1902 Encyclopedia > Wilhelm von Humboldt

Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt
(full name: Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt)
German philosopher, language scholar, diplomat, and educational reformer


KARL WILHELM VON HUMBOLDT (1767-1835), the elder brother of the more celebrated Alexander von Humboldt, was born at Potsdam, on the 22nd of June 1767.

After being educated at Berlin, Göttingen, and Jena, in the last of which places he formed a close and lifelong friendship and Schiller, he married Fräulein von Dacherode, a lady of birth and fortune, and in 1802 was appointed by the Prussian Government first resident and then minister plenipotentiary at Rome. While there he published a poem entitled Rom, which was reprinted in 1824. This was not, however, the first of his literary productions; his critical essay on Goethe’s Hermann und Dorothea, published in 1800, and already placed him in the first rank of authorities on aesthetics, and together with his family connexions, had much to do with his appointment of Rome; while in the years 1795 and 1797 he had brought out translations of several of the odes of Pindar, which were held in high esteem.

Wilhelm von Humboldt image

Wilhelm von Humboldt

On quitting his post at Rome he was made councilor of state and minister of public instruction. He soon, however, retired to his estate at Tegel, near Berlin, but was recalled and sent as ambassador to Vienna in 1812 during the exciting period which witnesses the closing struggles of the French empire, In the following year, as Prussian plenipotentiary at the congress of Prague, he was mainly instrumental in inducing Austria to unite with Prussia and Russia against France; in 1815 he was one of the signatories of the capitulation of Paris, and the same year was occupied in drawing up the treaty between Prussia and Saxony, by which the territory of the former was largely increased at the expense of the latter. The next year he was at Frankfort settling the future condition of Germany, but was summoned to London in the midst of his work, and in 1818 had to attend the congress at Aix-la-Chapelle. The reactionary policy of the Prussian Government made him resign his office of privy councilor and give up political life in 1819 and from that time forward he devoted himself solely to literature and study.

During the busiest portion of his political career, however, he had found time for literary work. Thus in 1816 he had published a translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, and in 1817 corrections and additions to Adelung’s Mithridates, that famous collection of specimens of the various languages and dialects of the world.

Among these additions that on the Basque language is the longest and most important, Basque having for some time specially attracted his attention. In fact, Wilhelm von Humboldt may be said to have been the first who brought Basque before the notice of European philologists, and made a scientific study of it possible. In order to gain a practical knowledge of the language and complete his investigations into it, he visited the Basque country itself, the result of his visit being the valuable "Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain by the help of the Basque language" (Prüfung der Untersuchungen über die Urbewohner Hispaniens vermittelst der vaskischen Sprache), published in 1821. In this work he endeavoured to show, by an examination of geographical names, that a race or races speaking dialects allied to modern Basque once extended through the whole of Spain, the southern coast of France, and the Balearic Islands, and suggested that these people, whom be identified with the Iberians of classical writers, had come for Northern Africa, where the name of Berber still perhaps perpetuates their old designation.

Another work on what has sometimes been termed the metaphysics of language appeared from his pen in 1828, under the title of Ueber den Dualis; but the great work of his life, on the ancient Kawi language of Java, was unfortunately interrupted by his death on the 8th of April 1835. The imperfect fragment was edited by his brother and Dr Buschmann in 1836, and contains the remarkable introduction on "The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind" (Ueber die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachboues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts), which has been since edited and defended against Steinthal’s criticisms by Professor Pott (2 vol., 1876).

This essay, which has been called the text-book of 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 the accordingly.

Other linguistic publications of Humboldt, which had appeared in the Transactions of the Berlin Academy, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, or elsewhere, were republished by his brother in the seven volumes of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Gesämmelte Werke (1841-52). These volumes also contain poems, essays on aesthetical subjects, and other creations of his prolific mind.

Perhaps, however, the most generally interesting of his works, outside those which deal with language, is his correspondence with Schiller, published in 1830. Both poet and philosopher come before us in it in their most genial mood. For, though Humboldt was primarily a philosopher, he was a philosopher rendered practical by his knowledge of statesmanship and wide experience of life, and endowed with keen sympathies, warm imagination, and active interest in the method of scientific inquiry. (A.H.S.)

The above article was written by the Rev. Archibald Henry Sayce, M.A., LL.D., D.D.; Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford; Professor of Assyriology, Oxford; one of the Old Testament Revisers, 1874-84; Deputy Professor of Comparative Philology, Oxford, 1876-90; Hibbert Lecturer, 1887; Gifford Lecturer, 1900-01; author of Assyrian Grammar for Comparative Purposes, Translations in Records of the Past, 1st series: Lectures on the Assyrian Language and Syllabary, The Monuments of the Hittites, The Egypt of the Hebrews and Herodotus, etc.

Some Quotations from Wilhelm 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.
-- Wilhelm von Humboldt, quoted in Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos

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.
-- Wilhelm von Humboldt, quoted in Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos

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