Wilhelm von Humboldt


Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand Freiherr von Humboldt, better known as Wilhelm von Humboldt, born in Potsdam on June 22, 1767 and died in Tegel on April 8, 1835, was a Prussian philosopher, linguist, and high official. He initiated and participated in the foundation of the University of Berlin as part of his project of liberal reform of German and European education.

Beyond his major contributions to the philosophy of language, he is one of the pioneers of educational sciences. He was the main architect of the Prussian system of education which strongly inspired the educational systems of countries such as the United States and Japan.


Wilhelm von Humboldt, born on June 22, 1767 in Potsdam, was the son of the Prussian chamberlain and major general Alexander Georg von Humboldt (de) (1720-1779), and of Marie-Elisabeth von Humboldt, who took charge of organizing his education by calling upon a great number of teachers. His education, as well as that of his younger brother Alexander, was entrusted to Joachim Heinrich Campe, a late representative of German philanthropism, and from 1777 to 1788 to Gottlob Johann Christian Kunth (de).

His father died in 1779.


After studying science as well as Greek and French, he received an introduction to philosophy and administration. He first studied at the Brandenburg University in Frankfurt, which he left after one semester, and then spent three semesters studying philology and science at the University of Göttingen with Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.

Traveller and senior civil servant

In January 1789, Wilhelm von Humboldt entered the service of the Prussian state as a referendary counselor at the Berlin Court of Appeal, a position he left after one year.

Immediately after the storming of the Bastille, in July 1789, he made a trip to Paris with J.H. Campe.

From 1797 to 1799, Humboldt lived in Paris. He then traveled to Spain and especially to the Basque Country.

From 1802, Humboldt was a diplomat (Prussian minister plenipotentiary) in Rome, then ambassador in Vienna (1812) and participant in the congress of Prague in 1813. Representing Prussia with Hardenberg at the Congress of Vienna, he defended a rather hard line against the defeated France. With Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom Stein, he had a decisive action within the government until 1819, when he finally retired because of his opposition to the prevailing reactionary ideas.

As Prussian Minister of Education (1809-1810), he reformed the school system, based on the ideas of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi – he sent Prussian teachers to study his methods in Switzerland.

In 1810, Humboldt founded the Alma Mater Berolinensis in Berlin, the university that bears his name today.

Between 1817 and 1818, he was sent from Prussia to London as a diplomat.

Last years

From 1819 on, he devoted himself essentially to the study of language, which earned him the mockery of another writer and diplomat, Chateaubriand.

He was elected foreign associate of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres in 1825.

He died on April 8, 1835 at the age of 67 in Tegel Castle (Humboldt Schlösschen), which had been in the possession of the Humboldt family since the end of the 18th century.

In philosophy

If Humboldt rejects any systematic philosophy, if he is interested in various fields, from sexuality to history through religion.

Immanuel Kant”s Critique of Pure Reason inspired his grammatical thinking, the second and third critiques his anthropology and aesthetics. Humboldt was a friend of Goethe and especially of Friedrich von Schiller: these two poets inspired his aesthetic reflections.

He wrote In 1791-1792 About the Limits of State Action, a work that was not published until 1850 (after his death) and was a plea for Enlightenment freedoms. It influenced John Stuart Mill”s essay About Liberty, through which Humboldt”s ideas penetrated the British world. However, The Limits of State Action, apart from defending fundamental liberties (which should be granted only after a careful examination of the situation of Man and his degree of maturity), does not give a precise answer to the question of the elaboration of an “ideal” constitution adequate to the optimal development of Man; nevertheless, this work outlines the criteria to be respected in order to make the theory and the reality of human nature coincide.

Humboldt is the inventor of concepts that belong to the fields of the human sciences. This is what has led paradoxically to the neglect of his own thought. Thus, he has been reduced to the role of a simple precursor of contemporary thought, be it that of Martin Heidegger, Jürgen Habermas, Ernst Cassirer, Eric Weil or Noam Chomsky. More recently (2006), the Frenchman Alexis Philonenko has brought Humboldt closer to Bergson, while asserting that Humboldt would have remained a prisoner, unlike Bergson, of scholasticism and Aristotle. It is also important to note the liberal dimension of his political thought and his philosophy of history.


As Prussian Minister of Education, he supervised the system of “Technische Hochschulen” and “Gymnasien”.

