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German Philosophy of LanguageFrom Schlegel to Hegel and beyond$

Michael N. Forster

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199604814

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199604814.001.0001

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Wilhelm von Humboldt

Wilhelm von Humboldt

Chapter:
(p.82) (p.83) 3 Wilhelm von Humboldt
Source:
German Philosophy of Language
Author(s):

Michael N. Forster

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199604814.003.0004

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on Wilhelm von Humboldt, a founder of linguistics. It provides an overview of Humboldt's life and thought. He knew most of the leading intellectuals of his time personally, including Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, Heyne, George Forster, Fichte, Jacobi, and Coleridge. His earliest theoretical statement on language, the short essay On Thinking and Speaking, is strongly influenced by Herder. His mature philosophy of language contains many further borrowings from Herder as well. His intellectual contributions cover several fields, but he deserves to be remembered above all for his work in developing the discipline of linguistics and for his educational and political philosophy. Humboldt holds that language is essential to the very existence of the human being.

Keywords:   Wilhelm von Humboldt, linguistics, intellectuals, Herder, philosophy of language

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) is in many ways an enigma. His personality combines elements of ruthlessness, even cruelty, with profound humanity. Similarly, his intellectual work combines the vices of derivativeness, turgidity, unclarity, and a failure to complete projects with the virtues of some extremely important ideas. Humboldt's intellectual contributions cover several fields, but he probably deserves to be remembered above all for his work in developing the discipline of linguistics and for his political and educational philosophy. This essay will attempt to provide an overview of Humboldt's life and thought under the following headings:

  1. 1. Intellectual Life

  2. 2. Philosophy of Language and Linguistics

  3. 3. Hermeneutics

  4. 4. Translation-Theory

  5. 5. Anthropology

  6. 6. Aesthetics

  7. 7. Political Philosophy

  8. 8. Philosophy of Education

  9. 9. Philosophy of Religion

1. Intellectual Life

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) was born at Potsdam. His ancestors had originally been middle class but had risen to the nobility in 1738. His younger brother Alexander von Humboldt was a famous intellectual as well (indeed, during their lifetime, a more famous one), known mainly for his work as an explorer and natural scientist.

Wilhelm became a Prussian statesman of considerable importance. He was also a broad humanist, whose fields of inquiry included philosophy, literature, anthropology, political thought, education, and, above all, language. He was (p.84) fluent in German, French, English, Italian, and Spanish. In addition, over the course of his career he studied, and wrote about, more than two hundred different languages from all over the world.

He knew most of the leading intellectuals of his time personally, including not only the leading figures of the Berlin Enlightenment, but also Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, Heyne, Georg Forster, Fichte, Jacobi, F.A. Wolf, Madame de Stäel, and Coleridge.

His early education was by private tutors, who included several of the leading thinkers of the Berlin Enlightenment (for example, Campe, Klein, Dohm, and Engel). This education covered a broad range of subjects, with special emphasis on the classics. Together with his brother Alexander, he also attended the vibrant Berlin literary salon of Markus and Henrietta Herz as an adolescent. He went on to study at the uninspiring University of Frankfurt an der Oder for a year (1787), but then transferred to the University of Göttingen (1788–9), which was probably the best German university of the time. At Göttingen he mainly studied classical philology, natural science, and Kant's philosophy. (Thus began a lifelong influence of Kant's thought on his own. However, the view taken by Haym, Spranger, Cassirer, and others that this influence was predominant is wide of the mark.1)

In 1789, shortly after the start of the French Revolution, he visited Paris, keeping a travel journal. As his decision to go to Paris at that time already suggests, his reaction to the Revolution was generally optimistic. Indeed, it remained so even during the Terror of 1793. However, it was also cautious and ambivalent—his reservations stemming partly from a conviction that political reform should preserve continuity with existing institutions rather than prescribing new ones ex nihilo on the basis of reason alone, and partly from an aristocratic aversion to some of the Revolution's more extreme egalitarian tendencies. 1789 was also the year in which he produced his first significant philosophical essay: On Religion.

In 1791 he married the wealthy and well-connected Karoline von Dacheröden, to whom he would stay married until her death in 1829. Their marriage was unconventional (especially for the time), since it was sexually open and involved long periods of separation. But it was also intimate, both emotionally and intellectually, among other things generating a rich correspondence. The year 1791 was also the year in which Humboldt wrote his main work in political philosophy: Ideas towards an Attempt to Fix the Limits of the State's Operation. This work makes a case for a radical form of liberalism. It was not published during Humboldt's lifetime. However, he did publish a series of journal articles on social and political philosophy closely connected with it in 1792. The work itself was eventually published posthumously in Germany in 1851. Its impact in (p.85) Germany itself was (unfortunately) modest, but it had a much bigger impact in Britain, where it strongly influenced both John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold.

In 1792 Humboldt stayed near Jena, where he became friends with Schiller and Goethe—thus beginning a lifelong interest in and involvement with their work, as well as an equally enduring preoccupation with aesthetic questions.

In 1793 he wrote one of his most forceful expressions of his classicism, i.e. his profound admiration for the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and especially for that of ancient Athens: Concerning the Study of Antiquity, and of Greek Antiquity in Particular.

In 1794 he actually settled in Jena for a time, taking an active role in the town's literary life (in collaboration with Schiller and Goethe), and also engaging in some scientific research. In the latter connection, he participated in work on comparative anatomy at the University of Jena, which contributed to his composition of the fragmentary Plan of a Comparative Anthropology (1795–7). In 1795 he published two articles on gender difference in a broadly feminist spirit in Schiller's journal Horen. To this general period belongs also the fragmentary essay The Eighteenth Century, which was an attempt to provide a characterization of Humboldt's own age. Finally, it is likely that the important short essay On Thinking and Speaking belongs to this period as well (Humboldt's main editor Leitzmann dates it to 1795–6, though this dating has been disputed). This is Humboldt's first theoretical work on language. Under the evident strong influence of Herder (and in some degree also Fichte), the essay already lays out such fundamental principles of Humboldt's future work on language as the principle of the dependence of thought on language.

During the period 1797–1801 Humboldt lived in Paris. While there he met, and held (largely frustrating) discussions with, some of the leading French intellectuals of the day, including the “Ideologues,” as well as studying French theater, literature, and philosophy. This period of his life also included two visits to Spain for the purpose of studying the unique Basque language and Basque culture. Humboldt's work on this subject enabled him to refute existing theories concerning the origin and nature of the Basque language, and to accumulate much new data about it (which he eventually published in 1821). This early research on the Basque language (and culture) was an important step in his development as a linguist.

In 1799 he published his main work in aesthetics, Aesthetic Essays I: On Goethe's “Hermann and Dorothea” (a projected second part was never written). He also published a separate version of some of its main ideas in French.

Humboldt had already joined the Prussian civil service in 1790, thus beginning what was to become a long, demanding, and rather illustrious (p.86) career of government service. However, shortly after joining the civil service he had taken a leave of absence. During the period 1803–8 by contrast he served as Prussian envoy to the Vatican in Rome. His official duties did not prevent him from continuing his intellectual work: while there he did much translation from classical Greek; wrote essays on ancient Greece and Rome; composed his best known poem, the elegy Rome; and befriended the head of the Jesuit missions in the Americas, Lorenzo Hervás, a renowned linguist, whose extensive studies of Native American languages he thereby acquired. He subsequently continued his study of the Native American languages, writing the substantial Essay on the Languages of the New World in 1812, and going on to explore them further in later years. His work in this area laid the foundations for important work on the Native American languages done later in the nineteenth century, and early in the twentieth, by Brinton, Boas, and others.

