not meet with the critical success Humboldt desired, he persevered in his studies. A short trip to Spain rekindled his interest in linguistic studies. Humboldt believed that language was key to understanding cultures and peoples, characterizing it as the essence of nations. Hence he became proficient in several languages, including Portuguese, Greek, and Basque. Fully engrossed in the classical revival of the time, Humboldt worked periodically on translations throughout his life, publishing a version of Pindar's odes in Zweite olympische Ode: Metrisch übersetzt (1792) and Aeschylus's Agamemnon in 1816. In 1802 Humboldt changed career directions once again, this time accepting an appointment to the Vatican as minister plenipotentiary. Although he continued to study, Humboldt did not publish much during these years. Shortly after Napoleon defeated Prussia in 1807, Humboldt returned to his native country to administer to his family estates. While there, he accepted a position with the Prussian government in the Ministry of the Interior. This position afforded Humboldt the opportunity to study in-depth the Prussian educational system and he outlined several theories of reform as a result. His liberal ideas ran into political disfavor, however, and in 1810 he left the Ministry to become Prussian ambassador to Vienna. It was soon thereafter, following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, that Humboldt was given the opportunity to showcase his political skills as an assistant to Chancellor Hardenberg. Humboldt helped protect Prussian interests and was eventually awarded the Iron Cross. However, Humboldt's humanistic ideas on education and political reform eventually led to his resignation from government, and, in 1820, he retired to Tegel after being granted a pension from the King. Although he continued working on his linguistic philosophy, it was during his retirement that Humboldt began focusing on cultivating his philosophy of language. He continued his intellectual efforts despite failing health, publishing several papers on speech, language, and philosophy. Humboldt died in Tegel on April 8, 1835.

Major Works

One of Humboldt's first major works expounding his literary theories was the Ästhetische Versuche. In this series of essays Humboldt laid out his ideas about art, beauty, and nature. The work was not well received by his contemporaries because of the complex nature of his ideas and the density of the language used. In works such as Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium in Beziehung auf die vershiedenen Epochen der Sprachentwicklung (1820) and Über die Aufgabe des Geschichtschreibers (1822), he outlined his ideas about language and history even further, stating that each language is innate with grammatical forms at birth, permitting growth and change as it is applied and used by humans. Humboldt stated that writing history is akin to creating language because history is not a mere recollection of facts but an actual recreation and even reinterpretation that forces a historian to find connections in things that seem disconnected and unreal. Humboldt also analyzed several languages and their grammatical forms, including Mexican, Chinese, Sanskrit, and Kawi. His most significant work in this area is Über die Kawi-Sprache auf der Insel Java, nebst einer Einleitung über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluß auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts (1836-39). The 350-page introduction to this work, translated as Linguistic Variability and Intellectual Development, states that speech in itself is only the external form that the inner essence of humanity takes. In addition to his contributions on linguistic theory and language, Humboldt carried on long and complicated correspondences with various contemporaries, including his wife. Many of these letters were published after his death, and these continue to provide insight into the theories he expounded in his lectures and essays.

Critical Reception

Humboldt's writings did not meet with much critical or literary success during his own lifetime. His varied interests and complex ideas were often misunderstood by his contemporaries, and the political and humanistic philosophies of education and government that he developed in his various publications were not popular with the politicians of his time. Modern scholars, however, acknowledge Humboldt as one of the most influential thinkers of his time, and many studies have traced contemporary linguistic thought to ideas that Humboldt first expressed in his writings. One of the most important ideas put forth by Humboldt was his concept of linguistic relativity, which stated that the national language and character of a nation are inextricably linked, each providing an insight into the other. In his essay discussing Humboldt's theory of linguistic relativity, Robert Langham Brown credits him as the first person to combine ideas of “comparative structuralism” with language and thought, as well as the first to point out the resilience of language in response to change. Humboldt is also regarded as one of the foremost historical thinkers of his time, credited with formulating a philosophy of the cultural and political ideal that was significant in shaping the Germany of the eighteenth century and later. Although his ideas did not get a keen reception during his own lifetime, notes Paul R. Sweet, Humboldt has been a “central figure” in all areas of cultural scholarship, having influenced such intellectuals as Adalbert Stifter, John Stuart Mill and Noam Chomsky. Sweet in particular notes that although biographies of Humboldt stress his expertise with history and language, it was Humboldt's concern with what can be learned about human nature through the study of language that remains most relevant to contemporary and modern scholars.

Principal Works

Zweite olympische Ode: Metrisch übersetzt [translator] (poetry) 1792

Ästhetische Versuche. Theil I: Über Göethe's Hermann und Dorothea (prose) 1799

Agamemnon: Metrisch übersetzt [translator] (play) 1816

Berichtigungen und Zusätze zum ersten Abschnitte des zweyten Bandes des Mithridates über die cantabrische oder baskische Sprache (prose) 1817

“Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium in Beziehung auf die vershiedenen Epochen der Sprachentwicklung” [“On Comparative Linguistics with Reference to the Various Periods of Language Development”] (essay) 1820

Über die Aufgabe des Geschichtschreibers [On the Task of the Historian] (prose) 1822

Über das Entstehen der grammatischen Formen, und ihred Einfluß auf die Ideenentwicklung (prose) 1823

*Über die Kawi-Sprache auf der Insel Java, nebst einer Einleitung über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluß auf die geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts. 3 vols. (prose) 1836-39

Briefe von Wilhelm von Humboldt an eine Freundin [Letters of Wilhelm von Humboldt to a Female Friend] (letters) 1847

Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Gränzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen [translated as The Sphere and Duties of Government and The Limits of State Action] (prose) 1851

Sechs ungedruckte Aufsätze über das klassische Altertum (prose) 1896

Gesammelte Schriften. 20 vols. (prose) 1903-06

Kleine Schriften: Eine Auswaht aus den geistesgeschichtlichen Aufsätzen (prose) 1928

Wilhelm von Humboldts philosophische Anthropologie und Theorie der Menschenkenntnis (prose) 1929

Wilhelm von Humboldt: Werke in fünf Bänden. 5 vols. (prose) 1960-81

Humanist without Portfolio: An Anthology of the Writings of Wilhelm von Humboldt (prose) 1963

Wilhelm und Caroline von Humboldt in ihren Briefen. 7 vols. (letters) 1968

*The introduction to this work was translated and published by George C. Buick and Frithjof A. Raven as Linguistic Variability and Intellectual Development in 1971.

