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Northeastern Naturalist, Volume 8, Special Issue 1 (2001):9–20

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ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT BETWEEN ENLIGHTENMENT AND ROMANTICISM MICHAEL DETTELBACH * ABSTRACT - Since the late 19th century, the image of Alexander von Humboldt has been fractured into that of the patient and assiduous fact-gatherer, devoted to measurement and quantification, and that of the sensitive soul, awake to the unity and beauty of the landscape. Concern with emotional and aesthetic responses to the natural world was, however, central to Humboldt’s precise and quantitative approach to natural history. The unity of his project may be better understood by exploring his youthful immersion in Enlightenment debates over the nature of the human mind and the possibility of rational knowledge of nature — debates which took on a special urgency during the epoch of the French Revolution. Specifically, the reforms of natural history which Humboldt proposed in the 1790s and practiced during his expedition to the Americas (1799-1804) drew on the concepts and techniques of “analysis” developed by the French Encyclopedists and refracted through German politics and philosophy. Humboldt’s approach to natural history thus exemplifies the essential continuity between Enlightenment doctrines of sensation and sensibility and Romantic assertions of the unity of nature and the unique role of the naturalist in revealing that unity. Like the historiography of natural science itself, historical assessments of Alexander von Humboldt have ever been pulled between the two poles of empiricism and idealism, Enlightenment and Romanticism. The authors who contributed to the “wissenschaftliche Biographie” of 1872 operated with a conception of scientific knowledge as the product of careful experiment and observation, guided by a creative theoretical genius, a sense for the unity of Nature.1 To these early biographers, Humboldt stood as the bastion of Enlightenment empiricism through the dark years of Hegelian idealism, and they found themselves somewhat embarrassed when they sought to sum up their hero’s “wissenschaftliche Leistung” in their final volume. The Leipzig astronomer Karl Bruhns, for example, could not describe Humboldt as a creative, theoretical scientist: “Humboldt’s ganze Richtung,” Bruhns wrote, “ging weniger auf das Schaffen in den exakten Wissenschaften, als auf das Sammeln” (iii: 3). Bruhns and his collaborators repeatedly praised Humboldt’s “Gewissenhaftigkeit und Fleiß” (iii: 50) in observ- Proceedings: Alexander von Humboldt’s Natural History Legacy and Its Relevance for Today 2001 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1:9-20 * Boston University, Boston , MA 01063. mdettelb@bu.edu. 1 Karl Bruhns, ed., Alexander von Humboldt. Eine wissenschaftliche Biographie, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1872). For a more complex interpretation of Humboldt’s relationship with the Hegelian school, see my introduction to Humboldt’s Cosmos (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), Vol. 2, pp. xiv, xlii n. 20. 10 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 ing and measuring nature, but this only emphasizes their difficulty. The meteorologist Alfred Dove summed up: “Die eigentlichen Fortschritte, die unser wissenschaftliches Erkennen Humboldt direct verdankt [...] lassen sich ohne Mühe zählen und messen.” In der Geistesgeschichte, fährt Dove fort, muß man eine “active-schöpferisch” und eine “passiveempfängliche” Genialität unterscheiden, wie Spinoza zwischen natura naturans und natura naturata unterschieden hat. Humboldt war von der passiven Genialität geprägt, die “in aufnehmender Seele das geistige Licht ihrer Gegenwart sammelt, und so der Zukunft wenigstens ein Abbild [kein Vorbild, meinte Dove] darbietet, aus dem sie betrachtend Genuss und Lehre zugleich gewinnen mag” (ii: 481-482). In short, by casting Humboldt as the bastion of empiricism against the excesses of Romantic idealism, they were forced to demote him to the role of patron, organizer, supporter, popularizer, contributor to the scientific work of others, but ultimately not a scientist himself! Similarly, there was little unity to the collection of observational and descriptive concerns that in Anglo-American historiography goes under the name of “Humboldtian Science” (coined by Susan Cannon in 1977), only an encyclopedic