In 1808 Humboldt was appointed to the section of the interior ministry in Berlin that dealt with religion and education. His responsibility for religion caused both consternation and amusement among his contemporaries in light of his known coolness towards the subject. However, his main focus was on education. He radically reformed the entire Prussian educational system. This included playing the leading role in the founding of the University of Berlin (now the Humboldt University) in 1810. He based the University on the ideal of a never-ending search for new knowledge, and on the principle of combining research with teaching within a single institution. He thereby established the model for the modern research university in Germany, and indeed in the West generally. He also attempted to make the University financially independent, in order to guarantee its freedom from state interference. However, this led to quarrels with opponents, which eventually forced him to resign.

From 1810 onwards, he served as Prussia's ambassador in Vienna. Following the military defeat of Napoleon, he played a leading role in the complex negotiations that culminated in the Congress of Vienna (1814–15). His role in these negotiations involved much Realpolitik (the harder side of his personality should not be underestimated; it also manifests itself in a certain callousness about war, for example). But it also had more idealistic dimensions. In particular, he succeeded in defending Jewish rights, and he also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to win a liberal constitution for the German confederation based on a Grundgesetz that would have guaranteed the rights of the smaller German states and of all citizens.

During the period 1817–18 he served as Prussia's ambassador in London. But in 1819 he returned to Berlin in order to participate in drawing up a (p.87) new constitution for Prussia. He again tried to achieve a liberal constitution (with a constitutional monarchy), but his attempt again failed. He also tried to resist the repressive Karlsbad decrees that instead came into force at this time, but as a result was dismissed from public service by King Friedrich Wilhelm III. This virtually ended his life in public service (though he would return to royal favor and to less important governmental functions in later years).

He spent most of the rest of his life on his family estate at Tegel near Berlin, devoting his time to study, especially the study of languages. As early as 1820 he presented a plan for a new discipline of comparative linguistics to the Berlin Academy: On the Comparative Study of Language in Connection with the Various Epochs of the Development of Language. During this last period of his life he added to his knowledge of particular languages, eventually acquiring familiarity with a huge number (well over two hundred), concerning many of which he wrote special studies. He accomplished this feat largely thanks to an extensive correspondence with other researchers, both in Germany and around the world (for example, Pickering and Duponceau in North America). He also presented a series of further important addresses to the Berlin Academy on the subject of language, including On the Emergence of Grammatical Forms and Their Influence on the Development of Ideas (1822), On the Grammatical Structure of the Chinese Language (1826; this is a shorter version of a famous long letter that he wrote to the French scholar Abel-Rémusat on the same subject in the same year), On the Dual (1827), and On the Languages of the South Sea Islands (1828). In addition, he delivered important addresses on other subjects, including On the Task of the Historian (1821) and two presentations concerning the Indian poem Bhagavad-Gita (1826).

In 1829 his wife Karoline died, which left him emotionally distraught. However, in 1830 he published two substantial pieces on the literature of Schiller and Goethe, thereby continuing his lifelong engagement with their work and with aesthetic matters.

The rest of his life was mainly devoted to a monumental study of the Kawi language of Java. The study considered the Kawi language in the context of the Austronesian family of languages as a whole, and included a famous “introduction” that discussed general principles of linguistics. He completed this “introduction” and the rest of volume one (this material was published in 1836, the year after his death). Two further volumes were edited and published posthumously (appearing in 1838–9). The famous “introduction” was also republished in a slightly modified form as a self-standing work in 1836, at the request of his brother.

Humboldt had died near Berlin in 1835.

(p.88) 2. Philosophy of Language and Linguistics

Humboldt's earliest theoretical statement on language, the short essay On Thinking and Speaking (probably 1795–6) is strongly influenced by Herder, especially by Herder's Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772).2 The essay is especially noteworthy for its championing of a doctrine, clearly taken over from Herder's Treatise, that reflection, or the awareness of objects as distinct from ourselves and our desires, is coeval with our development of language.

Humboldt's mature philosophy of language, as articulated in the famous Kawi-introduction and elsewhere, contains many further borrowings from Herder as well. For example, Humboldt basically subscribes to the naturalistic account of the origin of language that Herder had given in his Treatise, according to which language, while it is partly rooted in the “cries of sensation” which human beings share with animals, is also interdependent and coeval with a distinctively human type of “awareness [Besonnenheit].”3 Again, like Herder in his Treatise, Humboldt holds that language is essential to the very existence of the human being. Again, like Herder in his Treatise, Humboldt holds that language fundamentally and essentially consists in heard sounds. Again, like Herder in his Treatise, Humboldt holds that the verb is the most original and fundamental part of language. Again, Humboldt advances a version of the striking doctrine which Herder had first adumbrated in the Treatise and then articulated more emphatically in On the Cognition and Sensation of the Human Soul (1778) that language—and consequently, also thought, human mental life more generally, and indeed the very self—is fundamentally social in nature. Again, Humboldt espouses a doctrine from Herder's Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Humanity (1784–91) and other works to the effect that linguistic reference to particulars never takes place directly, but is always mediated by general concepts.4 Again, Humboldt even espouses the doctrine from Herder's Ideas that human language and rationality are intimately dependent on human beings’ upright posture.

However, more important than any of the aforementioned debts that Humboldt owes to Herder are four further principles in the philosophy of language which he borrowed from Herder and which then formed the foundation for his own conception of linguistics:

  1. (1) He espouses a version of Herder's doctrine that thought is essentially dependent on and bounded by language—i.e. that one can only think if one has a language and one can only think what one can express linguistically.5

  2. (2) He espouses a version of Herder's doctrine that concepts or meanings are constituted—not by referents, Platonic forms, mental “ideas,” or whatnot, but—by word-usages.6

  3. (p.89) (3) He also espouses a version of Herder's doctrine that mankind exhibits deep linguistic and conceptual-intellectual diversities, especially between historical periods and cultures, but even to some extent between individuals within a single historical period and culture.

  4. (4) He also espouses a version of Herder's doctrine, stated most explicitly in the Ideas, that because of (1) and (2) the investigation of the varying characters of people's modes of thought and conceptualization should primarily take the form of an investigation of the varying characters of their languages.7

For Humboldt's greatest contribution to the theory of language, and indeed arguably his greatest intellectual contribution tout court, lay in helping to establish the modern discipline of linguistics on the foundation of these four Herderian principles. In doing so he was to a great extent anticipated and influenced by Friedrich Schlegel's seminal work On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians (1808).

Let us therefore consider this project further. As has been mentioned, in 1820 Humboldt presented to the Berlin Academy his plan for a new discipline of comparative linguistics: On the Comparative Study of Language in Connection with the Various Epochs of the Development of Language. This piece argues that languages constitute concepts and thought, that different languages embody a “diversity in worldviews,” and that there is therefore a need to complement the philosophy of language with an empirical investigation of languages. This basic position recurs in Humboldt's best known and most influential work on general linguistics, the famous introduction to his massive study of the Kawi language, also published separately under the revealing title On the Diversity of Human Language-Structure and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind (1836).

Let me attempt to describe in a little more detail how Humboldt helped to found empirical linguistics on the four Herderian principles recently mentioned. Like Schlegel before him, but to an even greater degree, Humboldt is explicitly committed to those four principles. He argues that it is mainly because of them, and especially (4)—namely, the resulting fact that an investigation of the diversity of languages promises to provide a sort of reliable window onto the diversity of human thought and conceptualization—that one should undertake the empirical investigation of languages. This constitutes his main rationale for the new science of linguistics.

Building beyond that theoretical foundation and beyond Herder, but still broadly following Schlegel, Humboldt adds the following positions:

  1. (a) Contradicting an impression that Herder had usually still given (in continuity with Enlightenment predecessors) that languages are fundamentally aggregates of particular words/concepts, Humboldt embraces a more holistic conception of languages which sees such particular items as only possible in the (p.90) context of a larger linguistic whole. He often expresses this conception by characterizing languages as “organisms,” “systems,” or “webs.” (Schlegel had already made this move, but only in relation to a subset of languages, namely inflected languages. Humboldt extends it to cover all languages.)

