Wilhelm von Humboldt
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Born 22 June 1767
Died 8 April 1835
Era 19th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy

Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt (22 June 1767 – 8 April 1835) was a German (Prussian) philosopher, government functionary, diplomat, and founder of the University of Berlin, which was named after him in 1949 (and also after his brother, Alexander von Humboldt, a naturalist).

He is especially remembered as a linguist who made important contributions to the philosophy of language and to the theory and practice of education. In particular, he is widely recognized as having been the architect of the Prussian education system which was used as a model for education systems in countries such as the United States and Japan.

His younger brother, Alexander von Humboldt, was famous as a geographer, naturalist, and explorer.[2]


Humboldt was born in Potsdam, Margraviate of Brandenburg, and died in Tegel, Province of Brandenburg.

In June 1791, he married Karoline von Dacheröden. They had eight children. Five survived to adulthood.[3]


Humboldt was a philosopher and wrote On the Limits of State Action in 1791–1792 (though it was not published until 1850, after Humboldt's death), one of the boldest defences of the liberties of the Enlightenment. It influenced John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty through which von Humboldt's ideas became known in the English-speaking world. Humboldt outlined an early version of what Mill would later call the "harm principle".

The section dealing with education was published in the December 1792 issue of the Berlinische Monatsschrift under the title ‘On public state education’. With this publication, Humboldt took part in the philosophical debate on the direction of national education which was in progress in Germany, as elsewhere after the French Revolution.

Minister of Education

A sculpture of Humboldt in Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen.

As Prussian Minister of Education, Humboldt oversaw the system of Technische Hochschulen and Gymnasien. As minister, Humboldt installed a standardized system of public instruction. That is, he imposed a standardization of state examinations and inspections and created a special department within the ministry to oversee and design of curricula, textbooks and learning aids. [4]

Humboldt's plans for reforming the Prussian school system were not published until long after his death, together with his fragment of a treatise on the 'Theory of Human Education', which had been written in about 1793. Here Humboldt states that 'the ultimate task of our existence is to give the fullest possible content to the concept of humanity in our own person [...] through the impact of actions in our own lives'. This task 'can only be implemented through the links established between ourselves as individuals and the world around us' (GS, I, p. 283).

Humboldt's concept of education does not lend itself solely to individualistic interpretation. It is true that he always recognized the importance of the organization of individual life and the 'development of a wealth of individual forms' (GS, III, p. 358), but he stressed the fact that 'self-education can only be continued [...] in the wider context of development of the world' (GS, VII, p. 33). In other words, the individual is not only entitled, but also obliged, to play his part in shaping the world around him.

Humboldt's educational ideal was entirely coloured by social considerations. He never believed that the 'human race could culminate in the attainment of a general perfection conceived in abstract terms'. In 1789, he wrote in his diary that 'the education of the individual requires his incorporation into society and involves his links with society at large' (GS, XIV, p. 155). In his essay on the 'Theory of Human Education', he answered the question as to the 'demands which must be made of a nation, of an age and of the human race'. 'Education, truth and virtue' must be disseminated to such an extent that the 'concept of mankind' takes on a great and dignified form in each individual (GS, I, p. 284). However, this shall be achieved personally by each individual, who must 'absorb the great mass of material offered to him by the world around him and by his inner existence, using all the possibilities of his receptiveness; he must then reshape that material with all the energies of his own activity and appropriate it to himself so as to create an interaction between his own personality and nature in a most general, active and harmonious form' (GS, II, p. 117).

In the original text from which this section has been lifted without attribution, "GS" refers to Humboldt, Wilhelm von. 1903–36. Gesammelte Schriften: Ausgabe Der Preussischen Akademie Der Wissenschaften. Bd. I—XVII, Berlin. (Cited as GS in the text, the Roman numeral indicates the volume and the Arabic figure the page; the original German spelling has been modernized.) "Gesammelte Schriften" means "Collected Writings".


As a successful diplomat between 1802 and 1819, Humboldt was plenipotentiary Prussian minister at Rome from 1802, ambassador at Vienna from 1812 during the closing struggles of the Napoleonic Wars, at the congress of Prague (1813) where he was instrumental in drawing Austria to ally with Prussia and Russia against France, a signer of the peace treaty at Paris and the treaty between Prussia and defeated Saxony (1815), at Frankfurt settling post-Napoleonic Germany, and at the congress at Aachen in 1818. However, the increasingly reactionary policy of the Prussian government made him give up political life in 1819; and from that time forward he devoted himself solely to literature and study.


Statue of Wilhelm von Humboldt outside Humboldt University, Unter den Linden, Berlin.