dedication to the systematic and precise measurement of as many physical parameters as possible.2 Conversely, in the post-war period, especially among geographers and historians of geography, a newly romanticized Humboldt was discovered, a proto-ecologist or “human geographer,” in both German and in Anglo-American historiography. Others have felt compelled to attribute to Humboldt some form of holism, organicism, or even materialist determinism in order to give ideal unity to what they see as an otherwise hopelessly scattered empiricism. Several have stressed Humboldt’s indebtedness to the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant. For instance, in a very widely read though never published doctoral dissertation completed at Berkeley in 1971, Anne Macpherson argued that the unity and rationale of Humboldt’s physical geography lay in a vitalism underwritten by Kantian metaphysics. “Humboldt’s work for fifty years was informed by an underlying metaphysical structure that he derived from the critical writings of Immanuel Kant,” wrote Macpherson. “Humboldt’s Kantian philosophy directed his own investigations of nature, and gave form and unity to his writing.”3 More recently and more typically, Malcolm Nicolson traced the origins of Humboldt’s plant geography to the idealism of the German Romantics and Naturphilosophen. Though rigor- 2 Susan Cannon, Science in Culture (New York: Dawson and Science History Publications, 1978), chapter 4. 3 Anne Macpherson, “The Human Geography of Alexander von Humboldt,” Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1971; Richard Hartshorne, “The Concept of Geography as a Science of Space, from Kant and Humboldt to Hettner,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 48 (1958): 97-108, and more generally, “The Nature of Geography,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 29 (1939), pp. 171-658. 2001 M. Dettelbach 11 ously empirical in practice, Nicolson argues, Humboldt’s geography was underwritten by the “Romantic” belief that Nature was an organic whole, and that “Man’s aesthetic sensitivities could ... transcend the limitations of reason, beyond the surface of phenomena and, sensuously and intuitively, grasp the underlying unities of Nature.”4 So struggles over the nature of Humboldt’s scientific work have long been struggles over the nature of science itself, and especially over the roles of experience and insight, observation and theory, the Enlightenment and the Romantic “reaction.” However, recent historiographical developments make it possible to dismantle the polarity between Enlightenment empiricism and Romantic idealism, and to view Humboldt’s commitment to empiricism as itself the rationale for his encyclopedic project and at the same time as that which links him with the efforts of the early Romantics. Historians have long seen a commitment to “empiricism” as a hallmark of Enlightenment science and philosophy, but only relatively recently have the sociology and history of the natural sciences problematized the authority of experience itself. Also, interest in the social and intellectual construction of “public opinion” in the Enlightenment has directed historians’ attention to the ways in which a self-identified “enlightened public” used this “empiricism” to establish its moral and philosophical authority. Epistemology has returned to the center of historical interpretations of the Enlightenment, but now as a loose and evolving literature including psychology, physiology, and anthropology, collected under the general idea of “sciences of man.” In the Enlightenment, “science of man” described not a particular scientific discipline or even a proto-discipline, but the general character of science itself.5 Every true science was a branch of the science of Man, that is, was appropriate to human nature and measured itself according to human faculties. David Hume, in the preface to Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), offered probably the most famous claim that a “science of man” would supply a new foundation to all sciences. Success in natural and moral philosophy, Hume argued, required mastering “the capital or center of these sciences ... human nature itself. In undertaking an explicitly “experimental” inquiry into the powers of the human mind, Hume promised “a compleat system of the sciences, built on a foundation almost entirely new, and the only one upon which they can stand with any security.”6 The Encyclopedists founded their true system of knowledge on Condillac’s account of the “generation and filiation of knowledge” through the analysis of sensations. D’Alembert described the 4 Malcolm Nicolson, “Alexander von Humboldt, Humboldtian Science, and the Origins of the Study of Vegetation,” History of Science, 25 (1987), pp. 178-180. 