His Plans for the Reform of the Prussian School were not published until well after his death, together with a fragment of his treatise on the “Human Theory of Education” written around 1793. In it, Humboldt asserts that “the ultimate task of our existence is to give the greatest place to the concept of humanity in our own person (…) through the impact of our actions in our lives. A task that can “only be established through the links established between us as individuals, and through those that link us with the world around us”. He insists that “individual education can only continue in the larger context of world development.

In other words: the individual has not only the right, but also the duty to participate in the development of the world around him.

In his Theory of the human education he examines the “demands that are addressed to the Nation and to an Epoch of the human race”. The truth and the virtue of the education must be propagated so that the concept of humanity is concretized in a wide and worthy way in every individual. However, this must be undertaken by each individual who must “absorb a great quantity of elements presented to him by the world around him, as well as by his own existence, using all his faculties of reception. He must then process them with all the energy he can muster, and appropriate them in such a way as to establish an interaction between himself and nature in the broadest, most active and most harmonious form.

His ideal of education is strongly imbued with social considerations. He never believed that “the human race could attain any general perfection, conceived in abstract terms. The creation of the University of Berlin made him a visionary in terms of research and pedagogy, capable of understanding why it is necessary to confront disciplines to advance knowledge without prejudice. The University does not reflect a philosophical system, but is based on the free research and collaboration of students and professors.


Lucien Tesnière himself considered Humboldt as “a linguist of great class, with intuitions of genius”.

An Introduction to Humboldt”s Thought on Language is available online thanks to a series of interventions by Jurgen Trabant within the Rouen Ethnolinguistics Project. These lectures provide both an analytical and synthetic look at the central issues in Humboldt”s thought (ethnolinguistics, worldview, Bildung, conceptualization, and translation).

From 1797 to 1799, Humboldt lived in Paris, where he measured the gap between Kantian philosophy and the French philosophy of the Ideologists. At the end of his stay in Paris, he travels to Spain and especially to the Basque Country. He discovered the Basque language and culture. This was an opportunity for him to establish, one hundred and fifty years in advance, the principles of modern linguistic description: the study of languages in synchronicity, the descriptive and not prescriptive study, the importance of the corpus and of informants as well as the importance of grammatical categories describing precisely the phenomena specific to the language studied, which led him to reject the relevance of the categories of Latin grammar for a language like Basque. Later (1827-1829), he tried to rethink universal grammar in all its generality.

The importance of culture

In spite of this career as a servant of the state, unlike other philosophers of history of his time, Humboldt considered throughout his life that the culture of the self, the Bildung (de), was more essential than the service of the state. The individual is not reducible to his role on the stage of history. It is this singular liberalism, nothing less than economic, that leads Humboldt to be interested in political philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of history, but also in religion, in a perspective that is less Christian than Platonic, or even Hindu (commentary of the Bhagavad Gita). The creative power which constitutes the bottom of the cultural and anthropological universe is manifested as well in the individual as in the collective realities.

The multiplicity of languages and the universals of language

From his works, we mainly remember his philosophy of language, which is notably put forward by Ernst Cassirer in his philosophy of symbolic forms, but also, more generally and more vaguely, what has been called the Humboldtian hypothesis, later joined by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that the categories of spoken language predetermine our categories of thought. Each language would contain an irreducible vision of the world.

This is to overlook Humboldt”s interest in the universal dimension of language. It is only in language that thought can become aware of itself, pass from formless movement to defined categories. The sentence constitutes a synthesis of the sensibility and the category of thought. The word confers to the thought objectivity, without however separating itself from the forces of the subjectivity, since the word exists only insofar as it is understood. Others, by repeating my words, give them an increased objectivity. The circuit which leads from phonation to hearing must be brought closer to this dialectic constituted by the objectification of the thought in the expression and by the resumption of the statement in the subjectivity (Introduction to the work on the kavi).

His typology of languages is also often emphasized. However, Humboldt never lost sight of the search for language universals. He uses the categorization into inflectional languages (Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Russian, German), agglutinative languages (Basque, Turkish, Finnish, Hungarian), polysynthetic languages (Nahuatl) and isolating languages (Chinese). With regard to Chinese, after having defended the thesis that it was a language without its own formality, he was led by the French sinologist Abel-Rémusat to revise his position.

The concept of the form of the language corresponds nevertheless to an effort to think of the language as an autonomous reality, beyond the multiplicity of lexical and grammatical forms. The language is thus not only the reflection of the national psychology, even less an arsenal of forms which would be used by the speakers. It must be recognized as having its own style and creativity, hence the often misunderstood notions of character, or the internal form of language (Reference: H. Dilberman, “W. von Humboldt et l”invention de la forme de la langue”, in Revue philosophique de la France et de l”étranger, no 2, 2006).

