VII International and Interdisciplinary Conference in Homage to
Alexander von Humboldt, Claudio Gay and Ignacio Domekyo

 

History: Alexander von Humboldt

HUMBOLDT, Alexander von (1769-1859) Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin on 14 September 1769 and died there in 1859. Hisfather, Alexander Georg von Humboldt (1720-79), was a Prussian officer and chamberlain ('Obristwachtmeister' and 'Kammerherr'), his mother, Marie Elisabeth (nee Colomb, 1741-96), was part of a Huguenot family.

The life and works of Alexander von Humboldt can easily be divided into three different periods of thirty years each, i.e. from 1769 to 1799, 1799 to 1829, and 1829 to 1859. The first period is characterized by an excellent education, allowing Humboldt to display outstanding professional and scientific skills within a humanistic framework. Together with his elder brother Wilhelm VON HUMBOLDT, he was educated at Tegel Palace (Ber!in) by renowned private teachers such as Gottlob Johann Christian Kunth, Joachim Heinrich CAMPE and Ernst Ludwig Heim. He began his studies at the University of Frankfurt/Oder in 1787/8 in the field of 'Kameralistik', preparing hirnself for official duties as a civil servant of the Prussian state. He continued his private studies in Berlin in philosophy, philology, mathematics, physics, technology and painting, including his introduction to botany by Karl Ludwig Willdenow.

In 1789, he followed his brother Wilhelm to the University of Göttingen, completing his studies by numerous travels to different parts of Germany and Central Europe. In 1790, he published his first book in the field of mineralogy, Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein. In the same year, together with Georg FORSTER, who later published his famous Ansichten vom Niederrhein, he travelled to Cologne, Brussels, Amsterdam, London and Paris, where the French Revolution made a deep impression on him. After completing his studies in economics at Büsch's Handelsakademie in Hamburg in 1790 and 1791, he continued his studies in mineralogy and geology at the famous Bergakademie of Freiberg, Saxonia, in 1791 and 1792. A brilliant career in Prussia's mining department left him in Franconia, from where he again travelled to different parts of Central and Western Europe. In 1793, he published his book Florae Fribergensis specimen, became a member of the Leopoldinisch-Carolinische Akademie der Naturforscher and was honoured with several distinctions.

Humboldt's international prestige increased with the publication of his Versuch über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser (1797), Ueber die unterirdischen Gasarten (1799), and his Versuche über die chemische Zerlegung des Luftkreises (1799), all of which document his interests and activities in various scientific disciplines. Lecturing repeatedly at the Institut de France (Academie des Sciences) in Paris in 1798 and publishing in international journals, Humboldt bccame a well-known member of the scientific community in Europe. Economically independent, after the death of his mother in 1796, he abandoned his promising career in Prussia's mining department and prepared a long journey that would finally lead hirn to regions outside Europe.

Leaving the Jena Cirde (GOETHE, SCHILLER and Wilhelm von Humboldt) and Berlin behind hirn, he travelled to Prague, Vienna, Sopron and Salzburg, establishing close contact with scientists in different disciplines and countries, carefully preparing himself to collect and relate data in different scientific fields and geographic regions. Together with the French doctor and botanist Aime Bonpland, he travelled to Marseille, desperately trying to reach Egypt and Northern Africa. As Napoleon's campaign in Egypt definitely impeded them from doing so, Bonpland and Humboldt travelled to Madrid where, in 1799, the Spanish king granted them permission to visit the Spanish colonies.

During the second period of his life, Humboldt's American journey (1799-1804) enabled him to make deep and long-lasting changes in the conception of America as a hemisphere, leaving DE PAUW'S, Robertson's and Raynal's visions far behind. At the same time, during his five years of travel and the elaboration of his monumental thirty-volume Voyage aux regions equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, his wide-ranging scientific preparation allowed hirn to pave the way for a fundamentally new scientific conception and configuration, Humboldtian science.

Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt and Bonpland travelled to the regions of the Spanish empire known today as Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico, making a short but important visit to the United States, before returning to Paris, where Humboldt chose to live and publish the major part of his Voyage over more than twenty years. His visits to very different natural and cultural landscapes and contexts in the Americas include prolific fieldwork on extremely different topics as well as careful readings and research in archives and libraries in Havanna, Caracas, Bogota, Quito, Lima, Mexico City and Philadelphia. Relating the American experience with his European education and skills, the scientific conception created by Humboldt is situated between the Old World and the New, between Diderot's Encycyclopedie, Rousseau's Julie, KANT'S understanding of Aufklärung and SCHELLlNG'S Naturphilosophie on the one hand, and Darwin's evolutionary thinking on the other, between the literary and philosophical traditions of France (from Montesquieu to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre or Chateaubriand) and those of Germany (from Georg Forster and Kant to Schiller and Goethe).