5 Sergio Moravia, Beobachtende Vernunft. Philosophie und Anthropologie in der Aufklärung (Munich, 1973); idem, “The Enlightenment and the Sciences of Man,” History of Science, 17 (1980): 247-288. 6 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), xv-xvi. 12 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 great compendium as simply “a systematic presentation of human experience.” Diderot insisted that the necessary, natural principle of order is Man himself. “Man is the single term from which one must begin, and to which all must be brought back, if one wishes to please, to interest, to touch [the reader], even in the most arid considerations, the driest details. Make an abstraction of my existence and of the happiness of my fellow beings, and what will the rest of nature matter to me?”7 It is no accident that scholars generally now agree that we find the origins of the human and social sciences in the 18th century: these sciences were constituted by the reflections of Enlightenment philosophers, attempting to give a new constitution to the republic of letters and to redescribe their authority in new public situations.8 Enlightenment “empiricism,” then, was itself predicated on a set of empirical sciences of the mind and human nature, and Humboldt can be viewed as an heir to this Enlightenment project. Humboldt’s scientific and technical work in the 1790s was devoted to elaborating a philosophical stance founded on the Enlightenment sciences of man, an account of intellectual authority based on the powers of nature itself. We can consider Humboldt’s natural scientific work to be a contribution to this Enlightenment project because Humboldt develops his scientific techniques in light of a specific account of human powers. These Enlightenment critiques of the nature and authority of philosophical knowledge characteristically drew support from contemporary medicine and psychology. The pursuit of epistemology through experimental physiology was a common feature of Enlightenment philosophy, from the experimenters of the Royal Society and the physician John Locke through Montesquieu, Maupertuis, Hartley, and Diderot, to the early Romantics like Thomas Beddoes and Erasmus Darwin.9 The discovery of novel powers in living matter in the 18th century supplied both a didactic example of the primacy of experience over theory and an important doctrine in accounts of the sensory origins of human reasoning. Albrecht von Haller’s discovery of the “irritability” (Reizbarkeit) of living tissue, Caspar Friedrich Wolff’s detection of a 7 Denis Diderot, “Encyclopédie.” In: Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. Nouvelle impression en facsimile , Vol. V (Paris, 1755; Stuttgart: Friedrich Fromann, 1966), p. 641, col. 3-4. 8 Simon Schaffer, “Self-Evidence,” Critical Inquiry, 18 (1992), pp. 327-362; “Genius.” In Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine, eds. Romanticism and the Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 82-100; “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the 18th Century.” History of Science, 21 (1983), pp. 21-43; Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine, “The Age of Reflexion.” In Cunningham and Jardine (Eds.), Romanticism and the Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. pp. 1-9. 9 Sergio Moravia, “Philosophie et médecine en France à la fin du XVIIIe siècle,” Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 39 (1972): 1089-1151; Roy Porter, “Medical Science and Human Science in the Enlightenment.” In Inventing Human Science. Von Christopher Fox und Robert Wokler (Eds.), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. pp. 53-87. 