Alexander von Humboldt: A Man With A Plan

Apparently by accepting this fellowship I have become a Humboldtian. I must admit I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this new aspect of my identity. But as Humboldtians are apparently scholars I turned to a book. Douglas Botting’s enjoyable Humboldt and the Cosmos, in fact.

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

Now you Washingtonians are going to have to hold onto your seats for a minute because I learned there are more places named after this guy than Ronald Reagan. I know! And all over the Americas too, from the Humboldt Bay in California to the Humboldt Current off South America. He made important discoveries all across the sciences too, and laid the ground for new ones, little ones such as geology and ecology.

Not so bad, one might say. But what about the man and his values? Why has the German government chosen to re-endow a foundation decimated twice, by the hyperinflation of the 1920s and then by the Second World War?

Humboldt was the last universal man, meaning he knew everything there was to know, from the theory and methods of all the sciences to the latest gossip in the salons of Paris. And he acquired this knowledge through compulsive study. Many around him in his early years complained that he discussed his studies as much to impress others of his intellect as anything else. Humboldt was an excellent and committed natural scientist, however, and wanted desperately to escape small minded Prussian Berlin where the likes of Hegel discussed their a priori fantasies about how the world worked. (This was moon is made of green cheese really silly kinda stuff.)

Despite his ample finances and chance to escape his (very successful) career in the Prussian mining services after the death of his mother, Humboldt had some difficulties beginning his adventures. His trip to study the volcanoes of Italy was thwarted by a Napoleonic invasion. His new plan to explore the upper Nile with an eccentric Englishman and two female companions was also scratched by a Napoleon’s military adventures. Finally he got a break, a contact with some pull in the Spanish court got him the King’s approval to visit the colonies in America. So he ran the British blockade on a Spanish ship and was off to Venezuela.

There Humboldt didn’t invent fanciful tales, but documented everything with the latest methods and equipment. The guy was relentless. And this was quite new. In Europe armchair geographers theorized that the Rio Orinoco could not be hydrologically connected to the Amazon. Humboldt discovered it was, by taking a canoe up river and finding the canal that connected the two. Then in 1802, he climbed the volcano Chimborazo, which was believed to be the highest mountain in the world, and captured the imagination of Europe.

A sketch of Chimborazo with plant locations by AvH.

A sketch of Chimborazo with plant locations by AvH.

And the rest was history: met with Thomas Jefferson, fame and personal rivalry with Napoleon in Paris, less successful expedition to Russia where he was just to famous to get anything done besides find diamonds in the Urals. Then he helped out and inspired numerous aspiring scientist, including Darwin.

But what does this tell one about being a Humboldtian? Humboldt was a man wedded to science, to such an extent that all romantic entanglements ended at a very early age. I must admit I’m reluctant to say, “I’m sorry honey, I’m leaving you for science.”

He had no time for religion or music either, but rather saw a unity in physical nature through the sciences, as approached through observation and quantification. As a social scientist who often feels that many colleagues rely too much on math, this is also a challenge. But my objection here is that this quantification is often to provide a veneer of natural science to what is more often properly understood in social context. (I’m looking at you economics.) And perhaps here there is a fitting place to honor his legacy. The highest mountains and most dangerous geographies have all been traversed and mapped, but we are now in the position to understand human beings as we never have before. In doing so, we must keep a rigorous separation between what we can observe through our methods and instruments, and where we are engaging in a priori speculation.




2 thoughts on “Alexander von Humboldt: A Man With A Plan

    • That is a good one Ruthanna. I am also a fan of how Bonpland and von Humboldt shocked themselves with electric eels and ingested curare. All for science!

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