In his Ansichten der Natur (1808), he proposes new forms of scientific and literary writing, integrating empirically founded research and complex rhizomatic aesthetics into a multiplicity of perspectives on nature and culture. His Essai sur la geographie des plantes (1807) is a foundational text for plant geography as weil as for a multi-dimensional approach to dynamic structures in nature, and his Vues des Cordilleres et monumens des peuples indigenes de l' Amerique(1810/1813) can be considered as the founding of American anthropology and of a new approach to dynamic structures in culture. Every single book presents a unique and innovative form that always represents its specific objects within the framework of transregional and transareal comparisons. For the author of the Voyage aux regions equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, everything is interrelated. Marking his own point of view, Humboldt cautiously rethinks the specific in terms of the relational, an interconnectedness that characterizes his own working technique and mode of thinking. During his lifetime, Humboldt wrote between 30,000 and 50,000 letters; his worldwide correspondence, of course, has to be considered an integral and fundamental part of his oeuvre.

After his return from Paris to the Prussian capital in 1827, Humboldt concentrated his activities on intensifying Berlin's scientific networks and insisting on the social and cultural impact of science in the public sphere. In his 'Cosmos-lectures' in 1827 and 1828, he reached a large public far beyond the traditional elites. The second period concludes with his Russian-Siberian journey, which may be considered the realization of his old dream of an Asian journey that the British Empire, for his well-known criticism of colonialism, had never allowed him to undertake. Between April and December 1829, this travel through the 'Old World', closely controlled by the Russian czar, took him up to the Chinese border, this time accompanied by the mineralogist Gustav Rose and the zoologist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg. The Russian-Siberian journey completes his empirically based 'Weltanschauung' by giving himn access to new materials for global comparison.

The third period in Humboldt's life and works, which lasted umil his death in 1859, is characterized by the stringent elaboration of Humboldtian science founded in a close link between ethics and aesthetics, science and politics. Humboldt's scientific and philosophical conception is transdisciplinary and not interdisciplinary ('nomadic', in his own terms), crossing the boundaries of utter!y different disciplines, beyond the gap that, a century after Humboldt's death, C.P. Snow has called the 'two cultures'. His own intellectual standpoint, though, is intercultural and not transcultural, as Humboldt makes his own European perspective clear and at the same time develops a new cosmopolitanism based not on tolerance but acceptance of difference. Humboldt put forward a different understanding of modernity, based on a multipolar model of mutual exchanges and on what he called 'world consciousness' ('Weltbewuftsein'), the ongoing process of understanding complexity and relational structures. Humboldt's deep belief in the decisive importance of education and 'Bildung' is continually reflected in his work from the late 1780s and informs his writing as well as his socio-political activities.

The idea for the Kosmos dates back to the 1790s, but it was published only between 1845 and 1862 in five volumes and remained, like many of Humboldt's writings, unfinished. It is not the anachronistic monument of an old-fashioned 'Universalgelehrter' but the inspiring document of a pioneering attempt to create a relational and transdisciplinary science based on the worldwide responsibility of scientific activity.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein (Braunschweig, 1790). Florae Fribergensis specimen (Berlin, 1793).
Essai sur la geographie des plalltes aaccompagne d'un tableau physique (Paris and Tübingen, 1807).
Ansichten der Natur mit wissenschaftlichen Erläuterungen (Tübingen, 1808).
Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne, 2 vols (Paris, 1808, 1811 ).
Vues des Cordilleres et monumens des peuples indigenes de l'Amerique, 2 vols. (Paris, 1810, and 1813).
Relation historique du Voyage aux regions equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, 3 vols (Paris, 1814, 1819, 1825).
Essai politique sur l'ile de Cuba, 2 vols (Paris, 1826).
Examen critique de l'histoire de la geographie du nouveau continent et des progres de l'astronomie nautique aux quinzieme et seizieme siecles, 5 vols (Paris, 1836, 1837, 1839).
Asie centrale, 3 vols (Paris, 1843).
Kosmos. Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung, 5 vols (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1845, 1847, 1850, 1858, 1862).
Kleinere Schriften (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1853).

Further Reading
Beck, Hanno, Alexander von Humboldt, 2 vols (Wiesbaden, 1959, 1961).
Biermann, Kurt-R., Alexander von Humboldt, 4th edn (Leipzig, 1990).
Ette, Ottmar, Weltbewußtsein. Alexander von Humboldt und das unvollendete Projekt einer anderen Moderne (Weilerswist, 2002).
Fiedler, Horst and Ulrike Leitner, Alexander von Humboldts Schriften. Bibliographie
der selbständig erschienenen Werke
(Berlin, 2000).
Holl, Frank, Netzwerke des Wissens, Katalog der Ausstellungen in Berlin und Bonn (Bonn, 1999).

Ottmar Ette