2001 M. Dettelbach 13 “nisus formativus” in the growth of a chicken embryo, and Abraham Trembley’s display of the regenerative powers of the hydra all served as lessons in experimental philosophy, but also as support for an epistemology based on sensation. It is therefore not surprising to find that Humboldt offered his strongest and most sustained critique of scientific method in his physiological experiments. Experiments on the sensitivity of plant and animal tissues to chemical changes preoccupied Humboldt in the 1790s, before his expedition to the Americas. On one level, Humboldt’s physiological work was dedicated to the investigation of the powers of living matter, and especially the phenomenon of galvanism. But on another level, Humboldt’s physiological experiments were dedicated to developing a scientific method, a hermeneutics of experiment. Specifically, Humboldt argued that the phenomena of life (Vitalität) in general, and of galvanism in particular, could not be reduced to any single substance or force. Alessandro Volta argued that galvanism was simply electricity; others claimed to have discovered the true Lebenskraft in oxygen, hydrogen, Azot, phlogiston, Lichtstoff, or various combinations thereof, and that life was a process of “phlogistication,” “oxydation,” or “combustion;” devotees of the extremely fashionable medical theories of the Scotsman John Brown believed that life was the product of the “excitability” (Erregbarkeit) of living matter. Whether motivated by the vanity and ambition of the philosopher, the enthusiasm of the humanitarian, or the plain greed of the charlatan, all such reductive theories of life forced the phenomena themselves into human schemes and fit Nature to human interests. By contrast, Humboldt adopted a pose of theoretical abstinence. Instead of using experiments to test hypotheses and subordinating observation to the development of theory, Humboldt insisted that experiment and observation had their own, internal dynamic. The principal task of physical science, he claimed, was not to devise theories, but to so vary a phenomenon in experiment that the conditions of its appearance gradually emerged from the observations themselves. Repeatedly, Humboldt described the job of the experimental philosopher as the analysis or decomposition (Zergliederung) of physical phenomena and of physical concepts.10 To make such variations and conditions visible, 10 E.g., Alexander von Humboldt, Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser, nebst Vermuthungen über den chemischen Process des Lebens in den Thier- und Pflanzenwelt, 2 vols. (Berlin and Posen: Rottman, 1797-98), i: 295, 311, 324, 328; ii: 53, 95, 291; Über die Zusammensetzung des Luftkreises (Braunschweig: Vieweg, 1799), p. 151. Humboldt’s account of the meaning of experiment is very close to those which J.W. von Goethe and Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis) developed in the 1790s. See Michael Dettelbach, “Romanticism and Administration: Alexander von Humboldt’s Global Physics,” Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1993, pp. 95-99; Myles Jackson, “A Spectrum of Belief: Goethe’s ‘Republic’ versus Newtonian ‘Despotism’,” Social Studies of Science, 24 (1994): 673-701. 14 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 to make natural philosophy into a process of analyzing or decomposing both phenomena and concepts, Humboldt created an abstract universal script [Pasigraphie] in which chemical-physiological experiments could be recorded and compared among one another. “Diese Art, Naturerscheinungen zu behandeln, scheint mir am fruchtbarsten und gründlichsten zu seyn. Thatsachen stehen fest, wenn das flüchtig aufgeführte theoretische Lehrgebäude längst eingestürzt ist,” he wrote in explaining his symbolic script in 1795.11 “Wohl dem Experimentator aber, den abgeänderte Versuche von einer Theorie zur andern hinführen, dessen Vermuthungen nicht früh eine Gewissheit erlangen, die von der ferneren Beobachtung zurückscheut!”12 In separate physiological papers and ultimately in the synthetic Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser (1797-98), he identified this empiricism with Francis Bacon.13 Humboldt liberally quoted aphorisms from the Novum Organum and prefaced the two volumes of Versuche with an epigraph taken from Bacon’s Advancement of the Sciences, the first part of the “Great Instauration,” which advertised against the dangers of theorizing: All forms of error reduce to the premature and peremptory reduction of knowledge to arts and methods, from which time the sciences are seldom improved; for as young men rarely grow in stature after their shape and limbs are fully formed, so knowledge, whilst it lies in aphorisms and observations, remains in a growing state; but when fashioned into methods though it may be further polished, illustrated and fitted for use, it no longer increases in bulk and substance.14 But Humboldt’s professed “Baconianism” was of a distinctly