Wilhelm von Humboldt was an adept linguist and studied the Basque language. He translated Pindar and Aeschylus into German.

Humboldt's work as a philologist in Basque has had more extensive impact than his other work. His visit to the Basque country resulted in Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain by the help of the Basque language (1821). In this work, Humboldt endeavored to show by examining geographical placenames, that at one time a race or races speaking dialects allied to modern Basque extended throughout Spain, southern France and the Balearic Islands; he identified these people with the Iberians of classical writers, and further surmised that they had been allied with the Berbers of northern Africa. Humboldt's pioneering work has been superseded in its details by modern linguistics and archaeology, but is sometimes still uncritically followed even today. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1822.[5]

Humboldt died while preparing his greatest work, on the ancient Kawi language of Java, but its introduction was published in 1836 as The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind. This essay on the philosophy of speech:

"... first clearly laid down that the character and structure of a language expresses the inner life and knowledge of its speakers, and that languages must differ from one another in the same way and to the same degree as those who use them. Sounds do not become words until a meaning has been put into them, and this meaning embodies the thought of a community. What Humboldt terms the inner form of a language is just that mode of denoting the relations between the parts of a sentence which reflects the manner in which a particular body of men regards the world about them. It is the task of the morphology of speech to distinguish the various ways in which languages differ from each other as regards their inner form, and to classify and arrange them accordingly."

He is credited with being the first European linguist to identify human language as a rule-governed system, rather than just a collection of words and phrases paired with meanings. This idea is one of the foundations of Noam Chomsky's theory of language. Chomsky frequently quotes Humboldt's description of language as a system which "makes infinite use of finite means", meaning that an infinite number of sentences can be created using a finite number of grammatical rules. Humboldt scholar Tilman Borsche notes profound differences between von Humboldt's view of language and Chomsky's.[6]

More recently Humboldt has also been credited as an originator of the linguistic relativity hypothesis (more commonly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis), developed by linguists Edward Sapir or Benjamin Whorf a century later.

The reception of Humboldt's work remains problematic in English-speaking countries, despite the work of Langham Brown, Manchester and Underhill (Humboldt, Worldview & Language, 2009) on account of his concept of what he called Weltansicht, the linguistic worldview, with Weltanschauung and being translated simply as 'worldview' a term associated with ideologies and cultural mindsets in both German and English. The centrality of distinction in understanding Huimbolt's work was set out by one of the leading contemporary German Humboldt scholars, Jürgen Trabant, in his works in both German and French. Polish linguists, at the Lublin School (see Jerzy Bartmiński) in their research of Humboldt, also stress this distinction between the worldviews of a personal or political kind and the worldview that is implicit in language as a conceptual system.

However, little rigorous research in English has gone into exploring the relationship between the linguistic worldview and the transformation and maintenance of this worldview by individual speakers. One notable exception is the work of Underhill who explores comparative linguistic studies in both Creating Worldviews: Language, Ideology & Metaphor (2011) and in Ethnolinguistics and Cultural Concepts: Truth, Love, Hate & War. In Underhill's work, a distinction is made between five forms of worldview: world-perceiving, world-conceiving, cultural mindset, personal world and perspective, in order to convey the distinctions Humboldt was concerned with preserving in his ethnolinguistics. Probably the most well-known linguist working with a truly Humboldtian perspective writing in English today is Anna Wierzbicka who has published a wide number of comparative works on semantic universals and conceptual distinctions in language.


  • Socrates and Plato on the Divine (orig. Sokrates und Platon über die Gottheit). 1787–1790
  • Humboldt. On the Limits of State Action, first seen in 1792. Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staates zu bestimmen, page ii. Published by E. Trewendt, 1851 (German)
  • Über den Geschlechtsunterschied. 1794
  • Über männliche und weibliche Form. 1795
  • Outline of a Comparative Anthropology (orig. Plan einer vergleichenden Anthropologie). 1797.
  • The Eighteenth Century (orig. Das achtzehnte Jahrhundert). 1797.
  • Ästhetische Versuche I. - Über Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea. 1799.
  • Latium und Hellas (1806)
  • Geschichte des Verfalls und Untergangs der griechischen Freistaaten. 1807–1808.
  • Pindars "Olympische Oden". Translation from Greek, 1816.
  • Aischylos' "Agamemnon". Translation from Greek, 1816.
  • Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium in Beziehung auf die verschiedenen Epochen der Sprachentwicklung. 1820.
  • Über die Aufgabe des Geschichtsschreibers. 1821.
  • Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain with the help of the Basque language (orig. Prüfung der Untersuchungen über die Urbewohner Hispaniens vermittelst der vaskischen Sprache). 1821.
  • Über die Entstehung der grammatischen Formen und ihren Einfluss auf die Ideenentwicklung. 1822.
  • Upon Writing and its Relation to Speech (orig. Über die Buchstabenschrift und ihren Zusammenhang mit dem Sprachbau). 1824.
  • Über die unter dem Namen Bhagavad-Gita bekannte Episode des Maha-Bhárata. 1826.
  • Über den Dualis. 1827.
  • On the languages of the South Seas (orig. Über die Sprache der Südseeinseln). 1828.
  • On Schiller and the Path of Spiritual Development (orig. Über Schiller und den Gang seiner Geistesentwicklung). 1830.
  • Rezension von Goethes Zweitem römischem Aufenthalt. 1830.
  • The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind (orig. Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaus und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts). 1836. New edition: On Language. On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, Cambridge University Press, 2nd rev. edition 1999

