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Humboldt, Wilhelm von

  • Text editionsBasqueEurope (general)German
  • Author:
    Maufroy, Sandrine
  • Title:
    Humboldt, Wilhelm von
  • Text:

    Wilhelm von Humboldt (Potsdam, nr Berlin 1767 – Tegel, nr Berlin 1835) was recognized by his contemporaries as one of the prominent men of letters and statesmen of Europe. His literary and theoretical works, which range over a wide field including poetry, aesthetics, philology, language studies, anthropology, history and political theory, as well as his political and diplomatic activities put him at the centre of European cultural and political life in the opening decades of the 19th century. Probably less renowned than his brother Alexander (1769-1859), the great naturalist and explorer, whose travels in South America led to significant discoveries in several scientific fields, Wilhelm von Humboldt was rediscovered in the second half of the 20th century as intellectual designer of the University of Berlin, itself a prototype for the 19th-century German university system, and as one of the precursors of modern linguistics, historicism and political liberalism.

    The eldest child of Major Alexander Georg von Humboldt, whose father had been ennobled after a career in the Prussian army, and Elisabeth née Colomb, of prominent Huguenot stock, he was educated privately and, after studies at Frankfurt on the Oder and Göttingen, and a brief stint in the Prussian civil service, dedicated himself to his studies. He spent eleven years of studious leisure, during which he had close relations with Goethe and Schiller, first on the estate of his father-in-law in Thüringen, then in Jena (1794-97), and finally in Paris (1798-1801). Two journeys to Spain aroused his interest in Basque culture, a new field of study at the time. This led him to new insights in the study of language, stressing its power to schematize and inform, rather than merely express, human thought, and its formative role in defining the nation’s character. In 1802 he was appointed Prussian resident in Rome – a prestigious post that left him enough time to study the city’s antiquities and to take part in its cultural and artistic life (1802-1808). Prussia’s need of institutional change after Napoleon’s victory at Jena (1806) propelled Humboldt into the political limelight. As director of Education and Religion in Stein’s Ministry of the Interior (1808-10), he accomplished reforms that made his name a symbol: the foundation of the University of Berlin and the reform of Elementary and Secondary Education on neo-humanist principles. In his capacity as Prussian Minister in Vienna (1810-1815), he advocated Prussian interests at the Congress of Vienna and at the peace conferences following Napoleon’s fall. After an interlude of one year as Prussian ambassador in London, he became Minister of the Interior in Berlin, but resigned in 1819 because he disagreed with the government’s repressive measures – a resignation often considered as a decisive turning point marking the end of reforms in Prussia. After eleven years of public activity, Humboldt settled back into private life at the family home in Tegel, where he had spent his childhood and which had been redesigned by Schinkel in neoclassical style suited to his collection of antiques. Humboldt devoted the last 15 years of his life to the comparative study of languages, which he considered a way to explore the diversity of world cultures and to understand the history and the laws of human development.

    Wilhelm von Humboldt’s wide range of interests reflects the goal he had assigned to his own life and to human life in general: that of Bildung, “the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole” (The Sphere and Duties of Government). This emphasis on the individual and his humanity means that the “nation” is not the central theme of his theoretical works. Nevertheless, he refers often to it as to a pivotal intermediate layer between individual and mankind.

    In The Sphere and Duties of Government (Ideen zu einem Versuch die Gränzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen, 1792), Humboldt adopts a French Enlightenment view of the nation as the community of all subjects of a state, to the extent that this community has become aware of itself and subjects have become citizens. Later, he developed these views under the influence of Schiller, and distinguished between the nation (as a community of human beings linked by the same customs, language, literature and memories) and the state’s body politic. In his approach, the concept of “character” (Charakter) played an important role. Humboldt stressed the superficiality of national stereotypes and the difficulty of replacing them by scientific facts. This led him to condemn the “inhuman and prejudiced way of thinking whereby a person was judged not by his own qualities but according to ancestry and religion; according to this way of thinking a person was not regarded as an individual, but, contrary to a true conception of human dignity, was thought of as a member of a race sharing necessarily certain qualities of that race” (Concerning a new constitution for the Jews, trl. P.R. Sweet). In consequence, he claimed the state should grant equal rights to Jews.

