Humboldt, Alexander and Wilhelm von

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alexander von humboldt
wilhelm von humboldt

Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt were born in 1767 and 1769, respectively, the sons of a Prussian army officer who died in 1779.

alexander von humboldt

After studying economics and then engineering, Alexander von Humboldt developed a strong interest in botany, geology, and mineralogy and began work in the mining department of the Prussian government in 1792, where he excelled in mine supervision. Soon after he began traveling extensively in Europe, where he learned the techniques of geophysical and astronomical measurement.

In 1796 he inherited sufficient funds to plan extended exploratory travels, and in June 1799 he began a five-year expedition to the Spanish colonies in Central and South America with the French botanist Aimé Bonpland. Covering more than six thousand miles, this epic voyage took Alexander von Humboldt to Peru, Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, the Canary Islands, and the United States (where he became friends with Thomas Jefferson). He finally returned to Europe in August 1804.

On this physically demanding journey, Humboldt studied many natural phenomena, including volcanoes, oceanic currents, meteor showers, indigenous flora and fauna, the length and configuration of large rivers, and variations in Earth's magnetic field. He collected some sixty thousand plant specimens, approximately 10 percent of which were unknown in Europe. He also gathered statistical information on the social and economic situation in Mexico (New Spain) and ascended a number of peaks in the Andes mountain range using only very basic climbing equipment. After returning from this extraordinary voyage, Humboldt began to plan the publication of a work that would synthesize the scientific knowledge he had accumulated, a process that would take more than twenty years and remained unfinished at the time of his death.

Many factors interrupted this enterprise, not the least of which was Humboldt's fame as an explorer. He was frequently summoned by Prussian leaders to take up diplomatic duties in various cities of Europe and was employed as a tutor to the Prussian crown prince. Favoring Paris as a city of residence, Humboldt quickly developed links with scientists and politicians such as Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac and Simón Bolívar, but after 1827 he returned to Berlin as a result of dwindling funds. He also undertook another period of overseas exploration between May and November 1829, this time traveling in the Russian Empire, where on the initiative of the Russian minister of finance he visited precious metal mines in the Urals.

Among Humboldt's practical suggestions was establishing a network of meteorological and geomagnetic stations to record weather-related information. In addition, between 1805 and 1834 he published thirty-four volumes providing an account of his Latin American journey.

Despite these sustained distractions, the first volume of Humboldt's magnum opus, Kosmos, was eventually published in 1845, the second in 1847, the next two in 1850 and 1858, with a fifth appearing posthumously in 1862. The aim of

Kosmos was to provide a general assemblage of all things on Earth that constituted the perceptible world, with generalizations supported by significant factual detail. Humboldt thus attempted to give an account of the overall structure of the physical universe as it was then comprehended, from the outermost nebulae and the celestial spheres to the mosses found growing on granite rocks. He also emphasized the link between the imaginative arts and scientific discovery. Kosmos was a great popular success and was subsequently translated into many European languages. It was one of the last great attempts at a general survey of all scientific knowledge in the European intellectual tradition, citing over nine thousand sources in total.

In addition to preparatory work on this wide-ranging survey and the publication of his detailed travel journals, after returning from Latin America in 1804 Humboldt began to lay the foundations for the subjects of physical geography and meteorology, using the research he conducted during his extended journey. He published numerous specialized volumes within the sequence of travel journals, in which specific aspects of the expedition's scientific results were presented. These included an account of meteorological data in terms of isotherms and isobars, an analysis of the relation between physical geography and plant life (including the presentation of concepts such as plateau and the mean height of a summit), and an investigation into the role played by volcanic forces in the development of Earth's crust. He also studied various weather phenomena, including tropical storms and the relation between temperature and elevation above sea level, and discovered important geological features such as the igneous origins of some types of rock and the grouping of volcanoes in relation to subterranean fissures. His fame as an explorer was significant in his own lifetime, and he used this standing to promote scientific investigation in educational establishments and in ruling circles. He died in 1859.

wilhelm von humboldt

The intellectual achievements of Wilhelm von Humboldt were significant, although sometimes overshadowed by those of his younger brother. If Alexander was the natural scientist of the Humboldt family, Wilhelm was the social scientist, specializing in the philosophy of language, political theory, and the philosophy of history. The encouragement and analysis of wide-ranging creative activity was a key theme running through much of his work. His most enduring contribution to the social sciences was to pioneer a modern approach to linguistic theory that conceived of language as a rule-governed system of communication, an approach that would receive renewed attention a century later in the work of Noam Chomsky. Humboldt emphasized the notion of language as a creative mental activity.

Wilhelm von Humboldt conducted detailed studies of aspects of particular languages, including Basque and the ancient Kawi language of Java, from which he distilled some insightful general observations. In consequence, he wrote The Heterogeneity of Language and Its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind (published posthumously in 1836), in which he articulated the idea that the function of words was to embody meaning conditioned by the beliefs of a community. He treated the search for an "inner form" of languages as an important means of linguistic classification. Humboldt's approach to studying languages had two strands; the first searched for cultural diversity and the second focused on underlying and universal commonalities. Inspired in part by his brother's expedition to Latin America, he studied American Indian languages, seeing language as a key feature marking the emergence of humanity from nature. It was here that his linguistic philosophy connected to his other interests in the social sciences.

Humboldt's political theory emphasized the essential value of the individual and the proportional development of personal capacities to a complete and consistent whole, adopting a humanistic approach to the topic. Through a wide spectrum of experiences, voluntary associations and individual study, Humboldt recommended the activation of all the faculties that were latent within the human mind. In 1791 Humboldt published On the Limits of State Action, in which he defended an Enlightenment conception of individual liberty. In some ways, this work anticipated John Stuart Mill's approach to political freedom, emphasizing the limits of state power. In relation to the philosophy of history, Humboldt conceived of the historian's role as demonstrating the process of ideas becoming actualized in historical development, and here his views connected to some extent with the German idealist philosophers of the day. In particular he maintained a lifelong friendship and correspondence with Friedrich Schiller. Maintaining a teleological conception of the historical process, Humboldt saw the goal of history as the fulfillment of the idea through humanity's self-realization. He also published works on the moral character of human subjects as comparative anthropology, analyzed the ideas of specific philosophers on spiritual development and the divine, and translated classical Greek authors, including Aeschylus.

In the practical realm of state affairs, Humboldt served for a short time as Prussian minister of education (from 1809), yet he was generally critical of state control of education. He later served as a diplomat and ambassador in Vienna, Rome, and London, and at the Congress of Prague in 1813 he was instrumental in convincing Austria to form an alliance with Prussia and Russia against France. However, he eventually became disillusioned with the direction of Prussian government policy and gave up public service in 1819 in order to concentrate on his numerous intellectual pursuits.

Wilhelm's death in 1835 had a profound effect on his brother Alexander, who honored Wilhelm's memory by publishing volumes of his linguistic and aesthetic writings. It is unlikely that any two brothers have before or since contributed so significantly to the development of modern European natural and social sciences.

See alsoDarwin, Charles; Germany; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Science and Technology.


De Terra, Helmut. Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt, 1769–1859. New York, 1955.

Humboldt, Alexander von. Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. New York, 1811.

——. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. London, 1814.

——. Cosmos. London, 1849–1871.

Humboldt, Wilhelm von. On Language: The Diversity of Human Language-Structure and Its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Sweet, Paul. Wilhelm von Humboldt: A Biography. Columbus, Ohio, 1978–1980.

Vincent Barnett

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