See also


  1. ^ David Kenosian: "Fichtean Elements in Wilhelm von Humboldt's Philosophy of Language", in: Daniel Breazeale, Tom Rockmore (ed.), Fichte, German Idealism, and Early Romanticism, Rodopi, 2010, p. 357.
  2. ^ Hermann Klencke, Gustav Schlesier, Lives of the brothers Humboldt, Alexander and William New York, 1853:13.
  3. ^ Mueller-Vollmer, Kurt, "Wilhelm von Humboldt",Great grandfather to "Shane Wilhelm" The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  4. ^ Clark, Christopher (2006). Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia. United States of Amercia: Penguin Group. p. 332. 
  5. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter H". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 7 August 2014. 
  6. ^ see Tilman Borsche: Sprachansichten. Der Begriff der menschlichen Rede in der Sprachphilosophie Wilhelm von Humboldts, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981.

Further reading

  • G. W. F. Hegel, 1827. On The Episode of the Mahabharata Known by the Name Bhagavad-Gita (Hegel's review of Wilhelm von Humboldt's lectures on the Bhagavad-Gita).
  • David Sorkin, "Wilhelm Von Humboldt: The Theory and Practice of Self-Formation (Bildung), 1791-1810" in: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1983), pp. 55–73.
  • Antoine Berman. L'épreuve de l'étranger. Culture et traduction dans l'Allemagne romantique: Herder, Goethe, Schlegel, Novalis, Humboldt, Schleiermacher, Hölderlin., Paris, Gallimard, Essais, 1984. ISBN 978-2-07-070076-9.
  • Tilman Borsche, Wilhelm von Humboldt, München, Beck, 1990. ISBN 3-406-33218-8.
  • Marina Lalatta Costerbosa, Ragione e tradizione: il pensiero giuridico ed etico-politico di Wilhelm von Humboldt, Milano, Giuffrè, 2000. ISBN, 88-14-08219-7.
  • Realino Marra, La ragione e il caso. Il processo costituente nel realismo storico di Wilhelm von Humboldt, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXXII-2, 2002, pp. 453–64.
  • Elsina Stubb, Wilhelm Von Humboldt's Philosophy of Language, Its Sources and Influence, Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.
  • John Roberts, German Liberalism and Wilhelm Von Humboldt: A Reassessment, Mosaic Press, 2002
  • Joxe Azurmendi: Ein Denkmal der Achtung und Liebe. Humboldt über die baskische Landschaft, RIEV, 48-1: 125-142, Eusko Ikaskuntza, 2003 ISSN 0212-7016
  • Joxe Azurmendi, Humboldt. Hizkuntza eta pentsamendua, Bilbo, UEU, 2007. ISBN 978-84-8438-099-3.
  • Franz Schultheis, Le cauchemar de Humboldt: les réformes de l’enseignement supérieur européen, Paris, Raisons d’agir éditions, 2008. ISBN 978-2-912107-40-4.
  • James W. Underhill, Humboldt, Worldview and Language, Edinburgh University Press, 2009 [1].
  • Jean-Marie Valentin, Alexander von Humboldt: 150e anniversaire de sa mort, Paris, Didier Érudition. 2011. ISBN 978-2-252-03756-0.
  • Michael N. Forster, German philosophy of language, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-960481-4.

External links

  • "Lives of the Brothers Humboldt", an extensive biography available from the Million Book Project
  • Wilhelm von Humboldt entry by Kurt Mueller-Vollmer in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Humboldt University site: Brief eulogy
  • Wilhelm v. Humboldt – Brief information page from the Acton Institute
  • (German) Works by Wilhelm von Humboldt – Partial list from Zeno.org
  • The German classics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (two sections by Humboldt)
Preceded by
Count Friedrich von Schuckmann
Interior Minister of Prussia
Succeeded by
Count Friedrich von Schuckmann