late-Enlightenment kind. In both physiology and his philosophy of science, Humboldt was much closer to his Enlightenment contemporary, the English physician Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), than to Francis Bacon (1561-1626). In Zoonomia (1794), Darwin’s own exposition of the laws of sensitive matter, Darwin demonstrated that theoretical reasoning was a property of the arrangement of sensitive, living fibers and their natural, organic “motions” (and for this reason he has often been considered 11 Alexander von Humboldt, “Ueber die gereizte Muskelfaser, aus einem Briefe an Herrn Hofrath Blumenbach,” Neues Journal der Physik, 2 (1795): 115-129, p. 127. 12 Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser, i: 6. For a more extensive treatment of Humboldt’s physiology and pasigraphy, see Dettelbach, “Romanticism and Administration,” Chapter 3. 13 Michael Dettelbach, “Baconianism in Revolutionary Germany: Humboldt’s ‘Great Instauration’,” in The Skeptical Tradition Around 1800, ed. Richard Popkin and Johan van der Zande (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1998), pp. 175-186. 14 Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning (London: Colonial Press, 1900), 21. Quoted in part in Versuche, title pages of both volumes, and in full in an article directed against Volta, “Ueber die gereizte Muskelfaser, aus einem Briefe an Herrn Hofrath Blumenbach,” Neues Journal der Physik, 2 (1795): 127. 2001 M. Dettelbach 15 a founder of scientific psychology).15 Similarly, Humboldt insisted that the experimenter could (and must) observe the faculty of organic matter to respond variously to varying stimuli and register the subtlest changes in condition. But this power itself was hidden from experimental determination. Humboldt clearly admired Darwin’s empirical physiology and his account of experimental knowledge. He cited Zoonomia appreciatively and often in the Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser and inserted an excerpt from the “Ode to Erasmus Darwin” (which prefaced later editions of Zoonomia) in support of his strictures on the interpretation of experiment, and in defense against “den Verdacht, als hielte ich das Leben selbst für einen chemischen Prozess.”16 On Humboldt’s account, as on Darwin’s, experiment was simply a conscious, methodical version of sensation itself, the detection of subtle changes in condition; nerves and muscles were simply unconscious analyzers. In short, the physiological work which dominated Humboldt’s experimental efforts in the 1790s was as much an attempt to articulate an Enlightenment epistemological stance, as it was a contribution to physiology. The Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser is concerned as much with defining the authority of experimental knowledge as it is with the chemistry of living matter. Humboldt’s physiological experiments are only the most explicit and dramatic example of his attempt to expound a general hermeneutics of experiment through experiment itself, the powers of the philosopher through the powers of matter. His account of experiment as the analysis (Zergliederung) of a complex whole applied as strictly to inanimate as to animate Nature. Conversely, Nature itself must be treated as a complex “Zusammenwirken der Kräfte,” to be analyzed by precise and subtle variation of conditions (or by the precise measurement of these covariations in nature).17 His symbolic languages or “pasigraphies” were as applicable to geology as to physiology, and indeed the insistence on quantitative precision that marks Humboldt’s science, from botany to political economy, derived from an appreciation of number as a symbolic language (“die letzten hieroglyphischen Zeichen”) through which phenomena could be compared and correlated.18 The central role of 15 Roy Porter, “Erasmus Darwin: Doctor of Evolution?” In History, Humanity and Evolution. James R. Moore (Ed.). Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 39-69. 16 Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser, ii: 39-40. 17 Michael Dettelbach, “The Face of Nature: Precise Measurement, Mapping, and Sensibility in the Work of Alexander von Humboldt,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biology and the Biomedical Sciences, 30 (1999): 473-504. 