1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Humboldt, Karl Wilhelm von
HUMBOLDT, KARL WILHELM VON (1767–1835), German philologist and man of letters, the elder brother of the more celebrated Alexander von Humboldt, was born at Potsdam, on the 22nd of June 1767. After being educated at Berlin, Göttingen and Jena, in the last of which places he formed a close and lifelong friendship with Schiller, he married Fräulein von Dacherode, a lady of birth and fortune, and in 1802 was appointed by the Prussian government first resident and then minister plenipotentiary at Rome. While there he published a poem entitled Rom, which was reprinted in 1824. This was not, however, the first of his literary productions; his critical essay on Goethe’s Hermann und Dorothea, published in 1800, had already placed him in the first rank of authorities on aesthetics, and, together with his family connexions, had much to do with his appointment at Rome; while in the years 1795 and 1797 he had brought out translations of several of the odes of Pindar, which were held in high esteem. On quitting his post at Rome he was made councillor of state and minister of public instruction. He soon, however, retired to his estate at Tegel, near Berlin, but was recalled and sent as ambassador to Vienna in 1812 during the exciting period which witnessed the closing struggles of the French empire. In the following year, as Prussian plenipotentiary at the congress of Prague, he was mainly instrumental in inducing Austria to unite with Prussia and Russia against France; in 1815 he was one of the signatories of the capitulation of Paris, and the same year was occupied in drawing up the treaty between Prussia and Saxony, by which the territory of the former was largely increased at the expense of the latter. The next year he was at Frankfort settling the future condition of Germany, but was summoned to London in the midst of his work, and in 1818 had to attend the congress at Aix-la-Chapelle. The reactionary policy of the Prussian government made him resign his office of privy councillor and give up political life in 1819; and from that time forward he devoted himself solely to literature and study.
During the busiest portion of his political career, however, he had found time for literary work. Thus in 1816 he had published a translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, and in 1817 corrections and additions to Adelung’s Mithridates, that famous collection of specimens of the various languages and dialects of the world. Among these additions that on the Basque language is the longest and most important, Basque having for some time specially attracted his attention. In fact, Wilhelm von Humboldt may be said to have been the first who brought Basque before the notice of European philologists, and made a scientific study of it possible. In order to gain a practical knowledge of the language and complete his investigations into it, he visited the Basque country itself, the result of his visit being the valuable “Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain by the help of the Basque language” (Prüfung der Untersuchungen über die Urbewohner Hispaniens vermittelst der vaskischen Sprache), published in 1821. In this work he endeavoured to show, by an examination of geographical names, that a race or races speaking dialects allied to modern Basque once extended through the whole of Spain, the southern coast of France and the Balearic Islands, and suggested that these people, whom he identified with the Iberians of classical writers, had come from northern Africa, where the name of Berber still perhaps perpetuates their old designation. Another work on what has sometimes been termed the metaphysics of language appeared from his pen in 1828, under the title of Über den Dualis; but the great work of his life, on the ancient Kawi language of Java, was unfortunately interrupted by his death on the 8th of April 1835. The imperfect fragment was edited by his brother and Dr Buschmann in 1836, and contains the remarkable introduction on “The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind” (Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts), which was afterwards edited and defended against Steinthal’s criticisms by Pott (2 vols., 1876). This essay, which has been called the text-book of 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. Other linguistic publications of Humboldt, which had appeared in the Transactions of the Berlin Academy, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, or elsewhere, were republished by his brother in the seven volumes of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Gesammelte Werke (1841–1852). These volumes also contain poems, essays on aesthetical subjects and other creations of his prolific mind. Perhaps, however, the most generally interesting of his works, outside those which deal with language, is his correspondence with Schiller, published in 1830. Both poet and philosopher come before us in it in their most genial mood. For, though Humboldt was primarily a philosopher, he was a philosopher rendered practical by his knowledge of statesmanship and wide experience of life, and endowed with keen sympathies, warm imagination and active interest in the method of scientific inquiry. (A. H. S.)