Humboldt, Wilhelm von (1767–1835)

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Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Prussian statesman, humanist, and linguistic scholar, was born in Potsdam; a younger brother was the scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Wilhelm von Humboldt's early education was placed in the hands of private tutors and was augmented by private instruction in Greek, philosophy, natural law, and political economy from distinguished men of Germany's Enlightenment. From these youthful studies Plato's idea of the soul and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's concept of force left lasting impressions on his thought.

During and after his university years at Frankfurt an der Oder (1787) and at Göttingen (17881789), Humboldt began to question the rationalistic presuppositions of the Enlightenment. Like Johann Gottfried Herder, he viewed human society as a manifold of organic forces, closer to nature than to reason, and came to believe that true knowledge of humanity depended on the cultivation not of pure analytical reason but of deep-lying intuitive faculties.

Humboldt's political philosophy was outlined in a long essay, Ideen zu einem Versuch die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen, written in 1791. Focused on the central theme of his thoughtthe inalienable value of the individualthis work propounds the humanistic creed that man's goal is "the highest and most proportional development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole." Reason must guide this development, but reason for Humboldt was a formative rather than a generative faculty. He criticized state control of education and religion for inflicting an arbitrary framework on diverse, organically developing human forces, whose unity could not be imposed from without but sought only from within.

In the last decade of the eighteenth century Humboldt was occupied with various scholarly projects, none of which he completed; at the same time his growing friendship with Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe brought him into contact with contemporary aesthetic problems. From 1802 to 1807 he was Prussian ambassador to the Vatican, and in 1808 he was appointed to the ministry of religious and educational affairs in Berlin, in which position he drafted several papers on education and was chiefly responsible for the foundation of the University of Berlin. Thereafter, he served as Prussian diplomatic representative in Vienna (18101813), at the peace negotiations before and after Napoleon Bonaparte's downfall (18141815), and in London (18171818). Defeated in his effort to achieve a constitutional monarchy for Prussia in 1819, he retired from public service and devoted the remainder of his life to study.


Humboldt's humanism was based on his idea of historical experience. "The broadening of our existence and of our knowledge," he wrote in a letter of 1823, "is possible historically only through the contemplation of previous existence." Searching for a discipline by which man's accumulated historical experience could become the foundation for a philosophy of man, Humboldt had already written several essays and drafts outlining principles for the study of Greek antiquity (Über das Studium des Altertums und des griechischen insbesondere, 1793), for a comparative anthropology (Plan einer vergleichenden Anthropologie, 1795), and finally for the historian's profession (Die Aufgabe des Geschichtschreibers, 1821). Sharing his generation's enthusiasm for ancient Greece, Humboldt believed that the study of Greek culture in its broadest aspects would promote a true philosophical knowledge of men, including "the knowledge of the manifold intellectual, sentient, and moral human powers." For Humboldt the Hellenic world was a unity of diverse forces, a cultural unity that his own times lacked but might regain through a comprehensive study of the Greeks. His plan for a comparative anthropology was to study the moral character of different human types; a great variety of sources would provide the data for establishing an ideal norm, which was not adequately represented by any specific individuality. To comprehend the wholeness in the diversity of human types required aesthetic insight, which was fundamental to the art of the historian. In an essay on Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea, he concluded that epic poetry, of which Goethe's drama was an example, could be compared to history. "The condition of the soul which gives rise to the necessity of history (in the truest and highest sense of the word) is similar to that out of which an epic is produced with the help of imagination and art." In Humboldt's essay Die Aufgabe des Geschichtschreibers, in which the affinity of his thought to Friedrich von Schelling's philosophy is clearly manifested, the historian's imagination is likened to the poet's. It differs from the free fantasy of the poet's in that it is more strictly subordinated to the historian's experience and feeling for reality; it is actually a "divining faculty" (Ahndungsvermögen ) and a "connecting ability" (Verknüpfungsgabe ).

The most notable feature of this essay is Humboldt's attempt to elucidate the role of ideas in history. "Everything that is active in world history," he declared, "is also stirring in the inner being of man." The ideas in history have preserved human experience in the mind. "The eternal original ideas of everything conceivable provide existence and value, the beauty of all physical and spiritual forms, the truth in the unalterable working of every force according to its indwelling law, the justice in the inexorable course of events which are eternally regulated and meted their just reward." For Humboldt the goal of history is "the realization of the idea representing itself through humanity from all sides and in all forms in which the finite forms can be connected with the idea." The task of the historian is therefore to represent this process of ideas being actualized in history.


Humboldt's language studies represent his chief legacy to posterity and marked, according to Ernst Cassirer, a new epoch in the history of the philosophy of language. Humboldt saw in the origin of language that crucial moment when man emerged from nature and, thus, the moment of connection between nature and idea. Language is for Humboldt the faculty by which man is identified as man. Speech and understanding are only different products of the power of language. The formation of languages depends on the spiritual forces of humanity, and languages are thus not merely an intermediary between individuals but "the most radiant sign and certain proof that man does not possess intrinsically separate individuality." Languages delineate the cultural characteristics of nations, each of which has its own individuality and arouses a sense of unity in men.