  2. (b) More specifically, he identifies grammar as the most fundamental unifying principle of such linguistic “organisms.”8

  3. (c) Again in contrast to the early Herder—who in his Treatise had said that grammar is basically the same across all languages (except for the anomalous case of Chinese)—but in continuity with the later Herder—who in the Ideas had instead held that grammatical structure varies greatly across languages—Humboldt sees grammars as differing deeply from one language to another, and as thereby also constituting deep differences in the natures of the particular words/concepts employed within a language (which may also differ for more superficial reasons).

  4. (d) Humboldt consequently identifies the comparative study of grammar as the main task of an empirical investigation of languages.

  5. (e) Besides the fundamental motive already explained of providing a reliable window on the diversity of thought and conceptualization, another important motive behind undertaking comparative grammar which Humboldt emphasizes lies in his conviction that it promises to shed more light on the genealogical relations between languages than merely lexical comparisons can do.

  6. (f) Humboldt greatly advances the process of actually comparing different grammars in an empirically scrupulous way. Schlegel had already taken steps in this direction. But Humboldt goes much further. During the course of his career, he considers well over two hundred languages. These include (Indo-)European languages—among them, ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, the Romance languages, English, Basque (whose modern study Humboldt founds), Old Icelandic, Lithuanian, Polish, Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, Armenian, and Hungarian; Semitic languages—in particular, Hebrew, Arabic, and Coptic (on which Humboldt writes a grammar); Asian languages—among them Chinese, Japanese, Siamese, Tamil, and the Kawi language of Java (which Humboldt analyzes in his massive three-volume study); the native languages of America; and the languages of the Pacific—in particular, East African languages, Hawaiian, and the languages of the South Sea Islands.

  7. (g) In the course of doing this, Humboldt also complicates the twofold distinction that Schlegel had drawn between, on the one hand, “organic,” or inflected, languages (such as Sanskrit), and on the other hand, “mechanical,” or uninflected, languages (such as Chinese). Humboldt divides the latter category into two: “isolating” languages (such as Chinese) and “agglutinative” languages (exemplified by some of the native languages of America). Inflected languages work by means of suffixes, prefixes, or stem-modifications which do not by (p.91) themselves have semantic content; isolating languages lack inflection, and indeed most forms of grammatical marking, instead working mainly by means of word order and context; agglutinative languages function mainly by means of a compounding of elements which (unlike inflecting suffixes, prefixes, or stem-modifications) are independently meaningful (as in the case of the English word “doghouse,” for example). For Humboldt these are basically three different linguistic techniques, which may sometimes be found together within a single language, the classification of a whole language as belonging to the one type or the other being a matter of which of these techniques predominates within it.

The principles just described are arguably all correct, and constitute great progress beyond their Herderian starting-point, though only modest progress beyond Schlegel. However, Humboldt also follows Schlegel in embracing an additional principle which is of more questionable value:

  1. (h) Like Schlegel, he draws from his comparative investigation of the grammars of different languages certain strong normative conclusions about the relative merits of different languages as instruments of thought. In particular, he argues for the superiority of highly inflected languages, such as Sanskrit and its relatives, over “isolating” languages, such as Chinese, and “agglutinative” languages, such as those in America. This normative project constitutes yet a third motive behind his enterprise of comparative grammar (in addition to the motives of providing a reliable window on thought and determining the genealogical relationships between languages). However, this part of his position seems very questionable, not only factually but also ethically.9 On the other hand, it should be noted in his defense that (like Schlegel before him), he was a sincere cosmopolitan, and went to considerable lengths to try to forestall any inference from his differential ranking of languages to an invidious ranking of peoples.

Humboldt also adds another dubious principle, this time one without precedent in Schlegel:

  1. (i) Despite his commitment to the principle that there are deep differences between the grammars of different languages (principle (c)), he is also committed to a principle which stands in sharp tension with it, namely that there is a universal grammar shared by all languages. Here Humboldt is ultimately influenced by seventeenth-century theories of universal grammar, in particular that of the Port Royal Grammaire, and proximally by more recent versions of such theories with which he was familiar, such as Sacy's Principes de grammaire générale (1799) and Bernhardi's Sprachlehre (1801–3). Humboldt has recently been praised for this side of his position by the linguist Noam Chomsky in his influential book Cartesian Linguistics. However, it seems very doubtful that he should be praised for it.10

(p.92) Finally, two further principles of Humboldt's general linguistics which again go beyond Schlegel should also be mentioned:

  1. (j) Humboldt famously holds that language is not an ergon (a work) but rather an energeia (an actualization). What exactly this means is obscure and has been much debated in the secondary literature.11 But one important aspect of it evidently derives from Fichte's conception that action is prior to things or facts, as a transcendental condition of the possibility of experience (Humboldt was already attracted to this Fichtean conception in his Paris notebooks of 1798). In Humboldt's version of this conception, language plays the role of a transcendental condition of the possibility of a person's experience (it is constitutive of his “worldview”), and its fundamental nature is that of an activity.

  2. (k) Humboldt also holds that every language has a certain “inner form” (involving its grammar and concepts) as well as a certain “outer form” (involving its phonetics). This doctrine is again somewhat obscure, and has again occasioned considerable discussion in the secondary literature.12 Humboldt evidently models the distinction on Kant's famous distinction in the Critique of Pure Reason between the “form of inner intuition” (time) and the “form of outer intuition” (space). A large part of Humboldt's purpose in drawing on that Kantian model is to emphasize that, just as for Kant time and space are wholes which have a certain priority over particular times and places and are not reducible to the latter, so that any knowledge of the latter presupposes knowledge of the former, likewise, a language's whole grammatical/conceptual system and its whole phonetic system are in a sense prior to the particular grammatical/conceptual and phonetic features in which they are manifested, not reducible to them,13 and the latter can only be properly grasped in light of the former.14

Mainly through the influence of Friedrich Schlegel, but with Humboldt playing a significant supporting role, both the close analysis of the grammars of particular languages, such as Sanskrit, and comparative grammar developed rapidly into major fields of scientific achievement in nineteenth-century Germany. For example, August Wilhelm Schlegel became Germany's first professor of Sanskrit. And prominent early practitioners of comparative grammar included Bopp (1791–1867), in his work on the Indo-European languages; Jakob Grimm (1785–1863), in his work on the Germanic languages; and August Wilhelm Schlegel, in his work on the Romance languages.

3. Hermeneutics

As a linguist, classicist, literary theorist, and translator, Humboldt was much occupied with questions of interpretation throughout his career.

(p.93) One of his most striking theoretical positions on this subject—in which he evidently followed Schleiermacher—15 is that all understanding includes a residue of misunderstanding, and is therefore never more than approximate.

However, Humboldt's most important contribution to the theory of interpretation rather concerns the bearing of interpretation on the human sciences, especially history. This contribution is mainly found in his essay On the Task of the Historian (1821). There he develops the following positions. (1) He conceives the task of the historian as above all one of discovering what actually happened (rather than explaining it). (2) He rejects apriorist approaches to history, such as those of Kant and Hegel. (3) He instead advocates an empirically based approach to it. (4) More specifically, he conceives the historian's main task as one of understanding the ideas at work in history (rather than discovering causal laws that govern history). (5) He conceives such understanding as requiring the interpretation of people's particular (linguistic) expressions as parts of larger wholes, and therefore advocates the sort of shuttle-cock alternation between parts and wholes in interpretation that Herder and Schleiermacher had already seen as the key to accomplishing that.

