Wilhelm von Humboldt

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Humboldt, Wilhelm von


Born June 22, 1767, in Potsdam; died Apr. 8, 1835, in Tegel, near Berlin. German philologist, philosopher, and linguist, as well as statesman. Brother of A. von Humboldt.

Humboldt studied law at the universities of Frankfurt an der Oder and Göttingen in the years 1787–89. From 1801 to 1810 he was the Prussian minister plenipotentiary to the papal court and head of the ministry of religion and education. His work in education was marked by the introduction of the system of Pestalozzi into the elementary schools, the removal of elementary schools from the control of the church, the reorganization of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and the founding of the University of Berlin (now Humboldt University in the German Democratic Republic). From 1810 to 1819 he was in the diplomatic service. As one of the two ministers of internal affairs in 1819, he unsuccessfully attempted to draw up a constitution for Prussia.

Humboldt was one of the most outstanding representatives of classical German humanism of the period of Goethe and Schiller. Like J. G. von Herder, he considered the goal of history to be the realization of the ideal of “humanity,” which consisted in the spiritual molding and development of the human personality with the unfolding of all its capabilities, which must blend into a harmonious whole, similar to a work of art. The free internal self-development of the individual and of the nation, which Humboldt also thought of as a creative spiritual individual, determines the limits of the functions of the state as well. Humboldt reduced the tasks of the state only to the defense of its borders and the preservation of internal law and order (Sketch of an Attempt to Determine the Limits of the State’s Operation, 1792; Russian translation in the appendix to R. Haym, V. fon Gumbol’dt.... Moscow, 1898).

Humboldt—like Winckelmann, Goethe, and Schiller— believed that the ideal of “humanity” had been realized in antiquity. In modern times it had particularly been realized in the personality of Goethe, whose works, according to Humboldt, had achieved the highest artistic ideal—the awakening of an integral spiritual world as the unity of its abilities (On Goethe’s “Hermann and Dorothea,” 1799); the chief faculty which creates such unity is creative imagination. This unity constitutes the indispensable condition of all spiritual comprehension, including the understanding of history, insofar as the latter requires penetration into the spiritual essence of the persons and events being described (On the Tasks of the Historian, 1821).

Humboldt was in essence the founder of the philosophy of language as an independent discipline. In the work “The Heterogeneity of Language and Its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind,” which was included as an introduction to his posthumously published book On the Kawi Language of the Island of Java (1836–39), Humboldt views language not as something fixed and final but as an uninterrupted process of spiritual creation, as a “formative organ of thought,” expressing the individual world view of a nation and thereby determining all of man’s spiritual relations with the outside world. These ideas had a great influence on the subsequent development of linguistics, for example, the 19th-century psychological school (H. Steinthal and A. Po-tebnia) and the 20th-century schools of neo-Humboldt-ism in Germany and ethnolinguistics in America.


Gesammelte Schriften. vols. 1–17. Berlin, 1903–36.
In Russian translation:
In V. A. Zvegintsev, Khrestomatiia po istorii iazykoznaniia XIX-XX vv. Moscow, 1956.
Istoriia estetiki: Pamiatniki mirovoi esteticheskoi mysli, vol. 3. Moscow, 1967. Pages 137–47.


Spranger, E. W. von Humboldt und die Humanitätsidee, 2nd ed. Berlin. 1928.
Spranger, E. W. von Humboldt und die Reform des Bildungswesens, 3rd ed. Tübingen, 1965.
Kaehler, S. A. W. von Humboldt und der Staat, 2nd ed. Göttingen, 1963.
Menze, C. W. von Humboldts Lehre und Bild vom Menschen. Düsseldorf, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.