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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.

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Philosopher

Humboldt was a philosopher of note and wrote On the Limits of State Action in 1791-2 (though it was not published until 1850, after Humboldt's death), one of the boldest defences of the liberties of the Enlightenment. It anticipated John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty through which von Humboldt's ideas became known in the English-speaking world. (In fact, Humboldt outlined an early version of what Mill would later call the "harm principle.") Humboldt describes the development of liberalism and the role of liberty in individual development and in the pursuit of excellence. Humboldt insisted on a minimal state dedicated strictly to the preservation of security.

Humboldt wrote a publication entitled ‘Ideas for an endeavour to define the limits of state action’[1][2] 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

Statue of Wilhelm von Humboldt outside Humboldt University, Unter den Linden, Berlin

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. Humboldt scholar Tilman Borshe notes profound differences between von Humboldt's view of language and Chomsky's.[3]

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

  1. ^ Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Gränzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen. 1791
  2. ^ Trewendt
  3. ^ see Tilman Borsche: Sprachanansichten. Der Begriff der menschlichen Rede in der Sprachphilosophie Wilhelm von Humboldts, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 1981

See also

References

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Works by Humboldt

  • Socrates and Plato on the Divine (orig. Sokrates und Platon über die Gottheit). 1787-1790
  • Humboldt. On the Limits of State Action, first seen in 1792. Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staates zu bestimmen, page ii. Published by E. Trewendt, 1851 (German)
  • 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

External links

Preceded by
Count Friedrich von Schuckmann
Interior Minister of Prussia
1819
Succeeded by
Count Friedrich von Schuckmann


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

If we glance at the most important revolutions in history, we are at no loss to perceive that the greatest number of these originated in the periodical revolutions of the human mind.

Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand Freiherr von Humboldt (22 June 17678 April 1835) was a government functionary, diplomat, philosopher, founder of Humboldt Universität in Berlin, a friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, and elder brother of naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who is especially remembered as a linguist who made important contributions to the philosophy of language and to the theory and practice of education.

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Sourced

  • Diejenige Regierung ist die beste, die sich überflüssing macht.
    • That government is best which makes itself unnecessary.
      • As quoted in Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern English and Foreign Sources (1899) by James Wood
  • True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body; the two are ever united.
    • As quoted in A Dictionary of Thoughts : Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, both Ancient and Modern (1908) edited by Tryon Edwards
  • Governmental regulations all carry coercion to some degree, and even where they don't, they habituate man to expect teaching, guidance and help outside himself, instead of formulating his own.
    • As quoted in The Liberal Tradition in European Thought (1971) by David Sidorsky, p. 73
  • How a person masters his fate is more important than what his fate is.
    • As quoted in International Proverbs (2000) by Luzano Pancho Canlas, p. 40
  • I am more and more convinced that our happiness or our unhappiness depends far more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves.
    • As quoted in Follow the Arrow (2003) by Patrick Flaherty

The Limits of State Action (1792)