These positions all have deep roots in Herder and Schleiermacher. For example, positions (1)–(5) all reflect features of Herder's approach to history. And positions (4) and (5) in addition reflect principles from Schleiermacher's hermeneutics.

Humboldt's positions in the essay would later be taken over and developed further by such important historians and historiographers as Ranke, Droysen, and Dilthey. The essay was especially important as a source of this later tradition's sharp distinction between understanding [Verstehen], as the characteristic method of history and the other human sciences, and explanation [Erklären], i.e. explanation in terms of causal laws, as the characteristic method of the natural sciences.

4. Translation-Theory

Humboldt was both a practicing translator and a theorist of translation. Indeed, his very first publication, in 1787, consisted of a set of translations (from Xenophon and Plato). And his early essay Concerning the Study of Antiquity, and of Greek Antiquity in Particular (1793) already contained theoretical reflections on translation.

In that essay he distinguished between several different goals that translations may serve, and between different characters that translations need to have in order to serve those goals; and he argued that, while in its more mundane forms (p.94) translation should be lax, in its higher forms it should strive for both semantic and musical fidelity.16

During his 1803–8 stay in Rome he translated a number of Pindar's Pythian and Olympian Odes, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and various other works (strikingly difficult material). When he eventually published his translation of the Agamemnon in 1816 he included an introduction in which he laid out his theory of translation in some detail. Eduard Fraenkel, the brilliant twentieth-century scholar of the Agamemnon, has described “the translation and even more so the introduction” as “a great monument of the deeper understanding of Greek poetry and art.”

The main lines of the mature theory of translation that Humboldt presents in the introduction are as follows: (1) Translation faces the challenge of coping with aesthetic and especially conceptual divergence (except in connection with merely physical vocabulary). (In On the Bhagavad-Gita [1825] Humboldt adds that this entails that translation can only ever be an approximation.) (2) But translation remains indispensable, both because it provides access to works for people who lack the original language and because it enriches the target language. (3) One key to achieving optimal translation lies in exploiting the mutability of each language; in fact, any language can be made to express any thought. (In On the Bhagavad-Gita [1825] Humboldt adds that this requires translating one-word-for-one-word wherever possible.) (4) Another key to achieving optimal translation lies in the possibility of imitating the music of the foreign language (in particular its meter). This is important because such music expresses an author's sentiments with more immediacy and nuance than can be achieved by words alone, and is indeed fundamental to the intellectual, and even the moral-political, standpoint of the author and his nation. The ancient Greeks were especially, indeed uniquely, subtle in their use of rhythm. The poet Klopstock and the translator-poet Voss have already shown the way for translators in this area by successfully imitating Greek meters in German. (5) Overall, a translation should contain a touch of the foreign, but should avoid outright strangeness. It should not be willfully obscure, but nor should it make clear and easy what was already obscure in the original.17 (6) The competing notion that the translator should furnish what the author would have written had he written in the target language is illegitimate, since no author could have written what he wrote in another language. (7) Attempts at the optimal sort of translation that Humboldt recommends can serve as stepping stones to even better attempts. (8) There is also an advantage to having multiple translations of a given work, since this provides readers with multiple images of the work.

This theory for the most part reproduces the theory of translation that Herder had already adumbrated in the Fragments on Recent German Literature (p.95) (1767–8) and that Schleiermacher had developed more systematically in On the Different Methods of Translation (1813) (just three years before Humboldt published his introduction, note).18 Although Humboldt does not actually name Schleiermacher, his debt to the latter's essay seems clear from the chronology and from the striking similarity of the positions involved.19 This similarity extends even to such fine points of detail as the alleged exemption of vocabulary for physical objects from the problem of conceptual divergence.20 (As has already been mentioned, Humboldt is also indebted to Schleiermacher in the closely related area of hermeneutics.21)

5. Anthropology

Humboldt played an important role in the birth of the modern discipline of cultural or social anthropology.

His essay Plan of a Comparative Anthropology from around 1795–7 (I suspect the later date) is of some significance in this connection. For it champions a project that had been sketched by Herder in the 10th Collection of his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity (1793–7) (and other places) of developing, in a spirit of cosmopolitan respect for the Other, a comprehensive, empirically grounded investigation of the various peoples of the world in their cultural distinctiveness.22 However, the role of this particular essay of Humboldt's in the birth of modern cultural anthropology was not great. For the term “Anthropology [Anthropologie]” in its title is to some extent a false friend (in modern German, cultural anthropology is not Anthropologie but Ethnologie); the essay is only in part concerned with topics relevant to cultural anthropology; and it was not published until 1903, by which time it seems to have attracted little attention.

Instead, Humboldt's main contributions to the birth of modern cultural anthropology took three other forms (again all deeply rooted in his Herderian inheritance):

  1. (1) His role in establishing the understanding/explanation distinction and in identifying understanding as the primary task of the human sciences was of seminal importance not only for the historians and historiographers Ranke, Droysen, and Dilthey, but also, and largely through them, for the founders of modern cultural anthropology. A central case in point here is Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology. As George Stocking and Matti Bunzl have shown, the distinction in question already underlies Boas's early article The Study of Geography (1887), and the conception that understanding rather than explanation is the primary task of anthropology became increasingly pronounced as Boas's career proceeded. Similarly, the founder of British anthropology (as a (p.96) discipline grounded in intensive fieldwork), Bronislaw Malinowski, strongly emphasized understanding over explanation, especially in his anthropological practice.

  2. (2) Humboldt was also a seminal influence on the emergence of the discipline of Völkerpsychologie—a discipline founded by Lazarus and Steinthal, and then developed by Wilhelm Wundt. Both the discipline's basic project of exploring different peoples’ collective psychologies in their distinctiveness from each other and its emphasis on the investigation of languages as the primary means for achieving that were largely inspired by Humboldt. The discipline of Völkerpsychologie went on to play a fundamental role in the birth of modern cultural anthropology—strongly influencing both the founder of American anthropology, Boas, and the founder of British anthropology, Malinowski (who had studied with Wundt in Leipzig, and had even begun writing a dissertation on Völkerpsychologie).

  3. (3) Humboldt's work in linguistics also provided direct inspiration to the founders of modern cultural anthropology, who praise and imitate it in connection with the linguistic side of their own anthropological work. In particular, both Boas's seminal investigations of the languages of the native Americans and Malinowski's seminal investigations of the language of the Trobriand islanders (in Coral Gardens and their Magic) are avowedly continuous with Humboldt's linguistic work.23

6. Aesthetics

Humboldt's main work in aesthetics is his Aesthetic Essays I: On Goethe's “Hermann and Dorothea” from 1799 (as previously mentioned, he also published an essay in French at the same period which discusses some of the same topics). In part this work is a detailed interpretation of a particular poem by Goethe, his modern epic Hermann and Dorothea. But in part it is also a broader exploration of issues in aesthetics.

The work is in some ways rather conservative and old-fashioned, especially when compared with the pathbreaking work that the Schlegels were doing at this period. For one thing, it assumes that epic poetry enjoys a high status as a modern genre, and by contrast speaks rather disparagingly of the novel—this at a time when epic poetry was actually in its death throes as a genre and the novel in ascent, and moreover the Schlegels were beginning to provide a theoretical recognition of, and rationale for, that fact. For another thing, in continuity with the previous generation of German theorists of literature (for example, Lessing and Herder), Humboldt uncritically accepts Aristotle's theory of the nature of (p.97) ancient tragedy as a genre (for example, Aristotle's thesis that tragedy's function is to arouse pity and fear, and thereby to purge/purify those emotions)—this at a time when the Schlegels were beginning to call Aristotle's theory into question with great cogency, a process which would continue subsequently with Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy and with twentieth-century scholarship.