Humboldt's chief contribution to the study of linguistics was his concept of the "inner form" of languages (innere Sprachform ), which consists of more than just external grammatical principles; it implies a deep-rooted subjective view of the world, a spiritual attitude, that controls the formation of concepts. "Because of the mutual dependency of thought and word," he wrote, "it is evident that the languages are not really means of representing the truth that has already been ascertained, but far more, means of discovering a truth not previously known. Their diversity is not a diversity of sounds, but of world outlook."

Humboldt's idea that each language has its own characteristic outlook, or inner form, found support in the linguistic studies of A. F. Pott and Heymann Steinthal in the nineteenth century and was suggested anew in the twentieth in the works of Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir. His influence can also be traced in other areas of nineteenth-century thoughta passage from his political treatise provided the motto for J. S. Mill's essay On Liberty ; his notion of the idea in history is closely related to Leopold von Ranke's doctrine of ideas; and his notion of historical experience is basic to the philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey. In the twentieth century Cassirer, in the first volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, provided a penetrating evaluation of Humboldt's linguistic insights and a general philosophical context for the unmethodical profusion of his thought.

See also Cassirer, Ernst; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Enlightenment; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Language, Philosophy of; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Mill, John Stuart; Plato; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Schiller, Friedrich; Semantics, History of.


works by humboldt

Gesammelte Werke, 7 vols. Edited by Karl Brandes. Berlin, 18411852.

Gesammelte Schriften, 17 vols. Edited by the Royal Prussian Academy. Berlin: B. Behr, 19031936.

Werke. Edited by A. Flitner and K. Giel. Darmstadt, 1960. Four of the projected five volumes are completed.

Humanist without Portfolio: An Anthology. Edited by Marianne Cowan. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963. Translated by the editor.

works on humboldt


Haym, Rudolf. Wilhelm von Humboldt. Lebensbild und Charakteristik. Berlin, 1856.

Kaehler, Siegfried. Humboldt und der Staat. Munich and Berlin, 1927.

Leroux, Robert. Guillaume de Humboldt: La Formation de sa pensée jusqu'en 1794. Paris: Belles lettres, 1932.

Spranger, Eduard. Wilhelm von Humboldt und die Humanitätsidee. Berlin, 1909.


Adler, G. J. Wilhelm von Humboldt's Linguistical Studies. New York: Press of Wynkoop and Hallenbeck, 1866.

Arens, Hans. Sprachwissenschaft. Munich, 1955.

Goldfriedrich, J. Die historische Ideenlehre in Deutschland. Berlin, 1902.

Hegselmann, Rainer. "Humboldt's Argument against the Welfare State: A Reconstruction in Terms of Game Theory." Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook 2 (1994): 229243.

Kittel, Otto. Wilhelm von Humboldts geschichtliche Weltanschauung im Lichte des klassischen Subjektivismus der Denker und Dichter von Königsberg, Jena und Weimar. Leipzig, 1901.

Leroux, Robert. L'anthropologie comparée de Guillaume de Humboldt. Publications de l'Université de Strasbourg, Fasc. 135. Strasbourg, 1958.

Love, Nancy S. "Rawlsian Harmonies: Overlapping Consensus Symphony Orchestra." Theory, Culture and Society 20 (6) (2003): 121140.

Reill, Peter H. "Science and the Construction of the Cultural Sciences in Late Enlightenment Germany: The Case of Wilhelm Von Humboldt." History and Theory 33 (3) (1994): 345366.

Robins, Robert H. "Leibniz and Wilhelm Von Humboldt and the History of Comparative Linguistics." In Leibniz, Humboldt, and the Origins of Comparativism, edited by Tullio DeMauro. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1990.

Sorkin, David. "Wilhelm Von Humboldt: The Theory and Practice of Self-Formation ('Bildung'), 17911810." Journal of the History of Ideas 44 (1983): 5574.

Sweet, Paul R. "Young Wilhelm Von Humboldt's Writings (178993) Reconsidered." Journal of the History of Ideas 34 (1973): 469482.

Vogel, Ursula. "Liberty Is Beautiful: Von Humboldt's Gift to Liberalism." History of Political Thought 3 (1982): 77101.

Wach, Joachim. Das Verstehen, Vol. I. Tübingen, 1926.

Wulf, Christoph. "Perfecting the Individual: Wilhelm Von Humboldt's Concept of Anthropology, Bildung and Mimesis." Educational Philosophy and Theory 35 (2) (2003): 241249.

Howard Isham (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

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Humboldt, Wilhelm von (1767–1835)

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