18 Hanno Beck, “Alexander von Humboldt’s ‘Essay de Pasigraphie,’ Mexico 1803/04”, Forschungen und Fortschritte, 32 (1958), pp. 33-39; Alexander von Humboldt, Essai géognostique sur le gisement des rochers dans les deux hémisphères (Paris, 1823), Appendix. Kosmos, i. Humboldt’s little-noticed studies of the history of numbers treated numerical languages on the model of philology, as symbolic systems for analyzing experience, subject to a characteristic grammar. “Über die bei verschiedenen Völkern üblichen Systeme von Zahlzeichen und über den Ursprung des Stellenwerthes in den indischen Zahlen,” Journal für die reine und angewandte Mathematik, 4 (1829): 205-231. 16 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 Lavoisier’s chemistry in almost all this work derived from this essentially methodological or epistemological commitment to reducing experimental natural philosophy to analysis. In the Traité élémentaire de chimie (1789), Lavoisier transformed the work of chemistry into the use of precise instruments to detect changes in composition, and the use of symbolic algebraic language to record those changes. While Humboldt was very excited by the practical implications of Lavoisier’s isolation of oxygen and hydrogen, his demonstration that water and alkali were composites of invisible gases, and his discovery that combustion and respiration were both forms of oxidation, and immediately applied these discoveries to practical reforms, Lavoisier’s chemistry was still more important for its methodological implications. Humboldt was carried away by “den behutsamen Gang der Raisonnement” of the Traité. It seemed to him that Lavoisier had not constructed a chemical theory or chemical system but offered a “bloße Erzählung von Thatsachen.”19 In fact, to Humboldt, Lavoisier’s chemistry suggested a complete “transcendentale Kritik der Naturwissenschaften” that would restrict the work of natural philosophy to the registration of variations made visible by precise instruments.20 Conversely, Humboldt strove to “transcendentalize” Lavoisier’s chemistry by emptying it of all theoretical content and interpreting it as a pure form of empirical thought, allowing Lavoisier’s elements and caloric (Wärmestoff) purely nominal existence.21 A different formulation of “empiricism,” which Humboldt used indifferently in his geological, physical, and physiological studies of the 1790s, derived directly from the Condillacian, encyclopedist lineage which led to Lavoisier and the Idéologues: Vouloir établir les théories avant d’avoir rassemblé les faits, construire quand on n’a pas même encore observé, c’est un [sic] erreur qui de tout tems a arrêté la marche de nos connoissance [sic].22 19 Humboldt to D.L.G. Karsten, Freiberg, 26 November 1791, Jugendbriefe Alexander von Humboldts, ed. Fritz Lange and Ilse Jahn (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1973), pp. 161-162. 20 Humboldt to Georg Lichtenberg, 21 April 1792, Jugendbriefe Alexander von Humboldts, ed. Fritz Lange and Ilse Jahn (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1973), pp. 183-185. 21 E.g., Aphorismen aus der chemischen Physiologie der Pflanzen (Leipzig: Voss, 1794), p. 5, where Humboldt contrasts Lavoisier’s “elements” with the ultimate “Urstoffen der Dinge...von denen uns aber der Geist dieses Jahrzehends und die bescheidnere Art zu philosophieren, mehr zu dichten verbietet.” Also Versuche über die gereizte Muskel und Nervenfaser, i: pp. 421-423. 22 Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain. Ouvrage posthume de Condorcet. 3eme éd. (Paris, Agasse An V (1797)), p. 61; Neues Journal der Physik, 4 (1797): 140. Humboldt used the same quotation from Condorcet as an epigraph to a paper on the nature of light read before the Berlin Gesellschaft Naturforschender Freunde in October, 1796, published in Ilse Jahn, “Alexander von Humboldt und die Schwierigkeiten eines Paradigmenwechsels,” Leopoldina Jahrbuch 1994, row 3, 40 (1995): 431-453. Also cf. Versuche, ii: 125 ff. on dangers of substantives like irritability, magnetism, electricity, heat etc. in becoming crutches of the mind and slowing progress of the sciences. 