However, Humboldt's work also contains a number of more original and interesting ideas. First and foremost, it develops a new and distinctive theory of the very nature of artistic production (a theory much more in the spirit of Humboldt's German Romantic contemporaries than his views on epic poetry, the novel, and tragedy).24 A long tradition, reaching back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle, had identified the function of art as an imitation of nature, and had conceived the artist's faculty of imagination as serving to reproduce (while perhaps also recombining) what the artist had previously found in his sensory experience of nature (this was still the basic picture in Humboldt's important French predecessor Condillac, for example).25 Humboldt breaks sharply with that tradition. For him, the imagination is a faculty that destroys pre-existing ways of experiencing the world and instead creates new ones. And the function of art is not to imitate reality but instead to transcend it in a process of such imaginative creativity: the poet's art “consists in his ability to render the imagination creative.”26 In this respect, Humboldt's aesthetics is part of the Romantic revolution.27

Second, but less importantly, Humboldt also develops a mildly interesting general theory of literary genres. One component of the theory is an insistence (very much in the spirit of Herder) that any evaluation of a work of literary art must be undertaken strictly in terms of the standards set by its own genre. Another component is a systematic attempt to define each genre, and to do so mainly in terms of a specific mood that distinguishes it.28 Here Humboldt's primary model is evidently Aristotle's association of tragedy with pity and fear. Humboldt's main concern in his own work is to extend such an account to cover the case of epic poetry. In that connection, he identifies the relevant mood as, roughly, one of lively, sensuous, objective observation (or more elaborately: lively sensuous activity, enthralled interest, disinterested composure, and a comprehensive view). How promising such an approach to genre may be remains questionable.

Beyond literature, Humboldt's interest in art was rather limited. This is largely due to the fact that unlike some of his Romantic contemporaries (for example, Friedrich Schlegel), he tends to deny that music and visual art express meaning.29 Such a position limits the value of his aesthetic theory.

One final point worth noting in connection with his aesthetics is that, in addition to developing the distinctive theory of the imaginative creation of (p.98) works of literary art described above, he also sometimes models his ethical ideal of Bildung, or individual self-cultivation, on such artistic creation.30

7. Political Philosophy

Early in his career, in 1791, Humboldt wrote his most important work on political philosophy: Ideas towards an Attempt to Fix the Limits of the State's Operation.31 This work is a passionate plea for liberalism and for a correspondingly minimal state (though its last chapter does also accord the state a positive function). In particular, the work champions the value and importance of individuality, and criticizes state control of education and religion for the constraint that it imposes on the free development of individuality. Both the work's principle of individuality and its advocacy of a minimal state echo Herder.

Humboldt's work was not published until 1851. As a result, its influence within Germany was slight. However, it eventually had a much stronger impact in Britain, where it influenced John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold among others.

Concerning Mill: Humboldt's work appeared in an English translation in 1854. Mill began writing On Liberty in 1854, publishing it in 1859. Both in On Liberty itself and in his Autobiography (1873) Mill pays warm tribute to Humboldt's work and to its influence on his own. In On Liberty he especially acknowledges his debt to Humboldt's central principle of individuality. However, the impact of Humboldt's work on his own clearly also went well beyond the principle of individuality itself. The following account of Humboldt's work will incorporate some parenthetical remarks about this broader impact on Mill.

Humboldt argues that the flourishing of individuality requires freedom of action: “that on which the whole greatness of a human being in the end rests, for which the individual human being must strive eternally, and which he who wants to affect human beings may never lose sight of, is individuality [Eigentümlichkeit] of force and culture,” and “this individuality is effected through freedom of action.”32 (Mill in On Liberty likewise appeals to the principle of individuality in order to justify maximal freedom of action.)

Humboldt also argues that “every effort of the state is to be rejected to interfere in the private affairs of the citizens anywhere where they do not have immediate relation to the injury of the rights of the one person through the other,”33 and that “to punish actions which bear solely on the agent or happen with the consent of the person they affect is forbidden by just the same principles which do not even permit them to be limited; and therefore, not only may none of the so-called crimes of the flesh (except rape), whether they (p.99) annoy or not, attempted suicide, etc. be punished, but even the murder of another person with his consent would have to remain unpunished were it not that in this last case the too easy possibility of a dangerous misuse made a punishing law necessary.”34 In the roughly contemporary essay On Improving Morals by Means of State Institutions (1792) Humboldt in particular argues that the state must not try to inculcate morality, pointing out that doing so is not only self-defeating but also tends to stifle the sensuous forces that create everything remarkable.35 (Similarly: Mill in On Liberty famously articulates what he calls the “one very simple principle” which it is “the object of this essay… to assert,” namely “that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Mill disallows treating mere annoyance to others—in contrast to actual harm—as a ground for interference: “There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings… But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it.” And Mill includes consensual acts between more than one person in the protected sphere: this sphere is one “comprehending all that portion of a person's life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation.”)

Humboldt also in his work champions freedom of thought and expression, developing several arguments in its support. First, under Herder's influence, he argues for freedom of thought and expression on the grounds that it is required in order for there to be the sort of competition between opposing views that produces the discovery and refinement of truth. He writes that part of the “harm of limiting freedom of thought” concerns “the results of inquiry,” “incompleteness or incorrectness in our scientific cognition.”36 Again like Herder before him, he recognizes that ancient Athens constitutes powerful empirical evidence for such a dependence of intellectual advances on freedom of thought and expression, since this was a society that was both strongly committed to such freedom and the source of extraordinary intellectual advances.37 (Mill would later repeat this first argument for freedom of thought and expression in On Liberty, but would fail to exploit Herder and Humboldt's compelling example of ancient Athens.)

Second, again in continuity with Herder, Humboldt argues that realization of the ideal of individuality requires not only freedom of action but also freedom of thought and expression. Specifically, he argues that free inquiry is vital for (p.100) producing “self-activity,” “autonomy” in thought and action,38 and that individualities require a free reciprocal self-revelation to, and influencing of, each other for their development.39 (This second line of argument again reappears in Mill's On Liberty, albeit less prominently than the first.)

Third, again in continuity with Herder, Humboldt argues that freedom of thought (and expression) is required for the sort of autonomy in decision-making that is a precondition of genuine moral virtue (or for that matter, vice); so that, because genuine moral virtue is of immense positive value, freedom of thought (and expression) is so as well. Thus, as we just saw, in the work from 1791 he argues that free inquiry is essential for producing “self-activity” and “autonomy” in thought and action. And in On Religion (1789) he had already argued more elaborately that freedom of thought (and expression) is vital for generating reflection, self-consistency, and deep grounding in the principles that guide our actions, as well as for self-activity as opposed to reliance on foreign authority; that in these ways it is essential for moral character; and that, since people's very raison d’être lies in the development of moral character, freedom of thought (and expression) is therefore of vital importance as well.40 (Mill in On Liberty articulates an argument along similar lines in the course of paying tribute to Humboldt.)

Two further aspects of Humboldt's liberalism, found mainly in other works, deserve mention as well. One of these is his commitment to the rights of Jews. In an official memorandum from 1809, On the Plan for a New Constitution for the Jews, he argues forcefully for immediate and full emancipation of the Jews in Prussia (i.e. for according them exactly the same legal rights as Christians). In the course of doing so, he condemns racial thinking in general as misguided, arguing that one should instead focus on the qualities of individuals; and he condemns widespread prejudices against Jews in particular as empirically baseless and pernicious.

Another additional aspect of his liberalism is a certain feminism. In two early essays which he published in 1795—On the Difference between the Sexes and Its Influence on the Organic Nature and On Masculine and Feminine Form—he argues that the highest form of human cultivation can only be achieved by combining the qualities of the male and the female, and that ideal physical beauty likewise requires a balance of the characteristic features of both sexes. Elsewhere he champions a relationship of equality and openness between man and wife.41 This sort of feminism was also developed in one form or another by several of the Romantics, especially Friedrich Schlegel and Schleiermacher.

