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Wilhelm von Humboldt

Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand Freiherr von Humboldt (June 22, 1767 April 8, 1835), government functionary, diplomat, philosopher, founder of Humboldt Universität in Berlin, friend of Goethe and in particular of Schiller, is especially remembered as a linguist who made important contributions to the philosophy of language and to the theory and practice of education. In particular, he is widely recognized as having been the architect of the Prussian education system which was used as a model for education systems in countries such as the United States and Japan.

Humboldt was born in Potsdam, Margraviate of Brandenburg, and died in Tegel, Province of Brandenburg. His younger brother, Alexander von Humboldt, was an equally famous naturalist and scientist.

Philosopher

Humboldt was a philosopher of note and published On the Limits of State Action in 1810, the boldest defence of the liberties of the Enlightenment. It anticipated John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty by which von Humboldt's ideas became known in the English-speaking world. He describes the development of liberalism and the role of liberty in individual development and in pursuit of excellence. He also describes the necessary conditions without which the state must not be allowed to limit the action of individuals.

Humboldt wrote a publication entitled ‘Ideas for an endeavour to define the limits of state action’ which was completed in 1792, but was not published in full until long after his death. The section dealing with education was published in the December 1792 issue of the Berlinische Monatsschrift under the title ‘On public state education’. With this publication, Humboldt took part in the philosophical debate on the direction of national education which was in progress in Germany, as elsewhere after the French Revolution.

Minister of Education

As Prussian Minister of Education, Humboldt oversaw the system of Technische Hochschulen and gymnasien. Humboldt’s plans for reforming the Prussian school system were not published until long after his death, together with his fragment of a treatise on the ‘Theory of Human Education’ which had been written in about 1793. Here Humboldt states that ‘the ultimate task of our existence is to give the fullest possible content to the concept of humanity in our own person [...] through the impact of actions in our own lives’. This task ‘can only be implemented through the links established between ourselves as individuals and the world around us’(GS, I, p. 283). Humboldt’s concept of education does not lend itself solely to individualistic interpretation. It is true that he always recognized the importance of the organization of individual life and the ‘development of a wealth of individual forms’ (GS, III, p. 358), but he stressed the fact that ‘self-education can only be continued [...] in the wider context of development of the world’ (GS, VII,p. 33). In other words, the individual is not only entitled, but also obliged, to play his part in shaping the world around him. Humboldt’s educational ideal was entirely coloured by social considerations. He never believed that the ‘human race could culminate in the attainment of a general perfection conceived in abstract terms’. In 1789, he wrote in his diary that ‘the education of the individual requires his incorporation into society and involves his links with society at large’ (GS, XIV, p. 155). In his essay on the ‘Theory of Human Education’, he answered the question as to the ‘demands which must be made of a nation, of an age and of the human race’. ‘Education, truth and virtue’ must be disseminated to such an extent that the ‘concept of mankind’ takes on a great and dignified form in each individual (GS, I, p. 284). However, this shall be achieved personally by each individual who must ‘absorb the great mass of material offered to him by the world around him and by his inner existence, using all the possibilities of his receptiveness; he must then reshape that material with all the energies of his own activity and appropriate it to himself so as to create an interaction between his own personality and nature in a most general, active and harmonious form’ (GS, II, p. 117).

Diplomat

As a successful diplomat between 1802 and 1819, Humboldt was plenipotentiary Prussian minister at Rome from 1802, ambassador at Vienna from 1812 during the closing struggles of the Napoleonic Wars, at the congress of Prague (1813) where he was instrumental in drawing Austria to ally with Prussia and Russia against France, a signer of the peace treaty at Paris and the treaty between Prussia and defeated Saxony (1815), at Frankfurt settling post-Napoleonic Germany, and at the congress at Aachen in 1818. However, the increasingly reactionary policy of the Prussian government made him give up political life in 1819; and from that time forward he devoted himself solely to literature and study.

Linguist

Wilhelm von Humboldt was an adept linguist and studied the Basque language. He translated Pindar and Aeschylus into German.