2001 M. Dettelbach 17 This statement echoes the Baconian epigraph to the Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser: premature theorizing stunts the growth of knowledge. It comes, however, from the Marquis de Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (1794). Condorcet based his statement of faith in intellectual and material progress on an associationist epistemology derived from Condillac and d’Alembert, which placed the ability to make analogies and comparisons at the center of its account of Reason. Philosophical and practical improvement went hand in hand. “‘Eine falsche, nicht durch Erfahrung unterstützte Theorie schadet im bürgerlichen Leben mehr, als alle Unwissenheit in wissenschaftlichen Grundsätzen. Die Theorie muß aus der Praxis entstehen, noch besser wäre es, wenn sie in der Praxis so versteckt bleiben könnte, daß sie immer als System erschiene.’”23 Although this sounds like yet another version of the sentiments Humboldt took from Bacon and Condorcet, it is a quotation from the economist J. G. Büsch (1728-1800), director of the Hamburg Handlungsakademie, which Humboldt attended 1790-91, and it concluded his 1792 attempt to develop a theory of hallurgy, based on Lavoisier’s new chemistry. In collecting measurements and observations on a stunningly wide variety of natural and social phenomena, Humboldt was being neither a naive empiricist, nor a Romantic idealist, but engaging in an Enlightenment redefinition of the authority of the philosopher. He was reconstructing experimental philosophy as analysis. The duty of the empirical philosopher was no longer to build theories, but to observe the covariation of phenomena through more or less precise instruments and lanugages. Romantic intellectuals and nature-philosophers were preoccupied with the same project, redefining the philosopher. Humboldt’s Romantic contemporaries admired not just Humboldt’s work, but Humboldt himself, as a model of philosophical sensibility, a moral and intellectual exemplar. Carl Ritter, professor of geography at the new Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin, held Humboldt up as an example of appropriate scientific sensibility for his students: Humboldt recognized that geography was not principally about compiling maps “mit kritischer Fleiß,” but about cultivating one’s “eigene Naturanschauung” into the dynamic essence of nature.24 Similarly, Georges Cuvier, professor of comparative anatomy at the Paris Muséum and Humboldt’s collaborator, could not help admiring in Humboldt’s Ansichten der Natur a man who observed Nature always comparatively, always in relation to other phenomena: 23 Alexander von Humboldt, “Versuch über einige physikalische und chemische Grundsätze der Salzwerkskunde,” Bergmännisches Journal, 5 (1792), p. 141 24 Carl Ritter, Erdkunde (Berlin: Reimer, 1817), i: 30. 18 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 Parcourant tous les climats, affrontant tous les dangers et toutes les fatigues, il a observé plus de faits qu’aucun voyageur ... [mais] quand il présente à son lecteur les grands tableaux de la nature il semble s’avoir toujours contemplé; quand il rapproche les faits, rappelle et pèse les opinions, il semble n’avoir jamais quitté la bibliothèque; quand il trace l’esquisse de ses grands resultats: il semble s’être livré sans cesse à la méditation.25 Philippe Albert Stapfer, the Helvetic Republic’s resident to Paris during the First Empire, formulated Humboldt’s virtues more economically: he was “Leibniz et Cook dans un seul homme.”26 Always travelling, always observing, but always recollecting the limits of experience and the demands of reason. Not least of Humboldt’s admirers was F.W.J. Schelling, who at the moment of Humboldt’s return to Europe was concerned with the reform of higher education, and sought Humboldt’s support for a new periodical devoted to medical reform. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie cultivated that same dynamic sensibility towards experiment. Indeed, Schelling welcomed Humboldt back to Europe as an Eroberer, whose conquests were spiritual: Humboldt was the man who would finally restore to the human spirit its ancient possession [ihres altes Besitztum], Nature.27 Along with other Naturphilosophen, Schelling regarded Humboldt as an exemplary Naturforscher, not despite his devotion to precise measurement, but because of it. By travelling with instruments “in constant activity,” Humboldt showed each point on the earth’s surface to be the product of global forces acting locally. More surprising to those of us used to thinking of Humboldt as the scourge of Naturphilosophie, Humboldt returned the compliment. In the preface to the Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen, nebst einem Naturgemälde der Tropenländer (1805), his first widespread appearance before the German public after his return from America, Humboldt adopted an appreciative and sympathetic position towards Schelling’s 1798 Von der Weltseele and Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur. He expressed “happy and heartfelt interest in a system which, undermining atomism ... promises to illuminate the phenomena of life, heat, magnetism, and electricity, inaccessible to science until now.” Humboldt wrote that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was “the bold undertaking of one of the most profound men of our century” because it demonstrated “the possibility of reducing all natural phenomena to the incessant 25 Fonds Cuvier MS 3159, Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France. For the circumstances surrounding Cuvier’s review, see Dettelbach, “Romanticism and Administration,” pp. 131-133. 