Nor was Humboldt's broad liberalism merely theoretical or ephemeral. On the contrary, he lived by his liberal principles throughout his life. He was by no means a perfect human being (for example, the biographical record includes a few casual anti-semitic remarks, and he had recurrent impulses to dominate (p.101) women, on which he sometimes acted by having relations with prostitutes and in other ways). But what is more striking is the earnestness and persistence with which he tried to live up to his liberal principles. One example of this is his championing of a liberal constitution for the German federation at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15, and then again for Prussia in 1819—in the latter case, despite encountering strong opposition, and with the eventual result that he was dismissed by the king. Another example is his forceful attempt in 1810 to secure for the University of Berlin an independent financial base that would free it from state interference, an attempt that he made despite incurring much opposition and eventually being forced to resign as a result. Another example is the fact that—after finding himself in the ironic and uncomfortable position of being responsible for government censorship in 1808—he wrote an official memorandum on freedom of the press in 1816 in which he argued for abolishing government censorship, and for instead placing regulation of the press in the hands of the law courts. Another example is his strong (albeit unsuccessful) championing of Jewish rights in Prussia in the official memorandum On the Plan for a New Constitution for the Jews from 1809, as well as his strong (and more successful) championing of Jewish rights as Prussia's representative at the negotiations leading up to and including the Congress of Vienna. Another example is his liberal, egalitarian, open, and caring relationship with his wife (as reflected in their correspondence, for instance).

Turning from domestic politics to international politics, another important component of Humboldt's political philosophy, again continuous with Herder's, is a strong commitment to cosmopolitanism—i.e. to the moral dignity of, and the need to respect, all humankind in all its variety. Humboldt already articulates this ideal in fragmentary writings from 1795–7. He also often expresses it in his linguistic works (e.g. On the Diversity of Human Language Structure [1827–9] and On the Languages of the South Sea Islands [1828]). It is also reflected in the very scope of his fascination with languages, which extends far beyond his native Germany and Europe to include, and indeed especially focus on, the native languages of America, the Far East, and the Pacific region.

One particularly noteworthy aspect of his cosmopolitanism, again continuous with Herder, is his strong opposition to the notion that there are deep racial differences between human beings.42 In his view, such racial differences as occur only involve superficial physical traits, such as skin color, so that they are quite unlike the differences between animal species, which include distinct psychological and behavioral traits; and human beings should therefore above all be considered as individuals (albeit linguistically-culturally shaped ones).43 Accordingly, he is highly critical of racism, especially as it occurs in the slave-trade and in anti-semitism.44

(p.102) Admittedly, his cosmopolitanism stands in tension with other features of his thought. In particular, his ranking of languages, which places inflected Indo-European languages at the top, but the isolating language of China and the agglutinative languages of America lower down, involves a certain Eurocentrism, as does his frequent praise of ancient Greek language and culture as the most perfect of all. Nonetheless, his cosmopolitanism is deeply sincere.45

One final noteworthy point in the area of political philosophy concerns Humboldt's attitude towards his own political activity, and in particular towards its occasional failures. Already quite early in his career he encountered in classical sources, and himself adopted, a principle that the most important thing is to act in certain ways, rather than to attain the purpose of one's action.46 Moreover, one of the things that most attracted him to the Indian poem Bhagavad-Gita in the 1820s was a similar principle that he found there. His commitment to this principle throws considerable light on his idealistic, dogged, but also fatalistic attitude towards his own political activity.

Such an attitude might appear chillingly self-centered—and a similar impression can arise in connection with Humboldt's commitment to individual Bildung, or self-cultivation.47 Accordingly, several commentators have gone as far as to accuse Humboldt of narcissism (e.g. Kaehler and Henningsen). However, in both connections closer inspection of his position tends to allay such concerns. For it is also an important part of his principle concerning political activity that by acting politically in an appropriate, even if unsuccessful, way one sets a good example for other people to follow (his own version of the principle is in this respect closer to the classical versions of it that he encountered first—for example, the version implied by Herodotus's account of the conduct of the Spartans at Thermopylae—than to the version in the Bhagavad-Gita). Similarly, his commitment to individual Bildung is as much a concern about other people's Bildung as about his own, and he conceives his own Bildung as a way of setting others a good example to follow.48

8. Philosophy of Education

Humboldt not only theorized about education, but also put his theories into practice when he found himself appointed to the section of Prussia's interior ministry responsible for education in 1808.

Already in Ideas towards an Attempt to Fix the Limits of the State's Operation (1791) he takes a hostile stance towards state education. And in an essay published shortly afterwards, On Public Education by the State (1792), he elaborates on that negative stance, arguing that education by the state is inimical both to (p.103) freedom and to diversity. Accordingly, when he wrote an official memorandum concerning the founding of the University of Berlin in 1809, one of his central proposals was to establish the financial independence of the university from the crown by means of a land grant.

The reform of the educational system that he began in 1808 was thoroughgoing, affecting all levels of education. At the primary school level he was sympathetic with the gradualist and liberal educational methods of the Swiss educator Pestalozzi. At the secondary school level, he reformed the Gymnasium in such a way as to put greater emphasis on classical languages and literatures. This did not exclude other subjects, but it did tend to marginalize both religion and natural science. The rationale for this reform lay partly in his conception of the fundamental role that language plays in relation to thought together with his belief in the superiority of the classical languages (see on this Essay on the Languages of the New World [1812]), and partly in his broader ideal of Bildung, or self-cultivation, which motivated turning to the classical world as an outstanding ethical model (see on this Concerning the Study of Antiquity, and of Greek Antiquity in Particular [1793] and History of the Fall and Demise of the Greek Free States [1807–8]). His reforms also pursued the ideal of Bildung at the university level. Accordingly, he rejected the sort of vocational and utilitarian conception of university-level education that predominated in France. Instead, his positive model of the university comprised three central components: (1) A commitment to the freedom of the university—including not only the sort of financial freedom from the state that has already been mentioned, but also freedom in the modes of activity and interaction open to faculty and students. (2) A commitment to an endless search for new knowledge, rather than merely a propagation of already-acquired knowledge, as the central function of the university. (We tend to take this ideal for granted today, but that is largely because of Humboldt's massive influence. The ideal was in fact grounded in some rather distinctive features both of the German culture of his day—for example, Lessing's famous preference for a search for truth over its possession, and the Romantics’ conception that the human condition in regard to knowledge is one of “endless approximation [unendliche Annäherung]”—and of his own personal style of academic work, as exemplified by his self-consciously endless research on languages for instance.) (3) A commitment to combining research with teaching within the same institution—a model which Humboldt cogently argues not only produces the best teaching but is also more productive for research than the alternative of the purely research-oriented academy.

Humboldt's educational theory and reforms exercised enormous influence on the future course of German education and, especially at the university level, of Western education generally. Their influence has in the main been (p.104) extremely beneficial. But they have also had certain negative consequences—for instance, a tendency to elitism due to the retention of education in private hands;49 and a tendency to accord insufficient weight to the natural sciences.

9. Philosophy of Religion

Humboldt was not a very religious person. Indeed, compared to most of his contemporaries he had relatively little sympathy with or interest in religion per se. He had much more interest in religion's relation to the state, though.

Ironically, Humboldt's first publication was concerned with religion: Socrates and Plato on the Deity, Providence, and Immortality (1787). This work mainly consists of translations from Plato and Xenophon. But it also conveys Humboldt's own position on religion at this early period: a standard Enlightenment sympathy with natural religion based on common sense and reason, combined with a hostility towards both fanaticism and skepticism.