Quotations from the English edition titled: The Sphere and Duties of Government as translated by Joseph Coulthard (1854)
  • Freedom is but the possibility of a various and indefinite activity; while government, or the exercise of dominion, is a single, but yet real activity. The ardent desire for freedom, therefore, is at first only too frequently suggested by the deep-felt consciousness of its absence.
    • Ch. 1
  • The inquiry into the proper aims and limits of State agency must be of the highest importance—nay, that it is perhaps more vitally momentous than any other political question.
    • Ch. 1
  • The true end of Man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal and immutable dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.
  • Reason cannot desire for man any condition other than that in which not only every individual enjoys the most absolute, unbounded freedom to develop himself out of himself, in true individuality, but in which physical nature, as well, need receive no other shaping by human hands than that which is given to her voluntarily by each individual, according to the measure of his wants and his inclinations, restricted only by the limits of his energy and his rights.
    • Ch. 2
  • Wherever the citizen becomes indifferent to his fellows, so will the husband be to his wife, and the father of a family toward the members of his household.
    • Ch. 3
  • The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument hitherto unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity; but national education, since at least it presupposes the selection and appointment of some one instructor, must always promote a definite form of development, however careful to avoid such an error. And hence it is attended with all those disadvantages which we before observed to flow from such a positive policy; and it only remains to be added, that every restriction becomes more directly fatal, when it operates on the moral part of our nature,—that if there is one thing more than another which absolutely requires free activity on the part of the individual, it is precisely education, whose object it is to develop the individual.
    • Ch. 6
  • Setting aside the fact that coercion and guidance can never succeed in producing virtue, they manifestly tend to weaken power; and what are tranquil order and outward morality without true moral strength and virtue? Moreover, however great an evil immorality may be, we must not forget that it is not without its beneficial consequences. It is only through extremes that men can arrive at the middle path of wisdom and virtue.
    • Ch. 8
  • Man is naturally more disposed to beneficent than selfish actions. This we learn even from the history of savages. The domestic virtues have something in them so inviting and genial, and the public virtues of the citizen something so grand and inspiring, that even he who is barely uncorrupted, is seldom able to resist their charm.
    • Ch. 8
  • Freedom exalts power; and, as is always the collateral effect of increasing strength, tends to induce a spirit of liberality. Coercion stifles power, and engenders all selfish desires, and all the mean artifices of weakness. Coercion may prevent many transgressions; but it robs even actions which are legal of a portion of their beauty. Freedom may lead to many transgressions, but it lends even to vices a less ignoble form.
    • Ch. 8
  • All political arrangements, in that they have to bring a variety of widely-discordant interests into unity and harmony, necessarily occasion manifold collisions. From these collisions spring misproportions between men’s desires and their powers; and from these, transgressions. The more active the State is, the greater is the number of these.
    • Ch. 8
  • Every development of truths which relate to human nature, and more especially its active manifestations, is attended with a wish to see worked out in practice what theory has shown us to be just and good. To man, whose mind is seldom satisfied with the calmly beneficent influence of abstract ideas, this desire is perfectly natural, and it increases in liveliness with the spirit of benevolent sympathy in social happiness and well-being. But, however natural in itself, and however noble in its origin, this desire has not unfrequently led to hurtful consequences,—nay, often to greater evils than the colder indifference, or (as from the very opposite cause the same effect may follow) the glowing enthusiasm, which, comparatively heedless of reality, delights only in the pure beauty of ideas.
    • Ch. 16
  • In every remodelling of the present, the existing condition of things must be supplanted by a new one. Now every variety of circumstances in which men find themselves, every object which surrounds them, communicates a definite form and impress to their internal nature. This form is not such that it can change and adapt itself to any other a man may choose to receive; and the end is foiled, while the power is destroyed, when we attempt to impose upon that which is already stamped in the soul a form which disagrees with it.
    • Ch. 16
  • If we glance at the most important revolutions in history, we are at no loss to perceive that the greatest number of these originated in the periodical revolutions of the human mind.
    • Ch. 16
  • Now, without directly altering the existing condition of things, it is possible to work upon the human mind and character, and give them a direction no more correspondent with that condition; and this it is precisely which he who is wise will endeavour to do. Only in this way is it possible to reproduce the new system in reality, just as it has been conceived in idea; and in every other method (setting aside the evils which arise from disturbing the natural order of human development) it is changed, modified, disfigured by the remaining influence of preceding systems, in the actual state of circumstances as well as in the minds of men. But if this obstacle be removed,—if the new condition of things which is resolved upon can succeed in working out its full influence, unimpeded by what was previously existing and by the circumstances of the present on which this has acted,—then must nothing further be allowed to stand in the way of the contemplated reform.
    • Ch. 16
  • In order to bring about the transition from the condition of the present to another newly resolved on, every reform should be allowed to proceed as much as possible from men’s minds and thoughts.
    • Ch. 16
  • The incapacity for freedom can only arise from a want of moral and intellectual power; to elevate this power is the only way to counteract this want; but to do this presupposes the exercise of that power, and this exercise presupposes the freedom which awakens spontaneous activity. Only it is clear we cannot call it giving freedom, when fetters are unloosed which are not felt as such by him who wears them. But of no man on earth—however neglected by nature, and however degraded by circumstances—is this true of all the bonds which oppress and enthral him. Let us undo them one by one, as the feeling of freedom awakens in men’s hearts, and we shall hasten progress at every step. There may still be great difficulties in being able to recognize the symptoms of this awakening. But these do not lie in the theory so much as in its execution, which, it is evident, never admits of special rules, but in this case, as in every other, is the work of genius alone.
    • Ch. 16
  • The legislator should keep two things constantly before his eyes:—1. The pure theory developed to its minutest details; 2. The particular condition of actual things which he designs to reform.
    • Ch. 16
  • It is the principle of necessity towards which, as to their ultimate centre, all the ideas advanced in this essay immediately converge. In abstract theory the limits of this necessity are determined solely by considerations of man’s proper nature as a human being; but in the application we have to regard, in addition, the individuality of man as he actually exists. This principle of necessity should, I think, prescribe the grand fundamental rule to which every effort to act on human beings and their manifold relations should be invariably conformed. For it is the only thing which conducts to certain and unquestionable results. The consideration of the useful, which might be opposed to it, does not admit of any true and unswerving decision.
  • Owing to the vigorous and elastic strength of man’s original power, necessity does not often require anything save the removal of oppressive bonds. From all these reasons (to which a more detailed analysis of the subject might add many more) it will be seen, that there is no other principle than this so perfectly accordant with the reverence we owe to the individuality of spontaneous beings, and with the solicitude for freedom which that reverence inspires. Finally, the only infallible means of securing power and authority to laws, is to see that they originate in this principle alone.
  • To the yoke of necessity every one willingly bows the head. Still, wherever an actually complicated aspect of things presents itself, it is more difficult to discover exactly what is necessary; but by the very acknowledgment of the principle, the problem invariably becomes simpler and the solution easier.