Humboldt's work as a philologist in Basque has had more extensive impact than his other work. His visit to the Basque country resulted in Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain by the help of the Basque language (1821). In this work, Humboldt endeavored to show by examining geographical placenames, that at one time a race or races speaking dialects allied to modern Basque extended throughout Spain, southern France and the Balearic Islands; he identified these people with the Iberians of classical writers, and further surmised that they had been allied with the Berbers of northern Africa. Humboldt's pioneering work has been superseded in its details by modern linguistics and archaeology, but is sometimes still uncritically followed even today.

Humboldt died while preparing his greatest work, on the ancient Kawi language of Java, but its introduction was published in 1836 as The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind. This essay on the philosophy of speech:

"... first clearly laid down that the character and structure of a language expresses the inner life and knowledge of its speakers, and that languages must differ from one another in the same way and to the same degree as those who use them. Sounds do not become words until a meaning has been put into them, and this meaning embodies the thought of a community. What Humboldt terms the inner form of a language is just that mode of denoting the relations between the parts of a sentence which reflects the manner in which a particular body of men regards the world about them. It is the task of the morphology of speech to distinguish the various ways in which languages differ from each other as regards their inner form, and to classify and arrange them accordingly." 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica

He is credited with being the first European linguist to identify human language as a rule-governed system, rather than just a collection of words and phrases paired with meanings. This idea is one of the foundations of Noam Chomsky's theory of language. Chomsky frequently quotes Humboldt's description of language as a system which "makes infinite use of finite means", meaning that an infinite number of sentences can be created using a finite number of grammatical rules. However, Chomsky's use of Humboldt has been criticized as being highly misleading.

In recent times, Humboldt has also been credited as an originator of the linguistic relativity hypothesis (more commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), approximately a century before either Edward Sapir or Benjamin Whorf but Humboldt's view of the differences between languages was more subtle and less rigid.

Sources

References

Works by Humboldt

  • Socrates and Plato on the Divine (orig. Sokrates und Platon über die Gottheit). 1787-1790
  • On the Limits of State Action (orig. Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staates zu bestimmen). 1791.
  • Über den Geschlechtsunterschied. 1794
  • Über männliche und weibliche Form. 1795
  • Outline of a Comparative Anthropology (orig. Plan einer vergleichenden Anthropologie). 1797.
  • The Eighteenth Century (orig. Das achtzehnte Jahrhundert). 1797.
  • Ästhetische Versuche I. - Über Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea. 1799.
  • Latium und Hellas (1806)
  • Geschichte des Verfalls und Untergangs der griechischen Freistaaten. 1807-1808.
  • Pindars "Olympische Oden". Translation from Greek, 1816.
  • Aischylos' "Agamemnon". Translation from Greek, 1816.
  • Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium in Beziehung auf die verschiedenen Epochen der Sprachentwicklung. 1820.
  • Über die Aufgabe des Geschichtsschreibers. 1821.
  • Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain with the help of the Basque language (orig. Prüfung der Untersuchungen über die Urbewohner Hispaniens vermittelst der vaskischen Sprache). 1821.
  • Über die Entstehung der grammatischen Formen und ihren Einfluss auf die Ideenentwicklung. 1822.
  • Upon Writing and its Relation to Speech (orig. Über die Buchstabenschrift und ihren Zusammenhang mit dem Sprachbau). 1824.
  • Bhagavad-Gitá. 1826.
  • Über den Dualis. 1827.
  • On the languages of the South Seas (orig. Über die Sprache der Südseeinseln). 1828.
  • On Schiller and the Path of Spiritual Development (orig. Über Schiller und den Gang seiner Geistesentwicklung). 1830.
  • Rezension von Goethes Zweitem römischem Aufenthalt. 1830.
  • The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind (orig. Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaus und seinen Einfluss auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts). 1836. New edition: On Language. On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, Cambridge University Press, 2nd rev. edition 1999

Works by other authors

  • Hegel, 1827. On The Episode of the Mahabharata Known by the Name Bhagavad-Gita by Wilhelm Von Humboldt.
  • Elsina Stubb, Wilhelm Von Humboldt's Philosophy of Language, Its Sources and Influence, Edwin Mellen Press, 2002
  • John Roberts, German Liberalism and Wilhelm Von Humboldt: A Reassessment, Mosaic Press, 2002
  • David Sorkin, Wilhelm Von Humboldt: The Theory and Practice of Self-Formation (Bildung), 1791-1810 in: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1983), pp. 55-73

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