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Alexander von Humboldt

1769-1859

Naturalist, traveler and statesman

Sources

Early Life and Career. Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin, the son of a Prussian military officer. His older brother Wilhelm became a famous linguist. Alexander attended the University of Gottingen and then studied at the School of Mines in Freiburg. In 1795 he was appointed supervisor in chief in the Prussian Department of Mines in Berlin. Enriched by an inheritance upon his mother’s death in 1796, Humboldt resigned his post in the government and prepared for his five-year exploration of Latin America with the French botanist Aimé Bonpland.

Voyages and Books. Humboldt and Bonpland voyaged up the Orinoco River in Venezuela and climbed the Andes of Columbia, Equador and Peru, recording botanical and biological data gathered along the way. Later they explored central Mexico and Cuba. Their voyages gained renown, and on their way back to Europe, Humboldt visited Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. In the American capital he was the guest of President Thomas Jefferson for a week. Upon returning to Europe, Humboldt settled in Paris, remaining there from 1804 until 1827. Here he wrote his multivolume descriptions of his observations, investigations, and experiences in Latin America. These writings had great influence upon young Charles Darwin, but it earned Humboldt little money. Destitute, Humboldt accepted the position of chamberlain at the court of the king of Prussia and returned to Berlin in 1827. Two years later he set out again on a voyage of observation and investigation of nature. This time he headed east, exploring Siberia and Central Asia in the Russian empire. After this journey he retired to the life of a writer, and spent the last thirty years of his life writing his great composite work, Kosmos (five volumes, 1845-1862).

Historical Significance. On his travels through Latin America, Humboldt observed more than flora and fauna. He also saw firsthand the human impact of Spanish imperial dominion. As a result, Humboldt became a noteworthy critic of slavery and authoritarianism in the Spanish empire. He published his views during his time in Paris, a four-volume work titled Political Essays on the Kingdom of New Spain. The first volume appeared in 1811 and the last in 1822. His critical views of authoritarianism and imperialism earned him the suspicion of political conservatives who were ascendant in Europe after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, and his reputation followed him even after he arrived in the Prussian court in Berlin in 1827. Humboldt’s scientific reputation, however, was great enough to protect him from retribution.

Methodology. Humboldt embraced the empirical emphasis that positivistic science placed on rigorous observation, but he challenged those who stressed the dominance of nature by man. Instead, as displayed in his major work Kosmos, Humboldt argued for an ecological view of man as a part of a larger whole, the natural world. Unlike his fellow Berlin geographer Karl Ritter, Humboldt’s vision found no place for God, not even as a creator. In the present age of environmental degradation, the vision of Humboldt is no longer scorned as romantic pseudoscience, but rather as a corrective to the arrogance of earlier inductive positivism which claimed to be objective and progressive. Industrial pollution has become a major by-product of human dedication to controlling nature, and Humboldt’s emphasis upon interconnected ecosystems has become a popular alternative. In Humboldt’s words, “I have...endeavored to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as on a great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.”

Sources

Margarita Bowen, Empiricism and Geographical Thought: From Francis Bacon to Alexander von Humboldt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Helmut de Terra, Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt, 1769-1859 (New York: Knopf, 1955).

Richard Hartshorne, The Nature of Geography: A Critical Survey of Current Thought in the Light of the Past (Lancaster, Pa.: Association of American Geographers, 1939).

L. Kellner, Alexander von Humboldt (London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1963).

Alexander von Humboldt

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