With time Humboldt's own views on religion became more skeptical, however. His most systematic discussion of the subject occurs in On Religion (1789). There he holds that the propositions of religion cannot be demonstrated (for example, he was entirely skeptical of Moses Mendelssohn's supposed proof of God's existence), and that they are instead purely matters of faith, and “entirely subjective.”50 He also argues that morality is quite separable from religion.51 Somewhat later, in a letter to Brinkmann from October 22, 1803 he rejects such religious propositions as the existence of God and human immortality in an even more decided way.52

The mature Humboldt was not entirely without religion, though. He was certainly not a Christian. But, like his friend Goethe, he had considerable sympathy with paganism. This can already be seen from Latium and Hellas (1806), for example.53 Some verses that he wrote in about 1815 are also revealing:

  • Ich bin ein armer heidnischer Mann,
  • Der die Kirchen nicht leiden kann;
  • Ich leb’ in der alten vergangenen Zeit,
  • Drum wähle ich mir die Einsamkeit.
  • [I am a poor heathen man,
  • Who churches cannot stand;
  • I live in ancient times long gone,
  • Hence I opt to be alone.]54

Similarly, in On the Task of the Historian (1821), while he avoids using conventional religious terms such as “God,” he does nonetheless posit a vaguely conceived “governance of the world [Weltregierung].”

(p.105) Concerning religion and the state, Humboldt already in On Religion argues forcefully that the state must not seek to impose religion on its citizens. This liberalism, which he subsequently repeats in Ideas towards an Attempt to Fix the Limits of the State's Operation (1791), is perhaps his most emphatic and important principle in connection with religion. His advocacy of complete emancipation of the Jews is one significant aspect of it.

Notes

(1.) For a helpful corrective, see M.L. Manchester, The Philosophical Foundations of Humboldt's Linguistic Doctrines (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1985), esp. ch. 1.

(2.) Concerning the influence of Herder's Treatise on the essay, cf. H. Gipper and P. Schmitter, Sprachwissenschaft und Sprachphilosophie im Zeitalter der Romantik (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1985), p. 62, and the secondary literature cited there (especially that by Lauchert, Sapir, and Menze); also, H. Gipper, Wilhelm von Humboldts Bedeutung für Theorie und Praxis moderner Sprachforschung (Münster: Nodus, 1992), pp. 77 ff., 108–9.

(3.) Cf. R. Haym, Wilhelm von Humboldt. Lebensbild und Charakteristik (Berlin: Gaertner, 1856), pp. 493 ff.

(4.) W. von Humboldt, On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language-Structure and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 83–4: “Even for [external physical objects] the word is not the equivalent of the object that hovers before the sense, but rather the conception thereof through language-production at the moment of finding the word. This is a notable source of the multiplicity of expressions for the same objects; and if in Sanskrit, for example, the elephant is now called the twice-drinking one, now the two-toothed one, and now the one equipped with a single hand, as many different concepts are thereby designated, though always the same object is meant.” This doctrine strikingly anticipates, and may well have influenced, Frege's sense/referent distinction, and his position that reference to particulars is mediated by senses which take the form of definite descriptions.

(5.) Humboldt even borrows some of his verbal formulations of this doctrine from Herder. For example, Herder had written in his Treatise that “language turns out to be a natural organ of thought”; likewise, Humboldt writes in the Kawi-introduction that “language is the forming organ of thought.”

(6.) For example, he writes in the preface to his translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: “A word is so little a sign for a concept that the concept (p.106) cannot arise, let alone be held fast, without the word” (Wilhelm von Humboldts Gesammelte Schriften [henceforth WHGS], ed. A. Leitzmann et al. [Berlin: B. Behr, 1903–], 8:129).

(7.) As Herder puts it in the Ideas: “The finest essay on the history and the diverse character of the human understanding and heart… would be a philosophical comparison of languages: for a people's understanding and character is imprinted in each of them” (G6:353).

(8.) For a detailed discussion of Humboldt's conception of languages as “organisms,” see R.L. Brown, Wilhelm von Humboldt's Conception of Linguistic Relativity (The Hague/Paris: Mouton, 1967), ch. 3. It is important to note that for Humboldt the application to language of the concept of an “organism”—as of other biological concepts (e.g. relationship and descent)—is self-consciously metaphorical.

(9.) For details, see Essay 4.

(10.) For further discussion, see Essay 4.

(11.) See e.g. Gipper and Schmitter, Sprachwissenschaft und Sprachphilosophie, pp. 90–1.

(12.) See e.g. ibid., pp. 86 ff.

(13.) Cf. Humboldt's frequent counterintuitive-sounding claim that a language can only emerge all at once.

(14.) For an early expression of this sort of picture of language, see WHGS 3:296: “One does not reach the actual essence of language by any dissection, however complete it might be. It is like a breath that surrounds the whole, but, too fine, loses its form for the eye in the individual element, just as the mist of the mountains only has shape from a distance but when one enters it swirls shapelessly.”

(15.) Schleiermacher and Humboldt both lived in Berlin and knew each other well. See Gipper and Schmitter, Sprachwissenschaft und Sprachphilosophie, pp. 96–7.

(16.) WHGS 1:280.

(17.) It is noteworthy in this connection that Humboldt's own translations—for example, his translations from the Bhagavad-Gita—are often quite radically foreignizing.

(18.) Concerning the Herder-Schleiermacher theory, see After Herder, Essays 4 and 12.

(19.) As I mentioned in a previous note, Humboldt and Schleiermacher both lived in Berlin and knew each other well.

(20.) This point of agreement is especially striking because it seems to contradict Humboldt's earlier position in Latium and Hellas (1806) that there are (p.107) differences in meaning between the words hippos, equus, and Pferd (WHGS 3:170).

(21.) Noting these clear debts to Schleiermacher in Humboldt's hermeneutics and translation theory answers a question about intellectual influence between the two men posed but left open by Gipper and Schmitter at Sprachwissenschaft und Sprachphilosophie, pp. 96–7.

(22.) For a later expression of a similar vision by Humboldt, see his 1812 prospectus for a work on the Basque people and language (WHGS 3:288 ff.), which puts more emphasis than the Plan on the central role of language in such an investigation.

(23.) For more on Humboldt's role in the founding of modern cultural anthropology, see After Herder, Essay 6.

(24.) Concerning the Romantics’ version of the theory, see E. Fiesel, Die Sprachphilosophie der Deutschen Romantik, pp. 9 ff.; E. Behler, German Romantic Literary Theory, pp. 202–3, 302–3; also, M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953).

(25.) For a detailed discussion of this tradition, see Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp.

(26.) As K. Müller-Vollmer argues in Poesie und Einbildungskraft: Zur Dichtungstheorie Wilhelm von Humboldts (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1967), Humboldt's theory has Fichtean roots (his Paris notebooks from 1798 show that he was an enthusiast for Fichte's views at this period).

(27.) In a later re-statement of the theory Humboldt adds another characteristically Romantic theme: directedness towards the Infinite. See WHGS 5:335–7.

(28.) There had already been precedents for such a theory in Sir William Jones and J.G. Sulzer. See Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp, pp. 87–9.

(29.) See e.g. On Language, pp. 159–61.

(30.) See e.g. History of the Fall and Demise of the Greek Free States (1807–8), at WHGS 3:198.

(31.) For further discussion, see After Herder, Essay 7.

(32.) WHGS 1:107.

(33.) ibid., p. 111.

(34.) ibid., p. 207.

(35.) Cf. ibid., pp. 57 ff.

(36.) ibid., p. 160.

(37.) Already in On Religion (1789) he had written, somewhat hyperbolically, that the ancients had enjoyed “unlimited freedom of thought, boundless tolerance” (WHGS 1:51).

(p.108) (38.) WHGS 1:160.

(39.) ibid., pp. 122–3, 128. A similar argument would later be developed more elaborately by Schleiermacher in Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct (1799).

