The von Humboldt Brothers—As Scholars and Siblings

In the previous blog, I introduced two remarkable scholars from the early 19th century, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), linguist and architect of the Prussian educational system; and his younger brother, Alexander (1769-1859), naturalist, explorer, traveler, and masterful speaker and essayist. Here I explore whether their sibling status and birth order may have contributed to their distinctive styles and achievements.

That they were distinctive seems clear. Indeed, I found vivid testimony to this effect from Wilhelm.

“Since we were children, we have diverged like two opposite poles, although we have always loved one another and at times have confided in one another… My father and my mother, who had only two children, should have had these two who—although in general they both are similarly oriented toward the world of thought and the contemplative life—should nonetheless diverge more completely than could be expected if they had been born on different planets.”

What does the record show? Both von Humboldt brothers benefited from a first rate home education, delivered by an expert tutor. Both Alexander and Wilhelm were intellectually ambitious—they absorbed vast amounts of information readily and had quick access to that information. Wilhelm stayed close to home, metaphorically and literally; he did not leave the European continent and carried out work that could be (and perhaps was!) done in his study. Essentially (and confessedly) an introvert and an introspecter, he liked to pore over books, reading in and thinking about multiple languages. He pondered how the education that he and Alexander had had might be shared with a much larger population. Wilhelm was comfortable as a European and a German, a conventional householder, with a supportive wife and eight children, five of whom survived until adulthood. He was religious, often invoking God.

In sharp contrast, Alexander sought to get away from home, literally and metaphorically. He wanted to explore unfamiliar and sometimes unknown terrains, have exotic adventures, and place himself at risk. He had an enormous appetite for new information which he then sought to synthesize—in his own way, rather than as part of an organized discipline. He rarely wrote about human character—his own or that of others. And he relished the emerging art of popularizing—both in person and via his readable, multi-volume Cosmos. We might say that he wanted to circumvent the establishment and put forth his own syntheses, rather than address those in more established fields of knowledge in a more conventional manner. He rarely spoke or wrote about God and may well have been agnostic.

How might these contrasts relate to their status as siblings, or, to use the more common jargon of our times, the “birth order effects”? Thanks to the work of many researchers, notably Frank Sulloway,  we know that first-borns grow up more quickly, orient more toward an adult world, tend to think more conventionally, and are more likely to become leaders—and especially bossy ones! In contrast, second (and later) borns are less oriented toward the adult world, more engaged with peers, and, as Sulloway amply documents, are “born to rebel.”

An ecological way of thinking about brothers is illuminating. We might think of the first-born, for whatever reason, as electing to excel in certain pursuits and to do so in certain ways. (Often first-borns emulate the life choices of the father, and this tendency is reinforced by the practice of primogeniture.) The oldest son thereby comes to occupy a certain role in physical and psychological space. The second son has an option: either compete with the first born (which can happen if the second born is especially able or, perhaps, is for one or another reason favored by the elder generation); or, more likely, seek to make his or her mark in a distinctly different arena.

This description can help to explain the brothers von Humboldt. Wilhelm occupied the home space, studying materials that are local and date back to classical times, and was dedicated to his homeland (das Vaterland—Father land!). It is perhaps not surprising that the younger sibling Alexander would travel far, focusing on new objects of study, unfamiliar specimens, recently discovered processes (e.g. electricity) in the physical (rather than the psychological) environment, and that he would identify with French and universal rather than Germanic and nationalistic tendencies. Indeed, his Francophilia and universalist tendencies caused the greatest strain in the relationship between the brothers. (In persons and in nations, we continue to behold this antimony between nationalism and globalism today—200 years after the Humboldtian era.)

Which leaves the question of intellectual style. Both von Humboldts were systematizers—gathering lots of data and trying to organize those data in the most propitious way. In this respect they are both typical early 19th century scholars, maturing in an era before the advent of extensive experimental science, testable models, and verifiable or disprovable frameworks and hypotheses.

Stepping onto a speculative limb, I’d propose the following. Within his own scholarship, Wilhelm looked across a range of languages (and eras) and sought to uncover the most fundamental properties of human language. He sought unity in diversity. With respect to his multiple studies across many geographies, Alexander also sought unity—he believed in and illustrated the connections across species (plant, animal, human), ecologies (volcanoes, oceans, the sky), and processes (light, electricity, weather, temperature). In this way, they were brothers under the pen as well as under their skin… and, I would add, very Germanic and very humanistic in thought.

Yet they differed revealingly in the arenas in which they had the greatest impact. Paradoxically, the introverted Wilhelm impacted educational systems at the time, an impact that extends to this day, and of course he had a large family. Alexander had no children and did not create any institutions; he impacted those scholars who were inspired by his discoveries and those numerous ordinary persons—often young—who were captivated by his talks and his writings. Each brother used his talents and energies as he saw fit, but of course neither could control how the world would respond to his endeavors.

And neither man transcended his era. Yet as we look today at linguistics—a la Chomsky—or at popular synthesizers—like Carl Sagan or E. O. Wilson—we acknowledge the debt that they owe to two distinctive Germans, long forgotten by name to be sure, whose intellectual achievements cast a long-lasting shadow.

ReferenceHumanist without portfolio: An anthology of the writings of Wilhelm von Humboldt. Detroit: Wayne University Press, p. 386, 408.

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