Wilhelm von Humboldt Introduction - Essay

Paul Robinson Sweet


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.