Kosmos (1847)

Quotations of Wilhelm in Kosmos (1845 -1847), by his brother Alexander von Humboldt
  • If we would indicate an idea which, throughout the whole course of history, has ever more and more widely extended its empire, or which, more than any other, testifies to the much-contested and still more decidedly misunderstood perfectibility of the whole human race, it is that of establishing our common humanity — of striving to remove the barriers which prejudice and limited views of every kind have erected among men, and to treat all mankind, without reference to religion, nation, or color, as one fraternity, one great community, fitted for the attainment of one object, the unrestrained development of the physical powers. This is the ultimate and highest aim of society, identical with the direction implanted by nature in the mind of man toward the indefinite extension of his existence. He regards the earth in all its limits, and the heavens as far as his eye can scan their bright and starry depths, as inwardly his own, given to him as the objects of his contemplation, and as a field for the development of his energies. Even the child longs to pass the hills or the seas which inclose his narrow home; yet, when his eager steps have borne him beyond those limits, he pines, like the plant, for his native soil; and it is by this touching and beautiful attribute of man — this longing for that which is unknown, and this fond remembrance of that which is lost — that he is spared from an exclusive attachment to the present. Thus deeply rooted in the innermost nature of man, and even enjoined upon him by his highest tendencies, the recognition of the bond of humanity becomes one of the noblest leading principles in the history of mankind.
  • The impetuous conquests of Alexander, the more politic and premeditated extension of territory made by the Romans, the wild and cruel incursions of the Mexicans, and the despotic acquisitions of the incas, have in both hemispheres contributed to put an end to the separate existence of many tribes as independent nations, and tended at the same time to establish more extended international amalgamation. Men of great and strong minds, as well as whole nations, acted under the influence of one idea, the purity of which was, however, utterly unknown to them. It was Christianity which first promulgated the truth of its exalted charity, although the seed sown yielded but a slow and scanty harvest. Before the religion of Christ manifested its form, its existence was only revealed by a faint foreshadowing presentiment. In recent times, the idea of civilization has acquired additional intensity, and has given rise to a desire of extending more widely the relations of national intercourse and of intellectual cultivation; even selfishness begins to learn that by such a course its interests will be better served than by violent and forced isolation. Language more than any other attribute of mankind, binds together the whole human race. By its idiomatic properties it certainly seems to separate nations, but the reciprocal understanding of foreign languages connects men together on the other hand without injuring individual national characteristics.

Unsourced

  • Providence certainly does not favor just certain individuals, but the deep wisdom of its counsel, instruction and ennoblement extends to all.

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