(40.) WHGS 1:73–6.

(41.) See e.g. WHGS 3:159–60.

(42.) Pace Hans Aarsleff's characterization of him as a racist in his linguistic theories.

(43.) See esp. On the Diversity of Human Language Structure, at WHGS 6:196–203; and Humboldt's writings against anti-semitism, in particular On the Plan for a New Constitution for the Jews.

(44.) See again the two texts cited in the preceding note.

(45.) It is perhaps also worth mentioning that, like Herder, Humboldt even extends his sphere of moral concern beyond human beings to include animals. See WHGS 1:14 n.

(46.) See e.g. Latium and Hellas (1806), at WHGS 3:154.

(47.) For an early statement of this commitment, see WHGS 1:69, where Humboldt presents individual Bildung as the highest purpose of the state and legislation.

(48.) See e.g. Concerning the Study of Antiquity, and of Greek Antiquity in Particular (1793), at WHGS 1:281; cf. 284.

(49.) Elitist tendencies also occur at certain other points in Humboldt's thought, for example in his championing of the rights of—often oppressive—local aristocracies in connection with constitutional questions.

(50.) WHGS 1:64–6, 68.

(51.) ibid., pp. 67 ff., 70, 73.

(52.) Wilhelm von Humboldts Briefe an Karl Gustav Brinkmann, ed. A. Leitzmann (Leipzig: Karl W. Hiersemann, 1939), pp. 155–7.

(53.) WHGS 3:151–7.

(54.) WHGS 9:90.

Notes:

(4.) W. von Humboldt, On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language-Structure and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 83–4: “Even for [external physical objects] the word is not the equivalent of the object that hovers before the sense, but rather the conception thereof through language-production at the moment of finding the word. This is a notable source of the multiplicity of expressions for the same objects; and if in Sanskrit, for example, the elephant is now called the twice-drinking one, now the two-toothed one, and now the one equipped with a single hand, as many different concepts are thereby designated, though always the same object is meant.” This doctrine strikingly anticipates, and may well have influenced, Frege's sense/referent distinction, and his position that reference to particulars is mediated by senses which take the form of definite descriptions.

(5.) Humboldt even borrows some of his verbal formulations of this doctrine from Herder. For example, Herder had written in his Treatise that “language turns out to be a natural organ of thought”; likewise, Humboldt writes in the Kawi-introduction that “language is the forming organ of thought.”

(6.) For example, he writes in the preface to his translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: “A word is so little a sign for a concept that the concept (p.106) cannot arise, let alone be held fast, without the word” (Wilhelm von Humboldts Gesammelte Schriften [henceforth WHGS], ed. A. Leitzmann et al. [Berlin: B. Behr, 1903–], 8:129).

(7.) As Herder puts it in the Ideas: “The finest essay on the history and the diverse character of the human understanding and heart… would be a philosophical comparison of languages: for a people's understanding and character is imprinted in each of them” (G6:353).

(8.) For a detailed discussion of Humboldt's conception of languages as “organisms,” see R.L. Brown, Wilhelm von Humboldt's Conception of Linguistic Relativity (The Hague/Paris: Mouton, 1967), ch. 3. It is important to note that for Humboldt the application to language of the concept of an “organism”—as of other biological concepts (e.g. relationship and descent)—is self-consciously metaphorical.

(9.) For details, see Essay 4.

(10.) For further discussion, see Essay 4.

(12.) See e.g. ibid., pp. 86 ff.

(13.) Cf. Humboldt's frequent counterintuitive-sounding claim that a language can only emerge all at once.

(14.) For an early expression of this sort of picture of language, see WHGS 3:296: “One does not reach the actual essence of language by any dissection, however complete it might be. It is like a breath that surrounds the whole, but, too fine, loses its form for the eye in the individual element, just as the mist of the mountains only has shape from a distance but when one enters it swirls shapelessly.”

(15.) Schleiermacher and Humboldt both lived in Berlin and knew each other well. See Gipper and Schmitter, Sprachwissenschaft und Sprachphilosophie, pp. 96–7.

(17.) It is noteworthy in this connection that Humboldt's own translations—for example, his translations from the Bhagavad-Gita—are often quite radically foreignizing.

(18.) Concerning the Herder-Schleiermacher theory, see After Herder, Essays 4 and 12.

(19.) As I mentioned in a previous note, Humboldt and Schleiermacher both lived in Berlin and knew each other well.

(20.) This point of agreement is especially striking because it seems to contradict Humboldt's earlier position in Latium and Hellas (1806) that there are (p.107) differences in meaning between the words hippos, equus, and Pferd (WHGS 3:170).

(21.) Noting these clear debts to Schleiermacher in Humboldt's hermeneutics and translation theory answers a question about intellectual influence between the two men posed but left open by Gipper and Schmitter at Sprachwissenschaft und Sprachphilosophie, pp. 96–7.

(22.) For a later expression of a similar vision by Humboldt, see his 1812 prospectus for a work on the Basque people and language (WHGS 3:288 ff.), which puts more emphasis than the Plan on the central role of language in such an investigation.

(23.) For more on Humboldt's role in the founding of modern cultural anthropology, see After Herder, Essay 6.

(24.) Concerning the Romantics’ version of the theory, see E. Fiesel, Die Sprachphilosophie der Deutschen Romantik, pp. 9 ff.; E. Behler, German Romantic Literary Theory, pp. 202–3, 302–3; also, M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953).

(25.) For a detailed discussion of this tradition, see Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp.

(26.) As K. Müller-Vollmer argues in Poesie und Einbildungskraft: Zur Dichtungstheorie Wilhelm von Humboldts (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1967), Humboldt's theory has Fichtean roots (his Paris notebooks from 1798 show that he was an enthusiast for Fichte's views at this period).

(27.) In a later re-statement of the theory Humboldt adds another characteristically Romantic theme: directedness towards the Infinite. See WHGS 5:335–7.

(28.) There had already been precedents for such a theory in Sir William Jones and J.G. Sulzer. See Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp, pp. 87–9.

(30.) See e.g. History of the Fall and Demise of the Greek Free States (1807–8), at WHGS 3:198.

(31.) For further discussion, see After Herder, Essay 7.

(33.) ibid., p. 111.

(34.) ibid., p. 207.

(35.) Cf. ibid., pp. 57 ff.

(36.) ibid., p. 160.

(37.) Already in On Religion (1789) he had written, somewhat hyperbolically, that the ancients had enjoyed “unlimited freedom of thought, boundless tolerance” (WHGS 1:51).

(p.108) (38.) WHGS 1:160.

(39.) ibid., pp. 122–3, 128. A similar argument would later be developed more elaborately by Schleiermacher in Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct (1799).

(41.) See e.g. WHGS 3:159–60.

(42.) Pace Hans Aarsleff's characterization of him as a racist in his linguistic theories.

(43.) See esp. On the Diversity of Human Language Structure, at WHGS 6:196–203; and Humboldt's writings against anti-semitism, in particular On the Plan for a New Constitution for the Jews.

(44.) See again the two texts cited in the preceding note.

(45.) It is perhaps also worth mentioning that, like Herder, Humboldt even extends his sphere of moral concern beyond human beings to include animals. See WHGS 1:14 n.

(46.) See e.g. Latium and Hellas (1806), at WHGS 3:154.

(47.) For an early statement of this commitment, see WHGS 1:69, where Humboldt presents individual Bildung as the highest purpose of the state and legislation.

(48.) See e.g. Concerning the Study of Antiquity, and of Greek Antiquity in Particular (1793), at WHGS 1:281; cf. 284.

(49.) Elitist tendencies also occur at certain other points in Humboldt's thought, for example in his championing of the rights of—often oppressive—local aristocracies in connection with constitutional questions.

(51.) ibid., pp. 67 ff., 70, 73.