The Remarkable von Humboldt Brothers

Throughout much of the 19th century, the von Humboldt brothers were among the most famous persons in the world—celebrities before that term was bandied about. Alexander (1769-1859) was known for his pioneering five-year trip as a naturalist to Latin America and for his synthesizing writings, chief among them his multi-volume Cosmos. His older brother Wilhelm (1767-1835) was renowned for devising the university system in Prussia, organizing the pre-university educational system throughout German-speaking territory, and carrying out highly original studies in linguistics.

Today, the two have been justifiably celebrated through the naming (in their joint honor) of the Humboldt University in Berlin; and yet except among specialists, the substance of their work is little known except perhaps in Germany. In this blog, I summarize and salute their quality work. In a companion blog, I explore why brothers—a mere two years apart in age—could each make important contributions to scholarship and yet do so in highly distinctive ways.

First Wilhelm, the older brother. Always more studious than Alexander, Wilhelm made connections early on with leading Germanic thinkers, chief among them Goethe and Schiller. He mastered their works, along with those of the most important scholar of the era, Immanuel Kant. While a leading thinker and copious writer (though one who did not publish much during his lifetime), Wilhelm’s “career path” did not coalesce until he was asked by the Prussian government in effect to organize the educational system.

In a remarkably brief period of time, Wilhelm laid out a bold and highly original vision: universities should combine teaching and research; students should read and think widely, across the disciplinary terrain; and there should be few formal barriers to organizing one’s own studies (in this, the Prussian system differed from the more structured Napoleonic system). Moreover, there should be a systematic sequence, beginning with elementary schools, which, in their emphasis on play and discovery, were very progressive; these fed into more selective secondary schools (Gymnasiums) with libraries and scientific laboratories; and then ultimately, for the select few, the privilege of higher education in the company of superb scholars. Today, as the terrain of higher education is widely contested across the world, it is noteworthy that the preeminent German philosopher Jurgen Habermas draws explicitly on the Humboldtian conception of the university.

Wilhelm was always fascinated by languages. At a young age he learned Latin, Greek, and the major European languages; and later he dabbled in Sanskrit, Basque, and Kawi (the language of Java) and wrote about the Bhagavad Gita. Clearly he was one of the leading masters of language in his era. Of more importance for our time, Wilhelm also thought deeply about the nature of language: its components, its structure, its role in thought, and its salient defining role in human nature. No less a contemporary authority than Noam Chomsky pays tribute to Wilhelm’s pioneering thinking about language, delineating ways in which his own path-breaking work has taken as a point of departure the Humboldtian enterprise.

Alexander received the same education as Wilhelm—personal tutoring in the major disciplines and topics of the time and similar university experiences. And though not as overtly precocious as Wilhelm, Alexander was certainly a gifted student. But while Wilhelm saw himself as a European, and devoted many years to choreographing Prussian education, Alexander was a prototypical adventurer. He was eager to leave Europe and in fact embarked on a five year expedition to the Americas, chiefly Latin America. (He stopped off in Washington, D.C., to pay a visit to President Thomas Jefferson, Vice President James Madison, and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin.) In the course of his adventurous expedition, Alexander assembled a huge collection of the flora and fauna of that part of the world; as just one example, he brought back 60,000 plant specimens, representing 6,000 species, of which 2,000 were new to European scholars.

After his American journey was completed, Alexander devoted many years (and all of his inherited fortune) to the publication of his findings. These encyclopedic naturalist works had enormous influence on Charles Darwin, who followed much the same travelling path as Alexander a few decades later; and von Humboldt’s influence extended to the United States, through writers like Thoreau and Whitman.

Not only did Alexander crave worldwide travel adventures (he wanted desperately to travel to China and India but never made it); he did not much like the German speaking societies and instead lived for years in Paris. (He met Napoleon, but, perhaps not wanting to be upstaged by this celebrity of natural science, Napoleon brushed him off.) Only after brother Wilhelm had finished his work in education did Alexander return to Berlin, where he survived his brother by more than two decades. Alexander became a masterful lecturer, entertaining and edifying huge audiences with his ideas and his travel adventures. And then as his magnum opus, he wrote the five volume Cosmos, an unprecedented synthesis of knowledge from the range of scientific disciplines as well as an effort to portray how these parts fit into an overarching tapestry. No wonder that master writer-lecturer Carl Sagan chose the same single word title as Alexander—in effect he was producing the second Cosmos.

Perusing the German and English literature on the brothers von Humboldt, I found much on their lives together—their rather unhappy childhoods, their living together and apart, their extensive correspondence over four decades, their different interests and temperaments, and—in the more recent writings, though not in those from the 19th century—speculations that Alexander was gay and that Wilhelm was preoccupied with what Goethe called “Das Ewig Weibliche—the eternal feminine.”

But I have found little about the resemblances and differences between their intellectual endas and almost nothing about how these relationships might reflect that the fact that they were siblings—older and younger brothers. A full study would require considerable time and considerable expertise—neither of which I have available! But in my next blog, I will offer some speculations.

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