The reception of Humboldt is still difficult. Trabant and Thouard have helped to clear up a confusion between Weltanschauung and Weltansicht in French. It is the latter concept that is fundamental for Humboldt. The former is associated with an ideology, and the latter designates the worldview anchored in the language. The same confusion can be observed in English. It is for this reason that Underhill proposes to distinguish between five forms of worldview: world-perceiving, world-conceiving, cultural mindset, personal world and perspective. In English the lack of a clear distinction, and a lack of discourse research in multilingual studies, somewhat limits the scope of Humboldt”s ethnolinguistic project. Perhaps for this reason, Humboldt does not figure among the influences on linguistic anthropology”. Anna Wierzbicka and Underhill (2011 and 2012) are working in English to promote a more Humboldt-like project in the linguistics of English-speaking countries.

In 1834, he named the family of Austronesian languages, extended to Easter Island, “Malayo-Polynesian” in Über die Kawi-Sprache auf der Insel Java (1836-39, posthumous publication). Kawi is an ancient literary language spoken in Java. This work is now considered exemplary in linguistic matters.

It was his brother, Alexander von Humboldt, who published, among other things, his posthumous work, On the diversity of construction of languages and their influence on the development of human thought, still known under the title of Introduction to the work on kavi. Pierre Caussat translated it into French. French hermeneutics scholar Denis Thouard published a book on Humboldt in 2016 emphasizing both the universal aspirations of his study of the language faculty and the way language communities and individuals shape and reformulate their shared linguistic resources. And in English in 2017, Marko Pajević and David Nolwell Smith edited and published a book of essays on Humboldt”s contribution to linguistic thought in the ”Anglosphere”, to translatology, and to respect for otherness in dialogue, thought, and ethics.

The contemporary rediscovery of Humboldt

As early as the 19th century, the French philosopher Antoine Augustin Cournot had appreciated the work of the Humboldt brothers, whom he quoted. In particular, his theory of chance as the meeting of several independent causal series can be compared to a fragment of the young Humboldt written in 1791, On the Laws of the Development of Human Forces, in which Humboldt compared the future human sciences to the physical model of causality. It is true that Cournot could not have been aware of this draft, unpublished at the time. Similarly, the idea that historical order exists, but is not deterministic, that it holds the middle ground between random series and physical laws, that it expresses structural effects, a function of a vitalism that goes beyond individual reason, can be brought closer to the philosophy of the young Humboldt, to his numerous works on history and historiography.

In the German-speaking world, it was above all Cassirer and Heidegger who, before Jürgen Habermas, insisted on the fundamental character of Humboldtian thought, not so much that of the young Humboldt as that of the linguist. The psychologist and linguist Karl Bühler also quotes Humboldt extensively. But each of these authors highlights very different aspects of Humboldtian conceptions. Bühler analyzes the deep grammar of languages by invoking the notion of an internal form that differentially guides the apprehension of states of affairs; for example, Indo-European languages express reality by starting from the event (verb), and then determine this event by indicating who acts and on whom or what. Cassirer retained from this the Kantianism, the idea that culture expresses functions and structures which are not the product of the abstract intellect, but of the symbolic imagination. Heidegger brings closer to his conception of Being and Time the Humboldtian conception of an activity that overhangs time and expresses itself in an untimely manner. Finally, Habermas appreciates in Humboldt”s linguistics not so much his pre-structuralism as his dialogical hermeneutics, inseparable from the ethics of Bildung.

In Soviet Union, Gustav G. Chpet (1927) wanted to purify the humboldtian philosophy of the language of its metaphysical dimension. The thought is made in the same expression, the subjectivity is in itself symbolic and social, it is a poetics. There is a deep kinship between the poetics and the genesis of the language. Thus, the poem that sings the locomotive whistles and gasps like a locomotive. Ultimately, the internal form that works language is intermediate between the logical form and the form of the object itself. It is a force heavy with possible meanings, intuitive, but which gives birth to the form, always expressive and poetic. This is better seen in the genesis of the word than in that of the syntax.

For his part, the American linguist Noam Chomsky favored Humboldt”s rationalism, and retained that every language expresses the same universal understanding in apparently different grammatical structures, which would make Humboldt a Cartesian linguist. On the other hand, like Cassirer, he rejected the romantic dimension of his thought.