    According to Humboldt, “the way Nature links individuals in nations and divides mankind in nations” is “a very deep and mysterious way of conserving individual and mankind on the right way of well-proportioned and gradual development of their powers” (Denkschrift über die deutsche Verfassung). Sharing the “Graecomania” of the German intellectuals of his time, he considered that the ideal of the a holistic Bildung of all human abilities had been achieved by the ancient Greeks. This view inspired his personal life, his reform of the Prussian educational system, and his ideas concerning the German nation.

    A decisive factor in his German self-image were his travels abroad, and in particular his confrontation with France. During his second stay in Paris (1799-1804), he became aware of the importance the “national” element had on each individual and began to feel himself more as a German, as he wrote to Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi in october 1798. He saw the writers and artists of the Weimarer Klassik as a revival of the spirit of Greece, and was one of the first who expressed the idea that there was a particular affinity (Verwandtschaft) between the Germans of his time and the ancient Greeks. This was to become a commonplace of the discourse opposing “Greek” Germany against “Roman” France. Fear of a Greek-style decline inspired the reforms Humboldt proposed for Prussia and the other German states, as regenerative measures.

    A loyal Prussian diplomat who advocated the interests of the state he served, Humboldt was in fact attached to Germany as a whole, not at least because of its diversity. Although he insisted on the equality of all cultures, he attributed a certain superiority to ancient Greeks and to modern Germans, arguing that there was “perhaps no other land which deserved so much to be independent and free as Germany” (letter to his wife, 8 November 1813), because it tended more than other nations to use liberty in a peaceful way, to develop its inner abilities and to excel in culture. In his view, German love of the fatherland was fundamentally different from patriotism elsewhere because it drew on an ineffable nostalgia (Sehnsucht) peculiar to the German spirit. Almost paradoxically, this justified his desire for war with France and his satisfaction when the anti-Napoleonic “liberation wars” broke out. However, his conception of German national character led him also to call for a loose associative form for the post-1815 German federation, in line with the nation’s historical diversity of Germany and in order to prevent it from becoming “a conquering state, which no true German [could] want” (memorandum to Hardenberg, 1816, trl. P.R. Sweet). Wilhelm von Humboldt’s work contributed to an exalted nationalism that could rationalize aggression by invoking Germany’s cultural superiority; but he was himself a cosmopolitan and indeed warned his compatriots against a soul-destroying thirst of domination and conquest.

    Word Count: 1299

    Vienna (AT)

    Tegel (DE)

    Potsdam (DE)

    Jena (DE)

    Göttingen (DE)

    Frankfurt (Oder) (DE)

    Berlin (DE)

    Paris (FR)

    London (GB)

    Roma (IT)

    Stein, Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum

    Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

    Schiller, Friedrich

    Schinkel, Karl Friedrich

    Language interest : Europe - Introductory survey essay

    Language interest : Basque

    Education : Introductory survey essay

    Germanisches Nationalmuseum

  • Notes:

    See also the survey article on Education

    Word Count: 7

    Education : Introductory survey essay

  • Article version:
    1.1.1.1/a
  • Bösch, Sarah; 2006. Wilhelm von Humboldt in Frankreich: Studien zur Rezeption (1797-2005) (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh)

    Freese, Rudolf; 1986. Wilhelm von Humboldt: Sein Leben dargestellt in Briefen, Tagebüchern und Dokumenten seiner Zeit (vol. 2 Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft)

    Gall, Lothar; 2011. Wilhelm von Humboldt: Ein Preuße von Welt (Berlin: Propyläen)

    Humboldt, Wilhelm von; 1903-36. Gesammelte Schriften (ed. Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften; 17 vols. Berlin: Behr)

    Humboldt, Wilhelm von; 1960-81. Werke (ed. A. Flitner & K. Giel; 5 vols. Stuttgart: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft)

    Messling, Markus; 2008. Pariser Orientlektüren: Zu Wilhelm von Humboldts Theorie der Schrift (Paderborn: Schöningh)

    Sweet, Paul Robinson; 1978-80. Wilhelm von Humboldt: A biography (2 vols. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP)

    Trabant, Jürgen; 1990. Traditionen Humboldts (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp)


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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Maufroy, Sandrine, 2018. "Humboldt, Wilhelm von", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version 1.1.1.1/a, last changed 10-08-2018, consulted 22-08-2019.