†Portions of this work were published previously in Friedrich Schiller's Neue Thalia (1792-93) and the Berliner Monatsschrift.


W. H. Bruford (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: Bruford, W. H. “The Idea of ‘Bildung’ in Wilhelm von Humboldt's Letters.” In The Era of Goethe: Essays Presented to James Boyd, pp. 17-46. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1959.

[In the following essay, Bruford presents a detailed examination of Humboldt's theory of “bildung,” or the quest for perfection, noting that its evolution was inextricably linked to Humboldt's own life experiences.]

The name of Wilhelm von Humboldt is inseparably connected with the growth of German ideas about ‘Bildung’. The importance of his personal influence on university and school education in Prussia and in Germany as a whole is beyond all question. A...

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Robert E. Goldsmith (essay date January 1967)

SOURCE: Goldsmith, Robert E. “The Early Development of Wilhelm von Humboldt.” Germanic Review 42, no. 1 (January 1967): 30-48.

[In the following essay, Goldsmith discusses the resulting intellectual effects of Humboldt's decision to resign from government service via an examination of Humboldt's letters to his wife.]

“Unbegreiflich ist mir noch der Gang, den ich nehmen mußte, um so anders zu werden …”1

Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1791 prepared to resign his position in the Berlin Kammergericht and, rejecting the career and mode of life for which he had been educated, set out in pursuit of an ideal he...

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Roger Langham Brown (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Brown, Roger Langham. “Humboldt's Conception of Linguistic Relativity.” In Wilhelm von Humboldt's Conception of Linguistic Relativity, pp. 109-20. The Hague: Mouton, 1967.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses Humboldt's theory of linguistic relativity, concluding that his ideas provided the motivation for future scholars to study links between language and culture.]

It would of course be wrong to suggest that Humboldt was the first to put forward a theory of linguistic relativity, at least if that term is interpreted in a loose way. The idea that there is some relation between national character and the national language had been current for a long...

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Paul R. Sweet (essay date winter 1971)

SOURCE: Sweet, Paul R. “Wilhelm von Humboldt (1967-1835): His Legacy to the Historian.” Centennial Review 15, no. 1 (winter 1971): 23-37.

[In the following essay, Sweet offers an account of Humboldt's achievements in linguistic theory and education, focusing particularly on his ideas about history.]


As a mature man with substantial claims to distinction as statesman, man of letters and accomplished scholar in several fields, Wilhelm von Humboldt reportedly let it be known that he wished to be identified simply as “Baron Humboldt, brother of the famous explorer.” This not entirely characteristic modesty expressed a resigned attitude...

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Cora Lee Nollendorfs (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Nollendorfs, Cora Lee. “The Role of the ‘Aesthetic Subject’ in the Theoretical Writings of Friedrich Schiller and Wilhelm von Humboldt: The Aesthetics of Reception in the Eighteenth Century.” In Eighteenth-Century German Authors and Their Aesthetic Theories: Literature and the Other Arts, edited by Richard Critchfield and Wulf Koepke, pp. 203-19. Columbia: Camden House, 1988.

[In the following essay, Nollendorfs outlines Humboldt and Schiller's ideas regarding the role of the reader or viewer of a work of art, noting Humboldt's success at outlining a receptivity theory that has continued to remain relevant through the years.]

In Rezeptionsgeschichte:...

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Angela Esterhammer (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Esterhammer, Angela. “Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Dialogic Situation, and Speech as Act.” Wordsworth Circle 27, no. 1 (winter 1996): 13-16.

[In the following essay, Esterhammer focuses on Humboldt's conceptions of language and the reciprocal nature of the act of speech, suggesting that these provide a significant insight into the study of Romantic literary texts.]

Language, in the isolated word and in connected discourse, is an act, a truly creative performance of the mind,” declared the philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 1830s (On Language, trans. Heath [1988], 183). Humboldt's dynamic conception of language has been...

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Jeffrey Grossman (essay date February 1997)

SOURCE: Grossman, Jeffrey. “Wilhelm von Humboldt's Linguistic Ideology: The Problem of Pluralism and the Absolute Difference of National Character—Or, Where Do the Jews Fit In?” German Studies Review 20, no. 1 (February 1997): 23-47.

[In the following essay, Grossman stresses the connection between Humboldt's political and cultural ideas and his theories of language, asserting that this relationship also informed Humboldt's attitude towards Jews in Germany.]

In 1918, Max Kohler wrote of Wilhelm von Humboldt: “[It] may well be that, if he had remained in active political life, the reactionary forces would have been unable to check Jewish emancipation in Germany...

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Further Reading


Sweet, Paul R. Wilhelm von Humboldt: A Biography. 2 vols. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1978-80, 307 p.

Chronicles Humboldt's life while discussing the genesis and publication of the author's writings.


Bunzl, Matti. “Franz Boas and the Humboldtian Tradition.” In Volkgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition, edited by George W. Stocking, Jr., pp. 17-78. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Provides an overview of Humboldt's influence on Boas's theories and the German linguistic tradition....

(The entire section is 556 words.)