John Stuart Mill was also inspired by it, in the 19th century, as the driving force behind his work On Liberty, where he shows the importance of Humboldt”s principle, “the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity”, and the conditions for its realization. Mill, stepping back from utilitarianism, then spoke out in favor of Humboldt”s political thought, for a political education of all in order to preserve the freedom of the individual from the state.

Humboldt is now being rediscovered and re-evaluated for his prolific and innovative linguistic work.

In France, however, Humboldt remains little known, despite two monumental theses, those of the Germanist Robert Leroux (Guillaume de Humboldt, la Formation de sa pensée jusqu”en 1794, 1932) and the philosopher Jean Quillien (L”Anthropologie philosophique de G. de Humboldt, 1991). More recently, Henri Dilberman has also devoted to him a philosophy thesis, L”Interprétation métaphysique et anthropologique du langage dans l”œuvre de W. von Humboldt.

Let us also mention the important work of the linguist and poet Henri Meschonnic, who wants to be as close as possible to Humboldt”s authentic thought, to his own movement, foreign to academic philosophy.

In 2006, the famous commentator of Kant, Alexis Philonenko, dedicated an essay to him, Humboldt at the dawn of linguistics. In it, he shows the importance of Humboldt as a precursor in linguistics and in some other human sciences. Philonenko, somewhat like Jean Quillien before him, presents himself in this work as the first contemporary French philosopher who has been able to rediscover Humboldt and place him in his exact place in the history of ideas. Like Dilberman before him, he is sensitive to the analogies between Humboldt”s thought and that of Henri Bergson. But it is to underline the philosophical superiority of the French philosopher. It is regrettable that Philonenko tends to underline, as Hegel or Heidegger did before him, the philosophical limits of Humboldt, instead of showing what were his conceptual contributions and his main intuitions. Pierre Bange in 2014 follows an exactly opposite path: he insists on the incredible richness of Humboldt”s thought, whose method would already be that of the complex thought dear to Edgar Morin, which makes the part precede the whole (for example page 16 of his book The Philosophy of Language by Wilhelm von Humboldt). In fact, everything happens as if, periodically, philosophers, like linguists, believed they were rediscovering Humboldt, and reading in his work the obscure beginnings of their own conceptions or their own philosophical or linguistic options. Humboldt”s thought, rarely grasped in its originality, constitutes a reserve of meaning for the philosophy of the future. “Humboldt, more future than past”, Henri Meschonnic could say.

Humboldt”s concept of “language form” has been compared to structuralism, his dynamic vision of language to speech linguistics, and the role he attributes to dialogue between individuals and cultures to contemporary hermeneutics (Habermas). These assessments are often contradictory, which reflects not so much the obscurity of Humboldt”s thought as its richness. As the philosopher Jean Quillien has shown, it is necessary today to place Humboldt”s discoveries within his own philosophical anthropology, his refusal to oppose the individual and the collective, but also to dissolve the individual, or the word, in the totality of a nation or a language.

On the linguist side, the Presses universitaires de Nancy have published an issue of the journal Verbum entirely devoted to Humboldt. The authors offer a very accurate vision, as close as possible to the sources, of Humboldt”s contribution. Anne-Marie Chabrolle-Cerretini, editor of this issue, published in 2008 Wilhelm von Humboldt”s Worldview. Histoire d”un concept linguistique. Humboldt”s commentators had hardly realized before her that it was Humboldt who coined the term “worldview”, “Weltansicht”, which had such a bright future.

External links


  1. Wilhelm von Humboldt
  2. Wilhelm von Humboldt
  3. Jean Quillien, L”Anthropologie philosophique de G. de Humboldt, Villeneuve-d”Ascq, Presses universitaires de Lille, 1991, p. 14 : « la Logique de la philosophie d”E. Weil est, après la tentative non réussie de Cassirer, un achèvement – provisoire – de ce dont Humboldt est l”origine la plus directe. »
  4. GS. I p. 283. Gesammelte Schriften (c”est-à-dire : Écrits collectés) : Ausgabe Der Preussichen Akademie Der Wissenschaften, Berlin 1903-36.
  5. GS. VII, p. 33.
  6. GS.I p. 284.
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  9. 4,0 4,1 4,2 (Αγγλικά) SNAC. w6w68bp3. Ανακτήθηκε στις 9  Οκτωβρίου 2017.
  10. 09155015.
  11. Humboldt, Wilhelm Von. Sobre a natureza da língua em geral. [S.l.: s.n.]
  12. ^ Helmut Thielicke, Modern Faith and Thought, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990, p. 174.