26 Letter to Paulus Usteri, 19 December 1811, quoted in Rodolphe Luginbühl, Philippe-Albert Stapfer (Paris: Librairie Fischbacher, 1888), p. 316. 27 F.W.J. Schelling to Humboldt, Würzburg, im Januar, 1805. Briefe deutscher Romantiker, ed. Willi A. Koch (Leipzig: Dietrich Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1938), pp. 201-202. 2001 M. Dettelbach 19 conflict of elemental forces of matter.”28 By contrast, French natural philosophers invested too much significance in their mathematical formulations of experimental results; they interpreted mathematical symbols as actual substances, not as signs of a dynamic interaction, and this resulted in a mechanical and atomistic interpretation of nature. According to Humboldt, the French were guilty of a faulty aesthetics: “Sie haben für keine andre als mechanische und atomistische Erklärungsarten Sinn, nirgend aber für eigentliche Kraft und Wirkung” and lacked “die vollig natürliche Ansicht der Dinge.” The French lacked sense for the dynamic meaning of observation and sensation; they had no concept of experiment, he writes,”und die Wissenschaften die dies verlangen, gelingen ihnen nicht.”29 And yet Humboldt was no Naturphilosoph. He and Schelling both recognized that while Schelling was devoted to rational speculation, Humboldt was devoted to the study of Nature through experiment and observation. Both Schelling’s Ideen, the philosophical deduction of Nature from elemental forces, and his own Ideen, the encyclopedic empirical study of nature, were “Naturgemälde,” that is, pictures of Nature appealing to the inner sensibilities of their audiences. Schelling’s was, however, “eine Naturgemälde einer höherer Art.” But they also agreed (at least in these early years of the century) that die Naturphilosophie kann den Fortschritten der empirischen Wissenschaften nie schädlich sein .... Steht dabei eine Menschenklasse auf, welche es für bequemer hält, die Chemie durch die Kraft des Hirnes zu treiben, als sich die Hände zu benetzen, so ist das weder Ihre Schuld noch die der Naturphilosophie überhaupt.30 Of course, Humboldt would use exactly these words, thirty years later, amidst the threat of religious and political reaction, to condemn Naturphilosophie.31 By the time Humboldt returned to Berlin in 1827 to preside over the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte and hold his public lectures at the Singakademie, certainly, his appreciation for Naturphilosophie had turned to hostility. In the era of reform, however, Humboldt considered his hermeneutics of experiment and Schelling’s Naturphilosophie complementary enterprises. Both Humboldt’s project of encyclopedic measurement and observation and 28 Humboldt, “Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen,” in Schriften zur Geographie der Pflanzen, ed. Hanno Beck (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1989), pp. 44-45. 29 Reported by Wilhelm von Humboldt in Paris, June, 1798, from a conversation with Alexander. Wilhelm von Humboldts Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 14 (Berlin: B. Behr, 1916), pp. 505-506. 30 Humboldt an Schelling, Paris, 1. Februar 1805. Briefe deutscher Romantiker, p. 204 31 Letter to Varnhagen von Ense, 1835. Briefe von Alexander von Humboldt an Varnhagen von Ense, ed. Ludmilla Assing, 3rd ed. (Leipzig: F.A.Brockhaus, 1860). 20 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 Schelling’s quintessentially Romantic effort to demonstrate the identity of Mind and Nature were dedicated to the cultivation of free individuals, a Reason, free from the prejudices of theory, theology, or self-interest. Or, as Humboldt promised his audience at the end of Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen (1807), a “moralische Freiheit.”32 32 Humboldt, Ideen zu einer Geographie, ed. Hanno Beck, p. 63.